The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 23

When One Can Hide No More

"Thanks for inviting us over tonight..."

Ethan sat on the front porch, leaning with his back against one of the posts, with Alex sitting across from him doing much the same thing. Brett had just stepped inside to visit the bathroom, leaving the two boys alone for the moment. The unseasonably warm air was again casting its hold upon the Ohio Valley, as if desperately reminding its inhabitants that summer was not yet over. The humidity, although low over the last few days, was climbing again, and one glance at any of the three boys was proof enough to believe it. They had been playing basketball since arriving from school that afternoon, and now having taken a break, their t-shirts were not only damp, but actually wet in several places brought on by their ensuing perspiration. Both Alex and Brett had attempted to tone down their play, but Ethan had other plans, making a hard game with the two older teens. A solid afternoon of play it was, too, because although he was only twelve, Ethan held his own literally against the two. The younger teen displayed an extreme talent for dribbling, passing and shooting that would have made any coach proud.

"You're welcome, buddy. I'm just glad you could come," Alex replied. "I guess there's still no word on your parents?" Alex had considered leaving that subject out of their conversations, but he also knew that given the situation Ethan and his sister were living in, it was at the forefront of their lives. Avoiding the topic could be as painful as if broaching it head on. At least by acknowledging it, Alex could open the door and let their younger friend decide how far, and where, the boy would want to take it.

"Not yet. Grams is supposed to meet the Sheriff down at the car lot today after her doctor's appointment," Ethan replied sadly, and then looked at his watch. "He supposedly wanted to see if she might recognize anything out of place in his office, or find a clue that might help in some way." He suddenly sniffed the air. "Hey, is that supper? Smells like garlic or something, doesn't it?"

Alex grinned. "I think Brett's mom is making spaghetti and meatballs with some toast. At least, he mentioned it today at lunch. Hope that's okay for you and April."

"Are you kidding? We love spaghetti!" Ethan declared, then giggled. "April will eat up all the toast though, if you don't watch her."

"Meh, let her, if it makes her happy. We'll just make more," Alex replied, before stretching his legs out in front of him. Ethan watched and, seconds later, mimicked the older teen. Their shoes crossed and touched, and Alex playfully brushed his feet against those of the other boy. Ethan liked it and playfully pushed back. There was a personal feeling of comfort there with the older teen, and he wasn't afraid to show it.

"So, this is where you guys hang, then? Kind of a nice place, I think. Where do you live, though?" Ethan asked.

Alex pointed. "Right there, two houses down, on the other side of the road."

Ethan stretched his neck slightly and then nodded. "I see it, yeah. Wow, you two DO live close together, don't you!" He turned back to Alex, impressed. "That's pretty cool, I think."

"Yeah, close enough that we get together a lot, yeah. There hasn't been a boring moment yet, at least since me and my parents moved in," Alex replied.

"I bet!" Ethan sat thoughtful for a moment, and then lowered his voice. "Hey, Teach, can I ask you something?"

"Sure, what's up? And don't call me 'Teach', I'm no different than you are Ethan, remember? Only, I might be a few years older, but still..."

Ethan shook his head. "Yeah, I know that, but... I think to me I'll always see you that way, you know? You being my teacher at camp at least. You didn't just teach me how to swim, right? You taught me some other things, too. Important things." The younger teen sighed. "Anyway, I was just wondering about something. Would you tell me, like, what happened that day? You and Brett and my Dad, in the car lot when we first saw you? I mean, I've heard all the bullshit from my old man, but... like one of you said once, there's always more than one side to a story, especially with things like that."

Alex thought for a moment before he nodded. "Sure, I guess. Well, Brett and I were trying to find some places to clean cars at. You know, cars, vans, trucks... that sort of thing. See, that was something I got to do last year, during the summer where we lived before. I brought the idea up to Brett, he liked it, so we were just trying to see if we could do the same thing here, and make some money over the summer. Your Dad's place was one of the first businesses we stopped at, see."

Just then, the door opened and Brett rejoined them on the porch. In his hands the teen carried two wet wash cloths, which he subsequently handed to his guests. "Here, I thought you might want these, especially since we're going to be eating pretty soon."

Both Ethan and Alex took the cloths, thanking the teen while he moved to sit down next to Alex, sharing the post for support. Alex wiped at his face and hands before he continued. "Anyway, that day we're talking about, we gave your Dad our sales pitch, telling him what we could do, and all that. When we told him how much it would cost and all, he started laughing and joking around, poking fun at us and all, and ... it got kind of cruel, I guess. After a certain point, Brett and I got up and walked out on him, and that seemed to make your Dad mad and all. As we left out the door, he followed us outside, yelling and what have you. That was when I think you, your sister and your Mom were coming around the corner. See, we tried to ignore him, but he was, I don't know, really steamed up." Alex hesitated, studying Ethan closely. "I've always thought it was because he was trying to kind of bully us, and we wouldn't let him."

Ethan nodded. "He did that a lot, yeah. But... once you were outside and all, what happened then? What happened after he told us to get our asses out of there?"

"He tried to come at us and push us around, I think," Brett spoke up, picking up the conversation. "Though, he didn't succeed very well. He got right in Alex's face, yelling and all, and then he reared back one arm and started to take a swing. Alex just sidestepped it and pushed your Dad back. He was off-balance by then see, and Alex somehow grabbed hold or something and just pushed. The next thing we knew, your Dad ended up falling on his own ass. Afterwards, we just got on our bikes and high-tailed it out of there."

A silence fell then, causing Ethan to look upon them both with surprise. "That's it? That's all that happened?"

Alex nodded. "Pretty much. I mean, I didn't intend for him to get hurt or anything, I just... I don't know, I just didn't think he was being very fair and all, and when he took that swing at me, I just kind of reacted is all. He was mouthing off, kind of-"

"He was treating us like we were snot-nosed rug-rats, I would say," Brett insisted. "Sorry man, but... it wasn't a good day for any of us."

"I was trying to stand up to him, see, and when he swung at me, I ducked and... and... he ended up on the ground," Alex finished.

Ethan nodded, accepting the explanation. "If you guys heard even half the stuff..." The younger boy hesitated, and then sighed before continuing. "You're right, my Dad was a bully, there's no denying it. He and my Uncle were the worst when they were together and all, picking on people and everything." Glancing at Brett, he shook his head. "You guys don't need to be sorry, but I think my Dad does. The stuff he was saying, screaming about you both afterwards, made it sound like you two somehow beat the shit out of him and everything, and then tried to make off with something. I always wondered about that, because I knew my Uncle was there, too, and... sorry fellas, but two overweight, big men like that? I somehow doubt you could have done much damage if you tried."

Alex sputtered and then laughed. "Us? Beat the shit out of your Dad?" he remarked softly, careful to not let his voice carry. "Can you imagine that?" he asked Brett, who suddenly grinned and nodded before Alex continued. "Your Uncle was in the office, but he never came outside or anything. It was just your Dad, Ethan, and you're right.... It would be hard for anyone to beat up on him, I think!"

"Yeah, that would have been hard," Brett replied, noticing that Ethan was grinning. "I wasn't going to say anything about that part, but..."

"Yeah, Dad has a big ass, I know. He and my uncle both are kind of fat," Ethan mused. "Still, every once in a while, he stewed over you guys a lot, coming up with ways to get back at you and everything. He was mad, and I mean really, fucking mad. He could be mean that way."

Alex thought he detected something else behind those words. "How do you mean? In what way?"

Ethan hesitated before he answered. "Usually when Dad got mad, he got physical, and I mean really physical - like, with his fists and stuff. He would punch at things, like the doors, sometimes the walls and stuff, or start slapping and hitting around on people. At least, he would with us. Me and April always got out of the room as quick as we could whenever we saw him getting worked up very bad." He turned and looked out into the yard. "I watched him slap Mom around sometimes, and once really hard. She, like, went down flat to the floor and all. He was screaming, maybe even kicking her, I don't know. I just know I saw it, and I took off like a rocket at him, pounding my fists, kicking - everything I could do, yelling at him to leave her alone. I was only ten though, and I didn't have much of anything that could stack up against him, you know?" Ethan scoffed. "He just picked me up by my belt and pants, like I was a sack of potatoes or something, and threw me across the room like it was nothing. I ended up landing in the couch, at least, but before I could recover, he just disappeared. Next thing I heard was his old truck starting up, and then he was driving it off and everything."

"Wow," Brett whispered.

"Yeah, no shit. Mom's whole side of her face and jaw was numb for days, and I couldn't exactly wear any jeans or pants either," Ethan admitted before blushing. "Not for a couple of days, anyway. See, when he grabbed and threw me, my pants, like, dug all into my crotch and everything, and my, uh... my balls got all squished up. Hurt like hell for a while," the younger teen concluded.

In the silence that followed, both Alex and Brett were contemplating what to say next. "I'm sorry," Alex finally offered. "None of you should have had to go through that stuff with him. It wasn't, or rather, it isn't right. That's abuse, you know?"

Ethan suddenly returned his gaze to the teen and nodded. "Yeah, I know. We all knew, really, but ... it was just too hard to stand up to him, that's all. Especially when you've got nowhere to go or no one to turn to. Mom only had Grams, but, for whatever reason, I think they both purposefully kept her out of knowing about a lot of stuff. They both always warned me and April not to be talking around Grams about stuff happening at home." He let the thought go, turning to look out across the yard again. After another silence ensued, the younger boy then sighed. "You know, maybe it would be better if he just never came back again, for good. I know, that sounds shitty and all, but I wouldn't miss him any, and I doubt April would, either. But Mom... that's who I wish would come home, more than anything. I'd give up everything I have, do anything I could... if she... if she would just come get us, you know? Come and take us... home... Just, come back and... and..." The boy's voice finally broke just then, and his calm facade began to show signs of the emotional stress he was under. Alex glanced at Brett and then quietly shifted himself across the porch until he was sitting next to the younger boy. Without even asking, Ethan leaned into him and started to cry, just as Alex put a comforting arm around and hugged him close.

Nothing was said for the next few minutes, and although the sobs were quiet and muffled, Ethan found himself letting go. His cries brought feelings of sorrow to the two older boys, but in the interim they also brought a feeling of shame to Ethan. "I- I'm sorry g-guys, I just, I d-don't..."

"SSShhhh," Alex whispered, soothing their friend. "It's okay, I promise." In the meantime, Brett extended his legs out to purposefully mingle with both boys, much as Alex had done earlier. It was, in a way, a gesture that added his own support to their young friend, and it did not go unnoticed.

Another minute passed before Ethan sniffed and coughed, and then pulled his head back up. He remained in Alex's embrace, however, as he glanced up at the older teen first and then to Brett. "You two... You're really good friends. Maybe the only ones I feel like I've got anymore. Everything is so lonesome now. The guys at school, they stay away now, for whatever reason. You two, though... you're not afraid to like, touch me, or hold me ... even just be with me for a while. Even in camp, on the docks and everywhere, you weren't afraid of me."

Alex giggled. "Why, should we be? Have you got some rare, contagious disease or something?"

Ethan laughed, a good sign really, as the laughter was both spontaneous and free-spirited. "No, I'm just saying, that's all. It just, I don't know, it just feels okay. It feels right. It makes me feel, like, having someone by me who understands, you know?"

Alex leaned in close. "Ethan, there is nothing wrong with hugs, or any of that stuff. You know that. And you're right, I'm not afraid of us at all. Even now, if the three of us were alone, and I thought it would help you in some way, I'd strip us all naked and we'd sit here in the sun, and I would still hold you, just like this." Ethan glanced up, scoffing in disbelief, but Alex did not let it go. "I'm serious buddy, we trust you. There's nothing gay about caring, you know? And... I do care. Brett does, too. You've got to know that by now, right?"

The younger boy glanced between the two, noting that Brett was nodding in agreement. "I do know it, guys. I know a lot more about some of this now, thanks to you both, and it does... it really helps. Me and April, well, our family, we just were never close. You understand that, right? It might seem weird, but..."

"A lot of families aren't close, Ethan," Brett spoke up, keeping his voice low as he explained. "There are brothers out there, maybe even sisters, that are afraid to even piss in the same toilet with their each other. Some families are just like that, and I guess there's nothing wrong with that, really, except I think they miss out on something, like learning how to care for one another and everything. You know, the kids grow up being one-for-all and all-for-one, thinking mostly of just themselves. Me, Gina and Alex, we didn't grow up that way, see? Look at us now - some people might say we're gay for doing or talking about some of the things we do, but it's not. It's just being comfortable and trusting each other. There isn't anything gay-ish about it, unless you make it that way. I don't know what you think about us, but yeah..."

Ethan, however, shook his head. "I don't think anything like that about you guys, honest. I mean, Dad was one of the biggest jerks in the world, and a huge homophobe, I'll give you that."

Alex smiled. "Big word for small pants, you know," he whispered, hugging the boy tighter, which made him laugh.

"I'm not as dumb as some people might think," he retorted good-naturedly, leaning into the hug before he snorted. "Dad, he had some pretty big ideas of what was right and wrong, about how people should act and do things. He was always, constantly ragging on me about that shit, but honestly? I kind of knew better." He suddenly giggled. "You would strip all of us, and just sit here with me? Is that what you said?" he asked Alex, amused.

Alex giggled, but nodded. "Yeah, and still hold and hug you. If I thought it would help you in some way, I wouldn't hesitate one bit. That is, as long as we were alone, or... you know."

Ethan turned to Brett. "And you would let him? You'd let him take your clothes off of you and... you know, too?"

"Of course, I would. I'm not afraid of him," Brett replied. "We've seen each other naked a few times already, so what's the big deal? It's like he said buddy, if it helps, then, you know... sure!"

Ethan nodded, melting. "Yeah, I do know. Wow, I guess you guys do trust me then, don't you?"

"We never stopped, man," Brett answered for him. "It's not like we would do that for anyone, you know, but for you? Yeah, piece of cake. Listen, if you need us, for anything, day or night, we're always just a phone call away, okay? Or a text message, if you can get to a cell phone."

Just then, Gina's voice called out from inside. "Brett, Alex, Ethan! Supper's ready!" All three boys looked at one another and grinned. Alex extracted himself from Ethan and climbed to his feet, before holding out two hands, one to each, and helping pull the others to their feet.

Ethan surprised them both, however, as he slipped between and circled an arm around their waists, pulling all three of them together. "Thanks guys," he whispered, hugging them tightly.

Alex and Brett glanced at each other before adding their own arms, hugging him warmly. Then all three made their way inside.

"Honestly, Sheriff, I don't know that I can be of any help at all here. I don't see anything out of place, but that isn't saying much. Really, I've only been in this room maybe once, maybe twice in the last ten years. Harry didn't think much of me, and I really had no business paying him visits for any reason!"

Sheriff Mackie nodded as he watched Ruby Simpson walk over to the desk and sit down in the oversized office chair. In silence, she turned and glanced around at everything in sight carefully, before glancing upon the desktop and finding nothing out of the ordinary. A large calendar-like desk pad sat on top, and she carefully lifted a few of the sheets, looking at the remaining months of the year. She could find neither notes nor writing of any type, so she let the pages fall back in place. The woman then glanced up. "Really, I'm sorry. I just don't know that I see anything."

"That's perfectly alright, Ruby. I knew it was a long shot at best, but it never hurts to try. You never know, sometimes miracles happen, where someone looks for that one thing that might stand out, or that one thing that might seem above the ordinary." Sheriff Mackie sat down in a chair across from her. "Just so you know, the State Highway Patrol has got an all-points bulletin out now for both Harry and your daughter. It's been picked up multi-state, too, so Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois have been alerted as well. Interestingly enough, although there are no real grounds yet for FBI involvement, one of their district offices contacted me the other day, and after a rather lengthy conversation, the man I talked to indicated they were curious about the disappearances as well. So, if I understood right, I think they're going to put it on the national wire, too."

The Sheriff paused, thinking aloud. "We've been through the town here Ruby, pretty thoroughly. We've kept the office here under almost constant surveillance as well. At some point, your son-in-law or your daughter will have to make an appearance somewhere, and when they do, they'll be tagged. Both will have a lot to answer to right now, with child abandonment charges at the top of the list, so nothing will be swept under the rug, I assure you."

Ruby nodded. "Thank you, Sheriff. I know you're trying your best. I just wish there was something more I or the children could do to help."

As Ruby rose to her feet, Sheriff Mackie stood and crossed the short space before offering the woman a comforting arm. "I am going to get to the bottom of it, I assure you. I wish that I had gotten more serious about this sooner, and for whatever its worth, I apologize madam. We all know Harry has had anger issues and flights of fancy that included running into the law before. Be that as it is, it has never been anything as serious as this has turned out to be. Something is not right, and I'm sorry it has turned out to be such a mystery at the moment. I will not let it go though, until we find something. Try to keep your chin up, and your wits about you." He paused. "You mentioned the kids, how about them? Are you doing okay handling them? If you want me to, I can get social services involved. You can get some financial assistance, as there is an emergency fund for cases like this that can be tapped into."

Ruby shook her head. "No, no. Right now, I think I'm okay, though it would be nice if you'd let me into their house so I could gather a few more of their clothes and things. Your deputy told me it's been sealed up for the time being."

Guiding her toward the door, Mackie nodded. "I don't see any reason why we can't do that. Would tomorrow afternoon be acceptable? I can arrange to have one of the deputies let you inside."

The woman turned, looking relieved. "Tomorrow would be perfect, really." Gazing into the man's eyes, she hesitated. "I really do appreciate it, Walt."

"Aw, that's nothing. I should have realized that from early on, especially with school starting up. How old are the kids now, anyway?" the man asked kindly.

"Ethan is twelve years, and April is about 18 months behind him," Ruby answered.

Walt Mackie stopped, looking thoughtful. "Well, again I know this is a long shot, but do you think the boy might know anything, or could look in here and see if he thought anything was out of place?"

"I don't know," Ruby replied, after studying for a moment. "I don't know how often he's been in here, to tell the truth. I got the impression one time from my daughter, that Harry despised the kids hanging around the business here, so you can imagine it wouldn't be one of their favorite places to visit. Still, I can ask him, and if he has then I'll give you a call and we can try this again. Right now, he and April are visiting some friends after school today."

Mackie smiled. "Sure, why don't you do that then. The girl too, for that matter. If any of you think it might be worthwhile, then we can come back and do this again in a day or two."

"Hey, are you brats going to be coming to the game tonight?"

Brett turned to see Steven's grin before he rolled his eyes. "Brats? Since when have we become brats, beanstalk?"

They were in the locker room, along with Alex, getting dressed after having just completed a long period of intense volleyball play. That day, the coaches had pitted the different gym classes against one another, since it had been raining steadily from early that morning. The classes were forced to make use of the gym facilities for the day, and what better way than to pit them against each other. Having decided a little intra-school competition might be good for a change, the coaches had already set several areas up with the necessary nets and equipment.

As it turned out, both Brett and Alex's class had been elected to square off against Steven's more senior-level class that afternoon, which made the games far more interesting than usual. Although most of Steven's team were made up of the 12th year group, it was the teen's extra height that, when poised close to the middle of the court, had made it a challenge to the opposition. With his ability to reach higher and return the volley's with stunning accuracy, they had a huge upper hand against the younger, smaller team, especially when he sent it flying so fast others were not always able to react in time. When the bell sounded, it had not been surprising to see the lopsided score, where the senior team had won all but one of their matches.

Steven laughed as well. "Beanstalk ... I haven't been called that one in a while, I think."

Alex looked up at the exchange and grinned. "Can you imagine how funny it would be if you, or your brothers for that matter, had ever been named 'Jack'?" All three laughed and Alex, after first glancing around, turned to face the cubicles as well as his two friends. He then surprised the pair by suddenly peeling his t-shirt off and dropping it on the bench. Steven and Brett glanced at each other, both noticing there was neither any hesitancy nor hurriedness, unlike what they had witnessed in the past. Alex stood nonchalantly this round, taking his time, as if deciding his shyness was overstated, and that enough was enough.

It was the first time that Steven had an actual, unobstructed view of Alex's shoulder and chest, and upon seeing the ridges and discolored skin that crept up and away from the heart, the tall teen began to whistle softly. Alex glanced up and grimaced, but otherwise ignored him as he extracted his polo from the bag, readying to pull it over his head. Brett, hearing the whistle and recognizing what was happening, glanced at his best friend and caught his eye. They both stared at one another for only a few seconds, before Brett nodded approvingly. Alex knew it was a bold move, unplanned and done on the spur of the moment, but he didn't feel apprehensive or embarrassed about it. He was finally breaking the barrier cocooned around himself, mostly because he had now been dressing out with the others, in the locker room, long enough that it was becoming second nature. As his friends had told him from the beginning, it was truly now getting easier, and Alex finally grasped on to what they had been trying to convince him of. Still feeling somewhat reserved though, he grunted and blushed, but ended up smiling at them both.

"Damn!" Steven finally hissed in a low voice, before standing up. He initially took a step closer, but then stopped himself. Although their corner was more subdued than other areas of the locker room, there was still an overhead light that beamed straight down, and Alex's affected area was profoundly lit up directly by its beam. "That's... that's..." The tall boy stared a few seconds longer, and then scoffed before tearing his eyes away.

Alex continued to smile as he then proceeded to pull his polo on overhead, before he began removing his gym shorts. He gave the moment some thought while pulling on his jeans, before looking up and finally commenting. "So, what did you think? Am I freakish enough?" he asked, his voice so low that it only carried amongst the three of them.

Steven, without looking up, mumbled softly in response. "No fucking way man, no fucking way!" Nothing more was said until they each were dressed and started to grab their bags. It was then the tall teen turned to them both one last time. "You guys still didn't answer my question. Are you planning on coming to the game tonight?"

Brett nodded. "Yep, planning on it, as long as they don't call it off."

"Are you kidding? They never call off football games unless there is severe weather. Some of the grups think playing in the mud is more fun anyway!" He paused and sneezed, before blinking his eyes rapidly. "Shit, I thought I was over this crud!" he mumbled, before pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and quickly blowing his nose. "Anyway, Brad was asking me about you guys last night. I think he's planning on coming with me, and hoping to meet up with you again," Steven replied as they approached the main hallway. "Well, see you there then. Later gators!" he exclaimed, before purposefully exchanging a high-five with them both. The tall boy then quickly maneuvered away from them through the crowd.

"Grups?" Alex asked, curiosity getting the better of him.

"Yeah, 'grown-ups'. Some guys call them 'grups', or 'rents' for parents," Brett explained. He nodded toward the teen who was just then turning a corner. "You know, I think you just made his day," Brett remarked. Alex shrugged, but Brett didn't let it go. "You might have made mine, too."

"Really? How so?" Alex asked, as they began moving in the opposite direction through the crowd.

"You're not afraid anymore," Brett whispered, causing his friend to stop and face him.

"I guess so, Brett. Actually, I think I still am, you know, shy and stuff, but... I'm working on it, I promise," Alex replied timidly.

"I understand, but seriously - that, bro," Brett said, pausing and jerking his thumb in Steven's direction. "That was showing a part of yourself to someone outside of you and me, all on your own. I know for a fact that it did something for Steven, too. You didn't see how stunned he was when you faced him and he could see everything. I'm telling you, that's huge."

Alex smiled, thinking about that moment. "Okay, okay... I get it." He raised a fist and bumped it with Brett's in mid-air as they started moving again. "I wasn't trying on purpose or anything, though. You know that, right?"

"I know. You never do, and that's what makes it so cool when it happens," Brett replied. Nothing more was said as they made their way to their last class of the day.

Harry Spalding pulled once again into the little alcove hidden from the road, before turning off the motor. It was early evening, still some time before sunset occurred, but with a gradually falling rain in the shadows of the clouds, the dusk-like setting was dreary. There was no storm, neither thunder nor lightning around the area, no high winds to speak of either; just a short, occasional breeze to break the stillness otherwise. Harry thought it was still awfully warm for both the time of day and the rainfall, but he grudgingly acknowledged there were other days that had been much worse weather-wise, now behind them. He knew a cold-front was moving through again, and by morning the forecasters were predicting a cool spell would grip the valley, bringing unseasonably lower temperatures for at least the next week. He grunted when he heard that, thinking he'd at least be able to get some sleep out of the deal. His nights in the old house had been far from comfortable, even with the fans running at full speed. How his brother ever stood it was beyond him, he thought. Then again, he recalled that most summer nights his brother had remained overnight in the office, or gone home to stay with Harry and his family.

Harry opened the door of the car slowly and stepped out, the tree overhead providing some shelter against the falling precipitation. Shutting the door, he hurriedly crossed the short distance to the back porch and then let himself inside. The house, just as creaky and eerie as it always was, sat in silence except for the steady sound of the rain striking the old tin roof. The hefty man sniffed and cleared his throat, as he was prone to do from time to time, before crossing to the table where he set down the paper sack he carried. He had made it to the outskirts of Indianapolis that day, before finding an old-fashioned convenience store where he had purchased a few items. He was relieved as the old man behind the counter hardly even looked up as he rang up Harry's purchases. Harry paid him quietly and then left as nonchalantly as possible. At least now, for a few days, Harry would have supplies to get him by. Beyond that, Harry would have to worry about later.

Sighing heavily, Harry stepped over to the sink and, using a glass already sitting there, filled it half-way with tap water before bringing it to his lips. Drinking steadily, he finished and returned the glass to the side, before entering the living room of the old house and crossing over to a rather-worn recliner. Sitting down, the man turned on a box fan sitting beside him and then sighed again, before extending the footrest and lying back. Closing his eyes, he listened to the steady thrum of the rain hitting the roof and relaxed. The fan, so quiet he hardly heard its engaged motor, pushed air across the hefty man and increased his comfort ten-fold.

Harry had just settled himself comfortably when he noticed something seemed out of place. There was an odd odor in the air, one which he was not accustomed to, and it was gradually getting stronger. All of the hefty man's senses were suddenly alerted, but before he could react, a low voice suddenly announced from behind him. "Well, well, well... how is it going, brother?"

Startled, Harry quickly sat up and retracted the footrest just as Casey Spalding walked around the side of the chair. Looking down, the younger Spalding noted the look of total surprise that met him. "What? No greeting for your younger brother?" he asked, laughing. "How sad! What is our world coming to, I wonder?"

Harry finally gasped before sputtering, "Wh-what the hell? When did you get back here, bonehead?" Indignation aside, the man was immediately on his guard. Casey had a different countenance about him, as he stood hovering above. Something about his demeanor was igniting a sixth-like sense in the back of Harry's mind, which he could not ignore. "Hello, brother," he finally said, placing special emphasis on the last word. "So good to see you, I guess. What brings you back here tonight?"

Casey scoffed. "'Tonight,' he says? Really? Why Harry, I've been here for days. Haven't you noticed yet?"

Harry crossed his arms just then in disbelief. "Oh, really?"

Casey smiled and then crossed the short distance to the couch, where he sat down. "Oh now, dear, dear Harry. Such sound of disbelief! Tsk, tsk!" He gazed amusedly at his brother. "Yes, Harry, I've been here just about all week, watching your every move. I have to say, I'm somewhat surprised. Surely you didn't think, given all that's been happening recently, that someone wouldn't take an interest in your shenanigans by now, do you?"

Harry's short temper was beginning to exercise itself. "What the shit are you talking about, Casey?"

"Calm down now, no need to blow a gasket. We're just two fellas, family at that, having a conversation. Relax, big man!" Casey announced, but there was a weariness to his expression, and a troubling look began to appear. It was one Harry did not miss, causing the man to furrow his brow.

"Relax? After scaring the shit out of me just now, you're telling ME to relax?" He suddenly shifted forward to the edge of his seat. "Besides, let me remind you that you're the one who high-tailed your ass out of here and disappeared on me, for weeks, without nothing more than a fucking, cryptic note that said you've been called up to somewhere. Seriously? You were gone, like a fart in the wind, never to be heard from again. Then you sneak up on me all of a sudden, in here, tonight... and you're telling ME to relax? You're full of it, you know. In fact, I've got a better idea. How about you answer a question or two for me, starting with where the hell you've been, mister all-so-important-now piss-ant?" He didn't intend for it to come out as brash and heated as it did, but as he started analyzing the situation, a feeling of annoyance swept over him abruptly.

Casey sat there in silence for a moment before he spoke again, but when he did, his voice dropped to a chilly note. "Careful, Harry. Where I've been is of no concern of yours, big boy. You know as well as I do, when Damien calls and tells people to jump, the only fucking question you ask is 'How high?'. That is, if you expect to live afterwards."

Harry sat back. "Damien, huh? You, of all people, take a call from the master butcher himself? I'll be damned..." He studied for a moment. "I've been trying to reach that son-of-a-bitch for days now, only every turn I make, I end up running into one brick wall after another."

"He knows, brother," Casey replied softly. "That's why he sent me back down here. That's why I've been watching you."

"Really? Why is that?" Harry asked, suddenly suspicious.

Casey again hesitated before answering, but this time his voice was stressed. "Because, big brother, you took off to Chicago and ran your big, fucking mouth all over the place, that's why! Did you really think you would go back into the old neighborhood and NOT get his attention? Damn, Harry, you mouthed off, too, a little too much from what I heard. Because of that, you've created a whole new set of problems to deal with, and Damien has had to shut it all down." He narrowed his eyes. "I've always told you, always warned you to watch that temper of yours. I always said it would get you in a heap of trouble, didn't I?"

Harry's eyes narrowed just the same. "Well, how would that shit-head expect me to feel or react? Yes, I got annoyed at being ignored, dumped out in the rain, forgotten like I was some orphan from the Bronx or something... and why not? Everything we've been given, every contact, every blasted phone number ... useless! When shit-heads act like we don't exist anymore, right when you needed them, how would you feel in my shoes?" Realizing he was nearly shouting again, the big man lowered his voice. "I needed them, I needed help, and they were fucking turning their backs on me! After everything I did for them, and they-"

"Stop right there, asshole," Casey warned, his voice now both decidedly hard and dangerously low. "Nobody abandoned you, you fucking abomination!" Harry shrank back ever so slightly in astonishment. When Casey spoke again, his voice returned to a more normal tone. "You just don't get it, do you? Even after all the time I've spent here with you, trying to guide and steer you for the better, you still think you're this hot-shot, big-time asshole who can bully and bluff your way through practically anything and everything in the world today. Don't you get it? THIS was your job, THIS was your place in Damien's world, asshole! But no, it was never good enough for you, was it? I mean, you had the most stupidly simple job on the planet, you know? All you had to do was run a nice, little car lot, quietly take in a few delivered vehicles now and again, and then sell them to the selected buyers that showed up. Buyers, I remind you, who came in and turned over a hell of a lot of money for practically a pile of junk! All you had to do was take your part off the top, 30%, and then send the rest on up the line, and no one would ever be the wiser. I mean, shit, brother! Your end of the deal was so stupidly simple. So... fucking... simple! It would have lasted you a lifetime, you idiot! In another 10- to 12-years or so, you could have been sitting in the Bahamas or some such place you always dreamed about, getting naked and filling out your nice, plump tan! But no," Casey paused. "No, no, no... You couldn't understand that. Instead, you had to start getting mixed up with the law, then gloating all over town, flirting with some imaginary status as if people owed you. Both high and low, you never cared who you were dealing with. Even those damned cleaning kids, you couldn't leave them alone!"

"Now, listen here-" Harry interrupted, but Casey wouldn't hear of it.

"They were just kids, you asshole! If the one who put you on your ass was like you tell it, then good for him! You needed to be put in your place, for crying out loud! It was one thing to rib them in the office, but once you followed them out the door, bellowing as if you could shout them deaf, I mean... what the fuck, brother? You couldn't let things be, could you? You're the one who treated them like shit to begin with, until they decided they didn't have to take it. Then what did you do? All because that one threw it back in your face, you had to get all high and haughty, remember?"

Casey paused for a few seconds, calming himself before he went on. "And then other times, with Mackie and all, you couldn't even lie low, could you, when it was getting rough? No, you had to keep putting your nose out there, and guess what? Look where it has gotten you now! Everybody, and I mean from Chicago to Philadelphia, and on to the Bronx... EVERYONE all of a sudden started hearing about the antics of a small town nobody, who was fucking around with their supply and demand chain. EVERYONE Harry, from Damien to the Feds, to even Picante's group! All of them started wondering who the fuck was Harry Spalding, and what the fuck was he doing down here in Greensburg, Indiana - the most out of the way place in America!"

The words stunned Harry into speechlessness. His mouth opened not once, but twice, before he closed it again and sat in shocked silence. Casey, seeing he had his brother's full attention now, scooted forward on the couch. "And don't think Damien doesn't have an idea about Ramona, brother. Somehow, somewhere, something has happened to her and he knows it. The State Police know, the Feds know, and ... and he can't let that rest, now. I don't know what you've done with her either, or where she's staying right now, but the fact that she hasn't been around to take care of those brats of yours, that can't be good, right?" The strained tone returned as Casey shifted uneasily. "Do you understand what I'm saying, Harry? This entire network took years to create and work out, but it has to now be shut down permanently, and practically overnight. Do you get it? The whole state of Indiana, and now Illinois and Kentucky, probably Ohio, too, are out to find you. Troopers, agents, detectives, everyone ... including the damned fucking FBI, all of them are now out there searching for you. You're on everyone's radar now so thick you can't even fart Harry, without one of the bloodhounds picking it up. Don't you see? It was a quiet, simple setup, but no more. It's only a matter of time, now..." Casey shook his head, his voice suddenly becoming stronger as he laughed. "And to beat all, where do we find you holed up? Of all places, right here in my old stomping ground! It's hilarious, yet at the same time it's astounding, don't you think?"

An extended silence ensued, as Harry contemplated what he was being told with a growing, uneasy feeling. "Why ... why are you here, Casey?" he asked, his voice suddenly meek and subdued.

It was sad eyes that faced him then. "I'm here, brother, for answers. You've got to understand, Damien is suddenly, very much, in a hot seat that is gradually getting hotter. He... It... has to be stopped, Harry," Casey admitted in almost a whisper.

"And what, exactly, does that mean?" Harry asked quietly.

Casey sat back at that point and pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket with nervous fingers. "That's what you and I are going to have to figure out. You and I, together. We have to determine the best way to make good of a very dangerous, and very toxic situation." He lit the cigar and drew a few puffs, before continuing. "What happened to you, brother? I mean, I'm just asking between us for the moment. Can you be serious and answer that for me, for one moment? What turned you so sour against the world? You didn't used to be this way, I know. We grew up together, drank our first beers when I was 10 years old, laid our first bitch together not long after that, the very same night and in the same fucking bed even! We've been through hell and high water, crawling out of shit holes, or living it up to the fullest, getting drunk and more! But now, lately, you've just become another bastard of the county. Why is that, brother? Where is the old Harry I knew, the one I grew up with, huh? Did someone pop your cherry or something? Did someone get hold of you and shove their dick up your ass? What happened?"

Harry's eyes narrowed. "You talk to me about fucking gay and homosexual shit like that again, I'll kill you on that couch where you sit!" he said menacingly. "I mean it, brother, family or no. Your life will not be worth spit!"

Casey crossed his arms. He said nothing, knowing the big man was venting, all because that sort of partying was always a touchy subject to his big brother. Although saddened, he waited patiently until Harry calmed down. When he did, there was a huge sigh that filled the room. "You want me to be serious? Then, okay, I'll be serious. Being stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, and being screwed over time and again, treated as if you're a nobody. How would that make anyone feel? I wanted to go places, Casey, and I was promised I would go places. The thing was though, every single time I brought it up, it was always the same line: stay there and mind your damned P's and Q's. I was getting tired of this life being so meaningless, and at the same time being treated like such a patsy for the hundreds of thousands of dollars that got laundered through us every year. Us, dammit! You knew, you understood then. What the fuck is so hard to understand about that now?"

Casey sat for a moment before shaking his head. "You might think that's it, big brother, but I don't believe it. I mean, think about it, what did you care where the money came from, as long as you were making your cut, huh? You were told, from the beginning, what this job would be like and how it would work. The only wrinkle was when you went and married that damned woman, and knocked her up such that not one, but two fucking crumb-snatchers were born to boot. Two kids you don't even care about now, nor have ever cared about them."

"Be careful, brother..." Harry toned dangerously low.

"Be careful? Seriously? You see, that's your problem, Harry! You've never been forced to be accountable for anyone, including yourself, have you? Yet, there were two mouths you brought into this crazy world. Now, we may be crass, but they are not some set of pawns you just throw around the room or sweep under a rug! We were taught better than that!" Casey sighed. "Now, at the end, you see what's about to happen, don't you? Here at the end, you're giving me no fucking choice in how we have to finish this! Why can't you use some common sense for a change? Why can't you understand what is happening, huh? Be at least the kind of bastard that understands what is going on, even if for no one else but me, without me having to fucking spell it all out to you like a toddler!"

"What the shit do you... mean... at the end?" Harry started. It was then he suddenly heard a gun cocking from somewhere behind him. Without turning, he knew immediately they were not alone. He stopped and stared at his brother in astonishment. "You're... seriously, you can't be...?"

Casey heard the note of defiance there, but also the overwhelming fear that was beginning to surface. He nodded and sighed. "This is one job I don't want to deal with, brother. For the love of God, I don't want to be here now, but ... I don't have a choice, really." He looked deep into Harry's eyes, now filled with fear. "Harry, tell me about Ramona. Tell me, where she is? Did you do something with her? Are you holding her somewhere, or what? Talk to me brother, do her and your kids right for a change. Do us all right for the matter. We've got to make this right, don't you see?"

Harry sat with eyes wide open, the fear striking him in full force as if it had never done before. "Wait... Casey... We can work this out...!"

Casey nodded, but shrugged. "I know brother, I understand how you feel. But don't you see, this is out of my hands now. You took a simple, everyday operation, and you've screwed it over, big time. Now that the Feds are looking for you, the big man feels he doesn't have any choice in the matter, either. He has to shut this down, and then spend months or whatever, setting up a new system somewhere, in some place out of the way again. And you can probably imagine, he will not want the name of Harry Spalding associated with it in any way whatsoever. In fact, you probably will never find a place in his organization again, ever. You see?"

"But... but... I'm your brother, we're family!" Harry gasped, shrinking back into his chair.

Casey quietly stood and walked over to stand in front of his brother. "I know. Yes, we're family. The thing is, if I don't take care of this, then I'll be in the hot seat right along with you, too. You understand that, right? I'm already in the hot seat as it is. They could shut me down as well, here at the end, but I'm hoping otherwise. Maybe we'll both go to Chicago, and hopefully get to have a sit down with the big man himself. I don't know, brother, but don't underestimate him. He knows far more than you think he does. I'm not the one who has a search warrant on his head, or has the FBI alerted to you, your business and all, here. Do you understand?" Casey's voice was emotional, but he cleared it quickly as he pulled a stool over to sit closer. "I'm afraid there is only one way out of this, and you know it. So, for what it's worth, help me, brother. Help me make all of this right at least for your wife, for your kids, and for your mother-in-law. Help me set all of this sordid business aside, please, for their sakes. I know you never cared for those kids much, but... this madness has to end."

Harry sat for a long time before dejectedly looking down into his hands. Here, it really was coming to an end, and he knew once Damien's mind was made up, well... "You're wrong. I may not have shown it, but I did care about them. All three of them." Defeated, he looked up into the eyes watching him and saw a combination of both anxiety and kindness alike, and he knew it was over. Slowly, he started talking.

Alex was surprised at the size of the crowd, having never attended a high school football game before in his life. It looked like the whole town had turned out, along with over half the student body, all combined creating a noise worthy of both the excitement and anticipation of what was to come. As with most places, there was a binding tie between the town and their local schools, especially involving sports, and particularly when it came to watching the first game of the season at home. For many, it gave them a real-time, local event worth breaking away from normal life for, even if only for a short while. In the background, Alex could hear the sounds of the school band pompously breaking through the noise, serving an upbeat melody of sorts with a catchy tune that all could enjoy. As he and Brett, along with Gina, turned the corner and got in line, he saw kids and teenagers of all ages rushing about, running and laughing with friends, some to the concession stands, and others to find their seats. Yet others stood alone in groups, laughing and conversing about whatever their pleasures might be for the moment.

The light drizzle that was falling did nothing to dampen the spirits of anyone. The grounds were thoroughly wet, with puddles of water already standing in places. The weather forecasters predicted more showers were to come, which would end up adding to the craziness of the evening. Many people wore light ponchos or rain slicks, but several were also dressed simply in t-shirts and either shorts or jeans. The atmosphere seemed electrified, with lots of shouting and laughing to be heard all around. There was no formalness to be found anywhere, and occasionally one could overhear laughter as they talked about the mud bath just waiting to happen down on the field. Alex believed they looked forward to it, as they talked about all the slipping and sliding that would probably come about. It would add a new, rare dimension of play to an old sport, and the crowd seemed to anticipate it being a fun night for all.

As Brett gave up their tickets at the gate, he then grinned and led them onto the concrete-coated track, a series of lanes surrounding the outside of the football field. On each side following the length of the field, were large elaborate, concrete structures with benches for fans to sit on. As Alex looked up, he observed that both sides were already filling up with both hometown fans and supporters for the other team. Gina was then suddenly accosted by a group of her friends, and with a nod to her older brother, she disappeared with them as they headed deeper into the crowd.

"So, do your parents ever come to any of the games?" Alex asked as she was whisked way.

"Not really. Dad likes the basketball games, and Mom has come to one, I think," Brett answered, and then scoffed. "She almost didn't let us come tonight, thinking we'd probably drown before we got home! Dad convinced her otherwise to let us have our fun."

"It'll be... interesting, that's for sure," Alex replied, looking around. Brett laughed.

"You haven't seen anything yet, bro."

That's what you keep telling me. Too bad Ethan couldn't talk his grandmother into it," Alex remarked.

"I know! He would have had a blast, I think!" Just then, Brett turned to look at the game clock, which was presently counting down the minutes and seconds until the game started. "Hey, come on, let's get some food before everything gets started! We've got just under a half-hour or so before the game begins, and they usually have pretty good concessions here!" Alex nodded in agreement, and then followed his best friend as he led him toward the center of the stands. Once there, he observed a huge opening that descended down and led them underneath the seats into a large, well-lit alcove, containing concession booths for the stadium.

"Wow, fancy!" Alex remarked, impressed as he and Brett approached and descended the steps there. After waiting patiently in line, they ended up walking away with both nachos and sloppy joe burgers with drinks. "Where do we eat?"

Brett pointed outside behind the stands, where several rows of benches and picnic tables awaited patrons. Finding one empty, they sat down and listened to the roar of the crowd overhead. "Wow! How does one even think with all this noise?" he asked, grinning before taking a bite of his sandwich.

Brett laughed. "You think this is loud? Wait until the game starts, then you'll hear loud!" Brett replied, sinking his own teeth into his sloppy joe.

Before either could say another word, Alex suddenly felt someone jumping and grabbing at his shoulders from behind. "Hey, Alex! Brett!" an excited voice announced as he returned to Earth, laughing. Alex grinned as he recognized it belonged to Brad before he even turned around to greet him. Behind the boy, Steven also approached, carrying chili dogs and chips.

"How's it going?" Brett declared, as soon as he was able to get a word out. Alex greeted the two as well, and was pleased when they joined them by sitting down. "Quite a crowd, isn't it?" Brett continued, looking about as more people continued arriving.

"No kidding," Brad stated, taking one of the chili dogs from his brother. "Great night for a game though, especially if it keeps raining! Have you guys ever been to one of these with it raining like this?"

"This is my first game, period," Alex confessed. "Brett has already been warning me about it getting, ah, interesting."

"Boy, you really meant it then, being a first for everything and all!" Steven exclaimed laughing, making the teen blush. "Don't worry though, you'll see all kinds of crazy stuff here tonight! We call it 'Mud-ball' when teams play on nights like this!"

The four of them laughed, before Brett spoke up again. "Might have been nice to see a seven-foot player sliding around, too!"

Steven laughed. "As much as I'd like to, I can't. My bones are not strong enough to put up with this kind of ruggedness."

"Believe me, he's tried though. More than once!" Brad piped in.

"I can kind of imagine," Alex replied. "Although, I thought you just had that iron-deficiency thingy."

Steven nodded. "Yeah, mostly that's all. But Darren and I both also have a lower bone density than most people do, so that sort of knocked us out of qualifying for sports in general. This one, though," he paused, nodding at Brad. "He's a different story altogether, at least so far. As long as he doesn't develop any problem, he can play almost anything he wants. He certainly doesn't have any iron deficiencies like me and Darren, so that's another plus. Assuming he's interested in playing, that is."

"I'm interested, but I think I would rather play basketball. Football is fun to watch, but like you said, it's kind of rough, even with all the extra padding and everything," Brad replied. "I've already talked to the Junior Varsity coach too, and he promised we could see if I qualify when they hold trials in October."

"Sounds great, really," Brett stated, and offered the younger teen a mid-air fist-bump, before returning to his food. Before long, he finished his sandwich and pushed the large tray of nachos to the middle of the table. "Have at it, there's enough to share," he declared.

Brad's eyes lit up. "Thanks!"

Alex sat back, thoughtful. "You guys keep talking about it being muddy and stuff. Won't rains like this just mess up the field and everything?"

Steven nodded. "It can, but most of the sliding is going to just be in wet grass. Plus, the teams aren't allowed to wear big cleats or anything that can tear up the turf. There are spots in various places though, especially on the sidelines and everything, where it can get muddy and all, especially in the end zone."

"So no, they won't tear up the ground, or if they do, it won't be so much it can't be fixed by the next game," Brett chimed in. The answer seemed to satisfy Alex as he nodded acceptance.

By the time the game began, the drizzle had intensified into a light rain-shower. When the four made their way onto the seats, a crowd of seniors called down to Steven, inviting him to join them. Torn briefly between the group and his loyalty to his friends, he glanced at Brett, who nodded. "Go ahead, it's cool." Brad stated he was going to stay with Alex and Brett, so the tall teen finally ascended to sit with his class, leaving Brett, Alex and Brad to choose seats not too far away, below where the older class was seated. Finding the seats wet, Brett grunted and surprised the other two by sitting down, and then sliding length-wise enough to wipe spots for the two other boys to join him. Brad laughed at him, causing Brett to look up with a grin. "What?"

When the younger boy remained silent, Alex spoke up. "So, needing to wash your ass or something? There's showers over there in the gym, if I remember right," he teased, which made Brad scoff.

"Hey, we're all going to get soaked before this night is over, so who cares?" Brett retorted, laughing. It was true, Alex thought. Although they both wore rain ponchos, the one-size-fits-all kind that only fell to just below their waists. Neither had bothered to cover their heads. Alex was already wiping away the rain from time to time. By comparison, Brad sat without any rain gear at all, which Alex found amusing, seeing that their young friend was clad in only a long-sleeved t-shirt and shorts. With the air still humid and warm, at least there shouldn't be any problem with people getting cold. Still, Alex sat close to the boy, with the idea of shielding him from the elements as much as possible. Not surprisingly, Brad leaned into him as well, welcoming the friendly gesture.

The game started, with the visiting team taking the opening kickoff. Their linebacker was able to return the football to mid-field, before he ran up against a wall of tacklers. Deciding he could simply slide into a down horizontally, he let his feet fly in front of him. The only problem was, however, that given where he decided to go down, his cleats had nothing to grasp on to. So, with his rapidly building momentum, the player began sliding, flailing his one arm wildly in an attempt to grab at anything that would stop his forward motion. That did little good though, as the boy ended up bowling right into the group of oncoming tacklers. Down came a pile of bodies, falling on top as they did. The wildly flailing arms and outcries showed that they, too, had no real turf to dig into so as to control their own actions. While they were clumped together, someone stripped the ball from the returner's grip, and once that was realized, a comical free-for-all began. Greensburg had a player coming around the side of the group just then, who somehow was able to pick up the loose ball. With few to offer him resistance, the boy ran the entire length of the sideline and into the end zone, scoring the first touchdown for the night on the fumble of the first play of the game!

The crowd went wild on both sides of the field, with the roar reaching a new height in the crescendo that followed. Alex grinned, getting caught up in the energy of the game from the very first play. As the players disentangled themselves, the original returner sat up from his field position, momentarily confused until one of the Greensburg players stooped and gave him a hand. Many in the crowd laughed, because already the player had cakes of mud and turf that found its way into his jersey.

Most of the first half that followed contained similar antics by both teams. Players skidded and slid all over the field, mostly in the wet turf, but occasionally finding muddy pockets along the sidelines. As each side tried to find some way to gain yardage, it proved to difficult. Many of their plays were busted before they could gain any significant ground, either by running or passing down the field. By halftime, the score was 13 to 9, suggesting it had been better controlled than it appeared, but the scores had been strokes of luck alone. As the teams headed for the locker rooms for the half-time break, the crowd suddenly erupted in cheers and applause on both sides of the field, standing and rooting for them noisily. They knew the conditions in terms of gameplay were precarious at best, but it was obvious from the grins on everyone's faces, players included, that they were having a night of fun all the way around.

It was then that Brad turned to look for his brother, but found him nowhere in sight. "Where did Steven go?" he wondered aloud, before wiping away more water that had been collecting on his face.

Alex did the same and then turned, but also failed to see the teen. Scanning the crowd, he shrugged. "I have no idea, really... He was up there just a little bit ago."

Brett turned to the two afterwards. "He may have gone down under the bleachers to get out of this rain for a bit. Want to go see?"

Seeing Brad nod, the three rose and made their way to the steps. Within minutes they found themselves underneath the structure once again, along with seemingly half of the attending crowd. Finding it slow to move about amongst the pressing groups and bodies, Brett suddenly found a shelf along the bottom of one of the concrete piers. Hopping on, he suddenly stood where he could see above the crowd and started scanning. "There!" he pointed after a moment. "I see him, he's over there near the entrance with a group of guys. Come on!" he declared, jumping down. The three of them then began making their way.

Arriving, the three found Steven with a group of four to five other older boys, bunched together just outside the gate. As they watched, they found the group fervently trying to push a large utility van out of a mud hole. The massive effort underway had some of the older boys pushing with their arms, while others were at the rear with their backs to the vehicle, straining and pushing with the use of their legs. The van finally moved forward with a roar, lurching out of the hole as it gained traction. Most of the boys jumped free, but Steven, who was amongst the trio at the rear, lost his footing completely and ended up falling, butt first, into the hole that was just then vacated. Many in the crowd roared with laughter as he sat there, pulling his arms up and propping them upon his knees. He gave several a good-natured look, like 'Really?', before laughing and shaking his head. Not only had he fallen, it was obvious he also had taken the brunt of the mud being slung by one of the tires underneath. "AAwww... shit!" he exclaimed, but he continued laughing.

Alex stepped over and offered the tall teen a hand, which he gladly accepted. Brett and Brad both grinned, too, laughing again when they saw the mess his clothes were now in. "Talk about having a wet ass," Brett commented. "I think you took the prize on that one!"

"No kidding," Steven announced, as he wiped at a glob of mud that had found its way near the back of his neck.

Just then a man stepped out of the crowd wearing a long, clear poncho, grinning at the small group. "You okay there, Gates?"

"Oh, yeah Coach... Just training for the next summer Olympics," Steven quipped, looking flustered. "They're adding a new category event for mud rustling."

"Oh, it's not that bad son," Coach Reed announced chuckling, checking him over briefly.

Steven flung the Earth from his hands before looking up. "Say coach, would it be okay if I go wash some of this junk off? Please?"

Pulling keys from his pocket, Coach Reed singled one out, but instead of handing it over, he handed it and the ring to Alex. "Here, take him up to the gym and into the lockers. He can wash the mud away in there and at least put his head back on straight. There are towels in the laundry room behind the showers. Oh, and make sure to lock the doors on the way back out, okay?"

"Sure, coach," Alex announced. Glancing at Brett, he saw his friend shrug. Brad happened to grin at him, but seeing Alex's look of confusion, the younger boy just shook his head. He then turned and followed Brett back toward the football field.

Leading the way, Alex guided Steven away from the crowd and over to the entrance of the gymnasium. As they arrived at the door, Steven remarked, "Man, it's really coming down out here now!"

"Yeah, it is," Alex answered. "Are you sure they never stop a game for weather like this?"

"Only if it gets stormy, like with thunder and lightning." Steven replied before suddenly laughing. "Crap, look at this! It's usually the players who get all muddied up, though. Not us!"

Alex laughed, leading him through the door, where they paused while Steven removed his shoes and shirt. The two then proceeded to cross the short distance to the entrance of the locker room. "Where's the laundry entrance at? I don't remember ever seeing one before," Alex asked, glancing about.

"Just follow me," Steven announced as they entered the corridor leading to the lockers. When they reached the turn into the room, the taller teen stopped and pointed to another door further down at the end. "It's through there. Bring me a couple of towels back, okay?"

Once Alex nodded, the tall youth turned into the locker room and Alex continued. Opening the door at the end, it took the teen a few seconds to find the light switch, as it was not located anywhere near the entrance. When the lights blinked on, he was briefly blinded by their intensity, but eventually he adjusted and started looking around. The room was fairly good sized, containing cabinets all around, and two sets of large washers and dryers on the opposite wall. In the middle of the room sat a table, upon which several baskets sat containing freshly washed sports uniforms. What Alex did not spot initially, however were any towels. He opened several of the cabinet doors but closed them when he didn't find any of the cloths he was seeking. On the verge of giving up, he turned back to the door when he suddenly spied shelving behind the doorway, and once he investigated, he let out a sigh of relief. Dozens of towels sat on the shelves, stretching from floor to ceiling, folded and ready for use. Retrieving two of them, the teen then turned out the lights and exited the room.

As he approached the entrance for the lockers, Alex suddenly realized he heard another sound coming from within. Upon arriving, it became clear the sounds belonged to the showers being in use. He thought little of it initially, walking into the broad-arched entrance upon the far wall, but stopping short and placing the towels on a bench he found there. He was about to turn away when suddenly the shower stopped, and he heard Steven's voice. "Ack! Are you back yet? Bring me one those, will ya?" Alex paused, hesitant and looking around. No one else was in the room, so there was no question whom Steven had been talking to. He picked one of the towels up and then cautiously made his way inside the entrance of the inner shower room itself.

Once there, he saw Steven approaching slowly with his eyes shut, one hand outstretched and feeling his way along the wall. The tall boy, naked as the day he was born, hid nothing of himself from Alex's eyes then, who had suddenly stopped, hesitating in surprise. Chastising himself though, he stepped forward and met the tall teen, before pushing the towel into his hand. "About time!" the taller boy announced as he proceeded to wipe the water from his face and hair. Alex, his curiosity getting the better of him, glanced down and then suddenly grinned, just as Steven opened his own eyes to observe the younger boy. Alex turned away, blushing at being caught, but surprisingly did not retreat with embarrassment like some would. Instead, he continued to grin bashfully.

Amused, Steven suddenly laughed, causing Alex to glance back up. "Come on you wanker," the taller boy said, slowly leading them back toward the lockers. "You did bring another towel, right?"

"Uh, yeah, it's over there," Alex answered, reaching down and picking it up when they passed the bench. Alex handed it over and Steven started to wrap himself with the first towel, but then stopped and tossed it aside. He said nothing, standing there in full view as he stretched the second cloth behind him and massaged it across his shoulders and back. Alex stood, uncertain what he should do, but maintained some distance at least. The taller teen seemed to not care at his state of undress, and the longer they stood in such close proximity, the more relaxed the younger teen became.

Steven eventually walked over to their lockers in the corner and opened one of the cubicles. "Ah, yes! I was hoping I had left them here!" he exclaimed, pulling out a familiar set of long gym shorts and t-shirt.

Alex followed, but walked around to the end of the bench and sat down, facing the older boy. "Yeah, that's good," he added in a low voice. "They'll still probably get wet, though."

Steven shrugged. "Yeah, probably, but then at least Brad and I can make it home, without me leaving a bunch of mud in the car, or contaminating the brains of all the rug-rats out there." Alex glanced away, amused as he realized what the 'contamination' was used in reference to. Steven then turned his attention to his friend, and saw how far away Alex had sat down. He indicated the bench next to where he stood. "Come on man, slide down here. It's not like I'm going to punch you or anything for being up close. Seriously, it's okay..."

Alex hesitated. "Well, if you're sure..." he murmured, but then did as he was told. Steven had moved to his midsection in drying off, but now hiked a foot upon the bench beside his friend, drying his leg before bringing it down and hiking up the other. Alex could not avoid the full-on view, nor did he try.

"Why wouldn't I be?" he asked softly. "You've seen naked asses before, right?" Alex suddenly laughed, but then nodded. Steven looked down upon him with a wide grin. "So, now it's your turn, man. Do you think I'm a freak?" he asked, suddenly standing up straight with his arms wide and feet apart, facing the teen.

Alex glanced up briefly, but then returned his gaze and stared at the tall boy's body overall. Without question, Steven did indeed sport a long, circumcised penis, currently in a soft state, with slick-looking, deeply purple glans forming a large head at the end. In addition, his scrotum hung quite low underneath it, and overall the combination was well-sized in proportion to the rest of the boy's unnatural height. He had a thick patch of pubes that cushioned his groin, but they were not widespread or unruly. As Alex expended a few seconds to take it in, he came to the ultimate conclusion that it didn't seem freakish at all. In a lot of respects, it wasn't a package any different to his own or Brett's, even though it did seem longer. "No," he replied. "But I have to admit, you're... well, you're bigger than I imagined you might be."

Steven laughed. "Good! I can accept that, then!" he replied, dropping his arms and tossing the towel onto the bench.

Alex looked up. "Uh, can I, like, ask you something then?"

"Sure, what do you want to know?" Steven replied as he started to pull on his t-shirt.

Alex visibly gulped. "How, uh ... well, how big does that thing get, when you're, you know..."

"Boned up?" Steven asked. When Alex nodded, he giggled. "Um, about ten inches, I think. I haven't, uh, exactly measured in quite a while, though."

"Seriously? Shit!" Alex whispered, clearly impressed.

Steven laughed as he reached for the pair of shorts. "I think Darren's, that's my older brother, was a little longer than mine. I mean, he's just as tall, maybe an inch shorter, but he's a little more muscular and everything. So, he measured once and said he was like 11-inches, I think." He grunted while looking down at himself. "I don't break any records, I'm sure," he added. Before attempting to put his shorts on, he looked up at Alex once again with an expression of kindness, and not jest. "Is there anything else you want to know before I put these on?" he asked quietly. "Don't be afraid, I'll tell you."

Alex's eyebrows shot up, but then the teen shook his head. "I don't think so, just... I mean, wow. I think I can understand why you don't like others seeing you."

Steven gazed back at him with a soft expression. "If they did, then yeah, a lot of rumors and everything would get started. It's not that I'm afraid or ashamed, I just... it's hard to really explain."

"But... you're letting me, like, right now, and..." Alex started, uncertain of the words he wanted to use just then.

Steven shrugged. "It's cool, honest. I've told you before, I trust you. Edwards, too." He smiled then. "So, are you sure, before I put these on?" Alex glanced up and then started giggling before taking one more purposeful peek and then shaking his head. "Well, if there ever is, just ask me, okay? Don't be afraid." He studied the teen momentarily. "You see, Alex? When it's just us guys being guys, no one is going to think weird about you or anything. I'm not afraid of you, just like you weren't afraid of me earlier today," Steven said softly. "It makes a difference, man. It makes a big difference."

Alex stood, nodding. "I know, but there's still a lot of difference between you seeing my scars, and me seeing your... your dick, man." He sat back, stretching his own legs out to a more comfortable position. "You know something, though? I, like, I do appreciate it, though. The trust, I mean. More than you know."

Steven shook his head, however. "No, that's where you're wrong, Alex. I do know. Believe me on that, okay? I know what it is like to be curious, and... to do... things. To wonder and all." The tall teen sighed as he leaned up against the locker and then threaded first one, and then the other foot through the leg openings before pulling the shorts up all the way. "I think I was once a lot like you, man, back in the beginning. That's why I still get curious in the locker rooms and all, too. It's like, they want to see me, to check me out because I'm, well... big and all. Me though, I kind of like checking other peeps out sometimes because, well... it lets me sort of see how all the 'normal' guys are and everything. Understand? It isn't because I'm gay or anything, although that's what a lot of guys would make it out to be. It's just, being this way..." He paused, indicating his whole body. "Sometimes it's hard for me to imagine what my life would be like, if I were more 'normal' and all, like most everyone else."

"Huh? No way, Steven," Alex replied in surprise. "To me, you're just as normal as anyone else I know. Tall, maybe, and big or hung maybe, I admit... but those are all good things about you, you know? That's just a part of what makes you who you are, right?" He stopped, however, as he began to understand Steven's point. "But... I do understand now, I think. You don't know what it's like to be... like us, and... yeah."

"Yeah, you get it. To be normal-sized and all, like you are, and I mean all the way from my height to my shoe size, including my dick and everywhere else. I mean, hell, all I've ever had was Darren to compare myself to, but you heard me tell you, he is as big or even bigger, you know?" Steven suddenly smirked. "Ah, just, uh, don't tell anyone I admitted that, okay? He would kill me!"

Alex giggled, but nodded. "I won't. Don't forget Brad, though."

Steven laughed. "You're right! I love my little pain-in-the-ass brother, yeah, but he's only now beginning to hit puberty. He does look like he may join the ranks of Darren and me though, because he's already growing pretty fast as it is now, but..." Steven stopped as he saw Alex smile.

"I understand, Steven. It's not really the same. Even though he's a brother, he wouldn't be the best role model for you. Not yet, at least," Alex voiced for him.

Steven sighed, encouraged. "Exactly!" Scrutinizing the teen closely, he lowered his voice to one of hopefulness. "You do kind of understand, don't you?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah, I think I do." He glanced around and saw they were still alone in the room, its silence enveloping them once again. Stepping forward, he grasped and pulled the taller boy away from the lockers before threading his arms around him. Though surprised, Steven returned the warm hug. "Don't worry about me, man," Alex voiced softly. "I promise, I trust you, and so does Brett. Neither of us will ever worry about you seeing us or anything. And I promise something else, too: I'll never tell anyone else about this, what you've done for me tonight. For one reason, it's no one else's business, and for another, well, I have my own issues to worry about." He absent-mindedly scratched his shoulder, but the older teen picked up on the implied meaning completely.

Steven grinned and, after a few seconds, pushed the teen back until he stood about a foot away. In a surprise move, he raised Alex's poncho and shirt up simultaneously until he could observe the telltale scars up close. "Fuck man, you must have really gotten hurt bad and all. All of this was from a fire, right? You were caught in a fire?"

Alex hesitated only slightly, but then pulled his one arm out free, thus uncovering the area completely. Steven started to reach up, but as so many others had done, pulled back until Alex grunted and grasped the hand. Bringing it back to the skin, he reassured the taller teen. "You can touch if you want to, I don't care." Steven did begin feeling around, his fingertips lightly caressing the different streaks and etchings in the skin. As he traced one group along Alex's side, the younger teen turned to expose more of how they faded around his ribcage. Unlike others, Steven also grasped the shoulder, the breast and other areas rather firmly, as if checking out the muscular damage as well. Alex was very happy then, not because it wasn't as sensual as others had, but because the taller boy had no fear in checking him out more directly. He pushed his shoulder into the teens grip a time or two, which made Steven smile.

When the taller boy finished, he stepped back in silence then with a pleasant expression. Alex then pushed his arm back through the sleeves and repositioned his clothes. Thinking quickly, however, the teen removed his poncho and offered it to the taller boy. "Here, take it. It might not be the best fit lengthwise, but you probably need this now more than any of the rest of us. I mean, if those clothes get wet, you'll really be up a creek! Without any underwear on..."

"Yeah, I might end up giving peeps a rated PG-18 view, right?" Steven laughed and then accepted it, pulling it on over his head. Surprisingly, it covered a good portion of the teen's body. Looking up, he nodded. "Thanks. We'd, um, better get back out there. Brad will worry if I don't show up soon." Alex nodded, and Steven collected the towels and deposited them into a hamper, before rolling his wet, muddied clothes and placing them into a plastic bag. As they made to leave, the older teen suddenly stopped and snapped his fingers. "Hey, wait! I've got an idea! Be right back!" he declared, before walking back deeper into the locker room. A moment later he returned with a big smile. Pulling the poncho off, he returned it to Alex. "I found a couple of these back on the team shelves! I'm sure coach won't mind me borrowing them. Thanks for yours, though. Here," he paused as he unrolled and slipped one of the on. "Take the other one to Brad, okay?" Alex nodded, and then the two made their way back to the outside doors of the gym. Once there, Steven slipped his shoes back on, but stopped Alex before he opened the door. "Listen, man. Thanks. You honestly don't know what that did for me back there. To be able to tell someone, and explain it and everything, and know that you really understood, it... it's priceless, you know? I can't do that around most guys, not so they'd really get it, I mean. Brad, I think he knows a little bit - but not all. In fact, I think you may be the only one who has ever even come close, or tried, you know? I can't tell you how that makes me feel, other than just... yeah. Everyone else, they would probably think I'm gay or something, but... having... having you understand? I can't, I don't ... I owe you, okay? I really, fucking owe you one, big time!" The tall teen was becoming emotional, and Alex felt like something was exchanged just then.

"Seriously? Nah, you don't, Steven. Besides, if you did, didn't I just see the biggest human popsicle this side of a Kentucky horse barn?" He intentionally was trying to make light of the moment, and he succeeded. Steven started laughing, and it quickly became infectious between them, so much so that the tall boy was hugging his gut. When Alex spoke again, his voice was softened. "Seriously, quit this 'I owe you' stuff, okay? You've done a lot for me, you know? Or maybe you don't, I don't know. But... you have, okay?" He sighed deeply, and then laughed again. "Crap, it's gonna be a miracle if I even make it THROUGH high school!"

"You will be just fine. I'll be here, at least for this year, and Edwards, he'll see you through the rest," the tall teen mused, before he reached out and pulled Alex up close again. "Man, you are so... cool. Thanks, for everything!" he whispered.

Alex leaned in close and whispered into Steven's ear. "You're welcome. Besides, yeah, I have to be honest: it was pretty fucking cool to, you know, see you."

Steven looked onward then with a renewed respect. "Just... don't tell a-any one, o-okay? Except, you can tell Brett if you want to, but..."

"I won't. You have my promise, bro. Okay?" He waited until Steven's eyes locked upon his own. "For once, it's my turn: You understand me, right? I'm not telling anyone anything, except... yeah, maybe Brett, since you said it's okay. Knowing him, he'll kill me, wanting all the details and everything. But, then again, he'll still kill me anyway, for not dragging him in here with us!" He grinned at the last, which made Steven giggle.

"I'll let him see me sometime, if he wants. If it ever like, just kind of works out that is. But, Alex? Yeah, I understand. I mean it man..." The tall teen mouthed the words 'Thank you', and offered his fist mid-air.

Alex smiled and bumped it with his own, before mouthing back 'You're welcome'. Both boys had a deeply rooted understanding now, and as they opened the door, each felt fully contented.

Outside, the rain had stopped for the moment, and as Alex locked the door again, they heard another loud roar come from the direction of the stadium. Heading toward the football field, Steven told Alex to hold up a minute while he trotted off into the parking lot. Moments later he returned empty-handed, having gotten rid of his wet clothes, and then rejoined Alex. As the two passed through the gate, they met Coach Reed again, where Alex surrendered the keys. "Thanks coach," Steven told him, to which the man merely nodded.

Both boys quickly found their way back to their groups, where Steven had to undergo a bit of ribbing from his classmates. He took it all good naturedly though, and soon they were settled back into the ball game.

As Alex rejoined Brett and Brad, Brett commented in a low voice. "About time! What happened to you guys? It doesn't take that long to go have a good wank!" he teased, making Brad erupt beside him in laughter.

Alex looked over bemusedly, while unfurling the newly acquired poncho and first offering, and then slipping the rain slick over Brad's head. "How do you know? We didn't have quick-draw McGraw with us to show us how, did we?" Brad once again began laughing, this time hysterically, which made both of the older teens glance at each other knowingly.

Another roar went up in the crowd, and all three turned quickly to see Greensburg had fumbled the ball only yards from where they were sitting. With the crowd on its feet, Brad inconspicuously made his way around to Alex's other side, leaning up close. As they sat down, he cupped his hands to Alex's ear. "You saw him, didn't you? You saw his version of our family jewels and all, right?"

Alex looked deep into the eyes staring back, waiting for him to answer. He finally grinned and simply nodded. Brad, giggling uncontrollably, fell completely back into Alex's shoulder, bumping the older boy over until he, in turn, bumped into Brett. "Told ya!" he announced, before righting himself up. Crowd or no crowd, Alex slipped an arm around the youth and gave him a quick hug, before pulling back. He thought about asking Brad not to say anything, but then figured ... he was Steven's brother. Knowing Brad, it wouldn't really do any good, anyway.

Alex looked on at the crowd, the team, and... at his two friends. Then turning, he saw Steven watching them from above with a grin and nodding. Somehow, Alex figured the older brother knew, and the nod was telling him it was okay.

Alex could not have been happier just then. Good friends, and ... as Brett had taught him from the beginning... good trust between them all.

If it were possible, the teen could have flown to the moon and back.

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