The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 15

Gina Makes A Mistake

"What the hell? That was absolutely, without question, one of the most brilliant things I've seen you come up with to date!" Brett exclaimed.

After first checking to ensure they were alone, Brett had rounded on his best friend, grabbing both arms excitedly and pushing his back up against the wall. "I'm serious, Alex! I have no idea how you come up with this stuff, but it was... Crap, I'm not even sure brilliant is a strong enough word for it! That was... shit, that was awesome!"

Alex smiled weakly, but finally acknowledged his friend with a nod. "Th-thanks, but don't kill me for it..."

Brett's exuberance faded as he frowned. "You don't seem, I don't know, all that happy about it. What's wrong? Did I miss something?"

"No, you didn't miss anything, and I am glad, believe me," Alex replied hastily, but then the teen slumped against the wall. "I just..., we got lucky this time, you know? We can't seem to get away from this sour-puss for some reason or another, you know? And it keeps getting worse..."

"I know what you mean," Brett responded, accepting the answer but continuing to watch his friend closely. "It is getting worse, too. For a few minutes, we were destined to be on our way downtown, for sure. Spalding almost did us in good! I mean, it wouldn't have amounted to anything in the end, but still..."

Alex agreed. "Yeah, still it was annoying, and this time he involved the Sheriff." The teen's frown turned even deeper. "It's gradually getting worse though, Brett. After what Ethan told us last week, it's starting to sound like we're becoming his obsession now. That's not good at all. We've got to be on our guard, now more than ever."

A silence fell between them, before Brett spoke again. "So, what do you think? Do we tell our parents?"

Alex looked up, and Brett finally saw his best friend smile grimly. When he spoke, there was a familiar certainty that returned to his voice as well. "Yes, we have to. Not that I'm looking forward to it, but something like this? They're going to find out sooner or later, and I for one would rather they hear it from us first. Especially since the Sheriff is involved." A far-away look crossed his features. "My Dad also needs to know, for other reasons."

Brett looked at him quizzically. "Why do you say that?"

Alex hesitated, as if contemplating something, but then shook his head. "Don't ask me that now, because it's a long story. I promise though, I'll tell you about it soon."

Brett nodded, but not without sighing. Once again, there was something about his friend that he felt was being shielded in some way, but he had to agree - now was probably not the time or place to dig into it. "Okay, I can accept that. Anyway, I agree with you. When do we tell them? Tonight?" As Alex nodded, Brett stepped back, pulling Alex with him. Taking the lead, he started for the doorway. "Let's get to Biology, if it's okay with you. If we show up at least with these slips, old-lady Denham has to count us present for the whole hour, even though we luckily avoided most of it." Reaching the door, he turned to glance back. "You're okay though, right?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine, Brett," Alex replied.

"Okay, then. We can talk more at lunch if you want to," Brett accepted.

Alex nodded and followed.

By the time lunch was upon them, Alex had already made a full recovery. During their English class together in the next hour, the teen's interest in learning was renewed, especially upon hearing about the interlaced classes of both language and literature that would become their curriculum for the year. Ms. Woods, a petite middle-aged woman with a soft, but robust personality, began class by naming some of the language elements the class would be studying for the year, as well as various tales of books and poems the class would be reading for literature. The latter caused a mild wave of groaning throughout the room, but their teacher insisted that many things they were going to learn had not been approached before. Yes, they were going to study some of the basics, but many were going to be done in what she hoped they would find as new and different ways. Alex became intrigued as she delved into the discussion deeper, and by the end of class the teen was smiling as he and Brett made their way toward the lunchroom.

"You can't be serious, right?" Brett responded with annoyance, when Alex brought up the fact he was looking forward to the reading.

"Why not? Most literature is good stuff. Well, if you don't include Shakespeare, that is. I've already read three of those books she listed - The Grapes of Wrath, The-"

"Okay, okay! Stop! I don't think I want to hear it," Brett hissed, rolling his eyes, before laughing out loud. "If you like literature then, you can help me get through all the reports and everything when the time comes," he mused. "Just - please don't expect me to be overly happy about it. I **hate** reading stuff like that!" He saw Alex start to object, but decidedly cut his friend off. "No - I really don't want to hear anything about how it's good for me, okay? Sorry bro, I get enough of that stuff from Mom!"

Alex laughed. "Okay, okay. I'll not bug you about it, I promise." As they entered the lunchroom, he changed the subject. "So, tell me - what are the lunches like? Are they any good at all?"

"Half-and-half, really," Brett replied. "They're usually either pretty edible, or the exact opposite. The first week of lunches are free every year. I think they do it so everyone gets introduced and everything, and also so that people have enough time to file paperwork if they're applying for the free breakfast and lunch program." Brett saw the line was building up. "Come on, let's see what's up for today..."

Once inside, both teens encountered a young lady handing out bulletin packs to everyone coming in. Accepting his, Alex scanned the document as Brett led him to the serving line. "Hmm, three dollars? Wow... and look, here's the menu for the rest of the month."

Brett turned to peer over his friend's shoulder. "Breakfasts are $2.00, lunch is $3.00, extra milk cartons are ... whoa! They're 75-cents now, each!" Shaking his head, the teen grunted. "That's a pretty big hike for a half-pint of milk, I think. Last year we paid $2.50 for lunch, and 50-cents for an extra carton of milk." As they continued forward, he pulled his own packet up to look at the details closer. "The menu is pretty typical, I think. Some of those ... well, the hot dogs and burgers are decent here. We usually get a kind of mini-bar to fix them up with all kinds of toppings, see. A piece of advice though, if I were you: forget about the fries. They cook them, like, mid-morning I think, so they're always soggy, oily and cold by the time they serve them to us. Same way with a lot of fried foods, like fish. They make it sound nice enough and all, but when they're fixing them up in large quantities, some things just don't survive very well."

"Okay, I'll keep that in mind," Alex replied before grunting. "Is there anything else good on the menu then?"

"Yeah. They do barbecue sandwiches here that are decent, and getting a salad is always good - if you can eat like a rabbit. I mean, salad stuff is always fresh, and they give you cucumbers and tomatoes and stuff to put on it most of the time, unless they're running low or run out. Oh, and they always do pizza every couple of weeks, too. They're like these big squares, maybe equivalent to the size of two to three slices of regular pizza. The only downside is that they're always cheese and pepperoni, though. No variety really, although I've heard you can get just plain cheese if you're a vegetarian," Brett explained. "Um, breakfasts are pretty good here, too. Always scrambled eggs and toast, and you get your choice of sausage links or bacon. Sometimes they'll throw some oatmeal in the mix, too. Oh, and hash browns, which are pretty good."

Alex was surprised, but simply nodded as they arrived at the serving bins. There, both teens found ingredients to build custom cheeseburgers, much as Brett described. Each prepared one directly, but avoided the side of fries - although Brett stopped when he saw a tray of onion rings had been added to the available bins. "Hmm, they've never had these before. Maybe they're worth a try..." Each then helped themselves to a serving and proceeded toward the dining room, but not without picking up cartons of milk as they passed a cooler. Brett took the lead, proceeding to the far side of the room. Navigating to about mid-way down the side, he pulled up short at an empty table, and slid in the end so his friend could sit next to him, but to the outside. Before either could say anything, however, they were suddenly joined by two other students, one of whom was overly tall in height, but seemed vaguely familiar to Alex. "Hey, Brett! How's it going man?" the taller one announced.

Looking up, Brett broke into a wide grin. "Steven! Hey man, it's going awesome! How about yourself?" he declared, half-standing and meeting the teen's fist bump in mid-air.

"Can't complain," Steven replied as he and his companion began joining them. "This here is my cousin Greg, by the way, in case you guys haven't yet met. He just moved in here over the summer, from Dallas." After the boys greeted him, Brett turned and introduced Alex. Upon hearing his name, Steven glanced up in surprise. "Branham? Are you the Alex Branham that did that swimming thing at camp this summer?"

Suddenly it dawned on Alex why the teen seemed to be so familiar to him. "Yeah, it was me, guilty as charged," he replied, grinning. "But um, no refunds allowed, sorry." All three of the other boys suddenly burst out laughing, as Alex studied Steven briefly before asking, "So, how is Brad doing and all?"

Steven smirked. "Being the usual little shit as always, dude, but he's cool." He looked up. "Don't get me wrong, he's a pain in the ass sometimes as far as brothers go, but for the most part he's a pretty cool dude for a rug-rat. At least, so far."

Brett laughed. "I wondered if Alex would put you two together," he offered, grabbing his burger and readying to take his first bite.

Blushing, Alex nodded. "Well, I wasn't that sure at first, but you do both look somewhat alike, and I think I remember him telling us he had a brother that was really tall and all."

Steven nodded. "Yeah, I know. Come to think of it, didn't he also meet you two at a car show?" When both Alex and Brett nodded, he grunted. "He does get around. Ever since coming back from camp, he's practically been up in our grandparents back yard, swimming in their pool every chance he gets. They live just down the road from us, which now that I think about it, is probably a good thing. It kept him out of my hair some since camp, anyway." After taking a bite of his food, he sat back. "I'm seriously telling you though, you both did a trick on him with the water and all. Before camp, he wouldn't hardly even go near the pool unless he had arm bands or something that protected him. Been that way most of his life. Not exactly sure what happened, but somewhere when he was around four or five years old, he had this incident that made him scared of anything deeper than a bathtub, I think. You got him around that in just a few days - and believe me, that's saying something. Now, nobody can hardly keep him out of the pool!"

"Glad to hear it, uh, I think," Alex replied. "We didn't hear about him having any phobia or anything, though. Maybe he was just finally realizing he needed to put it behind him or something."

"I agree," Brett chimed in. "He never acted afraid about anything around us. In fact, he was the first to volunteer for a lot of things, called it being the class guinea pig, or something like that. Plus, he helped a lot of the other guys out, too."

"Really? Well, I don't know," Steven replied, before stopping and looking thoughtful. "Maybe that was just my impression or something. I could have been wrong, I guess. No matter, like I said - it kept him off my ass for a while, anyway." The boys continued to chat, although it was mostly Brett and Steven that seemed to be doing most of the talking. Alex and Greg listened quietly, but being the new pair, neither felt comfortable butting in.

Once they finished eating, Steven and his cousin stood up. "Sorry guys, but we need to go find Mr. Green about something. Maybe we can make this a regular thing at lunch though, if you want." Steven turned to Alex, however, and lowered his voice. "Uh, there is something else though, now that I've run in to you. Brad's been pestering me about calling you and all, but I haven't let him have my cell yet. I honestly wasn't sure if you'd want a 12-year old pimple bugging you or not, so I wanted to clear it with you first. Seriously, just say the word, and I'll not let him borrow my cell. Otherwise, yeah, he might start calling you." Steven saw Alex's eyebrows raise and then grunted. "Like I said before, he's alright for the most part. I wouldn't sell him to anybody or anything, though. Just... he can be a handful sometimes, that's all."

Alex shrugged. "It's okay. I mean, I gave him my number and all, and told him it was fine. He was ... well, honestly? He was one of the best guys in our den. Like you say, he was pretty cool."

Steven nodded. "Glad to hear it. Okay then, but watch out. He can be a little pesky. If he ever bugs you too much, just let me know." With that, the taller teen and his cousin bade farewell and walked away.

Brett leaned in. "Well, that was surprising, really."

"How come?" Alex asked, curious.

"He's a senior, Alex. In this school, guys don't mix with peeps in the other grades that much. You know what I mean, seniors stay with seniors, juniors stay with juniors... like that," Brett explained. "The only real exception is the Phys Ed classes, where they'll mix grades together." He stared after the retreating figures. "We're two full grades behind him, and one grade behind his cousin. So now, not only is he suggesting mixing with the next grades down, here he just offered to lunch together with us, even knowing we're in tenth-year. Understand?" Brett sat back up and pondered briefly. "I mean, Steven has never been demeaning or anything to me, but he's never gone out of his way either."

Alex glanced up. "Maybe something's changed, you know?"

"Maybe, I don't know. Right now, he just said we might make this a regular thing. Trust me, that's really rare," Brett mused thoughtfully.

"I get it, I think," Alex replied, looking after the two boys as they exited through the cafeteria doors. "You and Brad were right, though. He IS really tall!"

Brett scoffed. "That isn't the half of it, either! Those shoes he wears? They're like a size-14 or something, and getting anything over a size-12 is not an easy thing to accomplish in this town, believe me!" He suddenly grinned and lowered his voice. "And don't forget what Brad told us about him being really hung. A lot of guys were talking about him last year."

Alex laughed, shaking his head. "What is that supposed to mean exactly, anyway?"

"Seriously?" Brett was about to laugh, but then observed that his friend was not joking. Leaning in close, he dropped his voice almost to a whisper. "It means your balls hang down really low below your dick. So, if by chance you've already got a long sausage to start with, and they hang below it, then it gets even more interesting, see? So, if someone says you're really hung, like a horse or something, then..."

Alex giggled, but also blushed. "Okay, okay! I get it! Sheesh, I'm almost sorry I asked!" he whispered.

Brett laughed out loud, but offered the proverbial fist-bump. "I think there are a few things you're still going to learn about, so no worries." Looking at the clock, he changed the subject. "So, what say we go get our locker assignments and check them out. Mrs. Johnson said she should have them all sorted by lunch time, right?" The boy stood. "By the way, just so you know, I brought an extra lock with me today if you want it. That way you don't have to buy one from the office, unless you just want to." Seeing the curious look, Brett explained. "In school, you don't really want a locker that you can't lock up, see? Too many things can go wrong that way. The school provides the lockers for us, but not the locks themselves. So, you either bring one in on your own, or you can buy one from the school. The school's locks are not cheap, though. Last year, I think they were going for like $24 apiece."

Alex paused. "Is that, uh... high?"

"Kind of, yeah. The hardware stores have them for like $8 to $10, I think," Brett answered. "A couple of years ago I lost mine, so Dad bought me another one. Then about a week later I found my original lock, and thus ended up with two of them." The teen reached into his backpack, before pulling out and handing the device to Alex. "I don't need it, and well, it's yours if you want it."

Alex nodded. "Thanks. I'll pay you for it later, though."

"No, you won't," Brett announced moving out into the main hallway. "I'm giving it to you. No argument, okay?"

Alex smiled and shook his head, but accepted the gift. "Okay, okay. Thanks."

Mrs. Johnson happened to be standing outside the door to their homeroom when they arrived. After a brief discussion, the teacher handed both boys a slip of paper with the rules and details of their assignments. Both boys thanked the lady, and then headed down the hallway to search for their assigned units. Alex was pleased when they found their lockers were close together, separated only by a single cabinet between them.

For the next few minutes, Brett explained and showed Alex how to use the locks, before stepping back and giving his friend an opportunity to try it out on his own. Although Alex missed on his first attempt, every subsequent try was a success. "Piece of cake, see?" Brett noted, before leaning in close. "Listen, my combination is almost the same as yours. Where your last number is 27, mine is 30."

Alex glanced at him in surprise. "So, substitute 30 for my 27, and then I have your combination?"

"Yep, you got it!" Brett replied. "So, in case you ever need to get into my locker, then you can do it. Likewise, I'll know yours, too, should you ever have any problems or anything, or want me to get something out for you." He suddenly grinned. "I guess that's the price of having a free lock, if it comes from me, isn't it?"

Alex grinned. "I can accept that, though. Any day." Brett nodded, but before he could reply, the two-minute warning bell sounded. Alex glanced at his watch. "Wow! That seemed kind of quick!"

Brett laughed. "You'll get used to it, though. Come on, we'd better get to Geography. Mr. Mathews is a good and easy-going teacher, but he still likes to encourage keeping everyone as punctual as he can."

Later in the day, Phys Ed turned out to be nothing special or unexpected to Alex. Having been prepped before by Brett, he already understood some of the expectations. Coach Reed talked with the class about what to expect as well, and as he was hitting some of the highlights, Alex glanced about the gymnasium at the other classes grouped in the gym. There were mixed ages, it seemed, but they were all boys. Interestingly enough, the coach made a few comments regarding that fact, and then went on to explain the requirements for dressing out, making it a point to explain that the rules prohibited anyone wearing cut-offs. At that point, Brett leaned in close to Alex and quickly whispered, "I'll explain why later."

Alex nodded in acceptance, which was something Brett was pleased to observe. Someone asked about whether showers were required, to which the coach emphatically shook his head. "No, no one is required to take a shower after class. Make sure you understand something though, fellas. Anyone who wants to shower is welcome to avail themselves of it, and no one - coach, teacher, or teenager - will think anything of it. Some teachers may even be relieved in the end, as you then won't be odorizing their classes, hmm?" the man offered bemusedly, to which a few chuckles could be heard in the group. However, his voice then took on a serious tone. "Fellas, try ... just try to be respectful guys, okay? I cannot emphasize that enough, and I think most of you are mature enough by now to understand what I'm saying. Right? Anyone who wants to shower, it's fine, but if someone picks on you, or makes fun of you in any way whatsoever being in your birthday suit, just let me know. I'll deal with it promptly." When the class nodded solemnly, he continued. "I am not going to say anything further about it then, really, except to remind you that there are two other Phys Ed classes we share the gym with in this period. Some of those guys may want to shower, too, so if they do, just be aware that even though it's a fairly sizeable area down there, it could still get a little cramped at times. Still, don't give them crap, and I'm sure they won't give you any, either. I mean it guys, if anyone ever has a problem from any other student, whether it is in this class or another, for any reason - then my door is open. Just come talk to me about it, and don't be afraid or ashamed of it. We'll get it resolved. Okay?"

After a slight pause while the group acknowledged they understood, another student piped up. "How much time do we get to dress out afterwards?"

"Class starts at 7-minutes past the bell, and officially ends 7-minutes before the end of the period. That should give you plenty of time to change clothes and more. However, if you do want to shower, the cut-off time is usually around ten minutes before the period ends, but I'm okay if you go as much as 12- to 14-minutes prior to the end of class," the man explained. "Does that make sense? In other words, you can have as much as an extra five-to-seven minutes, IF you are showering and need it. Most of you know me though, I'm really not that fussy, guys. When you've had 40- to 45- minutes of playing hard out here, a few minutes of winding down time is nothing to sneeze at. Just make sure you don't abuse it, and that you're respectful. We'll get along just fine." Everyone then nodded in agreement, and the man went on to other topics.

At one point, they were all sitting back in groups and relaxing as they waited for the period to end. That was when Brett pulled Alex aside. "There have been problems with teens wearing cut-offs before, as they are rougher and tighter - especially around the crotch. I heard one year that a guy got into some serious problems with his jewels and all after playing volleyball or something, and when they sorted out what happened, that's when they banned them. So, regular shorts are all that's allowed now, because they have more, ah, maneuverability and all."

"Oh," Alex replied, thinking and then nodding. Looking around, he changed the subject. "The pep talk about the showers was... interesting."

Brett laughed, but then shook his head before lowering his voice even more. "I don't know if you can imagine how guys can be or not, but some... It's like coach said about being mature and all. Not everyone is all the time, see? They like to clown around and all. I don't think the coaches really mind some of that, because they expect some sort of horseplay every once in a while, see. They just... it's a serious rule, Alex. If anyone ever gets caught making jokes or anything, because of a guy's ass or his plumbing, then watch out. The coaches will come down hard on them ... big time! It's the one serious thing our school watches out for and tries to protect peeps about. Not just in Phys Ed either; all the teachers are on the lookout for anything like that. It's a part of the no-bullying pact, I think. It still happens sometimes, but it is generally NOT for reasons about, you know, being in the showers and all."

Alex nodded in understanding. "I get it, thanks." The teen rubbed his nose before adding, "That... believe it or not, that... is awesome, I think. I mean, that the school takes it that seriously."

Brett shrugged. "All middle schools and high schools should do it, but they don't."

Their last class of the day, however, was one of the strangest Alex thought he had encountered yet. Their teacher, an older woman named Carrie Newberry, was starting new at the school, though she had been in the county for several years already. She certainly seemed to have considerable experience when compared to some of their other teachers the boys had met. She sat and talked with the class in cheerful tones, recognizing immediately the fact that it was the last class of the day. "I know most of you are probably getting cranky and tired by the end of the day like this, and personally, I don't blame you. Most people are ready to be going home about now, right? Compound that fact with all the study breaks being discarded, that makes this already full-day feel even more so."

The class suddenly fell still and alert, paying closer attention as she continued. "I know it's going to be a tough job for me to keep your attention as it is. So, I'll tell you what. I'll make you a promise, if you'll do the same. If you'll try to give some time and attention to this class each afternoon, I'll try not to fill your head with too many famous dates, or of people, that have little relevance to your future. Be assured, that is not a promise that we won't have any of that, but we can certainly tone it down, considerably." The class body murmured as she looked upon them with a smile. "You see, it is my belief that sometimes, just knowing that something happened, and why, teaches you a bit more about our place in the world. For example, does anyone have any idea what Memorial Day, or Labor Day means in the US? And why, for example, do a lot of other countries seemingly have so many more holidays than we do? Somewhere in life, when you're employed and suddenly you have an employer telling you that you get Martin Luther King Day off, you might find it interesting to know why."

The class was so silent, one could have heard a pin drop. Mrs. Newberry, however, ignored it. "I'll tell you something else, too. While we're at it, let's see if we can't cook up a few fun projects to make it through the semester."

"What kind of projects?" one student asked.

"Oh, how about we break into teams, for example, and construct a replica of a suspension bridge - using nothing but newspapers and paper clips for our building materials. Maybe some rubber bands, but I haven't decided on that one, yet. How does that sound to you?" she asked, smiling.

A general murmur resounded throughout the room. "No way!" Another student answered. "Is that even possible?" asked another girl. "What does that have to do with world history?" was another query by a boy in the back of the classroom. Ms. Newberry smiled and waited patiently until the class had quieted again.

"That, my dear students, is what the fun of learning is all about. It embodies being educated in ways that do not always depend on books! Now, I agree, it's a little unorthodox in thinking you can learn history without the use of history books, media or films and so forth. I'm a believer that you can learn some things, though. For example, let's take the idea of bridges. Most designs of arched bridges date back to the Roman era, practically thousands of years ago. You know what I'm talking about - the kind of bridges that have pavement, brick or concrete arches underneath to support them. It's a good design, really - think about it, many of our modern bridges still use this type of construction, right?"

As she let that sink in, one boy on the front row sat back in his seat. "Okay, maybe - but suspension bridges? And ... history?"

Ms. Newberry smiled widely. "In the early-to-mid 1600's, starting with King Charles the First and later to follow with his son, England was presented with a problem. The country needed a different type of bridge for one of its more rural areas, exactly where I am uncertain. The king commissioned a group of people to study alternatives and improve the country's construction mechanics, see. You can think of that group as the sort we would label today as being civil engineers, I think. They went about building models, using very primitive materials, and testing theories about length spans or gaps."

"So, my point is simple, really. What must it have been like to do those types of tasks back then? There are all sorts of examples within history, much outside the confines of our borders, that lend themselves to thinking 'outside-the-box'. I think we could have some fun, really, practicing what we see people had to work with, had to live with, and more - during those times. Now, we cannot exactly replicate all of our scenarios, but we can certainly have some fun trying them out, can we not? Not to be discounted, this particular exercise teaches a lot more than just history and scenario details, too - it teaches us role modeling, teamwork, and much, much more. So, with that in mind," Ms. Newberry paused, looking about the room where she perceived a certain excitement building up. "I'm saying if you help me out, I'll reciprocate by trying to make our class a little more fun as we go along. Hmm? Maybe even enough to keep you from, say, falling asleep?"

When the final bell announced the end of classes for the day, the students of world history were all abuzz, chatting rapidly amongst themselves about their new teacher and her upcoming plans. Alex listened to them from the background, as he and Brett made their way through the flow of bodies heading out to the busses. He noted several students seemed to lack energy, including Brett, from the long day they had just completed. Surprisingly, Alex did not feel as tired as he feared he would, compared to the time he and his mother had spent during in-home sessions. With just the two of them back then, the hours were shorter, but the actual study was more intense. Being more accustomed to that type of schedule did not make what they did here now seem as rough.

Brett, on the other hand, was showing signs of fatigue rapidly. Finding a seat once again near the middle of the bus once they boarded, both sat back deeply. Following Brett's lead, Alex pulled his knees up onto the seatback ahead of them. "Whew! It's over!" Brett finally announced quietly, followed by an unusually heavy sigh.

"You okay there?" Alex asked in a low voice, with a hint of amusement.

Brett glanced and, upon seeing the smile, rolled his eyes. "I don't want to hear it. At least, not right now anyway," the teen responded, before laying his head back against the seat and closing his eyes. The bus was alive and full of active discussions throughout the aisle, but Brett ignored them for the time being. Once the bus was loaded, the thrum of the engine told all that they were finally on their way.

Less than 5 minutes later, the creaking vehicle turned in to the middle-school where it picked up additional students to be taken home. Alex noted that, as his best friend had mentioned earlier, several students boarded that had not boarded earlier that morning. The additional numbers had left some with nowhere to sit, thus leaving them to stand in the aisle. At one point, he saw Gina step aboard, and as she spotted them, she began making her way to reach where they were seated. There was no greeting or exchange when she arrived, and Alex took it to be a regular routine between Brett and his sister when she plopped down into her older brother's lap. He heard his friend grunt when she landed, but quickly moved to accommodate her better as she twisted around and lay with her back against Alex. Grunting, he shifted his backpack out of the way for her. "How was your day?" he asked kindly.

"Kind of sad, but not too bad," she responded, before adjusting one last time so that others could pass by in the aisle. "My homeroom doesn't have a teacher yet. Well, that's not totally true. We did sort of have a substitute today. The teacher we're supposed to have, Ms. Flynn, is out with the flu or something. She'll probably be out a couple of days at least." Gina turned just enough she could see Alex. "How about the two of you? Did you survive your first day with the natives okay?"

"He did fine, sis," Brett suddenly interjected from his side. "Don't pick on him too much, though. It's his first day, remember?"

"What? No... Don't worry about me, I can answer for myself," Alex added giggling, but then added hastily. "I'm fine, really. How about you? How did the new hair style go down?"

"Not bad, really. Most of my friends already had heard about the accident and all, and the others told me they kind of liked it," she replied smartly, grinning widely.

"Well, good then. Our day was... well, interesting, I guess," Alex finally answered.

"Let me guess," Gina started, then lowered her voice. "You found some pretty girls that probably made you horny, for the first time in your life. Right?"

She had meant it as a tease, but Brett suddenly turned to observe his sister. "Gina!" he hissed, before laughing after seeing her expression. "Don't answer Alex! She's teasing and trying to goad you, I think!"

Alex laughed before leaning into earshot of them both and whispering, "I've been horny plenty of times before, girl. It's nothing new."

Gina immediately grinned in response. "Yep, I know. First-hand experience, too!" she whispered.

Realizing what she was referring to, Alex blushed deeply, which caused the girl to laugh gleefully. He turned to stare out the window as they began pulling from the parking lot, unsure what he should say to that... or feel. It was Brett who saved him though, by leaning in and hissing to his sister. "Wait till we get home with you! You promised me sis, remember?"

Gina stopped giggling and instantly became apologetic. "Yeah, I did, didn't I? I'm sorry, Alex. I didn't mean it the way it sounded."

Alex glanced back at them both and nodded, before turning his attention back to the scenery passing by. He felt funny inside, and was at a total loss for words just then. It was one thing to have the feelings about sex, and how he and Brett dealt with it. When it came to Gina, however, it was like a totally different dynamic. Ever since Brett had made him aware of it, Alex had hoped he wouldn't have to face a moment like this again, at least not directly. Gina was a very pretty and attractive girl for her age, but as he had said so many times before, he thought of her more as a sister than anything else. Now, being reminded he had reacted more strongly than he realized, Alex suddenly felt guilty that maybe his body had taken advantage of her in ways he shouldn't have.

The bus began making a series of stops, letting individual students off at their houses, or at least at the end of their street. "Hey," Alex finally remarked, trying to change the subject. "We didn't make all these stops this morning, did we?"

Brett looked out the window with him. "No. Some kids will get rides to school with their parents, but end up riding the bus home in the evenings. That's why it's always more crowded like it is now, but it won't last long. As seats start freeing up, those standing get to sit, or those bunched up like sis is here, get to move out." He turned back to Gina. "That's when we can kick motor mouth out for the rest of the ride home."

Gina pouted, but said nothing as she glanced at Alex and observed his solemn expression. His continued silence added to her own misgivings then, as she watched him in the reflection from the glass. She had struck a chord of some sort, and fearing she had gone too far, she tentatively lay her head next to him again and whispered, "Really Alex, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. Please forgive me, okay?"

Alex turned and looked deep into the eyes that met his. After a brief silence, he shrugged. "It's the truth though, isn't it?" he whispered. "I can't be mad at you for telling the truth." That surprised the girl, and it showed. Seeing her on the verge of tears, Alex whispered into her ear. "Look, can we talk about this at home, or some other time, please? There's too many eyes and ears here, you know?"

"Okay," came her soft reply as she turned away. Brett noticed her look of dejection, but said nothing more. A few minutes passed, and when the seat in front of them freed up, Gina quietly extracted herself and moved into it. Once there, she mimicked her brother and Alex by sliding her knees up on the seat ahead. Turning to the window, she gazed out without another word.

Alex observed her briefly before sighing. "I guess I should have a talk with her, shouldn't I?" he whispered into Brett's ear, who responded by smiling grimly.

"Maybe. She really did step over the line though. I know she didn't realize it at the time until it was already said, but still, it's done." Brett shifted his legs to settle more comfortably before continuing. "You know, she's hurt, but I doubt it's so much about what happened just now."

"Really?" Alex asked.

Brett nodded. "I think she's scared really, because she thinks she's hurt you. I know I would be, if I were in her shoes." Alex stared at his friend for a moment before nodding, and then turning his attention back to the rolling landscape in silence.

When the bus arrived at the Edwards' house, the trio disembarked and began walking up the incline normally. Once they stepped through and entered, however, Gina quickly took off toward her bedroom and closed the door. Glancing at Brett, Alex handed him his backpack. "Take this downstairs with you, okay? I'm gonna try and, well, you know..." Brett nodded and then disappeared down the steps while Alex quietly turned and climbed upward toward the upper level. Turning the corner, he paused briefly in front of the door to Gina's bedroom. What was he going to say? Was not what she admitted the truth? Uncertainty gripped him as he heard from behind the closed door a series of short, stifled sobs. Knocking quietly, he called out. "Gina?" At first there was no reaction, so he knocked again. "Come on, Gina. Let me in, girl. Please?"

After a moment, Alex heard the latch trip and the door opened slowly. As he entered though, Gina had already returned and plopped down on her bed, drawing her knees to her chest and hiding her face behind them. Closing the door, Alex crossed the short space until he joined her. Kicking his shoes free, he scooted in beside her and pulled his own feet up. They sat in silence for a moment, side by side, until she finally spoke. "Well, go ahead! I can't stand the waiting!"

"Waiting for what?" Alex asked softly.

"Yell at me, beat on me, do something for fuck's sake!" she whined before a renewed round of sobs began. Alex was surprised, as he couldn't recall a single instance where he ever heard the girl curse to that extreme. Her words, her expression - her whole demeanor told him she was really upset, and suddenly it started to make him feel guilty. Placing an arm around her instead, he drew the girl in close and hugged her. Once she felt his chest, she broke down and started sobbing continuously. "Come on, please? Just... g-get it o-over with..." she repeated.

"I'm not mad at you sis, if that's what you're afraid of," Alex whispered. He began rubbing his hand up and down her side. "I don't know what you're thinking I'm going to do, but I promise you, it isn't anything like that." He sighed. "I'm just, I don't know, I'm embarrassed I guess, that's all."

Gina quieted somewhat. "Why are you embarrassed? You're a boy. Boys are always trying to get their feel and everything of girls. You know, get around all the bases and score home runs," she whispered.

"Really?" Alex giggled. "And how would you know that?"

"Because that's what all girls fight against so much, especially when you reach our age," the girl suddenly replied, her voice strong and defiant. She started to sit up straight, but Alex wouldn't let her, keeping her pulled up to him with his arm.

"Gina," he started, before sighing. "I'm not trying to hit any base runs here or score, I promise. If I were, I would have been a lot more obvious about it before now, don't you think?" Alex whispered, feeling the hot tears against his chest. He brushed at her short hair and tried to soothe her, but he really had no idea what to do or say. They sat there for a moment before an idea struck him. "Listen, do you trust me?" he whispered into her ear. He could feel her nod, but when she remained silent, he pushed. "Be careful, girl. I'm asking you something really important here, and I want you to be sure about it."

Gina finally tilted her head back and opened her eyes so she could see him. "Seriously? Don't you know that I do by now?"

Alex smiled. "Yeah, I guess so, but... sometimes it's still nice to be sure, that's all. I trust you, too. Listen, though..." He had her attention, so he went on. "I'm going to do something, just to prove to you how much, okay? It's something, well, kind of embarrassing for me sometimes, and I don't really let many people see it at all. But, for you, I'm going to show you anyway."

Gina eyes grew wide with an element of fear behind them. "Alex, no - wait! I don't... I don't want to see your... your... you know, your stuff down there!"

Alex giggled before he hugged her again. "No, nothing like that, I promise. Besides, my dick's not worth anyone seeing anyway, trust me," he whispered. Gina sighed in relief, though she blushed in embarrassment.

"I doubt that, but... I'm sorry, Alex, I guess I opened my big mouth again. I... I'm not thinking too good right now..."

"It's okay, sis. What I am going to do though, is take off my shirt and show you something else. Here, let me sit up a sec..." he replied. Slowly he pushed her so that she was sitting self-supported once again, before grabbing the hem of his polo and peeling it up and off. Besides Brett, and the boys at camp, this was another first for him - especially letting a girl sit so close to him like this. Once done, he sat next to her, exposing his whole chest and belly to her eyes. "Here, look at me, okay? It's okay, I promise."

Gina turned hesitantly, but then stared at the topless boy for quite some time, observing not only his chest, but the assembly of ridges and stretch marks still scarred into the skin above his heart, and extending to both his side and shoulder. She reached out tentatively, but like everyone else, hesitated. That was something Alex had already determined he was going to have to get used to. He understood it was a genuine curiosity to want to see and touch, and given it was his shoulder and underneath, he had no issue with it. Gently, he grasped her hand and pulled it to him until it lay right over and on his breast. "Don't be afraid, you can feel them if you want to," he whispered, before dropping his hand away. Encouraged, Gina started to lightly caress all across the deformed area, taking in the ridged scar-like tissue that interrupted what should have otherwise been smooth skin.

"What happened to you?" she finally whispered, awed.

"I was in a house fire, Gina, and before I got out, a wall kind of collapsed and pinned me down." Alex made the statement sound as simple and complete as he could, not desiring to give her any more details than he had to. He noted, thankfully, that she seemed to be contented as her fingers continued to feel around, pressing more firmly in certain places than before. Gina kept it up for another full minute, coaxing him at one point to lift his arm so she could even trace the scars underneath and toward his back. Alex did not hesitate. He wanted her to have as much freedom as she wanted, and hoped she would understand afterwards why he was doing this.

Before long, Gina stopped and looked up into his eyes. Her expression was one of sorrowful empathy she felt toward him. As she finally dropped her own hand, she seemed resigned. "I'm sorry," she whispered, and Alex could tell that she truly meant it.

"Just listen to me for a sec, okay? I'm really no different from your brother, other than having this stuff above my heart. Look at it, Gina. This is a part of me, and it'll always be here in some way or another, at least for a long, long time. It's ... it's butt-ugly if you ask me, and it's embarrassing, I think. But like some of the guys told me at camp this summer, and like your brother tells me all the time... I guess it's not freakish. It's just a part of me, and that's all. Understand?"

Gina stared at his shoulder again and nodded in silence. That's when Alex took hold of her hand again, but this time held it up to his heart. "I don't know if you can feel it or not, but what's beating inside here is also a part of me, too. I'm a human being, with feelings, growing up with crap just like you are. I'm not afraid for you to feel it, or to feel me anywhere, honest. I mean, I've never been really afraid to hold you, or let you sit in my lap, or any of those goofy-kind-of-intimate things we've done. You just have to believe me and understand, that when I say I didn't realize what was happening for a long time, I really didn't, you know? Whether you did or not, whatever you felt of me, it doesn't matter. I mean that, too. I let you do them because I didn't think so much of what we were doing to begin with. Until your brother said something to me though, I didn't realize what was happening. Still, that's on me, girl... not you. It was my fault. I let us get close, because I trusted you so much. When I was getting to hug you sometimes and everything, it made me feel so awesome inside. And you know something else? I could feel you giving me something back Gina, on the inside. Does that make any sense?"

"But..." Gina started, then stopped when the older teen smiled at her.

"Listen girl, try to understand. There are no 'buts' about it. I don't care what you've felt or seen of me, honest. I mean, when Brett first told me, I admit I was embarrassed, ashamed - even scared a little. I worried that maybe I might have grabbed your butt, or you... you know, your chest in some way that I shouldn't. Or worried maybe I was doing something else all wrong, see? I mean, seriously, I wouldn't do anything to hurt you, you know? I wouldn't try to, you know, feel you up or do stuff with you on purpose, and... and..."

"You didn't though, Alex," the younger girl whispered. "I mean, I'm the one who..." Again, she fell silent, trying to sort out her feelings.

"You're the one who, 'what'?" Alex asked, then sighed as he wrapped her tighter still. For some reason, he found a great deal of comfort in holding her to his bare chest and all. "I respect you, sis. Even the sex-like stuff. I'm not a girl obviously, but I do have an idea what your body is going through and everything. Mine is going through a lot of stuff too, if you want to know the truth. But hear me out, sis - I'm trying... I'm really trying to be careful here, that's all. It's okay to have some fun, yeah, but I'm a lot older than you are, remember? And something else, too: I think you already know I'm not like most boys, at least on the inside. I don't think that I am anyway. Guys might think about sex a lot of the time, or like you said, they might be trying to figure out how to get girls to let them do stuff and all. I promise, I get horny just like they do, but whereas the ones my age have had years to get to where they are now, some of this stuff is only just starting to kind of happen with me. Sometimes that makes me really scared, you know? That's why I want to be respectful, especially with you. I don't want to hurt you, or our special friendship we have together. If I did, it would be hard living with myself after the fact, you know?" Alex leaned back, and this time pulled Gina into his lap before he continued. "See? It's like the trust thing you and your brother taught me in the beginning. I'm more at ease with you both, because you both understand me so well. I'm not so sure others around us would, though."

Gina sighed. "But, Alex... I don't mean to do things, or embarrass you, or... make you feel weird. You know that, right?"

"Oh, yeah, I do," the older teen replied. "It's okay, though. In fact, do you know what I get the most out of, when it comes to us? It's not sex-like stuff, Gina, I promise. What I get comes from the feeling inside, like the love and everything, the feeling that when even the littlest of things happen, that they are nothing more than just that. Because when you do that for me, it makes me feel all warm inside, and not like I'm alone or anything. It makes me feel that, because we know each other so much, we have this bond thingy that says it's okay and all. Does that make sense to you?"

Gina's eyes were watering again, but she nodded before slowly reaching out and hugging the teen's neck. "Seriously?" she whispered, and then repeated it again when she pulled back.

Alex nodded. "Do you remember what you told me, not too long ago? 'I love you, but I'm not in love with you'. You asked me if I understood the difference, and I'm telling you now, nothing could have been plainer to me than if you had spelled it out on a poster." He lowered his voice to almost a whisper. "See sis, I do know the difference. You loved me as a brother, but not as a boyfriend. Did you know that not a lot of people would understand that, though? Especially coming from a 12-year old?" Alex thought back briefly. "You know, it's kind of like when I saw through your top that day when you answered the door. The day you did that to me, opening the door that morning and all."

It was Gina's turn to blush, but then she shrugged. "I didn't care Alex, honest. To me, that was nothing."

"To your brother, or some people, like a boyfriend, maybe so," Alex conceded. "But I'm neither of those, or at least I wasn't back then. That wasn't nothing, Gina, that was... a lot. If anything, it both surprised and scared me. I mean, think about it: if Kelly or some other boy your age had been there, and saw what I saw, they would have probably sprung a full boner, you know? Maybe even tried to do something, like get a feel or something, right? At least, they would have probably fantasized over it and all. But me, see, I didn't know what to think, or how to react. In a way, my best friend's sister was flashing me, you know? And, get this, I was afraid if I told Brett, he would have gotten all mad and... and... I don't know, started beating up on me or something!"

Gina giggled. "I'm sorry, I guess I just wasn't thinking," she finally whispered, but raised her hand to lightly trace the outlines of his scars again. " That's why you're letting me do this, isn't it? See you up close and all, and actually touch you?"

"Kind of, yeah. I'm trying to explain why none of this stuff between us really bothers me. I'm trying to show you that I love you, too, though I'm not in love with you. You see? I'm trying to show you that I'm not afraid," Alex whispered. He grasped her hand and pulled it to his lips and kissed her fingers, before letting go.

Gina's gaze bore into him deeply as a tear escaped, running slowly down her cheek. "Honest?"

Alex nodded. "I think you knew what you were doing that morning, girl. You might have been sleepy, maybe, but you knew I was there at the door and was going to come in, and you knew I'd probably see you anyway. That was kind of bold, but you didn't seem to mind it, really, and after I finally started to understand why, well... Every time I think back to that day now, it makes me kind of smile - and no, not because of you letting me see your breasts. It's because you were letting me in close, like inside your little world and everything, in your own way. Just like your brother does. That did something to me, see?"

"Yeah, I guess I was," the girl whispered. "But..." Gina sighed again.

Alex thought maybe she was getting it then. "You know, that was all a part of the first thing you guys ever did, that made me wonder and question how much you really trusted me, and why."

"Why?" Gina exclaimed softly. "Alex, don't you understand why? It's because we like you. Me and Brett would take you in here in a heartbeat, because... because you're always so innocent about everything, you know?"

Alex grunted. "I do now, I guess. I mean, maybe not so much about being innocent, but more like ignorant, I think. Still, that was when I started to really learn what we all have between us, you know? That's when I finally started to understand you and your brother. I mean, he's been around me in his underwear and, and... you probably get the idea. These are the things I didn't get to grow up with, but I was learning fast. All because you both saw something in me that didn't scare you."

Gina shook her head. "Maybe, but you're wrong about something though, Alex. Ignorance is a simple lack of knowledge when someone is being dumb. I meant what I said, because innocence is like someone discovering something for the first time, not because of being dumb, but for being smart. That, dear brother, is why I've never been scared of you, I think. It makes me happy to see you react and find things out like that." She grunted. "Even if it was me and my breasts."

Alex paused, smiling again as he saw a different, more mature side of his best friend's sister surface. "I'm just me, Gina, for all my good traits or faults, I'm just being myself."

"I know that, Alex," she whispered.

Alex settled his chin into her neck and shoulder. "Then, stop punishing yourself, okay? The bottom line is, I don't care what you see or feel of me, physically or from the inside, just so long as you know how I feel about you, and don't confuse it for something it's not meant to be. I really do trust you too, you know. That's why I pulled my shirt off. That's why I'm holding you so close like this, now."

Gina collapsed in his arms again, wrapping herself close. "I trust you too, Alex. So much," she whispered. Alex could feel her tenseness ebb away as she melted into his embrace. "I think I'll never understand you completely, though. How can you be so good to me? Even after all this?"

Alex laughed. "I thought you were the one being good to me, sis. After all, you let me see my first set of real-life boobs, remember?"

Gina laughed, recognizing he was teasing her. "Stop it! You didn't see anything, Alex. I didn't have much to see anyway, so that doesn't count." She looked up at him though. "I'm serious, I didn't care. Honest."

"I know," Alex replied.

"Still, you're so good to me sometimes, it's like..." She left the rest of her words hang in the balance.

"Oh, I don't know about that... If I am, then maybe it's because you adopted me. Remember? You're my little sis, too." Alex whispered.

Gina raised her head, and the older teen finally saw a smile break out. "I'm still sorry, though. I shouldn't have said what I did today, especially out loud."

Alex shrugged. "I don't think anyone but me and Brett heard you, so no harm done. Even if someone did, what does it matter? People can think anything they want to, but you and I, and especially your brother, know the truth. Right? That's all that matters."

Gina sat up one last time, tracing the outline of ridges from his left breast around to his side. "You know something? Brett has held me a lot of times, but never like this." She sighed before she went on. "I'm sorry this had to happen to you, you know? I bet it hurt like hell, too. I didn't know about it though, I swear."

"I know you didn't. You would have found out sooner or later though, especially if we ever made it out to one of the swimming pools," Alex mused. He sat up straighter and pulled her chin up so that he had her attention. "I'm serious, okay? So, what if you've felt me in other places, including my junk between my legs, I still don't care. I only hope I didn't do something in return that was, like, too far out there, that's all."

Gina finally laughed before turning and hiding her face. "Do you want to know?" she asked timidly.

Alex giggled. "Not unless you just want to tell me."

"Everywhere, Alex. I've felt everything, I think," she whispered. She tensed up then, knowing her confession was now complete, before looking away. "You understand what I'm saying, right?"

Alex giggled, then whispered into her ear, "So, is that all? You're worried about THAT?"

Gina looked up at him again in amazement. "Good grief, isn't that enough?" she whispered.

Alex stared at her for a bit, eyes twinkling in amusement. "I think someone said something once, about all boys having dicks, and girls having boobs. Right?"

"Oh, my God! He told you about that?" she exclaimed, clearly embarrassed.

"He told me that, while trying to make me understand it was okay. And honestly, I'm glad he did, and I'm glad it really was okay. It helped me get over it and understand a lot, you know?"

Gina finally laughed. "Well, I know, big deal, right?" She was still blushing, but she had relaxed once again in his arms.

Alex closed his eyes and buried his nose into her neck. "Not between us, I promise. Don't sweat it. I trust you, remember? And I'm sure I'm not the first, or the only one."

"You really don't care?" she whispered.

Alex hesitated, not sure how much farther this was going to go. "I really don't care. If you did it, and if you enjoyed feeling me, like, you know, then... I guess that's a present I ended up giving to you."

Gina's eyes started watering again. "How can... how can you be so forgiving, especially to me?"

Alex leaned in and whispered in her ear. "Don't you already know?"

Grabbing him around the neck, she pulled close again. "Thank you, Alex... so much, too. I promise, I'll try and not do anything like that on purpose again. I really do love you, you know that, right?" she finally surrendered.

"Anytime, sis, but be careful about making promises you may not be able to keep. I told you, it's all cool, and I mean it. Besides, you never know, I might grab or feel something by accident that I shouldn't sometime, you know?" Alex hugged her close one more time. "Oh, Gina... You know, I really do love you, too. Especially as long as you let me keep calling you my little sis," he teased, before finally pulling back and sitting up. Grasping his shirt, Gina watched him as he pulled it back on, before swinging his feet over the side of the bed to don his shoes. "Now, I think I better get downstairs before Brett starts thinking we're doing something up here we shouldn't be doing."

Gina rolled her eyes. "Bubble butt? He isn't going to think anything like that, Alex," she scoffed. "I promise."

Alex started to stand and reach for the door, but then turned back to her. "I've been meaning to ask, why do you call him that so much? You know, 'Bubble butt'?"

Gina laughed hard, wiping at her eyes. "Well, have you ever noticed his butt? Seriously, it sort of has these two, perfect-like mounds that puff out on top, well, one on each cheek!"

"Oh, um, okay," the older teen replied, shaking his head as she laughed. He grabbed a pillow and stood up then, throwing it at her. "Are we good, sis?"

"We're good Alex, I promise," she replied, followed by a final whisper. "Thanks again. Thanks for coming in here, and for forgiving me, and... and... Just, thanks for everything."

Alex nodded, and then opened the door and disappeared, closing it behind him.

"So, did you two kiss and make up?" Brett whispered, as Alex entered the room and then collapsed on top of his best friend, who was lying on the bed and facing the ceiling. A considerable 'Oomph!' sounded as they made contact, but Alex quickly rolled sideways until they were parallel and facing one another.

Alex sighed. "I think she's okay, though it took me a little bit to calm her down." A white mound of fur suddenly jumped on top of him, causing Alex to giggle before scratching the family canine behind his ears.

Brett rolled until he was facing his friend. "She can be a handful sometimes, but then, you already know that. I'm glad though, because if you hadn't talked to her, she would probably be a basket case for days on end. That's one thing I can say about my sister - she doesn't goof up much, but when she does and realizes it, she punishes herself to the extreme." He observed his friend up close. "Do you want to talk about it any?"

Alex shrugged. "There's not really that much to say. I told her I was okay with everything, although I was kind of embarrassed about it. I also told her I still loved her like a sister and all, and even showed her my scars."

"Whoa, what? Did you let her feel all over your chest and everything, too? Did she go all goggle-eyed and everything?" Brett asked, impressed.

"She touched me all over the scars, yeah," Alex admitted. He sighed. "And no, she wasn't all goggle-eyed or anything. I don't know why I did it. I was just trying to make her understand it didn't change anything about how much I trusted her, you know? I think she got it, in the end."

Brett nodded. "She probably did. She's not that old, but in some ways, she understands a lot about stuff like that better than guys do." He stared at his friend. "So, was that all?"

"Pretty much, other than she did tell me why she calls you 'bubble-butt' so much," Alex answered with a smirk.

Brett stuttered and then laughed. "Oh? That must have been an interesting conversation then, if you got down to those details, especially!"

Alex grinned, but then shrugged again. "Not really. I think she was just kind of teasing about something, and she mentioned it, and I just asked her about it." Glancing, he lowered his voice. "She says you have these mounds on top of your butt-cheeks that sort of look like bubbles."

Brett grinned, but then became thoughtful. "I think she's right. I mean, I was kind of that way when I was a kid, before I started growing and all. Yeah, she may have seen me a time or two back then."

"I get the feeling," Alex offered, "that you two have seen a lot more of each other than you let on. From all the little things you've told me about."

Brett shrugged. "Like I've told you before Alex, when we're family and all, I guess things happen sometimes that we don't really think so much about, that's all. Me and Gina, we're careful around our parents and all, but not so much when we're by ourselves. We don't have to be."

Alex, feeling guilty that he had just trespassed on something between Brett and his sister, apologized. "I'm sorry, Brett, I believe you. I guess I'm just the opposite, really, because I don't think so much about something I have no experience with. I'm... yeah, I'm sorry..."

Brett smiled and reached out, placing his hand on Alex's side. "I know you don't, bro, and I'm not worried about it. Most families, I mean the kids and all, they don't have the kind of closeness that Gina and I have. That includes you, too - because she and I both think of you as a part of us now. Honestly? I don't think she would have hugged onto you and did all the touchy feeling stuff she did, if it wasn't for how we both feel about you." Scooting closer, he whispered as an afterthought, "I mean, look at me. You know I'd get naked with you anytime, right?"

Alex giggled at the attempt his friend was making to cheer him up. Closing the distance, however, he leaned in and kissed Brett lightly on his lips, lingering there for a long, long time. When Brett's leg made its way over on top of Alex, the teens then pressed themselves together, grinding firmly. Alex could not help but feel something very distinct through the slacks, rubbing up against his own groin. "MMMmmm" he moaned quietly, before glancing back at the door. Although it was closed, he knew they should really be careful.

Brett agreed as well, but the teen rose and crossed over to it. Bobba Fett followed him, wanting to go outside, so Brett accommodated the pup before closing the door and locking it. It was then Brett peeled off his shirt while on his way back to the bed. Stretching out by his friend, he whispered into his ear. "We might not can do much, but hell, come on, let's at least cuddle for a few minutes ..."

Alex smiled and removed his own shirt again for the second time that afternoon, before threading his arms around his best friend, rubbing his bared back gently while hugging him close. "I would take this as a consolation any ole day," he whispered back, before Brett reared back just far enough to return the kiss. Before long, their tongues were darting back and forth within each other, sharing that feeling of completeness with one another yet again.

That continued for minutes before Alex finally pulled back to catch his breath. "I'll confess something, if you want to hear it," the teen whispered eventually. When Brett surrendered himself completely into his friend's arms, the teen rolled over so his back lay against Alex's chest. Alex liked that, resting his arms around Brett's waist. "More than once today, I was wondering when we could do this again. Don't get me wrong, I didn't have any problems or anything holding out. Everything was fine for the most part. I just... I kind of needed something like this though, with you. Especially after all that happened."

Brett scoffed, pulling his Alex's arm around him more snugly as he stared at the ceiling. "I'll confess something, too. I've been horny practically all day, dude. Don't ask me why, because I don't honestly know. I've just...I needed something, too. I guess for the same reason, after everything that happened."

Alex breathed deeply then, enjoying their presence together in the cool room. He let the fingers of one hand trail down and play with the soft hairs that surrounded Brett's navel, all the while sucking on his friend's earlobe. Brett melted completely, closing his eyes and relishing the moment. Alex also pushed his hand lower, moving inside the waistband of his friend's jeans and underwear he found there. Although Brett sucked in his gut, Alex still found he had trouble going very far. That is, until Brett silently unbuckled his belt and unbuttoned the garment. Letting his hands fall to his sides, he stretched out again, the invitation extended. "You can do anything you want, bro. I trust you, remember?" he remarked in the barest of whispers.

Alex did not hesitate. Pushing inside once again, he found Brett's rapidly hardening manhood. As he cupped it, he felt it throb in the palm of his hand. He let his fingertips gently rolled through the mass of testicles and pubic hairs that met his touch, something that Brett seemed to enjoy equally as much as the teen cuddled in. His eyes were closed, but his face had an expression of total submission. Glancing at the door, Alex wondered if he should dare. Their promise to use care, however, came back to him, and he certainly didn't want to break that, even if Gina was the only other occupant in the house at the moment. So instead, he lifted his hand up, thus further separating the flaps of Brett's jeans, and pushed further south until he was able to cup his friend's entire groin.

Alex felt content with this, absorbing the feelings of both trust and love between them in their embrace, but Brett wanted more. Turning his head until his lips were close to Alex's ear, the teen whispered, "Go ahead, bro, jerk me off.... please?" Alex almost snorted, but then moved his hand in such a way he could start tugging. It was awkward at first, the position between them being something untried before, but then Brett shoved the band of his briefs down further and hooked them underneath his scrotum. Brett's dick then was freed, and taking advantage of it was no longer a problem for Alex.

It was a unique arrangement, Brett lying on his back against his friend. Alex continued to hold and hug him with one arm, moving what little freedom he had to caress Brett's side, while the other began and maintained a rhythmic motion. Brett's scent from his crotch reached Alex's nostrils, thus telling the teen that his best friend must have been pretty active in some sort of way that day. It wasn't repugnant, Alex having long before identified it belonging to the boy he was in love with. As strange as it was, he liked it because it added to the sensation of the deed being done, as something personal and intimate.

It was not long before Brett began to writhe about in Alex's hold. "Oh shit, this is... so... fucking... awesome..." he whispered and then moaned, before suddenly stopping and stretching out completely. It was a signal they both knew all too well by now. As Alex continued to milk his best friend's cock, he watched the tip of the glans suddenly erupt with pure, white spooge only a moment later. Brett was feeling it too, the intensity taking over as he suddenly grasped onto Alex hard, especially when the first spurts seemingly jumped onto his bared chest. Alex thought it was cool to observe, as each spurt thereafter lessened in intensity, but the abundance of evidence offered up overall was not to be discounted. When he had finished with the last vestiges of his orgasm, Brett moaned one last time, a long, low-toned sound so soft that only he and Alex could hear it. The teen surrendered then, relaxing completely against his friend. There they lay for the next few minutes, just basking in their shared intimacy, until Brett finally stirred and turned his head to meet the blue eyes that observed him back. "I love you, you know," the teen whispered.

Alex grunted. "Why, because I can make you cum so hard?" he whispered back, teasing.

"Well, you always make me cum hard, but ... no," Brett replied. "Because we can make love to each other like this without caring about the rest of the world." Alex was surprised, hearing those words come out of the blue. Before he could say anything, however, Brett smiled. "What else would you call it, when we can lie here in each other's arms, with no fear of anything, and just do what comes natural to us?"

Alex smiled in understanding, and leaned in to nuzzle his friend's neck again. "Yeah, it's really cool," he admitted.

After another moment, Brett recovered and then turned himself over so that he was facing his best friend. He took a turn to briefly nuzzle Alex's neck in like manner, but then pulled up. "You know, of all the times I came home from school before, all I could do was go in my bathroom and basically jack off. Sometimes because I'd get horny, maybe seeing or daydreaming about something or someone at school, or maybe sometimes just because I needed to let the stress out." He kissed Alex on the nose, then peered up into the eyes again. "But this, brother, was by and far the best I've ever felt, or nutted, like that. See? Even the simple things are always so awesome between us. They always have been."

"I'm glad," Alex whispered.

"So am I, bro," Brett whispered, before bringing his arms up and crossing them on Alex's chest. "So, do you think I have bubbly butt cheeks?"

Alex grinned. "Didn't I already check that out once before?" he whispered, but then scoffed. "Doesn't matter, I'll check your ass out anytime you want me to." He was about to disentangle himself when they both suddenly heard sounds coming from upstairs. "But uh, it might need to wait for another time..." he replied, giggling softly.

Brett rolled his eyes, then grinned as he rolled away on his back, and fixed his crotch, unhinging his briefs and refastening his jeans. Alex watched him. "You know something?" he commented as Brett began buckling his belt.

"What's that?" the teen asked, reaching quickly for a t-shirt nearby.

"Sometimes, I wonder if I'll ever see you naked and you not be horny and everything..." Alex whispered, teasing his friend as he pulled his own polo back on over his head.

"Yeah, you will. You've got a promise on that one, bro," he mused, donning the shirt as they heard footsteps begin their descent upon the stairs. Brett quickly leaned into Alex's ear and whispered. "Some night, maybe at your house, we'll spend a whole evening without any clothes if you want. I mean, I doubt I can spend a whole evening without getting boned up, but..."

Alex raised both eyebrows. "I'm not so sure either, for myself, but uh, yeah, maybe so. That would be kind of cool," he admitted, which made Brett giggle. Just then the teen leaned in closer.

"Thanks, bro. We didn't have to do that, but... good Lord, it was so awesome."

"You don't have to thank me, Brett," Alex replied, before leaning in and giving the boy a quick kiss. "Not anymore, remember?"

Brett nodded. "Maybe, but - that still meant a lot to me, you know?" He sighed before pulling back. "You're the best friend I've ever had in the whole world, man. Don't forget it, okay?"

Just as Gina knocked on the door, Alex could not help but smile. For the moment - for that single instance - he could truly say he felt happy.

"Wait a minute, let me get this straight. The Sheriff came to the school this morning, and pulled you out of class. Then he was intending to take you both downtown, right? Where, to his office?"

The incredulousness in Richard's voice was both genuine and alarming. He and Roger sat across from the boys in the Branhams' kitchen, amazed by the tale that had just been revealed. Both boys had already determined it would be best to tell their fathers together, thus reducing the amount of redundancy in telling everything, in its entirety, upfront. Their mothers, thankfully, were running late for the evening.

Roger sat forward, propping his elbows upon the table. "Is that the gist of it, son?" he asked Brett, not unkindly, but with a hint of concern.

"Yes sir," Brett answered.

"He had this stack of complaints see, against our cleaning business and all, but he had no way of figuring out who or exactly where we were, I think - until we showed up at school today," Alex explained. "At least, that's my theory."

Roger snorted. "No, I doubt that, son. Mackie could have probably found our addresses in a dozen ways or more if he really wanted to." The man frowned. "Still, it does seem, well ... odd."

"Nevertheless, then what happened?" Richard asked, prompting the boys to continue.

"Well," Brett replied. "Alex here, see, he had this idea, and asked if he could see the complaints and all. The Sheriff handed them over, and Alex noticed the names were funny, and other things, like the times when they were all filed."

"How so?" Roger asked, turning to Alex.

"Well, all the times and everything were reported like, within 15 to 20 minutes of one another," Alex explained. "That's when I noticed all of them were reported over a two day stretch, like beginning one late afternoon, and finishing the next morning."

"The Sheriff thought that was strange too," Brett took over. "Then - and here's the real kicker - Alex came up with this, like brilliant theory and everything."

"It wasn't THAT brilliant," Alex interjected, but was immediately stopped.

"You, be quiet!" Brett demanded before resuming. "Somehow, he came up with the idea of checking the complaints out, to see if the people who had filed them were real. Turns out, for every complaint slip, none of the phone numbers were actually real or in service!"

Richard sat back and stared at his son. "Is that right, son?"

Alex shrugged. "More or less, yeah."

There was a silence in the group, until Richard suddenly just shook his head. "I... I'm almost afraid to ask, but... then what?"

"Then the Sheriff said he had enough to open a different kind of investigation. We told him about the run-ins we'd been having with Spalding. After a couple of questions, he said he was going to check that out first thing," Alex answered.

Richard sat back in the chair and crossed his arms. "Sheesh! Tell me, was there anything else that happened today?" He was staring at Alex hard just then, but the teen slowly shook his head.

"Just first day of school blues is all," the teen responded, glancing at Brett who nodded in amusement.

"So, he says, yeah ... but truthfully? Alex did great for a first day," Brett replied.

Another period of quietness settled upon them just then, as both men sat lost in thought. Alex and Brett sat patiently by, silently watching and waiting, but as the minutes progressed, Alex finally grew restless. "What are you thinking, Dad?"

Richard suddenly smiled and, after glancing at Brett's father, chuckled. "You did good, boys. Quite honestly, I'm proud of you both. I don't know how you came up with those ideas, but nonetheless, I agree with Brett - they were brilliant!" He sighed. "As to what I'm thinking, I'm not sure. I don't guess we need to do anything, as you boys have already covered practically all the bases. Still, I don't know. What do you think Roger?"

"I agree," Brett's father answered. "Of all the things, I wasn't sure what to expect when you asked me to come down here, and then Brett hopped into the truck with me!" He smiled grimly. "I do think though, it might do some good if you and I," he intoned, glancing at Richard, "took a little trip down to the county offices and spoke with Mackie about this. I know he usually keeps late hours on Mondays, so he should still be there. It would at least let him know we're all keeping tabs on how this plays out."

Alex's father hesitated, but eventually agreed. "I take it you know him?"

Roger scoffed. "Mackie? Everyone in this town knows him practically, but yeah, we went to school together back in the day."

Richard accepted that fact at face value. "When do you want to go?"

Roger looked at his watch. "Well, what about now, if you're up for it? We've got enough time I think."

Richard then stood up from the table "Okay, let's do it then. You boys want to come along?" he asked, standing up.

Although Brett stood as well, it was Alex who hesitated. "Can I bow out, Dad? There's something I'd really like to do before it gets too late. Is that okay?"

Richard shrugged. "I don't see why not. It'll probably be a reasonably short trip anyway."

Roger turned to his own son. "Why don't you go on back and mow on the lawn like you promised your Mom this morning? Since the big rains last week, I think it's grown kind of wild, and they're forecasting more storms later for tomorrow night, I think." Although clearly disappointed, the teen nodded in agreement. As both men headed for the door, Alex came up beside Brett and spoke softly.

"If you want, I'll come up and give you a hand after a bit. There's still a couple of hours of sunlight, so if I get a move on, then two mowers will get the job done in half the time, right?"

Brett grinned, nodding. "I have to admit, I kind of like that idea."

When all had left, Alex hurried upstairs and into his room before pulling out his cell phone. After a little searching, he found the number where Ethan had called the previous week, and then dialed it. Following the third ring, someone answered with a scratchy voice, but immediately cleared their throat before trying again. "Hello?"

Alex smiled. "Hi, Ms. Simpson? This is Alex Branham. We met at the barbecue place last week, with your grandchildren, Ethan and April."

"Oh yes, I remember you! How are you?" the older lady asked.

"Fine, thank you. I was wondering if, by any odd chance, Ethan might be there?" Alex prompted.

"Why, yes. Odd chances or not, he is. Would you like to talk with him?" the lady asked pleasantly.

"Yes ma'am, if that's alright. I promise, it won't be a long conversation. I just wanted to ask him about something," Alex explained.

"Sure, give me just a moment," Ms. Simpson drawled and set the phone down. About a half-minute later though, she returned. "Alex? Ethan is in the shower right now. Could you call back in, say, 10-minutes or so? Or, I could have him call you when he gets out."

"Sure, ma'am." He gave her his number, and she promised to have him call shortly. They each bade the other farewell, and then Alex hung up before settling back into his bean bag. Several minutes later, the cell announced an incoming call, and Alex hurriedly answered to find a cheerful voice greet him. "Hi, Alex! It's me, Ethan."

"Hey, buddy, how's it going?" Alex replied. The two chatted for a couple of minutes about how school went that day, before Alex finally cleared his throat. "Listen, can I ask you something? First off, understand - you don't have to answer me mind you, but I was wondering if I could at least ask."

"Sure! What's up?"

"Well, has your Mom come home yet, or your Dad?" Alex inquired quietly.

Ethan was curious about the question. "Um, no, not yet. Why do you ask?"

Alex studied for several second in silence, his brain acting quickly. When Ethan asked him a second time, he sighed. "To be honest, I'm not sure. We had this thing happen today at the high school, and I was wondering if you might have heard anything about it." Alex then went on and gave the boy a few details, but in a more condensed fashion.

"Wow, no! I didn't know anything about that at all! Hang on a sec," Ethan suddenly announced. Alex could hear what sounded like a chair scooting, but then silence until the boy returned. "Now, what I can tell you though, is that neither one of our parents has shown up yet. Not even to get us started back in school or anything. Grams picked me and April up this afternoon, and we drove down by the car lot, but it looked like no one had been there for weeks. Grams is starting to get worried now, I think."

"That IS interesting," Alex murmured. "So, you've been on your own for almost what, 10-days now? And you've been staying with your Grandma?"

"Yeah," Ethan replied. "I mean, in a lot of ways it's better here than if we were at home, but... yeah."

"How long do your parents usually leave you there when they go away?" Alex asked.

"Mostly just a few days," the younger boy replied. "This is the longest we've ever been away so far though, I think."

Alex contemplated that piece of news a bit, and then sighed. "Okay buddy, thanks. I just, like I said, I wondered, that's all," Alex said.

"There is one thing I can tell you though, Alex. I remember Pop's talking to someone on the phone just a couple of weeks ago, like maybe my uncle, I'm not sure. Anyway, it was late at night, and I only heard it because I had got up to go to the bathroom or something. He said something like 'having done it before, and he was ready to do it again. No one was going to get an edge over him like those damn kids did.'" Ethan offered. "I don't know much more than that, honest. If I had stayed and listened, I would have gotten another belting, so I high-tailed it out of there."

Alex nodded silently to himself. "But, was it before or after we came back from camp?"

"Oh, definitely after. I think it was after he went to some car show or something, because he was all smiles that night," Ethan added.

"Okay, thanks. Take care of yourself and your sister, okay? I don't know what's going down either, but I'm just trying to stay ahead of the curve ball, you know?"

"Yeah, I know. I understand," Ethan replied.

Alex smiled. "I'll talk to you again soon, I promise. Okay?"

"You better!" Ethan announced laughing. "Okay, I'm gonna go get some clothes on before I scare my sister with my white ass! Talk to you later!"

"Okay, bye!" Alex replied laughing, before disconnecting.

It was an interesting piece of news, to say the least.

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