The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 13

When Life's Curves Slow You Down

"Carolyn, there is no need to worry about this for a while. I know how things are right now and believe me, there is no real pressure pushing you people. You'll find something, and when you do, we'll work it all out on our end."

The elderly woman sat back in her seat, taking advantage of the moment to relax. She stretched and released a pent-up sigh, before rubbing her tired eyes. Picking up a nearby cup, she took a sip of the now lukewarm, weakened coffee before grimacing and setting it back down. It was mid-morning, and as usual the office was cramped with various workers and their clients. Several other people were present in the waiting area, hoping to access someone who would listen to their long tales which were often wild for some reason or another. Desk space and handlers for the social services division were at a premium, and glancing about, Carolyn could see that this morning was no exception. The woman had already seen four cases thus far that morning, and she had an in-tray piled over 12- to 15-inches on her desk, all cases that needed her attention that day. A quick glance at the stack made her shake her head; the workload never eased, and the system seemed to only be getting worse.

She returned to the matter at hand and observed the woman sitting across from her closely. Carolyn had brought Jeremy in that morning, to meet with various people who all seemingly needed something different from him. Whether it was information, papers to be signed or other tasks – it was one of those days where everyone involved required his direct attention, since he was now the only surviving member of the Riddle household. Counselors, handlers, public defenders and others met with him one-on-one, hoping to resolve outstanding issues from his recent ordeal and sudden placement. There would now be no trial, no prosecution or payment in view of the circumstances, of course. As the elderly worker reflected, she thought about the fact there would also be nothing to really signal any closure for the boy, a harsh reality in her line of work she often got to witness. He would live the rest of his life alone, with memories that would scar his heart for years to come. 'No, not alone,' the worker reminded herself, as she watched Carolyn relax somewhat in her seat. This woman, and her family, was doing the extraordinary. They were doing their best, to see to it the boy had a chance of living some kind of normal life, in what few years remained before he reached the age of accountability.

The elderly woman wished there were others in the world like them, willing to open not only their homes, but also their hearts as much as these had. Although no two children were alike, almost all of them needed to learn what love and patience afforded an individual - and how much of a positive influence it could have on their lives. Jeremy Riddle had just left for the restroom, leaving the women mostly to small talk. It wasn't long, however, when the first subject that directly concerned their situation was a remark about how much time they had to find a new place to live. The household was far too small to accommodate five people, but they had not yet had any success finding roomier quarters.

"I know that Mary," Carolyn replied tiredly. "But I'm afraid he is getting a little nervous about it. No matter how much I try to reassure him, I have to admit, finding a new place is a lot harder than any of us thought it would be."

"Well, I won't lie to you, the question has come up before my supervisor. He's been a little antsy, but I sat down with him just the other evening and explained the uniqueness of this situation. We discussed it for a bit, and then he told me point blank to just keep a close eye on it, and he would agree to give it some more time - which is exactly what I intend to do." Mary paused, before leaning forward. "As far as Jeremy is concerned, it's a good sign I think, that he seems concerned about it. That tells me he must really like living with you people. Given how unstable things were for him, for so long, he is probably worrying about keeping this as stable as he can." She leaned back. "That is rare in this business, let me tell you!"

Carolyn blushed, but nodded. "He has been great with everyone. He talks more freely now, and seems to be genuinely interested in fitting in. He's -" she paused, reflecting on her choice of words before finally finishing. "He just seems happy."

"I believe it. The housing is not a problem right now, so just try to get the boy to ease up and relax. I take it you've been going through the realtors," Mary inquired.

"Linda has, yes. So far though, the costs have outweighed what we can afford to deal with altogether, at least for anything in decent shape." Carolyn eyed the woman wearily. "Don't get me wrong, we're not THAT poor, especially considering the fact we now have our resources combined. Still, it just seems most places we've found are way overpriced, and will need a lot of remedial work for which we just don't have the resources, or the know-how, to deal with them."

Mary nodded. "Believe me, I understand what you mean; I've been in the same boat there before." A thought suddenly occurred to her, and she rose from her seat. Crossing to a counter at the far end of the room, she picked up a stack of envelopes and browsed through them. Seconds later, she smiled and extracted one, before returning to her desk and handing it over to her visitor.

"What's this?" Carolyn asked, opening and withdrawing the contents. Her eyes studied the paper briefly before growing wide in surprise. "Is this - for Jeremy?"

The social worker smiled. "I told you it would take a little time to get it set up, but the State generally comes through quickly in cases like these." She nodded toward the envelope. "That is probably about two payments combined, for last month and now, along with an extra dividend because the boy is getting specialized care. I know what you're thinking, since right now he is getting specialized therapy and other care under a different program, but the state considers that you still have expenses with supporting it, including time off from work, transportation, and other things, too. That dividend there, most likely, will probably continue for about 5 or 6 more months, and then the checks will return to a more normalized amount."

Carolyn's sat back, almost speechless. "I had no idea; I mean... do you realize how much is here? What am I supposed to do with it, I mean..." She shook her head. "I have to admit, this will help out quite a bit, but it still seems like a lot."

Mary smiled. "Tell me, does the boy have any clothes to speak of? Has he needed any specialties while he's lived with you?"

Carolyn hesitated slightly, before nodding. "There's a few, yeah."

Mary continued smiling - thinking for once, here was someone who could genuinely appreciate the irony of the situation. "I will tell you something you probably already know: when this whole idea was first introduced that morning in the courthouse basement, I did not think a lot of it. We've tried this little experiment before, and often it generally failed, sometimes drastically. Most people come into fostering for the money, and very few really care for the child or children to any degree. I know that's not what it is supposed to be, but if we're completely honest, that's just the reality the State deals with in most cases. I meant no offense honey, but when you see it happen as much as I have, you grow weary of it. That morning, seeing this boy obviously was going to be needing more, how shall we say, nurtured care, I guess I wasn't as keen with the idea as some might have been."

"I remember your reaction, and honestly, I can kind of understand your reasoning. How come you didn't object to it then, in front of the judge?" Carolyn asked, curiosity getting the better of her.

"I almost did, but then something very peculiar happened. Those two boys jumped up there with you ladies, and then began making a pretty convincing argument all on their own." Seeing the puzzlement, she explained. "You see, in most cases where this exercise has failed, it boiled down to one of two reasons: either the couple gets the foster child for purely mercenary purposes, like I said, meaning they get them for the money and the added benefit of making them do all sorts of work around the house. Slave labor, as some would call it, but that term will elicit the fiercest of battles, believe me."

"The other reason they fail though, is because there are other siblings in the house already, and they can't get along with the new placements. Sometimes I think it's because of spite or jealousy, but often it is just a clash of personalities – mostly because the foster child or children come from a different world and can be badly damaged. That morning, I was surprised hearing about how your family had already established a rapport with Jeremy. As I watched and listened, I thought to myself, it was strange seeing that acceptance there - especially given Mr. Riddle's violent history in school these last few years. So, I made a judgment call. I took a chance and supported it, because I figured that was half the battle already won. As I said, it is very rare to have a situation like that."

Carolyn nodded, her eyes becoming moist. "I don't know what to say."

Mary smiled as she handed over a form to be signed. "You really don't need to say anything. I imagine you people are making ends meet, but with those funds there, you should be able to breathe a little easier. Just don't deposit that before tomorrow, as you can see that's when they go into the mail. When you get in the new house, the boy will most likely need some furniture and a few other things. At his age, anything you can do to establish some sort of stable, normal environment for him to build on, will work wonders. Believe me, this is something that doesn't take a lot of common sense to figure out. Find him a hobby, decorate the room, whatever it takes. If he ends up sharing the room with the other boys, then give him a corner, or do something where he can call it his own space, and then help him build something for himself. As long as the money is loosely spent for his benefit - and that includes groceries, medicines, clothes, shoes, school expenses and the like - no one will audit you. If you desire, you can even start a savings account after a while, and let him learn the value of banking somewhere along the way."

Mary paused, watching as Carolyn signed the release form. "You'll get another check in about 4-5 weeks, and then they'll start to arrive monthly. It's acceptable that you get to keep a portion of it - you are, after all, his guardian and looking out for him, especially in terms of the State. Just don't spend it on anything major for yourselves. You need to also make sure you give him some of it directly. What I mean is, all foster children are supposed to get an allowance, either weekly or bi-weekly, although as I said earlier, many of them don't. Just - try to be normal about it, and I believe everything will be fine. Actually, I don't think it would hurt if your whole brood got together and went out for a night at the movies, maybe a decent meal as well. That would be something to change the mood of things, perhaps make the boy feel more accepted and at home in a normal environment. Call it a welcoming celebration of sorts, if you want."

Carolyn nodded in understanding. "May I ask about something, just out of curiosity? What about all that land Mr. Riddle owned, the farm and all? Do you know what happens to it, now?"

"Well, it will be suspended in most cases, from tax assessments and the like. If I'm not mistaken, the Riddle farm was completely paid for, so there is no lien on the property. Mind you, I am unsure of all the legalities involved, but the State will assign Jeremy an attorney at some point, and he'll reach out to you. All of the utilities will be shut off, and someone will inspect the place to be sure nothing is uncared or unprovided for in the house. When Jeremy turns 18, he can either inherit the property directly, or sell it." Mary paused, shaking her head. "That's not quite accurate, forgive me. A poor choice of words, I believe. What I should have said is he inherits it either way, but once he turns 18, it will return to a non-suspended state. That means if he wants to keep it, he'll have to assume upkeep and ownership then, including property taxes and the like."

"But not until then, correct? Carolyn asked.

"That is correct. The county does not assess personal value on the property in this type of situation, and it remains clear of title and is considered suspended until he reaches 18," Mary explained. "I wouldn't worry about it for a little while, though. The attorney will be court-appointed and will probably not even get to you for another four or five months. But when he does, he'll lay out all the options and take care of everything until Jeremy turns 18."

At that moment, Jeremy rounded the entrance nearby and started walking toward them. Carolyn rose to her feet after slipping the envelope inside her purse, and turned toward Mary. Leaning over the desk, she made eye contact, and the woman saw the genuine gratitude that met her as Carolyn extended her hand. "Thank you. You have my word, I'll make sure this gets used rightly. Do you know of anyone else we need to meet with while we're here? I think you were the last one on our list."

Mary stood and took the offered hand, shaking it gently before turning and doing the same with the younger teen when he arrived by her side. "Nope, that's about it, I think." To Jeremy, Mary smiled warmly. "Mr. Riddle, if you have any more issues or questions, then please call me. That is my job here, and though it may be difficult to get through sometimes, just leave me a message. I'll get back with you, okay? Oh, and stop worrying about your housing situation. You guys will find something before long, I am certain of it."

Jeremy returned her handshake, and then followed Carolyn as they exited the building. "That wasn't too bad I guess," the teenager mused. Seeing the smile on Carolyn's face, he paused. "What? Did something happen in there? Did the old bat get a picture of me in pull-ups or something?"

Carolyn laughed out loud. "No, you silly grump!" She purposefully bumped his shoulder as they neared their car. "But you might want to be careful, that old 'bat' as you called her is going out of her way quite a bit, for the both of us, you know."

Jeremy situated himself into the front seat before grunting. "Yeah, I guess so. I'm sorry."

Carolyn settled and hooked her seat belt. Glancing at her watch, she sat there briefly thinking aloud. "It's a little too early for lunch. Want to go over to the shopping center for a little bit?"

Jeremy shrugged. "I guess, if you want to. Don't you have to go to work, though?"

Carolyn shook her head. "Not today, kiddo. I asked for the day off so I could spend it with you. Besides, I've been putting in so much time lately, the office owes me a breather, I think." She did not mention that her boss had taken a liking to the teen, and to his situation as well. The man actually encouraged her to take the day on his behalf, and she was grateful.

They passed the time quietly by making the short trip across town, where only minutes later they pulled into the parking lot of Wal-Mart. Finding a space near the front of the lot, Carolyn turned off the motor and then began rummaging inside her purse. Within seconds, she found what she was looking for. Extracting it, she handed it to the young teen. His eyes lit up. "What's this for?"

"Oh, it's just a little spending money. It's something I've been meaning to do for a while, but the way everything has been going, well, you know. I'd give you more, except I really don't have a lot of cash on me right now," Carolyn explained.

Jeremy stared at the twenty-dollar bill as if it were alien in some way, before he attempted to give it back. "I don't need it, ma'am. Just keep it."

Carolyn shook her head. "No, no, it's yours, kiddo. I think from now on we're going to start giving you an allowance anyway. I give Michael money every month mostly, just not always at the same time. I think Linda is planning to start doing the same for Thomas, too."

"But he, I mean he's your son..." Looking at her quizzical expression, his voice betrayed his confusion. "I mean, I'm not - he's, like..."

"Not what? Listen kiddo, you're our family now, too." Carolyn smiled warmly at him. "Jeremy, I know you're getting tired of everyone telling you what you have to do, or not do. Honestly, I'd be going bonkers, I think, if I were in your shoes. But here I go again, because I'm going to tell you this over and over until you both realize and believe it: you're here to stay, you're welcomed and wanted. Okay, so maybe you're not here by blood, but you're still here because we WANT you here. All of us care about you, and love you, too. And right now, I'm going to tell you what I told Linda and Thomas: you have to stop thinking about this as all being some temporary thing. You're going to be 18 in a few years, and by law you'll be considered an adult. When that time comes, you can move out if you want to, on your own. But kiddo - that's still what, three years away or so. Until that time comes, you're here with us, in the here and now. So, guess what? That means we're going to take care of you. That also means," she paused, leaning in for emphasis, "that we are going to be goofy and crazy at times, but other times we're going to be here for each other."

Jeremy stared at her, genuinely impressed, before dropping his eyes to the money he was still holding. "You guys, all of you, have done so much for me, you know? It's hard sometimes to think I even deserve it." He looked up however, before smiling. "I don't know. I mean, I don't know what to even call you ladies and stuff, you know? I mean-"

"Shush. You're doing fine, and nobody has complained even once. I just wish we didn't have to have you stuck on the couch right now!" She giggled, before leaning closer. "Don't worry about things, we'll figure it all out as we go, I promise. Oh, and you call us whatever makes you feel comfortable," Carolyn replied, grabbing her purse. "Right now though, come on. We've got some shopping to do."

"Th-thanks." What little money Jeremy had ever held in his life, was what he could scrape together doing odd jobs for people - and none of them ever paid anything that came close to what he was holding. He wasn't even sure what he should do with it, but as he got out of the car, he pushed the bill deep into his left pocket. As they entered the store, he asked her shyly. "Um, what are we looking for anyway? Anything in particular?"

Carolyn shrugged. "Not really. We need to get you some more clothes - REAL clothes, I mean. The stuff you've been wearing is okay, but most of it is thread-bare, or just plain worn out. I take it your father never bought you much of anything."

Jeremy shook his head. "Most all of my clothes were hand-me-downs, things either he got from somewhere or I found."

"Well, I think we can take care of some of that now, unless you prefer Michael and Thomas along. I'll warn you though, Michael does NOT like shopping for clothes," Carolyn added, rolling her eyes.

Jeremy laughed. "I might not be much better, ma'am."

She put an arm around his shoulder, steering him towards the men's section. "Well, try to stomach it for a few minutes at least, and we'll find you something you like. Maybe we can find some jeans that will be, ah, loose enough in the seat and crotch, too."

Jeremy smiled widely. "Oh wow, that would be so… awesome!"

- + - + - + - + -

Linda Wilson had just finished a rather long, grueling day in the clerk's office. Exiting the building slowly, she stood just outside the entrance, searching her purse for the keys she needed. While digging through her belongings, she was surprised to hear her name called out behind her. Turning, she instantly recognized the man as he approached. "Why hello there! Mr. Mathews, right? I mean, you're the Mathews boys' father, if I remember right?"

The man laughed. "Yes - Austin and Kevin. You and I met briefly the other day, when I came to pick them up. I'm Carl," he added, extending his hand, which she took and shook firmly.

"It's good to see you again, Carl. I'm Linda. What can I do for you?" she asked pleasantly.

"Well, I went down to the hospital a little bit ago, to try and find your friend Carolyn, but they told me she was off today. One of the girls there suggested I might find you here though, so I came on over. Looks like I just barely caught you in time," he explained.

Linda nodded, although curious. "I usually get off at 4:30, but I'm running a little late today."

"Then, I guess I really did luck out. Listen, I don't want to keep you, but I was wondering if I might get you ladies to come over to my office in the morning. I know it's a Saturday, but I'd like to show the two of you something I think you might find interesting. It's a house coming on the market, but it hasn't been advertised yet. I don't want to sound critical, but given what Austin has told me, you guys are fairly cramped at the moment, correct?"

Linda rolled her eyes. "THAT is an understatement!" She looked the man over thoughtfully. "We HAVE been looking lately, but everything … I'm sorry, Carl, everything just seems priced so far out of our range. I don't mind telling you we've been rather discouraged."

Carl Mathews nodded, smiling at her. "Well, this one might work out for you a little better than most. It belongs to an elderly couple up in Riverview, and they haven't been able to use it for the last couple of years. You see, they were getting up in years and were reaching the point they needed additional care. Since they had no family, they moved into an assisted living community up there. They thought at first it would just be temporary, but their health has continued to decline since, and they've decided it might be best if they just put it up for sale." He narrowed his eyes at her somewhat. "Mind you, I'm not saying it's perfect. I went out this morning and took a look at her, though. She's really not in too bad of shape! A little fresh paint or wallpaper, maybe some new carpet, and she will look a lot better than you think. Outside and structurally, it's a very sound and solid building, too, and it sits on about 2 acres. There's plenty of yard space, garden area and so forth."

"Really? How big is the house itself?" Linda asked.

"Well, it's a sort of ranch design with a wrap-around porch on the front and side, and it's got three bedrooms and 2 baths. But get this - it also has a half-finished basement, so there is a lot more room than what you might expect. The rooms downstairs could easily be converted into bedrooms, I believe. You ladies could even extend the unfinished space eventually, gaining even more room if you desired." He paused before smiling at her. "If you'll take a look, I don't think you'd be disappointed. As I said, the elderly couple decided to part with the property, and they have set the initial price reasonably, well below some of the market norms you've encountered, I'm sure. I don't usually advocate for people this way, but knowing your situation, I thought I'd better let you know about it quickly."

Linda was intrigued. "That sounds - interesting, really. What time did you want to meet?"

"Whatever is convenient for you ladies; I'll be in the office from about 8:00 until 11:00 or so," Carl answered.

Linda became thoughtful. "We were planning a surprise birthday party for Michael tomorrow evening, and I think your boys were going to come over and spend the night perhaps." Seeing the look of surprise on the man's face made her laugh. "We borrowed a couple of tents from my boss here, and I think the boys were planning to set them up. Turns out there is a creek on the backside of the adjacent farm, not too far from the house, and the stream is pretty safe. I walked over there earlier this week; it's a pretty decent spot, with some space along the bank cleaned off and everything for them."

"That sounds like a fun adventure. You say it's the boy's birthday? Maybe we should wait until some other time then, like Monday-"

"Oh, no! I didn't mean it that way at all! I was just thinking, it might be better if we did it kind of early, like 8:00 to 8:30 or so. Would that be all right?" Linda asked.

"That would be fine!" Carl then made as to leave. "I'll see you ladies tomorrow then, around 8:30 or a little before."

As they parted, Linda suddenly felt a strange excitement building within her. Was it possible? Did she dare get her hopes up, or would it turn out to be another disappointment. 'Good Lord, we've had our fair share of them lately,' she thought to herself. Turning, she quickly found her vehicle and started the journey home.

When Michael first awoke the next morning, the sun was already above the horizon outside their window. The air was unusually thick and humid for this time of year, causing him to throw back the single sheet he and Thomas had been using. Without even looking, he had a vague impression that Thomas had just left for the bathroom, and he understood why. It was one thing to awaken with a need to answer the call of mother nature; it was another, however, when the night before you consumed an excessive amount of iced tea that needed to be dispensed - in a hurry.

Within a minute the bedroom door opened and, sure enough, Thomas strolled inside, crossing the space where he groggily climbed back into the bed. Michael opened one eye then, wearily grunting as he swung his own legs out and onto the floor, intending to take his turn. Within minutes he returned, closing the door behind him and crawling back, snuggling up to his friend. Although his eyes remained closed, Thomas responded with a smile, but as the minutes passed Michael had to roll to his back. They had been sleeping together now for some time, each becoming accustomed with the other in ways that only added to their already inseparable bond. Their bodies seemed to find a naturalness in the way that complemented their trust. Neither was afraid to lie next to the other, or drape an arm, hand or leg over his friend. The contact provided a level of subconscious comfort as they slept, but also something much more.

There were exceptions, however, and this particular morning seemed to highlight the most obvious one that they presently faced. Although the window was open, no air stirred outside in the calm, gradually brightening sky. The fan sitting in the window drew in the morning breath of the world, but the high humidity and heat rolled with it. That was why he reluctantly rolled away. The heat Thomas's body generated, with his own, was just too much for him to be comfortable.

The silence was broken when Thomas spoke. "Why is it so hot in here?"

Turning his head to his side, Michael grimaced. "I don't know. Heat wave, I guess."

Thomas grunted. "Make it go away."

"How am I supposed to do that?" Michael giggled.

Thinking about it a second, Thomas ended up simply shrugging. "I don't know, it's your birthday. Make a wish or something. Maybe if you run around naked all day, someone will take pity on us."

That made Michael laugh, as well as pick up an extra pillow from the floor and throw it at his friend. "Anyone saw me naked would just have to go see a shrink."

Thomas, either because he was still waking up, or because he was just being thoughtful, looked at his friend with baleful eyes. "No, they wouldn't. Now, if they saw Kevin's ass, that's a different story."

Both burst into giggles at that thought, and had to fight to keep the noise down. Michael finally rolled back and whispered. "I don't know, I thought he had a cute bubble butt."

"What?! Where did THAT come from?" Thomas asked, before yawning.

"You mean 'bubble butt'? Heck if I know, just... it sort of just looked like, you know, round and puffed out or something around the edges!" This caused Thomas to lose it, grabbing the pillow and shielding his face as he laughed hysterically. Michael grinned and moved over closer to his friend, where he waited for him to regain control before whispering. "You saw it too, didn't you?"

Thomas finally nodded. "Yeah, but I wasn't as close as you were. And no, I didn't notice it was anything like that!" He grinned wickedly at his friend. "By the way, did you do that on purpose? You know, were you TRYING to see his ass or something?"

Michael grinned back. "No! It was Austin who grabbed his shorts, remember?"

"Oh yeah, that's right!" They fell into silence as they stared at each other, both smiling and remembering the day that had unfolded. "I think Kevin was trying to un-pants you though," Thomas added thoughtfully.

Michael was dubious. "No way!" He thought about it for a second. "You really think so?"

Thomas shrugged. "I don't know, but you've got to admit, it was pretty bold to stuff that hose down the front leg of your shorts!"

Michael nodded. "You ever notice how much smaller he is than we are, yet we're almost the same age?" When Thomas nodded, he added. "Have you ever, like, maybe wondered..."

"Wondered what?" When Michael blushed, Thomas pressed the advantage. "Come on, tell me! It's not like you've ever been afraid to tell me anything before."

Michael shyly lowered his eyes. "Well, I … I mean, I wonder what HE looks like. You know, down there."

Thomas grimaced. "Yeah? Okay, I confess, I have, too. A little, at least."

"No shit?" The surprise was profound.

"Yeah, no shit. Heck, I even wonder about his brother sometimes, too. You see how hairy his arms and legs are and everything?"

Michael nodded. "Yeah, I noticed. Look at his underarms sometime, too."

"I don't have to, I've already seen them. If that's any indication of other places, then I bet-"

"Yeah, he probably has a big dick and a big bush to go with it," Michael finished for him, causing Thomas to giggle.

"Yeah." Thomas observed the grin on his friend's face, and then lowered his voice. "Umm, Mike..."


"I'm getting horny over here." He said it in almost a whisper.

"Finally? Man, I've been horny and hard all night!" He reached out and grabbed Thomas's hand, guiding it down underneath him and pushing it inside his briefs. There, Thomas found a hard member already poking itself into his palm. Then Michael rolled forward onto his stomach, sandwiching Thomas's hand underneath him and the bed. Thomas wiggled his fingers, feeling around as he cupped his friend.

He did that for a minute before scooting closer and whispering. "I know you probably want to mess around some, but umm, do you think you can hold out for a while? Like, till tonight or something?"

Michael groaned as he closed his eyes. "Ugh, we can't tonight. I mean, we're gonna be camping, remember?"

Thomas's face broke into a grin. "Yeah, I know."

The look and the thought made Michael suddenly glance up. "You're thinking something devious, aren't you?" The knowing look that returned to him, made him raise his eyebrows. Thomas leaned in. "It's your birthday, remember? I think we can do something really special on it, you know?"

"Even with Kevin tenting with us?" Michael whispered.

"Especially with Kevin tenting with us. We might get to, like, satisfy our curiosity – and more!"

"Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, to you! Happy birthday, dear MMMiiicchhhaaaeeelllll……!"

As everyone sang around him, Michael's chest swelled with pride; he was now another year older, at least on paper. He didn't FEEL any different than he did the day before, but inside he was happy. He was in the room with his friends gathered round, a group of people he had come to respect immensely within the last year. He stared at the cake and the candles that lit up half the room. Where some people might have blushed, he found he was relaxed in this crowd. As they finished singing, he took a deep breath and extinguished the group of candles without any trouble. Only then did he slightly blush as they all cheered. "Thanks guys," he offered in a meek voice as the others clapped and carried on. Thomas, closest to his side, clasped his friend hard on the shoulder, and then soon joined the others as they moved to grab plates and napkins.

As had been tradition between he and his Mom, since before he could remember, he cut the first piece for himself - a rather large double-sized slice that drew a brief frown from his mother, before she started laughing and shaking her head. Soon, the others were all sharing the extra-rich chocolate dessert, along with homemade ice cream. As they sat around the table, Michael eventually leaned back and watched the others. Before long, his gaze turned toward the corner of the room where a small table had been set up. Various boxes and packages had been placed there, catching his attention. Picking up his plate, he rose and walked over to admire them closer.

Several opened cards were spread along one side, along with a huge plastic model, a board game and a couple of books. Although each was cool, what had brought oohs and ahs from the crowd, was when Michael opened his present from Thomas. It was a new picture, a piece of artwork framed in old wood and ready to hang in their room. Insofar as he knew, it was the first drawing Thomas had attempted to do since losing his notebook. The drawing was made up of a collage of five images, containing different groupings of the five of them. Each of the five corners held smaller images of the people in their family: Michael and his Mom, Michael and Thomas, the five of them together, including Jeremy, and then one of Thomas and his mother. It was the center though that brought the most attention, for it was a large drawing of him, Michael, sitting in the swing on the front porch – thankfully, fully clothed! The detail was exquisite, one which they all couldn't help but admire. Most praised Thomas for his work, seeing the drawings as almost lifelike, one which Carolyn envied and immediately requested he make another one sometime just for her. He, of course, promised to do so.

As Michael looked on, his thoughts turned to all the other drawings his friend had created before, and for a wistful moment, he wished the sketchpad had not been lost. How Thomas's grandparents, rather his grandfather, could throw away and destroy such a personal artifact escaped him. That pad had been a good part of Thomas's life for a long time. It had been an important part of defining who he was, giving him an escape from all the pressures of life around him, filling a void that no one else - at least at the time - could fill.

He and Thomas had actually talked about it once, while lying in the dark one night. Thomas had shrugged then, as he lay close and held Michael's hand. "Meh, it's gone. There is nothing I can do about it, Mike. Besides, I don't really miss it that much anymore."

"But - it had some really good things in it. I thought it was really cool, you know? Your poems, the sketches - all that stuff, they were a part of you!" Michael had argued, disbelieving how easily the boy let it go.

Thomas grunted. "Our naked sketch, too?"

Michael closed the distance between them until their noses touched. "Especially that. I know you said you destroyed it, but – that was awesome, you know? Honest!"

Thomas had thought about it. "I know, Mike. But, to be honest? I don't need it anymore, because now I've got you." He reached out and placed his other hand up and inside Michaels t-shirt, over his heart. "I've got you for real, you know?"

The memory made Michael smile, and he was still smiling when he felt another hand on his shoulder. Turning, he saw Linda standing beside him, admiring the print as well. When she didn't speak, he asked her, "Did you help him?"

"No, not really," Linda replied in equally low tones. "I was going to, but he wanted to do it all just for you. I ended up helping him work it into the frame, but that was about it." She was smiling at him. "He really does a pretty good job, doesn't he?"

"Ohh yyeaaahhhh," Michael replied, beaming. They finally turned from the table and peered at the others, who were now horsing around and choking in laughter as Kevin, in some weird way the two never figured out, suddenly had chocolate icing dripping from his nose.

"Man, this is awesome!" Kevin exclaimed. They had just arrived at the bank of the stream where the tents were set up. "Who thought of this? Wow, we're really away from everything out here, too!" He looked around at the gentle bank that rose from the water's edge for several hundred feet. The clearing was banked at the edge with a slope, which ran parallel to a field bordering above them. The slope's leading edge, however, was beneath the field, thus creating an ideal location next to a set of large trees outlining the little cove.

The shielded clearing contained two dome tents, each easily capable of comfortably holding three to four people. It had already been established the three younger teens would share one tent, while Jeremy and Austin shared the other that night. Because the lie of the slope leading up to the stream shifted in direction, the two tents were pitched about 20-feet apart, a distance that assured each would have plenty of privacy from the other if needed.

Although Michael could at times be rather sentimental, in general his easygoing nature took most things in its stride. Especially when it came to accepting the natural order of things around him. Still, when he stopped for a moment to gaze out over the stream and listen to the water that flowed along, there was a certain quietness about it that made him pause and appreciate it, even in the extreme heat that had settled in on this day. He turned as Thomas finally caught up to the two. "Wow, you guys really planned this?" he asked his friend. As Thomas nodded, Michael turned back to the stream. "This is really awesome, man. Thanks!"

Kevin nodded in agreement. "You bet it is! Wait till my bro gets here and sees it!" He sniffed the air. "Hey, it even smells nice out here, you know?" He looked at the other two boys before wrinkling his nose. "Okay, you two better NOT fart me out of the tent tonight!"

All three laughed, as Michael finally broke from his reverie. Walking up to one of the tents, he asked, "Which one is ours?"

"Either one," Thomas replied. "Just pick one, I guess."

Michael glanced at the other one before he shrugged. Setting the gym bag down inside, he kicked off his shoes and removed his socks. As the other two boys watched, he wiggled his toes in the grassy slope, before standing up and peeling his t-shirt off. Revealed was a mostly white chest and belly underneath. "Ah, that's a LOT better!" he exclaimed as he laid the garment inside on top of his bag.

"Good grief man, you don't have to blind us you know!" Kevin grinned as he walked by. In like manner, he tossed the bags he was carrying inside and followed suit, removing his shirt. Underneath, however, he revealed a rather tanned torso. "Yeah, you're right, it is better. As long as the mosquitos don't start sucking us dry."

"With that hide of yours? They would dull their needles before getting to anything!" Thomas quipped, good-naturedly.

"Yeah, but you might want to be careful. Hopefully any that sink into you will be females," Michael added, causing Thomas to sudden burst out laughing.

"Meh, let the males come if they want to," Kevin quipped.

"What if they're gay though?" Thomas added, gurgling as he tried to settle down. Like his two friends, he also followed suit, revealing a whitened skin underneath that was much like Michaels. When he saw Kevin staring at him though, he sheepishly hung his head, observing himself. "Yeah, I know, Kev... Sorry, we don't get out in the sun too much, I guess."

Michael spoke up. "Yeah, I'm kind of, I don't know, shy around his Mom and stuff."

Kevin shrugged. "I don't think you guys look so bad - white maybe, but that doesn't mean anything, really," he said, giggling as he walked up beside them. Reaching out, he pulled them together close enough so that he could drape an arm around each of their shoulders. "Okay, what do you guys want to do? You know it'll be a while before Jermz and my brother get out here. Just don't get any ideas you're going to pinch my tits, okay?"

Again, Thomas and Michael burst out laughing as the smaller teen grinned up at them. Although he probably thought nothing of it, the contact Kevin shared between them did not escape either boy at his side. All three wore only cut-off jeans, and as they drew close with one another, they could feel each other's presence. Both Thomas and Michael had grown to like Kevin, as the boy had opened up more to them over the past several weeks in a lot of personal ways. Perhaps, like Jeremy, he was one many people misjudged after all. His choice of friends in the past notwithstanding, the boy had truly been shocked at what had almost happened. It was a wake-up call, one which he had heeded and was now trying to find a better foothold in the world, without the dependencies he had lived with before. This was a different Kevin than they had watched in the last couple of years, and they saw it both on the surface and underneath.

Michael dropped an arm around the boy's midsection and grinned as he looked out over the stream. After first giving Kevin a half hug, he then separated and moved over to the edge of it. Kevin and Thomas followed, until all three of them stood by the water. After staring for seconds, Thomas grunted and put a tentative step out into the water. "Hey!" he exclaimed. "It's not bad at all!" He broke away from his friends and started wading out deeper.

The others followed, agreeing with him that the cool water was actually welcomed. It felt awesome, as it ran over their feet and ankles. The water was crystal clear, ranging in various depths from less than a foot to more than four feet in places as they moved to the center, where deeper pockets had been eroded over the years. For a while, all three explored the immediate area, migrating slowly downstream. Before long, they found the pockets and chasms along the center widened, and they began moving to one side until they reached a point where they could no longer wade without getting their cutoffs wet. It seemed the water moved slower here, and as they paused, Michael noticed a mischievous expression cross Thomas's face. "What?" he asked in a low voice. Kevin, still a few feet behind them, was trying to extract something out of the stream from beneath the surface.

Thomas glanced at both of them before looking about the clearing. "Umm, pretty secluded here, don't you think?" he asked. There was a thicker line of trees that stretched on both sides of the stream, creating a more dense-like setting than where they had come from. Michael glanced about and nodded, shrugging as he turned back to his friend.

Thomas, however, was moving over to the nearest bank while clearing his throat. "Umm, Kevin, how would you feel about us going swimming?"

Kevin glanced up before standing upright, abandoning his excavation task. It took a second, but he eventually broke out into a big grin as comprehension dawned on him. "You mean, like... skinnin?" He looked about only seconds before he nodding. "Fine by me, but, I don't know, what about Mike?"

Michael, for all its worth, was having a blond moment. "Huh?" He had only half caught what they were saying, totally missing the 'skinnin' reference. As he looked up, perplexed, both of the other boys laughed out loud before Thomas came back and grabbed his confused friend's hand.

"He'll be okay with it, trust me," Thomas replied, as they reached the edge of the bank. There Thomas unsnapped his shorts, and then in front of the other two, he hooked and pushed down one leg at a time, catching both his cut-offs and a pair of navy briefs underneath. To Michael's surprise, comprehension finally dawned on him. He glanced to his side and saw Thomas finish removing his own set and tossing the garments up onto the safety of the bank. Before he could say anything, Thomas turned and faced the both of them, before rushing back and submerging himself now into the deeper water.

Michael's surprise had given him pause, and he wondered then whether this was something Thomas had planned for or not. They had talked before of going camping during the summer, but he had been unaware of their plans for this night - until only the evening before, when Thomas had let the surprise slip. Grinning wickedly, he turned to find Kevin intending to retort when, to his surprise, the boy had already beaten him by diving back into the water.

"You gonna stand there, or are you coming in?" Thomas's voice called from the middle of the stream.

"Yeah, you gonna stand there, or are you too grown up to skinny dip with us?" Kevin taunted good naturedly. Michael grinned as he unhooked the button for his cutoffs, but then hesitated before shucking them. He and Thomas were close to each other, brothers in every practical sense of the word. He didn't mind getting naked around him at all, but Kevin - as fast as their friendship was growing, he wasn't so sure. That is, until he realized the boy had already stripped and was swimming towards his best friend. Kevin wasn't exactly in their inner circle, but he was placing a certain amount of trust in them, and that realization made Michael smile. He stripped and then moved slowly towards the other two, uninhibited that he was on full display as he approached. He chastised himself briefly for missing the opportunity to check the younger teen out, however, but then resolved if he got the chance again, he wouldn't be so shy. As he progressed into the deeper pocket, he noticed Kevin had turned, and that the other teen's eyes were checking him out. He steeled himself, to keep from blushing, but purposefully took his time in joining them. He gradually sank into the water, and the closer he approached, the surface reached high upon his chest. He finally came to a stop just a few feet from the other two. He fixed his gaze upon Kevin, noting the softened expression the other boy's face held.

"You really meant that stuff last week, didn't you? About trusting us - me and my bro. Didn't you?" The remark was a more of a statement of fact than a question.

"Yeah," Michael replied, nodding. "You did too, I guess."

Kevin began working his way closer. "You guys are funny, kind of," he remarked, exchanging glances with first one and then the other.

"How so?" Thomas asked.

"I dunno, it's like, you don't seem gay or anything, but yet you're like, comfortable. With each other I mean. Like, really close - like Aus and me."

Both Michael and Thomas exchanged looks, and Thomas saw something unsteady, unsure in his friend's eyes. Michael - the one always calm, collective and thoughtful, the one always with words to inspire and help people, to see inside them and feel out what they needed - was at a loss. Thomas found that strange, but he already knew, from the many talks they had already, that his friend had insecurities. They just never showed themselves normally, and right now he felt they were on raw display. He smiled in return, trying to reassure him. Thomas thought back to the day they had hugged, and how uncertain he had been in the exchange with him. He also remembered the day they both got in the shower, and how uncertain and fearful he had been at first. Of what, he wasn't sure anymore - but whatever it was that day, it must have felt different and weird to him. The surprise was that, even though he had wished for some things, he found out Michael also wished for some of it. The way Michael had opened himself up - heart and soul - to reach out to him, sealed their fate in ways Thomas still never fully understood. Regardless, though, he was so happy that they had their closeness with each other. He felt, truly, blessed.

"It's okay Mike," he whispered softly before turning his attention to Kevin. "We are comfortable, Kev - we're best friends. We trust each other."

Kevin nodded. "Yeah, I know. I can see it in you. Don't worry guys, honest, I think it's cool, really." He mused for a second, before lowering his voice and addressing Michael. "You look like you've got a really big one," he stated timidly.

Thomas giggled. Glancing down into the water, through the reflection of the skyline above them mixed with the ripples of the water flowing by, he could tell his best friend was partially aroused. Relaxing a little, Michael cocked his head slightly to one side as he watched the smaller boy with curiosity. "No bigger than his," he replied, motioning toward Thomas. "Besides, I figured you got a good look last week."

Kevin blushed then hung his head a little. "No. I wanted to, but..."

This surprised Michael completely. "You did? But - I mean, you... your brother-"

"I know, but honest, I mean, uh..." At first, he was hesitant about what he should say, but seeing both Thomas and Michael watching him with curiosity, he finally shrugged. "Aw, hell, yeah - I was kind of just curious and stuff, I admit it, but I didn't mean to, like, you know... it just kind of happened. Besides, even when it did, I really didn't see anything. Just some of your hairs mostly, and your nuts."

Michael grinned at the smaller boy. "I- You mean to tell me, you wanted to, though? I mean, even if you were just - just curious? " He saw the boy begin to blush even more, so he hastily added. "It's okay, honest!" He moved a little closer and softened his voice. "Remember what I said last week? I didn't care, and I meant it."

"But... you hesitated just now, before you came over here and all. Like, when we stripped and stuff," Kevin replied, still uncertainty displayed in his eyes.

"I know, and yeah, I did. But only because I - well, I don't know. I'm sorry, it's not like I'm afraid of you or anything, honest. I just, I didn't know..." When he couldn't explain himself any better, he tried a different track. "You're 13, right?" When Kevin nodded, he continued. "You have a small body, you know?"

Kevin rolled his eyes. "Yeah, tell me about it!"

"Why? What's so bad about that?" Thomas joined in, moving closer and addressing the smaller boy.

Kevin shrugged. "Nothing, I guess. It just makes me more vulnerable to creeps and stuff."

Michael shook his head. "I don't think so. I think it just matters who you count on as your friends." He smiled. "So, you really didn't see me then?"

"Nope, not until just now - honest." There was a silence between them, until he saw both of the other boys looking at him. "What?"

Thomas grinned as he worked his way even closer. "So, we were, umm, kind of wondering, too."

"Yeah? Wondering about what?" Kevin asked.

"Well, like maybe what you looked like too," Thomas explained.

Kevin eyes widened, and then he laughed. "Come on, you guys got the full moon last week!" He saw them smile, but there was something else in their faces that was different. "Seriously?" When Michael nodded, he glanced around and then slowly worked over to within a couple of feet away. Being at the edge of the water's pocket, he was able to get some footing beneath him. Slowly, he stood up and emerged from the water. "Okay, I'm not afraid - here ya go," he said simply, displaying himself in full view for both boys, spreading his arms wide.

As with most boys, Kevin looked no different in respects to his packaged essentials, but unlike most, there were parts that made him definitely distinct insofar as both Michael and Thomas were concerned. His body was somewhat smaller, but more muscular and refined for his size. He had a much smaller patch of developed pubic hair, but they were darker and less dense around the base of his dick, which in the time since he rose from the water, had started to stiffen and rise. "Just don't make fun of how little I am compared to you two," the boy whispered. His torso lowered smoothly from his rib cage to his navel; the sides at his waist outlined around the upper edge of his hips. The effect leveled and indented, forming a distinct set of v-lines that dropped to his groin. There, Michael was surprised to see he was very much like Thomas, though in a smaller way, and that he was uncircumcised. Unlike Thomas, though, Kevin's extra skin seemed to hang off the end longer, as it closed down from the tip. His scrotum was actually quite sizable, in proportion to the rest of his package.

"You've got nothing to be shy about, at all," Michael mused.

Kevin giggled and relaxed, as he saw their eyes were widened while they studied him. He looked at himself briefly, then decided to turn around slowly, giving them the full view from the sides and behind. Thomas immediately saw what Michael had meant by the term 'bubble butt'.

"Wow Kev, cool!" Thomas whispered. "I agree with Mike.

"Yeah," Michael added, when the boy completed his turn and blushed again. He stood there a few more seconds before moving back and lowering himself into the water. "Thanks guys." He studied them a second, then giggled. "So, did you get an eye-full that time?" He grinned as they laughed. "Honest guys, it's cool. I don't care. I don't have anything special, anyway."

Michael then waded over to him and put an arm around him, pulling him in for a hug from the side. "No, you are special, and I'm glad too, really. I'm sorry I hesitated and all."

Kevin returned the gesture before looking over at Thomas, only a few feet away. "How about you? I mean, I've seen him now, but... do I get to see you, too?"

Thomas grinned. "You really want to?" When Kevin nodded, Thomas simply stood up and worked his way out of the water until he was only inches away. In like manner, he stood briefly before turning slowly, ignoring the fact he had a full boner breaking just above the surface of the water. Kevin nodded appreciatively, taking the boy in. "Finally! Someone like me! And wow, you do have a big dick!"

Michael wrinkled his nose. "Huh?"

Kevin pointed toward Thomas's penis, as the other boy slowly settled himself back into the water. "His dick, he's uncut, like me! Most everyone I've seen is like you. You know, cut."

"Most people ARE cut, unless you go overseas to England, or Germany, or places like that, I think," Thomas replied.

"Yeah," Kevin agreed. "Not that I go looking at peeps dicks for stuff like that on purpose, but, just saying..."

"I know what you mean," Michael replied. "That's sort of the way it is between me and Thomas. We were like, just curious and stuff and then..." He didn't continue, suddenly feeling like he may have led himself somewhere he didn't want the conversation to go.

Kevin, on the other hand, didn't mind. "Yeah? Well, can I ask you guys something then? And I mean, it has to be totally between us. No one - not even my brother - can find out, okay? It's personal - really personal stuff."

Intrigued, both Michael and Thomas nodded. "Sure, fire away," Thomas answered for both of them.

Kevin lowered his voice to just above a whisper. "You guys ever, like, do stuff? You know, like mess around or anything?"

Thomas looked at his best friend, unsure of what to say. Michael paused, reflecting once again on their new buddy, trying to search out how far he was - at least for himself - willing to go. Everything he and Thomas had done to that point was between them, something personal they shared together. Would they be betraying that bond by confessing to this kid why they were so close? He looked at Thomas with a question on his face. He couldn't speak for both of them, although he knew his friend and his heart. This was a crossroads he couldn't take alone.

"Umm Kev... I... we..." Michael stuttered. He took a deep breath and cast his eyes down into the water, where they all lay within inches of each other, sitting on the rocks underneath.

"It's okay guys, I'm sorry I asked. It's none of my business," Kevin interrupted, saving Michael from any further explanation.

Thomas, however, felt that they had to tell him something. There was far too much at stake now in their friendship. As he saw the disappointment, Kevin started to get up. Reaching out, he put a hand on his shoulder. "Wait," he said. Kevin hesitated as he watched them both exchange looks.

Thomas took a deep breath. "We... do stuff, yeah." There, he said it, letting his breath back out. "It's just, it's not that we don't trust you, it's just-"

"Something you don't really talk to others about, I know. Believe me, I understand, too," Kevin finished for him. He relaxed and settled back between them. "I think it's cool, actually."

Michael was surprised. "You do?"

"Hell yeah! Makes for some cool fun, sometimes!" This statement came with a knowing look as he grinned at the other two.

Thomas grunted. "Do you? I mean, have you?"

Kevin nodded. "I've done some stuff, yeah..."

"With who?" This came from Michael, clearly beginning to relax more.

The smaller boy shrugged. "Some guys, that's all." He didn't elaborate any further, and neither Michael or Thomas pressed the issue. After a moment Michael rose and separated from them, wading out into deeper water where he began submerging and trying to swim. For a while Thomas and Kevin both just sat on the ledge and watched him. "Thomas?"


"Is he always like that? I mean, I dunno... He's seems, almost too nice sometimes and everything," Kevin mused.

Thomas watched Michael for a minute, splashing in the distance. "I've never met anyone like him Kev, honest. I just know, he's been there for me unlike anyone ever has before. I trust him - I really, really do."

Kevin nodded. "I know - I see it in you guys. Not like, a gay thing or anything either - there is just something about it, I think most people would never understand. At least not unless they saw you as brothers or something." His voice became distant as he added, "Kind of like Austin and me."

Thomas turned his gaze to the kid. "Your brother loves you, too – you know that."

Kevin wrinkled his nose. "Sometime I know it too much. To be honest though, these last couple of months and everything, well..." He glanced at Thomas, then tried to explain. "Everyone at school treats me pretty much like shit now. Except for the ones I want to avoid, you know? It's like I'm a plague or something so ugly they can't stand to be around me. It doesn't matter what you do or not do, it's like if you get a label..."

"...the label gets you. Yeah, I know what you mean, Kev." Thomas did indeed have an idea of what the other was going through.

"Yeah... Aus, he's like, the only friend I have anymore, you know?"

"No, you're wrong. You've got me, and Mike, and Jeremy, too." Thomas said it, smiling at the other. "We're you're friends, too."

Kevin smiled back before returning to his gaze to watch Michael in the distance. "He seems to have that weird effect on people, saying the right things sometimes and what have you, you know? Did you notice last week how he was handling Jermz? I was like, 'No way!' But the more I watched and listened, it was like - really good."

Thomas said nothing for a moment, having already had similar thoughts before. Eventually he shrugged. "I don't know anything else I can say, honest. Mike's just - well, he and his Mom both - they're just really cool people. He's kind of funny sometimes, but no more than I am, I guess." He grinned. "It's like he's afraid of nothing. Stripping and walking over here a while ago? Between me and him, we're always fine about it and everything, but gor a moment I wasn't sure if he was going do it or not with you here, but yet when he did-"

"Yeah, he did it. I've got to admit, his stuff hangs pretty cool, too," Kevin added, blushing. "Were you guys seriously wondering about me?"

Thomas laughed "Yep, we talked about it a little. Both you and your brother." He grinned even wider. "Mike told me he thought you had a bubble butt."

Kevin laughed. "What the hell? What did you say?"

Thomas laughed harder and explained the conversation, which had Kevin laughing even more. "You guys..." He got a look in his eyes. "Aus is big, and I mean REALLY big! Well, to me anyway. And I've seen him both soft and when he's had a boner. It gets super long then! Hell, I've watched him jack it off a few times, too. He also has a lot of hair... His ass is kind of scrawny, though." He grinned again. "You guys have a cute ass too, I guess – for guys anyway. At least you're more like me..."

"You think so?" Thomas asked.

Kevin laughed but did not answer. Instead, he leaned close to Thomas and spoke softly again. "Do you think you guys might want to mess around some tonight?"

Thomas studied the other kid for a second before he broke into a grin. "Maybe..."

Kevin grinned too, motioning his head toward the boy still swimming in the distance. "Do you think maybe he might, too? Seriously?"

Thomas got a knowing expression as he nodded. "I think so, yeah. Besides... it's his birthday..."

"Oh yeah, that's right..."

Thomas grinned at him. "If you want, maybe we can give him an extra special birthday tonight, something different." He then got up and started moving to join his friend.

Kevin followed, thinking, 'Awesome'...

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