The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 3

The World Is Not Always Fair

"So, how did it go this morning?" Patty asked, taking a break from folding with laundry that filled a nearby basket. She had walked into the kitchen to find Alex surprisingly seated at the counter, peeling potatoes for dinner.

"We struck out at the first place we tried. The owner there told us he usually did most of the clean-ups himself. He was nice about it though, talked with us a lot and everything, and he took down our information, too. He said he might call on us if he ever needed some extra help," Alex replied.

Patty nodded. "Well, that doesn't sound like a complete wash out then. What about the other one? Didn't you say you guys were going to visit two places today?"

"Yeah. We won't know about the second one though, at least until tomorrow. The owner wasn't there today, as he had some other man watching the place for him. It's a bigger lot, but..." Alex hesitated. "I don't know, Mom. The place might be okay, but..."

"But what, honey?" Patty asked, as she pulled a package of chicken from the refrigerator.

Alex stopped and stared out of their single kitchen window, gazing upon the tree-line in the distance. "It just, well, it felt funny is all. The man was friendly enough, but the office was really kind of run down, with a lot of papers packed everywhere. And, there was this odd smell and everything around there, too. It just didn't feel like they cared much about keeping anything picked up, or clean, and when you see that, and wonder how they do with their customers and all... You know? It just didn't feel, like, normal or anything."

"Ah, I see what you mean," Patty replied. "If they don't keep areas like that cleaned up, then they probably don't care about doing the same for their vehicles, either. I understand."

Alex grunted, before returning to his task. "I may be reading it wrong. I mean, who knows, right? Brett and I decided we're going to try and ride back over there tomorrow afternoon."

"Why not in the morning?" Patty asked out of curiosity.

"Well, it's supposed to rain overnight and through tomorrow morning, so Brett decided it would be a good time to sleep in," Alex smirked. "Seems he thinks it's a great time to catch a few extra Z's."

Patty laughed as she pulled a skillet up onto the stove. "Well, I hate to tell you Alex, but a lot of people are that way. Brett and Gina both have probably been getting up early to catch the school bus for a good while, so they want to dream a little longer while they don't have to." She turned to her son again, as he finished and started washing the potatoes in the sink. "It's a part of those little things your Dad and I told you that would change."

Alex shrugged. "I know it will, but it's okay. I'm always waking up early anyway, so a little earlier isn't going to hurt me. At least, I don't think it will."

Patty laughed again. "You'll be fine, honey. What were you planning to do with those?" she asked, indicating the potatoes. "Mashed? Boiled? Fried?"

Alex glanced at her. "Are you frying the chicken?" Seeing his mother nod, he went on. "Then I think mashed would be the best, wouldn't it? Mixed with some sour cream and butter?"

"Sounds good to me. I'm sure we can add another dish or two of vegetables to the meal, too," Patty responded. As Alex began slicing the potatoes into a pot of water, Patty remarked. "You know, I appreciate how much you help me out in the kitchen sometimes. It kind of gives us some time together, don't you think?"

Alex stopped to return a look at her that included a smile before shrugging. "Yeah, it's kind of nice sometimes." He finished dicing the potato he was holding and then reached for a second. However, he paused to look at her sidelong. "Uh, is this another one of those funny-moment-kind-of-things?"

Patty laughed hard. "Is that what you call them, hmm?"

Alex shrugged again. "I don't know. Usually when you want to talk to me, or have something to tell me, you start out with something about our 'us' time and everything."

Patty furrowed her brow. "I do not!" After looking hard at her son, however, she relented, clucking her tongue. She poured some oil into the skillet, and as it began heating up, she remarked in a defeated tone, "Okay, okay... Maybe I do..."

Alex laughed then. "It's okay, Mom. I still love you just the same!" He sneaked a kiss to her cheek before beginning on the next potato. "So, confession time. What's it about this round?"

Patty grunted. "Well, your father and I have talked about the camp thing, and we decided you could make that decision. But if you go, there are a few things you'll have to promise me first."

Alex's started in surprise, before a broad smile appeared. "Really? Okay... and?"

Patty was silent for a moment, before continuing in a serious tone. "You understand, if something should happen, you'll be away from us. I'm not talking about cuts and bruises or broken bones or anything, either. We'll have no way to call you directly, nor will you have any way to reach back out to us. You understand what that means, right? For nine days or so, you'll be totally on your own pretty much. Except, perhaps, for whatever calls I can blackmail you into making from the lodge itself."

Alex turned to her. "Yeah, I know all that, Mom. But I will call you, I promise. You don't have to blackmail me."

Patty smiled at him, but there was a wariness in her expression. "I know you will Alex, but let's lay the groundwork for that, okay? You'll probably have to call us collect, which is perfectly fine if they don't have that thing. You know what I mean, that nation-something feature available up there like we do here," Patty continued.

"Nation-wide calling, yeah," Alex filled in for her.

"Mind you, I'm not asking you to call us every day, but you really need to try at least every two to three days, even if only for a minute. That way we'll know everything is going fine, and you'll know everything here is good, too. You'll have to call one of our cell phones, and leave a message if for some reason we don't answer." Patty stopped to test her skillet before dipping a piece of boneless chicken into a ready-made batter, followed by adding it to the pan. Once done, she continued while working on preparing additional chicken pieces. "Of course, you already know you have to keep certain basics to yourself, too. Don't go telling people-"

"Mom, hold up," Alex said quietly, and she stopped to glance at him. "Tell me something, have I ever given you or Dad a reason to think, or believe, that I've ever told anyone about what happened? Even Brett?"

Patty sighed deeply and shook her head. "No, you haven't. I'm sorry, honey, it's not that we don't trust you, but - you understand right, how important that's going to be? You know what's at stake?"

"Yeah, Mom... I do. I really do," Alex answered.

Patty let go another huge sigh before turning to him. It was clear from her expression she was frustrated and kicking herself for it. "I shouldn't have brought that up, and I'm sorry. Please forgive me, because I think I'm making a mess of this, and I don't mean to." She looked deep into his eyes, and found a softness in them that greeted her. "Alex, just listen to me. I really have no worries about you going, spending time with Brett and all these boys and everything. You already have a great head on your shoulders, and I think it would be a fun adventure, really! It'll be a good experience, and it'll be exciting! I'm only worried that you're going to be gone for so long and you'll be pretty far away, that's all. You'll have no way to keep in touch directly, and yes, I'm sorry - that fact makes me a little nervous. It's just the mother-part of me, son." She sighed and smiled at him. "Still, I promise you, if you want to go, all you need to do is help me stay calm as much as you possibly can. Okay? That's the real price you'll have to pay. If you can do that, then please - go. Go with my blessing, and have the time of your life!"

Alex put down the knife and moved over to stand in front of her. "Are you sure? Dad, too?" he asked, embracing her.

Patty smiled and, after wiping her hands with a towel, melted into his hug warmly. "Yes, we both are sure. Go and have a good time, and just don't forget we love you," she whispered in his ear. With those words, he squeezed her tighter still.

"Really? You know I would never forget that! Thanks though, Mom!" he whispered back.

"Yeah, yeah, well..." she intoned, backing away after a minute and wiping at her eyes with the back of one hand. "Now, finish getting those potatoes on the stove, and then go call Brett and tell him your good news."

"Hey, what are you doing?"

Brett paused, sinking back into the headboard of his bed. Answering Alex's calls usually started with a greeting of some sort, so the surprise question caught him off guard. Feeling playful, he replied, "Well, I'm lying here naked with three hot girls, one of them getting ready to blow me, and another one telling me she's going to make me lose my virginity tonight! Want to come join us?" When he heard Alex scoff on the other end of the connection, he laughed.

"You're crazy, numb-nuts," was Alex's reply.

"Oh my God, not you, too!" Brett cried suddenly, followed by another round of laughter. "I get enough of that stuff from Gina as it is! Keep it up and we may have to plan on our partnership sinking fast!" he quipped.

Alex laughed as well. "Okay, okay, sorry." He paused. "Uh, you'd really break us up that quick, over something like that? Even after everything we went through this morning?"

"No way, you dope! BUT I am warning you - do NOT ask me that in front of Gina! I, uh, might have to bend the truth if you did!" was the fast retort. Brett's tone then changed. "Okay, all kidding aside, what's up? You don't usually call me this early in the evening."

"I know. I've got some news I think you'd like to hear, though. Mom just now told me that her and Dad are on board with me going to camp with you," Alex explained. He immediately had to pull the phone away from his ear, however, as an ear-splitting war-cry blared from the receiver.

"Oh my God, that is so AWESOME! Way to go, man! We're going to have so much FUN together!" Brett exclaimed. "Crap, that's the best news I've heard all day, especially after we got turned down with our one lead!"

Alex relaxed back into his bean bag. "Well, yeah, but he wasn't a bad sort. Don't forget, he did say if he ever got behind, he'd give us a call to help him out. So, it wasn't a total washout. And don't forget, you said yourself there's a few other places to go and try out, too."

"Yeah, that's true. But man, don't let the air out of my tires now! We're going to camp!" The excitement was contagious, as Alex suddenly began smiling, listening to his friend on the other end of the connection. He even heard Bobba Fett begin barking, realizing the canine was nearby. After a moment, Brett settled down to a more normal tone. "You know, your parents took so long to decide, I almost gave up on the idea that you'd get to come!"

"Yeah, I know. I told you that they would take a little time, though," Alex replied.

Something about the change in his friend's tone made Brett hesitate. "You're not having second thoughts or anything, right?"

Alex giggled. "No, doofus - it's all cool. I'm just glad to hear you're so excited and all."

"And you aren't? Come on man!" Brett started, then paused. "Alex, it's going to be awesome, really. You'll see! As long as you can suffer bunking with me, everything else will be a piece of cake. Hell, I'll even try sleeping in the corner or something if I have to, especially if it'll make you feel any better about it!"

Alex thought that statement was odd. "Brett, wait - I've already told you it won't bother me. I don't care if we're bunked up, crawling all over each other or whatever. At least, so long as you don't knee me in the nuts or something! Don't you believe me?"

Brett giggled, and then fell silent for a moment. "I do believe you," he finally answered. "Honestly? I know I tease about that some, but... I can't help it. It's just you I worry about. It's going to be your first time going to anything like this, isn't it? On top of that, it's the first time you're going to be with anyone like me, too. Right?"

"Well, yeah, but...?"

"No buts, mate. You are going to love it! And listen, we won't be stuck with a bunch of 6th and 7th graders all the time, either. We'll get some time to ourselves, too, I promise," Brett explained. His voice lowered even further. "I just want you to believe me when I say that I'm going to look out for you and everything. I don't want you to get scared of going or anything, whatever it takes."

Alex giggled. "I won't get scared, I promise. Brett, I'm not some wet mamma's boy you know, who gets homesick before the sun even goes down!" Just then he, too, lowered his voice. "Besides, I know you'll be there with me, so what's there to be scared of, right?"

"Exactly! That's the spirit I was hoping for!" Another loud whoop sounded as Brett bellowed aloud again. "This is..." the voice started, but then dropped to a really low tone. "This is FUCKING fantastic, Alex!"

Alex laughed. "Careful! I don't know where you are, but don't let your Mom or sister hear you." He giggled. "Man, you don't swear much, but when you do, it sounds hilarious."

Brett laughed aloud again. "What? Really? I don't think I've heard you swear any at all!" he teased, then laughed. "Aw man, I don't care. Not right now, not tonight anyway. We're going to camp! YOU'RE GOING TO LOVE IT, I PROMISE!"

"Okay, okay! I believe you!" Alex replied grinning. "Listen, I've got to go back downstairs and help Mom finish fixing supper. If you want to talk more later tonight, give me a call afterwards, okay? Say, 8:30 onward or so. I'll probably be up here by myself by then."

"Cool! You're the best, turkey breast!" Suddenly, there was an intake of breath. "Oh my God, no... now you and Gina have got me speaking in rhymes, argh!" Brett feigned crying on the other end. "I'm going to be hopeless around you two!"

Alex laughed. "You'll be fine. Later gator!"

"After while, crocodile!"

"Well, Brett was REALLY happy, Mom! I bet if he had been here, he would have probably given you a big kiss right on the spot!" Alex teased, returning and checking on his potatoes. They were tender and ready for mashing, so he turned off the stove and took the pan over to the sink, draining the water from it.

Patty laughed out loud. "That's funny, because I told your father he would probably be the one more excited about it," she admitted, before pulling the last piece of chicken from her skillet. "When you get a chance, see if there's still some leftover corn in the refrigerator, will you? If not, I need to make something else to go with this."

Setting his pan down, Alex opened and searched the appliance as requested. "Yeah, here it is, and there's also a bowl of green beans, too. Do you want those?"

"Yes, please," Patty replied. Alex turned, taking the bowls he extracted and offering them to her. "That'll make a pretty good combination, and we have some cheesecake still left over from last night." Taking the containers and popping the lids, she looked inside and nodded approvingly. "Well, I'm happy for you honey, and for Brett, too. He seems to be a good kid." She looked up. "Have you given any more thought about the school thing?"

"Actually, yeah, I have," Alex answered, pausing as he added both butter and sour cream to his pan of potatoes before breaking out the mixer. "I think I'm on board with trying it out," he stated evenly, knowing his mother was waiting in suspense for his response.

Patty almost dropped one of the bowls she was holding. "Really? Seriously?" she asked, her voice small as if in disbelief.

Alex turned toward her. "Yeah, Mom. Does that really surprise you?" He grinned as her saw her expression. "Okay, okay! Yes, I'm willing to give it a try, I think."

Patty smiled widely, placing the bowl on the counter and moving in front of him. Taking her son in her arms, she held him tightly. "Now it's time for your old mother hen to give you a hug for a change."

"You're not old!" Alex exclaimed, hugging her back.

"Don't be so sure about that!" she quipped quickly, then pulled back to look at him. "May I ask you what made you decide?"

Alex shrugged. "I don't know, really. I guess the more I thought about it, the more it just made sense for me to at least try it out, you know? It'll be something new, like you said, kind of a like a new adventure. Besides, it should make it easier to apply for scholarships, too, right?"

"I don't think you'll ever have a problem with those, kiddo," Patty replied before returning to her task of warming up the vegetables. "I have to tell you, I'm really happy to hear it. You know we'll help you, in any way we can, although I suspect you won't need it." She glanced over at him. "Have you told Brett yet?"

Alex rolled his eyes. "No way, Mom! He's already so excited about camp now that if he heard this, he'd probably pee in his underwear!" Seeing her look of amusement, he grinned. "Seriously, if I add this news to the pile, he might start farting himself all the way to the moon!"

Patty then did something unexpectedly, dropping the lids to both bowl's and doubling over with laughter. She briefly stumbled into Alex who, finding her merriment infectious, joined her as he caught and helped her stand back up. Neither said anything else for the next few minutes while they each finished their tasks. Still, Alex had to glance her way as his mother continued to burst out chuckling from time to time.

Alex just grinned, glad to see his mother so happy once again. It had been a while since that had happened.

Harry Spalding stared across his desk at the two young men sitting opposite and observing him patiently. A loose cigarette hung from his mouth, lit and spewing an oddly noxious smoke into the air, its odor already making Alex politely cough more than once. The air was thick in the small, overly crowded office, and it was not helped by the presence of another man, seated in the corner and smoking a cigar, adding his own heavy vapors into the mix. It was the same individual the two had met the day before, though today his attire was comprised of more ragged-like clothes. He sat back silently, his face wearing a smug expression as he watched the trio, with his feet propped up on a vastly overflowing wastebasket. Like Harry, his hair was greased and combed back from the forehead, which with his appearance left an awkward impression that he bathed little.

Both Alex and Brett had ridden into the lot shortly after lunch, the rains having finally cleared and cleansed the atmosphere in their wake. More than once, Brett wanted to stand up and open one of the nearby windows, just so he could at least vent the fumes. Each time, however, he thought better of it and, instead, sat in silence as he listened to Alex make their spiel, breathing as little as possible. As Brett glanced about, he noted that the building seemed to contain only the single room, except for a tiny bathroom tucked away in the rear corner. Its door was opened wide, and one glance inside didn't leave him with any better impression of whom they were dealing with. From overflowing garbage, countless papers stacked all over the place, and an interminable supply of cleaning bottles strewn about the floor, the bathroom looked to be about as neglected as the rest of the office - if not worse. Even in the shadows, he could see dirt and grime built-up over the exposed plumbing and around the seat of the toilet as it connected to the floor. Brett had to restrain himself from grunting as a sudden familiar, foul odor was detected drifting from the direction of the chamber: an unmistakable putrid scent of urine, and worse.

As he watched, Brett thought the silence between Alex and the hefty man had lingered overly long. In his own mind, the teenager had had enough, and was about to stand to usher both himself and Alex out of there. Suddenly, however, Harry pulled the cigarette from his lips and stubbed it out in an already overflowing ash tray. Sitting forward, the big man dropped the clipboard holding Alex's form onto the desk. "How much are you asking to do all this stuff?" he asked gruffly, his eyes narrowed as he watched the younger teen with suspicion.

Without blinking, Alex replied immediately using an even, calm voice. "For standard 2- or 4-door cars, we get $40 for a regular detailing. Trucks, vans and SUV's cost extra."

Harry glanced at the other man and rolled his eyes, laughing. "What the hell? It'll never happen, kid! That's far too much for a crap-assed cleaning job! Especially in this town! You're not in some rich haven, you know!"

Alex, however, wasn't deterred. He smiled evenly before he responded. "With all due respect, I don't agree. The only business that does detailing around here, gets anywhere from $90 to $150 to do jobs like this. I know, because I called them up the other day and asked. Then, of course, there's the Brickyard boys across town, up near the interstate. They get from $80 and up. So, for a startup, we think we're pricing things more than fair."

Harry blinked as he sat back. "Now, is that a fact? Shit, did you hear that Casey? He thinks that's a fair rate, and he's done his research to flesh it all out! Ain't that something!" he stated, laughing aloud once again. Of course, he already knew the kid was telling the truth, but was surprised all the same. Both Brett and Alex had learned about the Brickyard boys only the day before, and it was from the other lot owner just down the street. The Brickyard Boys were a group of people whose fathers worked at a local brickyard, but had built a similar type of business. The difference, however, was that they concentrated their efforts with the major new-car dealerships. The man had also told them the day before, he didn't think the group listed half the things Alex and Brett had listed in their proposal. That statement had made the boys swell with a sudden feeling of pride, as it confirmed they were being more than competitive enough with their idea.

Alex envisioned where this was going, and quickly made the decision the effort wasn't worth it. Standing, he smiled grimly at the man. "Well, I can see you're not interested, so we'll-"

"Well, wait a damned minute there, boy! Let's not jack off the bull's balls just yet," Harry said with a deep, southern drawl as he sat back heavily in his chair. "Tell me, how long have you been doing this here detailing work? You got any experience at it, or are you just puffing out to get something started? Detailing has a lot of work in it, sonny boy, and it is not something you can just expect to do a half-assed job at and expect to get paid!"

Alex regarded the man carefully. "I've done several, thanks, all last summer and up in Iowa. I have a reference listed right there, that you can call immediately if you like, and I also have two customer testimonials that I brought with me who you can call as well. Though for the both of them, you'll have to wait and call them in the evening hours after work."

Harry snorted. "So, all that tells me kid, is that you've not really been doing this very long. Just babes really, barely out of your diapers, it sounds like." He glared at Alex directly, frowning. "Tell me runt, why should I let either of you come in here, yet alone tackle anything sitting on my lot, hmm? Don't you know, most people are finicky when it comes to buying a car or truck? They want it lot-shop perfect! They won't tolerate some half-assed, wet-nosed job that looks like some cat run through it, and used his own piss for cleaner and polishing!"

Casey suddenly sputtered to life. "They sure don't look like no cleaning couple to me, Harry, that's for certain!" the man drawled, then laughed at his own joke.

Harry glanced at the man and smiled widely, having to fight to control his own chuckle. "Cleaning couple! Yeah, ain't that the truth! These two look like a beautiful pair though, don't they? Probably jump into bed every night, right?" Both men fell into a roaring laugh at the lecherous pun.

Alex glanced at Brett then and nodded, speaking quietly. "Come on, let's go."

Harry's attitude changed immediately. "What's your hurry, BOY? Didn't I tell you we might work something out?" he bellowed loudly. "You ain't gonna strike up any business up with that kind of sorry-assed attitude, sonny!"

Alex stopped and turned on his heel until he faced the man directly. "Why should we, PORKY?" he retorted, emphasizing the last word explicitly. Turning to Brett, he stood. "We're done here. We would do better working at some fast food joint, than to put up with this jerk-wad and his own pee-soaked attitude!"

"Now, listen here you smart-assed fucker! You'll-"

Alex reached and grabbed the clipboard holding their paperwork, taking it from the man's desk. Lowering his voice to a chilly tone, he addressed the man directly. "Thank you for allowing us to interrupt your obviously busy day. Now, go find someone else to bully around, asshole." With that he turned, and three steps later opened the door to the outside, motioning for Brett to follow. Brett, speechless at the sudden turn of events, glanced back to see the man literally fuming behind the desk, his face beginning to turn red from outright anger. The teen needed no further prompting, so he quickly rose and made his way out the door behind his friend, in a hurry.

As both boys quickly breathed deeply of the fresh, clean air outside, they made their way to the corner of the building where their bikes were parked, leaning against the side of the office. As they arrived, however, they encountered a plainly-dressed, middle-aged woman approaching from the other side. Two children were following her closely, one of them a girl who looked to be nine or ten, the other a boy slightly older, carrying a rather large, greasy-looking paper sack. The teens smiled and nodded at the trio, but before either could greet the other, a sudden commotion sounded from behind them as the storm door to the office clattered open. Through it soared Harry Spalding, his bulky frame moving outside onto the steps. "You insolent punks!" he shouted after them. "Just you wait until I get hold of your asses - you will never, ever set foot in another car lot in this town! I'm telling you, you'll never be able to buy or trade a vehicle in this town! And when I get done, you'll never be able to pawn your fucking business anywhere within 25-miles of Greensburg! Do you hear? How dare you think you can come in here and insult me, calling me 'porky'! I'll show you what porky really means, you jerk-wad, ass-fucking scums! Just bring your asses back over here, you hear me? I'll personally see to it that your whole fucking attitude gets a fucking adjustment, right up your God-damned fucking assholes! Do you hear me, you bastards? Nobody - and I mean NOBODY - crosses me and storms out this door like that, you piece of shit! And another thing, you mother-fucking, cock-loving sons of bitches, I-"

"Harry!" The woman had rounded the corner with both of her children beside her by then, and all three pulled up short as the onslaught roared on. She was appalled, grasping and holding both of her children at bay. Before she could say another word, however, the man turned and pointed at her directly with a forceful, jerking finger moving through the air.

"Shut the hell up, woman! I'm not going to take any fucking shit from you today either, you hear me?" Harry spat into the open space between them. "Get your ass back to the house, and take those two God-forsaken, stinking crumb-snatchers with you!"

The woman immediately took a step backward, recognizing the intensity the man had worked himself into. Appalled at the scene, she glanced at the two teenagers before throwing her hands up in the air. She muttered something to them about getting out of there if they knew what was good for them, and then started to reverse in the direction she and the children had approached from. The boy dropped the greasy sack onto the hood of a nearby automobile, and then quickly retreated with his mother and sister. All three looked over their shoulders with apparent apprehension as they scurried away. Observing them, Alex felt a chill run through his spine then, and as he turned to glance back at Harry Spalding, the big man happened to be making his way down the office steps behind them. When he reached the graveled lot, Harry's expression was livid with a dangerous-looking rage unlike anything the teens had witnessed before. As he began stomping in his approach toward the two teenagers, Brett muttered something at Alex, begging him to just get on the bike and go. His newfound friend, however, had other plans.

Glancing briefly at Brett, Alex turned and stood silently, facing the bulky man as Spalding approached. So comical was the sight of the man, along with the contortions in his expression, that if not for the reality of the situation, the teen would have sworn he saw steam escaping from the hefty man's ears. Instead, Alex held his ground quietly, other than he subtly shifted to place himself in front of Brett - and directly into the path of the oncoming threat. The teen's only other movement was to slip and hold the clipboard behind him, which Brett accepted absently just as the man reached them and stopped. Harry Spalding now glared with outright hatred toward them, and could be seen clearly.

As Alex and Harry stared at each other, neither blinked in the inches that now separated them. All around them, it was as if the air had been sucked out of the lot, given the deafening silence that suddenly enveloped the three. In the distance, they heard the sound of a motor fire up, sounding rough as the engine roared to life. Brett quickly glanced back just in time to see the woman and her two children shift into gear and quickly disappearing out onto the highway. Turning back, he saw the scene unchanged, and felt a certain tenseness between the two, thick enough it could be sliced. That made the teenager feel increasingly uneasy, given how things were now escalating. "Alex, come on!" he urged, but his best friend still ignored him.

Seconds passed before Harry finally took a huge breath, and then bellowed aloud in a low, threatening roar. "Get the fuck off my property, you little shits! Right... this... fucking... instant, before I throw you off of it!" Alex, however, stood his ground, not giving an inch to the man, or daring to turn away from him. There was an issue now, one the teen felt had nothing to do with their presence on the lot. Given their close proximity, he recognized another threat developing in its place in more ways than one, and in no time, his instincts proved right. Without even waiting, and totally unprovoked, the burly man suddenly reached out, swinging his fist rapidly in the direction of Alex's head.

There was no doubt of the intent, or of the force behind the movement. Alex recognized it immediately and shifted his weight to his back leg. If the big man thought he was going to have the upper hand with the first blow, however, he was sadly mistaken. Alex sidestepped it at the last possible second, allowing the man's fist to find nothing but air as it sailed on past. What happened next, however, surprised both Brett and their adversary. In the follow through, Alex reached up and grabbed both the forearm and elbow in its backswing. With his whole body in motion, the teen then pulled, using both his shoulder and body as a counterweight that pushed inward. Placing a leg behind that of Spalding's foot, the maneuver forced the big man off center, and with strength unexpected for a person of his smaller size, Alex effectively tilted the man backwards hard. The bully, already struggling to counter the sudden loss of balance, tripped against Alex's foot and fell back onto the seat of his pants.

Instead of turning to escape or run, it was then Alex took two bold steps forward to stand directly over his opponent's face. When he spoke, it was with a quiet tone that left no question as to his own fury that was building. "Try and touch me like that, or my friend again, and I promise you asshole - there is no way in hell you'll stay out of the county lockup tonight, if not for the rest of the week. You'll be answering to unprovoked assault and battery charges against two minors, among other things!" Again, the two stared at each other, both with a look of utter contempt. After a few seconds though, Alex finally stepped back out of the big man's reach, and then simply turned his back on him. Climbing onto his bike, he nodded and watched Brett, who overcoming his initial shock, turned and follow suit. "Come on Brett, this asshole probably doesn't even know his dick from his tongue."

That infuriated the man even more just then, as he suddenly seemed to find his full voice again. He screamed after them as they rode from the property. "You two fucking morons! Just you fucking wait, you'll be so fucking sorry you ever set your God-damned pussies on this lot! You hear that? Just you wait! When I get through with you, you'll be eating mush for a month! You ass-fucking, jacking gay whores, I'll get you! I'll get you and hang your balls from the door - both of you! Just you wait, you..."

By that time, the boys had ridden out of both sight and hearing of the man. In silence that followed, they rode along the pavement, continuing until they turned off onto a familiar side street that headed back toward their neighborhood. As they topped an incline, both continued coasting for several hundred feet before Alex pulled over at the next stop sign and just sat there. Brett joined alongside, nonchalantly pausing for effect. When he looked over, however, he found the other teen shaking uncontrollably. Reaching out, Brett placed a hand upon his shoulder. "Hey man, easy there. Everything's okay now..."

When it was obvious Brett's attempt did little to help, he recognized they needed to get off the street in a hurry. Pulling onto a lawn there, the teen engaged his kickstand and hopped off before turning back to Alex and grasping the handlebars. With a little coaxing, he maneuvered the other bike to follow him into the yard and allow Alex to dismount. Once done, the teen placed his arm around his best friend's waist. "Hey, what say we sit down over here and rest for a bit, okay?" he said, speaking quietly. A large tree stood nearby, and upon noting it, Alex allowed himself to be guided over to its base before they both sat down in its shade.

Brett glanced about and realized they were in the front lawn of an old, two-story cottage, located perhaps a hundred feet away. Before he could study the surroundings any further, however, he heard a gasp that caused him to turn his attention back to Alex. The teen was continuing to visibly shake, though this time it appeared to be more violent than before. In the absence of knowing anything better to do, Brett reached out and took firm hold of his friend from behind, pulling Alex to lean back against him. "Hey, it's okay, everything is fine now, I promise," he repeated in a soothing tone.

They both sat there for several minutes, until finally Alex calmed down. As his shaking subsided, he turned back to see his friend observing him with concern. "Hey, thanks," he said weakly, his eyes watering. The adrenaline, now rapidly seeping away, had left the teen feeling suddenly exhausted. Brett could not help but notice the incredible amount of resolve Alex exhibited, to refrain from breaking out into tears.

"Hey... listen... shhhh..." Brett whispered, trying to appease the teen. "It's just me, now. Let it out if you need to, it's over. Shit, I think I would be pretty upset too, if I had been in your shoes!"

Alex sat there and closed his eyes again as tears started to flow freely. However, the teen willed himself to calm down and, after a few minutes, he partially succeeded before slumping heavily again. "I'm okay, I'm just really tired right now. I ... I need a few minutes, that's all," he whispered.

"Hey, we can take all the time you need," Brett whispered back.

They sat in silence for another five minutes or so, before Alex re-acquired enough control to steady himself. Breathing a deep sigh of relief, he opened his eyes again. "How about you? I never thought to ask, are you okay?"

"Me? I'm fine, man. I'm just worried about you, that's all," Brett replied in a low voice, and then grunted. "I thought for a minute we were going to get into a knock-down, ball-busting fight, you know?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah, me too."

Brett smiled, trying to make light of the situation. "Well, instead, thanks to you, we're here and... Yeah..." He continued to loosely hold Alex close to him, gently hugging in an attempt to support the teen.

Alex didn't miss the action, and in fact welcomed it at that moment. "I know. I'm okay though, really. I just needed a few more minutes, that's all." He finally looked out across the lawn in the direction of where they had just come from. "That overweight bag of hot crap was a real piece of work, wasn't he?"

Brett nodded. "That, and a whole hell of a lot more." Shaking his head, he added, "I'm sorry, Alex. I'm sorry for ever taking us down there yesterday."

Alex shrugged. "Why? You didn't know he was a grade-A jerk, did you?"

"No, but I have to be honest about something though. I started getting a bad feeling once we got inside the office and I saw who he was and all," Brett allowed. "I'm not totally sure, but I think I may have heard about him before, and it wasn't good stuff."

"Really?" Alex asked. "How so?"

"I remember Dad talking about some chunky bastard that either he, or someone he works with, got into with a few times about something. He said the man was big, and as shady and short-tempered as a snake. I think that bastard fitted the bill, don't you?" Brett paused and looked down before he noticed a long scrape across the back of Alex's hand and arm. "What the hell? How did you get hurt? Did that lard ass..."

"I don't even know, to be honest. I think it was his watch or something that caught me in some way. I really don't remember, so just let it go. It's nothing." Alex looked up to meet Brett's gaze. "As far as knowing anything before we went in, you didn't, so don't worry about it, okay? Besides, it doesn't matter now - it's all over and done." Alex closed his eyes again, thinking. "Guys like that, Brett... They're nothing but bullies who think they can jerk you around - or worse. They prey on weaker people, like he did with his family, to make themselves feel better."

"He sure seemed that way, yeah," Brett agreed.

Alex grunted. "According to my Dad, they're the most dangerous people you'll ever meet. They think they're an expert on everything, but the truth is they know more and more about less and less, which really means they know absolutely everything about nothing."

"What? You- Oh shit!" Brett exclaimed, suddenly laughing out loud. There were times he admired his friend's intelligent sense of humor. "I've never heard that one before! Believe it or not, though, I think I even understood it!" Alex grinned at him weakly before falling silent. The two sat there for some time, before Brett hung his head and stared at the ground. "Alex, can I ask you something? Where did you, like, learn how to... you know? With lard-butt back there?"

"What? Learn to fight back?" Alex grunted again. "I have no idea, Brett, and before you ask, no - I don't know any of that karate crap, or judo, or Tae-kwon-do. To tell the truth, I just... I saw what he was going to do, and then I ducked out of the way. But crap, he was fast!"

Brett sat staring at his friend in astonishment for the second time that day. "No kidding! When I saw that fist coming at you, I thought for sure it was going to connect. He could have... he could have really hurt you, you know? For that matter, he could have hurt... us." Just then another realization struck him. "Why did you move between us, anyway? We should have, you know, faced him together. It just happened so fast, and you handed me the clip board, and... and..."

Alex finally smiled. "Don't sweat it, Brett. I honestly don't know why I did it, I just did, okay? It's hard to explain, really. He was getting mad, and I just... I wasn't going to let him intimidate us like that, see? That's what it all started out to be anyway, he wanted to make us feel weak and stupid or something, so he just kept yelling and everything. And when he saw he wasn't succeeding, that's when I felt like it was going to get worse. Everything was beginning to change, you know, get more dangerous. I suspected he was waiting to catch me off-guard and all, and well, we couldn't just leave then, see? If we did, he would have won, and I couldn't let that happen."

Brett's jaw dropped. "You're saying you figured he was going to take a swing at you then? Whether you backed away or not?" The teen whistled. "But Alex... what if he had hurt you, I mean..."

"I didn't care about me, Brett. Honest, I just cared about you. I didn't want him getting to you," the boy answered meekly.

Brett sat in awe. "What the hell? Alex, he was twice your size in weight and everything else! He could have fucking HURT you!"

A silence followed until Alex finally shrugged. "I'm sorry, but that's what was going through my head, Brett. As long as he didn't get to you, that's all I cared about. You know, like I said, it started at one level, and I was ready to just ride away from it. When he saw that though, he decided to take it to the next level, and I didn't think we could walk away then. I don't know why, okay? Just, try and understand. His pig-headedness made me mad, and I just... I just reacted. That's all."

Feeling overwhelmed, Brett knew his friend was telling the truth. He recalled how Alex's demeanor had changed completely as Spalding got closer. From his own admission, Alex wasn't just standing his ground for himself, but for them both together. The thought of knowing that his best friend had put himself in danger, and had moved in front to take on the huge man practically by himself, suddenly left Brett feeling depressed. "Alex? I'm begging you, don't shit me, man. Please, don't take me out to be some dumb jock or something. I already feel like shit enough as it is. I saw you, I watched you, and... I didn't do... anything..."

Alex suddenly turned and faced Brett head-on. "I'm not shitting you, Brett. I promise, cross my heart. It's the truth, okay?"

"But Alex, he... you..." Brett stammered.

Alex raised his hand to stop the oncoming argument. "Stop Brett, slow down and breathe!" Reaching out, he casually placed his hand upon Brett's knee and held it there. There was a strength and comfort they both began feeling in that simple contact, and it helped Alex choose his next words carefully. "You're no coward, so don't go there, okay? I know you would have been right there with me, but as fast as it was all going down? Neither of us had time to really think about it, remember? Besides, if it had turned into a fight, I can't think of anyone else I would rather have by my side than you just then. Okay? But see, it didn't turn into a fight, so listen: you've got to stop over-thinking this. We did fine, and lard-butt knows what it's like to fall on his ass now, if he didn't before."

A long silence ensued, before Brett finally sighed. "How can you be so sure?" he whispered.

Alex smiled wanly. "Because he knows everything there is to know about nothing, remember?" Seeing Brett roll his eyes, Alex relented. "He's a hot head, that's why. There was trouble brewing that we couldn't walk away from, you know? Remember what he said to his wife and kids? Then before we knew it, he was right there in front of us, and I saw that hand start to move. I couldn't let that happen, I had to do something."

"But, how...?" Brett whispered.

"Dad sort of taught me some things a long time ago, some tricks about how to fight and defend myself and everything. I didn't think I'd ever use it, or that it was going to work, given how big lard-butt was and all. But... somehow it came back to me, and it did work. I guess it must have just clicked in, you know? I moved out of the way and grabbed him and pushed back with all the strength I had, and then he went down, see?"

Brett stared for a moment, and then simply nodded. "Okay, enough Alex... I believe you. Honest, as long as you'll forgive me."

Alex grinned. "Forgive what, though? There's nothing to forgive, Brett. That's what I'm trying to explain, what I'm trying to make you see. It just happened, and now it's over, and..."

"Okay, okay!" Brett exclaimed, finally relaxing. "But, hey... talk to me about something else for a sec... That woman, and her kids? How do you know they were his family?"

Alex laughed at that point. "Well, did you hear what he said to them? 'Shut the hell up, woman! I'm not going to take any fucking shit from you today, you hear me? Get your ass back to the house, and take those two God-forsaken, stinking crumb-snatchers with you!' That sounds to me like that had to be his family, you know? Who else would he talk to like that? If that's what you can call talking, that is."

Brett shook his head, awestruck. "You actually remembered all of that, word-for-word? Wow, I'm impressed!" He shook his head. "I think you're right, though: they had to have been his family." He suddenly rubbed at his nose before continuing. "Hey, I actually feel sorry for them, or anyone who has to live with that lard bucket!"

Alex dropped his voice. "Yeah, I know what you mean. It sounded like he treats them pretty rough, that's for sure."

After another brief silence, Brett asked, "Are you sure you're okay, Alex?"

Before Alex could answer, however, they heard another voice call out beside them from only a few yards away. "Are you two young'uns alright? Did you get hurt or something?"

Both boys reacted by turning around rapidly and seeing an elderly lady slowly approaching them. Although she carried a baseball bat, it was swinging loosely by her side, and her expression was not unkind. Brett let Alex go and stood up. "Yes ma'am, we're okay. We uh, just had a bit of a scare over the hill there, and well, Alex here kind of needed to stop and catch his breath for a minute, that's all. We're sorry, really. We didn't mean to trespass on your property."

The woman observed him for a few seconds and then smiled. "It's quite alright, son. I imagine some things are not the easiest in the world to deal with when, especially you get your panties in a twist. Are you sure you're okay? I could go fetch some lemonade, if you like."

Brett was about to reply when he felt Alex slowly pulling himself up by his side. "Thanks, but that's okay ma'am. I'm feeling better now. We were just about ready to get up and go again anyway. Like my friend said, thanks for letting me rest here a few minutes. It really did help."

"Well, you're welcome. If you boys ever need a place to take a break again, that old tree there would probably welcome some company," the woman replied amusedly, before turning back and retreating toward the cottage. Alex and Brett mounted their bikes again and set off at a slower pace.

"Hey, Brett?" Alex called out, still not feeling his best. "Do you think we could get something to drink again? I've got a couple of dollars on me, so it'll be my treat! I'm ... I'm really thirsty, and, well..."

Brett turned and grinned at him. "I was about to offer we do the same. Come on, it's only about a half mile or so on up here!"

Despite Alex's initial assurances, as the two approached the Edwards' house Brett discovered that his friend was not in as good of shape as he had let on. The trek had been slow, with Alex sluggishly pedaling the last quarter-mile or so. When Brett suggested they go inside to his room, his friend didn't resist, mostly because he knew it would be some time before his parents made it home. Alex had found his energy was almost totally sapped by the time they turned up the driveway. Facing the usual incline, the teen only made it a few feet before coming to a full stop. The adrenaline had finally left, leaving in its wake an unusual tiredness that, though he tried to shake it off, was stubbornly taking over.

Brett picked up on the change in his friend's demeanor almost immediately. Dismounting behind him, he then grabbed both bikes, encouraging Alex to dismount as well before he pushed both up the driveway and into the back yard. When he set them against the garage, he turned and saw his best friend treading forward unsteadily, as if in a daze. That told Brett everything he needed to know, as it had happened to himself before, although not quite as drastically or rapidly as he now witnessed. "Come on inside, man."

Brett grasped Alex by his elbow, and they both entered the rear door of the house. Inside, Brett guided through the kitchen and living room to the stairwell leading down. As they descended to the lower level, Alex almost stumbled at one point and lost his drink, the cup from the convenience store still half-filled. Brett caught the drink as they rounded the turn at the halfway point, only to find Bobba Fett bounding toward them from below, barking loudly until his master shushed him. Reaching the bottom, Brett led the way into his bedroom, with Alex following slowly behind. When his guest saw the bed, he sat down on its side. "Brett? Can I...?" Alex started, but then seemed confused. "I'm just... I'm tired. I don't know why, but can I just...?"

"Lie down, buddy," Brett answered, and then watched the teen fall heavily onto the mattress with a huge sigh. Setting both of their drinks aside, he watched as Alex kicked his shoes off his feet and drew himself into the middle of the bed. Pulling a blanket from a nearby shelf, the teen covered Alex up. His friend's only response was to curl up into an almost fetal position and then lie motionless. Brett was concerned, but as he watched, he saw Alex suddenly open his eyes and give him a weak smile. "I promise, I'm okay. I think I just need to rest a few minutes, if that's okay."

"Take all the time you need. I don't care if you take a nap, or even sleep here all night for that matter. Just, whatever you need - tell me, okay?" Brett replied softly, to which his friend nodded. Just then, Bobba Fett jumped onto the bed and began sniffing around the newcomer. Feeling his presence, Alex smiled before reaching out and pulling the canine up close, wrapping him up underneath the blanket. There the two lay still, other than the dog whimpering and licking upon the scar that stretched across the teen's arm and hand.

Brett watched them both for a long moment, before turning and entering the bathroom. Once inside, he relieved his bladder before washing his hands, and then just stood in front of the mirror observing his reflection. He was both troubled and depressed, mostly because of his own inaction that day. Although Alex had been firm, Brett still questioned why he didn't step up that morning and stand by his friend. Although the entire scene replayed before his eyes in slow motion, it had all seemed to happen in the merest of seconds. Brett's concluded he hesitated more because of surprise and shock than anything else, but he felt he should not have frozen like he did. Why was that?

Feeling unable to answer that question, Brett frowned. Why hadn't he argued, maybe even pushed Alex out of the way? Especially when Spalding approached them both. Why didn't he step around his friend, so that they could have faced the man together? Alex had taken it upon himself to stand up against the bastard, and protect Brett in the process, no matter what. Brett was certain that most teenagers would have just run, putting some distance behind them and the man. Not Alex, though. What was it his friend had told him? Something about not wanting the man to think he could get away with bullying them?

Brett shook his head. It was an indisputable fact the man had turned out to be a total butt-head. From the moment the two had first arrived and entered the office, Spalding had been both disrespectful and bullish toward them. For Alex to have stood up against that, Brett thought the teen exhibited an incredible amount of courage. He had laid out their case, showed the man the checklist and sought Spalding's opinion on the matter - all politely and with a fair amount of friendly respect. The burly man, however, had given them none of that respect in return.

Brett's thoughts also turned to the relationship that was beginning to develop between himself and his new friend. The past few days had seen signs of their friendship moving closer together than ever before, something he found pleasing. Although Brett was not normally known to be a sentimental type, he knew something was happening that he couldn't outright explain. It was a feeling born deep inside, something that was moving beyond the bounds of a simple friendship. He could not deny the allure he felt on the inside, especially when they came together so close physically. Ignoring the intimacy of their proximity with one another, the gestures fashioned feelings within Brett he had never yet visited before, especially with another boy.

To date, Brett had never had any close relationships with anyone, including girls - unless you counted his sister. He had made friends, hung out with the guys, gotten physical and given about as much as he got when it came to being in the gym, or other events. He had never, however, developed the kind of relationship where he felt as free as he did with Alex. It was different, especially considering what the guys at school considered being 'normal'.

Brett had long before decided, however, that he did not care about that. Having this something, whatever it was, close with Alex didn't bother him at all. Boys or girls, friends were friends, and sometimes even more ... no matter how you mixed it up. He had heard and seen plenty around high school to know the ins and outs for both sides of the fence. He knew girls that were close to girls, as well as boys who were close with other boys, some even purported to be gay. It didn't bother him though, because in his eyes, everyone was first and foremost a human being. His attitude was indifferent about any individual based on who they loved, or shared their rooms with, or more. If the trust was there, and the ones involved were okay with whatever happened, why should it be anyone else's business what occurred behind closed doors?

Brett sighed as he stared at himself again. When it came to Alex, he had no real fear or reservation about the two of them. He just knew there was something between them that was beginning to penetrate deep, and he felt contented with it. As he thought about it, it made him smile, but it also saddened him. He had no idea how or what Alex was feeling, at least deep down. Did he feel this thing developing, or was it Brett's imagination? He knew it was beginning to surface, and he wondered how Alex would react to it. The change was in them both, though subtle at first, but rapidly emerging. Of all the friends Brett ever had, that was the kind of experience that overwhelmingly made him happy.

There was only one other thing that his friend lacked in their interactions, that always made Brett hesitate. Brett, on occasion, made the kind of sexual innuendos most guys kid about with, but seemed to be lost on the other teen. Was it because of just not having been exposed to it, perhaps a byproduct of being so sheltered for most of his life? Or was it because of something else? Brett didn't push anything intentionally, but he could never figure out where the comfort level of his friend was actually at. Especially since Alex rarely swore or cursed, yet alone reacted to any of it. Even with Harry Spalding's potty mouth earlier, he noticed Alex had no adverse reactions to it at all - other than, surprisingly, to use a few choice words of his own in the heat of the moment. Overall though, Brett wondered if perhaps his friend was one of those who might be ultra-religious in some fashion. It was a topic neither had discussed though, to date, leaving that part of his friend's life a true unknown.

Brett, however, suddenly felt like he could have kicked himself. If anyone had been hinting at the kind of openness that seemed to be gay in nature, it was he himself. The times he had been almost naked in front of his friend was enough, probably, though it had been unintentional. Still, Alex never reacted to any of it, other than for that first conversation where he suddenly met Gina in her state of exposure. Brett had written that off though, as being just a new 'family' experience the teen had never been subjected to. As he thought about it now, however, he wondered if there was might have been something more.

Shaking his head, Brett decided no, there couldn't be. Alex never seemed uncomfortable around them from that point forward. If anything, his friend had subtly taken brief glances at them, if nothing else, and just shrugged it off. That thought suddenly made Brett feel better, because he realized then that his initial conclusions were right. Much of this was nothing more than being new to his friend, and the fact that Alex was just finding his way in it all was encouraging. In that instant, Brett felt like he could almost cry, because it explained so much as to why he felt so drawn to his friend. More so than anyone else Brett had ever met, Alex displayed a pure, indulgent innocence about himself within the world, and Brett was happy because he was the one sharing it with him. He recalled his mother once telling them that helping other human beings was the greatest gift one could offer, especially to strangers. Only, to Brett, Alex was no stranger. He was his best friend, and he was becoming something even more every minute they were together.

Brett turned back to stand inside the doorway to his room and lean against its' frame. A tear slid down his cheek in happiness, as he finally understood how much he really liked his new friend. Observing the figure cuddled up with Bobba Fett, Brett thoughts turned briefly to his sister. He had always had a sincere love and admiration for Gina, and the open relationship the two shared. It wasn't unlike that closeness that he now felt toward Alex. Surprisingly, Gina felt it, too. Only the night before, while she and Brett been playing a video game, their conversation wrapped around their new neighbor. She admitted freely how much she was growing to like Alex, because he never saw her as a pest, like a lot of Brett's friends did. There was no doubt that Alex liked and cared about her, too, and she saw it - not in a lustful or passionate way, but as one committed to having a deeper friendship. That was why, Gina also admitted, she answered the door that day without any shyness around him. 'I think I trust him as much as I do you, big brother,' she had offered.

Alex had just stood up for Brett that day, and protected him from who-knows-what could have happened. Brett smiled at that thought. Alex, the one who had admitted from the beginning he had no reservation about bunking with him at camp, even knowing how close they would physically be sharing their space. Alex, who seemed to really understand what that trust thing meant to Brett, and then somehow adopted it for himself in the same way by giving it back. The last few weeks had revealed more about his friend's personal feelings, too, all in a way that left Brett feeling both amazed and humbled. He knew the teen was a private person, but Brett could not help feeling a swell of pride because of how much the boy opened up to him. That was the true defining parts of their relationship, and Brett could not have been happier just then.

Brett attention turned to Bobba Fett when the small dog suddenly raised its head to peer at him. That was another thing, Brett realized instantly. Bobba Fett was a fussy dog, at best, especially when it came to strangers. Far more often than not, the little runt was the house protector against anyone who walked through the doors. For a small dog, he was remarkably choosy in the people where he shared any extensive comfort level. Most he would trot around and just watch, maybe throw in an occasional growl or two. Not with Alex, though. Aside from an initial meet and greet, the dog had taken up with Alex instantly. It was said that dogs were a quick judge of people, and right away he had happily made his sport with the newcomer, making the rest of the family know he approved of the newly arrived teenager in their lives.

Alex had also quickly won the approval of Brett's parents, too. Since the first night of staying for dinner, their new neighbor had no sense of shyness or hesitancy around them. They had all spent an hour at the dinner table, laughing and carrying on with various jokes or other trivial pieces of conversation. It had been impressive, proving the teenager was not some messed-up, bundle of raging hormones. Instead, Alex appeared to be one of the most level-headed, sincere boys that Brett's parents had encountered in recent years, something they both expressed in pleasure after he left that night.

Shaking his head, slowly Brett walked quietly back to the bed and sat down on the corner. Bobba Fett crawled out and trotted over, nuzzling into Brett's hand until has master began rubbing his head. The movement and subsequent abandonment were enough to cause Alex to eventually stir. Opening his eyes, the teenager looked up. "Hey, are you okay, too?"

Brett smiled at the question that seemingly had come out of nowhere. "Oh yeah! Now that you're doing better, I'm feeling awesome!"

Alex slowly smiled, then did something that surprised Brett yet again, creating a memory he felt he would never forget. Gently pushing the canine aside, the teen reached out and grasped Brett's hand. When his host didn't pull away, Alex gently pulled, coaxing the teen to lie down beside him, where he then covered them both with the thin blanket. With the Edwards' air conditioner running consistently throughout the day, being on the lower-level of the house left the rooms abundantly cooled. Alex snuggled warmly into Brett's side without any hesitation. Before settling, the teen placed an arm over his friend and whispered. "See? I told you, I have no problems bunking close with you Brett." He then laid his head into the nook of Brett's shoulder and closed his eyes, sighing deep in contentment.

Brett lay there in utter speechlessness initially, before his eyes suddenly watered. It was yet another sign of their friendship being sealed further. He closed his own eyes and relished the intimacy, feeling the body next to him up close and... personal. He and Alex had never come that close together yet, at least not so directly, and right now while holding him, Brett felt a tinge of admiration that lacked any barriers. He could feel Alex's heat all to himself, and the touch made him want to cuddle even more. Only when holding his sister, on rare occasions, had he ever enjoyed anything close like this before.

As he felt Alex suddenly relax against him, Brett did the same with a newfound wonderment, before embracing and hugging his friend close. He wanted to thank him for this, but he held his tongue in an effort to let the teen sleep in peace, undisturbed. Before long, Brett ended up falling asleep, too, exhausted from their adventures of the afternoon.

Bobba Fett, though initially whining at having lost his spot, eventually found a new one by hopping onto Brett's belly and curling up between them.

Sometime later in the afternoon, Bobba Fett stirred and sat up suddenly, before rising and jumping from the bed. The movement was enough to wake Brett, who also sat up to listen. Footsteps, muffled at best, could be heard coming from upstairs, so he extracted himself from Alex and sat up on the side of the bed. Glancing at the clock, he saw that only a half-hour had passed. As Alex was still asleep, Brett quietly made his way up and out of the room.

Climbing the stairs, Brett found Gina in the kitchen, making herself a sandwich. "Hey, pooper trooper! How long have you been home?" she asked.

"Um, a little bit I guess," he answered, stifling a yawn and stretching.

"Where's Alex? Did he go home?" she asked, once she noticed he was by himself. Bobba Fett sat anxiously at her feet, his tail wagging rapidly.

"No. Believe it or not, he's downstairs taking a nap," Brett replied. "We were both pretty tired when we got back from biking."

"Really? That's... unusual," Gina mused, pulling out a paper plate and dumping a quantity of potato chips onto it. Before replacing the lunch meat back into the refrigerator, she paused long enough to pull an extra slice of bologna out, which she happily gave to the dog. Bobba Fett accepted it with tail wagging, dragging the slice over toward his food bowl. "Whatever, though. Mom left a note; did you see it yet?"

Brett frowned, but then stepped over to the refrigerator. Sure enough, a note by their mother was pinned there with a magnet. 'Your father and I will be late tonight, he is working over, and I have to go to Columbus this afternoon. There is pizza money in the usual place. Be good and NO FIGHTING!'> It was followed with her customary smiley face and initials.

Looking at the clock on the stove, Brett commented. "I guess we can order the pizza any time you're ready. It's a little early, though."

Gina looked up at him. "I just made a sandwich, so I'll be alright for a while. Let's wait a couple of hours at least, if that's alright with you."

Brett nodded. "Sure. I'll see if Alex wants to stay, too." That remark seemed to please his sister, who readily nodded in agreement.

"So, did you guys go to that other lot today, or whatever it was?" Gina asked.

"Yeah, we did," her brother replied, before grunting. "It didn't work out. Strike two, I guess."

Gina frowned and then shrugged. "Well, I wish you good luck, anyway. Both of you." She grabbed her plate and started leaving the kitchen, heading back toward her bedroom.

"Thanks," Brett called after her, then stood for a moment trying to decide what he wanted to do next. He walked across to the stairwell and started his descent, but halfway down he turned and exited to the outside. Walking down to the mailbox, he checked and brought its contents back up and inside, laying the various sale papers and envelopes on a basket just inside the door. Proceeding to the lower level then, he rounded the corner toward his bedroom and slowed in surprise when he heard a voice speaking from within.

Entering the room, Brett saw Alex sitting up in the bed with his cell phone in hand, listening intently to someone on the other end of the connection. Seeing Brett, Alex beckoned him excitedly to come and sit beside him, who obeyed. After a moment, Alex grinned widely and nodded. "Okay Mr. Bay, we'll be down first thing in the morning, say, around 9:30 or so? Is that okay?" As the voice on the other end seemed to confirm, Alex added his goodbyes and terminated the call. "THAT was Mr. Arduino Bay!"

When Alex offered nothing more, Brett began trying to recall where he had heard the name before. "Isn't he the guy we talked to yesterday? Wasn't his name... May? Or Bay?"

"One and the same, yeah. He's called to give us a tryout, more or less!" Alex explained, still grinning.

"You're kidding? Seriously?" Brett asked, incredulously.

"Totally!" Alex replied. "He said he got to thinking about our offer and all last night, and decided he wouldn't mind having some help over the summer. In addition to that, he got a truck in this afternoon that needs a good going over, but he has to go out of town for a couple of days. He's going to leave the lot in charge of someone he says helps him out a lot, and that we can come down and do our thing. He warned me he won't be able to pay us until he gets back, but I told him that was fine."

Brett closely observed his friend, who had only hours before been almost dead to the world. Now, a vibrant, energetic teen sat in his place, and that gave him another immense feeling of relief. "That's ... that's awesome, Alex!" Brett leaned back, pulling one leg up onto the bed so he could turn and face him. "I almost can't believe it, you know? Especially after everything else that's happened."

"Well, believe it. Our luck is changing, see? But ... I understand how you feel. We'll be fine though, I think."

Brett nodded, still staring at the teen. "What about you, though? You're obviously feeling better now, but... is everything okay?"

Alex wrinkled his nose. "Oh yeah, totally. Lard-butt isn't going to get me down, Brett. It's said and done, and if we're lucky, we'll never have to see his fat ass again." He lay back, propping himself up. "Sorry though, I don't like to talk about people that way, but he... he was a case." He then suddenly smiled. "Thanks for letting me stay here a while, too. I was really tired, but I think that was the worst of it. I'm feeling a lot better now."

Brett nodded. "I know, and you're welcome." he said simply. "I should be thanking you, though," he added in a whisper, which made Alex smile.

"Do you believe me, now?" the teen replied, quietly. "About not being afraid to bunk with you?"

Brett smiled back with a look of wonder. "You have no idea. I - I can't explain how that made me feel. No one... nobody has ever done that with me before, Alex. You ... you surprised me, but it was... yeah, it was awesome."

"So? First time for everything, right?" Alex replied, his eyes twinkling. "You understand, right? I don't feel threatened or anything by you. I don't care to cuddle up, if you don't." When he saw Brett blush, Alex relaxed. "I'll tell you a secret, if you want to hear it from me." When Brett just stared at him, Alex sat up and leaned into his friend's ear to whisper. "It was a first for me, too, and I liked it."

"Really?" Brett asked as Alex sat back again. He suddenly felt embarrassed, having repeated the obvious. When he looked back up, he saw a smile there, so he let it go. "Can I ask you something then?" Seeing the nod, he went on. "Do you ... do you feel like there's this ... thing, this - I don't know, this closeness developing between us, like I'm feeling?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah, kind of. Why, does it scare you?"

"Hell, no! It doesn't scare me at all! You should know that by now." Brett replied instantly, his voice barely above a whisper. "I have to admit though, you were right. It's kind of... well, it's all kind of new, that's all. For me, anyway."

Alex surprised Brett by leaning forward again. "For both of us, Brett. Just, don't be scared, and I promise I won't let it scare me, either. You know more about me now, and my past and everything, than anyone else does. So, yeah - it is kind of new territory. This thing though, as you call it, I honestly don't know anything more about it than you do, okay? I just... you are, by far, the best friend I've ever had, and you're not afraid of letting me be myself. That's something I don't want to lose, not now, not ever. If I do something stupid, just... try and be forgiving, okay?" When Brett smiled, Alex added, "That's another secret, too. You and Gina have both shown how you feel about me, and it's made me feel really good inside. I just hope I can do something in return, something that will make you both understand about how I feel, too."

"You already have, Alex, and a whole lot more. You standing up to that bastard today? And... and then... us lying here... letting me hold you?" Brett motioned at the bed, but then blushed, making his friend giggle.

"Deal with it, Brett. I haven't had a good cuddle with anyone in a long, long time - that is, if parents don't count." Alex looked down at the blanket and smiled. "Besides, I didn't care. I wanted to, you know? It just felt like..."

"Something right. It felt right," Brett whispered, and Alex nodded. When the teen offered his fist in mid-air again, Alex gladly bumped it, but instead of pulling away as was customary, the teen held their connection briefly. They both observed each other in a new light it seemed, before Brett finally spoke up. "I don't want to lose it either, man. Not as long as I can help it."

"Then, we won't," Alex said. He withdrew his fist and then scooted down in the bed until he was side-by-side with Brett. "Listen, I've got an idea, okay? Let's you and I make a pact, like an all-out promise to each other."

"Okay, what have you got in mind?" Brett asked.

"Something simple. We're close, we both feel it, we both know it - that much we understand, right? So, how about we kind of protect that, just between us. Like, what say if we ever get upset or something with each other, then our bedrooms - yours and mine both - will always be a neutral ground. We have to always promise each other we'll try to talk and work out anything that comes between us, okay? When we're in our bedrooms, we can't be mad or upset at each other, at least not until we've tried to work out between us whatever is wrong," Alex explained. "In other words, let's always try to be there for each other. Friendships are never perfect, something always happens, you know? But when we're here..."

Brett thought about it a few seconds before nodding. "I understand what you're saying. I'd make a pact for that in a heartbeat with you."

Alex nodded, too. "Good, then the only thing about a pact and a promise like that, is that we have to seal it in some way. Otherwise, it's just empty words, you know?"

Brett giggled. "Uh oh, you mean like a blood-oath or something? Like the Indians used to do?"

Alex grinned widely, recalling the stories of blood-oaths Native Americans participated in centuries before. He shook his head, however. "No, but it does need to be something private, something we trust each other enough to do, you know? So, I was thinking about something else a little simpler, but still personal between us." When Brett raised his eyebrows in curiosity, Alex reached out and pulled the boy up close, slipping his arms inside of Brett's t-shirt and embracing him as warmly and fully as he could do it. As he held his friend, he rubbed Brett's bare back, feeling him slowly up and down everywhere he could reach. "Come on, you're supposed to hug me too, inside."

Brett pulled them together completely then, reciprocating his affection and nuzzling into his best friend's neck. Their chests connected, separated only by their t-shirts, but with the feeling that still exhibited a new level of intimacy. As Alex held him snuggly, he whispered. "Is this personal enough? Because, I've gotta tell you, it's awesome to me," he whispered.

In that moment, Brett happened to feel the same way. "I don't know where you came up with this one, but man, I love it..."

Alex nuzzled his own face into Brett's neck briefly speaking again. "It's just this, Brett. I figured, if you haven't felt threatened yet by me doing something like this, then maybe a hug with just the two of us, this close, might be enough for us to always remember what it means. Because with this, I'm hoping you'll always know and feel, and remember, how much having you as my friend means to me. My best friend."

Brett had a lump in his throat then, causing him to hesitate before he finally spoke up. "I will, Alex. I promise, with all my heart." There they remained for a moment longer, before Alex finally pulled away. Brett was almost sad to see them separate so soon, but he reluctantly sat back. "Thank you," he whispered.

Alex finally grunted. "You're welcome. Okay, what say we see what you have in supplies here, then we can go to my house and make sure of what I need to bring, too. Mr. Bay said he would have buckets, sponges and towels for us, along with some car wax he likes to use on his vehicles. Oh, and a vacuum, too. We have to supply the rest, though."

Brett swung his feet out to the floor and stood. "You bet! What are you waiting for? Let's get going!"

The morning had started off cool, the rains from the day before having left behind a drop in both the humidity and temperature for the area. Alex, for one, was grateful because the warmer weather was something he was still adjusting to. In Idaho, Caldwell was always unseasonably cool, with summertime temperatures only rarely reaching into the low 80's. To leave that environment for the more humid, warmer grasslands of Indiana, certainly reminded him that their lives had once again started anew. So, given the morning's tasks, having the cooler weather certainly helped him and Brett as they went about their work.

This time their vehicle was a late-model truck, one which had already been sold to somebody, but not properly prepared as of yet. The new owner was expected to take delivery of it the next day, so the boys were pulling out all the stops to make a good first impression. As previously discussed, both started at opposite ends of the checklist, adjusting only slightly in places to make the work coordinate better between them. The only difficult part of the job occurred when Brett, working outside in the truck's bed, found quite a few scrapes and scratches that dug deeply into the bed-liner. "Hey, Alex, come here a sec, will ya?"

Alex backed out of the cab, holding a rag. "Yeah? What's up?"

"What would you do about this?" Brett asked, pointing out the blemished areas.

Alex studied them for a second, then set his rag down. "I don't think there's really a whole lot that you CAN do. Sometimes you can use a permanent marker on black plastic like that, and it does make it at least look better, though it kind of depends. I know we don't have one with us. You want me to go see if they might have one inside the office?"

Brett, however, wasn't convinced. "Won't that show up differently, though? I mean, the black color will be a different shade and all, won't it?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah, but when it's used on that kind of plastic, it's not that big of a deal. Most of the time, anyway. We just have to make sure we use it on the insides of the scrapes and scratches, and not like, around the top and all. If you want, we can try it on a smaller one first and then see how it looks afterwards."

Brett stood and nodded, so his friend took off quickly and disappeared into the nearby building. Within a minute, however, he was back outside and trotting toward the truck, where he hopped up into the bed and joined his friend. A short, Asian-like gentleman also followed him outside, and when the man stopped and propped himself on the side, overlooking their task, Alex commented. "Brett, meet Mr. Yang. Mr. Yang, this is my best friend, Brett."

The older man extended his hand, shaking Brett's in return. "Happy to meet you! I hear you want to mark-up truck. I got curious. Mr. Alex explain to me though, so I come to watch."

Brett grinned, then turned to see Alex already squatting down and applying the marker skillfully. He used it inside the exposed area of a short scratch, one that extended lengthwise down the bed, retracing the area several times until he accomplished what he set out to do. Then standing, he moved away a few feet to look upon his handiwork. "See? That's not so bad, is it?"

Mr. Yang moved around to observe the blemished area from different angles before raising his eyebrows. "Is quite impressive, I think! Not bad, not bad at all!" the man beamed, impressed.

Brett, encouraged, asked if he could try, and within minutes he had marked and filled in a much larger break in the plastic nearby. Alex knelt down and nodded. "Yeah, you can't really do anything about the middles when they're like this, as that's just the way the truck already is. I mean, you can't make it look like new, but you can reline the exposed parts in such a way they don't stand out and all. And look, there's hardly any difference between the liner and the marker, either ... especially once it dries!"

"Yeah, I agree," Brett answered.

Mr. Yang was also in agreement. "Me too, boys." He began looking the truck over in general. "You have done nice job, I think. Even wash looks nice outside!" He opened the door and looked inside the cab, inspecting it closely. "Inside also looks very good!"

Alex stood then and hopped out of the back. "We're almost done. We still have the tires to do, and I need to work on the outside mirrors."

Mr. Yang nodded. "When finished, step inside. I have pop cans for you."

Brett hesitated. "Pop cans?" he asked hesitantly, causing Alex to giggle.

"He means cans of soda, I think. Sure, we'll be there in a little bit, Mr. Yang," Alex replied.

Mr. Yang grinned as well. "Ah, yes, soda. Will try to remember that." With that, the man returned back to the office.

Half an hour later, both boys finally stood beside the vehicle, giving it a final inspection. Brett, through Alex's tutelage, could not help but admire the transformation they had given the vehicle compared to when they started. He glanced at his watch. "Wow, just under two and a half hours, too! We made good time, didn't we?"

Alex nodded. "I think so. Once you get a little more into it, I bet we move along even quicker going forward."

Brett nodded. "How long did it take you to do one, again? I know you told me once, but..."

Alex stood straight, thinking. "Well, most vehicles I could do in about three and a half to four hours by myself, on average. It's one of those things that kind of depended on how bad off they were, though. Some I did in less than that, and others took me longer, I think."

"Ah, I remember that now," Brett replied. He then looked over their work. "So, are we done then?"

Alex walked to other side and, after looking about, nodded in agreement. Stepping up to the front fender, he did take his towel and wipe at a spot where the wax had not completely been buffed out yet. Other than that, he stopped and grinned and raised his fist, which Brett met and bumped in mid-air. The two then proceeded to gather their supplies together, as well as roll up the garden hose they had used for washing the exterior. Once done, they stepped inside the office, where Mr. Yang was presently on the phone speaking with someone using a language neither recognized. He motioned the two boys into chairs in front of the desk, which they accepted and sat down. While continuing his conversation, the man reached into a small refrigerator behind him and extracted two sodas, which he readily served.

As they sat, drinking and relaxing, both boys noted the cleanliness of the place. The room, being larger than Spalding's office from the day before, was both neat and tidy, and had an air of freshness about it. Alex rose at one point and walked into the bathroom, finding it well-lit and practically sparkling. After relieving himself and washing his hands, he opened the door to find Brett standing here, waiting for his turn. By the time both boys made it back to the desk, Mr. Yang had completed his conversation. "Ah, boys! I watch and see your work. Nicely done, both of you!"

Alex stood next to the desk and offered his thanks. "We think we did our best sir, but if there is anything we missed, tell Mr. Bay just to call and we'll come down right away and fix or finish it."

Mr. Yang waved the offer away, however. "I tell you boys, better job than some people who have worked for Mr. Bay before. Better." The man stood. "I have nothing for you, but I understand Mr. Bay made arrangements, no?"

Alex nodded. "Yes sir, it's all cool. It was nice meeting you, and we hope to do it again sometime! Take care... and thank you!"

Walking them to the door, he nodded. "Thanks are to you, too. Maybe we get you back before long." With that, they both walked out of the door and over to their bikes. As they mounted and started toward home together, Alex looked over at his friend. "So, what did you think?"

Brett was impressed, and it showed. "I thought all of that was pretty awesome!"

Alex nodded. "See what I mean? It'll feel even better when we get paid!" he announced, making Brett laugh. As they pulled up to the highway, Brett paused.

"Listen, there's a place about a half-mile from here, called Lonnie's Burgers. Interested?"

Alex thought about it briefly, but then shook his head. "I can't, Brett. I only have a couple of dollars on me, and until Dad gets his next paycheck, I have to be careful to make it last."

"Who said anything about you buying?" Brett grinned. "First, I've got a two-for-one coupon for a burger, and we can share some fries if you want. Then second - it's my treat. Kind of like a celebration thingy for our first successful job."

Alex scrunched his nose up. "But... how are we supposed to make money, if we spend it before we even make it?" He wasn't against the idea, but then seeing Brett's toothy grin made him shake his head. "Are you sure? Because I admit, I am kind of hungry."

Brett began turning his bike to head on down the sidewalk without crossing. "Absolutely. Besides, I bet it won't cost us more than six or seven dollars, and I've got that easy. Come on, Alex. Let's go celebrate!"

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