The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 14

School Begins, But Not Without Surprises

True to earlier predictions, the rains finally entered the Ohio Valley during the middle of the day on Monday, bringing heavy downpours and storms throughout the evening and into the next day. Alex and Brett had risen early on Monday morning and with a bit of luck, made good on their scheduled tasks by finishing the last vehicle by half-past noon. Both were tired, and drenched thanks to a combination of their own sweat and water from the hoses in the lot. The heat was stifling, but they still managed, and although the ride home was slower than usual, they both were able to make it before the change in weather set in. The only stop the duo made was at the corner market again, buying ice cold drinks to help cool off and re-hydrate themselves. The looming clouds and a rising breeze, however, convinced them not to loiter, and soon they were again on their way.

Arriving back at Alex's house, both teens entered his room and stretched out on top of the bed. With the air conditioner going full blast, and with the aid of the ceiling fan, both quickly succumbed to a light nap as low rumbles of thunder began sounding from the approaching front. Alex awoke and listened to what started as a light rain, but gradually fell much harsher along with an ever-increasing wind picking up. He glanced over to see Brett still curled up beside him, ignoring the passing storm as it built in intensity. The teen was dead to the world, snoring gently and dreaming of better times.

Alex smiled just then, recalling how the night before had played out between them. Once Brett's parents and sister had headed back home, the two older boys had retired to the bedroom after saying goodnight. Upon arriving, both were already tired and ready to turn in, but sleep had not yet taken hold of the two. Instead, they both had turned out the lights and stripped each other, before reaching a climax together in their solitude. Neither had spoken, as they both knew there was really no need to. No talks of the deep secrets or feelings they harbored, or the expectations they both wanted to fulfill. Neither feared the other's intimacy between them as they wrapped themselves in each other's arms. Alex basked in just having the company for the night, his feelings of being alone having invaded his thoughts during the last few days. Having Brett there gave the teen a fresh bout of reassurance, and he did not ignore it. In their silence that followed, Alex thought it was really cool how they had satisfied each other yet again, without the need for expressions other than mild grunting and groaning on occasion. Anticipating when and what the other needed had always been a gift between them, and Alex drew strength from recognizing that fact, especially when they had each succumbed to letting the other do what they wanted. Afterwards, they had spooned into each other for the rest of the night, until the alarm had gone off that morning. Surprisingly, it was Brett who had first climbed from the bed, and after visiting Alex's bathroom to relieve his bladder, returned to dress not only himself, but Alex as well. Alex had lain there in total submission, letting his friend have his fun until he, too, had to relieve his own bladder for the sake of comfort.

Now, another rumble of thunder shook the house with a light vibration, but still Brett slept, oblivious to everything around them. Just as Alex was thinking of cuddling up to his friend again, the buzzer went off on his cell. Checking it, he saw he had received a text from his mother: **"Please tell me you two made it home and are not out in this storm!"** The teen smiled and typed his reply: **"We're fine Mom, just upstairs kind of listening to this storm and napping a little."**

The evening remained wet and uneventful. Gina called at one point, looking to assure her brother was okay, but otherwise things remained rather uneventful. Later in the afternoon, Brenda arrived later to pick her son up, not long after he had awakened from his nap. Before leaving, however, he had turned to Alex and smiled, gently pushing the boy back against the wall. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do," he whispered, before leaning in and giving Alex a long, intimate hug. Their hugs had grown, too, as Alex reflected briefly. Warm hugs were those where they pulled each other together and nurtured their friendship. But other hugs were much more intimate, especially when, like now, Brett push his hands inside of Alex's shorts, grasping the lobes of his hips from behind, and pulled so that they came together even more. It was a gesture of sorts, not meant to suggest any kind of sexual intrigue, but one of just being with one another in the most unquestioning way possible. It was a gesture only delivered in the privacy of their rooms at best, but it was always welcomed. It gave Brett a sense of feeling that final push of trust between them, and it gave Alex a sense of pleasure that he could give that up for his best friend.

With a quick kiss on Alex's nose, Brett grabbed his gym bag and headed downstairs before leaving out the back door. After he was gone, Alex once again felt a weight return, being sadly alone once again in the silence of the house. First, he went out onto the front porch and sat in the swing, listening to the heavy downpours continuing around the neighborhood, but he couldn't find the serenity he sought there. So instead, he returned to his room and pulled out a book. As he tried to focus and read it, however, he realized his heart just wasn't in it. Putting it away, he sat up and pulled his knees to his chest, looking about. He had so wished Brett could stay longer, but it just wasn't meant to be.

Spying the clock and realizing it would still be another hour or more before his parents would come home, Alex finally sighed deeply and made his way downstairs and into the kitchen. Once there, he spent the next hour preparing dinner, much to his parent's surprise when they arrived home. Then teen had prepared a hot meal of open-faced, roast beef platters with mashed potatoes and gravy, as well as sweet buns for dessert. Although his culinary skills were limited, he understood and enjoyed cooking on occasion. It was something that had always pleased Patty, as she watched him adapt and find the right combination of foods to create excellent menus. Not many boys his age could do that - at least not beyond the basics of boiling water and making sandwiches. Alex was fully capable of doing so much more, and the teen was not afraid to explore it when the mood struck. The family enjoyed the evening, sitting back and relaxing as a family should... together.

It was during a mid-afternoon lull in the weather on Tuesday that Alex's cell rang. At first, anticipating it might be Brett, the teen pulled up short when saw it was from a number he did not recognize. Curious, he let the device time out and go to voice-mail, but then was surprised when he didn't get the usual notification. Roughly a minute afterwards, however, it rang again with the same number, and seeing it was from a local exchange, he gave in and answered it. "Hello?" He initially heard a scratchy-like sound on the other end, but then it fell silent. "Hello?" he repeated, although this time the teen lowered his voice somewhat. The sounds emanated again through the phone, but this time there was a clearer exchange, and within seconds he made out the younger-like voice of someone familiar.

"Is this A-Alex?" the voice spoke meekly.

"Yep, you've got me!" the teen answered, smiling as he suddenly suspected who the caller was. The next exchange confirmed it, as the young boy suddenly spoke again in a much firmer tone.

"Hi, Alex! It's me, Ethan. From camp, remember?"

"Of course, I remember you! How's it going dude?" Alex replied happily, relaxing and sitting back in his bean bag.

"So-so, I guess. How about you? Are you over camp shock and all? You know, seeing kids jumping and running around naked everywhere?" Ethan teased.

Alex laughed. "Yeah, I am, you goof-ball. How about you, though? Did you get over it?"

Ethan laughed as well, but lowered his voice somewhat. "It was cool, I think. Although, I wish there had been some girls stripping with us. Oh well, I guess we can't have everything."

Alex giggled and shook his head. "That day might come sometime though. Maybe not at camp, but somewhere anyway, one-on-one. I didn't know you were already interested in girls."

"Are you kidding? I mean, the guys were alright, fun even. But man, sometimes, you know..." Ethan paused and then whispered. "Sometimes I can get pretty horny thinking about either guys or girls."

Alex giggled again. "I understand, buddy. You want to know something? I guess I can, too."

"No shit?" Ethan exclaimed, still maintaining his whisper.

"No shit, man. I wouldn't hide it from you. Remember? I promised we could talk about anything," Alex replied.

"Man, that is awesome," the younger boy replied. "But you said it, right? Both boys and girls?"

"I think so, yeah." Alex hesitated, then added, "I'm still kind of learning some of this as I go, though. You understand that, right?"

"Yeah, I do," Ethan replied. "Don't worry man, I couldn't care less if you end up gay, bi or straight, honest. Just... don't be afraid to talk with me, okay? That means a lot, you know. I don't really have anyone much I can talk about sex stuff with."

"I haven't yet, have I?" Alex grinned. "We're cool, I promise. So, how did it go when you got home? Was your Dad as mad as you were afraid he might be?"

"Not far off, but then I managed alright," Ethan answered. "Grams helped me out with that, so we survived. Like I've told you before, you can probably imagine there's not a dull moment that goes on at home when he's there."

"I'll bet," Alex replied. He was uncertain if he should press for anything more, so instead the teen changed the subject. "So, are you ready for school to start?"

Surprisingly, a loud grunt came from the other end of the connection. "You mean prison? Hell yes, anything to get out of the hell-hole we've been cooped up in all summer! I mean, uh, forget I said that... Grams is okay, really. It's just home life that is kind of, well, rough sometimes, that's all."

Alex frowned. "Are you sure you're alright? Seriously? Where are you calling me from, anyway?"

"Yeah, I'm okay. I'm actually calling from my Grandma's right now. Pops dropped me and my sister off here Sunday, and we haven't heard from either him or Mom since." Ethan sighed. "I'm not sure, but I think something happened Saturday, because he came home all mad, slamming his fists on tables and walls. Yelling and screaming a lot with Mom, too. Then he pulled her out into the car and they went off down the road, somewhere to fight it out, I guess."

"Wow!" Alex practically whispered aloud. "They just left the two of you, like that?"

"Yeah, pretty much. Sunday morning, he came back about 10 or so, pulled us out of the bed and brought us here. Like I said, we're still here," Ethan responded.

Alex weighed this information, deciding what he could or should tell the boy. In the end, the teen thought maybe it would be better to not pass on the events from the diner - at least, not yet. "I'm sorry Ethan, honest. I hope he or your Mom gets back to you soon." It was all he could think to say for the moment.

"It's okay, Alex. Honest, we're used to it, so no big deal. Besides, like I said, the prison will be a lot cooler to get back to."

"Why do you call it that?" Alex asked, curious.

"Because that's what it's like! A prison for kids, you know?" Ethan laughed hard. "Haven't you heard or ever thought about it? See, the principal is like the warden, the teachers are the guards, and we're all the inmates, for whatever hours of the day they can keep us. Then, when it's time to come home, it's like we get probation or something to go home overnight before they round us all up again!"

It was good to hear his friend laughing, and Alex joined with him. "Nope, never heard that, but I guess I do see the similarities. What about the office people? You know, and the janitors and all, too?"

"They're just support people, like any big group needs. Right?" Ethan then scoffed. "I don't know, maybe it's not so much prison-like, but it is kind of goofy in that way."

"I understand," Alex replied, though he had no real basis to appreciate why the younger boy felt that way. He changed his tone, however, bringing their conversation back to his earlier query. "You promise me though, right? You're not, like, being abused or something? You really are doing okay?"

There was a pause before Ethan spoke again. "Don't worry about me, Alex. I admit, I've got a crappy home life, but I am doing okay. So is my sister. Just like you told me, I've been kind of watching out for her, too. Pops, he can be mean sometimes, but mostly he just yells a lot, you know? Mom, on the other hand..."

When he didn't continue, Alex broke in. "Your Mom, does he like, beat up on her or anything?" His voice was almost a whisper, and he knew he was taking a chance here, as this was crossing a very marked line in their friendship. "I'm not trying to be nosy, bro. Seriously, I just... I don't want you guys getting hurt, that's all."

"Don't worry about it, Alex. I trust you, but there's some things I don't know a lot about. Understand? I mean, both of my parents fight and argue a lot, but most of the time Mom keeps us all away from it. So, I don't know if he really gets that physical and all, other than I know he's slapped her sometimes." The voice suddenly sounded more cheerful. "Still though, if there's anything I ever need, I'll let you know. That's something I promise, okay?"

Alex nodded to himself in the silence that followed. "Okay Ethan, I believe you. Sorry, bud. I just... sometimes I think about you, your sister and everything."

"Hey, I wouldn't lie to you. I will reach out, if I ever need too, alright? Say, there is something I called you about, though. Do you guys know where Lonnie's Burgers is?" the younger boy asked.

Alex thought about it for a few seconds. "Um, yeah! I think Brett and I have been there a few times. What about it?"

"You have? Great! Uh, do you think you two could maybe come by tomorrow, around lunch time? I mean, it's one of Gram's favorite places to get burgers, and she told me this morning she's going to the grocery and stuff tomorrow, and that we could stop there afterwards for some grub!" Ethan explained.

"Well, maybe. What time do you think you would get there?" Alex asked.

"Um, maybe 12:30 to 1:00 or so? What do you think?"

Alex thought hard, then nodded. "Brett and I are supposed to go clean a van up tomorrow morning, but I think we should get done by 12 or so. Lonnie's is no more than a 10- or 15-minute bike ride, I think. So yeah, I think we could make it," he mused.

"YES!" Ethan whooped aloud, obviously pleased. He immediately changed his tone, however, to one of less excitement. "Uh, sorry about that. I'm just, I, uh, I'm happy, that's all!"

Alex laughed. "If that's happy, I'm not so sure if I want to see you excited then!" the teen teased. "Don't worry about it, though. We'll be there."

"Okay, cool. See ya, then!" the boy exclaimed, before quickly disconnecting the call. Alex was surprised at the rapid departure, but as he put the phone down, his thoughts suddenly turned to his new friend, and what must have happened that created this turn of events. He felt no remorse, as what happened at the diner was beyond anyone's control other than Harry Spalding's himself. It didn't mean, however, that he couldn't empathize with the rest of Spalding's family, and their predicament of having to deal with the short-tempered head of the household. It was that short temper, however, that concerned Alex. He didn't know the family before that first fateful meeting between the man and the teens, but what they were learning was beginning to shape a much more troubling picture.

Trouble was though, since then, the man's temper displayed every indication of getting much worse.

<<<<<<<<< _ >>>>>>>>>

"Hey, they're here! Over here, Grams!"

The voice, simultaneously breathless and excited, rang out over the small dining room of Lonnie's Burgers. The local shack was a much smaller place in comparison to the diner that Brett and Alex had visited only a few nights before. Approximately half the size overall, the main area still contained enough space for several booths, along with a few tables set up in the middle of the room. Upon hearing Ethan's voice, several people along with Alex and Brett turned their heads in the general direction of the entrance. Half skipping, half running, the younger boy quickly made his way toward them, while behind, an elderly lady and young girl of about 10 followed, although at a much slower and safer pace.

Ethan reached the table and swiftly raised his fist in mid-air, holding it for a fist bump with the older boys. They met it directly before the younger boy suddenly stopped short and observed a third person seated with them. He then paused and looked back at the teens with a questioning look.

"Hi, Ethan," Brett announced, giggling. "This is my sister, Gina. Gina, this Ethan, a boy we met at camp this summer." Brett purposefully left out Ethan's last name, not wanting his sister to prematurely connect it with the troublesome Spalding they had had recently, and a quick glance at Alex was enough to note that his best friend agreed.

As the older woman and young girl approached, Gina scooted over to make room for them. "Hi there! Want to sit by me?" The girl glanced up at her Grandmother, who smiled and gave her permission, after which she literally hopped into place next to Gina.

"Hi, I'm April," the young girl announced. Immediately she and Gina started talking with one another almost non-stop. Ethan, meanwhile, grinned at them before sitting down next to Alex, using the space created by the older teens. Looking up, Alex invited their grandmother to join them, which she did then by sitting with the girls.

"So, you're Alex! It's a pleasure to meet you, finally! And I believe you're Brett, right?" When Brett nodded, the woman smiled brightly. "Ethan has told me so much about being in camp, and how the two of you helped him get along and away from everything for the week. He even told me you boys taught him and several others how to swim!"

"Yes, ma'am, he was in our swimming group," Alex offered. "He was a quick learner, too. All of them were."

"Well, I believe it. We all went to the public pool, what was it, Ethan? Maybe two weeks ago?" the woman asked her grandson, who nodded. "He looked to me like a fish in the water, I tell you! You did a good job!" Just then the woman glanced around and lowered her voice. "When he told me that you might meet us today, I was rather hoping to run into you, as well as offer you my own heartfelt thanks. Ethan hasn't had a lot of experience in getting out very much. He needed that time to get away for a while."

"Yeah, we kind of heard about that a little, or at least figured some of it out," Brett answered for the group. "We liked having him around though, and he got along with the guys just fine." Ethan grinned, grateful for the praise as he extended the proverbial fist bump toward Brett again, and the older teen answered it.

"Grams is going to buy us all lunch today," the boy blurted out afterwards in his excitement. When he saw his Grandmother's look, however, he recoiled. "Uh, forget I said that guys..."

A sudden outbreak in laughter around the table broke the moment, as the woman shook her head. "Well, I told these two on the way here that I was thinking, if it wouldn't insult you, we might have a bit of lunch together to show our appreciation."

Alex grunted before glancing at Brett and his sister. "We're happy you're with us, ma'am, but you don't have to do that. We can pay for our food and everything. In fact, we were kind of celebrating Gina's last day with us, for the time being that is."

"Last day?"

"Gina has been helping us in our jobs some this summer, and with school starting on Monday, Brett and I were going to let her get some food and a banana split afterwards," Alex explained.

"What? A banana split? Hey, that's the first I heard about that! Yea!" Gina exclaimed, causing the others at the table to laugh again.

"Well, I think we can still do all that," the elderly lady replied, smiling. "I, uh, know a little about your cleaning business, as my son-in-law has had plenty to roar about it in these last few months." The woman used measured tones, and while addressing the boys, she silently moved her eyes toward her granddaughter who, at that moment, was absorbed in some indistinct conversation with Gina.

Alex got the message instantly. "Yeah, it's kind of helped us get through the summer and all. So..." The teen quickly diverted their discussion into other topics until their server arrived and took their orders. For the next hour or more, much laughing could be heard from the group as they had a hearty lunch, followed by various ice cream sundaes and treats all around. When the bill arrived, the woman glanced at it and then nodded, smiling. Promptly rising from the table, she announced, "I've got this, boys. Be back in a minute, okay? I need to go to the ladies' room anyway." Before either teen could object, she promptly disappeared.

Once she was out of sight, Ethan turned to the boys and whispered. "I know you two were at the barbecue place Saturday night. Pop was yelling and swearing afterwards the whole time, about how you two slipped through his fingers again and all. It was all mostly bullshit, but there was something else though, I think you two need to hear: he kept raving about how it's high time he did something about your... your, I don't know the word exactly. It sounded like insole, or..."

"Insolence?" Alex offered.

"Yeah, that's it!" Ethan nodded. "Whatever it means, at least be careful. Grams doesn't know about that, okay? Pops dropped us off when she wasn't home, so as far as I know, she hasn't talked to him or Mom any."

"Okay, no worries." Alex replied quietly, observing the youth closely. "By the way, insolence means being rude or disrespectful toward someone." Once again, a nagging sixth-sense told Alex that not all was as it seemed. "Are you both okay? You and April? I mean, seriously, are you two in any danger or anything?"

Ethan hesitated before replying. "I honestly think we are okay, Alex. Thanks for asking, but you have to understand - Pops has done this before, leaving us with Grams and all. Usually Mom comes and picks us back up eventually, though sometimes it can be as much as a week or more. Then when Pops comes home, he mumbles and grumbles a lot, but that's about the worst of it."

Alex sighed with relief before Brett spoke up. "You know how to reach out to us, right? You called Alex yesterday?" Seeing the boy nod, he added, "If you need us, for anything at all, then you call. Night or day, okay?"

"Thanks guys," Ethan acknowledged. "I just thought you ought to know about it, that's all. Pops, he can get pretty mean sometimes when people get under his skin, and I've got to tell you - he's got something poking up his ass hard with you two. He schemes things up with our uncle all the time, so you might want to really watch out. That's not a threat, it's just... I'm just saying..."

Alex smiled grimly. "You just wanted us to know. I understand perfectly, and thanks for the heads up." Just then, the sibling's grandmother returned.

"Well, that's all settled! You know Ethan, you ought to invite your friends to come over and visit sometime," the older lady remarked, then looked up. "I know he's a bit younger than you two are probably used to, but all the same, you are always welcome to come by the house anytime you know the children are there. I know they would welcome it."

"You have no idea," Ethan breathed, grinning widely.

Alex smiled before extending his hand toward the lady. "We'd be more than happy to, ma'am. Thanks for lunch, too. We really appreciate it."

Surprisingly, the lady blushed. "Oh, now, that? That was nothing, really." She looked at the two teens before returning her attention to her grandchildren. "Come now, you two. We need to be making our way home. There's talk of more storms coming through this evening, and we need to get some yard work done if we can, provided the grass has dried off enough. It was a pleasure meeting and spending some time with you, boys - and you too, Miss Gina!"

"It was good to meet you, too. Uh, would it be okay if I invited April over sometime, you know, just to get together for a while?" Gina asked.

Their grandmother smiled widely. "I think we would both welcome that!" After a few more pleasantries were exchanged, the trio moved off, leaving Alex and the Edwards to follow and gather outside.

Before mounting their bikes, Gina remarked, "April has been hit, guys. Like, abused-kind-of-hit."

Startled, Brett glanced at his sister. "How do you know?" he asked in a low voice.

Gina thought for a few seconds before responding. "Her napkin fell in the floor back there, and when she bent over to pick it up, there were these old streaks and bruises on her lower back." She looked up at Brett. "Not just simple ones, bro. The real thing."

Brett sat back on his bike seat as Alex mounted his own, reflecting. When he saw Alex's look of concern, the teen explained. "Um, about a year ago, one of Gina's friends was over at the house, spending the night. When they went to bed, Gina saw a lot of, you know, things, and went to get Mom. When they got the girl to finally talk about it, we found out she was being whipped, practically beaten by her Dad for years. It wasn't pretty, I tell you, so yeah, Gina would know what she's looking at, I think."

Alex whistled and then thought about that briefly. "We have to be careful here, guys. I know, someone needs to report this and all, but I can't help but think there must be something else going on, too. I mean, take their grandmother for example. Surely, you'd think she would report it, right? But if she hasn't, then why? She is definitely the rock that they are both leaning on to get through everything."

Brett nodded. "I see your point. But... what else could it be?"

"I don't know, but I think it's time we started searching for more information about the Spalding brothers, and what they're into," Alex stated simply, before making a face. "I know, our Dads have said to be wary and leave them alone and all, but after what Ethan told us today? I don't see how we can just sit back and do nothing, you know?"

"I agree," Brett replied, then filled Gina in on the gist of Ethan's warning to them, which she and April had not heard. "I don't like not knowing though, Alex - especially if there is something going down about us."

"Yeah, definitely." Alex studied briefly before shaking his head. "We'll just have to be discreet and keep our eyes open for now. There's only two days left for summer vacation anyway, and I don't know about you guys, but I intend to take a break."

"Sounds good to me. Maybe we can still get together some though, if you want. What's tomorrow look like for you?" Brett asked.

"Well, this afternoon I have to see some dentist that Mom set me up with for a cleaning, and then tomorrow she wanted us to go up into Indianapolis," Alex replied. Seeing Brett's crestfallen look, the teen lowered his voice. "Sorry, bro. After we get back though, if you want to get together, we can do something then." He glanced at Gina. "Even bug eyes can come," he teased, making Gina's eyes widen considerably.

"Seriously?" the girl asked, then seeing Brett's smile, she squealed. "That's earned you another big hug, bro two!"

Brett glanced and searched Alex's expression. "Do you know what you're getting into, if you invite her along?"

Alex laughed. "Not really, but I'm making this all up as I go, anyway. Tell you what, girl," he started, then hesitated, thinking aloud. "You can even spend the night, if our parents don't object. We'll fix you a pallet down at the foot of my bed, and we'll stay up and watch movies late. Do you think your Mom and Dad would go for that? A kind of end-of-summer ritual for the three of us? I know it would probably just be easier if I came up there with you guys, but then it wouldn't be as much of an adventure for you, would it? So, what do you think?"

"I'm sure they would," Brett offered, noting it was everything Gina could do to contain her excitement. As they started off toward home, Brett closed in on his friend while the girl rode several feet ahead of them out of earshot. "Again, are you sure about this? I mean, we won't be able to, you know..."

Alex glanced back. "Well, we didn't get to give her a proper treat today like we were supposed to, right? The way I see it, I can give up messing around for one night. Just having you with me again is plenty for the time being. Besides, do you see how excited she is?"

"Yeah, I do. Hey, we can still kind of cuddle up though, right?" Brett asked. Alex only grinned at him and exchanged a fist bump before pulling ahead.

The following Monday morning, Alex's alarm clock went off at 6:30. The teen, however, had already risen and showered, and was in the process of getting dressed when it sounded. The night before had been fitful in terms of sleep, as a level of apprehension and anticipation simultaneously began building within him. Despite the reassurances of Brett and his own parents, he was about to embark on a new adventure into totally unknown territory. The fact that children five and six years old were already introduced to their new life style and adjusted over the years, did not help his nerves considering he was doing the same - only ten years later. Those thoughts preoccupied him throughout the night, and after endless tossing and turning, he finally rose early and prepared for the day. The TV was on in the background with the morning news as he dressed, something so rare it would have surprised most anyone who knew him. He sat quietly, pulling on his shirt for the day as he watched the weather forecast, happy to see that more seasonable weather was in store for the Ohio valley in the coming week. With lower humidity, and highs only expected to be in the 80s, the teen knew that would help tremendously as he loitered about from place to place.

Donning his sneakers, Alex then returned to his bathroom and brushed his hair, all the while observing himself candidly. He had agreed to do this, knowing full well why his parents had offered it. They had always been watching out for his interests in the long term, and in turn he was sure the two had their reasons for thinking now would be a good time to break from the usual tradition. The teen could not help but agree with their initial reasoning, but at times he wondered if there was anything more that they might be withholding from him. He held no ill will towards that decision, knowing he could have fully retreated and said no, and his mother would have picked up the baton and continued to provide his education as she did before. But after meeting Brett, and getting to observe more of the outside world than his previously secluded life had allowed, Alex had concluded maybe it wasn't a bad thing at all. Gathering with people, and interacting with both boys and girls his age in a whole new structured way, was probably a decent thing he needed to be involved with. For some reason though, the idea still made him apprehensive. Would the world accept him for who and what he is? For that, he was unsure.

Sighing heavily, Alex tried to calm himself, shutting his eyes and ears to the outside world and counting to ten. Surprisingly, when he opened to look around again, it seemed to have helped him gain more focus and, looking over himself one last time in the mirror, he concluded he was as ready as he was ever going to get. Walking back through his room, he turned the TV off and then grabbed his backpack, already pre-packed the day before, and headed toward the stairs, turning the lights off behind him.

Arriving in the kitchen, the teen was surprised to find his mother already there, fixing what appeared to be a stack of pancakes and sausages. "Hi honey," Patty announced as he walked through the doorway, before stifling a yawn. Setting his pack down, Alex crossed the floor and gave his mother a quick hug. With a smile afterwards, she motioned for her son to have a seat at the table. "I thought for a first day at school, maybe I'd get up and see you off." Seeing his look of curiosity, she paused to explain. "I heard the shower going. I take it you didn't sleep very well, did you? You probably had a belly full of jitterbugs, right?"

"Kind of, I guess," Alex replied as he sank down into his usual place at the table. "I mean, maybe not so much nervousness, but yeah, it was kind of hard to fall asleep."

Patty sat her spatula down and walked over, carrying a saucer filled with sausages which she placed on the table. "Well, try to relax, kiddo. I bet you'll get in there and end up teaching them a thing or two," she told him encouragingly. "I know, it doesn't help hearing us tell you that, especially over and over. Seriously though - you've already got this licked. Today will be just fine, and so will tomorrow, and the day after, and the next. You'll see."

Alex looked up at her. "It always helps, Mom. I might not show it sometimes, but it does. You and Dad both know me the best, and maybe by now Brett does, too. Having you guys here and helping me? There is no price I can put on that."

Patty gave her son another quick hug before returning to the stove. "That's sweet of you, but you'll see honey. It'll be a cinch," she intoned, before extracting the last of the pancakes from the skillet. "Would you like juice or milk this morning?"

Alex observed the food as she set yet another platter on the table along with a bottle of maple syrup. "Um, well, pancakes usually go better with milk, I think."

"Then milk it is!" Patty replied promptly, obtaining two glasses and filling them with milk from the refrigerator. As she sat down, she casually remarked, "So, you're going to ride a school bus for the first time ever. Are you going to walk up and get on with Brett and Gina?"

"That's the plan. They said it will run about 7:20 or so." Glancing at the clock, Alex nodded. "At least a half hour or so away."

"I think that's excellent. I do hope you get some of your classes with Brett, too. I know it would be nice to have a friend who could help you out in the beginning, and you can do the same in return that way." Patty placed a block of butter on her son's plate, which Alex accepted and separated it into slices, placing them between his two pancakes. "They had a tentative schedule made out for you the other day when your father and I met with the counselor, but after we talked, she said she was going to make a few changes. So, we don't really know what or where you'll end up with, initially."

"Yeah, that's what you told me," Alex acknowledged. They sat in the solitude of the quietness, eating their breakfast while the time passed. When Alex finished, he rose and carried his dishes over to the sink, before glancing at the clock. Seeing it was nearing the time for him to be on his way, he picked up his backpack. "Well, thanks for breakfast, Mom. I guess here goes, so wish me luck," he commented nervously. "Uh, are you working today?"

"Yes, your Dad and I won't be home until around six or so tonight. If you want to get off the bus and stay with the Edwards for a while, just send me a text or something, and I'll pick you up on the way home," Patty replied, before scooting her chair back and rising. "Alex, honey, believe me - you've got this. It'll be fun." She moved over to him and placed her hands on his shoulders. "It might take a week or two for everything to smooth out, as the first days of any school year can get a little hectic here and there. Once it does though, you'll have a blast. I know I did when I was your age."

That remark made Alex snort. "Mom, stop it!"

"What? I meant it!" Patty replied, feigning mock indignation.

"You always told us though, you hated having to get up so early in the mornings, and that Grandma always nagged at you for running late!" Alex protested, grinning. "Remember, she said sometimes she would have to put an ice cube in your underwear to get you moving!"

Patty blushed, but laughed. "Yes, there were a few times..." Her voice trailed off as she observed her son. "Well, maybe so, but once I made it to class and got awake, I always had fun!" the woman relented, then shook her head. "Oh, alright, you got me - but I DID enjoy school for the most part, and I'm sure you will, too."

"Okay, okay!" Alex gave in, before leaning in and kissing her on the cheek. "I'll do my best, and then tell you guys all about it tonight."

"Your Dad and I will make sure you do just that!" she teased. Alex then smiled and headed out the door.

The walk up to the end of the Edwards' driveway required only a few minutes, and after checking his watch, Alex saw he was arriving with still about five minutes to spare. He thought about walking on up to the house, but just then he glanced up and saw two figures come around from the rear corner and head toward him. Behind them, he also saw Brenda step into view and lean up against the house, watching her brood as they made their way down the driveway. She saw Alex in the distance and waved to him, which he returned with an enthusiasm he certainly didn't feel at the moment. Still he smiled and waited for the duo to approach.

As soon as he was in earshot, Brett called out. "Are you ready for the first day of the rest of your life?"

Alex's eyebrows squeezed together before he grunted. "What are you talking about? Every day you wake up is the first day of the rest of your life!"

Brett sighed deeply as he stopped next to him. "Spoil sport," the boy grumbled as he bumped shoulders with his friend. Alex smiled just then, as the bump reminded him that more than their friendship was still there and alive. Gina noticed it, too, and moved over to lean up against the teen. Though she had turned 12 that summer, and was definitely showing signs of maturing, she still had that smaller sister presence that the teen loved. With her head tilted back into Alex's chest, she stood still, and Alex draped his arms around her shoulders. When she yawned, Alex lowered his voice.

"What's wrong, didn't you get enough sleep?"

"Never," came the curt reply, before she then yawned for a second time. "It's the only thing I really hate about school. I'll never understand why we have to get up so early, or why the days have to be so long!"

Alex nodded, then glanced at Brett. "How long does the bus ride usually take?"

"For Gina about 20 minutes, then another 5 to 10 for us. They drop the middle school students off before the high school," Brett explained. "Both schools are almost next door to each other."

Minutes later, the trio heard a rather large and ominous engine noise approaching. Turning, Alex saw the familiar yellow outline of a vehicle coming into view, and knew this was it. Gina stepped away and walked up beside her brother, but not without grasping Alex's hand and pulling him along behind her. It was another small gesture that not only calmed the teen, but also made Alex smile inwardly.

As the vehicle approached and ground to a halt, its yellow and then red lights flashing distinctly, the trio made their way aboard. The bus driver, a tall but middle-aged black man, eyed Alex pleasantly. "Don't think I've seen you on here before. What's yer name, son?" the man asked, pulling a clipboard from its holder along the side.

"Alex, Alex Branham, sir."

"Ah, here you are, yep," the man replied after a few seconds. "Says here though, you're supposed to be... what, a couple of houses down that-a-way, I think. Right?" the driver asked, looking out and pointing toward Alex's driveway. Before Alex could reply, however, Brett spoke up.

"He's just getting on with us for a day or two, Mitch. Being kind of new to all this," the teen explained, to which the man glanced up and nodded.

"I can permit that for a couple of days, alright. Be forewarned though, I'll need to pick you up and let you out at your own place, unless I get a letter or something from your parents saying it's okay for you to double up with this comedic duo." He was grinning, and as Gina took a seat behind him, she stuck her tongue out at the man, which made Mitch laugh.

"We'll get it," Brett replied. "Just give us a day or two, though. Say, can we like, write one letter? You know, just let it say it's okay for the three of us to use each other's driveway? I know we can get both of our parents to sign off on it," Brett asked.

Mitch shrugged. "I don't see why not, that'll suit me just fine. Less paperwork to keep up with in the end," the man drawled.

Brett then jerked his head at Alex, and both moved off down the aisle toward the middle of the bus, before choosing and turning into an empty seat. As the old bus began moving again, Alex took stock that there were not very many people on board yet. Brett noticed his curiosity and guessed correctly at what his friend was thinking. "It'll get more crowded before we get to the schools, trust me. Sometimes, some of the kids even have to stand in the aisle for the last mile or so."

"Really? I thought that was illegal or something," Alex mused, to which his friend shrugged.

"I think if you're within a certain distance of the school, they're allowed to make exceptions," Brett explained. He then sat back in the seat and leaned inward against Alex, who was presently sitting next to the window and watching the landscape roll by. The two said nothing more for the entire trip, but Brett had discreetly placed his backpack in his lap. With it overlapping the opening between them, the teen placed his hand underneath into the space, where he could grasp Alex's own hand which was there. From time to time, he gave it an encouraging squeeze, which would make Alex smile as he returned the gesture. In a way, the teen was thankful for the silence between them, doubting he could carry on any kind of a conversation just then. More than once, he silently chastised himself for being so nervous, and took a deep breath to try and not let it show. Shifting his own backpack so that the gesture between himself and his best friend was hidden, he stared out the window. Their holding hands helped to keep him at ease through the rest of the trip, and for that he was grateful.

Some 25-minutes later, the bus pulled into the middle school's parking lot and dropped its tally of students off just outside the entrance. Gina had turned and gave a slight wave back to the two boys before disembarking, which once again made Alex smile. She had looked directly at him, and he had nodded back, thinking once again how lucky he was to have the young lady be so friendly toward him. He felt Brett squeeze his hand again, which caused him to glance and see the smile that met him. "Are you two planning on going steady or something?" he asked, teasing.

"Not in my lifetime, I doubt," Alex whispered. "I told you what she said to me that night though, remember? 'I love you, but I'm not **in** love with you.'"

"I'm just picking on you, Alex. Yeah, she told me that, too," Brett whispered, before sitting back. "Relax man, you're about as rigid as a two-by-four is straight!"

"Sorry," Alex replied, sheepishly. When the group had finished offloading, the doors closed and the bus began pulling back into the exit lane leading out of the parking lot. "Hey, I just noticed something. Are there no little kids on this route or anything?"

Brett shook his head. "Grade school runs on a completely different schedule, and sometimes completely different bus routes. They don't start school until 8:40, so they get to sleep longer."

"Really? Then, you're saying that not everyone goes to school on the same time schedule then?"

"Yep. We're the unlucky ones now, having to get up almost an hour earlier," Brett remarked. "For us, kindergarten through sixth are considered grade school, although there's a big thing going on about making it change to grade five. For now, grades seven and eight are considered middle school, and ninth through twelfth are high school. Middle school and high school are on the same busing schedule, and grade school runs almost an hour later." Brett rubbed his nose before adding, "I think it has something to do with saving money, too. They don't have to have as many buses to cover all the routes by doing it that way."

Alex thought about that. "Okay, makes sense, although... never mind. Then Gina, she's in seventh now?"

"Yep," Brett acknowledged, before yawning and stretching his legs. Moments later the old bus pulled into the parking lot of the already familiar high school campus, one that Alex recognized having visited when he and Brett were going to camp. This time, however, the parking lot was filled with various cars, presumably those being driven by the 11th and 12th year students who had their driver's license. A number of vehicles were also lined up at the entrance, dropping off various students by the front door.

As Brett and Alex disembarked and made their way along the sidewalk, Brett turned to his friend. "Listen, just stay with me for the time being. I bet we already have the same homeroom anyway, since our last names are so close together. Alphabetically, I mean." Alex nodded, following as the two wound their way through the mass of students also arriving. As they entered the building, loud conversations came from all parts of the great hall, as groups of students were gathered here and there, some moving slowly along while others stood about catching up with friends they had presumably missed out with over the summer. After moving a short distance, Brett eventually led them to a stairwell and started moving up, Alex close behind him. When they arrived at the top, Brett paused and came face to face with an adult standing there, who was guiding students to their homeroom assignments. "Branham and Edwards, both 10th grade?" Brett asked simply when he had the man's attention.

Glancing briefly at his paper, the presumed teacher nodded and hooked a thumb behind him. "Second door on the right, both of you, to Mrs. Johnson's room." Brett and Alex both thanked him and made their way to the door. Inside, several students were just getting settled as a bell gave off a short burst in the hallway.

"That little two-second burst is what we all call the two-minute warning," Brett explained in low tones. "So, every time you go to homeroom, or your next period class, there is a full, five-second bell that signals the end of the current period. That's when you then get 10 minutes to go to the bathroom, locker, or whatever you need to do before your next class, see. When time reaches the eight-minute mark, you get the warning bell again, kind of like a signal to tell you there are 2-minutes remaining before you get the full bell again. By then, you're supposed to be in class. If you don't make it in time, the teacher can count you tardy if they want to." Brett made a face. "A lot of teachers let you slip by for the first minute or two, especially if they know you're coming out of gym. That's because 10-minutes is a hard push to get dressed and all, then move from one corner of the school to another. Some teachers though, you've got to watch out for - they can be hard asses about it all."

"I'll... try to remember that," Alex answered quietly, causing Brett to grin at him as they chose a table to share.

"Hey, it's no sweat, really. The school isn't that big, and ten minutes is comfortable enough," he explained. "Even if you take a shower, we usually get the last 5 to 10 minutes of gym class to do that and get dressed, so you can get as much as 15 to 20 minutes overall. The only thing that kind of messes with anyone is if they have to, like, go to the bathroom for the long haul. You know, the stink-it-up kind. Ten minutes overall works for some, but it isn't always enough time for those cases."

"What happens then?" Alex asked.

"Nothing really, unless you do it consistently with the same class. Like I said, it's really not as bad as it sounds."

Alex nodded and then took a moment to observe the classroom more closely. They were in a science lab from the look of things, as the walls were lined with shelves and cabinets containing a wide variety of instruments and books. Instead of desks, the open space in the center contained a number of tables aligned into three rows, extending from the front of the room to the back. At the head of the arrangement was a larger desk along with some filing cabinets, properly fashioned for use by a teacher, he thought. The walls, where not being covered by the various shelves, contained a variety of posters covering different, science-related topics.

When the full bell rang, a middle-aged but rather attractive woman stepped into the room and walked over to the desk. "Okay everyone, settle down," she announced with a clear, high-pitched voice. Alex noted with amusement her deep southern drawl, and how it made her seem almost out of place for their area of the country. "I am Mrs. Johnson, and you, I believe, are my 10th-grade homeroom students, correct?" As the crowd of students quieted, some acknowledged her directly, but one student suddenly stood up.

"Did you say tenth? Sorry, ma'am, I'm supposed to be in 11th year. I thought something seemed out of place!" the boy announced, blushing.

As the class laughed, Mrs. Johnson smiled and nodded. "That's quite alright. Your homeroom would probably be on this side, three doors down the hall. If not, Mr. Sturgeon I'm sure will help you figure it out." After the young man thanked her and exited, the woman turned to the rest of the class. "Is there anyone else out of place?" When no one answered, she moved to her desk and picked up a stack of forms. "Now, for those of you registered, I'm supposed to apologize to you about your schedules. The school usually mails the tentative ones out before now, but for some reason the network administrators have been battling constant hardware breakdowns for the last few weeks, and they're still trying to get it all straightened out. So, in the meantime, I have your schedules here. As I call out your name, just hold up your hand and I'll bring them to you."

As Mrs. Johnson began distributing their scheduled outlines, it became clear they were not in alphabetical order. It was not until she was near the end of the stack before she called out Brett's name, and then delivered his paperwork to him. Two remained in her hand then, and when she observed the name on the first paper, she shook her head. "Tsk, tsk, she's transferred out! Behind the times, I think..." the woman muttered before reaching the last packet. "Branham, Alex." Alex sighed in relief and raised his hand. For a moment, he was afraid he had been left out altogether. Reaching out, he took the packet quietly and then both he and Brett began comparing their paperwork side-by-side.

"Hey, look!" Brett hissed. "We have most all of our classes together! Biology, World History, English - even Phys Ed and Geography! We do have different math classes though... Oh wow, holy..." Brett caught himself, but needn't have worried. The entire class was already abuzz, students chattering with one another over the details of their own schedules. Mrs. Johnson had walked away and over to the other side of the room, where one of the students, it seemed, had not received her schedule. "You have Advanced Math and Trig? That's like, college level, I think!" Brett continued. "See Alex? I told you that you were smart!"

Alex could not grasp the significance, however. "I don't get it, though. Don't you have math, too?"

Brett nodded. "Sure, I do! I have Geometry, though. I bet you placed high enough on your tests that they advanced you up. You remember, don't you - the placement tests? They probably thought you were ready for something more progressive. Mr. Richardson teaches that course, too. You'll like him, I think. He's one of the older teachers here, but he's awesome. Everybody likes him!"

Alex nodded, then compared their schedules again. Brett was right - most of their schedule matched up at the same times and rooms. "That's six classes, though, for a whole day. Do they usually pack them in like that?"

"Yeah, sometimes, but it isn't usually that bad. See, there was this thing last year, where the school board and the State of Indiana wanted to eliminate study halls and stuff. Otherwise most kids would have five classes plus a study period." Brett paused, thinking. "It had something to do with trying to bring our grades and crap up. You know, make them more in line with the national standards. Most parents are against it though, because our schools are pretty much already even with the national average." The teen grunted. "This kind of looks like someone trying to force it to happen anyway, whether we need it or not. Probably for political reasons. That won't go over well, I think." Brett suddenly stopped and turned around and asked something of teens directly behind them, before nodding and turning back to Alex. "Yep, they've got six periods, too." Just then his shoulders sagged. "A lot of people are going to have problems with this, just wait and see." Observing Alex's reaction, he stopped. "What?"

"I didn't realize you were that caught up in education and politics like this," Alex remarked, truly impressed.

"Me? I don't know much about it at all, really. I just remember the uproar everyone was having last year. A lot of it went down a couple of months before you moved in, I think. Parents were arguing that with increased workloads like this, the system would probably see grades slacking off instead of improving. There's already a big debate going on about the homework the schools are giving out." Brett shook his head. "I remember a few times last year, where Gina came home with so much work, it took her until nine or ten at night to get it all done - IF she got it done. Mom and Dad were pretty upset when that happened."

"That does seem kind of bad," Alex commented.

"It's horrible. We all went to a special PTA meeting once, to stand up with other parents and protest, but the school more or less told everyone the kids were being lazy and lackluster in their classes. Their stance was if kids were not going to do their work in class, then they'd have to send it home to be completed." Brett scoffed. "You should have heard the tirade that came after that. There was a lot of shouting and heated, uh, debate before the meeting ended."

"Did the school do anything then?" Alex asked.

"Not really. The compromise was that teachers would be given a schedule of which days they could or could not make homework assignments, but it didn't do a lot of good. The schedule was never made, and the kids were forced to inherit whatever the teachers wanted them to do anyway. In the end, the teachers ended up adding more work to make up for lost time. There have been a lot of heated debates, I think, but no one seemed to listen." Brett made a face. "I think all of it was brought about because the state passed higher minimum levels of competency for everything. The county was forced to try and make themselves looking proactive, all in the name of bettering education. Instead, it worsened it, I think. If I remember right, the end-of-term results were lower than expected."

Alex studied on this little tidbit before slumping back in his seat. "Crap! I wish I had known this sooner."

"Sorry bro, I guess I should have told you," Brett replied sheepishly. "We'll handle them though, especially since we get to share classes." Alex just nodded slowly, so Brett took the initiative again, changing the subject. "Look, lunch is at the beginning of 4th period, and we get a whole 30-minutes then. That's plenty of time to eat and get a break. Then by the time we make 5th period, we're heading to Gym, and look - it's with Mr. Reed. I like him the most, because he lets a lot of his classes do what they want most of the time, as long as he doesn't catch people sitting around on their butt. We do have certain things to go through at times, but he's a cool coach, believe me." Brett looked up. "I guess that's a lot different than you were used to though, huh?"

Alex shrugged. "Kind of, but I'll get used to it." He sat back. "I'm not afraid, just - I didn't realize there was so much turmoil going on in all of this."

"I can understand that. I promise, I wasn't trying to keep you in the dark or anything though," Brett intoned.

"I believe you," Alex replied.

As Brett studied the list again, he mused aloud. "You'll like most all of these classes, Alex. They're all with good teachers, except for Mrs. Denham. She teaches all the Biology and Chemistry classes. She's one of those who is kind of cranky a lot; you know, has a chip on her shoulder and all, but meh. We have her together, so we'll survive."

As the morning progressed, both boys were separated during first period, as that was their assigned math classes. The one good thing that came from it though, was when Alex discovered they were only located across the hall from each other. The teen also discovered that Mr. Richardson did seem to be an easy-going and friendly gentlemen, who took the time to talk with them about what to expect in the coming semester. He explained he would treat the class like a college course, but with the extended hours of instruction, he would take it at a slower pace. That, he said, would give the students an opportunity to adjust to a different way of learning. Alex found that interesting, and as he listened, he could already recognize some of the topics the man told them he planned to take them through. "So, will it be kind of like in college then? Like a real course?" someone asked. The man reaffirmed he would try to make it like that, so that they could learn to prep for an education after leaving high school, should they decide to pursue it.

If this was representative of his remaining classes, Alex thought perhaps his apprehension was all for nothing. By the end of the period, the man had made it around to almost each individual, getting to know them on a one-by-one basis. When he reached the last row, the bell prevented him from finishing with the last four, including Alex. "You four, we'll get together tomorrow before we start hitting the books. Sound like a winner?" Alex quickly nodded and smiled, before rising from his seat and joining the mass of bodies making their way back into the hall.

Meeting Brett, Alex grinned and gave his best friend a thumbs up. "I think I might actually like that class," he commented as they turned to descend the stairwell.

"What did I tell you? Richardson is one of the best teachers the school has got, and he's a veteran at that. He knows his stuff though, and he teaches it really well. I had him last year for Introduction to Algebra," Brett replied.

They both headed toward their Biology class, but stopped in mid-stride when the loudspeakers squealed, and an announcement was then broadcasted. **"Attention, could I get Brett Edwards and Alex Branham to report to the central office, please? Brett Edwards and Alex Branham, please report to the central office. Thank you!"** Alex watched as Brett glanced up at the nearby speaker, before meeting his friend's expression. "Sheesh, I wonder what that's all about?" the teen mused. Glancing back to Alex, he then shrugged and started leading them both off in a different direction.

When the teens entered the outer office, the two-minute warning bell rang throughout the school. Many in the crowd gathered themselves up to disperse, and thus the boys had to stand back out of the way while most of the room emptied. When they approached the counter, an older, stout-looking lady looked up at the two and smiled. "And what can we do for you two fine gentlemen?"

"Uh, somebody paged us to come to the office, ma'am. I'm Brett Edwards, and this is Alex Branham."

The older woman glanced at them briefly before her expression turned somewhat grim-looking. She rose from her stool and walked over to the end of the counter, before opening the bar that separated the inner office from the outer area. "Mr. Green wants to see you two, I think. If you'll wait in the conference stall, I'm sure he'll be with you shortly."

Puzzled, Brett moved to comply, with Alex following close behind. As he drew even with the woman, however, Brett stopped to address her in a lowered voice. "Is there something wrong, Ms. Harper?"

The woman regarded them before she answered. "I really don't know, to tell you the truth. I just know the Sheriff is here, and he and the Principal want to talk with you both," she responded, equally using a lowered tone. "They're in the vice-principal's office now, but they should join you in just a minute."

As both boys entered the room, Ms. Harper closed the door behind them, leaving them to mull over the situation. "What do you reckon this is all about?" Brett murmured yet again, clearly puzzled. Alex just shook his head. If his friend was perplexed by this, then he himself was sure to be equally so.

Thankfully, the two teens did not have to wait long. No sooner than they had taken a seat at the table, the door reopened and three men walked through before it closed again. Two were outfitted in uniforms belonging to the county Sheriff's department, while the third wore a reasonably fitted grey suit. That man rounded the table as both lawmen took a seat. When he stood across from the teens, he opened the dialog. "Thank you, boys, for coming in right away. I'm Principal Green, and this is Sheriff Mackie, and his deputy ... I believe it was Deputy Scott, right?" When the man nodded his confirmation, he returned his attention to the two teens. "I'll get right to it, boys. It seems the Sheriff here has a warrant to take you downtown for questioning."

Both boys gasped in surprise. "Wh-What the heck for?" Brett asked.

Sheriff Mackie leaned forward. "Well, you see, I have here 11 sworn complaints filed against you two. They come from individuals claiming you boys were both derelict and destructive in providing proper services to their vehicles over the last couple of weeks. One individual says he paid for a certain level of detailing to be performed, but after leaving you alone for an hour or more, he came back to inspect your work and you were nowhere to be found. When he checked his van, the seats were knifed and shredded, and someone had spray-painted the dashboard and console."

Alex sat back in his seat, looking incredulous. "You're serious," he intoned quietly.

"Oh, yes. And here, this is from another individual who complained about finding mud soiled into her carpets, much like you'd find at a dirty construction site. And this one, it's from someone who said they confronted you about throwing dirty water and sludge in their floor boards, but you laughed and hopped on your bikes and took off." Sheriff Mackie looked at them hard. "These are pretty serious charges, boys. One person drove their vehicle over to the station just this past Saturday, and showed one of my deputies the marked-up dashboard, cut seatbelts and more."

"We - we've never done anything like that, to any vehicle we've ever cleaned!" Alex stated. "In fact, with only one exception, we've never cleaned anything for people at all. Instead, what we did all summer was work for some of the used car lots around the Southeast end of town."

Sheriff Mackie leaned back in his chair and studied them both. "So, you're denying all of this," he stated, setting the stack of reports on the table.

"Yes sir, we are," Brett spoke up, a level of annoyance and anger building within him. "I mean, come on, doesn't that sound kind of odd, if not to the extreme?"

"I don't know..." Sheriff Mackie began, but then shook his head. "Boys, I have 11 sworn complaints here. That's an unusually high number, unless they're equated with a group of kids acting out, I guess. All of them finger the two of you, though. Whether it's you personally or even a business, that's quite a large number of infractions to contend with, wouldn't you agree? Then, when you include that one of them was witnessed by one of my deputies down at the station, that increases the level of suspicion. Each one of these-"

"Can I see them, Sheriff?" Alex suddenly asked, sitting forward. When the man hesitated, Alex explained. "I just wondered if any of the names would be familiar, that's all." The man hesitated, but then passed the stack over for the teen to inspect. The boy quickly glanced at each of the complaints, and then frowned when he set the last one back down. "I don't recognize any of them, though I have to admit they seem kind of odd in another way."

"What way is that?" the Sheriff asked curiously.

Alex sat quietly for a moment before he spoke again. "Well, did you notice the dates, sir? The complaints, they're all filed over a two-day period, specifically last Wednesday and Thursday. Two days, really, and actually 8 of them were on Wednesday, while the other 3 were on Thursday."

Sheriff Mackie scratched his head, but then immediately caught on. "Well, now, I agree. That does seem to be a little odd." He took the stack back and started to quickly note the times, confirming what Alex had deduced. "All of them also purport to having happened last week, too." He looked up and sighed. "Well, I'm sorry but, although that is somewhat odd, I don't know about-"

"Could I ask something else, Sheriff?" Alex blurted out, surprising both Brett and the principal. Immediately Alex blushed. "I'm sorry sir, I really didn't mean to interrupt you."

The man stared at him a few seconds, and then nodded. "Sure son, go ahead."

"Well," Alex began, hesitating as he started thinking fast. "I kind of wonder, other than for the one person who your deputy says he saw in person, did anyone, like, check out the names or anything of the other complaints?"

Surprise registered on the Sheriff's face as he assessed the teen. "Now, why would that matter, you reckon?" the deputy spoke for the first time, leaning against the wall near the door.

Sheriff Mackie seemed to agree, but was obviously reserved. "Is there a reason, son?" When Alex didn't speak up right away, Principal Green rose and walked around to take a seat next to the teenager.

"What is it, Alex? What are you thinking?" When Alex looked deep into the eyes staring at him, the man grimaced. When he spoke, however, his tone was gentle. "Come on, you can tell us. We're not going to bite your head off, I promise."

Alex sighed before reaching out and pulling one of the complaints toward him again. "It's just, this isn't the first time something like this has happened. Earlier this summer, my Dad had to argue with a man who came to our house, fishing for information on me and Brett." He studied the paper. "He made up some story about how someone had complained about work we did for him, and he was trying to track us down." He suddenly glanced up to the Sheriff. "It's a little different, but it just seems to be too similar, too coincidental, doesn't it? And look at some of the names. Not that I have anything against names for people, but some of them, well, they're kind of out in left field, aren't they? There's a Jason Alexander, and a Wilford Brimley. There's even a Jennifer somebody, I've already forgotten, but I recognized her last name as being like the actress from Kentucky. Jennifer Lawrence, I think." Alex sighed, and then summed up his thoughts. "I think I would be interested in hearing if these were people who actually did make complaints, or if they even exist at all. Does that make sense?"

Sheriff Mackie studied momentarily before leaning forward again. He had already assessed the teen as being highly intelligent, and this furthered his conviction of it. Not once had the boy said anything out of line or unreasonable, especially given the surprise he expressed with the inquiry being truly genuine. Most teenagers, when confronted with this, would have shown or even spilled their guilt long before now, or demanded to have their parents present. Not these two, however. Instead, this young man was actually analyzing what had happened, and finding several holes in the storyline that allayed their suspicions. The man grunted and then picked up his own copy of another complaint from the list. "I have to admit, that would seem reasonable enough to me," he mused, before pulling a cell phone from his pocket. "Let's just try this one," he continued, as he dialed in the number and waited. All eyes were upon him when he suddenly looked up in surprise. Pulling the receiver from his ear, he switched the device to its internal speaker. " have dialed is not a valid number. Please check the number and try again If you feel you have reached this recording in error..."

"I'll be damned," the man whispered. Pulling off the next three from the stack, he handed them to the deputy. "Here Sam, take these and call the numbers up. Mr. Green, could you spare a moment to try a couple as well?" For the next five minutes or so, all three men began dialing the various phone numbers associated with each complaint. By the time they had finished, all three men had had identical results to the first call.

As they each looked onward, Sheriff Mackie placed his hands on the table. "Okay son, you've got me. I must admit, it's not our usual policy to verify complaints until we've talked with all the parties involved, together. We just assumed that, since we were unsure of your whereabouts, we would probably find you here this morning and then we would question you."

"But... that would mean," Mr. Green started, but stopped as the Sheriff emphatically nodded.

"Yes, it would mean we took a step out of turn, and I will be the first to admit that." The man sighed heavily. "Well, what's done is done for the time being." Turning to address Alex, he observed the teen intently. "I'm curious though, whatever gave you the idea for that? Moreover, who is this mysterious character you say your father had a round with?"

Another interlude of awkward silence followed, before Alex replied. "Um, are you aware of the incident a week ago last Saturday, at a barbecue diner over on the west side?"

Sheriff Mackie's eyes opened wide. "Yes, old man Pedigo's place, right? I know it quite well, and yes, I read a report of something happening there." The man's eyes then grew narrow. "Spalding? Is that who you think your father was dealing with?"

Alex glanced at Brett briefly, then cleared his throat. For the next ten minutes, he explained how they had both started a cleaning service for local used car lots, and crossed with Spalding early on when they went to pay him a visit. In turns, he and Brett then explained how the man had tried to hijack their business by cheapening their prices, and how Alex had put a stop to it by getting up and leaving. The man followed them outside though, and words were exchanged before things got somewhat ugly. All summer long since then, they had been dodging Spalding and his brother until the night at the diner, when Harry suddenly appeared at their table.

Sheriff Mackie scratched his head again. "Well, horse-shit, fellers," the man exclaimed quietly under his breath. "I have to tell you, you two are up against a hard bull! Spalding has a record down at the office that would probably fill two or three pages. All misdemeanors, but still rough, mostly dumb stuff. The biggest similarity though, is that the man has one hellacious temper, about as nasty as they come." Sitting back, the man crossed his arms. "So, you think this man, or an accomplice of his, set you up with all this?"

Alex blushed timidly. "It's the only thing that makes any sense to me, sir. I mean..." Alex stopped, unable to complete the thought, but just then he didn't have to.

"He's been bullying us every time we've met him, Sheriff. Threatening he's going to get even with us," Brett offered.

"Well, for the namesake of it, I happen to agree with you. This is not something I would put past the man, I'll tell you that," Mackie concluded.

"So, what do you want to do, Sheriff?" Principal Green asked, after another brief silence.

The man looked up before sighing. "Well, first thing is first - we need to totally vet these complaints out, including the one who brought their vehicle by to be inspected. That deputy will be on duty in a few hours or so. If they all turn out to be bogus, then you boys are off the hook. I guess to be fair though, I should vet your story as well. Can you give me any names of these car lots you've been working for all summer?"

Alex smiled and then proceeded to open his backpack. From inside, he withdrew his and Brett's business notebook and, upon opening it to the first page, turned it around for the Sheriff to read. "These are the seven clients we've been doing our work for here in Greensburg, starting in late-May of this year, I think. Some of them might have been early June, though."

Mackie examined them closely. "You said there was one exception, right? Is that one listed here?"

"No, sir. That was our next-door neighbor, Mr. and Mrs. Rivers. I think his name is Alan, but I'm not sure about his wife's name, to tell the truth. I want to say Cecilia, but..."

"That's okay, son. And these neighbors, what did they have you do?" the Sheriff asked.

"Oh, sorry! Um, they were going on a vacation trip, along the East coast I think, and they asked if Brett and I would clean their car up for them before they left," Alex explained.

Sheriff Mackie smiled and nodded. "Believe it or not, I happen to know the Rivers. They go to the same church downtown where I attend, and yes, they did recently take off for a few weeks to go up and down the East coast." Looking up, he indicated the page. "And their names are Alan and Cecilia. Would it be okay if we make a copy of this page?"

Alex and Brett both smiled at the man, before Alex pushed the notebook over. At Mackie's request, Principal Green took it and let himself out of the room. Sheriff Mackie, sat back. "If I were you, don't worry about this then. I think we all know where this is going, and I'm sorry it came down to starting out this way. Be assured, if Spalding is behind this, he'll have a lot to answer to. Filing false incidents, conducting criminal mischief with minors, terroristic threatening - all of that and more. Just, if I were you boys, I'd keep your eyes open, but also park yourself as far away from the man as possible. Don't mess with him or his brother any more than you have to." Just then the man reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out two business cards. "Here, take these and keep them. They contain my personal cell number on there, boys. If you need to, don't hesitate to reach out to me, day or night." The man then stood, causing the teens to stand with him. "One more thing to be aware of. It might take us a little time to get some of this sorted out. Things don't always happen like they do on TV or in the movies, so don't get too antsy if you don't hear anything for a bit. As long as the duo don't become dangerous, I'd rather charge them with everything I can. You know, make an example out of their behavior so as to deter it from continuing. For right now though, I think I have all I need from you, meaning I can take it from here. You have my word though, that somebody will be in touch with you, sooner or later. Perhaps even by the end of the week."

Just then Principal Green stepped back into the room, returning their notebook, along with a single copy of the page to Mackie. "I'm done here, sir," the Sheriff nodded and then announced. "I'll be back in touch with you again, soon. Thank you, however, for helping us out. I recognize this isn't necessarily school-related business, but by allowing us to have these few minutes, a lot of details have been untangled. We want to thank you for that."

Principal Green smiled and extended his hand. "These boys, as well as all these kids, are a part of my system now, meaning I'm just as responsible for them during school hours as anyone else, Sheriff. You understand, I have limitations on what assistance I can give, but nevertheless I'm more than happy to oblige where I can." The older men exchanged a few pleasantries and then both the Sheriff and his deputy departed. Mr. Green, however, detained the teens and closed the conference room door one last time. "Listen boys, I want to apologize for this, too. I had no real idea what this was all about until just before you entered the office here. I'm personally happy that the outcome was more favorable than having you carted off downtown."

"No kidding," Brett muttered.

Principal Green nodded before turning to the other teen. "So, you're the Alex Branham I've been hearing so much about. I'm happy to make your acquaintance," the man continued, extending his hand and offering the teen a hearty handshake, which Alex accepted and returned, although puzzled.

"Uh, huh?" Alex asked, perplexed.

"Yeah, 'huh'?" the principal repeated, before laughing lightly. "To tell you the truth, I was made aware last week that we had a potentially highly talented teen starting with us this year. It seems you placed really well overall on the aptitude and entrance exams earlier this summer. When the counselor came to see me and discuss your placement in classes, we had quite a long discussion about where you would fit best. You see, most home-studies students we get at this stage, are kind of, shall we say, challenged in certain areas. Strengths and weaknesses, I mean, in their various academic fields. We usually end up splitting them out across multiple grades and classes until their competency comes up to par with their peers. Yours though, son, were not like that at all. You've had a strong background already, academically speaking. That's a positive tribute to whoever your teacher was at home, meaning your mother, or father... or both."

Alex only continued looking onward with a blank expression, trying to comprehend what he was hearing. Principal Green, seeing the uncertainty, reached out and clamped a hand on the teen's shoulder. "It's nothing to worry about. As I recall, we decided to take your math up a level and try to challenge you a bit, but otherwise keep the rest of your studies level with your peers. That will give you some adjustment time, more or less. Ultimately, we'll see how you do overall, and if you need to advance more, we'll talk about making some adjustments when the quarter or semester ends." The man paused until he was sure he had Alex's direct attention. "If you need anything, however, my door is right next to this room, and it is almost always open, unless I'm counseling a student or speaking with parents. You understand, right? Find me, and don't be a stranger. I put my pants on just like everyone else around here does."

"Well, except I think they're probably a different size though," Brett remarked, but then immediately blushed until Principal Green laughed heartily.

"I'd watch out for this one, if I were you," the man conspired with Alex. "He's a real cut-up!" he observed, elbowing Brett gently in the ribs.

That remark brought Alex back to life as he grinned. "Yeah, he is, but watch out for his sister - she's a handful, too!"

Feigning shock, the man gasped. "There's another one of these Edwards to come? Oh, my Lord!" That made the trio laugh, until the man shook his head. "Okay you two, stop out there and let Ms. Harper write you an excused pass. There are still roughly 15-minutes remaining before this period ends. Why don't you at least stop in and introduce yourselves before the bell rings."

"Sure, Mr. Green. And thank you, we really appreciate it," Brett replied, subtly leading Alex out of the room. As they waited at the front counter, Brett leaned in to whisper into his friend's ear. "Come on, let's get these passes and then go down to the boys' bathroom for a minute." Alex acknowledged with a slight nod, and once the passes were obtained, both boys exited and headed down the hall.

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