The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 7

Bringing the Sweetest Rewards

With the holidays over, life returned to a more normal pace - if there ever was such a thing in the crazy lives of both Thomas and Michael. Neither waded through the coming weeks with much enthusiasm, each lost in his own thoughts about life at both school and home. The winter was not as harsh as in previous years, only producing enough snow at times to blanket the area with a thin coating. Unlike the bigger cities, which were better equipped to handle such natural events, the county authorities in rural areas ignored the weather regardless of how much snow fell. Salt supplies were limited, and the vast areas they had to cover were sometimes more than they could handle. In any case, significant snowfall or ice would normally close schools for at least a few days.

This year, however, students had only been released early on one afternoon - and that was for the threat of rough weather that never materialized. At least in terms of precipitation, being snow and ice. The falling temperature, however, was a totally different story. Bitter cold winds plunged the area into the single digits, and it did little to help the moods of most people. Stories abounded of frozen engines that would not start, dead batteries, burst pipes in houses, and more. It was one of the coldest winters on record, and it affected everyone in one way or another.

Thomas and Michael had to learn how to cope with their friendship in new ways, and because of it, the morale in their respective homes fell to an all-time low. Thomas had to deal with an abnormal and insistent set of grandparents, and a mother who failed to help him stand up to them. His grandfather, growing steadily odder at times, and depressingly rude at others was much of the problem Thomas had to deal with. The man found fault with everyone, for every little thing, but he bore down the hardest on Thomas. Michael tried to be the friend he knew Thomas needed, but his own depression deepened because of his friend's fate. Neither knew what they could do, but they both hoped for the best.

When the end of the month arrived, Carolyn walked through the door of the local county clerk's office one day, stopping to blink and get her bearings. She was weary, having come from a hard, 10-hour shift that had proved far more hectic than usual. She briefly glanced at her watch, then sighed with relief, realizing she had made it with about five minutes to spare. More than once she had tried in the past week to arrive before closing. She had failed, however, getting caught at the last minute before she could leave, or getting caught in unusually heavy traffic.

As she walked up to the counter, she spied on open position with a woman seated behind at the station, looking busily at some of the paperwork in her hands. As Carolyn approached hesitantly, she tried to ascertain if the woman would accept another client, given the late hour. Arriving in front, however, she did not have to wait long before the woman finally looked up and smiled.

"Well, hello Carolyn! How are you?" she asked warmly, recognizing her visitor.

Carolyn, startled, returned the smile and held out her hand. "Hello! Linda, isn't it?"

Linda took the offered hand in greeting. "Yes, it is! How are you?"

"Doing well, for the most part, thanks. Just trying to stay warm and get in here and take care of this before it expires," she explained, handing over the necessary paperwork to renew her vehicle registration.

Linda took the paperwork and glanced at it. "Ah! I can take care of this," she replied, as she began typing away on her keyboard. For the most part, both women participated in small talk, but there was an awkwardness that developed in the air between them. At a momentary pause in the conversation, Linda looked across the counter and stopped, becoming thoughtful. "H-How is Michael doing?" she asked hesitantly. In the background, a nearby printer began spitting out forms with updated information.

"Oh, okay for the most part I think, growing like a weed," Carolyn responded. She hesitated, and then decided to broach the subject of their sons as delicately as she could. "He misses not being able to hang out with Thomas a lot, though. I think those two became the best of friends there, for a while at least."

Linda looked up. "For a while? I think they still are," she said with a smile. Leaning back in her chair, a soft expression crossed her face. "I know what you mean though. I guess seeing each other at school is about the best they've been able to do. Quite frankly, I don't blame them, Carolyn. They're getting a pretty lousy deal out of it, I know. And I wouldn't blame you, or him, for taking it out on me, too." The woman's voice was sad, and there was a look of weariness in her eyes while she pulled the output from the printer. Tearing off the necessary forms, she handed one of them to Carolyn, who took it and nodded. As she was filling out her check for payment, Linda sighed again. "I hope you know Carol, I really have nothing against them being friends. It's just, things aren't going so well with us at home right now, and..." Her voice trailed off.

Carolyn finished the check before looking up and handing it over. It was then she noticed the other woman seemed visibly troubled, and it made her hesitate. "Are you okay?" she asked kindly.

Linda sighed deeply. "I think so, Carolyn. I just have a lot on my mind these days. Like I said, there really is a lot going on."

Carolyn nodded. "I can understand that." Instinctively, she smiled and added, "The boys will be fine, Linda. It's hard on them, but they'll make it." She grunted as she put the new registration away into her purse. "My back is killing me, I think! These 10-hour shifts are almost more than I can handle!" She looked at the clock. "Well, at least it's going home time now, for me anyway. You guys close up at 4:30, right?"

Linda nodded as she stood, handing a new tag to the woman. "Ten hours? That has got to be brutal, I would think! You're a nurse, right?"

"Yes, unfortunately. Or at least, that's how I feel sometimes. It's not really that bad, though. It can get tiresome sometimes, but shifts like this are pretty few and far between," Carolyn explained.

Linda nodded before a thought suddenly occurred to her. "Uh, are you in a hurry to head home? I mean, would you like to grab some coffee or something first?" Her mind was racing quickly. "I promised Thomas I would bring him a cheeseburger and fries tonight, and I was just thinking - if you wanted, there's a diner across the street there. Their food is generally pretty good, without all the greasiness some places have."

Carolyn was intrigued by the offer. Although tired, she thought she detected a hint of something in Linda's voice, a downcast expression followed by a hope. After observing her companion more closely, Carolyn thought perhaps it might be a good idea. "Sure, I think that would be lovely!" Linda smiled and then stood up, swiftly moving away from the counter. While Carolyn waited, other people began closing down their workstations and moving off. Within moments, she observed the rest of the staff filing out the door for the day, past the guard overseeing the entrance. At first, Carolyn felt a little foolish standing by herself, and wondered if perhaps she should wait outside. Before she could contemplate it, however, a familiar voice called from behind her. "Ready?"

"Sure," Carolyn responded warmly, as Linda donned her coat.

"Let's go then!" Linda said, smiling. They both made their way past the guard and out onto the street. Leading the way, Linda took the lead and walked down the sidewalk a short distance, before crossing and entering a small diner on the corner, with Carolyn following close behind. The diner was mostly empty just then, but Linda still led them both to a booth in the back corner, where they could settle in.

Before either woman could speak, a young girl appeared by their side. "Hello there, what can I get you ladies?"

Linda looked up. "Two ultimate burgers with Swiss cheese, fixed with everything except mustard. Then one large order of fries and one large order of onion rings, all of it to go, please. Oh, and I'd like an iced tea to drink for here, if you would. What about you, Carolyn?"

Hesitating only slightly to give it some though, she decided it wasn't a bad idea after all. "Make that double, with mine to go as well, but if you will, make both of ours with fries, okay? No onion rings. And an iced tea for here would be nice, too."

"Swiss cheese? No mustard?" the young girl asked.

Carolyn hesitated, glancing at the woman across from her, who laughed. "It's actually pretty good, something different Thomas talked me into once," Linda explained.

Carolyn grinned and then nodded. The waitress acknowledged the orders and then moved away. Watching her retreat behind the counter, Carolyn remarked, "That's pretty quick service!"

Linda giggled. "I know, you rarely see it like that anymore!" Both women chatted for a moment about things in general, before lapsing into a short silence. Carolyn anticipated something more was coming and attempted to remain as openly warm as she could. She only hoped she could get some insight as to what was going on, to perhaps explain what was causing such a rift between their sons. When the girl returned with their iced teas in hand, they began sipping slowly before their conversation resumed. "Carol, I have to admit something, and to be honest, I'm almost ashamed to even say this." She hesitated, then continued. "I know what happened in our house isn't right, and it has nothing to do with Michael. He's seems like he's a great kid!"

Carolyn nodded. "Thomas does, too. He is a sweet kid."

Linda nodded. "I know, he really is, especially given everything he's going through. Sometimes Carol, my son is everything I need to make my day just a little brighter, you know? It was hard on him when his father died, and it was even harder when we lost our home a few months afterwards. I just couldn't afford to keep the payments, even though it wasn't that big of a house." She looked up into Carolyn's eyes. "You know about that, right?"

Michael's mother shook her head. "Not really. I think Michael mentioned once that you two had to move in with your husband's parents, mostly because of money troubles, but that was about it."

Again, Linda nodded. "I wasn't sure whether Thomas told him or not. It's true, though. We had only been married a few years. He worked down at the plastics plant, and we got by okay. Not the best, but also not hurting for anything. After he passed away, the plant closed a few months later, and the owners and managers all disappeared - along with taking everyone's benefits and pension plans with them." Seeing the astonished look on Carolyn's face made Linda sigh before continuing. "Yeah, I know. Seems they got in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service, too. You remember the stories back then? Were you guys living here when all that went down?"

"Some of it, yes. They had a lot of people working off the books, or something like that, right?" Carolyn asked.

Linda nodded. "When the investigation finished, they found the company only reported on about half the people working for them. Everyone kept paying their share of the benefits, taxes and everything, but the company ate it all up behind the scene. A lot of folks got double billed by the IRS for back taxes unpaid and all, even though it wasn't their fault. John was one of those unfortunately - and that left us with no social security or unemployment to draw on."

"Oh, my goodness! How could they get away with that?" Carolyn gasped.

Linda shrugged her shoulders. "Nobody really knows or understands, that's for sure. The last I heard, they're still trying to figure it all out. All we know is the company beat the system for a long time, until they got caught, and then all the cash they had hoarded disappeared, and they left all the workers holding the bag. People like us were left with nothing, stuck out here while they high-tailed it off to never-never land. Social security did pay us a little, thankfully, when my husband died, but it wasn't anything near what we should have gotten, you know? They had no record of John ever paying anything in, because of the company. So, in the end, they gave us the bare minimum, which - didn't go very far. Paul Reed, the sheriff back then, he gave me a job here in the clerk's office, and that's where I've been ever since. I was one of the lucky few to even find a job, because a lot of people had to move or just leave their homes."

"Oh, my goodness!" was all Carolyn could think to say.

Linda shrugged. "Like I said, Thomas and I were lucky, but even then, it was hard. Don't get me wrong, we did our best - or rather, I did my best. But honestly, it was touch and go for a while. We held onto our house as long as we could, but eventually the bank had no choice."

Linda gazed across the table before sitting back. "Carol, I grew up in an orphanage, so I know what it must have meant to Thomas when he found a friend like he did in Michael. I mean, in a sense I have no family, never had anyone. We girls grew up more worried about protecting ourselves from the other kids, than we did about anything else. If you made friends with anyone, most of the time they left you, or stabbed you in the back, stole, or worse. When I married John, life was a bed of roses to just get away from there. When Thomas came along, you wouldn't believe how happy we were, and I was glad that we were able to have a family. A real family. I vowed then, I would never put any of our kids through the torment I grew up with. When we lost the house though, I realized I was about to lose it all. I cried for a week before the notice came. The only place we had left, was to go to my husband's parents, and they were not - how do you say - not so much ones with open arms. At first it worked out okay; they were kind enough..." She drifted off and stared out the window for a moment. "But as they've gotten older, they've become more and more... I'm sorry; I don't know the word to use... more dependent, I guess."

Carolyn began seeing Linda's situation in a new light. Realizing how visibly upsetting the moment had become, she reached across the table and patted the other woman gently on her hand. "Dependent? How do you mean?"

Linda stared out the window for a long moment. "I don't know, things like washing, cooking, cleaning - I guess just taking care of them. I know that sounds trivial, but I'm talking about - it's like we live there, but that's all we do, just live there. Thomas and I both work most of our evenings and weekends, doing everything for them. I try to shield Thomas as much as I can, but sometimes it just gets so hard. Grams and Gramps don't do anything for themselves anymore, and if we're not there doing what they expect us to, good Lord! You can only imagine the ruckus they raise!"

"You mean you... do everything?" Carolyn inquired, with a start, carefully choosing her words. "You provide their care now? Completely?"

"Pretty much." Linda laughed nervously. "I mean, we're doing the cleaning, cooking, dishes, gardens, tending to the pets - you name it. We help them get around, take them places, do the shopping, run errands. I'm not complaining, not really - we're the free boarders, and I know that. So, we should help them out, right? We're the ones imposing on them, I mean. I never expected a free ride or anything like that, but..."

Carolyn wrinkled her nose. "I doubt that, really. It sounds a little excessive, if you ask me." She paused, thinking. "Have you thought about getting away? You know, moving out?"

Linda stared across the table, before slowly shaking her head. "I don't know if we could ever do it, to be honest. I mean, we're doing better now, but it takes everything I make to buy groceries and pay the basic bills. Then on top of that, raise a growing teenage boy!" She laughed nervously.

Carolyn heard what the woman said - and thought she detected also what she didn't say. "I don't understand, Linda. I mean, you've been in this clerk's office what, five years or more? I know they don't pay that great, but..."

Linda again looked out the window before replying. "Well, I buy all the groceries and pay the utilities, upkeep the car and everything, for all four of us. I guess it's not horrible, but - "

"What do you mean, ALL the groceries? Not just for you and Thomas, right?"

"No, I mean all, as in all four of us." Seeing the incredulous look that met her, Linda explained. "In the beginning, Pappy bought their own groceries, but somehow over the years it grew into me picking this or that up for them, until I was eventually buying all of it. He helped pay for some of it at first, but he doesn't even bother anymore. I brought it up to them both a time or two, but they trampled me all over, about how unappreciative I was at having a place to stay." She shook her head. "In their eyes, it should be a small expense compared to what it would cost us living on our own. I guess it wouldn't be so bad, except they eat like there is no tomorrow sometimes, almost as bad as Thomas!" She giggled briefly, before donning an expression of despair. A tear escaped and rolled down her cheek, but she made no move to wipe it away.

"Please, don't get me wrong Carolyn, I'm not complaining, I'm just - Right now, I don't like how things are turning out. Thomas was devastated, to tell you the truth, when he lost out of being with Michael. His grades have been slacking lately, and-"

"Michael's grades have, too," Carolyn interrupted, but quieted afterwards.

Linda nodded. "In a way, it's my fault for not intervening like I should have. Right now, it's getting harder. Thomas is rebelling against them, sullen and quiet to the extreme. He has been that way for a month or more now, with no end in sight. It's trying Gramps' patience to no end, but quite frankly, I feel like the old man deserves it. Pappy can be so hateful at times, and so angry! He is always belittling Thomas, forcing him into doing things he's just not interested in."

"What kind of things?" Carolyn asked.

"Oh, like fishing for starters, or hunting, cars - things like that. I mean, don't get me wrong, I think some of those things would be interesting for Thomas to at least learn a little about. He just has no interest in them, though. I mean, he's only 13 years old, and he's never had anyone to do those things with. It's like Pappy see's the things Thomas is interested in as being girlish, or childish in some way. Or, maybe it's something else. I mean, sometimes I think it's because Pappy can't relive the things he missed in his childhood or John's, so he tries to make Thomas relive it for him."

Linda's eyes began to mist over as she looked up into Carolyn's face. "Please believe me, Carol. I swear, I don't know why I'm dumping this on you, other than I just wanted to try... try to explain... I know that what our sons are going through is distressing them both! And it's disturbing me because I feel so powerless to make it any better!" She choked up then, unable to continue.

Carolyn quietly rose from her seat and moved to sit next to the woman. Placing her arm around Linda, she spoke softly. "You don't have to explain anything to me, Linda. It's honestly okay. I didn't realize things were that bad there, but I wish I had known."

Linda could feel Carolyn's warmth and friendliness, and it made her smile weakly. Taking a tissue from her purse, she dabbed her eyes and blew her nose. "It isn't always that bad, honest, but... I just don't, I mean, Thomas and I just don't have a lot of options right now. I don't pretend to understand what's happening. I mean, I've tried, really tried to intervene a few times, but Pappy is being, well... he's being a bastard about the whole thing, with them both."

Carolyn was surprised. "But Linda... I thought..."

Linda shook her head. "No, let me get this out, please. I really need to tell this, and make sure you understand it." She paused yet again, looking out of the window. Just then, the waitress returned with their food, wrapped neatly to go in two bags, along with their bills. They both nodded to her in acknowledgement, and Carolyn reached into her purse before extracting a $20 bill. Silently handing it to the girl with both bills, who smiled and disappeared.

Linda shook her head. "You really shouldn't do that, I-"

Carolyn squeezed her hand. "Don't fuss about it right now. It's fine, I promise."

Linda looked up, then blushed before turning away. It was a moment before she could continue. "I don't know how Michael is doing, but Thomas - something has changed in him. It's starting to worry me, and I don't think it's just this thing between our sons either. I mean, maybe it's just the timing and all, but it's gradually getting worse. If I don't do something soon, I'm afraid it will get uglier." She took a deep breath and. "Don't get me wrong, Thomas doesn't give me any trouble - he usually does what I ask him to, and he helps me out immensely. That's not the way it is with his grandparents though. Whenever they talk or ask him to do things, he's gotten to the point he just ignores them."

Linda looked hard into Carolyn's eyes. "It's like this switch has been flipped in some way. Pappy wants to just punish him, and I must admit, there have been a few times I've felt like doing it myself. Here's the thing, though. I don't feel like Thomas deserves to be treated so ... so ... I don't know my word, roughly? But if I do punish him, I feel like I'd be punishing him for the wrong reasons." Linda laughed before adding, "I know, it sounds crazy, right? Does that even make any sense?"

Carolyn drew back and crossed her arms. "Yes, it makes perfect sense. Honestly, I don't know or see why you put up with it. That, to me, is abuse - pure and simple. It sounds like Thomas is rebelling, yet trying to find his own ground to stand on." She paused and collected her thoughts. "You know, I've seen a few elderly people get into a rut like you're describing. They unintentionally build a dependence upon their children or relatives, and before they realize it, they've driven themselves into a corner. They get this impression they're helpless, and ultimately start down this one-lane road thinking that the world owes them everything." She sighed. "It sounds to me, in a rough sort of way, maybe that's behind what is happening with the two of you. You married their son, and his death effectively took him away from them. Oh, I don't mean physically or intentionally," she rushed to add, seeing Linda's eyes widen with alarm. "I mean, when he died, you were the one left standing, the only tie left to him. Over the years, they may have come to think that you owe them something in return. If that's so girl, you don't!"

Carolyn leaned in, placing both of her elbows on the table. "Linda, understand something here. I'm sure I don't know all the details, or anywhere near enough to pass along any opinion. To be honest, it isn't my place to judge anyway. But I will tell you what I think, what I feel, and it's this: if you've been living this way for so long, you have to break the cycle, no matter how painful it may be. What is happening sounds abusive, maybe not physically, but it is still abusive. Tell me, are either of them physically disabled, or incapable of looking after themselves?"

Linda shook her head. "No, I don't think so. Large, yes, they do pack some weight. But they got along fine before we arrived, and they are only in their upper 50's, so they are not as old and fragile as you might think. They could do a lot of things, if they wanted to. They just purposefully don't, or else they make you feel guilty and sorry for them if they do. And believe me, Pappy can pile on the guilt pretty bad."

Carolyn nodded. "I understand, and that fits the pattern even more." Once again, she took Linda's hand in her own. "You really need to do something about it then, and the sooner the better. It's for your own good, and for Thomas's good. It's even for the good of your in-laws, too." She looked hard at the other woman. "I was right in what I said, wasn't I? I mean, about being physically abused. Have they ever been physical with you, in any way?"

Linda shook her head. "No, they have never hit -" She stopped, and then looked up. "I have never known them to hit either of us, but do you think - "

Carolyn slowly nodded, knowing she was about to reveal something she had been told in confidence. It was something, however, she felt the woman had a right to know. "Michael told me that Thomas has been slapped a few times-"

"Oh my God! ... No, no, no!" Linda lapsed into silence in shock, and then started crying. They both sat for a long while, Carolyn again trying to comfort the lady. When Linda regained control and spoke again, her voice was barely a whisper. "He never told me. I swear, I never knew..." It was all she could say. More than once, her mouth opened to go on, but only silence fell between them. She eventually looked out the window again.

Carolyn sighed. "I'm sorry, Linda. I really am. You know, if the kids shared that much, there could be more, but..."

Linda nodded. "I know. Honestly, I know. The first thing I'm going to do is ask Thomas about it tonight."

Carolyn hesitated. "I wouldn't do that yet, Linda, if I were you. If Thomas has denied it before, there may be a reason for it, and you'll just put him into a corner and be back to where you two started." Seeing the questioning expression, Carolyn nodded. "If you really want to know, let me get Michael to talk to him about it. You know how they are; he'll be more likely to find out more than either of us would right now. I don't know, he may even be able to look for, you know, physical signs or something."

Thinking, Linda slowly nodded her head. "Okay, I'll trust your judgment on this. Carolyn, I - I don't know what else to do now..."

Carolyn sat back and thought about the situation. "Well, I've got an idea to get you started, and I can talk to some girls I know who have been in the same situation you're in. Maybe we could pull our heads together." She paused, raising her eyebrow before adding, "That is, if you want me to."

Linda smiled. "I had no idea where this conversation would go, but lady, I don't know. Right now? I just feel better about it." She smiled for the first time in a while. "I see where Michael gets his empathy and compassion from, now."

Carolyn blushed. "Oh, I'm not too sure about that. He has a lot of it just on his own merits, really." She did not pursue it any further, though, instead giving the other woman a hug. When they parted, she looked up with a mischievous grin. "Okay, I have an idea now..."

Michael flopped onto his bed, glad that the long day had finally come to an end. It had neither been the best of days, nor the best of weeks. Normally an A and B student, he got a D+ that day on a paper he turned in for English. To add pain to injury, after sitting through an exam in last period math that day, a subject he normally loved, he was not at all encouraged by the outcome when he left. Earlier that week, he had come within seconds of being in a fight, and he already knew trouble was brewing in another area of the school - one which he had no ready answer for.

As he closed his eyes, his life flashed before him in a haze. It seemed that, for the entire week, he lost much of his ambition - his drive to keep going. Although both his mother and his best friend had told him otherwise, he could not help but feel responsible for what Thomas was going through. He carried that burden on his shoulders, unwilling to shuck it in favor of the idea that grown-ups were screwing around with his life, especially in places they had no business to be. Up until the big fight between Jeremy and Thomas, life had been fairly smooth, if not monotonous. Since that day, however, Michael's life had taken a drastic turn - for the better.

"Why do Thomas's grandparents, and his Mom, have to be so unfair?" Michael asked himself repeatedly. It was often followed by "What can I do to make it up? How can I make it better?" He posed those questions one day to Thomas, but his friend just sadly shook his head. It seemed as if their fate was sealed, and they simply tried to enjoy each other's company in the only place they could - at school. It was the only place they were truly separated from the influence of their outside world.

Michael wearily glanced at the clock on the nightstand. Without really noticing the time, he rolled over onto his back and shut his eyes. With little difficulty, he fell into a troubled sleep within minutes.

When Carolyn arrived home that night, she called out to him from downstairs, but was met with an eerie silence. Setting the bag of food on the table, she walked to the staircase and called out again. This time, she heard a mumbled reply from above her. Turning, she headed back into the kitchen and set the food out on the table. She felt, rather than saw, her son walk up behind her. Turning, the sight before her eyes caused her to stop. "Michael? Are you - what happened?" she asked, taking and cupping his chin so she could see the side of his face better.

"What?" the teenager replied, unsure of himself before he turned and saw his reflection. "Oh, it's nothing Mom. I fell asleep is all."

"On top of the covers, it looks like! And it being what, 50-degrees up there?" Carolyn asked, shaking her head. She let it go, but could not help notice the weariness in his eyes. When he nodded, she pointed to the food. "I thought we might do something a little different tonight. It's a little cold, but we can warm it up in the microwave if you want."

Michael raised an eyebrow, a characteristic she noted when he found a change of routine intriguing him. "Take out? What's the occasion? Somebody have a birthday today? You got a promotion? Or worse, you lost your job? Or got another job? Or-"

Carolyn gently cuffed him, laughing. "Hey, slow down there! Good grief, since when does it have to be a special occasion for me to bring something home for my favorite son?"

Michael rolled his eyes. "Mom, I'm your ONLY son!" Then he grinned and hugged her fiercely, before taking his food and placing it into the microwave. "Thanks! It is kind of nice."

Carolyn added her own food to the microwave and shut the door, setting the timer appropriately. "Are you having a rough day, kiddo?" she asked nonchalantly.

Michael looked up at her and sighed. "Is it that obvious?"

She smiled before kissing the top of his forehead. Nothing more was said, but for some reason Michael felt something had changed. His mother seemed to be almost happy, or at least her mood was one much lighter than usual. "What happened with you, Mom?" he asked.

"Nothing, kiddo," Carolyn replied. Michael knew something was up though, but did not press the matter. Instead, he extracted their food and joined his mother at the table. Both sat down and began munching away.

Saturday went by slowly, with Michael loafing about listlessly. Carolyn was off for the full weekend, a rarity at best as of late. Despite her attempts to cheer him up, her efforts were only met half-heartedly. On Sunday, however, that changed. After church, Carolyn relaxed by watching various shows on the TV, while Michael desperately tried to regroup and tackle his homework. He had finally admitted he was near failing, a topic which Carolyn had an extensive talk with him about. However, she made an exception for the issue without giving him too much grief, especially when her son promised he would do better beginning that very weekend. He struggled to concentrate, rewriting a poorly constructed report from earlier that week, but his best effort resulted in only marginal improvements.

Later in the afternoon, Michael stopped and looked up in surprise when they heard a vehicle approach. As he closed his notebook, he crossed to the window to look out. "Oh Shi- Mom? Mom!" he called excitedly, rushing to the door and flinging it open. On the driveway, both Thomas and Linda alighted from their vehicle, and crossed the yard in the cold wind. Thomas, looking up and finding Michael in the doorway, broke into a short run, leaping onto the porch. The teen stumbled at the last step, however, and practically fell into Michael's arms, who reached out to catch him. The move, awkward for them both, resulted in a lot of laughter as he righted himself and stood up. Linda arrived behind him, laughing as well as she watched them both. Thomas, first looking between the two, finally cried out, "Aww, the heck with it, you dope!" He pulled Michael into a quick hug, as the two women greeted each other inside the doorway. To Carolyn's delight, the teen also turned and quickly gave her an enormous hug. Michael, taking the cue, reached out to Linda and did the same.

Linda, slightly surprised, laughed. "Okay you two!"

Both boys let go, but it was Michael who looked at first his mother, and then their guests. "How? I mean...?"

Thomas chimed in. "I know, right? I was just as surprised as you were when we left home, and then Mom turned in here!" When Michael arched his eyebrows, the question still hanging, Thomas continued. "Mom told Gramps and Grams we were just going out for a while. At first, I didn't want to, really. You know, the Super Bowl coming on and all, but then Mom kind of made me come with her."

Linda looked at Carolyn. "You would not BELIEVE what I had to put up with getting him out of that house!"

Carolyn laughed, causing Michael to look at her incredulously. "You KNEW? Really? You knew they were coming?" When his mother only smiled in return, he launched into an all-out embrace with her, causing both women to laugh. Finally separating, he grabbed his best friend's hand, who had just shed and hung his coat by the door. The euphoric feeling was almost overwhelming. "Umm... want to watch it down here, or go up to my room?" Michael asked, excitedly.

"How about upstairs?" Thomas answered by way of a question. Michael didn't waste a second, pulling the teen toward the steps. Both women laughed again at their clownish antics, before heading towards the couch for their own evening together.

"I think we pulled it off, didn't we?" Carolyn asked.

Linda looked at her and smiled. "You're not kidding. I haven't seen Thomas happier in weeks!"

"Same here for Michael. I guess we'd better start planning to do this more often," Carolyn replied, a merry twinkle in her eye.

Linda hesitated, however. "Sure, but... honestly? I think it would have to be here, or in town or something. I mean, I can't really bring you guys over-"

"It's not a problem, trust me," Carolyn interrupted. "Besides, it's for the boys, right? Anything that helps them both is worth everything to me."

Linda smiled in relief.

For most of the evening, both boys watched the Super Bowl together, each just happy to be sharing time once more. They were also happy that their team lived up to its status as the National Football Conference champions. Sprawled across the bed, both lay reasonably close together, enjoying pizza yet again as the two women surprised them by ordering a delivery. Linda watched the two momentarily and inwardly sighed, reiterating the fact she had not seen her son this content for quite some time. She was saddened at how she had not - no, could not - see how deep their friendship had become. Especially in the short amount of time they had known each other. It was then she resolved that something was going to have to change, and that this degree of separation could not be condoned any longer. The women had already talked about this to some extent, and now Linda realized, more than ever, her son needed freedom from the oppression they were living under. His mother vowed he was going to somehow get it, before it was too late.

At one point during the fourth quarter, both boys watched a rather intense drive by both teams, when suddenly their team intercepted the ball. Thomas immediately rolled back on the bed, throwing both arms in the air and exclaimed, rather loudly, "All right! Shit, did you see that??!!"

Michael grinned at his friend, but also quickly rolled over to face him. With a quick finger to his lips, he hissed, "SShhhhh!! Not so loud!"

Thomas, thoroughly chastised, returned a sheepish look. "Ah man, sorry, I.. just..."

Michael giggled. "It's okay, just..." He pointed to the nearby floor duct, before pulling the other teen down beside him. "It's not too bad, but when that duct is open, I swear, I think my mom has ears like an elephant sometimes!"

Thomas grinned. "Okay, okay, I understand... but you've got to admit - that was fucking cool, you know?" he intoned in a low voice.

Michael laughed and then gave his friend a long stare. "I love it when you do that, even if it does sound weird sometimes."

"Do what?" Thomas asked curiously.

"Swear like that. It's like, I don't know. It's just knowing you go to church and stuff, I never really imagined you would talk like that any, you know?" Michael explained.

"So? You go to church, and yet do it too, you know!" Thomas replied, giggling.

Michael grinned. "I know, but still... It's just, I don't know, kind of cool, that's all."

Thomas nodded. "Yeah, I know. I only do it around you though, mostly. Or if I get really, really mad about something."

Michael grunted, the smile remaining on his face, but remained silent afterwards. At first, Thomas just returned the gaze, but eventually he mouthed the word 'What?' Michael finally relented. "I don't know, it's just, like... you're here. You're really here, you know? You have no idea how much I've missed you and everything. I mean, I know we see each other at school and everything, but - this, it's just different. I can't explain it. Here, I feel ... just really happy."

Thomas slowly nodded. He had already been dreading the end of the game that was gradually approaching, sure that his Mom would want to leave as soon as possible afterwards. It was a school night after all, and they were already going to be out late as it was. At the same time, however, he understood what Michael was saying. After it had seemed the two were going to end up separated for good, their game had changed again. The surprise that night had caught them off guard, and thus here they were. Thomas didn't trust his voice to respond just then, so he tried to show what it meant to him in another, more private way. Picking up the pizza tray between them, he set it on the floor before turning back. Closing the distance, Thomas wrapped both his arms and legs around Michael closely, embracing him as full and complete as he could. For a moment, he was grateful he could do this again, having already given up on the idea long before.

Michael returned the hug just as tightly, and there they remained, rubbing each other's back. Their chests connected, heart to heart, with a steadying rhythm beneath each other's touch. Michael nervously pulled his free hand free and quietly pulled Thomas's shirt loose in back. Once he put his hand inside, he continued rubbing, touching his bare skin from the base of his shoulders to the small of his back. Thomas sighed as they held each other, lost in the intimacy. In the background, the TV continued broadcasting the game, but they were both beyond listening.

Michael finally sighed and pulled back, before leaning in and whispering into his friend's ear. "I love you, bro. You know that, don't you? That has never changed between you and me - I still love you - with my heart."

Thomas nodded, whispering back, "I know. I still love you, too, just as much as I always did." It was then the teen stared into the eyes that met him. "With my heart, and I still trust you, too." He felt incredibly at peace, as he rolled back and sighed, bringing Thomas with him. After a moment, he giggled. "You know something?"

"What?" Michael asked.

"Well, all that time we missed out on being friends, then we became friends, and then I got to be the mushy one, you know? And now, you're just as mushy as I am sometimes, and I never imagined it would be that way," Thomas explained.

Michael laughed. "I know what you're saying, yeah. I don't know, I guess I just changed some and everything. I used to not be this way, but then there you were, and you needed somebody, and I realized I needed somebody, too." He smiled, lowering his voice to a whisper. "You know what, though? I don't give a fuck, to be honest. If I can just have this every once in a while, I'll do anything, ANYTHING for you." His voice trailed off as he looked into Thomas's eyes. Then he whispered again, "Ah hell..." He had intended to just lean in and nuzzle his friend, but was surprised when Thomas turned his head instead, and planted a kiss on Michael's lips.

When they broke, Thomas smiled and whispered back. "See? Told you, I still trust you... with my heart." Michael felt the kiss surge through him, from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. He sighed and smiled, before giving Thomas one final hug. Then, pulling and turning his friend around to meet him once more, he intentionally ended up grinding their groins together ever so closely. When he felt and realized Thomas was returning it, they both pressed and locked themselves for a long moment.

Michael finally let out a deep sigh, rolling back. "I know bro, I know. I wish our Moms weren't downstairs, or I would strip you down and really go at it." As his voice trailed off, Thomas grinned wide but nodded. "Maybe we can, like - do some stuff again someday. If you still want to, that is," Michael added, a hopeful look on his face.

Thomas grinned and reached out, his hand cupping Michael's groin and a certain hardened, throbbing member inside. Glancing at the doorway, he quickly slipped his fingers inside his friend's jeans, and down into the briefs he found, until his hand lay directly on top of his hardened dick. Michael gasped in surprise, then closed his eyes. Thomas squeezed it gently before leaning close and whispering. "Does this answer you?" Seeing the teen's eyebrows rise caused Thomas to laugh, before he withdrew his hand. "Yeah, I hope so, and soon, too!"

Michael grinned. "Bet your ass on it!" he whispered. A sudden commotion from the TV caused them both to turn their attention again, just in time to see a touchdown take place, and then the moment was forgotten as both started cheering.

It was some time later, after the game ended, that both Michael and Carolyn were standing in their doorway, waving and watching their guests slowly top the hill and disappear. Once gone from sight, Michael sighed before looking up at his mother, who looked down upon his young face and smiled. Once again, he turned into her and hugged her tight, burying his face into her shoulder. "Thanks mom," Michael said softly, not letting go. There were no words to say now, nothing that could tell her what that night had meant to him. He knew she had something to do with it, although not exactly what. It didn't matter though, as he chose instead to do the only thing he could, and that was to thank her from the bottom of his heart.

Carolyn held him, basking in the gratitude and love she knew her son was struggling with, and then recalled what Linda noticed, and that Carolyn had already seen: Michael was a very loving and empathetic person, for a boy. She knew that would wear off as he grew older, but having developed it now would go a long way towards building relationships in the future. She finally gave him a hardened squeeze of her own before responding. "I know your team won, and you guys got pretty keyed up. But, um, I think you really should be getting into bed, okay." When he looked up at her with his shining eyes and smile, she had to keep herself from melting. There were other questions she wanted to ask, but they could wait. Right now, she wanted him to go to bed happy.

Michael pulled away and then headed for the stairs, a distinct bounce in his step...

Austin Mathews was, in a single word, furious. Each step the hefty student took through the hallway was planted hard, making a resounding echo throughout the corridor. Even with students now changing classes, some dwelling near their lockers and exchanging books, or talking with their friends, his steps could be heard above the background noise. As he progressed, many looked up at his approach and, seeing his expression, quickly moved out of the way. Others, however, followed at a safe distance, their curiosity getting the better of them. Something was going down with the 15-year-old teen, and they were sure it wasn't going to be anything good.

Ever since the first subtle and then drastic change in Jeremy Riddle, most of the school saw an overall change in the atmosphere. The hallways seemed happier, filled with more light-hearted laughter than before. Although no one could finger the why of it, they knew when Riddle was at his prime, with his gang of friends, most kids went out of their way to avoid them. Before, neither the hallways nor the bathrooms were known as safe havens anymore, and that had made most kids nervous. More than a few made it a pact to never go into the bathrooms during changing of classes, for fear of what they might find or worse, what could happen to them. When they did go, they found friends to team up with, drawing strength in numbers. Strange as sounded, however, it wasn't only the boys who did this. Many girls had to practice safety in groups as well. Girls found in the hallways that they were easy prey to catcalls, groping or harassment - if not worse.

As the recent months passed by, however, things were changing in a big way. Riddle had suddenly and mysteriously transformed into this quiet individual. No longer did he find tormenting and belittling of others a favorite pastime, and his inner circle eventually grew frustrated with him. Their leader had undergone some kind of massive conversion of a sort, which mystified them completely. The rest of the general populace didn't care. Jeremy's circle was now in conflict with one another, as it was affecting their lives, in a totally different and unexpected way. That meant more peace for the rest of the school, and they milked it for all it's worth.

Austin Mathews had belonged to that circle, though, having risen in the "ranks" - if ever there was such a thing. Being Jeremy's second-hand man, he had gained a lot of favor initially. Now with their leader swaying in a different direction, people were changing and losing focus. It wasn't that Austin could not have taken over, but rather it was his lack of desire that turned their heads.

Though their relationship was somewhat odd, Austin and Jeremy had been best friends. They didn't necessarily hang out as much as one would expect, except at school, but Austin did know more of his friend than what was common. For example, Jeremy had this issue with being touched, even in the oddest of ways. In gym, if they played basketball, Jeremy sidestepped a lot of opportunities when it came to any camaraderie with the team. If the class were caught up with doing exercises, Jeremy always demanded more room around him than the others. So much so that, more than once, the teen was called out by the coach.

Austin noticed these, and other, things that were peculiar, but had let them slide overall. He had figured the teen had some sort of phobia, or that something deeper-driving behind it. But it was always confusing when he tried to talk to Jeremy about it. The teen was a very private person, not really talkative about his personal life at all. Austin knew his friend had lost his mother at a young age, but beyond that, he knew very little more. If he approached any subject about his family, Jeremy would change it. If Austin asked him why, he was accused of sticking his nose where it didn't belong. The most confusing part though, came when he pushed the whole thing off onto other people, laughed about it and carried on like it was nothing. Jeremy wasn't a careless person, but one who simply didn't care whom he pissed off, and whom he didn't.

People used to be afraid of Jeremy for that very fact, although now it was different. Gone were the pushes, the taunting, the outright dares and mockery that made up his style. Before, teens either befriended Jeremy because of the bad-boy attitude, or because they feared his wrath. Even those lucky enough to get on his good side, found that the friendship still meant they were held at a distance. Regardless of who they were, however, he let no one get close to him, in any way.

Not so with Austin, however. Of all the people to get into Jeremy's inner circle, Austin had seemed to stay, and not just out of reach. There were a few times - albeit rarely - Jeremy let his guard down around him, and Austin could see the hollow eyes behind the thinly-veiled mask. Those eyes were haunting, almost soul-less - as if deep down, Jeremy knew he was setting himself up for some kind of ultimate trouble. His father, the school system, and the rest of the world, had already tossed him out like a rag doll. For whatever reason though, the troubled teen did cling to the one person that kept him grounded, and that was Austin Mathews. One time, and one time only, he had given his friend a hard stare: "You have to keep me in check, man. Don't let my shit kill me, you hear? Keep me in check..." At first Austin didn't understand. He had just laughed it off, but those few words had always bothered him since.

Now Jeremy's attitude had suddenly changed, and he was totally shut off from the rest of the world. Austin had stuck by his friend for a long time, telling people it was just a phase. He came up with a variety of excuses, such as having problems at home, or other such explanations. The truth, however, was that Austin had no idea what was going on with his friend. Since the magical bus incident with the 7th or 8th grader, things were no longer the same. Jeremy joked about it in the beginning, laughing it off - but Austin realized something was different. The teen gradually began to live in the world as a recluse, withdrawn from other people so much that it included Austin himself. They had not spoken now for months, and as it was mid-March, Mathews had reluctantly written off their friendship. He doubted it would ever be renewed.

Today was a testament to that fact in more ways than one. Coming from one of the bathrooms, one of their buddies had been hanging out deliriously. The guy was quite loudly "educating" people, of a conversation he overheard earlier that morning. It seemed that Riddle had been in a shop class with Austin's younger brother, and somehow the two had gotten into an argument. That was not unusual in and of itself - Austin's younger brother was known to be a hothead, quick tempered and prone to talk with his fists rather than his head. In this situation, however, Riddle had belted Austin's brother not once, but twice. Without warning, the younger Mathews was down and out of the battle before it had even begun. At first, Austin couldn't believe it; this was his brother being talked about, his family in every sense of the word. The more details he gathered, however, the more convinced he became of its certainty. That led to the here and now, and thus the reason for his 'march' through the corridors.

Having been Jeremy's right-hand for as long as he did, Austin still had some privileges, and one of those was knowing the other teen's class schedule. Jeremy would be coming from gym and heading for lunch about now, and Austin was determined to meet the teen head on. He knew nothing about his brother's condition, or what caused the fight to start with - if a 'fight' was what you would call it. He just knew the incident could not go unanswered - at whatever the cost. No one had ever beaten up his kid brother before, and no one was going to start it now - not even if it was Austin's former best friend.

In the distance, at the far end of the corridor, he could see a familiar figure standing by an open locker, lazily putting his books inside. As he drew near, the door closed and the teen turned to face him, halting as he recognized the figure approaching. Austin saw the expression, the recognition, and the now-familiar mask that went blank. Unnoticed amongst the other teens in the corridor, Jeremy's stance shifted ever so slightly, something Austin registered clearly. He sneered as he realized Jeremy had been expecting this, and in Austin's mind, it all but confirmed his guilt. He drew up to his full height within a few feet of his now ex-friend and stopped. In a voice low, filled with the hostility he was now ready to vent, he declared quietly. "Who the fuck do you think you are, hitting my brother?"

Jeremy crossed his arms and seemingly leaned back against the lockers behind him, his face remaining expressionless. In a sense, he gave the impression of one who worried little about the other boy's presence, or the impending threat. All could tell, however, the cold voice that responded was far from someone who should not be taken lightly. "Oh, was that YOUR brother, Mathews? My, how word travels so fast, doesn't it? How interesting..."

Austin lost it at that point. The jeering attitude brought back the old memories, the defense mechanisms he knew existed in Jeremy's world. Without another word, he launched himself forward, with the intent to pin the teen against the lockers and simply beat the crap out of him. Jeremy, however, was prepared; with surprising speed and agility, he used the lockers to push himself out of the way at the last second, causing Austin to ram both his shoulder and fist into the metal wall behind. With a loud crash, Austin tripped and fell to the floor, causing most everyone in the hallway to burst out with laughter. Angered by the mockery, he spun around, rising quickly to his feet and facing Jeremy again, who now held a smirk on his face. "You fucking idiot!" Austin hissed, now totally enraged.

As Austin charged once again, Jeremy suddenly grabbed the other boy by the shirt, and literally threw him out of the way, into the lockers on the opposite side of the hallway. The students in the hall barely got out of the way in time, and the commotion created by the two of them left little doubt that a full-fledged fight would soon be underway.

That is, had it not been for one of the gym teachers entering the hallway. He appeared at just the moment Mathews fell headlong into the second set of lockers, and thus looked at the only boy standing nearby. The ensuing sequence could have certainly turned ugly, but the man paused. Recognizing the two, he shouted both their names as he stepped between them. When he noted Jeremy stood still, fists clenched but well reserved, the coach watched his opponent struggle back to his feet. Although the coach, too, was burly in his size, he was barely able to keep Austin at bay. Thankfully, other adults started converging on the scene, causing the kids in the hallway to suddenly quieten down as everything once again fell under control.

"Okay," said the gym teacher. "What is going on here, boys?" When no one spoke, he turned to Riddle. "Jeremy, spill it."

Jeremy looked at the man for a moment and then shrugged. "Nothing really, coach. I think Austin just lost his balance and went flying." He looked briefly bemused, staring hard at his ex-friend, as if trying to convey something. "Of course, he tried to fight with gravity, but gravity ended up winning."

Everyone within earshot sputtered in laughter, including some of the adults surrounding them. Even Austin had to grunt at that, suddenly keeping his temper in check. He got the message: this needed to wait. Having been tempered somewhat, he looked up at the coach and nodded.

With the silence broken, students began breaking up. Although suspicious, especially regarding the body language he had just observed, the coach knew he really couldn't push the issue any further. Hoping he wasn't making a mistake, the man let the two go, staying long enough to assure that they went their separate ways.

That afternoon, as the students were heading to the buses, Austin was still irritable. He had been unsuccessful in finding Jeremy at any of the usual hangouts, and it did little to settle the searing edge wedged in his stomach. He wanted to flatten the bully, to regain some of the family honor he felt had been toyed with and lost. At the same time, however, something in the teen's expression - that damned, impassive expression as he had leaned back against the lockers - had caused him to hesitate. It was eating at him from his core, and Austin didn't like it.

There is a point where students gets about 7 to 10 minutes, at the end of each day before they board their bus for home. It gave many the chance to exchange parting remarks, or make last-minute arrangements with their books before leaving. Austin was one who had study hall as his last period, and as such he rarely needed to take anything home with him. It wasn't that he was overly smart, rather his classes didn't load students down with work like other teachers did. When the bell rang, he wearily wandered toward the doorway leading outside, noting the weekend was upon them all. As he reached the exit, he suddenly heard an unexpected voice in his ear, "You want to hear me out, or do you really want to fuck with me?"

Austin turned, stunned at the challenge, but also annoyed at having been caught off guard so easily. Seeing Jeremy, though, caused him to pause. Not in fear, but because of the morbid curiosity in the way Jeremy furtively glanced around. As he stopped, it made Jeremy come up by his side and pass something, almost imperceptivity, into Austin's left front pocket of his jeans. "This is what your brother was doing this morning, and he was about to get caught. I had to pop him, man, before you guys ended up in a shitload of new problems." With that, Jeremy continued out of the door casually, never looking behind him again. It left Austin stunned yet again at the sudden and quick revelation. Puzzled, Austin put his hand in the pocket and grasped what felt like a small plastic bag. Removing it just enough to see the contents, his eyes widened in horror. Shoving it deep back into the pocket out of view, he slowly stalked out the doorway toward his bus. He was furious yet again, for the second time that day.

Only this time, it wasn't at his former best friend...

The old man's mood had changed little in the last few days, having steered itself south into yet another bottomless pit. Pity, anger and frustration occupied every ounce of his being, deepening into his soul. He had given life everything he had, and it had spat him out laughing, mocking him with indignation. He hated his life, hated the fact he had nothing to show for all the years he had put into his miserable existence.

Before he married, he was always in constant trouble, some of which included skirmishes with the law. He grew up as the wild one, the oldest of 7 brothers and sisters who would have nothing to do with him. To this day, throughout his whole 54 years of living, he was abandoned. He knew where not one of them lived, what they did or where they went. He knew nothing of their families, whether they had kids, gotten married or flew off to greener pastures. His family, in effect was nothing more than a mystery.

It wasn't just his fault, he considered. Sure, he never wanted anything to do with them either, but be that as it was, after all these years not one of them lifted a finger to find or reach out to him. They made their message plain and clear - stay away. Even while he was married, they made no attempt, to see that he was bettering his life. Not even his parents showed up - something that still dug deep claws into his heart to this day. It angered him, angered that they couldn't see he was trying to do right, trying to make amends for a wild childhood he could no longer even remember.

The only thing that made up for it, happened to be the sweetest person he ever came across in his days of partying. She had swept him off his feet, instead of the other way around. It had taken him forever to grasp the nerve and steel himself to clean up his act. But he did, and dating her, she changed his life. So beautiful she was, so entrancingly did she throw her spell over him - he was mesmerized. Once married, they produced a son, something that caught him by surprise. There they were, though - starting a family, learning to be a family - and living as one.

That is, until he could no longer fight it.

At first it was just a beer here or there, but it kept luring him in. Next came the bars, the hard liquor - the whiskey, if nothing else. Soon, it was controlling, calling him repeatedly. They had little money, and that made it worse, because it interfered with his ability to satisfy that damnable thirst of his. He could not quench it, could not quell the numbness or resist the power and rush it gave him all over - especially that night.

He had been working hard for weeks to do a job, and when he was finally rewarded, he made his way home proudly. His wife even shared in his triumph, and both knew there were things needed. So, they pushed the boy, then 5 or 6, off on the old neighbors for a while, before heading down the road to town. Along the way, he got in his head that he should be rewarded as well, just for himself. That damnable thirst, ceaselessly tickling at his throat! "I'll just have a drink or two, then be back before Ma finishes her shopping!' he thought. They reached the store and he dropped her off, explaining he needed to go to the hardware store. She was suspicious, even queried him with a wary eye. She tried to coax him to come with her instead, but no... He couldn't do that, he'd be back in just a few minutes, he said. He would join her then.

Off he went, finding his usual watering hole, where inside he pulled up to the bar. Not one, not two... he lost count that evening, unable to understand why he couldn't settle that damnable thirst of his. Then he lost track of time completely. When he finally rose to leave, he was floored - over half his check was in the bill. He argued with the bartender, 'Surely not? Surely, you've mis-added something here, right?' Astonishment then turned to anger. Just short of having the cops called, he had to give it up and pay the bill. All the time he was swearing and cursing about the highway robbery that he was encountering. He was drunk, barely able to function as it was, but he climbed into the truck anyway - angered more at the fact he had spent so rotten much, and gotten so little for it. Above all, that damnable thirst was still there!

That night cost him everything. His life, his wife, his dignity; never was life going to be the same again, and he knew it. The fight, the accident - his insufferable time spent in that damned hospital, even that damned physical therapy. No work, no income, nothing for him. Nothing but that cursed thirst that never withdrew! For a while, he sobered up, knowing that to get well he had to fight it. He never completely got rid of the hangover that belted him, though.

He had just about gotten some semblance of feeling back, some order to things, when there came that kid into his life again, all sullen and sulking. He couldn't stand having his own life as miserable as hell, so why should he have to deal with someone else's, too? When that kid came in though, he had had enough. After having the snot beaten out of him, the kid finally confessed. The kid told of the months and the rage that had built, the ignorance and neglect. The old man might have even been able to muster a little sympathy, until the bombshell was dropped: the whole time he had been in therapy, his son had been turned into a stinking whore. The old man screamed at that! How much worse could life punish him? Had he not lost enough, paid enough for his dues, when now THIS had to come along? He had lost his brothers and sisters, his parents, his wife and now even his son? Looking hard at the boy, he wanted nothing to do with the fucker. `You're no son of mine!' he had told him with a rage, before getting through the door of his room and slamming it shut, leaving the bawling kid behind.

For weeks, he had repeatedly told the kid he never wanted to set eyes on him again, but there came a time when he had to relent, all because of that damnable school system. He couldn't put the kid up for adoption - the courts wouldn't let him. It was his responsibility, they told him, his charge. His charge? `Yeah, your charge -- you abandon him, you get locked up probably for life!' The sheriff made the threat very clear and real from the onset. What the hell, the old man knew nothing about raising a kid! It was his punishment, he figured, his damnable soul to be tormented yet again for everything that was unfair in life. Slowly the misery seeped back into him, followed by depression again. Having been barred from returning to the watering holes, as he called them, the only place he had left was there at the house. He finally got a job, finally started pulling the farm into something that could be useful, lame as it was. He and the faggot made the best they could with one other, avoiding each as much as possible. As far as Jeremy was concerned, the old man didn't even know the kid existed most of the time.

Living alone, living in despair, he had found the only solace he could in quenching that damnable thirst of his. The beer, the whiskey - even the insolence; damn that kid! Someday, he had vowed, he would make him pay for it - pay for it all! Pay for the attitude, pay for the ignorance - pay for the smirk of self-righteousness that so filled that crap-loaded teenage head of his! Eventually he had done it, and oh how it had hit him. It came to him, if the kid was going to be a faggot, why couldn't he himself get something out of it too? Oh yeah, he had showed him - he had showed him what his life would be like for the rest of his damnable eternity. The old man gloated at the cries of anguish he could still hear in his head, when on each of those glorious days and nights he repeatedly took his innocence, his childhood, from the kid. He gloated at the fact that each thrust from his own wild and savage loins, pumped hatred and anger into the youth. Yeah, the kid was learning a lesson, one he would never forget! He made sure that each thrust was as ravaging, as hard and painful as he could make it. Damn, how hard that had been, though, with the boy being so young and tight and constricted! But it was worth it, worth making him pay for all that insolence. If the boy was going to give and get the shaft from those damned kids, then the old man made sure he took it for all it was worth.

Although it had created a certain satisfaction, the old man had known he wanted to hurt the kid, and make him suffer. So, with careful consideration, he had made sure he waited time enough, too. Long weeks passed, just enough so the kid would be healed after being split so wide and hard. And just when he had thought it had been enough, the next time would become just as painful as the last. The old man had smirked at that thought, at how ingeniously he had figured it all out. Well, hell! His life was pure, livid, bottom-of-the-pit hellish anyway - why not bring the kid along with him? He was a faggot, after all, right? After all, in his eyes, he was just as responsible for his own misery as the old man was.

Yeah, as he had pulled himself up from the table and headed for the truck again. He noted the fresh $20 bill in his pocket. Why not? Looking at the empty cans already drained, he thought to himself that no - he wasn't buzzed enough, wasn't ready enough for what he planned. Instead, he'd go get a few more drinks, and then tonight... Yeah, the lust in his eyes was heavy, and he could feel the tickle that extended deep into his loins. Oh yes, why he shouldn't have some small satisfaction escape him; he was going to make life for the kid a pure living hell once more.

And maybe tonight, he would make it the worst of all nights imaginable.

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[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead