The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 15

What Endures Lasts Forever

"Now, pull her back, tight! Yeah, like that, son - that's right, now hold her!"

Stan's booming instructions were easier said than done, as Jeremy held onto the tool with all his might, stretching the rug between himself and the burly man on the other side of the seam. He ignored the 'son' reference, though it did slightly annoy him. There were some things, however, he was learning to be tolerant of, especially with older people such as their bus driver. Given his position and age, some people would always look down on teenagers and children in a certain light, never meaning any harm by it, and surprisingly, Jeremy saw he could live with that. As he strained with all his might, Michael and Thomas quickly scrambled behind the older teenager as well, helping to hold the carpet in place while the black man tacked the edge. They each grunted, pulling with all their combined might, until Stan finally waved them off, signaling all clear.

As it turned out, Stan worked part time with his son doing various carpet and flooring jobs for one of the galleries in town. It was a good way to supplement his income, especially during the summer months when school was no longer in session. The discovery was made by accident, when Carolyn and Linda had entered the gallery one afternoon, looking to find something they could work with for the downstairs rooms. As they looked over the offerings, both the burly man and his son had just returned from a job and caught sight of them. Launching into a friendly conversation, Stan caught up on the latest news, and then learned of their recent purchase of the house. He was momentarily saddened at the prospect he was going to lose the boys from his bus route, but he quickly recovered and smiled when he understood what was happening and why.

It was then luck turned their way again, right when the ladies least expected it. The store manager happened to be walking along the floor just then, and after being flagged down by the burly bus driver, the two conversed in low tones. There was a look of recognition that crossed the manager's face, before a pleasant smile surfaced. Turning to the ladies, the man then proceeded to help the women find something to their liking, and then made them an incredibly good offer. On seeing their hesitation, the man explained to them that installation would be done compliments of Stan and his son, and he was giving them an additional discount. Anything to help the young Riddle youth, he proclaimed.

Blessed with their good fortune, the ladies had thanked the men and went about other necessary business. That had been two weeks before, and now that school was out, all three boys had been drafted by the women to help getting the new place ready to move in – a task which they didn't seem to mind at all. Most of the upstairs had already been completed, with fresh coats of paint and minor repairs in places. Much of the furniture had already been moved as well, courtesy of the Mathews family. Carl Mathews had redirected one of his work crews one afternoon, and the avalanche of workers had made short order of getting the various pieces onto their trucks, and then delivered in place. All that lacked now was this task, and getting the boys set up in their new rooms.

Everyone present was keyed up, especially Jeremy, since he now had the prospect of getting his own room. He had never complained, nor would he have done so. To him, if he had been stuck on that couch for the next two to three years, he would have gladly endured it for all it was worth. He knew he was lucky to even be there, and with each passing day, he was learning more about family life - real family life - than he had ever thought possible. Now, the prospect of having at least a little more privacy though, was giving way to the excitement he would have his own room - and one of considerable size from the looks of it. Clean, fresh - a place to call his own.

Since the summer vacation had begun, each of the boys had heartily committed themselves to odd various jobs around the new property, including painting, cleaning, and other various tasks. The place had livened up considerably with the lighter tones and colors, and with the work everyone put into it, it was rapidly taking shape. In addition, Kevin and Austin had also joined the team, helping out equally at times, and between the five boys, with Carolyn and Linda, the place took on a personality of its own. Thomas was especially helpful, proving he could paint murals and patterns as well as his drawings had shown. The teen had an eye for using simple painted walls with accents, and quickly learned how shades of paint migrated from their wet state to dry. The results were quite impressive, especially when he worked out a mural-like drawing into their bedroom wall downstairs, complete with oversized views of lakes and mountains in the distance.

Even Jeremy, whose room was the largest he had ever had in his life, was awed by the work, and quickly let Thomas work out a design for him. Additionally, the older teenager was permitted to purchase his own furnishings, using his own money. He bought items not only for himself, but for Thomas and Michael as well - including bean bags, nightstands and lamps that accented their rooms, and new pillows and spreads.

It was decided that, for the time being, Michael and Thomas would continue sharing a room and, at their insistence, their same bed. That puzzled the women, knowing each could have easily setup his own space on each side of their room, and still have more. It was Michael, however, who sat down with his Mom late one evening and told her how he felt about Thomas again. Although he was guarded in his words regarding how close they really were, it was he who convinced not only her, but Linda too, that as long as Thomas agreed - they would be fine. They were now brothers of a sort, and neither was afraid of the other in any way. Thomas ended up reiterating those same feelings by coming up up to his best friend and giving him a huge hug in front of the women. It was a curious gesture, but one both ladies fully understood. So, when the boys moved in, both women surprised the two with a new king-sized replacement. Knowing the boys were growing, it wouldn't be long before the bigger size would be needed.

To the family's surprise, some other people in the community were getting in on the act as well. Carolyn's colleagues at work, both the doctors and their wives, along with some of the nurses, began providing various housewarming gifts. There was everything that included a partial new bedroom suite for Jeremy, new desks for the boys, clothes and other miscellaneous items common to decorating and filling the needs of a new home. A new microwave was donated by Carolyn's boss, as was a dishwasher from the staff Linda worked with. The outpouring was both overwhelming and humbling to the band of five.

Although Carolyn and Michael had accumulated belongings throughout their lives together, much of it was beginning to deteriorate with age and wear. Items such as towels, cloths and rugs that were threadbare, could now be tossed aside. Glasses, cups and plates that had been parts of incomplete sets, many chipped or cracked through the years, could now be safely disposed of in favor of newer replacements. Neither had ever complained, however - both knowing they were living decently within their means. Carolyn had once commented that that items like that didn't make a home, but instead it was made by the people inside, and Michael could not agree more. Linda and Thomas had even less, their meager contributions not being any better. What they did have, however, they shared and contributed in helping Carolyn keep things as functional as possible.

That is where the community had helped them the most. It was hard times in most areas of the country, with the government nearly crippled by a stagnant economy, and unemployment - especially locally - running high. With the closing of factories, and the rate of inflation running amok, lower income families relied on what they could, stretching their dollars as far as they could go. With such uncertainty riding on the future, people living throughout rural America had clung together to support one another in whatever ways they could.

Carolyn and Michael were no different; for years, her income had given them enough to avoid hunger, and to keep a dry roof over their heads. Combining that lifestyle with wants beyond their needs, however, was difficult. Now, the story of their generosity and charity reached the church, and this bound them together further in more ways than one. Thanks in part to Stan and the Mathews family, the community responded to all of them. Most already knew of Jeremy's story by now, and the happy ending it had culminated in - though with a serious price. Before long, collections and benefit gatherings were held at places, to help not just him, but the entire family get set on a road of recovery. The new family of five was again humbled, and soon came to realize the generosity the people offered them was given in love. They were glad of Jeremy's safe outcome, and of the bright future he would now have hope for.

Finally, Jeremy himself had been given another surprise during the move. As it turned out, the farm his old man had been upkeeping had no lien, and its respective taxes had been paid to date. Without any other recourse, the teen was set to inherit it - as determined by the local judge - once he turned 18-years of age. Until that time, it would be held in suspension, preserving and protecting his ownership until then, just as the social worker had assumed. Jeremy suspected he would sell the place, as he had no desire to return there - the memories had been too haunting. He could sell the land, pay any outstanding bills, and then pocket the remainder. Perhaps use the funds for college, or however else he so wished when he turned of age. His head spinning, he had to sit down that day, realizing that suddenly 120 acres of land were now deeded to him. His friends clasped him on the back, and he smiled, but it would take some time for it to really sink in. That's when, guessing his reaction, Carolyn whispered into his ear "That's why you have to wait until you're 18, kiddo. Don't worry, we'll all help you figure it out, but in good time. Right now, just relax - it's all yours honey, every last bit of it." He grinned at her for that, and the enthusiastic hug that followed conveyed everything he could muster. In fact, he couldn't let go, and it took more hugs, assurances, and lots of laughter and back-slapping, before that evening returned to normal.

"Not bad, boys... not bad at all!" Stan declared as the big man stood up and surveyed their results. "You see? Ye can't really tell where the rugs meet up at all, and that's what you want!" Looking around, he grinned at the trio, as his own son walked up beside them and started silently collecting their tools. They had been at it for a little over three hours now, and the excitement culminated as they observed their handiwork. They were done now, finished! Receiving Stan's praise for a job well done added to their general feeling of elation, too. They all helped gather scraps and pieces of off-cuts and trimmings, before finally heading back up the steps. Alighting at the top, Stan paused, looking back at the group. Somewhere, he heard an odd noise emanating. Jeremy looked up, then blushed. "Sorry, I guess that was my stomach. It must be hungry."

"Yeah, I can see y'all gettin that way," the elderly black man laughed while the others giggled. As they walked outside, they deposited their loads either in nearby trash cans, or in the back of Stan's truck. Once done, the big man turned to them. "Tell you what boys, if you don't mind riding with us poor old black folks here, what say we jest load up and go down to the Dairy Queen. My treat. Who's with me?"

The boys looked toward Michael, who laughed at first, but then hesitated. "Umm, I don't know Stan. I mean, Mom will be here soon, and..."

"Et's all right, Michael. I don't think your mother will panic if she doesn't find yez here for a bit. We'll bring you boys back before we head home. If you want to though, go in there and write her a quick note, then stick it up where she'll find it," the man instructed.

At the others urging, the teen conceded, and within moments the group headed into town. Thomas, Jeremy and Michael were seated in the back of the truck, silently watching the landscape go by as the wind whisked through their hair. For some people, it might have looked unusual. Although racism in that part of the country was greatly reduced, and social toleration seemed to be of a higher order, there were still those who only partially practiced it when necessary. These boys could not care less, however; they knew their bus driver, and although they had only just begun making acquaintance with his son, all three found him to be an equally likeable person, too. As friends, the boys would remain loyal to the two any day through thick or thin.

The drive itself turned out to be a new experience. From their new residence, driving out from a different side of town afforded them a scrutiny of their new surroundings. Within little to no time, they arrived at their destination, and Michael remarked to the others, "Wow! I didn't know it was this close - we can probably ride our bikes up here!" He wrinkled his nose. "Still, it's not going to be the same as our old place."

Thomas readily agreed. "I'll miss the stream, yeah - you've got to admit, the night we camped out was pretty awesome."

Michael nodded and smiled, remembering the fun. "Who knows, maybe we'll have some other places that will be cool, too."

"Probably. I know one thing that will be good - Kevin and Austin will be a lot closer to us, too," Jeremy remarked.

"Really?" Thomas asked, surprised.

"Yeah. They live only a mile or two from here," the older boy replied.

As the truck came to a stop, they began climbing out. As Michael's feet hit the ground, however, he sensed something had changed. Glancing up, he saw Thomas was still seated and staring rigidly at the far end of the parking lot. Following his gaze, Michael's brow furrowed in curiosity, until he picked out an older, familiar pickup truck. When his friend continued to sit and stare, Michael climbed back into the truck bed and approached him. "What's up, Thomas? Is that truck, is it-"

Thomas slowly nodded, just as Stan and his son emerged from the cab. As he glanced hurriedly at the older man, Stan picked up on the change in mood quickly. Seeing the questioning look on the older man's face, Michael quietly explained, in part, about what had gone on between his friend and his grandfather.

Stan scratched his head. "Russell Wilson? Your Grandpa? You sure you boys haven't made some mistake?"

Both boys looked up at the man and shook their heads, causing Stan to hesitate as he looked onward, his arms resting against the rail. It was a full minute before he slowly shook his head. "Well, I guess I have to admit, I knew this was coming in a way. I've been meaning to talk to you a bit about it sometime, to tell the truth. You see son, this isn't the first I heard you had a rough time at your Grandpa's place."

Thomas looked on in surprise, and asked, "Really?"

The old bus driver nodded, and then moved around to sit down on the already lowered tailgate, motioning the boys to come sit with him. As they sat, the vehicle groaned quietly at the sudden change in weight. Stan's son stood nearby, resting casually against the side of the truck as Stan gathered his thoughts.

"Now, to be honest up front, I really don't know how things was for you, but - I did hear a few things here and there, and your mother and I had a talk a few weeks ago up at the shop. Seems to me, she was surprised by some of the things I told her, so I'm guessing you might be a little surprised by them, too. I'm not advocating for your Grandpa in any way, mind you, but I guess there's a few things perhaps you should be aware of. You see, your Grandpa, he was drafted into the war, from a home with two older brothers. If I recall correctly, all three were called up about the same time I reckon, or at least within a few months of each other."

"Huh? What, do you mean the Vietnam war, or...?" Thomas asked. This certainly was news to him because, during all the times he lived there, that topic had never once been broached.

"Yeah, Vietnam was it. See, I know this because I remember parts of it plain enough. I was a lad, maybe 12- or 13-years old at the time – too young to be called up myself. Back in those days, though Uncle Sam tried to be selective overall, there were still whole families that went to fight in some instances. Needless to say, a lot of families lost some of their children, if not all of them. Sometimes the girls got drafted, too, but those were fairly rare circumstances. So, it was with your grand-daddy almost; he was the only one to come back from the war. Both his brothers died, and all he had left, I think, was two or three sisters."

Stan took a deep breath. "So, your Grandpa, see, right after he returned his daddy was stricken with a heart attack, and that left your Grandpa to tend to the farm. I had jest married when that happened, I think, or I was close to it. It was strange times over there for a while, because he had always said he never wanted the farm, and really wanted nothing to do with it while he was growing up. All of a sudden, it then changed. He married your grandma, and they tried to make a living out of the old place. It wasn't too bad on them – they had a right smart number of acres initially, I think, although I've known him to sell off some tracts of land over the years."

"That makes sense," Thomas remarked. "I think Grams once told me they started out with over 800-acres, but now its down to like 150 or so."

Stan nodded. "That might be about right. Anyway, your Grandpa though, something changed in him over the years - something some called strange. War can do things to you sometimes, as when he came back from the war, he was a different man. He would do nothing BUT farming then, though he had to learn a lot about it initially. With his Daddy gone, a lot of that learning he had to do by himself, too. So, that was it – he and your Grandma took over the farm, and they had one kid, who was your daddy. It was funny, as I did hear your Grandma was often badgering your Grandpa for more kids. He wouldn't do it though, and many thought maybe your daddy came along as an accident. Still, that's why you never got no aunts or uncles from his side of the family."

"Wait a minute, sir… Okay, I get it, but… what does that have to do with Grandpa now?" Thomas asked.

Stan paused again, before he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "You have to see, son. Here's the funny part of it - your daddy, just like your Grandpa initially, never liked the farm or farming in general. Always had his sights off in the distance, wanting to do something else. He was the type that always had his head in the books, reading that outer space stuff, or getting into sciences and whatnot. For some reason, your grand-daddy became furious about it, always on his case telling him he needed to get his head out of the clouds and all. Your grandpa made your daddy work harder around the farm, and longer, than any person I ever knew. That's saying something, I swear. Back in them days, instead of helping the man, it probably pushed him even further away. I swear, if it could have been, folks around here thought he would have kept your daddy outta school permanently, just so he could tend to the farm."

"Like I said, though - back in them days, things were a-changing. Kids had to go to school, and your Grandpa was left alone a lot. Your daddy, on the other hand, was always thinking, always reading and writing - he became a loner, and being a loner gives other kids ideas sometimes, if you know what I mean."

"How so?" Thomas asked curiously.

"Well, he would talk funny, sometimes sensible and sometimes things would come out that were just way out in left field, you know? Especially when he was younger, he would do goofy things, sometimes funny-funny, but other times funny-strange. No son, not like girly funny or whatever you people call it now days. I'm not talking homosexual or anything. But it was kind of out there, somewhat, and there were folks who didn't quite see it like I did. I mean, he rode my bus, so I knew him somewhat. I was just starting to drive back then see, and we talked every so often, me and your daddy. You could say I got to know him better more or less, but there were some who didn't. So, they picked on him a lot, bullied him around I think, and some of that got back to your Grandpa. The other kids, see - they blamed your daddy for being in with that funny crowd some, and when your Grandpa heard about it, he went ballistic!"

Stan studied Thomas for a moment. "I promise, I'm getting there, son. You see, time went on, and your Grandpa see, he finally confronted your daddy one day, right as he got off the bus. I remember the day well - your daddy got off the bus, must have been 16 or 17 at the time, and your grandpa was waiting for him right at the mailbox. They got into it as I was pullin away, and although I couldn't tell so much what your Grandpa was a saying, your daddy sure yelled good and loud. It was something like telling your Grandpa he should mind his own damn business, and that if he didn't let up, he'd show him what being 'funny' was really all about."

Stan reached a hand and placed it on Thomas's shoulder. "Do you see? Your Grandpa, he saw your Daddy as a fairy, you understand? He thought he was a man-lover, and that just ate at him inside something fierce. The war - he evidently had some experiences there that he wasn't prepared for, and in coming back, he didn't want anything to do with the outside world anymore. He wanted a woman, your Grandma, who he married quickly, and then he turned to doing the only thing he understood would give him his privacy and all. He got into doing everything himself, fixing engines, farm equipment, living off the land and more. Being a man, see. When along came your Daddy, who ended up rejecting everything a man represented - at least in your Grandpa's eyes – he saw him as not being a man at all. So, that day, after that big fight we drove away from, was the last day anyone saw of your Daddy for a very long time. The only thing I heard was a couple years later that he had graduated and was courting your momma. They married, and then they had you."

"Your Grandpa, it was like a slap in his face, because he then realized your Daddy was the farthest thing away from what he had accused him of. He had to grudgingly back away from his own fears then, but it still hurt him. He never really did recover, you know. Call it stubbornness or whatever, but I believe he was just too ashamed. Then, before they ever got to reconcile, your Daddy was in that accident and died suddenly, and then he was gone. A few months later, you and your Momma, you were on your last dime, and your Grandparents offered to take y'all in. Word was, some of the fellers that knew him said it was his only redeeming grace, to try and make up for all the wrong. You probably knew some of it – did you ever get to know or see your Grandparents when you were young?"

"Not really, mostly just Christmas time," Thomas mused.

"That's what I figured. So now, you living in the house, he gets to know the two of you all over again, like he should have from the beginning. But son, don't forget – the war, it plays with your mind sometimes. So, there you are, growing up, and forgive me - I don't mean to compare you to your Daddy now, honest – but I wouldn't be surprised if your Grandpa was just seeing you as he saw your Daddy back then. Whether he realized it or not, he started reliving everything again." Stan placed his hand on Thomas's knee. "Do you see now? I'll wager your Grandpa is now realizing how alone he is again. I know it's hard, especially if he beat you and all, and believe me - I have no patience or empathy for a man that does that. There is no excuse for it at all. But this, well, it's not an excuse, but it helps you maybe to understand the kind of man he is, and what shaped him."

"D-do you know what- what happened to him? During the war, I mean?" Thomas asked softly.

Stan sat back and crossed his arms. "Well, no, but I know some things go on in places you really don't expect." He looked the youth straight in the eyes. "Lots of raping, lots of killing - some men being away from home, thinking they won't live another day, or week or more, they get their ideas all twisted up, and their loins and peckers going crazy. It wouldn't surprise me, too, if there was some man-on-man action, from about anyone. And if you're raised in this bible belt, well… You understand what I'm saying, right? Without being explicit about it?"

Thomas nodded, solemnly. "Yes, sir."

Stan looked down upon the youth kindly. "Look, I know you youngens know more about this stuff than adults like to think you do, sometimes anyway. Seems that your generation is getting ahead in a lot of areas. But listen to me, son. I won't excuse your Grandpa or try to tell you how to feel about him and everything else. But the reality is, he's probably more upset about it over himself than he is with you, or your mother. We walk in there in a sec, and there is no telling what you'll find - but trouble is not one to expect. Me and Jess there, we saw him here the other day, just sittin in the corner, staring out of the window for the longest time. You can tell something about a man sometimes, that's all."

"Okay, sir… th-thanks for telling me," Thomas replied softly.

"One more thing, before we get up here," Stan added as an afterthought. "We go in there, don't be afraid of him. That is the one thing you can do, that will make all the difference to a man of the world like your Grandpa. You may not know yet, if you feel you've lost him, I mean. But he definitely has felt he's lost you. I guarantee it. We're all human beings, you know? None of us are perfect. Just be normal around him, and don't be afraid. He's like some of us other older folk – he has more years behind him now than he does ahead. He'll feel what those cost him for the rest of his days. If he hasn't lost you, then that's the start of something that might make amends someday. At least, you can always hope it will, right?"

Thomas looked up into the old man's eyes and smiled, before reaching out and giving him a quick one-armed hug. Michael clapped a hand onto his best friend's shoulder. "Come on, it'll be okay, we'll be here with you." Jeremy nodded in agreement.

Once inside, they spied the older Wilson in the far corner of the dining area, sitting alone in much the same manner as Stan had previously described. The man was staring out of the window, with a half-eaten tray of food set before him - but seemingly deep in thought. Although Thomas was initially apprehensive, he need not have worried. The group ordered their food and sat together throughout the entire meal without a single incident.

As they got up to leave, however, Thomas hesitated. He had been watching the man and thinking a lot about what Stan had revealed. Looking back to where his grandfather sat, still lost in thought, he was beginning to see the man from a different perspective. Although he couldn't forgive his grandfather yet, at least not completely, there were parts of his heart that melted toward the old man. With a nervous glance at the others, he slowly walked over to the table where the man sat.

When he stopped, his Grandfather started in surprise, only then realizing who was standing beside him. Stunned, he gawked at the boy and sat speechless, unsure of what to say. It was Thomas, however, who spared him the moment by reaching in and giving the man a quick, simple hug. It was an action that left the old man even more stunned than before. Michael, Jeremy and Stan all watched in surprise, especially Michael, who was afraid the man would make a scene, or have some adverse reaction. Instead, however, the old man placed his own arm around the boy and returned the gesture.

Not a single word was exchanged between them, but the moment was priceless. As the teen pulled back, he stared into his grandfather's eyes for a moment, seeing something different - something he had never noticed before. There was a look of sincere regret that met him. Could it be, as Stan suggested, his Grandfather was truly reliving something from the past, and now was realizing it? He didn't know, but he figured it was something they could all figure out later. Wordlessly, the teenager slipped away, but not without giving the man a smile. As Thomas sauntered out of the restaurant, the others followed quietly behind.


"Do you think he was right? Do you think my Dad was, well, maybe not gay or anything but, what did he call it? Acting girlish and stuff?"

That night, the question came out of nowhere as Thomas and Michael lay in their new bed, in their new room. Michael rolled over onto his belly and propped himself on his elbows, thinking about it. "That's what Stan said, but um, I bet it wasn't so much that."

"How do you mean?" Thomas asked.

Michael hesitated. "Well, you know, it's like when most guys wear caps and stuff, when they work out in the fields, or on farms and everything. Those guys, you know, have their own attitudes and everything; they probably figure that bookworms and geeks like me are odd and don't do that much. I mean, even you and me are different to most of the guys at school. That doesn't make us girlish or anything though, does it? Maybe different, but meh – I don't think you act girlish or anything, and you don't think that way about me, do you?"

"No way," Thomas replied quickly, rolling onto his side and facing his best friend.

Michael thought about it before continuing. "Sometimes, the way a person looks can tell you a lot about them, but that doesn't mean their girlish or anything. Think about Jayden Colby in our class. He's always so proper and everything - in his speech, how he dresses and acts. You ever see him wearing jeans or anything?"

"No, now that you mention it," Thomas replied thoughtfully.

"He just 'looks' different, but would you ever think of him as being girlish?" Michael explained. "I wouldn't - he's just a geek, to me. Maybe a mama's boy, but still just a geek. And what about Steven what's-his-name, the one who always dyes his hair in different colors and everything. He likes to do wild stuff, but he never acts gay or girlish or anything. He's got a lot of friends, too - especially the kind that are sort of, you know, homophobic and all. Do you see, though? Your Dad, he wasn't into cars, or hunting, or being a farmer at all. He was just different, all the same. I mean, come on, he certainly wasn't gay; I mean, he married your Mom and they did 'it' together a lot, didn't they? Otherwise, how could they have had you?"

"Oh," Thomas replied, returning to his back. After a moment, he let out a big sigh. "Okay, I get what you're saying. And yeah, I'm glad." Seeing Michael observe him curiously, he blushed. "Sorry. Thinking about my parents having sex is kind of … well…"

Michael laughed. "Yeah, I know… it's weird, I guess, but meh. We couldn't be born otherwise, could we?"

"Yeah, I know," Thomas replied, thinking. "It makes me feel funny, though, hearing what Stan was saying, and thinking, well, thinking about us sometimes, and the things we do."

Michael pulled himself up into Thomas's side and lay his head on the shoulder there. "Listen, your Dad might have been different, but that didn't make him funny, any more than you and me are. What we have is a lot of trust with one another. Right? We still have that, don't we?"

Thomas nodded, turning to look into the eyes that met him. "As far as I'm concerned, yeah. Nothing has changed, bro. I promise."

"Good, because nothing has changed on my end, either," Michael whispered. "You know something? If you hadn't been made and come along, I would probably be dead right now."

Thomas scoffed. "What the hell? What do you mean 'dead'? What are you talking about?"

Michael smiled. " I mean, on my headstone, they would have written on it, 'Died of Boredom'! I was getting pretty low, Thomas. Sometimes I look back to when that day happened, and I wonder how I even made it that far. I needed someone, and that someone was you, you know? I… I just…"

Thomas felt weird hearing that. "Mike, don't say stuff like that," he admonished.

Michael quieted. "It wouldn't matter, bro."

There was something in the way he said it that made Thomas turn to him again. "Yes, it would - don't say it! I wouldn't be in any better shape without you, and you should know it by now!"

Michael was surprised, but then relented. "Yeah, you would, Thomas. But okay, I'm sorry." He was thinking about how Thomas and Kevin had been buddying up as of late. Those thoughts, however, made him wistful. "Thomas?"

"Hmm?"

"Just - don't leave me for a while, bro. Please? We can stop the sex stuff if you ever want, but - just don't leave me, okay?" Michael whispered.

Thomas rolled into his friend and hugged him tightly. "I won't, I promise," he whispered back. For the longest time, they held each other in silence. Thomas attempted to back away after a bit, but Michael still clung to him tightly, so he relaxed and melted into the embrace. Something seemed different about his friend, but exactly what it was about, Thomas was unsure. It wasn't until later that Michael finally let go and rolled over, before pulling Thomas up close behind him. The teen spooned his friend and snuggled in close, and eventually they both fell asleep.


Kevin sprinted across the yard at a run in the late afternoon sun, once he rolled up and dismounted his bike. Greeting Thomas mid-way, they bumped fists and laughed at some underlying remark between just the two of them. A summer thunderstorm had just vacated the region, leaving much of the yard wet and pooled in places. Austin also approached on his own bicycle, but misjudged the distance with his speed. In the slippery grass, he skidded right into the two boys, and all three went down into the watery grass laughing. Jeremy, who happened to be on the front porch and standing next to Michael, joined in the laughter as well.

"You goof balls!" Michael called out quietly, as he turned and sat down on the makeshift swing. They had to leave the old one behind, but his mother had said they would find a replacement as soon as was possible. As the three joined them on the porch, each was well soaked along the seat of their shorts and sides. Austin propped against the house wall, where Jeremy slowly took a seat beside him and they began chatting amicably. Thomas announced he was going inside to change, and Kevin followed him, stating the need to visit the bathroom.

Eventually they returned, and all five boys hung out on the porch for the next hour. The weather, however, took a turn again for the worse as yet another storm rolled into the area from the west. With the skies clouding again and blocking the sun's rays, the temperature began turning cool, forcing the boys to abandon any hope of playing in the outdoors. Once inside the house, the group found a movie to watch on TV initially. Unfortunately, boredom took over as none of the five really got interested in it. Austin and Jeremy once again ended up in their own little world, away from the other three and having a deep discussion of some sort.

It wasn't long however, before Kevin and Thomas ended up arm wrestling on the floor. Surprisingly, Kevin appeared stouter than he looked, giving Thomas some credible competition. It quickly progressed into more generalized wrestling with the two turning and maneuvering around each other. Michael initially watched the two, giggling at their antics while deciding to leave them to their horseplay. He thought little of it as he observed, at least until something changed. Michael's whole demeanor changed as he noted some things that were happening between the two. Both boys on the floor began grasping and groping for various holds while they twisted underneath each other. It looked like innocent fun - enough so that Austin laughed and encouraged his brother from time to time. Jeremy only glanced up and grimaced.

What made Michael pause though, was the fact that he could plainly see Kevin sporting a boner inside his shorts. That in itself was just amusing at first. It wasn't hard to ignore, as the boy's shorts were drawn tight against him, especially when he arched his back, leaving the outline clearly visible. As Michael looked on, however, Thomas made to grab at it multiple times. It should have made Michael laugh and shrug it off, but as he watched, he noticed Kevin seemed to be putting himself in the other boy's way, purposefully arranging his crotch for Thomas to have his way. To Michael's dismay, Thomas seemed to take full advantage of it. It left Michael with a sinking feeling, especially as he saw Kevin subtly trying to return the same favor to his opponent.

Although the sex-fun was discreet, Michael suddenly felt ill. Something about seeing Thomas interact with Kevin as freely as he did, left Michael feeling uncertain. Was it jealousy, or was it something more? As he glanced around at the newly painted walls and furniture, the strangeness of the surroundings enveloped him. For some reason, nothing was familiar to him anymore and he felt lost. Gone was the old house, and his upstairs room. Gone was the lone life he had been leading for so long. In place now were both new people and new surroundings - and change. That realization hit him hard and fast, just like it had when he told his mother of it not that long ago. Only this time, it was frightening.

"Hey, what's up?"

Michael's mind suddenly raced back to the present to note Thomas and Kevin both had stopped in mid-torture of one another to stare at him intently. To cap the moment, they had frozen with Thomas's hand firmly cupping Kevin's crotch. He wasn't grabbing at the teen's inner leg, nor was he trying to lift or turn the boy over. Instead, it was a full-handed grasp, neatly molded around an obvious erection that was outlined underneath. The pit within Michael's stomach deepened as he suddenly stood up. He felt tears coming to his eyes, and he turned away quickly to hide them. "You two... s-should really... g-get, a room I t-think..." He was uncertain why he said that, other than for feeling crushed. Hot tears fell as he hurried from the room and quickly descended the stairwell to the basement. At the bottom, he set off at a run, having to catch himself twice before falling, while getting to his new room. 'His room?' He cringed, as the voice in the back of his head corrected him. 'THEIR room, not HIS room!' it told him!

Once inside, however, he threw himself onto the bed, pulling up into a fetal position. They he lay, sobbing quietly.


"Mike, we need to talk."

The voice was soft, but the words were heavily laced with thick emotion. It was hearing that which struck at the very core of Michael's heart, causing him to open his eyes and peek out. Although the lighting in the room was minimal, he knew that voice belonged to Thomas, and as he focused, he saw his best friend standing just inside their doorway. Just then Thomas turned to someone just beyond the door and whisper something. That was followed by a retreat of steps that returned and ascended back to the upstairs. It was then Thomas entered and moved over to the edge of the bed before sitting down next to his friend.

At first, Thomas did not speak, his voice dry as he caught up with the moment. He felt ready to cry himself, unsure of what to do here. In the span of only minutes, he felt a heaviness upon him as he realized that what he and Kevin had been doing had somehow affected his best friend. At least, it was the only thing he could think of that had prompted the remark, followed by Michael's sudden flight from the room.

As he sat there, however, he watched the teen. Thomas thought back over the last few weeks, and the whirlwind of events that had led up to their lives suddenly coming into focus. Gone was the awkward shyness that had been so much a part of himself, taking away his bashful outlook on everything. In its place, he was now growing up, changing and feeling much more assured. He had friends now, people he placed a lot of trust it - some more than others. He had been a lot happier and more focused in recent weeks than he had ever been before. For once in his life, without living under the suffocation of his grandfather's roof, Thomas had a purpose and a reason to keep on going now.

But not without Michael by his side.

"Mike, I can't - I don't know what to say, just talk with me, please? I know, I'm an idiot, okay? I admit it, but bro..." There was a sadness as he spoke, one that betrayed the heaviness in his heart. Tears began to fall down his cheeks, but he did his best to choke them back. "Mike… please?"

Michael reconsidered then, before slowly turning so that he could see the figure there in their dimly lit room. They stared at one another for the next minute, each wondering what the other was thinking. Michael was both hurt and confused, however, and he couldn't really explain why, and that was frustrating him. All he could reflect on was the fact that, watching Thomas and Kevin together as they were, had done something he didn't quite expect.

Was it jealousy? Michael tried to hurriedly decide if that was it. Sure, seeing Thomas and Kevin carry on in the way they were made him feel left out, but he knew Kevin needed some better friends for a change, too. Friends whom he could trust and 'play with', who wouldn't attach some kind of label to him like a lot of guys would. In a way, he was glad of what Thomas and Kevin had been forging together, even though he, Michael, seemed to be on the outside of it. They were building a bond of sorts, but it was all happening so fast that Michael wasn't sure where that bond was going to lead. Could he lose Thomas, with the feelings he had building up inside, and sit idly by and watch the two of them take over? And wasn't that the real definition of jealousy – to fear losing someone you like or love, to someone else?

That was the very problem at the root right of it all. Michael didn't want to lose Thomas, not right now, not while he was feeling so strange and … alone. Was that so wrong? It made Michael afraid, enough to ask himself this one question: was their closeness, their trust in one another, going to change? Even worse - could it be ending now?

Michael shut his eyes tightly and shook his head, trying to shake away the confusion. When he opened them again, the room seemed a little brighter now as he gazed into Thomas' eyes - searching for something, anything that would help him reveal whatever lie beneath. What he found instead, however, were a pair of eyes searching his own, lost and seeking something in return.

Michael could see the tears now, and he suddenly felt ashamed. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. No, he decided. It wasn't jealousy. He wanted his best friend to have other friends, and to be as close as he wanted to them. Why was he afraid, then? What was it he saw that was frightening him so deeply, that it had brought them to this moment? Was it the sex? Michael immediately discarded that. He knew that whatever it was, it ran a lot deeper, embedded so profoundly that it burst and twisted his very soul with every heartbeat. When he had watched the two of them earlier, it was like someone had thrown a switch and grabbed his insides into a tight grip before squeezing. Was it the camaraderie? No - he didn't believe that either. He refused to admit that it could have been jealousy in any way.

What then - what had set him off?

It was then Michael remembered. He had looked at Jeremy and Austin just seconds before - and it had hit him hard. With a sudden intake of breath, his own eyes began to sting again as he realized that - somehow - he was alone again. It wasn't jealously of the growing relationship between Thomas and Kevin, or their sex play. It was just the feeling of abandonment that had grasped him. The new house, the unfamiliar walls, and then being isolated as he was – had all hit him at once. All the years he had been growing up with his Mom, his life had been with no one other than her - and the memories of that life had suddenly flooded within him. His friendship with Thomas had changed everything; as if by Divine intervention, there was a power that knew how bad it was getting for him, even if he didn't know it himself. It was the friendship building between them - this thing that had started it all - enough so that it reminded him of just what being alone was once really like.

He knew Thomas had been feeling it, too. In the following months, he and Thomas had counteracted their loneliness, mended and made it recede, making it go away - so much so that now Michael had forgotten about it until that moment. That moment, upstairs in the living room, he was afraid of losing the bond with his friend, and he knew he couldn't live without it.

Michael was afraid of being alone again.

Through his tears, Michael suddenly laughed at himself, a move so bizarre that Thomas suddenly stopped and held his breath. Michael's outward emotions changed, and Thomas watched in amazement as his friend sat up and slowly approached him. Shaking his head and half smiling, Michael tackled the other boy, pulling back onto the bed with him. Thomas, still stunned, and by now equally just as confused, held his best friend's gaze for a long time before Michael's lips found his own and kissed him softly. Thomas tried to search for words, but none came.

It was Michael, however, who finally broke the silence between them. "Listen, can I ask you something?"

Another tear escaped Thomas as he observed not hatred or annoyance, but a sudden kindness he was unsure of whether he deserved. Confused, he slowly nodded, causing Michael to take a small breath before continuing. "Can I, like, do something just this once, and maybe not weird you out or anything?"

Thomas sat stunned, recognizing the words he himself had played once before, so many months before. Without waiting for a response, Michael slowly leaned in and hooked his arms around the boy's midsection, pulling them close. Chest-to-chest, they embraced each other with a tenderness that, once again, defied description. With his chin resting on his Thomas's shoulder, Michael slowly started to pull him tighter, grasping the warmness between them as he closed his eyes. Michael nuzzled Thomas's neck and shoulder, breathing in and remembering - remembering how it had all begun that one Sunday afternoon, what now seemed so long ago.

Thomas closed his eyes as he returned the embrace. He still, however, felt a great weight upon his shoulders, one that would not lift. "I'm sorry," he croaked, barely above a whisper. The only response came as Michael hugged him even tighter without letting go. "I'm so sorry Mike, I'm so fucking sorry…"

They sat for a moment, before Michael finally sat back and deliberately took hold of his friend's t-shirt at the waist. Feeling no resistance, he peeled it up and over Thomas's head, before removing his own. When the two came together again in the low light, their bare chests finding each other, the new intimacy added a depth to their searching for each other. Once again, Michael held his friend close, using his hands to caress the boy's back as they clung to each another.

"You're not an idiot, Thomas. I am - I'm the one being stupid here, that's all. You've got nothing to be sorry for, I promise," Michael finally whispered.

Thomas immediately started shaking his head. "No-" He got no further, however, because Michael stopped him, gently staying it with his hand.

"You have to promise me something, though," Michael whispered. This time it was Thomas who stared into the eyes that met his. Watching the teen, their faces only inches apart, he saw the expression gave way to nothing. Michael smiled, and then continued. "You have to promise me something that we've always promised each other, but now means more to me than anything we have ever said or done before."

Thomas waited expectantly, but then nothing followed. With a shaky hand, he reached out and found Michael's hand, locking fingers between them. "Anything," he whispered. He was not afraid - he knew that inside he would do anything it took to make amends.

Michael stared down at their hands briefly, but then pulled his friend back, wrapping his arms around him again. When it seemed every square inch of their chests and bellies came together as solidly as ever, he sighed deeply. "Thomas, you have to promise me, bro - on your heart - we'll never lose this. No matter how much you play around, or we do things or not - I can't lose this. I thought maybe, at first, I was just jealous of you and Kevin upstairs, but – think I just suddenly felt alone again, that's all. I didn't care about what you two were doing, honest. I just got scared, you know? I can't lose having you hold me, or me holding you. I can't lose what we have here together, with just you and me." His voice cracked then, and Thomas could feel a wetness touch his shoulder. "I know, it sounds stupid and everything, but … I can't lose this. You mean that much to me. I felt so alone, like I had nobody, and I just - I was afraid I was losing this." Softly Michael let it out, and so heartfelt was his plea that Thomas could not help but feel something himself. "I'm sorry, it wasn't you guys, it was me. It was all me, I just felt really alone, you know?"

"But… why? Why would you feel that way?" Thomas whispered.

"I just… I just felt like I wouldn't mean anything as much to you anymore, or to anyone else..." Michael answered in an equally quiet whisper.

"God, Mike-" Thomas started, but found himself choking up. "How could you EVER think that? Do you really think I would lose this? Don't you know what it means to me, too?" The last piece of the puzzle fell into place then, and he immediately began to understand something else. Rubbing his best friend's back, however, he didn't want Michael to dwell on it before Thomas could have his turn. "Listen, I'm s-sorry - I know now, I understand. And it is my fault, okay? At least some, anyway, but Mike... don't you know? Don't you know what's inside of me right now? What has always been there ever since - ever since-" He hesitated and pulled back. "You remembered - you really remembered! This was what broke us down the first time with each other, where it all started!"

Michael nodded through his tears. "On a Sunday afternoon, your Grandma was downstairs, and we had just finished playing around, wrestling and all." Thomas nodded in agreement, as Michael went on. "I told you, I'm the one being stupid. I just, I-" Again the teen paused, looking off to the window recess that resided high above them across the room. "I don't know, Thomas. It just hit me. I think it's just something that has been building up on the inside for a while, with our new friends and everything. There have been so many changes, so many new things happening, you know? New friends, new brothers, new house, new - everything. All these little things I see keep coming at us, and - and - I'm afraid, I'm just scared."

"Of what?" Thomas whispered in reply. "What are you scared of?"

"Don't you know?" There was a feeling of hurt in the reply, and Thomas again regretted pushing it.

"Mike, you and me - we, have this thing... you feel it, I feel it…"

"Not sex bro, please don't say sex-" Michael hastily whispered before he was interrupted.

"NO - not sex Mike," Thomas interjected, shaking his head. "You should know me better than that by now! We have something a whole lot closer." He cocked his head to the side, regarding the teen in front of him. Gone were his tears now, and in its place a feeling of incredulity. "You really do have no idea, don't you? You know, what you did for me that day? Being Christmas, being someone that I could like, open my soul up to. The day I hugged you, Mike, I did it because it was something I just had to do. I needed to do it, because…" He let out a big sigh. "You honestly think you wouldn't mean anything to us? Okay, forget about me for a minute, what about the others? I mean, come on - think about Jeremy, or hell, even Kevin and Austin. Think about my Mom, or even your Mom! Don't you see it?" Seeing the look of confusion on his friend's face, Thomas suddenly thought he saw where that fear must have manifested. He understood why Michael was so afraid now. The remarks the previous night, the little actions that had been coming about in places for the last few weeks, were now adding up. The kid whom everyone always saw as being their rock, was losing out to the idea that it was over, that he had nothing left to give anymore, and that people might start abandoning him. "You really have no idea, do you? You really don't understand how important you are to me, or to the others!" Thomas then separated and rose from the bed. Turning toward the door, he called back. "I think it's time all of us need to have a talk with YOU for a change, man. Stay there, I'll be right back."

Michael was now left in total confusion as he watched Thomas disappear. Stunned into silence, that is, until a moment later Thomas returned, towing the other three boys behind him. He had Kevin by the hand, the boy looking haunted as if he had been crying himself. Austin and Jeremy looked perplexed, but curious all the same as they followed. Without a word, however, Thomas guided all of them onto to the bed, where after a little adjustment, they arranged themselves in a circle.

The first thing Thomas did was to pull Kevin in closer, and speak to him softly. "It's okay now, I understand. We're okay, and so are you. All right?" Kevin nodded slowly in disbelief, but Thomas smiled at him before addressing the others in a more normal voice. "Okay guys, I've got some things I need to say, and I want all of you to hear it. All I ask is that you let me try and finish this first, okay? You need to hear me, and so does this butt-head brother of mine." He grunted at these last words as he turned to Michael, but the teen knew he was being teased. He was, however, still uncertain where this was going, and it showed.

"I'm an ass, more than usual, I think," Thomas continued. "I've watched Michael for weeks now, and I keep seeing things, listening to things that just, well, they didn't all make sense to me until just a few minutes ago. I mean, I'm an ass for not really understanding it any sooner than now. I'm the closest one to him in this room, you know? I go to school with him, I eat with him, I sleep in this bed with him - you get the idea. You guys know how close we are – but, do you know why?" When they shook their heads no, he turned to Jeremy. "It's because of you, Jeremy. You know, ever since that day you beat the shit out of me, I've never really held it against you that much. It's not that I liked you, because for a long time I just wanted nothing more to do with you. You were an asshole, and I'm not afraid to say it. That doesn't mean I didn't respect you though, at least some. I didn't want to get in your way again, or have something even worse happen between us. But really, I never hated you for what happened. You see, before that day, I was alone. I didn't have many friends to speak of, and I was living with my grandparents, in a place where everything was cut off from everything else, you know?"

"But that day, when it all happened, if it hadn't been for you, me and this guy-" He paused, scooting himself over close to Michael and putting an arm around him. "Me and Mike, we would never have become friends. Even more than that, we became best friends. You see, I was going through a lot of shit at home with my Grandpa, and - there was other stuff. Some of it you heard from Stan the other day, but also just some confusing stuff, too. But what you did, Jeremy, it brought me and Mike together, in a way you would never know or understand, I think. Not then, anyway. I mean, I want you guys to understand this, because I - I love him. He's my brother, maybe not by blood, but I really don't care about blood right now. There is nothing I can think of that makes us out to be any closer than to call him my brother, you know? He's the brother I never had, really. He's the brother I always needed, and you, Jermz, I have you to thank for that."

Thomas paused, pulling his arm back and grasping Michael's hand instead. In an unusual move, he brought it to his lips and held it there for a moment, before dropping it back between them and holding on, looking at the others. "I love him guys. I admit it, okay? I'm sorry if it sounds goofy, or girlish, or sissy, or gay-ish, or whatever - I just do. It comes from my heart, because it's a feeling more than anything else. But that's why we're here, because I don't want anyone to ever doubt what I'm confessing to you right now." He stopped and took the time to look at each of the other three directly. "This guy has done something for me I can never re-pay. Hell, he's done something for all of us, you know? And… I think… I think he has a hard time understanding it, though. I think he has doubts about just who he is, or what he is to all of us. Do you see? I can't speak for you, but right now, it's this trust and stuff I have for him that lets me tell you how I feel about him. He and his Mom, they have built this family now, you know? And I'm a part of it, along with you Jeremy. I can't think of anything that gets more personal or more unselfish than that does. That's why I say he is a part of me, and I'm a part of him. If something separates us now, it would be a disaster for us both." Thomas paused, scoffing. "I know, I know… I'm not as good with words so much, but… does some of that at least make sense?"

Kevin suddenly snorted. "Does a fish have gills?" he piped, causing Austin to scoff beside him, punching him playfully in the arm.

"Of course it does, Thomas," Austin chimed in. "I think you've said it plenty well, to tell the truth. We're not going to laugh at you or anything, especially when we understand."

"I'm glad, really," Thomas continued, turning to look at his best friend. "Mike, you really have to start believing some of the things you always tell us, you know? When you love someone, you never really break that thing between you, because it sits inside too deep. It's like a special bond or something that links two people together and never breaks, bro. It doesn't matter if it's with a girl or a guy, we love people in different ways. I mean, two people can fight it, or they can get mad at each other – you know, both people can do a lot of things both good or bad, or weird or cool. The bond thing, though, it's always there - it never goes away. The deeper it goes between you, the more… I don't know, it just binds you. It's so deep that, like, when you see someone hurting, it makes you hurt, too."

Thomas turned then to the youngest of the teens. "I'm an idiot Kevin, because upstairs I guess I was just getting too close. That's why Mike got scared. He got scared he was losing me, to you. Kind of goofy, I know, but – consider what he's been going through, and what he's been getting afraid of. If you think about it, it sort of makes sense. It wasn't so much what we were doing, see, as it was feeling like he was on the outside."

"That's not being an idiot, Thomas. It's the way I feel about my own brother, too," Kevin piped in, unexpectedly. "I almost did lose him, and everybody else in my life. I got scared, too. Really scared."

Unexpectedly, Austin put an arm around his little brother. "You know, it's hard sometimes to tell someone how you feel," the older brother confessed. "Lately, I've been learning a lot of things that are hard enough as it is, too. You two aren't doing anything that different, trust me. You care, and it makes a difference."

"I agree," Jeremy spoke up. "Although I know this isn't about me right now, still consider what I went through. I've been around for years with people who didn't give a shit about me. Not really, I mean. And now, I'm finding out how different that really is when someone does." Austin grinned and offered the teen a fist bump, which Jeremy readily met.

Thomas nodded. "It does make a difference. It's what let me and Mike do things, too. Things that show our trust and everything."

Austin shrugged. "Lots of guys do stuff, too, Thomas. It's nothing alien or anything."

"How do you know?" The question came from Jeremy, surprising everyone.

Austin observed his friend coolly. "Well, for one thing ... I have."

"Have what?" Jeremy asked softly.

"Umm... I've messed around some, I guess." He looked at his younger brother with a look of amusement. "Yeah little bro, I noticed what you two were doing upstairs." He glanced up to Thomas. "That IS what you're talking about, right?"

Thomas nodded with a smile. "Not heavy stuff mind you, but um, yeah…"

Kevin blushed. "Yeah, and you guys already know I've messed around some, too."

"You knew?" Thomas asked, looking at Austin confused. "I mean, you-"

"Of course, I knew! I mean, I ought to know, right? He's my little brother! He gets horned up plenty enough as it is! Besides, one of our favorite things to do some nights is wrestle with each other." Austin blushed as he admitted it, but he did not turn away from the group.

Michael pulled his knees up his chest then, before resting his chin upon them. He gazed intently at the older Mathew's brother for a moment before finally speaking in a hushed whisper. "Can I ask?"

Austin felt like he knew what was coming. "Sure Mike, go ahead. You can ask me anything. What do you want to know?"

Michael pointed at him and Kevin. "The two of you?"

Austin briefly turned a deeper shade of red as he glanced at his little brother. It was Kevin though, who answered for him. "We've done SOME stuff, yeah. I don't care Aus, you can tell them."

"Holy shit!" The exclamation this time came from Jeremy. Everyone quickly turned his way, but instead of seeing shock or disgust, they saw a smile plastered across his face. "You guys ARE something else, you know that?"

Austin grinned at him. "Sorry man, but it's like I was telling you the other night, in the tent. Some things are just okay, really."

In the ensuing silence, Michael sighed and smiled weakly. "I'm sorry, guys. I guess I shouldn't have asked, but... "

"I think I understand, though," Austin interrupted. "Look, you guys have got to understand something else, though. I love my brother, period. I'm not going to announce it to the world everywhere I go, but I have no shame in admitting it to anyone. Same as you two probably feel, too. Right?" Austin asked, pointing at Thomas and Michael. "As for Kevin, I would never do anything to hurt him, and he knows it. I mean, we used to never get along at all. You remember that, don't you, Jermz? We were lucky to even be able to stay in the same room with one another, unless it was at the dinner table." Kevin nodded in agreement as he leaned in next to Austin's side before the bigger teen continued. "Lately though, things have been different. We've found each other again, and we've got some lost time to make up."

"But he's your brother, and you two…" Jeremy stated, not in a mean way, but one full of curiosity.

"Hell, so what? I think it's more like I just kind of 'educated' him on some stuff, you know? Like, showed him some things, that's all. But here's the thing: there's that bond thing you described Thomas, between me and him, that never breaks. If anything, it's even stronger than ever now. I mean, I used to think we were totally lost, but thanks to Jeremy, and thanks to you two, I've discovered we still have it."

"Yeah, he's my big brother. I love him, too." Kevin added after a moment of silence, as everyone sat quietly with their own thoughts. "And as far as messing around, it's not like it's bad - bad stuff, you know? We didn't like, screw or anything." He looked quickly in Jeremy's direction, but sighed inwardly with relief. "I'm sorry Jermz, I didn't mean to-"

"Will you assholes PLEASE quit trying to protect me from this stuff? Shit!!" The exclamation surprised everyone, but the genuine grin behind it told them their friend was nothing more than just being annoyed. "Seriously guys, listen - I know I don't have to hide stuff from you. You guys know I've had just about everything done to me that can be done, probably in the worst way, too." He paused briefly, before looking directly into Michael's eyes, which were staring back at him equally attentive. "Thomas is right, Mike. They're all right. If it wasn't for you, actually both of you, and your moms, I don't know guys... It would have been hard for me to accept it. You know, accept that any of this stuff would be, like, normal, in a family. But I've watched you, and I see it in you - I see how close you really are. It doesn't take an idiot to see it, either. I know it."

"Know what, bro?" This from Michael, his voice a thin whisper.

Jeremy smiled. "I just know what you mean to each other, and to top all of that, I'm beginning to understand just what you mean to me, too. Sometimes I even get jealous, I guess. I know it because - well - I can feel it. In here," he added, his finger pointing to his own heart. He looked at the others. "There might have been a time I couldn't feel in here, because I had a lot of hatred and stuff built up inside. But I can feel it now, especially the way all of you have been helping me and everything. I don't know how to convince you guys but - I really am okay. I'm not over it - not by a long shot. That damn shrink even says I have a good way to go. But you know what? At least I'm opening up now - some of it to him, but more to you guys than you'd think. I really do trust you. A year ago, if I heard this stuff, I'd probably have made your life hell – and I'm sorry about that, but now it's different. I mean, I understand it now. I didn't understand it before because I've never known anything like it for a long, long time. Does that make sense? Look at it this way, you're not going to make life hell for me when I get back to school and all that shit. You're not going to give up my secrets any more than I would give up yours. Right? So, what - I got fucked to hell and back, I know. It's over with though." The tone in Jeremy's voice changed to one of almost pleading. "We're family, and I love you guys, too - all of you. If you'll keep being here for me, and for each other, I honestly don't care what you do or not do, okay? It's not going to bother me. So, let up some. I'm not going to freak out or anything. There is nothing you guys could come up with, that could ever be worse than what I've already been through."

Thomas nodded. "Yeah, I think you're right about that. Sorry, Jermz. I think some of us just feel nervous around you, knowing what you were like before, but now seeing a whole different side of you. Just always remember something for us. What happened to you, well, it was done in a bad way, you know? There is some good in messing around and everything. There is a lot of good in sex, when it's done right. It's not meant to be weird stuff, as long as you trust someone, and… and..."

Jeremy shook his head and interrupted - his voice barely a whisper. "I understand what you're saying, Thomas, but honestly… I'm not so sure anything dealing with sex could be all that good."

Austin scoffed. "You're wrong, man. I hate to break it to you, but you really are wrong."

Kevin piped up then, unabashed. "Jeremy, can I ask you something like really, really personal? I mean, I know we're already talking personal stuff here, and its all good, okay? But, this goes above anything I've ever asked you before." Curious, Jeremy looked up and waited, so Kevin took a deep breath. "All the stuff done to you, like, you were screwed bad, I know that. But forget about your Dad a minute and tell us something: have you ever, like, done stuff on your own? Like, jack off or anything?" The room grew deathly quiet just then, and glancing about, Kevin shook his head. "No, I mean, wait guys. I'm being serious here ... some guys don't know anything about it, you told me that yourself bro. And some guys really don't, like, just even want to and stuff… right? But…"

"I know about it, Kevin," Jeremy replied coolly. "You want an honest answer? No, I - I don't think I ever have..."

If not for the carpeted floor, one might could have heard a pin drop. "Why?" Michael whispered.

Jeremy thought about it briefly, but found he did not know. It was Thomas, however, who offered his own theory. "I'll bet it's because of what he had to put up with. You know, so much shit from his old man, for years and all. That's probably why he gave us all so much shit in school. To hide everything that was being done to him. And probably while he was hiding everything, it was everything he could do to keep himself together just to survive it all."

Jeremy was floored as the realization hit him. "I- I guess m-maybe you guys really do know me – maybe b-better than I even know myself." He shook his head in fascination.

"No - we don't KNOW you. Not like that Jermz, but we do, like, understand," Michael answered. "I mean, maybe we're kind of young for some of this stuff, but that doesn't mean we're ignorant assholes." Just then he smiled, perhaps for the first time that evening.

Jeremy nodded. "Okay, okay - I get it. I'm sorry for being such a prude. Maybe… I don't know, maybe you guys are right."

"Of course, he's right, man," Austin chimed in. "Sounds to me like you need to learn to let some stuff go, and learn the sweeter side of some things, too, for a change. It'll give you a whole new perspective on life, too. For guys, girls, and everyone. We're not all bastards and bitches!" That made the others laugh.

"If you say so, yeah…" Jeremy replied, before laughing. He stopped and looked at each of them directly, before blushing. "Uh, is this gonna turn into another one of those Kodak moments? Like, all huggy and stuff?"

"Probably," Kevin answered, but then laughed with everyone else. They fell silent, however, when Thomas held up his hand. Turning to Michael, he drew everyone's attention back to the whole focus of why they had gathered. "Listen to all of us Mike. We're a family, too – just the five of us. Don't you see? This big, mushy group of misfits doesn't care about sex or whether we're all guys or not. We care about each other, and that includes caring about the one who brought us all together here. You're the one that binds us, you know? You're like this - this angel or something, I think. You're always watching out for everyone, always helping everyone. You always know what to say that helps us, and lets us learn what we're feeling isn't anything earth-shattering. Yet - you never realize it, or if you do, I don't think you believe it sometimes. Look, I know it sounds corny, okay? Just hear me out, for one more minute, hear me out. I don't care if they hear this or not - I WANT the guys to hear it. I want you to know I'm not afraid of them, and that they're not afraid of us either."

Thomas paused, grasping Michael's hand again and locking fingers with him. "Honest, you like, saved me. I know I've told you that before, but do you really, truly understand? You saved me from probably one of the worst things that ever happened in my life. And me and my Mom? You and your mom got us out of there, got us away from my Grandpa. You gave us a home, and not just a place to stay for a while, Mike. You and your Mom gave us a REAL home. You gave us a part of your life, and you never looked back. You did it for me, too. You gave me a part of YOUR life, just like you've given to Jeremy, and Kevin and Austin. How can you not think we don't know what that means? You guys give up ssssooooo much sometimes - I don't feel like we deserve it, you know? We don't deserve your friendship and everything, not the way you give it up so freely. Don't you realize that? That's why we're really like brothers now - for good or for bad. All of us are. That's why, when Kevin I were wrestling, yeah – I grabbed his dick, okay, I admit it. It was for the fun and all, but it was also because I trust him, just like he trusts us. Mike, who do you think taught us about all this trust? Who do you think we owe our lives to you, in so many ways? You did! You taught all of us what it means to be so close, you know? Maybe not directly, but look at what it has done! I can't lose you, man. You're my brother! We're not going anywhere. You're not losing any of us! I've never had a brother before, and I sure as hell don't want to lose the one I have now!"

"You won't!" Jeremy scooted in closer, gazing intently at them both. "As long as I'm with you, I swear it: I'll watch out for you both. Your part of my family now, too. I don't care if you're gay or just messing around. Whatever you want to do - that's none of my business. I just know…" He paused, taking a deep breath. "When it comes to love, there's a whole new set of feelings I have to work out, so maybe I'm not as smart about it right now. But I do know this much: you're both cool, and in here," he added, thumping his heart lightly again. "On the inside - you're my brothers, too."

"And mine," added Austin. "You, Thomas and Jermz are like my brothers, too. You won't lose us now, not now that we've found you. I don't know about being the angel and all that, but..." Thomas blushed, but Austin reached out and put an arm around his shoulders. "What I do know, man – is that something brought all of us together, you know? Call it fate or whatever you want, but I think it's mostly just because of you, Mike - you being who you are. You find the little things in us, the things that bind us together, somehow. I know it, I feel it, and I believe it."

"I believe it, too," Kevin piped up. "You guys - do you know how different my life is now? From what it used to be like?" He grinned at his brother. "See? I told you it was okay - that all of us are a special group." He looked at Michael. "I'm sorry Mike, I think I understand why you came down here now. A part of it WAS because of me; I guess I shouldn't have been so - so -"

"Horny?" Everyone laughed as Michael said it, sheepishly grinning at himself.

"Yeah, horny. But Mike? Listen - I never knew you before, okay? Sorry man, I just - I had a different crowd of people I hung out with, that's all. Sheesh, I'm the one who missed out, not you. These guys are right: the reason we're together, it's like YOU walked into our lives and changed us - one at a time. Not just you either, Thomas gets credit, too. You both helped us when we needed it, in one way or another. You really don't expect you're going to lose us, do you?"

The silence fell on the group as they watched Michael. His convictions were beginning to let go then, and he started to understand. "I- I didn't do anything, guys. I… I'm nobody special, honest. I… just… Sometimes it just happens. So much has happened, so fast… and I just get these weird feelings and things, and I just … I'm sorry." He turned to Kevin apologetically. "I really just got scared earlier. I got scared something was changing, and - and -"

Jeremy spoke up. "That actually sounds like me. I mean, I was talking to Austin that night in the tents, about being scared I was going to wake up from this dream and find out none of it was real. That would have been bad, and then I would have been scared of something even worse."

"Of what?" Michael asked quietly.

"Of losing you." Jeremy smiled before he continued. "Look at it from my point of view, man. I beat up the shit out of this kid, for no real reason at all, and you take him in and start protecting him. But instead of being pissed at me like anyone else would have done, you start watching out for me too. I know that, because of the way you looked at me during lunch that one time I sat with you. You didn't get up and leave, you didn't harass me, or anything. But anyway, then I get the shit beat out of me and everything. Then, when I think it's finally all over and I'm going to just go to sleep and never wake up, you find me in that abandoned house. I had pissed all over myself, and was bleeding out my ass like no tomorrow. Remember? I'm half-dead already, and as far as most people would care, they'd probably think goodbye and good riddance. But not you. You dragged me out of there - like, literally dragged me out of hell, and took me to-" He paused for a second as he looked around. "It's dumb I know, but this is like … like Heaven, to me. This - and you…" It was Jeremy who suddenly choked up and began fighting back tears. "Don't you get it? It was you man. You did all that for me. I didn't want to lose you then, or your Mom. This house, I think is the only thing that has been normal to me almost my whole life. I can't hardly even remember living with my Mom anymore, you know? My old man, he was a real bastard sometimes, doing everything he could to blame me for everything he did in losing her. Can you imagine how that made me feel? And then, now I'm here, with you guys, and… and…"

Jeremy's voice trailed off as he started sobbing. Michael finally untangled himself and launched himself into Jeremy's arms, embracing him tightly. Austin put his arm around Kevin's shoulder and pulled his brother close, his own eyes becoming watery. Kevin, in turn, put his arm around his brother's waist before speaking again. "I know you guys kept saying it was bad, but this? It sounds a lot worse than just bad. More like a nightmare, Jermz, and believe me – we understand."

Michael looked around and saw Thomas sitting alone, his own tears falling silently, before he reached out and grasped the teen. Pulling him into a three-way embrace, Austin and Kevin then joined them, and Jeremy could feel the weight of everyone around. This was the love he had found, and the friendship he craved so much to keep.

When Jeremy started to gather himself together, Michael sat back. "Jermz, it's not this house, bro. My Mom always tells me that any place can be a house. But it's the people in it being together, that's what makes it a home. And the people in a home are a family. Does that make sense?"

Austin quietly answered for his friend, once it was evident Jeremy couldn't yet speak. "More than you know man, more than you know." He smiled at him. "And by the way, stop saying you're nobody special, because you are. To all of us."

Michael finally wiped his own tears back. "I love you guys, you know that? And yeah, Jermz. Kodak moment," he stated, giggling before shaking his head. "Okay, maybe one of these days we'll get ourselves straightened out."

"Nah, I think we already have," Jeremy replied with a laugh. "And even if we haven't, you guys do more for me than 10 fucking shrinks could ever come close to." He turned to Austin. "Come on, let's leave these three wimps to whatever they're going to get into. I think I suddenly want to go get a milkshake. You game, as long as I can borrow a bike?"

"You're on, but you're paying. I didn't bring my wallet with me this time!" Austin replied. He surprised his friend though by helping him from the bed and then embracing him in a quick hug. "You do a lot for us too, man. Don't forget it." When they parted, both headed out of the room, and within seconds the remaining boys heard the two ascending the stairs.

Thomas, Kevin and Michael all three stared at each other for some time, before Michael finally giggled and grabbed them both. Suddenly an all-out, three-way wrestling match began that broke the somber mood. For some time, each found themselves wrapped between various arms, legs and bodies tugging, pulling or pressing up against them. At one point, Thomas was rolled up onto his back, laughing hard as Kevin attacked him under his armpits. Michael, however, playfully reached down and openly cupped his friend's crotch, and held on. Kevin saw it, then sat back with a knowing smirk crossing his face. It was then both of the older boys looked over and grinned, before letting go and pinning the smaller boy down on the bed. Thomas then repeated the same action as before to their new friend, while Michael wrapped the boys shoulders and arms up, purposefully poking into his ribs and other ticklish places. After a moment, however, they relented and let Kevin recover, but not without keeping him wrapped up.

"You know, I was never really jealous, Kevin," Michael spoke softly. "I promise. I know what it might have looked like, and what I said, it was – wrong. I was just scared, that's all. I didn't want to lose Thomas, and I didn't want to lose you, either. I just…"

Kevin relaxed, staring back. "You won't, Mike. I swear it." The boy turned to Thomas. "That's my balls you're holding there, man. You ought to let go, unless you're planning to do something to empty them." Then his voice fell to a whisper. "Yes, I'm still horny as fuck!"

Michael laughed, before exchanging a glance with Thomas. With a raised eyebrow, an unspoken question exchanged between them. When Michael slightly nodded, they both reversed themselves, spinning Kevin around flat, holding him down while, together, they stripped him of his shoes, socks and shorts, finally leaving the boy in only a set of cute, red boxers. Grinning wickedly, Michael and Thomas then faced Kevin from above, who just returned the grin and offered no resistance.

"You sure about this?" The question was suddenly whispered into Michaels ear, causing him to see Thomas giving him the 'look'. In reply, Michael reached his hand beneath the band of Kevin's boxers, taking hold of the full-mast boner already raging inside. Kevin shut his eyes tight and gasped before moaning.

"I'm game!" Michael finally answered, while slowly stripping Kevin of his boxers…

- + - + - + - + -

Later that night, both Michael and Thomas lay in their bed, staring at the ceiling. Unlike before, it was now adorned with various glow-in-the-dark stars and planets scattered about, leaving an eerie but cool effect. It had been Michael's birthday gift from Austin and Kevin, and he and Thomas had spent the evening putting up the shapes, trying out various patterns and fixtures to create a tranquil effect. Thomas lay next to his best friend, snuggling into his shoulder as they lay there in their own thoughts, while Michael wrapped his hand around the teen and pulled him in. Both were stripped to their briefs, and although the room was cool, they found the warmth enveloping them from each other's touch to be quite satisfying.

"Mike?" Thomas finally spoke, interrupting their thoughts.

"Hmm...?"

"I - I really am sorry. You know that, don't you?" he asked timidly.

In reply, Michael squeezed him harder. "I told you, it's over. I'm just sorry I lost it, cause now, I look back and think I was being pretty dumb, you know? But you guys, afterwards - that meant everything, you know?"

"Yeah, I know. You weren't being dumb, Mike. You were feeling left out, and… I guess I understand that. I used to feel that way sometimes, with the guys in school and everything. It makes you feel weird, and sad, and… alone, I guess." He shifted as he turned to face his friend. "That's why I wanted the others to come in here, though. I had to make you understand that I wasn't afraid of them, and at the same time, I had to make them understand how I felt about you."

"I know that now, honest," Michael replied. "Do you, like, ever think about down the road and stuff?"

Thomas wrinkled his nose. "Yeah, sometimes."

"What do you think about?"

Thomas snuggled in. "Sometimes, it's kind of like Jeremy said, I think this is all a dream and everything. That someday I'm going to wake up and find out it isn't real anymore." He brought his hand up to Michaels chest and laid it there. "But I do wake up - every day - and you're still here, right beside me. And every night I get up to go to the bathroom, or if I wake up from a bad dream or anything, I reach over and find you're still here. The more you're here, the more I begin to really believe it isn't a dream anymore."

Michael thought about that a few seconds. "I'm nobody special bro, I'm just me."

Thomas scoffed, then found a nipple and pinched it. "Yikes!" Michael hissed, causing the two to momentarily scuffle, until Thomas climbed on top of his friend and pinned him underneath. He gazed deep into the eyes that met his. "You're wrong Mike, you're so very wrong. You are special - to me." With that, he leaned in and gave him a light kiss on his lips, but with a tenderness that defied description. It was so simple a gesture, but yet so full of something that reached out from his heart, and Michael knew it. Thomas stared at him with a complacent expression afterwards. "You think I would do this with just anyone?" he whispered.

Michael smiled. "Umm, I dunno. Maybe Kevin?"

Thomas shook his head in reply, and started to reach for the other nipple to twist it. At the last second, however, he withdrew. "Kevin just wants to get off, that's all. I mean, he's our friend, and a good friend - someone we trust. So is Austin, and so is Jeremy. But Mike, they're not you, okay? Nobody is like us Mike - nobody. With all of them, I have limits - but with you, I'll give you anything and everything I have. I'll give you all of me, Mike. My heart, my soul – everything, and I mean it, too. That's how much you mean to me."

Michael gently leaned up and embraced his friend with an equally tender kiss and hug, feeling the moment. He parted his lips, and for the next few minutes, they explored each other again, but with a renewed feeling. He tried to let Thomas feel him, too, so that what they shared was equally needed, and wanted. When he finally broke their kiss, he whispered, "Thanks - for everything, but most of all for helping me believe again."

Thomas leaned back and grinned. "You and me, we're like hydrogen and oxygen - like water, bro. We're not going anywhere for a long time."

Michael giggled. "Um, not too sure we can be like that."

Thomas raised an eyebrow. "What? Why not?"

"Well, it takes two parts hydrogen, and one part oxygen, to make water - and they all have to be having sex to do it, right?"

Thomas laughed, then considered. "Okay, Kevin can be the oxygen then. You and me, we can be the hydrogen." Then he whispered. "And I would go all the way, you know, have boy sex just to prove it to you. That's how much I trust you."

That made them both giggle until Michael quietly looked up again. "You know, we might not always think that way."

Thomas just shrugged. "Maybe not, but why worry about it? I mean it Mike, why worry about something like that? My Mom taught me that you should just deal with the moment. You know, the 'here and now'. Then let tomorrow come when it comes. Right now, I like what we have with each other, don't you?" He ground his groin into the other boy. "Besides, our dicks like making out, you know?" he whispered. Both were sporting very hard boners.

Michael nodded. "Yeah, I just worry ... sometimes..."

A thought crossed Thomas as he again wrinkled his nose. "You don't think - I mean, Mike - you don't think we do stuff, that I do stuff, just to - "

"Just to what?" The voice was quiet, and an eerie moment passed between them before Thomas answered.

"You don't think I mess around just to get you to like me or anything, do you?"

It was an odd question, one which Michael slowly shook his head and discarded. "Heck no... but, I mean, I'm the one who started it between us and stuff, remember? And umm, it's kind of my fault we do it, too. You know, when we first did it, right? And..."

Thomas put a finger on his friend's lips. "No - it's not your fault, it's nobody's fault. It's just - fun stuff, but with you and me, it got a lot cooler, and a whole lot more fucking awesome, too! Do you know why? Because it was just us. Like the stuff today with Kev, that was just pansy stuff, it got him off, and that's all he really wanted." He leaned in to whisper. "What we do is a thousand times better, and more personal, too. And I'm just as guilty as either of us, because sometimes I WANT to do stuff, too. Man, I get so horny and everything, well... fuck!"

"You too? You think that, too?" Seeing his friend nod, Michael grinned. "Me, too. We might change someday and stop, but right now..."

Thomas grinned, then shrugged his shoulders. "Yeah, right now – who the hell cares, right? That's what I've been trying to tell you." He cocked an eyebrow. "So, I guess that means we ought to do it before you start worrying about us changing too much. Right?"

Michael was confused. "Huh?" Thomas grinned and slowly ground himself down onto his friend again. Michael then smiled. "What, are you thinking about...? Now?" he whispered.

Thomas hesitated only a second before leaning in and whispering in his ear. "Wouldn't you like to know? Is it really that hard to figure out?" he answered seductively, before nibbling on his friends' earlobe.

Michael giggled. "I don't know man, I already creamed once today, I might not-"

Thomas silenced him with another soft kiss before replying. "Trust me, I've got a feeling it won't matter at all. Only if you want to, though, okay? Because right now, I wouldn't mind finding out what it feels like, with you up inside me and everything…"

Michael smiled and closed his eyes, feeling suddenly more alive and free than ever before. "Hey now, maybe I'd rather bottom, you know?" He opened his eyes though, and saw the teasing wasn't wasted on his friend. "You know I love you bro." He enveloped the warmth between them, and then plunged his hands deep into the back of Thomas's underwear. "We're okay now, right?"

Thomas embraced him harder. Without replying, he locked his lips down and tenderly begin kissing away, all the while using his free hand to finish stripping themselves free of the briefs that separated them. He felt this was going to be a night they would both remember.

For a very, very long time…

Some Thoughts and Reflections…

From this point on, imagine what you will. When I started this series, my thoughts turned toward a kid I knew in my Jr. High years, who was older, braver, tougher and rougher than anyone I ever encountered before (at the time, anyway). He was a bully in every sense of the word, and although I was able to avoid him most of my life, there were a lot of others who were not so lucky.

I don't know what became of him, although I heard a strange story somewhere along my senior year in High School, that before we graduated, he had drastically changed. I didn't think much of it until about a year ago, when my cousin Timmy was telling me about someone. In his school, they had a bully, too - one who seemed to relish the opportunity to inflict misery on people in his class. It made me think back to my own experience, and the difference between where he grew up and myself: one in the city and one as a country kid.

Several people had been writing me or chatting online with me, and telling me I should try to write something in fiction. For a long time, I couldn't really come up with anything - until I started thinking about them, and thus now you see the result. It has - literally - taken me almost a year to compose and finish this. I started with an outline (because a very good friend suggested that was the way to do it), and for the most part everything grew from there. Is it perfect? No way! Not by a long shot! It lacks some literary prowess in places, and I, as a fan of fiction and reading, I recognize just that.

What this HAS been, however, is this: I grew up very much alone, with no brothers or sisters, and without many kids my age in our neighborhood. I come from a small family as well, having lost my father to a divorce before I was even 8 years old. The cool thing about it though, was I really did have a good father - a man who, whatever their reasons for divorce - still took care of both me and my Mom. I've never truly understood their divorce, because even to this day they laugh and dance around it. But even separated, he didn't try to shun his responsibilities to me, or ignore the fact I was there. None of us was rich, but when he had the extra money, I wasn't the only one who benefitted from it: he helped take care of my Mom as well. It's because of that I knew he still loved her – and thus, you understand why it's confusing. He lived far away until his last couple of years, but he was never far from my heart.

This story is (and has been) a reflection of my thoughts and feelings. I can see myself living through my characters, and I can see them having the outcomes they experienced. I can "see" my bully being the one who was really the victim, and how HIS actions affected the others around him. Most of all though, I can see the friendship that developed and how it grew between everyone, at different levels. Lastly, maybe it is just wishful thinking, but I could see and feel the acceptance of Michael and Thomas and their relationship. Are they gay? Why does that matter, really? They're teens! Some will argue that they knew they were gay at a much earlier age. Maybe so, but you know what? Not everyone is that way. I certainly didn't know it at that age, but I remember having those thoughts and feelings and fears as if they were yesterday. Most of all, I had a friend, someone I grew to trust and love very dearly, who gave me a reason to keep on living. I seriously questioned whether life was worth it anymore at one point, but I am very happy I didn't call it to an end. I'm glad he was true to me, too - as well as my Dad, who helped me become happier, and to learn how to love myself for who I am. It was still lonesome at the time, but a whole lot more bearable.

So that's it everyone. A year in the effort originally, off and on, but only because (I think) it was my first attempt, and because I didn't want to rush something just to "put it out there" and up for grabs. I hope those who read this will understand - I'm not perfect, I'm just human. I wanted something full of characters you could see, and who feel, and understand as much as I did. Not just kids out there discovering how to get off and everything. Will there be any more? I doubt it. I wanted a happy ending for my five friends, and I cannot imagine it being much better than what you just read.

So, to all of you who have been patient and supported me? Do this: go find a fluffy pillow somewhere - even if you have to wait until you go to bed tonight. Pull it up close, wrap your arms around it, and for just an instant - if you can - whether you're young, old or in between, just pull it up close and close your eyes. And in that instant, let your imagination wander for a second...

... and pretend it's me giving you that hug right back. :o)

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