The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 6

Life's Hardest Mysteries

As Christmas break continued, a sudden sadness enveloped Michael as each day separated him further from being with his friend. Thomas had forewarned him that his family would be leaving before Christmas Eve, to visit with relatives through the holiday weekend. His mother had taken some vacation time, so they might not even return until just before New Year's Eve.

For the most part, Michael was satisfied when Christmas came and left, having spent time as most families do with what few friends and relatives they had. Carolyn's boss held a dinner for everyone at a nice restaurant in town, one to which Michael had been invited to come along. Surprisingly, it wasn't a boring event, as most of the women and their boyfriends or husbands there talked merrily, and included him in their conversations from the start. The three doctors of the clinic then handed out gifts, included bonus checks to the nurses, one which surprised Carolyn immensely. Then, to Michael's surprise, he was given an envelope that contained a $50-bill. He sat stunned for a full minute, before getting out of his chair and circling the table, finding the two responsible and giving them each a hug.

On Christmas morning, one of the presents he opened was a desktop telephone, one he could hook up in his room. He wore a wide grin as he thanked his mother, and Carolyn smiled, inwardly sighing as she noted her son's growing maturity. Transitioning from childhood to his teenage years was hard on her, because she had invested so much of her time in being there and caring for him. Now, she saw a level of independence emerging, and a charm that reflected the pure innocence of his soul underneath. Without a doubt, she thought Michael was one of the most empathetic teenagers she had ever crossed in her lifetime. He had an uncanny ability to watch, and listen, and ... understand people. Each day they lived, it began to show more and more. As they hugged, her pride could not be measured at that moment, with her watching him. She had not just a smile on her face, but in her heart, too.

With the help of a friend from work, the three established a new phone line into his room, and before he knew it, Michael was quickly connected to the outside world. Although he had few people to talk to, his mother knew that would change over time. She cautioned him against making any long-distance or excessive calls, or to be making any of his conversations longer than necessary. He nodded in understanding, and thanked her again.

Over the holidays, Michael was also fortunate to receive other gifts that kept him busy. Although one was a rather large jigsaw puzzle, he was more excited about two rather impressive, plastic model kits, both of military warplanes currently in use by the US Air Force. Carolyn found that, upon her arrival in the evenings, her son had been giving them his rapt attention during the day - enough so that she marveled at how well he worked both constructively and artistically. Models were something she had never introduced to him before, mostly because she had never really thought of it. At least, not until one day it had been suggested by a friend, and she was told she could find them reasonably priced if she looked around. Now, after seeing how it grabbed his attention, she resolved to make more of an effort in the future to find other kits, too. She reasoned that he would be better off keeping himself occupied this way, especially during the longer days she was away at work.

All would have been fairly normal, had it not been for the lack of conversation with his friend. As the New Year approached, Michael became anxious and simultaneously depressed, because he had not yet heard from Thomas since his leaving. When New Year's Eve arrived, his anxiety increased ten-fold until he could hold out no longer. Although Thomas had promised to call upon his return, Michael initiated it instead. He took care to call at a reasonable hour that morning, waiting for what he felt was a good time between breakfast and lunch. As he dialed the number, he was at least hoping to speak with his friend and determine that everything was all right. He so wanted to share the news of what Christmas had brought for him and his Mom, and to just hang out a little. He was surprised, however, when the phone on the other end of the line was answered after the first ring.

"Hello?" an elderly female voice spoke pleasantly, one belonging to none other than Thomas's grandmother.

"Uh, Hi, Mrs. Wilson. It's Michael... I uh... I was wondering if I could talk to Thomas for a minute," he stammered, until he finally took a deep breath. "Is he there?" he added hurriedly, and then winced as he realized how awkward that must have sounded. There was a slight hesitation, one which Michael felt was odd, as if the question seemed to hang in the air. Finally, he heard the woman sigh.

"I'm afraid not. He is out at the moment." When she offered nothing further, Michael furrowed his brow, wondering if something was going on. Unsure what he should do at that point, he collected his wits eventually. Recognizing the long pause that was developing between them, he apologized. "I'm sorry, ma'am. I really didn't mean to bother you guys. Would you, um, could you tell him that I called?"

Again, there was a distinct hesitation on the other end of the line, before the elderly woman finally replied. "Sure, young man. I'll let him know you called." Without another word the other end of the line clicked, and a dial tone reached his ears. As he replaced the receiver on the hook, Michael was confused. 'Young man?' he thought to himself. She had never addressed him that way before. Disappointment overtook him then, and his heart felt like it had dropped 10 floors through an elevator shaft, ready to crash at any second. All manner of thoughts invaded at that moment, taking him through an avalanche of emotions. Had Thomas's mother and grandparents somehow figured out what happened between them? Had they grilled Thomas, until he had to confess something that was held so close, so that he was forced to admit everything that had transpired during his stay? Did they think Michael had seduced his friend, or something even worse, and now they were taking it out on Thomas in some way? Even worse, had Thomas now had second thoughts, and decided he wanted nothing more to do with their friendship? Maybe Thomas was the one avoiding him, on purpose. For whatever reason, Michael thought he would at least call, as had been promised he would do?

Michael rolled back onto the bed, pulling his glasses off and closing his eyes. Thomas wouldn't do that, he reasoned. His best friend wanted their friendship as much as he did, and he felt that completely in his heart. Then what was it? Perhaps the teen had gotten in trouble or something. Maybe he was being grounded, or maybe he had another row with his grandfather again. Thomas had told him of times they had been at odds, and it had reached the fringes of violence, albeit one-sided. There were times he usually ended up being sent to his room for a day or more as punishment, but other times worse. Maybe it was that simple really, but - if so, why did his grandmother release such a huge breath? Why couldn't she just say he was grounded, or given a reason behind it, of all things? And why was he, Michael, having this feeling inside his gut that there was something simply not right? Why was there so much mystery all of a sudden?

Michael lay still for several minutes, before finally taking a deep breath to steady his nerves. "You don't know, Mike", he said to himself, lacking the confidence he really needed to believe his own words, but doing his best to remain calm. "Don't start weirding out on yourself - at least not until you know something." After a moment longer, he finally rose from the bed and started downstairs for the kitchen.

As the day slowly trekked by, the returning call never came, and the deafening silence was rubbing his nerves raw. His thoughts were haunted, mostly because he was afraid of what Thomas might have to be going through. Especially if he were indeed at home and in some kind of trouble. If it were not for the bitter cold outside, and the lack of necessary transportation to make the relatively short trip, he would have torn across the field just to show up at his friends' window if he could. As it were, though, he could not, so he brooded most of the day. He tried working on the puzzle, but his heart wasn't in it. With an exaggerated sigh, he put the pieces back into the box and paced about.

When Carolyn arrived home from work that evening, she immediately sensed something was wrong. She hung her coat before heading to the bathroom, only moments later to return and join her son, who was sitting on the couch with his knees drawn to his chest. Noting his expression being distant, she carefully placed an arm around his shoulders and felt a nervousness she had not seen for quite some time. Initially, he didn't seem to not realize she was there, but eventually he sighed and whispered, "Hi, Mom." His demeanor revealed he was wrestling with something, so Carolyn hugged him, waiting patiently. She had been through this a few times before, though rarely did it occur. She moved her hand to the back of his neck, and playfully ran her fingers through his hair. He let her do that for a moment, before unwrapping himself and joining her, half lying in her lap with his back nestled against her.

Pulling his body close, Carolyn closed her eyes and savored the moment. As Michael grew older, these moments came fewer and farther between. "What is it honey?" she spoke softly into his ear. "You look like you've lost your best friend or something." She smiled as she said it, her voice hinting at a cheerfulness she knew he did not feel, but still trying to coax him. The house was quiet, other than for the TV playing aimlessly in the background, the sound low and monotonous. They had talked about a lot of things over the years, sharing a closeness few parents did with their children, and she knew she would have to prompt him again. "Michael? Hello, Earth to Michael..."

Her attempt at humor brought her son out of his thoughts. As he glanced up and around, smiled timidly. "I heard you Mom," was his soft reply. He paused before continuing. "I don't know, Mom. Maybe I have. It's j-just - a feeling. I've been having it all day, and it's, it's just weird..." In a slow but steady voice, he told her about how he had been waiting for Thomas to call, as his friend had promised to let him know when they returned. He told her how he had grown tired of not yet hearing anything, so he finally gave in and made the call himself. He told her about being surprised when Thomas's grandmother answered, and about how minimal and strange the conversation had been, at least to him. Then Michael told his mother that he started feeling really uneasy, as if something wasn't right. When asked, he repeated the conversation between them. He had waited all day, hoping Thomas would at least call back. Thus far though, he had not, and for that reason he was worried.

Carolyn listened, interrupting her son little, and giving him a chance to get it all out. She did not find it odd that the two boys had developed such a tight bond, at least insofar as Michael was concerned. She did grow somewhat saddened, however, because she felt she understood how much Michael needed his new friend. Especially since he had been growing up in such a lonesome world as theirs. She could offer little companionship at his level, but she did try to be a friend. Perhaps that was where the strength of their mother-and-son relationship existed, because the freedom of talking with one another was never one-sided. They shared things on the same level, each knowing there were things important to the other, some private, and some not so private. It was a level of respect she saw in few kids at that age, and the fact she was blessed with a son that had as much insight as he did, make her proud.

She reflected for a moment, thinking about how the boys had hit this 'wrinkle', for lack of a better word. When Michael told her that it made him feel weird, she knew he was being serious. It was a side of his character that dealt with perceiving and interacting with the world, and he was incredibly insightful about it. She chose carefully not to discard its importance, although for the moment she did feel that perhaps her son was overreacting. "Well, honey," she spoke to him after he fell silent. "Maybe Thomas just can't get to the phone right now, you know? It's still early, you know. He might call in a little while." Carolyn knew it was a lame excuse, however, an attempt to mollify his fears. Looking at the clock and seeing it was already past 7:00, she sighed thinking better of her words. For the moment though, it was the best she could offer. Michael lay back into her silently, and they both stared at the TV blankly for a next few minutes.

Michael finally turned around and faced her, smiling weakly but silently giving her a warm embrace. He felt there really wasn't anything more that he could say, so he rose and headed upstairs. Later, she fixed them both sandwiches and carried his up to him. Upon arriving, however, she discovered he was sprawled on the bed, his glasses to the side, and fast asleep. She placed the sandwich and drink on his night table and left him alone. That night, for the first time since she could remember, they retired without watching the New Year's ball drop during the midnight hour. In years past, Michael had always been excited, begging since an early age to stay up with her as the old year left out, and the new one arrived in its place. It had become a tradition for them, and it saddened her that something more important was on his heart, interfering with it for the time being. She watched it alone for them both.

Morning dawned for the New Year, and as the sky gradually brightened, Michael awoke in need to relieve himself. After returning to his bedside, he sat down and stared out the window with his nerves continuing to leave him unsettled. He saw the sandwich and took a bite, before grimacing at the stale and dry bread that had been left out overnight. Placing it onto the tray, he rolled back onto his bed and sighed. He so wanted to make the call again, to make sure his friend was at least okay. He was afraid, though; he feared that if, indeed, something was wrong, he might end up aggravating the situation. For the time being he convinced himself to hold off. Thankfully, his mother was off that day, and as he got dressed and went downstairs, he found her in the kitchen preparing them both a hot breakfast of oatmeal and biscuits. They spent the better part of the day taking down the Christmas tree, and tidying up the house, putting things back into order as a lot of families do for the coming year. It was an enjoyable experience overall, as they joked and hung out with one another. Carolyn tried her best to ease her son's worries as the day progressed, but as the evening drew near she could see the unsettledness in him. The teen finally took his shower after dinner, and once again fell across his bed, racked with exhaustion and uncertainty of what the future was going to hold.

The next day was Saturday, and Carolyn had volunteered to cover a vacant slot for a co-worker that day. She did not like the idea of leaving her son alone, especially now giving everything that had happened. She knew though, that her shift was far too long, and it was way too early to ask him to hang out with her. She rose and dressed quickly, but as she was headed out and arrived at the end of their driveway, she suddenly changed directions and directed the car toward the Wilson's house. She had the sudden sensation she could at least drive by and observe if anything was out of the ordinary. Perhaps even talk to one of the women living there, if they were outside by chance. As she approached the ranch-styled structure, she saw smoke billowing from the chimney, and that both vehicles were indeed in the driveway. After closer inspection, however, she saw no sign of life beyond the obvious. The house was dark and silent in the background, and she chided herself for thinking that, at this early hour, someone would be up and about. Sighing, she drove past and a short distance further, turned down another side road before pursuing an alternate route toward town.

As Carolyn worked that day, she had let the matter pass from her mind. Several incidents that day had kept her overly busy, holdovers from people's overly exuberant holiday celebration no less. It wasn't until she arrived home, exhausted, when everything resurfaced rapidly again. As she walked through the door, Michael was once again sitting back in the corner of the couch, seemingly more distraught than ever. She approached him, noting his eyes were swollen and sunken, and she immediately surmised he had been crying. "What's wrong, honey?" she asked, laying her coat across a chair, knowing full well the likelihood of what troubled him. Sitting down, she collected him in her arms and noted how he was visibly shaking as he spoke.

"It h-happened again m-mom... I called o-over there and h-his grandma answered, and she just s-said the same thing she did the other day, that he was out and then n-nothing! She didn't say she would have him call me or anything, and... and..." Michael was doing his best not to break down into tears again, but he was failing. He knew beyond doubt now that something was wrong. From the way he was quivering, Carolyn could not help but have a growing feeling that it did, indeed, now seem very odd.

"SShhhhhh... it's probably alright honey," Carolyn soothed, attempting to calm him. She was left in a quandary of her own now. Unsure if she should intervene and check it out for herself, she hesitated while attempting to think it through. It was some minutes before he calmed down, and then began breathing deeply again. He had surrendered himself to her completely, becoming an almost lifeless teen in her arms. She enveloped him with all the love she could muster, all the while reasoning out a plan and coming to a decision. "Listen to me honey," she said softly. "We'll wait until Monday, when you go back to school. If you don't get to talk to Thomas and find some answers or something, then Monday night I'll call down there and we'll go talk to Linda, okay?" Michael looked up, searching her eyes for something, but then only nodded half-heartedly in response. Although it would only be a short time before Monday morning arrived, he so wanted it to come sooner than later. Realizing the wisdom in her words, however, he was resigned to agree with her. At least then, on the bus, no one else had to be involved, and he and Thomas could talk privately among themselves. Perhaps that really was the best course of action - for now. He turned around and fell into her arms again, this time embracing her and burying his head into her shoulder, hoping she could not see the hurt he was feeling.

Carolyn felt his worry nonetheless. She resolved to try and get his attention focused away until then, to help the time pass quicker. After a few moments of cuddling, she rose and pulled Michael to his feet. Deciding the day was still only half-spent, she quickly changed out of her nursing uniform, and then gathered her son. Leaving the house behind, they both spent the evening out on the town. Whether they could really afford it or not, for money was still tight, she didn't care. Carolyn was determined to get away for the distraction and to just have an evening with her son, all to herself. They did a little shopping, dined out, and then headed to the movies - a rare treat even for a Saturday! Although Michael was only initially half into it, he warmed to the evening and their time together. By the time they returned home late, Carolyn thankfully watched her son go to bed and quickly fall asleep.


It was early morning, the sun only beginning to break the rise in the east. Jeremy Riddle shivered in the cold as he boarded the bus, relieved at least to be back in familiar surroundings again - a place that whisked him away from home. He didn't glance around at the others already onboard. Truthfully, he suspected they were no different than at any other time of the year. As he took his usual seat, he began staring out the window at the featureless landscape sweeping by. The bus was surprisingly warm, and he figured Stan must have started the multiple heaters up earlier than usual, before beginning his route. Thankfully, it did not take long for the chill within Jeremy to subside.

The teen sighed, again thankful it was over. The first day of break, he had come home and found the old man passed out. It wasn't hard to decide then that he didn't want - or need - to be there when the man came to. Too many memories of times past still haunted him, where the man had awakened from a deep stupor to become wild and crazy. Often, he had taken out his frustrations on anyone unlucky enough to be nearby - which generally meant Jeremy. The man's personal demons being as they were, once he got on a roll, it led the man down a hole of no retreat. Nothing was ever right, and it was always someone else who had to take the blame for everything wrong in his world. With it being the holidays, Jeremy had no desire to deal with that, and the beatings and abuse that would certainly follow. So, he had made up his mind - the old man needed to come to on his own, and if necessary, live the whole break on his own terms.

How Jeremy wished now that he had just stayed home.

That day repeatedly played in his mind over and again, with the utmost clarity. Staying at the abandoned house for the night, he curled up on an abandoned mattress that was surprisingly in decent shape. The next day, however, he returned home reluctantly when hunger began to convince him he could wait no longer. As he made his way across the fields, snow began falling from an overcast sky, deepening the chill that seeped through his clothes. Reaching the house, he once again stepped inside as quietly as he could. Unlike the day before, however, this time he found the elder Riddle sitting at the table. Not unusual was the beer the man held in his hand, and a disgusting-smelling cigarette in the other.

"You're getting out early today, ain't you?" the man asked, almost nonchalantly.

Jeremy sighed inwardly. It dawned on him that the old man didn't even realize what day it was, and that should have set off warning bells. Instead, he discarded it and walked across to the sink. Inwardly grunting, he couldn't help but be annoyed. The man clearly never realized his son had been gone, unnoticed, for nearly a whole day. Jeremy hesitated, unsure if he should own up to that fact, or just let it go. He opted for the latter, hoping that maybe the man would just forget it entirely. He ended up slowly nodding, but as Jeremy thought back on it now, he wished he had just ignored it altogether.

The old man grunted, before reaching out and pulling on his overcoat. "There are cattle to feed, and animals to be tended too. We might as well git it done, before that snow starts getting messy." He moved forward and out of the doorway quickly. He said nothing more, but the command was implied, and it was obvious to Jeremy he could not ignore it.

His stomach growled in apparent dissatisfaction, but he knew it would have to wait. They traversed the yard, heading toward the run-down, half-standing structure that housed their hay. Once they entered, both loaded several bales of straw onto a short-bed wagon, and then proceeded to hook it onto the tractor. While the man sat in the seat, he proceeded to maneuver the tractor and trailer out of the side of the building, with Jeremy riding along behind. Aiming for a field only a short distance from the house, they slipped through the fenced gate and into the pasture without incident.

As they approached the feeding bins, it was here the old man began scratching his head, as if in puzzlement. Once again, it should have been a warning to Jeremy, for he had seen the man's expression change to one of confusion. The area was clean though, with only little scraps of straw scattered about. It looked as if the spot had not been visited in days, which Jeremy recalled was probably the truth. As the tractor ground to a halt, the eldest Riddle shut off the engine and began calling out, "Here heifers... suey... suey! Here heifers... Where in tarnation are y'all hiding? Suey!"

In the distance, they both watched a herd of cattle begin to emerge from various places along a band of trees that stretch across the back of the farm. Upon sight of their master and the impending meal, they began rushing and galloping forward rapidly. Again, the elder Riddle scratched his head, thinking the sight rather peculiar. "What the hell...?" he swore softly, as they bumped and shoved against each other. It was then Jeremy drew his breath, noting the tone the old man used. Making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, he swallowed.

When they pulled up to the bins, Jeremy stood and began throwing the bales of straw into the empty slots. He tried to ignore the uneasiness rapidly encroaching on him. The first group of the cattle arrived, each frantically pushing one another so they could reach inside to the fresh straw first. The old man watched their actions, muttering more to himself than anyone else. "What the blazing hell is going on? They sure cleaned that out overnight, almost like there was no tomorrow..." Jeremy held his tongue as it dawned on him now what the old man was pondering. The herd had not been attended to for at least three days now, as far as he knew - which was two days too many. They had gone as many as two days in the past, but it was rare, and 3 days was unheard of. They were starving, and it showed.

Jeremy watched the man continue to contemplate the situation. He silently hoped and prayed the man did not make the connection, but much to his dismay, a sudden change came over him. "That is... unless..." The man then turned to him and their eyes met. Jeremy could visibly see a boiling anger begin to rise. "You, boy! When is the last time these cattle were fed?" he boomed. When he didn't get an immediate reply, the man pushed on, his voice rising. "I'll not ask you again, BOY! Now, when is the last time these cattle were fed? Answer me, you little snot! When?"

Jeremy stared as the older man glared down at him from the tractor. Finally, he shrugged. "I don't know. Sunday or Monday, I guess." He kept his voice as calm as possible, daring to try and push the envelope as far as he could. It did not, however, improve the situation.

"Sunday or Monday - you guess?" A deep, sickening snarl echoed around them. "What the hell, you aren't worth anything more than the shit you walk on out here, are you?" He stopped and looked at his watch. "Shit boy! You mean today is Wednesday??!! Today is fucking Wednesday?" He banged the hood of the tractor just then, roaring. "What in the fucking HELL!!!" He brought the old tractor out of gear and set the brake, before jumping down from the seat. Approaching his son with a rage Jeremy knew all too well, his voice boomed. "What the fuck were you doing then?" the man exploded as he came to a stop in front of the teenager. "You were supposed to be home yesterday, not today damn it!" He reached out and slapped the youngster. "Where the fuck have you been? ANSWER ME ASSHOLE, WHERE THE FUCK HAVE YOU BEEN??!!"

Jeremy stared back, fear searing throughout his body as he recoiled from the sting across his face. He began to inwardly quiver in the presence of the old man, knowing this was not working out well at all. When he did not answer, the elder Riddle grabbed him by the arm with one hand and reared back, his other following through with another vicious slap. Jeremy would have stumbled and fallen, had the man not had hold of him. His cheek stung and reddened, and his ears rang loudly. Somehow, he still could hear the man as he continued to roar. "You fucking asshole! You fucking, shit-headed asshole! I told you to answer me! I want a god-damned explanation, and I want it now!"

Jeremy refused to say anything right then, not sure there even was an answer he could come up with that wouldn't infuriate the man even further. The eldest Riddle let out a heavy breath of air, his breath laced with the soured odor of the beer he had been drinking. He spoke again, but this time his voice became quieter, taking on a deathly tone of steel. "You fucking, piss-assed, hell-born damnable bastard! Did you honestly think a whole day could go by, and I wouldn't miss your sorry, shit-stinking ass sooner or later? Do I look like some fucking idiot to you? Huh boy?"

"Look at this," he paused, his hand sweeping the herd of cattle who had now arrived in their entirety. Each were pushing the others aside frantically, trying to get to the straw. "Look at them, I tell you! They are starving, fucking starving, and you act like some dumb shit-faced 2-year-old! You're like some ignorant, faggot-fucking asshole, who could not care less whether they live or die!" The voice took on a hard edge as the man turned back to Jeremy. "Why is it, I have to have a faggot son, and then on top of that, he has to be a fucking ignorant bastard to boot? What is it with you, boy? Why can't you learn or do anything right, without having to be told a god-damned million fucking times? Look at them, do you think they will survive out here on their own, starving to death in this weather? Does that not register anything in that piss-filled fucking head of yours?"

Jeremy suddenly found courage. "They aren't starving any more than you try to starve and kill me, you shit rag," he hissed.

The man paused before narrowing his eyes. Shoving his face into Jeremy's he breathed hard. "So, you can speak, huh? You can open that faggot-sucking mouth of yours after all!" He shoved the boy hard against the wagon. "I see it now, yes sir, plain as day. You didn't come home last night, because you probably went off screwing with those kids again, didn't you? Huh? Have you been off screwing, getting your fucking rocks off with those kids again, shoving your god-damned prick up their asses and-"

"I DON'T SCREW WITH ANYBODY YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE!!" Jeremy said, roaring back.

The old man drew back, surprised at the venom he heard in his son's voice. It did not deter his intent, however, as he pressed onward. "Don't lie to me, you shit face! You ain't no virgin! You're the fucking asshole, uh huh! We both know it, too! Why, you've probably had more dicks fucking rammed up your ass, than there are people between here and the damned Mississippi river! I KNOW YOU!"

"Do you?" Jeremy replied, quietly with almost a deathly chill. "Do you really think you know anything about me? I know more about you, you fucked up drunk, than you'll ever know about me for the rest of your whole fucking life!"

The eldest Riddle stopped and stood straight, scratching his head. "What, do you honestly think I'm an idiot or something?"

"Or something, yeah," Jeremy replied. With that, the old man slapped Jeremy again, harder than Jeremy could ever recall. There was a taste of blood inside his cheek this time, as he looked on with glaring hatred. The man suddenly laughed, delighted for some reason or another. "Oh yeah, we know all about you, don't we," he snarled., obviously ignoring the implied reference to himself. "Tell me, who went and got themselves knocked up by a bunch of faggot kids, huh? What was it you told me? You said you HAD to let them do it, was that it? Yeah, you HAD to, not because of living or dying, but because you loved it, didn't you - DIDN'T YOU??!! Knowing you, if you can't get someone to stick their dick up your ass, you probably try to hump any damned kid-"

"YOU DON'T KNOW FUCK ABOUT ME OLD MAN, SO QUIT PRETENDING YOU DO!!!"

With that the elder Riddle reared back and slapped Jeremy yet again. Jeremy literally felt like a steamroller had just smashed into him as he fell to the ground. The old man then grabbed his son by the collar, and started heading across the field toward the house, dragging Jeremy with him. Not a single word was exchanged as they moved. Jeremy desperately tried to shake the cobwebs from his head, knowing this was not good. He tried to focus on some way to get away, or to at least calm the situation down. As they neared the house, however, he began to panic.

As the old bus turned a corner, the teen closed his eyes, recalling what happened next ever so vividly. He ignored all of the other kids riding the bus now, their voices building to a crescendo as they swapped their vacation stories. He remembered how, upon being roughly dragged to the house, he had stumbled again, and how the man had pulled him to his feet before continuing on. The house was suddenly before them, and quickly they entered through the door as the man muttered under his breath, "I'm going to teach you just how little you are, boy! Just how fucking little you are, you piece of shit..." They entered the hallway and he continued. "You'll think twice about ever again fucking with my head, I promise you!" Dragged into his bedroom, Jeremy fell to his bed as the elder Riddle threw him down, slamming the door shut behind them.

The old man pulled off his overcoat and promptly hung it on the door knob. Turning to his son, now sprawled before him, he began contemplating the scene. Jeremy already knew he was losing the fight, as it was one he had lost before it even got started. The man, for all his faults and weaknesses, was incredibly strong. There would be no getting around him and out of the door. Still, he stared up into the eyes defiantly, determined he would show no emotion, nor would he give in to the fear that now gripped him. When the man spoke, his voice was cold, dripping with the rage boiling within. "All right you little shit, you think you're something, coming in here, mouthing off to me like some little fucking piss-ant! I'm going to ask you one last time, and you're going to answer me, you understand? You have no choice, you hear me? Now, where the hell - where in the fucking hell - have you been for the last day?" He took a step closer, and his voice began to rise both in pitch and intensity. "Have you been out terrorizing those kids down the road again? Is that it? Thought you could take advantage of me being asleep and then going after your kicks, is that it?" When Jeremy remained motionless, let alone silent, it infuriated the older Riddle even more. "Answer me!! FOR THE LAST TIME, WHERE THE FUCKING HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?"

Jeremy pondered whether he should tell him about the abandoned house, debating whether he should just give in. No, he decided - he wasn't going to do it. Nothing was going to save him from the beating about to come, and he knew it. There were few things left in the world that he held to himself, and that abandoned house was his only sanctuary from the screwed-up life they - rather he - had here. He pressed his lips together firmly, and his expression changed to one of passive indifference, making the old man swear to himself.

"AARRRGGGHHHHH!!! Why do I even attempt to put up with you, you fucking bastard!" He waved his arms menacingly. "You think you can come and leave here as you please, is that it? Don't you fucking realize this farm is all WE got, that it is the only thing even feeding us? If those cows had starved to death, especially while you've been off screwing with your faggot fri-"

"I AM NO FUCKING FAGGOT, YOU WORTHLESS PIECE OF CRAP!! HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU THAT? I DON'T SCREW WITH ANYONE LIKE THE WHORES YOU DO!" The roar from Jeremy surprised the older man, causing him to blink and retreat as Jeremy, seeing the opening, pressed his advantage. "Where the hell have I been? WHERE HAVE I BEEN? How about you? Where the hell have you been?"

"Watch it youngen-"

"Don't tell me to watch it old man! If this farm is so fucking important to you, to feeding us, then why is there never anything around here to eat? You couldn't give a shit about keeping any food here! All we ever have is your fucking beer, and boxes of cereal that have probably been sitting in a warehouse somewhere for decades!" When the man did not reply, Jeremy continued. "We both know where that gets us, right? Hell, do you even know what day it is, or what you've been doing for the last two fucking days? Do you? If I had to guess, you went on another binge with your fucking check, AGAIN, didn't you? Thinking of no one but yourself!! Or have you even noticed, there ain't anything in the fucking fridge or cabinets to eat. There hasn't been food in this place for months! Why is that, huh? You talk about them fucking feeding us, but you ain't even man enough to stand up for the truth, you worthless piece of shit! They may make you money, yeah, but then you go spending it on whores, bars and fucking beer and whiskey!"

When the man continued to stare back with blank eyes, Jeremy played his last card in hopes of getting the man to calm down. "Let me guess, you don't have a nickel now, nothing, zip... right? And you just got paid last Friday, didn't you? You probably headed to the closest bar you could find, found the ugliest tram you could pinch ass with, and got your dick wet banging her all afternoon, didn't you? And then, you spent what little was left, everything you had, on those cans of piss out there, right? Hell man, do you even have any idea what week this is, or even what month it is? Probably not, because you can't get your head out of those damn cans, to even get from one day to the next! You're a drunk, a slob and a miserable excuse of a human being, and you want to take it out on me?"

Jeremy rose from the bed and confronted him squarely, face to face. "But then again, what the fuck do you care, right? You want to know where have I been? Alright, I'll tell you - I came home yesterday, that's right, YESTERDAY! And when I got off the damn bus and walked in here, I found you passed out, drunker than snot, on your ass on the damned fucking couch in there, piss soaked through your pants without a care in the world, stinking up the whole room, and the rest of the house for that matter! You didn't have a worry or care in the world, did you? You spent your whole fucking wallet on nothing but booze and bars, and wallowed away your every misery in whatever way you wanted to, right? Those cows are your cattle, you shit head - I don't know nothing about taking care of them, because you can't fucking put two-and-two together without getting three for an answer! You don't teach, you don't guide, you don't do nothing, except come in here and take out all YOUR little faults, all YOUR excuses, your half-assed fucking failures, and blame them on me! You act like this all important, asshole, but you get it, right? You've got no one to excuse for your 2-month old fart-for-a-brain! Otherwise, someone could measure maybe in a thimble how much you really cared about the farm, those cattle, or even me! But no, you didn't even think about me, did you? Or did you? To me, I'm your excuse for everything that's wrong in your life, right? Why should you even care, you'd rather I just died anyway, right? All you care about is your damned, fucking self!"

"Damn you kid-"

"Ah, don't damn me old man! You didn't give a shit before, and you know it! You never have. I was out, away from you - that's where I was. Trying to keep from starving to death, but then, you don't care anything about that. You'd probably hope I did die, right here under your nose, just so you could bury me and make up lies to anyone who comes asking. Anything to let you go along with your fucking miserable life, right?" Jeremy interrupted him, taking advantage to shed some of the burden he had been holding back for months, if not years. "I'm nothing to you but a damn burden, some shit-faced slave, right? Well, am I right? You would rather I die, than to have to take care of anything for me! But whoa, how is that a surprise, right? You already couldn't care less whether I existed or not, just like Mom - you only cared about guzzling as many six-packs and whiskeys you could get away with that night! All just so you could pass out and piss yourself. Right? And it's all you ever do, really. You just get up and do it all over again, and again! We never were worth anything to you, were we? How did it feel, old man? To go bar hopping and screw every woman you could grab ass with, while leaving us here to rot-"

SMACK! The slap cut across Jeremy's face, and instantly he knew he had crossed the line. He reeled from the blow, landing upon the bed beneath him, both ears ringing hard. When he looked up into the face of the elder Riddle, the bloodshot eyes did nothing to conceal the rage behind them. "YOU LITTLE FUCK! YOU GOD-DAMNED LITTLE FUCKING MAGGOT!" The man came forward and grabbed the younger boy by both shoulders, shaking him violently. "DON'T YOU EVER TRY AND TELL ME I DIDN'T CARE ABOUT YOUR MA! YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT WHAT I WENT THROUGH WHEN SHE DIED, YOU PIECE OF SHIT!"

"What about what I went through?" Jeremy voiced quietly.

"WHY SHOULD I GIVE A FUCK ABOUT WHAT YOU WENT THROUGH, HUH? IT COULDN'T HAVE BEEN THAT BAD, COULD IT? YOU GO AND GET YOURSELF FUCKED UP BY A BUNCH OF SNOT-NOSED SCHOOL BRATS, SCREWED TIGHT AND HARD, HAVING A GOOD OLD TIME, RIGHT? WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE TO YOU, HUH? I GOT TO LIVE 6-MONTHS IN A DAMN FUCKING WHEELCHAIR PRACTICALLY, WHILE YOU WERE OUT THERE GETTING YOUR DAMN ROCKS OFF TAKING IT UP THE ASS!"

The elder man pushed Jeremy hard back onto the bed. "I GOT 6-MONTHS OF HELL, AND THE ONLY THING TO SHOW FOR IT WAS A GOD-DAMNED FAGGOT, A SHIT-FACED FUCKIN WHORE! YOU DON'T THINK SO? YOU DON'T THINK I KNOW IT? LOOK AT YOU - YOU TURNED INTO SOME GOD-DAMN-ASSHOLE, BEATING THE SHIT OUT OF LITTLE KIDS HALF YOUR SIZE FOR KICKS, MAKING A FUCKING NAME FOR YOURSELF TERRORIZING THEM, I RECKON! AND ALL FOR WHAT - TO MAKE YOURSELF SOME KIND OF MAN?" Leaning in close, he lowered his voice, and once again Jeremy smelled the sour breath of alcohol churning in his stomach. "You know how big of a man you are, boy? Huh? You're nothing kid - never have been, never will be! But you don't realize it, do you? You think getting fucked in the ass makes you a man, don't you? Is that it? Huh? IS THAT IT??!! YOU FUCKING KID, YOU DAMN FUCKING KID!!"

Quietly, Jeremy replied one final time. "I am not a faggot you creep - I never have been, and I never will be. Go to hell."

With a roar the man grabbed Jeremy by the front of his coat and roughly turned him around, shoving him headlong into the bed. Placing a knee between his legs, he single-handedly grabbed the back of Jeremy's head by his hair and pulled backwards, whispering into his ear. "You shit head! Okay, you want to play that game with me, that is your choice. I fucking know better, though, you shit head! You think it makes you a man, screwing around -"

"I don't! You're the one who keeps saying it, not me! I don't f-" The man pulled hard, cutting Jeremy off in mid-sentence.

He was angry now, angrier than he had been in years. "If you really think it makes you a man, then maybe it's about time you did some growing up for a change! If you really think that fucking, or getting fucked, by some kid is what makes you a man, maybe let's get you going on a REAL dick! Something big and powerful enough to so you get an idea of what you have in store for you, because I don't fucking care anymore! You want to dick around with me, boy? Huh? Then lets me and you go at it then! I'll teach you what it's all about, that life isn't all about playing with your cock!" The man reached around and yanked at the front of Jeremy's pants, pulling the unbelted pair loose from the top and ripping the clasp that held them together. Jeremy started to yell, but panicked as the man let go of his hair and placed a steel clamp over his mouth with his hand, again jerking his head back. With surprising strength, the man had the boy's pants pulled down to his knees, boxers and all, exposing his ass completely.

What happened next was a blur, but the pain was all too evident. Even now, already weeks later, it made Jeremy wince behind closed eyes. The eldest Riddle let go of him for an instant, and behind him Jeremy heard the unbuckling of a belt. At first, he thought the belt was going to deliver the hardest beating of his life, and as such the teen attempted to steel himself. It wasn't until he heard other sounds, however, that had made him open his eyes in alarm: a zipper being pulled down, and sounds of clothes being pushed below their waistline. In horror, he started to turn, but felt a rough hand grab one of his arms and twist it behind him. After being shoved back down into the bed, he started to panic. It was at that moment, when he could feel the bare skin of the man behind him, that he realized what was going to happen. It wasn't the beating that was coming, but something much worse - something that had only happened twice in all the years they had been together alone. His eyes widened in fear, and his body went both rigid and numb. Tears began to form around his eyes and he started sobbing into the unmade bed covers. "No dad... no...." he tried to scream, but was ignored.

He felt the man lay on top of him, and within seconds a pair of lips was next to his left ear speaking quietly. "No? Hell kid, you're about to get knocked up by a REAL DICK! Aren't you excited? Yeah, you see it isn't so great now, don't you - you little prick... You see you're not so big in the world now, don't you? You see that someone can still beat the living

shit out of you, just like you let those kids do to you so many years ago. I mean, you LET them fuck you, you let them turn you into a god-damned faggot, and you let them bully you around like some kind of fucking slave. Is that why you beat the snot out of these little kids around here, huh? Just so you can fuck with them? Or maybe is it because you can't fuck them, is that it? So, instead you make their lives miserable, all because someone took your cherry already. Is that it? Shit kid, maybe you do need a lesson then, something different." Jeremy felt the poke at the back of

his leg, something hot and iron stiff, moving upward as if finding a way toward its mark. "Yeah, maybe, just maybe - from someone only big enough-" The hardened member seemed to glide to the center, ramming forward. "- that can tear another hole-" Jeremy winced, as he recalled feeling his father find the spot, tensing himself and trying with sheer might to prevent the inevitable, before the man completed his sentence: "Yeah, another hole in your fucking teenage ass!"

Even now, as they neared the school, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Faint surges of pain were still ever present, making things far from comfortable. The old man had exhibited surprising strength, holding Jeremy in place while he usurped his insides. The teen tried to fight it, but to no avail as he was dragged over the edge of the bed and forced to lie on his stomach, now with his ass bared alone over the side. It was one of the few times in his life the tears flowed freely. Visibly shuddering, he abandoned that line of thought. What was done ... was done. Even with what happened to him years before, the humiliation this time took its toll in such a way he found no peace. It was because of those experiences haunting him that Jeremy had become a backward, sullen kid, angry at the world. It caused him to take a whole different perspective on life, and how he treated everyone around him.

The old man had been distant in the beginning, still recovering from the accident when they finally made it home. He sank to an all-time low, rolling in self-pity and misery, and found solace only in his drinking. As time progressed, he blamed Jeremy for the problems in his life, and even for the loss of his wife, although nothing could have been further from the truth. He began beating him, mere spankings at first, but progressing to beltings that sometimes would last half an hour or more - most of them bare-assed. He never let up, always blaming his son for the little mistakes that either of them made. That is, if there was anything wrong. Some nights, the man would belt the boy for no reason at all, telling him he needed to be reminded on occasion of who he was, and what his place was in the "family" now.

The worst of it all, however, occurred the night Jeremy had been forced to reveal what happened in the foster house. It had been several months afterwards, and with his change in attitude Jeremy had become distant, almost despondent. It infuriated the old man to no end, especially when he could extract little to no reaction from the boy when he was being punished. If anything, the old man pushed and hit harder. No night ever compared, however, to the night a note made its way home from school. It was from the principal, informing elder Riddle that his son was behind in everything. Worse still, Jeremy had begun terrorizing the younger children in the other classes. Before that night, the man had surged with anger at the world for every little thing. When he read the note, however, he turned his attention and concentrated on Jeremy alone. That night had been a long, drawn-out conflict, one during which Jeremy had been forced to admit his secrets. Finding none of the pity he needed, he suffered as the elder Riddle's hatred toward him grew ten-fold. 'How could you have let those boys take you that way, and turn you into a queer, some fucking faggot?' the man started yelling. The beating that followed, was one branded into his heart and mind forever.

As the bus turned into the school parking lot, a tear slipped down Jeremy's cheek. His heart wrenched at those memories, both distant and near, and everything that had happened in between. That ordeal had caused him to harden his heart further, blaming not only his father, but every other adult he encountered in his life. He started becoming both obnoxious and flippant with his teachers, and that of course opened the doors to those who cheered him on. Jeremy became surrounded by "friends", people who took solace in the misery of others, and he quickly became a master of the craft himself. Before long, he locked away the memories in his mind, and taught his heart to trust no one. He began fighting, and as he steadily grew in height and strength, he took advantage of anyone, anywhere, that he could get away with. He was the leader now, and his ring of friends held him to it.

That day on the bed, however, those memories had been unlocked, and his heart broken again. He had had nowhere to go, no one to turn to. He had only had what flashed in his eyes before him, his life panning from one side to the other. As the bus pulled up, Stan opened the doors for his charges to disembark by, and Jeremy rose quickly to be the first to exit. He shuddered visibly again as he walked, recalling each strike of the belt that came afterwards. Jeremy could no longer hold it in that day, succumbing to the pain and humility, finally breaking down and wailing, begging and pleading for the old man to stop. There was eventually a pause as the man listened, but not in sympathy. Jeremy looked up to see the pleasure-filled grin that met him. Knowing he had broken the kid, his old man silently put his belt back into his pants. Grabbing his overcoat, he walked out of the door, closing it behind him.

Jeremy had been too traumatized to move. He curled into a fetal position, remaining for what seemed like hours, whimpering as the tears continued falling across his cheek. Pure hatred raged inside, focused on both the old man and their lives. When the tears finally subsided, instead his countenance gave way to shame. Shame because he could not understand what was wrong, what was so out of place. Why did his father treat him that way? He had never, even once, showed any sign of being gay, and he knew it. Yet the old man had insisted...

The movement and noise of the other kids getting off the bus woke him from his trance, and Jeremy sighed deeply. The rest of the holidays had found him pretty much ignored by the older Riddle. As far as he was concerned, it was over now; maybe... just maybe... Jeremy could find some peace returning to his regular routine again...


That same morning, on another part of the bus, a different tale was unfolding. When Michael boarded the vehicle, he was not at his best. The last few days had frayed his nerves, as he worried over the absence of his friend. Heightened by the fact that the moment was finally close at hand, he nervously pulled on his clothes and got dressed that morning, before heading into the kitchen. He avoided his usual breakfast of cereal and toast altogether, eating nothing. After drinking a glass half-filled with juice, he sat watching the clock slowly tick away, until it was time to head out and meet the bus. Walking over the hill was slow, each step seemingly harder than the last. In one sense, he was anxious, wanting to hurry and willing the minutes to fly by; in another though, he was afraid of what he would find out. As he topped the rise, he began moving down to the mailbox. Steadying his nerves, he saw the bus approaching in the distance, and then spoke to himself softly, "I guess this is it."

When the bus arrived, he took his usual seat after greeting Stan and exchanging small talk about how the holidays had gone. He liked this bus driver, compared to some others the kids had had before. Stan always attempted not just to talk to the kids - but talk with them down on their level. Most drivers were too wrapped up in their own little world, to care especially about the people they were transporting. Stan didn't do that though, and Michael could not help but smile.

Within moments they neared Thomas's house, and turning the bend in the road, Michael saw his friend standing and waiting in the distance. He felt his stomach turn itself into a knot, twisting his breath as the bus rolled to a stop and opened its door. Thomas climbed the steps and hesitated only briefly, exchanging similar greetings with Stan, before heading down the aisle. As he neared Michael's seat, however, he leaned in ever so slightly and spoke in a hushed voice, "Wait until we're around the curve." Instead of joining his friend in their usual fashion, Thomas continued farther back to sit two rows behind.

Michael was surprised at the request, and hurriedly glanced out the window as the bus rolled away. There in the doorway of the house, he saw two figures outlined, watching them as they continued. When they rounded the bend, he turned back just in time to see Thomas already making his way forward to join him. His mouth agape, he could think of nothing to say as his friend placed his book bag beneath and settled himself in. They both sat gazing at each other in silence for a moment, neither sure of where to begin. All the while, the exchange was being watched in the mirror by Stan, his eyebrow arched in curiosity. He thought it was odd but said nothing for the time being.

Thomas finally broke the silence. "Hi," he spoke, his voice almost a whisper.

Michael, surprised, returned the greeting equally soft. "Umm, Hi."

Again, there was an awkward silence between them, before Thomas sighed. "Say something, say anything, please... just say something..."

Michael was astonished. "Huh? I mean... well... yeah, okay... How about, what the 'you-know-what' is going on?" He smiled meekly as he said it, but his voice quivered, and his expression betrayed the mixture of worry and relief. Thomas's face had a sad expression, and now that he was closer, Michael could see the teen was about as frazzled as he himself felt. That brought his curiosity level up another notch.

Thomas cleared his throat and then spoke in a low, nervous tone. "I'm sorry Mike, I really am. Please don't be mad at me..." In that instant, looking up and finding no one on the bus with them yet, he reached and grasped Michael's hand. He held it only briefly, but squeezed it conveying a message he hoped. Michael squeezed briefly, which encouraged Thomas to whisper. "It's Gramps, Mike."

Michael gasped, holding his breath at hearing those words, before letting them go and replying, "Huh? What's going on man? I mean, what...? Why didn't you call? I tried to call you, but your Grams -"

Thomas shook his head, as if trying to clear his head. "I know Mike, I know..." He took a deep breath. There was no gap between them, but nevertheless he nonchalantly scooted even closer. "I know you called, I was there, but Grams wouldn't let me near the phone. I was sort of grounded, I guess. I couldn't call anyone, or leave the house, or do much of anything after we got back." He gazed into his friend's eyes and added. "Before you start worrying, though, it has nothing to do with, you know. I promise, cross my heart..."

Michael felt a little relief at that, before returning a gentle nudge between them. "Then what is it? You don't like, hate me or anything do you, right?"

"No way, man! I could never hate you, we're bros remember?" Thomas tried to smile, and then let out a long breath. "It's all fucked up, man! I mean - it's all screwy at home right now..."

"Why?" Michael prompted softly. "What's going on? What's wrong?"

Thomas thought for a moment. "Remember the day my Mom came and picked me up?" When his friend nodded, Thomas continued. "I hugged your Mom, remember? Nothing big, but I just, I don't know, I got carried away some, I guess. I wanted to say thanks, because I was feeling so happy and everything, and I just - just gave her a hug, that's all. Well, Mom saw it and... I don't know, Mike - it was just weird. I mean, she must have been weirded out or something. I didn't think anything of it, and she never said anything to me about it while we were riding home, you know? But, that night she was telling Grams about it, and then Grams told Gramps about it, and ..."

When he paused, Michael whispered. "Okay, I sort of get that. Then what?"

"Gramps came into my room and started laying in on me, with like a bazillion questions and all. I mean, he started out making comments like 'you and that kid are getting all chummy chum-chum, aren't you?' and 'You're spending a lot of time up with that boy and his mother. What's wrong, this family not good enough for you?' Just, all kinds of crap like that. Then he starts in on me, how I should be more thankful for the family I do have there, that THEY work hard to provide a place for Mom and me to stay and everything. Then he starts on stuff like how my mom didn't need to have a boy she had to worry about all the time. When I asked what she worried about, he slapped me and told me to shut up and quit back-talking him."

There was a silence that grew between them now, as Michael reflected on what he had just heard. He knew life for Thomas was weird sometimes, but ... this? His best friend interrupted his thoughts as he continued. "That's not the worst of it, either. He started in on how I never appreciate anything anymore, and how I was always just in the way around there. He said I never helped out around there, but instead was just being a lazy brat. And I'm like 'Huh? I DO help out; I take out the garbage, mow the yard, and clean house with Mom all the time, and do all kinds of stuff every day - a lot of it without even being told!' And then guess what? He did it again - he slapped me, hard, and told me to shut the fuck up. I mean, my Grandpa, who never swears, told me to 'shut the fuck up'! Can you imagine? But then, he starts laying in on me with all the old stuff again." He looked at the quizzical expression staring back and then explained. "You know - the stuff about how I don't get out and go camping, or fishing or hunting or other shit like that. Blames me for having no interest in cars, and that I couldn't tell a horse's ass from the ass of a sexy girl, or some such shit as that. He really used those words, too! It was like, I don't know... It was like, something snapped in him, or something."

"Man..." was all Michael could say at first, finally grasping what Thomas was trying to tell him.

"The worst of it though was when he started in on you," Thomas added, his voice breaking. Before Michael could ask, he plowed on. "He doesn't think we should be seeing each other anymore, that hanging out with you isn't such a good idea."

"NO WAY! NO FUCKING WAY!" Michael's response carried throughout the entire bus, and other kids became silent as they all turned to stare at where Michael and Thomas sat. Stan had already been watching the two in his mirror, and at that outburst, he looked up and saw the seriousness on the youth's face. Instead of admonishing him, however, he drew a stern expression and called back "Watch the mouth back thar, youngen!"

Michael was in shock, but as he realized what he had done and heard the driver call back, he turned, red in the face as he called back, "I'm sorry, sir... I-I'm sorry..." The man's expression changed to one of curiosity. He could not remember ever having a student apologize for the use of foul language - not in THAT way, at least. He nodded, then went back to concentrating on his driving. Most of the other kids on the bus also returned to their conversations, but it became evident that a few nearby had decided to try and listen in. Both Michael and Thomas noticed their attempts and decided to hush for the time being.

Before long Thomas leaned in really close to Michael's ear. "That's what I said too, Mike. Almost word-for-word, and as soon as I did it Gramps went into a rage because I used the F-word. I got slapped again, and then grounded. He said you were obviously a bad influence, rubbing off your foul mouth and everything on me. Perhaps it would be best if I just quit talking and seeing you, period. That's why I couldn't call you - that's why it's been so bad these last few days. Then this morning, before I got on the bus, Grams pulled me aside and said it would be best if I didn't sit with you anymore. When I asked why, she just said it might be best if we had a break from each other for a while, and before I could say anything else, Gramps walked up behind us and she pushed me out of the door."

Michael saw that Thomas was as visibly upset as he was himself. His mind was reeling, his emotions charging back and forth between anger and fear - fear of what was happening, or what could happen. Thomas once again broke into his thoughts, this time his voice a dead whisper. "Mike, h-he asked o-other stuff, too. Like, whether we were screwing each other and stuff. He actually asked me that!" Seeing the alarm in his friend's face, Thomas hurried to go on. "No, I swear bro - it was just out of the blue, totally! It hit me like, what the hell, and I was so shocked he would even say that, or ask it, or... I mean, I told him no! I denied it - because it wasn't true! But he acted like I was lying, like he didn't believe me! He just got this smug look on his face, you know? And then suddenly, I'm like this worthless little piece of crap that - that's always in the way and, and..."

Thomas was visibly crying now, and his voice had been rising somewhat to a steady tone that cracked with emotion underneath. Michael had no hesitation in reaching over and grabbing the other hand firmly again. He didn't care what anyone else saw or thought, as he raised his voice as well. "No Thomas, don't give in to that shit! Don't believe for a minute you're a nobody, or some worthless piece of crap! You know it, man! You're my friend, and you're a far better person than your Gramps is! Shit, you know it!" He watched as an older girl across the aisle observed the exchange between them, and she couldn't help but see the tears flowing from Thomas's cheeks. Michael silently pleaded with her, not sure what she would do or say, least of all if she was going to give them a hard time.

Instead of teasing, however, she scooted over next to the aisle and reached across, taking Thomas's other hand in a similar fashion. "He's right you know," she spoke softly. "You're never a nobody, you never have been." She leaned closer and looked between them both, as Thomas's eyes turned to meet hers. "Hey, I don't know what's going on here, honest, but I know what it feels like to be told that kind of shit. Don't ever let someone pull that crap on you, not like that, okay? It just means they either aren't thinking right, or they're full of crap themselves." She smiled, looking at Thomas. "Besides, how can someone with a cute ass like yours, be a nobody, right? And yes, I mean it! You've got a cute one, and if you were a little older..."

Thomas laughed, blushing at her words, but it broke his fall into the despair that had been opening up like a chasm before him. He squeezed both their hands and she smiled back, leaning in and whispering to them both, "That's just my opinion of course, but hey... Nobody's perfect, right?" She winked before withdrawing back into her seat. Thomas let go of Michael as well, and used both his hands to dry his eyes. Thomas then took a deep breath and looked across the aisle, unsure who the girl even was. He was thankful, though - for everything. "Thanks guys... Both of you..." he voiced, glancing at Michael, too. The girl nodded, and then returned to staring out of the bus window.

As they approached the school, Thomas turned to his friend. "Mike? I hope you know bro, I promise. I'll even swear on a bible, I never said or did anything to make him think, you know, about that stuff. I don't know what happened, it was like he just went wild or something, and all I could ever think of was the fact I hugged your mom that day. That was when it all started and stuff, I think." He lowered his voice even more. "I swear it to you, on my life!"

Michael looked back and smiled. "Whoa, bro. I know, trust me. I know - I really do! Besides, remember our promise to each other? You said it yourself: we'll always be bros. Remember?"

"Hell yeah, always," Thomas replied softly, grinning.

It wasn't that he was concerned about their bonding that had developed over the holidays. Instead, Michael was now more worried about what this would all mean from here on out. Throughout the morning, it weighed heavily on his mind, distracting him more than once to everything going on around him. They did not meet for lunch, and although that might have alarmed him, he knew all the lunch schedules for the week were being shifted around for some reason, although he could not recall why. The rest of the day, however, he sat in the classes they shared alongside his friend. He had convinced himself that he was to blame, that it was his fault in some way. He didn't know, nor could he figure out, a way to make it all right again, and that depressed him even more.

That afternoon, they rode home in silence, both reflecting on everything that had happened. They made small talk here and there, but both were depressed and discouraged too deeply. For Michael's part, he did not feel he could trust his voice, given how upset he was slowly getting. It wasn't until they began to approach Thomas's house that his friend turned to him. "Mike? You're not mad at me, right? You can be anything, just don't be mad at me, please..." he pleaded.

Michael smiled. "No eff-ing way", he whispered, which made Thomas smile with relief as he stood up. He mouthed back the word 'Thanks', and then moved forward before they pulled into view of the house. He exited and Michael, being the last that day, stood up to move forward as the bus pulled away. When he reached the front, all his anxiety was beginning to catch up to him, and he had to calm himself with a deep breath. Stan had started to say something, but seeing the troubled expression on the youth's face, he let the matter drop. He could tell something was going on between the two teens, but he needed to give it some time.

As he stepped from the bus, Michael hurried on his way. Tears began stinging his eyes by then as he started to run. Truth be told, he had felt confused and hurt all day, and it was a feeling that would hang with him for quite some time. He reached the house and, upon finding his mother had not yet arrived home from work, the teen ran upstairs and fell onto his bed. There he curled up and scrunched his face together as the tears began to flow.

When Carolyn arrived home that evening, the house was cold. The fire had dwindled and gone out. She called out for her son, but when he did not respond, she became concerned. Climbing the stairs, she inwardly gasped when she found him curled into a fetal position on top of his bed. She hurriedly checked on him and found damp spots in the comforter. She knew instantly he had been doing something that, for him, was totally uncharacteristic. At least, uncharacteristic until these last few weeks. She started to say something when she realized he was sleeping, so she gently rose from the bed and returned downstairs. After she had built another fire in the stove, the house began to quickly warm up. She then walked into the kitchen and fixed a tray of sandwiches and soup for them both. Instead of calling him down, however, she climbed the stairs again and returned to his room.

He was awake by then, but she could tell by the expression on his face, he was far from being in any shape to eat. She sat down and pulled herself up to the headboard, wrapping her arms around him tightly. Michael responded by falling into her, exhausted, burying his head into her shoulder. Within seconds he started crying again, and she soothed him, letting him get it all out. Her heart wrenched listening to his sobs, feeling his pain and confusion, but she maintained her steady poise, waiting for him to come to it on his own terms.

Coming to terms was something he did eventually do, and after a little coaxing, he told her of everything he had learned that day. Slowly the details came pouring out, as he told her everything he could remember. He told her how Thomas had to begin sitting somewhere else on the bus that morning, before he could get up and join him, and why; he told her how they had talked and what Thomas had said, and how he had reacted. He told her what he knew of their household, how Thomas had described what living with his grandparents was like, and of the things that just didn't always add up. He came near to tears more than once as it all poured out - everything except the intimacy he and Thomas had shared - and at how it hurt him, hurt them both, in more ways than what seemed possible. And in the end, he told her of his fear, his conclusion that somehow, he must have done something, and that it was all his fault.

All the while, Carolyn held him and listened. She had expected there would come a day in the future when such times might be needed, over the loss of young love or such, but she had never expected this. The two boys had knitted such a tight friendship, she was at a loss for words to describe it. She looked down when her son finally looked up into her eyes, searching for something, anything that would help. "Wh-what am I g-going to do, Mom?" His voice had become timid in her arms, and as she cuddled him, he turned his back into her to park himself closer still. "I-I mean... I don't understand. How..."

"SShhhhh... It's not your fault honey. I doubt it's Thomas's fault either, from what you tell me." She heard him whimper as she hugged him more firmly, leaning forward and putting her lips to his ear. "I don't think there is anything you two can do right now honey, you know? Just try and be the best friends you can be at school for the time being. Who knows, maybe things will change for the better in a week or so..." She did not tell him the growing unease she herself felt. She had noted the strange, unresponsive reaction in Linda the day she picked up her son. Despite her reservations, it had all started to come together in a sense. She thought back about the dealings with their neighbors in the past, and she recalled just how reclusive they appeared to be.

More than anything else, however, she was uneasy about their reactions to the simple friendship these two boys had made. She looked down at her son, wondering if there was anything more. "Is that everything honey? I mean, do you know of any reason Thomas's grandparents and mother would want to keep you two apart? Anything you haven't told me?"

Michael did not hesitate, shaking his head no. Thomas had convinced him he had never said a word, never hinted at anything, and he believed his friend completely. Thomas had told him that afternoon, that he had even torn the drawing out of the notebook and burned it before that night. It wasn't for of fear of discovery, but because he had wanted to redo another one sometime and this time 'get it right'. They both giggled at that, and because of the exchange, Michael believed him. Up to that magical night, they both had shared a lot of closeness and confessions with each other. Neither had withheld anything that day, and it reassured him they were at least safe from their 'other' activities. Michael had also thought about how his friend could have glossed over the details, but in everything he heard, he felt the genuine sincerity in Thomas's voice: he knew it was the truth. Everything else that had happened, Thomas told him, came from all the weird fallout afterwards. Both were convinced of the other's heart-felt trust, without question. If there was anything else, any reason at all to explain any of this, it wasn't that. They were both at a loss of words. "No mom, honest," he whispered, not exactly lying, but not totally forthcoming either.

Sighing, Carolyn kissed the top of her son's head. "Okay sport, I believe you. Why don't you go take a hot bath for a change, and I'll put our supper away so we can eat a little later, okay?"

Michael sat for a moment longer before he straightened up and turned around to face her. He was smiling sheepishly, drying his eyes before once again embracing her. "Mom?" he whispered.

"Hmmm?"

"I love you... I really, really love you. You're the best, you know?" Michael whispered.

Smiling, Carolyn whispered right back into his ear, "I love you too, kiddo. It'll all work out, trust me. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not this week... but trust me, it'll all work out." She squeezed him tight, unable to say anything more herself, before he finally disengaged from her and headed toward the bathroom. She looked on, sighing to herself, reflecting on what she - what they both - had learned. Her heart went out for her son, but she was at a loss to find anything to do or say. She knew that for the meantime, they would have to wait this one out.

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