The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 2

Returning to Life Ahead of the Curve

The weekend passed swiftly enough for everyone living in the Cane Valley region, as the autumn weather turned both fair and cool. News crews from across the state descended upon the area, documenting the path of the tornado and its after-effect sensationally, bringing the town its five minutes of fame, given its out-of-the-way location. The news was illuminating: only five homes in total were destroyed, but there was a multitude of other houses and outbuildings in or near the storm's path that sustained varying levels of damage. The tornado itself was considered a rare event, as one newscaster reported; this small community, known for its quiet solitude more than anything else, had never had such a storm or flooding descend upon it in know memory.

The aftermath left the McAllister family, and others, in humbled quietness for the next couple of days. James and Makalah, along with their sons, scoured their property and the nearby countryside, finding and salvaging what little they could. Gone were the mementos, family heirlooms and pictures – the types of things that recorded their personal history and heritage. Also gone were the toys, Jesse's models, and more that the boys had enjoyed as well – things not horribly of significance in the overall scheme of things, but certainly noteworthy enough to the boys themselves. A few items were found in places, but if not outright broken, usually the water damage made them not worth the effort to preserve. Those pieces found that did stand a remote chance of preserving, were tucked away and stored for safe keeping, as best as could be arranged.

The rest of the community, as well as other localized areas, turned out in droves to lend their assistance to the stricken families and farmers. Some joined in the efforts to search the fields for items of interest, but others came to help in different ways. A lot of food was delivered, both to the shelters and to specific families in places, along with sincere offers to help clean the unkempt carnage that was left behind. Organizers even allocated space in a nearby storage facility by cleaning and consolidating several compartments. Their owners offered them willingly to the various families, giving them a place where they could organize and store treasures or other paraphernalia, while their homes were rebuilt - or until other arrangements could be made.

Several of the men, many from local churches, gathered and helped to secure buildings in need of minor repair. Those that were beyond basic repair were at least reinforced in an attempt to make them sturdier in the coming winter months. With the season only weeks away, along with the holidays just around the corner, most doubted that anyone would see more extensive repairs performed until the spring season rolled around.

Last, but not least, before Sunday evening had arrived and departed, posters and signs began appearing in a multitude of places, inviting the public to attend a benefit concert for all the area's victims at the local school gymnasium. Lists of items needed were suggested, which included small appliances, lamps, linens and even clothes. Surprisingly, most of the children in the families were listed, including Jesse and Benji, and included their ages and basic sizes. It was something that surprised Makalah, and it initially made her feel somewhat uneasy having that information so blatantly displayed in public. Nonetheless, the McAllisters accepted the news and understood that people truly did want to help out in any way they could. It would not restore much in the way of personal losses for the families, but it would at least aid them in rebuilding their lives again, and for that they were grateful.

By Monday morning, both James and Allen were in the older farmhouse, making an assessment of what needed to be done before the McAllisters could move in. They both walked around, or rather James followed the other man who went from room to room, carrying a clipboard and making various notes. As it turned out, most rooms were already in an acceptable state, with only a little minor painting that Allen noted needed to be completed. Most rooms, that is, until the two arrived at the bedroom in the back corner of the house. "Man, oh man, I honestly did NOT know this carpet was that far gone," Allen commented, deeply sighing as he knelt down and grasped hold of a group of loose fibers in the middle of the room. Glancing at other spots, he shook his head. "It really does need replacing, I think."

James studied the room, observing the various baseboards and door frames that had been scratched or scuffed up, some more heavily than what they had found in other rooms throughout the house. "It looks like your tenants might have locked up those pets you told me about. Maybe they used this room more when they wanted to put them out of the way, or go out somewhere. That door there…"

Allen nodded. "Yep, I agree, it'll have to be replaced altogether. Some paint might help it, I know, but some of that wood at the base has been totally ripped off, especially near the corners and along the frame." He lowered his voice, as if speaking to himself. "They trashed the shit out of it, I think!"

"Well, it's nothing that has to be done right away," James conceded. "Although, if you want, I think I have a few interior doors sitting back in the warehouse that might fit."

"Really? Yes, that would be awesome," Allen responded, feeling pleased. "Then all I really need replace some of the facing around the doorway, and get this flooring worked on."

James grunted in agreement. "I think you're right. I really wouldn't want to put Jesse in here with it smelling and trashed up that bad." He turned and sighed apologetically. "I'm sorry, Allen, that's one thing I can't help you out with. We have construction supplies, doors, windows… but not so much finishing materials like this."

"Meh, I knew we'd have a little to do, so nothing to feel sorry about, really." He studied his list briefly. "Say, you do have paint and supplies up at the store, right? THAT would help a lot, I think!"

"Yep," James replied. "We'll get most everything from there, I think – just not the flooring, like I said. I'll foot the bill for that though, regardless of where you get it."

"There's no need to worry about that stuff right now," Allen remarked. "None of this is going to cost that much, anyway. As for the carpet, Millers Flooring should be able to help us out too, so no problem." With that, Allen placed his pen in the clipboard. "So, what do you say we head into town. I need to go by the bank for a bit and take care of some paperwork, and the car rental is right across the street. You should be able to arrange for something to drive easy enough. Afterwards, we'll go and get some paint to get started with. I don't know if we can quite get it all done by nightfall, but I'm sure if we split it up between the afternoon and tomorrow morning, we'll finish it up." He looked around. "Except for in here, we might be even able to get started with setting up some of your rooms by tomorrow. How does all of that sound?"

"It sounds like a plan, really." The way James said it caused Allen to stop and observe the man's expression, whose eyes were fixed at some far-off point outside the room's solitary window. When he turned back, a sheepish expression surfaced at finding his host standing there and waiting for him. "I'm sorry, I was just thinking about the boys is all."

Allen leaned back against the door facing. "How do you mean? Are you thinking there'll be problems with Jesse and Benji staying in here together or something?"

"Oh no, nothing like that," James replied. "They've shared a room before, and quite frankly, you'd be surprised at how well they get along with each other. For brothers, at least."

Allen shook his head. "No, it wouldn't surprise me that much. I remember what it was like growing up with my big brother. He was always good to me, and he never treated me like some snotty underling – although I'm sure I was, at times."

"Really? Some of that sort of describes Jesse, I guess. To tell the truth, there have been a few times I expected some sort of backlash out of him, given the way they interact, but he surprises me. He seems to really love his little brother, in a goofy kind of way, and they avoid a lot of bickering and fights, for the most part. That isn't something Makalah and I have ever had to complain about," James replied.

"Well, after seeing them together this weekend, I believe it," Allen answered before creasing his brow. "So, what is it then? What are you thinking about between them?"

James sighed before returning his gaze to the yard beyond the window again. "I don't know, Allen. It's just, we're here and all, and we're imposing on you and your family enough as it is. You guys have been awesome to us, no doubt. I just wish the boys got along better, I guess. It's just… I mean, Jesse told me last night that he still hasn't had hardly any interaction with Noah, and it… it just got me to thinking about it, that's all. Like, in wondering if there was anything I could do, you know?"

Allen sighed before quietly crossing the floor to join the other man by his side. "I understand how you feel, and I guess I don't blame you. Honestly, Jennifer and I are at a complete loss, too. We don't know what is going on in his head, you know? I could ground him, or turn him over my lap for sure… but I'm wondering if that would really do any good. I get the feeling there is something going on with him on the inside, and that it has been going on for quite some time now - long before you guys ever came into the picture. Getting him to talk to us about it though, or to anyone else for that matter, is like pulling out one's wisdom teeth. He just shuts down, and now with your sons in the house, he's going over the top." The man grunted. "All in all, Jennifer and I are kind of like you. I just wish we could understand it, is all. I mean, if we could at least figure out where it all stems from, then at least we could try to address it, you know?"

James turned and smiled. "Well, for whatever it's worth, I think it will all come out… eventually. I don't envy you and Jennifer with it, but somehow, in some way, it'll all wash out. I mean, I'm no expert on raising kids, but…"

Allen snorted. "You and Makalah seem to be going about it much better than we are at the moment. That, my friend, is experience that we seemed to have missed somewhere, for sure."

"Not necessarily," James fired back. "We've had a few bouts here and there, but I'll admit that maybe they haven't been on this kind of scale. Besides, you know kids are funny these days, aside from just having to be resilient. They have to deal with so much in school, at home, their friends, and everywhere else in between." The man shrugged. "I just hate to see anyone hurting, that's all. I have to agree, it does look like Noah is hurting in some way. I'm sorry to say though, you may need to give it some more time."

"I know." Allen fell silent, quietly contemplating the situation before he laughed out loud. "Well, as soon as we can get something done about this flooring in here, you'll be able to feel like you've got hold of your own family again," Allen offered. "Trust me, I know how that will feel."

James, however, did not let the implication slide. "Maybe, but that has nothing to do with this, Allen," he replied kindly. "I'll say this again: you and your family, Noah included, have been far more tolerant and helpful about all of this, than anyone could ever ask for. To let us come in and interrupt your lives this way, even if only for a few days? It's beyond any measurable price, believe me." He stood a little taller before placing a hand on the other man's shoulder. "The boys will be fine, you'll see. Someday, we'll make it up to you, eventually, but… it may be kind of hard to, you know?"

"You owe us nothing, and we don't want anything in return either," Allen replied, his voice now barely above a whisper. "Jennifer and I just want you guys to have a chance to rebuild, without having to worry about anything more than you have to, that's all. All of this," he paused, waving his hand around him. "It's… well, it's a pleasure seeing it used again, by good people. That's all that matters to me right now."

James hesitated, but then relented, smiling and nodding. "So, let's go see about getting those supplies then…"

Earlier that morning, both Jennifer and Makalah had been in deep discussion, trying to determine an appropriate course of action regarding the boys for the day ahead. "I'm sending Noah to school no matter what, but I still think you should consider keeping Jesse and Benji out for a couple of days. You know the school would grant it easily, counting it as an excused absence and all."

Makalah nodded absently. "Yes, I know, but honestly? I'm not sure there is anything they could really be doing otherwise. I mean, life goes on, right? We all still have obligations and things we have to normally face, even when we're thrown a curve."

"Yes, but… It's no secret that sometimes people need time to adjust, and that includes kids, too. If you send them back too soon, that could be detrimental. Think about it, you guys have just lost everything you spent your lives building together," Jennifer remarked. "From here on out, there are going to be changes, and they may need some steadying time to get ready for it."

"I don't doubt that, but… Okay, look at it another way: if I keep them home, what are they going to do here, other than be reminded of the fact their life has now totally changed? After all, between Saturday and yesterday, we've salvaged about all we can, and they don't need to be over there in that mess when it starts getting cleared away, you know? And… sitting around here under our feet isn't going to help them either." Makalah sat back in her chair and took another sip of her coffee, looking perplexed. "From a mother's perspective, if they were in shock or something, it would be a no brainer. Honestly though, I think they're handling it better than we are. Just how much they're handling it, I'm not so sure, but..."

Jennifer scooted forward and rested her elbows upon the table. "Well then, how about a compromise?" She waited until she had Makalah's attention before continuing. "How about letting them decide, hmm? Jesse certainly seems like he has a level head, and though he's younger, Benji isn't really that far behind him, is he? Just… be willing to go with whatever they tell you either way, I think."

Makalah nodded, obviously liking the train of thought. "You know, that might just be the answer." She smiled. "Thank you! I like that idea!"

Jennifer grinned. "Good! Because I need to go and get Noah up anyway. The bus will run in about 30 to 35 minutes or so."

Five minutes later, Jennifer had roused both teenagers. Although annoyed, Noah rose immediately and entered the bathroom, shutting the door behind him rather forcefully before his mother even left the room. Although Jennifer looked on with a scowl, she did leave, returning to the kitchen to prepare a round of breakfast. Makalah, seeing the coast was clear for the immediate term at least, sat down on the side of the bed to have her discussion with Jesse, and thus explaining her dilemma. "So, what do you think you want to do, honey? I mean, do you feel like going to school, or what?"

Once the cobwebs left, Jesse sat up and contemplated his choices before shrugging. "I guess I could go," he finally announced, though with a level of uncertainty entering his voice. "I mean, I have to go back sometime, and right now is as good a time as any, isn't it?"

Makalah smiled at her son before reaching out and threading her fingers through his hair. "That's kind of what I was thinking. Of course, you don't have to go back so soon. You understand that, right?"

"Yeah. It's okay though, Mom. But… what will I do about my books, and those things? Pencils, tablets and stuff?" Jesse asked.

"Oh! I didn't think about that, really. Did you lose very much?"

"Well, I lost my backpack, some notebooks and… I think my math and science books are gone, too. The rest are probably still in my locker at school," Jess replied thoughtfully.

Makalah stood. "Well, that's something we'll have to conquer later today then, for you and Benji both. Tell you what, when you get home this evening, your father will probably have us a rental that we can use by then. I'll see if we can't all take a little trip out and get you boys some fresh supplies. Does that sound alright? At least then you can both keep up with your school work and all, while we work on the rest."

"Sounds good," Jess nodded. He pushed the covers back and swung his feet over the side, keeping the sheet drawn over his lap for good measure. "Um, give me just a few, Mom. I'll be right up."

Makalah smiled and nodded before exiting the room. Jesse yawned before glancing toward the bathroom door. He really needed to relieve himself, but with no sound coming from within, he reconciled himself to the fact he might do better going upstairs. Moving over to the 'box', a place where a few clothes had been recently assembled, he pulled out the basics of what he needed for the day. Slipping on his jeans, the teenager then picked up his tennis shoes before glancing around the bedroom one last time. With a deep sigh, he then turned and left the room, following his mother back upstairs.

"Oh shit, man, you weren't kidding, were you!" Pete Haskell III hissed, or Pete the Third as some called him. Noah was just sauntering down the aisle of the bus, approaching the group with a deep look of annoyance, both at his current situation and at the outburst his friend had just made. All on the bus just watched as Noah and Jesse climbed aboard, the former leading the way without so much as even a backward glance. Jesse, however, simply sat down in an empty seat only a few rows behind the driver, and ignored the various stares he received from the others on the already half-filled bus.

"Ow!" Pete suddenly exclaimed through clenched teeth, before he rapidly glanced at the girl sitting next to him. Linda Hopperton had jabbed the bigger boy in his side, and not unkindly. "What the hell was that for?" he hissed again, rubbing the spot tenderly.

"Keep your damned voice down, you moron!" she growled back. Indeed, some of the nearby students had turned at his initial outcry, their curiosity piqued.

Noah ignored them both for the most part, choosing to drop down into the seat in front of them. Pulling his knees up and propping them against the next seat in front, he finally spoke. "Yes, I told you guys Saturday. They're the big fucking charity project my parents brought down on us," he whispered, staring stonily at the back of Jesse's head.

Pete relaxed, but not without keeping an eye on the girl beside him. Linda also retreated, sighing in frustration, definitely coming to the conclusion they were both hopeless. In the meantime, Pete leaned in closer to Noah. "So, has he tried to catch you, you know… in the buff and all yet?"

Noah grunted, then pushed the boy away playfully, causing Pete to laugh. After a moment, Noah responded. "No, and I'm not giving him a flippin chance, either!" he muttered, his voice barely above a whisper.

Pete snickered. "Well, you'd better keep your bathroom door locked then, if I were you. No telling what he's done that you don't know about, right?" he added, all the while poking his elbow into the girl seated next to him.

Noah turned back to stare at the teen. "Are you nuts, Haskell? Why is it you always have to bring out the worst of something, especially in times like this?"

"Because he's a knucklehead, aside from being an asshole, that's why," Linda interjected. One look by Pete however, silenced her as he leaned forward again.

"Why? Just because, that's why! Tell me, do you want some ass-loving tail-peeper setting his sights on you, Cook?" The boy set both his hands on the back of the seat and then stared ahead toward the front of the bus. "Shit, he even looks like a fairy slut, don't he? Seriously, there's no telling how many boys he's gotten himself all boned up over." The teen shook his head. "It ain't right, I tell you… it ain't right. We had it all clean here you know, before HE came along!"

"You're an ass, Pete. That kid has been here for years, probably since the beginning. If it was clean before, as you call it, it's most likely still that way, dickwad!" Linda declared, clearly annoyed at the conversation.

Noah simply sat back in his seat with his face devoid of emotion, as he watched Jesse in the distance. Pete, however, ignored the girl completely, instead replicating Noah's obvious gaze and becoming more restless. "We'll have to do something about it, I tell you. We can't let some fucking queer come in here and grease any of us up," he whispered, more to himself than anything else.

It was then that Noah deeply frowned. He had known Pete for almost three years now, and although the teen was not known to be the most level-headed individual he had come across, he at least made sensible choices and acted reasonably around others most of the time. Pete had made jokes before, even some regarding the various lifestyles that were becoming more prevalent day in and day out. This, however, was the first true homophobic threat that Noah had heard that had any real substance to it. Was it real, or just a potential threat in the making? Or, was it just Pete the Third simply venting? Noah wasn't sure, but quite honestly, it bothered him for some reason. When he finally spoke again, he latched onto something else the teen had just said. "Grease us…?"

Pete rolled his eyes. "Fuck you, Cook! You know fully well what I meant!" he hissed, before sitting back in his seat hard. "Dork, why don't you just grow up!" he added, though he had whispered it so low that no one else made it out. Instead, Pete spoke low into the air around him. "I'll say one thing, that bastard is lucky his little brother goes to grade school. Or rather, maybe that isn't so lucky after all…" With that, he turned angrily to watch the landscape rolling by, falling into silence for the rest of the trip.

Noah caught Linda's eye at one point and raised his eyebrow, but her frown told him not to pursue it any further. The thing was, Noah really didn't know... and after that exchange, he wasn't too sure he wanted too.

"Jesse? Can you stop by here on your way out, please?"

Jesse looked up at hearing his name called out, but then simply nodded as he stood and gathered what few things he had collected from his locker. The bell had just sounded, startling students and signaling the need to move toward their first period classes. As the various bodies around him also stood and began clearing out, the teen made his way up to the main desk, where Mrs. Bagby stood patiently waiting. She was both his homeroom and science teacher this year, and that pleased him to no end, as the woman was probably the second nicest teacher he had ever had in school. "Yes, ma'am? You wanted to see me?"

Mrs. Bagby smiled before lowering her voice. "I was surprised to see you back in school today, that's all. Are you and your family doing alright, given everything that has happened?"

"Uh, yes ma'am. I think so, anyway. We're working on moving in next door to some friends of ours, and… and…" Jesse fell silent, uncertain as to what else he should say.

"Well, that's marvelous, really! To find somewhere that fast, I mean. Listen though, if there is anything we can do, any of us at all, don't hesitate to say something, alright?" The offer was genuine, and the effect did make the teen relax somewhat. He already knew of one topic that would have to be brought up, and since she was his science teacher, now was as good a time as any.

"Um, thanks ma'am. The only thing I can think of right now though, is that both my science and math book were home with me for the weekend when everything happened. So, I kind of need to come up with some replacements," Jesse explained timidly.

"Oh, I don't think that will be a problem. I'll head down to the bookstore in a few minutes and see what I can come up with. You have… Algebra II, right? Mr. Garland?" Mrs. Bagby asked.

"Yes, ma'am, and biology with you, too," Jesse added, but then blushed. "Of course, you know that already," he chided himself, causing the older woman to laugh.

"Yes, but I wouldn't worry about it. You're allowed to have a little confusion for the next bit, I think. Is there anything else? Do you have paper, pencils and such for the day?"

"I have some notebooks, yeah, from my other classes, but I've lost all my notes from before. Oh, and I honestly don't have anything to write with yet, either. I was going to go by the bookstore, but the bus got here a little late, and, well, you know…"

Mrs. Bagby drew herself up straighter. "Of course, I understand. Then to top it all, here I am taking up your time, too, aren't I? Listen, what say you and I just take a little walk together right now, down to the cave, as you teenagers like to call it. That is, if you're not afraid to be seen walking the halls with an old woman, this early in the morning."

Jesse giggled. "You're not old, Mrs. Bagby, and of course I'd walk with you!" he announced, causing the woman to smile brightly. They left the room then, idly chatting about the storm experience, all the while making their way through the mass of students both coming and going through the halls. After some distance, they turned into a central corridor of the school and walked right up to the supply office, which doubled as both the school's bookstore and a concession stand for the school's supplies. Stepping inside the door, they were met at a small counter by a tall, lanky student who looked as if he was in the process of closing everything up.

"Mr. Petticoat," she announced. "Would you be so kind as to reach back there and pull out a couple of ink pens and some mechanical pencils? Oh, and grab us a couple of those notepads over there too, the college-ruled ones." Although surprised, the tall teen turned and obeyed, retrieving and giving the requested items to the woman directly, who then turned and handed them over to Jesse. "There, that should do you for the short term at least. Do you have anything to carry your books and things in?"

"Um, not yet, ma'am. Mom said this morning she would take me and my brother out tonight to get some things after school," Jesse replied, his voice small in comparison to hers and the loud sounds beginning to break up around them.

When she heard that, she turned and leaned over the counter, looking at something underneath. "There they are! Simon, hand me one of those school backpacks there," she instructed, which the teen complied. Taking the pack, she handed it over to Jesse as well. "There, it's yours. Don't worry about paying for it, or any of these things for that matter." She glanced back at the working teen who was listening in keenly. "Just add it all up and bring me a voucher, Simon. I'll settle everything up before the day is out."

The teen nodded with a smile. "Uh, yes ma'am, I'll bring it to you later," he replied.

Jesse glanced between both and then graciously thanked them, before Mrs. Bagby shooed him out of the room. "Go on, tell your teacher I held you up picking up some supplies. Ms. Butterworth will forgive you this once, I'm sure." With that, Jesse smiled and hurried out in the direction of his locker, thanking her again as he departed.

"Excuse me, ma'am, but… was that one of them that got messed up with that storm last Friday?" Simon Petticoat asked as they both stared after the retreating figure.

"Yes, he is. From what I understand, all those families lost about everything they had," Mrs. Bagby replied quietly.

"Then don't worry about the voucher, ma'am. We have a small fund back here, just for things like that. I'll take it out of there and square everything up, if that's alright with you," he muttered, his voice deep but laced with understanding. "I have to get Mr. Green's permission first, but I think we can pull any textbooks out for him, too."

Mrs. Bagby glanced up at the taller boy. "Why, thank you Simon! I think that would do quite nicely! I'm meeting with our dear principal here in just a little bit, so I'll bring that up with him if you like, too. Still, if you need a little, just let me know, alright?"

"We won't, but thanks anyway," the teen replied as she walked away. When she was out of sight, he quietly pulled out his wallet and withdrew a $20 bill, which he then dropped into the cashbox before closing it up. It was more than enough to cover the items taken, and he smiled at himself satisfactorily. To him, the donation was worth every penny, not just for Jesse, but anyone else who might need a little help, too.

With that, Simon then finished closing up the cave, before proceeding to his own first period class, just as the tardy bell began to ring.

The morning passed agreeably for Jesse, as he moved on from first one class to the next. Some of his peers were surprised to see him there, but pleased enough anyway. Many, even people he had hardly ever conversed with before, asked how he was doing, while others questioned him about the experience of living through the tornado itself. Jesse didn't mind, really, but eventually it began to get tiring. Finally, during his third-period science class, Mrs. Bagby set aside several minutes at the beginning so they could all chat about what happened. Jesse gave a first-hand account of what it was like for him and his family just before, during and after the twister had struck. As he talked, their teacher pointed out specific details, and reinforced the conversation with what science had uncovered in recent years, about the chaos such storms left behind. Although it had been an unplanned excursion, Mrs. Bagby extended the discussion by taking them all through a drill, explaining why people are always taught to move to the lowest level, why they take precautions to cover themselves, and much more. By the end of the period, most everyone was chatting excitably, having felt they learned something more important and pertinent for a change. It was not the first time. Mrs. Bagby had a way of bringing real life events into the classroom, always finding ways to poke and prod her classes into scientific conversations - whether they directly involved biology or not. It was one of the reasons that students favored her more down-to-Earth attitude than that of the others.

Moving through the lunch line, Jesse selected a simple sandwich and milk. He knew he had no money on him, but he had seen others get a break at times, and he, for once, was feeling rather hungry. Moving outside from the self-serve tables, the teenager made his way to where the cashier sat in a tall chair, joining a line of students who had already began to gather. When it came his turn, he paused and looked at the woman apologetically. "Um, I don't have anything on me today, ma'am. Dad is heading to the bank though, so I'll probably be back on track tomorrow. Is that okay? Just this once?"

The silver-haired lady turned to look up at him initially with a deep frown on her face. When she saw who she was dealing with, however, she stopped. It was no secret that the woman usually dealt with certain repeat offenders, all of whom often took advantage of her. This teenager, she realized, was not one of them and it caused her to pause before clearing her throat. "Your name?" she drawled, but not unkindly.

"Um, Jesse McAllister, ma'am," the teen responded quietly. She started to write his name upon her pad, but then suddenly stopped again and frowned. Flipping it over, she found his name was already scribbled along with two other names at the top of the page. She set the pad down and turned back to him.

"Okay, go. I've been told to give you young'uns a pass for the week, if you need it," she explained, equally as quietly as he had spoken. Looking down at his tray, she nodded. "That sure isn't very much. Why don't you go back and get something more? Maybe pick up a piece of fruit, or an extra milk if you like. You don't have to worry about paying for them, alright?"

Surprised, Jesse thanked the lady and retreated, although blushing. It was not something he was used to doing, but he was grateful for the moment as he contemplated her offer. Deciding to take advantage of it for once, he moved back through the line again, only this time he found some chips and a banana which he added to his tray, as well as an extra carton of milk.

As Jesse walked back into the cafeteria, he began contemplating where he was going to sit. Just as he started moving toward an area of tables not yet populated, he suddenly stopped when he sensed someone come up beside him. "Hey, Jesse!"

The teen turned to see Addison standing there, holding her own food tray. "Hey!" he replied, grinning.

"Do you want to come and sit with us?" the girl asked, tilting her head toward one of the corners. Jesse followed her gaze and observed several older teens who were already sitting, some of whom were waving at them both. Although he hesitated, Jesse did let her steer him in their direction. Rarely did grades mix, especially at lunchtime, unless someone wanted to sit with family, so Jesse knew this was an exception. Once he was seated though, the table came alive as Addison introduced him and they discovered he was one of the storm's survivors. From that point onward, Jesse found it hard to even eat his lunch, as he was bombarded with questions from around the table constantly. He had to laugh at one point, but all was done good-naturedly as the group seemed to be genuinely interested. It was perhaps the one time he didn't really mind repeating the details yet again.

What Jesse did not notice, however, was that not far away, another group of boys sat in silence, earnestly watching the teen and his new group of acquired friends. "Look at the little slut," Jimmy Edwards breathed, his voice barely heard by the others.

A second, hawkish-looking teen nodded. "I heard he had a bodyguard walking him to class this morning, too."

A third looked at the first two, confused. "Who?"

"Bagby, I think," replied the second.

Another individual simply shrugged. "So? What's wrong with that?"

"That's the fairy-boy we've been telling you about," Jimmy replied quietly.

The third glanced in the direction of Jesse again, but then shook his head. "What are you two getting on at? He doesn't look like any kind of slut to me!" The boy grumbled, before adding, "Probably not even big enough to have a washy ass!"

"Keep it down!" Pete hissed, surprising the others as he suddenly arrived and sat down with them. "You want one of these eff-ing wardens to hear you?"

The hawkish teen turned back to him, almost choking as he sputtered and laughed. "Why, look at you, mister all high and mighty today! You don't even know what the fuck we're talking about anyway, see?"

Pete turned to look at him directly. "I assume it's about fairy boy over there, isn't it? Why, has he been caught jerking off or something today? I wonder which one of these wardens he's in the ring with?" he replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

In response, the teen become even more exasperated. "Shit, Petey, how many times do I have to tell you? The fucking principal is the warden you asshole! These teachers and everyone else are nothing more than the piss-ant guards!"

"Whatever," Pete growled back, before sitting back in his chair. It was an old joke amongst them, nothing which hadn't been argued before. Usually, the group would simply laugh it off, but now Pete Haskell's mind was set on something else. "You guys know Noah, right? Noah Cook? He told me the other day the kid's been staying at his house, trying to get his paws all over him. He also said the fairy likes to take long, hot showers with his brother, too."

"What?! You're shitting me!" a fourth teen spoke up in surprise. "You mean it then? He's really a… well, a…"

"It sure looks that way to me, yeah. A true fucking-miserable-excuse-for-a-human-being twinkle-toes fairy, alright," Pete whispered.

"A cock-sucker? Him? I don't believe it," whispered the third teen again incredulously. "Here? In Adair county?"

The fourth boy leaned forward again, shaking his head. "That's not going to turn out good for him, you know. Remember a couple of years back? That Dennis… Dennis what's-his-name?"

"Yeah, maybe, but Dennis Brown left before it got too rough, and afterwards we had a clean school again," Pete replied, his expression remaining sour. "I'll tell you one thing, though. I have a feeling a certain someone is going to follow him right out the door, and soon. I'll tell you something else, too: that fucker may not make it out as nicely as Dennis-fucking-Brown did when he disappeared. You know what I mean, fellas?"

The third boy frowned. "Better watch it, Pete. Talk like that is going to land your ass where you don't want to end up, man. I'm serious, it'll screw you up, big time!" he murmured quietly. A teen sitting on his other side, who had sat through the entire exchange in silence, nodded in agreement.

Pete turned to glimpse at the boy, who observed the withering stare before he shook his head and retreated. Then, as Pete took another bite of his sandwich, his expression suddenly softened. "Why, whatever do you mean, Jonas? I'm a perfect little angel, you fellas know that! There ain't nothing gonna happen around here! No sir… nothing at all."

The other boys around the table looked at each other, some grinning while others frowned. The words spoken were hollow, but each of them knew Pete was somewhat of a brash individual at times. They had frankly never heard the boy so riled up over such a touchy subject before, so that bothered some of them. Intentional or not, the subject of gay lifestyles was something that could bring out the worst in people, and because of their friend's utter disapproval and resonating reaction, they could not help but be put on their guard.

One of them looked back in the direction where Jesse was sitting and wondered if the kid had any idea of what was developing. He hoped, for the teen's sake, the boy was prepared for it…

In the six given periods of a school day, the Kentucky State Department of Education highly recommended that local districts give secondary school students the option to have one of those periods assigned as a study hall. That is, unless they were extenuating circumstances, or the student was among those participating in extracurricular activities, such as clubs or sports. You were considered to be uncannily lucky if you were among the elite that had that period scheduled near the end of the day. In theory, those with homework could then get the bulk of it done, if not all, before leaving school afterwards. Many of them, especially those in the higher grades, took advantage of it because they worked evening jobs locally, or were working where needed as farm hands.

Others however, had a different view altogether, including Noah Cook. The teen, dressed in his usual deeply dark overtones, sat back in his chair at one point during his final period and stretched hard, before glancing up at the nearby clock and grunting. There were still fifteen minutes remaining before the day would finally come to an end, and the book he was reading for English was incredibly dull, making it hard holding his attention. He wasn't the only one antsy, either. He noted several others copying his practice and checking the time, giving him at least a little satisfaction of knowing he wasn't alone. As he stretched a second time, the hem of his long-sleeved black t-shirt lifted up, exposing the stark contrast of his abdomen underneath, which was not ignored by the girl seated next to him. Playfully, Linda glanced around to assure the coast was clear before reaching out and poking his bared skin in the side. That gesture caused Noah to start, before bringing his arms back down abruptly in protest. He glanced at her and grunted, but then scoffed as he saw her smirk. "Hey, don't touch the merchandise!" he whispered. "Especially where it tickles like that!"

"Well, then stop flashing your belly around, and maybe some of us won't be so tempted," Linda replied in low tones.

"Yeah, yeah," Noah intoned, before slumping back down in his chair. "Just admit it, you can't help keep your hands off of me." He grinned. "Of course, if you'd just go out with me, then you wouldn't have to poke. I'd let you feel me up all you wanted to then, you know?"

Linda rolled her eyes. "You're impossible, you know that? Sheesh, almost as bad as Pete!" She had said it a little louder than she intended, but after looking around, no one seemed to be paying either of them any attention. The library's main room was fairly large by most standards, and with all the bodies currently crammed inside at the moment, it was impossible to not have a little discussion going on here and there. She turned back to the boy beside her. "I already have a boyfriend though, as you well know, bug face, and he lets me grab all of his love handles I want, thank-you-very-much! Besides - I didn't see anything under there that would make me lose any sleep, to tell the truth."

Two other boys sitting nearby and listening in giggled just then. "Oh man, that was a burn, big time!" one of them remarked, which in essence was true. Noah blushed, feeling suddenly hurt as his cheeks turned a rosy red. Sadly, he didn't have a comeback for that, which was unusual for the quick-witted teen. So, instead he turned his attention back to his book and sighed.

Linda, however, took pity on the teen. Although there was a little more than a year between them, she had to admit that, even though he was awkward at times, Noah wasn't half-bad for a 14-year-old. She coyly leaned over and bumped Noah's shoulder with her own, causing him to look up and find a genuine smile that was almost apologetic. He returned it half-heartedly, and was on the brink of finally saying something when a hushed silence suddenly descended over the group. Their study hall teacher, a portly man with a no-nonsense attitude, appeared and decided to remain nearby until the class bell sounded, thus preventing any further exchanges between them.

Noah headed to his locker and, as he did on most days, quickly stored all he was carrying inside. School, in general, was a bore to the teenager. Most of his classes were low-grade, with limited or marginal homework at best. Most, that is, except for mathematics. How he had gotten stuck into taking an Introduction to Algebra and Trigonometry course for the year, he had no idea, but if he had a way to slide out of it, he most certainly would have already done so. Instead, the school's guidance counselor had prevailed upon him to take on a bigger challenge, reasoning that he might enjoy it, given he already had a proven record excelling in mathematics. Against his better judgment, reluctantly he could think of no reason to offer otherwise, so he relented. Before the first three weeks had even completed, however, Noah had already started regretting it. It was by far his most difficult subject to date, but thankfully he was not alone. Although they had been introduced to the basics of variables the year before, he discovered most of his class was having just as hard of a time adapting to the constant use of "unknowns" and equations, right up there with him.

That is, everyone except Jesse McAllister. Although they were technically in the same grade, it was the only class that he and Noah shared together besides Phys Ed. No one counted physical education as a real class, per se, since it was only good for exercising and keeping active. Math, on the other hand, was one of those academic course where the other teen seemed to excel, and that thought made Noah cringe outright. Numerous times, their teacher Mr. Garland liked to tease the class with theorems or other thought-provoking problems, things that made everyone have to think exceptionally hard. While most sat, isolated and quietly hoping they wouldn't be called upon, Jesse was among the few who seemed to not mind it at all. It was not that the teen was considered a show-off; not even close, really. But there were times Mr. Garland would pose a question, and when no one would speak up, he would turn around and then add, 'Can anyone answer me besides Jesse?' Although Noah had no idea what Jesse's grades were like, it was obvious to the class the teen must be doing well – certainly better than the rest of them since he was singled out so much.

It was another one of those annoyances that Noah, and the circle of older friends he hung with, had to deal with. In some ways, it made them look inferior to the teen, especially when set against the backdrop of someone like Jesse's character. The usually quiet but awkward boy never reached out to anyone hardly, and thus was thought of as a real outcast by some. Noah didn't exactly know why it was that way, but when he started running with his group, it became obvious right away that something separated them from the kid. At first, Noah just figured it was because they were older, but then he realized one day that he, himself, was Jesse's age. The group didn't shut Noah out, so from that point onward, he figured there was something else. There had to be, right?

When it came to math, however, it was made more abundantly clear that they all thought of Jesse differently. Although at times Mr. Garland had suggested the group might benefit from having extra help, not a single one of them had any desire to study with Jess McAllister, the loner. Thankfully, thus far, they had avoided being put together or teamed up with him, although Mr. Garland did pair Jesse up with others in the class from time to time to help solve a problem.

Noah took a few seconds to think back to other times when the teen had been around any of them. Lunch, study halls, and passing in the hallways were the extent Noah had interacted with the kid, if you could call it that. The only exception was that this year, they shared Phys Ed together. Thankfully, it was a large class, and in most of the activities, everyone was subdivided into groups which had left them separated. Although Jesse had no real aggressive presence, he wasn't all that bad. The teen did try, and he performed as well as some of the others who had no real prowess in their games. The only thing that separated him from most of the other team members was his refusal to shed his shirt in any of the team events. When teams played against each other, such as in games of basketball especially, usually one side would give up their garments and thus create a shirts-versus-skins game on the floor. Jesse was the only boy in the entire class who refused to remove his, creating a variety of cat-calls and snickers throughout the teams when it occurred. Once divided, if he ended up being assigned to a skins team, the coach would have him trade with someone on the other team, but not without some annoyance. It was one of those things that made him strange and different to everyone else, and that fact puzzled Noah to no end. After all, the teen was built no differently than the rest of them. He wasn't chubby, and from what Noah could recall noticing, he seemed to be as healthy, if not healthier, than most others in the class. So, was it a self-conscious thing, or just a pure shyness of some sort? Noah, along with most everyone else, had no idea.

Grabbing his jacket, Noah made his way out to the buses that were already lined up and raring to get started. Walking toward the end of the line, he finally climbed aboard the one he knew would take him home. He immediately saw that Jesse had already boarded, and was sitting again only a few rows behind the driver. This time, however, the teen was already slumped down in his seat and staring out the window. Sighing, Noah shook his head as he passed, before heading toward the back where his friends were already gathered. As Noah approached, however, he was surprised to find that Jimmy was riding with them today, and already sitting next to Pete. "Hey, sup?" Noah greeted the teen with curiosity, his eyebrow raised. Jimmy simply glanced up and nodded, but then returned to a somewhat earnest discussion with Pete and blocking the newcomer out.

Noah frowned, as it became quickly evident that he wasn't necessarily welcomed to join them. Seeing this, Linda slid closer to the window, vacating a spot which Noah ended up accepting. As the conversation behind them continued in hushed tones, the teen turned to the girl with another raised eyebrow. "What's up with them?" he asked in low tones.

"I honestly don't know, I just got here." Although Linda shrugged, something about her expression told Noah that she wasn't revealing everything. The girl glanced back at the trio, before leaning in close to Noah. "Knowing them, they're probably scheming how they're gonna get some snatch Friday night," she breathed, rolling her eyes. "You know, Mariah's birthday party? By the way, are you going?"

Noah sighed deeply. "I got invited, but… no, I won't be going. Mom turned me down flat out," he explained, blushing.

Linda laughed at his reaction. "Well, you have to admit, most everyone going will be older, more grown up and all," she offered coyly.

Noah looked up with his eyes narrowed. This was not the first time she or the group had played that hand with him, try as he might to fit in. Though he considered this girl to probably be among his closest friends, she could still be a handful at times in the way she teased him. "Fuck you," he breathed, clearly annoyed at the merriment in her expression, before he sat back as she laughed.

Pete happened to looked up and lean forward just then. "What, did I miss something?" he asked mischievously.

Linda was about to answer when she noticed the stony expression that had set in on the younger teen's face. Thinking back to the library only moments before, she finally decided maybe this shouldn't be a pick-on-Noah day, after all. Shaking her head, she relented. "Nothing, just an old joke," she replied. Pete observed her closely, but seeing he wasn't going to get anything more out of her, turned his attention back to the other boys with him.

Linda sat back and drew her legs up onto the seat in front of her. After a moment, she nudged Noah with her elbow. "I'm sorry. I guess that was kind of mean, wasn't it," she offered in way of an apology.

"Forget it," Noah hissed back, but at least he seemed to relax more. "You know, I don't understand why you guys treat me that way," he added finally, the exasperation clearly evident. "I mean, I try to be, you know, as normal as the rest of you."

Linda was surprised to hear his feelings expressed that way, something rare for the teen. She studied him, thinking about how to respond, without diminishing his spirits any further. "Noah, you're cute, and funny, and… I don't know, there's a lot of good things about you."

Noah grunted. "Yeah, right. You can't even touch me without making fun of my body in some way. You know, I was only kidding today in study hall, but you… you took it to be more than that."

Linda sighed. "I know you were, but… I just made a comeback to your comeback, didn't I? Or at least, I thought that's what I was doing."

Noah watched her closely. "I think you said something about not seeing anything under there, meaning my belly, that would make you lose any sleep, right? That's not a comeback Linda, that's… that's…" Noah closed his eyes and just sat back, clearly unable to finish his thought.

"You're right, Noah, and I'm sorry. I really am," she whispered. Sighing deeply, she chose her next words carefully. "Look, there are some things about you that some of us don't always understand sometimes, okay? But that's true about each of us, really. I mean, look at Pete and Jimmy back there. You're a lot more mature, or more matured for your age anyway, than they are – and they're over a year or more older, you know? But … you're not in the same league. You're… I don't know the word, but they're assholes sometimes. I don't think I've ever seen you be like that. Its why I like you so much, because, well, you're one of my best friends."

Noah sat silently for a moment, digesting what she was saying, but then he sighed. "If you talked to my Mom or Dad, they'd tell you what kind of an asshole I've been lately, and you might not think that anymore." He looked up at her. "I know you have a boyfriend, and I know you two have, well, you know. But sometimes, like you poked me today, it makes me think… I don't know…"

"That I'm flirting with you?" Linda asked. When Noah nodded, she smiled at him. "Not flirting, Noah. Just… being a good friend. I figure you trust me at least a little bit, if nobody else. That was just having some fun, that's all." She hesitated, thinking about what he had said earlier. "Listen, I know I was mean, and I apologize for it. Your skin is just as nice as Tyler's is, honest," she whispered.

Noah scoffed. "Yeah, right…"

"No, seriously," Linda whispered, and then sneaked her hand over to his side. This time the girl did not poke him, but softly rubbed up against the little space of flesh she found. "I'm not flirting though, Noah. Not really, I'm just telling you I'm not afraid of you, that's all."

Noah considered for a few seconds before relenting. "Okay, I guess." He looked back up and smiled. "Tyler is a lucky guy, I think, to have you." Sighing, he turned to look out the window. "I'm sorry, too."

"Nah, you have nothing to be sorry about. Especially if you're trying to process mixed signals like that," she replied, before sitting up straighter. "However, watch out for those behind us. They're always scheming on things, like right now. I'm not too sure I even WANT to know what's going on."

Noah made a face as he heard the hushed tones, but couldn't make out a thing they were saying. "Do you, I don't know, do you think that's a bad thing?"

Linda studied briefly before responding. "No, but… after what I overheard this morning, something is giving me the creeps right now."

"Oh," Noah replied. "I guess I played a role in that, too."

"Maybe, but it really wasn't the same. I've never heard Petey get so riled up about something like this," Linda commented. "You didn't say anything that would have been any different for somebody else in the same situation. I mean, you were defending yourself more than anything else."

Noah had to agree with that statement, but he would not let himself off the hook that easily. "I'm just trying to be friends, Linda," he whispered after another moment. "I'm just trying to fit in."

"Really? Then here's some advice: stop trying so damn hard. We ARE your friends," the girl replied. She jerked her thumb towards the back. "Most of these people wouldn't give you the time of day if you weren't." She glanced back, and then lowered her voice to almost a whisper as she jerked her thumb in the direction of the boys behind them. "Just be careful, okay? I… I don't like the little pieces I'm hearing, and I suspect you wouldn't, either."

Noah noted the change in her expression. "Seriously?" he whispered.

Linda stared at him for a long moment before giving him a slight nod. "It's not something to talk about here though, okay?" she whispered. "Maybe some other time."

When it was obvious that he wasn't going to learn anything else, Noah then nodded and sat back again. His curiosity escalated exponentially, but as he tried to strain and listen in, he could catch nothing other than occasional giggles from the group. Glancing at Linda, he saw her watching him, but before he could say or do anything, she inconspicuously moved a finger in front of her lips. It was a universal sign that told him not to pursue it any further. At least, not for now.

None of the boys seated behind them paid any attention for the duration of the ride, which was something else that seemed odd to Noah. Whatever was going on, there was a level of mystery and secrecy he wasn't used to being excluded from. When the bus neared his house, Noah finally stood and began to move forward. When he watched Jesse do the same, a sudden feeling of annoyance overcame him again, although he would have been hard pressed to explain why. Instead, once the bus came to a stop, the teen followed his 'guest' down and off the steps, until they had crossed the road and into their driveway. The hiss of the hydraulics letting go behind them indicated the bus was loudly moving on, leaving the two alone as they headed toward the house.

As soon as the bus was out of sight, however, Jesse stopped and turned to face Noah, effectively blocking his way. "Hey, can I at least ask you something?" he spoke quietly, surprising the other boy. The entire ride home had left Jesse preoccupied, trying to decide whether or not to confront his host about the last few days. In the end, he had decided he could at least bring it up, and see how the other teen responded.

When it was obvious the teen stood there waiting for a reply, Noah finally grunted. "What?"

Jesse screwed his face up for a second and then plunged ahead before he had time to change his mind. "What's the problem? What have I done, that makes you so blatantly hate the fact I have to walk the Earth with you, huh?" He kept his voice even, masking the mixed set of emotions that kept rolling from one moment to the next. He wanted to find some way to break the ice, if indeed it wasn't an iceberg too big already that couldn't be surmounted. Whether he would succeed, however, would have to now depend on Noah's answer.

Noah stood in silence, studying the boy in front of him. Although he wanted to scoff at the idea as if it was utter nonsense, it caused him to pause and reflect. What was it that had started all of this? He rapidly went back in his mind, trying to find some spark or beginning, one that had forced his feelings on the matter, but surprisingly, he couldn't. Noah suddenly realized, in that moment, he had no idea why he was acting the way he did. That bothered him on a deeper level, and as he contemplated it, several seconds passed between them.

Jesse finally sighed and moved aside, giving up on getting any kind of response at all. He turned, intending to move on across the lawn, when Noah finally spoke up. "You're here, you're in my bedroom, you eat with us, and you're sharing my things, aren't you? What makes you think I despise or hate you?"

Jesse turned back with an astonished expression. "Uh, come again? You've been about as unfriendly and un-communicative as a python readying to strike its next victim, that's why. Besides, I figure your parents are making you put up with me, at best anyway. I just, I'd really like to know why? What have I done? You... you're… like a panther or something all the time, ready to pounce, and I can't figure it out."

Although there was a great deal of truth in those words, it suddenly annoyed Noah to have to hear them. He started moving forward again, passing his guest, but after a few feet he stopped and turned around. "I'm sorry I haven't been a such a bosom buddy to you or the little rodent," he half-sneered.

The response surprised Jesse at first, but then he felt a bubble of anger building up. Before the other teen could turn back away, Jesse took two quick steps and grabbed Noah by the elbow. "Listen, and listen good: you and your pals, you can say anything you want about me, even crap for all I care - but you'd better leave Benji out of it! I mean it, Noah - if you guys have a problem with me, then you'd keep them with just me! DO NOT take your half-assed, shitty attitude out on him! He doesn't deserve it!"

Noah was taken aback at how the conversation had jumped, but before he could assess the new direction it took, he suddenly sneered. "Why, forevermore, what makes him any more special than you, I wonder?"

Frustrated, Jesse squeezed the elbow in his hand so hard that it was everything Noah could do to keep from wincing. Jesse saw he had the desired effect though, so he inched ever closer. When he spoke again, his voice lowered to a threateningly new and dangerous level. "He's special Noah, because he's my little brother, man." He released some of the pressure before he added, "I'm serious, don't even think of laying in on him, or you guys will have to deal with me, no matter what it takes!"

Noah contemplated some sort of retaliation, but seeing the fierce look of determination that met him gave him pause to consider otherwise. He yanked his elbow free and then turned, stomping his way as he headed toward the rear door. Jesse watched him forge ahead, but also noticing the teen as he rubbed the elbow which had been under grips. Jesse thought, for just an instant, maybe he had grabbed and squeezed too hard, but that was behind them both now. When Noah had entered and slammed the door shut before Jesse could arrive, it delivered a clear message behind him.

Jesse sighed before reaching out to enter the house. "Well, that went well, I guess," he mockingly teased himself. "Or, maybe not…"

When Noah reached his room only moments later, he had to restrain himself from slamming the door shut. He knew that somewhere his mother was roaming the house, and right now he did not want to have to deal with her - especially since his eyes were stinging from an onset of tears he was fighting to hold back. Losing the battle though, and hearing what had to be Jesse walking about upstairs, he suddenly turned and hurried into the bathroom, closing and locking the door behind him. He then turned on the shower full-force to mask the sounds he was unable to hold in, as he finally sat down on the toilet and placed his head in his hands. The tears came unbidden then, but surprisingly not from anger at Jesse or the situation they had just confronted, nor from the grip that had left his elbow feeling less than stellar.

Instead, Noah cried because of the confusion he was feeling internally. Everything Jesse had asked and said, Noah knew he had had a right to do so. Why it had taken this long for them to confront it, he had no real idea, other than it had been his own pissed-off attitude that had made Noah avoid the other teen. Now that it had finally happened, it was at least something out in the open, and the teen knew he had no choice now but to face it. What was there that made Noah react the way he was doing? Why did it make him feel so out of control at times? He couldn't answer, and surprisingly that was what made the 14-year-old feel so torn up on the inside.

He thought back to Friday evening and Pete's initial reaction, as well as Jimmy and a host of the others sitting around. Did Jesse really act gay, in any sense of the word, in school or out? What about when the teen helped his father at the hardware store. Was there anything there that might have suggested it? Noah doubted it. He admitted he hadn't been around him that much, but he couldn't recall anything at all that would have led him to that conclusion. Could his friends have seen something, anything, to suggest otherwise, or were they just being driven by the hype and speculation? Pete seemed to be convinced of it the most, but Noah knew the teen was quick-tempered anyway. Why, he didn't know, but for the moment that wasn't the issue. The issue was that he himself was acting like the world's number one jerk, and he didn't understand why. The only thing Noah knew, for the moment, was that Jesse had suddenly been thrust into their lives – his life – upsetting everything he had been doing, everything he had been pushing in preparation for in the last year. Noah didn't want any other friends right now, didn't need any changes – yet here it was, being shoved down his throat by both of his parents.

Noah continued to let the tears fall for several minutes, sobbing quietly until they eventually faded away. When he had settled down, he got up and turned the shower off, but not before wetting a washcloth and wiping at his face. The coldness stung initially, but worked magically to bring him back to reality. For whatever his reasoning was, like many times before, he suddenly felt the sting of being alone again. He sighed, recomposing himself, knowing he was going to have to try and talk with Jesse again. If there was going to be any truce between them before it reached their parents, it needed to be sooner rather than later. With a deep breath, he finally opened the door and walked back into his bedroom.

Noah was surprised to find the room was empty, and as he glanced about, it seemed to have been undisturbed since he arrived. Walking over to the door, he saw no signs of where Jesse might have entered and then left, so moving out and through the outer room, he saw it was in an identical state. Curious, he ascended the stairs slowly until he reached the top, and stopped to listen to the quietness that met him. It seemed odd at least, until someone approached him from behind. "Hey, kiddo!"

Noah rounded in time to see his mother, carrying a bunch of clothes through the hallway, apparently from the upstairs hamper. "Uh, hi Mom," he responded, stepping aside to give her more room.

"How was school today, sport?" she asked, stepping around him and continuing.

"About like usual, I guess. You?" he responded, following her.

"Not too bad, I think."

Both her tone and the banter sounded normal enough, Noah thought. "Uh, where is everybody?" he asked nonchalantly. He had yet to see any of the McAllisters, and it was piquing his curiosity.

"Well, Makalah and Jesse just left to pick up Benji from school, and then they were going to go and do a little school shopping. We were going to have you go over and help your Dad and James, but then something came up and your Dad had to go back down to the bank for a while. I think Mr. McAllister took off back to the hardware store, too, to take care of and pick up a few more things they needed. So, basically, that leaves just you and me for the time being," Jennifer explained as they continued down the steps and into the basement's laundry room.

"Oh," was all Noah could think to say, but inwardly he felt a sigh of relief that his and Jesse's confrontation was to be postponed. He stood awkwardly, watching his mother sort and load a set of clothes into the washing machine, until she looked up and stopped to observe her son closer.

"Are you alright? You look, I don't know, overly stressed or something," Jennifer remarked. "Did everything go okay at school today?"

"Oh, yeah, it was fine, Mom. I, uh, was just thinking about something. I think I may have left my jacket, er, on the bus. I'm going to walk up to see if Linda might have picked it up for me," he mused suddenly, looking for an excuse to get away quickly. Seeing his mother nod and return to her task, the teenager then hurried off.

Jennifer watched him leave the room from the corner of her eye, but not without frowning. "That was… strange…"

"How was school today, Jesse?" Makalah asked. They had just turned onto the road from the Cooks' driveway, riding in a late-model mini-van which the teen's mother was obviously still getting used to.

"It was okay, I guess. They gave me a few things from the bookstore this morning, along with a new science book, too. I'm supposed to get a new math book tomorrow, so that'll be good. Oh, and the lunch lady told me we don't have to worry about paying for lunch for a few days, at least until you guys gets everything back on track," Jesse replied.

"Ah, I must admit, I never even thought about that this morning, to be honest!" Makalah groaned, before shaking her head. "Well, we already have access to our money again, so that's not too big of a deal. And as you can see, your Dad has arranged us a couple of rentals to make out for the next few weeks, if not longer."

"Yeah, I noticed! It looks pretty nice, actually!" Jesse remarked, nodding his approval as he glanced about at the ample room the new vehicle provided. "What did Dad get to drive?"

"He picked out a Dodge truck of some sort, I think. He thought he might need something for hauling things around in the short term. Seems the rental place had a truck they used just for that purpose, not quite as shiny and new looking as their other vehicles, if you catch my drift." She turned onto another road before continuing. "We should pick up your brother right as school is letting out. Do you think you can watch for him, while I have a word with the school's resource officer? We don't have a replacement card yet, so I don't want to create a scene or anything if I can avoid it."

Jesse smiled and nodded. "Sure, mom." Moments later, they arrived and turned into the elementary school's parking lot, before pulling up next to a stand where two women were standing together and relaxing. Nodding only to her son, Makalah quickly stepped out of the van and approached, before beginning a conversation with the guards. Jesse could not make out the exchange, but after a moment he did see his mother pull what appeared to be her driver's license from a purse, causing him to wonder how she had gotten it replaced so quickly. As one of the ladies pulled a file folder out and inspected something inside, all three women smiled and nodded.

While their business was finishing up, bells could be heard ringing inside the school. The whole school then seemed to come alive, as a level of noise reached them and began escalating to the outside world. Within minutes, there were lines of students coming through the doors with both teachers and staff, mostly representing the various lower grades, while other, older kids were being turned loose to head for the buses, or to various cars that were waiting to pick them up. It did not take long for Jesse to spot a certain precocious youth that was his sibling, and as thus, he quickly exited the van and headed over to the appropriate line. He spoke to Benji's teacher briefly, who recognized him and then nodded, calling for Benji to come forward before releasing him into Jesse's custody. By the time the two returned to the van, Benji had already become impressed. "Whoa! Its… its… it's new!" he exclaimed, making his mother laugh as she approached, stepping within hearing distance of them both.

"Yep, nothing but the best for my two tadpoles!" Makalah exclaimed. Within minutes, they were all boarded with Jesse in the passenger seat, while Benji sat behind him. Makalah got in the long line of other vehicles with parents, and slowly the family began making their way out of the parking lot.

"Awesome car, Mom!" Benji reiterated after playing with the controls near him. The kid then sat forward quickly. "Hey, when do we eat?" Both Jesse and his mother laughed out loud, having been caught off-guard.

"Well," Makalah responded, "I thought we might get a snack of some sort, and then do some more shopping for you two. Especially any school supplies you might be needing to get. Then afterwards, we could meet your father and have some dinner somewhere. How does that sound?"

"We're not going to eat with the Cooks tonight then?" Benji inquired before he suddenly stilled.

"Um, not tonight, no. There are several things we need to do and all, and they are just as busy as we get sometimes as a family, you know," Makalah explained. "They're being really nice to us and all, don't get me wrong, but I think we need to make sure they get some quality time alone, too. Besides, your Dad and I thought you two might like to go pick out your new bed."

"That sounds cool, Mom. You said bed though, so does that mean we're going to be sleeping together?" Jesse asked. In his peripheral vision, he saw his brother also lean in to pay closer attention.

Makalah sighed deeply before explaining. "I'm not sure, Jesse. I guess we'll have to see what we find, first and foremost. From the quick look I got at the room you two will be staying in, I have to say it's not as sizeable overall as we first thought. I'm not sure it could support two beds and leave you much open space. I know, you two have always done fine before, but you always sort of had your own personal space and all. This is a change that may have to do for the near future. It'll look nice, when your father and Mr. Cook get done with it and all, which should be by Thursday or Friday at the latest." She glanced at Benji in her rear-view mirror before turning to the older teenager. "So, to answer your question, I'm not sure if it'll be one full-size or queen-sized bed, or something else. We might have to consider some kind of bunk beds or something, too. You understand though, right? It's the best for right now, but like I said, it won't be permanent."

Jesse sat back and smiled at her. "It's fine, Mom, really. We'll be okay." As he observed her expression change to one of relief, the teenager decidedly changed the subject. "Um, can I ask you about something else, though?"

"Sure honey, what's on your mind?" Makalah asked.

"Well, do you think we're going to be in the Cooks' house, I mean the one you guys are fixing up, for a long time?" Jesse asked quietly. At that point, Benji unbuckled his seat belt and sprang forward in the floorboard, settling in between them. He didn't care about safety so much at that point, in exchange for listening in to their conversation first hand. Makalah understood his earnestness, and for once, did not berate the youth.

"Yeah, Mom, how long do you think we'll be doing all of this with them?" the younger brother asked meekly.

In truth, Makalah was taken aback by the questions, enough so that she was suddenly startled back to reality when she reached the exit and stopped, blocking the way for others. Someone behind them beeped their horn, and the woman, thoroughly chastised, quickly checked for other traffic again before pulling out onto the highway toward town. Before traveling far however, she found a place and pulled over to the side of the road, where she put the vehicle in park and turned toward both boys. "Not long, honey. I mean, I'm sure we'll probably be renting until the end of the school year, so there could be several months initially. But never lose sight of the fact that your father and I will either be rebuilding a new house where we once were, or we may end up selling the land and then buying another place nearby. Either way, it'll take the insurance company some time to get everything squared away and figured out, so in the interim, we need to rebuild what we can." She sat back a little. "I know, none of this is quite like anything we've expected, but please boys, consider how much having the Cooks help us out, really is actually keeping the four of us together. It says something, really."

"I don't doubt it, Mom," Jesse responded after she seemed to pause. "Seriously, I think it'll be fine. I was just wondering, I mean… I didn't know what you and Dad were thinking and all, and, well…"

It was as if a light-bulb clicked on in Makalah's head, as she smiled. "I think I understand, now. I'm sorry boys, we should be telling you more, I think. Your father and I have just been so tied up, trying to map all of this out and make sure we're handling things the best we can. Some things are slipping through the cracks though, just like this thing with school supplies, school lunch and whatnot. Did you even get to eat today?" she asked Benji, but was pleased to see him nod. "We'll make it all work though, I promise. Your father and I have discussed some things about what we'll do, but no, we haven't made any real decisions yet, and we won't do so without you, I promise. You guys will get a say as things come along, too." Seeing Benji's face light up in surprise caused the woman to giggle. "What, you don't want to be involved?"

"Well, yeah, sure I do! But… but… what would, I mean, we've never done anything like that before!" the younger brother exclaimed.

"So? There's a first time for everything, isn't there?" Makalah replied amusedly, before turning serious again. "Listen to me, both of you. Other than for just a few of these things starting out here, we'll all get together to make the bigger decisions together, I promise. Where we live, what we replace or don't … all of it – you have my word. You're a big part of our family, just like you were yesterday, just like you are today, and just like you will be tomorrow, okay? You just have to, like I said, be a little patient. Give us a week or two here, that's all. Once things settle down somewhat, then before you know it, we'll be off making a grand adventure out of it all!"

"Okay, Mom," Jesse replied, smiling. He gazed upon her with a new respect, and it showed. "You know we love you, right?"

"Ditto!" Benji exclaimed, launching himself forward so he could give his mother a huge hug.

"Oh yes, I know it. And you know something else?" she said, her eyes growing misty. She took one hand and thumped it across her chest. "I not only know it, I feel it, right in here." At that, Jesse unbuckled his own seat belt and leaned across the center, only to kiss her on the cheek as Benji pulled back. Re-buckling his seatbelt, Jesse sat back with a contented expression. Benji, recognizing the moment had now passed, slid back into his own seat and did the same.

Makalah wiped at her eyes briefly, smiling widely before she checked her mirrors. "Okay, how would a chili dog sound to you guys right now?" The grins and a big "Yes!" from Benji told her all she needed to know.

Later that evening, two vehicles approached and slowed before turning into the Cooks' driveway. The black pickup in front rolled a short distance before stopping ahead of the van that pulled in behind him. Exiting and walking back, James motioned for his wife to roll down the window, which she obliged before he leaned in. "Say, why don't we go on over and unload some of this stuff. At least the furniture and lamps. We can set all of it in the front room for the time being, that way it won't interfere with anyone here while we get the rest of the house fixed up." Glancing at his watch, he suddenly nodded before adding, "Besides, it won't take us but a few minutes, I think."

Makalah did not hesitate in nodding her agreement. "Do you have the keys?" she asked, to which James pulled them from his pocket in acknowledgement. At that, she backed out onto the roadway once again and pulled out. About a hundred feet farther on, she turned into the next entrance and pulled all the way up to the house, with her husband following close behind.

They had only just begun the task of unloading when they heard a shout. Looking up, they saw Allen crossing the yard to join them. "Hey, looks like you guys made a big haul tonight!" he remarked, grinning widely as he grabbed one of the larger boxes and began carrying it toward the house.

James nodded. "We got a few things, yeah. Mostly just odds and ends – lamps, some accessories. We also found one of those A-frame beds for the boys to sleep on, too. You know, the one that has like a twin bunk on top, but a bigger full-sized bunk underneath."

"Yeah, and Jesse told me I could sleep on the top one already!" Benji exclaimed, before disappearing inside with his mother and brother.

Allen laughed. "I've seen those around, and yeah, I think they're pretty cool. I bet it will go in that back bedroom just fine once we get it done," Allen remarked as they reached the front door, where Benji had returned and was standing aside, holding it open. "Plus, I bet it'll give you guys some extra room in there without making it feel all that crowded."

"That was the idea," Makalah spoke up from inside, where she was stacking some of their purchases out of the way in one of the corners of the room. "In fact, Jesse is the one who found and suggested we do it, believe it or not."

"Really? He hasn't even been back there yet, has he?" Allen asked.

"I have now," another voice chimed in. Turning, Allen saw the older brother appear and lean against the doorframe that led into the hallway. "I think it will be fine, Mom, and yeah, it's like I thought it might be. We'll still have plenty of room to goof off in!" Benji, walking by just then, stuck his tongue out at his brother before slipping around him and disappearing.

Seconds later, they all heard a muffled "Cool! Did you see the closet, Jess?" he yelled, causing Makalah to glance at her husband and laugh before shaking her head.

"The captain and his first mate have spoken, then," she remarked with a twinkle in her eye.

Within minutes, the van and truck had been unloaded, and James stretched, arching his back. "Once the carpet is down boys, we'll assemble the bed and go get some mattresses for it. We'll also work on finding you some more furniture, too. At least a dresser or something." He looked up at Allen. "I did stop by the Goodwill shop this afternoon, but there was really nothing there. I suspect some of the other families may have already hit them up."

"Well, I wouldn't worry about it too bad. We can all head over to Campbellsville within a few of days, or even up to Elizabethtown if we need to. If all else fails, we'll figure something out, I'm sure. Don't forget, you'll be getting some stuff at that benefit concert, too, so be careful how much you actually stock up on between now and then."

"I'm keeping the receipts, just in case we need to take anything back," Makalah remarked. "Although, if anything like that happens, I was thinking we can just pass some of these things along to the other families that got hit like us." She paused before adding, "I do understand what you're saying, though. It's just kind of hard to not be doing some things now, given that will be, what, a couple of weeks out?"

Allen nodded. "That's true, too. Either way, I'm just saying you might be surprised in the end, especially if some of the surrounding businesses get involved - which I've known them to do in the past." He turned to the boys. "So, are you guys ready? I think Makalah made some fresh banana nut bread tonight, and I don't know if you've ever tried it or not, but it sure is good - especially when she serves it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream added on top!"

"Really? What are we waiting for then? Come on, Jess, let's go!" Benji cried out, causing the rest to laugh aloud as he rushed out the door.

Moments later the families were gathered around the Cooks' kitchen table, where Jennifer had already sliced and distributed six plates of the yummy sweet bread for them. "I hope no one's allergic to nuts or bananas," she remarked, to which both boys shook their heads in reply.

As their host started to spoon ice cream, Makalah looked around. "Where's Noah? Is he not joining us?" she asked cautiously. Indeed, the teen was nowhere to be seen.

Jennifer shook her head. "He said he wasn't feeling very well tonight. He went out to see one of his friends for a bit earlier, but then came back and just went to his room. I did check on him briefly, and he did seem to feel a bit warm. He lay down though, and I haven't really checked on him since. I did hear the shower going a little while ago."

When an awkward silence fell, Jess cleared his throat. "I'll check on him, if you want me to Mrs. Cook," he offered. He had already thought back to their exchange when they stepped off the bus that day, and he imagined the teen was avoiding having to face it between them again.

"Why, thank you, Jesse! Eat up first, though. It won't hurt for him to wait a few minutes. When you go, I'll send a small dish of this stuff down with you," Jennifer offered, to which Jesse simply nodded.

Shortly thereafter, once the group had finished, Makalah scooted back from the table. "Come on Benji, it's already your bedtime, and you haven't even had your bath yet!" she announced. The younger boy groaned, but he knew better than to object too strenuously. He was already feeling tired from the day's adventures, and it showed in his now reduced levels of energy. As the pair disappeared from the room, Jesse also scooted back. Picking up the bowl their host had already set aside for Noah, he waited while she added both a spoon and ice cream to the dish. "If he's still feeling puny, just let me know, alright?" The teen nodded and then wished the others goodnight.

When Jesse arrived downstairs, he stood outside the door to Noah's bedroom and hesitated. He had no idea what to expect when he entered, but he did hope that it would at least turn out to be a civil exchange. He didn't want to fight anymore, and in the time since arriving from school, he had already calmed down considerably. In his mind, maybe it would have been better if he hadn't pushed the issue, or reacted in the way he did. It was just so hard reading the other teen, and it was as he said: all he wanted was to understand what was going on. Their exchange however, and the aftermath, had made Jesse now feel even more uncertain.

Drawing a deep breath and letting it go slowly, however, he reached out and slowly opened the door. As it had been each night before in the late evenings, the room was dark, and Noah was stretched out on his half of the bed as usual, propped upon his pillows and staring ahead, while listening to whatever played from his earplugs. Tonight, however, there was something different about the scene. First and foremost, the room was not as subdued as it had been before, with the additional lighting this time illuminating from Jesse's side of the bed. When his eyes adjusted, he saw a dimmed night-light had been plugged into the wall, which cast a new set of shadows around the room. That was strange, he thought, but then as he entered the room and shut the door behind him, he stopped again. Not only were the covers pulled back as usual, but this time there was something arranged in the middle. Drawing closer, he saw a makeshift pillow had been placed there, supporting and holding aloft some sort of a plastic rod. At the top, held in place by a rubber band, hung what appeared to be a folded, white handkerchief.

Jesse's mind raced with surprise, unsure what to make of the makeshift construction. Once he reached the bed's side, he slowly handed the saucer out to the teen. "Your Mom sent this down for you," he voiced quietly.

It was then that Noah turned and, for the first time they had arrived since the night of the storm, the teen seemed to favorably acknowledge his guest being there. "Thank you," he said simply in a monotonous tone, accepting the bowl gently. He pulled the ear pieces from both sides of his head and sat them on his nightstand along with his tablet, before turning his attention to the dish and beginning to consume its contents.

Jesse was just as surprised at the change in attitude, and the fact the exchange had been at least partially friendly. He still hadn't fathomed what to expect between them, but it certainly was nothing that came close to this! As he watched Noah enjoy the tasty treat, the teen sat down on his side of the bed and observed, although maintaining what he hoped was a safe distance. Looking down, he studied the pillow and handkerchief construction close up again, and was surprised when a moment later Noah broke the silence between them. "It's a white flag, though kind of crude, I admit. It's meant to be kind of a truce, I guess."

"Huh?" Jesse asked, before glancing up and finding their eyes locked upon one another, perhaps for the first time. Neither turned away, nor broke the connection, while each seemingly searched the other for something that neither could discern.

Noah finally sat the bowl down into his lap. "It's… a peace offering, or at least it's an attempt at one. From earlier today. You were right, I have been an ass, and I know it. You…" The teen paused, thinking through his choice of words next. He had already played this out in his head throughout the evening, in multiple ways, but now that the moment had arrived, he was uncertain of how to proceed. "None of you deserve it, I know. Not you, or your brother, or even your parents. It's just… I'm dealing with something, that's all, and it's not easy. The end result is that I've been an ass about the whole thing - of you guys being here, of having to go school with you… everything."

Hearing the sudden confession left Jesse speechless. When he didn't initially respond, Noah returned to finishing his treat before setting the bowl aside. "Well, say something at least," he probed, growing annoyed at the continued silence.

"I- I'm not sure what to say, really," Jesse finally replied quietly, causing the other teen to snort.

"Somehow, I find that hard for me to believe," Noah commented with a half-smile. Shaking his head, he sat up straighter before pulling his bare legs out from under the covers and bringing them to his chest. Once there, he rested his chin upon his knees. "It's hard, okay? But… Listen, I'll make you a deal. I promise to watch my manners a little better from now on, and control my temper more. I figure, since we're going to be neighbors anyway, there's no sense in fighting all of this. Not that… well, not that I've been fighting that specifically. It's just… it's not something you would understand, okay?"

Jesse considered, but then nodded. "Okay… and? You said you'd make a deal… That usually implies a trade of some sort. What is it going to cost me?"

Noah raised an eyebrow in surprise, turning to observe the teen. He started to make a snide remark, but then he stopped as he realized that, indeed, he offered his deal up in that fashion. What would be a fair trade for this, he wondered. Did he really expect anything in return? No… he didn't. "Only… only you have to try and be patient, for me. It won't cost you anything more than that," he answered, knowing the words were weak, but at least sincere.

Jess leaned back, studying his counterpart carefully. This change in attitude was a complete turnaround from the last four days, enough so that it made him wonder if Noah was being serious. Would he really change, or at least try to? Jesse didn't know, but he considered the offer carefully before nodding in agreement. Something… anything in fact, was better than nothing. "Okay, deal, as long as you don't drag Benji into anything between us. I meant what I said earlier, about he didn't deserve it. He… he doesn't think the way you and I do, really. I mean, he's just a kid, you know?"

Noah raised both eyebrows, but then nodded his acceptance. "Maybe, but honestly, he's not bad for a runt. I'll admit, not that I've ever had a little brother, but still…" Sighing deeply, he went on. "Listen, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to egg on about him today. For whatever it's worth, I'm not really that cruel. It just came on the spur of the moment, and… and... I was being… okay, an ass, like I said. If you can believe that, at least a little bit, then maybe it'll be a start. I think we can make it okay from there."

Jesse thought for only a few seconds before he nodded. "Okay," he responded simply. "I… I guess you don't want me to go sleep in the other room then, right?" He half-smiled as he said it, as the thought had crossed his mind quite a few times that evening already.

Noah snorted at the suggestion, but then shook his head. For a while, he had thought that maybe HE should be the one to avail himself of the sofa outside the door. It amused him to find the other boy had had similar thoughts, and it showed in his own waning smile he gave in return. "Take it from me, it sleeps pretty lousy," he offered, suggesting he had tried it out before. He observed Jesse for but a moment, and in that brief spell, something was exchanged between them. It was an understanding born of necessity, but at least the necessity was not laced with any of the usual contempt or disdain he had been feeling. "So, are we good? At least, for now?" he asked.

Jesse only nodded in response, but it was enough. With a look of relief, Noah reached out and took the flag, along with the other makeshift paraphernalia, and set it off the bed and out of the way. He then purposefully scooted his legs back underneath the cover before realizing he had just sat in front of Jesse in nothing but his underwear. 'Ah, fuck it,' he thought to himself, instead turning over and curling up with his back to his guest. For all intent and purposes, that wasn't something anyone else needed to be concerned with anyway, including a certain Pete Haskell III.

Jesse turned and glanced at a nearby chair, which had been moved closer to his side of the bed than before. He couldn't help but think about how Noah must have gone to greater strides, rearranging things to accommodate him. He had been using the chair to keeping what few clothes he had in the room, and as he inspected it closer, he saw that they had been moved and grouped somewhat. He reached out and pulled a fresh pair of briefs and pajama bottoms from it, along with a clean t-shirt. Making one last glance at the bed and seeing the stilled figure covered within it, he actually smiled before quietly rising and making his way to the bathroom, closing the door behind him. What had just happened between them was monumental, and he knew it.

In more ways than one.

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