The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 16

Mysteries Are Sometimes Thicker Than ... Water

"Okay class, I've got some news for you," Mr. Richardson announced as soon as the bell had sounded, signaling the beginning of the first period. When all had quieted and settled, he continued with an amused look. "Today, you will only have half a day of school this morning."

A general murmur sounded throughout the room. One girl behind Alex spoke up. "Uh, are you sure?"

"Of course, I'm sure, Miss Dice! Because you'll have the other half this afternoon!" the teacher announced, tongue in cheek. Many students suddenly broke into laughter, with only a few of the guys scoffing. Mr. Richardson grinned at them. "You see, never believe what you see or hear at face value. There are a lot of things you have to account for in life, and that includes repeated tricks and misunderstandings that will end up putting you on your guard. For example, many people try to say things in one way, but the outcome comes out differently than intended."

"What do you mean?" another girl chimed in.

"Well, think about it. Unless you're an over-exacting precisionist in the making, practicing perfectionism, there is room for all manner of interpretations to what we hear or see. It can also apply practically to anything we say, too. Right? We, as human beings, interpret many things told to us based on inflection, on presentation, or maybe even the actual situation. Whatever the situation we may find ourselves in, we put a certain amount of trust in the things we take for granted." Mr. Richardson paused. "In languages, for example, a word in one culture could mean something totally different in another culture. One such word that comes to mind is 'fag'. Who can tell me what that means?"

Most of the class snickered or mumbled amongst themselves until one teen boy spoke up. "Uh, isn't it usually a reference to a homosexual, or a queer person?"

Mr. Richardson nodded. "In our culture, that is the way we interpret it, yes. But consider this: do you know what the Europeans refer to a fag as being?"

When no one answered, it was Alex who spoke up. "Usually a cigarette, like in smoking."

The older man pointed at him. "Exactly right! You see, the spelling of the language can be identical, but multiculturalism can imply that the meaning or definition of a word is disparate! There are other examples, too. In certain dialects of Chinese, many words or phrases are spelled or used alike, but their inflections, or the way they're pronounced, can leave them with having totally different meanings. Here's another example. In English, consider this: if I were to ask you to spell the word 'there' Marcus, what would you tell me, hmm?"

"It..." Marcus began, but then caught himself. "Well, which one? There's, like, three spellings of the word 'there', isn't there?"

"Exactly, again! The same word in fact, enunciated identically, but interpreted totally different across three different English spellings." A general murmur erupted amongst the class, but when they became completely silent, their teacher grinned at them. "You see, my point is that language in itself is not considered a finite art. That's why you end up having to take English classes repeatedly. Sometimes to pound the basic principles into you, but also to keep you aware of what the rules are and how you have to master them in order to deal with everyday life. Same if you study a foreign language, though only in small doses, see?"

By now, the man had everyone's rapt attention, and Mr. Richardson smiled yet again. "In truth, people, there is only one universal language in the world, in which there is no room for error or misinterpretation, regardless of where it is used. Does anyone know what that might be?" Again, the class remained silent. Just as Mr. Richardson started to continue, he paused and pointedly looked at Alex. "Mr. Branham? Any idea?"

Alex squirmed uncomfortably at being singled out, but the interest of the topic helped push that feeling aside as he thought about it. "Um, maybe numbers, or mathematics? I mean, no matter what language you use it in, although they might be pronounced differently, a value or result like **zero** is still a **zero** everywhere, right? Or any other result, really."

The older man smiled widely while looking across the rest of the class. "Turns out, he's right again. What this young man has just explained, is that the single most concurrent representation in communication today, across all the cultures of the Earth, is rooted in the science of mathematics itself. Have you ever heard the saying, 'numbers don't lie'? It's true! As long as the math is done correctly, every culture working with a numerical equation, gets exactly the same result. Different languages may pronounce the numbers distinctly separate, like **one, two and three** in English, versus **uno, dos and tres** in Spanish. But within the language itself, its meaning and interpretation are commonly understood universally across all the continents of the world, by every culture."

The man leaned back against his desk. "Why I bring this up is simple, really. What we're going to learn this year, and what you should be learning every year as you take different math courses and the like, is that a whole universal system exists that defines our science to an extremely precise degree. Whereas languages can be differentiated by their sound, their spelling, their culture or other variants, like we just talked about - mathematics is a primordial language, and it is recognized, acknowledged and ruled upon in everything we do - by everyone - identically."

"I'm going to really like my math class, I think," Alex remarked when he with met Brett after first period. They slowly made their way toward their Biology class, which luckily was in the same wing where they were already walking.

"Did he pass out your textbook yet?" Brett asked, to which his friend nodded before handing it over. Brett quickly skimmed through some of the pages before shaking his head and returning it. "Sheesh! I think I'm glad to NOT be in that one, for once! You can have all of it you want!"

Alex laughed. "It's not that bad, honest."

Arriving at the door to their classroom, they entered cautiously. Brett stepped over to a girl and whispered hurriedly, before motioning Alex to follow him. "That's Tina, by the way. I had math with her last year. She told me we didn't have assigned tables, so I guess we can choose any of them we want. Let's try one of them in the back, okay?"

Alex, unsure why that made any difference, simply nodded and followed as Brett picked a table with two chairs, and sat down. Alex followed, and noted there was a single row behind them. "Um, do you have a reason to sit way back here?" he asked.

Brett scoffed. "No one really likes Mrs. Denham, and she doesn't take to liking many of us, either," Brett explained. "In fact, if you make it into the first two rows, it's usually because she pegs you as one of her favorites, see? So, the farther away we sit, as long as we can still hear, is always the better."

"Oh," Alex replied, frowning. He pulled a notepad from his backpack, and then settled in, placing a few ink pens of different colors onto the table.

Brett noticed them. "Why the different ink?"

"I don't know," Alex answered, shrugging. "I've always took notes in ink, and Mom kind of taught me how to use this system thingy, kind of like how to take notes and stuff. Like, highlighting things I want to stand out, or are more important than others. You know, like something I could be tested on. I use different colors for things like definitions, or explicit details of something that should stand out."

Brett was impressed. "And that helps you when you're studying?" Seeing his best friend nod, he relented. "Maybe I ought to try something like that." Alex simply grinned at him before placing the pens between them. Just then the second bell sounded, signaling the beginning of class.

Little happened for the next hour, however, as Mrs. Denham greeted them with a general 'Good morning', before she began handing out their textbooks. Although the books looked to be identical, the texts were individually numbered and assigned to each student. As she recorded the numbers and corresponding assignments, one girl near the front asked what was up. "When these books are collected at the end of term," the teacher responded, moving on to the next person, "they are expected to be in as good of a shape as they are now being handed to you. There are to be zero markings or highlighting in the pages, whatsoever." She paused to look around the room, as she had suddenly caught everyone's attention. "Any such infractions that are found, and you'll find yourselves having to pay for the text."

"You're kidding," Brett blurted out, causing the woman to glance in his direction.

"No sir, Mr. Edwards, I am not. The school board is starting a headfirst attempt, beginning this year, to preserve the condition of our texts for future classes. The only exception allowed is that you may write your name, using the appropriate stamp inside the front cover, to identify it as being assigned to you. This goes along with your lab texts, too, which I will hand out by the end of the week." To the rest of the class, she clicked her tongue. "Listen up, people - these textbooks, together, total about $140 on the order. So, unless you want to be pulling extra hours working to make up that kind of money, I suggest you work with them using the utmost of care. I highly doubt your parents will willingly contribute to paying for replacements, not without an extreme fuss at least. I'm told this is a hard rule, and will be imposed without exception."

"There's no way we can go a whole year and keep them like ... this!" one girl objected.

"You will do so, or you will be cited," the older woman announced pragmatically, though with a smirk. As the low levels of murmurs throughout the rest of the room fell silent, she paused again. "Look children, I agree with you. No one can realistically expect perfection. There will always be a certain level of general wear and tear, I think. The point is, however, that these pages will be scrutinized, and if any markings, of any type, are found outside of the space provided for you to record your name - including pencil, ink or highlights - they are subject to being cited. That means in no uncertain terms, you will have to pay for their repair or replacement, as applicable. The school board is getting tired of having to order new texts practically every other year, and they are trying to cut down on the overall expenses as much as possible. You, in this sad event, are the one's bearing the result of their actions." Another round of groans began, but the lady cut them off directly. "Now, that's all I want to hear about it! If you don't like the policy, then tough - take it up with the principal, the school board, or whoever else you want to register your displeasure - just do not bring it to me!"

Her tone and demeanor informed everyone that she was already not in the best of moods, and thus the class fell silent.

"See what I mean?" Brett whispered as they walked out and headed for their next class.

Alex nodded. "She did seem a little, I don't know, struck on herself, I guess." The teen then wrinkled his nose. "I've half a mind to just put the book in my locker and leave it there for the whole term!"

Brett shook his head. "You can't do that. There are a lot of times she wants you to get it out and refer to diagrams, charts, or text on page so and so. She also gives you questions to do from the end of the chapter, too. And trust me, she is a busy bee, and she loves making everyone in her hive even busier."

Alex thought about that for a moment. "Well, what if we just share one of our copies at the table then? I mean, maybe we can swap out and bring our text every other day, or week, or something?"

Brett pulled up short to think about that briefly. "Let me think about it first. I know she's a hard ass about how certain things are done, but ... that's not a bad idea, really. That might be alright." Grinning, he bumped shoulders. "Anything we can do to work around her has to be a plus, right?"

Their English teacher began the next class with a question: "Tell me, has anyone ever heard of or thought about what incongruity is, especially in the satirical sense?" When the room fell silent, she smiled. "Well, okay, I can see that went over well..." Many in the class giggled quietly before falling silent again. "Let's start at the beginning. Incongruity means noticing something that is out of place. Like, finding an orange in a basket of apples. Be aware, it's not confined to physical objects though, because we can find them in literature, theater or film, or other artistic forms, for example, as well. Sometimes intentional, and sometimes not, they can create mystery, or adventure, or even just spark curiosity. For example, I'll give you a funny one my husband continually brings up. Does everyone know a little about Tarzan? You know, the supposed infant raised by apes in the jungles of Africa, and so forth? Yes?" A round of approving murmurs reached her, so she continued. "Well, have you ever noticed what is out of place about him as an individual? At least in the way he is generally depicted, old movies, animation, newer films and such? Anyone?"

There was a sudden grunt that sounded behind Brett. As he turned around, he found Alex blushing deeply. Ms. Woods turned to him, however, and prompted him directly in a calm voice. "What is it? Would you care to venture a guess?"

Alex returned her stare, but then relented. "Well, I don't know if it's what you're looking for or not, but I remember we, meaning me and my family, were always wondering why they called him the ape man."

"In what way?" their teacher prompted, encouraging him.

"Um, well, apes and gorillas and the like, they all have general fur, right?" Alex paused, "Tarzan, he's not an ape, so he's human, I grant. Still, in all the movies, or cartoons and so forth, he never has a beard or body hair, anything, right? 'I mean, he's not hirsute or shaggy, is he? Yet, everyone for the most part has at least some kind of, you know, something like that. To me, he doesn't exactly fit in with the animals or anything physically, but yet he's referred to as the Ape Man, I think."

"Bingo! Exactly! That is why we call it an incongruity, meaning you have this common set of assumptions about a given subject, topic, or element, and yet you find something about it that is out of place. That's a good job, Mr., uh... I'm sorry, I haven't learned all your names yet..."

"Branham, ma'am. Alex Branham," the teen replied.

"Ah, Mr. Branham, thank you. So, you see class, we're actually going to start our class off by jumping into a literary text that I happen to find quite intriguing, because it is stuffed full with all kinds of these incongruities..."

Lunch arrived quickly, and once again Alex and Brett found themselves joined by Steven and Greg. The half-hour was spent in the general antics and conversation of teens, much as the day before. This time, however, Alex and Greg seemed to find themselves more at ease in chatting with the other teens.

"Brad told me something last night," Steven eventually spoke up, addressing Alex directly. "He said he thought this was your first time to attend school. Is that right?" Steven asked, to which Alex slowly nodded in acknowledgement. "Does that mean school, period? Or, just here in Greensburg?"

"Yes, on both accounts," Alex answered before taking a bite of his sandwich.

Steven sat back. "That sounds awesome, I think. Greg here was home-schooled too, I think thru the fifth-grade, weren't you?" he asked his cousin, who nodded while continuing to eat his lunch. Steven turned back to Alex again. "How's it going, then? Have you had any problems thus far?" the teen asked, returning his attention to Alex.

Alex shrugged. "None yet, no. It's been kind of interesting, I guess. I mean, it's different and all, but it's a 'cool' kind of different."

"That's how it felt to me, too," Greg chimed in. "I think the hardest part was feeling like I had to fit in and be quick about it. As it turned out though, the guys were mostly nice about me being there after all. I made some quick friends, and then things just sort of took off from there."

"That's cool," Steven mused, before pushing his plate back, his sandwich already consumed by then. "You know, I've always wondered what it would be like to be home-schooled. I mean, think of the benefits - you can sleep late, get decent lunches, even sit back and be lazy some of the time, I guess." Alex snorted at the last words, but then blushed and turned his head away, causing Steven to grin. "What? Was it something I said?"

Alex shook his head. "Not really. I was just thinking. It might be that way for some people, but it wasn't for me. I still had to put in an average four to six hours on most days, and it wasn't any picnic. I did get to sleep as long as I wanted, but I was usually up by 7:30 or so. Some days, we'd finish before lunch, but other days it was at least a couple of hours after lunch, if not more."

"No shit? Doesn't really sound all that different then, does it?" Steven acknowledged.

"I wasn't allowed to sleep late either," Greg offered. "My Grandma was a retired teacher, so she kept me busy all the time. Kind of like you, we were only at it about four or five hours on some days, and longer on others. We did skips days sometimes, but man, she would give me so much homework it wasn't funny. Oh, and reading, too. It wasn't always a lot of fun."

"I had homework, too, but my Mom kept it kind of reasonable, I think," Alex replied.

When the teen offered nothing more, it was Brett who then stood up, breaking the silence. "Does anyone fancy a few minutes outside? We've got about 10-minutes or so left, I think." The others agreed and rose, following him to deposit their trays in their return bins, before exiting the cafeteria and walking to the rear doors of the school that led outside into a courtyard. Other students were gathered there as well, lounging in the sunlight as the foursome walked through and made their way to a set of nearby benches. There they sat, soaking up their own rays of warmth.

"Ah, this feels good. Been kind of chilly in the rooms this morning," Steven finally announced, breaking the silence.

"Yeah, the AC is cranked up pretty high for some reason," Brett replied. None of the four spoke again, however, until the bell sounded, which made Brett sit up and stretch. "I guess we'll catch up later, then."

Steven grinned. "Yeah, no sweat, this was alright. See you in gym next period, though."

"Huh? You have gym during fifth period? I didn't see you yesterday," Brett asked in surprise.

"I know. They originally put me down for Chemistry, but I convinced Mr. Green I didn't need the credit, and that I had absolutely zero-percent interest in being in Denham's class," Steven explained. "It took some convincing, but he finally let me transfer out. Since we're not allowed study periods anymore though, he put me in Phys Ed instead, which suited me fine. I arrived just as the dismissal bell rang, though. I did notice you guys over in Reed's group. He's a fun coach, you'll like him."

"Yeah, I know. I had him my Freshman year, too. He's pretty good, not a slave driver or anything." Brett glanced over at Greg. "So, how about you? Are you joining us, too?"

The newcomer suddenly grinned and held both hands up. "Nope, not me. I have to backtrack and take a stupid Civics class, before they'll count my credits I transferred in here with. They stuck me in, I think a Mr. Hopewell's class...?"

Brett nodded at the implied question. "Yeah, you'll like him. He's kind of goofy sometimes, but meh, he's definitely better than some others we have here."

"Hear, hear!" Steven said, standing up. "Well, later then guys." They each bumped fists and then separated.

On the bus ride home, Gina boarded and took her place as usual in Brett's lap. Leaning back against Alex, she turned to him. "Hi, big bro two! Um, is this okay?" she whispered, but he could see the tease in her expression. In answer, he glanced about inconspicuously before lowering his free hand and pinching the side of her butt. Her laughter was genuine as she squirmed and then settled back against her brother.

Brett had to struggle to get her to stay still. "Hey sis, watch out!" he grumbled, before turning on Alex and leaning in. "No pinching butts when we're this cramped up! She has one of the sharpest tailbones you'll ever find on a girl!" he hissed.

Gina half-turned in her arrangement to face Brett. "Oh? And how many girls have you had sitting in your lap before?" she teased, and then turned forward as Brett rolled his eyes. Alex giggled and then turned to stare out the window.

Some minutes later, a seat cleared out across the aisle, so Gina rose and slid into it. Almost immediately another girl joined her. Alex noted they were soon deep into conversation and lost in their own little world, which made him smile. Brett watched her too, and then sighed as he subtly closed the gap with his best friend, placing his backpack back into his lap. "You know, I'm not exactly sure what you two did yesterday, but I know one thing: I don't think I've seen her this happy for quite a while. She really likes you, Alex." Turning, he glanced at his friend. "Must have been the no-shirt thingy," he teased, causing Alex to roll his eyes.

"She'd probably do the same for you, you know," he whispered back. Just then, a younger boy of about 12-years turned around from the seat ahead of them. Peering over the top, he asked them a question with some exuberance. "Hey, do you guys know what you get if you cross a snowman and a vampire?"

Taken by surprise, Brett was about to retort when Alex held his hand up. "A snowman and what? A vampire?" When the young man grinned and nodded, Alex thought for a moment. "Well, a snowman means snow, or something cold, right? Something like ice, or frost maybe? And a vampire... hmm. They're not bats, but they have sharp teeth, and they bite their victims, which usually means blood and... whoa! Wait a second - a vampire bites, right?" The smile slowly receded from the boy's face, as he watched the older teen reason it out. "So, snow-bites, or cold-bites, or... no wait, frostbites? Except, if you're crossing them, then there's no need for more than one, so... is it frostbite?"

"MMaannn.... How did you do that?" the boy asked incredulously, shaking his head in bewilderment. Alex just grinned and shrugged, causing the deflated boy to slump his shoulders and turn back, facing forward again.

Brett, also deeply impressed, leaned in close and lowered his voice. "I agree, what the hell? How in the fuck DID you put all of that together?"

Alex glanced around again, before eyeing the seat in front of them. With a quiet giggle, he leaned in and whispered, "I overheard him telling that same riddle to someone else, while Gina was jumping into your lap."

Brett started laughing then, a good, hearty laugh that gradually turned louder. Gina, sitting only a short distance away, suddenly stopped and turned back in his direction. She started to ask, but her brother just waved her back. "I'll tell you about it later," he promised. She arched her eyebrows, but then nodded and returned to her friend. Brett eventually slid his hand underneath his backpack and casually probed about until he found Alex's. Squeezing it gently, he remarked. "You're something else, you know that? You had me TOTALLY convinced there!"

Alex shrugged but grinned. "Meh, whatever. I admit though, it WAS kind of fun!"

Both giggled again before Brett sat back. "So, want to do something tonight? Mom is taking me to get another couple of binders when we get off the bus, which probably means we'll grab some burgers or something and bring them back. It shouldn't take more than an hour or so. How about something after dinner? Maybe play some basketball, since it's cloudy and not so hot today?"

"Sounds good to me. I'll come up after we eat," Alex replied.


"I've got some news you might like to hear," Richard stated, as he dropped heavily onto the couch next to his son. Sighing deeply, the man shook his head. "Sheriff Mackie attempted to find Harry Spalding today, and pick him up for questioning. The man wasn't at his house or the car lot, and no one seems to have an idea of his present whereabouts. The mailbox at the car lot was overflowing, just as the postman was coming by. That man told him he hadn't seen either of the two brothers for a couple of weeks."

Alex glanced up from his textbook and frowned. "Really? That fits what Ethan told me last night."

"Ethan? Who's Ethan?" Richard asked in curiosity.

"It's Harry Spalding's son. Brett and I met him at camp this summer. He was in our swim class," Alex explained. "Remember? I told you about him and his sister."

"Oh, that's right," Richard nodded, recalling at least part of an earlier conversation. "Is that why you wanted to stay behind last night? To call him?"

Alex blushed and did not answer immediately. Something had called his attention to the idea the night before, but was unsure of what specifically triggered it. It was an intuitive guess on his part, if nothing else, and as of late, his intuitions had been paying dividends. Looking up at his father, he nodded. "Sorry, Dad. It's just... Ethan and his sister were dropped off to stay with their grandmother, the day after the four of us went out for barbecue that night. Ethan told me last night that neither he nor his sister have heard from their parents since then. Even with the start of school, they've both had to rely on their grandmother to get everything up and going."

Richard furrowed his brow with concern. "Now, that IS unusual. Do you know, by chance, if they're staying with their maternal or paternal Grandmother, or her address?"

Alex thought briefly before responding. "When we met them for lunch that day, she referred to you-know-who as her son-in-law, so I would venture to guess it's their maternal grandmother. As to where they live, not really. I got the impression they live somewhere on the other side of town, somewhere out of the way. I do have her phone number on my cell though, if you want. You could probably call and find all that out."

Richard studied briefly, but then shook his head. "Not now. Maybe later though, so don't lose it, okay? I might pass it along to Mackie." As Alex nodded, Richard sat forward, his elbows resting on his knees. "In one way, I don't know how far we should get involved here, given everything else that is going on. The safe thing to do is turn it all over to the authorities, but therein lies the problem itself: this man has threatened both you and Brett, and by extension both of our families, and that pisses me off. He's showing signs of compulsive behaviors that are not healthy, and the incident that Mackie took to the school is not just some sad prank. He intended to wrap you two up in the system as far as he could, for as long as it would ride." The older man shook his head. "I have all these warning bells going off inside my head, but I feel powerless to deal with it right now. We're so close to the endgame of our other business and all, I really don't want to do anything that will put it at risk."

Alex closed his textbook and set it aside, before shifting so he could face his father directly. For perhaps the first time, he noticed the deep creases that were beginning to appear in the man's forehead. Alex knew they were the result of both concern and worry, spanning more than just the last few weeks. "Dad? You don't think this man... I mean, Spalding surely wouldn't be connected with... you know, would he?"

"That network has tentacles that reach far and wide son, all across our nation," Richard replied in a hushed voice. "Truthfully, I have no clue. You saw what happened in Idaho, in the middle of nowhere. They got to us there in a place where I would have thought was safer than anything imagined." The man suddenly smiled, surprising his son. "Still, there is one thing that runs in our favor. Although Harry Spalding may have developed an obsession with the two of you, he certainly hasn't made any kind of a connection beyond it - at least not yet. I mean, if he had..."

"We'd already know it by now and be long gone, yeah," Alex responded. The teen sighed. "I just wish it were over."

Richard smiled. "Well, I wouldn't worry too much. We don't have much longer to go now, do we?"

"No, just two weeks ... or something like that, right?" Alex asked.

"Yep. Are you ready?" Richard asked.

"I guess so," Alex replied. "I mean, what is there to really prepare for, right?"

"I know what you mean, and yes, you're right," the older man replied. "I just wondered if you were having any second thoughts about it, mentally speaking?"

"What? No way!" the teen exclaimed. "If you'll forgive the language, I can't wait for the fucking mess to be over with!"

Richard gazed upon his son before smiling. Seeing the defiance, but yet cast-iron certainty his son possessed, had always filled the man with a feeling of unabashed pride. "You have a right to feel that way, Alex. We all do, for that matter," the man added, causing Alex to nod in agreement.

"Do..." Alex started, after a moment of silence. "Do you think we'll be able to stay here, Dad?"

Richard smiled at that thought. "That's a good question. Personally, I think that if this is where we want to stay, we should have the right to do so. We've had so much taken away from us and lost, moving again will just make it worse than ever. At some point, we have to get our roots back into the ground, you know?" He finally sat back and relaxed. "You and Brett have become inseparable, I know. To be honest, Roger and I, as well as your mother and Brenda, are becoming fairly steadfast in our own friendships, too. Not to mention the effect this little town has had on all three of us, either. It's a quiet, small place out of the way, but we're not out in the middle of nowhere like we were before. There is something to be said for that, I think."

Alex nodded. "I know what you mean, yeah."

Richard became thoughtful. "When I think about the fact that you're going to graduate high school eventually, and start moving on with your own life in a few years, I wonder what your mother and I going to do? You probably will not always be around, then. This is the kind of place we've always talked about settling down in, when our older years approach us. Who knows, it could be the very place we do it in, planting our roots for a change. At least for a while, without having to look over our shoulders constantly."

"Yeah, I can understand that." Alex glanced out a nearby window. "What about Uncle Owen, or Grandma and Grandpa? Or Mom's sisters?" he inquired softly.

Richard grunted and then placed an arm around his son's shoulders. "You miss them, don't you?" When Alex nodded, the older man sighed deeply. "We all do, trust me. All I can tell you is we'll just have to see how this all works out. Never forget though, each of them knows what is at stake here, Alex. I'm sure they miss us just as much as we miss them. Still, it can't last forever. In time, I'm sure we'll all see them again. Of that, I am certain."

"I hope so," the teen replied.

As a silence fell between them, Richard held his son warmly. "It's almost done, Alex. We just have to hang on a little longer, okay?"

Alex finally sighed and nodded, before eventually pulling away and standing up. "Brett and I are supposed to play some basketball after dinner, and since Mom's late, I thought about making us all some grilled cheeses and a salad. How does that sound to you?"

"Actually, sounds like a winner, I think. Let me go wash my hands and then I'll give you a hand," Richard replied, smiling.

"Ah, glibbersnot!" Brett exclaimed, right after Alex sank another long shot through the hoops.

Alex laughed. "What was that? Is that even a word?"

Brett shrugged. "I don't know, ask Gina. She's the one who uses it a lot when she gets frustrated."

"So, you're frustrated, huh? With me?" Alex teased with a smug expression.

"No, not with you. I'm frustrated that I'm trying to win this game, and by the way we're going, it's never going to end!" Brett exclaimed. "You're getting pretty good at this, you know!"

Alex shook his head. "Not really. Besides, flattery will get you nowhere on this one. You're the basketball king between us, hands down."

"Yeah? Well, we'll see..." Brett relented before driving in hard and completing a lay-up with ease. "At least I can still get you on these plays," he exclaimed. For the next 30-minutes, both teens attacked their game hard, each again trying to out-score the other by 5-points, a rule they used to determine the winner. Although each came close, the other would end up tipping the balance back in his favor, sometimes at the last second so that their game was extended. Following a rather extensive match of blocked shots and steals, resulting in a failure to score, Brett finally stopped and moved over to the side of the court. Collapsing breathlessly onto the lawn, he made an attempt at surrender. "Okay, okay! I give! Let's t-take a b-break!" he gasped.

Alex slowly walked over and collapsed beside him, breathing just as hard. Both were perspiring heavily, despite the overhead clouds and cooler evening temperatures around them. "You... can't give," he gasped. "I s-surrender, I forfeit, I... whatever you call it." As they paused to get their breath back, Alex finally turned his head towards Brett. "Besides, I didn't think we were worried about winning anyway."

Brett grunted. "Well, that's the way it started, yeah. But then somewhere along the way one of us called Plus-Five, remember?"

"Oh yeah, that's right," the teen relented. "I think that was you, though."

"Probably," Brett admitted. "I sure as hell didn't expect you to hold out and make it last this long, though!"

"I surprised myself, too." After a few minutes, Alex sat up on one elbow and gazed toward the house. "I'm surprised Gina didn't come out and want to play."

"She went back out to the grocery with Mom," Brett explained. "They'll be out for a while, I'm sure. And Dad's inside, fast asleep in the recliner." He looked up in amusement. "Why, you're not pining for my sister, are you? Is she your girlfriend now?"

Alex rolled his eyes and then suddenly stood up. "Come with me," he hissed, grasping Brett's hand and pulling him up. Leading the way, he took them in through the back door and around to the steps. Mr. Edwards was indeed fast asleep and snoring in a recliner on the far side of the room. Descending the steps and entering Brett's room, Alex started to close the door when Bobba Fett suddenly appeared. Leaning down, the teen gave the canine a brief scratching behind the ears, and then shooed the pup away before closing the door completely. When he locked it, Brett's eyebrows stretch high as he commented. "Ruh roh, Shaggy. This looks serious! I think I'm in trouble!"

Alex crossed to him and whispered into his ear. "You'd better believe it," he hissed before pushing Brett backwards toward the bed. Reaching its edge, he peeled Brett's t-shirt off of him and then unsnapped the teen's shorts. Then with another gentle push, Alex had Brett half-sitting, half-lying back onto the mattress as he then removed his friend's trainers and socks. Then, grasping both waistbands of Brett's shorts and briefs, Alex yanked them off quickly, completely stripping the teen naked. Alex then stood and started peeling his own clothes off, causing Brett to raise both eyebrows.

Once completed, rather than indulge into any level of intimacy, Alex instead grasped Brett by the hand and pulled him back to his feet. Moving quickly, he guided them into the adjacent bathroom and closed its door, before proceeding to step into the shower. Brett followed in amusement, closing the curtain around them while Alex activated the water and set it to a desirable temperature. Once done, the teen backed away and pulled Brett up underneath the stream. The teen complied, smiling and closing his eyes as the torrent first struck his back, before he stepped back further and let the cooling water cascade over his face and down his neck.

Just as Brett started to process the moment, he felt Alex suddenly close in and wrap him in a tight embrace. He grasped Brett behind by his buttocks and pulled, grinding them together close in front. They each held the other until Brett felt a set of warm lips suddenly engulf his own. That kiss was held for some minutes, their tongues frolicking about as they succumbed to the feelings building inside. By the time they broke for air, both had a hardness in their groins between them that each tried to grind into the other. Brett, swearing under his breath, opened his eyes to look upon his friend. "I don't think this is going to be one of those boner-less moments we talked about before."

"It had better not be," Alex replied, before leaning up and kissing his best friend deeply again. Each was turned on by the excitement, grasping and pulling, grinding and thrusting at each other as tightly as they could. After a moment, Brett turned and pulled Alex underneath the showerhead. It was then he broke their kiss and turned his friend around. Quickly closing in, the teen grasped Alex's hardened manhood and started to massage it, all the while nibbling along his friend's neck and sucking his ear lobe. Alex started to object, but Brett gave the cock in his hand a firm squeeze. "Shhh... it's my turn, remember?" As Alex stilled, Brett started to tug rhythmically, squeezing harder and jacking his friend more steadily. "Yeah, that's it..." Brett whispered. "Just fuck my hand... like that... yeah..." It was amusing to Alex to hear his friend talk so naughty, but at the same time it spurred the intensity between them even further. Brett's own boner was spooned into Alex's back, sandwiched upward between his buttocks as close as he could make it. Feeling their bodies intertwined so completely, it seemed to Brett as if he had created an extension to his own. Each thrust he made for his friend was answered by an equal grinding backwards onto himself. It was he who moaned softly, and when he nibbled his best friend's ear again, his own dick moved upward even further, creating a sandwiched effect that totally encompassed his rigidness. "Oh fuck, this is awesome," he whispered into Alex's ear. "Tell me when you're going to cum, though."

"I can't," Alex finally murmured. "I'm already about... to... to...". As the words registered with Brett, he could suddenly feel a change developing in his hand, as Alex's dick swelled and stiffened more. Backing away, Brett quickly turned his friend around again before dropping to his knees. There, when he saw Alex already beginning to erupt, he fully engulfed the manhood between his lips, taking him inside. As he pushed down, he also used his lips to grip the outer skin just enough so that it pulled back to expose Alex's glans. Brett was happy to at least become the recipient of a few, final surges of the cum spewing forth.

Alex, already weakened by then, had to step back and lean against the wall for support. Brett hung on, sucking wildly as he pivoted to stay with the teen. In a moment though, it was all over and Brett finally pulled off to stand up. Reaching over, the teen turned off the shower before settling back in place to give Alex another deep kiss. As the water dripped from their wet bodies, it was enough to send Brett into overload. As he began unloading between them hard, Alex gripped Brett's buttocks and pulled them closer. There they stood, both receding from their highs as they fused flesh upon flesh with each other. Brett could not remember a time he felt more at ease with the other boy. He whispered, "I love you. You know that, right?" Alex could only nod.

Eventually Brett pulled the curtain back and reached for a towel. "Come here," he whispered, which Alex quietly obeyed. He was guided out of the tub and onto the bath mat, with his friend following. With care, Brett used the towel to quickly dry them both. Then, with Alex looking onward in amusement, Brett guided them both back out to where their clothes lay on both the floor and bed. Once there, he sat Alex on the bed this time and made him lie back. Picking up the set of briefs and cutoffs belonging to his friend, he re-dressed him, taking care once again around the groin. "You know, as many times as you've let me see this part of you, I still can't get over how you look and everything down here. I mean, I've got my own, I know that, but... it's just a different perspective, I guess. It's amazing," he whispered, before covering the teen up and finishing the job.

"Sometimes, I feel the same way," Alex whispered back.

Brett grinned, but then quickly crossed to his dresser and pulled out fresh underwear and a clean t-shirt. Donning both, along with his own cutoffs nearby, he then sat down by his friend. "You know, if that's what getting into trouble is going to be like with you, I think I need to do it more often," he teased.

Alex punched him playfully. "Well, it wasn't meant to be a punishment, but... yeah." He took a deep breath. "I do think that was awesome, though."

"Yep, our first real shower," Brett whispered in reply.

"Together," Alex added. "Our first real shower, together." He paused then grinned. "Did you like it?"

"Are you kidding?" Brett responded, before taking hold of his brother in all but name, and pulling him into an embrace from his side. "Damn, Alex... it just keeps getting better and better, bro. You know?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah, I know." He pulled back after a moment. "I need you to promise me something, though."


"Don't tease me anymore about your sister, okay? I would never mess with her, and we are definitely not boyfriend and girlfriend, or going steady, or whatever you want to call it. It just, it feels weird when you do that. I think maybe with anyone else it would just be amusing; but with Gina - after everything else that's happened, I just..."

Suddenly, everything fell into place and Brett understood why what had just happened, had done so. "I understand. I'm sorry Alex, honest. I didn't mean it the way it sounded."

Alex brought a finger up and pressed it to his friend's lips. "It's fine, honest. Just understand, okay? It's kind of important for you and me both. I like your sister, yeah, but just as that - a kind of funky, friend/sister kind of person. Like you, I don't intentionally do anything bro, but I trust her enough that I'm not scared of her. You know that, but see? The person who I am holding right now, and feeling everything, everywhere... is you, and guess what? You are all I need for the time being, okay? I don't care if we're a trio of siblings, and have fun and stuff, but when it comes to this stuff? I'm not out to see your sister naked, or feel her up or anything. She's cute and pretty, but... it's not me. Not now, anyway. I need you to believe that. I need you to feel it, too. It's just you and me."

"I do, Alex, trust me," Brett whispered back. "Like I've already told you, I don't worry about you and my sister, honest. Both of us may straddle the line sometimes, but it's all innocent fun. I know it, she knows it... and you do, too. So, don't worry, bro. I promise I'll do my best not to tease you about it anymore."

Alex smiled and then kissed the end of his friend's nose before sitting up. Looking at the clock, he saw it was just past 7:30. "You know, I should probably get back now. I've still got to take a 'real' shower when I get home, since there's something on my belly that needs a little attention." He stood and stretched as Brett blushed.

"You know, otherwise you did have a pretty good rinse in there, right?" He looked at the hand outstretched to him and grasped it, climbing to his own feet. "But then again, I know it's not quite the same."

Alex grinned wickedly, then grasped the teen's t-shirt and pulled him close. "You guessed that right. I mean, I don't know about you, but I need a head washed, and some other things." He grinned. "Don't worry, I don't have anything to make me feel like you were trying to pork me," he whispered.

Brett began giggling, then blushing outright again. "I wasn't trying to..."

"Shhh!" Alex protested. "Do you really think I cared?"

"Well, did you?" Brett asked, obviously relieved as a smile began to break out.

Alex leaned into Brett's ear and in the barest of whispers, replied. "What the fuck do you think made me cum so fast?"

"Oh, wow," Brett breathed. For Alex to resort to that kind of language, something must have been ... really right!

With two days now past, Alex began to feel better about school life in general. Aside from dealing with both the classes and his teachers, the teen found that several of their peers approached him generally with a carefree but friendly attitude, welcoming both Alex and Brett into their various conversations. Not just the guys, either. Several girls had struck up conversations with Alex in various rooms and hallways, introducing themselves and chatting amicably. Alex realized it was just an attempt to size up and find out more about their new classmate, but he didn't mind. The questions were always casual, and he found it as an opportunity to make friends.

As their third day began, Alex continued to be fascinated with his Advanced Mathematics class, and its teacher. Mr. Richardson continued to capture the attention of the class with his 'otherworldly ways' (Mr. Richardson's expression, not Alex's), seeking to discuss working with numbers and equations. That morning, their teacher started class with a question, eliciting a discussion about why two parallel lines never crossed each other. Going through the basic theorem, he then asked a very simple question: why? In other words, how do you know they'll never cross? What makes the state that two parallel lines actually have no intersection? The discussion was lively, with Alex sitting back and listening in. The elderly gentleman spent most of the hour throwing out the pros and cons, even playing the devil's advocate at times. Toward the end of class, however, he left them with a challenge: could the theory be proven mathematically. That was to be their homework assignment - not to actually prove it out, but to discern if it could be proven, and how would one go about it. Alex, to say the least, was intrigued and thought he already knew the answer, but decided to play with his idea first before voicing it.

Neither their biology or English courses did anything extraordinary that day, and by the time lunch was upon them, Brett was ready for a break. "Did you get any homework in math today? Our Geometry teacher gave us something like 40 problems to do. I was like, 'damn'!"

Alex glanced up from his plate. "Really? Richardson gave us a puzzle to work on to see if we could solve it, without looking it up on the internet, but that's all."

"But no problems or exercises to solve?" Brett asked, his eyebrows raised. "What kind of puzzle?" As Alex started to explain, Brett was quickly lost. Holding up his hand, he stopped his best friend. "Whoa! Better you than me! Although, I have to admit, that does sound more like a problem in geometry than it does in advanced math."

Alex laughed, shaking his head. "It's just an interesting puzzle, that's all. I know other stuff is coming, but he seems to be bent on making us think about things first, and to be honest? I kind of like it that way."

"Yeah, he's good with stuff like that. Wait until he mixes in some stories, too, from his days in the war and all. Most of them are pretty interesting, and sometimes he'll take up the better part of a period telling you about them," Brett replied.

That afternoon, when they arrived for Phys Ed, they entered the locker room together. Brett led them to one of the corners on the far side of the locker room, mostly out of the way of others entering with them. Alex noted the lighting there was dimmer than the rest of the room, something which inwardly pleased him. "Did you bring clothes to change into?" Brett asked. Coach Reed had told them he would not enforce the rules for dressing out until the next week, but Alex saw no reason in delaying the inevitable, as he nodded while kicking off his shoes.

"So, where do we store our stuff until we're done?" Alex asked. Brett pointed and indicated a series of open, mesh-like squares attached to the walls, each identified by an engraved plate on the sides containing a series of numbers. Upon closer inspection, Alex realized the mini-bins were just large enough to store basic street clothes and the like. Brett also pointed out that, spaced apart evenly along the walls of the room, were poles with various hooks.

"That's where we can hang our bags and backpacks, if we need to," Brett explained. After observing other guys using them, Alex nodded and then removed his clothes to change into, before hanging his own pack accordingly. Brett watched and grunted. "I know, it's not the best way to do it. We're probably better off leaving important stuff in our locker, and just bringing what we need down here. That's the way a lot of guys do it, so that their books and stuff stay under lock."

"Do guys have much trouble with stuff not being locked up?" Alex asked in curiosity as he glanced around. Seeing that most boys were still arriving and not paying any particular attention to anyone else, he turned and faced the wall of bins. Stepping subtly closer to Brett, the teen began peeling his shirt off, using his friend to partially shield himself. Brett understood right away, and stood still as his best friend wasted no time in donning a t-shirt in its place. As Alex began to fold his polo before storing it, he whispered aloud, "Thanks, bro."

"Anytime, buddy," Brett muttered, before raising his voice back to a normal volume. "There isn't much theft or anything in the locker rooms, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. People have lost things in here, sometimes because they just didn't pay attention and misplaced them to begin with. There have been a few mysteries though, so... you get the idea." He shrugged. "We heard last year that the school board was going to look into ways we could secure our clothes and stuff better, but it looks like nothing came out of it."

Alex raised his eyebrows. "You had Phys Ed last year, too?"

"We're required to have it for two-years before they'll let us graduate, so yeah, I did my first year then. Some guys take it all four years, so meh," Brett answered. Just then, a familiar body joined them. "Hey, Steven!" he said, bumping the offered mid-air fist.

"Hey, you two! Long time no see!" the tall teen replied, grinning.

"Yeah, a whole hour or so!" Brett replied good naturedly, as the boy dropped a bag on the bench and began kicking off his trainers.

"Is it okay if I join you two? Room is filling up fast today, and it looks like it's going to be a crowded one at that," Steven mused. Alex glanced about and noted with surprise the room appeared to be filled to capacity.

"Sure, step over here if you want," Brett replied, as he stepped back to give the taller boy more room. Brett began the process of removing his pants. Although Alex was feeling slightly nervous, with a stomach seemingly fluttering with butterflies, he took a deep breath and followed suit. He tried to ignore those around him at first as he changed into his gym shorts, but as he proceeded, he found it really didn't bother him as much as he might have suspected. As he pushed one leg into the appropriate hole and was about to insert his other leg, he noticed that Steven had stopped and was subtly taking the view of the teen in. Surprised, Alex completed pulling his shorts up, and thumbing the waistband all the way around. Glancing at Brett, Alex saw he had already sat down beside them and pulled his trainers back, donning them and being oblivious to what had just happened.

Alex thought for a time that he must have just imagined things, as he started tying his own shoes. As Steven changed his own clothes in front of them quickly, Alex purposefully avoided turning his gaze in the tall boy's direction. He knew what he had heard, but in trying to be respectful, the teen preoccupied himself at folding his jeans and situating his street clothes into one of the bins. When he noticed Brett had finished, Alex started to turn for the door, but was gently pulled back by his friend. "Hang on, let's wait for Steven," Brett whispered.

Steven finished up about a minute later, and then the trio made their way out into the open gymnasium. Once there, the tall boy waved. "See you guys on the flipside," he said, implying when class was over, or so Alex assumed.

As Steven trotted away, Brett leaned in to explain. "Sometimes it's nice to sort of stay with your friends when you're changing like that. It's something that kind of gives them support, you know, like being around people you know. Steven's older, but he's going out of his way, I think, when he's staying around us and all. I'm not exactly sure why, but I respect it. That's why I said let's wait." Alex glanced at the taller teen, who easily stood out amongst the other boys, then nodded in understanding.

Their first day was freeform play, meaning the coach allowed everyone to divide off and do what they wished. Three of the gym's eight basketball goals were assigned to their class, and before he knew it, he and Brett were both brought in together for one of the teams. The next 45-minutes were spent playing three-on-three, in which their team ended up putting in an impressive battle over their peers. When the early whistle sounded, all stopped to catch their breath. One of the guys on the other team, was bent over at the waist, gulping air greedily before he pulled up and grinned at them. "You two play pretty solid ball there," he said, indicating both Brett and Alex.

Brett only shrugged in reply. "We've been playing some this summer is all. Sorry, I didn't mean for it to get that intense."

The other boy grinned and raised his fist in mid-air. "I'm James. This here is Jason, as well as Mathew," he said. Brett and Alex both bumped back and introduced themselves. As Alex spoke, James suddenly turned. "Wait a minute. Branham... Branham... I know I've heard that name somewhere. Are you the one who did the swimming classes this summer, up at that camp?"

Alex, who had been stretching, stopped in surprise. "Yeah, I can't plead not guilty. It was me and Brett."

James grinned. "Yeah, I know you now. My little brother was in your group. Short, shrimp-like kid with strawberry blond hair, named David."

Alex suddenly grinned. "Yeah, I remember David!"

Brett snorted "Yeah, he was the one who had a heck of a time learning how to float."

"That he did," James agreed. "I never could teach the little fart at home, always too scared of the water. You broke him in, though. I mean, you got him to do it. That was a good thing." In the silence that followed, the group looked up at the clock. Only minutes remained before they would be heading in to change back into their street clothes, so it was agreed to end their play for the day.

On the way to the locker room, Alex sided up to Brett. "Does everyone know me in some way or another from camp?"

Brett grinned. "Well, not everyone, but you're likely to find some in here do." He gave his best friend a side-long glance. "It just makes you popular, I think. Does it bother you or something?"

Alex shook his head. "Not really, just... it's something I didn't expect, that's all."

Entering the large locker room, the boys separated and headed in basically different directions, with only Brett and Alex returning to their far corner. As quickly as he could, Alex inconspicuously stripped his t-shirt and re-donned his street clothes, taking advantage of the fact that only a few of their classmates were beginning to appear. Brett noticed and respectfully gave his friend time to adjust before he leaned in. "Alex? Just so you know, I promise you: no one is going to pick on you in here, bro."

Alex blushed deeply as he slowed and began pulling his jeans on in a much less-hurried fashion. "Maybe, but... I'll be okay Brett. I just... I need a little time to get used to this is all, I guess."

"Trust me, I understand how you're feeling, and I'll help as long as you want me too," Brett replied in a low voice. "I'm just saying though, you've really got nothing to be afraid of with these guys. I know most of them, they're all cool." Seeing his friend nod, Brett then stood and stripped completely to his underwear, before extracting and beginning to don his street clothes. Something in the boy's expression caused Alex to relax. Maybe he WAS being a little more tense than he had reason to be. Although the boys at camp had been okay, they were younger overall, and for some reason the sense that separated Alex from them hadn't bothered him. Even their last night with everyone on the docks, Alex had accepted the others observing his non-conformity. Then there was also Gina, who had accepted him as he was, although she was a girl. Each and every one of those occurrences were fine, but here Alex had to still anticipate how his own peers, people his age, might react. It did not make him feel shame, but even now, it did give him reason to hesitate, and that was making him nervous. Perhaps as he got to know their classmates better, his feelings might abate.

Looking on at Brett, Alex suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. Brett was making a point by stripping to his underwear, to show Alex that no one was going to pay attention anyway. As he observed his best friend's lithe body change clothes in the lower light, there was that feeling of mutual trust he gave to the complete strangers in the room, but also a personal trust he was giving Alex. Glancing around as their other classmates arrived and started changing, Alex felt his guilt worsen. He felt like he was hiding himself in shame, even to his best friend. Brett, the boy who had first taught him about trust with just wearing underwear around him, alone. Beyond that, the boy who now bared everything to his eyes without fear or shame in their times of sharing each other. As Alex finally dropped his eyes to the floor while waiting for Brett to finish, he was overcome with sudden remorse, fighting back the oncoming emotions that were beginning to betray him.

He had just decided he needed to get out of there, when Steven suddenly appeared and sat down next to him. "Hey, something wrong? You okay?" the teen asked as he pulled his shirt off over his head.

Alex could not respond right away, a catch developing in his throat. He gave the tall teen a wary smile, before attempting to stand up. He wanted to get out of there, but Steven noted something was not right. Reaching out, the teen whispered to him, "Stay, okay? Give me a minute to change first, is all." Alex struggled to look up, but when he made eye contact with the other teen, he froze. Steven saw something and leaned in again. "Seriously, don't leave me. Just give me a minute." Then, without waiting for a reply, the boy quickly kicked off his shoes and retrieved his street clothes. With Alex looking down to the floor, his peripheral vision caught the boy quickly and masterfully changing his clothes at a record pace.

When Steven started to don his trainers, Alex noticed Brett was leaning against the lockers and waiting as well. Once completed, Steven motioned for them outside, where they followed. Once there, a few minutes remained before the class bell would sound, so finding a corner out of the way, Steven skillfully manipulated Alex into it. Brett stood by his side as guard. "Okay, what gives? Talk to me. I know something was going down in there."

Alex, however, just shook his head as he continued to study the floor. "It's nothing, Steven. It was just me being stupid, I promise. I'll be fine." He so wanted to drop it and just leave, but both of his friends had other ideas.

"No, you won't. Even I can tell something is off, and you know how long we've been best friends," Brett responded, before whispering. "Come on, Alex. What is it?"

Steven sighed when the teen stared off into the distance in silence. "I can't help what you won't face, man. I won't push, but hear me out. I'm going to guess at something here, and if it's wrong, just say so and I'll drop it and leave. If it's right, though, then just listen. It would be my guess that, since it's your first time in school, it probably has something to do with all this, this dressing out thing for Phys Ed and all. I mean, I watched you play ball, and that was pretty impressive. So, the class itself obviously doesn't bother you, right? That leaves only two possibilities then."

Alex gazed up into the eyes that met his and simply continued to stare, giving Steven the genuine impression he had actually hit home, or at least close to it. "So, first, I'm sorry. I apologize. I know you caught me checking you out," the boy whispered, but then went on. "I think everyone does it, in one way or another, at one time or another, and sometimes multiple times, you know? I didn't mean anything by it, but if that's what got your shorts all knotted up, then there, I said it. I'm sorry."

Alex finally shook his head. "It's not that," he finally replied, taking a deep breath. "I don't care about that, honest. It's just..."

"Then what?" Brett interjected. He knew the bell would sound soon enough.

"I don't know, I was just... feeling weird, I guess. Here, all you guys are doing this and don't seem to care any about it, but I didn't, I couldn't. I mean, I changed clothes quick, so no one would pay any attention to me, I guess. Or, at least I tried to."

"Ah," Steven said, nodding. "I get it, I really do. You're not so much shy around people you know, it's just the people you don't know and all. And then you see everyone else doing it, and you're thinking to yourself, 'What the fuck, what's wrong with me?' ... right? You kind of feel like the lone sailor out in the ocean, with no real land in sight anywhere."

Amazed, Alex slowly nodded. To his surprise, Steven grinned. "Well, I've got the answer for you then, you know. Want to hear it?" Leaning in close, as if about to reveal a secret, the tall teen spoke again. "Not... one... fucking... thing! There is nothing wrong with you, man. Trust me, I know." He then pulled back. "Listen, not much time left. Just believe me on that for now, and we'll talk more about it later if you want to. Or, go pull off numb-nuts here after school, and get him to explain it to you. But honest man, there's nothing wrong with you. I'll stand by you any day on that, okay?"

Just then the bell sounded, marking the end of class. Steven winked at them both, and then walked away, with Brett and Alex staring after him. Alex was puzzled, but he suddenly felt somewhat better. Brett noted it too, and leaned in close to his ear. "Come on bro, one more class and then we can go home."

Alex broke from his trance then, and smiling sheepishly, motioned for his friend to take the lead.

"So, do you get it now?" Brett asked while they were both seated on the old bus, heading home.

Alex knew the question was coming sooner or later. The issue had occupied his thoughts completely throughout their last class. He wasn't sure how to respond, other than he did squeeze Brett's hand, still safely clasped between them under their packs. "I know. I've told you guys, I was just being an idiot. I don't know why it got to me, really. It just did..."

"I know it did. I mean, I saw Steven checking you out," Brett admitted. Seeing Alex's surprise, he shrugged. "Look, it's like Steven said, everyone checks everyone else out in some way or another. Sometimes you catch them, sometimes you don't. It just happens, that's all. Doesn't mean anyone is gay, or thinking funny stuff. It's just, you know, curiosity."

Alex thought about that, but was confused. "It wasn't that, Brett. I mean, I have no idea why anyone would be interested in me, but-" Alex stopped, feeling Brett suddenly squeezing down tight onto his hand.

"You promised me you'd stop thinking that stuff, remember?" Brett giggled, but then shook his head. "Man, I don't know what it's going to take to convince you otherwise. I feel like I still have this losing fight on my hands! It's bad enough thinking I'm going to lose you to a girl someday, but crap! Stop putting yourself down like that!"

Alex stared at him hard for a moment, but then his expression softened. "I'm sorry. Maybe that's just one of my faults. You know, my insecurities or something." He relaxed somewhat. "He was right about something, though. Steven said you always feel best around people you at least know, and not so much around the people you don't." Lowering his voice to a whisper, he added, "Its why I feel so close to you, remember? I'm not afraid around you."

"So? I've got news for you, bro - everyone is like that. Most of the guys in that room back there, are guys I've gone to school with my whole life. So yeah, in a way, I kind of know them. For the ones I don't though, you have to realize something: I might not know them, but some of the others do and if I feel comfortable with them, then meh, the same goes for the new ones. I mean, no one is going to try and rape anyone; you understand that, right? They'll look, catch glimpses inside the gaps and stuff, who knows... right? And sure, some of them might be bi or gay, but who the fuck really cares? Seriously, if they get their rocks off looking at my hot body in my tighty-whities, why do I really care, right? It doesn't hurt me in any way."

For some reason Alex giggled. "But, what about me?"

Brett grinned. "For you, I'll give you the full show, any day of the week, almost anywhere you want me to - as long as it's just us." Leaning in, he whispered, "I trust you, remember? It's why we trust each other."

"Yeah, I know," Alex relented. "Okay, honestly? Today? I just felt guilty because all you guys were doing it. You know, stripping and everything, while it felt like I was just kind of hiding and all. I think that's what got me down when I realized how stupid I was being. I should have been better than that."

Brett had already figured that part out. "Kind of like Steven said, then. Yeah, I understand, bro." He sighed, suddenly thinking about Steven for a change. "You know, he must be, ah... I don't know, really empathic or something."

"He's had some experience with this stuff from somewhere, yeah. That's what I thought, anyway," Alex replied.

At lunch on Thursday, Steven happened to not join the group. Greg informed them the tall teen had left school early for some reason, although he didn't know why. Other than being curious, Brett or Alex conducted business as usual. Their Phys Ed class was an uneventful period, as well as their last period, so the day ended as ordinary as before. Both Brett and Alex rode the bus home, but this time Alex had taken an interest in Brett's math assignment, and as such he began helping his friend understand and complete the worksheet they had been given.

The next day, however, was different. During third period, there was a knock at the classroom door, where Steven stood, waiting to speak with Mrs. Denham directly. After conversing for a moment, the teacher turned around with an obviously annoyed look. "Alex? Can you come here, please?"

Surprised, Alex glanced at Brett and then rose before approaching the two. "It seems Mr. Green is in need of you for something," Ms. Edwards announced. "Go with this young man down to the office." Alex raised his eyebrows, but said nothing as Steven led him into the hall and away from the room. Once they were both out of sight from the classroom, Steven suddenly turned toward a nearby stairwell, where both boys quickly descended. A moment later they alighted outside the school, and began walking toward the football field.

"I gave her that story so we could have a few minutes alone," Steven said simply, all the while approaching a set of benches where they could sit down. "Don't worry, we won't be out here long enough for anyone to worry about us." Straddling the bench, the teen pulled up closer and observed Alex. "Okay, just so you know, I have to leave early again today, but I wanted to at least have a couple of minutes to talk with you - especially since yesterday didn't work out at all. I was even going to call you last night, but none of us got home until really late."

Alex furrowed his brow. "Really? What did happen to you yesterday, if I may ask?"

"Ah, nothing big, really. See, I have a kind of condition thingy, being so tall and everything. I get treatments every 3 to 4 months for low iron in my blood," Steven explained. "Except, once a year, it has to be done in two stages, and yeah, this is the week for that. That's why I'm leaving early again after we talk." He grinned. "Mr. Green already knows about all of it, so he doesn't give me too much grief. When I told him that I needed to get something from someone first, he didn't even bat an eyelid, just instead wrote me a quick permission slip. Slick, huh?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Alex replied. He thought about this piece of news. "So, does that mean you're like, anemic or something?"

"Exactly! You know about that stuff then?" Seeing Alex nod, Steven continued, pleased. "Cool! Yeah, nothing drastic or freakish, mind you. I've been anemic ever since I was little. Brad is too, by the way, but not anywhere as bad as I am. He deals with it through medication, see, but I usually have to get shots and all. Then, once a year, they give me some extra blood with special stuff in it. It takes me out of action for the rest of the day, really, so I get to skip school and go home and sleep it off." Steven stopped when he saw Alex nodding again, and then observed the younger boy closely before changing the subject. "Okay, before I get to the point of all this, understand Alex, I'm honestly not trying to pry into your personal life or anything, okay? I just, I wanted you to know that I understood what you were feeling the other day, that's all. Maybe even more than you did, yourself. That's what leads me to my only real question though: do you understand it?"

Alex looked upon the taller teen in surprise. "How do you mean?" he asked cautiously.

"Well, the way I see it, I think it's kind of a bummer when you start school and you have to do things without really being prepared for it. Especially this late in the game, where you've never set foot in a school like this before, you know? Some of it can be new and exciting, but other parts could be less so. I mean, take for example having to get nearly naked around a bunch of guys, whether its dressing out for Phys Ed, or getting in the showers or something with them. It can be unsettling, I know," Steven explained. "I kind of watched you go through a whole bunch of emotions the other day, you know? For some reason, it hit home to me that maybe, you know, that might be a part of why and all. Was I right? Because if not, I'll shut up right now, bump fists with you and we can be done."

"Well, kind of," Alex admitted after a moment, studying the older teen closer. There was already a connection with this teen that gave him a sense of comfort, with no fear of reproach. "That was a part of it, at least. And stop threatening to be done and walk away. I'm not afraid to talk with you, really."

Steven nodded, but with an eyebrow arched in surprise. "I just say that because, well, if I'm barking up the wrong tree, I don't want you to have to suffer listening to me and all." When Alex grunted and just shrugged, the taller boy smiled at him. There was a certain amount of relief in his voice as he continued. "Listen, changing clothes and stuff like that in Phys Ed is something us guys have been doing a lot more than you have, probably since about the fourth or fifth grade. You wouldn't know that, though. See, most of us don't care about it by the time we make it into junior high. That's because we've all kind of just gotten used to it. Sure, we clown around and do all kinds of goofy shit, sometimes. Hell, some guys will strip flat-out naked without thinking anything about it even, like they supposedly do in Europe and all. The point is though, the guys are used to everyone pretty much around them by then, see. They've been going to school with most of them for a long time, so they sort of know each other. That changes things as far as we go. I'm not saying they're going to become exhibitionists or anything, you know? I'm just saying that, when you're around people that your kind of comfortable enough with and not care, then you just carry on like you were on your own. I mean, think about guys on sports teams, for example. After a hard practice, most all hit the showers and strip in front of everyone else, hanging their plumbing out to dry - err, wet and dry, or... you get the idea."

Alex smirked. "Yeah, I understand."

Steven looked on. "But it wasn't always like that, Alex. Trust me, in the beginning, it's no different than what you experienced the other day. EVERYONE experiences those kinds of feelings their first time. Some are just better at handling or hiding it is all."

Alex turned, pulling one leg up onto the bench as he faced the taller boy. "Everyone?"

"Yes, everyone. You have to understand something - some of these guys have brothers and all, younger or older, who they have probably skinned with at some time or another. Or maybe they're part of a family that's not so, like, modest about everything. So, they probably have a little experience on that kind of stuff. Skinning with others to change clothes and all, that first time or two, probably doesn't faze them as much. They usually laugh it off, or handle it in some way without thinking too much about it, see? But I guarantee you, they still had worms in their bellies, being nervous and all. Because the people around them were not their family, or their brothers or cousins or their best friends or whatever." Steven paused, and saw that his attempts were not being entirely successful. Although Alex smirked yet again, there was an expression of uncertainty and doubt that clouded his face. Steven decided to try a different track then.

"Listen, think about when you and Edwards took my brother and the other guys up to the north end of the lake that day. When you got up there, you ended up skinning with them, right? That was probably your first real time doing it, wasn't it? Didn't you maybe, like, feel a little funny at first?" Steven asked. Seeing Alex's expression change, he nodded. "I know I did my first time up there, too, and Brad would tell you the same thing. He was even scared a bit, or so he told me."

Alex frowned. "He didn't let on like he was."

"He was, though. That's what he told me, anyway, and Brad - he may be a pain in the ass sometimes, but he's my brother, and when he talks with me heart-to-heart sometimes, I know he feels lost and weird as shit. He'll never admit it to anyone see, but that's my point Alex - guys don't admit things around each other. They're too scared of being picked on, or thought of as a wimp or something if they can't do as their best buds do. Does that make sense?"

Alex nodded. "Totally."

"Then, think about it. Before they get to Phys Ed in school, most guys probably have never been around anyone changing clothes, or getting naked before, unless they were around their brothers, right? That's the way it was for me, see. School was one thing, changing to go into Phys Ed, camp was a whole different thing - because there, it was going all the way. You either did or you didn't, see? It was especially weirder for me at first, because I knew my junk was so much fucking bigger than they were!"

"Really? How did you get over it then?" Alex asked.

"I saw everyone else was doing it," Steven grunted. "That kind of got me over my nervousness, and I just thought, what the fuck, you know?" The boy sat back and looked off into the distance. "Is any of this making sense? I mean, I'm shooting in the dark here, but..."

"It makes a lot of sense, Steven. I'm not sure if, I mean, was it that obvious and all?"

"No, it wasn't obvious." The boy studied Alex for a moment. "I don't have all the answers, Alex. I just know what I saw the other day, and how you reacted to it. It got me to thinking about it, and I thought I might know why, that's all." Steven scoffed. "Like I said before, I'm no shrink or anything, and you can tell me to shut the fuck up anytime you want to. I just kind of figure, well, maybe you might like hearing from someone who's been through this before."

Alex nodded and smiled. "It does help put things in perspective, yeah."

Steven sat up and leaned in. "You know, I stand by something else I said the other day, too. I'm sorry I checked you out, if that bothered you any. It wasn't exactly intentional, just... curiosity, I guess. I get it a lot from the other guys, and well, I don't always think about it so much if I do it."

"From the other guys?"

Steven scoffed and laughed. "Alex, look at me. I'm 7-freaking-feet tall, man, and almost everyone, every guy I know is always trying to get a chance to check me out!" He shook his head. "Get it? I was already 6-feet tall by the time I was 11-1/2 years old, and I didn't stop! At first, people thought I was some kind of freak! But I made friends, and what the hell, being tall has some perks and all. I mean, everyone is a freak in some way or another. Back then, we were all growing up, going through puberty, getting hairs between our legs, and a whole lot more at roughly the same time. Not for me though - I was way ahead of the game compared to everyone else. So, I got de-pantsed a few times - you know, in the locker rooms or wherever, someone would come up behind you and pull your shorts down and all. Guys would be jerks, but - whatever. I always felt funny about it, for a while at least."

"I'm sorry," Alex offered.

Steven shrugged. "Nothing to be sorry about. You didn't do it, and back then, I realize now it was just curiosity and all. They weren't being gay or anything about it. See, Alex? That's what I'm trying to tell you. I don't know if it helps that much, but meh, it's just guys being guys. The one thing you have now over guys back then, is that now they're a lot more mature about stuff. Well," Steven stopped and smirked. "Most of them anyway."

Alex thought about that for a second and then grunted. "I think I understand that, too."

Steven glanced up again. "So, anyway, I'm sorry if that bothered you any. Me checking you out, I mean."

Alex shook his head. "I told you, I don't care about that, Steven. Honest, if you want to see me, then look all you want. I've got nothing to hide. Well, not really anyway, except..."

Steven nodded. "Don't worry, I know about the shoulder and all. Brad told me all about it the other night. He also said you have some kind of hang up about it, though. Is that right?"

Alex nodded. "Kind of, I guess. I don't know, it's just... I feel weird about it sometimes, that's all. It's kind of freakish."

Steven studied him a few seconds. "You think so? Do me a favor then sometime. Let me see and judge it for myself, okay?" When Alex gazed back with a curious expression, Steven explained. "It can't be any more freakish than say, being seven feet tall and having a monster between your legs."

Alex blushed. "Well..."

Steven grinned. "I'm serious, man. Listen, think about giving us guys the benefit of the doubt. Not just me, mind you. Let the other guys see you and judge for themselves if it's anything really weird or freakish. No matter how bad it could be, it's obviously nothing to be ashamed of, right? What happened to you is a part of you, so fuck whatever the world thinks about it. It's what **you** think and feel inside that makes the difference. You might be surprised at us, you know. Some guys really are decent people - guys not worried about where their pickles point all the time." Seeing Alex make a face made Steven laugh and relax. "It's just something my Dad says sometimes, don't ask. The point is, guys understand things happen for a reason. If you tell them up front what happened to you, I bet they'll understand more than you think. Sure, they'll be curious, but who wouldn't be? For a little bit, you'd be a celebrity if nothing else. And then, it won't matter anymore."

Alex looked at the teen hard, but saw the sincerity that met him. "Maybe," he relented, thinking. "I know I did something kind of like that at camp, and yeah, afterwards, it didn't really matter anymore." The hint of a smile surfaced just then. "Is that the way you treated it, too? When peeps were trying to get a look at your ... you know...?"

Steven laughed and sat back, blushing. "My dick?" He laughed again, but then shrugged as he leaned back in. "Okay, fair is fair. I guess I should practice what I preach, huh? I'll give you a look-see sometime, if it will make you feel any better, and you can judge for yourself if I'm a freak or anything."

Alex screwed up his face. "I wasn't trying to imply... I mean... I don't need to see how big your dongle is, Steven, I promise." He then laughed. "Not like some people, anyway."

"Edwards?" Steven asked, grinning. He then lowered his voice. "Brad told me a little about that, but he also told me why Edwards never came around me. You know, believe it or not, I respect people like that, Alex. It's why I respect you, too." The teen sighed. "Listen, it's a given that I stand out in almost every crowd, no matter where I go. But guess what? Maybe at one time I did, but anymore I don't consider myself a freak at all. Others might, but meh, what do I care, really?"

"Is it really that easy?" Alex whispered.

Steven smiled at him. "For me it is, yeah. Look, I'm still kind of self-conscious around some peeps, but people like you and Edwards? I really don't care. To me, you both would be no different than, say, my brothers around me at home. Does that make any sense? It means something, see, when you two are so willing to be real friends with us, and not for some stupid made-up reason. Don't get me wrong, every year there's always some guys that want to get a peek between my legs, or at least buddy up because they expect the jerks and bullies might leave them alone. Not you two, though, and honestly, I need friends who care about really being just that, friends. Even if they're a couple of years younger, I don't care. Brad is 12, and he's one of the best friends I have. Just, uh, don't tell the little fart I said that, okay?"

Alex smiled. "I won't."

"That, my friend, is all it takes for me to feel free around you two, and Edwards has already proved a lot of times he's just a crazy, but cool guy to hang out with. See? You don't care how big I am or anything, other than just being impressed, and that doesn't bother me at all. You're also sitting here, listening to me make all these guesses and confessions, and you're not even trying to back up or run away. That means something to people like me, Alex, and I suspect it does to you, too."

Alex nodded. "Yeah, I... it does."

Steven smiled and nodded, before sighing. "Don't just listen to the words man, okay? Try to hear what I'm telling you on the inside too, because I think it might help. I... I trust you and Edwards both, believe it or not. I don't have any problems with you guys, or how you guys see me or not. You want to see my freak show? It won't bother me any, I promise. Besides, it's not that great. I've haven't got anything you guys have never seen before, right?" He sat up straighter and stretched. "When it comes to the rest of us, well, try taking a leap on faith, okay? Like I said - you might be surprised at the outcome, and then when it's over, then it'll really be over. The guys, there will always be those who are curious, but that's nothing to be embarrassed about."

"But, what if..." Alex started, then stopped.

"If someone wants to freak out, Alex, then so what? What's it to you?" Steven asked. He smiled as he put a hand on the younger teen's shoulder. "I say, let them go fuck themselves. You're still you, nothing has changed. That's the point I'm trying to make."

Alex looked up at him, and seeing the sincerity still there, it caused him to smile warmly. "Thanks." He cleared his throat before continuing. "I can tell you Steven, Brett and I both feel the same way about you. It seems like people we know and stuff, they're a lot easier to trust and talk to and everything, no matter how young or old they are."

"Then, just relax. Take your time, and when you're ready, then you're okay. Who knows, maybe no one will ever even notice, but like I told you, if they do? You might be surprised how they react - especially in the locker room. Okay? Besides, always remember - Brett and I will be by your side, too. That has to count for something, right?"

"Yeah, it does. A lot," Alex declared. He raised his fist in mid-air, and the older teen bumped it. "Thanks, man. Thanks for making me feel a whole lot better about... you know, this stuff."

"Hey, any time, any place - you need an ear to bend? I'm here." Grinning, he stood up and offered Alex a hand, which the teen grasped and followed. Neither spoke again, both having reached an understanding that went beyond words. Quietly, they both headed back inside, then bumped fists one more time as they separated outside Alex's classroom door. Alex felt a happiness inside, as he finally understood that what made him feel so weird at first...

...was actually something he need not have felt weird about at all.

As the weekend arrived, Brett, Gina and Alex found themselves thoroughly occupied with school life. Alex found that he liked it - at least for the time being. The rains that were expected the previous Tuesday night never arrived, falling instead south into the mid-Ohio valley and below. In their wake, the region then returned to unseasonably heated and muggy conditions once again. When both boys awoke on Saturday, the overt humidity made their ride to Arduino Bay's car lot an uncomfortable one. Even with the wind passing through their hair and clothes, their shirts were already half-wet from perspiration by the time they arrived. The air felt thick, making it harder to breathe than common, made each take a moment to stand in the shade, before beginning their task. Both were grateful they only had a single vehicle scheduled for the day.

The weather conditions being what they were, Arduino himself exited the office and approached them. "How's it going, fellas? School go okay this week?" he asked with a smile.

Brett spoke first. "Yes, sir. It wasn't as bad as it could have been, getting back into classes and all."

"Well, I can believe that. First week isn't supposed to be that hard on anyone, but with the school board changes and all, I wouldn't be surprised if I heard otherwise," the man replied. He then looked up into the partly cloudy sky. "Are you two sure you want to do this today? This heat wave is insufferable, if you ask my opinion."

Alex looked at him thoughtfully. "You need it done though, right? There's no real reason we can't do it, although it might take us a little longer is all. Is it still just the one vehicle?"

"Actually, there are two, but the second one isn't anything I need right away. It's got to have a little body work done on it first, so I thought I would take care of that and save it for next weekend, if you wanted." Arduino smiled. "As to the first, yes, I'd like to get it done, but I don't want to make you miserable. Weather is weather, boys, and I would certainly understand if you wanted to back out for today. There will be plenty of other Saturdays, and a few holidays too, that you boys can work before colder weather settles in."

"If it's all the same to you, sir," Brett began. "I'd rather go ahead and do it. Like Alex said, we might go about it a little slower and take our time, but we can do it." He glanced at Alex, who was nodding in agreement.

Arduino Bay smiled. "Alright then, but if you boys start to get too hot, take a break, okay? There are sodas and bottled water inside too, if you like. I'll be here until around 2:00 today anyway, so there is absolutely no rush." Hearing their agreement, he walked back toward the office and then disappeared.

Brett stood and stretched. "You know, I'm not sure if I've ever met a nicer adult-kind-of-guy like him."

Alex grinned. "'Adult-kind-of-guy', huh? Well, I agree - he is a nice adult-kind-of-guy!"

Brett punched him playfully on the arm. "You know what I meant, goofball!" Alex only grinned, but then the two got started. Pulling their supplies and filling a bucket with water, the two set about cleaning up a like-new pickup truck.

When they finished later and were putting away their supplies, Mr. Bay once again appeared, admiring appreciatively the work they had completed. "Once again, as always, it looks great boys," he announced, before handing them both chilled bottles of water. "So, plan on same time next week, then? Weather permitting?"

Alex looked onward after taking a large gulp of his water. "I think so, sir. There might be a little wrinkle though. My family has to make a short trip coming up in the following week or two, and I don't know the exact days it will be. Sorry, but I don't know if it will interfere with anything or not, at least right now. Brett could still come down if you need, though."

"Well, that's alright. If you can't, then you simply can't. If so though, then plan on it, boys, and I'll see you then," the man replied, holding out some folded bills to Alex. The teen happily accepted it and thanked him.

As Mr. Bay walked away, Brett mounted his bike and pulled it up beside Alex. "What's this trip? Next weekend?"

Alex grunted and tried to shrug. "We're not exactly sure when it's happening, but we're supposed to take out for a couple of days, I think. I'll have to let you know when we get things finalized."

"Oh," Brett replied, followed by another long drink from his own bottle. Alex took advantage of the pause to secure their supplies and mount his own bike. "Where to though, if I can ask?"

"That I don't know, either. Sorry bro, Dad didn't say. He just said we'd be gone a couple of days," Alex replied, trying to be as nonchalant as possible. He could tell, however, that Brett's curiosity was not quite satisfied.

Both teens fell silent, however, as they began making their trek homeward. Brett was lost in thought, once again preoccupied with the mysterious air around his best friend. He realized the exchange was every bit as viable as a normal conversation, but something about it seemed... off. Why would the Branhams need to make a sudden trip? Especially, he thought, at roughly the beginning of their new school term? Why would their destination be so vague as well? Surely Alex would have wanted to know ahead of time, but his dismissive attitude practically told Brett that, once again, there was something more going on than his friend was telling. It was another mystery, and Brett was beginning to tire of the old standing line that it was a long story, and that they would, 'talk about it soon.' Still, he exercised patience and sighed while following from behind. Brett knew he unquestionably trusted his friend, in so many ways, that this was the least of their worries - or so he hoped. He pulled up beside his friend and they rode on in the heat, in continued silence.

Alex, on the other hand, was also thinking about the exchange. He hated this with every fiber of himself, regardless of the reasons why as his father kept impressing on him. Soon, Alex knew he was going to have to make a decision, and he was going to have to make it on his own. The more he thought about it, the more he also realized that, if not now, then when? Glancing sideways, he smiled wanly at Brett as he pulled forward. Brett, noticing the change in pace, called out, "Hey, you okay?"

Surprisingly, Alex shook his head. "No, because I know you're feeling put off again, and I don't want you to feel that way." He let out a huge sigh. "Brett, I'm sorry. You have every right to be annoyed with me. I keep putting something off that I don't want to keep doing, and it bothers me - a lot."

"It's okay, man. I know, you've got some private stuff..."

"It's not that, Brett," Alex replied before pulling up short and stopping. "I think it's time I need to come clean, and put it all out in the open. But - it really is a long story, and it's not something I can fill you in on out here. So, how about tonight? Feel like coming down and spending the night with me?"

Taken aback, Brett was surprised. "But... how about your, you know..."

"My parents won't be home until late tonight. Dad has a night out planned for them both, since their anniversary is coming up next week," Alex explained. "For once bro, it'll just be you and me, I promise. And... I'll tell you everything, no holding back. So, okay?"

Again, Brett was surprised at the earnest tone in his friend's voice, but he nodded. "Okay, sure. As long as Mom doesn't stop me, it's a deal."

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