The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 1

Where All Things Begin Anew

Through the stillness of the early morning hours, the box-truck trekked along, traveling the highway at a moderate, yet steady rate of speed. There was little traffic just then, although that would change as daylight would soon be approaching from the east within the hour. What few vehicles they met probably belonged to early risers - people who, in their normal daily lives, had places to be at given times, although most likely not in their control. Such was the way of the world, as getting by made most people conform to a practice in society, spending 40 hours or more of their week working a job to make their living. For some, that meant traveling or working in the early hours of the morning, like now.

On this particular morning the air was cool, but not overly chilled. It had a pleasant feel, along with an invigorating purity not often found except when traveling in the countryside, which the vehicle was currently doing. As the truck moved along, its windows were partially lowered, letting the freshness find its way inside to its three occupants. The rental truck, more of a short moving-van than anything else, automatically adjusted gears as it ascended various inclines, or descended into gorges and basins along the way. The terrain was exactly that - a montage of short hills and ravines, interspersed with stretches of seemingly level land. A wide assortment of trees and shrubs populated both sides of the highway, and, as it was the beginning of May, much of the dense, natural barrier's greenery had returned in full effect for the oncoming warmer seasons.

The truck was driven by a dark-haired, slender adult in his late 30's. Despite the early morning hour, his eyes were alert and focused on the road ahead, while watching the traffic in both directions as they proceeded. Other than the occasional glance at a GPS device mounted nearby, he watched the various signs alongside the highway as they passed with a feeling of anticipation.

By his side sat a dark-haired individual, a woman with a build not unlike his own in size. Her head was presently leaning against his shoulder, as she attempted to doze through the various bumps and turns. That task was difficult, given the sounds the vehicle made as its weight shifted around the various turns, but she made the best of it nonetheless. Although she was quite attractive, trace lines of worry and concern were visible in her complexion, along with weariness and fatigue.

The truck's cabin also contained a third occupant, a dark-haired and slender teenage boy, presently slumped down in the passenger's seat, with his knees pulled up and resting on the forward dashboard. He was leaning against the outer door, letting the wind that swept the cabin continuously ruffle the hair about his forehead. Unlike the woman, a light snore could be heard occasionally from his direction, suggesting he had no trouble sleeping despite the effects of the rough ride. He was wearing a typical, but long-sleeved t-shirt with jeans just then, with his shoes removed and placed beneath his dangling, white-socked feet.

During their travels, the family had passed through various towns and suburbs, sometimes stopping to refuel, eat, or just take a break and stretch their legs. Aside from those interruptions, they had traveled a long distance uneventfully for the last three days, seeking their destination as quickly and quietly as they could achieve it. After some time, all the various townships and communities began looking alike to the trio, making the trip even more monotonous than usual. Little distinguished one from the next, and if not for the GPS and its constant display of distance and estimated time of arrival, they would have lost all sense of the fact they were moving forward and closing in.

On this particular morning, however, that was about to change for the better. They had already crossed the Indiana state line some miles behind them and were now approaching one of the more centrally located towns ahead. A few miles behind them they had passed a particular interstate highway, and it was then the man finally sighed deeply, recognizing how close they were to reaching their goal. Alert as he was, it had still been a long, hard journey, plagued with bouts of fatigue. Slowing down, he glanced at his family and thought back over the last few days, and the price they had all paid before undertaking this move. It was their third such move in just under two years, something that astounded him when he thought about it. In his mind, no normal family should have to endure relocating like this, even those serving in the military. It was hard enough when their lives were ripped apart once, let alone twice. This time it was the harshest yet, forcing them to relocate and begin building yet again from literally nothing. Life had handed them a rough patch in the road, though, and there was nothing they could really do about it.

The man sighed again, fully aware that although no one complained, the change did come with a cost. He knew it was especially hard on his son, one who was just embarking on the cusp of adulthood and trying to find his way. Having just recently turned 15, Alex was at that age where friendships were needed the most. It wasn't easy to establish the kind of relationships that helped you get your way through school and early life. Cut off from family, and anyone else that built a steady fixture in his life, those kinds of friendships became golden to any child, younger or older. The man felt remorseful, but knew it couldn't be helped - not now, anyway. His only solace was the fact that the teenager had never grumbled or whined about it, and that was certainly a credit to him at that age. The man drew comfort from that, because he and his wife had already agreed they were committed to each other, first and foremost, as a family. 'Some day,' the man thought to himself, 'I'm going to find a way to make some of this up to him.'

Just then the GPS beeped and whistled, drawing his attention to an upcoming turn on the horizon. Concentrating on the road ahead, he slowed the truck even further as they approached a junction before he activated his turn signal. Within the cabin of the old truck, the sound of the blinker reverberated loudly, causing his wife to open her eyes. Looking forward, she suddenly yawned before sitting up. "Are we getting close?" she inquired quietly, to which her husband nodded.

"About another four or five miles now, I think," came his soft reply, making the required turn with ease and then coaxing the vehicle to ascend an upcoming hill.

The woman grunted before letting out her own sigh. "I'm glad. It seems like we've been driving forever!"

"I know, dear, I know. I'm sorry how it all worked out, but... you know as well as I do, we couldn't really do this any other way," the man replied, placing a free hand upon her knee. The woman beside him nodded as she tried to stretch in the cramped space. From the right side of the cabin, a gentle snore continued to be heard, causing her to smile wearily.

"Oh, to be young and free ... and sleep on a trip such as this!" There was a lift in her tone that betrayed amusement, making the man chuckle and nod in agreement.

"I couldn't agree more," he replied. They continued their trek for another mile, topping a hill before seeing a change in scenery suddenly appear around them. As they started a rolling descent, another township come into view, its glittering nightlights spread before them and casting a luminance into the night sky. The layout suggested the town had more size to it than many of the more common, rural communities they had seen. "I think that's it," he mused aloud, again. With the sprawling complex of civilization coming together, their destination was nearing its end. Here, he thought to himself, was to be their new home.

Another mile further down the road, the GPS beeped again, causing the woman to glance at it. "Well, according to that thing, we're getting awfully close."

"With only that one exception back there on the other side of the state line, it has been surprisingly accurate the whole way," the man replied. "I would almost consider getting one for us in general, if it were not for the fact it's so quiet. It won't beep or anything until you're practically on top of your next turn!"

"Oh, there are probably settings that can adjust that," his wife mused.

The man shrugged. "If so, I haven't found them anywhere." A noise from the other side of the cabin drew their attention, just as their son made to yawn and stretch simultaneously. Afterwards, he groaned deeply as the truck made yet another turn to a new side road. It appeared here the roadway was rougher than before, signaling an end to their travels along the smoother highways. "Well, Prince Charming arises from his beauty sleep!" the man teased.

The teen glanced back in annoyance, but then ignored his father as he dropped his knees and sat up. "So... are we there yet?" he inquired sleepily, making his father laugh.

"Ah, spoken like a true teenager! That's the first one this whole trip though, isn't it dear?" he asked, winking at his wife.

"Admittedly, I think so," his wife replied, amused. "Although you must concede that three days of this kind of riding would be enough to try anyone's patience, young or old!"

"Yep, I do have to agree with that, whole-heartedly," the man replied while sitting back and stretching as best as he could, before he continued. "Yes, Alex, we're almost there. Another couple of miles now is all that's left, I think."

A silence developed between the three as they moved along, watching outside at the scenery they could make out. Lights scattered throughout the open areas, either from poles or farmhouses, illuminated small glades as they moved along. Their increasing frequency gave them the feeling they were fast approaching the township they had just observed moments ago. The GPS announced another turn approaching, with which they complied, but instead of the usual, this time they made out a series of side streets and turns that led into various developed neighborhoods ahead. A variety of streetlights and lights, hanging above the properties themselves, now gave them glimpses of various homes and structures. Some homes had windows lit from behind, early risers they assumed, while others remained dark. For the most part, the lots looked to be both wide and deep, making them spacious in every sense of the word. Most of the houses sat at least a 100-feet or more from the street, with driveways trailing along the edge of the front lawn until they ended alongside the structures. Alex noted some driveways ending in carports, and others were met by garages - some attached to the houses, while others sat behind and to the side.

They rolled along, albeit at a much slower pace now. Seeing the expansive lawns, the teen could already surmise that this was going to be a different kind of lifestyle for them, compared to their previous town-based life. In truth, it mattered little. He saw it simply as a new home, a new neighborhood, and a new town - all with their own respective unknowns to contend with. Alex would have faced the same change regardless if they had moved into a new city, so it mattered little to him anyway. Perhaps here it would be different though. Already he realized they were in a warmer climate, with a lot of forest-like surroundings they didn't have before. That could prove interesting, he thought, as they made yet another turn.

A piercing growl, however, brought Alex out of his reverie. Looking at his parents, the teen blushed as his mother looked on amusedly. To avoid staring back, the teen began picking up and donning his shoes. "Umm, do you guys think we could get some breakfast this morning?"

Alex's mother glanced at her husband before nodding. "I think we could ALL use a good breakfast this morning, to tell you the truth. Have you got anything you're in the mood for?"

Alex shrugged. "Not really. Maybe some pancakes, or French toast? Oh, and some bacon?"

Alex's father grunted. "Now you're making me hungry!" He grinned. "I think I saw a sign for a Frisch's somewhere around the interstate. What say we check out where this house is and everything, then head over that way?"

"That sounds good to me," the woman replied.

Alex, however, hesitated. "Frisch's? What's that?"

"It's just a cafeteria-style restaurant, not necessarily the best of places for food, but they do have a decent breakfast bar if I remember right. And plenty of French toast," he added amusedly.

"Okay, I'm game," Alex piped up quickly, causing his mother to laugh.

A few more turns later, they entered the outskirts of another neighborhood before the GPS began beeping again, this time more busily than before. Suddenly a voice could be heard, which caught them all by surprise. "Destination ahead, 1200 feet on the right."

"Well, I'll be damned!" the man declared, his eyebrow raised. "That thing actually does have a voice, after all!" They all laughed as he began slowing, synchronizing the truck's speed and responses to the image on the display screen. Outside, the night sky was beginning to gradually lighten, signaling the approaching dawn in the east. Looking ahead and to their right, they each observed as they came upon a mailbox, displaying an address in their headlights that corresponded with their destination. Alex immediately bolted upright, craning to peer out over the hood as his father steered and turned the vehicle into the driveway.

From the road, they began a leisurely descent toward a neat, two-story Cape Cod-styled structure. The white clapboard siding stood out clearly in their headlights, revealing a porch that stretched across the front. A single dormer could be seen atop facing the road, with another facing the driveway that pulled alongside the house. All of the structure's windows that could be observed seemed to be adorned with black shutters on each side. The driveway gradually came to an end slightly behind the house, stopping before another structure which turned out to be a two-car garage, both of its doors presently closed. Right above them, a bright utility light shone from the center, illuminating their approach and other immediate surroundings clearly.

As they rolled to a stop, Alex looked upon the surroundings, noting at the rear of the lawn stood a small barn or garden shelter, fashioned similarly to the rest of the house with clapboard siding and a single window, also adorned with similar, but smaller shutters to match those on the house. Glancing about, it was not unreasonable for the teen to make another assumption, given the size of both the front and rear lawns. "Well, it looks like I'll be doing some mowing here," he remarked, more for himself than his parents.

"It does look that way, doesn't it?" his mother answered, nodding. "There is definitely more open space than what we've been used to." She glanced about. "At least there don't seem to be as many trees or shrubs that you'll have to get around. That's a plus, I think."

Alex shrugged but then silently nodded. As his father parked the vehicle and shut off the engine, the man remarked. "What say we step outside for a minute, at least. I could sure use an opportunity to stretch my legs!" Both he and Alex simultaneously opened their doors, and one-by-one the family exited, stepping down onto the ground.

"I don't guess we have the keys to go inside yet, do we?" Alex's mother asked her husband while she moved up behind the teenager.

"I'm afraid not, honey. Some people are supposed to be here later this morning though, around 9:00 or 9:30, I think," he replied, moving around the front of the truck to stand with them. His attitude seemed almost apologetic, which Alex picked up on immediately.

"Not your fault, Dad. We got here pretty much when we said we would, right?" the teen mused. "Maybe with a couple of hours to spare, but still..."

"I agree, Richard. I, for one, am just glad this part of the journey is now over," his mother added.

"I'll have to say amen to that, dear," Richard replied. Together, the three of them walked around the corner of the house toward the front. "Well, look at that - it's actually got a full-sized porch running across the front! I haven't seen one like this since, well, since my grandparents' old house, I think. At least not one that large! Oh, and there's a swing up there, too! Patty, didn't you always say you wanted a place with one of those when we first got married?"

Patty laughed. "Yes, I guess I did. Like you, my grandparents had one, too. I remember how I used to love sitting and reading, swinging away - especially when it would rain." The trio then proceeded to mount the few short steps from the ground onto the porch, Richard testing the quality of the woodwork beneath his feet as he went. Patty walked over and sat down on the swing, finding that it, too, seemed ruggedly built. Alex also crossed and sat down beside his mother briefly, pushing off the floor lightly so as to put the swing into a perpetual motion.

By this time, Richard had crossed over to inspect the windows along the front. "These have all recently been replaced," he acknowledged, examining the framework. "The quality looks to be really good, too. I mean, not some of those cheap, fly-by-night knock-off products you see and hear about." He reached and opened the storm door that led inside, trying the handle. He nodded appreciatively when he found it not only securely fastened, but locked as well. "Door looks to be relatively new, too," he remarked. Smiling at the other two, the man then made his way back down the steps and into the yard. Alex quickly rose and followed him, leaving his mother behind to enjoy the comforts of the swing.

Although the approaching dawn was rapidly improving their visibility, the far side of the house was dimly lit compared to the rest. Rounding the corner, Alex and his father had to slow briefly and let their eyes adjust to the change. As they continued moving, however, the teenager observed a rather large, spherical tank situated some yards from the house. "What's that?" Alex asked curiously, pointing it out to his father.

"That is a propane tank, I believe, or at least a natural gas tank," Richard replied. "I suspect it provides the means for heating the house in colder weather, if not for other things like maybe a gas stove, or more." Seeing the look of surprise on his son's face, he explained. "Rural areas do not always have all the natural gas pipelines that fan out through the neighborhoods like they do in the city, son. So, folks instead generally use tanks like these in their place, as it gives the same benefit and effect. The gas is just stored onsite, that's all."

"Oh," Alex replied, thinking hard. He looked up. "So, what happens if it runs out?"

Richard chuckled. "Then you put on your long-johns. Seriously, though, the trick is to keep a watch on the gauge, and when the fuel starts to run low, you call a supplier to come and fill it up before that happens."

Alex glanced back at the tank before nodding. "Okay, I guess that makes sense. So, we have gas heat then, or - what did you call it, propane?"

Richard nodded. "I think so. I seem to recall hearing that at some point. It's a lot like natural gas, just different is all."

Alex stopped walking, which in turned caused his father to pause. After contemplating that news a few seconds, the teenager inquired, "Is gas heat better than electric heat?"

Richard paused before answering, glancing up toward the roof. "Well, it's one of those things that kind of depends on the cost of the gas, but in general it's considered less expensive and more efficient. It also depends a lot on how the house is insulated and built, too." They began moving again, rounding the back corner of the house then, where the light from the garage spilled over the rear lawn. "Ah, good! Looks like there's a mower shed or something back there. I guess we'll just have to get us a mower, won't we?"

Alex shrugged. "If you say so, yeah."

Richard looked around quickly. "Mowing is going to be a major job I think, given the large size of the yard both here and in front. I think we might consider getting us a riding mower for a change. Otherwise, it could take you hours to mow all of this with just a push mower, don't you think?" Seeing Alex smile, he stopped and reached out, pulling his son up closer. Staring into the eyes that met him, the man smiled tiredly. "Look, I know this is another sudden change and all, Alex, and I know you didn't like having to do it. I really wish things had been different, but - you understand why, don't you? At least here, we can try to make things a little better and all. You know, rebuild our lives again. We'll do it, too, and sure enough, if you'll give me a few weeks, I don't see why we can't upgrade ourselves with a few things while we're at it, including a riding mower. I don't want to make things any harder than we have to, you know."

"Sure, Dad. I understand, really," Alex replied quietly, returning his Father's gaze. He held it for a moment, seeing the look of concern reflected there before he relented. "But, umm, honestly? The grass looks pretty thick already, like it hasn't been mowed recently. You might not want to wait too long getting something. Right?"

Richard laughed. "Right you are, I can see that! Well, maybe tomorrow, after we get things settled today." Before moving onward again, however, he gave the teen a brief hug. "Alex? It's just as scary for your mother and me, too. I can't promise this is the last move, but - you know as well as I do, we're getting close to the end of the line. It'll all be over soon enough, I hope. Until then, just try and bear with it just a little longer, okay?"

Alex smiled grimly. "I know that, Dad. I don't blame you for any of it, honest. I'll be okay, I promise."

Richard gave his son one last, hurried hug before the two began walking slowly, making their way back to the truck. They walked in silence until they reached the corner again, where they were met by Patty coming from the opposite direction. "Are you handsome boys ready to go find some breakfast now?" she asked sweetly. They boarded the vehicle again, with Alex speaking up and telling her about the gas tank and other smaller details they had noted. Richard turned the vehicle around and began heading up the driveway again, before Alex took one last look at the house and the surrounding neighborhood. Several houses were in sight, but he could not help wondering if any of them might hold teens his age.

In the latter hours of the morning, Brett Edwards finally rolled over in his bed and opened his eyes slowly. He was grateful for the day off from school, due to an in-service date reserved for teachers. The end of the school term being less than 3 weeks away, the school board sought to give educators needed time for end-of-term preparations, or something like that. That meant, at least within Brett's world, he could sleep later for an extra day, and given the late hour he turned in the night before (or was it morning?), he had a sincere appreciation for it.

Looking at the clock by his bedside, Brett was surprised to see how late the hour was. Yawning deeply, he pushed the covers back and sat up, wiping the sleep from his eyes. Noticing his t-shirt hanging on the bedpost, he reached out and collected it before bringing it to his nostrils. Sensing a somewhat strong odor, he grunted and tossed it toward the corner of his room, where a large hamper resided with its top presently open. As the garment landed, it teetered on the edge for just a second before falling inside, causing the teen to grin to himself. "Ah, two points!" he muttered under his breath.

Rising, Brett slowly made his way toward that same corner, but deviated before arriving and entering into the attached bathroom instead. Once inside, he quickly pulled the front of his briefs out and down before relieving himself into the toilet. Although many of the guys his age had graduated to boxers or boxer briefs, he had found them feeling a bit too loose and cumbersome, especially when pulling pants or shorts around and over them. Briefs were much easier to deal with by comparison, even if they did hug his lower torso.

Their house, a comfortably sized bi-level structure, sported 4 bedrooms and 3 baths. The lower level had originally hosted the master suite, a room his parents had initially moved into some years prior. However, the arrival of his sister changed that equation, as their mother began feeling a need to be closer during his sister's baby and toddler years. That led to them moving upstairs into one of the other bedrooms, placing all of them on the same level. As it turned out, both parents found the change in venue refreshing - so much that they remodeled and extended their new accommodations and thus created a secondary master suite. That left the lower-level bedroom vacated, and once he was older, they permitted Brett to move into it, giving him an outright convenience and independence that few teens ever experienced.

After rinsing his hands, he returned to his room before walking over to a nearby dresser. Rummaging through one of the drawers, he extracted a fresh t-shirt and donned it before looking at himself in the mirror and grunting again. If not for the pink toad-face being home as well, he would have gladly just gone about the house in his current attire, but with respect, instead he turned and donned a pair of shorts he found nearby. Suitably presentable, he headed toward the door and readied to exit the room.

Upon opening the door, however, he suddenly stopped short as a certain, familiar 4-legged creature lay unmoving in the floor, blocking his way. "Bobba Fett, what are you doing here?" Brett smiled, leaning down to pet their 8-year old white-furred Maltese. The dog sensed his approach and bounced up, turning and laying a sloppy tongue across Brett's knuckles as he reached out. Bobba Fett was one of those pets who had severely diminished hearing, a rarity in the canine world. He made up for it, however, in other unique and impressive ways. His sight was razor sharp, and his other senses were always keenly alerted to his surroundings. He had once spotted and jumped, steering Brett's sister away from a potentially dangerous snake that happened to be crossing the yard. At other times, he had awakened and alerted the family to figures crossing their lawn at odd hours of the night. Not that the family lived in any sort of crime infested neighborhood, but on occasion local teens were prone to get into mischief in varying ways. The small dog though, had already earned its place in their household, and definitely in the hearts of both kids from an early age.

After spending a moment to pet and ruffle the dog's fur, Brett finally stood up and crossed the short distance to the stairwell, climbing the steps that would take him to the upper level. Bobba Fett trotted along his side, happily wagging his tail, with his tongue hanging out to the side. It was a trek they made most every morning and in the same fashion. Arriving atop the steps, Brett stepped into the living room before hearing a noise coming from his left. "Hey cotton brain," Gina called out to him. "About time you got up, scruffy butt!"

Brett turned and rolled his eyes at her. "Stuff it curly, I bet you haven't been up much longer, either."

Gina grunted as she walked past him. "Long enough to eat some cereal at least," she mumbled. Brett followed her into the tiny kitchen, but then had to suddenly stop and step to the side, as his sister knelt down. Opening one of the cabinet doors, she began searching for something beyond his sight, muttering incoherently under her breath. For as roomy and open-spaced as the rest of their floor plan was throughout the house, the whole family grumbled at the relatively small space the kitchen fitted into. Their parents had often commented they needed to open it up and do some updates to the space, but time and budgetary constraints seemed to always stop them. In the meantime, each dealt with the cramped quarters as best as they could.

Brett spied and grabbed a box of cereal from the counter, before reaching for a bowl that appeared to be already washed and rinsed in the sink. After opening and glancing into the box, he grunted. "Um, we need more Corn Pops, I think," he remarked, causing his sister to look up.

"Yeah, I left you a little. That's the last box." Gina sniffed. "In fact, I think that's it completely as far as any cereal goes," she added, before reaching inside the cabinet and extracting a box of Pop Tarts, which she placed onto the countertop. Looking inside, she found one unopened package. "You want one of these, or can I have them both?"

Brett looked at her prize, but slowly shook his head. "Nah, I don't care for that flavor much. You can have them," he concluded, before pulling a pen from the side of the refrigerator and scribbling on an already lengthy grocery list. He heard his sister grunt before opening and dropping the pastries into the toaster.

"So, under-arm-farm, what do you have planned for today?" Gina voiced openly, looking up to see the surprise on her brother's face. "What? You mean 'underarm farm'? Well, you do uh, have a hairy farm growing in there, don't you?"

Brett laughed at her. "You and your names! Don't you ever get tired of making up so many new ones all the time?" Pouring what was left of the cereal into the bowl, he grunted. "You were serious about only leaving me a little, weren't you - sheesh!" He opened the refrigerator door and retrieved a carton of milk, before adding a portion of its contents to his bowl. Returning the milk to the refrigerator, he continued. "I don't know, really. I thought I might ride down to the new neighbors' house after lunch. You know, say hi and all."

"We have new neighbors?" Gina asked, unexpectedly craning her neck to glance out the window.

Brett nodded. "Yep, they moved in a couple of days ago, I think. I've seen them roaming around the place and everything."

"Which house is it?" his sister asked in curiosity.

"Across the street, 3rd one up. You know, your friend Sherri lived there until just before Thanksgiving last year, I think," Brett replied.

"Oh, that one. I remember now, yeah..." Just then the toaster popped, offering two warmed and moderately crusted pastries. Wrinkling her nose, she remarked, "Ugh! Dad's been setting the toaster too hot again! They're almost burned!" She collected them onto a paper towel, however, before continuing. "I thought that place was never going to sell! I wonder if there's any girls my age that moved in?"

Brett shook his head. "So far, I've only seen a boy around my age, and what looks to be maybe his parents."

Gina rolled her eyes before slumping her shoulders. "Great! All I need, another vat of male testosterone to float around here! Argh!"

Brett laughed. "Better than another female going through puberty and PMS at the same time!"

That quip earned him a cuff on his arm from his sister, before she picked up her pastries and started to walk out. "Well, at least we don't have to worry about all your odors and farts, or worse!" Before he could retort, she quickly disappeared.

Brett laughed and walked around the bar before sitting down. Quietly he spooned his cereal, thinking about the coming afternoon. How, exactly, was he going to do this? Just ride his bike over and hope that the boy sees him and comes outside? Or should he be bolder, perhaps walk up to the door and knock, and then just simply introduce himself? It wasn't that Brett was shy, but sometimes first impressions meant everything, and it wasn't always easy to figure out the best approach. He could wait, perhaps greet him on the bus or at school, but to him that felt a little lame. Ever since he first spotted the teen, he had been curious - especially when he saw the newcomer looked to be close to his own age.

Lifting the bowl to his lips, Brett intended to drink the remaining milk, but then stopped when he spied Bobba Fett watching him with a hopeful expression. Smiling, the teen changed his mind and sat the container down on the floor instead. The canine happily bounced forward, wagging his tail while he attacked the yummy substance inside. Meanwhile, Brett rubbed his fingers through the fur of the little dog's back. "Sorry boy, I didn't mean to forget you." Bobba Fett glanced up, with a look as if to say 'That's okay, apology accepted!', and then returned to his treat. Glancing beyond, Brett saw the dog's food dish had already been filled, but the water bowl next to it was empty. Rising, the teen obtained and filled a glass from the sink with water, before pouring it into the bowl. He stood and waited patiently, while his little friend finished the milk, before picking up his cereal bowl and depositing it into the sink. Mission accomplished, he turned to head back to his room.

Alex guided the new machinery around the corner of the house, still adjusting to using the non-power assisted steering the mower provided appropriately. He had only been fortunate, a few times, to have gone out with his Dad and sit behind the wheel of their car, learning the basic principles of how to drive. Using the mower wasn't really any different: steering wheel, check... gear shift, check... pedal for braking and moving forward... double check. He mastered the pedals and gears quickly, along with the instruments and gauges, but when it came to turning left or right, that took a little more work. At first, he swung too wide around his obstacles, before then cutting inward too short. On this round, he overcompensated again and had to quickly back up and straighten his path before heading up the long stretch toward the road. He sighed with relief, knowing he was going to get somewhat of a break before he would have to wrestle with it again. As Alex stared ahead and the incline the lawn made toward the road, he was suddenly grateful for his father's suggestion. Using a push mower across that would have been very time consuming.

Not that Alex would have minded it that badly. After all, a push mower would have given him plenty of exercise, to say the least, but there was a convenience doing it this way, and he rapidly learned to appreciate it. The lawn had not been mowed in at least a couple of weeks, causing it to grow in both height and thickness during the respite. That caused Alex to move along at a slower pace than he really wanted to, but he was contented for the most part. As he rode along, he did happen to observe the shredded remains as they discharged, and after a few laps around the lawn, he grunted to himself as he watched the mower lay a thick coating in places already mowed. He was almost certain he would have to come back out and rake up the excess before he was done, a task he did not look forward to.

It was on his sixth round into the long stretch when he looked up toward the road and suddenly spied someone approaching on a bicycle. When the bike turned into their driveway, Alex could make out a teenage boy, roughly his size and age with dark brown hair, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts. As the bike turned onto the lawn and slowed, so did Alex, stopping and disengaging the mower blade before turning the motor off. Before he had a chance to speak however, the bike pulled within a few feet and halted, and the boy riding it called out, "Hey, there!"

Alex smiled and returned the friendly greeting. "Hey, how's it going?" It was a general exchange of sorts, but the smile and open pleasantness was not lost between them.

"Not bad. I'm Brett, Brett Edwards. I live across the road, a couple of houses up," the boy offered, turning and pointing at one of the other houses across the way.

"I'm Alex," Alex offered, climbing off the mower and offering his hand in greeting, which Brett accepted. "Alex Branham."

"Cool. You guys just moved in the other day, right?" Brett asked. When Alex nodded, he continued. "I think I saw you and someone outside the other evening, but I couldn't come over then."

"Yeah, we got here Tuesday. We've been sort of been getting settled and everything." Alex paused before continuing. "So, have you lived here long?"

Brett nodded. "Almost all my life, just about. I was born in Chicago, but we moved here when I was just a couple of years old, I think. My Dad works on the Army base south of here, for a contractor. Something to do with maintaining supplies, or inventory, or something like that."

"Really? That sounds cool. My Dad hasn't found a job here yet, but he's planning to start looking pretty quick, I think," Alex responded. "He's into computers, mostly. You know, software development and stuff."

"Really? My Mom works for one of those placement firms downtown. She might be able to give him a hand if he needs it," Brett offered.

Alex smiled, making a mental note to pass that information on later. "That might be really helpful, thanks. I know he's going to spend a couple of weeks getting us settled in here and everything, then start looking for something."

"I doubt he'll have much trouble," Brett responded. When a silence ensued between them, the newcomer looked around. "So, where are you guys from, if you don't mind my asking?"

Alex hesitated only slightly. "Um, Caldwell, Idaho to be exact."

Brett furrowed his brow. "Idaho? Wow! That's... that's a long way, isn't it? How the heck...?" The teen suddenly laughed. "Sorry, I don't mean to sound so nosy, but yeah, what brought you guys all the way out here to No-Where, Indiana?" Seeing the confusion on the teen's face, Brett laughed again. "Sorry, Greensburg. Some of us call it No-Where around here, because it seems to be exactly that - the town stuck out in the middle of nothing."

That statement, however, confused Alex even more. "But, isn't Indianapolis like, 40 or 50 minutes up the highway?"

"Well, about an hour to get downtown, but yeah, you can get to the outskirts in about 40 to 45 minutes or so, I guess. I mean, don't ask - there's stuff to do around here, just a lot of the guys like the bigger city, I think. Especially when the Colts or Pacers are playing." Brett suddenly scrutinized the new boy. "Are you, like, into basketball or football any? Professional, I mean?"

Alex nodded. "I like watching the NFL a lot, on TV anyway. I've never been to a game, though."

"Really?" Brett smiled widely. "That's awesome! I'm a huge Colts fan, and I like Green Bay, too!"

"The Packers are cool, I agree. I think my favorite team is the Redskins," Alex offered, warming up to the kid.

"Redskins?" Brett mocked, laughing. "Some of the guys around here call them the 'Rednecks'! Though, I have to admit, they're not that bad. Just have had a rough time with coaches and players lately, is all."

"I agree. I had hoped Reggie would work out as a decent quarterback for them, but he ended up failing miserably in the end. So, now it's a team free-for-all, mostly because they can't seem to make a decision and stick with it more than half-a-season." Alex sighed. "That's actually not a bad nickname, though. Until they get their act together, they really are playing like a bunch of rednecks right now. Their coach is about as off-putting as you can imagine. Not smart, in my opinion." Alex looked thoughtful. "To tell the truth, I like a lot of the NFL teams really. I'm not a fan of some, but I could watch almost anyone play, I think."

"Who do you like least?" Brett asked.

"Probably the Cowboys, the Buccaneers, and maybe San Diego. I'm not very partial to the Raiders or Dolphins, either," Alex replied.

Brett's face lit up. "Really? I think you and me are on the same page, then! I really don't care for those teams either, or the Bears or Jets. I'm kind of like you, though; I think I can watch most any of the games when they come on, including the 'Cowgirls'."

Alex finally laughed. "Wow, you guys really do get into it with the names and everything!"

Brett nodded. "Yep! How was it back in Idaho? Did you have many peeps there into football?"

Alex shrugged. "I don't know. We didn't get out a lot."

"Really? Not even at school or anything?" Brett asked.

Surprisingly, Alex shook his head. "Uh, well, I was mostly home-schooled, so I don't know a lot about the other guys in the area and stuff."

Brett's eyes grew wide. "Really? No shit?" He observed Alex shrink from the outburst, so he quickly amended his reaction. "No, wait! It's cool, I swear! I was just surprised, that's all. I've not met anyone, I mean, I haven't come across anyone home-schooled before. We hear about it sometimes, but..."

"I guess not a lot of kids are home-schooled around here, then?" Alex asked, relenting.

"I really don't know," Brett responded truthfully. "We just don't hear a lot about them, I guess." An awkward silence developed between them then, one which the teen recognized and fought desperately to change the subject. "So, you've got a lot to mow, I guess."

Alex, thankful for the change in topic, nodded as he turned around and glanced at the lawn. "Yeah, it hasn't been mowed for a couple of weeks."

"Meh, it shouldn't be too bad, especially since you've got that fancy mower," Brett teased before continuing. "Listen, would you like to maybe, uh, get together afterwards, maybe later in the afternoon? We could shoot some hoops or something, or maybe go bike riding. I could show you the neighborhood."

Alex smiled. "Yeah, that would be really cool, although I'm not sure how long it's going to take me to get through all of this grass. You see how thick it's clumped up on top. I'm sure Mom or Dad will want me to rake it up afterwards."

"That's okay. I've got a dentist appointment later anyway, but we can make something work out afterwards. Have you got a cell?" Brett asked.

To his surprise, Alex shook his head. "I did, but it was lost in the move. I haven't gotten another one yet."

Brett nodded. "It's cool, no sweat. If it's alright, what say I just ride over or something after I get back."

"That would be perfect, and thanks!" Alex grinned, meeting the offered fist bump in mid-air before he watched Brett turn and begin pedaling back up to the road. As the teen turned and pulled away from the mailbox, Alex slowly returned to the mower and climbed aboard. Before restarting it however, he sat there in relief. So, maybe he could find some friendships in this neighborhood after all. Brett had seemed nice enough, and already they had discovered things in common between them.

Maybe this wouldn't be such a bad move after all.

"So, did you meet the new Munsters?" Gina's head had poked around the bedroom door just as her brother emerged from his bathroom, nearly naked and dripping wet except for the loosely wrapped towel around his waist.

"Hey! You know, you might consider knocking first, unless you want to see something that could scar you for life!" Brett called out, but then continued toward his dresser. Surprisingly, Gina just grunted and entered anyway, walking over to the corner of his bed before sitting down.

"Well, it wouldn't be anything I haven't seen already. Besides, your scrawny ass has never scarred me before. If you wanted that much privacy, you should have closed the door in the first place, bubble nuts!" she countered.

Brett glanced at her amusedly from where he stood. "Yeah, I know. But sis, you've got to be careful, okay? Mom almost caught you last week, remember?"

Gina rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I know. I had to listen to her lecture me for the next 20 minutes afterwards." She sighed deeply and shook her head. "I don't know, Brett. I know we don't care too much about this stuff around each other, but I honestly don't see what all the fuss is about. I mean, I know guys have dicks and nuts just as much as you know girls have boobs."

Brett cracked up, laughing hard. His sister always did have a penchant for expressing the obvious. As he walked back into the bathroom, he called after her. "Yeah, but some guys are a lot more modest about it than we are, sis." He stuck his head back out of the doorway to address her more directly. "Besides, you've got nothing to show in front yet anyway, do you?" he teased, then had to withdraw quickly as a pillow came flying through the air. Laughing, he reappeared a moment later, freshly toweled off and wearing briefs.

Gina watched her brother silently as he crossed the floor to his closet and withdrew a pair of jeans and a polo, donning each of them. When he approached the bed, she remarked. "I'm surprised you still let me do this without complaining though, butt-head."

Brett looked at her as he sat down nearby and started donning a pair of fresh socks. "Do what? You mean watch me get dressed?" When she nodded, he shrugged. "You're my sister. I have nothing to really hide from you. I mean, it might feel funny if I were totally naked, but even then, we've never had to deal with it that much anyway." He looked at her and grinned. "I know you've peeked at me all over before. You're not seeing anything new, either."

"I know I'm not, big bro," Gina replied softly. "I'm just glad you don't, like, hide from me and everything. All my friends, they say it's different with them and their brothers, you know? But you, and me, well..."

"I can imagine that, yeah," Brett responded before leaning in close. "But sis, that's them, it's not us."

"I know, Brett." She looked up at him just then, closely. "Don't worry, I don't say anything to them about, you know... Just saying, that's all."

"I believe you." Brett noticed the wistful look, before changing subjects and deciding to try and cheer his sister up. "What? No name calling? Did I just hear you make it through a half dozen sentences or so and not taunt me?"

Gina, however, didn't take the bait. "You know I don't mean anything by them. I only do it to just... just...."

Brett finished with the other sock before reaching out and pulling her into his lap, where he gave his sister a warm embrace. "I know, sis. You don't have to explain. Just - like I said, okay? Be careful around Mom or Dad. You're going to get into deeper trouble if you don't tone it down some, and more than likely you'll get me dragged into trouble, too." He looked deeply into her eyes. "I've told you this before - I honestly don't care what you see of me, whether I'm naked or not, as long as you promise to never tease me about it. I know I'm not anything to write home about, but still... this is between just you and me, okay? Promise?"

"I promise, Brett. I would never, ever tell anyone anything. They wouldn't believe me, anyway, but like you said, this is just between us. I swear it, on my heart," she whispered quietly.

Brett smiled at her. "Why do you think I still let you get away with it, if I didn't know that already?"

Gina smiled as she relaxed in his arms. "Love you, butt-head. Even though you never seem to care that much about me, I still love you."

Brett understood what she was referring to. "I do though, sis, but if I ever let on about it, I'd probably get labeled a pervert, or molester, or something even worse!" He giggled as he saw her annoyance. "You know what? I could see you if I wanted to, and I know you wouldn't care, either. At least, not until you grow some boobs at least." He reached and pulled the front of her t-shirt up partially, intending to tease her, but his sister did not take the bait.

Gina did pinch him playfully as he let go. "That wouldn't matter, and you know it. And you're right, I wouldn't care, cuz I trust you." She reached and hugged his neck tightly, however. "As long as you never try any sex with me, that is. That's the only time it would really make it one of those things - like, you said, a pervert or something. Like I said, big bro - I love you, though I won't admit it out loud very much." She leaned in and kissed his cheek. "Thanks for being here for me."

He squeezed her a second time in response. "Always, sis." Before letting her go, he decidedly found some of her ticklish spots to poke at. They both giggled as they wrestled for a short bit, but then Gina broke free and ended up sitting beside him. "So, you never did answer me. Did you meet the new neighbors?"

Brett nodded. "I met one of them, yeah. It's a guy my age, named Alex, and they come from some place in Idaho."

"Really? Wow!" Gina reacted, her eyebrows raised in surprise. "That's pretty far away, isn't it?" Brett nodded, rising from the bed and crossing over to pick up a globe that was sitting upon his desk. Returning, he showed his sister where both Idaho and Indiana were on the North American continent. Gina nodded, impressed. "Crap, that IS pretty far! What brought them all the way over here? Did you ask?"

Brett furrowed his brow. "I did actually, but I don't think I got an answer. Not one that I remember, anyway." The teen shrugged. "We sort of got into other things, though, so it was all good. I invited him to come over later this afternoon, after I get back from the dentist."

"That sounds cool. I don't guess by chance he has a sister or anyone my age, does he?" Gina asked.

Brett shrugged. "I didn't think to ask, and he didn't really offer, either. I got the impression though, it's just him and his parents. We'll find out later, to be sure." He heard his little sister sigh just then, so he grinned. "What's wrong? You've got enough play friends around here as it is, don't you? Let up and let me have a friendly neighbor for a change, okay?"

Gina gave him a hurt look before swatting at him. "Okay, okay! I guess I get it, since everyone around has mostly been girls so far." Getting up to leave the room, she turned and called back to him. "Don't take too long. Mom should be here any minute to pick you up, and you know how she gets if you're not ready to go." With that, she disappeared through the doorway.

Brett glanced at the clock before suddenly springing into action. Setting the globe back into its original place, the teen hurriedly retrieved his tennis shoes to pull them on.

Grunting heavily, Alex finally hauled the last of the garbage bags to the end of the road, parking them alongside the two large bins already awaiting pickup. His mother had arrived around lunch time, and commended him on an excellent mowing job, given it was his first experience using the new mower. She agreed the grass would have to be raked and collected, however, because of the thick blanket left behind. After consuming a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches, the teen set back out to start working on the task at hand. Although it was early afternoon, Alex had a strong desire to finish it up as soon as possible. Raking the grass was not as easy as it looked, however, and by mid-afternoon he had worked up a considerable sweat under the afternoon sun.

As he was finishing his fourth bag of clippings, Patty suddenly appeared on the porch holding a glass of lemonade for her son. Grateful for the break, he joined her where they made their way to the swing and sat down. "Wow! It's getting warmer out here, I think!" the woman remarked as Alex took a long gulp of the refreshing liquid. Watching him, she clicked her tongue. "Hey, not so fast kiddo! You'll get sick if you're not careful!"

Alex relented, lowering the glass into his lap. Taking a huge breath, he suddenly burped before responding. "Sorry, about that Mom. I was just thirsty, I guess."

"I could see that, yes," she replied good-naturedly. Looking out upon the lawn, she asked, "It looks pretty nice out there. Did you get finished?"

"Yeah, I think so. I admit, I don't think the back yard was as bad, so I didn't do any raking on it. I also didn't use the trimmer either, because it was so hot. If it's alright, I thought I might hold off on that until maybe in the morning, when it's cooler." Alex wrinkled his nose. "You know, it does seem a lot warmer here, I think. More humid, too."

Patty nodded. "Oh yes, we'll have more summer-like weather here this year than we've been used to lately. That will also mean more allergies though, so be careful."

"I will, Mom," Alex replied before taking another sip from his glass. "Have you got anything else you want me to do this afternoon?"

Patty looked at her son with interest. "No, not that I can think of right now. Why, have you got a hot date lined up already?" she teased him.

Alex blushed. "NNnooooo..." The echo resounded between them as Patty grinned. Looking up, Alex sheepishly explained. "Well, not a date, anyway. One of the neighbors, a kid my age named Brett, came by earlier while I was mowing and introduced himself. He invited me to get together with him later, that's all. I thought I might go in and get a shower before he comes home."

"Is he coming here?" Patty asked, curiously.

"Well, I don't have my cell phone replaced yet, and we don't have a house phone, so he just offered to let me know when they got back from town. He said he had a dental appointment or something he was going off to do," Alex explained.

"Oh, I get it now. Well, sure - go on. You know, of all the things we've been worrying with this week, I haven't even thought about your cell phone yet," Patty mused. "Along with plenty of other things. You're Dad and I have just been trying to get the basics done first."

Alex shrugged. "I know, Mom. It's not that big of a big deal, either. I know we'll get it replaced when you guys are ready."

Patty shook her head, however. "Maybe, but now that I'm thinking about it, I don't even have mine replaced yet. Truth be told, we really need those here, probably now more than ever." She looked across the lawn. "I'll speak to your father about it tonight. Will you be back for supper?"

Alex shrugged again. "I really have no idea, Mom. He just invited me to hang out for a while. If it's okay, just plan for me not being here, and if I miss out on anything, I'll grab a sandwich or something when I get back." Seeing his mother start to object, he raised his hand to stop her. "Okay, okay... Maybe I'll have some soup or something with it. Just, don't worry about me, okay? I promise, I'll be home by 9 or so at the latest, too. Is that okay?"

Patty smiled. "Sure, honey, that sounds fine. Go on, get your shower. You deserve a break for the day, kiddo."

Leaning in, Alex gave his mother a warm embrace before he stood up and headed inside.

Patty watched him disappear, elated that her son had so quickly and easily picked up on a friend. She knew Alex complained little about anything really, but she had come to understand there was a boredom that enveloped him in recent months, or even years. Being home-schooled had limited his exposure to the world outside, and combined with the fact that he was without siblings, or any extended family to lean on, his life was very much that of a lone child. She and her husband had endeavored to make life different as much as possible for their son, especially in the last couple of years, but there was a distinct disconnect in their generations. Parents could only take their children so far when attempting to prepare them for life in the real world. Some things needed to be experienced and learned on their own, and she was forever coming to terms with that. Alex needed to be with teens his own age, of that she had no doubt. It was something both she and Richard had recognized long before now.

Which meant, in no uncertain terms, there would be more than one topic of discussion coming up that evening with her husband. More than one discussion, indeed...

Alex waited on the porch, swinging gently while trying to relax. Although Brett had said he would come over, the timing was not an exact science. Having finished his shower and other minor tasks, Alex had decided to sit and wait in the swing on the cool, shaded porch, shielded from the afternoon sun. Various vehicles passed by their mailbox in both directions along the road, but he honestly had no idea what to even look for as belonging to the Edwards family. As he watched however, another observation struck him that he had not noticed before. All of the houses along this stretch of road, on their side, sat below the roadway, while those on the opposite side sat above. He found that curious, since their stake in the new world did not seem to fit most suburbs where they had come from.

As Alex continued to look onward, he observed several of the closer houses, too. Earlier that day, he had failed to watch Brett after the teen left, and thus he really had no idea which house his friend lived in. A few houses down and across the road was the only reference the teen made, as Alex recalled. He began to study them in more earnest, trying to compare one against the other while killing time. Eventually, after a little contemplation, he settled on the fact that one bi-level house in particular might be the candidate belonging to his new friend. What drew his attention there was the basketball goal he could just make out. It was the only one he saw in the immediate vicinity - although he knew that didn't necessarily make it the right choice. Still, he thought if any of them might fit the bill, it might be that one. He was going to find out soon enough, he knew.

While he was wrapped up in his contemplation, he failed to hear a vehicle approach and slow down at the end of their driveway. When a horn sounded, Alex was brought out of his reverie in time to see a familiar-looking figure leaning out the passenger window, madly waving at him. Grinning, he waved back before the vehicle continued forward at that point. Watching closely, he saw he had speculated right, as the vehicle turned into the very drive corresponding to his earlier **guess**.

Alex rose and walked to the door, opening it and, seeing the living room was empty, called out. "Mom, they're home now. I'm going to go on over, okay?" From deeper inside he heard his mother call back to him, telling him to have a good time. Closing the door, he set off up the driveway toward his destination.

Reaching the Edwards' driveway, he turned to climb toward the house. It wasn't a steep trek, but it was just enough that when he reached the corner of the house, he felt the muscles in his leg had been engaged more than usual in a normal climb. He turned and looked back, observing their own house plainly in the distance, and momentarily though it was cool. Turning back, however, he was startled as Brett suddenly appeared in front of him, grinning from the seat of a bicycle. "Hey, how's it going?" the boy greeted the teen, before inquiring, "Oh, and where's your bike?"

Alex blushed just then. "Um, I don't have a bike, at least not yet."

Brett was surprised. "Really? I thought all guys-"

"I had a bike, but it was an old one, and a little too small for me anyway. We left it behind before the move, see. I just haven't had time to get another one yet," Alex interrupted, trying to explain.

Brett nodded. "Oh, okay. Well, my Dad has one in the garage I bet you can borrow, then. Hang on just a sec," the teen announced, before turning and riding toward the attached structure. Alex walked quietly behind, following slowly as the other boy rounded the corner and disappeared. When the teen reached the corner, he noted Brett had already dismounted near a back door and was nowhere to be seen. In less than a minute, however, the teen appeared again, pulling an inner door shut behind him. He waved a key at the newcomer. "Got the key! Mom said it would be fine for you to use Dad's bike! Come on!"

Alex didn't hesitate, silently following the other teen to the garage, where he watched his new friend quickly unlock the side door and disappear inside. Alex hesitated just then, until suddenly he heard one of the larger bay doors opening, so he stepped around to see it more clearly. As it rose, within seconds Brett appeared from within, pushing a bicycle out in front of him. "It's not as new as mine is, but it's still a full-sized frame, and the seat is really comfortable. It doesn't ride up in your crotch or anything. See?"

Alex grinned. "It'll be fine, I'm sure. Thanks!" He looked over the bicycle quickly. "It's better than anything I've ever had before, that's for sure."

"Hey, no problem!" Brett disappeared once again, this time engaging the door opener to close the open bay, then appearing from around the side again after a noticeable 'thump' could be heard. "Okay, give me a sec so I can take the key back in," he intoned before rushing back into the house.

Within minutes, both boys were heading down the driveway to the road, where upon reaching it, they turned away from Alex's house. "Have you been anywhere up this way yet?" Brett called out, asking as he began pumping his pedals to top the upcoming incline. When he saw Alex shake his head, he continued. "Well, a little over a mile or so up this way is a turn, with a Minute Mart on the corner. We can stop there and grab a soda, if you want."

Alex nodded, but then remembered something. "Um, sounds cool, but uh, I didn't bring any money with me," he called out sheepishly.

Brett grinned at him. "No worries, I have enough for us," he answered. When they reached the top and started to descend, both let their bikes coast casually. "Uh, sorry man, I didn't mean to lay it on so thick. We don't have to go there if you don't want. I just thought it might be kind of cool. I haven't had anything to drink for hours now."

"No, no! It is cool, honest! I just, I feel kind of sheepish because I didn't think to bring my wallet along, that's all," Alex explained. He observed the boy closer. "Um, don't get the wrong idea, we're not poor, honest - I really did have a bike, and I really do have some money, I just-"

Brett laughed out loud. "You worry too much, Branham. It's all good. Besides, sodas don't cost that much, anyway." He sat back on his seat, looking around. "So, I didn't think to ask this morning, but do you, like, have any sisters or brothers?"

"Nope, just me in the brood, with my Mom and Dad. You?" Alex countered.

"Yeah, I have a sister. She turns 12 in a couple of months," Brett replied as he swerved to miss a pothole in the road, then pointed another one out in Alex's upcoming path. "Watch out for that one, too," he stated aloud before continuing. "So, what's it like being home-schooled, if I may ask?"

Alex hesitated before shrugging. "It's okay, I guess. I mean, I don't know how to compare it to anything really, since I've never went to public school any."

"Oh, I guess that would make sense," Brett mused. "Do you, like, pass grade levels, or how does it work?"

"I just finished passing 9th grade level, and we even got a start on part of 10th, according to my Mom. I guess it's not a lot different than public school." Alex pulled up closer, side-by-side with the teen. "I mean, there is a standard test see, at least where I came from, that in order to be promoted you had to meet some minimum level and everything. If you pass the test, you're promoted; if not, you go back and study more, then take it again until you do pass."

Brett nodded. "That doesn't sound too bad, really."

"I guess it isn't. I usually do pretty good," Alex explained before inquiring. "What about you? What grade are you in?"

"I'll be in 10th grade in August. I just turned 15 last month," the teen replied, surprising Alex.

"Really? That's awesome, I turned 15 on April 10th!"

Brett slowed slightly in reaction. "You've got to be kidding! My birthday is April 12th!" Pedaling he caught up to the teen. "How is that for coincidence!"

"You're not kidding!" Alex replied, pleased. As they continued onward, they chatted over several more topics, getting to know each other more as they rode along. Each definitely warmed to the other as they grew more comfortable with the little things. What Alex liked the most, was the same thought going through Brett's head about his newfound friend: there was an openness and ease between them.

Fifteen minutes later they arrived at the turnoff Brett had described. Here the housing was denser, the lots not as spacious as they were farther back from where they came. It reminded Alex of other, more common neighborhoods he had been used to before. A small convenience store stood within a hundred feet of the turn however, complete with a series of gasoline pumps mounted in a row outside. Several patrons were pulled in, refueling their vehicles, as well as either parking or leaving from the front of the store. "Popular place, I guess," Alex observed.

Brett grinned at him, leaning his bike against the wall just outside the main entrance. "It is, for this side of town at least. Just lay your bike up against mine, here. No one will bother them, really. We're just going to be inside for a minute or two anyway."

Alex did as he was instructed, then followed Brett through the glass doors. Once inside, they headed for the refrigerated section and, after previewing the options, each chose a soda from the shelf. However, as they went to pay, Brett pulled the money from his pocket but had to pull up short. "Uh, hold up a sec," he muttered, as he began to frantically search his other pockets. Frowning, he finally looked up at Alex and blushed. "Crap, I think I left my wallet in my other pants pocket. All I've got is a little over two-dollars in change on me."

Alex nodded in understanding. "It's okay, honest," he replied, but as he returned his drink to the refrigerated shelf, his eyes fell upon a rather large, self-serve fountain drink machine. To the side was a sign that labeled all fountain drinks were 99-cents. "Hey, how about those? Have you got enough for those, with tax and all?"

Brett followed the other teen's glance, and then his face lit up. "Oh, yeah! We can make that work!" They quickly selected cups and retrieved their new drinks. After paying and exiting the store, Brett remarked. "That was pretty quick thinking! Thanks, I think it saved us!"

Alex shrugged. "All I did was spot the machine. That's nothing special."

Brett looked onward, puzzled at the remark. For the time being though, he let it slide as they once again mounted their bikes and took off. This time though, Brett led them on a different route. "We can go this way, if you like. It's a little longer, but it'll take us back to the house all the same." Alex nodded and they continued to chat amicably on the return trip.

Once they arrived at the Edwards' house again, Alex thanked his friend for use of the bike, intending to put it away - but Brett stopped him. "Just - kind of take care of it for a while, until you get your own. Dad rarely rides it anyway, and I know it'll be okay with him for the short term."

"Are you sure?" Alex asked, but as Brett nodded, he added his thanks. "I appreciate it. If he wants it back sooner, just let me know, okay?" Parking it near the back door, Brett then led his friend inside, entering what appeared to be the kitchen, where an attractive lady was currently peeling potatoes at the counter. She turned and welcomed the newcomer warmly.

"Why hello! You must be Alex!"

Alex smiled and shook her extended hand. "Um, yes ma'am, Alex Branham."

Before either of them could say another word, a sudden barking ensued, as a certain white canine rounded the corner from within the house and ran up to them. Alex grinned and knelt down to the floor, but the dog continued barking persistently, drowning out all conversation in the immediate vicinity. Seconds later, however, Brett knelt down alongside Alex, placing a hand upon the teens shoulder before shouting. "Bobba Fett! Heel!" At once the barking stopped, and in a much calmer voice, Brett added, "See? He's a friend! Bobba Fett, meet Alex, and Alex, meet Bobba Fett."

The dog looked at them both quizzically, then slowly approached Alex and began sniffing around his legs, followed by the hand that was extended toward him. Eventually, that hand found its way behind the ears and began a methodical scratching that seemed to please the dog to no end. As its tail wagged happily, Brett laughed and then stood up again, removing his hand from Alex's shoulder. "Best watchdog this side of the Ohio river, I think!" he observed, causing Brett's mother to grunt.

"And loudest, I think, for his size!" the woman added, before turning her attention once again to Alex. "It's so nice to meet you! I'm Brenda, and this here is..." Brenda turned, but stopped again, a puzzled expression crossing her features. "Well, here WAS Gina, but she appears to have suddenly disappeared!"

Brett snickered. "She probably wanted to go pretty herself up for the newcomer."

"Did not, worm-face!" an exclamation sounded from beyond. Just then a young lady rounded the corner, sticking her tongue out at her brother as she walked up to stand behind her Mom, leaning against her silently before waving. "Hi."

Alex smiled and returned the wave. Uncertain how he should respond, he simply replied, "Hey."

Brett stepped closer and lowered his voice to a conspirator-like tone. "Watch out, see? Her eyes are as big as saucers! She's going to fawn over you now for the next three months!" As Alex looked up in surprise, he saw Brett attempt to dodge the dish towel thrown at him, followed by a raspy "MMooommmm!" being yelled in the background.

Brenda shook her head, trying to keep a straight face. "Brett, you shouldn't treat your sister that way, you know!" Gina poked her head around to her brother, again sticking her tongue out at him before running from the room. Alex again smiled, uncertain at what he had just witnessed.

"Aw Mom, you know she does me a lot worse sometimes," Brett countered.

Brenda looked up. "Yes, but you're older. You're supposed to set a better example for her!" Suddenly the woman could not hold it in any longer, and began chuckling as she returned to her task. "One of these days, you two are going to regret it, I'm warning you!"

Brett leaned in a kissed his mother on the cheek. "Meh, she'll live Mom. I'll apologize to her later." Looking down, he went on. "So, what's on the menu tonight?"

"I thought of fixing us a meat loaf and mashed potatoes, if you like," the woman replied before looking up at Alex. "Will you be joining us? There's plenty to go around, so you're welcome to stay. I've already got the loaf in the oven, and it's not a lot of trouble at all."

Alex hesitated, uncertain once again until Brett chimed in. "It's cool man, stay and eat with us. Dad will be home in about an hour or so, too."

Brenda reiterated the sentiment. "Yes, he will. That's about when supper will be ready, too."

As he looked onward at their expectancy, Alex finally nodded. "Okay, sure, if it isn't too much trouble."

Brett was elated. "It'll be fine. Come on, Bobba Fett and I will show you my room!"

"You have your own bathroom, too? That's pretty cool!" Alex remarked, nodding in appreciation.

Brett walked over and sat down on the corner of his bed. "Yeah, it is kind of nice," he replied, uncertain what he should say. He kicked off his trainers one by one, then pushed them out of the way. "What do you mean by 'too'? Do you have one as well?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah." Alex followed him to the bed, noting the plush, deep-red carpet as he sat down beside the teen. Looking around, he saw a typical desk, dresser and other items normally found in teen bedrooms. Across from the end of the bed, however, lay an entertainment center containing a flat-screen TV and other equipment, including a game system, stereo receiver, and speakers. The walls were adorned in places with hanging pictures and posters - one each of his two favored NFL teams. "Your room seems pretty cool, too," the teen commented.

Brett watched him curiously, but blushed. "Thanks. It's not that much to see, but meh, it's my world anyway. How about you?"

"Me? You mean my room? I've got the whole upstairs, which is really just a bedroom and a bathroom. There's a storage room, too, but it kind of just goes across the attic space and all. My room though, it's maybe, I don't know, maybe two-thirds the size of this one?" Alex leaned over and glanced into the bathroom. "My bathroom is about the same as that one. Maybe a little smaller, though... and pink."

Brett laughed. "That's not surprising. There was a girl living there before you guys moved in. Although, I didn't know she had the upstairs like that."

Alex nodded. "That's what my Dad told me, too. We're supposed to paint and redo everything in the next few weeks, so it's not so girlish, I guess." As he paused, he thought about Brett's question again. Bobba Fett, in the meantime, jumped up on the bed and sat next to the newcomer. While Alex continued to scratch the dog behind the ears, he continued. "I don't know, we don't have a lot of stuff, but I have everything I need, I guess." He spotted a laptop computer sitting on Brett's desk, closed up. "I've got a laptop, like you, but mine is not very powerful. I mean, it's a hand-me-down from Dad. I can get on the internet with it, and do reports and things, but it's not that great for gaming or anything."

"That's still cool, though," Brett observed. "That one isn't all that powerful either, but I only use it mostly for school stuff, and to get on the internet some nights."

Alex leaned back, propping his hands behind him onto the bed. "You do? That's what I do sometimes. Do you have any favorite sites you visit, or anything in particular?"

"Meh, mostly I get into some teen chat rooms, or go to some of the gaming sites." Brett pointed to the game system. "I'm pretty big into Xbox for gaming, though. It's a lot faster overall, I think. Do you ever play?"

"A little, though admittedly it's been a while," Alex replied.

"Really? So, have you ever heard of the Halo series?" Brett asked.

Alex's face lit up. "Oh yeah! I've played the first and second ones quite a bit!"

With that, Brett grinned widely before getting up and rummaging through a basket of games. Extracting one, he setup the system and, within minutes, the two began a campaign through Halo 2. Brett was impressed at Alex's skill, and although it took the teen a few minutes to get re-acquainted with the controls, Alex matched his friend in most of the skilled combat.

As the evening wore on, both teens continued chatting and getting to know one another, warming even deeper than before. Brett glanced over at the teen and saw a genuine reflection of himself there in Alex. It was no longer a question of whether they would like one another or not. It showed through dinner, as Alex interacted with the rest of the family more comfortably. The teen's ease of friendliness, and the growing attachment he was making with Bobba Fett, led Brett to slowly realize this was a seemingly good guy. But that wasn't all he saw, either. Although there was an unmistakable openness in him, there was something else, too. Although the boy was guarded at times, the two of them seemed to be developing a likeness with each together in other ways. It might have been his imagination, but Brett wanted to believe they just seemed to click. Deep down, he hoped perhaps Alex would, if not already, come to feel the same way, too.

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