The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 17

Coming Clean, and Then Some

The Saturday night nearly two weeks prior that Harry Spalding had dragged his wife Ramona from their house, he had surprisingly done it for the sake of the children. Although most of the time he detested their very existence, he still grudgingly had enough respect and sensibility to recognize he had responsibilities as a parent, and thus he did his best to keep the crumb-snatchers away from his and Ramona's fights. Thanks to the scene at the diner, the night had already started growing into an ugly ordeal he wasn't proud of. Earlier in the day he had been notified the space for his car lot was being looked at in favor of other 'opportunities'. How and why, he was uncertain. He owned the lot, without any notes or debt - he could do with it as he pleased. Or so he thought. That was followed by other news, that his brother was being summoned up into the northern Dakotas, and had already departed on his way.

Harry had wanted to get out of Greensburg, Indiana for years, a place he considered sick and small for rural town-life living. He had been sent here 15-years prior by **them**, to guard and watch, as his group had called it. What he was guarding, the man had no idea really, but in the years since, Harry had come to the conclusion that he was sent there to stay out of the way. It had annoyed him enough when his brother was sent to stay with him, too, but over the last few years the two had learned to get along quite well - even better than they had while growing up together.

Life for the Spalding brothers was simple, really. Keep the lot legal, maintain their licenses and proper registrations, then sit back and relax. On occasion, vehicles were delivered to them, which they were instructed to sell, and almost immediately there were buyers who would show up looking for them. Sometimes potential customers would test drive them, but other times they would buy the vehicles on the spot, as they were, and generally at top-dollar. In some cases, far more than top dollar, it seemed. Other vehicles were kept on the lot, which would rouse some interest in the community, and Harry would make a few trades or sales as a normal business would be expected to do. Those sales, however, were few and far between. It did not take long for the man to realize he was being used as a funnel or launderer for the group. He really didn't mind it that bad - easy work, populated with big payouts at times, were a good thing! Why did it have to be here though, in about as lousy of an out-of-place location as this?

Harry made the best of it though, always looking for the greener pastures on the horizon. When his brother was summoned, however, that only turned his mood sourer when he, Harry, wasn't being included. Combine that with having been thrown out of the diner because of those insufferable, stupid teenagers, that made his blackened mood all that much worse. When he arrived home that evening, he found Ramona had her own list of gripes waiting for him, not that it was all that unusual. As she started badgering the man about the upcoming school year, and the need for preparing the kids, it created a headache of enormous proportions within his temples. It was the usual rhetoric, such as why he couldn't leave some things alone, and spend time on the other things that that were more important in life - including the welfare of their kids. That was when he really lost it. Something in the way she brought it about, laying their heartaches and grief at his feet, had caused him to go over the edge. He warned her multiple times to shut up, but the woman ignored him, stoking the fire between them even more.

As the argument had begun to escalate further, Harry swung and slapped her incredibly hard, the impact echoing throughout the house. He turned just in time to see the kids close their bedroom door, perhaps either to separate themselves from what was to come, or to shut out the feud they may have just been privy to. Either way, Harry rolled his eyes and, in deference to them, grabbed his wife and hauled her roughly out to the car. So livid was he at that moment, Harry never noticed how she staggered as he half-dragged her along in the ordeal. Something was clearly off, especially when the bulging man pushed her into the passenger seat. He missed it though, the trickle of blood that seeped from her ear, as he climbed behind the wheel.

The two rode together, all the while as Harry continued raving endlessly over their petty arguments, shouting obscenities not only about the predicament, but the other ill news of the day. He scarcely noticed her lack of response, as his endless rants left little room for anything otherwise. As Ramona sat there, looking forward, there was a stillness that had overcome her, and Harry only likened it as a form of submission, which irritated him even further.

Some time passed before they reached a remote area in one of Indiana's national reserve parks. It was a common area they had often visited before, isolated and remote not only from the township, but also the general public as well. The government disallowed any non-natural development of any type in the area, leaving it free from most human interaction except for fishing or hunting during the appropriate seasons. As the vehicle made its way along the highway that cut through the park's heartland, they eventually came to a ravine that cut deep into the side of a mountain. One side rose high into the tree line, while the other dropped away sharply to where a lake could be seen backing into the gorge. A local, dirt-covered lane trailed down and alongside the inlet for about a mile, where Harry finally slowed down and turned in. After roughly a mile further, they reached the end, where the man stopped the car and shut off the engine. Here, he knew, they were well isolated from the eyes and ears of the world. Here, they could have it out without fear of undesirable ears listening in.

Strangely, Harry stopped and noticed the pure silence around him. It was the first time he had drawn breath and halted, waiting for their argument to begin picking up its pace. Turning to his wife, however, he saw that her eyes were closed, and her head had tilted toward the car's door at an odd angle. He swore to himself, thinking the woman had fallen asleep while ignoring him for the entire distance. Grabbing her, he shook her roughly, chastising her for the arrogance she had to ignore him. Instead of responding, however, Ramona's still figure fell forward in silence, lifelessly slumping toward the floor.

Suddenly alarmed, Harry climbed from the car and hurriedly approached the passenger's side. Once there, he opened the door and then gasped in utter shock. It was a scene that still haunted him even to present day, sending shivers up and down his spine: Ramona Gail Simpson Spalding, was dead. He found no pulse, found no breathing in her stilled body as he pulled her into his arms. Only there in the fading light, did he finally see the blood that had seeped out from her ear, and then Harry Spalding knew what he had done. Beyond the initial shock, Harry then did something he had not done since childhood: he cried. There in the middle of the reserve, isolated for miles, he not only wept, but wailed pitifully, as he held tightly the woman he had mercilessly wed only 10 years before.

For hours Harry stayed, seated on the ground with his back to the car, holding her lifeless form, knowing the entire time that nothing could be done. The man mourned her passing as any normal person might, grieving with anguish as he was suddenly flooded with the memories of times since passed. Good memories, mostly comprised of happy times before the recent years and events had taken their toll on him. Why and what had changed him, he did not know in those moments, but he certainly knew something had infected his mind and attitude. Whatever it was, it ultimately had led him to this moment. This night, he had lost total, uninhibited control of himself, and he was holding the very evidence of it in his arms.

That realization led to a change then, one gradually ending in fear. How would he explain this to the kids? Better yet, how would he explain it to the authorities? He already didn't have the best of records in the eyes of the law, and this was certainly going to foul it up even more. 'It was an accident, though!' the hefty man eventually kept telling himself. The opposite view, however, would assert itself just as quickly: 'You really think that's going to make a difference? You killed her!'

An internal battle ensued, one between the thrusts of logic and the tides of common sense. Although doing the right thing seemed more dignified, Harry could not bring himself to see a way out of this atrocity. He knew, deep down, he was going to have to pay for his sins, as well as for his brash, arrogant life. It seemed there was always an atonement to be made for something or another, and as he looked upon Ramona again, in his arms lay one of the most important sins of all. Perhaps, for the first time, he also began to worry about his children, and what their future would now hold. Harry audibly grunted at that thought, however, as he realized the kid's grandmother would now get what she had primarily always wanted: to keep them out of Harry's sordid and toxic life. That thought made the man start weeping again, because it hit him that the woman's only child, her daughter, his wife, was now gone.

Somehow, Harry pushed aside his grieving, realizing the hours were wasting away, and he now had things to do, whether he liked it or not. Since his days of freelance roaming were definitely coming to a close, there were a number of things that needed to be done to preserve what was left for the grandmother, his children, and certain other activities. Sadly, the only way he was going to be able to get on with them, however, was if his wife remained out of the picture - at least for the time being. He hated that thought, as it made his stomach feel as if it were tied into knots. It had to be done though, and while it bothered him deeply, he worked himself to his feet and quietly placed his wife back into the seat of their car. "I'm… I-I'm so s-sorry.." he murmured to her over and over after he climbed behind the wheel and started the vehicle up. Returning to the highway, the burly man began driving farther into the hills of the reserve, until he reached a remote location near the other side of the lake. Once there, he pulled off onto another dirt-covered track, again leading away from the highway and into a densely thicketed area of woods, mostly known only to hunters.

For a man of his size, somehow Harry still maintained an incredible amount of strength for someone who exercised little. When he parked and turned off the motor, he extracted a flashlight from the glove compartment and then stepped out. Retrieving his wife, the man carried her even deeper into the woods, tears falling unabashedly as he moved along and continuing to apologize under his breath the entire distance. Although the overhead moonlight was abundant in the valley and lake-land, the trees let little of the luminance reach the ground ahead of him. So, with the flashlight guiding his way, Harry carried her carefully for some distance, until he came across a smaller, mini-ravine within the ground, hollowed by years of rain and erosion as it gradually sloped downward toward the lake in the distance. Deciding this was going to be as good of a place as any, Harry laid the woman there gently, using the uttermost care. He set her straight and crossed her arms upon her chest, and then stood watching over her while he took the time to catch his breath. His tears came suddenly again as he screwed up his face. "You deserve..." he began, but hesitated until he could find his voice. "You deserve so much better than this. I- I failed you, I so fucking failed you, Ramona…" Never being a man of any religious faith, it was all he could say between the anguished sobs that escaped. It felt as if the darkness totally settled around them just then, punctuating what was perhaps the bleakest hour of his life.

Harry stood for a few minutes before, with a final sniff, he turned from her and headed back to the car. Entering it, the man started the engine and backed up, turning around before pulling away. He knew she would eventually be found, most likely by hunters since the season was fast approaching. With luck though, there would be at least a little time, a few days perhaps, that allowed him the opportunity to take care of matters first. Including that of two idiotic, pain-in-the-ass teenagers of his acquaintance. As his thoughts turned to them, he grew extremely agitated. It seemed to him his problems had begun cascading from the day they first met, and though illogical as it was, Harry became fixated upon the idea it was all their fault.

The next day, Harry had returned home and collected the children, before taking them to their grandmother's. It was nothing new; he had deposited them with the old hag on numerous occasions, and she was used to receiving them at all hours of the day. As they arrived, Harry looked upon them for what could perhaps be the last time. Though hardly sentimental in any fashion, he still tried to make his last words sound as kindly as he could. "You mind your manners here, and do as you're told. Your mother and I have to take care of some things, but we'll manage. I'll be back for you as soon as I can", he told the older boy. Ethan looked up at the man with a weary, apathetic expression and simply nodded. It was sad enough to make Harry almost lose it again, fighting to keep his face straight without resorting to one of anguish. His own son, so attuned to Harry's behaviors that the boy didn't even care, and Harry knew exactly why that was. He wanted to reach out, to touch the boy in some way, to try and convey at least something of his emotions. He wanted to smile, to tell him everything would be alright. The kid, however, had turned and opened the door as he climbed out. As he watched both children exit and head to the porch, he even thought of calling after them, but with a fear that he would lose it completely, he sat stoically until they reached the door. Then, after swiftly putting the vehicle in reverse, he quietly left. It was the last time he would ever shed another tear on their behalf.

Harry Spalding had things to do, and he knew he couldn't waste any time. Turning onto the highway, he began a long journey north toward the outskirts of Chicago. Although the night before seemingly played in an endless loop through his mind, he was now beyond grieving, and as the minutes became hours, his resolve never wavered as he focused instead on what lay ahead.

"So, the way I'm thinking this through, there are like three parts I need to explain and tell you about."

The two teenagers were together on Alex's bed, stretched out next to each other and reclining against bean bags that separated them from the headboard. The lighting in the room was subdued at the moment, a clouded sky diminishing the early evening's sun throughout the valley. There was an eerie silence in the house, echoed by an almost equal tranquility outdoors. A change in weather was finally on its way, one which brought the promise of milder temperatures and more seasonable conditions for that time of year.

Prior to Brett's arrival, Alex had prepared a stack of grilled cheese sandwiches, along with chips and sodas for them both. With his parents gone, he knew they would be hungry before the evening progressed very far. So, when Brett arrived and stepped inside, he helped to carry the food upstairs, where they began feasting while the sandwiches were at least still warm. There was an awkward silence that developed between them, as Alex preoccupied himself with figuring out the best way to approach his task, and Brett, recognizing it, gave his friend the time he needed to himself. Brett was uncertain what could make the situation seem so serious, but he was going to give Alex all the space he needed. There was a seriousness in the heavy air between them, and although Brett could not deny his curiosity, he wanted his friend to feel completely free.

Alex was unwavering in his resolve to finally bring the little pieces of his life into focus for his friend. As he had promised earlier in the day, he was determined to come clean, but exactly how to go about it was a different story altogether. When they had both finished with the food and sat back, he sighed deeply and chose the path he thought would be best. Brett had scooted up close, their bodies and bared legs sliding against each other. It was nothing new; both had become accustomed to entering each other's personal space for months now. It was a testament to the trust and feeling of comfort each had developed toward the other. It was a contact between them not overly obvious to some people, but for the two teens it was enough. Brett was sending a message to his best friend: I'm here, and I'll be as patient as you need me to be.

Alex glanced at him and smiled tiredly, before he finally continued. "For the most part, there is no real logical order to them, so I think I'm going to tell you two kind of distinct parts first, and then tie them together with the last. I know you're going to have questions, Brett. I expect it, especially if I were in your shoes. Just ... try and give me a chance first, to get it all out. Okay?" Brett nodded in acceptance, waiting expectantly, as Alex looked out across the room.

"I guess, let's start with the fire, since you already know a good portion about it anyway. I mean, you already know we moved here from Caldwell, Idaho. It wasn't a very big place, but it wasn't lacking much, either. Lots of farms, rolling hills at the foot of the mountains, snow, snow... did I say snow yet? Anyway, it was kind of a place away from everything, isolated and all, cooler than it is here in the summer, and really cold in the winter."

"Yeah, I remember you telling me some of that," Brett offered as his friend paused.

"Yeah," Alex acknowledged. "Well, maybe I should show you this, first." The teen reached out and extracted his laptop, already set on his nearby nightstand. As Alex opened it up, Brett was surprised to see the device was already running, and upon the screen a web page of some sort was displayed. As Alex set it onto his friend's lap, he continued. "So, that's the site for the Idaho Press. They're the main newspaper for that whole region up there, you see." He raised his hand and then pointed. "See the search icon up there, on the right? Click it and type in the date for February 27th of this year."

Brett did as he was asked, and momentarily the browser changed to display a new list of articles for the specified day. Glancing sideways, he saw that Alex was already studying the entries. "There, about half-way down the screen, there's a link - 'Local Fire Claims Life of Four.' Click that one," Alex instructed. Brett complied, and as the page changed to display the accompanying article, he began reading the text associated with it. Alex reached over, however, and pointed to the accompanying picture and link located beneath it. "There's a news story on it, if you want," he said. Brett then clicked it with interest, and the picture suddenly came alive with a new anchorman seated behind a desk, with an active newsroom in the background.

**"A sudden explosion and corresponding fire engulfed a local residence in Caldwell, Friday evening, taking the lives of four people and leaving the property in ruins. Firefighters arrived at the scene on 16166 Logan Street, around 7:20 PM and found the house completely engulfed in flames. Nearby residences were evacuated in order to protect neighboring property until firefighters were able to bring the flames under control. Afterwards, they uncovered what appeared to be four bodies inside."**

**"Authorities believe the explosion was caused by a faulty gas valve that may have become inoperable underneath the residence and had been leaking for some time before the fumes were triggered, and resulting in the impending explosion. Residents in the area said they knew the people occupying the dwelling, stating they were pleasant neighbors that were always helpful. One told Channel 10 news, that although he heard the explosion, he was unaware of its close proximity until moments later when emergency vehicles began arriving."**

**"'I had just finished my dinner and was putting the dishes away when this super-sized BOOM filled the air. All my dishes were rattled, the lights dimmed and the dogs started howling their heads off. It wasn't until a second explosion went off though, that I got suspicious. I heard the fire-trucks with their sirens and horns rush by, so I stepped outside to see the house going up in flames down the street. Those poor people, they were right friendly, the teenager and all. It all happened so fast, too, that I doubt they ever knew what hit them. Sometimes you just never know when things like this are going to happen.'"**

**(Newscaster) "Although the cause of the fire is still under investigation, it may be several days before a final determination can be made. Authorities have not yet released the identities of the victims, citing pending notification for families or next-of-kin taking precedence."**

Brett's eyebrows narrowed. "Huh? Is this supposed to have been your house?"

Alex nodded. "That's where we lived, yeah."

"But... it says here that four people **died**, Alex." Brett reached out and mockingly pinched his best friend on the arm. "You feel pretty alive to me. I mean, you're not a ghost or anything as far as I can tell!"

Alex smiled weakly again before he replied. "Well, to understand that, I need to go back to something else, okay?" When Brett nodded, Alex took the laptop and opened a second browser window, before he began typing and bringing up another news site, this one nationally recognized. Finding the search bar, he typed in 'Nicholas Picante'. This time, a long list of articles came up in the display, and Alex set the laptop back onto Brett's lap. "How much do you know about 'Nick the Pick'?" he inquired, and noted the surprised reaction Brett gave him as he turned.

"'Nick the Pick'? Isn't he that gangster guy they caught a couple of years ago, somewhere up north? He's like, one of those notorious people the FBI had on their most wanted list or something for a long time, wasn't he?" Brett asked.

Alex nodded. "Yeah, you got it. Do you remember anything about how he was caught?" When Brett shook his head, Alex sat back. "It was in Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. He was waiting for someone outside a mall, and when a man and his fiancée came out, he shot them in cold blood, right in the parking lot."

"Yeah, I do remember something about that. Dad and Mom were talking about it not too long ago, too. They were saying something about he had been in and out of jail a bunch of times. Until that happened, he always got released on technicalities or something," Brett recalled. Glancing at Alex, his curiosity was aroused. "How does this fit in with your house in Idaho, though?"

"I'm getting there, Brett. It has everything to do with Idaho and a whole lot more," Alex announced, before closing the laptop and setting it aside. "You see, Nick was arrested a few days later and charged with that double murder, because of two witnesses at the scene that identified him to the police." When he paused, he sat up so he could face Brett directly. "The two witnesses, Brett... they were me and my Dad."

Those words landed like a bombshell, causing Brett to catch his breath. "No way," he whispered, astonished. "No ... fucking ... way!" he hissed, but as he watched, Alex's expression was not one of someone bluffing. Brett knew then his friend was being serious. He stared incredulously into the eyes that met his own. "You... your... fuck, Alex... What the fucking hell! You can't be serious!"

"I am, Brett. I swear it to you, on my life. I swear it on all we hold onto each other for, all our friendship, all our trust - everything. We identified him and everything, and ever since that day, the three of us, Mom, Dad and myself, we've been living in the federal witness protection program, running and hiding, just trying to stay alive."

"Oh, shit!" Brett muttered. The scope of this news hit him suddenly, throwing his mind in a dozen directions at once. The teen suddenly climbed from the bed and began pacing in disbelief, with his hands held behind his neck. "Man, I mean, that's way out there, but... Shit!" he exclaimed.

Alex looked on, observing Brett's reaction closely. It was not one unexpected, really, but Alex decided he'd better regain control if he were going to finish bringing all of it together - and fast. "Sit down Brett, please? There's a little more to this, and I need to finish, okay? I... I really need you to hear me out."

Brett stopped and realized what he was doing. Sheepishly, the teen returned to the bed. "I- I'm sorry, it's just... it's just..."

"I know what it sounds like, believe me," Alex offered. "I wouldn't blame you for being skeptical, either. I probably would be too, but ... me and my parents have been living this thing, and... and it's almost done us in, up to this point. We're barely hanging on now, waiting for it to all end, you know?"

Brett looked on with concern. "Explain. Tell me, Alex, tell me everything."

Alex grunted. "Well, there isn't a whole lot more to it when you let the last pieces fall in place, really. See, when it happened, we were all on vacation. We had gone up to Valley Forge at the beginning of Spring that year, more or less. She and Dad were kind of combining a vacation on that trip with some real history, like teaching me about the American Revolution and everything. I mean, for two weeks we traveled up into parts of New England, going around to historical sites, like battlefields, Fenway Hall in Boston, Philadelphia and so on. We were on our way home, you know, swinging back in this direction, when she started seeing these signs along the interstates advertising outlet malls. That kind of got her excited and all, for some reason."

Brett nodded. "Mom likes going to those, too. There's even one not that far from here that she likes going to."

"I know," Alex replied, smiling for once. "Mom has already started bugging Dad about going down there soon, after the trial and everything is over." The brief distraction helped Alex to calm himself, and when he continued onto the topic at hand, his self-assurance returned. "So, we stopped at this one place outside of Pittsburgh and, as usual, did a little shopping. Or rather, Mom did some shopping. Dad and I just kind of followed along. Anyway, we were finally getting finished, and making our way back to the parking lot, see. Mom saw something or another in the window of a store and then went in to check it out. Dad and I stepped to the edge of the sidewalk and just waited and all. We were there, looking out over the parking lot, when it happened. We saw everything do down Brett, from like 100-feet or so away."

Brett looked on again in astonishment. "Oh, shit...!" he began again, but caught himself. "Sorry..."

Alex nodded. "Yeah, no kidding. We both watched this couple pass us and start walking down one of the lanes, right in front of where we were standing. They were about, I don't know, maybe halfway down it when an older, like 1970's pickup truck, backed out slowly and pulled up toward them. When it got close, almost like side-by-side, this man stuck his hand out of the window and shot four bullets, right at the both of them. Then he took off, slow and easy as he pleased as if nothing had happened, and began heading out onto the highway."

"What did you guys do? You and your Dad?" Brett asked, whispering.

"Well, Dad told me to go inside and get someone to call an ambulance, so that's what I did. He ran out into the parking lot though, toward the two who were shot. I found Mom and a clerk and told them what had happened, and then rushed back out to help. By the time I got there though, Dad grabbed me and held me back. It was too late, see; they were both dead, with one of them even shot in the head."

"Oh, jeez...!" Brett breathed, causing Alex to pause again before he continued.

"When the police and the ambulance got there, it was complete chaos. We sat down on a bench up in the sidewalk and everything, while they roped off the whole area. After a while, this detective showed up and got our statements, and then asked if we could identify the man in the truck. Dad said he wasn't sure, but I told him I thought I could, because I got a good look at him when he was leaning out and everything. So, after arranging for someone to take care of our car, we rode with the detective downtown somewhere to the police station. They called in some kind of sketch artist, like you see them do on TV and everything, and for the next couple of hours, he and I worked up a sketch and everything."

"So, you didn't know who it was at first then, right?" Brett asked.

"None of us had any idea, Brett. When we finished though, and the artist handed the sketch to the detective, then... well, things changed. I mean, he got this weird look on his face and all, and then escorted all three of us into his office and told us to stay there. He even warned us not to let anyone in the room unless it was him," Alex explained. "That was weird, but he promised he'd be back and explain. Mom and Dad got nervous and all, but after about 15-minutes or so, he returned with some pictures and all that he showed me. That's when I identified him to be the man in the truck, and this detective, he started swearing and everything. Dad said he thought it favored the man he saw, too."

"Holy crap!" Brett exclaimed.

Alex suddenly laughed, his voice hollowed however. "I think we need a few more expletives for you to learn, bro," he teased. Brett suddenly blushed, but Alex waved it aside. "It's okay, I'm just teasing."

"What happened next?" the teen asked, almost afraid to go on.

"That detective, he made a phone call, and then sent out to get some food for all of us. He wouldn't explain anything, saying he first needed permission, and that the bosses were coming down right away. It took about two hours I think, because it was getting really late by then, before these federal agents showed up and started questioning both me and my Dad. After a bit, Dad got mad and made them explain what was going on. That's when we learned all about Nicholas, who he was, his past and a whole lot more. They asked me a bunch of questions, and I gave them all the details I could remember. I mean, you know me by now; I notice and remember things a lot more so than some people, especially my Dad."

Brett grunted. "Boy, do I know..."

Alex smiled. "Like I said, I gave them everything I could think of, like the color of his shirt, the make and color of the truck, the license plate number, bumper stickers... and other things, too. By the way, they ended up finding the truck the next day, I think, abandoned somewhere around 50-miles away or so."

"You gave all of that to... Federal agents?" Brett asked, again incredulous at what he was hearing.

Alex nodded. "Bottom line, we were offered protection in something called WITSEC, or something like that. It's the witness protection thing you hear about in the movies and all, only it's the real thing, you see. They told us that, if we were to help convict this man, it would be essential that they hide us and all until the trial. That took some time to convince both Mom and Dad, and they talked about it for a long, long time into the night. In the end, Mom and Dad decided it might be better for our own protection long term, and Mom finally recognized it as a good thing. So, over the next few days, they started all this stuff to protect us and everything."

"But Alex, how...? Had they caught him yet, or ...?"

"I'm not sure how or when they exactly caught him. We heard that he was spotted a few days later, and then picked up somewhere outside of Chicago," Alex answered. "It was around that time we, meaning the three of us, started to realize how dangerous the man was, and all about his syndicate associations and everything. These federal guys, they kept us holed up for over a week, in some kind of special apartment way up in Toledo, away from everything going on. Then they relocated us to Tennessee, with new names, a place to live, and all. They even found Dad a quiet job to keep us off the map for a while, as they called it. All we really had to do was just stay low and all."

Alex hesitated then, thinking hard as he finally settled back into his bean bag again. Brett, taking the cue, did the same, all the more drawn to the details. "You see," Alex continued, "'Nick the Pick' has been caught several times for different reasons, like murder, witness tampering, tax evasion - you name it. It's a long list really, but every time he got arrested up until that point, he or his lawyers always found some way out of it. Like, evidence would disappear, witnesses would vanish, or testimonies changed - that sort of thing. The FBI kept telling us though that, with our testimony and all, it would be the first time that someone offered hard evidence that could make it stick for a change. You see, they didn't force us to do this, Brett, but they did explain that otherwise if we were ever discovered out and everything, we would become prime targets. That's what made Mom change her mind. We figured we had to do this, or give up our lives ever having a chance of becoming normal again. All because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or however that goes."

Brett's face began to turn white. "What the fuck, though!"

"Yeah, I know. That's why we are in WitSec, get it?" Alex sighed. "It hasn't been perfect, though. In Tennessee, for example, we only got to live there about 4 months. No one knew or suspected anything, until one night we had gone to the movies. Then when we came home, we found it had been ripped up and gutted like a disaster of some sort. You know what I mean, like broken furniture, dishes and glassware shattered everywhere, pillows and clothes cut to shreds - that sort of stuff. I don't remember anything ever scaring my Mom like that. She turned white as a ghost and just fell to the floor and all, screaming. It took Dad and me a while to get her settled down and everything, you know? Then Dad found something, though I never knew what it was, and called our 'friend'. He's kind of a private one-on-one contact we had inside of WitSec who manages our case. They got us out of there quick, like, in less-than-an-hour quick, and took us to this Air Force base in Colorado. Everything that we had was left behind."

Alex sighed. "We were all scared, I guess, but it was over and, after a while, it appeared we would be okay. We stayed at the base for about a month, I think, until it was arranged for us to live in this rental house on base, and Dad was given another temporary job nearby. When things settled down then, the Feds relocated us and we started again, this time in Idaho." Brett was about to speak again, but Alex held up his hand. "Let me finish first, okay? There's only a little more to go." When Brett nodded, Alex took a deep breath.

"The house in Idaho was alright. Like I've said before, we were out of the way in a small town, kind of lying low and everything. Mom continued to home-school me and all, just like she had always done, and Dad got a job working for the State, doing some programming and software development. We were there for over a year, more like 18-months or so I think, always watching over our shoulders and listening to the news, especially for updates on 'Nick the Pick'. As was usual, his lawyers would get continuances from the court, or other things. Always delays, always something or another that created problems or issues. Honestly, Mom and Dad were getting tired of it all, but the alternative wasn't anything we could consider anymore. The federal agents were at least taking care of us, for the most part, at least until late February this year. That's when things changed again."

"The fire?" Brett breathed, his voice barely above a whisper.

"Yeah," Alex answered. "Mom and Dad had left one night to go and get some groceries, I think, and I just stayed home for some reason. I'm not sure why, I think I was just tired or something. Anyway, it doesn't matter though, really, because the point is that I stayed while they left. We had already gone for a long time by then with no problems, see? None of us really thought or expected anything was going to happen. We were just kind of waiting for the trial and all, right?"

"I get it, yeah. What happened though?" Brett asked.

"Well, that night I was taking a shower, and I had just gotten out and put some underwear on see. Then out of nowhere, there was this big explosion. I mean, BIG explosion and all, so hard it rocked the house, floors, walls and everything. I watched the cracks work through the walls, and tiles break in the floor, and I heard glass crashing everywhere. I mean, everything around me began breaking or falling in one way or another. At first, I got this thing in my head about maybe some kind of sink-hole had opened up or something under the house, but then I opened the door up to the hallway. There was a lot of smoke and flames coming from the front of the house, where Mom and Dad's bedroom was, and from the living room, too. I remember standing there for a few seconds, thinking 'What the hell?' and all, but then I noticed it was closing in on me and fast. I grabbed my towel and started to run toward the back of the house where my bedroom was and all, because it was away from the fire and everything. I made it most of the way before the smoke got so thick, and I'm trying to hurry, see, but then I felt these hands grab me from behind and shove me to the floor."

"Shit!" Brett breathed, then let his eyes fall to the bed. "Sorry Alex, I mean..."

"It's okay. I'm almost done anyway." Alex collected his thoughts again. "So, I turned over and through the smoke and everything, I made out this huge guy with a mask standing over me, someone I never saw before. For an instant, I thought maybe it was a firefighter or something, but then I realized there was no way enough time had passed for one of them to be there, see? And then, I noticed his clothes were just like regular clothes, what I could make out anyway. I just, I got scared than, and I started, you know, making my way back through the door and into my room. He followed me though, and as I started to get to my feet, he just hit me and shoved me back down to the floor again. My head hit something, and … and I got dazed or something for a second. The only thing I can remember was the sounds of him screaming something at me, but I couldn't make any of it out."

Alex sighed. "So, there he was, standing over me and screaming when another explosion went off behind him. It made him fall forward and on top of me, too. Whether he intended to do it or not, I think his knee hit me in my balls or something, and I was like, yelling from the pain and all. He was so big and heavy, it was like he suffocated all the air out of me, but he was there and then he wasn't moving any. The fire, you see, it was spreading fast, and whatever that last explosion was, somehow it all spread to him and knocked him out or something. Above us, the ceiling was collapsing, and the walls, the floors - practically everything around me was on fire then." Alex paused, a distant look coming across his expression. "I remember thinking that was going to be it, you know? The smoke was so thick then I couldn't hardly breathe, and then there was this... monster of a man on top of me that I couldn't move away from at first... it was, it was bad, Brett."

"Oh, man..." Brett breathed.

Alex's eyes suddenly returned and focused on his friend. "This man, he came to all of a sudden and started screaming again. He started trying to get up, but he only made it, like, as far as his knees, I think. Something started shifting and coming down on us both again, from the ceiling and the wall and what have you. Something struck him hard in some way, and then he fell on top of me again but off to the side. The next thing I know, it's like the whole inside of the house was caving in, like falling apart on us both. I was able to shove him away then, and when I looked, I could make out this thing sticking out from his back. He was dead at that point, I think. Anyway, I panicked then, and as I was getting out from under him, and that's ... that's when a part of the ceiling, or wall or whatever it was, fell on me and burned my shoulder and chest and all."

"What the fuck, Alex! How did you get out then?" Brett asked incredulously.

"I don't know for sure. I remember somehow pushing back against this thing, like kicking my legs and everything until I could. The floor was smoking and coming apart in places, I mean... my shoulder hurt like hell, and I... I could smell burning skin and everything, you know? It was horrible. I was still dizzy, disoriented, I couldn't see... I think I just about passed out myself, you know? I figured then, I wasn't going to make it, see? But then, there was this little break in the smoke and I thought I could see one of my windows. I got this idea, and I started making my way over to it. I missed it at first, the window I mean, but I - I don't know, I tried again and found it. The glass was already shattered and everything, so I just, I kind of, I don't know, fell through it I guess, out into the yard. That's how I escaped. I mean, I don't know anything afterwards much, because I think I blacked out or something."

"Wow! So, you don't know if someone found you, or...?" Brett whispered.

"No, not really. All I really know is that, somehow, a few days later, I woke up in this medical ward or something, with all kinds of monitors and crap around me." Alex sighed deeply again. "So, that's it, mostly. Mom and Dad made it back home at some point, and found the fire trucks and all, and some people carrying me out to one of the ambulances. I went to some emergency room, until Dad said our 'friends' showed up again. Then, as soon as the local hospital had me stabilized, they transferred me out. We, uh, disappeared - you know, relocated and everything, and the next thing I knew was that I was some kind of special burn unit, being treated for my shoulder and all, and for some smoke inhalation. According to Dad, for a little bit they didn't know if I was going to make it or not. They tried this thing on my lungs though, something kind of experimental and all, and it helped me get back to normal breathing." He saw the alarm in Brett's face, which made Alex shake his head. "It's okay, now. You just have to understand that I was hurt, but I wasn't out of it yet."

"But... they found you, right? It was... it was Nick, and his gang or whatever, right?" Brett whispered.

Alex nodded. "So, that guy that didn't make it out? The Feds identified him afterwards in some way. I'm not sure how, but that doesn't matter. They identified him and found he had ties directly to Nick-the-Pick. How they had found us, none of us know - other than our 'friends' are starting to suspect there's an internal leak, somewhere deep in the FBI. They had already tightened down the security on us, see, but somehow, someone still uncovered something. Once again, when I was well enough, they then transferred us back to Colorado to the Air Force base. We stayed on base for about a month, letting me heal and get some specialized therapy and treatments. I think I surprised them with how I recovered so quickly, because by the end of March, well… somehow Dad talked the FBI into letting us come back East, closer to home - our original home, I mean. It was finally arranged we could come to Greensburg, Indiana, and within a few days we had a rental truck to carry our stuff here. They let us make the drive on our own, or at least as much as we thought anyway."

"Wait a minute," Brett announced suddenly. "You supposedly lost everything in the fire, right? But yet, you did show up here with some stuff. I remember the truck and all."

Alex nodded again. "Yeah, we did. You see, while we were on base, word got out to a select few about the fire and how we had lost everything. So, some of the families on base, I guess they sympathized with us or something. They got together and donated a few things while I was recuperating, especially some of the clothes we got to wear. The nurses, the doctors, some of the officers and so forth got involved, too. We didn't get anything big or expensive. I mean, in the military they really don't pay that great for enlisted men and all. Still, it was like these people threw a baby shower with gifts together or something, although it was for all of us, and not a baby. People gave us dishes, pots and pans, towels - things like that to kind of help us get restarted again. That's the stuff we brought with us, Brett. Our 'friends' also helped us out, too. They gave us new surnames again, and deposited money into an expense account to start over and all, as well as finding this house and everything for us to move into. So, we knew we could start over again, but we had to do it kind of gradually."

Brett nodded. "That makes sense." As he thought about it, he shook his head. "Actually, that makes a LOT of sense, now."

Alex sighed, contented. "Then that's about it, Brett. I mean, you can figure out the rest. The newspaper up there first broke the story before anyone could stop them, which was okay since it didn't really tell a lot of anything to begin with. That one man in the house, he actually did die as far as we know. The Feds got the newsroom to tweak the on-air story though, and declare that four people died in the fire. That was done so as to throw anyone off our trail again. You know, help us to disappear. After all of that went down, that's when we moved to Indiana." The teen paused for effect, before lowering his voice. "That's when I finally met you. That's where our story, yours and mine and Gina's story and everyone else here, it's where we began."

Both boys sat in silence afterwards for some minutes as Brett processed everything. When he spoke again, he cast a careful eye toward Alex. "You said you changed your names, right? So, does that mean you really aren't ... you're really not Alex?"

Alex grinned at him. "No, my name really is Alex. Don't worry, that part has always been the truth. Everywhere we've been, no matter where we were, we kept our Christian names, as they're called. It's our last names that have changed though. I mean, right now you know me as Branham, but my actual last name, our real surnames I mean, was Dennison."

That revelation surprised Brett, and at the same time let him sigh with relief. "Thank goodness," he quipped, before smiling and suddenly raising his fist to mid-air, which Alex reached up and bumped.

"This is why everything has been so crazy, Brett. Dad forbade me to tell you anything about it more than I had to, and... I'm sorry, bro. It hurt me knowing that I was keeping it from you and all, and though there are plenty of things I share with you as it is, this was just one of those... well, I really had no choice. Even though we made this promise between us, this pact we sealed that day. The one that said anytime we're in our rooms..."

"Yeah, we'd never fail to at least trust each other," Brett finished for him, nodding. Becoming thoughtful, he observed his best friend closely again, seeing him in a new light. He tried to imagine, too, what revealing this had cost him. "You know, you're right. There have been all kinds of times, all summer long, that I knew you were holding something back. But, man… I never would have imagined this! I mean, I have to admit, I've probably had a dozen or more theories about what was going on, but... none of them even came close. It's like, really wow and everything."

Alex nodded. "I know what you're saying. I mean, I know it really seems kind of out there and all. I promise you though, on my heart-"

"Alex, stop," Brett said suddenly. "I understand that now, and it's okay. I believe you. It all makes so much more sense now, too. Why you've always kind of been so careful about some stuff, and why you've been avoiding a lot of other things. I thought at first maybe you just needed time to adjust being out here, like me, in the real world and everything. Turns out you've already been here for a long time." Brett scoffed suddenly, shaking his head. "It's just... wow!"

"I know. You see it though, right? Any kind of public recognition we get, any time something happens that puts our names on the line, there's a danger. It's like we could be opening a window, see, that could allow Nick and his gang to find us again. These guys have their eyes and ears open everywhere, and they've already found us somehow - twice. That's why I sort of had a hard time getting to go to camp with you. We were going to be so far away, see? Although it was only for a week, if something happened to either me, or someone at home, well..." Alex sighed. "Mom and Dad both have been extra careful this time, limiting the people we interact with and everything. They knew I had you though, or rather we had each other, and they were fine with that, really. Dad told me they talked about me going with you to camp long into the night that night, trying to decide if it was worth the risk and everything. Then, well, you know the result."

Brett nodded. "I understand, and I remember how that all went down, too." He stretched just then. "God, Alex, I don't... it seems like all of that was ages ago now! We've had such a ride this summer, with so many things going on and happening, you know?" He reached out and grasped Alex's hand. "I get it, I really do. It's a wonder you can even do anything with me, you know? It's a wonder you even WANT to do anything with me."

Alex's shoulders fell. "I admit, it's been hard for me sometimes. I've had to learn about what life is like, without having to watch over my shoulder all the time, you know? But… I also think sometimes that's why I allowed myself to get so close with you and everything, too. I could live with us being bi, or gay, or whatever we want to call it, because that's how much we've grown together and everything, you know? It was the other things outside of us, though, that I had to adjust to. I was afraid most people would think me too naïve, or even weird. I mean, book smarts are one thing, but it doesn't really help you much when you're trying to find your way, you know? That's where you, and your sister, and even your parents, have all filled in for me. Then lastly bro, this emptiness inside. I don't know how to explain it to you, just it... it didn't feel so empty anymore, you know? How can I not love us, when we can feel each other as close as we are?"

Brett smiled at his friend. "I know, because I feel it, too. Alex," the teen started, then hesitated. "I can't know what it's like for you, or what you guys have gone through. I know that, believe me, but I can kind of guess at it, and that makes me feel like I understand it … at least a little. To me, that takes a lot of guts man, and a lot of courage."

Alex sank deeply into his bean bag again, still clasping Brett's hand. "Well, me and my parents have to make it at least a few more days, and then hopefully things will change again. At least, in theory. Nicholas is going to trial now, see? The jury selection began yesterday, and the way we understood it, everything will start rolling next week. Exactly when and how it is going to go down, neither Dad or I know, but we figure we'll be called up to Pennsylvania in a few days to testify," Alex explained. "That's why we're going to disappear, like I told Mr. Bay this morning. That's why I'm going to need your help until we get back, bro - if you're willing."

Brett nodded. "Sure." As he looked onward, a sudden thought occurred. "You ... you ARE planning on coming back... right?" he asked quietly. He could not help but wonder that when it was over, where would that leave the Branhams, or Dennisons, or whoever they were - afterwards?

Alex smiled, actually relieved to have this part of the conversation out in the open. "Yep, I am coming back, Brett. I have to, because nothing else would matter to me anymore if I didn't. I've been so alone, for so long, I think it would kill me to have to lose what I've gained here. I think Mom and Dad realize it, too. I won't leave you alone, and that's a promise. Like you used to say, we have this 'thing' now, between us. It's more than just friendship, see? It might take a few days to get back, or a week... I don't know how long, exactly. Just, I'll try to let you know, maybe send you a text or something if I can. I'll be here, though. That is something I promise, from the bottom of my heart. No matter what it takes."

Brett nodded in relief, as a lump built in his throat. "You'd better be. I'll take care of anything you need me to, Alex. You just have to let me know, that's all." They sat in silence, before he broke it again with a whisper. "Wow, all that was really something, you know? What now?"

Alex looked upon him sheepishly with tired eyes. "I don't know. I've been fighting all afternoon long, trying to figure out how to tell you all of this. I never made it past the 'afterwards', you know?"

Brett heard his friend's voice break for the first time, and saw an expression unlike any he had witnessed before. It was a look of exhaustion, and worry, and... something else. He slowly pulled his hand away and rose from his position, pivoting around until he could pull Alex into his lap. "Come here," he whispered. Lying back against the bean bags again, he cuddled with his best friend as he pulled him up close.

There was something to be said about that moment, Brett thought, and the entire evening as well. So many things became clearer now, and the more Brett thought about it, the more convinced he was that Alex was telling him the truth. Could his friend concoct such a tale as rich and vibrant as this? Perhaps. He knew Alex was certainly smart enough to put something like this together, but it didn't have that kind of a feel. So many aspects of Alex's personality, their friendship and life in general, didn't portray his best friend as someone wrapped up into weaving a web of deception around people. It wasn't in the teen's nature, and Brett believed his friend's family truly did pay a price to get to where they were at the present.

Other reasons hit Brett, too, that solidified his thinking. Both teens knew each other in a lot of ways that escaped most friendships. As Alex had admitted, they were blessed with an intimacy that spoke volumes about their trust. Even now, Brett held his friend warmly within his arms, harboring no intention of letting go anytime soon. Like his friend, he had visited the gay or bi-sexuality of their relationship, but it was nothing that alarmed him either. Brett had no interest in other boys other than just general curiosity. His feelings he harbored seemed only destined to his friend, and he figured that was for a special reason. It made him amazingly happy on the inside, and he wasn't about to ignore it. Even now, Alex had seemingly melted into Brett's grasp, and as the teen looked upon him, he saw an almost lifeless stillness in his friend. With his eyes closed, it was like Alex had surrendered totally. Perhaps he had been worried about whether he was doing the right thing, or worried about how Brett would react. Brett didn't know, but he didn't care right now. He smiled, because he trusted his best friend, and his best friend had finally trusted him. In all their months together, Alex had never led Brett to think otherwise, and he certainly wasn't going to begin doubting him now.

As they lay together, Brett began thinking about what was next, if anything. Alex had been through quite a bit, alone it seemed, with only his parents to cling to. Was there anything Brett could do to keep his friend from feeling that way again? He didn't know, but for a few minutes he considered it heavily. Living in fear, fear of the enemy, fear of having friends, fear of himself, for his parent's sake ... even fear of the fire, and having to always watch behind him. Brett was once again amazed at how down-to-earth Alex was, especially after riding such a wave of uncertainty as events had unfolded. Brett wondered briefly if he could have faced such adversity like that, but then knew the answer already. It was a testament to Alex's strength of character, something Brett witnessed day in and day out. It made him feel closer to his new-found brother even more, admiring that inner strength that Brett had come to rely on.

As Alex shifted within his grasp, Brett squeezed him gently, hugging and smothering him with love. It was not unlike what he did for his sister just the night before. They had broken their own inhibitions down and had a long talk. Nothing drastic or filled with wild emotions, but instead they spent time just being together while they watched a movie. They had talked, teased, tickled and more, all in the name of being brother and sister. They had an intimacy that had grown between them, not unlike the one he and Alex had now. Although it had started awkwardly, with Brett leading the way, the rest had truly come about by itself. Every time he and Alex took things a seemingly step further, it really did leave Brett feeling that, as he had already confessed, their relationship, their intimacy… everything was just getting better and better. The fact Alex admitted it, too, spoke volumes about how much they truly cared for each other. Having sex was one thing, but now that they were growing beyond the lust and fascination of just getting off, or more, it changed things for the better. "You know something, bro?" he whispered, breaking the silence as a tear falling unabashedly down his cheek. "I love you. I truly, honestly love you like my brother."

It was those words which caused Alex to finally open his eyes and look up. "So, you'll forgive me then?" he asked, his voice barely above a whisper. "You'll forgive me for holding all of that back on you?"

Brett nodded and smiled - a real, genuine smile that came from his heart. "Oh yeah, bro," was the whispered reply. Alex saw the acceptance, too, along with the tear that had streaked down to his friend's chin. He finally moved, sitting up higher into the arms that continued to hold him, but adding his own in return.

Alex placed his forehead against Brett's before he spoke. "I won't hold out on you any more, Brett. You want to know something, just ask me. But ... one favor, okay? Only in our rooms, and only when we're alone. At least for a few more days, maybe weeks, or however long it takes for me to get through all of this."

Brett nodded. "You bet, bro," he croaked, then blushed as he wiped his eyes.

Alex saw and understood the exchange. "Hey, you don't have to hide from me, you know?"

Brett laughed. "Shit, man! It's going to be hard to come off of this one, you know!" His voice was light-hearted, and there looked to be a relief in his expression, but his implication was all the more profound.

Alex nodded and laughed with him. "It's okay, we'll manage. We always have before." He pulled back and looked around his room. "Umm, I've actually got something in mind we can do, if you want." He rolled to the side of his bed and reached down under it, before pulling out a board game. "Have you ever played this? Mom picked it up at a yard sale last week, I think."

"Risk? Yeah, once," Brett answered, nodding. "A long time ago though, with my cousins."

"Good! Then you can help me learn it, or if we need to, we'll figure it out together! I haven't played it before, although I've watched some YouTube videos of others that get into it," Alex answered.

Brett grinned. "Okay, that sounds like a plan." He looked up. "Alex?"


"All that stuff? No worries bro, I believe you. If there's anything... ANYTHING at all that I can do, well..."

"I know, Brett, and thanks. I don't honestly think there is right now, but I promise, you'll be the first person to hear it. I swear it, on my heart."

Brett grinned. "Just... come home, man. Like you promised."

Alex leaned in and kissed Brett on the nose, before delivering an additional kiss on his lips, ever so softly but with feeling. "I will," the teen whispered.

Brett sighed. "Careful, we might get into one of those moments again... the kind that gets us naked and in trouble with each other," he teased.

Alex shrugged. "You think I care?" He suddenly grinned, however, and then pulled back. "Besides, as far as being naked goes, I thought we might add a twist to this game anyway," Alex responded mysteriously. Leaning in close to Brett's ear, he whispered. "How about we, um, get skinned for this one? Maybe we can play and just be together for a while." Then pulling back, he peeled his shirt off and waited.

Brett grinned and followed suit, before standing up and shucking his socks and shorts. His eyebrows raised, however, as not only did Alex mimic him, but removed his briefs as well, before lying back onto the bed, rearranging the bean bags for them both. Brett visibly gulped at seeing his friend's nudity again, but then stripped completely and climbed back in beside him. As he sat watching Alex open the board game's box though, he blushed. "Um, I'm not sure if I can, like... you know... play without getting a boner or anything." Indeed, he was already half-aroused and heading for a harder state.

Alex laughed. "So? You think I won't?" The teen looked down at himself briefly, watching his initially flaccid member begin to also stretch out. "Like I said, I don't care, Brett. We both win in the end, don't we? Just, you know, this is kind of nice for a change, isn't it?"

"Oh, hell yes," Brett breathed, before leaning in and giving Alex a seductive kiss, breathing deeply between them. "I don't care, either," he finally stated, breaking off for air. "Just promise me something."

"Yeah?" Alex whispered back.

"No more holding back with this stuff, either. We trust each other, remember? That hasn't changed at all. It's all that matters anymore, okay?"

Alex nodded, then pushed the box back and hugged his friend fully. "I promise, Brett. Because you're right, I love you, too. With AND without clothes!"

Brett smiled. This was going to be a different kind of night, but one filled with a lot between them.

Alex awoke the next morning, surprised to feel Brett wrapped up and spooning him tightly from behind. His friend had a boner, sandwiched between Alex's buttocks and pressing ever so slightly, while at the same time his free hand was wrapped around Alex's waist and was clutching the teens half-hardened manhood. He smiled, listening to Brett's moans and feeling that level of security once again between them. Surprisingly, given their play the night before, neither had made it an evening for sex. Instead, they had spent hours learning to play a game neither initially understood, but as their evening progressed, so did their growing appreciation of it. Part of the evening had been played on opposites sides of the board, but then at one point they stretched out side-by-side, propped up appropriately, using the bean bags to elevate one high enough to look over the other's shoulder. They never hid their strategies or ideas, sharing their thoughts together so they could learn what Risk was all about.

Although neither was a clear winner, game-wise, both were winners in everything else. They hugged, climbed over each other, even participated in childish, yet amusing rituals. Alex smiled as he recalled getting up at one time to use the bathroom, and Brett followed him, spooning up from behind and reaching around, holding Alex's penis for him at the toilet. That task became difficult initially, especially with Brett flopping his friend's manhood around comically in different directions. "Come on!" Alex had hissed at him, laughing. "You're gonna make me pee on the wall!" Brett finally stopped and hugged him, nuzzling the teen's neck and letting Alex relax to finally release. Alex ended up returning the favor afterwards, but only in kindness.

It was the little things like that, all night long which they played until they fell asleep, which Alex fell in love with. Except for their night at camp, it was probably only the second night in their storied history together, that neither had sought for a climax or release with each other in some way. It was easy enough to get into a frisky mood and frolic around with each other, but to have a night that, where both understood there was more to their intimacy than getting off? It was perhaps the single-most thing he loved about their relationship. Brett had gotten pretty horny a time or two, but the teen never complained, never tried to get off or start something that would lead to it. Alex was the same way, just watching, touching, seeing, feeling… it was awesome for them both.

Brett stirred behind him, bringing Alex's thoughts back to the present. This morning was not then, it was now … a new time, and a new place for them. Feeling his best friend's erected manhood once again press into him, he figured Brett's needs had changed like his own, even if only in his sleep. Alex sighed, however, because as much as he might have wanted to do the same, he needed to take care of another, more urgent business with his bladder. Reluctantly, he pried Brett's grasp away from his groin and quietly slipped out of his friend's embrace. Rising from the bed, he entered the bathroom hurriedly, barely making it to the toilet before he lost control. 'Wow!' he thought. He was not one known for holding his bladder overly long, but some mornings would catch him by surprise, as this one did. Once business was completed, Alex stepped over to the window and pulled the curtain back, glancing outside. Although the hour was not that early, the sky was populated with low-hanging, thick grey clouds that easily filtered out any normal sunshine behind them. Looking down, the teen watched as a whirlwind of dust and dirt swirled over a desolate space of the yard between their buildings, dried hard from baking in the grasp of the sun for weeks. Perhaps the rain would finally come this time, he thought, sorely hoping so for the sake of the farmers and others who had been hit so hard by the heat wave.

Alex was about to turn away when a flash caught his eye, coming from the tree line behind their yard. It was faint, almost non-noticeable, which was exactly why Alex noticed it to begin with. With a cloudy sky and no sunlight to note, the flash caught his eye because of its distinctiveness. Initially, after some seconds passed and it did not recur, he thought maybe he had just imagined it. Certainly, the strong wind could have just shifted something along the edge of his peripheral vision. After waiting another moment, he finally let it go and returned to the bedroom, where he found Brett sitting up on the side of the bed yawning deeply. Seeing Alex approach, he muttered, "About time..." The teen then rose to his feet and entered the bathroom, presumably to take care of his own pressing business.

Alex lay down again, but not without first opening the curtains above the headboard. He had raised the window too, but soon afterwards shut it back as the air outside, despite the breeze, was still heavily humid and warm. He turned over to lie on his back just as Brett returned and crawled in beside him. Neither had bothered to re-acquire their underwear while they were up, something unnecessary in their opinion as Brett curled in and lay his head on Alex's shoulder. Alex kissed his friend lightly on the nose, and then snuggled up. Both dozed off back into a light slumber, perfectly content.

Sometime later, Alex awoke to the sound of thunder rumbling overhead. As his senses tuned in, he finally realized that a hard storm had come upon them. Occasional flashes of lightning were followed by deep rumbles, and amid a stiff wind, a torrential downpour was cascading across the house. Hearing the storm unleash its fury, he extracted himself from Brett again and rose, crossing to the bigger dual-windows he had on the far wall. Looking out, he grunted at the sheets of precipitation that were now falling, causing visibility to be restricted to a hundred feet or less. Another roll of thunder sounded, just as he suddenly felt someone coming up to him from behind and enveloping him in arms. Again, their intimacy and the feel of the naked body holding him left no doubt as to who it was. "Big storm isn't it?" Brett whispered in his ear.

"Mm, hmm," Alex replied, grasping the teen's arms and hugging them to himself. "You got me for a second. I didn't hear you get out of bed."

Brett scoffed. "You just weren't paying attention, I think. I practically fell on the floor! My foot got hung up in the sheet, I think."

"Really?" Alex thought, then just shrugged. "Maybe you're right." He remained staring out the window for another minute before sighing and turning around in Brett's arms. "So, want to do anything special today? Or do you need to get home or something?"

Brett sighed. "My deal with Mom last night was to come home after we got up this morning. We're all supposed to go over to my aunt and uncle's place for dinner today." Glancing at the nearby clock, his face fell. "It's already 10:30? I'm in for it enough as it is, I think. Hey, do you want to come with us? It's just Kristen, and she and Gina will be tucked away in their room all afternoon."

Alex thought about that for a moment, but then slowly shook his head. "I understand, but to be honest, there is something I should probably take care of today. And I want to look into something, too. Plus, I hate to say it, but I think you need to spend some more time with your sister and family anyway." He looked into Brett's eyes. "Seriously, Gina needs you sometimes as much as I do, and she... she should be more important to you anyway."

A certain level of annoyance and anger started to surface in Brett's expression, but Alex put both hands up. "No, stop bro... That.... That did NOT come out like I meant it." Alex sighed. "See? Sometimes it's hard for even me to find the right words, too."

Brett's face softened. "I know the feeling," he whispered. "But..."

Alex turned around to face the window again, pulling Brett up behind him close. "You know, we're both brothers with a sister of our own making. As much as our feelings go, Brett, our parents don't have what we've built. I know my Dad thinks a lot of your Dad, he's told me that much in so many words. And our Moms, they're good friends, too. Think about it though, Brett: we only moved in a little less than five months ago, I think. What you, me and Gina have built between us, is a lot more than what they've just began building, you know? In their eyes, you two are your parent's children, not me. Just like I am my Mom and Dad's only child." He sighed again as he pulled Brett even closer, pushing back into him and feeling the warmth between them. "We're growing up, Brett. We both know it. We're going to get into all kinds of things as it is, but we have to somehow stay our parents' children, as long as we can. I don't know about you, but I'm all my Mom and Dad have got, you know? And the truth is, think about this, too: outside of your parents, you may be all that Gina has."

Brett thought about that for a moment, and then hugged Alex warmly. "Okay, you win that one. But Alex, Gina likes you just as much too, you know? If something happened to me, she'd still have you. And I don't care if its only 5 months, or 5 years, or 5 lifetimes - right now, it doesn't matter." Nuzzling the teen's neck, he added in a whisper. "I think that's pretty obvious, isn't it? Especially after last night? And my willy didn't even spooge any at all!"

Alex pulled one of Brett's hand's loose and up to his lips, kissing it. "Neither did I. Last night was awesome, bro. It's a wonder we really didn't, you know..."

"Yeah, I know," Brett whispered. "In a way I wanted to, but in a way just being with you was all I needed, too."

Alex giggled. "I don't know what I'll do if Gina finds out I like boys. Well, at least that I like you, instead of girls!"

Brett giggled with him. "She won't care, Alex. She'll love you all the same. She'll love us both." They both watched the hard rain as Brett rubbed Alex's chest and belly for another moment before letting go.

Alex followed him over to the bed, paying attention to his friend's rear and goggling as he moved. "Yep, I think I can see it now," he teased, causing Brett to turn and raise an eyebrow. "The bubble butt Gina talks about. When you walk, you can sort of see it a little bit."

Brett answered by picking up a pillow and throwing it at him. That was before Alex tackled him and started to make out again, this time pushing his hand down into Brett's groin. The way he figured it, there was at least enough time to take care of what they hadn't done the night before.

Brett didn't complain at all. "Oh boy," he whispered, as Alex gave him a mischievous look.

"So, did you two have an eventful evening?"

Patty Branham asked her son, just as he had entered the kitchen and decided to hug her from behind. Alex squeezed warmly, holding her for several seconds before letting go. "Yeah, we played that new board game you got me, Risk. Actually, we played it way more than I realized before we put it away last night and went to sleep." Wrinkling his nose as he let go, he added, "I think Brett likes coming down here when his Mom will let him. At home, he has to deal with his sister a lot, so he kind of likes getting away sometimes."

"I can understand that," Patty acknowledged before turning around. Seeing nothing of Brett nearby, she addressed her son. "Speaking of which, where is Brett? Isn't he coming down for breakfast?"

"He's already left, Mom. They had some kind of family thing they were doing today, and he was already running late because we overslept," Alex explained sheepishly. "I'm sorry, if I had known about it I would have told you earlier. I hope you didn't cook too much food."

Patty shrugged. "Well, no actually, not yet anyway. There's a plate of bacon in the microwave, but I was holding off on the rest until you two climbed out of bed." She smiled. "Bacon can be kept for a few days though, so no worries. What do you want for breakfast then? Anything?" She sniffed her nose. "Of course, it'll be lunchtime soon, anyway."

"Do we have any tomatoes?" Alex asked. "Maybe we could have a couple of BLT's, you know, bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches. I know we have some sourdough bread, if it's still good. We can grill or toast that, and..." With that, mother and son began working in earnest together.

Before long, Richard joined them. "Ah, it's still raining cats and dogs, I see," he remarked, before pulling a chair out at the table and sitting down. "About time you two woke up, Alex. I was beginning to think I was going to have to suffer the aroma of bacon weaving throughout the house all day! Where's Brett, by the way? Bathroom?"

Alex explained as he carried a platter filled with sliced tomatoes and toast to the table. Within minutes, it was followed by the bacon, lettuce, mayonnaise and sodas, which caused Richard to raise an eyebrow. "Sodas? For breakfast, or brunch, or whatever you want to call it?"

Patty laughed. "I thought it might be okay for a change. Besides, we're out of tea and a few other items, too. We need to make a run down to the grocer today, I think."

"Ah! I should have known," the man replied heartily. They sat down and ate, conversing about the week and how things had developed. Eventually the trio fell silent, listening to the wind unusually howl outside. "I don't think I've heard it get up like that since we've moved here, have you?" Richard asked his wife.

"I don't think so, either. It's been raining constantly for the last couple of hours without letting up, too," Patty remarked. "I did check the weather a bit ago. They're predicting this front will get through the area by early afternoon, and then we're supposed to have a couple of very mild days afterwards, with highs in the upper 70's, and lows in the low-to-mid 60s at nighttime."

"That WILL be a welcome change," Richard remarked. "For most of the folks around here, anyway."

Alex stared at his father. "Huh?"

"I just got off the phone with our friends. Evidently, this Judge up there, made them finish with the jury selection yesterday," Richard replied. "As I understand it, they're accelerating the timetable somewhat, in the interest of security. That means we're expected to be onsite starting Tuesday. Which also means we'll be leaving out sometime tomorrow, I think."

"Wow, that was fast," Patty commented. "All of us, right?"

"All of us, yes. We're going to be picked up and personally escorted to catch a pair of private charters," Richard explained.

"A pair? What...?" Patty inquired, setting her drink down onto the table.

Initially, Richard avoided eye contact with her. "It seems that Alex is going on one flight, while you and I fly on another." Richard paused before emitting a deep sigh. "According to our friend James, he says the higher ups are concerned about the two of us, me and Alex, coming in on the same plane or airport. If they have a true leak within the organization, he believes that this is the most vulnerable time that word could get out. They've already leaked and setup alternative routes, phony itineraries and all, regarding transportation today, tomorrow and Tuesday."

Patty sat back. "No." Looking up at her husband, her voice was one of defiance. "First, we are not letting Alex get on a plane by himself, no matter who they put in there with him. And second, I'm not going to let our family be split up in the last minute like this, especially if there's a chance this thing could get dangerous." She crossed her arms. "Richard, we've put up with this bullshit for, what, over two damned years!"

Richard listened, and when silence followed, he smiled grimly. "I kind of figured you would say something along those lines. I brought up those same arguments, and a couple of others. For what it's worth, I think James is sympathetic to our plight, but he remained steadfast in backing up his reasoning."

"Well, then he can back it all the way out the door," Patty exclaimed. "You two can pull out of the whole deal, if you have to!"

Richard grimaced and then sat back himself, studying the table in front of him. "I understand what you're saying sweetheart, but... Think about it for a minute. I'm not saying I totally agree with them, but there is some logic to what they propose. By having multiple routes and times scheduled all over the place, with only a select few aware of which are the misleading ones and which are real, it does help create an added layer of safety. Not having us travel together might be a blessing in disguise."

Patty hesitated. "But... he'll be alone, and... and..." She had pointed at Alex, although her meaning was already apparent.

Richard nodded. "I know, but at least he won't be a pawn in this big shuffle, with a recognizable set of parents smothering him."

Patty sat back, exasperated. "Then… then let me ride with him!" she declared, still with a note of defiance.

Frowning, Richard looked on with concern. "I don't think that is best either, honey." Before she could object farther, the man raised his hands. "Mind you, I'm not comfortable with it, either way, but you've got to consider - what is the best way to truly protect him, separate from being with me, and if we can't ride together, then riding with you would be just as obvious as if I was." He let that sink in for a moment before turning to his son. "Alex … I think this ultimately comes down to you, and what you decide. Do you want to go through with it, as planned, or not?"

Alex sat in deep thought for a moment, studying both parents before he sighed. "If we don't do it, then they'll be after us forever, right?" The teen shook his head. "I think I understand the logic and all, and… I can't think of any argument against it." He gazed at his mother, who was also looking as if she were defeated. "I just really want it to be over with, that's all," he intoned.

Richard rose from the table and moved over to his son, squatting down beside him. "I know you do, son."

Patty also rose and walked over to Alex's other side. "I- I don't like it, but I have to admit, your Father's right. And I have to admit, too, I'm like you, honey. I want it over with, too."

Richard observed them both, hesitating before he plowed onward. "So, I take it that means let's do it?"

Alex looked deep into the man's eyes, and silently nodded.

The rain outside continued throughout much of the day, but most of the harshness had moved on, leaving basically summer showers in its wake. The air, as predicted, had become much cooler in nature, so Alex shut off the upstairs air conditioner and opened his windows. A steady breeze flowed through his upstairs room, bringing the smell of the rain and fresh air inside the room.

He spent some time online that afternoon, reviewing a lot of the articles and stories he could find on the upcoming Federal case. It wasn't that he thought he would come across anything new, but instead he wanted to make sure he didn't forget something he considered important. The details of how it went down were all in his head. The memory he had been blessed with, or cursed, as some might see it, left almost every detail in a stark vividness he felt he probably never forget. Still, he looked for those timelines, or minor things that might paint the picture even clearer than it already had been. Unfortunately, he found little to add to that he did not already possess.

Setting the laptop aside finally, he sat back against the bean bag once again, listening to the patter of the raindrops outside. Instead of it making him sleepy, however, he felt restless. In only moments, he sighed and rose to his feet. From the side of the bed, he spied the wall and the practically imperceptible panel it contained, and suddenly made a decision. Turning to his desk, he unplugged the lamp from there and carried it over to the panel, before dropping to his knees. Tripping the catch, he opened the panel and slid it back to gain access within, where he crawled easily through the opening, pulling the light with him.

Finding the socket, the teen plugged in the lamp and turned it on, removing the shade and flooding the interior of the room with its bright illumination. He then stood up and looked around. The light was bright enough now that the only shadow of note was his own, as he moved about the enclosed space. Finding nothing extraordinary, he moved to the outside corner to check the tick marks he had observed before. They had been done neatly in rows, etched into the woodwork as before, but there was no achievable pattern to them that he could find, leaving their mystery all the more unexplained.

He was about to step away, however, when as he pivoted on his foot, he noted a strangeness in the feeling of the carpet. Looking down, he tested it again by twisting in a makeshift form, and then watched in amazement as the carpet twisted with him. Slowly falling to his knees, he began testing the floor covering at the nearest wall, and found with surprise that it peeled back, lifting with his grip. Excited, he pulled it slowly, observing a set of old, hardwood-like planking reveal itself underneath.

Peeling back several feet, Alex had uncovered perhaps a quarter of the floor area before he stopped. Trapped underneath, it seemed were several old newspaper clippings and other papers of a sort. Picking one up, he saw a news article dated November 30, 1959, regarding the success of the Boeing 707 jetliner entering service. Another showed Alaska being accepted as the 49th state of the union, with an expectation that Hawaii would soon follow as the 50th. Another paper showed a grocery ad from somewhere, and made Alex grunt when he saw the prices of a load of bread, 20-cents, a new car at $2,200, and more.

Each of the articles he found were old, almost brittle to his touch, but seemed to have no concurrent relevancy, at least in as much Alex could determine. He turned and saw something shiny reflected in the floor toward the corner, and as he approached, he was surprised to find it was a rather large coin. Picking it up and dusting it off, he saw that it was a silver-like US 1971 Eisenhower dollar. That piqued his interest, to say the least. Looking about and seeing nothing else of interest, he stood and began tugging the carpet back even further. Once he moved the lamp, now over half the room was exposed.

His new discoveries included more newspaper clippings, but also something else of note. Along one edge lay more money, this time in the way of $20 notes scattered about. Picking one up, Alex wondered if it was real, as the paper had a different texture to it than what he was used to. Still, the bill looked real, and as he turned his eyes to the floor again, he spotted several additional ones trapped underneath the carpet and in the edges of the walls.

Alex set about then collecting them all together, pulling the carpeting from the floor with ease, and peeling it back until he was able to uncover all four corners in some shape or fashion. All in all, he uncovered almost 40 of the bills, along with some more older coins that had been scattered about. He exited back into his room and retrieved some envelopes, before returning and caching everything he found inside, separating and taking care to preserve them as best as he could. When he finished, he returned the carpet to its original state, then pulled the lamp and returned to his room, closing the panel behind him.

As he looked at the clock, he wondered what Brett was doing just then, and decided he didn't care. He picked up his cell phone and dialed his best friend, waiting impatiently for the teen to answer. After the fourth ring, the connection was finally made. "Hello?"

"Hey, are you where we can talk a minute? Alone?" Alex intoned, barely concealing his excitement.

"I can be, give me a minute," was the ready reply, and Alex heard Brett excuse himself as he walked what was obviously outside, since the sounds of the local rain could be heard in the background. "Is this okay? Can you hear me okay? If not, I'll go get in the car."

"No, it's fine, as long as you can hear me," Alex replied, before settling down in his desk chair. "You are NOT going to believe what I just found in the secret room."

Instantly, Brett's attention became full focus. "What?" As Alex began to explain, the teen could be heard gasping. "Are… you… effing… serious??!!"

Alex laughed. "No, I'm making all this up in hopes you'll poop your pants or something, and have an easy excuse to come home early, even though Gina will make fun of you all the way back, and have a story to tell for…" Alex suddenly relented. "Of, course I'm effing serious, man! Would I kid you about this?"

There was an exasperated sigh on the other end. "No, some people might, but you wouldn't! How much money did you find?"

"Um, maybe $800, give or take a few," Alex replied, before leaning back. "I have no idea if they're real, though. They have a kind of stiff texture or something. I mean, they LOOK real and all, but..."

"Hey, wait a minute!" Brett exclaimed, and it was obvious the teen was thinking hard. "There was this thing last year in the paper, our civics teacher brought it in and everything for class. Something about a huge counterfeiting ring busted up here in Indiana, all in and around Indianapolis. Damn, I wish I could remember some of the details, though. Seems it was busted up in the mid-1970's or so, I think."

Alex silently nodded. "That might be about right then. The silver-like dollar I found is from 1971."

Brett sighed. "Well, there goes striking it rich, I guess. I'll see if I can find out something when I get home tonight. I might actually have my notes or something from that. It was toward the end of the year, and luckily, I don't think I threw that notebook away … yet!"

"Cool! I'll scan the newspaper site here, too." Alex paused, then lowered his voice. "There is something else I need to tell you, too." He went on to explain the conversation he and his parents had after Brett left that morning.

"So, you guys are leaving tomorrow, then?" Brett asked, a note of dejection creeping into his tone.

"Afraid so. So, I won't see you much for the week, probably," Alex added quietly.

After a brief pause, Brett came back, sounding cheerier than he felt. "That's okay. You knew it was going to happen, and I knew it would only be a matter of time. It's cool, bro. Just, promise me one thing, more than anything else in the world."

"What's that?" Alex asked.

"Promise me to watch after yourself, and stay safe. Okay?"

Alex smiled. "Always, bro. Always."

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