The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 13

Summer's End

August arrived amicably in Greensburg, Indiana, although the weather continued to be some of the hottest on record for the summer months. Since late June, although high humidity had gripped the Ohio Valley, only four-tenths of an inch of rain had fallen, leaving many fields and roadways both dusty and barren. It was the longest stretch of continual heat that had befallen the state in several years. With little relief in sight, various state agencies were already cautioning that the state might have to undergo drought warnings. Indiana's terrestrial forest lands were becoming parched and brittle, with streams, rivers and other bodies of water descending to an all-time low.

The unusual weather did little to depress the boys' spirits, however, as Alex and Brett continued to clean and detail a wide variety of vehicles in their summer business. The various lot owners continued to be pleased with their attention and care, which gave the teens an elevated sense of pride. Bob May also informed them he had received several compliments from his customers, and thus was more than willing to keep their services as long as possible in the coming months.

On one particular evening, Alex was surprised to get called aside by their next-door neighbors again, the Rivers, asking if the boys would like to clean and detail their Lincoln Continental for them. They were about to set out on an extended vacation along the east coast, and had already talked to Alex's father about helping watch their place in their absence. Both teens were happy to comply, and once completed, Mr. Rivers obliged with a nice tip added to the bill.

By the end of the month, both boys had saved a considerable amount of cash since their business began. With their parents' encouragement, both opened accounts at one of the nearby credit unions to deposit their funds for safekeeping. Although Richard had no real qualms against banking in general, he did favor the use of credit unions both for their expanded services and the better offerings they gave to teenagers who were just starting out. The man also kept his promise to Alex, transferring his son's recovered amount from savings in Idaho. Once done, it had left the teen better off than Alex originally imagined, which made the boy smile. In a similar fashion, Roger also deposited a modest sum for Brett as well, claiming it was from savings he and Brenda had been holding back for the teenager. Although dubious, Brett accepted the boost and gave both his parents a rare hug to show his appreciation.

Other events were soon to take place, however, that caused both boys to slow down. School would be starting in two weeks, an early date compared to many districts, but one still welcomed overall. The school calendar for the upcoming year included both week-long autumn and spring breaks, and several in-service days for teachers that did not require students to be present. During a mid-week excursion, while the teens and Gina were sitting at the Edwards' table playing cards, Alex found it interesting listening to Brett and Gina explain to him how it worked. Having never experienced the rigors of a schedule before, he thought it was interesting how the district balanced days off for students, especially when inclement weather interrupted the time-table. "Let me get this straight," he began one evening. "If we miss school say, for snow or something…"

"Or flooding. We missed one day last year because of flooding," Gina piped up, interrupting Alex as she played her next card on the table.

"Or flooding, yeah, okay," Alex repeated, though with a smile. "If we miss a day, we have to make it up at the end of the year? So, you're saying, if we miss ten days, then they move the last day of school back 10 days to make up for it?"

Brett nodded, taking his turn by playing his next card before continuing. "Almost. They always plan extra in-service days for the teachers, so if we miss because of weather, they'll trade some of those before they start adding to the end of the calendar."

Both of Alex's eyebrows arched upward. "Wow, okay. I mean, in Idaho, they never closed schools up there, weather or no weather."

"They probably had a lot more equipment for keeping the roads clearer than we do here. Around here, the counties and towns have some equipment, but it's hard to cover all the roads and streets simultaneously. The towns get priority, but then they have to extend out into the county, see. If it snows very deep, we may even get two to three days off before they let us come back," Brett explained.

"Did you not get any time off or anything?" Gina asked.

Alex shook his head. "Not really, but then being home-schooled, Mom and I just carried on like usual."

Brett leaned toward his sister slightly and lowered his voice. "Do you want to know the real kicker? He only had to endure about three to four hours a day at most."

"Seriously?" Gina exclaimed, her eyes opening wide with surprise.

In preparation for the upcoming school year, the Edwards also included Alex and his mother in their annual ritual of shopping for school supplies. The boys thought that doing this brought Patty and Brenda closer together in friendship, while navigating various lists, and Brenda advising various things involving things to do or not along the way pertaining to necessities. By the end of the first week, each of the teens had amassed a large number of notepads, folders, paper, pens and pencils, as well as new backpacks and shoes.

With just over a week remaining until school started, both Brett and Gina were visiting Alex on a Saturday afternoon and playing a game of Monopoly. It was rare that Gina joined the two older boys, but another shopping excursion earlier that day had brought the families together again. After arriving back at Alex's house, the trio had grown listless with the hot weather outside, so while their mothers continued to chat below, the teens decided to spend the afternoon indoors instead. In recent days, both boys had tried to encourage Gina to go swimming again, but the girl continued to harbor a phobic-like reaction to returning to any pool, public or private. Both boys promised to help and watch out for her, but it was little consolation, and they eventually let it go. Perhaps time would banish that fear, or at least, they certainly hoped so. Physically, Gina's hair had begun growing again, quicker than anticipated. She now shed her earlier caps and scarves in favor of a new, shorter-cut hair style that made her appear more tomboyish than common. She was happy with it, however, and had declared more than once that she couldn't wait to get back into school where she could show her friends.

"Hey, wait a minute!" Brett declared as his sister moved her token upon one of his properties, and then tried to sneak the pair of dice over to Alex nonchalantly. "Not so fast, sis! You owe me rent, uh, 270-smackeroos, I think! Pay up!"

Gina looked at him and sighed. "I was hoping you wouldn't notice. After all, you missed it when I landed on that hotel over in the corner a while ago."

Brett shook his head. "No, I didn't miss it. I just didn't make a big deal of it since you were running so low on cash."

Alex laughed before shaking his head. "Sheesh! And you'd think he'd have a little sympathy for me, you know? I just coughed up $1600!"

Gina laughed, and then studied her cards and remaining cash. Sighing, she acquired a look of total defeat. "Okay big brother, you win. I don't have anything left to mortgage, and I'm down to my last $150, more or less. That's it." She looked up to Alex. "Unless you maybe want to buy some of my properties. I do own a couple of railroads here."

Alex thought about it briefly, then shook his head. "To be honest, I think I'm going to give in, too. I don't see myself getting out of a bind, either." He sat up and stretched. "You win, Brett, it's all yours. We give up."

"Awww… you two take the fun out of me being able to dominate the world!" Brett complained, then grinned and accepted their resignations with a mid-air fist bump, which the other two met laughing. They then began the process of collecting the game pieces and putting them away back into the box. Just as Alex slid the box under his bed, Gina was startled as her new cell phone buzzed unexpectedly. Looking sheepish at the other two, she answered it.

"Hi, Mom," the girl answered while the boys waited patiently. After listening attentively, Gina nodded. "Okay, I get it. Yeah, I'll get my shoes on now. Do you want Brett to come, too?" After another brief exchange, the girl smiled. "Okay, thanks. Yeah, I'll be out there in a few minutes." Terminating the call, the girl looked over at her brother. "Mom wants me to go with her over to Aunt Lisa's for a while, so she's going to pick me up at the end of the driveway. She said you didn't have to come, but for me to remind you that Dad would be home in about an hour or so. If you wanted, you might catch him and you guys go grab some grub or something."

"That sounds good," Brett replied as Gina reached for her shoes and started pulling them on. That done, she launched herself at Alex, surprising him with a sudden, tight hug around his neck as she fell into his lap. "Thanks!" she said softly before pulling back to observe his surprised expression.

"You're welcome, but… what was that for?" Alex asked softly as he gave her an affectionate squeeze.

"For letting me stay today, of course!" The younger girl then laughed at his expression. "You and Brett are always together doing stuff, you know? I'm just glad I got to join you and do something for a change!"

Alex shook his head. "You're always welcome, Gina. You know that."

"Maybe, but that doesn't mean there's always a break where we can all get together, you know? Especially the way you and bubble butt over there are always cleaning cars and doing your business stuff!" Gina replied good-naturedly as she collected herself and stood up.

"She's got us at a point there, I suppose," Brett answered, interjecting himself into the conversation. "Still, Alex is right, sis. We don't keep you out on purpose or anything."

Gina acquired a knowing look as she faced her brother. "I know that, big brother brat!" She then leaned down and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, surprising Brett so much he became speechless. "Don't get too used to it, bro," she whispered as a warning, before turning and giving one to Alex as well. "See you guys later, I guess. I need to head up to the mailbox."

"Okay, be good - but not too good," Alex called after her. She gave him a thumbs-up before exiting the room and bounding down the stairs. A moment later, they both heard the front door open and shut, and knew then that she was gone.

"So," Brett finally spoke again. "What do you want to do now?"

Alex glanced at the clock, and saw that it was just past five. "It won't be long until dinner. Are you going to stay, or go back and meet up with your Dad?"

Brett thought about that for a moment. "Would it hurt your feelings if I go out with him? I mean, we haven't had a lot of time this summer as it is, and that weekend we went camping, he was really chumming it up with me. You know, talking about how we weren't getting to do things as much anymore."

Alex nodded. "No, it won't hurt my feelings at all. I'm actually kind of glad to hear you want to spend some time with him." The teen frowned. "I mean, uh, that didn't come out quite right…"

Brett laughed. "I know what you meant, you're safe bro." He pulled his legs to his chest and rested his chin upon his knees. "How about you? What are you going to do?"

"I don't know," Alex replied, shrugging. "I'll find something. Maybe I'll go grab my Dad and talk him into going out, too. Mom was complaining of a headache earlier, so she may not want to do much with us anyway." Alex pondered for a moment before getting an idea. "In fact, I think I will do that, and make it my treat for a change. He's been picking you and me up a lot lately. You know, helping us get home while it's been so hot."

"Say, that's not a bad idea, really. Why don't we offer to take them both out together somewhere, maybe over to that barbeque place they seem to like so much? That is, unless you want to go out on your own," Brett offered.

"Not necessarily. I do think that's a great idea, though," Alex replied, before picking up on observing a sudden hesitation in his friend. "Something wrong?"

Brett blushed. "No. Well, not really. I mean, I took all my cash and deposited it yesterday, so I'm not broke, but I might not have enough, you know…"

"Meh, no problem," Alex intoned, before standing up and walking over to the hidden trap panel. "I can cover us both for tonight, so maybe you can just pay me back later for your half. How does that sound?"

"Deal!" Brett exclaimed before standing and following his friend. As he watched him trip the release, he casually inquired. "Have you found out anything else about this room yet?"

Alex looked up as he extracted his shoebox containing his funds. "I got in here with a flashlight the other night, after the sun was down. It gets too hot during the day, really. See, feel the heat coming out now?"

Brett nodded. "I sure can. That is kind of hot!" Alex agreed, retrieving some cash and then replacing the box before closing the hatch.

"I really didn't find out anything new, though," Alex continued. "It is ventilated outside, so it's not totally closed off or anything. After the sun goes down, it doesn't take long for it to cool down, either. Other than some strange scratch marks over near the outside right-corner, it's pretty featureless except for an electrical outlet over on one side. You know, a plug-in thingy."

"Really? That's… well, I don't know if it's unusual or not," Brett admitted, scratching his head. "What kind of scratch marks?"

"Just some tick-marks, really. You know, like someone was counting or something," Alex replied.

"Do you think maybe someone was being held in there or something?" Brett asked.

"I don't think so. I mean, imagine being held in there in hot weather like this. They'd suffocate, I think!"

"Even in winter?" Brett asked thoughtfully, but his friend still shook his head.

"Weather can affect it somewhat, but I think it's more about how and when the sun hits the roof more than anything else." Alex rubbed his nose. "I can actually stand up in there, in the middle, where the roof meets at the top and all. It's not a bad little hideout, or whatever it is."

"I understand," Brett replied, retreating back to the end of the bed and grabbing his own trainers. "Well, you can always use it for that, I guess. You know, a hideout, if you wanted to."

"Maybe, yeah. I don't know why I would need to, but meh." Alex crossed over to his door and sat in the floor, pulling his own shoes on. "Let's go ask my Dad if he wants to go out, our treat and all. Then if he does, what say we go wait for your Dad to get home, then we'll all get together."

"Sounds like a plan," Brett replied, finishing and crossing to the doorway. Alex rapidly finished as well, and then the two made their way down the steps.

"So, do you boys plan to stop your business when summer break ends, or keep it going for a while?"

Roger posed the question during a brief silence, one while Richard was navigating a turn onto the main road leading into town. Both men and their sons had come together to steer their way toward the diner, one of the older BBQ establishments which they had recently discovered. After Brett glanced up at his father, he turned to Alex, inviting his friend to answer, which the teen did after only a slight hesitation.

"We've talked about finishing the ones we've been booked for this coming week, which is just Monday and Wednesday. Then afterwards we thought we would offer Mr. Bay, or anyone else for that matter, that we would be available on Saturday mornings for the next couple of months, weather permitting. That is, if it's alright with you guys," Alex added, before glancing into the rear-view mirror where he could see his father in the driver's seat.

Richard shrugged while glancing sideways at Roger. "It's okay by me, as long as your grades don't suffer. To be honest though, I figured you boys might get involved with some of the school activities and such. Some of those might take up your Saturday mornings, you know."

"There's not a lot to get into, unless you go out for sports," Brett responded. "Football is definitely out for me, although I love watching our team play mostly on Friday nights. As for basketball, meh – the school already has a full house of jocks for those players and positions."

Roger laughed out loud. "I'm afraid he's right about that one, Richard. This town goes absolutely, friggin nuts over basketball, at all levels – high school, college and professional! A good many families already have their kids involved with the game in one way or another."

"I see," Richard conceded as he made another turn. "What about other groups then, like non-sports?"

"There's a few clubs, like the Drama Club where people get to put on plays and what have you," Brett explained. "Then there's also the Beta Club, which is for smart people. I'm not sure exactly what they do and all, but sometimes they go to some competitions, or something like that. There are also some groups for chess players, computers, speech, student body reps, stuff like that," Brett explained. "The thing is, most of them meet after school, usually a couple of times a month, or sometimes every week. Now and then the competitions are on the weekends, but other than that most weekends are freed up."

"Ah, now I understand," Richard announced while nodding. The discussion continued briefly until the man turned the vehicle into the diner's parking lot, and maneuvered it into a parking space. Several cars were present, and peering through the open windows, the group saw that the inside dining room was practically full. "Ah, they seem to be particularly busy tonight, don't you think Roger?"

"I keep telling you Richard, the popularity of this place is growing by leaps and bounds. Especially since old man Pedigo took it over back last spring," Roger commented as they each exited the vehicle and started making their way across the lot as a group. Reaching the door, they entered to find a brightly lit dining room, with lively music playing in the background. Vibrant conversations added to the festive mood, as if cheerfully welcoming anyone who wished to enter.

One of the servers, carrying a large tray of drinks, walked by just as they stepped inside. "Evening! Y'all just find a table anywhere, and one of us will be with you in a few," she announced, waving her free hand across the room. Both Roger and Richard nodded, smiling as the four made their way toward the far wall, where a booth had just been vacated and was in the process of being cleaned. When that had been completed, they each took to the benches, with the older men on one side and the teens on opposite. True to the first server's word, another server suddenly appeared, producing four menus she passed around before asking what they'd like to drink. Once they gave their choices, she quickly disappeared, leaving the group to look over and decide their meals.

"Are you boys sure about this? These all looks pretty good, but for the four of us it might end up around $60 or so, at least by the time we get done," Roger remarked pleasantly.

"We're sure, sir. You guys have given us lifts to and from all these places, all summer long. It's the least we can do to show our appreciation," Alex announced.

"Well, it hasn't been just us, though," Richard replied. "Don't forget your mothers have been involved, too."

"Yeah, we know. We're planning to take them out, too, as soon as they kind of get all this shopping stuff over with. You know, for school and all," Brett piped up. "Gina, too, if she wants to come."

Roger nodded. "That's good then, boys." He lowered his voice before he continued. "When that happens, if you need a little help to go, oh, say to Olive Garden or somewhere more toward the taste of the ladies, just let me know. I'll throw in a little cash for it." He looked up and winked at Richard. "Besides, it might give us a little break for an evening!"

Richard laughed. "Ditto for me! Twenty dollars would be worth giving up for an afternoon or evening like that, I think!" he chimed in with a wink. Within moments, their drinks arrived, and the four ordered their food, along with an appetizer to share. Their server bounced away happily, leaving the four of them alone again. While Roger and Richard began conversing on some topic, a bell-like tone sounded. Brett grimaced, recognizing the sound was for a text message arriving, and thus pulled his cell from his pocket to check it out. Alex took advantage of the break to look around in the diner more attentively. Of the people he saw, he recognized no one until he glanced into one of the far corners. There he stopped and grinned, before pointing out the booth to Brett quietly. "Hey, look over there, next to the counter in that first booth. See someone you know?"

Brett turned and looked in the indicated direction before his eyes lit up. "Are you kidding? Hey, Dad, look over there! It's Thomas Bay, you know, the auto shop owner!"

Roger stared across in the general direction before smiling. "It sure is! He's the one you went to the car show with, right?" Just then, Thomas happened to look in their direction, and both Alex and Brett waved. They saw a big smile emerge as the man acknowledged, before he arose and approached their table.

"Well, if it isn't Mr. Clean and Mr. Clean! How are you boys doing? Still staying busy?" The man glanced up at Richard and nodded, but then smiled as he recognized Roger. "Ah, I remember you, I think! You've been down to the shop a few times, right? Although I have to admit, I've forgotten your name."

"Roger, Roger Edwards. I'm Brett's father, yes. It's good to meet you again!" Roger exclaimed, reaching out and shaking the man's hand. "I believe you've met Alex's father, Richard Branham. Right?"

"Sure have, just a few weeks ago, wasn't it?" Thomas replied, before reaching over to shake hands with Richard.

Before anyone could continue, however, the group heard a booming voice coming from behind Thomas. "So, what do you know, it IS you two scumbag runts!"

There was a hushed silence that fell over the room as both boys turned around, along with Thomas, to see who the newcomer was. Brett immediately shrank back into his seat, as he and Alex both recognized the man standing there was none other than Harry Spalding himself, arms crossed and sneering at them. "What's the matter girls, cat got your ass-wiping tongues tied up in a knot?"

"Now see here…" Roger started as he rose from the seat. "There's no need for that kind of language! Mind your manners, and your tongue, mister…"

"This, Roger," Thomas suddenly interceded, "is the infamous Mr. Spalding, of Spalding Motors. The dump down on MacMillan Avenue."

"I know who the hell I am, and I can speak for myself, thank you very much! Bug off, now," the man bellowed and then took another step forward, effectively cutting Thomas off and placing himself right next to where the boys sat. Ignoring Roger as well, the hefty man stared down at the two with a sinister smile. "I believe you two shitheads and I have some unfinished business-"

"If you do, it isn't happening here," Thomas announced rather loudly, before purposefully pushing up against the man and forcing Spalding to take a step backward and away from the booth. "Now, why don't you take your unpolished rug shoes and just go right back to whichever table you came from. I'm sure you know how to enjoy a meal, on your own, right? Especially before some of us get together and just show you a different way to enjoy it, like outside, on the pavement… 'politely'."

Harry flexed his arms. "Listen here, you chicken-shit," he started, but was suddenly interrupted.

Another voice announced itself suddenly as an older, stocky man approached the group. "Not so fast there, buddy!" By this time, the music had stopped and the ensuing silence became almost deafening as the crowd looked on. The man arrived, but instead of addressing them directly, he glanced off to the side at one of the servers. "Hey there, Marsha! Is this the idiot you were telling me about earlier?" he called out.

"That's him, Mr. Pedigo," Marsha replied, nodding vigorously. "Sherry caught him doing it, too."

"Stay out of this old man," Harry threatened in a low, rumbling tone, his face becoming flushed.

Ralph Pedigo, however, was not intimidated. As he straightened to his full height, the crowd could see the muscular looking man had every inch to match his opponent - and then some. "Out - now. This instant! I want you out of this building and gone!"

"Now see here you ass-wipe, I-"

"I said, THIS INSTANT!" Ralph bellowed, his voice carrying louder and further than Spalding's only a moment before. "Remove yourself, get out of here and leave! If you don't, I'll have you detained in a manner you probably would not find very dignified. This is the third time this week you've come in here and decided be an asshole, and I'm sick and tired of it!"

As they each stood, taking full stock of the other, Mr. Pedigo lowered his voice. "I would beg you not to underestimate me, sir. Besides, I believe there are several others in here who would gladly assist me, if necessary. I am telling you one last time, get your oversized ass out of here, and I mean now!" Upon that announcement, several chairs could be heard scraping the floor throughout the room, and subsequently a large number of men suddenly stood in support of Ralph's statement.

Harry Spalding observed them all directly before returning his gaze to the group he had approached. He stood there in a rage, sneering and scoffing, before he finally looked directly at Richard. "So, you don't fucking know of any boys running a fucking cleaning business, do you?" he snapped. Turning to Alex and Brett, his voice rattled with even more hatred. "I'm telling you something boys, so you better listen up: you better watch your backs from now on. Do you hear me? We're not done yet, not by a fucking long mile!"

Before the heavyset man could say anything further, however, he found his wrists suddenly grabbed and subdued behind him, as Ralph, Roger and Thomas all three dragged and steered the big man toward the exit. Harry, beside himself, bellowed at them. "You fucking assholes, just wait until I get done with the lot of you shit-heads! You'll dread the day you ever messed with Harry Spalding! Do you hear me? I swear, I'm not done with the lot of you by any means!" When they reached the door, he turned back and sneered at the old man. "You too, Pedigo, you fucking asshole! Just you wait, when I get done here-"

Ralph Pedigo moved in until he was standing practically nose-to-nose with the man. "If you, sir, think you are man enough to mess with me, then you just go right ahead. As I've said, I'm sick and tired of you coming in here, stealing the tips from my servers when they aren't looking, sitting around and mouthing off, mistreating my staff and my customers as if you own the place. Don't deny it," Ralph exclaimed, as Harry began a retort. "I've got you on video, you moron! The tapes don't lie! Now, get out of here, and do not come back. If you do, I solemnly swear sir I will have you arrested, and I will file every charge I can come up with, to the fullest extent of the law! Now, get out of here!" With that, the man made a huge push, and Harry Spalding found himself suddenly outside the door and in the diner's parking lot.

Most everyone within the diner could hear the man's booming voice as he finally shouted. "We'll see about this Pedigo, do you hear me? All you motherfuckers, you'll dread the day you messed with me! Just you wait!"

Both Ralph and Thomas quietly exited the restaurant, pulling the door shut behind them. All eyes inside the room followed after them, some even leaving their booths to get a more clear, unobstructed view. Through the windows, they observed Spalding as he crossed to an old, battered truck and got in. After it started and roared to life, they watched as the man backed up and swung wide coming out of the row, barely missing two vehicles in the process before the man braked to a halt. Switching gears to move forward, the man sneered at the onlookers, and especially at Thomas and Mr. Pedigo who had stepped to the curb to make sure he left. Heading toward the exit, however, Spalding turned the vehicle wide again, this time right into the path of the two men! Both had to leap aside in order to avoid being struck. It was purposeful and with full intent, but Harry only laughed about it and gave them a certain fingered salute as he roared by. Inside, the diners gasped in dismay as they watched the scene unfold. Immediately afterwards, however, there was a collective sigh of relief as both men suddenly picked themselves back up from the ground, glaring at the retreating truck in the distance as it began roaring down the street and out of sight.

A moment later, both men reappeared in the entrance to the dining room. Ralph Pedigo stopped to look over the crowd, which was still observing the scene in stunned silence, before he shook his head. "All right, everyone," he started, then laughed tiredly. "I guess the evening's entertainment is over with now. I'm sorry though, for how rough it all evolved. Especially the language."

"Are you all right?" someone asked from off to the side. Ralph smiled and nodded.

"Don't you folks worry about me. I'm going to head to the office right now and contact Sherriff Mackie. No one is going to come in here with that kind of a potty mouth, and then threaten me or any of my customers." Glancing over to the booth where Alex, Brett and their fathers were, he called out. "How about you, are you fellows alright? Did he hurt anyone?"

Roger, who had returned to stand beside them, responded immediately. "We're fine Ralph, don't worry about us."

Mr. Pedigo nodded, and then turned back to the rest of the crowd. "Listen folks, I know it's a little hard to do, but if you will, just try to enjoy your evening, okay? Don't let that idiot take it away from you like this. Otherwise, he will have won - and I have no desire for that to happen in the least. Say, for those of you who want, I'll even throw in some ice cream cones for everyone tonight, all on the house. Marsha? Tell Jeff to make sure the machine is running in full grade, will you? Then hand out some treats for these folks before they leave, all on me."

Marsha smiled. "Sure, Mr. Pedigo."

Several diners began to object, but the man shook his head and smiled, waving them off. "It's the least I can do, folks, just enjoy it." He paused in places while making his way toward the back, chatting or acknowledging people who spoke as he passed by, but eventually the man found his way into the kitchen area and out of sight. Thomas slowly made his way back toward Alex and Brett as Roger sat back down. The noise in the room gradually picked back up, and someone started the music again. The overall mood swiftly changed, and before long, light laughter could be heard.

"Well, that certainly went south, didn't it?" Thomas spoke quietly as he arrived. He reached one of his hands out to firmly grasp Alex's shoulder. "It's not every day you get to see an elephant scared of his own shadow, is it?" The man squeezed, attempting to lighten the seriousness of the situation, something Alex actually appreciated at the moment.

Richard, however, was beside himself. "So, that's the man at the so-called used car lot you two ran into. What a completely, arrogant asshole!"

Roger agreed. "He has quite a reputation around town here. He's a menace, mostly, but until recently he has stayed pretty much to himself. He and his brother basically just sit in that shack of theirs at the lot, and do whatever it is he does to make a living - which is saying something."

"From what I understand, he hardly sells anything at all. Most of his vehicles are high-mileage junk that few people want to even mess with," Thomas added. "You're not the first to wonder how he even stays in business, either."

"How long has he had it, do you know?" Roger asked.

"Let me see," Thomas began, then paused briefly. "I move out here in the late 2000's, and he was here then, so we're talking at least 15 years or more."

"Wow! That's just… wow," Roger exclaimed, shaking his head.

"Yes, I know," Thomas replied. "I've never had to deal with him personally, but Bob has told me plenty of things, including that the man has a pretty nasty temper. Which, I think we've all just witnessed, wouldn't you say?" The last few words were directed at the boys, to which they nodded in response.

"We know," Alex finally spoke up, finding his voice. "Brett and I had a run-in with him earlier this summer, without really knowing who he was." He glanced at his father with a curious expression. "I thought you said he came to the house that one time, asking a lot of questions about us while we were at camp?"

Richard shook his head. "It wasn't that guy, no. From what all you told me, I admit I thought that it was him, but the man who did show up was a different fellow. I will say, however, that they look awfully similar."

"That must have been his brother, then," Roger interceded. "Brenda said that Patty called about it, but by the time I got to the window to look out, he was already gone." He glanced at the boys again and sighed. "Boys, I know I don't have to warn you, but please be careful. Mr. Bay here is right: that man is an ugly customer to have to deal with. I've heard plenty of stories over the years, about people who have had run-ins with him. Let me tell you now, they don't all have good endings. Just avoid him at all cost, and if you can't, then call us - pronto."

"I have to totally agree, boys," Thomas chimed in. "I mean, it may all be for naught. I'm sure Ralph is back there now calling the Sherriff. He won't let this go over lightly, and if he does have him on camera, Spalding is going to have a heap of things to answer to. Who knows, between Ralph and the police, perhaps they'll put enough pressure on the man so that he'll leave everyone alone, including you two. Just in case though, be wary, alright? You both have my cell number, too, so if I can help in any way, don't be afraid to call on me either." He leaned out to shake hands with all four of them one last time. "I guess I better get back to my brood over here. It was a pleasure meeting you fellas again. Don't be strangers around the shop, okay? You're all welcome to come down and shoot the breeze anytime you want, if you feel like it. You two gentlemen have got some fine boys here, I'll vouch for in a heartbeat. Just, uh, keep 'em straight for a while. If you dare," the man added with a grin, winking at them.

"Uh, yeah, rriigghhtt…" Roger replied before laughing. All four bade Thomas Bay a hearty thank you, and then he returned quietly to his own booth.

Roger's demeanor changed then, turning serious as he faced the teens again. "Okay, come clean boys. Is there anything Richard and I should know that you haven't told us?" Richard also looked onward, interested in their response.

Alex glanced at Brett, however, before sitting back and shaking his head. "I don't think so, sir. Brett told me he gave you everything, and I've told Dad as much as I know, too. I don't know of anything else to add." He looked up into the eyes observing him. "Sorry."

Roger smiled grimly. "Don't be sorry, son. I believe you. Brett was pretty upfront with me too, I think. That'll just have to be that, then. Still, both of you, watch yourselves, okay?"

A silence fell between them, but Richard noticed that his son seemed oddly distant. "What is it, Alex? Is there something bothering you?"

Startled, Alex turned back to the group, blushing. When he didn't answer right away, however, Brett lowered his voice. "What is it, Alex?"

"Well," Alex began, but hesitated yet again. Staring out their window, he collected his thoughts. "It's probably nothing, but… did you guys notice anything, well, kind of odd about him? Mr. Spalding, I mean?"

Roger snorted. "I'm not sure he has earned the title 'Mister', but regardless …" A puzzled look crossed his face as he stopped briefly to reflect. "No, I can't say that I did. Did you, Richard?"

Richard studied his son for a moment, but answered by posing his own question. Whether any of them did or not, it was clear that Alex had seen something. "What is it, son? What did you see?"

Alex sighed deeply. "Well, for driving such a run-down truck and all, I thought it was strange how he was dressed and all. I mean, he had on a dark suit and everything, that looked new - like it was custom made or something. You heard what Mr. Bay said, about how nobody seemed to do much business with him, right? So, if he's not all that well to do, then what was he doing here, of all places, in an expensive looking suit?" He paused, clearly not finished.

"What, son? What else?" Richard asked.

Alex looked hesitant before he looked deep into his father's eyes. "Did you see the tattoo? On his neck?"

Before Richard could reply, Brett spoke up. "I did. It was kind of funny looking, like an upside-down 'L' or something." Alex nodded, but never broke eye contact with his father. Somehow, Richard understood his son was trying to tell him something without saying it out loud.

Smiling gently, he turned the course of their conversation. "Weird Tattoo, nice suit… I agree, that is a rather odd combination for someone driving an old ratty truck, isn't it?" Richard noted.

"And… if he is stealing the waitress's tips, well… it just doesn't add up right, does it?" Alex went on. "I mean, he displayed himself in one way, but acted out of character and everything. Does that make sense? It just seemed… weird."

Richard smiled. "I admit, that is odd." When it was obvious Alex had nothing more to add, Richard, sat back and relaxed. "Well, nevertheless, you two be careful, alright? Like Mr. Bay said, we probably don't have anything to worry about, but it never hurts to be cautious."

The group began to finally relax as their appetizer arrived. Both adults casually changed the topic of discussion, leaving the two teens to sit back and observe quietly. At one point, Brett subtly reached down and grabbed Alex just above his knee and squeezed, which caused Alex to return the same gesture only a few minutes later. When he glanced up, Alex saw his friend's face as one still full of questions, but at that moment, Alex was unsure if he would have any answers. He knew they would be talking again later that night, but at least it wouldn't be before Alex could have a deeper conversation with his Dad.

"Okay, what did I miss out on? And if it's too personal, then, well…" Brett asked quietly later that night, when both boys had finally retired and made it to their bedrooms. Brett was waiting online when Alex logged on, so both quickly activated their webcams.

"Not a whole lot, bro. It's just, that tattoo thingy, it's a symbol Dad and I have seen before," Alex explained. "It was an inverted gamma symbol, by the way."

That answer totally baffled Brett. "Huh? An inverted what-did-you-call-it?"

"An inverted gamma symbol," Alex replied, grinning. "I'm not sure if it's Greek or Roman or what. Look it up online, though. There's a few variations on it, but they're all basically the same." He watched as Brett must have opened another window on the computer screen and type in a search request. When the results returned, Brett furrowed his brow.

"Yeah, that's it, but… what the heck does that have to do with anything?" Brett asked, mystified.

Alex drew a deep breath before speaking again. "Well, sometimes they symbolize ownership, or membership in things. Like, a lot of gangs, or foreign groups and such, they will usually require their members to get identical tattoos like that, so they can know each other when they're out and about."

"And, you guys, I mean, you and your Dad, have seen this before?"

"Yeah," Alex answered. In the silence that followed, Brett suddenly looked into the webcam and arched his eyebrow, causing Alex to sigh. "Remember me telling you about how our house burned down and everything? Well, a few days later, after the police investigated and everything, someone painted a symbol on our mailbox."

Brett's eyes widened. "One of these?" he whispered, to which Alex nodded. Brett whistled. "Holy shit! And… do you think, like, they're connected or something?"

Alex shook his head. "No, not really. I just thought it was kind of funny is all. Dad did a little research on gangs and so forth, and didn't find any group or anyone with markings like these in use. There was some Japanese group back during World War II, but it was small and mostly insignificant." Seeing Brett's dubious look, Alex lowered his voice. "Dad's like me, he thinks it's an odd coincidence, but that's all. He's more interested in Spalding himself, I think, and why he has such a nasty temper and all."

"Man," Brett replied, spellbound as he considered this revelation. "I swear, you need to become a detective or something, you know?"

"No way," Alex scoffed, rolling his eyes. "I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to go around chasing after criminals or the like."

Brett laughed. "You'd be really good at it, though. Especially the way you see things that nobody else notices." Becoming serious, Brett leaned in closer to the webcam. "Seriously, you guys don't think this could be something important? I mean, well, I don't know what I mean, just…"

"No, I don't. Dad and I talked about it for a little while after we got home, but we both decided it was more of a coincidence than anything else. I mean, I admit that it's odd the way it showed up and everything, but we would have never noticed if we hadn't just been looking at the right place at the right time, you know?" When Alex spoke, he tried to keep his voice as natural sounding as possible. He hated what he was having to do right now, something that he had fervently opposed only an hour before. His father had been insistent, however, that Brett and his family did not need to be privy to certain details – at least not yet. The two had actually argued for several minutes, a rarity in itself since Alex usually accepted his parents' decisions. On this particular night, however, Alex had tried to make his father understand how secure his relationship was with Brett. Richard acknowledged that fact, more than once, but had eventually won out, appealing to his son's sense of caution and their need to tread carefully going forward.

The symbol had been the same, inverted and crested in the same fashion. There was little doubt that something connected the events of their previous house and Harry Spalding, but exactly what it was, neither knew. He hated having to tell Brett otherwise, but it was done, and Alex knew he would have to suffer the consequences for it later. Richard's logic had prevailed upon the fact that, for the short term, keeping that news isolated would be safer for everyone involved. They did not want to create some clandestine fear like that seen in TV or the movies, involving spies or more. The man understood the boys were close, and that they probably did have a high level of trust between them, something Richard was immeasurably proud of. Until they knew more, however, he convinced Alex that what would be gained would lead to nothing but worry and concern, which in his eyes outweighed keeping the Edwards in the dark.

Alex finally agreed, with some reluctance, especially after his father posed one question that stood out above all the rest: once Brett knew the details, would he really be able to keep something like this from his parents? Alex knew Brett would keep the secret, but it would cost his friend a great deal of misery in doing so. That was something he wanted, at least for now, to avoid.

"Well, I can see the kind of connection, but yeah, I agree, it's a little far-fetched and all," Brett mused finally, drawing Alex's attention back to the video where he saw his friend stretching. Alex sighed inwardly in relief, and just hoped that one day he could come clean, and tell Brett the rest of the story. If and when that day came, he hoped his best friend would forgive him.

"Yeah, so… let's talk about something else, okay? Do you think your Mom would let you come down and spend the night with me tomorrow?" Alex asked. "That way we can get up early Monday and get the two cars taken care of before the rain comes in - if the forecast is right."

"I hope it is - we need to cool off some, that's for sure! As for coming down, it sounds good to me. Are we going to let Gina work with us on another one before school starts?" Brett asked. "She was kind of asking me about it after we got home tonight."

"Yeah, but not Monday. We'll be busting our butts to get them both done as quick as we can. How about Wednesday, though? We've got a van to do, and it's supposed to be a lot cooler, too. Since it's the only one left for now, I say we work her butt off for a change, and then take her out to celebrate or something. Just the three of us," Alex added.

Brett laughed. "You tell her that and she might just break your neck, hugging you hard and all that."

"It's okay. I like her hugs," Alex admitted. "But yeah, let's not tell her until we're done first."

"You just like feeling her boobs squished up against you, don't you?" Brett teased, which made Alex scoff.

"Brett… You're crazy, you know?"

"Alright, alright… I'm sorry, but um, I do think I ought to tell you something," the teen replied, before lowering his voice conspiratorially. "Gina does like hugging you, a lot, because she says you're the only one who will really hug her up close. Like, full body and all."

Alex, surprised, thought about that. "Really? She told you that? I mean… wow…"

Brett cracked up. "Is that all you have to say? You honestly mean you've never noticed how she perverts on you?"

"Perverts me?" Alex asked, confused. "She doesn't… I mean, I don't… Do I?"

A sudden burst of laughter erupted through the laptop's speakers, and it was a full minute before Brett could settle back down. Gasping for breath, he hissed, "You haven't, have you? You really haven't noticed?" When the silence grew long, Brett finally sighed. "Oh, great. Now you'll never hug her the same again, will you? And that means she'll notice, and then she'll be beating the bloody hell out of me for telling you. I think I just royally screwed up."

Alex finally giggled. "You didn't screw up, Brett. I mean, we hug, right? That's all! I'm guessing she likes it, right? Yeah, now that I think about it, sometimes she squeezes up against me and everything, but…"

"Alex, listen to me, bro. It honestly doesn't make any difference to me, okay? And no one thinks it's like a bad thing or … or anything, either. Gina, she certainly doesn't do it around our parents or other adults – so, yeah, you guys are safe." He suddenly grunted as he lay his head back against his pillow. "I'm not jealous or anything, either, because hell, I get to hug you, too - in a lot more personal way, you know? Like, sometimes without clothes, or at least most of them?" Brett whispered teasingly.

"Well, okay, but still… tell me something…" Alex paused, thinking. "Does she, like, feel something from it… from me?"

"I refuse to answer on the grounds I'll be incriminated," Brett teased.

"Oh, come on! You've got to at least tell me that!" Alex implored. "I don't want to, like lead her on or something!"

"Okay, okay… You do tell me a lot of stuff, so in a way I do owe you," Brett conceded. "Let me answer it this way, bro. Gina and I are brother and sister, and we hug, really close sometimes. We can be watching TV up in the family room, and sometimes she'll jump in my lap and everything. I can feel my sister almost everywhere, understand? And she can feel me everywhere, too. So, I'm not sure what she feels from you, but I know it can't be a lot different."

"But… how do you know?" Alex asked. "I mean, how…?" Alex lay there confused, trying to sort it out in his head.

"Well, you have to think about it. Lots of guys and girls will hug and all, mostly as friends, right? What they don't do, though, is snuggle up to one another. Not like you and I do, or like we might do with our parents or other family when we were younger. Does that make sense? It's not like they're really stand-offish or such, but it's like, you know, reserved. You and Gina though, when you hug her, or let her hug you, it's like I would hug her and all. And she loves that, because it's got more of the brotherly-thing in it than just a friend-thing. Understand?"

Alex thought about that. "You mean, I've been kind of, I don't know… too personal and everything?" Alex frowned. "Crap, I didn't know," he added in a whisper, which made Brett snort on the other end.

"Alex, you're the one person I can honestly believe wouldn't know about that," the teen commented. "That's why I said, no one, at least me or sis, thinks that it's bad. She loves it when you hold her, and let her snuggle in close to you. I guess because you're someone new, and not me. She probably gets tired of hanging around with her big brother sometimes. But seriously, does that make sense? I mean, only boyfriends and girlfriends get up really close and personal like that."

Alex blushed a deep red. "The other day, when we were in the back seat coming back from the store. She was sitting in my lap and all…"

Brett laughed. "Yep, you got it. That's when she thought she was in heaven or something!"

Crestfallen, Alex let a long, deep sigh escape him. "Oh my God, bro… I don't even remember if I, you know… I mean, I just held her in my lap and all. You saw her, she had her legs over yours and everything, and… she was seated … her butt was right on top of … me," Alex realized. "God, I hope I didn't… I didn't, did I?" There was a long silence on the other end, and Brett's grin told him all he needed to know, prompting Alex to suddenly sigh again. "Oh my God, I guess I did…"

Brett laughed. "You worry too much, bro." He paused before going on. "Honest, I don't know if you sprung wood or not. I just know she felt you, whatever that might be, and she was happy. It wasn't until later that night I got her to tell me why." He leaned in closer again. "Cheer up, mate, you look miserable."

"Wouldn't you be, if you had… if you had done something like that?" Alex buried his face in his pillow. "Nothing is going to make me feel better about this one, Brett," Alex murmured, dejectedly. "Nothing."

Brett watched him for a moment, and then spoke softly. "Don't be so sure, bro. I'll tell you something, if you'll swear to me you won't tell anyone else, especially Gina."

"You know I won't," Alex answered, looking up. He was totally unconvinced, however, that there was anything his best friend could tell him that would cheer him up.

"It's happened to me, too. With her," Brett whispered.

"Uh, wh-what?" Alex asked, startled after realizing what his friend was referring to.

"Look, Alex, Gina has been in my lap a lot of times, and there were times when she could feel me too, completely. I mean, even when we've just been in our underwear. So, I… uh, you know…" The teen sighed. "We promised we would never tell anyone, because well, it's almost like incest to even think about it, you know? It's the truth, though. I don't have any hots for my sister, man, but that doesn't mean things don't happen sometimes that just, well, you know..." His expression turned to one of pleading. "I promise, Alex, we've never done anything at all. Please don't think I, like…"

Alex smiled, not because of the sexual innuendo of the situation, but because he realized Brett actually had beaten the odds and made Alex feel better. "Wow," he whispered. "I understand though, honest, and I believe you. I also know you two have a good relationship, and you have a place in your heart for her, too. All because you trust each other so much."

"We all trust each other, Alex - all three of us, you included. That's what I'm trying to explain, bro. Don't forget about the day she opened the door to let you in the house. You said she was wearing that see-thru top of hers and everything, right?" Brett giggled. "You should have seen the look on your face and all when you told me about it. She knew what she was doing, though. She trusts you, too." He grunted. "I'm surprised she hasn't tried to get you to feel her tits or something by now. You know, first base stuff."

Alex was incredulous. "What? No! Brett, she's your sister! I would never… I wouldn't…"

Brett giggled. "Alex, trust me: I don't care. Her being my sister has nothing to do with it. I'm not interested, because of the fact she IS my sister, you know? You though, bro, you're actually in the clear." The teen wrinkled his nose. "I admit I might feel a little funny about it, but…"

Alex leaned in toward the webcam. "Brett - I'm not going to do anything with your sister, ever. Not on purpose, anyway. I've got you, remember? Just as much as you've got me. Our friendship, and more, is too important to me to mess around with anything like that! It's more important to me even than my friendship with your sister! You've got to believe that!"

Brett watched him closely and then smiled. "Yeah, I know. Relax, okay? Thanks, too."

"For what?" Alex asked, suddenly feeling exhausted.

"For telling me that. I mean, I wasn't testing you or anything, but it does make me feel really good inside," Brett admitted. "It's another reason I like you so much, you know?"

Alex smiled before collapsing back to his pillow. "Yeah, same for me. God, this is so… crazy!" He sighed. "Can I still have my hugs with Gina, though? I admit, they are really nice sometimes."

Brett scoffed. "That's between you two, man. You don't need my permission."

"Yeah, I do Brett," Alex replied. "If I'm doing something that is so personal and everything, with YOUR sister, then…"

"Alex, you can hug her all you want, and she can hug you back all she wants, okay? And if it gets… I don't know, if it gets kind of particular or private, then don't worry about it. I trust you," Brett responded. "You know this."

"Thanks," Alex whispered. "But okay then, you've got to do something for me in return."

"What's that?" Brett asked.

"Sometime, you've got to show me what a kind of non-personal hug is like and everything. That way I'll know."

Brett giggled. "Seriously? Okay, deal - provided you don't start doing it that way with Gina. Because if you do, then…"

"Then she'll know you've told me, and then she'll beat the crap out of you. Yeah, I remember." Alex sighed. "You know, I almost wish you were here tonight. Now I really feel… I don't know how I feel, to be honest. Lonesome, I guess."

Brett studied him for a moment. "I wish I could be there too, bro. You look like you could use a hug. Sorry man, I didn't think it would upset you like that."

"It's okay. I guess I needed to hear it. You know, learn about it sometime." Alex grew thoughtful for a moment. "Brett, do you… be honest with me, okay? Do you think your sister has the hots for me or anything?"

"Honestly? No, I don't," the teen answered. "If she has the hots for anyone, I think it's Kelly."

"The one who was at the cookout that night?" Alex asked, thinking back.

"You remember him, huh? Why does that not surprise me," Brett replied, shaking his head with a smile. "Yeah, that's the one. She and Kristen both practically fainted when he pulled his shirt off while we were playing volleyball. Before you guys arrived, they were both trying to bump into him, or fall down with him and everything. You know, anything they could get away with to put their grubby little paws all over him." Brett suddenly laughed. "You know the cool thing about it, though? It's that I know he really likes her, too. He kind of said so later that night." Stopping, the teen rolled onto his side, facing the webcam again. "Seriously Alex, no worries. If she ever had a thing for you, I think I would be the first to know it."

"But, according to you, if she's been doing these things, feeling me out, you know, uh, physically and all, and… and… you know… And then, I didn't know it, then…" Alex murmured.

"It's not the same, Alex. You need to understand that, bro. You have an affection for her, right? Enough so that you trust her, and she has the same thing back for you. That makes you close friends. Plus, don't forget she's 13-years old now. Her hormones are working on her just like ours did when we were at least 12, if not before. At least, mine did. I don't know about you, but…"

"Come on," Alex chided, blushing. Brett laughed again.

"Still bro, her hormones are all spun up, but in a different way. Understand?" Brett looked thoughtful. "You know how little kids are all the time climbing all over their Moms and Dads, or doing little cute stuff here and there? Or maybe you don't know, but it happens a lot They don't think anything of it because it's just little innocent things, like pulling a shirt up all the way by accident, or pinching a butt. Or even climbing into someone's lap and plopping down on their you-know-what, not thinking anything of it if they suddenly squashed Grandpa's family jewels or anything. They just think it's funny, at least until they start to get older, you know, and get out of that 'little kid' stage. That's when they start to realize things about their own bodies and everything, right? Well, that's where Gina is right now. She's discovering things, you know? It's just… it's different. She's not trying to like, outright stick her hand down your pants or anything! She's just, she's noticing things. And you're somebody who hasn't stopped her from feeling like that, being safe and all. Does that make sense?"

"Yeah, kind of." Alex relented. "I still feel … I don't know. It makes me feel like I, you know, corrupted her or something. Even though it was accidental, it just makes me feel weird."

Brett scoffed and rolled his eyes. "Let it go! You didn't corrupt her, I promise. Certainly, no more than I did! Seriously, okay?" He paused as he saw Alex nodding. "Alex, just don't… don't change anything, okay? She likes you. I think it's because she knows you understand the trust thing between us. Don't change that, okay? Let that be my gift to her, if nothing else. Let her feel safe with you and all. Sometimes she needs that, I promise. Just like I do." The last was uttered almost as a whisper.

Alex nodded in understanding. "I won't change anything, Brett, I promise." He sighed. "Damn, I still wish we could get together tonight."

Brett sighed as well. "I could probably do it, but then we'd not be able to get together tomorrow night. You know how my Mom is about this stuff."

"Yeah, I know. Honestly, as much as I want to have you here now, I think I would want you here more tomorrow night," Alex admitted. Brett nodded, fully understanding the sentiment. Taking a deep breath, the teen stretched.

"Okay. So, do you want to go out into the chat room? The sex-king logged on a little bit ago, and it looks like he is fired up tonight!" Brett teased.

Alex grinned, as they both headed onto the main room floor, to join the others.

Sunday morning brought a certain level of peace and quiet to the Branham household that was welcomed. While the local news played on the TV, Patty was once again exercising her newly acquired skills with making omelets, while the men of her life sat back at the table with the Sunday newspaper. The weather forecast had just completed, something all three made a quick note of, as the predictions of rain and the cooler conditions following behind it were now an almost certainty. Having lived in the cooler and dryer climate of Idaho for the last couple of years, the family was beginning to suffer from the sweltering heat. The drought-like conditions throughout the region were causing considerable concern, enough so that the city council was considering calling for water rationing - a situation that would certainly hamper the boys in their cleaning efforts if it were to go into effect. That threat still loomed, but now that conditions were favorable enough for the expected moisture to move in, most of the town was waiting to see what would be delivered.

Patty had just set the first ensemble of her results in front of Richard, when the trio heard a sudden, familiar buzzing tone coming from the other room. Richard suddenly grimaced and then rose, hurrying from the room to answer his cell. "Well," Patty murmured. "Who on Earth would be calling at a time like this, especially on a Sunday morning?" Just then, her eyes met with Alex and, seeing his grin, she rolled her own. "What came over me? Of course, teenagers call at all hours of the day, seven days a week. Forgive my weak moment of neglect there," she mused before turning around. "Go ahead and grab that one while it's warm, if you want. I'll give your father this next one."

Alex arched his eyebrows. "But Mom, you've got mushrooms in this one." Looking up, he met her sheepish grin.

"Oops! I forgot, to be honest. Sorry, I know you don't like mushrooms… So silly…"

Alex noted her words were just fine, but something in her expression seemed… off. "Are you okay, Mom?"

The words had no more than left him before he visibly watched his mother lose control of the skillet she was holding, and drop it to the floor. "Oh, shit!" the woman hissed, stepping back.

Alex rushed to her side and saw that part of the skillet had grazed her thigh, leaving a short red streak behind. Beyond that, the teenager looked down and saw her toes suddenly reddish as well. "Did it hit your foot too?" he asked, as he guided her over to the table and ultimately into the seat just vacated by his father.

Patty nodded. "Yes, I'm afraid so. I don't know what came over me, I… just..." The woman stuttered as Alex quickly hurried to the sink and wet a dishrag with cold water. Returning, he draped the rag over the burn mark. Reaching down, he also gently pressed upon her toes, but having no intense reaction from his mother, he surmised nothing had been broken.

Looking up, Alex saw the look of complete embarrassment upon Patty's face. "Hey, no harm done," he mused as he watched her closely.

"Only my pride, I'm afraid," she quipped, taking a deep breath.

Alex watched her closely, however. "Dad told you about our dinner last night, didn't he?"

Patty looked at him closely for a moment before she nodded. "Yes, Alex, he did." She sighed, suddenly fighting to control her emotions. "I guess… is it that obvious?"

Alex pulled another chair out from the table and sat beside her. "Meh, not really. Just a lucky guess, I think," he mused softly before slipping an arm around her. "Don't worry too much, though. We'll be fine."

Patty sighed deeply as she lay back into the arm surrounding her. "That's what your father says, too. I don't know, Alex. This whole business seems to keep creeping up on us again, and I'm getting so tired of running all the time, you know? It wears me down."

"I know, Mom. Just think though, we won't have to run much longer. You know that, right?" Alex whispered. "Besides, it's me and Brett this man seems to be so rattled about, not you or Dad. That will keep the heat off of us all for the time being."

"Are you listening to yourself?" Patty asked incredulously. "Alex, you're just as much a part of this as anyone else!"

"So? Right now, I'm just a kid going through school, remember? That's all this dumb-ass knows, more or less. I figure as long as it stays that way, we should be okay. Right?"

Patty studied him for a long moment before her shoulders sagged. "You beat anyone I've ever dealt with, Alex. But you know something? I'm proud of you." With that she reached out and pulled him inside her arms. "Just watch yourself, honey. You're my only son, and I never want to lose that."

"I'll always be your son, no matter what," Alex whispered back. "Just like you'll always be my Mom." They hugged for a moment longer, before he pulled back and stood up. "Okay, you stay there. I'll get the skillet wiped out and make the next omelet."

Patty laughed. "Yeah, rriiggghhhtttt. If it took me days to figure it out, how do you expect to master it all of a sudden in one morning?"

"Oh, I don't know," Alex replied, grabbing some paper towels and using them to wipe out the skillet he picked up. "I don't have to, really. I'll just make plain eggs, and put all the cheese and stuff in them. They don't have to be like your omelets, do they?"

In answer Patty stood to her feet and hobbled over to the counter. "No, but I've got a better idea. Let's do it together. I'll show you what I figured out." Afterwards, both mother and son made not just one, but two more practically perfect omelets together. Both grinned at each other, Alex for learning a new technique, and Patty for just being able to spend some time once again, sharing something with him for a change.

They had just set the table again, along with a stack of toast, when Richard re-entered the room. "Ah! What have we here?" The trio sat down and began to enjoy their breakfast, but with only a minimal amount of small-talk. Richard was especially quiet, certainly preoccupied by something, but offering nothing between them as they ate. When they finished, Alex rose and moved the dishes to the sink, before beginning the task of running water as a precursor to washing them. It was an unusual move, as the teen generally did not volunteer for this chore on Sunday mornings. Nevertheless, while his parents sat at the table enjoying their morning coffee, the teen washed and rinsed the dishes in short order, before wiping down the countertops and table and finishing.

By this time, the silence had weighed on the teen long enough. "Okay, Dad – spill it. Or is this one of those things I shouldn't hear, and you want me to scoot my butt upstairs or something," Alex offered, standing at the end of the table looking onward at his parents. "I mean, I don't figure it has anything to do with sex, but…"

Richard laughed as the implied joke, but then smiled as he settled back. "It's nothing, Alex. There's nothing to tell, really. That call, it was from our friend. He just wanted to know some more details about what happened last night, that's all. I told him everything, including what you noticed. He agreed that maybe they needed to take a closer look, and then he warned us to tread as soft as we could until he got back with me. That's all."

Patty set her coffee cup back to the table, noticeably calmer than she had been earlier. "That's all? Just, tread softly?"

"Well, he didn't offer much more. He did say the trial is progressing on schedule, so that's a relief. He also noted that things had suddenly gotten very hush-hush in places. As far as they could determine, there is nothing for us to be concerned with - at least, not yet. So, that's my position, too. Just be careful son, and make sure you tell me if anything happens out of the norm, okay?"

Alex suddenly laughed and leaned back against the wall. "Dad, I'm starting school a week from tomorrow. How am I supposed to know what's normal or not?"

The amusement of that situation suddenly hit Patty, who also laughed out loud. "He's got you there, honey!"

Richard grinned. "You know what I meant," the man smirked. He turned to his wife. "Smart-alecky kid of ours, sometimes doesn't know what's good for him, does he? What do you think we should do to him for that one? Maybe ground him for a few days? Or maybe I should go out and look for a nice, smooth plank, and-"

Alex face changed to one of mock indignation. "You can't! We've got cars to clean this week! And… and…"

"Your father is only teasing, Alex!" Patty remarked, still laughing. Richard just shook his head.

"I don't think I've ever taken a paddle or switch to you anyway, have I?" Richard retorted.

Alex gazed at them both with a look of amusement. "I don't even want to know the answer to that one. All I'll say is no, not in my living memory anyway."

"And we all know what kind of memory you have with things," Patty muttered, effectively ending the topic. Alex was grateful.

"Um, speaking of which, Brett and I thought about trying to do the two we've got booked tomorrow a little earlier than usual. You know, to both beat the heat and get them done before the rain comes. I, uh, invited him to come down for the night tonight. Is that okay?"

"Fine with me," Patty replied, Richard nodding in agreement before she looked up. "Will he be here for supper? I think your Dad was going to try and grill us some pork chops for tonight."

"I have no idea," Alex responded, stepping away from the wall. "I'll text him in a little bit though and find out, if you want." Grunting, he added, "Of course, that's one food I doubt he'll readily turn down, though."

"Wait a minute," Richard suddenly announced sitting up. "Why don't we invite all of them to come down? We haven't returned the favor yet since we went up there earlier this summer. It doesn't have to be a big party or anything. I'll run down to the supermarket and get a few more pork chops, maybe some fruit. We can have a couple of veggies, you know, just a simple dinner. What do you think?" He asked the last while turning to Patty, who smiled.

"I think we all could use a little distraction today, to be honest. Why not?" she replied. "Go text Brett now, honey, so we can get a response. Tell them we'll plan to eat around five or so, but they're welcome to come earlier whenever they want. We'll be here all day."

"Will do, Mom!" With that, Alex headed upstairs to retrieve his cell phone.

"Oh wow, I am sssooooo stuffed!" Brett expressed emphatically, after pushing his plate back from the edge of the table.

"I'll say," Gina replied, looking up at her big brother. "That's two pork chops, two hamburgers, and two helpings of potato salad, along with all the other veggies you just ingested!"

The crowd around the table all laughed, as Brett eyed his sister momentarily. "Don't knock it, sis. I saw you eating pretty hefty, too!"

Gina shrugged. "Yeah, well, I've got the room to put away at least one good-sized meal every once in a while. You eat big all the time though!" she retorted.

Brett grinned. "Yeah, but I'm a growing boy! You're still just a runt," he teased. She stuck her tongue out at him in response, as he leaned back. "Although, I've got to admit, dessert is going to have to wait a while." Gina nodded in agreement.

Alex grinned at the two. "Don't worry, it'll not be ready for another half-hour to an hour." He looked over at Roger and Brenda sheepishly before explaining. "Sorry everyone, I got it started later than I planned to, and only got it into the freezer right before you guys got here. It has to have some time to set, first."

Brenda leaned forward. "That's alright, Alex. Your Mom said it was something kind of different, though. What's the big dish?"

"It's a Banana Split Icebox Cake, or something like that," Alex replied, surprising their guests.

"Really?" Gina asked, but Patty was the one who answered for him.

"Yes, it's like a gigantic banana split really, with bananas, nuts, whipped topping and the works. I think he found the recipe for it online somewhere."

Alex nodded. "Gina likes ice cream cakes, and I noticed you guys were okay with it, too, so yeah, I uh… yeah."

"Oh, wow," Brett groaned. "Why didn't you tell us this before now? I could have left off that last pork chop, man!"

After the laughter died down, Patty rose. "I'll get this all put away since we have to wait a bit." Brenda started to rise and assist, but Patty stopped her. "Really, all I'm going to do is take these few bowls inside and bring out a large garbage bag. Most of these plates and all are disposable anyway. Relax, it'll only take me a minute!"

Surprisingly, it was Gina who jumped up. "I'll help you at least pack things inside," she remarked, grabbing some of the various condiments, before disappearing with Patty inside the house.

Richard sat back and rubbed his stomach. "I'm afraid I have to agree with the kids. Too much did eat, I think," he added, trying his best with a Yoda-like imitation. Glancing up at the sky, he changed the subject. "You know, with the clouds out here, I don't think it's as hot out here as it has been. Patty and I thought about setting us up in the kitchen, but I thought this was at least moderately bearable."

Roger nodded, folding his hands over his chest. "I agree, it's fairly comfortable at the moment. I heard the rain is supposed to come in around the middle of the afternoon tomorrow." The man glanced at the two teens. "Will you boys be able to finish your work by then?"

"We should," Alex replied. "Both vehicles are supposed to be regular cars, so no trucks or vans or anything to tie us down. We were planning to get an early start, too, so we might be done by lunch, if all goes well."

"That would be perfect, I think. Make sure you head home pretty quick though. Your Mom and I won't be able to pick you up," Roger announced.

"That's probably a good idea, as Patty and I won't be around either until later in the afternoon," Richard added. "You don't want to be out riding if it gets stormy."

Brett nodded. "We will." The men then began chatting on other topics, and as Patty returned, she and Gina were carrying fresh bowls.

"These are for dessert, when it's ready," Gina explained, setting the utensils in the middle of the table. Patty rejoined the group, but Gina excused herself to go to the bathroom and disappeared back inside the house. The rest of the group began conversing about the upcoming school year, with Brenda lending her thoughts on what to expect. At one point, she asked if they had heard anything back from the school yet on Alex's schedule.

"Actually, we have," Patty responded. "Richard and I are supposed to go Tuesday morning and meet with the guidance counselor. She is supposed to give us all the gritty details then. I have to say, back in Idaho, the schools always had an orientation day, like a week or two before school starts, to do this stuff. I'm surprised they don't do it here."

"Some of the bigger districts do, like up in Indianapolis," Brenda answered. "I always thought it was handy, too, but it seems the parents here gripe about having to take time off work to attend them and everything. So, the school system did away with it, what, not too long ago was it, Brett?"

"Three or four years, I think" the teen responded.

The conversation continued for a bit, and before long Brenda looked around. "I wonder what is taking Gina so long?" she asked.

Alex stood up. "I'll check on her, if you want. I need to go check on my dessert anyway." Seeing the woman nod, he casually walked into the house, navigating himself to toward the downstairs bathroom. As he rounded the corner, he was about to call out when he noticed the door wide open, and the room unoccupied. Curiously, he glanced around and then called out. "Gina? Are you okay? Where are you?"

In the silence, he heard a muffled noise coming from overhead. Walking to the foot of the stairs, he called out again. "Are you upstairs?" Taking a few steps, he climbed them until reached the second level. Suddenly Gina's voice rang out clearer.

"Yeah, I'm up here! Finally, my rescuer!" he heard her exclaim, before softening her tone. "I've been kind of stuck though."

"What do you mean?" Alex asked, stopping in the outer doorway leading into his room.

"Uh, well, I couldn't find any toilet paper, see, and I've been waiting for somebody to come check on me," the girl explained sheepishly.

Alex laughed. "Oh, sorry about that. There's none under the sink?" Getting a negative reply, he told her to hang on then. Quickly descending to the first floor, he grabbed several rolls from the laundry room where they stored their surplus supplies. Rushing back up the stairs, he stopped again at the doorway to his room. "Uh, are you decent enough for me to hand you a roll?"

"Puuhhlleeaasseee, just get in here! You're not going to see anything I care about!" came the exasperated voice. "If you're like Brett, you've probably already seen plenty of girl-skin as it is, so just come on - just get it in here and hand it over!"

Uncertain of himself, especially given Brett's conversation with him the night before, he slowly approached the bathroom door, but then turned around at the last second and walked carefully backwards through the doorway, holding the roll back for the girl.

Gina sighed and took the roll. "Oh, good grief! Well, thanks at least. I didn't think you guys were ever going to come check on me!" she announced.

"Sorry, girl," Alex replied. "Uh, how come you're up here anyway? There's a bathroom downstairs, you know."

"Actually, I thought about that, but I didn't know where it was. I did know where this one was at though, so I came up here instead," Gina explained.

Alex hesitated only slightly before nodding. That explanation actually made sense, in a weird sort of way. Without another word, he walked from the room and descended back down the stairs. Moving into the kitchen, the teen checked on his dessert in the freezer, and found it ready to serve.

As he was pulling the dish out, Gina suddenly appeared at his side. "Thanks, big brother number two."

Alex glanced at her and smiled, before setting the heavy dish onto the counter and closing the freezer door. "If we had known, then you wouldn't have had to wait so long," he commented, but suddenly found himself engulfed in the girl's arms. He turned and put his own arms around her, hugging her close.

"Alex?" She looked up and saw his bright blue eyes staring back down at her. "Thank you, for everything. For being my friend, and for being my other big brother. And thanks for our hugs and letting me sit with you and everything else."

Alex looked down into the eyes staring back at him, and wondered if he could have ever doubted her sincerity. "You're welcome. What brought all this on, though?"

Gina shrugged, but her happy expression said something otherwise. "Nothing, I just wanted to say thanks." She then stretched her neck upwards while gently pulling him to her, and kissed him first on one cheek, and then the other. When she pulled back, she saw his look of surprise and smiled, before deciding to finish with a very soft kiss on his lips. "Don't worry, Alex. I love you, but it doesn't mean I'm in love with you. You understand, right? Is that okay?"

Alex grinned at her. "Of course, it's okay! You know, I happen to love you too, just for being my own little sister," he whispered.

Gina squealed and hugged him tight again. "I trust you, big bro. I really, really do." Letting go, she turned to the dessert. "So, enough mushy stuff. Can I carry this thing out? What else do we need to take?"

"Nothing that I know of. You and Mom already brought out the dishes and bowls, and I've got the serving knife right here…" With that, the two disappeared through the doorway and back outside.

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