The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 11

Car Shows and the Big City

Friday arrived with a continued persistence of heat and humidity, and for once Alex was happy to sleep in late that morning. At least, in Alex's world, he considered anything past 8:30 AM to be late, unlike his best friend Brett, who had no problems at all with not rolling out of the bed until at least 10:00 or later. Both teens went about their usual routines at home, Alex enjoying a bowl of sausages, oatmeal and toast, while Brett and his sister found cereal to be just as satisfying. Bobba Fett, happy to have both his masters at home for a change, followed them closely throughout the morning, with his only problem having to decide which of the two he would follow whenever they separated. As it turned out, Gina was not feeling well that day and, as if sensing her state, the family canine seemed to buddy up with her more often than not. The canine offered comfort all on his own in that little way, and it was something the younger girl welcomed immensely.

After Alex and Brett had chatted for several minutes that morning, both decided that they, too, would bow out of the previously planned swimming adventure. They both agreed it would be better to wait for a time when Gina could join them, given their previous discussions of more formally teaching her the ways of the water world. Instead, both hopped on their bicycles and, with exercised caution, decided to take a longer than usual trek around the town. Both had spoken with their parents already and received permission to extend their routes somewhat, with the only provision being they stayed within each other's company. It became a leisurely ride, with a few planned stops for both lunch and some window-shopping. Gina's birthday was now less than three weeks away, and Brett had decided he wanted to get something nice for his sister this year - especially given the fact he had considerably more money now than he had had in the past. Their trek took them past Walmart, where they spent over an hour trying to nail down some ideas, but eventually Brett threw his hands in the air. "Honestly? I think I'm going to need Mom's help for this one. I don't know WHAT to get her, you know?"

Alex laughed. "Well, if you don't know what she likes, how am I going to find her anything then?" Looking about, he shrugged. "You're her brother, right? Don't you have ANY kind of idea about the things she likes?"

Brett stopped suddenly to turn to Alex. "Listen, for guys – it's a lot easier. Girls – well, they're a lot harder, I think. Especially if they're your family! She likes everything basically – except broccoli and horseradish!" The teen then grunted. "Of course, I could just buy her a bra, as a kind of joke maybe, but, uh, Mom would probably kill me, too."

Alex made a face as he laughed. "Seriously?" He shook his head, but let the remark go. "Hey, I thought all women liked broccoli! Horseradish though, I have to agree with her. That is one condiment best left alone!" Stepping over to a rack, he looked at some of the summer tops hanging there, and then conceded. "I guess I can understand what you're saying though. All of these, they look nice, but I have no idea if she would like any of them. Heck, I don't even know her size!"

Surprised, Brett grunted. "Neither do I, really." He studied his friend momentarily. "You understand then, about the family thing? What made you change your mind?"

"Well," Alex blushed. "I got to thinking, I guess. I mean, if I were trying to find you something for your birthday, I think it would be a whole lot harder, too."

Brett stopped again, though this time he was completely surprised as his friend walked past him. Shaking his head, however, he rapidly moved forward to catch up. "You are planning to come, right? Gina didn't get to have a party last year because she was sick, and afterwards things at home got a little busy. So, this year Mom and Dad are planning to give her one of those get-together thingies at Mr. Gatti's."

"The pizza buffet place?" Alex asked.

"Yeah. They have pizza and other stuff, too, like pasta and salad. The thing is, they also have this big room in the back where people can get together and have parties and stuff, and Mom is going to see if we can, like, rent it or something for a couple of hours," Brett explained.

Alex looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. "If she wants me to come, then yeah, I'll be there. I remember going to that place before, when we first moved here. Pizza, spaghetti, salad - yeah, that's okay. It wasn't bad at all."

Brett rolled his eyes. "What do you mean if she wants you to come? Alex, if you don't come, trust me – she'll be supremely disappointed."

Alex grunted. "Yeah, right…"

"Seriously, man. I've told you before, you know. She likes you - a lot."

Alex paused, observing his friend's expression before conceding. "Yeah, I know you have. It's okay. I guess I just, you know, I imagined she'd rather have a lot of girls and everything. I figured they would be all her girl buddies and everything."

"Well, don't. It's a surprise party, so Mom, Dad and I are just inviting a few of her closer friends," Brett commented. "Trust me, bro. She thinks a lot of you in that list, too, like her buddy and all. You do things with her that most older guys wouldn't even dream of, and not just because she's my sister. You two have your own relationship, your own friendship and everything."

"You think so?" When Brett nodded, Alex smiled. "Well, of course I'll come then, and I'll get her a present, too. Like you though, I think I'm going to have to think about it for a while first. She'll be 12, right?"

"Yep," Brett replied. They had just crossed the aisle into the lingerie section. "If you come up with any ideas you can share with me, let me know," he quipped, but then added, "But, uh, like I said - underwear and bras don't count."

Alex agreed, before they both hastily made their way out of the section and toward the exit.

The heat wave that had descended upon the Midwestern states continued into Saturday, without a cloud to be found in the sky. After rolling from the bed easily enough, Alex bounced into the bathroom to take care of his normal morning rituals, before returning to flop down on his bed, his cell phone in hand. He had to call not once, but twice before Brett finally answered, and it was clear from his voice the teen was not exactly ready to face the day - at least not as easily as his best friend was. "Err… what time is it?" the sleepy voice asked from the other end of the connection as it turned into a loud yawn.

Alex laughed. "Time to get up and get ready, if we're going to go up for the car show." He paused, giving his time to register that before he continued. "That is, if you still want to go."

"Okay, okay… yeah, yes, whatever - of course I want to go! Give me a minute, will ya? I'm not like you, Alex. I can't just spring out of the bed like a rabbit ready to start humping on a moment's notice!"

Alex laughed again, silently shaking his head as he listened to the sounds coming from the other end of the connection. Amongst them was a distinct, unmistakable noise that reached his ear. "Sheesh! You have to take the phone with you when you go to pee? Does it, like, give you some kind of stimulation, or-""

"Shut up, Branham!" Brett retorted, then yawned again. "Okay, I'm up at least. How long before we need to be on the road?"

"Well, given where we have to ride our bikes to, if we're going to get there on time, I think we have about 20, maybe 25-minutes before we need to get started," Alex answered, slipping his watch on. "If you want, I'll meet you at the bottom of your driveway."

"Fair enough. That should give me enough time to grab some Pop-Tarts. Hey, by the way, what are you planning to wear?" Brett asked.

Alex suddenly became thoughtful. "I'd like to wear shorts, given how hot and humid it is, but I don't know a whole lot about this kind of stuff. I guess since we're kind of going to a pretty public place, I figured I would wear some decent jeans, and maybe a polo or something. Not look too much like a slouch, I mean."

"Yeah, I see what you mean," Brett replied before yawning yet again. "I just didn't want to, you know, end up being dressed too differently and all. Okay, see you in 20." With that, the connection ended and Alex made to get ready quickly. From the dresser drawer, the teen pulled a pair of new jeans that his mother had recently acquired, and then donned them along with a bright, yellow polo. Minutes later, with socks, shoes and belt finishing his attire, he leaned down and opened the panel to his secret room. Since its discovery, he had not really found a use for the room as of yet, although he had taken advantage of its hidden asset to store a few things. Those items included his currency they had thus far earned that summer, something he knew before long he wanted to transfer to a bank for safer keeping. He had already decided, however, he would wait until his funds arrived from Idaho before he proceeded any further.

Reaching just inside the space, he withdrew a shoebox and extracted some of the currency, which he added to what he already had in his wallet. Before closing the panel, however, he returned the box and paused to look into the room, once again wondering about its mysterious history. It was certainly sizeable enough to hold a small group of people, but somehow Alex didn't find that reasoning very satisfying. Whether the room had been built for smuggling, storage or something else entirely, somehow it just didn't seem to logically fit anything he could come up with, especially given it's finished state. The teen did renew his resolve, however, to check it out further in the coming weeks, and maybe even fill his Dad in on their find. Maybe a closer inspection would uncover a clue, or at least provide something that would shed light on its secret. Until then though, the teen knew he would have to let it go. Closing the panel, he sprung to his feet and headed downstairs.

"I thought I heard you moving around upstairs," a voice greeted him as he walked through the doorway into their kitchen. Standing at the refrigerator was Alex's mother, pouring a glass of juice.

"You're up early, Mom," Alex said in lieu of greeting. "I mean, for a Saturday."

Patty shrugged. "I was awake, and just decided to have a little breakfast." She turned and handed the juice to her son before acquiring another glass for herself. When she finished, she handed it over to her son as well and motioned for him to sit at the table. Doing as he was instructed, Alex watched as she approached, and noticed with surprise that his mother carried two plates with her, already filled with scrambled eggs, bacon and toast.

"Wow! For me? Thanks!" Alex exclaimed, admiring her as she pulled out a chair and sat down to join him.

Patty laughed. "Of course, for you! Do you see anyone else in the kitchen here?" she remarked, teasingly.

Alex grinned. "Nope! Well, unless Dad is hiding somewhere! But then again, I wouldn't see him… so…"

Patty laughed at the paradox he presented her, and then shook her head. "He isn't. Like I said, I heard you getting up, so I just added some more eggs to the skillet," his mother replied. "So, big day in Indy. I don't think you've ever been to a car show, have you?" Seeing her son shake his head, Patty continued. "I haven't either, really. I mean, your father and I have passed by them several times over the years, but we've never really stopped at one. It should be fun, if you like old cars and such."

Alex nodded. "I guess so. It'll be something new and different to do, at least. I mean, you're always telling me to be adventurous." Patty nodded, and then they both began to eat. Alex, glancing at the clock repeatedly, was trying to hurry when his mother noticed and paused.

"How much time do you have before you have to be there?" Patty inquired.

"Um, Brett and I need to leave in at least the next ten minutes or so I think, in order to make it to the auto shop on time," Alex answered between mouthfuls.

"Then take it easy and don't rush, honey. I'll drive both you boys over when you're finished. That should buy you a little more time," Patty offered.

"Are you sure, Mom? Because…" Alex started.

"Yes, I'm sure honey. I'll make sure someone picks you both up tonight, too. That is, as long as you call and let us know when you're getting in," Patty replied. "Now, you'd better send Brett a text, so he doesn't get choked while gulping down whatever he eats for morning food, too."

Alex laughed, but then pulled out his phone and complied. Almost immediately he received a return response. "Brett says to tell you he loves you to peaches, and thanks!" Looking up and seeing her confusion, Alex giggled. "It's probably his auto-correct on the phone. He probably meant-" Alex stopped as his phone emitted another beep, then after glancing again, he nodded. "Yep, he misspelled 'pieces' the first time, and it came up 'peaches' instead." They both laughed then, with Patty shaking her head in amusement.

Twenty minutes later, Alex and his mother picked up Brett at his house, and then began making their way toward the auto shop. When they arrived, Thomas Bay was just exiting the building and appeared to be locking the door as they drove up and stopped. With a hearty smile, he walked around and spoke with Patty for a moment as the boys climbed out. After a few pleasantries, Patty reminded Alex to be sure he called with enough time upon their return, so that they could pick them up. The teen readily agreed before leaning in thru her window and giving his mother a kiss on the cheek. Then, as she drove off, Thomas turned to the boys. "Well, are you ready?"

The trip to Indianapolis was an interesting one. The teens flipped a coin and Brett, winning the toss, elected to ride in front with Mr. Bay as they headed out. With windows down and elbows resting comfortably on the sills, they began their journey with a building excitement. Although the restored vehicle had no air conditioning, the trio enjoyed the milder, early morning temperature as the air greeted them rushing by. Along the way, several people stopped and waved at them from their yards, sidewalks, store fronts and more. Several vehicles also passed by, or met them from the opposite direction, with honking horns and plenty of thumbs-up gestures, along with general waving all around. Thomas saw the amusement in Alex's face in the rear-view mirror, and commented on it. "Bet you didn't expect all of this attention, did you?"

Alex shook his head, leaning forward from the rear and resting his arms upon the seatback. "No sir, not really. Is this normal and all?"

Thomas nodded. "Kind of, yes. Throughout this area, Ohio, and down into Kentucky, a lot of people are into old cars and restorations, see. Tennessee too, now that I think about it. Some people just restore the basics on old models, while others go to the extreme, kind of like my client did for this one. You see, it's relics of the past like this being preserved for the future, or something like that, which catches people's eye. The way things are getting so industrialized and modernized now, I think people just like having a reminder of simpler times. These old cars…" The man paused, laying a hand appreciatively upon the dashboard before he continued. "They bring back memories for a lot of old timers, because these are the cars that their families had as kids, and those who can afford to do it, like to refurbish and hang onto something from their past. Kind of like for old-time sake. You have to admit, these older cars may not have all the fancy electronic gadgets we have in our generation, but they still look awfully sharp when they're finished out right."

"I agree, although they sure are a lot different," Brett remarked.

"Yeah," Alex agreed. "I mean, look at the radio and gauges – there's nothing digital in them. Um, it's like they're all analog? Is that the right term?"

"Yep, that's right. That's how everything was hooked up back when they were built. Back then, you didn't have motors with fuel injection this, or computer controlled that. Things ran a lot simpler for the most part, so most of the gauges and controls were a lot more unassuming, overall. At least, in theory. Most of this beauty here was restored that way, although I did sneak in a couple of sensors that would monitor the oil pressure, engine temperature and the like. I kept the basic dashboard the same, too, but if the sensors trip, you'll only see them light up behind this dial," Thomas explained, pointing out the main speedometer. "A lot of people take the old cars and keep the same physical appearances when they restore them, but will also update them with a newer engine, gauges and various controls. In some ways, it's a lot less costly too, and probably safer in the long run. When you do that though, you lose some of the nostalgia."

"You didn't update this one that way though, right?" Brett asked. "You kept the older stuff in place?"

"That's right, most of it at least. My client was very explicit about it, actually. He had me get parts from all over North America in fact, just to avoid modernizing it any more than I had to."

"That must have cost a lot, then," Alex mused. "How long have you been working on it?"

"Um, not quite 2 years, but pretty close overall." Thomas glanced around at them both. "And yes, it can get expensive. A car like this, paint job and all, restored leather seats, reconditioned dash board – you get the idea. This little jewel runs about $225,000, give or take some change."

"Holy shit!" Brett exclaimed, then immediately blushed. "Err, sorry…"

Thomas Bay laughed. "Holy shit, indeed! I know, it sounds like a lot of money, and it really is a lot for most of us common folk to deal with. I mean, I sure don't have that kind of change lying around for a pet project like this."

"But - people still do it though, right? For like, a hobby, or investment, or something?" Alex asked.

"Well, I think it's mostly a hobby," Thomas mused thoughtfully, waving as another vehicle passed with a group of young kids ogling them. It almost looked comical watching the various hands waving at them frantically, as they turned in their seats. He honked the horn in short bursts, much to their glee before the car moved on. "I mean, you might find some buyer along the way, someone willing to put a decent amount of money up for an old car like this. Granted though, people like that are few and far between, really. Most people who fix up vehicles to the extent I have with this one, are the ones who've already made their riches, so to speak. Like I said, what drives them can be anyone's guess. Maybe it's the family car from somewhere in their childhood they remember, or maybe they just like investing in antiques of a sort. Maybe they just simply like the old classics, too. Who knows, right? In the end though, it really doesn't matter. As long as they can afford it, and want to invest in it, then great! If you ask me, more power to them. Some do it privately, while some are public figures and the like. Take this car's owner, for instance. He's a fairly public figure, high profile. It's one of the players for the Indiana Pacers."

"Really?" Brett asked, perking up at once. "You mean, THE Indiana Pacers?"

Thomas laughed again. "Yep. Please don't ask me which one, though. He kind of likes to keep things like this private, I think. Someone in his family found this thing abandoned in an old barn or somewhere, up in northern Wisconsin, and he had it loaded up and brought down to the shop."

"Wow! Do you get to do a lot of rebuilds to do like this?" Alex asked.

"I've done a few, but none of them quite as extensive as this one. Arduino is the one who the client actually contacted. How they know each other I'm unsure, but I think you'd find Arduino has a lot of contacts throughout the country, especially with a lot of high-profile people. He used to be involved with sales for a international supply outfit of some kind, so it doesn't surprise me. He had a lot of lunches, dinners, meetings … you name it, with anybody and everybody in his younger days. It wore him down though, so when he hit his mid-40's or so, he decided to hang it all up and start a car lot, which you boys are well familiar with by now."

"Wow, we didn't know that," Brett mused. "How come in Greensburg, though?"

"I imagine it's because this is where we grew up, our home so to speak. He was always the more sentimental between the two of us, but I guess that doesn't say much, does it? Especially since I'm still living here, or rather, there." The man grinned before returning to the subject at hand. "When my brother heard about the car and all, he put the owner of it through to me, and we talked several times about what and how he wanted to do everything. The man even came down to the shop to check things out one day, and we spent some time talking again. As it turns out, he's a big car buff, and after he saw an old 1948 Chevy Truck I restored, he decided then he didn't want anyone else to touch this baby. We struck a deal, and he has been good on his word ever since." Thomas grunted. "I mean, he's been super patient with me, even helping me find parts in places I hadn't even thought of or heard about. He's also paid for every dollar I've spent on this thing and then some, and almost all of it up front. There aren't too many people I can talk about in those terms, you know."

"Actually, I think I can understand that," Alex mused. "It's cool, though. You obviously like doing it, and from the looks of this one, you definitely know your stuff, too."

"Thank you. You're right - people have a lot of hobbies and pastime pleasures they do on the side. Restoring these old vehicles happens to be one of mine. You get to do a lot of different things with them, both mechanically and aesthetically." The man eyed both boys and then grinned. "Ah, what the hell. Tell you what, he's supposed to come check it out today, so if you're around and he doesn't mind, I'll introduce you," Thomas offered. Seeing their surprise, he chuckled while glancing at Brett. "Don't let your jaw drag the road. It's not that big of a deal."

"It would be to me! I mean, that would be, well, great!" Brett intoned.

For the next hour, the three chatted idly as the miles rolled by outside. The boys learning a lot about their host in the process, while he learned more about them in return. They found him to be just as pleasant as his brother, and funny. He told them stories from his earlier years in the Navy, where he had spent six years working on various ship repair details, both large and small. It was that experience that launched him into what he was doing now, and from his enthusiasm, it was obvious he loved it. As they pulled into the outskirts of the bigger city, they turned onto a freeway that led them to the north side, and before long they arrived at a huge field. Alex's eyes went wide as he took in what seemed to be hundreds of vehicles already arriving and pulling into rows. Thomas greeted a man at the entrance, and after conversing briefly, was directed to a specific area of the field. Moving along, he caught the attention and spoke with a second attendant there, and then the three pulled in and stopped in their allotted slot.

As they exited the car, both Alex and Brett were amazed at the variety of classic antique trucks and automobiles already surrounding them. Thomas walked up and stood beside them as they gawked. "Yep, it looks like this may be a huge turn-out after all." Looking down and seeing their curiosity, he explained. "You never know who will show up or not. Sometimes, hot weather like this is a deterrent for people, just like rains or storms would be for others. Not today, though. Yes sir, this looks like a good-sized crowd. There's probably a couple of hundred slots for vehicles, too."

"At least," Alex mused. "So, how do we do this? Do we need anything special to go out and see them, or…?"

"Nope, you'll be alright. Some of the owners can be prickly, so watch yourselves about touching anything. I mean, you can lean in and admire all you want, but try not to touch anything unless you're invited to. Some will let you actually sit in them, too, if you want. Just kind of play it by ear, is all." Thomas stretched, arching his back before he continued. "Note the row and section we're in, so that you don't get lost. Then just come on back when you get done. Also, we have each other's cell numbers, so don't be afraid to call or text me to let me know you're alright. That way I don't have to worry about you two being teen-napped or hoodwinked into something."

Brett grunted. "Yeah, rriigghhtt. I doubt anyone would want to hoodwink us, though," he muttered.

"Don't be so sure, boys. I figure you two are plenty old enough to get out on your own, but remember, you're in a big city. Although events like these are relatively quiet, anything can happen here when you least expect it. Just stay together, please?" When they nodded, Thomas then turned to look about before pointing off in one direction. "The big mall I was telling you about is right over there. I've been in there before several times, and it has a fairly sizable food court if you get hungry. I take it you have some money, right?"

Alex nodded. "Yes, sir. We'll be fine."

Thomas nodded. "Well then, that's it, I guess. If you boys get tired of walking around, come on back here. I've got extra lawn chairs and cold drinks in a cooler in the trunk. I think the judging is supposed to be concluded by no later than 4:00, so most people will start pulling out after the awards."

"We promise to be back by then," Brett offered. After thanking the man again, he and Alex started out heading down their own row, before systematically crossing to others at each end. They found practically every vehicle type imaginable, from antiques to hot rods, monster trucks to muscle cars, and even modern-day vehicles with various modifications and enhancements. They spent the better part of the morning observing numerous vehicles of interest, chatting with their owners and learning a great deal of history behind the stock. As Thomas had forewarned, several owners eyed the boys warily, while others were much more friendly and outgoing. They took care with the former, but warmed up immensely to the latter group, especially those in the antique sections of the show. They were allowed to sit in several of the trucks and cars, admiring but also gaining insight as to what Thomas had told them, all about the varying degrees of restoration people employed. It also gave them a better appreciation of the amount of time and detail that had to go into fulfilling the tasks, such as that Thomas had put into his own entry.

Alex had been unsure what to expect, but he found the show quite interesting. For a teen who knew very little about vehicles in general, he was learning a lot. Brett was also enthusiastic, asking various questions throughout the morning and enhancing his own knowledge. Alex would come to find out later that, unlike himself, Brett had already attended similar shows before with his father, but at a much younger age. This one, however, was the first time he had been allowed to roam on his own, which added to the sense of freedom that let him explore as he wished. With Alex by his side, he had a lot of fun, and it showed.

After spending several hours, both were nearing the end of the field, and thus the end of the vehicles on display. Gazing toward the mall in the distance, they both stopped and glanced at each other. "So, do you want to go over there?" Brett asked, before pulling out his cell phone and glancing at the displayed time. "Holy guacamole! It's almost 1:30 now! No wonder I'm getting hungry! I can't believe we ignored lunch!"

Alex laughed, then nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I know. You've got to admit it though, this has been kind getting our attention first. It's been fun!" He noted the distance across the highway and to the mall itself before nodding. "Yeah, let's go. I am kind of hungry. We should be able to eat and then get back in well before the awards and everything. Let me send Thomas a text first though, so he won't worry."

Fifteen minutes later, both boys were standing in the middle of the food court, noting a wide variety of fast food outlets being offered. After a brief discussion, they settled on a Mexican taco-like stand and walked over to get in line. Before reaching the counter though, both were interrupted suddenly as they felt a tap on their shoulders. Turning, they immediately beamed upon seeing a familiar face. "Hey! Brad!" Brett cried out, a wide grin splitting his face when he saw a tall, lanky youth standing behind them.

"Hey, yourself! What are you two doing way out here?" Brad Gates asked him, just as Alex turned and offered a mid-air fist, which the younger boy heartily bumped in return. "You two get lost on your way to the Olympics or something?"

Alex laughed, though confused by the reference. "Uh, no, we just rode up with a friend to see the car show is all."

Brad's face lit up. "Really? Us, too! I'm up here with both my grandfather and my uncle! It's pretty cool, isn't it? It's the biggest car event I've ever seen, I think! There must be 300 cars or more this year!"

Brett laughed. "Well, a few hundred at least. Do you guys have entries, too?"

"Yep! We've got both a 1969 Ford Mustang, and a 1962 Ford F-100. What about you guys?" Brad asked, excitedly.

"We rode up with a friend who has a 1957 Chevy Bel Air that he put into the show," Brett answered. The two began talking earnestly back and forth, revealing various details about all three vehicles. Alex eventually stepped politely aside, listening at first, before giving a huge sigh. Brett suddenly glanced over at him and grinned. "Hey, we're not leaving you out, you know!"

Alex laughed. "Yeah, I know. Listen, I'll get us some food. Will three tacos and a drink do, or do you want something else to go with it?" Brett nodded and said it was fine. After offering to get Brad something too, which the youth politely declined, Alex then left them to their conversation while he approached the counter. After placing their order, he then waited patiently while it was being prepared, looking out over the food court nonchalantly. Although the hour was getting late for lunch in general, the area was seemingly packed with a large number of bystanders, families and teenagers alike. Being a Saturday, Alex figured that might be a common thing.

Just as he was about to return his attention to the counter, however, Alex suddenly stalled when he spied an individual in the distance, walking down the far side of the court. Checking to see that their order was not yet ready, he made his way back through the crowd until he found Brett and Brad again, both oblivious to everything else around them. Brett looked up as he approached, however, and immediately sensed something was off. "What's up?" he voiced quietly, while Brad looked on in curiosity.

"Over there, in front of that music shop," Alex quietly replied, nodding in the general direction as he spoke. Both the teen and their younger friend turned in to follow his gaze. "Red t-shirt, baggy black pants, kind of grimy looking."

Although it was several seconds before Brett caught up, he grunted when he recognized the man. "Spalding. What was his first name, do you remember?"

"Casey," Alex replied simply.

Brad, having spotted the character in question, glanced back. "What's his story? Are you guys avoiding him or something?" the young man asked.

"Not exactly. We, uh, had a run in with him and his brother a couple of months back," Brett replied. "And the results have not been the greatest since then. At least, with his brother." He then briefly gave the younger boy an abbreviated account of how they came to know the man and Harry, giving just enough detail so the boy would understand.

Brad glanced at them both, but then peered out to see the man as he was disappearing into a music store. "I recognize him, actually. He and another, bigger man stopped by my uncle's Mustang this morning." He paused before making a face. "I don't think any of us liked them very much, either. I mean, they razzed on Gramps a lot, claiming how the old F-100's were kind of cheap-made and trashy and all. Then they started pointing out things, saying they were wrong or not fixed right and everything. People do that in general sometimes, I know, and it isn't that big a deal mostly, but those two kept on for a long time, you know, being kind of snobbish and annoying and everything." He sighed. "In short, they were mostly assholes, really."

"Big man? Like, same height, but a lot heavier? You know, more…" Alex paused, moving his hands to simulate a bigger mid-section. Brad nodded.

"Yeah, kind of fat, if you ask me – though Mom says we're not supposed to call people that anymore. He was loud, too, and like I said, a kind of an asshole," Brad replied. "In fact, they looked a lot alike, I think, so they must have been brothers."

Brett lowered his voice as he glanced sideways to Alex. "Sounds like it, sure enough."

Alex nodded before turning and noticing their food was ready. Swiftly retrieving it from the counter, he thanked the worker quickly, handing the teen a dollar bill. "What's this for?" the boy asked, confused.

"Tip for you, that's all. Thanks for not giving our order to someone else," Alex replied with a smile, before turning away. He heard the boy call out a big 'Thanks!' behind him, before he rejoined his friends.

Brett had watched the whole exchange. "I bet he has never had anyone give him a tip before. Not like that at least," he mulled, nodding at Alex, who simply shrugged.

"He works like everyone else does. I think when they do a good job, they shouldn't be left out," Alex explained, before looking past his friends toward the music shop. "Uh, I don't know about you, but I really don't want to be hanging out here with that creep around, you know?"

Brett furrowed his brow. "You thinking something-"

"I'm not thinking anything, really," Alex interrupted. He didn't want to alarm their young friend as to what was really going through his mind just then. "I know, it's unusual, but I've just kind of got this feeling is all. Can we just, like, go on back, maybe eat these on the way?"

"Sure," Brett answered, before turning to the younger boy. "Do you want to walk back with us?"

Brad suddenly grinned widely. "Oh, so you want to hire some extra protection, huh?" The boy laughed when he saw Brett roll his eyes. "Okay, okay, bad joke. Anyways, sure, I mean seriously, I was on my way back already when I saw you two over here."

Alex grinned at the boy before bumping shoulders with him. "Well, you can be my protection then, buddy. Come on, let's go." The group began making their way back outside, carefully avoiding the main aisle where they had spotted one of their nemeses. As they made their way across the large parking lot, Alex offered the younger boy once again one of his tacos, and this time the teen accepted it with a thanks. While they ate, Alex casually remarked. "So, Brad, you came over here by yourself?"

"Umm, not exactly. My uncle and I walked over to get a snack and stretch our legs, but he left about a half hour ago. I convinced him to let me hang around in the arcade for a while," Brad replied. Seeing the surprise that registered on the older teens, a knowing look crossed his face. "Okay, I know what you're thinking. I don't get freedom like that very often. To be honest though, it's kind of a new thing, really. Mom and Dad would have had a cow I think, if they heard about him leaving me here and all. Still, he was pretty cool about it. He just told me to be careful, and not to stay too long." The boy took another bite of his food before adding, "My uncle is alright, I think. I know he has let some of us have our space before, especially Steven."

Brett nodded. "I know what you mean. Not a lot of guys your age gets that kind of freedom, really. It was the same for me for a while. Still is, somewhat – at least until Alex moved in nearby."

"Really? That's how you two knew each other so much then," Brad remarked, but then returned to the subject at hand. "I don't know. I guess I understand why parents are so protective and everything, but meh, sometimes I think they overdo it. In the end, I guess it just depends on the person, or whether you're in a group or not."

"Exactly," Alex remarked. He saw the boy finish his food and then offered him a sip of his drink. Initially surprised, Brad finally grinned as he accepted and took a short drink. "Thanks, Teach!" he remarked. As they approached the intersection, they patiently waited for the light to change before they made their way back into the fairgrounds. They walked slowly, as Alex and Brett made to finish their lunch along the way. Eventually they made their way toward the antique section, and turned down a particular row that Brad steered them toward. Within minutes, the two vehicles he had previously described came into view, along with an elderly man sitting in front of a pickup truck, sighing in obvious relief.

"Hi Grandpa!" Brad announced cheerfully, before introducing the two older teens.

"About time you showed up! I was beginning to think I'd have to call on the local deputy and come find you!" the elderly man declared, before turning and taking the older boys' hands in a hearty handshake. The man was delighted to discover their relationships, especially once he was told Alex was Brad's swimming instructor at camp. "Well, fine thing you've done there! This young'en hasn't been able to stay out of the pool since he came home, I tell you!"

They all laughed as Brad blushed before explaining. "My grandparents live just across the road from us."

They visited for several minutes, finishing their lunch and taking a closer look at the Ford pickup, admiring the amount of attention given to detail. As the afternoon progressed, however, both boys had to finally wave off, but not without Brad obtaining permission and tagging along with them. He wanted to see Thomas's restored Chevy, and the two older teens happily obliged. As the group approached, however, they saw their host sitting amicably beneath an umbrella, joined by another man dressed in a plain white polo and jeans, but wearing dark shades that matched a baseball cap pulled low over his head. As the teens approached, Thomas looked up with a grin. "Hey, hey! It's about time you two showed up! I think we were about to give you up!"

Alex grinned as he stepped up. "Sorry, sir. We met a friend from camp, and we kind of lost track of time while we checked out a truck his grandpa brought to the show." He then turned to the other man, who had stood by then, extending his hand. "Hi, I'm Alex Branham, and these are my friends, Brett Edwards and Brad Gates."

The man grinned before glancing sideways at Thomas with a raised eyebrow. Seeing the host nod, the man turned back and extended his own hand in return, giving each of the boys a firm handshake. "Well, hello boys. I'm Gordon Hayward."

The name didn't seem to impact Alex, but Brett and Brad both let out a sudden gasp. "Uh, hey, yeah! I mean, it's meet to great you Mr. Hayward! I mean, great to meet you and everything!" Brett finally announced, having found his voice again, but suddenly blushing over the mixed-up words he had just uttered.

Both Gordon and Thomas laughed heartily, and the basketball player held Brett's hand a few extra seconds as he replied. "Well, it's meet-to-great you, too!" After a few words of greeting, the man rose up to his full height, which was impressive to the three younger boys. "I understand you're the boys responsible for prettying this old Chevy up for me!"

It was Alex's turn to blush, as it finally dawned on him whom they were speaking with. "Yes sir, guilty as charged."

"Nah, nothing to be guilty about in this case. Looks like a fine job, really. I saw the old bird what, Thomas, about three months ago? She was covered with smudges and enough dust to paint the ground like a winter afternoon!" He suddenly grinned. "Thomas told me about having you clean it up, and I admit, I didn't think so much about it at first. That is, until he told me you were both only 15-years old. That was like getting slam dunked at home, hitting a basket from mid-court! Where did you two learn to do this kind of stuff anyway, if I may ask?"

"Alex kind of got us started, sir. I mean, he used to do it last summer, before he moved here this spring. He kind of taught me, and then we both, well…" Brett replied.

"Ah, the summer job ritual, I take it." Seeing the two older teens nod, Gordon continued. "Well, I'm not sure if it's any easier than mowing lawns, but it's a damn fine job nonetheless. When Thomas told me you guys were due back, I wanted to stay and give you my personal thanks before I left."

Alex turned to Thomas. "Uh, has it been that long?"

"No, not really," the man replied. "Maybe what, 15 minutes or so since we sat down, Gordon?"

"Something like that, yeah," the basketball player replied. He sized up both boys again before lowering his voice. "Listen, I don't have any passes on me, this being the end of the season and all, but if you boys are around next season and want to have some fun one evening, tell Thomas to give me a ring. We'll see if we can't arrange for you and your families to get into one of the games one night, if you like."

Brett's eyes grew wide. "Seriously? For real?"

Gordon laughed heartily. "Yes, for real. My treat," he added. Looking over, however, he noticed the crestfallen look that spread across Brad's face. "What, you think I'd leave you out? You can come, too. All of you, as long as I can arrange enough seats. We might even make a merry evening of it afterwards and go grab some dinner, depending on what's going down."

"Seriously?" Brad repeated in astonishment, an initial look of utter disbelief changing to a wide grin. When the basketball player nodded, he sealed the deal by offering the youth a mid-air fist, which Brad gladly met. "Wow, thanks Mr. Hayward!"

"You're very welcome. You boys just find a home game on next season's schedule, and then let me know. Fair enough?" Gordon offered.

Alex was the one who finally found his voice. "That would be… awesome, sir! Thank you, very much!"

The ball player, however, shook his head. "No, thank you. Thomas is going to do a couple of touch-ups we just talked about, and then get you guys to do a final run on the old lady in a couple of weeks before he gets it delivered to me. So, it's my pleasure, really." The man then bade the group goodbye and left.

Thomas walked over to them. "That boys, is a rare treat, I think. I have to tell you, though you might not realize it, he wasn't making any of that up. He really liked the job you did."

Brad gazed at the two older teens curiously. "Just exactly what is it you guys did?" Alex blushed as Brett laughed out loud, and then both boys took Brad on a tour of the old Chevy, explaining how they had started up their summer business together. "That - is - awesome!" the younger boy exclaimed when they had finished. "Seriously! And they pay you to do this stuff, right?"

"Well, car lots always get vehicles traded in from people, some they turn around and put up to sell, and others they just take to auction. The ones they want to sell usually have to be cleaned up first, see," Alex explained. "It's not as easy as it sounds, but it's also not that bad, either. We're working, but it's also like we're doing something fun and all, too."

"We call it reconditioning in the business," Thomas spoke, suddenly appearing at their side. "Some people pay big bucks for it, too, even if they're not selling or trading. It's very much like detailing, where you make vehicles look like new again. These two seem to have a knack for it, so they've been getting some of our business to do lately."

Brad whistled, acknowledging he understood. The younger teen hung out with them for the next several minutes, until the show's awards were being distributed. Thomas's auto actually won third place in the show for his division, a prize he was not unhappy with. "With a show of this size? I consider that a pretty big blessing in disguise!" he declared to the boys.

A short while later, people began packing up to leave. Before Brad parted ways with the group to return to his grandpa and uncle, Alex pulled the boy aside and wrote something onto the back of one of Thomas's business cards. "Listen, I don't honestly give my number out to many people, but if you would like it, then here. You can call me up or text me if you ever want to talk or chat or anything."

Brad grinned, taking the card and sliding it into his pocket. "This is awesome, man! Um, I don't have my own cell yet, but I promise I'll keep this until I do. I do use my brother's cell sometimes though, so I might give you a ring before too long. If that's alright, I mean."

Alex grinned and nodded. "You do that, so we can stay in touch, okay?" He paused before lowering his voice. "Hey, just so you know, I'm kind of glad we got to meet you here, Brad." To his surprise, the other boy leaned in and gave his former swim teacher a quick hug.

"I'm glad, too. See you around, Alex," was the soft reply, before the boy turned and bumped fists with Brett. Stepping back and away, he then disappeared back in the direction of his Uncle and Grandpa's location.

Brett moved up beside Alex, shaking his head. "Damn it! Again? How come you get all the hugs?" he whispered mischievously.

Alex blushed, but then turned to him shrugging. "I haven't got a clue, really. Say, have you got any plans tonight? After we get home, I mean? I was thinking about asking if you'd like to spend the night with me again."

"Are you kidding? If you're asking, I'm staying! Well, as long as Mom and Dad say it's okay, that is," Brett replied.

"Good," Alex replied, then caught Brett's eye briefly before leaning in close. "I'll give you all the hugs you want then. And who knows, maybe even something more." He giggled when he saw his best friend's eyebrows reach high into his forehead, but didn't elaborate any further, instead turning to help Thomas, who had started to pack everything away for the return trip.

Later that evening, after the boys and their host stopped for dinner along the way, the trio pulled into the auto shop's parking lot. There, already having been alerted to their approach, sat both Richard and Patty in the family Highlander, smiling and waiting for them. Richard stepped out and walked over, admiring the Chevy, conversing with Thomas for a few minutes before they started talking about other older vehicles the shop owner had restored over the years.

Alex and Brett, after giving their host a final thank you for a very enjoyable day, approached the Highlander where Patty sat waiting. As they climbed into the rear seats, she listened quietly as the two began telling her all about their day. When Richard returned, he too found their excitement stimulating, asking questions here and there until he finally started the vehicle and began to pull from the parking lot.

After a short distance, Alex glanced out the windows and began noticing something. "Um, are we not heading home?"

Patty turned to him and shook her head. "No, I'm afraid not. We have to take Brett to the hospital to meet up with his parents."

Brett's mood changed instantly. "Why? What's happened?"

Patty exchanged a quick look with her husband, before answering. "Your sister had bit of an accident today, honey. It seems she was swimming at a friend's house, but somehow became dizzy and fell, passing out. When she came to, she was pretty delirious and unsettled, so the parents of the girl she was staying with took her to the emergency room."

Brett digested the information briefly, but then noticed the look of concern on the woman's face. "So, is she okay?"

"We really don't know a lot more than that, right now, other than they were taking her into surgery," Richard replied. "Your Dad called me just a few minutes before Alex rang in, and asked us to get you two and bring Brett to the hospital."

Brett caught his breath. "You mean, she… Did you say surgery?"

"Yes, honey," Patty replied. "She was taken into surgery, and we really don't know anything more than that. Try not to panic, okay? Let's wait until we find out more about what happened, first."

Brett looked deep into Patty's eyes for several seconds before slowly nodding. The four of them then fell silent as they made their way through the streets toward the hospital. Fifteen minutes later, they pulled into the parking lot of the facility and found a parking space near the door. Before the vehicle made a complete stop, however, Brett had already opened the door and was hurriedly making his way toward the entrance. As Alex and his mother alighted and shut their doors, the teen looked up into the face of his mother. "Bad?"

"Not that great. The only thing we got out of Roger was that she had some swelling around her brain. You can imagine that's probably not too good of a sign," she quietly explained to him as the three of them made their way inside. She placed her arm around his shoulders, seeing the look of alarm that crossed her son's features. There was no doubt in her mind that, although the girl was somewhat younger than the boys themselves, each had a closeness for one another that defied description.

Within moments, the Branhams found Brett conversing with both of his parents in a corner of the surgery waiting room. Seeing the trio, Roger broke away and approached them, extending his hand to Richard heartily. "Thank you for picking them up," the man declared with a weariness, but his voice was also laced with gratitude.

Richard grasped the hand in return and held it for a brief moment. "It's fine, think nothing of it. Tell us though, how is she doing?"

Roger shook his head. "We don't know. The Boyles…" The man paused and indicated another family of three off in the corner of the waiting room, who waved in return. "They told us she blacked out, but then came to a moment later after the accident. At first, she seemed okay, but within minutes of that she started acting strange. When she couldn't keep her balance, Gina started complaining about her head and eyes hurting, so they immediately brought her down here, calling us on the way."

"Uh, do you know what happened?" Alex asked, hesitantly.

"From the sounds of it, they were simply playing in the pool, and Gina was climbing out on one of the ladders. Somehow, she lost her balance coming off one of the steps, and fell against the concrete, striking the side of her head," Roger explained, and then heaved a huge sigh. "They took her back for an MRI right about when we got here, and then a half-hour later they came and told us she was being prepped for emergency surgery."

Watching the man and sensing the overwhelming anxiety he felt, Patty placed a hand upon Roger's arm and began guiding him back to his family. "I'm sure she's going to be alright. You know kids these days, they're pretty resilient to tumbles and a lot worse," she offered in way of comfort. As they returned to the group, Brenda stood and walked up, placing an arm around the newcomers and giving them each a brief, but thankful embrace. "How are you holding up?" Patty whispered before taking hold of the lady's hand.

Brenda smiled weakly. "As well as can be expected, I guess."

"How long has she been in surgery?" Richard inquired gently.

Roger looked at his watch. "Almost an hour, now." When the man offered nothing more, Alex made his way around the group to stand next to Brett, who had stood off and behind his parents mulling over his own thoughts. Neither teenager knew what to say, and certainly Alex had no idea of what to do. He did, however, place a hand upon his best friend's shoulder.

"She'll be okay, Brett. You'll see." When he spoke, his voice was firm, resonating a level of confidence he didn't necessarily feel at the moment, but knew Brett needed to hear. His friend simply nodded, and they both sat down, along with the rest of the group of adults, to wait.

Almost two hours passed before the big double doors from the surgical area opened, and an elderly man in scrubs walked through. Recognizing him instantly, both Roger and Brenda sprung to their feet as the man approached. "Mr. and Mrs. Edwards, I take it?" As soon as they nodded in confirmation, Brett quickly joined them as the man led the three off to the side, stepping into one of a series of smaller, adjacent consulting rooms. The Branham and Boyle families, too, had risen to their feet, but wisely remained still while respecting the privacy of the Edwards family for the moment. Alex watched Brett and his parents closely from a distance, as did the others, seeking any kind of a sign as to how things had gone. Within seconds, the bystanders observed a sudden look of relief cross Brenda's face, which made them each in turn collectively sigh. Alex also saw Brett turn and give him a thumbs-up gesture to reinforce what they knew must have been good news. The group waited patiently, and after a few minutes, they all smiled as the family walked back out to join them, and the doctor disappeared.

"She's going to be alright," Roger began, but then had to catch himself as the suddenness of the declaration caught up with his own emotions. With moistened eyes, he placed an arm around Brenda for support before he continued. "The sw-swelling was just superficial. They removed some of the pressure and treated it microscopically some way, and then waited for any adverse reaction. The swelling receded shortly thereafter, so they think all will be okay. She's in recovery now."

A chorus of thankful prayers and well-wishes escaped the others in the corner just then, all obviously relieved with the prognosis. Alex happened to look across to the Boyle family, and down at the young lady that stood off to the side with them. For the first time he realized this must be the friend Gina had been staying with. Her face, like the rest, was one of relief, but you could easily see the young girl had shed a lot of tears throughout the ordeal.

As the adults all around them became engaged with the details, Alex slipped over to where the girl stood and pulled her into a gentle hug. He was unsure what possessed him to do so, but her standing alone somehow impressed a need upon him that she shouldn't be left like that, not now. He was certain the girl had no fault in what had happened, but was nevertheless overcome with worry and guilt. When he touched her, she glanced up into his eyes before melting at that point, hugging him tightly and crying with relief against his chest. He held her tenderly, his eyes closed while listening to everyone behind him, until he suddenly felt another set of arms engulf them both. Alex smiled, knowing without even looking up, that Brett had added his own warmth and support to the two of them.

When the girl seemed to calm down, Alex and Brett both let go and backed away, with Alex taking hold of her hand and squeezing it reassuringly. "See? She's okay," Alex pronounced aloud in a hoarse voice, intending to be directed to them both. Brett smiled in return, with relief plainly visible. The girl also nodded her agreement, but not without wordlessly mouthing a 'thank you' to him. She squeezed his hand back, not letting go until moments later, when they recognized their parents were discussing plans for the evening. Both of the teen boys returned to the group, listening intently. It appeared the Edwards were going to remain for a while, regardless of any suggestions the others made. The young girl also wanted to stay, but was overruled almost immediately by her own mother. The woman did promise to bring her back, however, as soon as the hospital would allow Gina to have visitors.

Initially, Alex also wanted to remain, but he knew the family was going to need some time alone before dealing with any outsiders. Regardless of how close he and Brett had become, Alex knew that list of outsiders ultimately included him and his parents, too. There was an aspect of being in a family that bound each of its members together, excluding everything else in the world around them. It was a binding tie that no one had a right to interfere with, and Alex surmised this was definitely one of those occasions. He stared off into space, as if he could peer through the walls and imagine Gina lying somewhere beyond them in recovery. The thought that they could have lost her completely hit him hard - but he knew that it had probably already hit the Edwards, too, a whole lot harder. He glanced at Brett and saw his best friend's relief, but also the pain and emotional toll that had set upon him since they arrived.

Sometime later, Alex left with his parents to return home, but not without first pulling Brett aside and telling him to call if anything changed, regardless of the hour. He also promised he would return the next day, which his friend finally accepted. "One more thing, bro. If you see Gina, tell her I'm happy she's going to be okay, and that I love her. Okay? Do that for me?" Brett became emotional, but nodded simply, not trusting his voice to say anything just then. Instead, when Alex placed a comforting arm around him, giving his best friend a quick half-hug, the teen instead met it fiercely and drew him in completely, holding on for several seconds before letting go.

On the way home, Alex watched the streets fly by in the darkness. "Mom? Gina, she's like, really going to be okay now, right?" he suddenly asked his mother.

Patty turned to smile at him. "She should be, honey. She may be in the hospital for a bit, but if no complications arise, they should let her go home in a few days." Seeing his puzzled expression, she added, "Why, honey? What's on your mind?"

"Nothing, I- I was just making sure. You know, making sure there wasn't something I didn't pick up on or anything," Alex mulled. His shoulders dropped heavily. "I'm tired, that's all, Mom."

"We all are," Richard announced quietly. "Does anyone want a snack or something before we get in? We missed dinner and all, I know…"

"I'm not hungry, really. Brett and I ate with Thomas earlier, but if you guys want something…" Alex responded. Patty shook her head as well, and with that, the trio headed home.

Alex rolled over onto his side, waking with a start. Gathering himself, he looked at the clock and saw it was just past 2:00 AM. Wondering what had roused him, he suddenly heard a familiar buzzing sound again. Focusing, his senses promptly became alert as he reached out and saw his cell was lit, signaling an incoming message had been received. Wiping at his eyes, he rolled back and stared at the screen as he called up the text. As he expected, it was from Brett. Gina says to tell you she loves you, too, and she wants a big hug from you the next time she sees you. There was a second message that followed as well: There you go again, getting all these hugs. I might as well stop getting jealous! I can't win!

Alex smiled before typing his reply: Don't worry, I promise to save some for you, too. He had no sooner sent it when his phone began ringing. Answering it, he heard Brett's weary voice on the other end of the connection. "Hey."

"Hey, yourself!" Alex replied, then immediately asked. "How is she doing?"

"She seems to be doing fine. She woke up a couple of hours ago, and they've been poking at her ever since, taking her blood pressure and who knows what else – you know, watching her like a hawk. But she seems to be doing pretty good," Brett replied. "When Mom and Dad finally let me in to see her, she even told me to get my bubble-ass over there next to her, so I figure she must be doing okay, you know?"

"I'm glad, honest," Alex replied. "I guess we all had a good scare for a while, didn't we?" The obvious question was delivered as a statement, but nonetheless Brett understood the implication.

"Tell me about it. Alex, honestly, I don't think I've ever been so scared about something so much in my whole life, you know? I mean, if something had happened…" The teen had choked up at the other end, but Alex understood perfectly.

"I know, Brett. I can't say I've ever felt that way, but I do understand," Alex replied softly.

"I know you do, bro. Alex, I… I'm glad you were with me tonight. I'm glad your whole family stayed as long as you did. It meant a lot," he whispered.

Alex smiled to himself. "You're welcome, bro. Anytime you need me," he replied, then let the unspoken ending speak for itself.

"Listen, I, uh… if I can get a ride over there, would you like, let me in? To stay the rest of the night?" Brett asked in a whisper.

"You bet! I'll wait for you on the porch, okay?" Alex replied. Brett whispered something unintelligible, and then the call disconnected. Alex sat up, looking at himself in the dim moonlight that shone through his window. Upon arriving home that night, he had pretty much ascended the stairs to his room and fallen on top of the covers. Given the day's adventures and the stress of the evening, he had been too exhausted to undress any further than kicking off his shoes. Right now, however, that was going to change. The teen stood and began rummaging through his dresser drawer, before extracting a couple of oversized t-shirts. Pulling on one of them, he then dragged off his socks and left to descend quietly down the stairs before moving out onto the front porch. The night air was still muggy, but the temperature was considerably less given the early morning hour. He silently sat down in the swing and waited.

Roughly 15-minutes later, he heard a vehicle approach and turn into their driveway. As it descended and rolled to a stop next to the house, Alex watched his best friend emerge from it and wave at someone inside. Then, as the car backed up the driveway, Brett wearily trekked over to where his friend stood and met him. Not a word was said between them, as Alex put a finger against Brett's lips and then guided the teen inside. After locking the door, he grasped Brett by the hand and led him up the stairs and into his room, before motioning and sitting the teen on the side of the bed. Without preamble, the teen then started to undress his best friend, stripping him to his underwear before pulling the extra t-shirt on over his head. Brett, exhausted beyond belief, simply went through the necessary motions until Alex finished and then guided the teen into the bed and under the covers. Once there, Alex snuggled up behind him and draped an arm over his side, pulling Brett up close. It was then he spoke for the first and only time since Brett arrived. "Sleep, buddy. I'm right here, and I promise nobody is going to bother you until you're ready to wake up."

Brett simply nodded, melting into the pillow they shared, before he pushed back, spooning Alex snuggly. Within the next minute, a quiet, subtle snore reached Alex's ears, and its steady rhythm told him everything he needed to know. Hugging closely, he too joined his friend in the depths of nightly dreams.

"The doctor just came by, and said everything was looking pretty good for your sister," Patty announced, hanging up the phone.

Both boys were seated at the table, eating a late breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon when the call came. Although the hour was well advanced for the morning, both had awakened somewhat refreshed and ready to start the day. Brett had risen and quickly stripped, stepping into Alex's bathroom and eventual shower, before emerging and borrowing some of Alex's clothes to tide him over. Upon their descent, they found Alex's mother had already started assembling the platters ahead of them, and it was not something they wanted to ignore. Both were hungry, and Brett was obviously anxious to find a ride back to the hospital as quickly as he could.

"Who is up there with them, do you know?" Brett asked, helping himself to another serving of eggs and toast.

"Well, that was your Mom, and I think your aunt and uncle are up there right now. She didn't say anything about your Dad, but I assumed he was there, too. They were talking like they may go home for a bit finally, and get a nap or something," Patty explained.

"Do you think Brett and I could go up and stay with her then, Mom? You know, for the day?" Alex asked.

Patty nodded. "Your father and I were just waiting for you two to get up is all. We'll all head up there for a while, and then if you want, we'll leave you both until Brett's parents return. Somewhere along the way, we'll get you back home for the night again." She leaned in and looked at Brett amusedly, giving the boy an embrace from behind. "I didn't even hear you come in last night. What time did you arrive?"

"Somewhere around 2:30, give or take a few minutes," Alex replied for his friend, who at that moment had his mouth full of food. "He texted me, and I came down to let him in. I didn't think you guys would mind."

Patty rolled her eyes at Alex. "Of course, we wouldn't mind! You're welcome here anytime you want, Brett, and for as long as you need."

Brett finally swallowed and smiled at her. "Thanks, Mrs. Branham. I really appreciate that."

Just then, Richard entered the kitchen. "Ah, I see our sleep-study captives are almost ready to fly the coop."

Although Patty giggled, it was Alex's turn to roll his own eyes. "Lame, Dad," he responded, which made Richard stop and look upon the boys with mock indignation.

"Lame? I'll have you know, that's one of my better ones to pull out of thin air as of late!"

Both teens laughed out loud, as Patty stood and kissed her husband on the cheek. "We need to work on your come-backs then. I'm afraid I agree with your son, though. It did sound kind of lame, and perhaps a little old fashioned." Seeing her husband pout, she laughed. "I'm going to go change into another blouse, then I'll be ready to go," she announced, before exiting the room.

Approximately 40 minutes later, the Branham's and Brett entered the hospital and headed for the waiting room, where they quickly found Roger and Brenda sitting there with Brenda's sister and her family, sipping coffee. Upon seeing the new arrivals, Brenda waved them over. "Glad to see you made it out and back in one piece," Brenda said to her son, who bent over and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

"Is Gina still doing okay?" Brett asked, to which his mother nodded before pulling him into the seat next to her.

"They're supposed to be transferring her to another room right now. Once that is done, we can go in on the visiting hours schedule and all. Immediate family can stay as long as we want, but everyone else is supposed to observe the rules." Brenda sighed with exhaustion, which caused Patty to speak up.

"We'll stay for a while, dear, and these boys have said they'll stay with her the rest of the day if you want. At least until someone else comes in. Why don't you and Roger go on home and get a little sleep, at least for a few hours? You said it yourself, she is doing well, and we all promise to call if something changes," Patty pleaded.

Roger, sitting nearby, overheard the discussion and turned to face them. "Thanks, I think that's what we'll do. We're going to wait until she's settled into her new room first, but yeah, between you guys, the boys and Jerry and Lisa, we know everything will be fine." The man had reached out and squeezed his wife's knee affectionately, to which she turned and nodded.

Before long, a nurse approached and guided both parents back to a new room, a place where the nursing staff could maintain a closer eye on their patients, but without the restrictions the post-op and intensive care units provided. The only restriction they found, was that the new room was quite small, and with all of the monitoring equipment in place, there was really only enough room for two to three people to visit at a time. As the adults made their way in and out, Brenda and Roger finally relented to the encouragement from the others to go on home and get some rest. They left, but not without promising Brett they would return that evening. Not long afterwards, Alex's parents also bade their farewell, with instructions for the boys to call if they needed someone to pick them up that evening.

For the first time since their return, Alex was finally allowed into the room to see Gina, and upon arriving in the doorway, he stopped unexpectedly to gaze upon her. The young girl was stretched out on her back, motionless as they entered, with a variety of sensors and wires running from underneath the covers, obviously attached to various points on her body. Her head was wrapped in a cocoon-type dressing, which hid the effects of the surgery performed the previous evening, but overall it left a chilling image. He slowly stepped closer, psyching himself into as cheerful of a state as he could achieve, but he knew it was a façade. Once again, the thought struck him as to what life would have been like if this girl had not survived. He inwardly shivered, and pushed its effect aside as best he could, being thankful that was not the reality. Here, regardless of the ordeal she had been through, was a living soul that had made it, and that was what he wanted to center his thoughts on. Not what could have been…

As if sensing his presence, Gina turned toward them with a half-smile. Before anyone could say anything, however, one of the monitors uttered a rather loud, obnoxious beeping noise. Just as it started, an elderly black woman, dressed in full nursing attire, stepped into view and silenced the machine. "Well, don't just stand there, boys, come on in! Come on in," she repeated in a hushed voice, "so this blasted piece of electronic gizmo can shut up!"

Brett arrived by the bedside first. "What is that?" he asked, perplexed.

The older nurse just laughed and shook her head. "Oh, it's nothing, really. It's supposed to detect when Ms. Gina moves her head too far, too fast. Bunch of hogwash if you ask me, though. I think almost any movement will set it off!" The lady straightened up. "I recognize you from last night, but who is this other fine-looking lad here? Another brother from under the cover, or something like that?"

Alex finally stepped up and started to speak, but Brett interrupted him. "Yeah, he is. He's family, ma'am, I promise."

Gina, from the bed, spoke up as well. "That's my other brother, Mrs. Miller. His name is Alex."

The woman smiled and, after sizing the teen up, extended and shook hands with him. "Well, hello thar, Mr. Alex. If you is family, then you can stay as long as you want," the woman announced, but not without giving the teen a wink. She looked on with amusement, but then turned back to Gina. "I'll leave you alone with these here ruffians then, young lady. Just press that thar button if you need something. I'll also bring you some lunch around in, oh, about a half-hour or so. It's already past, I know, but someone messed up, I suspect, and I sure as St. Michael am not going to let them make you wait until suppertime for your next meal. Just give me a few minutes, that's all." With that, the nurse left the three alone.

Alex moved around the end and up the far side of the bed, before taking hold of Gina's hand. "So, how is my newfound 'sister' doing, hmm?" he asked teasingly.

Gina looked up slowly and grinned at him. "I'm doing fine, 'brother' Alex." She giggled, but it was Brett who broke in to explain.

"You heard her, right? Family gets to stay as long as we want. Get it?"

"Yeah, I understood after a moment," Alex replied, before leaning over the bed and kissing Gina on the cheek. She looked up at him in surprise, as he spoke again in a whisper. "That's for loving me back last night, and for being like a real sister to me, too. I don't think I can give you that hug you wanted, though. At least, not yet."

Gina squeezed his hand. "That'll do, pig, that'll do," she responded with merriment in her eyes. "Besides, I've told you already, Alex. We love you. Even this hairy butthead here." Brett, on the other side of the bed, rolled his eyes, making his sister scoff. "It's true, and you know it. You're just too manly to admit it," she announced smugly.

"You think so, do you?" Brett asked her. Then with a twinkle in his eye, he rounded the foot of the bed and came up behind Alex. In a quick move, he threaded his arms around his friend and hugged him close, nuzzling his chin upon the teen's shoulder. "Hey, Alex, guess what? I love you, too, brother!"

Seeing Gina's eyes grow big, Alex laughed and then grasped the arms hugging him from behind, holding them affectionately. "I guess that includes me, too. For both of you." The two older teens then stared down at the girl, who finally relented.

"Okay, okay, maybe you guys aren't such Billy-Bob jocks after all," Gina announced. "I'd shake my head at you, but I don't want that thing busting my eardrums again!" As she watched, Brett eventually let go and returned to his original place by the bed. She looked up them thoughtfully. "Hey, before we stop getting too mushy and everything, let me say thanks - to both of you. I don't remember much, but I was told you were here for a long time yesterday."

"Well," Alex started, but not without glancing first at Brett. "Your brother threatened me with bodily harm if we didn't stay for a while. Something about cutting off my right nut or something…"

All three laughed. "Don't believe him, sis. I just threatened to decapitate his whole man-hood if he left me here all by myself," Brett responded, playing along but with his voice just above a whisper.

"Ouch!" Alex cried aloud, grabbing his crotch briefly. That was one thought he did not want to contemplate.

Gina knew better though, seeing through the teasing gestures they traded. "Yeah, right. Like I'm gonna believe any of that shit. Still," she paused, taking hold of both their hands. "Not trying to sound dorky, okay? I just… I love you guys - both of you. Thanks for being here."

"Gina," Alex started, then sat down beside her on the bed, taking care to avoid the various wiring and tubes. "I promise, we were here because we cared. Brett was almost falling apart, and to be honest, I wasn't too far behind him. You made it though, and we made it too – and yes, my man-hood is still intact, I promise." Seeing the smile, he lowered his voice even further. "You know, you scared everybody for a while, but that's all past and gone now. You just need to get better, okay? For your parents, for your brother, and for me, too." He sat back so he could include Brett in the discussion. "You both know it by now, right? We can play with the nurse all we want, but you really are my family, too. You really are my brother and sister."

Brett put a fist up in mid-air, which Alex bumped proudly, holding their connection in place, all the while Gina squeezed their hands below. Then she grunted and closed her eyes. "Now, do you think one of you could cover me back up? I don't want to fill your hormonal obsession for the next few weeks with my nakedness underneath here."

Alex, surprised, raised his eyebrows until he noticed that the cover had slid considerably from where he had sat down with her. Her side and hip were just under view briefly, and he quickly reached out to cover her back up. He blushed, not because he saw anything of her worth noting, but because he had inadvertently performed the deed to begin with. Gina glanced up at him in amusement. "Don't worry about it, Alex. I don't care, really, but Brett might whop you up the side of the head or something…"

Brett grinned. "No way, sis. Not this time," he retorted softly. "You were safe."

For the next few hours, they talked and ruminated over a little of everything. Gina, her spirits high, never seemed to tire from being included with them. Even the nurse, who returned with a light lunch, saw the inevitable energy that was manifested in the girl, and so made a note on her patient's clipboard. Gina frowned at the food, which was mostly liquids and Jell-O, but did her best to consume what she could. When Mrs. Miller walked out, she was humming a cheerful tune all the way up the hallway.

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