The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 25

For the Price of Brothership

"I'm sorry, Ethan. I know you really loved your Mom a lot," Alex said quietly. Ruby Simpson's small, but tidy house was well-shaded, and the breeze that crossed the lawn felt cooler than being directly in the sunlight. Both he and Brett were sitting on her front porch with the younger teen, overlooking the lawn out into the street. It was an eerily quiet afternoon, only occasionally interrupted by a passing vehicle. Inside the house, Gina had come along to sit with April, but only muffled conversations drifted to them from time to time. They assumed Brenda and Ruby were somewhere nearby, conversing quietly.

Alex had taken the call from Ruby earlier that afternoon, where the elderly lady asked if they might possibly come over to visit for a few minutes. The news had finally come from Sheriff Mackie, bringing the long-awaited truth regarding the fate of both Harry and Ramona Spalding. The woman admitted she had broken down at the news briefly, but seemed to be holding it together for the time being. Although shocking as it was, the news was not really unexpected, given the time that had passed and the circumstances around everything that happened. She was going to break the news to the kids, but wondered if perhaps having a little support around them, might help soften the impact.

Alex immediately agreed to come over right away, and then phoned Brett with the news. When Brenda heard the outcome, she was quick to offer all of them a ride, which they gladly accepted. Gina also heard the news, and decided to come along for April's sake, and thus the group made their way over as quickly as they could. Alex, having held his silence while the situation ran its course, felt relieved in some ways. It had been four days since his fateful meeting with Casey Spalding, and now that the outcome had finally come to pass, it validated the truth behind what he was told. Fortunately, Brett had stayed with him much of the week, creating various reasons to keep themselves preoccupied, if not outright together. School work even helped, as more homework continued to mount. Working together, the two were at least able to stay ahead of the game, and that was something that Brenda admired.

Now that Friday had arrived, at least some level of closure was finally open to them. "Same goes for your Dad, too," Brett offered. "I know, he wasn't so much your favorite, but..."

"He was still my Dad, yeah," Ethan answered distantly.

Ruby had taken the three teens aside upon their arrival, to give them the basics of what they had learned. April had reacted by bursting into tears and running to her room, something Gina took note of and headed in that direction as soon as she could. Ethan's reaction, however, had been very calm, but eerily quiet. As Alex observed the boy closely, he could feel a sense of shock emanating from the tough exterior the younger teen always exhibited. A shock that he was obviously, even now, still processing. Alex didn't know what to say or do, and seeing the unresponsive state gave him reason for concern. On the trip over, Brett had asked his mother about what they should do or say. Her answer had been simple: no one knows, other than to just be there for them, and let them know you're by their side.

That was where the three were now, both of the older teens sitting on either side of Ethan. Alex had made it a point to sit close, so that the younger boy could at least feel him being there if nothing else, and not long after their arrival, Brett scooted up close on the boy's other side as well. Neither smothered the younger teen, but there was a sense of familiarity to the friendship they had developed over the last few months, one shared by Ethan as he snuggled between them. "She's really gone?" he whispered aloud finally, sighing deeply as he continued to stare blankly ahead. "Both of them?"

It was then Alex chanced placing his arm around Ethan's waist. "Yeah," he replied, also in a whisper, but loud enough for the three of them to hear. Ethan never glanced at either of the older boys, but he did finally react by laying his head upon Alex's shoulder. Brett reached out and placed his hand upon the boy's leg, and although there was no initial reaction, Ethan did finally reach out and grasp hold of it, locking fingers.

There was very little said between the three from that point on, each lost in his own thoughts. How much time actually passed was uncertain, but eventually a quiet cough sounded from behind them. When the older teens glanced back, Brenda was standing just inside the storm door observing them. They knew their time was then coming to a close. "Maybe give us another ten minutes or so, Mom?" Brett asked quietly, to which the woman smiled and nodded before retreating. That was when Brett turned his attention to Ethan. "Hey buddy, is there, like, anything we can do for you? Anything at all?"

Ethan finally turned and looked up into the kind eyes that met him. "I wish you didn't have to go," he whispered, smiling weakly before turning to Alex. "Do you have to?"

Alex glanced at Brett, but then shook his head. "You know, I think you need to spend some time with your grandmother, Ethan. I know, you and April have lost your parents, but don't forget, your Grandma has lost her daughter, too. All of us hanging around might not really be the best, you know, and all three of you need to kind of support each other... At least for tonight, okay? Maybe in the next couple of days, if you like, you can come spend the night with one of us."

Ethan frowned. "One of you?"

Brett smiled. "Well, one house, but you can have both of us there if you want. How would that sound?"

Ethan nodded. "A hell of a lot better, yeah." The boy fell silent for a moment, and that was when Alex noticed a tear escape and drop from his cheek. "I don't... I don't know what we'll do now, you know? I don't... I don't..." The voice was cracking under the strain of the emotion now, and it told both of the older teens that Ethan was beginning to understand and accept what had happened.

Alex hugged the boy warmly. "Don't worry about that right now, bro. You guys will figure it all out, I promise. Your Grandma, your sister... and hey, you'll still have us, buddy. We'll come visit you every day, if you want us too."

"Fuck yeah," the younger boy whispered, nodding. Turning, Ethan glanced at Alex before threading his arms around him, twisting and moving so he could give the older teen the fiercest hug he could muster. Alex held him, not letting go, as Brett moved to join in from the opposite side, sandwiching the boy between them. It made Ethan feel loved and protected, by the two most important friends he had ever made. That was a turning point just then, as he began to openly weep with his head buried into Alex's shoulder. The cries, soft at first, grew progressively louder, but no one seemed to mind.

They did not last overly long, as within a couple of minutes the tears receded and Ethan pulled back wiping at his eyes. He could feel Brett nuzzling him from behind, so he turned and gave the older boy a returning embrace. Though he didn't hold on as long, Ethan still gave Brett every bit the same trust and love he had just extended to Alex. It almost made Brett cry, nurturing a bond between them that melted the older boy's heart. He glanced over to see Alex smiling at him, and he was glad to have come, to be there, even if only for a short while.

Finally, the moment passed and all three ended up climbing to their feet. As if on cue, April walked out onto the porch and immediately engulfed the boy, surprising him with an equally affectionate and uninhibited embrace. When she let go, she further escalated his astonishment by kissing him on his cheek. Brenda, who had also appeared, then stepped up and gave the boy a brief, motherly hug. "If you need something, all you need to do is ask, okay?" she told him quietly, to which he nodded and smiled.

On the way home, Gina sighed deeply in the seat next to her mother. "Mom? I'm glad you and Dad are still with us. I don't know what we would do without you."

"Hear, hear!" Brett added quietly from the back, with Alex looking on.

Brenda glanced at both of her children. "Well, I feel the same way. I don't think I would know what to do without the two of you." Gina looked up at her in surprise, making the older woman smile. "We all depend upon one another, you know. We live together, play together, eat and sing and dance... just as much as we cry together, too. We're family, that is what nurtures our love with one other. That's why when we lose someone, it hurts so bad for a little while, because we're so used to taking things and people for granted. Then when one day comes that you lose them, it's such a big shock."

Gina screwed her face up initially. "I don't, well... I try not to take you guys for granted..."

Surprisingly, Brenda laughed. "I know you do try, honey. It's a fact of life though, because everybody takes something for granted all the time. As to losing someone though, it can happen to anyone, at any moment, you know? It is the one thing we're certain will happen, but we never know the when or the where of it. Quite frankly, I'm glad it's that way. That's why we should always strive to live up to the expression **Carpe Diem**. You know, 'seize the day,' as the old Latin saying goes. At least, I think it's a Latin saying, from some literary source if I'm not mistaken." She paused to glance at her daughter as they made a turn. "Do you understand what that means? It means to live life to its fullest, never be afraid to live from one moment to the next. Don't worry about tomorrow, just enjoy the here and now."

"Wow, that sounds, uh, kind of powerful," Gina replied.

"It is. Learning to make good choices and live in the moment is the best way to live and love life. Have fun and all that which goes with it, and let the rest work itself out." Brenda fell silent as she made another turn. "That is the advice I give to each of you three, especially when you're around Ethan and April back there. They are going to have a rough way to go for a few days here, but when all is said and done - meaning after the funeral - it would be good for you three to hang out with them, as a kind of reminder that life goes on. In other words, be the best friends you can be, at least until they are on the rebound. Help them, and by helping them, you'll help their grandmother as well. From what Ruby was telling me just a bit ago, that family is probably about as alone as you can imagine. Ruby lost her one and only sister a few years back, and her parents have been long gone, too."

Brett leaned forward from the back seat. "Do you think we could go visit again tomorrow? Or, at least, maybe drop us off for an hour or two?"

Brenda nodded. "I don't see why not. Why don't you invite them to come spend the night with you tomorrow night?"

As Alex heard that offer, and saw Brett glancing at him, he spoke up. "Ethan said something like that, but I was kind of afraid of leaving Ms. Simpson alone."

Brenda glanced at him in the rear-view mirror and thought about it for a few seconds before nodding. "You might be right, there." Another turn, this time into Alex's driveway, and while the group descended toward the house, she remarked, "Well, I guess we'll have to wait and see how the details unfold."

"Hey, do you think we could talk for a minute?"

Brett had already settled back into the bean bag, stretching hard as he and Alex had just closed their science book, answering various questions at the end of the chapter for their assignment. Alex had just picked up the practically new volume and grunted, setting it aside when Brett voiced his request.

"Sure, what's up?" Alex replied, rolling onto his back. He lay opposite his best friend, head at his feet, and pulled his shirt up above his belly as he scratched an unseen itch of some sort. Brett watched him, observing the tiger tail that was gradually becoming more defined in recent weeks on the teen. Alex had unconsciously reached up further to his shoulder, massaging and stretching it meticulously. He didn't reply immediately, his mind turning something over with debate. Alex saw this and sat up eventually, setting aside their notebooks and thus clearing the bed completely of the various school materials. When he finished, it was just them on the uncluttered bed. "What's up?" he repeated again, snapping Brett out of his momentary reverie.

"Sorry, I was just thinking."

When the teen continued to sit in silence, Alex giggled. "Well, lately that has become one of your stronger skills, I think," he replied mischievously. Brett grunted before picking up a pillow and threatening to launch it, but then thought better of the idea. Instead, he moved forward until he could tackle the teen on the bed, pulling them both close to one another. Initially he tickled Alex by digging under his arms, but ultimately his hands slid around back until he embraced the boy fully. When he finally looked deep into the blue eyes that met his own, Brett whispered, "Can I?"

Alex was unsure what the reference implied, but he knew nothing had changed between them. He would still give his heart, anything for that matter, to his best friend. He nodded, and then Brett leaned in and kissed the boy on the lips, ever so softly. Alex returned the kiss, closing his eyes and relishing the brief contact as Brett slid his hands inside Alex's shirt and ran his fingertips caressingly across the back. Alex sighed and melted, fully contented. "You can do this anytime you want to, Brett," he finally whispered.

"I'm glad," was the reply. Brett hugged for another moment, then pulled back with a smile. "Sometimes, I think we forget about some of the simplest things, you know? And yet, they feel so awesome."

Alex nodded in agreement. "We do," he intoned, before snuggling up close again. "So, what were you thinking about then? What did you want to talk about?"

"Well," Brett began, but then hesitated. "I was wondering. Are you planning on going to the funeral?"

Surprised, Alex reared his head back so he could see Brett's expression. "I hadn't really given it any thought, at least not yet. Why?"

Brett squirmed briefly, trying to decide for himself how to broach the subject. "I was just thinking, you heard Mom, right? Ms. Simpson has no other children, and no relatives to speak of, right? If what Casey told you is true, Harry was probably in the same situation. Casey said he would be gone, too, and not be found. Well, that leaves Ethan and April kind of dangling out on a branch, as far as the family tree goes, right? Unless, there is someone else we don't know about."

Alex thought about it and then nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I see your point. If Harry was as nasty to everyone else in this town as he was to us, I'm sure most people wouldn't or didn't have anything to with him, either."

"Exactly," Brett replied. "So, it probably means that no one much is going to be there, right? Except Ruby and the two kids." The teen then made a face. "I don't fancy the idea of going to a funeral, mind you, especially when they aren't family or people I even know of. But, having said that, I was just thinking, and well..."

Alex pulled back so he could prop himself upon Brett's chest. "I'll go, if you will. Maybe our Moms would go with us, too, and Gina. And I could call Mr. Bay and some of the other dealers we worked with and explain what has happened and everything. They might come, just as a kind of show for support and all."

Brett smiled. "Really? You think so? I mean, yeah... The three of them might like that, having a few people there and all at the end. I don't know if they go to church or anything, but my guess is since the service is at the funeral home, they may not have much of a choice, or anyone that will come see them and all."

Alex smiled and relaxed, observing the boy beneath him. "Look at you, bro. Getting kind of sentimental and everything, on someone besides me or Gina. I like it."

Brett scoffed. "You don't count, Alex. We're brothers, remember?" He relented however, and shook his head. "Thanks, though... I think."

"For what? For caring? Or rather, letting me see that side of you for a change?" Alex asked. "You've always cared, Brett, you and Gina both. I've never questioned or doubted that. I've seen how you both see and act around each other, remember? With me, too. You care about people a whole lot more than you let on sometimes, but I see it because I know better, see. I know it's there, inside." Alex leaned in and lowered his voice to just above a whisper. "To be honest, I wonder why I didn't think of something like this sooner. Especially since Ethan has, like, attached himself to me so much."

"He did at first, I know, but I think he likes both of us, bro," Brett replied. "And as for thinking about it, you would have probably come up with something, too. I was, I don't know, I was just thinking about if I were in their shoes, Ethan and April, and wondered who would come for me or Gina? We have a little more family, I know, but..."

Alex unfolded his hands and crept upward until the two touched their noses together. "I would, and so would my Mom and Dad," he whispered before rubbing them together. Then the teen withdrew and sat up, reaching for his cell phone. "I bet we can catch Mr. Bay still at his shop..."

"I have to tell you all, I was surprised to find all of you at the service today."

The remark was made by Ruby Simpson as she addressed the group of men, as well as the families of the Branhams and Edwards, who were presently gathered in a semi-circle in her living room. Her eyes were moist, but her face held a smile that beamed her appreciation to the group. Passing around a tray filled with paper cups containing punch, the woman gave one out to both young and old alike. "I'm so sorry, too. I mean, I have to apologize. I don't own a set of mugs or glasses that would be equal for everyone here. I hope you'll forgive the use of these paper cups."

Arduino Bay spoke up as he accepted his token. "Why, these are absolutely fine Ms. Simpson. And I believe I speak for the guys here, in saying we were happy to come down, believe me." Indeed, each car lot owner that Alex reached out to, had agreed to come and attend the service in a show of support for the family. Although the men may have been rivals with little interest in Harry or his business, they certainly could empathize with the situation his family now faced, and once Alex explained his and Brett's thinking, they had not even hesitated. In addition, not only had the teens' mothers and Gina came along, but so did their fathers in a further show of support.

"I agree," Roger spoke up. "I didn't know your daughter and son-in-law well, ma'am, but I did meet them both a couple of times. The news of their deaths was tragic, to say the least. It was the least Brenda and I could do for you three, along with Brett and Gina."

"Hear, hear!" The chorus erupted from the rest of the people now standing around. Ruby looked down and smiled at both Ethan and April, who had risen and walked inside the now tightening circle to stand next to their grandmother. She handed them each a cup from the tray, and then set it aside. Looking around she spotted Alex, standing somberly off to the side as he observed the group.

Having been forewarned by first his father, and then several others in attendance, the teen took a deep breath. Word had gotten out, somehow, that he was the one who placed the call to the various men, and was ultimately responsible for their gathering together right then. When they had arrived for the service, Ms. Simpson had gone speechless for a few moments, before she hugged both of the older teens warmly. So, now committed, he looked around at the crowd before grabbing Brett and pulling him up close. When the quietness extended itself around everyone, Alex cleared his throat and spoke. "Just so all of you know, it was Brett who had the idea of calling you, not me. I only followed through because, well, it's mostly me who you all talk with and everything." Brett blushed deeply just then, but the smiles around the room were encouraging. He simply nodded at Alex, who then took a step forward.

"So, as you can probably figure out, I, uh... I've never done anything like this before, a toast I mean. Forgive me, please, if I mess this up." Again, several murmured and encouraged him further, and at just that moment Alex spied his father several feet away toward the back of the crowd. He looked upon his son with an encouraging smile, and Alex found strength in that. He took another deep breath. "Brett and I first met Harry and Ramona, just when school was let out for summer break this year. I won't say it was that good of a meeting between us, but it was definitely interesting at least. Harry was kind of rough around the edges, and that day he had a temper, I guess. It probably wasn't one of his best days, I know, and he happened to just get us arriving, two strange teenagers to deal with at the peak of it all. But it was from that day on that we crossed paths a few times, and we got to know him somewhat. Not just the gruff, rough exterior, either. The truth is, as we got to know and understand the man better, he wasn't as bad of a person as a lot of us feared, I think."

Seeing a myriad of curious looks around him, Alex smiled. "You see, the thing is, Brett and I got to meet his son at camp, and we became the best of friends. I got to thinking, neither Ethan nor April were crass like their Dad, in any way I've ever noticed or seen. You might believe that maybe their mother had more influence on them or something, but... I come from a home where everything I am, on the inside, I owe to **both** my parents. Not just one. I mean, I know some kids live in that situation, in single parent homes, or with their grandparents or who knows, right? But for those of us who are lucky, or luckier, I guess, I think that when we grow up in a home, it's a part of that home, and everything in it, that helps shape us into who we are, and how we face the world. Everything we become is a product of what our parents impart to us. It's their heritage, their feelings, their right to life itself, that sort of thing, that gets taught to kids from birth. It helps define the kind of person we become and all, and to do that, I really think it takes both parents to accomplish it."

Alex paused to move up and stand next to both Ethan and his sister. "Maybe aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers or others might influence us somewhat, too, but these two? They had their grandmother, their mother and their father, all three of whom looked out for them and shaped them into who they became. Who better to instill those kinds of values, really, all the while they were growing up? Harry and Ramona couldn't have been that bad, could they? I mean, look at these two." He gazed at the many faces around room. "I didn't know their parents personally, although there are times now that I wish I had. But see, I do know these two though, and I'm beginning to discover a lot more about all of them as each day goes by, along with their grandmother. I'm sorry, we'll never get to know their parents, one of them being Ms. Simpson's daughter, any better than we did, but I do know this much: something my own Dad has told me plenty of times. When someone is gone, they're still alive with us always, on the inside. It's a thing that gets passed on, from one generation to the next. It keeps their good memories alive, and I guarantee you, there are some good memories out there. I know that because of how these two are, and what they've learned in their time at home. I know it because I've been around Ms. Simpson, and seen the values she holds close to her heart. She had to have passed that on to her daughter, and then her daughter and Harry both had to have passed it on to both Ethan and April. So, I propose this toast, for both Harry and Ramona, in the remembrance of the good things they've left behind. I propose this for two people who gave the world a couple of shining lights in their stead to follow them. I propose this toast as a promise, to never forget them, and to always be around as long as we can, to help not just these kids, but their grandmother, too, as much as we as friends are able. I propose this toast, not only for the two that were buried today, but for the three who will pick up the torch and carry on. I propose it... for... my friends."

"Hear, hear!" The roar went up around them simultaneously, until someone in the circle added, "To Harry and Ramona Spalding, may they rest in peace." They each raised their cups together, and simultaneously drank the punch it contained. As Alex turned to step away from the group, he was suddenly engulfed by a flurry of arms, as both April and Ethan hugged him, followed by their grandmother. He smiled shyly, but as he rejoined his group, both Brett and Richard clapped hands down upon his shoulders. "That was really superb, son!" Richard whispered into his ear, taking him in his arms and hugging him closely, a rare public gesture, but one Alex very much welcomed at the moment. Roger, nearby, added his own sentiments as well by placing an arm around Alex's shoulders, and whispering his own words of acknowledgement into the teen's ear.

"That was... fantastic!" Brett whispered into Alex's other ear when the teen got loose. The attention caused Alex to blush, but within a moment it was over. As the group broke into conversation, several passed by to offer other fond sentiments as well, until Arduino Bay walked up and pulled him aside. "You know, with the man being as salty as he was, you took something and found a calling with that. You made him someone to remember for the better, son, and that was no easy feat. In the name of those children, that was a job well-done, and a job damned well done!"

Alex thanked him, and then moved over to the couch, where he sat down on one end. He observed the others in idle conversation for a few moments, and then realized before long that most of them were taking their leave. As they offered Ms. Simpson and her grandchildren parting farewells, many extracted a promise from the woman to call, if there was anything any of them could do to help her in the coming days and weeks. The grandmother kindly thanked each of them with moistened eyes. Her composure was steadfast however, with a certain merriment that was free from the stress and worry leading up to that day. She was happy having her 'guests' there, and pleased to no end. Alex thought that, hopefully, the woman would not have to feel as alone anymore, as she might have before. Watching her, and the two children as their visitors began departing, one could see a change. Maybe, perhaps with time, all would be okay.

Alex thought back over the funeral briefly, and was glad to see that several others had attended as well, people he had not thought of to include. Both Sheriff Mackie and some of his deputies were in attendance, as well as Ralph Pedigo, the man from the barbecue shack. Evidently either Ruby or Ramona had a few friends as well, for a half-dozen or more women also attended, two of which had followed the crowd to the house here for the wake. It was not as bad a turnout as it could have been, and Alex was immensely grateful for it.

Just then, Brett plopped into the seat next to him. "So, Mom said we can leave any time you and me are ready. She overheard those two ladies over there," Brett announced, pausing to point out the women who had followed the group from the funeral home, "say they're planning to spend the night here and all with Ms. Simpson."

Alex nodded. "I want to say something to Ruby really quick, then we can all go if you want." Seeing Brett nod, he rose and crossed the floor, politely halting as others were taking their leave. When it seemed the tide of departures had stopped for a moment, Alex stepped up close. "Ms. Simpson? Can I have a quick word with you?"

Ruby observed him and then nodded, stepping back into the hallway and guiding Alex with her. "That was beautiful, Alex. What you said in there, I don't think anyone could have done it any better," she spoke quietly to him, as they came to a stop.

Alex smiled. "It was my best, but... I'm sorry it started out sounding kind of funny."

The elderly woman, however, shook her head emphatically. "My son-in-law, not meaning to speak ill of the dead, but he was a tyrant, pure and simple. Everyone knows it, but like you said, he had some good traits, too. What you did Alex, was find something good and sweet to remember about him and my daughter by, both at the same time. I thank you for that, from the bottom of my heart. Now, what can I do for you?"

"Well, I was thinking and wanted to tell you, I meant what I said about being helpful, if you guys need anything. Ethan is our friend, and April has kind of taken up with Gina, too. We want to be around, okay? As much as you'll let us. We want to help be friends, and help... you know... just be around in the coming weeks or more." Alex paused as he saw the woman about to break into tears. "Please don't cry ma'am. I know what it's like to feel alone, and I think Brett and Gina do, too. We just want you to know you guys don't have to be alone, any. We're here, we're all here... our families, the Sheriff, all of us. Okay?"

The woman reached out and embraced the teen yet again. "Don't you worry, Alex. I have a feeling we're all going to be seeing a lot of each other from now on."

When she had pulled back, Alex looked at her questioningly. "Um, I know it's none of my business, really, but... will you guys be okay? I mean, money-wise and all that?"

Ruby paused and observed the teen, smiling. "I haven't much put aside, but Walt told me that in a few weeks the car lot and office down there would probably be released to us. I don't know if Harry has it leased, or if he bought it outright and was making payments or what, but either way it'll all be turned over to us. I'm not sure what we'll do with it, mind you - probably sell everything off eventually. The point is though, don't worry about us. However, no matter how it turns out, as long as we're careful, we'll be fine. Honestly, I appreciate your concern and worrying about us. It means a lot to an old nanny like me."

Alex blushed. "Like I told you once before, you're not that old, ma'am. Older than some of us, yeah, but you're not THAT old. I just, I wanted to make sure, that's all. Like I said, it's none of my business, but..."

Ruby shook her head. "It's fine, Alex, I promise, I don't hold any ill will to you asking me, I assure you."

With that, Alex felt it was as far as he could push it, but afterwards he thanked her again. Rejoining Brett, he saw the look of curiosity, so Alex explained. "I put the bug in her ear. You know, like the thought and all, that maybe we could hang out more and everything. Then when they go down to the office, maybe Ethan will invite us to go along, or something like that. If not, maybe later we can come up with an excuse to get in there. He's coming over to spend the night this weekend, I think. Maybe between now and then I can think of some way to suggest being with them or something."

Brett was impressed. "That's a really smart idea. Hopefully it'll work out that easily," he whispered as their families gathered to bid their host farewell, with their own final promises of being there if the trio should need anything.

Friday afternoon arrived, culminating the end of a busy week for the both of the Edwards' children and Alex. Being pulled from school earlier that week for the funeral had luckily not hampered the school work each missed in their absence. With the arrival of the weekend, both surprisingly found themselves without any assignments, which gave them a welcome respite for a change. "How do you think you did on that test in Mr. Richardson's class?" Brett voiced as they stepped from the bus into the Edwards driveway.

Alex shrugged. "I think I did okay with it. He's had a few quizzes leading up to the test, and I handled them just fine, so the test itself didn't really have any real surprises. What about you? Didn't you guys have a test in Geometry?"

Brett nodded. "Yesterday, yeah. She didn't have them graded yet by class this morning. In fact, she let us have more like a study period than anything else, because she wasn't feeling all that great."

"Does that happen often?" Alex asked, curious as Gina stood next to them, waiting for the bus to roll out of sight. Once it had turned the corner, she quickly turned to Alex and stretched up on the tip of her toes, before planting a quick kiss on his cheek. Surprised, the teen grinned at her. "Whoa, thanks... I think! Hey, what have I done to deserve all this attention the last couple of weeks? Not that I'm complaining, but..."

The younger girl blushed. "You better not complain, you doofus! Honestly? I've been wanting to do that all week, but we've never really had the chance." Looking up, she observed the older boy with a smile. "That, dear brother number 2, was for the other day, that toast and everything you did. I was crying when you finished, because it was so sweet and... and... everything. April was crying, too, but not because she was sad. She was glad because of what you said. A lot of people were."

Alex watched her for a second and then set his backpack down, pulling her into a brief embrace right there on the side of the road. "Well, you're welcome," he whispered into her ear, before he kissed her on the forehead. The surprised move lit up the expression Gina had on her face. Without a word, she started the climb toward the house with a spring in her step, never looking back.

"Oh, geez, now you've gone and done it. I bet she doesn't wash her face for the whole weekend!" Brett quipped before laughing. Stepping over into the yard, he sat down in the shade of a young sapling that had been planted only the year before. Alex crossed with him and sat down close.

"Well, tell her to wash it anyway, and I'll give her another one to replace it when she's ready," Alex replied good-naturedly. Brett rolled his eyes before lowering his voice.

"What about me, then? What do I have to do to get a hug and kiss?" he whined, then burst out in laughter as Alex suddenly started puckering his lips and leaning in close. "Ewww, not out here!" he cried out in amusement.

Alex sat up, grinning. "Aww, don't feel lonesome, bro. We're special, you know that!" When Brett nodded in return, Alex changed the subject. "So, ready for the Ethan invasion?"

"Sure am! What time is he supposed to be coming over tomorrow afternoon?" Brett asked.

"Whenever we call him, I guess. I figure you and I can go down and detail that vehicle for Mr. Bay early in the morning, like around 8:30 or 9:00. Three hours or so should do it, then we can call Ethan on the ride home," Alex answered.

"Sounds good. Say, I've been meaning to ask, do you think that'll be our last vehicle for a while?"

Alex sat back on his elbows and contemplated the question. They were nearing the end of September, and given the way school work had started piling up, he wasn't that crazy about letting their side business cut into their personal time much longer. "I don't know. I say we offer to handle a few during Fall Break, if you want, but that we close down shop otherwise until next spring. We don't get as much free time outside of school now as it is, and well, I kind of like us having some to ourselves, you know, so we can do other stuff. Plus, I've been thinking about trying out for the Drama Club, maybe giving that a go, too."

"I'm fully onboard with that, DC is not a bad group, as long as you're not afraid to get up in front of people," Brett nodded in agreement. "Beware though, they generally put on a Christmas play, so if you join now, you're most likely going to get stuck into that one pretty quick. As for the upcoming break, I'm with you on that one, too, as long as the weather is nice enough for it. It's going to be getting cool here before long, starting late next week, I think. Dad says that might be the real end of summer, given the time of year and all." He glanced sideways and contemplated falling over against his best friend in jest, but decided against it. "So, any idea of what you'd like to do while Ethan and April are here?"

Alex suddenly sat up straighter. "Well, I heard this is the last weekend the public pool is going to be open. Since it's still sort of hot right now, do you think they might like to do that? And Gina, for that matter. She hasn't been back in a pool since the accident, has she? It might be a good idea to kind of push her into breaking that cycle before the year is up, if you know what I mean."

Brett's eyes widened in surprise. "Actually no, and yeah - that's a really super idea, too! Yeah, if they'll go for it, I'll make sure Gina goes for it, too!"

Alex grinned. "Then, awesome! If not, I guess we can just play ball some like we did before, maybe get on your Xbox or something afterwards when it gets dark." He fell silent, then voiced another thought. "What about tonight? Any plans?"

Brett frowned. "Afraid so, sorry. Mom and Dad are going over to my aunt's place for dinner, and she purposefully made sure Gina and I knew we were going with them."

Alex bumped his shoulder with his friend. "Why the long face? We're always into something or another, you know? You have to take a break sometimes for the other natives, too, you know!"

Brett laughed. "Yeah, I know that, but I was just thinking about you, that's all. Especially since you just asked and everything. I take it you don't have much of anything planned."

Alex shrugged. "I can live without you for one night, Brett. Just... don't make it a habit," he added, teasingly. Suddenly he became serious. "It's not like I was when we were in Pennsylvania, you know. I... I don't know, I just..."

"We've been through that, Alex," Brett surmised. "You don't need to apologize for it again - ever. I know what it's like to decompress and everything. I've been there, and I've even lived through it. Even with you, when Gina was in the hospital. Remember?"

Alex became thoughtful, and then nodded. "Yeah," he whispered, before raising a fist and meeting Brett's in mid-air. "I'm sorry man, I know I shouldn't worry with it. Sometimes though, I look back at that night and think about how I fell apart and everything, and... you know what it's like when you do that to yourself."

"Yeah, I know," Brett replied. "But here's the thing - that night? You only proved to me just how human you really are. Contrary to belief, you're not this big wall of steel nerves and everything. In other words, bro, you're just as fragile as the rest of us, and there is nothing wrong with that. Not to me, anyway." The teen then climbed to his feet and offered his friend a hand, which Alex gladly accepted. "So, what time do we start in the morning? Did you say 8:30-ish?"

Alex nodded. "How about I call you when I get up, then you just wait for me to come by. We'll head out together then."

Brett leaned in and bumped shoulders with his friend. "Good to go then. Love ya, bro, see you tomorrow, okay? If not online tonight, afterwards I mean."

Alex smiled as he replied to his friend. "I'll be there for a while, I promise. If not though, yeah, see you tomorrow."

Alex then walked down the road to his driveway, before stopping to pick up the mail. Although the collection contained the usual variety of sale papers and solicitations, one off-colored envelope stood out, and when Alex glanced at it, he saw it had been addressed to him. There was no return address, and the postmark was a faded imprint that looked like it read somewhere in Illinois. Curious, he began walking toward the house, opening the envelope. Inside was a simple card that contained handwriting on one side.

**"I heard about what you did at Harry and Ramona's wake after the funeral,

and wanted to just express my gratitude. Thanks. CS"**

Reading the note made Alex pause as he walked around the corner toward their rear porch. Although the teen had put the incident behind him, with a feeling of relief that it was over, the note caused him to once again think back. Although several had praised him for his ingenuity, Alex felt he had done nothing special. When he had been forewarned that he was going to be asked to do the toast, fear had gripped his insides. Knowing it was going to be a new experience for his son, Richard had pulled him aside to explain what the toast was all about, that some families staged such actions so as to remember something favorable about the dead. A sort of last rites, a signal, that gave focus to the wake together, and made those in attendance realize that the purpose they were gathered for, was coming to an end.

For a short while, Alex could think of nothing that he felt was fitting. His and Brett's encounters with Harry had always been for the worse, and he hardly knew anything about the man's wife, Ramona. How could Alex possibly come up with anything to say, to close a service, or wake, or whatever it was called, without reminding everyone of the true nature of the man they had always faced? A fear had gripped him, and once again the feeling of 'Why me?' set in. He was just a teenager, for Pete's sake! Why couldn't someone older, and much wiser about these things, step in and do it?

The idea for Alex proposing the toast had been Ruby's suggestion, however, and the teenager did not want to let her or her grandchildren down. That was when the teenager started observing the kids closer, and realized what he was being asked to do, and why, was really more for their sake than anyone else. That was when the anxiety dissipated, as Alex began recalling bits and pieces of Casey's conversation with him, about a man who did seem to care in a lot of ways, even if they were not publicly visible. It was then an admiration began to grow in Alex, for how well and even-headed Ethan had turned out to be. He also knew that extended to April too, as Gina had already spoken on a few occasions about her growing friendship with the girl. The stark contrast in their personalities was what led him down the path he chose, and the rest was now in the past.

Unlocking the door and stepping inside the house, Alex's thoughts suddenly returned to the card in his hand. He knew that the **CS** stood for Casey Spalding. He couldn't help but wonder whom the man had talked to, or how he had heard about what the teen had done. Could he have been nearby, perhaps? Maybe had a chat with one of the dealers? Or could it have been something else? Maybe he had called Ruby, or overheard from some other source. Regardless, the man had heard something, and the card told Alex two things. One, the man was indeed appreciative, and two, the man was still watching, keeping tabs on his extended family. That was something he had sworn to Alex he wasn't going to get involved with, at least not initially. This card proved him otherwise, however, and that thought made Alex smile. Maybe, in some way, there was a slice of decency in the Spalding side of the family after all. Casey had sure been full of surprises as of late.

Just as suddenly, however, Alex scowled. Maybe there existed some level of some decency, yes, but regardless of how bullish Harry's personality had been, Alex reminded himself that the man had been killed. To top it off, his own brother was involved with it in some way, and that thought caused Alex to suddenly feel sick to his stomach. How could someone do that to a member of their own family? Didn't people understand how precious life was, especially when it came to their own flesh and blood? Alex's thoughts suddenly turned to his own family, even his extended family in the Edwards, and how he felt about them. Tears began welling up in his eyes, as he realized how thankful he was for all of them, grateful to have people he could trust and feel completely free with. It was a feeling he nurtured on the inside, an appreciation that made him feel loved and wanted. Didn't all families have this, in some way? He felt sorry for those that might not, because in his eyes and heart, he believed they had no idea what they were missing.

The cascade of emotions overcoming him suddenly stopped, however, as Alex heard a familiar hum coming from the living room. Chastising himself, the teen realized that of course, it was Friday, one of the days his Mom was often home now and not having to work or volunteer. He quickly stuffed the card and the envelope into his back pocket and, wiping his eyes, he altered his demeanor to a happier expression just as she walked through the doorway into the kitchen where he was standing. "Why, hello there! How was school today?" she asked, extending a quick embrace to him, which he freely returned.

"It was okay. No homework for a change!" Alex replied heartily. When he let go, he saw a plate of cookies on the countertop, which caused him to glance at her with a raised eyebrow.

Patty laughed and nodded. "Go ahead, it'll be a couple of hours before supper anyway."

Alex scoffed. "Make up your mind, Mom ... is it 'supper' or 'dinner'?" he teased, grabbing a couple of the oatmeal and raisin concoctions before turning back to her.

"To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. I grew up always hearing it called supper, but your father, and some of the other people we seem to encounter along the way call it 'dinner'." She shrugged. "I guess either is acceptable, whatever is more comfortable to you. Just leave 'breakfast' and 'lunch' alone, if you will."

Alex laughed, kissing her on the cheek before turning to the hall, readying to head up to his room. "Sure thing, Mom," he called back before disappearing.

The Greensburg public pool was seemingly alive with people of all ages, many shrieking and laughing both in the water and around the sides. Many of the older individuals appeared to be sunning in deck chairs around the pool, or along the outer edges of the concrete platform with their bright, multi-colored towels draped beneath them. Stretched around the fenced-in area were festive balloons and signs, and lively music filled the air in the background, giving the entire event a party-like feel. It was the last weekend of summer, although by the calendar, the official Autumn season had just started a few days before. At least the weather was still summer-like, which was why the pool had remained open thus far on the weekends, and most people took advantage of it. Girls, and women for that matter, dressed in their bikinis or one-piece bathing suits; boys and teens also just wearing their swimming trunks.

Alex had noted, almost immediately, that the pool seemed to be devoid of older men, and the women in attendance seemed to be present more for the younger children than anything else. That left the majority of bodies being teenagers, and he recognized a good many of them were faces he had seen at school. He glanced at Brett briefly, and saw him grinning. "Big turnout," the teen mused, to which Alex nodded in agreement.

"I'll say," Ethan declared, wide-eyed. "I don't think I've ever been around here with this many people!" April and Gina, already leading the way in front, nodded back to him as well.

"Where do we set up?" Gina asked, glancing about the area. It did seem their choices were limited, but Brett spied an open area almost on the opposite corner from where they presently stood, which offered mostly sun with only a little shade provided by trees outside the fence.

"How about we go over there?" Brett remarked, to which the rest of the group agreed. Setting out for the spot, the five of them weaved in and out of people and deck chairs until they reached their destination. Each set their various packs down, and then the girls spread towels to stake out their claimed territory for the next few hours. Then, one by one, each began making their way to the edge of the pool.

Ethan and April did not hesitate, both jumping into a section of the pool presently devoid of other bodies. As it was along the deeper end, both were swallowed by the water, briefly dunking under until they resurfaced. Ethan glanced up at Alex and grinned. "See? I haven't forgotten!"

Alex sat down along the edge laughing, letting his feet dangle into the cooler water. "Good to see!" he replied. He had no sooner got his words out when Brett rushed by him in a blur, launching himself into a nearby area that created an energetic splash as he cannonball-ed his approach. Several people all around laughed as they all got splattered by the waves afterward, but none seemed to mind, as they returned to their own mischief and games.

It was Gina who approached the pool with trepidation, however, and decided to sit down next to Alex. She slowly let her own legs dangle lazily into the water while looking onward, her face emotionless for the most part. As Alex observed her briefly, in her purple-colored one-piece bathing suit, he realized that the girl had grown somewhat in recent months, her body taking on a more feminine shape than he had previously noted. Brett had told him earlier that it had taken some convincing to get his sister to agree to the trip, and Alex knew this was a major milestone for her, especially since the accident earlier that summer. He was happy for her though, and reaching out, he grasped her hand, locking fingers with her to make sure she knew it. "I'm glad you came, you know. I know you probably didn't want to, but... yeah, I'm glad you did, for me."

Gina glanced up at him. "Are you sure? Or were you just trying to get me into a bathing suit so you can gawk and fantasize over me or something?" she teased.

Alex noted she had become increasingly forward as of late, using idioms that applied more to both her self-awakening and to the woman's body she was acquiring. That, to him, was a good thing. "Why would I do that, when I get to see you in plenty of other ways, too? At least, sometimes I do," he teased back. Gina grinned at him, though she blushed.

"I'm sorry Alex, I don't mean to pick on you, or any other boy for that matter. Not about that, anyway," was the soft reply.

"Yeah, you did, but I don't care. You look beautiful, by the way, and I don't mean just, uh, sexy-like." Alex simply nodded out at the crowd, while she looked up at him in surprise.

"You... Crap, Alex, stop being so good to me, will you?" she whispered, fully blushing by then. Alex grinned and slipped an arm around her waist, giving her a quick, half-hug in the process. When he let go, he let his foot slide across the distance between them, until he touched and rubbed her foot under the water. "So, are you going to do it? Are you going to get in the water?"

Gina hesitated briefly, rubbing her own foot back against his. "I want to, yeah, but... It's hard, Alex. It's hard for me to... you know..."

Just then, Brett suddenly swam up and stopped in front of her. "Come on, sis, don't be scared. I'll stay with you as long as you want me to. Just, like, slide in. If you want, I'll hold you up. Or Alex can, it doesn't matter. We'll not leave you."

Gina giggled. "It's not that, bubble- uh, yeah, big brother." She hesitated again, realizing she had almost broken her promise to him. This was, however, once that Brett didn't seem to mind, and she saw it as he smiled at her. "I'm not afraid of drowning. It's just... well, last time..."

"Last time happened only because of when you were getting out, not getting in," Alex spoke up, although quietly. "You had a fluke accident, I know, but sis, that's all it was, you know? Just an accident, something that could have happened to anybody, including me or your brother. Sure, it makes you hesitate and all, but you have to conquer that fear." Alex smiled when she looked up at him again. "Yes, I called you sis, on purpose. You adopted me, kind of... remember?" He leaned in until he was right over her shoulder, looking down at Brett treading the water in front of her. "Seriously, you can do this, and you know you can. The sooner you do it, the better, okay? That way you don't have this hanging over your head all winter." Pulling back, he sat up. "Besides, this is probably the last chance you'll get this year, and there's another particular girl right out there, just waiting for you to come on in and be with her. See? April wants to get into all kinds of mischief and naughtiness with you, too."

Gina scoffed and then laughed out loud. "What do you mean? We can't get into anything naughty out here!"

Brett overheard the conversation and closed in then. "How much you want to bet on that, sis? Look around, you might find some guys with boners out here, or if you're really lucky, you can get a peek up their swim shorts!"

Gina glanced down at him and started laughing hard before shaking her head. "And exactly what is it guys do for naughtiness, then?" she asked in as hushed a voice as she could manage.

"Oh, we just feel people out sometimes, maybe touch a boob or something if we're lucky," Brett answered good-naturedly, but with a voice just as hushed as his sister's was. "Hey, we're guys, we're human, all right? If nothing else, there's like, acres of skin and bodies here to look at and bump into and... and... you know!"

"Yeah, and probably jerk off to later," April whispered. Both Alex and Brett looked on in astonishment at her until she blushed. "Okay, okay... sorry... I guess I'm just... I don't know, I don't mean to be so graphic abou tit all..."

"There, she did it again," Brett teased, looking up at Alex. "Her 'abou tit' vs. 'about it'!" Brett grinned, and even Alex had to giggle at the lame joke. Gina, however, giggled as well. "Boys..." she breathed, but then giggled some more.

Alex leaned in and whispered. "About as good as someone who once said something about all boys have dicks and girls have-"

"Boobs," Gina hissed, finishing the sentence. "I wonder who could have possibly said that?" she voiced quietly with an exasperated tone, but her own giggles were infectious.

Brett smiled, but then looked up at her. "Come on, sis... please? Just... come on..."

Gina glanced between them both, surprised she was being let off the hook that easily. Her questioning look made Alex lean in close. "It's okay, we know you're just being nervous. But listen, it's just us, okay? There might be a hundred people here, but it's only the four of us who care right at the moment. Everyone else is just doing their thing, see? So, I agree with your brother, just let go of it, just be yourself. If you need, I'll get behind you and let you down in the water, although... I might have to hold you in some, uh, certain places to accomplish it from here!"

Gina closed her eyes but then nodded. "I would let you, but nah, it's alright." She took a deep breath. "Okay," she finally breathed before looking down at Bret. "Here I come..." Just like the others, Gina suddenly let go and did it, sliding down in and under the water, but Brett grabbed hold beneath and helped guide her back to the surface. Sputtering, she flung the water from her face and began treading in place on her own. "Sheesh!" she exclaimed before laughing. Turning, she looked up at Alex. "What's it gonna be, mister bumbling bee? Are you going to come in, too?"

Alex laughed. He had not heard any of her rhymes lately, but in that moment, he saw the old Gina. The original, funny but energetic girl he had met all those months ago and became friends with. It made him happy, and as he looked around, he noticed that several teens in the water were wearing their t-shirts. Brett saw him looking about and deduced what was going through his head. "Keep it on, Alex, it'll be fine," his friend encouraged, so Alex acknowledged him with a short nod. Sliding into the water, he was perhaps the only one who did not initially dunk under as he easily topped and trod along the surface. Before any could react, however, the teen saw an opening develop cross the width of the pool and he took advantage of it. With swift and powerful strokes, he accelerated and swam the distance quickly, dunking himself at the far end and flipping, before surfacing and making his way back. Others nearby saw him and paused, watching the magical fluidity of the boy slipping through the water almost effortlessly. When he returned to his starting point, some cheered and broke out with exclamations of support. Ethan, not far away, was grinning and giving him a thumbs-up.

As the hour progressed, the group stayed together initially, manhandling their way around, dunking one another, splashing water, swimming short races, and climbing out and even trying out the diving boards closest to the surface. Alex surprised the group and other onlookers when he climbed to the higher diving board and stepped off, doing a mid-air flip before cleanly cutting head-first into the surface below. He popped back to the surface and, upon seeing the attention he had drawn, blushed deeply before making his way over along the edge. Once there, he took a break, treading easily while looking on at other swimmers in the pool. He was genuinely surprised when someone tapped his shoulder, and he turned to see that Brett had joined him. "Hey!"

"Have you seen Gina yet? Her and April are over there, playing volleyball," Brett informed him, and as Alex searched, he quickly spied both girls laughing and playing with the group, which consisted of both boys and girls of varying ages.

"She seems to really be enjoying herself, yeah," Alex replied.

"No kidding. And man, that April is not shy either, that's for sure!"

"How do you know that?" Alex asked, turning to observe his friend.

Brett scoffed. "Because she actually grabbed my dick once in all the dunking around and everything we were doing!" the teen hissed, making Alex laugh.

"Aw... Maybe she's starting to like you," Alex teased, which made Brett roll his eyes.

"Good Lord, I hope not! She's far too young for me to date!" the teen quipped back, just as Ethan swam up to join them.

"Who's too young for you to date?" the younger boy asked as he grasped the edge of the pool to steady himself.

Brett glanced at Alex, and saw an almost imperceptible nod. "Uh, your sister. Alex said she might be getting the hots for me. She grabbed my you-know-what while you guys were trying to dunk me earlier!"

Ethan laughed. "Aww, shit! Really? I wish someone would grab mine like that!" he hissed. He jerked his head toward the other side of the pool. "By the way, you guys see those three girls sitting over there on the side? The one in the middle has some pubes showing just inside one side of her legs. It's like... hot, as in oh man..."

Brett and Alex grinned at each other. There was no question that Ethan liked girls, especially if he had taken the time to notice that kind of detail. Alex slid up next to him and then suddenly, under the water, grabbed the young boy's trunks along each side and threatened to pull them down. "Oh, shit!" Ethan hissed, laughing. Grabbing at the waistband, he held onto them tightly. "Not here, not now! Shit!" Both of the older teens laughed as Alex let go and just closed in.

"You're safe. I wouldn't do that to you here," Alex whispered, before treading backward.

Ethan just shrugged. "Wouldn't bother me, but um, yeah, too many eyes here. I don't want everyone seeing my white ass, anyways!"

The five spent the next several hours swimming about, continuing to participate in games and enjoying themselves, at times taking breaks and visiting the refreshment stand, or just sitting out and relaxing. At one point, Ethan and April both purchased themselves and the other three a soft-serve ice cream cone. As they handed them out, their three friends were both surprised and pleased. Alex observed that both Ethan and his sister seemed much cheerier, especially in comparison to the weeks that had already passed by. The truth was the teen had been uncertain about taking them out and away to somewhere like the pool, especially so soon after the funeral. When the idea first struck him, he had asked his Mom for her opinion, and was surprised when she simply shrugged. "Life goes on, Alex. The sooner the two see that, the sooner they'll adjust to it." Seeing their playfulness and hearing their laughter now, told him it had been just what the doctor ordered.

When the time to leave arrived, the group gathered their things and headed for the locker area. As the girls entered their room, the boys did likewise, finding several benches inside, and showers dotted along the sides of one wall. Other boys were also present, all at differing stages of dress, chatting no differently than as if they were in a school gym, finishing a long period of play. Brett led the three back into a corner before sitting down and opening his pack. From within, he pulled a set of fresh, dry garments for him and Alex both to change into. As Alex and Ethan joined him, he suddenly stood up with his back to the room and shucked his swimsuit, mooning those closest to him before sitting down and donning both underwear and shorts.

Alex and Ethan both hesitated, before Alex reached out and guided Ethan to stand in front of them and face the wall. He did it nonchalantly so that he could use himself and Brett to hide his real intention, but as he leaned in close to Ethan's ear, the move was quickly understood. "Go ahead, we'll shield you," Alex whispered as he pulled on Brett to stand close by.

Ethan glanced off at the stalls nearby. "We don't need to shower or anything?"

"We've been in the water for hours, so you know we're clean. We'll rinse away the chlorine and stuff later at home, though. We just need to change into dry clothes here so we can go eat," Brett explained quietly.

Ethan nodded, and with a quick glance about, did as he was told, but with an air of appreciation. Unlike Brett's, Ethan's swim trunks clung to him tightly, and as he tried to remove them, the extra effort he exerted made him trip and fall back into the older teens. Alex caught him and helped steady the younger boy until he succeeded in getting them off. Once done, Ethan was quick to pull his own fresh clothes on. Alex, meanwhile, had already pulled off his t-shirt quietly, and was donning another one in its place. As he made to follow with his own swim trunks, however, he and Ethan exchanged places. With a sly grin, the teen turned to face his friends instead of the wall before removing his swimming clothes and donning fresh ones. Ethan could not help but admire the older boy with surprise, but when Alex finished, the younger boy looked up and saw the grin that met him. "Yeah, buddy, I still trust you," Alex whispered. That was when he sat down between the other two and quickly donned his socks and shoes.

Brett leaned in at that moment and addressed Ethan. "And THAT, buddy, is saying something!" Ethan nodded in understanding, as all three began tying their shoes.

As the trio walked out into the lobby, they had only moments to wait before both girls rejoined them. Heading out into the parking lot, they found Richard just pulling in. "So, how did the last day of summer swimming go? Seems like quite a crowd here!" the man asked boisterously.

Alex sat up front with his Dad while the others climbed into the back. "Meh, it was okay. We still had a lot of fun," he answered, while the rest piped up in agreement. "So, did you ever decide yet where we are gonna eat tonight?"

Richard laughed. "Well, I was thinking about that new Culver's that opened up. You know, the one up the road a bit. It may just be burgers or so, but they have frozen yogurt or custard or something, too. I figured that would be good for dessert afterwards, what do you think?"

"Sounds awesome, Mr. Branham!" Gina piped up, grinning as she squeezed in between Bret and April. The others agreed.

Sometime later in the evening, the group arrived back at the Edwards' household, where Gina and April hopped out. After thanking the man for the ride and for their dinner, the girls went inside while Richard backed up and began making the short distance to their own homestead. It had been previously decided the girls would stay at one place while the boys grouped up at the other. When they arrived, Alex, Brett and Ethan each thanked the man, then headed inside and up the stairs to Alex's room.

"Okay guys," Brett announced after he kicked his shoes free and placed them by the door. "Anyone need to pee? If not, I'm going to rinse all this chlorine off." When the other two acknowledged him, he headed for the bathroom. "I'll be out in a few minutes." Once inside, he proceeded to strip without closing the door, something Ethan found amusing as he sat down on the corner of the bed.

"Does he, like, always do that?" the younger teen asked while kicking his shoes off.

"Always do what?" Alex asked as he dragged his bean bags onto the floor at the foot of the bed.

"Well, for one thing, leave the door open and all, and well, two ... uh, take showers here and all?" Ethan voiced softly.

Alex giggled. "Kind of. I mean, the toilet is on the inside of the wall, so unless you get right up into the doorway, no one is going to see anything anyway." He observed Ethan curiously. "As to showers, umm, I don't know. I guess he's taken a couple here before, yeah. Sometimes he hasn't even waited to get in the bathroom before skinning. You know, just skins out here and all. Why? Does that, like, bother you or something?"

Ethan smiled as he shook his head. "No, I just... Well, your mirror in there, it's not hard to, like, see and all..."

Again, Alex giggled, but then pulled the boy down with him onto the bean bags, where he held him loosely. "Understand something buddy, we... it's like when we were all at camp. Brett and I are not shy around each other, okay? Maybe most guys wouldn't be as free about some things like this, but... Brett and I have always kind of, well, just been like brothers to each other, that's all. You saw how we shared that back room and all at camp, so you knew we were kind of close already, right?"

Ethan nodded. "I remember, yeah. Some of the guys thought you two might even be gay or something at first," he admitted timidly. "But after a while that changed. We didn't think anything of it, really."

"Oh? How come? What changed?" Alex asked curiously, a quietness descending upon them.

Ethan lay back. "I don't know. I think they just watched you two really close, especially when and while you were teaching us to swim and everything. You didn't act gay, or anything even close, you know? And besides, you told me yourself that some guys mess around and everything, but it doesn't mean they're gay or anything. Right? I think the guys kind of just saw that with you two."

"I see," Alex replied. "Well, you're right. Just because guys do some things, mess around like you said, it doesn't mean they're gay." He studied the boy and then came to a decision. "I'll let you in on a little secret, if you want. Brett and me, we've, uh, done some things. Mostly for the curiosity of it, but also mostly just kidding around and having some fun." As he paused, Alex realized how much truth was in that statement. What he and Brett had done, or were rather still doing from time to time, wasn't in the name of being gay, but something else entirely. "Ethan, I don't want you to think bad of us or anything, okay? It's just, we're just... like I said, we're not afraid of each other. We were not afraid of any of you guys at camp, and here, well, it's kind of the same way."

Ethan turned so he could observe Alex closely. "Why would I think anything bad of you guys? I'm here, right? I'm not afraid of you either, and I doubt there is anything you could do that would change that."

Alex smiled. "Even this?" He gently grasped the younger boy and pulled him into one of the warmest hugs he could muster, taking his time to wrap the body inside his arms.

Ethan melted into the older teen before sighing. "Especially this," he whispered. Looking up, he continued. "I'm not bashful around you guys, you know that by now, right? Just saying, because I know you two seem to bank a lot of things on this idea of trust and all. I admit, I used to be one of those who wouldn't let anybody but my Mom, and maybe April, even touch me and all. But a lot of things happened to me this summer. There was a certain someone, well, a pair of guys, who taught me to open my eyes and see things differently. And then there was this group I went swimming with who taught me just as much and more."

Alex visibly relaxed. "Thanks, but... I don't think we taught you anything, Ethan. Honest, once you realized what was going on about your Dad and us, and then started making a different set of friends that let you, like get inside their circle and all, then you started discovering things for yourself. We just kind of, I don't know, Brett and I just... well, we watched out for you, that's all."

"Wrong. You were there for me, Teach. In the beginning, when no one else would have even wanted to take the time, you did, and so did Brett. I know, because I watched some of the other den leaders - most of them just wanted to do their own thing, except for whatever the coaches or the other counselors set up for them to do. You and Brett were not like that at all. You cared about all of us, and all of us saw it." The younger boy sighed. "I still see it, every time me and April run into you guys in all these places. Like, while we were waiting for Mom and Dad to come home, there were times you were just there. And then afterwards, at the funeral and the house the other day, see? Did you notice that none of our friends, April or mine, ever showed up this week? Not even our neighbors, although I can't say much about them, since Dad kind of pissed them off anyway. It was just you two, and Gina, who came. Don't you get it? You guys cared, and you didn't hide it from anyone. Not just you, but even your parents came. Don't you see?"

Ethan physically rolled over until he was stretched out on top of Alex, facing him. "Talk about me understanding, I wish YOU would understand some of this too, at least for once. It's a big, fucking deal to me to see that in you guys. Uh, pardon the language," he paused, blushing, but then charged full ahead. "That's why I feel so close to you guys, because out of everyone we know in this stupid, fucking town, you guys are the only ones who cared about me or my sister, or my Grandma. I mean, come on Alex, how can any of us not feel something about that? How can I... can I..." The boy paused as a tear escaped and ran down his cheek. "How can I not love you both, like you were my own brothers or something, too? I get that you two are close, you and Brett. Really, I do! I'm happy you two feel that way and all towards each other, honest, and it doesn't bother me any at all! I sometimes wish I had someone I could feel like that with."

Ethan paused and then pulled back, studying the teen beneath him. "Don't you see, Teach? I'm happy being around you two, because it keeps me from being so lonesome, you know? If I have nothing else, I at least have that, right? I don't care whether you two mess around or anything. The only thing I worry about sometimes, is if you two have any room left. I mean, anywhere you might can fit me inside your hearts for a while. Because... I admitted it, okay? I love you, I fucking love you both. You're the best friends I've ever had, real friends who at least care. Not like these fucking idiots I used to run around with and everything! All they cared about was running with someone who wouldn't let them get the shit beat out of them. They tagged with me for the laughs was all, and I was too stupid to see it."

Alex saw his friend winding down as another tear escaped, one which Ethan was quick to wipe away before he hung his head. He then wrapped his legs around the younger boy, and with his arms threaded around the torso, Alex engulfed Ethan as fully as he could possibly manage. Ethan didn't hide his fears or tears, either, as he silently wept, his nose buried into the crook of Alex's neck. "I owe you, you know? I owe you and Brett so much..."

"You don't owe me anything, Ethan," Alex whispered, sliding his hands freely across the boy's back. "Just being friends has already paid us both a lot."

"Hear, hear," a voice suddenly sounded behind them. Alex glanced up to see Brett stepping into view, clad in his briefs and pulling on his t-shirt again. As he knelt down, he fell haphazardly onto both boys, sandwiching Ethan between them. "Well, other than you maybe owe me a hug, too," he teased. Ethan lifted his head and turned, then moved until he held Brett just as fully as Alex had wrapped him up. Brett closed his eyes and breathed in, relishing the feeling. When he glanced at Alex, he saw moist eyes beaming at him with his own smile. Somehow, without being told, Brett determined what the moment was all about. "You know, we love you too, right?"

Ethan reared back and grinned. "I don't know what I would do without you both, really. Or Gina."

"And April," Alex added, to which Ethan blushed but nodded in agreement.

"Yeah, my sister, too. She's an okay sort, really, once she gets to kind of know you," Ethan replied, wiping again at his eyes as he sat up.

"Well, you might find sisters are a good thing to have around," Brett informed him, twisting to get more comfortable. All three boys were in an odd state of disarray, with various legs and arms tangled around one another.

Alex cleared his throat. "Brett, Ethan was just telling me something, about wondering if you and me could ever have any room between us so he could squeeze in. What do you think?"

"Really?" Brett scoffed. "You don't already know the answer to that?" He turned his attention to Alex. "What do you think? Should we teach him a lesson about understating the obvious?"

Alex grinned. "I don't know, what did you have in mind?"

"Well, I heard this thing about hanging someone upside down in a certain place, once..." Brett teased. "Do you think we could get away with it now? With him?"

Ethan glanced between the two, suddenly suspicious. "Uh, oh... what are you two thinking about now?"

"Teaching you a lesson you'll never forget," Brett hissed, and then took hold of the boy and pulled his upper torso towards him, until he wrapped both arms up in a tight vice. Looking at Alex, he intoned. "So, do you want to do the honors?"

Alex sat up and pulled Ethan's lower body out straight. Before starting anything, he glanced at the younger teen. "We're not going to hurt you or anything. Scout's honor, okay?"

Ethan relaxed. "I don't care, strip me down if that's what you want. Like I said, I'm not nervous around you two or anything."

Alex grinned and then unbuckled Ethan's jeans, followed by sliding the zipper down. Within seconds, he had the garment off and started working with Brett to get the boy's shirt off. Ethan laughed at times, but never resisted, even as an obvious boner began to visibly form inside the briefs the boy was wearing. Then Brett let go and maneuvered himself around to Alex's side, where both grasped a leg and pulled Ethan's underwear free and clear.

Standing, they suddenly grasped a bare leg and arm and dragged Ethan toward the bathroom, where Brett stopped and made a remark at the entrance. "Hmm, I don't know... Do you think we can, like, actually get him in there upside down?"

"So, mad at us? For tonight?" Alex asked.

The three were lying in Alex's bed at the moment, staring at the ceiling. The sound of the air conditioner in the background was all that broke the stillness that had settled around them. It had been a long and exhausting day, having spent several hours at the pool, followed by an evening of wrestling and game playing. As they approached the midnight hour, each had just settled down, with Ethan currently sandwiched between the two older boys. The bed, though roomy enough for two, didn't give as much space for the three to stretch out, at least not without some level of contact. Both Brett and Alex, however, had welcomed the younger body between them, and Ethan didn't object when they both rolled up close.

"What the fuck for? The shower? No way, that was cool, though I have to admit, that water was COLD!" Ethan hissed. "At least at first. My balls are probably going to need a week before they get back to normal, though!"

"You think so?" Brett asked, before inserting his hand inside of Ethan's crotch and playfully feeling his way down inside. "I don't know, they feel pretty normal to me now!"

Ethan laughed, squirming. "Don't, you'll make me grow another boner!"

"So? Won't bother us any..." Brett retorted, but withdrew his hand before rolling face down against the mattress. "Thanks for not screaming at us, though. I thought it would be kind of fun, but only if, you know."

Ethan nodded. "Yeah, I know. I didn't care, though. I told you that before you even started."

"You might not have cared, but it still means something," Alex interjected. "You see? That's part of the difference of trusting each other like brothers, like we do. It's also a part of that thing I talked about with you at camp, about messing around and not feeling funny about it."

"Oh, I get it guys, I really do. No worries, honest," the boy whispered. There was silence for a moment, until Ethan broke it with an exasperated sigh. "Shit! Now I'm getting horny!"

Brett snickered and buried his face into his pillow. Alex giggled outright, but softly. "And... that's whose problem?"

"Right now, it's big doofus's over here, I think. He's the one copping a feel of my junk down there," Ethan snapped back, but giggled as well.

Alex rolled up closer facing the other two. "Well, you heard him, Brett."

"What? What am I supposed to do about it?" was the smart reply, an edge of disbelief crowding in. "Besides, you're right-handed, and lying on his right side! Seems to me..."

In the adjusted night light, Alex saw the look of amusement on Ethan's face. Without any preamble, he pushed his hand down to Ethan's groin and inserted it inside the boy's briefs. Indeed, a four- to five-inch shaft of hardened, but silky-soft flesh met his hand. As he grasped it, Ethan suddenly froze and gasped, but then ever subtly thrust his groin into Alex's hand further. The older teen suddenly had a flashback to when Brett had grabbed him for the first time, and how the excitement had built for himself. He stared at Ethan with a knowing glance, but decided to have a little extra fun. "Okay Ethan, repeat after me," he whispered, while taking the shaft in his hand and massaging it slowly.

Ethan suddenly sucked in his gut, but grinned as he like being so brazenly invaded. "You two are pretty bold, it seems," he whispered. In answer, Alex squeezed the rod firmly, making Ethan gasp. "Okay, okay... sorry! Go on..."

"I do solemnly swear," Alex began, which Ethan repeated. "That I am up to all kinds of naughtiness..." This time the boy giggled, but repeated the phrase as commanded. "... and will forever forgive..." Again repeated, then Alex finished it up. "... what my new brothers do to me tonight."

Even Brett had to laugh as he rolled onto his side again, propping his head up to watch the two. "And you will still be our brother when we wake up in the morning, right?" he asked. Ethan nodded and accepted the oath, before Brett grabbing the boy's briefs and, with Alex's help, pushed the cloth down onto Ethan's thighs. "Hey, I think he has more hairs than he did back at camp," Brett observed, which made Alex push his fingertips down and feel around.

"Yep, I think you're right..." Alex replied slyly. It was the first time either had outright observed the younger boy, fully hard and throbbing, and as they both played while feeling around, Ethan giggled, but felt kind of proud.

It was a night of firsts for the younger teen, and one he would never forget...

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