The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 2

What Lies Around the Corner

"My, this looks a lot better now, doesn't it?"

Patty Branham stood just inside the doorway, gazing about the room and looking impressed. The room had new carpet, along with freshly painted walls in a rich, denim-blue color that fell just short of a deep navy overtone. The room's two windows each had a set of matching, navy blue and white curtains, which offset the window's white trim, and other recently updated detailing throughout the space.

Richard and Alex were both finishing the setup of a new queen-sized bed for the teen, locking the braces into place. "I must agree dear, it's a fairly magical transformation compared to before," Richard replied. He then stood up and motioned his son toward the far wall, where presently a mattress and springs awaited them. With little effort, they both raised and placed the springs into the bed's rails, before letting them drop snuggly into place. "Ah, a perfect fit!" the man exclaimed, his eyes twinkling.

Patty leaned against the door's frame while she watched them repeat the performance, bringing the mattress around and laying it on top. "I don't know, I think I heard Alex say he was beginning to like those pinkish overtones!" She dodged quickly, however, at the pillow which found its way thrown toward her head.

Richard laughed. "Uh, don't think you'll ever convince me of that one, dear! That pink was beginning to get to even me, and I'm not the one up here all the time!"

Alex looked up. "No kidding!" he declared, as he and his father adjusted the mattress into place. Moving back, the teen stood close to his mother. "What do you think Mom? Dad and I didn't know exactly how we were going to set the bed up," he explained to his mother. "I don't think that looks half-bad, really."

"I think you're right. If you leave it there, then you can still put a TV over here, maybe mount it on the wall. It'll be reasonably close enough, I think." Patty glanced about the other spaces in the room. "Your dresser would fit nicely over there, too. It doesn't leave much room for a desk, though."

Alex shrugged. "That's okay, Mom. I don't necessarily need a desk, anyway. Just... maybe if I could have a floor lamp, you know, to put in the corner? Would that be alright? And maybe one of those lap-desk thingies, so I can have something to write on when I'm in the bed?"

Patty studied her son briefly. This was a kid who asked for so little it seemed, always leaving her feeling guilty that she and her husband hadn't provided for him more than they did. "Of course, you can, honey. We'll go up to the store tomorrow and see what we can find, okay?"

Alex's eyes lit up. "Really? That would be awesome!"

Richard, standing nearby, added his sentiments. "I don't think that would be a bad idea at all. Maybe even find a couple of bean bags, too, if you want. I know you like them things as it is." He turned to look toward the bathroom. "That bathroom, though ... we may have to wait a little for it, son. I'm sorry, but I only have so much money to play with right now. Not that we're hurting that bad, but ... as you might guess, I wasn't expecting to put down new carpet in here."

Patty clicked her tongue. "But - it had to be done, and we all know it. That padding was beginning to mold, and with all the stains and everything in it-"

Richard placed an arm around her. "Whoa, hold up! I wasn't complaining, dear! I agree 100% - it really did need to go. Just so you know, son, that overhead leak has been fixed, so it shouldn't be any more trouble for us." He winked at Alex. "If this ravaging teenager can live with a girl's bathroom for another month or two, we'll get it changed out. I'm just being cautious, is all, since it may take a few dollars to completely get it redone."

"No worries, Dad. Getting this in here is welcome enough for the time being." Alex replied. Turning to his mother, he voiced another thought that had come to him. "Did you get the sheets and stuff washed yet? If so, I'll go get them and put them on."

Patty nodded. "They're in the basket in the laundry room, ready to come up." With that Alex quickly disappeared through the doorway, and both parents could hear him moving quickly down the stairs. Once again, Patty clicked her tongue. "I don't think I've seen him this excited about anything, in quite a long spell. Have you?" she asked her husband.

Richard shook his head. "I don't think I have either." A silence fell between them as Richard walked over to the bathroom entrance and winced. "I do wish we could have done all this in one turn, though." He was mulling it over when they both heard Alex rapidly ascending the stairs again before entering the room. "You know, Alex, I think we could at least get way with painting the bathroom walls, if we use the leftover from your bedroom here. If you wanted too, that is. It might look a little weird with pink tiles and everything else, but..."

Alex studied the proposal for a few seconds, but eventually shook his head. "Dad? Honest, it doesn't bother me. Despite what Mom said, even the bedroom didn't bother me THAT bad, really. I admit though, it's kind of nice not having to lie on the floor and stare at hearts and diamonds all over the place!"

Richard laughed. "Believe me, I think I was beginning to have trouble with that myself!" Patty and Alex both laughed with him. Then in a surprise move, Alex walked over and offered his father a rare, mid-air fist bump. It was an uncommon gesture between the two, but it was one which Richard had learned, long before now, to appreciate. He met the exchange with his son, before turning to leave the room. He stopped at the door, however, and turned back. "So, is Brett out of school yet?"

"I think tomorrow is his last day, and it's only a half-day, if I remember right," Alex responded.

"That's good, then. I'm actually glad, as you won't have to be by yourself all day during the summer. Since your mother got on part-time down at the library, and I start my new job next week..." Richard stopped, hesitating only briefly. "You know, I really don't worry about you, son. You know that, right? But..."

"I'm fine, Dad. Honest." Alex started to unfold one of the sheets, handing a corner to his mother, who silently accepted it and walked around to the opposite corner of the bed. "You know, Dad, you don't have to worry about Brett either. We're just friends, but he's turned out to be pretty cool. He's not like some wild lunatic or anything."

Richard smiled. "I know, Alex. I wasn't even thinking about that part of it, honest. As far as I can tell, they're a good family. What I was going to say though, is that his mother found me this job reasonably quick, and overall, they've been really supportive toward us. I just want to do my best for them." He walked over and placed a hand upon Alex's shoulder, causing the teen to stop and turn, observing the man up close. "As to you and Brett, believe me, son, I'm not blind, either. I know what having friends means to you. Just be careful, okay? It's all I ever ask of anyone you meet, or anyone we deal with."

Alex smiled in return. "I know, and I will, Dad. Don't worry about us, we'll be okay. In fact, I was thinking about asking Brett if he wanted to help me this summer. You know, kind of pick up some spending money and stuff like I did last year."

"Detailing? That's not a bad idea at all, for the both of you!" Richard exclaimed, brightening considerably. The previous summer, Alex had hit upon an idea that was quite ingenious, and the man could see no reason why it couldn't be imported into their new neighborhood. "Let me know how it goes, okay?"

"Okay, I will. I'm going up there in a little while anyway, once they get home from school," Alex replied. Just then, he heard a slight tapping of a foot against the carpet. Turning, he blushed as he saw his mother waiting. Quickly, he made his way back to the bed so that they could finish the job at hand.

"So, when do I finally get to come into the Branham lair and see your room?" Brett asked the question nonchalantly, but the grin that followed was so infectious, Alex could not help but blush before he laughed.

"How about tomorrow, after you get out of school? Just come on down, and bring Gina, too, if you want to," Alex replied.

Brett, however, made a face. "Argh, why though? Can't we just hang out for a bit without her?"

Alex laughed again. "Yeah, we could, but you know she keeps asking about how much we're changing the room and everything! Since it's ready now, more or less, I figure why not let her come and see it, too." He shook his head. "By the way, I've been meaning to ask about the girl that lived in the house before. Was she Gina's friend or something?"

"Yeah, or something..." Brett replied before plopping down on the corner of his bed. "In fact, she was Gina's best friend for a long, long time. Turns out the family just moved to another neighborhood though, not that far away. They still keep up with each other at school, but I don't think they're as tight as they once were."

"Really? How come?" Alex asked.

Brett shrugged, all the while attempting to scratch at an invisible itch below his shoulder blades. "To be honest, I really don't know. Gina has so many friends around here it's kind of hard to keep up with them all." He saw a ruler upon his desk just then and reached out to grasp and hold it. Trying different angles to scratch the itch, however, the teen didn't have much better success. Finally giving up, he sighed and dropped his arms to his sides. "I'm not sure why they moved, although I think I heard that someone died, and they inherited their house in some way. I'm figuring it must have been their grandparents or something. So, they put the house you're living in now up for sale, and then moved out."

"Oh," Alex replied, thinking. "I guess that sort of explains it."

Seeing the serious look upon his friend's face, Brett laughed aloud. "I am not an all-knowing genie, you know! Besides, I've got my own life to keep up with - particularly now with you in it!"

Alex laughed, uncertain how to take that statement, but he opted to accept it with best of intentions. "Well, don't let me keep you from your busy social schedule, then!" The words were awkward, but it was the best retort he could muster just then, and although he tried, he could not avoid the pillow landing up the side of his head afterwards.

"Dork!" With that, Brett handed his friend a controller. With one of them stretched out on the bed and the other sitting in the floor at the foot, both pursued a new set of campaigns on the Xbox Halo series for the next two hours.

So engrossed as they were, Alex was startled at one point when his cell phone started chiming. "Hey, Mom!" he answered cheerfully, while Brett put the game on pause and muted the TV. He listened for a minute before he began nodding. "Okay, sure. I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was getting that late. Give me about 20 minutes or so. Is that okay?" He smiled, hearing her confirmation before he bade her goodbye and hung up. Looking at Brett, he shrugged. "Yeah, I have to go soon. She said Dad wants us all to go out for dinner tonight, and he's due to be home in a little bit."

Brett nodded. "That's okay, I understand." He climbed down from the bed and placed his and Alex's controllers next to the game console. As he turned around though, Alex had his knees pulled up, with his forearms resting gently upon them.

"Um, can I talk to you about something first?" Alex asked, causing Brett to nod before swinging himself around to sit next to his friend. Hesitating only slightly, the newcomer continued. "What do you usually do in the summer? I mean, do you mow yards, or anything like that to make some money and stuff?"

"Ah," Brett replied, understanding where this was going. "Well, yeah, last summer I mowed 3 lawns - ours, my grandma's and my aunt's. I didn't earn a whole lot, but I usually did okay. Between them and Dad, I usually made anywhere from $20-30 a week."

"Did your Dad give you an allowance, or something?" Alex asked.

"Yeah, but he based it on how much I earned mowing and stuff," Brett replied. "This spring, I've only been mowing mostly ours. My aunt's daughter, I mean my cousin, is old enough now to do their own mowing, so they don't need me anymore."

"And your Grandma?" Alex asked.

"That one is a little different. I've been over there twice so far, but I don't mow it unless she calls me. I think she takes turns between me and some of the other kids. Why? Are you getting desperate or something?" Brett asked with a grin.

Alex blushed. "No, not at all, honest. I just - well, let me first ask you something else, then I promise I'll explain. Are there any car lots nearby, close enough so that we don't have to ride our bikes out too far to get to them?"

Brett looked surprised. "Well, yeah, sure! There's - uh, I think 3 or 4 really, no more than a couple of miles at most."

Alex brightened. "Awesome! Okay, so here's the deal. Last summer, I got friendly with the owner of one of the car lots that was near us, up in Idaho. You see, they brought in replacement vehicles for the ones they sold, like anywhere from 4 to 5 cars a week sometimes. So, when they arrived, a lot of them needed to be cleaned up and everything. Some were not in bad shape at all, but there were some that needed a real going through before they could be put out onto the lot for sale. So, when one came in that needed some treatment and all, I got to clean them up. You know, I learned how to detail them and everything."

Brett leaned back against his bed. "Okay, I'm with you so far."

"Well, think about it." Alex hesitated again before plunging forward. "You see, if cars got detailed by any of the local garages up there, it would cost as much as $80 to $100 apiece, depending on if it were just a car, or more if it was a van or truck. I usually asked for around half of that price. You know, like $40 for a car, or $50 for a van or truck. And although I had to kind of learn some of the ropes, I got to be pretty good at it."

Brett began to understand. "I see where you're going with this, now. So, you think... wow!" A silence fell between them, as Alex watched the dots connect in Brett's expression. "You think we could do that ... here?"

Alex shrugged. "It would be a cool way to make some money. It's really not very hard work, either, as long as you're prepared and know what you're doing and all. I figured together we could detail one vehicle in, say, between 2 to 2-1/2 hours. I don't know, maybe even less once you get the hang of it. It just kind of depends on how messy the vehicle is to begin with, you know?"

Brett broke into a wide grin. "I think that's actually a cool idea! And... you did this? Last summer? What kind of money did you end up making overall? If I can ask, I mean."

Alex shook his head but grinned. "Sure, you can ask, but to be honest, I'm not really sure. My guess is I probably made around $550 to $600. You see, by myself, it took me like, four hours or so for each one, so I never worked on more than one at a time. After school started, one of the lot owners let me keep doing it on some of the Saturday mornings, at least until it started getting cold outside, but that was all." He looked at Brett seriously. "Look, I'm not out to make a killing or anything, and in order to get someone to give us that kind of a chance, we may have to start out small anyway. Maybe even agree to do our first vehicle or two for free, or at a reduced price if we have to. You know, just to show what kind of job we can do. And like I said, if we tag team and work on one together, well..."

"Hey, you don't have to apologize or anything, I get it. I like it, I think, because it doesn't sound like it's really a set schedule or anything, either - which would be great!" Brett rationalized.

Alex nodded. "We don't work every day, especially when it's raining and everything. Depending on how much inventory the car lots sell, sometimes they may get to work on a bunch of cars, or only one or two. So, we still get plenty of time to go and goof off for ourselves, too."

Brett was excited, until suddenly the smile left his face. "There is one hitch, though. At least, there is for me."

"What's that?" Alex asked.

"Well, Mom has had me volunteer for a youth camp upstate for the last two summers. It's like a week of camp, one for boys and another one for girls, you see. It's a lot like..." Brett paused, thinking hard. "You know what the boy scouts are and all that, right?" Seeing Alex nod, he continued. "Well, it's a lot like that. It's run by some non-profit groups and the State Police, I think. Mom sits on the camp board and everything for our region. About 300 to 350 kids show up each year, where they get to spend a week camping, swimming, going canoeing, hiking, archery - doing all kinds of outdoor stuff. The problem is, while they do have adults handling food and other things, they always ask a bunch of volunteers to go along and help the kids out during the week and everything. Volunteers like our age and everything, because kids are a lot more comfortable around us and everything. They like the older boys too, because the younger ones' kind of bond with them better and all, you see?"

"So, you're one of the volunteers? That sounds kind of nice, actually," Alex mused. "How old are these kids?"

"They're all 11 and 12, like 6th and 7th graders. Like I said before, the week I'm going is for all the boys. It's the last week of June this year," Brett responded.

Alex smiled. "What, just the one week?"

"Well, it starts out about noon on Friday, and then you come home after the following week on a Sunday. So yeah, it's a little more than a week, but..."

"That's okay, then. That week, we just tell everyone we're not available. Or at least, you're not available to help me. It's not a huge deal."

"Seriously?" Brett asked, excitement returning to his voice. "Okay, I'm game then, count me in! What do we need to do?"

Alex laughed. "Well, first, you need to get out of school, which will be tomorrow. Then, we need to sit down and make out a checklist. You know, something that we can print out and kind of use as a guideline while we're doing these things. It also helps to sell the idea to people, too, because then the owners get to see what all we propose to include in the package. Lastly, then we set our rates and go visit the car lots and try to line up some business."

Brett smiled enthusiastically. "Sounds simple enough! I'll talk to my Dad about it tonight and see if he or my Mom has any objections, but otherwise I say we go for it!"

Alex nodded and then started to get up, but Brett suddenly reached out and held him back. "Uh, I was going to ask you about something, too. About the camp thing and all."

"Sure. What's up?" Alex replied, settling back.

"Well, I was kind of wondering, would you be interested in going with me that week?" Brett asked, shyly. "I mean, with Mom being on the board and all, I'm pretty sure she could get you cleared to come with us. And like I said, they do a lot of fun things up there, and it's always wicked to horse around with the guys and stuff. It's a pretty safe place, too. They have a big lodge and a couple of pole-barns, or sheds or whatever you want to call them, for when everyone gets together. Oh, and there's a bunch of cabins for most of the guys to sleep in, too."

"Most of the guys?" Alex asked curiously.

"Well, yeah. Some of the kids like to actually sleep in the tents, at least as long as it isn't raining. Either way, there's plenty of cabins that hold about 12 to 16 bunks in them, and there's even more room if anyone sets up the sleeping bags on the floor. Because of the rain, I mean. Oh, uh..." Brett blushed, which piqued Alex's curiosity even further.


Brett looked sideways for a moment before turning back to his new friend. "We've known each other what, almost 3 weeks, right?" Alex nodded. "Well, I should tell you that if there's a shortage of anything, it's usually bunks for the volunteers like us. We don't get to sleep in the same room as the other boys see, but we do get little rooms for ourselves. We'd probably have to share one of those."

Alex wrinkled his nose before he shrugged. "So?"

"Well, the rooms they give us are really made for just one person, see. The bunks are kind of like the size of a twin bed, but maybe a little wider. The thing is, there really isn't a lot of room to set up a sleeping bag in there, so..." Brett blushed even deeper.

Alex grunted as he realized the significance. "So, we bunk together then, is that it?"

Brett nodded. "You would probably have to sleep in the bigger room with the other guys. You know, with a sleeping bag or something. Or, I could sleep in there and let you have the smaller room. Or... you could sleep with me."

Alex shrugged. "That wouldn't bother me, if it didn't bother you," he replied. He looked at his friend, noting the expression of surprise that met him. "Why, is that a problem?"

"For me? No way! I just... I didn't know how you might feel about something like that, that's all," Brett replied, blushing again. "I- Well, some guys, they, uh..." He fell silent, not sure how to proceed.

Alex grinned. "You're not planning to rape me or anything, right?" he asked, quietly. He stated it in a rhetorical fashion and was pleased when the other teen reacted by rolling his eyes. "Seriously Brett," Alex whispered. "It's cool. I would be fine with it."

Brett raised both eyebrows. "Are you sure? Because that would be... well, it would be awesome!"

Alex nodded, but paused as a thought came to him. "I don't know, though. I mean, I wouldn't mind tagging along, but whether my Mom and Dad would go for it is another matter entirely."

"Really? How come? I mean, if its money, there is no cost for us really. Even if there was, I would-"

"It's not about money, Brett. Cross my heart," Alex interrupted. "It's more about whether I can just go, that's all. Sometimes, well... we're a little cautious about certain things. My parents are really protective about me getting out too far away from home. A trip like that... I just don't know."

Brett was crestfallen. "Oh. Sorry man," he whispered, then fell silent.

Alex, however, didn't let the moment run for long. "It's just boys, right? Except for counselors and cooks or whatever you just said, it's mostly just younger boys, right?"

Brett nodded. "Yep. They hold another camp right after, like starting the next week, for the girls and everything." He hesitated, almost as if he was afraid to say anything more. "So, what do you think?"

Alex observed his new friend closely. "Do you want me to go?" Before Brett could answer, he lowered his voice and added with a smile. "Even if we end up having to share a bunk together?"

Brett smiled back. "Like you said, that wouldn't bother me. I just - I wanted to be up front about it, that's all. We've only been friends for a few weeks, and well..."

"I trust you," Alex stated simply. Those were words that briefly made Brett hold his breath before the teen continued. "Seriously, I'm not worried about us bunking together, honest." Standing up, he moved to slip his trainers on. "Okay, I'll talk to Mom and Dad about it tonight. For me, I think it would be cool to do something like that. But... honestly, if I know them, they'll want to think about it a couple of days, so don't look for an answer right away. It's probably a fifty-fifty chance, maybe more in favor, but then again... we'll see, okay?"

Brett nodded. "Fair enough. And Alex?" When the teen turned toward him, he lowered his voice. "Thanks."

Alex was unsure what he was being thanked for, but evidently Brett felt otherwise. He nodded and let it pass for now, knowing he needed to get started toward home. "I'll see you two tomorrow then, right?"

"You bet! We'll be there!" Brett replied, grinning.

Richard Branham sat back in his seat, letting out a long, slow sigh. "Now THAT was one excellent ribeye steak! Maybe one of the best I've had in quite some time!" He pushed his plate back. "How about your ribs, son?"

Alex nodded. "Pretty good, I guess."

Patty also pushed her plate back, its contents relatively devoured as well. "My chicken was good, too. Where did you hear about this place?"

"One of my co-workers suggested it. He warned me it was a little pricey, but..." The man turned over the check, raising his eyebrows. "I have a feeling they really don't know the meaning of the word around here." He looked up. "It's just a little over $62 for the three of us. Considering what we just ordered - 3 meals, an appetizer and drinks - that's not that bad, is it?"

Patty nodded. "No, that's not bad at all." She turned to Alex and observed him thoughtfully. "Is your belly all suited and filled then?"

"Yeah, why?" Alex asked, suddenly zoning in on his parents. As if on cue, his senses went into overtime, alerting him that something was heading in his direction. So profound was his change in demeanor, Richard laughed out loud.

"Whoa, call off the attack dogs, please! It's nothing bad, son!" the elder man whispered, holding up both hands symbolically before sitting forward with an amused look. "Your mother and I just want to talk to you about something, that's all."

Alex visibly relaxed, but his senses remained on high alert as he observed them both. "Okay, you've got my attention. Just, please, don't let it be a talk about sex!"

Patty pulled her napkin to her face, laughing so hard that tears formed in her eyes. Richard sat back, dumbfounded at first, but finally grinning from ear to ear as he realized their son was just teasing them. It took a full minute before either of them could settle down and turn to the teen. "What, you don't need a refresher course?" Richard retorted, but he had already seen through the attempt. "Good one, young man. I'm going to have to remember that one!" he whispered.

After a moment, Alex leaned forward, placing both elbows upon the table for and holding his chin in support. "Okay, okay... sorry. So, just... go for it. What's up?"

Patty also leaned forward. "We were just wondering, Alex... How would you feel about trying out public school this fall, going into the 10th grade and all?"

Alex's eyes widened in disbelief. "Are- are you serious?"

"To tell the truth son, we've been thinking about this for a while," Richard answered. Looking about, he kept his voice measured in low tones. "Look, in some ways, you've been deprived of that experience your entire life. Being home-schooled has had its share of blessings, I know, but it has also hindered you in other ways. Some of which you never really understand until you're just there and can see what public school is like."

"I think what your father is trying to say is, you've never had a chance to be among other boys your own age, or even see and maybe participate in the type of opportunities they've had. Things like being in clubs, going to team games, or other events. Even eating school lunches - if you can call that an opportunity!" Patty again laughed briefly. "There's other things, too - things that make up a part of every teenagers' life." Patty paused before continuing. "I think your father and I have seen this more than you, especially in the last few months - let alone the last couple of years. With you hanging out around Brett so much now, it's kind of reminded us what you've been missing."

"Being held out from school has cost you, son, in missing out on the things your Mother and I sometimes have taken for granted. Don't get me wrong, in some ways it'll all be easy for you. Academically, we know you're right in the same vernacular as anyone else your age, and maybe even a little better off than most," Richard picked up the conversation. "Socially, I bet there wouldn't be any problems, either. You have a great personality, and you're certainly not nervous about talking to people. But put all of that together, in a school, well... Make no mistake, it would be different. Your whole routine would change, like getting up in the mornings, riding a bus to school, spending the better part of your day in classrooms or gym or whatever they do these days. Different, but not impossible. That's an experience we think you'd enjoy."

"There is also some danger, too," Patty added. "Things like drugs and drinking, and others, too. Mind you, we don't have any worries with you on those items, but you will be faced with them at times, and you'll have to just make the right choices. Call it the good with the bad - everywhere you go, you face them at some point in life or another."

"We just think that the head on your shoulders won't have any problems dealing with that," Richard concluded. "And that the good things will outweigh all of those in the end, anyway."

Alex sat still and thought about that revelation for several minutes. When he didn't speak up, Patty leaned in. "Just so you know Alex, this is entirely up to you. If you don't want to do it, we'd understand, and I can still tutor you just like I always have. I can get you through 12th grade, I think, without any trouble. If you should decide to try it, and it doesn't work out, all you have to do is tell me. We can go back to the way it was before. But honey, I was hoping you'd at least think about it, okay? I think this would do you a world of good, to try it out and have some fun doing something different. The decision though, is ultimately yours."

"Really?" Alex whispered, as he looked up into her eyes. "I don't get it, though. You both have always said..."

Richard once again spoke up. "We know, son, but try to understand it from our point of view. In some of the places we've lived, the public schools were not really the best of places for someone like you to come along and grow up in. A lot of gangs, a lot of sex and unwanted pregnancies, troubled groups - you name it. I know, every place has those kinds of problems to some degree, but some have just been... well, worse than others. Your mother and I were lucky that we didn't have to force you to deal with those climates." He leaned in again, focusing on Alex. "Here though, we think it's possible it'll all be different. Your mother and I have always wanted what we thought was best for you."

Alex sat back and looked curiously at his father. "And... you think this might be the best for me, now? Here?"

"Alex," Patty interjected, reaching out and taking hold of one of her son's hands. "You're a lot older now, and far wiser than a lot of teenagers your age. You've always had a cool head on your shoulders, and it's no surprise to us how smart you are, too. The point is, your father and I have been blessed, from the moment you were born, to have as open and a solid relationship with you as we've always had. We're really not worried about you; we both believe you'll do just fine. Just ... there are things that we can't show you, or teach, or 'gift' to you, you know? Things like what you'll see and gain from being with other teenagers your own age. Does that make sense? We just want you to know that the option is there, now. That's all we're after. Here is the best place we've come to after all this time, where the situation is different, and we think it is one of those places you could enjoy going to a public school for a change."

"Your mother is right, Alex." Richard smiled at him. "I could not be prouder than any other father in the world, to call you my son. We've always held onto you, protected you - especially these last couple of years, but we can't do that always. We have to learn to let you go and discover things for yourself. That's what we're doing here, I think. That's why we're asking you to consider this. After all, at some point you should have just as much say about your future as we do. That's what we want to give you - a choice, but at least a choice that we believe is worthwhile."

"And... you're not worried about... you know..." Alex started in low tones.

Richard shook his head. "That mess, if we're lucky, will be resolved by the end of this year, or soon thereafter. And no - we have to be a little careful is all, but your mother and I are really not worried about it. Not now, anyway."

"What if that changes?" Alex asked.

Richard grunted. "Then we'll deal with crossing that bridge when it comes. Right now, though, why worry about it, hmm?"

Alex sat back, bewildered. He studied them both momentarily before speaking again. "How long do I have before you need a decision?"

"I called the board of education today, just to get some general information. They're supposed to send out a packet tomorrow, so we'll get the information, hopefully, by early next week," Patty replied. "Alex, just think about it honey, okay? There is no hurry, at least for a few days. Think about it, it's all we're asking you to do. In some ways, it's like the beginning of a grand new adventure, and I know that can bring some uncertainty along with other feelings. But honey, that's what life is all about. Taking the adventure and living it, and seeing where it takes you."

Alex finally smiled. "Okay, I will, Mom. I promise, I'll think about it." He sat up again. "You know, since we're talking about the future and stuff here, I've got something to talk to you guys about, too..."

Alex sat on the swing and watched the school bus slow its approach before stopping at the Edward's driveway. Two figures could be seen disembarking in the distance, before the bus started to continue on its way. Once the bus had moved on, however, both of the individuals began walking not up to their house, but toward Alex's own driveway instead. At one point, the two crossed the road and, after making it to the mailbox, turned and began descending toward Alex's house. Gina waved at the teen from the distance, which caused him to grin and wave back.

The teen had been swinging in the afternoon breeze for the last half hour, contemplating a number of things while he waited. The night before had certainly left him filled with surprises, coming from both his new friend and his parents. Admittedly, he had wondered at times what it might be like to attend regular school with other kids, but given the stricter stance his parents had imposed upon him from a young age, he had never thought they would relent to the idea. Now, of all times, he was being given a choice - and not only that, it was a choice that included his parents' blessing. He had sat, dumbfounded and in wonder, as each of them explained their reasons of why, they thought, it was time ... and why it would be good for him.

Alex acknowledged that a part of the surprise was because he was hearing it from both parents. What had once been a way of life, was now being challenged because they thought it was now for the better - a fact that had left him in awe all the way home. The only real question, though, was whether he could handle the transition. Was he smart enough to compete with kids his own age? His mother had left him with little doubt as to that answer, and he knew why. She had been a school teacher before, specializing in secondary education. During her few short years on the job, she was one of those teachers who had earned a great deal of respect from both her peers and her students alike. When Alex was born, however, she had taken a short leave of absence before returning. As he grew older, however, his parents made the decision that his mother could quit and take charge of her son's education.

What had prompted his mother to do that, after all these years, Alex had not known until the night before. He read between the lines of what his parents freely admitted - and didn't admit - while they were making their case. The result was that while growing up, Patty had dedicated her life to being both a mother and a teacher, and she was willing to preserve her son's safety at all costs in any way she could. Thus, the two had spent countless hours, both formally and informally, through the years teaching Alex things that no ordinary school could do, while keeping the academics at the forefront. Was he smart enough? She had no doubt of it, and as such, neither did Alex. He passed the given tests, the promotional evaluations with ease, thus giving him a high level of confidence in that matter.

Patty was not the only one involved in Alex's education, though. Looking back briefly as his friends approached, Alex also recalled the many times his father came home and engaged him outside. There were games, hikes, walks, and hobbies, including woodworking, simple auto mechanics and more - all of which added to the young man's understanding of how things worked. His father also learned to play devil's advocate from time to time, all in an earnest attempt to show his son the world did not always follow the rules, nor did society always advocate honoring a sense of fair play. Those lessons taught Alex how to reason and be perceptive, carefully monitoring around him and watch for things that seemed out of place. Did he make mistakes? Sure ... plenty of them, but as his father once told him, sometimes making and owning up to mistakes were the greatest teachers of all. The man was kind and patient, and as such it taught Alex the value of those traits. While his mother achieved her goals academically, his father added the logic and puzzle-solving skills his son would need for getting along in the real world. Together, they taught him how to think for himself, and not depend on others to do it for him.

Alex sighed, suddenly wondering if he was overthinking the whole thing. The answer was rather simple, he thought: if his parents believed he would be fine, then maybe that was enough. He had no reservations in believing them in the past, so why shouldn't he believe in their judgement now? That left only the last element to consider: would Alex fit in with the crowd? Could he really go to a regular school, and learn to adapt to the changes around him, without standing out like a sore thumb? In other words, could he transition into being the new kid on the block, with a sudden mass of people his own age?

Alex was contemplating that very question when both Brett and Gina approached with only a few yards remaining between them. Both called out, rousing the teen from his thoughts as he grinned back and stood up. "About time you two got here!" he remarked, teasing them as Gina ran the last few steps and jumped onto the porch, before running into him with outstretched arms. "Whoa! And to what do I owe this pleasure?" he asked, amused as he put his own arms around her.

Gina giggled and looked up at him, still squeezing tightly. "For talking butt-head into letting me come, too!" Brett, climbing the short steps behind her, rolled his eyes.

"You should have heard it all last night after I told her! She would NOT shut up about it, driving me and Mom both crazy!" Brett mused. Looking down at his sister though, the teen smiled in spite of himself, placing a hand atop her head. "Hey, don't kill him, or you'll never get to go inside!"

Gina let go and backed away. "Okay, okay party pooper! So... when do we go in? Huh?"

Alex laughed, then turned and opened the front door. "Right now. Mom's here today, and I think she made us a snack to have before going upstairs."

"Ah, cool!" Gina said, leading the way while Alex held the door for them both. Once all three were inside, their host pointed to an open doorway, where his mother suddenly appeared and greeted them each. Once the group entered, they found a spread of various appetizers already set upon the kitchen table.

"Wow, Mrs. Branham! You didn't have to do all this!" Brett exclaimed, but immediately grabbed the paper plate Alex handed to him.

"It's not that much, kiddos," Patty remarked, pleased. "Dig in, though. I've already taken some cans of soda upstairs and set them on Alex's bed. Unless, that is, you need something sugar-free."

"Nope, we're all sweet-hogs," Gina quipped.

Brett laughed at her reference. "Well, that's how they cure ham for the feast, right? Sugar-cured ham?" he teased, which caused Gina to turn to him sharply before sticking her tongue out.

"Whatever you say, pork-chop!" she retorted. Alex and Patty both could not help but laugh at the exchange. While everyone filled their plates with various items of foods and snacks, they chatted amicably before Alex led the way to the staircase, and subsequently up to the second floor. Once there, they entered the room, with Gina trailing behind both boys. "Oh, wow!" she exclaimed, stopping to admire the room's overall appearance.

Alex smiled as he heard her exclamation, but then proceeded to sit down in one of his new, color-coordinated bean bags. Not only was there one for him, but also for each of his two guests as well. Brett grinned and followed, looking around but using care not to spill his plate. When Gina approached, her eyes still marveled at the updated room, until Brett reached up to take her plate from her. "Better sit down, sis. Especially before you fall down, okay?" he teased.

The exchange unfazed the young lady, however. As she plopped into her designated seat, she commented. "I don't think I would have never known this was a girl's room! It looks so different now!" She glanced at the open bathroom door, however, and then amended her statement. "Except for the bathroom, that still looks familiar."

Alex took a bite from his sandwich before replying. "You've been up here before, then?"

"Oh, yeah - lots of times! Sherri was my best friend for a long time. Still is, I think," Gina replied.

"Think? Uh, you don't know?" Alex asked in curiosity. "Did you guys have a fight or something?"

"No," Gina replied, shaking her head. "It's kind of hard to explain. We still see each other at school and everything, but ... it's just not the same, that's all. She's in a new neighborhood, with new friends and everything, so..."

"Okay, I get it now," Alex replied in understanding. They sat in silence for a moment, munching the food and glancing about.

Brett seemed to approve of the changes whole heartedly. "You know, if you think about it, this room isn't that small at all, compared to mine. You have dormers, which kind of limit where you can put things, but altogether I think it's pretty cool - plus, you get to have the whole upstairs to yourself! Right?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah. Mom told me that as long as I keep it cleaned up, she wouldn't try to butt in. She's already leaving my laundry at the bottom of the steps."

Brett laughed. "I have to take mine upstairs AND bring them back, too - unless squirt here brings them down for me. Either way, I still have to put everything away."

Gina rolled her eyes, but then shrugged. "Meh, all I do is lay them on his bed." Suddenly she looked up with a gleam in her eye. "Hey, have you found the secret room yet?"

Alex furrowed his brow. "Huh? What are you talking about?"

Laughing, Gina set her plate off to the side and stood up, extending her hand. "Come on, I'll show you." Alex complied, setting his own dish on the floor and climbing to his feet while Brett, curious, did the same.

Gina led the two boys around to the other side of the bed, where they ended up facing the south wall. "Sherri found this a few years ago I think, by accident. It's not huge, but it's big enough for a person to sit in, maybe even two or three." She then knelt down and started running her finger along the baseboard. After a few tries, Alex began to think he had been duped and was about to withdraw, until he heard the girl draw in a sharp breath. Finding the desired spot, she pressed harder and then an audible click could be heard. Both Alex and Brett were then astonished to see a section of the wall pop backwards and slide part of the way to the side. Looking up at them, Gina smirked while she pressed against it, sliding it further to reveal a darkened space beyond. "Seriously, it's almost as big as a normal room. At least, bigger than a closet, I think. Here, look!"

Alex dropped to his knees and stared at the roughly two-by-three-foot opening, which was just large enough for a decently sized individual to wiggle through. Poking his head inside, he saw basically just darkness. Withdrawing, he turned to Brett. "Hey, there's a flashlight in my top desk drawer. Would you get it for me, please?" Brett was on his feet in a heartbeat, and quickly returned with the device, which Alex activated and beamed it into the space beyond. "Wow!" he exclaimed. Revealed to him was what was roughly a six-by-eight-foot finished room, with a slanting ceiling that obviously aligned with the roof of the house. At the far end, he noticed an electrical outlet, giving the room some sense of a normal space. As he traced the beam along the ceiling, he figured the lowest point was only about five feet tall, while the opposite side, obviously the tallest, had to clear over six feet. The room was also carpeted, although with an older style that had obviously seen better days. "You've got to see this, Brett! This is really cool!" Alex quickly backed out and gave the flashlight to his friend, letting him have a turn at crawling into the opening as well. While he waited, Alex turned to Gina. "Did Sherri ever know what the room was used for?"

Gina shook her head. "Not really. She said she just used it to hide some stuff was all. She doubted her parents ever knew anything about it, either." The young lady looked over at Alex, smirking. "I guess it's your secret room now, if you want."

Alex, bewildered, simply nodded as Brett backed out and sat up, putting his back against the bed. "You're right, that's pretty awesome! You could use it for all kinds of things, if you wanted."

Alex nodded, leaning closer to study the baseboard itself. He found the tiny catch Gina had found earlier, then whistled. "I was the one who painted over here, too, and I missed this catch completely!"

"There's something else you should know," Gina spoke up again, suddenly by his side. "Look, it works like this: the door closes on its own after you pull it part of the way, see? It's like it has some kind of a weighted spring or something. If you just pull it part of the way, nothing happens, but once you reach ... like this ... see?" Demonstrating, she pulled the door to a certain point before letting it go, at which the door automatically glided and clicked back into place. The barrier was shut tightly again, and its outline was hardly even visible to the naked eye. "Then to open it, you find the little pin to trip it, like... ah, here it is. Try it!" She grasped Alex's hand and, taking his index finger, guided it over the board until he felt the nearly invisible catch. "Feel that? It's like a little pin or something there, where it meets the wall."

"Yeah, I feel it," Alex answered. Following her instructions, the teen pressed against the catch, and then felt a shift in the wood. As clearly as before, the door recessed and opened partially, enough that one could grasp the edge and push it the rest of the way open. Grinning, he sat back and watched Brett do the same, before he placed his hand upon Gina's shoulder. "Wow, I don't know what to say. Thanks Gina!"

The girl giggled, and then blushed. "So, would that be worth something in return? Maybe a hug?"

Alex laughed, then grabbed the girl and pulled her into his lap, smothering her with an affectionate hug all over, but being careful he didn't come into contact with areas he shouldn't. "You mean like this?" he whispered into her ear, squeezing her tightly and making her giggle before she returned his embrace.

"Oh yeah, that'll do pig..." she replied. Brett overheard her and laughed. Fortunately, he had already forewarned his friend about her sudden use of names and movie phrases, so Alex laughed along with him. He held her a little longer and then let her go, before they each returned to the bean bags and food. Alex, who had forgotten about it until then, found the cans of soda his mother had delivered and grabbed them, offering one to each of his guests. Sitting back, he stared at the wall for a moment, until Brett interrupted his thoughts.

"That room was obviously built with the house, or at least it was boxed in shortly thereafter," the teen mused, thinking aloud. "Do you think it was done so they could store something, maybe illegal? Like drugs or something?"

Alex shrugged. "Maybe, but if that was all, why was it finished out, with walls and carpet and everything?"

"I don't know, but you do have a point, I guess." Brett finished his food and then set the plate aside. "So, when are you getting your TV?"

"Dad asked me to let him get his first paycheck in the bank, and then we'll go down to Walmart or somewhere and find me one. So, probably next weekend, maybe," Alex replied. "Sorry guys, right now all I have are some board games, really. I've got a radio though, and can put on some music, if you like."

Gina's eyes lit up. "Really? What kind of board games?" For the next two hours, they each immersed themselves into a game of Monopoly, spreading the board and pieces between them. To Alex and Brett's dismay, it was Gina who quickly won the upper hand and, thus, ended up controlling most of the game.

Later in the afternoon, as they were readying to leave, Brett pulled Alex aside. "Hey, uh, just so you know - I did ask Mom last night if she thought there would be any problems if you went with me to camp, and she said it would be okay."

Alex nodded. "I told Mom and Dad, and although they were not against it, they did say let them think about it a couple of days. So, we'll have to wait and see." He looked directly at his friend. "Do you want to maybe get together, you know, later tonight or tomorrow? We really need to make a checklist thingy before we go see anyone at the car lots."

Brett shook his head. "I can't tonight, sorry. We're having some friends come over for supper, and Gina and I will be more or less kid-sitting. Maybe tomorrow, though? As far as I know, we have nothing planned." He grinned. "I'll call you in the morning, and we'll set it up from there. Where at, though? My house or here?"

"Well, you have a bigger desk than I do, and a printer. I've only got just the laptop for right now. Once we've made the list though, we'll need to print a few copies and everything, if you will," Alex reasoned.

Brett nodded. "Yeah, no problem. So, my house then?"

"Yeah, if it's okay."

Gina heard the tail end of the conversation and decided to pipe up, adding her opinion into the mix. "Piece of cake, tater bake!" Both Brett and Alex burst into laughter, as the girl blushed before shrugging. "It's all I could think of, seriously!"

Alex smiled at her. "No worries. It's cute how you do that."

"Only sometimes, though! Don't encourage her!" Brett interjected as they waved and walked out the door. "I'll call you in the morning!"

On Saturday morning, Alex's cell phone began ringing, causing him to quickly glance at the clock. Noting the hour was after ten, he grinned and shook his head. "Hey Brett," he said simply, then waited patiently as he heard a big yawn come from the other end of the connection. "What, stay up too late celebrating last night?"

"What are you talking about? This is when I normally get up! At least, when we're out of school!" came the annoyed reply. Stifling another yawn, Brett went on. "Why, how long have you been up?"

"Oh, I got up around 7:30 or so," Alex replied smirking, causing his friend to gasp.

"Shit, man! It's summer, come on! Enjoy some benefits while you can, you know! We're not in the work force yet!" the teen exclaimed.

"Yeah, that's true," Alex replied, pausing before continuing. "But you'd better consider what we're proposing to do, though. We want to work on these vehicles before lunch as much as we can, before it gets too hot in the afternoon! I'd rather be in a pool, or have my shower, or at least something by then, you know?"

"Yeah, yeah, I understand what you're saying," Brett replied. "You actually like swimming? Don't answer that, it's too early," he added, stifling another yawn. "Well, at least until we get that far along, let me enjoy what sleep I can get, okay?" The teen suddenly coughed. "Hey, hold on a sec..." Alex waited patiently as he heard his friend blow his nose in the background, before returning to the conversation. "Damned allergies! I swear, one of these days they're going to get the best of me, but at least they haven't been too bad this year... yet!" Another pause. "You're still there, right?"

"Same as always," Alex replied, unusually cheerful.

"Good! Listen, I need maybe 30-minutes or so to get dressed and eat some cereal or something. What say afterwards we bike up to that Minute Mart, grab another soda, and then I'll take you out on the other side and down to the main highway. There are two lots out there closest to us, almost side-by-side, and we can then get a feel for how far, or rather how long, of a ride it will take us to get out there. Then we'll come back and make out that list thingy, like you suggested."

"That's not a bad idea at all!" Alex replied approvingly. "Okay, you've got a deal! So, about 30-minutes, right?"

The voice on the other end of the line hesitated. "Um, maybe 40 minutes, if that's okay. I, uh, think I feel a calling from Mother Nature coming on, so that might take me a few extra minutes," Brett explained.

"Alright," Alex replied, laughing. "Good to know you're still human then, if you poop like the rest of us!" He teased. "I'll make it 45-minutes, just to be on the safe side."

Before he hung up, however, Brett stopped him. "Hey, wait! You know, you can actually come up anytime you want, I don't care. You just may have to wait for me, that's all. I don't mind if you're hanging around. Besides, Bobba Fett would love to get another belly scratching from you, I'm sure."

"Well, if you're sure, then okay. I'll get my shoes on and leave out in a few minutes," Alex conceded, then hung up as they both bade farewell.

Twenty minutes later, Alex was at the Edward's back door knocking. A sudden barking roared inside, followed quickly by Gina's voice telling the dog to calm down. When she opened the door, however, Alex was suddenly caught off guard unexpectedly. The young girl was wearing a semi-transparent nightgown, one which only descended about halfway down her thighs. As he tried to avert his eyes, she let him inside. "Brett's stinking up the john again, so he won't be out for a few minutes. Go on downstairs, if you dare," she added, oblivious to the teen's hesitation. Partially following her as she disappeared down the hallway, Alex shook his head to himself and sighed when they separated. With the slightest of smiles, he descended the steps to the lower level, before following the short path into Brett's bedroom. Bobba Fett trotted along happily by his side.

Once inside and hearing Brett call out to him from the bathroom, Alex decided to sit in the floor at the foot of the bed. Taking hold of the pup, he pulled him into his lap where the canine happily turned over until he was on his back, making Alex smile even more. "You like this, don't you? I think I've spoiled you..." the teen mused, as he began rubbing and scratching upon the dog's belly and neck. Bobba Fett half-closed his eyes then, and with his tongue lying to the side, a guttural moan escaped in perfect bliss.

A voice suddenly spoke from the bathroom doorway, as a figure appeared and entered the room. "Spoiled? You've got that right! I don't think he has ever let anyone do that to him, except me! Gina has tried, but he gets too restless with her." Brett stopped and turned on his heal, heading back toward the bathroom but halting in the doorway. Reaching inside, Alex heard the teen flip a switch, followed by the sound of a fan being activated. "Um, it's not too bad this morning, but meh, the fan helps," Brett explained sheepishly, walking back over to them and squatting down enough to scratch behind the dog's ears.

Alex laughed. "Crap is crap, Brett. Just so long as it doesn't knock me unconscious, you're good to go."

"Well, don't say I never warned you," Brett breathed, grinning. He stood then and walked over to his dresser before pulling out a pair of athletic shorts and donning them over his briefs. Alex had kept his attention on the dog, however, but couldn't help noticing how scantily clad his friend had been. Brett caught sight of his friend shaking his head as he rounded the bed. Plopping down, the teen pulled on a t-shirt before asking, "What's up? Why the head shake?"

Alex glanced up as he watched Brett reach for his shoes. "It's nothing, really." When Brett looked at him in confusion, the teen sighed. "I don't know, its... well, you guys. I mean, neither of you seem to be all that shy or anything. At least, not around me."

Brett looked puzzled for a moment, then realized what his friend was saying. "Oh, you mean about me getting dressed and all?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah, mostly. Going around in your underwear and all, like just now."

Brett shrugged. "It's not a big deal Alex, not to me anyway. At least, not with you." He smiled. "You told me the other night you trusted me. Did you mean that?"

"Absolutely, yeah," Alex replied.

"Well then, it goes two ways, man. I trust you, too," Brett added simply, then finished tying one shoe. He then looked down at his friend in curiosity. "Wait, you said 'guys', like plural and everything. Did you mean Gina, too?"

Alex blushed a deeper red, but he wasn't going to lie to his friend. "Yeah, she answered the door when I got here."

"Was she naked or something?" Brett asked smirking, working on the second shoe by now.

"No, but she had on this see-thru gown thingy and all, and um, you could, like, see her underwear and... and everything else," Alex quietly explained. He was surprised however, when he heard Brett giggle.

"Everything, huh? Like her boobs?" Bret giggled, then shook his head. "Don't worry about her, Alex. She knew what she was doing, and she obviously likes you, too. Enough to not care about it."

Alex thought about that for a moment. "Well, as long as she doesn't expect me to do the same thing back, then... okay, I guess." He suddenly felt sheepish. "Don't get me wrong Brett. I mean, around you, no problem, but her..."

Brett laughed again before lowering his voice. "Quit worrying, she won't." He looked at his friend curiously. "I think I understand what you're saying, though. You've never had any brothers or sisters to be around, have you?" When Alex shook his head, Brett placed his hand upon his friend's shoulder. "Believe me, it's no big deal, unless the 'rents are around. If Mom or Dad is home, it's a whole different ballgame then. We're a LOT more careful. Otherwise though, we don't care so much - around each other, anyway."

Alex looked up at his friend again, thinking. "I guess I understand that, between you two. But... with me? I'm still kind of a stranger and... and..."

"Whoa, hold up!" Brett declared, then stopped until he let a sneeze escape. Grabbing a tissue from his dresser, he came back and sat down right next to his friend. "You're not a stranger, Alex. We might not know what makes you tick so much, but we do know you. Both of us. You know, some guys - they would go all bug eyed and horny and everything if they saw what you did. Thing is though, you didn't, and I know that. The fact you even told me makes me feel better about what I do know about you. So, don't start on this being a stranger thing, because you aren't." Brett paused and then smiled. "Listen, I think we need to have a talk about something else, too. I know you don't mean to be shy, and I know that you are kind of new to some things, okay? But... around me, trust is one of those things that kind of goes two ways. Look at me, Alex," Brett requested, which Alex complied. "Just so you know, when I say I trust someone, I really do mean it - all the way. It means I'm totally open with you, and that I have no reservations about telling you things, or letting you even see me near naked or naked for that matter. Understand? I'm not afraid of you. A lot of guys are, or would be, but I'm not, with you at least. Seriously, I like you, you're my best mate."

Alex smiled. "And how many people do you have that kind of freedom with, Brett?"

"Seriously? I can count them on two fingers," Brett replied, wrinkling his nose. "I know it sounds goofy, but right now, you and my sister are it." Seeing the surprise that met him, Brett shrugged. "Like I said, I know that sounds kind of goofy, but it's true." They sat there in silence for a moment before he wrinkled his nose. "To be honest, I sort of think Gina feels the same way, though just kind of different because she's a girl."

"But..." Alex hesitated, looking out the open door of the room. "That's just it, Brett. I mean, if she were a boy and all that, yeah, I get it. But ... she's a girl, and..."

"Yep, you made the A+ grade on that one! She is a 100%, almost 12-year-old female! Glad you noticed!" Brett teased, causing his friend to blush deeply. Brett then felt bad. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry - I didn't mean to embarrass you, honest." When Alex refused to look at him again, the teen changed tack. "Look, you're right: a lot of guys are a lot 'freer' about this kind of stuff around other guys, just like girls are around other girls. You'd be surprised though, at how many aren't. Usually because they're just wusses, if you want my opinion. But us, Alex, you and me, it's okay. Honest."

Alex looked deep into the eyes meeting his own. "How do you know, though?"

"I just do. I can't explain it, man. I just feel it. Tell me something though, do I make you uncomfortable? Do you want me to stop, or something?"

Alex sat back in surprise, before his shoulders slumped. "Of course not! It doesn't bother me, really, it's just... with your sister..."

Brett hesitated, not sure how to express himself. "You know, me and Gina, we've always been kind of open and everything, that's all. We've always been around each other, and even though we pick on each other a lot, we also support and help each other a lot, too." He grunted. "And as for her gown and seeing her boobs and all, then meh - she's only beginning to get boobs anyway, so there wasn't THAT much to see, was there?" When Alex finally giggled, Brett relaxed. "You know, not too long ago she was the one telling me she couldn't understand what all the hubbub was about. I think her words were 'boys have dicks, and girls have boobs. Big deal.'"

Alex almost choked on his laughter. "Are y-you serious? She... she actually said t-that?"

Brett grinned. "Yep, pretty close to it anyway. She didn't say anything about the other obvious part between her legs, but oh well." He reached out and joined Alex with giving Bobba Fett a double dose of loving, before bumping his shoulder gently with his friend. "Seriously Alex, she's not really into sex, or kinky stuff or anything - at least not yet. I wouldn't worry about it. I doubt it'll be the only time you'll catch her like that, either - especially if she's comfortable with you and all, and it sounds like she really is."

Alex gently rolled Bobba Fett back onto his feet and scratched behind the ears briefly. "She certainly was a little bit ago, yeah." Finally turning to look at his friend again, the thin outline of a smile came to his lips. "I'm okay, honest. Thanks... I think."

"For what?" Brett asked, as he finished tying his second shoe.

Alex looked off into the distance briefly before shrugging. "I don't know, Brett. I guess for telling me all of that; for just thinking of me that way, us being that close and everything. Nobody has ever really done that for me before." He looked at his host. "You really count me as that close of a friend?"

Brett smiled. "You bet. Seriously, like I told you, you're my best mate. On top of all that, if all goes down like we think, we're going to be even more than that!"

"Huh?" Alex asked, suddenly confused.

"Well, we're about to be partners, aren't we? Unless you're planning to kick me out and take all the money for yourself!" Brett exclaimed.

Alex blushed again. "Oh, uh, I wouldn't do that, no!" He observed his friend with a new respect. "You're my best friend, too, Brett," the teen added quietly. "I don't show it much, I know, but you are."

Brett saw the sincerity in his friend's eyes and smiled, before leaning in close and lowering his voice again. "Alex? Do something for me, please?"


"I know, some things may be new to you and all, but honestly? I'll never do anything I'm not comfortable with around you. Believe that, okay? If it bothers you, then just tell me, but at least know that it doesn't bother me, okay?"

"I'll try, Brett. Honest, I'll do my best." The teen visibly gulped before he added, "Just, you might need to be patient with me, okay? I - I think I've got a lot of stuff to learn and understand, I guess."

Brett raised his fist in mid-air, which Alex met and bumped. "I'll always be patient, man. And guess what? You've got me to help you figure it all out, you know? So, come on, let me eat a little cereal, and then let's get going!"

Both climbed to their feet, where Alex bumped shoulders with his friend. "You got it!" Brett grinned, but then started out the door, his friend following close behind. Bobba Fett, once again, trotted happily along by their side.

"So, last night I started making a list out, that way you'd have an idea of what I was thinking. You know, to help and everything. Do you have Microsoft Office?" Alex asked.

Brett nodded. "As a matter of fact, I do. All the students get free copies of the basic apps, like PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, and another one... Um, Note? Or something like that."

"Yeah, it's called 'OneNote'. Cool then! Here..." Alex paused as he dug a thumb drive out of his pocket and handed it over. "There's two files on there, one that's just plain text, but the other one is in Microsoft Word. I added some boxes, graphics and checkbox things. See if you can open that one first."

Both boys were sharing Brett's chair at the desk, a feat not easily achieved but nonetheless welcomed as they came together. The closeness wasn't lost on either of them, especially when Brett reached out to pull the other teen in closer. This was something beginning to register with Alex in a different way than before, as he realized how close and tight their bond was becoming. In some ways it made him nervous, but in other ways it left him feeling awed.

Brett plugged the drive into his laptop, then began opening and exploring its files. Finding the document with ease, he readily opened it, and when the document displayed on his desktop, the teenager gave a start. "Whoa! Crap!" The document had been formatted with a border, using a polished, professional layout in the main display. There was a band stretching across the top for the vehicle identification information, time and date of service, along with other miscellaneous entries. Below that were two columns, already prefilled with roughly 35 to 40 entries, categorized for both interior and exterior details. In addition, a third, thin box was added at the bottom, for acceptance of the job when it was inspected and completed.

Brett whistled. "This is fucking fantastic!" he exclaimed, noting that each of the entries had two corresponding checkboxes in front. "How come there are two?" he asked.

Alex laughed and sat back. "Well, I wasn't sure about that, but I got to thinking. We should probably have this double-check thing, to make sure everything gets done before we call out anyone to come and inspect our work. So, if one of us starts at the beginning of the list, and the other starts at the end, then we can meet in the middle somewhere. We check off everything we do as we go along, see. Then, when we meet, you get to double-check my work, and I'll double-check yours. It's kind of like, um, making sure we don't miss anything. Like giving it a final round and everything."

Brett nodded, impressed. "I can go along with that. If we do everything okay, then when we go through each other's tasks, it should be smooth and quick anyway, right?"

"Yep," Alex replied. "Also, look at how I sorted all the tasks, too. Like items are grouped together, see? You don't have to be wiping the dashboard, to suddenly clean windows and come back and treat the steering wheel or something."

"Yeah... I see what you mean!" Brett looked up. "Sheesh, Alex! How long did it take you to put this together?"

The teen shrugged. "Not too long. Probably, I don't know, a couple of hours I guess."

Brett shook his head, all the while reading through the list. "Some of these tasks are really detailed," he said finally, pointing out one area in particular. "Clean windshield, driver's-side front windows, driver's-side rear windows... And then you got the mirrors, too."

"I was trying to think of every step, you know - everything that needed to be done, and then make sure we tackle it. It's not like just washing or cleaning out a vehicle. We're supposed to be detailing it, you know, prepping it for resale." Alex suddenly grinned. "Plus, the more we list, I was hoping it might impress the dealer and get us a tryout and job."

Brett attempted to sit back as well. "Is there anything we need to do, then? Crap, you look like you've already done all the work!"

Alex wrinkled his nose. "Well, we need a name, and a logo maybe, at the top."

"Yeah, I can see that. Do we need to put our prices on here, too?" Brett asked.

Alex shook his head. "I don't think so. See, I have a place where we put down the estimate for the job. I figure if we ever want to raise our rate, or adjust it for anything, we can just fill-in the space then. Otherwise, we'd be stuck with charging what's printed on the paper."

"Good thinking," Brett observed, then leaned forward. "I've got some clip art on here - let's see if any of it will do!" For the next fifteen minutes, both boys browsed Brett's collection of artworks, and then settled on one design for their logo that depicted a classic Ford Mustang. After taking a moment to resize it, they scaled it neatly into the space provided on the form. Brett then started typing a name into the field next to it. "'Alex and Brett's Detailing Service'. How does that sound? Kind of plain, but..."

Alex grinned. "It's fine with me. You can make it 'Brett and Alex' though, if you want. I don't care."

Brett shook his head. "No, let's keep it like that. It's kind of alphabetical, anyway, and besides, I think it sounds a lot better."

Alex nodded. "Okay, you're the boss on this one. Now, can we print a couple of these out and see how they look?"

Brett rose from the chair and walked over to his closet, withdrawing a printer from within. "I don't keep the printer out usually because it takes up extra room," he explained, to which his friend simply nodded. Returning to the desk, he connected its cables and fired it up. Returning to their seat, he purposefully bumped against Alex, then grabbed him to keep the teen from falling into the floor. They both laughed as they situated themselves yet again. Within seconds, they had 2 copies of the form printed and in hand. "Do you think there's anything else we need?" Brett asked, after re-reading the list again.

"There is one thing I can think of, yeah," Alex replied. "May I?" he asked, indicating the laptop, which Brett readily turned and pushed toward his friend. With a few mouse clicks, the teen inserted some blank lines at the end of the major sections, filling out the rest of the page. "I don't usually like to do this, but meh, sometimes you think of a task you forgot, or a special task may get requested and all. That's another reason there isn't any pricing on the form. See, if there are added or special items, we may want to tack on another couple of dollars or something before we agree to do the job."

Again, Brett was impressed. "You've thought of everything, I think!" He printed the form again, as both boys discarded the originals. Carefully looking over the finished result, both boys were pleased, so Brett proceeded to print additional copies. Once completed, he sat back. "Okay, so what do we do next?"

"Well, I say we don't bother anyone until Monday. It's Saturday, who wants to work on a weekend, you know?" Alex replied, grinning. Before Brett could speak up, however, his friend suddenly grunted. "Except us. Just so you know, sometimes I had to work on Saturday mornings, because it was the only time I could do some of the jobs, especially if rained a lot during the week."

Brett laughed. "Well, I don't think it will matter much, as long as we kind of keep our schedule loose. You know, so we don't have to work all the time, or all summer long. I can work some Saturdays, just not all of them."

"I totally agree with you!" Alex replied, nodding. "So, first thing Monday morning, say around 10:00 or so, let's go take a shot and see what those guys tell us. Deal?"

"Deal!" Brett replied, meeting the offered fist bump in mid-air. After saving their work, he returned the thumb-drive to his friend. Standing up, he disconnected the printer and put it away, before turning to Alex. "Want to go shoot some hoops, before it gets too hot?"

"Oh, yeah!" the teen responded, following Brett out the door.

"So, what do you think about this camp idea?" Richard asked aloud.

Both he and his wife were sitting in the front-porch swing, relaxing in the summer-like weather. Clouds could be seen approaching in the far west, signaling an oncoming change in the weather, but both figured it would still be hours away before the forecasted rains would arrive.

Patty stretched her legs and looked thoughtful. "I'm afraid that's really your department, dear. I have no objection really, other than for the fact he will be over an hour away, and we'll have virtually no contact with him up there. I mean, I assume cell phones probably won't have a lot of coverage, if it's where we think he's going to end up."

Richard nodded. "I called Roger this morning and asked him a few basic questions. That was one of the first things I brought up, and he said there wasn't hardly any coverage at all. He did say though, that the camp has land-lines in the area. So, it's not like Alex would be totally cut off from of us. If I understood right, Brenda may be up there for part of the week, too." He grunted. "By the way, while we were talking, he asked if we'd like to come over for a cookout next Saturday. Said it would just be us and Brenda's sister and her family. Nothing too big, burgers and hot dogs, mostly."

Patty's raised her eyebrows. "Really? That's a first for us, I think."

Richard shrugged. "It's unusual, but then again, Brenda did help me get my job pretty quick." He turned and looked at his wife. "I told him I'd have to clear it with you first, but if you don't object, it would be okay. You know, it wouldn't hurt for us to make a few friends as a family, here."

"I agree," Patty replied, sighing deeply before returning her thoughts to the camping idea. After sitting in silence for a moment, she spoke again. "In a way, I guess that's the only thing that worries me. I don't like the idea of Alex being away so far, especially if for any reason, either of us needs to get to the other quickly. I mean, if something were to come up, we'd be hard pressed to have to find him, wouldn't we?"

Richard nodded before putting his arm around his wife. "I know, honey. But you know what? I've honestly got a good feeling about it this time, one that says it'll be fine. We're in a new town, a new place away from everything, where everything is pretty much a fresh start. Alex needs to branch out a little, just like we've been saying all along. He's found a great friend in Brett, and I have to admit, the few times I've met the young man he seems to be on the up-and-up."

"Oh, I don't disagree there at all. Finding Brett was a Godsend, as far as I'm concerned." Patty looked deep into her husband's eyes and found reassurance there before she finally nodded. "Okay, I'll go along with it, if you think it'll be alright. Just - we need to make sure he calls us, even if he has to reverse the charges while he's there. I need to make sure he's alright."

Richard smiled at her. "Should we tell him right away, or make him sweat it out a bit?"

Patty laughed. "I'll bet he isn't the one who will be sweating, dear. Most likely it'll be Brett walking on pins and needles. Alex kind of always just goes with the flow, you know? I don't think anything ever fazes him that much."

"Yeah, you're right," Richard replied, chuckling. "Well, let's at least wait until the first of the week."

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