The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 24

A Fart in the Wind

Saturday morning found both Brett and Alex once again in the presence of Arduino Bay, after having finished another vehicle. The rain had cleared overnight, bringing cool, mostly clear skies that day. Cool enough, in fact, that both boys wore normal pairs of blue jeans to work in that morning. Despite it being mid-August, it was as if Mother Nature was whispering to the Ohio valley that autumn was on its way, and Alex, for one, was glad for it.

They mounted their bicycles and Brett pulled up alongside his friend. "You know, I asked Dad about the bike, and he said you could keep using it through the end of the year as far as he was concerned. It's like you said, he expects we'll be driving by next summer, or at least we'll have our learners' permits before then."

Alex raised an eyebrow. "Really? That's ... that's awesome, Brett. Tell him I said thanks, okay? And... I'll tell him myself, too, the next time I run into him." He pulled up at the stop sign and suddenly stretched, arching his back and massaging his left shoulder, as if treating a stiffness unseen. "You know, why don't we do something different this afternoon for a change? Maybe see if my Mom will take us up to see a movie. You can invite Gina too, if you want. Afterwards, maybe we can walk over to that pizza place. It's not that far, is it?"

"Nope, not at all! That sounds kind of cool, actually," Brett replied.

"Good," Alex grinned. "We've got $60 here, let's just go and blow it!" With that, after Alex saw Brett grinning, both boys then started pedaling up the hill.

Twenty minutes later they stood in the kitchen with Patty, who was just removing cupcakes from the oven. "Mmm! Smells great, Mom!" Alex exclaimed, walking over to sniff the results. "Pumpkin?"

Patty laughed. "Well, yes, I was just trying out a new recipe. I'd offer you one now, but they really need to cool off first, and then I need to put some icing on them."

"That's okay, we'll give them a try later. Listen, Mom, Brett and I kind of decided maybe we could go crazy for once, and use some of our money to go see a movie this afternoon, and maybe have pizza afterwards. Is that okay?"

Patty nodded. "I don't see why not, especially since you don't seem to have caught any ill-effects from last night." Alex blushed as Brett giggled. They had, indeed, been thoroughly soaked coming in from the game the night before. Once Brett left for home, Patty had sent Alex upstairs to have a hot shower and put on dry clothes afterwards, as Brenda had done with her own kids, too.

"The only thing, Mom, is ... well, would you be willing to give us a ride?" Alex asked timidly. "I know, you took us up to the game last night, and we're really grateful for that. It's just, the theater is kind of on the other side of town, and..."

Patty laughed before nodding. "Yes, I'm quite well aware of where it is. Okay, I'll agree to take you up there, but it'll be up to your father or Roger to come get you when you're done. Brenda and I have some kind of cooking party show we're going to attend tonight."

"I'll talk to Dad then," Brett spoke up. "Thanks though, Mrs. B.!" He turned to Alex. "I'll go home and shower and change. How long before you want to leave?"

"Well, check with your Dad first, that way I can give mine a call if there's a problem. If all works out though, what say we try around 3:00 or a little after? Is that alright, Mom?" Alex turned to see his mother nod. With the mutual mid-air fist bump. Brett then left for home.

The mid-afternoon hour arrived and found both teenagers outside the theater as expected. Gina had opted for another evening with one of her friends, so the two boys stood before the box office by themselves, searching the list of available films. They had just decided on one of the new Disney films, when someone came up behind them. "Hey, what are you two doing here?" called out a familiar voice.

Turning, both boys broke into wild grins at seeing Ethan and his sister, April. "Hey, hey!" Brett replied, meeting the offered fist-bump with the boy. "Just chilling, mostly. How about yourselves?"

Ethan grunted. "Grams thought it would be good for us to get out again. I think she felt bad since she didn't let us go to the game last night, with the rain and all."

Alex nodded. "Probably a good idea, but I've got to tell you, it was a blast! Some of the guys called it 'mudball', rather than football! There was a lot of slipping and sliding again!" He pointed to a nearby sign advertising the movie he and Brett were about to watch. "Is that what you're going to watch?"

April, for perhaps the first time since being around the two older boys, glanced quickly and then nodded before speaking up. "Yeah, that's it." The fact she had spoken at all caused both of the older teens to grin, and Ethan, noting the exchange, just simply shrugged.

Alex then approached the box office and purchased four tickets, before turning around and handing them out. Ethan hesitated, however, before accepting his. "Hey, you don't need to pay for us, Teach! Grams gave us some money!" he protested, but then Alex shrugged.

"Use it on some popcorn or something, if you want. This is my treat," the teen responded, before Brett spoke up.

"No, it's our treat! Come on, we've only got about 10 minutes before the previews start!" Brett stated enthusiastically.

The next two hours were lost from the modern world, as the four were magically transported back through time, and mesmerized at the Disney-based tale, complete with an overabundance of dazzling special effects. More than once, Alex observed the younger two of the group and saw that both April and her brother were laughing in places, and watching attentively in others. He was glad to see them escape reality for the time being, but it saddened him, too. He knew their happiness was only short-lived, given the turmoil present in their normal lives. He felt helpless in trying to find some other ways he could chip in, to bring some escape to the two, even if it was short-lived. Where was Harry Spalding, and what had become of their mother? Two questions burning in everyone's mind for the moment, and unfortunately, neither of which it seemed anyone had answers to.

When the movie was over, the four exited the theater and headed toward the parking lot. "Thanks, Alex. That was cool," Ethan voiced as they passed through the doors.

"No kidding! I think it was terrific!" April added.

Brett, following behind the trio, spoke up. "So, is your Grandma picking you up, or...?"

Ethan nodded. "She should be out here waiting for us now," the boy answered, and then as if on cue, the group heard the sound of a horn honking from the curb. With a window rolled down, Ruby was waving at the four, smiling widely as they approached.

"Oh, my goodness, how are you? Alex, isn't it? And Brett?" she called out.

"Yes, ma'am," Alex replied as he reached her side. "We were going to the movies when Ethan and April caught us by surprise. We all went to the same show!"

"Well, that's good! I'm kind of glad they had someone to go with. I was going to, but I needed to run some errands this afternoon," the woman explained. "Do you two need a lift or anything?" she asked, as both Ethan and April climbed into the back seat.

"No ma'am, we're good," Brett replied. "Alex and I were going to go over to the pizza buffet for a while, and then my Dad is picking us up afterwards."

"Oh? Really?" The woman turned to look into her rearview mirror. "How about it, you two? Want to take in some pizza for the evening?" Without waiting for an answer, Ruby swiftly turned back to the teens. "That is, if you don't mind us tagging along? I'm afraid I haven't even thought about dinner yet, given the afternoon is almost gone."

Alex glanced to see Brett grinning before he turned back. "We'd be glad for you three to join us, on one condition though. You have to let us treat you. No buying our meals tonight!"

Ruby sat back in mild surprise, but smiled. "Well, if you're sure..." Seeing the excitement mounting in the back seat, she invited the teens to climb in. Without further delay, the group made their way to the shopping center next door and before long were entering the doors of the pizzeria. A hostess showed them to a nearby booth and then took their drink orders, before all five made their way to the buffet bar, where assorted pizzas, pasta and salads awaited them.

When the time to leave arrived, Ruby saw Brett begin to pull out his cell phone. "Are you about to call your father now?" Brett looked up and nodded, causing the woman to shake her head. "Please, let me take you boys home. It's the least an old woman can do, after all of this. I know it's on the other side of town somewhere, though I'm unsure exactly where."

Alex glanced up. "You're not an old woman," he declared. "Besides, it was really our pleasure."

"I agree, ma'am, we wanted to do it," Brett followed, then looked at his phone. "I'll text Dad then and tell him we're catching a ride."

Ruby sat back in amusement, eyeing Alex with a smirk. "Be careful young man, some of us age quicker than you hoodlums think!"

"Really?" Alex laughed. "You know, my grandpa used to say he was always only 45 years old. That is, 45 with so many years of experience being 45," he responded slyly, causing the woman to laugh out loud. "You're not old, Ms. Simpson." She looked upon him with appreciation then, leaving the subject alone.

On the way out to the parking lot, Ethan leaned against Alex. "Thanks again, man. I'm really glad you were out here tonight."

Alex stopped and turned to the boy. It seemed as if their magical break was coming to a close, as the younger of the two, once again, seemed to return to the reality of the moment. "Ethan," Alex began, but then hesitated. What could he say, or do? There was nothing that came to him, and so in the lost moment, he instead reached out and slipped his arm around the other boy's shoulder. "You're welcome, buddy. I don't know what to say, really. I don't know what you're going though, because I've never been in your shoes, but... I can at least imagine it's not very good right now. Not good at all. I feel for you buddy, I really do."

Ethan surprised the teen by slipping his arm around Alex's waist. "You don't have to say anything, Teach. Just... being here, that means a lot." As they reached the car, the younger boy squeezed, hugging Alex warmly before letting go and climbing into the back seat with his sister. Alex followed while Brett climbed into the passenger seat next to Ms. Simpson.

Once inside, with Ethan near, Alex pulled the other boy in close, and Ethan sat back, melting into the arm that held him. Nothing was said, but as they started off, Alex noticed April seemingly feeling alone. When she glanced at them, he smiled and indicated for her to scoot up close, too, and with Ethan's help, she was leaning into the ensemble with a bright smile. It was the little things like this that made Alex's heart skip a beat at times. He already had Brett's and Gina's love and trust, and that gave him an enormous feeling of comfort, but here were two more coming into his closest fold. Perhaps not so much in the case of the younger girl, but Ethan was one who had started off rather abrasively, and then warmed up to their friendship rapidly over the summer. Alex only wished what they all did though, that the mysteries would get solved, so life could, hopefully, return to normal.

Once they arrived at Brett's place, both boys thanked Ruby and stepped out of the car. As Alex passed by, the woman reached out and grabbed his hand from the open window. "Alex," she started, until he turned to face her. "I just wanted to say thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, young man. Brett, too," she announced, squeezing his hand affectionately.

"You're welcome, ma'am. Anything we can do, just let us know, okay?" Alex replied softly, squeezing back. He then rejoined Brett, and both waved as the car turned around and started heading down the driveway.

"So, are you two into the shepherding business now?" came a voice from behind them suddenly, and as they turned, they found a grinning Roger standing there.

"Dad! Sheesh, give us a warning before sneaking up like that!" Brett exclaimed, clutching his heart.

Alex only laughed. "No, not really. We happened to bump into Ethan and April again is all. Or rather, I think they bumped into us."

Roger nodded. "I can see that. I'm guessing there is still no news on their parents?"

Brett dropped his hand to his side as he solemnly replied, "Afraid not, Dad."

"Something will turn up, probably when we all least expect it," Roger theorized, but then slowly shook his head. "I have to admit though, it's doesn't look very rosy for those kids. When the parents are found, there is going to be a lot of explaining to take place before anything can return to normal." Glancing at Alex, he changed the subject. "So, am I taking you home, or are you spending the night, or what?"

Alex blushed. "Neither, Mr. Edwards. I was thinking I would just walk home, after a bit anyway. Brett has a book he was going to loan me first though, if that's alright."

Roger shrugged. "Suit yourself. Brenda isn't back yet, and Gina is upstairs in her room. I was thinking of turning in early myself. Just be careful out here in the dark is all."

For the first time Alex glanced about and realized that it had indeed turned dark. The days of summer were definitely getting shorter, signaling that autumn was not far away. "I won't stay long, I promise," he announced, and then he and Brett entered the house, with Roger following close behind.

Ten minutes later, after a very private embrace with his friend, Alex left the house and began walking down the driveway to the road. As he reached the mailbox, he turned down the road and abruptly reached his own driveway, before turning in and descending toward the house. As he approached, he saw someone swinging on the porch, and upon drawing closer, he saw his father sitting back rather comfortably. "Dad? Is that you?" he called out, crossing into the front yard.

Richard laughed. "Yep, it's me. Sorry, no boogeyman here for you to run from," the man quipped, before patting the open seat next to him. "Want to join me?" he asked as Alex reached the porch and ascended the few steps.

Alex hesitated, but then stepped over and sat down. "Everything okay?"

"Everything is fine, son. Sorry about the boogeyman joke. That's not one of my better ones, I know," the man apologized.

Alex shrugged. "Didn't bother me any, but yeah - I agree. You've had better comebacks than that before," he replied with a smile.

Richard laughed. "Have a good time at the movies and pizza?"

"Yeah, it was pretty cool, at least something different to do, even if we did see a Disney flick," Alex replied. "Ethan and April were there, too, so we all kind of grouped up."

"That's nice. I have to admit, I feel kind of proud of you two, making an effort to help and be with them and all."

Alex frowned as he sank back into the seat. As the swing moved slowly back and forth, he thought about the younger kids. "I just wish I could think of something that would help, Dad. I mean, I've never come across anyone in their shoes, and now with both of their parents missing, and for so long, it's like..."

"You feel helpless," Richard offered, and then nodded, placing an arm around his son. "I understand how you feel, believe me. Your heart goes out to them because you know they're hurt, frustrated and worried, but there is just seemingly nowhere to turn to for answers. And knowing that, it frustrates not only them, but you, too. I get it, I really do." The man fell silent for a moment before he continued. "But you know something, Alex? What you're doing now, is what those two will remember for a very long, long time. There isn't going to be a good ending to this, you know. I'm sure you realize that, right? Even if they're found alive and well and everything seems hunky dory, both of their parents are going to have one hell of a time answering to a host of other charges as well, which will only make a terrible situation worse for Ethan and April."

Alex looked up into the eyes watching him. "Do you think... something bad may have happened? Really bad?"

Richard was careful to keep his expression neutral. "I don't know, son. It is totally uncharacteristic for people to disappear so completely like this. You said it yourself, or at least someone did, that the parents have had spats or arguments before, maybe disappeared for a day or two, but one of them always seemed to come back, right? This is the kind of situation that breaks the pattern, doesn't it?" The man deeply sighed. "I won't lie to you, though. I'm afraid, if it were just me speaking now, that something ugly has happened, yes. Remember though, I don't know that, okay? I don't have any real knowledge or insights on the matter, other than just being concerned. You understand that, right?"

Alex nodded. "Sure, Dad, I understand." Thinking hard, the teen suddenly surrendered. "Meaning no disrespect, but I hope you're wrong. Somehow though, I'm almost finding myself agreeing with you. I'm afraid for them too, both of them."

"The kids, or Harry and his wife?" Richard asked.

"All four, really," Alex answered. "For Ethan and his sister, because well... if what we're afraid of turns out to be true, then they could go on to grow up without one or both of their parents, right? They won't get to have what I have, with you and Mom both still being here with me." He looked off toward the road. "And for Mr. and Mrs. Spalding, too, because if they do come back, it's like you said - they'll be in some pretty big trouble. So, in a way, it's almost a no-win situation."

Richard nodded. "No matter how it turns out though, Alex, those kids have one thing going for them that will make a world the difference."

"What's that, Dad?" Alex asked.

With a smile, he hugged the teen around his shoulders. "You, Brett and Gina. Friends they know they count on."

Alex smiled, before sinking into the embrace. "Love you, Dad. I know I don't tell you and Mom that enough anymore, not like I used to, anyway. But... I do."

"I know, Alex. You're just hitting those teenage years is all, but that's okay. We love you, too... just don't forget it, alright?" Richard announced, before sighing. "It's getting late, and I for one have had a very full day today. I think I'm going to go and turn in, and maybe watch some TV or something until your mother gets back."

Alex nodded. "Where did they go anyway?" he asked his Dad while standing up.

"I have no idea, really. I think it was called a Pampered Chef party, or something like that..."

"So, did you flash him, or what?" Brad asked his brother, after coming into the room and sitting down on the corner of the bed.

Steven looked up from the magazine he was reading to see the look of amusement on his younger brother's face. "Who are you talking about?" Thinking quickly, he suddenly changed his tone. "Alex?"

Brad nodded. "Yeah, doofus! Who do you think I would be talking about?"

Steven snorted, but then glancing past, he saw the bedroom door was still open. Brad, noticing the hint, sighed. "Mom and Dad are in bed, so does it really matter?" Instead of waiting for an answer though, he rose and closed it before coming back to the bedside. Before he sat, however, Steven scooted over so that his little brother could stretch out beside him. Brad, with eyebrows raised, looked on in surprise at the older teen, who was dressed only in boxers. "Really?" he whispered, but then accepted the invitation. Settling in, Steven put the magazine aside and slid his arm underneath the slightly smaller boy. "Wow! Earth to Steven, come in big brother!" He heard the older teen snicker, so he smiled. "What's brought this on?" Brad asked, snuggling in.

Steven shrugged. "I don't know, just feeling overly brotherly, I guess. Don't get used to it, though," he added with a smirk, which made Brad laugh. Steven settled back. "I don't know, Brad, I just... I need to thank you. I owe you one, and sometimes, I just feel like I don't know how to pay you back or anything."

Brad scoffed. "What are you talking about, long legs?"

Steven laughed. "Careful little bro, you're getting some long legs yourself, you know. You're beginning to grow about like what Darren and I did when we were your age."

"Okay, okay... but, tell me - what's up? Why do you feel like you owe me something?"

"I don't know. I think, since Darren left for college, I know you've been hanging around me more and all. Things you didn't usually do, really." Steven considered. "You're not, like, doing it on purpose, are you? Darren didn't put you up to it, did he?"

Brad laughed, but then shook his head. "No, Darren didn't put me up to anything. By the way, has he called any this week?"

"Nope, not yet anyway. I figure he'll reach out to Mom and Dad though, maybe us too, sometime tomorrow. You know how he is, especially when he gets busy and all," Steven replied softly.

Brad lay in silence for a moment, but then turned to face his brother. "Do you miss him any? I know I do," he admitted up front.

"Yeah, I do. It's kind of been lonesome in this big old room without him around," Steven admitted.

Brad nodded, but then decided to prop his head on an elbow. "I thought about asking if you wanted me to move in here once, but honestly? I kind of like having my own room, at least for now." When Steven nodded, he gazed onward. "So, are you going to tell me? Or do you just want to forget I asked you?"

Steven grinned. "About Alex? I didn't do it on purpose, Brad, if that's what you're wondering. At least, not exactly..." He turned his head to meet his brother's gaze. "You saw how bad off I was last night, right? There was no way I was going to get in the car and come home with all that mud shoved up my ass and everywhere! Even Coach Reed understood!"

Brad laughed. "I'm surprised you didn't have it shoved up your other places too, to tell the truth," was the spirited, though considerably softened, reply.

"Who says I didn't?" Steven smirked, but then relaxed as he sank back into his side of the pillow. "You really want to know? I took a shower, little brother, and yes, your friend got to see everything."

Brad looked at the older boy, his expression frozen momentarily until he smiled. "Really? Birthday suit and all, then? What did he say, anything?"

"Not really," Steven answered. "He just asked me one question."

"Yeah? What was that?" Brad whispered.

"He wanted to know how big my dick gets when I'm boned up," Steven whispered back, causing Brad to suddenly giggle.

"No shit? Really? That's ... hell, that's funny!" Seeing Steven nod, Brad lay his head back down. "Did you tell him?"

"Yeah, at least as far as what I knew. I mean, I haven't measured in quite a while, you know?" Steven admitted, amused. After a brief silence between them, he spoke again. "What exactly did you tell him and Edwards, at camp? You didn't go around telling peeps that your brother and I have, what, super-sized dicks or something, did you?"

Brad's face turned into one of amusement. "Well, you do, don't you?" Seeing the serious expression, however, he shook his head and relented. "I didn't tell anyone much of anything bro, I promise. There was a night when I was with those two just, I don't know, talking out on the porch, while it was raining really hard and all. Somehow, it came out about how guys were always trying to get a peek at you and stuff, but Brett said he already knew that. He told me he had always stayed away, and when I asked him why, he said it was because he respected you." Brad paused, making a face. "That, I don't know, it struck me funny at first, but in a good kind of way."

"How so?" Steven asked, surprised.

"Because, well, I know you've got a big you-know-what, and... I mean, there are guys even in my own classes who would give their left nut just to get a look at you or Darren, you know? You've even talked about how this person or that would hint around, or try to do whatever they could to catch you in the buff, remember? But then, here is this guy at camp, who admitted to me he was curious too, even though he knew we were brothers and all. He, like, respected us and all. He wasn't going to try and force anything, because he figures we get enough hassling as it is, see." Brad looked up into Steven's eyes just then. "To me, that meant not just you, but me too, I think. I mean, he got his eyes full of me, you can figure that, but... It got me to thinking that crap, he must really have his heart in the right place, you know? And even though I'm nowhere like you and Darren, he respected me for what I was. And then there's Alex. Home-schooled, not really weird or anything, maybe quiet, I don't know, but you can tell almost right away he's never been in school before. Heck, he's never even been around guys to play with or anything, really. He's smart, and seems like a really cool guy in the end, who taught a bunch of us to swim and everything. I mean, you should have seen or listened to him while he was teaching us, Steven. The whole time, he was like, super-patient and working with us and everything, and ... even though we're clearly out of his league being younger and all, in the end he strips and skinny-dips with all of us. JUST us, see, his class, all of us wannabe swimmers and all, and NOT the whole camp!" Brad suddenly scoffed. "He was nervous at first, but then he wasn't. Oh, and one more thing, he talked WITH us, not DOWN to us or anything, like a lot of you seniors and older peeps do. I think that's why a lot of us really liked him and all."

"We do?" Steven asked, puzzled, but then he nodded. "Yeah, I know a lot of guys who do that. They think anyone in the lower grades is just beneath them and all."

"Yeah," Brad replied. "I don't know, Steven. I know I was rambling, but... It just, it struck some of us in a good way, you know? It struck me good on the inside, that funny kind of way. We were out there, you see, half of us with boners and goofing around, all that crap, but he didn't ... he didn't care. Him or Brett. They didn't make any conditions or rules, or make us swear to secrecy or anything, you know? They just did it, they got out there with us, on the lake, clowning around, playing, goofing off... with just us, all us younger guys." Brad finished. "Does that make sense?"

"It makes a lot of sense, little brother," Steven whispered. "There is something about those two that just, like you said, I don't know how to explain. Before, Brett was kind of this wild, goofy and crazy kid I saw every once in a while. But this year, he's... changed. And to hear what you just told me, then yeah ... it makes me appreciate him even more now."

"I bet Alex did it to him, whatever he did," Brad mused. "A lot like you've done to me."

"What do you mean?" Steven asked.

"I don't know. You've made me realize that some of us guys do have feelings inside and everything, and that it's not always the best, because everyone has their ups and downs. Like, this sex stuff for example, you're not afraid to tell me things, or admit things to me. You trust me, when a lot of brothers wouldn't even give me the time of day, and just tell me to fuck off or something," Brad explained. "That counts for me, because it tells me you trust me, even if I am five years behind you."

"You're lying here next to me, right? With me almost naked, at that! Of course, I trust you!" In the silence that followed, Steven poked his little brother in the ribs playfully before rolling to face him. "I will never, ever hide anything from you. Anything you want to talk about, I'm here. Even if you lay your first girl, or pop someone's cherry, and want to talk about it, I promise you ... as your brother ... I'm here, Brad. I mean that, too."

Brad scoffed. "Yeah, if I want to talk, you might be here for me. But that doesn't include..." His voice trailed off as he laid his head back down onto the pillow again.

"Doesn't include what?" Steven asked.

Brad shrugged. "It's not, like, the other way around..." His voice trailed off, but Steven got the message.

"Me? You want to know about me, is that it?" Steve grinned as he reached up and pulled the pillow into place where they could both share it. "If so, then that's easy, bro. You know how the three of us are here at the house, so no mysteries there. As to anyone outside... let me think a sec." Steven knew he didn't really have to study for the answer, but he wondered how much he should admit to his little brother. Looking at the younger brother who now watched him intently, he instantly knew the answer: everything. "I've been in the shower maybe five or six times at school, either by myself or with someone else in there with me. That's it. I haven't been naked with anyone else otherwise, except like I said, with you and Darren when we pass by in the bathroom or something. And as far as sex goes, I'm a complete, 100% virgin, and I do mean complete. I've never even jacked off or messed around with anyone."

Brad looked on in utter astonishment. "Really? But... Darren... You..."

"Darren, on the other hand, has pumped-off with his buddies before, several times in fact. He's even gone down and sucked a couple of them off, when they sucked him. As far as I know though, he hasn't screwed with anyone, boy or girl. He's been without underwear a few times in here, but generally that's it. He never really did anything with me either, other than we've talked a few times about some sex stuff. That's how I came to know about stuff he has done." Seeing Brad's face and expression was priceless just then, making Steven giggle. "Close your mouth little brother, before something flies in it. Is it really that surprising?"

Brad, whose head had risen from its perch, suddenly let it fall back into place. "Shit! I had no idea! And wow... fuck, I can't believe you even told me that!" Settling back, he digested what he was being told. "Honestly? You two never did anything at all?" When Steven shook his head, Brad added, "You haven't then, like, messed with anyone at all?"

Steven lay back. "Yeah, but I've... I've got my reasons, bro."

"Why?" Brad asked with a whisper. Steven screwed his face up, wrestling with something deep, and Brad realized perhaps this might be too pressing of an issue. "You don't have to answer, I understand."

"Fuck, no, you don't understand," Steven whispered back, before sighing. "I'm not hiding from you little bro, but it's kind of hard to, like, just explain it out loud, you know? But... think about something for me for a minute. If you're caught checking guys out in school, or anywhere for that matter, what's the first thing you get scared of? Especially if you should get a boner?"

Brad scoffed. "That's easy... being outed as someone gay or something."

"Right, so imagine if you're like us, meaning me and Darren. Let's say you turn out like us, which I think you already are starting to, but for the sake of argument, just say you do. Then you've got the long dick, even when you're not boned up, and the big nuts and everything to go with it... and you know, in your heart, you're bigger than anybody else around you and all. Aside from maybe thinking you've got something to be proud of, what else would that make you feel?"

Brad thought about it for a moment. "Like, unique, I guess. Maybe not one of a kind, but, yeah, close anyway."

"Exactly, because no one else would be like you, and then all of a sudden everyone around you is trying to get in your pants and all, just so they can see what kind of stud you are. They want to know how big you get, how much hair you've got, is your dick bigger than your shoe size, all that kind of shit... right?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Brad nodded in agreement. "That's why you've always been kind of shy about it and all, right?"

Steven nodded. "Yep. I know some of the guys just thought it was a kind of religious thing, but meh, not even close. It does go one extra step for me though, little bro." When he didn't continue, Brad attempted once again to let his brother off the hook.

"You don't have to tell me, I promise. It's okay," the younger brother whispered. "You've already opened up to me Steven, and I don't mean to pry too much, though. I don't want to pry too deep. I'm gonna love you no matter what, you know?"

Steven gazed at him deeply again. "No, it's okay, I want to explain, really. You see, I'm not gay, Brad, but... I do get curious sometimes, you know? Curious about what it would be like to not be a freak, and be kind of normal and all. So, yeah, I watch some of the guys sometimes and all. I guess that may sound a little gay-ish, but..."

Brad was surprised. "Really? Crap, Steven, that's nothing more than what you just said for yourself! Me, I'm curious all the time! Especially after this summer! I saw more dicks and balls at summer camp than I've ever seen in my life, and every chance I got, I looked up close at anyone I could get away with!" He suddenly laughed. "But... oh, jeez, you think THAT makes you gay? Shit, if it does, then I'm guilty a hundred times more, big bro!"

Steven sat in disbelief. "You too, then? You... like looking... too?"

"Well, from the sounds of it, I've done a little more than just look. I mean, uh, I've messed around some with Jamie and Austin, you know, friends. But yeah, I'm not afraid to tell you. The only difference though, is I'm not as big, not like you are anyway. Not compared to them, either. Not yet, anyway." Brad grinned, but then shook his head. "And you've not done it because... wow!"

Steven smiled. "No, not because of that. Really, it's just because I haven't had any friends that I trusted enough to do things with, that's all. Darren has had plenty, and I guess you've had some, too." He suddenly reached over and hugged his little brother. "Thanks for telling me, you know?" he voiced sarcastically, but then laughed. "Seriously, I'm teasing, it's fine... but yeah, thanks. Thanks for telling me."

Brad then reached his own arms around his brother, forcing them in behind the bigger boy, before lying down upon his chest and enveloping him warmly. "Thank you for answering me, too. I mean, wow bro, I didn't know any of that was going through your head. It's wild, but... it's cool, too."

They lay there for some time, breathing and thinking, neither moving as they embraced one another. After some time, Steven broke the silence. "I told that to Alex last night, too. He's the only other person I've admitted it to, you know?"

Brad pulled his arms back and propped them with his chin, upon his brother's chest. "I can understand that, and I bet he understood, too, didn't he?" When Steven nodded, Brad smiled. "So, it sounds to me like there are two people in your world you would trust then, maybe three."

Steven raised an eyebrow. "Huh?"

Brad lowered his voice to a whisper. "Brett, Alex... and then maybe me, too." Seeing the surprised look that returned, he quickly amended his statement. "Okay, maybe not me so much, because I am like we said, five years younger than you are. Oh, and I'm your brother too, but still..."

"I'm not afraid of you little bro," Steven replied, smiling. "I trust you too, with all my heart. You know that by now."

"Then, what else do you need?" Brad asked. "You really should think about that sometime, you know? It isn't like the lovey-dovey, I'm-going-to-marry-you type of thing, or the let's-be-gay-and-shag thing, either. You know that, right? It's just trust, between you and me or someone else, and feeling like you can be yourself and everything. That's all messing around really is... well, that and having some fun."

Steven cocked his head to the side. "How did you get so fucking smart, little buddy?"

Brad rolled his eyes. "Come on, can't we do away with all the 'little' references? Look at me, I'm not that short anymore!"

"Okay, okay... sorry," Steven apologized. "You're right, you've changed, and you're growing up with the best of us now." He thought briefly, but then shook his head. "I'm too old for messing around now, Brad. I missed out on that part of life a long time ago."

"Like fuck, you did," Brad exclaimed exasperated, before he giggled. "I doubt that. Maybe you're too old for some things, but you can still always be curious, you know? I bet there are a lot of grups who are still curious, for a long, long time after they get out of school. And I don't mean the pervs, by the way." He suddenly pulled back and sat up. "You know what? I'm going to prove it to you. Mom and Dad are gone to bed, so what say we do something way out there? Right now, just you and me, tonight?"

A doubtful look suddenly crossed Steven's face. "Uh, what do you mean...?"

Brad gave his big brother a sly look and then rolled off until he was standing up. He reached out his hand to his brother and Steven accepted it before being pulled from the bed. When they stood, Brad took stock of the body in front of him and then nodded. "You know, I do hope that if I continue growing and get to be as tall as you and Darren, I at least don't end up being the shorter of the three of us!" He glanced up with a grin. "But, meh, if I am, then more power to you guys, I guess." He then stepped back and, grasping Steven by the hand, led him from the room without another word. Leading and pulling his brother down the hallway, they turned into their bathroom before Brad stopped and shut the door, leaving them in total darkness. Switching the night light on, the younger brother quickly turned and activated the shower, before coming back and standing in front of Steven. "Remember now, you said you trusted me. Time to prove it," he announced, before very quickly and efficiently, stripping his brother's boxers to fall at bare feet. Rising up, Brad also grabbed his own t-shirt and pulled it off, followed by shunning his own shorts and briefs.

They stood briefly, facing each another naked. Steven, although amused, was also in a state of disbelief. "What are you... huh?"

Brad finally leaned in and whispered. "Hey, we're just two brothers about to take a naked shower together. Big deal, right? It doesn't mean we have to get naughty or anything, you know. Although, if you DID want to get boned up, it might be kind of nice to do a little measuring for once - hint, hint, hint!" Noting the look of surprise, he giggled. "I mean, come on Steven, I'm game to mess around a little, if you are. Who knows, maybe you'll like it and have some fun, if only once in your life like this! And, well, with me... you know?"

Steven smiled and, without any hesitation, followed his younger brother into the shower before closing the curtain. "With you? I'm not scared of you, Brad. I never have been." He giggled. "Well, if you're sure..."

Brad grabbed hold of the shower gel and a washcloth. "Oh yeah, I'm sure... now, spread your arms and then your legs. I'm going to have a little fun... and I mean everywhere!"

As the school week resumed on Monday, both Alex and Brett were quickly caught up in the throes of assignments and work in all of their classes. Brett struggled as the tasks began to heap, one on top of the other, throughout the day, and by their usual afternoon ride home, he was beside himself. "Crap! It's going to take forever to get some of this shit done, you know?" the teen remarked to his best friend. He was thumbing through his notebook just then, scanning for the geometry problems he had been assigned that morning, hoping that Alex might help him out.

Alex heard him, but only shrugged. "It does seem like all our teachers decided to dump a lot on us today. It must have been a scheme, you know?" he added wryly.

Brett glanced at his friend, and detected the tell-tale sign of amusement in his expression. "What's this? You're actually being sarcastic, for once?" he asked, then laughed. "I don't think I've ever heard you do that!"

Alex grinned. "I don't do it much, I know. So, more math?"

"That's what I was looking for, yeah," Brett admitted. "I've gotten most of it finished already, but I hit two or three problems that kind of stumped me. I was going to get your take on it, if you would." He restarted thumbing from the beginning of the pad again and then suddenly stopped. "Ah, here they are!"

For the next ten minutes, Alex studied the problem and then helped his friend understand what was being asked for, and how to go about figuring out the solution. He never wrote on the paper, letting Brett instead transform his thoughts and reasoning into written form. Thus far, Alex had become a tutor of sorts for Brett, something which the other teen was immensely thankful for. Although his grades had never been horrible, there were times past that Brett struggled with certain subjects. This year, however, with Alex by his side, the teen was ahead of the game better than he had ever been before. Even now, it did not take long for the teen to pick up on what he was missing out on, and soon Brett was able to close and put the notebook away, back into his pack. "You know, it's a good thing I've got you for such a close friend. If I didn't, I think I'd be in trouble already with some of this math crap."

Alex giggled. "In a lot of ways, geometry is harder than advanced math, because of all of those proofs and things they make you go through." Rubbing his nose, Alex then added, "I don't know, I kind of like math. It's one of those subjects you don't learn by memorizing a lot, but actually doing it. You kind of have to understand the principal parts, but then you apply it, see? You have to reason it out."

"Well, I'm glad one of us likes it, then," Brett scoffed. "I have to admit though, it's not ever boring, like other stuff can be, so I guess I can see your point." He glanced up. "We've made this work so far, at least. Seriously, I'm just glad you understand this shit, you know?" He then sat back and stared out the window. "I've got to mow the lawn this afternoon, and then Mom wants me and Gina to help her with something afterwards. So, we might not get together until after supper, but even then..."

"It'll be sort of late, yeah. It's okay, I understand. I've been meaning to re-read some stuff lately anyway. Mom and Dad both are supposed to be late coming in, too, so I might try and cook some supper for a change," Alex reasoned. "Still, at least call me, okay? Maybe we can get online and mess around or something."

"That would be cool," Brett replied. He then lowered his voice to almost a whisper as he leaned close. "Maybe for once, I'll get naked on the webcam, just for you." Alex blushed, but said nothing. Where the idea or thought came from, he didn't know, but glancing at his friend, he found himself once again at ease with all of Brett's shenanigans that seemed to come up out of thin air. Aside from the occasional sexual connotations, it was a part of why Alex liked the teen so much. His friend's impulsiveness always ended up adding new dimensions to the fun sides of their relationship, and Alex was always, in some shape or form, learning something new.

They sat in silence on the rest of the ride, until they all arrived at the Edwards' mailbox, where the three alighted from the bus before it continued on. Gina, feeling in a passive mood, even gave Alex a half-hug with one arm around his waist, surprising the teen before she started hurrying up their driveway. Alex's glance at Brett brought a shrug, acknowledging the older brother had no idea what had brought it on. With both grinning at the other, Alex called out, "Later!". In typical reaction, Brett gave his one-word reply "Gator!" It was a common exchange for the two, as they separated and went along their way.

Alex turned down the road and jogged the short distance to his own driveway, and then quickly made his way descending toward the house. Letting himself inside the back door, the teen immediately pulled up short as a scent met him just inside the rear door. Frowning, he sought to analyze the trace amount that reached him, fully aware of how out of place it was. It was far enough removed from their lifestyle, but yet also strong enough that it put the teen on his guard. Alex could have turned and walked out immediately, but instead his curiosity got the better of him. Taking a tentative step inside, he set his pack down by the door, and then quieted himself, listening. The house was silent, as he would have expected, with only the sound of the air conditioner running, which was muffled in the distance. Taking another step toward the kitchen, he suddenly stopped again, because by then another trace odor found its way to him, this time much stronger than before.

Alex hesitated again, thinking hard and fast. He knew he recognized it from somewhere before, but exactly where that was escaped him. Thankfully, it wasn't smoke, at least not the kind associated with a fire of any sort, but ... maybe, as he started to realize, it might be something similar, yet different. His senses sharpened just then, trying to detect any trace of something that would associate it from his past, but thus far it eluded him. He considered running just then, getting out of the way and into a safer place, but then his natural curiosity took over. There seemed to be no danger, nothing imminent at least, and in the end, he decided perhaps he was overreacting. Still, at least a certain caution should be exercised, if nothing else.

Taking a deeper breath and letting it out slowly, Alex crossed the short distance of the porch and stepped into the kitchen with a surprising stealth. No, the scent wasn't coming from there, as he concluded it had nothing to do with food. As he continued on through to the living room, the scent disappeared completely, and he had just about decided he was being too super-sensitive, when all of a sudden, someone inside cleared their throat. Stopping at the doorway, he slowly peered inside and saw a familiar figure sitting in his father's recliner. "Come on in, Alex," the voice of the visitor drawled.

His senses once again on full alert, the teen took one tentative step inside and stopped. It was then he recognized the man was Casey Spalding, and then suddenly he understood the familiar scent was one associated with that of cigars. The fragrance was one he had only identified once in his lifetime, and surprisingly it was only a few months before. As he sized up the man, he saw that their visitor was quite relaxed, his expression and demeanor far from threatening in any way. "What do you want?" he asked quietly, a nervous tinge at the edge of his voice. A thousand thoughts seemingly raced through his head, such as accosting the man for breaking and entering, and daring to invade their privacy. Confronting him over the obvious, however, now somehow seemed trivial.

Casey smiled and hesitated before speaking again. "What I want, or at least would like, is for us to just have a simple conversation, if you're willing. Just you and me, for a few minutes. What do you say, can we at least do that, before you run off and call in Mackie or one of his cronies, or your parents? Hmm?" As he waited for a reply, the man saw the conflicting emotions crossing the teen's face as he stood there just inside the doorway. "Come now, Alex. What problems you and your friend had with my brother, they are not our problems, okay? Although, admittedly, maybe I could have been a little more, ah, helpful than I was in the cause, but still... don't try to lump me with everything you know to be obnoxious and obtuse about my brother, alright? Trust me that much at least, for a tiny bit please, as it will benefit neither of us to go down that road."

Alex took another step inside, listening to the softly spoken words and, for the moment, he decided he could at least hear the man out before calling the police, though he knew it was a risk as Casey could still jump him or worse. As he sat down on the couch close to the open doorway, he kept himself poised upon its edge, looking about the room and readying to launch at a second's notice, if he needed to. Casey also noted the tenseness, but then smiled and relaxed. "Do not worry. I give you my word, I am the only one here, okay? There is no one else around. I, uh, also apologize for entering in this way, and ultimately surprising you. Still, t was imperative that you and I get to have this conversation, and I needed to make sure we would be alone."

"How ... how did you find me, here?" Alex asked quietly.

"Oh, well, to tell the truth, it was not easy being sure I was at the right place and all. I once came here and had a little chat with your father, I think. It was at a time while you were gone off somewhere, I think. I suspected you lived here, mind you, but wasn't totally sure until afterwards. Now it's different, since you have a few family pictures hanging about," the man replied easily, pointing to some picture frames nearby. "I knew once I saw them, that I was in the right place." Casey placed both of his hands in his lap, and stared at the youth. "Again, I just want to talk a few minutes, and then I'll leave, and you'll never have to hear from me or Harry again ... ever. Is that worth a few minutes of your time?"

Alex studied the man shrewdly, but then nodded. "Okay.... talk. What do you want?"

Casey observed the boy closely. "I'm certain you're aware of Harry and Ramona's disappearance, and the mystery surrounding it, right?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah, their kids have been abandoned. Ethan and April keep waiting for at least their Mom to come home, but so far neither one has showed up or anything."

Casey sighed deeply before he continued. "Therein lies the problem, Alex, and the tale behind it does not have a happy ending. You see, I'm afraid Ramona won't be coming home, and neither will Harry for that matter."

Alex frowned. "What do you mean? You know this? Why?"

"I'm afraid that, well, there was an accident of sorts. You have to understand something, kid. I've known Harry all of my life. We're blood brothers as it is, abandoned at an early age to grow up together in a couple of foster homes. He was always a loud-mouth, a kind of bigot, and he had a penchant to live, if not for the harsh side of life, then at least the wild side somewhat. It might even surprise you to know he wasn't always big, either. Most of that came about after he graduated from high school, I think. Being who he is, or rather who he was in the old days and now, you'd think you never met one or the other. Young Harry and older Harry were two totally separate people, for the most part."

"What does this have to do with them not coming home?" Alex asked suspiciously.

"I'm getting there, keep your pants on. You see, only in the last eight to ten years has my brother made the biggest change of all. Not only has he put on weight, but he's gotten a lot shorter with his temper, which you've seen the brunt of as well. Sometimes, I doubt even he knows what he's doing when he blows his stack, see?" Casey paused to let that sink in. "That... I believe that's what has happened here, sadly enough."

Alex suddenly became concerned. "He... did he..."

Casey held up his hand. "Don't ask for specifics, kid. If I know you well enough, I figure you're smart enough to put two and two together. For right now though, I need you to listen very carefully to what I'm going to tell you. Alright?" When Alex nodded, the man brought his fingers together at their tips, and studied off into space, a blank expression overtaking his features. "My brother was capable of doing a lot of things see, but even to this day, I'll never believe he could take things so far as to take the life of anyone. It's what I'm trying to make you see. I'm not justifying who he is here and now, okay? But, when you know someone like we do, like I do, for as long as I have, certain - ah - traits come to be seen and learned, you know? Then different people see him for what he is in different ways. Just like you and your friend, you learned my brother likes to bully people, and doesn't like to be shown up in front of a crowd or anyone. Even so, bullies have their limits, and so did Harry. I mean, come on, think about it - he was married and keeping that family together for over ten years, right? He could have hauled ass a lot sooner than now, if he wanted to, and just be done with them and leave them out to get on with their lives or whatever."

"From what I hear, that's probably what he should have done a long time ago," Alex voiced with a neutral tone.

"But that's the rub, isn't it kid? Harry had a funny way of showing it, I know, but he also had a sense of duty. Believe it or not, he did care about his family, though in funny ways, I admit. He just had so much other shit going on in his head, he lost his way, lost his focus on priorities. In other words, he had plenty of brain farts." Casey paused again. "I'm not trying to paint the picture of a saint, now. You know perfectly well, as much as I do, that my brother was far from that. The only thing I am trying to convey here though, is to tell you not to judge a book completely by its cover. Harry, as crass and brutal as he could be, still had softer parts of him that kept him alive in spirit at least. He didn't have as much of a stone-cold heart as you might imagine."

Alex observed the man for a moment before speaking up. "Okay, but then, why tell ME all this? Why not go to the Sheriff or somebody else?"

Casey laughed. "Now, ain't that the irony of it?" He cleared his throat and then lowered his hands. "I'll answer that in a moment. First, tell me - you've heard about the night they walked out, right? How they were fighting, arguing over something probably petty, probably stupid. Nevertheless, my brother and his wife were really winding up into a battle that had been festering for a few weeks. Bickering, yelling, who knows what about for sure, but serious enough, right?"

"Yeah," Alex nodded.

Casey hesitated, and then scooted to the edge of the chair and leaned forward. "There ain't no easy way to say this, kid, so just listen up. Hypothetically speaking, Harry probably saw his kids that night, and for whatever reason decided that he and Ramona needed to get away from there if they were going to have it out again. I've personally witnessed him do that once before, and I've heard about other times similar that it happened, too. He could be a bastard in a fight, and she could set her feet hard and give it back when she needed to, as well. For the sake of those children though, when it would get that bad, or potentially that rough, he'd drag Ramona off and get out of the house, away from the kids."

"So, I guess it got to be, what... physical between them?" Alex asked quietly.

Casey nodded. "It wasn't beyond Harry to slap Ramona around, either - though nothing huge, from what I've always heard." The man then shook his head. "Don't ask. Why she put up with him, that's a whole different tale, and I don't know the answer as it is anyway. The point is, she did stay. I suspect it was for the sake of the kids more than anything, despite being man-handled as much as she was, but then again, that's just my theory."

"The thing is, on that night, according to this hypothetical tale I'm spinning, a certain someone slapped a certain someone else again, but from the sounds of it, they had no idea of where or how hard it was. That someone dragged a certain someone else out to the car and they took off, heading off to an old lovers' quarrel spot down into the state park. That way, you see, so they could fight it out as long as it would take, in a place with lots of privacy where they wouldn't bother anybody around them. Again, this was nothing new, Alex; they had done it many times before, and this was nothing out of the ordinary."

"At least, in theory. Only this time... that ride into the country, down to the park, was quiet - very quiet. A lot quieter than it had ever been before, you see. Supposedly, when they finally reached that familiar, predestined spot, one of them got out of the car to have it out with their other significant someone. It was only then, they discovered what losing their temper had cost them. You see, when that someone had struck again, this time they slapped far too hard, Alex. Unfortunately, no one discovered it, until it was far too late."

"Oh my God!" Alex whispered.

Casey let that sink in for a moment before he continued. "You see, hypothetically speaking still, someone came to their senses and realized even worse, that certain people's lives were about to be changed forever. That's the part of Harry few people ever got to see, kid. If my brother was one thing to all the world, at least on the inside, he was always accountable to himself. He had problems sometimes Alex, about being accountable that is, but only because he usually never understood, or was too slow at picking up on the implications. You know that by now, surely. Harry wasn't necessarily a dumb person, but the light bulb was slow to come up to full brightness at times. When he did finally get around to it, understanding what happened I mean, then yes - he was the type who more often than not, owned up to his own problems."

"So, what did he do? Hypothetically speaking, of course," Alex asked.

Casey Spalding's voice dropped to a monotonous, low tone as he stared directly into the teen's eyes. "Kid, in the next hour or so, the Indiana State Police are going to be roping off an area of the state park, down near the lake at Belmont. They're going to begin investigating a body that has been discovered there, badly decomposed, but still left intact and undisturbed. They'll probably take dental impressions and use other so-called forensic methods, but eventually they'll identify it as belonging to Mrs. Ramona Spalding."

As Alex listened, a tear escaped and dropped along his cheek. Since Casey began his tale, he had already felt in his heart this was where the story would end, but now hearing it expressed, actually caused the teen's heart to sink. He sank heavily back into the couch in shock, staring ahead. A part of him wanted to shout, wanted to scream at the man sitting in their living room now, but somehow the teen kept his own temper in check. Casey saw this and smiled grimly. "I'm not done yet. There is more you need to hear." When Alex finally regarded him with a nod, the man continued. "Also, within the next hour, if it isn't already happening, the Greensburg fire department will be called out to an old, abandoned farmhouse up near Germantown. They're going to find ... certain things there that will make them call Sheriff Mackie and his goon squad to the scene. Most likely, before the night is over, they will have reason to believe Harry himself was in the building at the time of the blaze."

Casey delivered the news with a deadpan expression and calm demeanor, but Alex noted the trace sounds of emotion hinted in the man's tone. As a silence fell between them, Alex tried to decide if what he saw was sincere or not. Every indication led him to believe that something was happening, but exactly what was still up in the air. "You understand what this adds up to, right?" Casey continued. "It means that those children will have now lost both of their parents at the same time, and their only living relative left is going to be that bitching grandmother of theirs. Not that she is a bad woman, mind you. In fact, I suspect she is very motherly, and probably as good a woman to raise those kids as you'll find anywhere. But regrettably, I've had a few run-ins with her over the years, and yes, she can be a bitch, I assure you."

Alex set aside the harsh reference and frowned. "She isn't the only relative alive, though. If you're Harry's brother, then that makes you..."

"Their uncle, yes, but let's speak plainly, kid. No child, at any age really, would want me for a relative. Above that, with where I have to go, and what I have to do now, quite frankly I can't take two whining, snot-nosed ass-wipes with me. Yet alone care for them in the way they need to be cared for. It's a far, far better thing that they have nothing to do with me, you hear? Someday, that might change, but good Lord I most certainly hope not! This is not negotiable, Alex - mind what I say on this matter."

Alex sat stoically quiet and nodded. He felt there was something else coming, so he respected the silence while he watched the other man confront himself, studying with where to go next. Casey had grown emotional over the last few minutes, but eventually the man sighed deeply and addressed the teenager again. "Regardless of what you may think, Harry had something of a heart and a level head about certain things in general. Not that he ever had the chance to pass any of it along to that brat of his, but it wasn't without want or intent. Harry always felt the kid just wasn't old enough yet, that's all. Certain things, of a somewhat serious nature, are not meant to be put on anyone's shoulders until they're mature enough to handle it, and that was my brother's feelings about bringing Ethan under his wing. So, instead Harry did other things, taking steps to prepare for down the road and what have you."

"This is the part where you come in, kid. This is why I am here now, talking to you. You see, I can't go down to the office, with the cops watching it all the time or worse. Nor can I do a half-dozen other things that should probably be done. If I get involved directly, then everything gets fucked up. Don't get me wrong, most of this stuff will work itself out, but there is an item or two that will need some, ah, extra 'attention', so listen up. That old woman, she barely gets by on her social security as it is. She's going to need help raising those two lollipops. Help that will need to come from friends, some of it in the way of money, too. That's where you fit into this picture, young man. In that office of ours, somehow you need to find a way to get in there, or be with them when they finally get inside after everything is said and done. Believe me, Alex, it is essential that you do this, for all our sakes, but especially for theirs."

"I don't understand. Why?" Alex asked, his voice calm.

"Under Harry's desk, if you look hard enough, you'll see there's a board there in the floor that doesn't quite fit with the rest. It's spring-loaded, and if you press along the outer edge, you'll find it pops up along one side. Then, underneath and inside it is a big slender box, filled with all kinds of papers and legal documents, including the title registrations for all the vehicles on the lot. If I'm not mistaken, it also contains the deed to the lot itself. You see, neither the land or the business is leased - Harry owned all of it, fair and square, paid for with clean money. It's the same for all those old cars and trucks out there, too - he has them completely paid for, without any lease or loan agreements. That's important kid, whether you realize it yet or not. Overall, Harry had absolutely no loans to his name or the family whatsoever. Everything he had was free and clear! Even the house that they lived in was completely bought and paid for."

Alex frowned. "What do you mean by 'clean' money?" he asked, causing the other man to scoff.

"It means the money that paid for everything was not from laundered cars, drugs or other underhanded dealings. Nothing was stolen, or washed, or counterfeit. It's why we call it clean money in the business, because it is no different than the money you or I would earn working at a normal job," Casey explained. "You see, kid, everything Harry has to his name is in THAT box I'm speaking about, along with a sizeable amount of money, too. The cash is funds he racked up over the years, something he was going to use for his 'retirement', or some sort of shit like that. That money is like the rest, meaning it is all clean as a whistle. I know, you only have my word to take that on it, but every dollar was gained off the top of all legal, legitimate deals and transactions. None of it is drug money, or tied to booze, or illegal trafficking - none of the shit you read about in the papers or hear about on TV. In most regards, Harry didn't believe in any of that shit. It's CLEAN money, kid, and I suggest the old woman is made to understand that in some way, you hear? She and the kids need to save it and use it, however fitting, so that they stay out of trouble for the short term. There's enough there to get both kids through college, I suspect, and then some, so she shouldn't have to worry about funds ever again as long as she's smart about it. Believe me when I say, I think she has plenty of smarts in that department, so no worries there."

Casey suddenly stood up, causing Alex to do the same. The man took one step closer before extending his hand, which Alex saw held a key. "Downtown at the National Bank are safety deposit boxes, of which this key will open one in particular. Inside it will be the last will and testament for the Spalding family. It basically instructs the executor to sell everything, and then hold the funds in trust for each child until they reach 18 years of age. There are also certain other provisions, none of which concern anyone except the disposition of the estate, and the handing of certain properties and articles over to the grandmother. That includes a life insurance policy, although it will be a while before she can get it financially resolved, I'm sure. Between the other cash though, the deeds and that policy, it all comprises the bulk of Harry's estate. I am not named in any of it, nor do I wish to be named in the will or in any other aspect of Harry's existence. Alex, I want to keep it that way, at all costs. You understand the meaning of this, correct?"

Alex nodded, still in a state of shock. Casey smiled again, only this time it was a much warmer expression, free from the emotions of amusement, or of grievance. "Then understand all of that, kid, and do that as a personal favor to me. You may not like me, but I honestly and truly don't want those kids to have to suffer for just being survivors. They'll grieve initially, I am sure, but there is nothing that can be done about that in the coming weeks or months. At least their grief will be focused on what they lost, and not for the rest of the world that lies ahead. When I leave this house, I am gone. I am gone, Harry is gone, and so is Ramona. You will never see or hear from any of us again. You understand what I am saying, right? Please tell me you understand, and ask me any questions you feel the need to now. Because, I'm deadly serious - I'll be gone, as Harry used to love saying, like a fart in the wind."

Alex studied for a few seconds, but then nodded. "I understand, yeah. Still, you're the only family they'll have left. You're just... abandoning them?"

Casey shrugged. "Not really, just in terms of legalities, I suppose. Trust me though, kid - they'll not weep for me any at all. I might look in on them from time to time, from a distance, and just to make sure things are going reasonably well. But for all intents and purposes, I no longer exist." He studied Alex's expression for a moment. "Kid, it's simple, really. I know you and your friend have befriended the two munchkins, and from what I know, you may be the only real friends they actually have. At least for the boy. The girl, I'm not so sure, but it doesn't matter as much at that age, really. Believe it or not, I'm actually sorry to have to put this on your shoulders, but seriously, as I've tried to come up with another way, there is no one else in this case I can think of to fill in. The good part, if there is any, is that you'll find it's not really that bad. After a couple of funerals, a few tears and all, everything else will almost certainly work itself out on its own. You just need to make sure that the old woman and the kids find that case in the office. Speaking of which, you'll need a key for it, and that key will be in the top middle drawer of the desk, near the back. So, don't miss it, alright? Just find the case. It doesn't matter how you do it, just do it, and if you have to, find a way to convince that pesky grandmother what I told you about it being clean money. It's the truth. If they're not careful, Mackie or the Feds will probably try to lay their hands on it, but don't let that happen. They have no right or reason to get to it, as Harry's dealings in that aspect, were totally clean. Just... keep it low key if you have to, but do what you've got to do. The rest? Let the cards fall in place."

"Okay," Alex replied. He glanced toward the window hesitantly. "May I ask, uh, about one more thing?"

"Sure, what's on your mind?"

Alex collected himself briefly. "The night Harry was at the barbecue place, I saw something on his neck, a symbol." Alex now directed his gaze at the brother standing before him. "An inverted gamma symbol, like a tattoo, one we've seen before."

Casey considered the inquiry, before choosing his next words carefully. "Harry was once a part of another organization. It ... didn't work out. It is a part of why he was sent here, to Greensburg, to stay out of the way, and stay out of trouble. Is that satisfactory enough?"

Alex thought about that seriously for a moment, knowing fully well he did not want to bring out the symbol on the mailbox following the fire. If Harry, and Casey for that matter, had been a part of Nicholas Picante's outfit, and something happened they were dismissed, or relocated and everything, then what Casey just admitted made perfect sense. It meant that Harry didn't know, or had no part in their past dealings, and that gave Alex a sense of relief. The teenager actually sighed and gave the man a half smile. "Yeah, it is. I understand."

Casey stuck out his hand. "Then, I won't go any further than that, and if I were you, I'd do the same, alright?" When the teen nodded, Casey sized the teen up. "This is where I leave you then. You'll find I came in through the back door, and I will leave the same way. If you'll accept it, I'll even shake hands with you. Where we come from, Harry and myself, that's one gesture that still holds the test of time. When two men shook hands, it became like a gentleman's agreement between one another. Agreements with greetings, or deals, or more. My agreement, however, is a simple one: it's to wish you and your friend, your families, and what's left of Harry's family, the very best. And if it should strike you along the way from time to time, check in on them, hmm? Help take care of them, in any way you can. Okay?"

Alex looked down at the hand, and then slowly grasped it before shaking it firmly. Grudgingly, he had a newly acquired respect for the man, and it showed. As Casey began to walk away, he suddenly stopped and turned, cocking his head to one side. "Tell me one thing though, will you? When you arrived, you knew something was different, didn't you? What was it?"

Alex grunted and pointed to the cigar in the man's pocket. "I smelled a fragrance of that in the air somehow. We don't smoke, so... well, it stood out. I knew something was out of place."

"Ahhh, I see. I did have a smoke outside this afternoon while I was waiting for you to get home. I must have come in too quickly. Damn kid, and you picked up on that? I'm impressed! I'm genuinely impressed! Good job!" the man purred before grinning and then tilting his head forward. Then, as if he had only his own problems to worry with, he turned and left the room. Seconds later, Alex followed to see their visitor disappearing across the yard toward the house next door. Once there, he saw Casey get into a vehicle, start it up and then drive off.

Alex returned to the kitchen and sat down heavily on one of the bar stools. His mind felt ablaze, given all he had just learned.

"You're shitting me, right? No way!"

Brett's exclamation was one of both pure astonishment and disbelief, as he listened to Alex quietly explain what had just happened the afternoon before. Brett had been unable to get online the previous night, something that Alex had been disheartened at, although he understood why. His friend had sent him a text, explaining the family had gotten involved with something or another that took them away to his aunt and uncles, and they did not return until late. For the evening, Alex had moped, feeling oddly out of place and wanting, rather needing to talk to someone. As he thought about it all, though, there was no one he could trust to do that with, certainly not his parents. Not now, anyway. It only left the one, whom he was very glad to have sitting by him just then.

It did not take Alex long to summarize the relevant details, and Brett had listened attentively, hanging on every word. As if anticipating the reaction, Alex pulled a folded newspaper page from his pack, where he laid it on Brett's lap, already pre-folded to highlight a photo and corresponding report in the newsprint, headlined: **Local Fire Brings Arson Unit, Sheriff's Department To Investigate.**

"Holy.... Whoa!" Brett muttered under his breath, as he read the short story about a fire in an old abandoned farmhouse just outside of Greensburg that had occurred the day before. Inside, the remains of an unidentified individual were found, and local officials were looking into the cause of the blaze, as well as the identity of the individual, currently undetermined at the time the news was being reporting.

"I also watched the news at 11:00 last night, and there was a short story there, too. It didn't really give any different details, but they did report the fire was called in around the same time Casey was in our living room," Alex added before deeply sighing.

Brett suddenly observed his best friend with concern. "What's wrong, Alex? Are you okay?"

Alex shook his head. "I haven't told this to anyone yet, Brett, and right now, I'm just... I really frustrated, and confused, and... and..."

"You haven't told your parents?" Brett asked, but then chastised himself. "Of course not, you just said you haven't told anyone, duh..."

Alex glanced at him and then leaned forward, burying his face in his hands. "It's okay, but... I haven't slept all night Brett, I've been so worried and sick about what to do, whether I should do anything, or tell anyone else what happened... or anything, really." He looked up to his friend. "Why does this stuff have to happen to me, for crying out loud? First Mike Dory, and now Casey. What am I, some magnet for confessions or something? 'Oh, let's go tell the Branham kid, he'll figure out what to do.' This... this... shit!"

"Hey, whoa, wait up Alex..." Brett declared, then glanced around at the other kids on the bus. Although they were steadily picking up more passengers, the groups aboard now seemed to be lost in their own world, and none seemed to be paying any attention to the two. Brett risked slipping an arm around Alex's midsection casually and hugging him close. "First of all, no, you're not a magnet, Alex. Why these people come to you, I have no idea. Probably because you're just the most convenient person they can get to, or something like that. Either that, or they're like me, and Steven, and Brad and Ethan, and some of the others - they just know they can trust you, and they can talk to you and know that you'll listen and understand. It's a part of who you are, bro. Even I see and know that, because of us - because of you and me."

Alex slowly dropped his hands and sat back up, turning toward the window and watching the landscape roll by. "Sometimes, I think I... Sometimes I think I would have been better off just not..." He couldn't finish the thought out loud, because he knew how ludicrous it would have sounded.

Brett, however, picked up on it. "What, not to be so trusting, and smart maybe?" When Alex did not answer, the teen became annoyed. "Really? Seriously? You'd throw away everything you've gained since moving here, with a thought like that?" In the ensuing silence, Brett was certain he had hit the nail upon the head. He withdrew his arm and sat back, pulling his knees up and setting them onto the back of the seat in front of them. Crossing his arms, the teen sat there, stoically determined to ignore Alex for the rest of the trip, if need be. "When you quit feeling sorry for yourself, then we can talk it out," he muttered at one point.

Alex felt guilty suddenly, on top of his exhaustion. "I'm sorry," he whispered after a moment. Glancing sideways, he saw Brett continuing to stare forward. "I'm just... I'm really confused, Brett. Please?"

Brett finally glanced sideways and saw the look of anguish there. His resolve melted, but the hurt was still in his voice as he answered. "I understand that, but throwing yourself off a bridge won't help, bro. There are a lot of people out here that are a hell of a lot better off, all because you DID move here and come into our lives! If you hadn't, things would be a lot worse, I think. For some of us anyway."

Alex turned toward the window again feeling totally drained, but Brett could see his words had hit home in more ways than one. With the bus filling gradually, he knew he couldn't take hold of the teenager and shake some sense into him, or pull him into the hug that was so desperately needed. So, instead, he compromised by finding and grasping Alex's hand, pulling it out of view and into the seat between them, and then squeezing it gently, holding on to try and pass some amount of strength and encouragement through the connection. Alex let himself give in, but a tear escaped down his cheek, and at the moment he didn't trust his voice at all. The exhaustion was taking its toll.

Both boys sat quietly for the rest of the ride to school. As the bus turned into the parking lot and pulled up to the stop, Brett let go and stood quickly, stepping into the aisle with several other students, readying to quickly disembark. As the group began filing off the bus, he held his place until Alex rose and stepped in front. As they reached the pavement, however, Brett quickly took his friend by the elbow and steered him away from the school entrance, moving instead toward the gymnasium instead. "Wha-" Alex started, more confusion setting in.

"Hush," Brett replied in a whisper. Within minutes they rounded the corner, out of the immediate sight of the other incoming buses and cars. He didn't stop there, however, but instead pushed his friend toward the football stadium, where the gates were still opened from the previous week's game. Once inside, Brett led them underneath the stands before sitting down at one of the picnic tables. Alex glanced around and realized how much privacy the setting afforded them, at least for the moment. Sitting down next to Brett, the teen leaned hard into his friend, who in turn accepted it as before, putting his arm around Alex to hold him close. "Not as good as being at home, I know, but this isn't a bad place to talk, either."

Alex smiled grimly as he suddenly understood the implications of those words. "Have you been here before?"

Surprisingly, Brett shook his head. "No, never needed to, really. I just thought of it, that's all." He then turned himself sideways and straddled the bench, before pulling himself closer to Alex. "I'm sorry, too. I shouldn't have snapped back there. I know, I was being kind of dumb, but Alex... We've been through some of this before. You know how much you mean to me, and to Gina, and some of the others."

Alex sighed. "That's what you guys tell me, yeah." He made a face just then before he continued. "I don't know, Brett. You were right, I was feeling sorry for myself, but... I was being honest, too. I can't see myself past this one, bro. I really can't, and ... I'm scared. All night, I kept feeling this ... like dread or something, you know?"

Brett considered, then slowly shook his head. "Well, I know this is going to sound stupid in a way, but... I don't think there is anything you can do right now, Alex. I mean, what's happened has already happened, so what is there to really be scared of?" Seeing Alex's incredulous face, Brett held up his hand. "Seriously, bro. Just think about it for a sec. What did Casey tell you that, up to this point, is really any different than if you had known about it beforehand, or had just woken up to the news about it all this morning? You couldn't have stopped it, and the way the timing of it all happened, what difference would it have made? If you ask me, Casey was really just telling you so that you wouldn't have to second guess the news and everything else when you heard it. Right?"

The teen watched as Alex reflected on those words carefully. What was there to be scared of, really, if what Brett surmised was true? When the teen saw that his words were hitting home, he continued. "Seriously, bro, if you ask me, then all of this is already past you, past us. Even if you had picked up the phone and called the sheriff, how would last night have turned out any different in the end?"

"It wouldn't," Alex finally admitted, then as if a huge weight had been lifted, he sighed deeply in relief. "It wouldn't have turned out any different." Just then, he leaned his shoulder into his friend and practically collapsed. With the fatigue catching up to him, he closed his eyes and just sat for a moment. "Fuck, you're right. You're fucking right. I've been an idiot, Brett," he whispered.

Brett smiled, continuing to hold and prop his best friend up. "No, you haven't. I think you've just been so preoccupied and worried about what he told you, you couldn't think about anything else. It's not the first time either, remember? It happens to you Alex, especially when you're tired to begin with. Besides, guess what? I've told you before, and I'll tell you again. You're just as human as the rest of us. Maybe a little smarter, but just as human as I am."

After another moment, Alex sat back up and gave Brett a weak smile. He had no more words to offer, no explanations or excuses. The only thing he was feeling at the moment was utter relief and the affection his friend was giving him just then, making him focus finally and see reason. It was only then Brett happened to study, up close, the near peak of exhaustion his friend was threatening to collapse with. The sunken shadows beneath the reddened eyes, the drooped shoulders, the overly slow gestures that he made. He even noticed the unkempt clothes and wondered if they were the same the teen had worn the day before. In that instant, Brett understood what all of this had cost, and there was only one thing that was going to help him get back on track. "Okay, come on. No school for you today, you're ready to drop dead anyway." He stood and stuck his hand out, which Alex slowly grasped and followed until he was on his feet.

"I, we... uh..."

"No, hush," Brett commanded for the second time that morning. "It's going to be a little bit of a walk, but let's get started. Mr. Benningfield's car lot is about a mile or so from here. Let's see if he'll give us a ride home, where we can properly take care of you." Seeing Alex hesitate, Brett leaned in close. "Listen bro, even if we went to class, you'd never survive the morning and you know it. I'm not leaving you until I've got you home and we get you some rest, okay? Trust me, I'm know what I'm doing, okay? So, come on..."

Alex then relented, knowing that Brett was right. In a half-daze, he let himself be guided across the back of the stadium and toward the highway. "I'm sorry," he croaked at one time, but Brett hushed him.

"I'm not," the teen smiled. "At least now I know what it's all about, and know that it's not because you didn't get to webcam with me and my naked body last night."

Alex, despite his tiredness, burst into giggles. "You... You're impossible sometimes, you know that? But... I love you, bro," he whispered, making Brett sidle up all the closer to stay near his friend.

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