The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 19

The Aftermath

The game ended with an ultra-wild roar, the crowd following the action down to the final seconds before the buzzer sounded, signaling that the match was at an end. Whatever happened in the locker room for the Greensburg Pirates during half-time, the result was an ever-more intense second-half as their team suddenly came alive in the game. They returned to the second half and staged one of the toughest, hardest fought comebacks in recent memory. The Adair County Indians held on, however, despite losing the lead three times overall, only to regain it again in the final critical moments and hang on to it when it was needed the most. The ending score of 56 to 53 reflected a hard-fought victory, given Greensburg's lackluster performance in the first half, and then their coming from behind. Still, for the Indians, it was a victory all the same, and they were happy to have achieved it, breaking the losing streak the team had recently succumbed to. For that reason alone, the crowd turned wild for the first few minutes following the end, but eventually settled down.

At one point, Noah eventually began looking around for Jesse, but did not find him nearby as he had expected. He did recall something his friend was saying about needing to go to the restroom, but the teen couldn't remember exactly how long ago that had been. He assumed that what may have been planned as a quick trip, turned into one of those extended interludes which, as the thought occurred to him, made Noah grunt. Turning, he started cheering with the others, and before long lined up with the rest of his team mates as they met their opponents mid-court, greeting and shaking hands, trading fist bumps or reaching for high-fives, congratulating the Pirates on a game well played.

As they began to collect their items from the benches, Coach Stevens approached Noah with a frown. "Hey, where did your buddy McAllister go off to?" the man asked curiously.

Noah shrugged. "He told me a bit ago he had to, uh, go to the restroom. I figured it must have turned into one of those sitting-with-the-judge deals," Noah replied. The coach cocked his head sideways but then laughed.

"That's a new one on me," the man chuckled, but then nodded in agreement. He then called the team together into a huddle, congratulating them one last time just as Principal Green appeared and added his own praise. Several thanked the men before they were dismissed, and then the team began heading off toward their locker room.

Noah was in the middle of the group as they rounded the benches and headed for the closed door, so he was not near the front of the group when they arrived. Only a few made it inside, however, before a sudden uproar could be heard, and then several of the team's players began moving forward rapidly. By the time Noah reached the doorway, however, he was suddenly blocked by Simon, who appeared and began yelling. "Coach! Coach Stevens! We need you… like, RIGHT NOW!" Noah turned just in time to see the coach and principal still standing near the huddle they had just left, but this time, the coach glanced in their direction with complete surprise. He handed the clipboard off to his assistant and then began a rapid jog toward them.

Up to that point, Noah had had no reason to make any connection between events, but before he followed Simon back inside the doorway, there was an intense feeling of dread that swept over him. His fears were realized when he rounded the corner and saw a naked boy, his wrists bound by a large, thick rope, and dangling freely near the center of the room. Two of the team members were already underneath, supporting him from below as more rushed forward. The rope had been secured over a huge ductwork pipe that ran the length of the locker room, and as Noah stopped and watched, clearly stunned, other team members were quickly trying to climb and untie it from the boy's wrists. Although Noah saw the boy had a black hood covering his head, as he pushed forward there was no doubt in his mind as to who was underneath. All the same, he worked his way to within only a few feet, just as someone else worked the hood loose and removed it, leaving little doubt to anyone else in the room. There were sounds of gasps all around, but all Noah could feel was the sickening pit developing in his stomach.

Jesse's face, as well as several areas along his body, were nothing more than a kaleidoscope of red, black and blue patches. Blood dripped from the teen's nostrils, as well as seeping from various cuts alongside his lips. His eyes were swollen, his cheeks streaked from tears that had obviously escaped. His mouth was stuffed with an obviously dirty sock, held in place by a strap of plumber's tape. With a head hanging limply, there was no doubt he was unconscious as well.

As the rope came loose, Jesse was lowered gently by the other boys around him, his head turning lifelessly. Others on the team stepped in to help set the body onto the floor, but not without a feeling of dread. "No! … No! … No!" escaped from Noah suddenly, as he saw the pitiful shape his best friend was in. "NNooooo!"

Just then, Noah felt Simon catch hold of him, and although he struggled to get free, the bigger teen wrapped him close in his arms and held tightly. They all watched helplessly as another player began pulling against the tape that spanned Jesse's mouth, eventually working it loose and off before pulling the sock away. Following that, a commotion at the entrance announced Coach Steven's arrival. As the man pushed his way inside to the center of the room, he halted briefly in astonishment. "Oh, my God! Good Lord, no!" he muttered, before rushing forward quickly and dropping to his knees beside the stricken boy.

Noah suddenly felt all the energy drain from his own body, and as he began to slump in place, Simon lowered the younger teen to the floor before joining him, where both ended up mere feet from Jesse's battered body. Both teens watched helplessly as their Coach began making a rapid assessment of vital signs. Seconds later, Principal Green arrived and joined him, dropping down beside the body on the opposite side, muttering under his breath and making his own assessment of the situation. Seeing the dirty sock lying nearby, he immediately looked up and pointed at Terry. "If he was gagged with that thing, then go and find a zip lock bag or something to put it in," he commanded quietly.

As Terry sped away, Coach Stevens announced grimly, "He's alive, Harland… thank the heavens! Mind you, his pulse is weak, but he's still breathing, so that's a good thing. Someone, anyone – either find a cell phone or head down to my office and call 911. We need both an ambulance and the Sheriff here, and quick!" Those immediately surrounding the man started to jump, but Tim Rigdon - who was near the rear of the crowd just then - announced to the team that he'd do it, and then quickly disappeared.

Noah felt another of the players drop down beside him, and as he turned, he saw it was Travis who added his hand to the teen's shoulder for moral support. Simon had shifted for better positioning overall, but still did not let go of his charge either, holding Noah loosely in his arms. The older teen had no idea if Noah would try to get closer or not, but he suspected he knew there was an unfathomable friendship between the boy and Jesse. His purpose, other than in offering some small level of comfort, was to make sure that the adults had all the freedom and time that could be collectively allowed to treat the stricken teen - without interference. Noah sat quietly, however, as Jesse continued breathing raggedly before the group, a sound that made some of the boys shiver with dread. On occasion, they saw the teen wince, as if subconsciously dealing with something sharp and painful. He looked pitiful, but at least those telltale signs told everyone in the room that he was still with them.

All manner of thoughts flew through Noah's head as he sat and watched. Why hadn't he gone with Jesse when the teen needed to go to the bathroom? When he failed to return, why hadn't he checked on him sooner? Most of all, perhaps, was why he just all-around failed his best friend? He could not keep from blaming himself, and for that he felt a level of misery that began to consume him. He sat quietly, however, and did his best to keep his composure in front of the others, but on the inside the guilt was tearing him apart.

Principal Green eventually turned to the team. "Can someone find this boy a pair of boxers or something, or at least a towel? Better yet, see if you can find any of his clothes." Several scrambled then, searching the room rapidly but only finding a few, shredded and ripped garments that obviously had belonged to Jesse, but were now no longer usable. Harland Green's face became impassive as he surveyed the fragments that were dropped near him, but then smiled when one of the boys appeared and handed over a pair of shorts. "They're from earlier this year, but they're clean," the boy promised.

Coach Stevens looked up and nodded grimly and, with the others looking on, the two men gently lifted and slid the garment over Jesse's feet and legs, pulling it up into place. "They'll most likely cut this away," he announced, before glancing up. "If they do son, I promise you - I'll replace them in a day or two, or give you some money to get another pair."

"Don't worry about it, Coach," the boy replied, equally as quiet in the silence that followed. "Just… do whatever it takes."

As they sat and waited for the ambulance to arrive, Principal Green looked up into the crowd surrounding them. "What in God's Name, boys? I mean… what happened?"

"We walked in and found him, sir, hanging by a rope from that pipe up there," Travis explained, others nearby muttering their agreement. "We saw him and worked on getting him down, while the others started yelling for you guys."

Coach Stevens looked up and nodded. "At least it was by his hands… if he had been hung by his neck, then… oh no…" The man could not finish the thought as he returned his attention to Jesse, but everyone in the room knew what the man had implied.

Travis' voice eventually dropped to just above a whisper. "Is he… is he going to be alright?"

Neither Coach Stevens or the principal replied right away, and that caused another ripple of murmurs and gasps to travel through the team. Harland eventually glanced up, surveying them briefly before speaking. "Now, don't jump to conclusions, boys. This young man is-" He was unable to finish, however, as loud voices suddenly could be heard at the entrance to the room. The emergency technicians had arrived, and were making their way inside with boxes of portable equipment. Both the coach and principal backed away then, letting the two come alongside Jesse, answering various questions when asked regarding what they knew up to that point. The players withdrew only slightly to provide more space than before, but still no one departed, not because of the scene before them… but because what had happened was done to one of their own. They cared, and it showed. Both medics began taking vitals and making other, more physical assessments regarding Jesse.

"Did I hear one of you say his name is 'Jesse'?" one of the technician's finally called out, and upon receiving confirmation, he began to lean in closer to the boy and speak louder. "Jesse, can you hear me son? Come on Jesse, say something, or do something, anything if you can hear me. Anything Jesse, just let us know you're here with us, okay? Come on son…" The boy remained almost lifeless, however, which deepened the sadness and helplessness Noah was already feeling. After watching them work for another minute, he finally pulled free of the two boys with him. "I- I can't…" he whispered, before climbing to his feet and pushing gently through the crowd. He then quietly left the room, feeling as if in a daze. Both Simon and Travis rose to their feet as well, and followed the teenager along with several other players falling in behind them.

Once Noah reached the gymnasium, he moved over to one side and sat down on the nearest of the bleachers, where he pushed back into the woodwork and pulled his knees to his chest. Wrapping them with his arms, the teen then buried his face there, totally oblivious to anything or anyone around him. Simon followed and sat down beside him, still placing a comforting arm around the boy's back while others gathered in, some sitting with them on the bleachers while others took up a position on the floor. Little was said by anyone, their thoughts preoccupied by the various people in the room, and their treatment of someone who had rapidly found a way into their thoughts over the recent months. No one mentioned the name of Pete Haskell, but each of them had already made up in their mind with a reasonable amount of certainty, that the expelled teen was the one behind what had happened. It shocked them, however, to think that Pete had taken such violent retaliation as this. Each was angered by the thought, renewing a silent vow that a price would be paid before it was all over. Until then, however, they focused on just getting beyond the night.

Noah felt the presence of the boys around him, and when his head finally rose up, he couldn't help but observe them all with a feeling of trust, something he wasn't used to. Though his own eyes were swollen from the quiet sobs he had succumbed to, he eventually smiled through his tears at them all. Both Simon and Travis, who were still sitting beside him, pressed even closer as a means of support. He blushed, suddenly realizing how long he had been crying, and started to wipe his eyes across the sleeve of his hoodie. "I'm sorry, guys," he whispered, embarrassed.

Simon, however, would not accept it. "Shut up! You're fine, believe me."

For some reason, Noah found comfort in those words and decidedly leaned into the teen briefly, who in turn continued to hold him steadily. "Maybe, but still…"

"Shit, you think we don't feel what you're feeling right now? He's our friend, too, Noah – you both are. The two of you are a part of this team, see? I know, you're a lot closer to him than we are, but still… this? This whole thing, it's… it's…" Simon tried to explain, but words failed him at the moment.

"It's fucking bizarre," Travis whispered, finishing the thought. Several around them nodded and murmured in agreement.

Simon smiled just then. "Yeah, that and more. He'll be okay, though, you'll see."

"I should… I should have gone and checked on him, or even just gone with him, or… or… at least something… especially after he was gone for so long," Noah whispered again, voicing his innermost sense of failure to the group.

"I doubt there is anything you or any of us could have done," Travis offered up, trying to ease the moment, but then Noah turned to regard the teenager.

"Maybe, but I could have at least been in there with him, so he wouldn't have been alone, you know? Who knows, if… if I-I hadn't delayed, if I had went looking… I might h-have found him sooner, and..."

"You think? If you had walked in on all of that going on, what's to say you both wouldn't have had the crap beaten out of you?" one of the seated boys called from the floor.

"Then we'd be looking at two broken, beat up bodies instead of one," another boy added quietly.

"Hey, I would take that if it meant… if it meant, like…" Noah began, but was rapidly beginning to tear up again.

"No, don't go there. Look, you may or may not have been able to help, or raise the alarm or something… but the truth is, that's not the way it went down, Noah," Simon spoke up, causing the others to grow still. "I'm serious, we can beat ourselves up over it all we want, but the fact remains - it is what it is, okay?" He sat back then. "Besides, what would Jesse tell you about it if he were here, right now?"

Noah observed the teen deeply before sighing in acceptance. "He would tell me to 'shut-the-fuck-up', most likely." Suddenly Noah scoffed, causing Travis to half smile, but also acquire an expression of curiosity. That was when Noah sighed again. "And I would have told him not to cuss, because it isn't, like… it just never sounds right hearing him swear like that."

Several giggles broke out, but Terry nodded. "You got that right," came from someone on the floor. Another one joined him. "He's too… he's not a roughneck or anything, really. Some people are like that, you know? Swearing isn't something you identify with people like that."

"I'll second that notion," another announced from the floor, and several chimed in to agree.

"I'll say one thing," Travis began. "We'll all be on the lookout, from here on out. Nobody, no one comes in here and does shit like this, especially to one of our team mates. Right guys?" A loud chorus echoed just then, while all present added their agreement and sentiments. "You just wait, Noah. This isn't going down lightly, for sure."

A sound coming from the main entrance of the gymnasium interrupted them, and the group turned to see Sheriff Hunt appear along with two of his deputies. The trio quickly walked around the edge of the court toward them, and as they neared, the Sheriff murmured something unintelligible to the closest one. He nodded at the boys as he and the other deputy strode by toward the locker room, but the first deputy slowed and stopped with the group. Noah recognized him as being the one who had escorted him and his father through the woods some weeks prior. "How goes it boys?" the man announced, nodding cordially, but noting the solemn stillness surrounding the group.

"Hi, Phil," Noah replied with a sturdier voice than he actually felt at the moment.

"Hello, Noah," Deputy Phil Turner returned in kind. "So, can you boys tell me what went down here tonight?"

Tim Rigdon, who had just walked up and joined the group, spoke and started to explain what had happened. Although there really wasn't a lot of detail to impart, the other boys did interject in places to clarify some point - all the while letting their senior player fill the man in. The man was attentive, listening closely, but by the end had a few questions which he asked and received quick responses to. In the end, he finally shook his head. "It's not a good thing, I know. I feel for you, I really do." Deputy Turner paused, thinking before observing the group again. "I guess it's a little late to ask this, but, uh… did any of you see anyone or anything suspicious? Like, anyone going or coming out of the lockers near the end of the game?"

"None of us saw anything, really," Travis piped up. "We didn't suspect anything, either. I think… well, we were so wrapped up in the game and, I mean-"

"It's okay, boys. I wouldn't really expect otherwise. Can you tell me when the last time anyone was in the room, before all of this went down?" the deputy asked.

"Half-time, I guess. I mean, we were all in there at half-time, and then we came out for the rest second half. You know, the rest of the game," one of the other boys spoke up. "I don't think anyone went back in otherwise."

"We think the only reason Jesse did was because we have urinals in there, and it's a lot closer to go in there and take a leak than got around the floor to the other side where the regular bathrooms are," Travis piped up.

Deputy Turner became thoughtful for a moment before he grunted. "I get it, yeah. So, someone - or a group, for that matter - gained entrance, sometime during the second half of the game, caught our victim by surprise, and then-"

"His name is Jesse," Noah suddenly spoke up. The deputy stopped and observed the teen, along with a look of annoyance in his expression. "He's got a name, that's all," the young teen added discretely, suddenly embarrassed.

Phil Turner, however, was humbled. "Forgive me, son. I know he does… Jesse McAllister. My apologies," he offered.

"It's okay," Simon replied. "We're just kind of on edge right now, that's all. We know you have a lot of people you deal with as it is."

"Maybe, but Noah happens to be correct. Sometimes we objectify people when we start trying to unwind everything, but objectifying doesn't mean we're heartless. He does, indeed, have a name, and one all of you know well," the man added by way of apology and explanation.

The group fell silent for a moment, before having their attention diverted to the entrance of the locker room. Both of the emergency medics appeared, pulling and working a cart between them, where their friend lay, still as motionless as before. A third, unidentified person walked alongside, holding an IV as they moved, its life-saving fluids being fed intravenously below. The team rose and approached, before following the crew as they made their way to the side door of the gym, and then outside toward the ambulance parked nearby. The vehicle's rear doors were opened, and its emergency lights twirled brightly, piercing the night sky. All were quiet as they watched Jesse loaded into the back of the vehicle, with one of the technicians climbing in beside him. The other shut the doors and, a moment later, the vehicle was moving with its loud sirens gradually rising in a crescendo. The team simply stood and watched until it, and their friend, were finally out of sight. With a quiet demeanor, they finally returned to the building once again.

As the group approached their locker room door, Sheriff Hunt appeared in the doorway and, upon seeing the boys, walked up to them. "Give my guys just a couple of minutes, fellas, and then we'll let you get back in. They're taking a few final photos, and making some notes, that's all."

Some nodded, but all stood patiently until both Principal Green and Coach Stevens appeared. The duo approached the group with solemn faces. "I think they're finished wrapping things up," Harland Green announced. "If you would, just get your clothes and things for the night, and then go on out the front. I'm sure your parents and others are anxious to see you, and I don't blame them."

"As for Jesse," Coach Stevens picked up, "he's stable. I don't have to tell you, I mean - you all saw him, right? The boy has had a rough night, for sure, but at least for now he's stable - and I'm telling you, that's pretty important. When we hear anything more by way of an update, I'll pass it along to you, I promise."

"As will I," Principal Green added. "I agree with your coach here, so try not to worry too much… okay? And please, I don't expect you to keep anything from your family and friends, but try to instill in them the need to give the McAllisters some quiet time for the near term, alright? They'll be getting plenty of phone calls as it is from their own family, friends, neighbors… and unfortunately, even the news media, I'm sure. Just – try to imagine what it will be like for them for the next couple of days, will you? The more time we give them up front to come to terms with everything that's happened here, along with giving them the time to see to Jesse's needs? Well, it'll be far better in the long run, believe me."

"Is there anything we can do then? Anything at all?" Travis voiced with concern. The principal briefly gazed at him quietly, understanding the emotion the team was feeling just then.

"Boys, just… be prayerful, if that's in your nature. Don't anyone fret over this as being your fault, either. If anyone is at fault here, it's my responsibility, and mine alone," the man offered quietly.

"How do you figure that?" someone asked from the back.

"Because…" Harland Green hesitated, and then shook his head. "I mean, let's face it - we knew Haskell was gunning for him at one point, right? Knowing that, I should have been a little more attentive, especially since he hasn't been found yet. If I had, then maybe…"

"You might think that, but I don't believe that's the way it works, Harland. Mind all of you, we don't know who exactly is responsible for what happened here tonight-" Coach Stevens spoke up, but had to halt when he saw the incredulous look upon several faces that gawked at him. "I know how you feel, but I'm serious, boys. Look at the facts as they stand right now: no one saw our perpetrators, and Jesse sure couldn't tell us anything – at least, not yet. For all practical purposes, we… don't… KNOW it was Haskell, alright? Believe me, I'm not trying to defend the kid, but face the facts for what they are at the moment. It's all any of us can really do until the investigation is completed." He turned to the team however, and lowered his voice. "Having said that, I agree - it will probably turn out that Haskell is behind it, but it's important that we let the law handle this. They'll work it all out in due course, all right? Maybe not overnight, but still… in due course."

"We understand, Coach," Tim spoke up, to which several others reluctantly nodded their agreement.

Sheriff Hunt, seeing one of his deputies signal him, addressed the group again. "Okay boys, it's all clear. Mind you, you'll find there's still a little blood on the floor in there. We'll get it all cleaned up by morning, but in the meantime just step around it, alright? It's marked, too, so you'll know where it is when you see it. If you would, just get your things and go on home. We'll try to have an update for you sometime tomorrow, alright?" The man then turned to his radio mic and clicked the button. "Chester, you and Josh tell those parents the boys are on their way out now, but don't let anyone come back in here - unless they are identified as being with the McAllister kid," the man informed him, but then stopped when he observed Noah. "Did the two of you come in together? Who's picking you up?"

"My Mom, I think," Noah announced. "She's probably out there now. Jennifer Cook."

The Sheriff nodded and relayed the information, before the team began quietly filing through the doorway. Noah followed initially, but once he had entered, the teen realized he really had nothing to do. As he turned to leave, however, he was once again stopped by the Simon who stood and barred his way. "Hey," the boy began, but lowered his voice. "Let us know if you hear anything, okay?" He slipped a piece of paper into Noah's hand, but held it briefly. "That's my cell number. Just get a message to me, and I'll make sure anything you learn gets forwarded to the rest of the team, alright?"

Noah smiled wanly. "Thanks, man. I- I really appreciate it, more than you know. Sorry I, like, almost fell apart out there, I just…"

"If you say that again man, you may need a few days to recover just for yourself!" Travis voiced quietly from behind him. "Get it through your thick head, will you? I promise, we all care - and I do mean ALL of us! You didn't do anything out there that the rest of us wouldn't have done, especially if it were our best friend who got jumped like this. We're not heartless, Noah, trust me. Besides, as far as we're concerned, you didn't fall apart. You were just worried, like the rest of us are. Okay?"

By that time several of the team had gathered around the trio and began offering their own agreement and support, which was encouraging the teen to say the least. "T-thanks…" Noah croaked. "All you guys… you're great, really. We owe you… I owe you…"

"You don't owe us anything. Just get your ass on home, or wherever it is you end up going, and promise to keep us plugged in, okay? That'll be worth a lot, trust me," Simon offered. Others murmured their agreement, making Noah smile before raising a fist and bumping it with each of them, before quietly leaving the room.

When Noah made his way into the lobby, he found his mother waiting for him anxiously. A look of relief crossed her face initially, but when she saw him alone, her countenance totally changed. "It's Jesse, isn't it? Jesse's the one who got hurt?"

All at once, Noah began to lose it. Seeing her alarmed state, and the sudden realization he was leaving alone without his best friend by his side, brought tears to his eyes again. He fought bitterly to keep himself in check, but instead ended up putting his arms around his mother as she dropped her bag to the floor and embraced him. After a few seconds, however, she pushed him back gently. "It's okay, don't worry. But… you need to talk to me, honey, and do it quickly. I need to know what happened?"

Noah took a deep breath and then filled her in as requested, summarizing everything as concisely as he could do so. When he had seemingly finished, Jennifer grabbed her bag and stood up before gently guiding him toward the doors that led to the parking lot. "It's alright, honey, come on… we'll head down to the hospital right now. I've got to call James and Makalah though, and your father, too," she mused thoughtfully, leading him to where their vehicle was parked nearby. As his mother first called James and then Allen, he could feel the seriousness around him, and he wished he could offer more than what he could. Instead, though, the teen kept his silence as Jennifer started the vehicle up, and they then made their way through traffic toward the hospital.

When Noah and his mother arrived at the hospital, they quickly parked and headed inside. As they approached the nurses' station there, a large, heavy black woman greeted them. When they explained why they were there, she held up her hand and asked Jennifer for her name. When Jennifer answered, the woman then looked upon them with a softened expression. "I'm sorry sweetie, but - I can't really release any of that information except to the immediate family right now. I can tell you that yes, the young man is here, and I can tell you that yes, he's back in the emergency ward undergoing treatment. Do you know if-"

"His parents are on their way? Right now, yes," Jennifer replied. "They should arrive here any minute."

The woman then smiled and nodded toward the nearly empty waiting area. "Then go have a seat and catch your breath for a spell. I promise, when Makalah gets here, if she says it's okay then I'll keep all of you updated, alright? Until then, though…"

"Do you know Makalah McAllister?" Noah suddenly spoke up. The woman stopped and glanced down at him before giving him another disarming smile.

"Why, I believe most everyone in this hospital probably knows both of Jesse's parents. I myself served with Makalah for the first few years when she joined the staff here, and I was their nurse on duty when both Jesse and Benji were born. I've even done a spell of babysitting for them several years back, as I recall," she replied. "Tell me something, are you by chance Mr. Noah?"

"Yes ma'am," the teen replied softly. "I'm Noah Cook."

A satisfied expression crossed her face just then. "I thought you might be. You know, Makalah was just talking about you and Jesse the other night, over at some Christmas thing we ran in at," she replied, then observed them both. "Okay, look, you didn't hear this from me, alright? But… he's not in the best of shape back there, but he's not that bad off either. He's stable, which is a very good thing, really. When I went back to the break room for some coffee a few minutes ago, they were getting ready to take some x-rays. So, bottom line is, it's really too soon to tell anything, alright? There should be some news before long, though."

"Thank you… Doris," Jennifer offered quietly, finally taking the time to read her name tag. Noah acknowledged the news as well, and then both mother and son headed off into the waiting area to have a seat.

"I don't suppose you fellas have any of those security cameras up there, do you?"

It was close to 10:00 PM already, and the custodians were finally making their rounds in the distance, locking doors and preparing to close up the gym. Sheriff Hunt and Principal Green were making their way toward the side entrance one last time, glancing at the now closed door to the locker room, musing on what had happened there that evening. The Sheriff had sighed deeply before turning his gaze toward the ceiling.

Harland glanced sideways at the man before shaking his head. "Actually, we do have cameras installed up there. They were put in before the school year started, actually – but for some reason, the contractor is having a dickens-of-a-time getting them hooked up and running. Last word I had, it's going to be after the holidays before they get back and finish it all up."

"That's a bummer, I admit," the Sheriff replied, but then stopped. "Damned contractors ought to know what's going on ahead of time, but that isn't always the case." Looking across to the exterior door, he became thoughtful. "You know, isn't that First National next door, over there?"

"Yes, and…?"

"Well, their ATM is on this side of the building, and if I'm not mistaken, its camera is pointing in this direction. I don't know, might be a long shot, but maybe it captured something worthwhile."

"That would be nice, I admit. At least we'd be able to find out when they gained entry," Harland mused. "You do know, I guess, that they had to have at least left through this entrance, and maybe even came in this way as well. No one spotted anything unusual, which means for the most part they avoided the crowd."

"That we know of, yes," Sheriff Hunt corrected him. "I'm hoping somebody may have seen something though, and once the news gets out, maybe we'll get a tip or two that we can follow up on."

Harland nodded, but then stopped again. "Tip or no tip, I'm afraid we probably know who was probably behind this." It was not a question, and the statement caused the Sheriff to pause as well.

"Yes, I know," the lawman mused, but then grunted. "Haskell is going to have to be found, no question about it now. But consider: this has turned into something much more than just simple bullying and pulling pranks. It's become criminal by all accounts, and even some. All of us are trying, but that kid has seemingly dropped off the face of the map, more or less. He's very good at hiding, pretty much like his old man was back in the day – which is beginning to make me think there is something more involved here, too."

"What do you mean?" Harland asked.

Jim Hunt took the opportunity to pause and study before he replied. "Well, Haskell's kid isn't but what, 16 years old, right? Now, I admit, kids can do anything they want if they put their minds to it, but… I'm not so sure this was something he coordinated out of the blue. I mean, think about it – how would he know the McAllister boy was here, tonight, in the first place? More than that, how did he know they'd catch him while he's off taking a leak, in a locker room at that, and not in the usual place?" The Sheriff shook his head. "I don't know, Harland – I just can't quite put my finger on all of this, you know? That day we came out to the high school, and he saw the drugs, did you notice his reaction? Not defiance, not complacency, nor surprise."

"I did happen to think about that later. He was more in shock than anything else, and then defeated," the Principal replied.

"Exactly. Now, I'm not saying he couldn't have been involved with this, but… I am saying something doesn't seem to be adding up right, that's all." Sheriff Hunt then grunted. "Ah, well, we need to find him, that's first and foremost in the way of priorities. Then maybe we can get answers to the rest of this afterwards."

"I agree with you," Principal Green replied. He then began walking again, and soon the two men reached the side door and opened it, stepping through into the night air. The Sheriff looked up into what he could make of a cloudy sky, and noted a colder breeze was now blowing in from the northeast.

"Snow is coming," Jim remarked quietly. "Just before we walked in, they were saying it was over at the Illinois State line, so there is no doubting it now. Probably going to be a good one coming in overnight."

"Yes, I heard four- to six-inches was forecast to fall by morning. We'll probably be calling off school tomorrow," the Principal replied quietly. "If so, I'll drop by the hospital sometime in the morning, or as soon as I can."

"I'll drop by, too, although it will be probably mid-to-late morning before I get in," the Sheriff replied, but then sighed. "Well, we've done all that we can for the night, Harland. I think I'll just walk on around to the car from here. Who knows, the night air might do me some good."

Principal Green turned toward the other man and stuck out his hand. "Until tomorrow, then. Have a decent evening Sheriff, and thanks for getting here so quickly tonight."

As Makalah and James walked through the emergency room doors, the woman did not hesitate to hobble up to the station there and engage in a quick conversation with Doris. James, also stood beside her looking grim, but he did not have to interrupt, choosing instead to listen for what few details were available. Doris, more than once, pointed in the direction of the waiting room where Jennifer and Noah sat patiently watching and awaiting them. Makalah turned at one point and smiled, but then continued to have a lively discussion with the woman. Some minutes later, Doris finally relented, turning to James and saying something indiscriminately, to which he reluctantly nodded in agreement. It was then the man turned and headed in the direction where the Cooks sat waiting. Makalah, on the other hand, was escorted beyond the inner doors by Doris, hobbling as quickly as her injured ankle would allow her.

"Hello, Noah," James greeted the teen with a grim smile, sitting down next to him and clapping the boy on his knee. He nodded at Jennifer before returning his attention to Jesse's best friend. "So, what can you tell me about all of this? What happened tonight, hmm?" His tone was soft, but both Noah and Jennifer could hear a tightness within the delivery that was no doubt born of exhaustion. Noah launched into his short narrative again for the man, detailing how the boys had come upon Jesse following the end of the game, and the state in which they found him. James sat quietly, listening intently and letting the teen finish before he spoke again. "Okay, but… why was he in the bathroom by himself? Or, rather the locker room? How long was he in there?"

At that point, Noah visibly deflated. "Because… he just said he was going to, you know, go wiz, I guess, and… we… or I didn't…" When he couldn't finish, James reached an arm around his shoulders.

"Shh, it's okay son. I understand what you're saying. Something like that wouldn't seem like such a big deal, I know – so it makes perfect sense. I know something about Jesse, too. He's the kind of kid, along with his brother, that you learn to pay attention to when their bladder gets full." The man looked up and smiled at Jennifer. "We went to Bowling Green once a few years back, and Jesse was telling us he had to go. I kept making him wait though, because we were not that far from the exit, see. But... it wasn't long before he ended up soaking his pants. I tell you, I learned my lesson that day, for sure. I didn't realize how long I had made him hold out until Makalah got after me, which as we figured was quite a while. Anyway, we had to stop and buy him a fresh pair of jeans and all."

He had meant for the story to ease the moment somewhat, but Jennifer only grunted before nodding toward her own son. "I've got a few stories on him that are not at all that different," she replied, which might normally had made Noah blush, but he was too worried at the moment to care.

"How long was he gone?" James asked again after a moment, not unkindly. Noah, startled by the question, stared deep into the eyes observing him before finally letting his gaze fall to the floor.

"I don't know, sir… maybe, 10 to 15 minutes. There was only, like, four or five minutes left in the game I think, but then afterwards we did the usual team handshake-thingy, you know, for being good sports and all, then Mr. Green and the Coach both talked to us all briefly. That probably cost us at least a few minutes."

James nodded then. "It's okay, don't worry about it." Internally, however, a feeling of dread descended on the man. Ten minutes was an incredible amount of time, by itself, to inflict a lot of damage on someone of the sort that he had heard. He did his best, however, to not express those fears to the boy or his mother.

Allen joined the trio a few moments later, and the group brought him up to speed before falling silent again. In the waiting game that followed, each was lost in his or her own thoughts, all the while trying to remain calm. Allen had taken a seat on Noah's other side and wrapped an arm around his son's shoulders, which seemed to make Noah feel better about not being alone. Already on edge, every time the double doors opened, the group reacted, hoping Makalah or someone else was returning and bringing them some news. "Why does it take so long?" Noah finally whined aloud, his voice sounding strained in the eerie silence.

"Shh… I know, son," Allen whispered to him. "It just takes time to do tests and everything. We'll hear something soon enough…" Not long after, the man stood and stretched, before walking off silently and leaving the group behind. Within moments, however, he returned carrying coffees for the adults, and a soda which he handed over to Noah. Otherwise, there was little that broke the monotony of the tedious waiting.

It was nearing midnight when Makalah finally appeared and approached the group, causing them all to jump to their feet. The look on her face was passive, but they could all see both the strain and exhaustion etched within her eyes. "Jesse is okay for now. They have him sedated, so he's resting at least. The X-Rays were mostly fine, although he may have a hairline fracture in his left lower rib, and another one possibly in his right wrist. They wrapped both places up just to be on the safe side for now. He's…" She hesitated to catch her breath. "He's really bruised and beaten, to say the least, but beyond that, only his scrotum was really, well, the only way to describe it is just to say it's badly swollen. He took a lot of kicks or punches there… and yes, some of them appear to have been pretty hard."

James was the first to notice that, as his wife was winding down, she had begun to fall toward one side. In an instant, he was at her side and easing her into one of the chairs. Jennifer stepped in from the other side to assist, and once seated, Makalah looked up with obvious embarrassment. "Silly me, I… I just…" The others started to say something, but she waved them off. "No, seriously, I'm just tired, that's all. I'll be fine in a little bit." She gazed at her husband, who had squatted down in front of her. "You can go back there for a minute, but like I said, he looks really banged up. They've applied several ointments and creams, and had to put stitches in a few places – but really, I can tell you from experience that it all looks worse than it really is, I think."

"Did he wake up, any at all?" Jennifer asked quietly.

"Yes, but only for a minute or so. He was moaning a lot, crying somewhat and complaining of double-vision, along with a bad headache," Makalah replied. "We figured he may have gotten a concussion, so they're going to keep him in the ICU for observation the rest of the night. It's the primary reason he's under sedation, too."

"Did he say anything at all about who did this to him?" James inquired in an equally quiet voice, but this time his wife shook her head.

"Honestly dear, he was too out of it. Like I said, he was only awake for a minute or so at most, and once we heard about the double-vision, the doctor ordered him to be sedated right away," the woman replied, but then turned until she saw Noah, standing behind and to the side of his father. She smiled and waved him forward, which he obeyed slowly. "You might be happy to know that he asked about you, wanting to make sure you were all right. I think he might have been more worried about you than he was about himself." Noah nodded, grateful but still feeling uneasy.

When she didn't continue, Jennifer sat down next to her. "Why don't you let me stay with him for the night then, okay? You're worn out, and you said it yourself - he's going to sleep until morning, right?" James, glanced up and started to object, but she held her hand up to stop him. "Look, I know… we all want to stay, really. The truth is though, you two are going to have to handle this in shifts in some way. The way I see it, you could both stay, but it'll be several hours at best before he wakes up, right? So, why not try to get a little rest before then?"

Makalah shook her head. "I really… no, I can't leave him. Honestly, I'd never, I mean…"

"I feel the same way. I'm not leaving here until he's at least speaking and out of the woods," James added with determination.

Jennifer looked up at Allen, but her husband understood the implications already. Before either could speak, Noah stepped in. "I… don't make me go home, either, please? I- I really want to stay, too, even if it means sleeping in here." His plea was met with a smile and a deep sigh from both his mother and Makalah.

"What about Benji?" Allen asked.

"He's spending the night with a friend, and as far as the moment goes, he knows nothing about any of this. At least, I hope he doesn't," James answered. "We'll call upon him tomorrow and fill everyone in, but until then he doesn't need to worry about it right now."

"I agree," Makalah agreed. "He won't like it being left out, I'm sure, but I'll deal with that when the time comes."

Jennifer nodded. "Well then, if none of us are going home right away, what say we at least try to make ourselves as comfortable as we can."

"Right," James announced, finally standing up again. "I'll see if Doris will take me back for a few minutes. Allen?"

"If you like, I'll come with you," the man responded. The group watched the men retreat toward the nurses' station, with Noah looking after them disappointedly, until James stopped and turned. He waved the young teen to follow, and Noah did not hesitate to catch up with them. At the station, Doris looked upon the three with hesitation, but then smiled. "Oh, alright. Two is the usual limit, but since it's so late fellas, and there is hardly anyone else here, I guess we can bend the rules just a tiny bit," she said kindly. "Please, only for a minute, though – alright? He's resting, and he needs to remain that way, and be as quiet as possible, for as long we can."

"We understand," James replied, before she came out from behind her desk and escorted them inside.

Noah awoke with a start, hearing a sharp sound emitting from near the entrance to the emergency room. It roused him from his light slumber, before he felt the stiffness in his neck and other parts of the body hit him full force. For an instant, he had to recall where he was, as opening his eyes only led to further confusion. He saw ambulance technicians again bringing an elderly man inside on a gurney, oxygen strapped over his nose but otherwise still. As the man disappeared down the hallway, he focused on Doris standing at her station, wearing a top coat and carrying a large purse in one hand, and getting ready to pick up a large sack with the other. Glancing nearby, he saw the clock on the wall showed the time was just past six in the morning.

Noah could tell it was still dark, glancing at the few windows the room had to the outside world. As he sat up then, he stretched hard before realizing that the emergency medics had snow on their heads and shoulders. Encouraged, the teen swung his feet down from the makeshift couch he had arranged with various chairs, before standing and approaching the entrance. Not surprisingly, Doris met him there. "Mmm, mmm! Look at all that white stuff out there, will you? So pure and pretty, I tell you!"

The first real snow of the season had arrived, and as that impact registered, it caused Noah to open his eyes even wider in surprise. There were only a few vehicles in the lot outside, but each was covered with a blanket of the purest, white crystalline precipitation one could imagine. The parking lot, along with its various shrubs, trees and grassy areas, was revealed under the night lights to be mostly covered. Looking up at one of the nearby utility poles, Noah could see the snowflakes falling thickly, matching up with exactly what the forecasters had surmised would happen.

"Yes sir, honey, there'll be no school for you children today, that's for sure," the woman added, slightly nudging his shoulder with her own. "Probably a good thing, too."

Noah nodded. "Has there, like, been any change?"

"Well, your young friend woke up around four this morning, but he didn't stay awake for long. Word is, he didn't complain of any more double-vision at the time, so that's a definite improvement, hmm?" She saw a look of relief settle across the boy before she continued. "He's going to be all right, you'll see. He even looks a slight bit better this morning than what you saw last night, too. You're just going to have to give him some time, that's all." She had placed a comforting hand upon his shoulder, which had caused the teen to turn and smile at her.

"Thanks, ma'am," he offered with genuine sincerity. She nodded and then glanced out into the parking lot again.

"Well, there's no sense putting this off. That old car of mine ain't gonna start and then come up here and pick me up, that's for sure!"

Noah giggled quietly, listening to the woman and her heavy, southern accent. Although he could not remember ever having met her before, he decided that he liked the nurse, noting that her nature was far more appealing than her size might imply. Noticing the sack, he reached out and took it from her. "Here, let me have that and let's just go… it'll give me an excuse to walk out in the snow." She glanced at him briefly, but then grinned. Both proceeded on out of the automatic doors then, right into the thick surge of snow that met them. They laughed and headed for the car, where upon arrival she opened the door and let him set the sack inside. Doris happily thanked him and the two exchanged farewells, then she climbed behind the wheel and started up the engine. Noah swiftly began making his way back to the entrance, and thus inside to the warmer space again.

When he arrived, he found his father standing and waiting for him, relaxing as he gazed out into the snow storm just as his son and Doris had done only moments before. "Getting kind of thick out there, isn't it?" he remarked, but smiled as Noah moved to stand next to him. The man briefly brushed some snowflakes that had fallen onto his son's shoulders, but then sighed and returned to observing the scenery outside. "Did you get any sleep?"

Noah nodded. "A little, yeah." He glanced around the room and suddenly saw that only the two of them were present. "Where's Mom, and Makalah and James?"

"Well, your mother left about an hour ago to go home and fix us all some breakfast. As for the McAllisters, that Doris found a spare bed up the hall where Makalah could get off of her ankle for a while. It was funny really, watching them fuss and all, but that nurse - she's a good one, I think. They're both parked in one of the rooms a few doors up, hopefully getting a little rest," Allen explained.

"Oh," Noah replied. After a moment, he spoke again. "Did you hear about Jesse waking up and all? Doris said he didn't have double vision anymore."

"Yes, I heard," Allen nodded. "I think that's what finally let his parents relax, really. Concussions aren't horrible, but they can lead to extensive problems if they persist, especially in young people. I suspect Makalah knew that, and it's why they couldn't let it go until they knew he had improved." He smiled weakly. "I guess I could have woken you up, but you were kind of snoring over there, and I thought maybe we should let you sleep for a change."

"You haven't slept any?" Noah asked, looking up and noting a level of tiredness in his father's eyes.

"No, not really. Me and hospitals don't get along very well, I'm afraid… even when I'm in them," Allen replied. That caused Noah to think back to the story his mother had told him in recent weeks, about his father and the accident. Evidently, Allen could see his son reflecting on something. "Your mother told me you two talked, and that she told you about my adventures on the ice and all years ago."

"Yeah," Noah replied softly. "But… Dad? How come you never told me?"

Allen grunted. "Well, for one thing, I never thought you were quite ready for it. At least, that was my reasoning for the longest while," Allen explained while leaning against the wall. "Besides, it was a long time ago, son. It was at a time in my life I really wish I could forget, but I know I never will completely. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm ungrateful to anyone or anything, but… that was a hard year. It took me a really long time to get myself back together, you know?"

"I'm sorry," Noah offered, thinking of nothing else he could say.

"For what? I'm not. I mean, your mother or I figured you would be ready someday, and she obviously must have thought the time was right when you two talked. Could we have both told you, or just you and me? Sure, but… it was fine, all the same. Besides, I didn't suffer any illicit effects from what happened once I got past that first year, so all is good." Allen smiled. "I do think there are a lot of things you and I should talk about sometime, really. You've grown a lot more in these last few months, for the better, and that is saying something kiddo. I can't think of you as 'the kid' anymore."

Noah thought about that for a moment, but then relented. He turned to look out at the falling snow again. "I'm… I'm sorry I was so hard on you and Mom," he finally whispered. "I didn't mean to be, it just… it just happened, Dad. A lot of things happened, really, and I was just being too stupid to realize it, or understand it."

Allen was surprised, but placing an arm around his son's shoulders, the man drew him in close. "We know you didn't mean to, son, but… all the same, it was touch and go for a while. But - look at us now? We've all survived, really, and neither I nor your mother couldn't be happier about it. I wouldn't trade you for another model, anywhere."

Noah scoffed before looking up with a smile. "I'm not for sale, anyway. Nobody would take me in for a trade."

"Whoa, ho!" Allen cried out, laughing. "Did you just make a snappy retort or not? That's my boy!" he declared, giving Noah a tighter hug. "You might be surprised about that, though. I believe a lot of people would take you on in a heartbeat, but they can't, see - because you're all ours! Oh yeah, you're stuck with us!" he announced merrily, but then lowered his voice. "Beware though, don't talk like that around your mother. You know how defensive she gets when she hears us put ourselves down!"

"Yeah, don't I know it!" Noah agreed, before sighing deeply. "From what Mom told me, James and Makalah did a lot for you guys, just like Jesse and his little brother have done a lot for me."

Allen nodded. "Very much so. Without them, I'm not sure we would have come out of it as well as we did back then, that's for sure," he admitted.

"Without Jesse, I don't think I would have come out of my stupid-ness, either," Noah responded.

Allen observed his son for a moment and then nodded. "I understand how you feel, son. You know, for a few years, my brother and I were close, so I sort of understand what you're feeling now. I'm sorry your mother and I couldn't give you a brother or sister, but it wasn't without trying. Without getting into all of those little messy adult-like details, you should know – we did try, for a long time. It was just never in the cards for us, I guess."

Noah giggled. "'Messy adult details'? Why Dad, are you talking about s-e-x?"

Allen laughed again, before pulling Noah to his side again. "I'm sure you probably know plenty about that already by now, so no comment, really."

Noah screwed his face together as he looked up again. "Good! I don't think I want to even think about those kind of details – especially when it comes to you and Mom! Eww!" Allen laughed again and gently played his knuckles across his son's head.

"Don't worry, I won't bore you with them," he promised with a whisper. Allen rested his chin lightly on his son's head as they both continued watching the precipitation outside. "I love you, son. I know, I rarely tell you that, but I do. I should tell you more often, but… just trust me - I will always be here for you, no matter what happens, if you ever need me. You know that, right?"

"Yeah, Dad, I know… I love you, too. Ditto really, because I know I never tell you and Mom enough either, or so it seems," Noah whispered back. After a moment he turned to look up at his father yet again. "What are we going to do about Jesse, Dad?"

"Well, first, we all have to get him through this. Be mindful, he'll probably be in here for a few days. There's no easy way around saying it - he took a hard beating, son, and it won't be just a simple in-and-out thing before they let him go," Allen informed him. "When I first heard about this, I was honestly scared that you were going to be one of the victims, too, but then your mother said you were okay. I have to confess, son - I'm guilty, in being thankful for that when she told me. Not that I would ever wish it on Jesse, but…"

"I know what you're saying, Dad. In some ways, I'm thankful too, but I would gladly swap places with him right now," Noah quietly admitted.

"We all would, I think." Allen paused briefly before going on. "Your mother and I were talking with the McAllisters earlier this morning while you were sleeping. We were wondering what you'd think about helping us take care of Benji for a couple of days? Could you stand to have a seven-year-old hanging onto your coat tail for a little while?"

Noah broke away from his father's grasp, only to turn and stare at him determinedly. "I'll take care of him, Dad. Anyone else might be kind of iffy, but Benji? He's alright. I'll do anything to help out… ANYTHING!"

Allen smiled. "That's good to know, then. I think they're planning to go get him after lunch today and bring him here to see Jesse. Then maybe this afternoon, you two can head home for the evening, if all is still going well."

Noah frowned. "But… I want to be here when he, well, you know…"

"I won't let you miss out on anything big, I promise," Allen assured him. "Just… consider something, okay? The hospital has him in the ICU right now, and he'll probably stay there at least for a day or two, I'm sure. Doris really was breaking a lot of rules last night – not only for the two-person limit, but letting you come along, too. You're underage, kiddo, as far as the hospital is concerned at least. I'm sorry, but the point is neither you nor Benji are going to get to spend any time with Jesse until they move him into a regular room. Understand?"

"Yeah," the teen replied. "But… Dad, what does ICU stand for anyway?"

"It means 'Intensive Care Unit' son. It's where they put people in critical status so that they can constantly monitor and be with them in a second's notice if they need help, or if something happens and all. It's, um, a kind of catch-all for treatment and everything until they know the person is no longer in danger," Allen explained.

Noah studied that for a moment before nodding. "So, the concussion thingy had everyone worried - that's why they were keeping a closer eye and all. Okay, I get it then. How long do you think they'll end up keeping him, though?"

"It's too early to tell right now but, I don't see him getting out before the weekend. Again, I'm sorry, but you know as well as I do, he is going to need some time for all that swelling to go down. You probably didn't notice last night, but-"

"I noticed Dad, yeah. His nuts were really padded up under that sheet. At least, I assume that's what it was, well, you know…" Noah replied softly.

Allen nodded. "They were. He got hit repeatedly in no-man's land. It's something the staff and doctors are going to have to watch closely, to make sure there's no permanent effects. You understand what I mean, right?"

Noah nodded solemnly. "I really hope he's okay down there, for his sake," he whispered.

"So do we, son… all of us."

"Why aren't we going home, Mom?" Benji asked suddenly. He had already been upset at having to leave Petey's so soon, and had been grumbling since he climbed into the passenger seat and fastened his seatbelt. The snow had finally stopped falling, but not without leaving behind six-plus inches across the valley. It was a perfectly wet snow, too, one which he and his friend enjoyed the most, because it clung together so easily. He and Petey had built the biggest snowman they could handle for their size, and had started a second one, with the intention of creating a snow-family complete with a dog, but then his mother had pulled into the driveway and all of those plans changed. He whined briefly, trying to convince his mother otherwise to let him stay longer, but she smiled and told him it wasn't going to be possible this time. Makalah was apologetic, but Benji had taken it hard as he stormed away. His mother sighed but then thanked Petey's mother as the two headed for the door. Benji had paid no attention to the two women, who were suddenly deep in conversation as Petey's mother held her hand to her mouth in disbelief.

Initially the silence was deafening, as they rode straight through the neighborhood and turned onto the highway. When Benji finally noticed they had passed up the turn that led home, his demeanor changed, thus prompting his question again. "Mom?"

Makalah took a deep breath, and silently prayed for understanding and patience in that moment. "We're headed to the hospital, honey. Your brother was admitted last night," she finally replied in as simple terms as she could put it.

"Jesse is in the hospital? What happened? Is he alright?" the young boy suddenly asked, his concern rising. All thoughts of playing in the snow suddenly evaporated.

"He's going to be fine, yes, but it'll be a few days before he can come home," his mother added, before she went on to explain the basic details. She had just finished as they were pulling into the parking lot of the hospital again. She parked and switched off the engine, before turning to her son. He had, in the last couple of minutes, become unusually quiet. "You understand, right? He's going to be fine, just…"

"Yeah, but… Why didn't you let me know?" the boy asked quietly, but one look at his mother made him scoot forward. "Better yet, was it that Pete-Creep who did it? And what about Noah? Was he hurt?"

Taken by surprise, Makalah relaxed before giving him her full attention. "First, we don't know if Pete Haskell is the one to blame, yet. The Sheriff is working on that one. As to Noah, no - he wasn't hurt, honey. From what we understand, your brother simply went to the bathroom and got ambushed. And… as for you, we didn't want to worry you, at least not until we knew something more solid about how he's doing first." She saw his look of annoyance. "It's not that we thought you shouldn't be told, honey - I promise. We knew you and Petey were going to have some fun this morning, and we decided there was no sense breaking that up right away, at least for a little while."

After a moment, Benji nodded. "So, will I get to go see him?"

"No one under 16 is allowed back in ICU, but-"

"Mom! He's my brother, and… and…" the boy started to protest.

"I know, honey! Calm down!" Makalah took a deep breath and reached a hand out to cup his face lovingly. "We're going to go in for a bit, and I'll see if the doctor will let you at least step back there with me. It can only be for a minute though, at least for right now, understand? Otherwise, I think you're going to go home with Noah in a little while, if that's alright with you."

Benji sat back in his seat puzzled, trying to decide if he wanted to continuing being upset or not. He wanted to see his brother, but the new prospect of spending time with Noah also changed things somewhat, in his limited view. He looked at her. "You promise me he's going to be okay? You're not… you know, sugar-coating it or anything, right?"

Makalah released her seatbelt and leaned over until her forehead touched her son's, and they were observing each other closely. "Cross my heart, kiddo. I wouldn't do that to you."

Seemingly satisfied, the boy nodded and released his own seat belt. "Well then, what are we waiting for?" he asked, already opening the door.

Makalah laughed for some reason, relieved at how quickly the direction of their conversation had changed – and how easily she was seemingly off the hook for holding out as long as they did. "Be careful over there, there are still some slick spots around here! And I have to hobble myself around, you know?"

Before she could close her own door, however, Benji was standing beside her. "Me? YOU be careful, Mom! I don't want you to end up staying here, either!" he announced. She laughed again, but then let him assist her across the short distance of the parking lot.

When the youngster and his mother entered through the automatic doors, they found Noah off in the corner, listlessly watching TV. Benji squeaked and made a beeline across the room, dodging chairs and people along his path to get to the corner. Hearing the commotion, Noah turned to grin at his friend as he approached. "AAiiyyeee!" Benji announced, half-way launching himself into the teen, which caused Noah to lose his breath. "Oof!" he cried, and then laughed.

Without missing a beat, however, Benji immediately got the older teen's attention. "Anything new? Is he still doing okay?"

Noah nodded. "Yeah, he is," he replied, before wrapping his arms around and hugging the boy close. Benji returned the embrace, but pulled back suddenly when he heard his mother calling his name. Zipping around the chairs again, he quickly returned to her side, where they both quietly headed further up the hallway and out of sight. Noah sighed, but smiled nonetheless, thankful the young boy was at least going to be allowed to see his brother.

Approximately 20 minutes later, the duo returned, along with Jennifer by their side. Benji had lost his youthful exuberance during the visit, however, as he walked more solemnly beside the two women, deep in thought. As they approached, Jennifer pulled out her cell phone and then brought up the text messages screen, before handing it to her son. Wordlessly, Noah glanced at the screen and noted that Simon had replied to his earlier note that was sent out that morning. 'Thanks for the info. Keep us updated, okay? We're pulling for him.' It made the teen smile as he handed the phone back, thinking that at some point he was going to have to re-evaluate his opinion of jocks and their lives. The guys were certainly not what he had made them out to be. As he turned away, he stopped to observe Benji closely. "Hey, Short-Stuff, what's up? You okay?"

Benji looked up. "He's… he doesn't look so good, Noah," the boy said quietly. "He's, I don't know… he just looks..."

Makalah overheard the remarks and stopped, turning and leaning in close to him. "He's going to be alright, honey. Remember my promise? Right now, they're just keeping him sedated so that he'll heal on the inside first, that's all. You'll see… give him another day or two, while his body works to repair itself, and then you'll see him all differently again."

Benji nodded, but fell silent again. Jennifer in turn approached her own son, however, and whispered something into his ear. "Really? I can? Now?" he asked her with a hoarse whisper. When she smiled and nodded, he suddenly jumped up from the chair and began following his mother, who guided him back into the hospital.

The evening before, Noah had been allowed to walk back and at least see his friend, but that was about the best that could be expected. Jesse had looked rough and ragged then, but at least cleaner than he had before, where much of his sweat and blood had been wiped away. Now there were a whole host of bandages and wrappings in various strategic places, and although he had been stretched out beneath a thin sheet, Noah could tell where several places were being given extra care, including between his friend's legs. When he walked into the room just now, he saw that there was little difference overall than the night before, other than he could tell his friend's eyes were apparently watching him as he approached. Jennifer had stopped at the doorway, engaging with one of the nurses there as if they were long-time acquaintances, so for the moment, the teenager was allowed to walk up closer all by himself.

Noah came to a stop beside the bed and initially just stood there quietly. Jesse had not reacted or responded to his approach, so Noah assumed that his friend must still be in that heavily sedated state, just as Makalah had told Benji moments before. As he stood there with a solemn expression, however, he eventually reached for Jesse's hand and took it gently in his own. To his surprise, he felt his fingers being squeezed, and as he glanced up once again, he could make out the hint of a smile where previously there had not been one. Noah emitted a huge sigh of relief as he leaned in closer. "Hey buddy," he whispered. Although his friend remained silent, once again he felt Jesse's squeeze within his hand, which was all the more encouraging to him.

Exactly how much time passed was uncertain, but eventually Noah heard his friend take a deep breath and let it out slowly before opening his eyes a little further. They lacked their usual sparkle, but there was still something pleasant in the expression that greeted him. Noah smiled back, trying to think of something to say, but feeling awkward all the same. "Uh, is there anything I can do for you?" he finally whispered, glancing back and seeing his mother still chatting amicably with the nurse outside the room. When he turned his attention back, he saw Jesse's lips move, but the sound was so faint he couldn't make it out. Using care, he leaned in closer until his right ear was practically pressed right against his friend's lip. With an effort, he heard Jesse take another breath, and then utter a single word: "Cold."

Pulling back, Noah hesitated only slightly. "Are you… are you saying you're cold?" The hand squeezed him once again, causing him to glance down. "Do that one more time if you're trying to say yes, okay?" Once again Jesse squeezed, and Noah was suddenly feeling so happy he could almost start crying again. "Just… okay, hang on!" he announced, before turning and stepping back to the doorway. "Mom? Ma'am? Jesse … he says he's cold!"

The nurse turned to him in surprise. "What do you mean? He actually spoke to you?"

Noah nodded. "I had to lean in close to hear him, but he actually told me he was cold, and then he squeezed my hand to show me that I heard him correctly," the teen explained.

Both women looked on in astonishment before Jennifer entered the room directly, while the nurse hurriedly returned to her station. Noah followed his mother. "Why is- I mean, what…?" he asked her quietly as he watched his mother take Jesse by the hand.

"Before now, all he's done is moan a lot from the pain, but other than saying something about double vision and a headache last night, he hasn't really communicated very much with anyone since, honey," she explained, before turning to Jesse and leaning in close. "Jesse, can you hear me? Squeeze my hand honey, if you can hear me, alright? Please? Just squeeze my hand so I know you can hear me…" Within seconds she saw both of his eyes open part of the way as he simultaneously gave her the gentle squeeze she asked for. Elated, Jennifer smiled widely as the nurse returned, along with another man wearing a white coat and carrying a stethoscope draped around his neck.

Over the next few minutes, multiple hospital personnel worked with the teen, seemingly relieved to have him responding once again. When it became obvious that Jennifer and Noah were now only sidelined as spectators, they stepped out of the cramped quarters to watch from afar. "So, it's a good thing, right?" Noah whispered as his mother wrapped her arms around his shoulders from behind.

"It's a very good thing, yes," Jennifer confirmed. They watched as one of the nurses left and returned with a blanket, which she swiftly placed over the teen and gently tucked in along the sides.

It was then the doctor walked out and turned his attention to them both. "Okay, I believe everyone can breathe a little easier now. It's not that I ever doubted he wouldn't come around, but the fact that he has speaks very positively."

"What do we do now?" Jennifer asked.

"Well, we're going to keep him awake for a while, try to assess where he's having the worst pains or other areas of discomfort, but at the same time try to keep him still. He told me that he still has a slight headache, so most likely we'll give him a much milder sedative and encourage him to go back to sleep a while longer. It's been…" The doctor paused and glanced at his watch. "…about 16 hours now. I think we'll wait just a bit longer and then move him into a step-down room later on this evening. Are you… not his mother?"

Jennifer shook her head. "His mother is tending to her younger son right now, waiting for us to get back."

The doctor frowned, but then nodded curtly. "Well, if you would both leave then, and inform her that he's awake, it would be greatly appreciated." His attitude had turned frosty by that point, and as he walked away there was a certain stiffness in his gait. Jennifer decided it would be best not to pursue the matter, but she would let Makalah know about it later. As she led Noah out of the area and back toward the waiting room, she shook her head in frustration.

"The creep! I take it he didn't like that very much," she muttered, before breathing heavily with frustration. "Some of these doctors, I think, need to be taken out behind the woodshed and told a thing or two, if not have their butts blistered!"

"Mom!" Noah exclaimed quietly, before giggling. As they turned the final corner that led to their destination, he quieted. "Thanks, Mom, for taking me back there. It means a lot to me."

Jennifer raised an eyebrow. "Are you kidding? For all we know, you may be the very thing that sparked him to wake up!"

Noah smiled. "Uh, can I borrow your phone again, and text an update to Simon, so that he can pass it along to the rest of the team?"

"Sure," she replied, handing it over to him just as they entered the waiting room. There they found both Makalah and Benji staring out into the snow-covered landscape, giggling about something.

As the two approached, Makalah stopped when she saw her friend's happier-than-usual expression. "What? Has something happened?"

Jennifer quickly explained what happened, which caused the woman to simultaneously squeal and closed her eyes. There was a huge sigh of relief that followed as she gazed at them both. She started to leave to go back to Jesse's room, but Jennifer stopped her briefly and told her the plan. She was going to go ahead and take the boys home, but promised to return later that evening with Allen, and to bring a good home-cooked meal. The woman nodded and gave her a brief embrace, thanking her, before finally departing. "I'll have a thing or two to tell that stupid doctor, too, but right now – I just want to get back to Jesse!" she explained as she walked away.

"So… Jesse's awake now? And talking?" Benji asked, to which Noah nodded as he finished sending his latest message. Jennifer walked over to a nearby rack and donned her coat, before approaching them both. "Come on boys, let's get to the whatever-you-call-it and call your father – both of your fathers!"

"Huh?" Benji asked, confused as he pulled his coat on again.

"She means our vehicle… she hates calling it a SUV," Noah explained, then shrugged. "It's more like a van, anyway."

"Noah? Can I ask you something?"

The small voice that reached his ears was one unmistakably in deep thought. After arriving home, the two had decided to take advantage of the snow-covered landscape, dressing warmly and getting out. Throwing snowballs, making snow angels, building a snowman among other things had occupied them for quite some time, with the only real break occurring when Benji had to go to the bathroom – one of those moments that required some extensive sitting down.

Although they had been having quite a bit of fun, Noah could tell something was bothering the younger brother, but the teen had respected the youth's privacy, patiently waiting to see if anything came out of his ponderings. Now, both boys were sitting on makeshift 'chairs' as they called it, behind a formidable wall of snow. They had intended to build a snow fort, then take turns attacking it from all around, but the hour was drawing late, and they had been outside now for some time. Noah did not push for them to go into the house, wanting the precious time he had to keep Benji occupied so the boy would not have to dwell on his brother's situation. He knew, however, that it was not completely possible. "Sure Short-Stuff, what's up?"

Benji grimaced. "You're the only other person besides Jesse who calls me that," he grudgingly admitted, but then sat back against their wall. Noah glanced to make sure the structure wasn't going to break, but was satisfied they had built it seemingly rugged enough.

"Sorry, little buddy," the teenager offered. "I guess I just picked it up from Jesse, and maybe your Dad, too."

"I don't care," Benji relented. "Jesse and I are always trading out stuff like that. I didn't mean it like it was bad, just… I think you and him are the only ones who call me that is all."

"Oh!" Noah responded, seeing the meaning behind the statement in a different light. He grinned. "Don't worry, it won't be too long before you'll be doing the same to smaller, er, people – like your brother and I do to you."

Benji laughed out loud, a sweet, pure sound that came from deep within. "Now you sound like him!" he said, obviously referring to his older brother. Shaking his head, he muttered something unintelligible, causing Noah to raise an eyebrow at him before he explained. "I said, I'm not surprised. You two think a lot alike, sometimes."

"Yeah? Well… maybe we do…" Noah replied, uncertain what he should say, but after a silence ensued, he decided to prompt the boy again. "What did you want to ask me?"

Benji looked up. "Will you tell me the truth?"

Noah's eyebrows shot up again. "When have I ever NOT told you the truth?"

Benji smiled and then nodded. "Well, it's about Jess… How bad hurt was he, Noah? I mean, Mom kept saying he was fine and all, but what I saw today… I'm not so sure. I mean, I have this feeling and… you know, like maybe not everyone is telling me everything."

"I know that feeling," Noah muttered. "Come here," he announced, sitting on the ground then and making a place for Benji to scoot in next to him. When the boy complied, Noah gathered his thoughts. "I'm not totally sure, okay? I mean, I wasn't with Jesse when he was… when he was…"

"Jumped? Attacked?" Benji uttered quietly, trying to help fill in the words for the older boy, which was impressive.

"Yeah, attacked," Noah conceded. "You see, it was near the end of the game last night, and Jesse had to go to the bathroom. Which really meant, he went into the locker room, because there are urinals and stuff in there, and it was a lot closer than having to go around the court to where the normal bathrooms are at. It didn't… I mean, it wasn't anything not normal, you know? Nobody knew he was going to be jumped or anything - he was just going to the bathroom, you know? But… that's when everything happened."

Benji studied the teen's expression closely. "So, when did you guys find him?"

Noah glanced at the youth and came to a decision quickly. "When the game was over, we all headed to the locker room, and that's when the guys found him."

"You didn't find him?"

"Not exactly," Noah admitted, his voice barely above a whisper. "I mean, I was with the team, but they got to him before I did. I mean, for once, I wasn't… I wasn't with him, or - or beside him, or…" Noah at once became emotional, having gone for hours without thinking about the episode, and suddenly having to face it again front and center. "I wish I had been, though. I wish… I wish it had been me, you know?"

"No!" Benji exclaimed. "Then Jess and I would be out here worrying about you!" He shook his head. "I just, I want to know everything, Noah."

Noah took a deep breath and then explained, filling in little gaps here and there when Benji asked questions. He kept the descriptions brief and simple, without some of the gory details, but Benji prompted him deeper than he had expected, and therefore he answered everything as truthfully as he could. When he was done, however, the youngster did not look anguished, or about to cry – which, Noah considered, was certainly a credit to his maturity at such a young age. They fell silent for a bit before Benji finally glanced up and smiled. "Thanks, Noah. I… just thanks. I love you, you know?"

Noah laughed, but then put his arm around him. "There seems to be a lot of that between the three of us, yeah…" Benji nodded before he went on. "So, do you think we can go in then? I'm kind of getting cold out here, now."

"Yeah, me too. Let's go. Can we, like, play on your XBox? Maybe that racing game you and Jesse play so much?" Benji asked, climbing to his feet and then extending his hand to pull Noah up with him.

"Sure," he replied, smiling with relief at how easily the conversation had taken a new course.

Once inside, both boys unpeeled the layers of coats, sweaters and scarves they had donned for their extended stay outdoors, including what were now overly wet tennis shoes and socks. Jennifer clucked her tongue as she helped Benji remove his from his feet. "You two are likely to catch a cold, if you're not careful." She glanced at Noah. "Go find some dry socks, and pull some out for him from his bag of clothes. I set it on your bed earlier today."

As Noah departed, Benji observed the woman peeling the last of the socks from his feet. "We thought we might go play some video games for a while," he offered tactfully, thinking she might just let him follow Noah downstairs, but Jennifer shook her head.

"Sure, you can, but let's eat first. I've got a meatloaf and some vegetables here, along with some dinner rolls and cupcakes. Then Allen and I are going to leave you two here, while we go and take some food up to your Mom and Dad," she explained, straightening up and stretching. "Sheesh, I'm getting too old for this down-and-up out of the floor routine, I think!"

"You're not old," Noah called from a distance, returning with the required socks for their guest, as well as a fresh pair for himself. He sat down next to Benji and pulled them on, all the while the younger boy tried to do the same, but with only partial success given his dampened feet. Seeing his struggle, Noah grunted and helped complete the task for him, which in some ways felt awkward, but in others made him feel good inside. Once done, Jennifer approached again and handed her cell to Noah without a word. He took it and found that Simon had sent him a new text. 'That sounds awesome, Noah! Me and the guys are working on something, will fill you in later!' Noah wondered about that briefly, but could not dwell on it as he and Benji were then tasked to set the table for an early dinner.

Allen arrived just as the trio were sitting down at the table. Joining them, he glanced at his wife and asked, "Anything new?"

"On Jesse? No, but Sheriff Hunt called a little bit ago. He said he was planning to stop by the hospital again this evening, and was hoping you and James might be there," she replied while beginning to pass the various bowls around.

"Oh? That's interesting," Allen commented, but nothing more was said as the conversation turned to other topics. Later, as they were clearing the dishes away, both boys helped prepare large plates of food for Benji's parents, and Jennifer even let the younger boy write a special message with icing on the cupcakes for them. "Awww…" he uttered, after one of his letters dropped overly below the line and off the edge. Jennifer peered over his shoulder and then clucked her tongue again. Picking the cupcake up, she remarked, "I think this was a defective one anyway." Extracting another one from nearby, she replaced it with a smile. This time, with Noah's help, the boy was able to succeed. 'Love you, From Benji'. "What do you think?" he asked when completed.

Allen walked by and smiled at him after peering at the result. "It's a good job," he replied, winking at Noah. Indeed, for a seven-year-old, it wasn't half bad.

The boys then headed downstairs after Jennifer gave them brief instructions to not stay up too late, and that they would call to check on them later. Although the snow had stopped falling by mid-afternoon, it was no surprise to learn that school had already been called off again for the next day. Once in Noah's room, they both started the game system up and spent the next two hours racing, in both solo and competition modes, with each other.

The hour was approaching nine when Noah finally sat back in his bean bag to relax. "Okay, I'm beat. You better get your shower tonight, buddy. You and I probably need it after today."

At once, Benji's demeanor changed. Crestfallen, he set his controller down. "Aww, really? Can't we stay up longer?"

Noah laughed. "I didn't say we had to go to bed yet, did I?" he teased, which made the younger boy perk up considerably. That was when Noah sat forward and grabbed him, pulling him over in his lap. After a brief tickling excursion, the teen then got up and walked over to Benji's bag of clothes, pulling out both underwear and a t-shirt. Then, to Benji's surprise, he watched Noah cross over to his own dresser and do the same thing. When he turned to see the curious face watching him, Noah spoke up. "You coming?"

Benji rose to his feet slowly, but then followed Noah inside the bathroom, where the older teen then shut the door. The teenager then crossed to the linen closet and pulled a pair of fresh towels out, setting them on the edge of the sink. Turning, he saw how that initial look of curiosity was changing to one of surprise. That was when the teen grunted and stepped over, squatting down in front of his guest. "So, just so we're clear, this is your call. One, I can just simply stay and wait for you, or two, I can join you. Or, I guess a third choice is that I can leave and wait outside in the bedroom while you do your thing. It's totally up to you."

Benji surprise became even more evident, and Noah wondered if it were possible for eyes to pop out of their sockets. "You? I mean, y-you would really…? With m-me?"

"Of course, I would with you! Why wouldn't I? I've told you before, I trust you, remember?" Smiling, he lowered his voice. "Yes, I would, and I will – but only IF you want me to, that is. We're brothers, right?"

Benji returned the grin and began peeling his shirt off. "Oh yeah, definitely!"

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