The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 12

The Fragility of Happiness

"Oh wow! So, this is where you're staying now?" Austin exclaimed. When the other boy nodded, he shrugged. "Well, in a way it's a lot better than before, so..."

Jeremy shrugged. "I know, but it's not so bad for now. We're looking for somewhere else to move, but so far the ladies haven't been able to find anything."

"Really? That's surprising. I know Dad has all kinds of places listed down at the office. I always go in on Saturday mornings and help sort and update the entries in his computers."

Jeremy grunted. "Yeah, I remember you telling me about that before. I don't know man, I think a lot has to do with the cost and stuff. They aren't, like, rich or anything." Jeremy said it hesitating, knowing the Mathews family belonged to the better middle-class bracket for this part of the county. He didn't want to insult his friend by comparing them to his current host of lower-income individuals.

Austin reflected briefly, but then nodded in understanding. "Hey, I understand, trust me. We're not as well-to-do as some people think we are, though."

"Sorry man, I wasn't trying to imply anything," Jeremy offered.

"Meh, it's okay. Say, have they always lived together like this?" he asked, curiosity getting the better of him.

"No. Just a few months, I think. Linda and Thomas used to live with his grandparents, but something happened there and they had to leave for some reason. Somehow, Carolyn and Michael took them in."

Austin was surprised. "Wow, really? That's... I don't know, that's cool in an awesome way. At least, well, yeah." He arched an eyebrow. "So, they just took them in, and now they took you in, too, and gave you all a place to stay."

"Yeah, pretty much," Jeremy replied.

"What about social services and stuff? Don't they have help, or programs, or something for you guys? I mean, sorry man, I'm really not trying to be that nosy, but it just seems, well…"

Jeremy shrugged as he sat back on the sofa. "If it were just Mike and his Mom, probably not. I mean, with Linda bringing in money, too, it's too much for them all to qualify for anything, other than maybe food stamps." He glanced out of the window. "I mean, honest, I don't know about that stuff much - I just know that the social services woman has been out here a few times. She told them to keep looking for a place, and that she would work with them until one was found. To tell the truth though, if they don't find something soon, I may have to go into foster care anyway. The social worker has a boss that is getting on her case pretty hard about me being here and stuff."

"Really?" Austin asked, frowning.

Jeremy nodded, but fell silent. He had been living with his new family now for a month and had found the whole change in environment to be starkly different than what he was normally used to. He was grateful, without question, but in the time spent thus far, few moments slipped by without a flurry of activity. When he wasn't spending time with Michael and Thomas after school, he generally ended up sharing the living room with one or both women in the house. That was okay, but it lacked giving him any privacy for himself - something he had always had before.

He could not complain, however. During the daytime, the school had begun providing a tutor for him three days a week. Usually done in the morning hours before lunch, it had allowed him to focus desperately in keeping up with his work - especially while everyone was gone. He had attacked the work with an unusual fervor, eager to make up for lost time. It gave him something to pass the time, and it prevented his drifting off into long periods of depression. His tutor was a patient, kindly woman who let him grasp concepts and topics on his own. In fact, one morning the lady remarked how impressed she was to see his work, particularly when compared to grades from his former classes. "You know, from some of the things your teachers put into your school records, I initially would have thought you to be a more difficult student."

Jeremy remembered how he had blushed. "I- I haven't been the best student, I guess."

She looked at him over the top of her glasses. "Young man, I've taught for the school board for almost 30 years, plus I put four of my own children through the system. I know about good teachers, bad teachers and the like in between - and I also know a lot about students. They come from what we used to call 'all walks of life'. I will admit to you - when they called on me to do this job, I took one look at your reports and shook my head, figuring you and I would have a rough road ahead. However, I've been here almost 3 weeks now - and I must say you are about the exact opposite of what I expected." Jeremy observed her with surprise as she continued.

"This work here," she paused, indicating an essay he had just finished and submitted. "It is fairly well written, given your experience and level of education. Most students do not do half as well, yet not only did you comprehend the material, you have presented it back to me in an organized and thoughtful manner. That implies a substantial amount of good intelligence, in my opinion, and you should not sell yourself short of that fact."

Not knowing what to say, Jeremy simply nodded. "Thanks," he said softly. She was pleased with his work, and even hinted he might be able to finish out the school year by the end of term if he kept it up. That encouraged him immensely, and he felt better about himself than he had in a long time.

In the evenings, however, life was much different once everyone arrived home from school or work. It was then he discovered what family living meant – at least in their dynamic. School work and chores were done first, supper fixed and eaten together - real food, not just tidbits or snacks – and dishes washed and dried. Afterwards came TV or games - all in a shared environment, sometimes with everyone involved, or sometimes just on their own. Only then did life wind down enough that Jeremy could get back to his sofa and ponder things or just relax. He was generally tired though, and unlike many nights of his previous life, he often fell asleep without any difficulty.

"The social worker, does she like, get you guys money or anything? You know, to help out?" Austin asked, interrupting his thoughts and bringing Jeremy back to the present. His friend dropped down onto the other side of the sofa, curling up and waiting for a response.

"I guess so," Jeremy replied, shrugging. "She told me, or I guess she told us, that I'm in the system now, so the state should start sending some money for me soon. To my knowledge though, there hasn't been anything yet. I think she said it sometimes takes a month or two for everything to get setup and stuff."

Austin nodded, making a note of that. "Cool. At least it will help, then." He grinned. "It looks like they're feeding you pretty good!"

It was true. In only the short month he had been here, Jeremy was beginning to gain weight and return to the size of a healthy teenager again. He blushed in embarrassment before pulling his knees to his chest again. "Yeah, I guess so. I've never, like, had as much to eat as what we have here."

"Well, you never had much of anything to begin with, Jermz. I think it's cool, though. You always were a skeleton before, anyways." Austin watched his friend grimace and shift uneasily on his hips, prompting Austin to change the subject. "Still, uh, bad down there?"

"Some, but it's a lot better than it used to be, I suppose," was the soft reply.

Austin studied him for a moment. "Can I, uh, ask you something sort of personal?"

When Jeremy rolled his head sideways to stare at his friend, he wrinkled his nose. "You're just like Michael and Thomas. They're always afraid of asking me things without getting permission first." With tired eyes, he slowly nodded. "It's alright, man. I mean, I'm not gonna bite your head off or anything. If there's something you want to know, just say it. At least, you can ask me - I don't want to tell everyone my shit, but you're okay. I promise, I trust you." Seeing the surprised look, he nodded, adding. "Yeah, I know, but it's true. I do trust you, so just do it."

Austin nodded. "Fair enough. I'm sorry, though. I guess I just don't want to pry too deep or anything."

"It's okay, honest. You won't," Jeremy replied, waiting.

Austin hesitated until he gathered his courage. "How is it going, like, with everything down there? You know, your healing and stuff?"

Jeremy snorted. "It's okay for the most part, I guess." He thought back over the last month. "I - I still have trouble like, knowing when to go sometimes, you know? Like to take a piss or something. Most of the time I do okay, but sometimes it hits me quick, and I don't have enough time to get to the bathroom. As to the other, they finally took me off the damn laxatives, so I can pretty much crap without being rushed now."

Austin screwed his face up but plowed ahead. "Does it hurt any?" he asked, his voice low.

For anyone else, Jeremy might have told them by now to mind their own business. He knew Austin though, and there was a new side he saw in his old friend he had never noticed before. It was why, the night of the shooting, he had broken down and hugged the kid so tightly, even in front of all those people. "At first it did - a lot. I mean, as my crap started getting, uh, harder and stuff, it felt like I was trying to pass a bowling ball through something like a, I don't know, like something no bigger than a water hose, I guess. It honestly hurt like hell."

Austin made a face, but then nodded. "Whew! Sorry man."

"I don't get constipated or anything now like I did, but it was kind of rough for the first few days." Jeremy hesitated, but then decided he really had nothing to hide. "I'm still not doing that much better than a baby though. I have to wear these big pull-up diapers, at least until I can go a week without messing or peeing in them. So far I've made it four days this week."

Austin eyes grew wide. "Wow!" He shook his head. "I don't pretend to know what you're going through Jermz, but I know it's got to be some bad shit and stuff. Err... no pun intended, sorry."

Jeremy laughed. "Like I said, at first it was kind of bad, but since then it's gotten a lot better. I just have to be careful, that's all. If I can go a month without crapping or pissing myself, then I might can start to feel normal again."

"Man, you ARE normal," Austin argued. "Just take your time, that's all."

Jeremy grunted. "If you were stuck in pull-ups man, you might think differently. It makes you feel everything BUT normal!"

Austin laughed, and then bit back his tongue as it hit him how serious the teen was. "Okay, I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."

"You worry too much," Jeremy replied, grinning himself. "It IS funny, in its own way. Just umm, please don't tell anyone, okay? I mean, Mike and Thomas and everyone around here knows of course, but still..."

"Tell anyone what? I don't know anything," the other teen replied with a grin, and Jeremy knew the trust he offered was well placed.

They both fell silent for some time before Jeremy sighed. "Anything else you want to know?"

"I don't know," Austin replied, hesitantly. "I guess there are lots of things, sometimes. I just, right now, you know..."

"Then just ask me." Seeing the dubious look on the older teen's face, he sighed again. "Listen, I really don't care man. If there's something I don't want to talk about, I'll tell you."

Austin thought for a minute. "Well, how about the other stuff, in front? I heard he got to you pretty bad there, too."

Jeremy nodded. "He tried to bust my nuts wide open, yeah. They were swollen for a long time, all black and blue and everything."

"Ow!" Austin exclaimed, cringing from the thought. "Shit!"

"They're a lot better now, though," Jeremy replied, shrugging. "Don't worry. I just – that's what actually makes sitting kind of uncomfortable sometimes. Doc told me I have a long ways to go before they get better, though."

"Is that why you're not wearing jeans yet?" Austin asked.

Jeremy nodded. "Yeah. Well, that and because I really don't have any worth wearing right now. The ones I had were too small, mostly, and full of holes. Carolyn said she would buy me a couple of new pairs soon, when I was ready for them." He grunted. "And yeah, I wear boxers and a lot of loose clothing now, so that they don't put too much pressure on my jewels."

Austin nodded. "Did it, like, mess anything up?" he whispered.

Jeremy was quiet briefly, thinking about it, before shrugging. "I haven't spermed in a long time, man, so I don't know anything about that. As to the rest, meh. Boners and I don't get along, anyway."

Austin giggled before shaking his head. "I- I, uh…wasn't…"

Jeremy laughed. "Sure, you were, knucklehead. You might be too scared to admit it, or come right out with it, but I know what you were wondering."

Austin stared at him momentarily and then nodded. "Okay, okay, I admit it. I was… curious." The smile was replaced with one of acceptance. "Thanks though. You didn't have to answer, but…"

"I'll tell you this much, easy. My dick ain't broke. I admit, like I said a while ago, sometimes pissing gets ahead of me, but these last few days haven't been so much of a problem, you know?" he whispered. "Anything else you want to talk about?" he added, bringing his voice back to normal.

At that moment, Michael entered the room from the stairs, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts. "Hey Austin, how's it going?" Before the other kid could reply, he turned to Jeremy. "You two trading family secrets or something?" he asked mischievously.

Jeremy rolled his eyes as he sat back against the pillows. "You, turd!" he replied before laughing. Glancing toward Austin, he explained. "These guys are worse than my shrink, I think! At least, sometimes. This one is always trying to get into my head!"

"Hey, not fair! You know I don't do that!" Michael replied good naturedly. He turned and addressed their visitor. "I just mess with him sometimes, that's all. It's kind of fun!" He winked, then looked around. "What, Kev didn't come with you?"

"He'll be along in a little bit. Mom is planning to drop him off after his, err, appointment," Austin replied. He was uncertain if they knew his brother was still in counseling or not.

"It's cool. Thomas will be back in a few minutes, too. Maybe the five of us can do something together!" Michael looked out the window just then. "It's getting kind of hot outside. Maybe we could, like - hey yeah!" He suddenly leaned and whispered something into Austin's ear.

A big grin appeared on Austin's face, before he looked up incredulously. "You guys still do stuff like that?" he asked, which made Michael laugh.

"I haven't in a long time, no, but heck, you know? It could be fun again for a change, right? We're not THAT old!" Michael replied.

Austin nodded. "Shit yeah, that would be pretty awesome!" As Michael plopped down between them, Austin quickly rose from the couch. "Where's your phone?" he asked, then as Michael pointed, he quickly walked over and began dialing a number. "I'll see if I can catch Mom before she leaves the house!" Stepping into the kitchen, he pulled out of earshot of the other two, talking low into the receiver.

Jeremy was amused at the sudden secrecy, as they were obviously conspiring something against him. "Okay you, what's up? You planning to ambush me or something?"

"Nah, we're just going to strip you naked and hold you down in the sun, so you can get rid of all that white that keeps blinding us!" the younger boy teased.

Jeremy rolled his eyes, just as Austin returned and gave them a thumbs-up signal. Retaking his seat, Michael turned to Jeremy. "Okay, okay … I'll tell you this much - it has to do with water! A lot of water! It'll be fun, trust me!"

Jeremy laughed, taking to the idea because it did seem awfully warm just then. "Oh, so you're gonna drown me then," he mused. "You and your ideas of fun!" Turning to Austin, he added, "You know, these two have been on my case constantly with their 'fun' crap as they call it, ever since I've been here! There is, like, something going on - ALL the time!"

Austin grinned. He suspected he understood this more than most would, as he himself had spent a lot of time lately with his own brother, doing things to keep the younger Mathews active. When he started, he had just wanted to keep his brother from being alone all the time, but as time passed he found there was more to it. A deep bond had developed between them, one he had never understood before. He had always seen his little brother as a royal pain-in-the-ass, until recent events taught him otherwise. He suspected it was because of that, all of the boys were being taught a thing or two, including his new set of friends he was now visiting. Austin wasn't complaining - spending time with Kevin was something he would never be able to have again, and he knew it. "They just like you," he remarked to Jeremy, a grin splitting his face.

Michael nodded. "Yeah, we just like you!" He picked up a pillow and threw it at Jeremy before hurriedly escaping. Laughing, he ran upstairs and extracted a pair of oversized shorts and the largest t-shirt he could find from his room, before returning. Walking over, he grinned at the older teen. "Okay you, get ready to be stripped!"

"Ready to be WHAT?" Jeremy replied, laughing. "Hold on now, wait…!" Seeing Michael's determination, however, he sat up and pulled himself to the edge of the sofa. With a little coaxing, Jeremy removed his shirt and put on the one offered. Once done, Michael helped the teen to his feet.

It was then Austin, looking on, began to feel a little uneasy, as he suspected what was about to happen. Standing, he shyly addressed the other two. "I'll um, go out..."

Jeremy shook his head. "No, stay. It's okay. I got nothing special to see anyway, you dork." He reached out and grasped the taller teen, using him as a support while he lifted a leg. Michael proceeded to rapidly remove the sweats, exposing the plastic padding of the disposable he wore. Steadying him, Michael had him lift the other leg and quickly shucked the sweats in favor of the shorts he had brought with him.

"Hey, not a bad fit I think," Michael exclaimed as he stepped back and admired the outfit. "Perfect!" he added. Just then, the front door suddenly opened while Michael collected the original clothing and set it aside. Thomas entered and waved at them, which Michael greeted him in return. "Hey!"

"Hey! What's up in here? Oh, hi Austin!" Thomas replied, as Linda followed close behind. Austin waved in reply, a smirk planted across his features.

As Austin helped Jeremy sit back down, Michael grabbed his best friend and headed into the kitchen, with Linda following close behind. Once there, he whispered to them both, filling them in on the sudden inspiration he had. Both laughed heartily. Linda wrinkled her nose, smiling approvingly. "It's certainly hot enough out there. I say go for it – just, be careful with Jeremy – okay?"

Michael nodded. "I know ma'am, we will, I promise!" he replied, rather loudly to assure he was heard in the other room. Peeking through the doorway, he saw the older teen roll his eyes before laughing. They all heard him remark to Austin. "Somehow, I think I'm in trouble!"

Linda laughed as she walked back into the living room. "Yep, I think you are, too!" Addressing all the boys, she continued. "I'm going to go back to town for a while then, maybe pick up a few groceries. You boys be careful, okay?"

"Sure Mom!" Thomas replied enthusiastically, as he raced past her and headed upstairs. She shook her head laughing, but then collected her keys and headed out of the door again. From the kitchen, Michael called out to Austin to come and help. Leaving Jeremy sitting alone, the teen disappeared through the open doorway.

Before long, Thomas reappeared. Dressed similarly in a simple t-shirt and shorts, he raced through the living room barefooted and disappeared through the open doorway, joining the others inside. The whispering that followed was too much for Jeremy, who until now had been waiting patiently to see what was transpiring. After several minutes he grabbed a nearby cane and pulled himself to his feet. Walking through the doorway, he stopped, now that he could see the others huddled around the sink. "What are you guys DOING in here???"

Jeremy stopped and stared at an assembly of cake pans, bowls and laundry baskets, scattered about on the floor and table, and all filling rapidly with a funny assortment of balloons. Upon closer inspection, he found the balloons to be filled with - water! "Water balloons? Are you guys crazy! This is your hair-brained idea?" he exclaimed, before laughing out loud. Crossing to where they were gathered, he watched the assembly as one of them filled the balloons from the faucet, while the other two tied and moved them to one side.

Michael grinned, looking up at him. "See, I told you!" he exclaimed, handing one of the bombs to Jeremy and motioning to the table. "Now that you know, give us a hand!" Jeremy grunted before joining in. As he thought about it more, he grinned wickedly before catching Michael's attention. "You ARE crazy, you know that?" Then he laughed. "This is awesome! I've always heard about this, but never in hells bells…" They all laughed with him as they concentrated on their efforts.

Roughly 45-minutes later, the group finished constructing the bombs and began transporting their arsenal outside. Nearing the end of their task, they suddenly heard a car door close, followed by running footsteps. Around the corner of the house, Austin's brother appeared, already barefoot and dressed ready to play. "Oh wow, great guys! You waited for me!" he exclaimed, seeing the stash that had been piled on both sides of the yard.

"Bout time you got here, squirt!" Austin replied. "Bring me any clothes?" In reply, his brother tossed him a sack, which the older brother caught in mid-air. After waving to their Mom, who was turning the car around to leave, Austin hurried inside. Moments later he returned and joined the group, also ready for the all-out warfare to come. Five boys now stood together now, contemplating and waiting to see what Michael had in mind.

"Okay, here's what we do." Michael finally began. Walking to the center of the yard, he dropped a large circular hoop to the ground. "Each of us has 40 or so bombs, stockpiled in all 5 places." He indicated each of the five, all roughly equally distanced from the center where he stood. "We each take turns throwing a balloon at someone. If that person catches it, you can keep it for your own stash and take a step back if you want, but no farther than where you begin at. If it bursts open and you get wet though, then you have to take a normal step closer to the center. First person who reaches the center has to then let everyone else drown him with the water hose! If no one reaches it, then the closest one gets it when we're done! The farthest away gets to be the winner. If you want to play for second, then third, we can … but only up until we run out of balloons."

Austin laughed. "Man, are you gonna get it, Kev!"

"That's what you think, nerd!" Kevin replied as he picked his spot, followed by the others in turn. Even Jeremy seemed to like the idea as he took his position.

Michael checked that everyone was ready. "Okay guys, here goes. I say we go from shortest to tallest, okay? That means you Kev, you get to take the first shot, then me, Thomas, Austin and Jeremy." He stared at the two bigger boys. "I think Jermz is taller than you, but… yeah, I don't know. You two can flip for it or something if you want."

"Oh yeah!" Kevin exclaimed, grinning wickedly as he picked up one of the balloons and prepared to launch it. Half-way in stride however, the balloon burst in his hand and dowsed him instead. "Aww, man!" He looked around as everyone laughed. Facing Michael and Thomas, he asked. "Is either of your Moms home?" Seeing them shake their head, he heaved a big sigh of relief. "All right, then FUCK!" he cursed aloud, then laughed with the group as they renewed joking with him. He then scooted his basket of bombs closer toward the center and moved forward.

The game continued and picked up in pace, each taking turns as they had been instructed. The air was thick at times with balloons flying once they each picked a target and let go. Some balloons were caught, while others burst as they reached their targets. Jeremy quickly seemed to acquire a knack for catching them intact, more often than not, and had a blast of fun raining various bombs down on the others by tossing them in high arcs. At first people avoided him, until he started an all-out attack against the older Mathew's brother. Austin wickedly invited him to bring it on, and the two went at it for a few minutes, each catching the other's bomb and thus not moving anywhere, before they decided to take on the other players.

They all eventually discovered the fun of the game was when people ganged up on each other. Before long, they were laughing hysterically because suddenly Michael became the target of most everyone else's attack. To their surprise, however, he caught several of the water bombs and was able to stay clear of the center circle. As his stockpile grew, so did his courage at returning fire.

In the final moments, as the collection of balloons dwindled, both Kevin and Michael were nearing the closest to the center circle. After trying to bombard the other, each fell laughing into the grass at their feet, soaked through completely, as was most everyone else. Jeremy was close by as well, but had avoided the losing spot despite his handicap. It was he who threw the last two balloons at them without their knowing it, where both exploded on their lower bellies.

When the last of the bombs were gone, the others suddenly converged and let loose with what water was left in their trays and baskets, giving both boys a thorough drenching. It was Thomas then, who suddenly appeared with the water hose, and instead of concentrating on Kevin, who was actually the closest, he started unleashing it on both boys. Austin attempted to join his brother then, but slipped in the wet grass and found himself in the line of fire as well. As the water poured, he laughed and got soaked as much as the others. After a moment, he rose from the slippery ground and approached Thomas. "Give me that damn thing!" he cried out, laughing his head off. Taking the hose, he then approached his brother who, seeing the advance, attempted to get away. "Oh no you don't!" Austin teased, reaching and snagging the waistband of his brother's shorts. Holding on, he pulled them back and clear, displaying a full moon to the other guys.

"Hey, no fair... t-that … that's my ass! Lemme go!!!" he cried hysterically, also laughing hard as his brother not only didn't let go, but hauled the back of his shorts down and placed the hose right at the top of his butt. Kevin's attempts to escape were feeble at best, as he knew what was coming, and sure enough his brother let the water loose on him. "AAAhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!! Shit, that's ccccoooollllddddd!!!" he exclaimed. Most of them was laughing hard at the antics between the brothers, before Kevin suddenly fell to the ground and grabbed the front of his shorts to keep from losing them completely. "Okay, okay! Sheesh that's c-cold! Shit!"

The group was laughing hard. That is, except for one. No one seemed to notice that Jeremy had actually dropped back and stood very still. He had a funny expression on his face, one that crossed between uncertainty and surprise. Watching the group in that moment, he became confused, gazing at their hysterics before slowly sitting down in the shade of an old oak tree. As they were each having their fun, his mind raced in other directions, back to a time many summers before. Even in the hot afternoon, those memories made him shudder, recalling other innocent pranks, and what had followed afterwards.

It was Thomas, who noticed someone missing at first. He looked about and saw Jeremy sitting by himself off to the side. Leaving the group, he approached the teen, but could sense something was wrong. When he arrived, he plopped to the ground and stared at the boy. "Hey, you okay, Jermz?" When Jeremy didn't respond, Thomas leaned in closer. "Hey, Jermz, what's up?"

Suddenly, and without pretense, Jeremy replied quietly, with a hiss in his voice. "That's so gay."

Confused, Thomas looked over at the others. By now Austin was behind Michael, struggling to hold the teen upside down from behind as Kevin - who had by now returned to his feet and taken control of the water hose - sprayed the other boy full force. "What is Jermz?" While they both watched, Kevin suddenly moved up and stuck the hose inside the front of Michaels shorts, using the gap in the legs, and filling the groin and making a stream of water flow out from underneath. Michael was snorting, hysterically crying out for mercy and laughing at the same time. "That?" Thomas asked quietly.

When Jeremy didn't reply, Thomas looked across the yard. "Sorry Jermz, but - I don't understand. Why is that so gay?" When there was still no answer, he raised his voice. "Hey guys! Mike, Kev... Aus... Come here, will ya?" They all stopped just then and noticed them for the first time. Turning off the water, they strolled over and joined them, Michael coming up last and plopping down in the sun.

"What's up?" Austin asked, noticing the serious expressions.

Thomas looked at Jeremy before replying. "I don't know, but... It's Jermz." The older teen was sitting, his eyes now closed as they all watched him. "Something's not right... he just sat down here. Then when I came over, he said something about that was being gay, or something."

Michael sat up startled, before moving over to sit in front of the older teen. "Hey Jermz? What's up man?"

At first, Jeremy still refused to answer, opening his eyes and staring blankly off into the distance, but when he brought his gaze back to the younger teen, both boys froze in that moment. Michael saw confusion and hurt, but at the same time, he saw something else - he saw the teen was scared. "Hey, it's okay. Talk to us... talk to me.... what's wrong man?"

The voice was quiet and soothing, and to Jeremy's ears it did have a calming effect. Jeremy wished, yet again, he could figure out what it was about this kid that did that to him. "That, shoving the water hose down his butt and... and other places..." Jeremy whispered, coming to terms with what he was saying.

Michael thought about it for a moment, before it dawned on him what their friend was saying. "Sorry man, but... that's not being gay or anything." He shrugged. "If anything, that was just having fun and stuff."

"Guys don't do that stuff," Jeremy responded, rather forcefully. "It's just... not..."

"Jermz, wait a min. I mean, Kev is my brother. We always horse around and stuff," Austin interrupted.

Kevin also leaned forward and added, "Yeah man, he's my brother and stuff. It's not like he tried to have sex, or blow me or anything, you know?" As soon as he said it though, he realized immediately that it wasn't helping, because Jeremy suddenly tensed, and his expression went rigid.

Jeremy gaze turned hard, his face taut with both frustration and anger. "Shut the fuck up, asshole! You don't even know-"

"Hey, hey, calm down!" Again, it was Michael reaching out and taking hold of Jeremy, forcing the other boy to return his attention to him. "Listen to me - listen to what I'm going to say." Again, the calmness acted like a tranquilizer of sorts, and Jeremy did partially relax. His eyes still told the younger teen he was angry and scared, but they were also hoping for something more. Having Michael there, at that moment, held so much weight to him. So much, that Jeremy could not even try to ignore it. The younger boy took a deep breath, and then continued in that calm and patient tone of his.

"There is a difference, Jermz. I don't know if I can explain it to you very good, but you've got to try and understand. You've got to try and meet me at least half-way. There is a difference in goofing around, and just being guys. Like jocks who take showers and stuff together, after ball games or whatever, or in the showers at school and stuff. Even for people who change clothes at the public pools and stuff. They get naked and everything, and sometimes horse around, but if you watch it carefully, you can see and understand it's not sex or anything like that. Even brothers-" He paused, indicating the two Mathews' teens who were now sitting next to them, listening. "I mean, two brothers having fun and stuff, they're like flesh and blood, you know? You've never had much of that I guess, because you've never had brothers or anything. Especially the way you've been the last few years. Well, you know what I mean. It's not something you go out and do every day or anything, because yeah, that might be weird and stuff. But heck, it's just us, you know? It's not sex, it's not being dirty, or being mean or anything – okay? Yeah, it's a kind of fun-mean maybe, but it's still different, it's just having fun, you know? And that's not got anything to do with being gay. I mean, think about it, some people are shy and some aren't. Me," he glanced at Thomas, "I'm shy and modest and all, except around those I really trust and respect. And right now - I trust you guys, all four of you, so I don't really care, you know?"

"Me too," Thomas added. "I'm the same way. I don't care if any of you see me, you know?"

Jeremy looked at the two of them, then shook his head. "I don't know guys," he voiced weakly. "It just seems… I don't know…"

Austin cleared his throat. "He's actually right, Jermz. There's nothing gay in it man. Hell, I've seen Kev naked plenty of times! His scrawny ass is nothing to look at, trust me!" That earned a cuff to his arm by his younger brother, making him exclaim. "Ow!"

"Your ass ain't no piece of art either, turtle butt!"

Everyone suddenly laughed at the exchange. Everyone except Jeremy, who stared between them. "I don't get it. You guys aren't, like, shy or anything at all. I know that - but..."

Austin laughed. "Hell, yeah we are, too! But we're brothers, man! And it's not like we're to school streaking or something! Shit, I don't want everyone seeing my white ass and family jewels, you know?" He grinned at the group as they all giggled. "I'm kind of particular who I would skin with, but I don't think I would have any problems with you guys. And like we said, as for me and Kev, we're brothers. I even love the dumb nut sometimes!" He made the last statement rather shyly, but with an overtone in his voice that made Kevin smile in surprise. A silence fell across the group, however, as they each waited patiently to see what Jeremy would say next.

The teen sat for a moment before he turned to Michael again. "But he, they, I mean... they put the hose down the front of your shorts, and... you aren't brothers or anything. I mean... Didn't you get mad? You know they saw your dick, and… and…"

Michael smiled. "Were the nurses, or docs, or even us - I mean, me and Thomas... were we your brothers or family? Especially when we were helping take care of you? Helping you with umm, you know, the stuff between your legs?"

"That's different," Jeremy replied, his eyes rolling finally in annoyance, embarrassed at having those moments brought out in the open. His face reddened, but he noticed that neither of the Mathews brothers reacted to it. That made him feel better at least, for the moment.

"No, it isn't, really" Michael replied. He leaned forward. "Even if it is, so what? It's not like Kev was trying to get a look at my dick or anything Jermz, and even if he was, I didn't care. Austin probably got more of an eyeful than anyone! See? It's only different because it was all done while being crazy and having fun. Besides, like Austin said - I wouldn't go naked around school. That's just, well, weird – and wrong. Here though, I don't care, because it's just you guys." He looked at each person around him. "It's diff because I trust you guys, all of you." When he returned his gaze to Jeremy, he held it for a long time. "And that also includes you too, Jeremy."

Jeremy scoffed. "I don't want or need to see your ass or plumbing man..."

Michael laughed. "I know that, goof ball! You're not listening to me, though. I'm just saying," he paused, until the giggles receded. "All I'm saying is I trust you guys, so it doesn't bother me any or stuff. I bet Kevin is the same way. He knows he ended up mooning us, but he's not upset about it, is he? He didn't care. That's not being gay, Jeremy. That's being… well, being brothers. With all of us, for a little while, together. That's all, man."

Jeremy thought about that, recalling the times he was in foster care and the games that had went on during most days. For years he had been sickened by those memories because of what happened next, and he had guessed for a long time it was because of everything that happened to him most nights. He was still confused though, but he noted that what Michael was saying made a lot of sense. Back then, the things they all went through when he was younger, didn't include any sex play of sorts at all. All the guys were just having laughs and fun as he recalled. It wasn't until afterwards… Jeremy sighed. Maybe there really was something to this, that wasn't supposed to be a bad thing after all.

After a while Austin leaned forward and spoke quietly, breaking into his thoughts. "What is it man? Tell us what you're thinking about Jermz. Come on, let us help you, talk to us..."

Jeremy gazed back into the eyes of his friend, and then dropped them to the ground. "I can't. I- I'm afraid."

Another minute of silence went by as they all sat and waited, unsure of what to do until Thomas - already sitting close to the teen - reached in and gave Jeremy a brief hug. "Answer me this: Do you trust us?" he asked softly, loud enough for the others to hear. Jeremy looked up and found that, in those eyes, he did. He also glanced at Austin and his brother as well. That hug was unexpected, especially from this kid, but he had come to live with a lot of unexpected things as of late.

"Yeah, I do. I really do, but guys, it's not easy," he finally admitted, looking back toward the ground. Taking a deep breath, he plowed on. "You see, my Dad isn't the only one who, like, used me. I was in foster care once, a long time ago. I was a kid, and... There were, others..."

Michael, still sitting directly in front of the teen, looked startled. "They messed with you, too? How?" When Jeremy returned his gaze, but remained silent, Michael could see it in his eyes. "They raped you, too. Didn't they?"

Jeremy finally nodded, his eyes glistening. "Back then, the guys were always playing games and stuff outside like - like this. Trying to do - things - and it was always so weird and everything, but like you said, I guess it was just for fun stuff and all. But, t-they like, did it all the time, and then..." He paused, taking another deep breath. "Then at night, some of them did more, a whole lot more. There were these two bigger kids, and if you wanted to eat and survive, some of us had to... I had to..." He stopped, unable to say anymore.

"Shit!" Austin muttered under his breath, but nonetheless was heard clearly by the others. "Is that, like... man, you couldn't have been what, seven? Maybe eight years old?" He shook his head. "No wonder you've always been so wired up around sex and everything!" He stated it as a fact, and he wasn't the only one who finally understood the significance of what they were learning.

Jeremy continued to stare at the ground as he began losing it, the memories flooding through him, and the tears coming unbidden to his eyes. Austin got up and moved to his other side, embracing his friend and holding him as the others moved in on all sides. At first Jeremy just sat there unmoving, the tears falling freely. Not one word was said as he finally let the frustration go. Only as of late had his crying ever amounted to anything, and it continually seemed to be with this group of guys surrounding him. Their friendship meant a lot to him though, and as he began pulling himself together, he recognized just how tight they were all becoming.

Michael was the first to break and sit back. He studied the older teen before taking another deep breath. "Listen to me again, Jermz, okay? You need to hear something." Getting a glance from the teen told him he had his attention, so Michael continued. "I don't know how to tell you what I already did any differently, but there IS a difference. When you have people around you that you can trust, then you kind of just think, what the hell. You CAN have fun, and there is no shame or anything in it. It's sort of like just, I don't know, a boy is a boy and a girl is a girl. We're all built the same way, well, sort of anyways." He had to fight to keep a straight face, thinking about how different he and Thomas were underneath. Thomas noticed the subtle glance, and ever so delicately leaned against his friend.

"Guys do things sometimes, for a lot of different reasons, but it's usually because they want to, or they agree to, I guess. When someone doesn't agree though, that's the part that makes it wrong. When you were little, it was even more wrong. Because not only did you not want to, but you were forced into it. Maybe the play stuff was okay, if it was no different than what we were doing just now. But the other stuff? Hell, you were a kid, you know?" He wrinkled his nose. "Have you told any of this to your shrink?"

Jeremy almost laughed at the thought, even in this solemn moment. True to Carolyn's word, they HAD found someone much better and more patient for Jeremy to talk to, but the woman was, well, a woman. It just wasn't something he could put into words for her. "What do you think? I mean, hell no..." he responded with a half-smile.

Michael nodded. "I know what you mean. Some things are kind of, you know, just out there and stuff for guys, but some things..."

Jeremy looked at the younger teen for a moment. "Do you? I mean, do you tell your mom about stuff like that? About sex, or..."

"Shit, no!" Michael exclaimed, looking shocked. The reaction garnered a snicker from within the group as they noted his abrupt change in behavior. "Are you kidding? I mean, I love my Mom and stuff, and I trust her with a lot of stuff, but... but... she's Mom! I'm not going to walk up and say, 'Hey Mom, just so you know, I jack off every chance I get now!' I mean, get real… FUCK!" The laughter returned again, as Michael grinned, blushing.

"You said it!" Kevin added. "I couldn't talk to my Mom or Dad about anything like that, either! Parents and sex do NOT go together, guys! Well, you know what I mean..." He looked up at his brother and smiled, which the other returned knowingly. Thomas caught the exchange and smiled inwardly, as he glanced at Michal too, and thought about how they seemed able to share anything.

Michael understood that glance, then looked thoughtful for a minute. "Me and Thomas share stuff all the time though. We've seen each other naked, and it's nothing bad. I bet Kev and his brother have, too." Both Mathews brothers, surprisingly, nodded in agreement. Michael caught Jeremy's attention again. "Jermz, can I ask YOU something?" When the boy nodded, he hesitated. "Is this why you never really, I don't know, kidded around and stuff? Like Austin said, you know, about why you always avoided sex and jokes and - stuff - at school, or..." He couldn't finish, his words halting when he saw the answer in the other teens face.

It wasn't just the teens' expression, but Austin's as well that drew a sharp breath. Jeremy realized what Michael was saying, and it gave him pause. To this moment, it had never occurred to him that despite being the bully he was, Jeremy never succumbed to that role like most kids did when horsing around in gym class or other places. Surprisingly, he whistled as it dawned on him just how hard Michael had hit the nail on the head with that simple question.

Austin's own thoughts floated back instantly to numerous incidents, recalling how Jeremy had reacted – or failed to. So many pieces of the puzzle fell into place just then. "No shit, man. He's right isn't he?" The tone was soft and full of understanding.

Jeremy - having nowhere else to retreat - simply nodded his acknowledgment. "I guess so," he answered, meekly.

For all his insights, Michael finally paused. He was unsure if there was anything else he could say at this point. "I don't know then. Just, I'm sorry Jeremy. I wish I knew how to make that part better, especially for you." He looked at his best friend, then took Thomas by the hand. "It's not being gay, bro, to trust and just let it go. Look at me, I'm holding Thomas's hand - not something I would do in public, mind you, but here - I trust him. I trust you, and I trust them," he nodded indicating the brothers. "Thomas knows me enough though, see? There is nothing gay in this, it's just me being, you know, showing that I trust him, and that I know he trusts me." As Thomas nodded, Michael continued. "Jeremy, the only thing I know left to tell you, is that you've got to try and let it go. It's important, I know that, but there isn't anything any of us can do to take it back, or to make it go away. Not really, anyway. Besides, they forced it on you, right? You didn't believe in them or trust them, and those kids, they're the ones who did that shit to you. Sex is supposed to be cool though, when it's right, you know? They just messed with you the wrong way, that's all. You can hate them for the rest of your life, I think, but it doesn't mean you have to hate life, too. Loosen up some, believe in yourself." He stared at the kid, watching him listen. "Believe in us, too. We're your friends. We're not going to let anything happen to you like that, honest. If we could take it away from you, we would, but... I'm sorry man, I really am sorry."

"Me too, man," Austin quickly added, as did his brother and Thomas.

Jeremy sat up straighter after a moment, and then smiled. His mood was changing. He seemed to reach inside himself and decide something for the better. Wiping his eyes one final time, he finally laughed. "Okay guys, okay. I'll stop being a fruitcake."

Thomas smiled. "You're not being a fruitcake, butthead. You're just being someone who needs a friend right now - and you didn't get just one of us, you got all four of us." As the others agreed, he sat up straighter. "Jermz, you got all four of us man. If you ever need to talk to us, if you'll ever trust us enough to talk with us, about anything at all -"

"I will, believe me." Jeremy sheepishly looked at the ground for a brief moment. "I've kind of, like, I don't know, gotten to have these feelings for you guys too, I guess," he offered, blushing. "I'm going to owe all of you for a long time, I think." He shook his head. "I'm sorry I killed the party, guys. I mean, okay, maybe it wasn't so gay after all, but… I'm still sorry." He looked up at Thomas and whispered. "Thanks, man."

Kevin giggled and then launched himself forward, tackling Jeremy onto his back. At once, he started tickling Jeremy under the arms, which caused the older teen to squeal with laughter at not only the action, but by being caught so unexpectedly. "Stop!" he hissed through the laughter, but the others decided to join in, either by holding Jeremy down, or adding their own fingers to the fray.

Within minutes he was crying hysterically, not from anxiety, but instead tears of joy. When they finally let up, Kevin was on top of the teen's chest and smiling down at him. "Good, now I'm even!

"Huh?" the teen replied, recuperating beneath him.

"For banging me up that day in shop class." When it was clear that Jeremy was unsure how to reply, Kevin grinned. "I guess I ought to love you some too, you asshole. Especially now that I've paid you back for setting me straight." In a lowered voice, he leaned in close and hugged him. "Thanks man, my life changed too, far better than what it was. And I owe it all to you, I think. If my bro hadn't found me that day, I wouldn't be here." Jeremy smiled at the younger teen, each exchanging something silently with the other, before Kevin finally rolled off and away. "Anyone want to strip the big fart? That might teach him what having fun is really all about, without the sex crap!"

They all laughed, but knew he was teasing. Climbing slowly to their feet, each grinned at Jeremy as they helped him up off the ground. Somehow Jeremy felt tons better, without really understanding why, other than the fact they had all seemed to be bonded tighter than before. He was beginning to learn more about friendships - real friendships - than he had never thought possible. What startled him the most however - but made it all the more pleasing - was that boys, guys even, could talk about this stuff, and could have feelings and fears and triumphs - all at the same time. They could do all this - and not have be afraid. He recalled watching how Thomas and Michael held hands for those few precious seconds. It wasn't just Michael grasping his friend's hand, but his friend grasping it back. It was enough to show the solidarity of their friendship.

They all set about cleaning up the yard from the remnants of their balloon war. To Jeremy, it felt like a ton of weight had left his shoulders as they started cutting up and harassing each other good naturedly again, forever changing the mood of the last half-hour. Jeremy grinned, and for once he felt free when he joined in with them.

Without even once being afraid.

Arriving home that evening, the first thing Austin did, after changing into dry clothes, was to go find his father. He found the man sitting in his study, looking through a group of various papers spread across his credenza. "Well hello, son! How was your afternoon? Did Kevin behave himself?"

"Kev did fine, Dad. Honest - you guys have got to lighten up on him a little, you know?" He hesitated, then sat down in a seat across from the man. "Listen, you got a minute?"

The elder Mathews pushed his chair back and turned to his son. "Sure! What's on your mind?"

"I need some help. Actually, there are some other people who really need some help, and I was hoping you might have some ideas on something," Austin replied. He then proceeded to tell his father about the afternoon, how the five people were living in the tiny house, and how so much seemed to be changed about his best friend - all for the better. He left out the sordid details, electing to privately let Jeremy keep that with whomever he chose to share it with. He did, however, take the time to talk to his father about how Jeremy's world was changing, and the threat that the family would soon face, if they didn't find somewhere to go soon.

The elder Mathews looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well, I'm glad to hear your friend is doing that much better, I really am. He had a rough way to go there, for a while." He smiled. "He isn't the only one who has changed though." Seeing his son's confusion, he smiled even broader. "You know, it's not every day a father gets to see his own son beginning to grow into a young man, especially with as much empathy as you have acquired lately. To top that, from what I have seen, your brother has sure taken a shine to you, too."

Austin shrugged as he leaned back. Looking out the window, he became thoughtful. "Everyone deserves a second chance, Dad. Kevin got it, and even I got it - things are really different for the both of us now, you know? Jeremy - he almost never had that chance, and - I don't know. I just, I think they all have had it kind of rough sometimes, you know? But they seem like really good people, struggling to keep everything intact. I was hoping you or Mom might take me to the store tomorrow, and let me buy them some food and stuff – you know, stuff to help out until they start getting money from the State coming in. I mean, if it wasn't for Michael's mother, well…" He blushed. "Okay, so I'm becoming a wuss. At least let me be a good wuss, if I have to. As long as Kev gets better, I don't care - I would give everything I have for him. If he had died…"

The elder Mathews looked down on his son kindly. "If he had died, you would have never forgiven yourself. I understand that, son, in more ways than you think. We would have never forgiven ourselves, either. Your mother and I both thank God that someone was watching over you both." He paused, leaning forward. "There was a time I felt like warning you, son. Your brother would always be looking up to you, and that you would have to set a path for him to see everything with. But when you changed, he changed with you. I have to tell you, in all honesty, I couldn't be prouder of both my boys, than I am right now."

Austin felt a surge of emotion and pride rise within him. "Kevin's going to be alright Dad, I know it - I feel it, inside."

"You're both going to be just fine. I know it - because I can feel it, too. And of course, your mother or I will take you up to the grocery tomorrow. We'll even chip in and see if we can't help, too." The man smiled as he reached out and pulled a binder off the corner of his desk. "Now, let's see if there isn't something we can do about finding those people a bigger place to live..."

Later that night, it was Thomas who found Jeremy sitting alone on the front porch, staring off into the fields. Michael had just left to take a shower, thus leaving his friend to wander aimlessly about the house before going outside. He walked over and sat down in the swing, next to the older boy, who grunted but otherwise remained silent. "Hey," Thomas said by way of greeting, which Jeremy responded in kind. "What's up? What you thinking about out here all by yourself?"

Jeremy snorted. "What do you mean? There ain't much privacy in this house, you know!" Thomas thought about that briefly, and then started to get up. He was restrained, however, by the older boy. "I'm only kidding, doofus! Don't go!" Jeremy pulled the other's shirt tail, dragging him playfully back into the seat beside him, albeit closer than before.

Thomas grinned. "Just being sure," he replied good naturedly. He leaned his shoulder up to nudge the older boy, and they both rocked the swing back and forth slowly. "So, what gives then?"

Jeremy returned his gaze to the fields. "Just thinking about today, I guess."

"In a good way, right?" Thomas asked, hesitantly.

"Yeah, in a really good way," Jeremy responded. "You guys, all of you were great. I don't think I could ever be happier with anyone." He turned to the younger teen. "Even you man, you were great too."

Thomas shrugged. "I didn't do anything," he offered, but smiled anyway.

Jeremy shook his head. "No man, you did a lot. You and Michael both. I don't think you guys will ever understand what you do for me. Sometimes it's like, I don't understand it. Mike, he - see's things, and - and, he's always trying to help and stuff, but in a funny sort of way. And then there's you and stuff - I still don't understand it sometimes, but you and me..."

Thomas nodded. "I know what you mean, especially about Michael - he does things for me too, Jermz. It's almost like - I don't know. Like you said, it's hard to explain."

"How did you two get so close, anyway?" Jeremy asked.

Thomas thought for a moment. "Promise me, you won't get mad or laugh, right? If I tell you?" When Jeremy nodded, he continued. "After the fight, that day on the bus, I was like really ready to fall apart. I'd never been in a fight before, and things weren't going so good for me and Mom, at home and all. My gramps was giving us all a lot of problems and everything, too. I was kind of, I don't know, just depressed and everything. Then Mike, he started being there for me, and we got to be friends. And then..."

"And then?" Jeremy softly probed when the boy didn't continue.

"Well, we started watching football together, and then there was one Sunday, a couple of months later, just before Christmas, that I asked Michael if I could do something, without him weirding out on me. I was really feeling low and stuff that week, and I came over here and they were putting up a Christmas tree and everything. For a little while, I just felt good, I mean really good, on the inside."

Jeremy smiled. "What did you do to not weird him out?"

Thomas looked away, embarrassed. "You'll laugh."

"Better than getting mad, right? Besides, why WOULD I get mad anyway?" the older boy asked.

Thomas looked up into his eyes, and found amusement there, so he took a deep breath. "I hugged him, a real hug. I wanted him to really feel something from me. Like a real thank you, you know? For making me feel a whole lot better and everything not just that day, but for a lot of times. For being my friend, I guess. I was afraid a first that he might reject me or something. But - you don't know what it was like, Jeremy. I mean, nothing as bad as it was for you, but I had some rough times, and I was really lonesome and all. Mike, he just, I can't explain it, he just took all of it away for me."

Jeremy studied before nodding. "He's like that, I know. I feel it sometimes, too. I'm glad you two could be there for each other. Your Gramps, he must have been bad news." He had been told part of the story before, and he could only imagine what the younger teen must have been living under. In a sense, Jeremy thought it must have been worse, because in that house, he at least had a family that loved him in their own weird way. Yet, the teen still had to endure the abuse.

Thomas observed the older teen. "That doesn't bother you any? Me and Mike, I mean?"

Jeremy shook his head. "Why should it? If you had told me that last night, it might have. But after today, I think I have to start believing some other stuff now." He sighed. "I meant what I said today, Thomas. I do love you guys, though I don't know why. I just do. All of you are like a whole new family for me, but a good family and everything. I know what happened between you and me was bad, and it's still hard sometimes for me to believe it. I'm still sorry for what happened that day."

"I'm not," Thomas answered, surprising the older teen.


"I'm not sorry. I mean, I know what started it now. It was when I called you a faggot, right? I never knew why, before. I was just mouthing off, you had my notebook, and I didn't want you to find some stuff that was in it. You know, personal and private kind of stuff. Now that I know what happened between you and your Dad though, and the other stuff, I understand why you went off like a firecracker. I'm not sorry at all. If you hadn't done it, I wouldn't be where I am now, where we both are now."

"I don't understand. I mean, yeah, I was being an asshole and everything, but I beat the shit out of you-"

"Shh, keep your voice down! Mom's in the living room!" Thomas hissed, grinning all the while as he looked to see if she was anywhere nearby.

Jeremy grunted, but lowered his voice. "I was being an asshole, okay. I still should have never beaten you up like that."

Thomas shrugged. "Jermz, look at me. Do I have anything on my face, or anywhere else you can see, left from that fight?" When the older boy scrutinized him, he slowly shook his head. "It's been months, okay? It was a fight – that's all. A lot has changed since then, and you know it. I let it go, because it's done and over with." He scrunched his nose. "It seems to me like maybe, uh, that's what you ought to do, too."

Jeremy sighed. "It's just hard." He returned his gaze to the fields again. "I'm always going to remember what I did to you, Thomas, no matter what. It's just hard, man."

"No, it isn't," Thomas replied. "I forgave you a long time ago Jeremy - you just have to forgive yourself. Besides, like I said, if it hadn't happened, then -"

"What?" Jeremy asked as he turned back.

Thomas grinned. "Then you probably wouldn't be here now. After everything you've been through, don't you think it's better now than where you might have been?"

Jeremy hadn't thought of that before, but he knew the answer. "I would be dead, Thomas." Seeing the look of doubt, he shook his head. "No, I would have been dead. Either my Dad would have done it to me, or I probably would have done it and ended it myself."

Thomas sat back. "Sorry to disappoint you, bro, but I doubt you would have done anything."

"Really? Why is that?" Jeremy replied, curious.

"Because of how hard you fought to keep on living, even after everything that DID happen. You were driven to fight to the end. That's why you've survived so long. Long enough for people to actually find and help you."

"I don't think I would have had any strength left in me, Thomas. And besides," Jeremy hesitated, shrugging. "No one gave a shit about me anyway, you know?"

"Maybe, but you never gave up, Jermz. And you're wrong. Michael, he was telling me long before that day he found you, that you were different then. He cared about you, and I know others did, too." Thomas tentatively reached out and placed his hand in the older teen's hand, hooking their fingers together. It felt strange to Jeremy, but he didn't pull away. Instead, he marveled at the sense of closeness in the contact.

In fact, the older teen giggled before giving Thomas a mischievous glance. "We going steady or something?"

Thomas laughed. "NNNooo... I'm just trying, you know, trying to show you something. We're guys, but it doesn't mean we're gay or anything to share some things. I trust you, you know that by now." He smiled warmly. "So, are you okay?"

"Yeah, I guess I am," Jeremy replied, truthfully.

Thomas pulled both their arms up and let them fall, still gripping the other's hand. "I know you don't like physical stuff, but man - just try for a little while, okay? Not everyone is out to rape you, or any of that crap. Some of us just care, that's all."

Jeremy laughed. "I believe you, honest. I'm getting used to it more, too." His tone turned solemn again. "You have to know though, almost all my life, the only physical contact I ever had with anybody, was when I had it with HIM. And you know what he did to me." He shuddered at the thought, which made Thomas squeeze their hands harder.

"I know, Jermz, but can I tell you something? Before recently, in my Gramp's house, we didn't touch or hug or anything either. Mom just wasn't brought up that way. It's really not so bad, though. I mean, aside from what your Dad did to you, and those other guys when you were a kid, not everyone wants to shove their dick up your butt, okay? Sometimes, just being held is just, well, sometimes it's meant to feel good. It's meant to make you feel safe and everything. At least it does for me, anyway."

Jeremy closed his eyes, remembering those feelings from a time when his mother held him. It was one of the few things he could remember about her anymore. "I know," he whispered. "It's still hard though, Thomas. It really is."

"I can imagine it, trust me. Jeremy, I meant what I said today too, about being sorry it happened to you. It's awful when someone like that forces you through bad stuff. But man, it isn't that way at all when you know someone, and when you can feel and trust them and everything."

Jeremy looked down at the teen again. "You mean, like Michael?" He glanced toward the upstairs, suddenly understanding Thomas was trying to tell him something more without the words. "You guys... do stuff, I guess."

Thomas nodded, sighing when he saw the message was finally received. "Not like, well, yeah, we do, some stuff. It's little things mostly, and I'll be honest and admit it, but..."

Jeremy nodded. "It's okay, I'm not mad. And I promise, I won't make fun of you either. It's weird though, but... you trust him, right?"

Thomas sighed. "Yeah, I do. That's what we've been trying to tell you. It's just way diff when you don't have to be afraid. What happens always stays between us, but still, you know? We hold each other sometimes, or just lie next to each other and like, I don't know, comfort each other I guess. It's a whole different world, but it's only because of how close we are. Does that make sense?"

Jeremy studied that for a moment. "Yeah, it makes plenty of sense. I'm not a stone-hearted creep, Thomas. I understand what you're saying. But… I don't think I could ever do that." He looked down and smiled. "I mean, I'm glad you two have each other, but I don't think I'll ever be able to have that with someone."

"You're wrong. You will, I promise. Just don't be so scared when it happens, okay? You don't have to be a sissy. I promise you, cross my heart, you will feel a lot better, if you just give in and let someone help you feel safe again. You don't have to be gay or anything about it, you just have to realize it's not meant to make you feel uncomfortable, or bad or anything. Your Dad - he probably what, just always grabbed you and..."

Jeremy grimaced. "He always grabbed me from behind, ripped my clothes off and just started pumping away up inside me, yeah." He blushed. "Sorry, didn't mean to be so graphic about it."

Thomas cringed, but then held his smile. "Don't be sorry, it's cool. I'm not stone-hearted, either." He squeezed the hand again. "I'm sorry, I really am, but that was your Dad - and believe me, he wasn't like everyone else in the world. There are people who care, who care about you - and I mean really care." His voice fell to an almost whisper. "You know something? I wish we could take that stuff with your Dad away for you. And those other kids, too."

Jeremy stared out into the fields, and then whispered. "You and Mike already have." In the silence that followed, he turned back to see the confusion on the younger boy's face. "If you two trust each other that much, and get along so well, then it just proves to me there is something good about everything you've been telling me."

Thomas looked relieved. "After a while, you'll know it, too. On the inside, Jeremy. That's when you'll feel good about it, too." He wrinkled his nose. "You know, in a way, Mike saved me, too. He saved us both. I had to learn to let go of some stuff, too. But when I did bro, it was like a whole different world for me again, you know?"

Jeremy smiled and then focused on something. "Can I ask you something else? What's with this 'bro' stuff?"

Thomas laughed. "If you don't know it yet, you'll figure it out Jermz, I promise." Thomas had done all he could then, and he knew it. After they lapsed into another short silence, he finally pulled himself up from the swing. They could hear Michael inside talking to someone. "Mike's out now, so I've got to go get my shower." He turned and glanced back down. "You, um, want some help again afterwards?"

Jeremy grinned sheepishly. "Well, one of you should at least be nearby, for a little longer anyway. That is, if you can stand seeing my naked junk again."

Thomas laughed. "It has never bothered us, Jermz, believe me. Besides, I think you're getting back to normal more and more every few days. At least, from what I see and everything." He wrinkled his nose. "Too bad we didn't take a picture when you were all ballooned up. If we had, we could compare everything when you do get back all the way, you know? Not because of … you know, just… curiosity and everything. If that makes any sense."

Jeremy nodded, fully understanding as he met the offered fist bump in mid-air, and then asked sheepishly, "Hey, Thomas? Is this stuff, umm, just between us?"

"Why? Don't you know I tell Michael everything?" the younger teen teased, then shook his head. "Sorry, just teasing. Cross my heart, Jermz, I promise," was the cheerful reply, as Thomas turned and disappeared through the doorway. Jeremy watched, wondering once again how he could be so damn lucky lately. It was good though, because with each little talk such as this, he was beginning to finally believe in the fate that had brought him to this house. He could feel his chest swell inside with happiness, a strange feeling, but one making him feel good in so many ways. After this day, he believed maybe for the first time, he just might be alright after all.

He watched the younger teen go through the door inside, and then stood up to follow.

- + - + - + - + -

Linda blinked rapidly for a moment as she got in the vehicle, the outside sunlight unusually bright as it reflected off the hood. She went ahead and started the engine, before digging through her handbag and extracting a pair of sunglasses, which she quickly donned. Thomas opened the passenger door and joined his mother, fastening his seat belt they as turned around and headed over the rise towards the road. "Where are we going, Mom?"

"Well, Carolyn needs a few things, and I volunteered the two of us - just so we might get away for a little while. Is that okay with you?" She smiled at him and noted he shrugged in acknowledgement as he replied, "Sure!"

They had reached the road when she cleared her throat. "You think I could ask you something, kiddo?" When their eyes met, she could see the annoyance written there, making her laugh. "Lighten up honey, it's not like I'm going to lecture you about the birds and the bees or anything!"

"MMMoooommmm!" Thomas exclaimed. Embarrassed, he rolled his eyes but quickly retorted good naturedly. "That's okay - I can educate you if you need to ask me anything!"

"Whoa!" Linda exclaimed, startled. She started laughing, and the whole demeanor of the moment caught them both as they howled with laughter. "O-Okay, wise ass," she finally sputtered through her tears. Thomas, for the most part, was surprised to hear his mother use that term with him - especially in that aspect. Looking at each other, Linda finally reached an arm around his shoulder and hugged him, as they continued their trek toward town. "I love you, you know," she told him, kissing the top of his head quickly.

Thomas returned the embrace, leaning into his mother. "I love you, too, I reckon." When the moment had passed, he added, "Okay, so it's not sex - GOOD! What's up?"

"Well, Michael's birthday is coming up next weekend, and-"

"What! Are you sure? No way!" the young teen exclaimed. In all the time they had been together, not once had it ever occurred to him to think about his friend's birthday!

Linda nodded. "Yes, I'm sure, and there's more. Carolyn is sending us out to get a new model for him, which is why I wanted you to come along and help me pick it out. She wants to get him a big one this time, something so all you boys can help put it together. What do you think?"

"That's – that's awesome, Mom!" He paused, becoming thoughtful. "Are we going to get him something, too?"

Linda grimaced. "You don't honestly think I would stop you from doing that, do you?" When she saw his smile, she continued. "Honey, I know you two are close, and I'm glad he has been there for you."

"We're best friends, Mom. We're there for each other."

"I know, kiddo, I know. You understand though, both of them - I mean, Michael and Carolyn both, are doing a lot for us. Most people would not even, I mean-" Linda stuttered.

"Give us the time of day. Yeah, I know Mom, trust me," Thomas replied with confidence.

"Exactly. I don't know how we're going to do it, but someday you and me are going to have to find a way to repay them. For their kindness, their friendship, their support - everything." She paused as they turned onto the main highway. "There's something else I wanted to ask you about, though, to see how you would feel about it."

"What's that?"

"Well honey, I'm sorry we lost your sketch pad. I know you had a lot of memories and things you wanted to keep in it, and I know you said to not worry about it. The truth is, though, I was wondering if you'd let me buy you a new one. Maybe you could start again and keep it, you know, keep things about our new life here. What would you think about that? It meant a lot to you before, and I thought it might mean a lot for you again."

Thomas looked out the window as they began entering the outskirts of town. He finally shrugged. "Okay, I guess. But before, I always had it because, I don't know Mom, I just was bored and lonesome and everything. I had no one to do stuff with, or to hang out or anything. Now, it's different."

"That's right, now it's different. I get that, honey. What you should also get though, is that you are a very gifted artist, and I think you should practice that gift, for yourself, if for no one else. It is a part of you, a talent that would be wasted if you didn't."

Thomas studied her for a moment. "Well, I guess so," he offered, though with no real conviction in his voice.

Linda smiled. "There IS another reason for this, too." She went on to describe what she had in mind as a project for him to take on.

At first, Thomas laughed, and then whistled. "You think I can really do THAT?"

"Yep, we just have to get you out of the house a while. Somewhere you can work without them knowing about it is all. How long do you think it would take?"

"Umm, I dunno, 3 or 4 hours, maybe more. I've never really tried to do one that way before," the boy replied.

"I think we can do that, but we'll have to start right away." They then pulled into the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart. She glanced and saw her son still pondering the idea. "You know, Carolyn's birthday is less than a month away, too. You could give it to both of them if you wanted to. Or make two separate sketches and give her one later. It's really up to you, you know."

Thomas grinned. "Will you help me? I mean, you're the one who taught me how to draw anyway."

Linda grunted as they pulled into an empty parking space. "I don't know about that, now. I taught you some basic things maybe, but you're the one who developed a lot of your skill on your own. But sure, I'll help you a little if you need me to."

There was an excitement building within him. "Awesome, Mom! Let's go get our stuff then!"

Linda laughed as she saw the sudden eagerness. Inwardly, she was happy for him, remembering the days when their conversations and moods had been a lot more somber. She exited the vehicle and followed him into the shopping center.

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