The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 10

When Life Comes Full Circle

"Oh crap, oh crap... oh shiiiittttttt!"

Jeremy was muttering mostly to himself, as his body was rotated upward again slowly, bringing him to stand on his feet. His physical therapist and counselor stood close by on one side - ignoring the obscenities as he worked the platform's controls. On the other side stood Michael, looking onward apprehensively as the older teen's face contorted from the discomfort.

It was a bright and hazy Sunday afternoon that filtered through the room's windows. For the second day in a row, Jeremy had been wheeled into the therapy room, all in an attempt to rebuild some level of normalcy in his life. After having been reclined on his back for the last nine to ten days, returning to a sitting or standing position left him disoriented and lightheaded. Additionally, the extensive repair that had been done internally to his colon, also created considerable discomfort each time as he shifted his weight. At first, it had been almost unbearable, like pins rubbing from the inside outward into other parts of his body. As each attempt was made, however, he gradually adjusted to the new contractions and was improving overall. He was now being moved from a sitting position, to one of standing. The pain in this session, however, was getting the better of him.

Up until the previous day, Jeremy's diet had almost consisted of only pure liquids, which initially contributed to his weakened state. The various doctors intended to minimize the impact on his digestive tract, giving his colon additional time to transition before it received more solid material. By now, however, he was being given more solid rations, including high energy foods and drinks, and it was paying off handsomely. The teen found his strength returning rapidly, and that encouraged him to keep pressing onward. His emotional state, however, was a different story. In his mind, he wanted to block out the past and forget about everything that had brought him to this point. Instead, he wanted to concentrate on getting better. The pain was a sharp reminder though, prompting him to realize he had limits to what he could accomplish, and thus would take time before he could fully recoup. He wasn't blind to the fact, however, that at some point he was going to have to address all of what happened to him, in one way or another. He just didn't want it to be now.

Shutting his eyes, Jeremy shook away the nausea creeping up on him, and instead focused on the moment. Within seconds, he opened them again to a steadier sensation, and then nodded. Both of his attendants released him slowly, so that he could stand independently on his own.

"Not bad there, not bad at all," came the encouragement from his therapist.

Jeremy grunted, but remained silent. Inwardly pleased, he noted his own improvement compared to the day before. Only 24-hours before, he couldn't even stand before the nausea induced headaches and other incredibly intense areas of pain. The therapist, an older black man with a kindly face, cautioned him it that it would be rough, but would quickly get better - just like Dr. Riddle had informed him. Right now, this was living proof of it, and it helped improve the teenager's mood extensively.

He tentatively took a step forward, his hands clinging to the parallel rails that ran along each of his sides. Both the therapist and Michael immediately stepped in again, ready to assist if needed. Jeremy shook his head, however. "Not yet, guys. Let me try and do this, okay?" In painstakingly small steps, he moved forward about three feet, shifting his weight first left and then right. It was maddening, as he progressively worked muscles that had now been dormant for so long. At first his arms bore the bulk of his weight, but slowly he began to transfer that responsibility to his upper thighs and legs.

His counselor smiled and nodded approvingly. "There you go, that's it. Don't try and do too much, now. Not for your first time, I mean, but yep, that's nice… really nice there…"

Moving another two to three feet brought back more dizziness then, and Jeremy suddenly felt exhausted. He might have fallen to the floor if not for the careful attention of the other two. Stepping in, the older man caught the teen from behind, pulling him in close while holding him up. Jeremy shut his eyes, biting his lip under the man's support; their bodies closely spooning in contact, felt odd. In that instant, fresh memories of other similar encounters suddenly emerged, and an unpleasantness unsettled the teen to the point he began shaking nervously. He knew the older man was only helping him, and that he should shake it off, but he couldn't. He suddenly tensed, fighting the urge to lash out.

The older man sensed the change, however, and was already working to soothe him. Leaning down carefully, he spoke in a calm and clear voice. "Jeremy, I understand how you're probably feeling right now, and believe me - it's okay. But young sir, try to relax, hmm? I promise you, I am not going to molest you, or hurt you in any way. You have my word. I'm only holding you up, until you feel ready to go at it again, all right? And if you don't feel ready soon enough, then that is fine, too. We'll get Mister Michael here to bring the chair around, if you want."

Jeremy shut his eyes tightly, fighting the fear he felt down inside. The man had guessed it correctly. The teen didn't like being held so close, didn't like the fact he could feel so much contact behind him, much in the way he had been held by his father. His body was starting to fight against his common sense, and for some reason he failed to control it. At least, until he suddenly heard another voice by his side, speaking quietly into his ear. "Jermz, he isn't your Dad; he's just a friend. You'll be okay, I promise. I'm right here with you, too."

Jeremy opened his eyes in amazement to see Michael, as if he only now recognized his presence there. That voice, spoken softly but firmly, had the desired impact. A wave of calm enveloped him just then that surprised the teen. He wondered briefly, who was this damn kid? And why did he have such a hold on Jeremy like this? It seemed whenever Michael was around, there was this tranquil aura surrounding him, one that made Jeremy feel more at ease. Recognizing the intensity of the moment, he relaxed, causing the other boy to smile back. "For whatever it's worth, I'm not going to let anyone hurt you, I promise," Michael added.

"You'd be surprised how much that helps me, right now," Jeremy gasped out after a moment. He then took a deep breath and stood upright again. Regaining some of his strength, he stood under his own power again as the older man, smiling and nodding at Michael from behind, gently released his hold. Slowly, the three of them made their way to the end of the bars without further incident. Jeremy's face was covered in sweat, and with his arms shaking toward the end, Michael quickly retrieved the wheelchair and readied it for the teen. After they both helped him to sit down, Jeremy heaved a huge sigh before turning his attention to the older man. "I'm sorry, sir. Honestly, I really didn't mean to do that. I know you're only trying to help me get better."

The other man shook his head before kneeling down in front of the teen. "Don't be sorry. Listen, I understand completely. I don't know all the particulars of your case, but I do know you've had a rough way to go. If I understood right, your old man did some pretty nasty things, abusing you and all." When Jeremy nodded, he grunted. "There was a time, when I was young, that I went through something similar with an uncle of mine. So, believe it or not, I really do think I understand. It's hard to let people touch and hold you, and that feeling will not go away for a while. You're going to have to work some things out though son, both physically and emotionally. Just try to remember, that's what we're here for. We'll be patient, and we'll be with you every step of the way, okay? Just, uh," he paused, a grin appearing. "Try not kicking the shit out of this old codger, especially if I grab you in the wrong place by accident, okay? My lady would probably be grateful for that, too." He winked, while the other two grinned widely. Before standing up though, he became serious again. "By the way, you're doing great. Just don't try to do too much all at once. This is going to take a while."

Jeremy nodded. "Thanks. I mean that, too. We're cool."

The man smiled. "Now, just so you know, it won't be as physical as you think. Oh, maybe a little at first is all. I mean, I have to protect you from falling, but that's just part of the job. You're going to be walking on your own in a day or two, but until you regain your sense of balance, someone has to be close. You understand that, right? I'll try not to hold you too close, but I'm afraid you're a little bit bigger than, say, he is," he smiled, indicating Michael.

Again, Jeremy nodded, blushing slightly. "It's okay, I really do understand. It – it's not going to really bother me, I think. I'm sorry, it's just - you caught me by surprise, that's all." Jeremy looked up. "You really think I'll be walking in another day or so?"

The man smiled. "Sure do! Oh, maybe not completely, but you'll be using a walker by tomorrow night probably, and a cane a day or two afterwards. I'll say it again - you're doing remarkably well, so don't sell yourself short." Standing up, he looked down at his young charge. "Remember, you have nothing to be sorry about. Anyone who has been through what you did, would have a right to not want to be gawked at, yet be physically handled by someone like me."

The man sniffed and stretched, before speaking again. "Tell you what, that was a pretty long walk for a first attempt. Why don't you just rest there for a bit. I'll head out to the restroom for a couple of minutes, and leave you two here to chat a while and recover." Looking at Michael, he added. "If you need help, just walk right out that door to the nurses' station. Honestly though, I'll be back in a jiff."

Michael nodded, and they both watched the man head through the door, leaving them alone in the room. Michael saw a folding chair nearby, so he promptly pulled it up and sat down. He watched as Jeremy tried to relax, but also noted the occasional grimace that occurred when the teen shifted around. There was an awkward silence between the two, but eventually their eyes met and held each other, causing Michael to clear his throat. "Um, can I ask you something? I mean, it's kind of personal, though. You don't have to answer, but…"

Jeremy had been lost in his own thoughts, but nodded. "Sure, what's up?"

"Well, um, how's it going? I mean, like... down there..." He motioned to indicate the other boy's midsection.

Jeremy grunted before basically shrugging. "Meh, I guess better. A lot of it stays numb, though. I mean, I feel it aching a lot inside, but it doesn't really hurt unless I twist around very much." The boy wrinkled his nose, looking thoughtful. "It just feels weird when I do certain things, or move certain ways. Like, if I do something to shift my nuts the wrong way, that sort of thing." He grimaced. "The swelling around my balls has gone down more now, so that's got to be better, right?" Just then he glanced around, making sure they were indeed alone. In a surprise move, he then pulled the front of his hospital gown up.

Michael gasped in surprise by what was revealed underneath. Being closer than he had been the other day, this time Michael's unobstructed view saw that the inside of Jeremy's thighs, leading up to his groin, was blackened and bruised heavily. Streaks of cuts had scarred over and were still healing, but that was nothing compared to the older teen's scrotum, which looked monstrous, swollen and stretched beyond anything normal. He whistled as he looked, shaking his head in disbelief. Glancing farther north he saw the tube protruding from the end of the older teen's penis, and then cringed. Somehow, the thought of it being stuck up the length of his shaft, made him shiver. "Crap man, doesn't that, like, hurt? You know, that thing stuck in your dick?"

Jeremy almost laughed before he looked down and shrugged. "Not really, I can't much tell it is there except, well, sometimes I can, but..." He stared at himself for a long time, then shrugged and dismissed the question, oblivious to the younger teen's continued scrutiny. "I know, it's pretty ugly down there now, but one of the nurses told me I was doing a lot better than when I first came in here." He shivered and fell silent, his mind going back to the faint memories he still held of that terrifying night.

Michael frowned, trying to imagine what kind of monster could have done this to the teen, or anyone else for that matter. "I- I'm sorry man, I didn't know..." he whispered aloud. Jeremy looked up, uncertain what the younger boy was talking about just then, but saw a look of sincerity on the youth's face as he took it in. Once again, Jeremy wondered why he was so drawn and open to him. Only one guy had ever gotten close to him before, but Jeremy had never been able to let his guard down. Yet here was Michael, sitting before him and... and what?

Austin had been his friend and sidekick for years, but Jeremy could never have done what he was doing now, exposing himself both physically and emotionally. This boy, sitting across from him, was someone he had only begun to know for the last few months. Since the night he and Thomas found Jeremy, their presence became even more real, despite their past. Why? What made Jeremy feel that Michael had reached inside his soul, and told him 'Hey, trust me, I'm your friend'?

Jeremy slowly lowered the gown, seeing no point in keeping it up. He watched Michael's face, wondering what was going through his thoughts at the moment. He didn't have to wait long, before the boy looked up and popped another question. "Does that, like, bother you? I mean, people seeing your dick and everything?"

Jeremy scoffed. "Don't really have a lot of choice, do I?" He saw the teen blush, then hastened to add. "There are people who have to see, I know, and no – that doesn't bother me as much as I thought it might. And as for you seeing me, well, you're my friend, right?" The moment he said it, caused him to pause as something began to dawn on him. "So, can I ask you something, for a change?"

Michael startled, sat back. "Anything, Jermz."

Jeremy cocked his head to one side. "Why were you at the house that day? I mean, how is it you found me to begin with?"

Michael visibly relaxed, his tenseness being something Jeremy had not recognized until that moment. "I don't know, to be honest. I mean, I got out and rode my bike that day, and I made it as far as that big bend by the old pond. You know the one, we pass it just before we hit the big long straight stretch." Jeremey did indeed recall the place, and nodded.

"I just, well, me and Thomas had ridden up to that old house the weekend before, see?" Michael continued. "It was all boarded up and everything then. But when I looked up the road that day, it looked like the door had been forced open. So, I got curious, because I remembered the door was all white and stuff, but I couldn't see it anymore."

"I don't remember exactly, but yeah, I think I did break it in or something. So, really - that was it?" Jeremy asked, surprise in his voice.

"Well, kind of, yeah. Not all of it, though." Michael paused, thinking. "I mean, I remember feeling weird some, too, but also it was like I couldn't stop myself, you know? Like there was this thing in my head, something making me feel like I HAD to go check it out. Stupid, I know, but when I got closer and couldn't hear anything, and I saw it really was open, I decided to look inside. That's when I heard you - although I didn't know it was you at first."

"Oh," Jeremy replied, trying to think back. He recalled opening his eyes to see the younger teen at one point. "I remember you finding me, shaking me awake. Everything is really hazy after that, though."

Michael nodded. "You were really out of it, yeah. I remember touching you, and you were cold. I tried to warm you up, but it was cold in that room and all. I knew I had to get you outside into the sun, because it was warmer there."

Jeremy studied, but then shook his head. "I don't remember that. The only thing I remember is being in a car or truck or something, and you and your Mom in the seat with me."

Michael furrowed his brow. "You don't remember me talking to you outside, or getting you over the hill any?"

Jeremy shook his head. When he saw the disappointment, he grunted. "Was it bad or something?" When Michael didn't answer, Jeremy saw the expression intensify. As the silence grew, Jeremy finally broke eye contact and stared out the window. "Okay, so I guess the answer is yes."

"Jermz," Michael started, softly. "I didn't know, honest. I mean, I knew you were hurt, and I saw all the blood and stuff in your jeans. You know, between your legs and everything. And I knew you smelled bad, because you had been pissing on yourself for days, I guess - and I'm sorry man, I'm really sorry. I just didn't know what to do." There was a sense of urgency in the voice that made Jeremy lean back. Michael saw the curiosity there, and then cringed before lowering his eyes. "I think I almost killed you. I mean, you lost blood, a LOT of blood. And carrying and getting you over that field and everything was, well, really hard on both of us. When we got you to Thomas's house, you were so white, and weak… It scared the crap out of me then. You were unconscious, and... and..."

Suddenly Jeremy understood. "I think I remember some of that, now. Yeah, I wanted to die," he said softly, speaking to no one in particular.

Michael's face contorted at the horror of the thought. "No!"

Jeremy brought himself back to the moment, his expression softening. "You don't understand, man. I wanted it all to end. I couldn't stand living at home anymore. I couldn't stand being alone, couldn't stand having no food, or being treated like some whore. I didn't know what I was going to do this summer living like that, and my old man, well... he was getting worse." To his surprise, he saw tears slowly falling down Michael's cheek.

"B-but Jeremy, why didn't you tell someone? I mean, … yeah, why?" the younger teen asked.

"Because Mike, I couldn't." The older boy sighed deeply. "Try to understand, man. You know who I am, what I was like. I figured this was just my destiny in life, to be punished for beating the shit out of all those people, and for making everyone's life as miserable as I could, you know? It was my punishment. Remember the day I beat up your friend on the bus? Remember the look my father had while he and that bus driver were talking? That's why. If I had told anyone, well...."

"Well, what?" When Jeremy shrugged, Michael became annoyed. "I don't get it, are you saying you took all this... all this - crap," he hesitated, pointing at the other boy's groin. "All this shit, because you thought you deserved it?" When Jeremy remained silent, Michael got angry. "Fuck you, man! That's bullshit, and you know it!"

Jeremy was startled at the intensity coming from his new friend. He started to respond, but Michael held his hands up. "No, don't start it, don't try and tell me that shit. I understand, if that's what you thought about it, then okay, I'll believe you. But crap, Jermz, if that's what you really believed, then fuck you, man. Nobody - NO-BOD-Y - deserves to go through what you went through! No kid, no girl, no boy, no teen, nobody! Don't you realize, that asshole almost fucking KILLED you??!! And.. and…"

Michael rose to his feet, crossing the short distance between them and kneeling in front of the other teen. He pushed his face directly in front, only inches separating their noses. When he spoke again, his voice dropped in both intensity and tone, becoming softer. "Jeremy, think about something, please? Try and forget everything and think about this for a minute: what if it had been me, or Austin, or his brother, or even Thomas? Or someone else you know, or hell, even someone you don't know! I don't care if you think about some girl, or another guy, or whatever. Just think about it being someone else for a change. What if you KNEW someone else was sitting in your chair right now, having been through everything you've been through. Shit, what if it had happened to me, what if I was the one sitting there right now, where you're at? Ask yourself, would I deserve what happened to you? Would I have deserved it happening to me? Would anyone?"

Michael backed away slightly. "So, you were a jerk and a creep, or a first-class asshole. At least you used to be, but honestly, I'm not so sure about that anymore. Yeah, you beat the shit out of people, or scared them enough to piss their pants. I know that much. You were a lousy, fucking bully at one time, and no one who knew you would question that. But hell man, lots of schools always have the fucking bullies, right? So, I'm sorry, but you don't get a pass for that. Imagine some other shit-faced asshole - hell, put Austin in that chair for a sec. You know, he's done some creepy, shitty things in the past with you, too. Still, would even he have deserved having that fucking crap happen to him? Huh? Answer me asshole!"

Shocked, Jeremy let the words sink in. At first, he had felt anger rising, but as Michael went on, that feeling dissipated quickly. His eyes became moist, and he didn't know what to say or feel for several minutes. Michael saw the change, and then felt sheepish about having pushed as hard as he did. He tentatively leaned in close, this time using the softest voice he had, almost apologetic. He didn't want to retreat from his conviction, though. "You want to punch me? Go ahead, I probably deserve it. But I still think you're a dick-head if you really believe what you just told me. You didn't deserve that shit, Jermz. Nobody deserves to be treated that way."

Tears started streaming down Jeremy's face, as he hung his head in shame. Michael reached out and touched the teen's shoulder. When he didn't feel any resistance, he whispered, "Come here." Slowly Jeremy leaned forward and began to cry when Michael enveloped him with a hug, showing his own raw sincerity. Surprisingly, Jeremy slowly began to reciprocate by holding his own arms out awkwardly, surrounding his newfound friend. He had never really embraced anyone in his life, at least not since his mother had passed away, so the experience right then was overwhelming. That's when the sobs came in torrents, with waves making him shudder constantly. Letting it go, he realized Michael was right. He had been punishing himself for something out of his control.

After several minutes, the tears finally abated, and both boys fell silent and still. As Jeremy recomposed himself, he did not yet let go of the younger boy. Instead, he finally whispered, "No."

"No - what?" Michael asked, whispering back.

"No, no one deserves what I went through," Jeremy replied weakly.

Michael smiled finally. "Good. Just don't forget that, okay? Promise me, you won't forget it, no matter what the fucking shrinks say, or try to get into your head. Don't forget it, okay? I don't want you dead, and I know a whole lot of other people who wouldn't want it either. You don't deserve it. Life is going to get better, believe me. Make that promise, make it for me."

Jeremy smiled, and nodded, finally letting go. "I promise."

Just then, they heard the door open behind them, and the therapist walked in carrying some ice cream bars, all smiles across his face. Michael could not help but wonder if the timing had been planned, but as he looked at the older teen, the older man detected a new brightness about them both. Something had changed yet again, something had connected.

For the better...

Pulling quietly into the driveway, Linda parked and shut off the motor. She stared at the darkened house in front of her, hesitating before getting out. It was twilight, and the last remnants of the evening sun were sinking low in the horizon. The outside air was still, unseasonably muggy, though it still carried various fragrances from the farms and fields nearby.

She sat still, dreading the task that now lay before her, but knowing she was the only one who could do it. As Linda looked upon the structure, she noticed both the windows and door were open. A single, solitary light coming from inside the living room was the only signal the house was occupied. She waited a moment, but there was no sign that anyone even heard her arrival. She sighed, finally grimacing to herself. "Well, here goes. Let's get it over with," she said to herself, before opening the door and stepping from her vehicle.

As she walked the short distance to the door, a sense of sadness enveloped her. If she was successful, she thought this may very well be the last time she would ever enter this house. The homestead had, for matters of its physical presence, been a good place for them over the years. Living in the countryside had afforded a sense of peace and quiet, unparalleled to that of the city life she had known as a child. Having been reared mostly in an orphanage, she had come to admire the change in scenery and what it had offered her these last few years. Although they had been crowded within the walls of this old house at first, everyone had adapted well to the close quarters and gotten along seemingly fine. How she so wished that could have remained, at least until Thomas was old enough to leave out on his own. With the realization of what was happening, though, she knew they couldn't return - ever again.

As she arrived, Linda hesitated. In the past, she had just simply walked in without any preamble. Now, that somehow seemed alien to her, and for good reason. Carefully, she knocked on the wood of the door sill, softly at first and then harder until it echoed inside.

"Okay, okay, we're not deaf you know!" came a sarcastic, nasal reply as Linda heard the sounds of someone approaching. Within seconds, Gramps turned the corner into the foyer and stopped in his tracks, recognizing the figure through the opening. A sneer crossed his face, and he made no attempt to hide the contempt in his voice. "What the hell do YOU want?"

Linda grunted, mostly to herself. She had expected no less than such a welcoming, but it did little to undermine her resolve. Before she replied, a second figure joined her husband to his left. Nodding toward the woman in greeting, she returned her attention to the man. "I've come to get what's left of our things," she stated calmly.

"What things? You have no 'things' remaining here. You took everything with you when you left," he replied sarcastically.

Linda smiled, straining to keep her temper in check. "We left with only a portion of our belongings, as you well know. I'm here to get what's left, and then we'll be out of your way for good."

"Out of our way? You're out of the way now, you bitch! I told you, there is nothing you have remaining here anymore. Get off my land!" As he spoke rapidly, an audible gasp came from the woman inside, causing the man to turn toward his wife. "Shut up woman, I'll handle this!"

Linda's annoyance began to best her. "Why do you do that? Why do you treat your own wife as if she's some degraded puppet, all for you to yank her strings with? Did you not get enough satisfaction from doing it to me and my son? Your own grandson?" She emphasized the last words, but noted they fell on deaf ears.

"Don't try and tell me how to run my household woman! You have no say in this whatsoever, so don't even get me started! I know you bitching, whoring types, and how you think! I'm not going to take your shit! So now, get off my fucking land, before I throw you out!" His voice had risen, screaming the last few words while shaking his fist.

Unfazed, Linda took a deep breath, ignoring his insults. She was now coming to expect no less from this man she had lived with for so many years. "I will, as soon as I get what's left of our clothes and belongings."

The man crossed the foyer and stood directly before her on the other side of the screened door. A look of rage covered his features, his face red with restrained contempt. When he spoke again, however, the voice resonated a deadly quiet, as dark and still as the night around them. "What part of your ears can't hear me? I told you, you've got nothing left here. You're not entering this house again, period. Now for the last time, get your whoring ass out of here!"

Both stood staring at the other for several minutes, each boiling with scorn and hatred. When it was obvious Linda was not going to back down, there came a slight scuffle of steps, and the elder woman was again by his side. "Dear, I'm sorry, but it's true. He burned everything. There really is nothing left here anymore," she explained in a meek, almost apologetic voice.

Her husband turned with a roar, and then reared back, delivering a slap across her face with his open hand. It made a hard popping noise, breaking loose through the night like a gunshot. He said not a word after the slap, instead pointing towards the room from which they had come. His wife of over 40 years was stunned, but nonetheless hung her head and obediently retreated beyond their view. He turned then and sneered at Linda. "You best be getting out of here, if you know what's good for you, bitch," he spoke again, using the same deadly quiet voice as before. He then slammed the door in her face and she could hear him retreating away.

For the first time Linda hesitated, seeing something else in the elder man's eyes that alarmed her. It was something she had not initially noted in the dim light - but with which was now plainly evident. There was a madness there, and it caused Linda to fear for the woman who had retreated. Slowly she turned and walked off the steps, returning and getting into the car. As she pulled away, tears filled her eyes, as the impact of what the couple said hit her like a ton of bricks. Their belongings, what few there were, had been burned! That probably meant everything that was left, in the way of albums, pictures and other heirlooms were gone as well! Most of all, she remembered Thomas worrying about his journal, knowing he had left it behind in their hasty exit that night. She knew how that art book had preserved a good portion of his life, his effort at 'keeping it all together'. Was it now gone, as well? She thought back and then realized, the man probably meant every word of it.

The spite and rage her ex-father-in-law held seemed to know no bounds. She became so upset, as she rounded the bend out of site, that she had to pull over and succumb, wailing loudly and hitting the steering wheel with her fists. She had no understanding why it was happening to them, or what she and Thomas had done to deserve such pigheadedness. The worst of it, however, was that her son now had to grow up with an estrangement, one that was no different than she had herself as a little girl. In truth, neither had any other family now.

Linda sighed as she calmed down and started moving again towards their new home - temporary maybe, but it was still a home, for now. Maybe she and Thomas had no family behind her anymore, but as she pulled into the driveway and topped the hill, she corrected herself.

Carolyn and Michael were their family now, for as long as they would have them...

- + - + - + - + -

Michael bounded up the stairs two at a time once he arrived home, anxious to tell Thomas everything that had happened that afternoon. Arriving in his room, however, he stopped at the sight that unfolded before him. The room was darkened, as the sky outside gave way from the evening twilight to pure blackness. The TV was on, casting an irregular illumination across the bed, with its volume turned low, and as Michael paused, he heard a cough and sniffle come from the bed.

Walking over, he found Thomas wrapped tightly in the comforter, along with an extra blanket around his feet. His eyes were closed, but the expression he held was one far from being at peace. Michael sat down next to his best friend, causing Thomas to suddenly open his eyes in surprise. "Oh, hey," he spoke, a certain weariness to his voice.

"Hey," Michael replied. "You don't look so good." He reached out and felt the other teen's forehead. He could immediately detect a warmth that should not be there.

"Don't feel so good either," was the weak reply.

"Does your Mom know you're sick?" When Thomas shrugged, Michael stood up at once and disappeared, heading quickly downstairs. He heard Linda in her makeshift room as he approached, and as he noticed her moving around inside by the light from underneath the door, he stopped. "Umm, ma'am?" he called, knocking.

At once the door opened and Linda stood there smiling. Michael could tell, however, that she had been crying, as her eyes were all puffed. Before he could note anything else though, she sniffed and then placed a hand onto his shoulder. "You don't have to be so formal with me Michael," she called softly. "What's up, honey? Is Thomas getting worse?"

"You knew? I mean, yeah, I think he has a fever," replied the young teen, mildly surprised. "Umm, what SHOULD I call you, though? I mean, I don't know anything else, really..."

Linda nodded as she guided him back towards the living room, following behind him. "Call me Linda or, if you really want to, then ma'am is fine. Thomas wasn't doing too great a little while ago, so I gave him some aspirin and told him to lie down. I was hoping a nap might help him feel a little better. Guess it didn't do the trick, huh?"

Michael shook his head as they both ascended the steps. "I found him bundled up and shivering. I'm sorry, I didn't know if you knew, and…"

"It's okay, honey. You did fine," Linda assured him, as she walked inside and over to the bed. Sitting down, she talked to him. "Hey kiddo. Not feeling any better, huh?"

Michael watched as Thomas looked up. "I J-just feel like I'm f-freezing, more than an-anything else, Mom."

Linda put her hand to her son's forehead, and then stole a quick glance at Michael. She smiled and turned her attention back to the bed. "You do have a little bit of a fever. Do you have a headache or anything?"

Thomas shook his head. "No, but my throat's a little sore."

She was studying him when Carolyn suddenly appeared in the doorway. "So, this is where everyone ran off to! Is everything okay up here?" she asked warmly, entering the room.

Linda looked up at her. "Thomas has a low-grade fever, says he's really cold. I think he might be coming down with something." She paused, considering. "I thought I would get him some of those extra strength tabs downstairs. You don't think they would hurt him, do you?"

Carolyn gazed upon the teen and shook her head. "No, it won't hurt him. He's plenty old enough for some of the stronger meds." She walked around to the other side of the bed, then quietly spoke. "May I?" When Thomas nodded, Carolyn reached out and assessed him, not any different than his mother had only moments before. The only difference was she also felt around the glands in his throat. "Nah, not too bad, but I do agree. You do seem to be a little warm. I'd give him a couple of tablets now, then another couple in say 3 to 4 hours if he needs it."

Linda nodded. "I'll be right back," she declared, and then left the room. While she was gone, Thomas curled up yet again into a fetal position underneath the cover.

Michael sat down next to him where Linda had been sitting, before turning to Carolyn. "Mom?"


"Well, you know what you always tell me when I'm cold like this, and Thomas told his Mom he didn't have a headache or anything. You think...?" Just then Linda returned, catching the end of the conversation. She smiled questioningly at Carolyn as she crossed to the bed, holding out the medicine with a glass of water – at which Thomas sat up and promptly consumed.

"I used to have Michael take a warm bath and soak for a bit, when he was feeling cold this way," Carolyn explained. "It seemed to always make him feel better, didn't it kiddo?" Her smile encouraged him to nod in acknowledgement.

Linda looked thoughtful before nodding. "Sounds logical to me. It's alright if you want to," she told her son. When Thomas didn't answer right away, she added. "I'm sure Mike can help you, if you want him too. Just make sure you let me know if you start feeling any worse is all, okay? I'll come back up and check on you in a little while."

Thomas nodded, hugging her. "Thanks M-Mom," he whispered.

Carolyn then stood up, and both women made their way toward the door. Pausing though, she turned to her son. "Michael? You might want to watch him, okay? You know how to be careful, I know, but watch him. If he gets any worse, come and get us."

"Okay Mom, I promise," he replied.

When both women had departed, Thomas opened one eye to his friend. "What did your mom m-mean about being careful?"

Michael grinned. "She meant like, not letting you sneeze on me and stuff. You know, so I don't catch your cold or whatever." He leaned in close though and wrapped both arms around his friend, who was still snuggling and shivering under the cover. Whispering into his ear, he added, "I don't care though, I just want you to get better."

"Right n-now, I just want to get w-warm," Thomas replied before closing his eyes again.

"Really? I mean, I know how if you want, seriously," Michael replied. When Thomas didn't answer, Michael got up and left the room, heading into their upstairs bathroom and turning on the light. Walking over to the tub, he proceeded to draw water for a bath that was just shy of being hot. Rummaging nearby, he extracted some bubbling liquid his Mom had bought and used before. In due course, the tub filled as he waited, the water slightly steaming beneath the faucet before he turned it off.

Heading back to the bedroom, he found Thomas sitting up in the bed, though still wrapped up. "You serious?" his friend asked, before letting go a sneeze.

Michael giggled. "Yeah, I am. You'll feel a lot better, trust me."

Thomas looked deep into Michael's eyes. "I do trust you, you know that." The connection they made showed it, too. Pushing the covers back, Thomas slid out barefooted onto the floor. Michael opened and reached into a nearby dresser drawer, withdrawing a pair of briefs and a fresh t-shirt, before coming back and helping his friend to his feet. Guiding him into the bathroom, Michael closed the door and put the fresh clothes on top of the hamper. "There bro, just get in and let it cover you up, all the way. I promise, you'll feel a lot better afterwards." He made as if to go, but Thomas grabbed him by the wrist.

"Uh, don't go... stay..."

Michael raised an eyebrow just as his friend shuddered, and he could visibly see goose bumps appearing on Thomas's arms. "Are you sure?" he whispered.

"Oh y-yeah, I'm s-sure." He slowly began trying to peel his shirt off, to which Michael reached out and offered a hand. As the shirt came loose over his head, Thomas swiftly undid his belt buckle and jeans, letting them fall to the floor. As quickly as he could, Michael helped Thomas step out of them, clad only in his briefs, and then watched his friend cross the floor to the tub. Without any hesitation, the ill teen hooked the waistband of his underwear and dropped them too, before tentatively setting his foot into the water.

"Slow bro," Michael warned. "It's really warm, so you'll have to get used to it as you get in, okay?" Thomas nodded, so Michael stood by his side, extending an arm of support if it was needed. Thomas accepted the help as he slowly lowered himself, initially sitting on the side of the tub, and then gradually slipping deeper into the water. "Oh, crap! This r-really does feels g-good," he whispered, turning and positioned himself lengthwise. Folding his knees, he settled into the bottom before stretching his legs out. He was almost completely submerged to his shoulders, with the bubbles totally engulfing him otherwise. He sighed deeply before letting go of his friends arm and closing his eyes. He then opened them and looked out at Michael, who had sunk down outside the tub onto the floor, watching him. "What's with the bubbles? You don't get a peep show that way…" he teased.

Michael giggled, playfully moving some of them away from his best friend's face. "I don't need a peep show, bro. I get to see your dick plenty as it is anyway," he whispered. When he heard Thomas grunt, he crossed his arms on the side of the tub and watched Thomas soak in the warmth. Before long, the shivering stopped. Neither spoke, not wanting to spoil the peace and quiet of the moment. Michael stayed there, keeping his friend company until he heard a change in his breathing, one that became deep and rhythmic. Smiling, he quietly rose to his feet and walked out of the bathroom before heading downstairs. He knew falling asleep could be a problem, especially in hot tubs if you stayed overly long. This one, however, wasn't that hot – and from the looks of it, Thomas needed a little rest.

He found both women in the kitchen, and as Linda looked up, he smiled in answer to her unspoken question. "He's sleeping; he got in the tub and went right to sleep."

Linda returned the smile and Carolyn, standing nearby, nodded. "I heard the water running. That will probably do more good for him than anything else. You didn't get the water too hot, did you?"

Michael shook his head. "Nah. You know me, Mom. I can't stand it too hot. He'll be fine. I'll go back up and get him out in a little bit."

Carolyn laughed, handing him a sandwich and a soda. "Okay, okay... just watch him, okay? He'll probably be fine, though."

Linda interrupted them. "Should I have Thomas sleep downstairs with me tonight? I mean, just in case?"

Carolyn turned and raised her eyebrow at Michael, who sheepishly shook his head. "I don't mind staying with him ma'am, err... Linda, honest." At that Linda giggled, then looked at Carolyn who only smiled. Glancing between the two, Michael asked, "What? "

Linda shook her head. "Nothing, Michael. Just look after him then, I'll come up and check on him in a little while." When Carolyn offered nothing further, he shrugged and left the room, taking his food with him. Linda caught him, however, and added some cookies to his stack before he disappeared. As he left, she walked over to the sink where Carolyn stood. "Can I ask you something? I mean, I don't want to seem old fashioned or anything but... You think they're okay, don't you?"

Carolyn looked at her, reading the expression in her face. "Yes, I do. I know, but - I trust Michael. He's still a kid, growing into a young adult, but thankfully he hasn't lost out on what it means to be a kid. And look at the two of them, Linda. He loves Thomas." She sighed, turning and drying her hands on a towel. "Right now, I honestly believe Thomas is the best thing that has happened to Michael since... You know about us being abandoned, I guess. Right?"

Linda nodded. "Thomas filled me in." She studied a minute. "I don't really worry about them, it's just - I don't know. I guess I'm not used to what boys get into and all. They're certainly different than girls, or at least the ones I grew up with."

Carolyn nodded. "They're close, like drawn together, I know." She smiled. "You want my honest opinion? They are both still boys, just finding their way in the world. The difference is, they are finding it together, for the time being anyway, and yes, I think it's healthy. They're learning they don't have to go it alone."

Linda nodded. "I know what you mean, and you're right. I had to grow up in pretty much my own shadow for a lot of years." She sighed. "I'm not worried about them together and everything, don't get me wrong. They're boys, and they know what they do and don't trust between them. I just..." Her voice trailed off, and when she didn't continue, Carolyn stopped what she was doing to turn to her. That was the second time Linda repeated herself, and Carolyn saw the look of anxiety in her expression. Trying to give the woman time to collect her thoughts, Carolyn waited patiently until Linda continued.

"We won't be here forever, I mean-" Linda held up both hands before Carolyn could protest. "I know - I know we're welcome here. You've made that plain, and you have no idea how thankful we are for it. It might take us a little while before we can actually get on our feet, especially after what happened tonight, but still..."

She reflected for a moment, looking up at the ceiling, as if peering into the rooms above them. "I'm just afraid that the more they get to depend on one another, then it will make it all the worse later. I mean, I know they're kids and they adapt to things like the rest of us, but you should have seen Thomas when all of this started going down after Christmas. It crushed him, Carolyn. To think he had finally found a friend, only to lose him like he did. I know what it was like, how bad it was when I was his age." She sighed. "I always promised myself he would never go through it being alone, but I guess it still happened. This time though, it seemed a lot worse."

Carolyn put a tentative arm around the other woman. "You didn't let it happen. Life is just funny sometimes, with a lot of bends in the road. You know more about that than any of us, I think." She hesitated. "What happened tonight?"

Linda sighed. "I went by the house to get the rest of our things while you two were out." She spilled the story, trying to maintain a level of calmness she didn't really feel. Carolyn shook her head as she finished, before taking her friend by the hand and leading her into the living room. When they both had settled on the sofa, Carolyn pulled her hair back and became thoughtful. "Listen to me for a minute. You and I are about the same age, and we both have a history that has left our husbands out of the picture for years. I know you loved your husband, but those people down the road, they are not him. Whatever has happened, you have to believe it is all after the fact, and that something has changed since he died. I shouldn't have to tell you that, but there it is. Don't let that detract from his memories, please."

Linda nodded. "I know that Carolyn, and I don't. They used to be gentle and kind, especially with Thomas. It's just that now, all of that is so drastically different. I'm glad we got out, I truly am, but now we are here putting a lot of stress on the two of you, and..."

"Really? You think so?" Carolyn smiled as she relaxed. "Right now, okay, things are a little cramped in here. Especially for you in that back room, which we are going to have to do something about. But Linda, it's not going to stay that way. Look, you have a lot of courage and determination, and that's admirable. I mean, look at what's happened to you. You've lived in a place that hampered a lot of it, and in the process, you've lost some of that self-confidence I think. Living with your in-laws has made you question your own values. Am I right?"

Linda looked at her and slowly nodded, her eyes falling to the floor. Carolyn took hold of her hand and then continued. "That's all past now, and you are here - right now. I'll be honest with you, from the bottom of my heart, I'm glad you ARE here. You know what's best for Thomas, just as much as I believe I know what's best for Michael - insomuch as we can, as their mothers. We're both strong, capable women who are just facing some tough curves right now - you more so than me." She collected her thoughts briefly. "Michael isn't the only one who needed some company around here, you know? I think all I ever did was work, and then come home to him, and that was that. Mind you, I'm not complaining: Michael is everything to me, just like Thomas is everything to you. Still, I'm happy to have someone that's not always 12 or 13 years old around, you know?"

Linda laughed as she looked up again. "Same here!"

Carolyn smiled and then sighed. "Don't you see it, then? You need to get on your feet, you need a place to stay, and you need it in a place you can have enough freedom to start rebuilding confidence in yourself. Who knows, you might someday re-marry, right? I guess even I could do so, for that matter. I just don't see it happening anytime soon, that's all."

Linda giggled again, relief crossing her face. "I know what you're saying Carolyn, and thank you, it does mean a lot to me."

Carolyn shook her head. "But you don't know it dear, and that is what I'm trying to convince you of, right now. You have to see it, you have to feel it, and you have to believe it. Michael and I both want you and Thomas here, and we're not going to push you away. Not for a long time, if ever. Trust me."

"But Carolyn... This is your home and..." Linda tried to argue, her eyes becoming moist.

Again, her friend shook her head. "No, that's where you're wrong," Carolyn rebuked her, firmly. "This place? This is just a house. Our home - Michael's, mine, Thomas's and yours, is wherever we make it - and I mean ALL of us. This is just a house with walls, but what's inside of it is what makes it a home. Right now, this 'home' is made up of the four of us. I see it, I feel it - and I think it's time you did, too."

Linda tried to grasp the significance. "I've never lived anywhere where I was actually wanted. Not until I married my husband," she finally whispered.

Carolyn studied her. "And since he died, it hasn't been the same, right?" Linda nodded, so she quickly continued. "Well then, that stops – here and now. The boys will be just fine. They're going to grow into healthy teenagers, get into all kinds of trouble, and be boys. At least, for the time being, they can do it together. As for you and me, we'll just be two Moms in the pickle jar." She gestured at the walls around them. "So, what if it is cramped in here? I'm certainly not complaining right now! I know you're here because of what has happened, but we've at least made it work this far, right? We'll do something about it - but we have to just work with it one step at a time. You know that as much as I do. You can only fit so many pickles into a jar anyway, you know!"

Linda burst out laughing at that. "Carolyn!"

Carolyn joined her laughter. "I know, but it's sincere. We're both perfectly capable of handling our kids and the world." Carolyn leaned in a little closer, softening her voice. "Linda? I promise, we'll figure it all out. Trust me, okay? What do you say?"

Linda stared back. "Are you inviting us to make this... what? More permanent?"

Carolyn smiled. "I'm inviting you to stop thinking of this as being so temporary. It doesn't matter if it takes two weeks, two months, two years - or even 20 years. The four of us together will make it just fine, one day at a time. Once things settle down a little, and you go after that old goat down the road - and you should, you know - we'll just take it from there. Maybe we can all find us a little bigger place to move into or something. Who knows, right?"

The tears welled up in Linda's eyes. "How can you..." she whispered, before pausing to catch her breath. "How can you be so wonderful to us? I mean, in a way you barely know us..."

Carolyn shook her head. "Linda, do you really, truly believe that? We know you guys like the brother and sister neither of us ever had. We love the both of you." Carolyn blushed slightly. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be so forward sometimes, but it does sort of sound like you need to hear it. That, or a good kick up your backside!" she added, teasingly.

Linda smiled thru her tears, wiping her eyes. "You know, Thomas told me something not too long ago. He said he thinks of Michael like the brother he never got to have." Looking deep into Carolyn's eyes, she found them glistening as well. "I have to admit something too: I've often thought of us the same way. As two sisters almost - the one I never had."

Carolyn reached out and embraced her friend. "So, is it a deal? Will you stick with us a while?"

Linda laughed before replying. "I don't see how I can turn it down now," she whispered into her friends' ear. They eventually separated, and she added. "Thanks, sis."

Carolyn laughed, and then nodded. "You're welcome. Now, let's figure out what to do next..."

- + - + - + - + -

Twenty minutes later, Michael quietly entered the bathroom and knelt by the side of the tub again, watching the almost motionless teen inside. Thomas had moved, folding his legs almost Indian-style inside the tub, but with his knees propped on each of its sides. Doing so helped support a more comfortable position as he laid his head back against the rear of the tub. Michael remembered a time when he used to lie flat and straight in the molded tub, but like his friend, he had grown considerably now such that it was no longer possible.

As Michael crossed his arms, he propped himself comfortably, looking down and watching the rhythmic rise and fall of Thomas's chest. The bubbles had begun to dissipate in places, and as he sat there, he watched several more slowly pop and separate from one another. When his friend exhaled, each breath seemed to push the suds slowly away, thus opening the space to reveal Thomas's chest.

Michael eventually reseated himself more comfortably, but the movement must have disturbed the other teen. Opening his eyes, Thomas saw his best friend back beside him and smiled. Michael reached and felt his forehead again, and then noted that though his hair was damp from sweat, the skin actually felt cooler. "I think your fever is broken, bro. Do you feel any better?"

Thomas slowly nodded. "A lot better, thanks" he whispered. Over the next few minutes, the teen alternated closing and opening his eyes again to see if Michael had moved. He tried to wake up, but the alluring warmth of the water was too intoxicating.

Michael just sat peacefully while he watched, thinking to himself how happy he was at the moment. He continued to observe the bubbles dissipating, retreating enough now that he began to make out his friend's navel underneath the surface. With a smile, he reached down into the water and poked it. "ZZzzttt!" he exclaimed softly, causing Thomas to start suddenly, before realizing what had happened. He smirked, but nodded drowsily.

Making once more to get up, Michael intended to leave the room again, but just then Thomas broke the silence. "Don't go... please?" Shaking himself somewhat, he pulled up to a sitting position and wipe his eyes. Michael returned to the tub's side. Thomas had to focus for a moment, before looking around and spotting a bottle of shampoo sitting on the sink. "Umm, can you reach that?"

Michael turned and grabbed it, handing it over. Thomas took the bottle, sitting it on the side of the tub, and then moved down and lay back into the water, dunking his head. As his hair wetted, he turned a palm up toward his friend and waited. Michael grunted, then took the bottle and dispensed some of the liquid into his hand. Thomas then proceeded to lather up and wash his hair. Submerging his head again, he rinsed the soap away before sitting to a full upright position again.

Thomas pulled the plug and the water began to escape down the drain. He sat still as Michael grabbed a towel and handed it over, and then proceeded to immediately scrub it across his head and dry his hair. Afterwards, he just sat there, with towel in hand, while the water disappeared. "You okay?" Michael asked softly, observing him curiously.

Thomas nodded. "Just kind of wondered what you were thinking about, that's all." He was still groggy, but looked up when he saw his friend was smiling. "What?"

"Umm, you really want to know?" When his friend nodded, Michael continued. "I was thinking about how cool your dick looks soft..." He flashed his eyes down toward his friends' groin, at which Thomas then blushed.

"So, you got to perv on me after all," Thomas commented, as he gazed at himself. Michael giggled beside him, which in turn made him giggle as well. Not knowing what else to say, he leaned over against his friend briefly before attempting to stand up.

Michael stood up with him, taking the towel. "Let me?" Thomas responded by standing and facing him, so Michael began to towel him off. Spreading his arms and legs, Thomas closed his eyes and allowed his friend to help him, actually welcoming the attention. When Michael finished, he offered an arm, which Thomas grasped and stepped out, before sitting down on the edge. Michael first threaded his friend's arms with the t-shirt he procured, followed by his briefs. Michael paused, teasing with Thomas's groin, but seeing the exhaustion, decided against any kind of foreplay. Instead, pulling them up, he guided the teen back toward their bedroom, and into the bed. Thomas moaned in pleasure at the soft feel of the sheets just then, curling up underneath the comforter. Once again, Michael felt his friend's forehead before running his fingers through the hair. They had not brushed or combed the tangled mass, but Michael figured it wasn't a necessity right then. Within moments, a soft snore reached his ears, and he finally sat back, glad that he had been able to help not one, but two friends that day.

He had just stripped down and donned a pair of sweats when he heard a soft knock on their door. Calling out, Linda opened it and peeked in. Michael motioned for her to come on in, at which she entered and crossed to the bed. She saw the pleasant look on Thomas's face and checked him out herself, before nodding. "Doing better I see."

Michael nodded, saying nothing. She leaned in and kissed her son on the cheek, before rising. She stood watching for the moment, lost in thought, until Michael finished what he was doing and rounded the end of the bed. Walking to her side, he whispered. "Linda?"

When she looked down, he embraced her, this time holding her for a long time. Smiling, she took the hug and returned it, before he eventually separated himself. They parted, and then he looked up into her eyes, smiling kindly. She saw the spark they held. "What was that for?"

Michael just shrugged, returning to the other side of the bed and picking up his plate, intending to take it back downstairs. Linda intercepted however, where she tussled his hair. "Thank you, you're a sweet boy Michael." Looking at Thomas, she added in a hushed voice, "If he needs anything tonight, come and get me. Okay?" Michael nodded, and then she left them alone.

Michael turned out the light, removed his sweats and climbed into bed. Immediately, Thomas responded by cuddling in close, and though the hour was early, before long both boys were sleeping peacefully.

- + - + - + - + -

There was a period when Jeremy would have thought all of this unnecessary, a waste of time for both a patient and the so-called professional. He thought that most often, they all adorned themselves with the title of 'Doctor' just for kicks. After all, the profession itself was far from that of ordinary medicine, right? Psychiatrists and psychologists held an even weaker title in his eyes. For years, he had heard about people going into therapy, or to counselors as some called them, and he sneered at the whole idea. Thinking that anyone who needed that much help, to deal with common, everyday life - probably needed their head examined for other, more obvious, things.

To Jeremy, psychiatrists were a joke. They were people who practiced getting into peoples' heads, just to mess around with more of the stuff they were already messed up with. It was a lazy occupation - all you did was sit around and stare, listen, take naps. At the end of the day, you get to write a paragraph or two, file some paperwork - and take utter control over someone's life. Their reasoning? It could be anything, including the proverbial 'you hated your father growing up', or some other ridiculous crap. Maybe that was the kind of life worth it to some people – sit your ass, make jokes and then decide someone's future at the stroke of a pen. Not for Jeremy, though. He never saw himself as a desk jockey of any kind, really. His mind had always been too active, too hyper to settle down for any length of time. School was one of his worst enemies for that - sitting hours a day in classrooms, listening to old crones drone on and on about facts, figures, dates and people that were long since dead. It tested his patience to no end.

Jeremy sighed, bringing himself back to the present. The man sitting across from him was behind a desk, as he would have expected. The whole scene was actually stark in contrast to what most envisioned with shrinks and their patients: the "doctor" in a nearby chair, and the patient quietly stretched out upon one of those weird sofas. Jeremy almost giggled, thinking he could see a young man there, voicing aloud 'I hated my mother', and the shrink writing furiously on his tablet. In this room instead, Jeremy was in a narrow hard-backed chair, one that had minimal padding and was rigid, giving not an inch to contoured comfort. He found it quite uncomfortable, being a worn piece of furniture, which had undoubtedly served many people for years. To top it all off, the teen was still in his hospital gown, which alone made him feel uneasy in the presence of this man. Although it was cleverly hidden, the man could not help but stretch and look into the area of Jeremy's lap, which annoyed the piss out of the teen. He was still mostly naked underneath, his midsection still a cause of attention because it had yet to heal normally yet, and thus the doctor had advised him if he could bear with it just a bit longer, it would do wonders in helping his swelling recede. Reluctantly, he agreed.

They had been sitting for almost half an hour, and Jeremy was beginning to fidget. His strength had returned, and in the 3 days since that Sunday afternoon, he had found a renewed determination to push forward. Michael's tirade against him made the teen realize how wrong he had been, and that people were not the assholes he generally classified them to be. Unless it was the one in his present company. Instead, he channeled his energy productively, and now he was able to walk again, on his own, although with a cane ready and an escort nearby. The days of double physical therapy sessions had also brought back his sense of balance, just as Dr. Riddle had promised, and he was determined to be walking without assistance by the end of the week. Even that morning, a different man, one who had been helping him rebuild his strength, told Jeremy he probably wouldn't need more than a few more sessions. That helped Jeremy's spirits more than anything - because it told him time was finally passing by and not standing still. He was getting better, and he was leaving everything that had happened behind him.

Until now.

This guy across the desk was talking again, droning on about how he would have to face himself in the end. As Jeremy's attention suddenly focused, he wondered what the man was going on about now. Grimacing, he wondered if the man even knew what the hell he was talking about. He listened, slowly shaking his head in disbelief. Why should he have to face himself? Everything that had happened, was pretty much a one-sided show. This guy, however, was talking about guilt - Jeremy's guilt - something that made absolutely no sense at all. What did Jeremy have to be guilty of?

"Wait a minute, please," he said at one point, interrupting and startling the man. He stopped writing one of his many notes and looked up.

"Yes?" The surprise was registered without hesitation.

"Answer me something," Jeremy replied, responding in like manner. When the psychiatrist only stared in return, Jeremy took that for an acknowledgement to continue. "Why are you so hell bent on telling me, that I have to forgive myself? What do I have to be guilty of? I mean, no disrespect intended, but it sure seems to me like that's all I've heard you preach about since the first day I was in here, you know? I've been in here three times now, and all I hear from you is how I have to accept this, or I have to live with that. Things like I have to rethink my attitude from now on, and be more careful about what I do and say, or stuff like that. That just, I don't know, seems - wrong. I didn't make my Dad mad at me, he did that, all on his own. I just have no idea why, or what, or where - or anything else about it."

The man, clearly annoyed, dropped his pad onto the desk in front of him, before pulling his glasses off and cleaning them with a cloth he pulled from his desk drawer. "Many teenage boys have an incredible amount of disdain for their fathers, especially when it comes to disobedience, and being 'corrected', to use the term loosely. Fathers are the figurehead of an established household, and are often hard on their sons, mostly in order to toughen them up to face the world. They want to build up their sons, so they can face society like men. More often than not, young men rebel at the authority figures and begin mocking them-"

"Wait, whoa ... wait a minute. You're saying - it's all my fault? That somehow, I didn't live up to his standards or something? That he raped me, violated me in order to toughen me up? He what, fucked and beat the living shit out of me to teach me a lesson?"

The man's eyes grew wide for an instant before leaning forward. Setting his elbows on the desktop, he stared hard at the teenager, wagging a finger in front of him. "No use of foul language young man, we discussed that the other day. Maybe you will learn something as well, if you let me finish before interrupting again. Now, it is without question, you have a problem with authority figures. For a good many years, too. Your school records indicate numerous incidents with classmates, younger and older peers, teachers, counselors and other figures of authority, that require and expect a level of respect from their students. Some of these adults had constant problems with you, and have dictated notes that suggest you were and still are a very wild, disobedient child. Your own father described you as one always on the go, abusive, insubordinate, mouthing off and running away, sometimes for days at a time."

Jeremy looked at the man incredulous. "Excuse me, but did you or anyone else ever stop to wonder WHY I ran away from him?" Clearly annoyed, he sat back and crossed his arms. "I mean, I guess not. I'm just a kid, right? What does it matter that I got screwed for years, beaten up and everything else. Why shouldn't I have been afraid of him, right? According to you, he's my FATHER, the fucking idiot who-"

The man slapped the desktop hard just then, clearly irritated. "That's enough! I've warned you for the last time, if you don't want to talk about it in a reasonable manner-"

"How am I not being reasonable? And where is the talk, huh? It's been more like this one-sided lecture, it seems to me. You know something, it just dawned on me. Here I've been sitting for three whole days, and you have never once even asked me what I know about all this stuff. You haven't even cared to know how I feel about anything, or any of that other psycho-babble bullshit you shrinks are supposed to get into. Instead, all you've done, from the very beginning, is ram into my head that I'm the troublemaker here, that I'm the one at fault for everything, and that I should be the one who steps back, re-evaluates my faults and correct my attitudes. Isn't that what you were just saying? And I ask you, pure and simple, why? Don't give me your textbook lecture about how kids do this, or guys do that. Give me a simple reason why I should be the one who sees this as being MY fault. That since being 10 years old, I've lived in a house with no food, nothing but beer and whiskey all over the place. Why did I have to be beaten and bullshitted for just being alive? You know, how can you know anything about the hell I've lived in, without even daring to ask me one single, fucking question-"

"Enough!" the old man cried out, slamming his hand down on the desktop and standing up.

"Yeah, enough! I agree! Who do you think I am? What do you know about me, really? What you read in your precious little reports? Is that it? So, you think I'm some kind of shithead or something, some trailer-trash bastard or whatever, is that it? Yeah, you've got me all figured out, don't you? Without even asking – one – fucking – question, you're like God himself, right? You know all the sinners from the saints, don't you? And oh yeah, which group you're pinging me with is just oh so obvious, isn't it?"

The man was livid, but in fairness he tried to keep his temper in check. Straining to keep his voice calm, he sat back down and looked at the boy, speaking softly. "All right, Mr. Smart-Ass. Suppose you tell me - what do you think I should 'ask' you about, that I don't already know? Hmm? I've dealt with hundreds of young hot-heads your age, mind you – it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure your generation out!"

Jeremy frowned. "I may not know much about being a shrink, but I know a few things, yeah. I obviously know more about your job than you do, it seems, too. You're supposed to get inside my head, find out what I think and feel and all that crap, right? You're supposed to listen to me, not the other way around. Then when you've heard what I have to say, you're supposed to reason it all out with me, and whatever. But all I've heard out of you, for the last three days, is how I should be repentant, or some such biblical crap. You know, forgive myself for all the wrongness in the world and what happened to me. Or, better yet, that I should be thankful I even had a home to grow up in, and had a father who..." He sighed. "You know what? Screw this - someone is paying you thousands of dollars for this kind of crap? You have no clue about me, you know that? I'll say it again, because you're too stupid to even admit it: you have no clue what life was like for me, and your own attitude says you don't even give a shit. So, why bother? Why should I give a shit then, right? Fuck you, asshole. You don't know anything! You're like some baby who never learned to outgrow his own diaper! Don't think I don't see you trying to look up my gown. You really want to see my dick? Why don't you just ask me, then. Like, 'Can I please see your 15-year-old, super-sized dick and 2-gallon-sized balls?'" Jeremy shook his head at his own joke. "Where the hell did you get your degree from anyway – in the day-care center down the street?"

The older man struggled to keep his tempter in check as he rose from behind his desk. "I will NOT have some snot-nosed asshole kid, tell me how to do my job! You sit there and lecture me, as if you know anything about psychiatry! I'll have you know, I've been in this profession for over 25 years, and I happen to know a thing or two about how to handle people like you! You think you have all the answers, yet look at what it has gotten you so far, you pimped-out brat! No wonder your father had to resort to such extreme measures to discipline you, you little two-bitten…" He walked over to a filling cabinet and withdrew some papers. Returning to his desk, he continued to look at Jeremy with an intense anger. "All right, you think you know how this should be done? Hah! I tell you what - I'll let you do just that!"

Jeremy was surprised, unsure of what he had just heard. "What?"

Smugly the man sat back down and began filling out the various forms. When he finished, he called out "Orderly!" The door opened, and a rather beefy intern stepped inside, one which Jeremy had not yet met before. "Take Mr. Riddle back up to his room, and keep him there until morning." Addressing the teenager, he continued. "Oh yes, you'll see. I don't have to deal with you, you know - so I think I'll do just that. I'm sending you to St. Helens upstate. It's a maximum-security psychiatric hospital, one where they take plenty of time with cases like yours, sometimes even years. Oh, don't worry, I'll send some of your records, along with ALL of my notes as well. Trust me, you'll be **well** received, I assure you. One look at this shitty background and your history, and I'm sure they'll find a nice padded room for you to grow old in, you pimp-assed bastard!" Addressing the intern again, he added, "Be sure he has his things assembled and ready to go by morning."

Jeremy looked on, incredulous. "You can't do that!" he exclaimed, but his voice was riddled with self-doubt and fear.

The older man looked down at him with a sneer. "Young man, I assure you, I most certainly can. You have made it plain during our time together, just how utterly hopeless a case you are. You cannot recover here without meticulous and extensive psychiatric counseling, and you certainly have extreme problems addressing authoritative figures in a civil manner. I-"

"You mean, you?" Jeremy interrupted, laughing at the man. "You're the so-called 'authoritative' figure? Hah! Maybe if you acted like someone who fucking cared, who listened, and who WAS authoritative-"

"ENOUGH! If you can't shut that potty mouth, I'll order the pie-hole taped! Now, SHUT THE HELL UP!" The rage inside the older man was beyond control now. After a few seconds of silence, he got up and walked around to the other side of the desk, standing next to the teenager. Taking a deep breath, the man attempted to control his voice one last time. "If I were you, snot-head, I wouldn't get any hopes up of getting out very soon. Teens shafted by their parents, or who conduct incestuous affairs like you did, often take a nice, long time to be rehabilitated." He leaned in closer and spoke in a whisper. "And I'll make sure, beyond doubt, you get all the rehabilitation you'll need. If you're lucky, you might get out before you can legally drink. Yes, a good 5 to 6 years might just do you some good!" He stepped away, his smug expression turning gleeful when he noted the fury on the teen's face.

"Yeah? Well, we'll see about that, asshole," Jeremy muttered under his breath.

"Ah, so you see? He truly can't keep his mouth shut regardless of anything, can he?" With a quick flourish, he moved to his desk and withdrew a roll of masking tape. Before Jeremy could even speak again, a strip was cut from it and then applied over the teen's mouth. With a final pat against the cheeks, the man whispered. "You will learn obedience, young man, and respect. And if it takes more fucking up the ass to convince you of it, I'm sure someone will come along and teach you a thing or two about it!!"

With that, the orderly took Jeremy by the arm, bringing him to his feet. He guided him from the office, and they slowly made their way back toward his designated room. The entire distance, the orderly held the teen's arm in a tight grip, not allowing him to divert his path in any direction. Upon arrival, the man roughly shoved the teenager into his room and without a word, reached and closed the door, locking it as he was so instructed. Jeremy ripped the tape away, and then approached the door, banging on it loudly. His cries and shouts, however, were ignored.

- + - + - + - + -

Carolyn's shift ended at 4:30 that afternoon, leaving her tired and exhausted. It had been an extreme day of havoc for the department, having treated an unusual number of patients that day with cold and flu-like symptoms. She only hoped she had taken enough care so as not to contract any illness for herself. To make matters worse, only one doctor had arrived that morning, as two others had called in to report they wouldn't make it - one being sick himself, and the other dealing with a family death. That made treatment for everyone an extremely long ordeal, and the longer patients had to wait, the more irritable they became.

It was nearly 5:00, however, before she finally collected her jacket and started heading toward the exit doors. As she passed the elevator, however, she suddenly remembered she had promised Jeremy that she would bring him some cake that day. Sighing deeply, having a strong desire to leave and get away, she conceded that her promise was one she should not break. Turning around, she headed toward the cafeteria, where she found not only a huge slice of chocolate cake in the dessert rack, but also freshly delivered vanilla ice cream to go with it. Paying the cashier, she took her purchases and proceeded up to the restricted wing.

Upon arrival, however, Carolyn immediately noted - before entering the corridor towards Jeremy's room - that the nurses' station was vacant. That was unusual, especially seeing the hallways throughout the wing also void of any hospital personnel. On her previous visits, the wing had always been bustling with activity, especially around this particular time of day before and after the shift change occurred.

Carolyn made her way into the outer corridor and proceeded toward Jeremy's room. Once there, she found the door was closed, so she lightly tapped on the wooden sheathing. Getting no response, she then reached down to the handle, but was surprised to find it locked. An uneasiness began to come over her then. Locking of doors was a direct violation of hospital policy, unless extenuating circumstances warranted it - and Carolyn firmly believed that this teen's situation did not even come close to warranting this. She then struck her knuckles hard against the door, knocking loudly. Hearing nothing from the other side, she immediately set her things down and rushed back to the nurses' station.

Finding it still vacated, Carolyn searched for the nearby clipboards and made sure Jeremy had not been moved. Finding him still registered to the room, she retrieved the keys and ran back down the hallway. Returning, she unlocked and opened the door hurriedly, only to discover an unlit, unusually darkened chamber inside. As her eyes adjusted, she saw the teenager sitting propped up in his bed, his knees pulled to his chest and his head and arms buried in the folds of his hospital gown. She cautiously approached, noting his irregular and heavy breathing. He had also yet to look up or even acknowledge her presence. "Jeremy? What's wrong?" she called out softly, reaching his bedside. When he still didn't respond, she reached out and placed her hand upon his shoulder.

Jeremy looked up startled, as if noting her existence for the first time. Their eyes met and locked for a full minute, all the while warning Carolyn that something was definitely amiss. She eventually sat down beside him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, pulling him in close. "Okay, kiddo, what is it? Has something happened? What's going on?"

At first the teen did not reply, but he did give in and lean up against her, while still holding his knees close. Eventually, he tried to open his mouth and say something, but no words escaped. Carolyn, for her part, waited patiently while she held him, trying to hold her growing alarm at bay. She soothed him, whispering and holding him close, telling him it was alright, that she was there.

Over half an hour passed before Carolyn coaxed him enough to talk to her, and almost as long before Jeremy could tell her what had happened that afternoon. At first, Carolyn tried to place herself at a professional distance, just so she could balance the merits of everything objectively. The more he revealed, however, the angrier she became. She was appalled and speechless, but not once did she doubt his word. She had heard other tales about the so-called psychiatrist, tales that made a lot of people question the man's motives and practices before. When she looked down into the eyes of this boy now, she saw a truthfulness she could not abandon. She also could see the question in his eyes before he even asked it.

"You believe me, d-don't you?" the teen whispered.

Carolyn hesitated, recalling the locked door and the way she had startled him. She saw his sincerity, and wondered how hard it would have been for others to believe him. She concluded that it probably would be very hard; this teen had a reputation that had preceded him for years, and that history probably weighed heavily on how people, in his world, would now perceive him in the near future.

In a flash, something else came to her. Michael had seen past all of that - in a way that made Carolyn's chest swell with pride. Despite the past, Michael always lived in the here and now, and what he perceived of Jeremy lately told her something. She knew that, having to live the way Jeremy had lived and survive, only added more evidence to her believing him. This teenage had done nothing more than that: building defense mechanisms along the way to fight the insanity of his world. It wasn't that much of a jump then, to believe his only recourse, right or wrong, was to lash out at those living around him in the schools and elsewhere. That, she resolved, was where Jeremy's defiant attitude had evolved from. She smiled kindly and calmed herself in an attempt to disarm his tension. "Yes, honey. I believe you. Mark my words, no one is going to send you away - I swear it."

Jeremy looked close into her eyes in surprise. She had taken so long to answer, he had begun to lose hope. Peering deeply though, he saw something different – enough that he felt as if his heart skipped a beat.

Carolyn's mind began racing now, as she thought through the details. "I want to ask you something. If you don't want to answer me, it's okay, but at least think about it for a while, okay?" When the teen nodded, she drew a deep breath. "Do you have any idea, why your father did all the things he did to you? Forget about what other people tell you, or suspect. I'm asking you, and you alone, if you have any idea."

Jeremy's eyes narrowed instantly, and she feared he would withdraw into himself once again. However, Carolyn was surprised when his expression changed to one of sadness. Slowly shaking his head, he replied, "No ma'am, I really don't know. When Mom was alive, he wasn't, you know, really bad or anything - he was good to me most of the time. Then afterwards, things just - changed. I always thought it was just me, because I could never really do anything right. Then we got to avoiding each other, because I always felt like he never wanted me around or anything. But those were just feelings; I never really knew or understood why..." He stopped, knowing he wasn't revealing everything, but the gist of the reasoning was still justified, and everything he admitted was essentially the truth.

Carolyn nodded. "Then leave it at that. If you don't know, then you just don't know, okay? Mark my words: it also means it's not your fault. You didn't deserve what he did. No matter how you may have acted or what you did, or did NOT do, no one deserves what he put you through, kiddo." She saw surprise in his eyes again. "What?"

For the first time in hours, Jeremy smiled. "Michael said something to me like that the other day, too. He chewed me out hard, and… and, I guess for once, I finally listened." They both sat there, a quietness surrounding them interrupted only by their breathing. Carolyn replaced her arm around the teen and drew him close yet again, thinking fast. Jeremy melted against her, finding a comfort he had not known for years in her embrace. "Ma'am, I don't know that there's anything you really can do, b-but t-thanks. Thanks for at least listening to me."

Carolyn was not sure just then what she should do, but she was determined that the events of that day were not going to hold their course. With growing determination, she finally sat up, releasing the teen and standing. She opened the room's closet, looking for belongings he may have had, but found none. Grunting, she closed the door and turned to Jeremy. "Who says there's nothing we can do?" She smiled at him. "Don't leave, and don't panic. I'll be back in a few minutes." When he nodded in acknowledgment, she slipped into the corridor again, closing the door behind her. The plate of food was still on the floor, untouched other than the ice cream had melted and settled into the bottom of the plate. She left it, thinking it was even more noteworthy that, as it was just past the hour now, no one had not only taken notice of it, but the food service had yet to be seen or heard from on the floor.

Returning to the nurses' station, she found a single aide seated there, who looked up and acknowledged her presence, but otherwise returned to some task she was deeply involved with. Carolyn was thankful for the lack of attention, as she found the clipboard again and quickly searched for Jeremy's stats, paying more strict attention this time to the details. She furrowed her brow when as she reviewed the details, seeing the letters [HDR-LF, TBT] written across the bottom. Those were new orders, entered recently, and although she was not entirely certain, she did recognize the "High Diet Restriction" note, and she guessed the TBT represented To-Be-Transferred. That confirmation sent her motherly instincts into overload, and she knew she had to make a snap decision then and there. Quietly removing the sheet and folding it into her pocket, she slipped out of the station, giving the aide a smile and nod as she left. Quickly, she then heading down the hall toward the orderlies break room.

Once inside, she thankfully found the room empty. Slipping back into the changing area reserved for hospital staff, she found a shelf in one corner, containing what she was hoping for: a single pair of garments, both top and bottom, that resembled those of hospital staff. Taking them, she slipped out unnoticed, and returned to Jeremy's room. Once inside, she closed the door and approached the teen, still sitting on the bed and watching her. She saw that his countenance had now changed from one of defeat, to one of hope. "Here, put these on," she whispered, answering his questioning eyes. He took the garments before stretching his legs forward. She heard him grunt, and observed how slow he was to turn himself to the side of the bed. "Do you need some help?" she asked kindly.

He turned to her sheepishly and nodded. "I- I can sit and stand, and even move pretty well now, but getting up and down, or bending over and stuff, well..."

Carolyn smiled. "I understand," she replied, then helped him by pulling the bottoms onto his legs before aiding him to his feet. Pulling them up and underneath his hospital gown, she helped preserve his modesty as best as she could, and he looked at her gratefully. He himself shed the rest of the gown before donning the top by himself.

The outfit was comparatively large on his frame, but she bunched it together and helped him tuck it in at the top, giving the result a more acceptable combination. "Not the best, but not bad, either. You certainly could pass for a young aide," she commented with a smile. "We do have to do something about your feet, though," she added, looking down at the bare feet protruding underneath. Looking about, she found the flip-flops he had been afforded by the hospital, for getting about the halls. "I guess these will just have to do, for now. If we go by an empty nurse's station, I'll see if there are any shoe covers we can borrow. That will improve the appearance." Nodding at their work, she stood up and picked up his clipboard hanging on the end of the bed. She started toward the door, but Jeremy suddenly reached out grabbed her by the hand. Looking back, she saw his eyes full of questions. "What is it?" she asked gently.

"Won't you, like, get in a lot of trouble for this?" he asked.

Carolyn smiled down at him, before shrugging. "Probably," was all she said, but he saw the mischief in her eyes. Surprised, he eventually grinned before relenting. She leaned in and whispered into his ear. "Come on, let's get you out of here!"

- + - + - + - + -

There was a brief knock at the door, followed by a middle-aged doctor entering the room. The man was surprised to find Kevin, with his brother, playing a game of cards. The younger of the two was sitting up in his usual place, while the older brother sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed. Between them, several groups of cards lay about, and as the doctor walked up, he was impressed. "What's this, beating up on your brother again is it?" he teased.

Kevin's grin that met him was infectious. "Aww, come on Doc, anyone can beat Austin. He is ssooooooo lame sometimes!" Before either could react, Kevin got pelted back into the inclined mattress, a pillow now falling to his side.

"Says who, you runt?" Austin replied annoyed, but he knew it was true. For some reason, his little brother had a knack for card games that was sometimes unbelievable. Austin had little luck with them, but he knew how much Kevin loved it, so they had decided to spend time the evening doing together. "I swear Doc, this kid could become a professional poker player if he wanted to."

The doctor nonchalantly smiled before then pulling a stool over beside them. Sitting down, he spoke casually. "So, do you think you can break from your world of domination for a few minutes, for me?"

It was Austin who answered by picking up the loose cards and groups, stacking them back onto the deck. Kevin gave up the hand he was holding before he lay back and pulled the hospital gown loose around him. "Gonna check my insides and everything again, I guess." The young doctor smiled, then with the young teen's help, he proceeded to place his stethoscope in strategic places around the young boy's chest, listening to the now steady heartbeats and breathing that met his ears. Austin just looked on, knowing his brother wouldn't mind him being there, and evidently the doctor agreed. After a minute he pulled back, finished with the preliminaries.

"Not bad, not bad at all." He stared at the boy then, before crossing his arms. "Tell me something, Kevin. What am I going to do with you, now?"

"What do you mean doc?" Kevin replied, puzzled.

The man grimaced. "I mean, as far as I'm concerned, you're now capable of being discharged. The blood tests we ran this morning came back pretty much clean, except for some after-use residue. That will probably take another couple of months to work out of your system completely, to be honest. Other than that, your glucose levels are returning to normal, and for the last three days, your stats seem to be as fine and fit of any other 12-year-old boy." The man paused, smiling as he saw a glimmer of hope cross the faces of both brothers. "Yes, you guessed it now. Mind you, according to the law, I should transfer you up to the rehab center in the big city. Problem is, though, it's not rehab you need, in my humble opinion." He paused again to let that sink in a moment.

Kevin leaned forward, clearly dejected. "I'm sorry, I really am. I don't know how much I have to say it, to get people to believe me, but-"

"It's not a question of believing you, young man," the doctor interrupted. "I sincerely do believe you've seen the ugly side of what happens in these cases. I have to admit, you are the youngest patient that has ever come through these doors, in the whole 11 years I've been treating drug abuse cases like this here." He collected his thoughts. "The truth is, Kevin, in some respects you do need some sort of incarceration, but that isn't going to happen."

"What? Uh, you mean..." Austin held his breath, looking apologetic for interrupting the conversation.

The man, however, slowly nodded. "I've talked with Judge Miller this afternoon, and he is inclined to let this slide. Especially since this is a first-time offense, and you've already had to go through a lot as it is, getting back to this point. Be mindful, however: you'll still have a lot of public service hours to work through this summer, if I understood him right. He isn't going to let you go completely for withholding information, but he also isn't going to hold it against you. You'll still have to deal with the cause and effect of breaking the law."

Kevin dropped his eyes to the floor. "I understand, and I'm willing. I'll do anything."

"Do you? Do you really understand?" the man asked, causing the young boy to look up. He saw a certain intensity in the eyes that observed him. "Do you really understand that your body is still that of a 12-year-old boy, just coming into its manhood, changing, accelerating and adapting rapidly to a whole new world unlike anything it has ever dealt with before? Because that is what makes drug use, for young boys like you, 500-times more dangerous. If nothing else son, realize this: you didn't even have the pure stuff. What you got hold of was laced and poisoned, to the point it could have - no, it WOULD have killed you. If not for your brother here, you would be gone, and your family would be in mourning and scarred for the rest of their lives. Do you truly understand that?" Seeing Kevin grow fearful, the man then relaxed and backed off.

"Listen to me, both of you," the doctor announced, deeply sighing before he continued. "You are both far too young to be mixed up with this. It's only because of your sincerity that Judge Miller is inclined to let this one pass for once. Trust me boys, I know the Judge personally. When he says once, he means exactly that. You only get the 'Get out of Jail Free' card one time when dealing with narcotics and drugs, and this one is yours, Kevin. Heed my advice: don't end up under my care here again. I'm taking a chance here, too. I spoke favorably on your behalf, because in the last week or more, you've shown me you have a good nature about you - a good heart. Please don't let me down, okay?" Turning to Austin, he added, "As for you, how about giving him a little brotherly attention from now on? It might do wonders you know, for things you'll both hopefully live to appreciate further into the future, hmm?"

When the man fell silent, Kevin leaned out to embrace the man tightly, his eyes moist. "Thanks Doc, I really mean it," he said softly. The man actually returned the hug in kind. Austin's eyes were moist, too, as he reached out to shake the man's hand. "That goes double for me, too, Doc. Thank you. For all of us, thank you so much."

After a moment the man grasped his clipboard and stood up. "There are a few places in your lives, boys, where you'll find a grace has been given to you, and sometimes only when you least expect it. People in this world can be, for lack of a better word, rather shitty at times. Just remember that not all of us are that way. Make this one of the times that count, and I promise you, it'll be behind you before you know it."

When the man fell silent, Austin prompted him. "We will Doc, we promise. So, when can he leave?"

The older man walked to the door and then opened it. Outside in the hallway, stood their parents, smiling and waiting. "As soon as he can get dressed. I've already discussed this with your parents, but I wanted to talk to you alone beforehand." He grinned as he turned to Kevin and winked. "I think everything will work out just fine."

As the man departed, both Mr. and Mrs. Mathews stepped inside. "Ready to go home, son?" Mr. Mathews called out warmly. Kevin let out a whoop as he scrambled from the bed and ran to hug them both. Austin only smiled as he watched, a tear of happiness escaping down his own cheek.

Kevin broke from his parents and grinned. "Give me 5 minutes to get ready," he said, before running to his closet. Both parents laughed, then stepped out into the hall, closing the door behind them. Pulling his things out, the excited youth hissed at Austin. "Come on doofus, help me! I'm getting out of here!"

- + - + - + - + -

Carolyn led Jeremy along a rather haphazard set of corridors through the hospital, avoiding most of the regular hallways by using staff-only elevators and stairwells. It seemed to work well for the most part, as they were scarcely attended, giving them the level of privacy sorely needed at the moment. When they left Jeremy's room, they had met one of the doctors coming from the other direction. The man had been so engrossed in reading his clipboard, however, they had both passed by unnoticed. So far so good, Carolyn thought. In the main hall corridor, they also passed a young security guard at his station, but again luck was with them: the man just happened to be caught up in a lively conversation on his phone. Although he did glance at the two, he evidently saw nothing suspicious as he quickly turned to continue his dialog. Quickly, Carolyn maneuvered the teen along until they reached a staff elevator and pressing the button. Within seconds it opened, and the two stepped in, heading to the first floor.

"Now, just try to walk as straight and normal as you can," Carolyn whispered to the teenager. "I know you're sore and still adjusting, but the only way I think we can pull this off is if we make it out through the emergency waiting exit. If we're lucky, nobody from the hospital staff will pay you much attention. When we get there, you keep walking ahead and out of the doors, and then head for the rear parking lot. My car is in the 3rd row back, just a little to the right. I'll be about 10-15 feet behind you, okay?"

Jeremy nodded and did as he was instructed. Reaching the exit doors and crossing the emergency lane, however, he saw a familiar face in the distance which called out to him. "Hey, Jermz!" Alarmed, he turned to look aside and saw Austin Mathews and his family, climbing into their mini-van in the patient pick-up area. Trying to act nonchalantly, nodding toward the family, but turning and heading into the opposite direction, walking away rapidly. From the corner of his eye, he saw Carolyn reach the doorway and follow. She was a little confused, but Jeremy decided he couldn't wait for her, not now.

As he rounded a nearby ambulance, two uniformed Emergency Medical Technicians happened to be coming from the opposite direction just then. Unfortunately, the two happened to take a long, hard look at the young man as he passed by. Curiously, they started to follow, but Carolyn hurriedly approached. "Excuse me!" she called after them, causing them to hesitate and turn toward the woman. As she drew near, she read their name tags. "John and Dustin, right?" When they both nodded, she drew very close. "Please, pretend you didn't notice him," she explained in very hushed terms. "I'm just trying to get him outside for a few minutes, so he can enjoy some fresh air. We'll be going back inside shortly, okay?"

They looked at her, not totally convinced. "And you are-?" Dustin inquired.

"My name is Carolyn, I work up in the doctors' clinic. That's the boy who came in some weeks ago, abused by his father. They've been keeping him cooped up in his room for ages, and he was getting somewhat depressed. Look guys, I know it's not normal procedure, but hey, give him a break just this once, okay? He's got nowhere to go, and I'm just sneaking him out to walk around a little bit. Personally, I think it'll be more therapeutic for him than anything he's had thus far."

The two looked at each other, before John turned to her. "You're staying with him, right?" When Carolyn smiled and nodded, he grinned. "Yeah, I remember that kid's story. Bastard tore him all to pieces, didn't he?" He turned to his partner. "Come on, let's get some coffee." The other man agreed, and together they continued on their way, leaving Carolyn sighing in relief.

As Carolyn turned toward the parking lot, Jeremy was nowhere to be seen right away. Hurrying across, she entered the lot and looked about, trying to not look anything but nonchalant. She passed several rows, before suddenly hearing hushed voices coming from one of the areas. Nearing it, she noted two figures standing between two large trucks, one of them being her young charge. The other also looked familiar, but as she approached he suddenly decided to move on and disappeared.

"Who was that?" Carolyn asked anxiously, reaching the teenagers side.

"It was Austin, a friend of mine. He saw me when I came out and ran over, thinking I was being released too. I told him to leave, that we were in a hurry right now, and that I would explain everything later," Jeremy explained. "He's cool, though. Don't worry about him."

Satisfied, Carolyn noticed that Jeremy was slumping heavily against the vehicle. "Are you okay?"

The teen nodded. "I'll make it, but I really need to get off my feet soon, if I can. I'm hurting right now."

Carolyn nodded, and then carefully steered him toward her car. Helping him get into the back seat, she noticed how exhausted he looked. "If you can, at least till we get away from the hospital, try and stay down out of sight, okay?" she called out to him softly, to which he nodded in reply. She then got into the front seat and started the vehicle. Without further incident, she left the lot and pulled onto the highway.

All might have been seamless, if it had not been for a pair of eyes in the distance - eyes that just happened to be looking in the right place, at the wrong time. Clearing his throat, the man squinted to reassure what he saw wasn't a hallucination. The unshaven individual recognized the boy, and then sneered as he also recognized the older woman who was with him.

And as he watched them leave the parking lot, he started the engine of his own old, beaten truck, and pulled out behind them, ready to follow.

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