The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 24

All Is Not Forgotten

"Wait a minute, are you telling me… Uh… He said what??!!!" Allen exclaimed, clearly bewildered.

Jesse, Noah and their fathers were gathered in the Cooks' family room that evening. The Monday-night football game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos played on the large screen, although the two teams were not usually favored or followed by the four. Both, however, were reported to be possible division winners, and as such there were a lot of people across the nation taking an interest in what the playoffs would look like in the coming weeks. Given the crisis of the last week with Jesse, all four of them welcomed the distraction in general, but the boys' retelling of what went down earlier during in their meeting with Pete, had taken both of the older men by surprise.

"Pete told us that when Noah was around him, he thought it kept him more 'sane-like', as he called it. I don't know, like a kind of balancing and calming out, I guess," Jesse explained again, for the third time. The incredulous look the boys met from their fathers caused them to suddenly laugh. "Dad, it's true!" the Jesse added.

James suddenly sat back. "Well, I have no doubt as to the truth of it, son, but…" the man quickly admitted, but then shook his head before glancing at Allen.

"Are we sure this is the same Pete Haskell Junior that you've been dealing with for the last year or more?" James asked Noah.

"Pete Haskell the Third," Noah amended, but then blushed. "Sorry, I just…"

James laughed. "No apology needed; I stand corrected. You're right, it's just… well…"

"It's a lot to take in is all," Allen remarked, this time more calmly. "I don't doubt there was some sincerity in the gesture on his part, but the whole evening kind of turned out… bizarre. That doesn't sound like the Pete I met – not at all."

Jesse nodded. "Yeah, no kidding." The teen stretched slowly, his side still aching. Noah had gone across to the house and retrieved the bean bags, so that he and Jesse could use them during the game. The two teenagers sat in relatively close proximity of each other, but at the same time both remained guarded at showing any overt signs of deep friendship. When he had finished, however, Jesse sat deep in thought for a moment, thinking about how his impressions of Pete had suddenly turned about in just the last few hours. For a moment, he wondered if perhaps he was jumping the gun too quickly, instead of taking the time to sift through his feelings. His father noticed, after a time, the sudden silence before speaking up.

"What is it, son?" James prodded gently.

Jesse shrugged. "It's nothing, Dad. Just thinking is all. I mean, like Allen said, the guy we met with tonight didn't seem like the Pete that Noah and I knew in school at all. It just, I don't know, got me thinking is all."

"He's right," Noah added. "And don't forget, I knew him a lot longer than you did. That wasn't the Pete I became friends with last year. He was… I don't know, like a different person altogether. Different, but… I don't know, changed I guess."

"How so?" Allen asked.

"Well, you remember him Dad, don't you?" Noah replied. "He was always joking, cutting up and making a general ass of himself half the time. He couldn't help but make a wise-crack about anything and everything, as if his life depended on it, you know? But tonight, he was… like, just the opposite. Until tonight, I've never even once saw him break down and cry and all. It was like he was totally broken. I felt like he actually WANTED to turn himself in and, well…"

"I think I understand," James offered once the teen fell silent. "Life can change a person though, Noah, when things catch up to them. If you think about it, that boy's been on the run ever since they found those drugs. That includes losing his home, his friends around him and then some. It was probably the only real support system he ever had, tough as it may have been. Who knows what went through his head during all that time he was in hiding, see? I mean, he probably felt like he had no one he could trust anymore, or turn to, right? That weighs on a person after a certain length of time and all, at least a young person."

"He's what, 15, soon to be 16?" Allen asked, before picking up the line of thought. "He might have acted out a lot because he had no one to really be much of a role model to begin with. Certainly not dear-old-Dad, based on what you told us. I only ran into Pete Senior once that I can recall, but once was enough, really. He was a harsh man, rough, always looking for trouble – or so I thought. Suspicious of everything and everybody he came into contact with, and not afraid to let you know it, either. I imagine your Pete, his son, has had it pretty rough at home, with his Dad being the only primary parent for the better part of his life."

Jesse nodded again, becoming thoughtful. "Yeah, that makes sense."

"That kind of life, and then being thrown out with nowhere he could really go, changes things, I think. Even I'm having to re-think my own attitude toward Pete, now that I know a little about what he's had to put up with like that," James picked up. "He probably had to face a harsh reality, see? No one to turn to, nowhere to run or go… It probably even caused him to lose faith in his fellow man. If you think about it, that might be why he was willing to give up now, especially if he feels like he's at the end of his rope."

"At least, well, he didn't try to take the ultimate way out," Allen added somberly.

Jesse's eyes narrowed. "You don't mean… are you saying like, suicide or something?" he asked, screwing his face up but pointedly taking a dislike to the thought.

James cleared his throat. "Easy, son. Try to imagine, when someone is worn down enough, and continuously feels lost - as if they were in some kind of spiraling, never-ending cyclone or something. Then yes… it's always a possibility. It's how a lot of suicides occur, with people feeling or believing there is no other option left for them to take, so why bother… you see? I don't know if Pete would have been that far gone, but… given his home, that ordeal with his father and that guy molesting him, and then having to live without any nurturing or guidance in life like he has - well, teenagers have been known to give up before for a lot less."

"Wow!" Noah whispered aloud, but then shook his head. "Pete might have been a lot of things, but… I could never see him doing something like that. I – I really, I just can't."

"Well, that's good, but boys – you should always be aware that there are people who go through hell, and feel they can't find a way out of it." Allen sat forward then, catching the teens' attention even more directly. "Especially teenagers, who are subject to all kinds of pressures today – depression, drinking in the home, drugs, recklessness, rape or premature sex, starvation, among others. They can feel unloved or unwanted, or end up with feelings of despair and helplessness if they aren't careful. That's why teen suicide is always at such high rates these days – especially around the holidays. We're lucky to live in a community where most people place a higher value on life, I think, one that counteracts that kind of misery, but… don't ever make the mistake of thinking it doesn't happen around here. Pete is living proof of it, I think. Maybe he's not suicidal, but that doesn't mean someone else living the life like he has lived, couldn't have succumbed to handling it differently than he did."

Noah nodded. "I get it, honest," he replied softly. "I guess I just never thought of it that way. Wow…!"

"Now, we all have our misgivings about Pete, I know," James picked again. "Jesse probably has even more than the rest of us, but these last couple of days and hours have set me to thinking. Maybe there's a silver lining for that kid after all, but if he's going to get through it, he'll need some friends - real friends - to not only realize it, but to help him along the road to recovery. Probably most of all, though, is that he'll have to learn to humble himself down, and realize that life is too short to hold on to the bad things forever. Therapy will help him go a long way, but… that will be a long road ahead of him, and I'm sure there will be a lot of issues he'll have to get through and address before he gets better."

"I agree," Allen added. "I might not want to admit it freely, but I have to say I'm actually kind of proud of the boy. What he did today took? THAT took a lot of guts, believe me."

"I am, too," Jesse mused, then blushed. "I- I couldn't help but be mad with him before, but now… I would never, ever have wanted him dead, or even close to it. I… I… I guess, I don't know how I feel now, but… well…"

"We know, son," James replied with a smile. Once again, his son's show of empathy caused his chest to fill with a certain amount of pride. "He may have given us all a hell of a run, but none of it was worth paying that kind of a price." Allen nodded his agreement.

The teenagers glanced at one another, but then fell silent as everyone returned their attention to the ball game, and the sudden touchdown the Broncos had just made.

Nothing more was said about Pete for the rest of the evening.

Tuesday morning arrived with gusting winds and sleet pelting across the valley. The frozen mixture iced over a variety of vegetation, signs, buildings and more, as well as roads, power lines and utility poles. "If there is one thing worse than just having snow this time of year," Jennifer remarked, staring out the kitchen sink window, "it's the danger that ice brings with it beforehand."

"I agree," Allen spoke from behind her, as he stepped up and threaded his arms around his wife to hug her close. "Especially given what it put us through so many years ago."

Jennifer sighed. "No kidding." She stood there briefly, taking his arms inside her own and holding them close. "You know, I'm actually glad they called school off, to tell the truth. Can you imagine…?"

"Oh yeah, but… I think everyone was expecting the county to call it off anyway," Allen replied, nuzzling her ear. "Harland even said something about it yesterday when we were talking with him. It's probably a good thing anyway, especially with Christmas only a few days away now. It honestly never felt right how they set the school calendar up this year to begin with. They were cutting it pretty close… you know?"

"I agree," the pretty woman replied, before turning around and meeting her husband face-to-face. "So, have you given any thought about how we should handle the weekend, it being Christmas and all?"

"Well, it's kind of late to plan anything with my brother, and I haven't heard anything from sis either, so I guess we're kind of on our own mostly. Unless we want to just up and take off down to Nashville, which wouldn't be bad to do maybe early next week. Just for a visit though," Allen mused. "We've made three or four trips already, and it wouldn't hurt them to load up and drive up here for a change. It's not THAT long of a drive, you know." Jennifer nodded absently, agreeing with her husband's logic. When it came to Allen's family, she did her best to let him determine how they should deal with them overall. As Allen observed her, however, he noted a curious expression that met him. "What about you? Have you had any thoughts?"

"Well," Jennifer started, but then hesitated. She saw the hint of a smile upon Allen's face, one that encouraged her to speak up, and so she did. "You probably already know what I'm thinking about, don't you? I just…" She turned once again to face the window, but drew Allen's strong arms around her once again. "They have had so much happen over there, and you know that given everything lately, they have to be pretty stressed as it is. I just wish we could help get things to settle down for a while."

Allen tucked his chin over her shoulder. "These last couple of months have certainly been a whirlwind, for all of us." He grew quiet for a moment before lowering his voice. "You know, if you want to make a Christmas this year that includes the McAllisters, you'll get no objection from me. In fact, the only heart attack I might get is if our son decided to object, for whatever reason."

"Noah? Don't make me laugh," the woman replied while rolling her eyes. But then she turned and studied her husband's face. "Really? I… I really don't know. They may already have made some plans, or… have something else in mind they want to do. I mean, it's not like we're family or anything, but-"

"Says who?" Allen whispered back. "No, they aren't technically family, but you just kind of said it yourself. Noah thinks of them all as part of the family anyway, doesn't he? Besides, who says that blood defines who we make as part of a people we define that way? Hmm?" The man sighed. "As far as I'm concerned, we've made it this far, and I couldn't be prouder, really. Other than a few bumps along the road, they're certainly getting back on their feet already, and we…"

When Allen grew quiet again, Jennifer turned to look back at him. "We… what?"

It was rare for her husband to display his emotions on his sleeves, especially when he usually kept them bottled up given his gentle nature. As she stood there, however, she could see something within the sincere smile that finally found its way to her. "What can I say? We have our son back, don't we?"

As the implication hit her, a tear escaped and trickled down Jennifer's cheek before she nodded. "I know, we kind of always felt we owed them for everything they did years ago, but… that one part alone makes everything now feel so well worth it, you know? Who would have thought? I mean, well…" She gasped, but chuckled happily as Allen hugged her closer still.

They watched and listened to the sleet that thrashed against the window pane at times, until Allen finally spoke again. "So, how do you want to do it?" he whispered into her ear. "Any bright ideas?"

"Well, we've already got that turkey in the freezer downstairs. I'm not sure how big it is, but if we need to, we can add a ham or something to the menu. I say let's just kind of make a simple dinner, and maybe exchange a few gifts on Christmas Eve. Then we can have all of Christmas morning to ourselves, unless… You boys have another ball game or something coming up on Saturday, don't you? Sometime in the afternoon?" Jennifer asked, after giving it some thought.

"Yep, sure do," Allen replied. "I think that would be awesome. Don't go to a lot of trouble cooking, though - we don't have to feed an army, you know."

"Are you kidding? Those three boys alone will-"

"Alright, alright!" Allen interrupted, laughing and squeezing her again. "Well, at least don't go overboard. Maybe just make a few items and all. Do you know what's needed from the grocery? If you'll make a list, I'll see if I can't stop by this afternoon or in the morning, if the county gets the salt trucks out and scrapes the roads well enough for me to get around."

"Oh, no you don't!" Jennifer replied hastily before chuckling. "Well, okay… but just promise me to be careful. Noah and I don't want to see another catastrophe repeat itself!" she whispered, but Allen fully understood her reasoning. "I did see one of the county trucks going by a little while ago, so it shouldn't be too bad from here on into town."

"I'll be alright, you'll see. I'm much older and wiser these days," Allen teased her.

"Older, yes… wiser? We'll have to see," the woman quipped back at him before sighing. "Honestly, let's just wait and see. Believe it or not, I think I have most everything we'll want already here, unless I need something for a dessert. Oh, and perhaps some fresh potatoes, and then, ah… maybe some eggs, too."

Allen laughed. "Like I said, just go through the pantry and refrigerator and make me a list. Maybe I can get Noah to go out with me too." Once again, they snuggled in to watch the weather outside before he spoke again. "If I know you, I figure you've got something for those boys under the tree already, but uh… what about James and Makalah? Are we doing anything for them?" Allen asked, thinking along different lines.

"Makalah is covered, and yes, although Noah has taken care of Benji and Jesse, I fixed a little something up for them both, too. James on the other hand…"

"I already had an idea or two, especially if you don't think it would be bad to combine them together," Allen offered. "You know I love you, right? You big ole' kind-hearted woman, you!"

"Big?" Jennifer replied, then raised her voice again as she suddenly turned in his arms. "Who's big? Are you calling me fat, buster?" she fired off rapidly, teasing him. "And what about you, Mr. Tenderfoot? I've seen you look away a few times, hiding those puppy dog eyes of yours!"

Allen laughed. "Why, I don't know what you're talking about, my dear! That would be un-manly of me now, wouldn't you think?"

"Huh!" Jennifer hissed, before engulfing the man once again before kissing him softly. "Thank you," she whispered. "I didn't know how you would take it, really. Sharing our Christmas with them, I mean, is kind of asking for a lot. That's something we usually save and do just for ourselves, but… It's not like we haven't already done a bit, it's just…"

Allen shrugged. "No, not really – not in my eyes. Even if we have though, this isn't that much we're adding on. They'll certainly think it's a bigger deal than it really is, probably more than we will, trust me."

"I know, yeah." Jennifer nodded. "So, do you want to walk over there with me, maybe talk to them about all of it? Before they go to making other plans or something?"

Allen grinned. "And get sleeted on along the way? Well… sure, why not?"

Across town, as the sleet continued to deluge the area non-stop throughout the morning, Sheriff Hunt pulled up into his usual parking spot next to the police station and turned his engine off. For a moment, he sat and listened to the silence, with only the occasional rumble of early morning vehicles rolling by behind him. No phones, no radios – nothing of consequence disturbed his moment of peace as he sipped his coffee. Most days it was the one, single solitary chance he was allowed to enjoy just for himself, before the whirlwind of the public office would take over. Columbia was not a large township, but the county was as expansive as most other counties in the state, including the larger metropolitan areas. It had its share of incidents throughout the year, many which rivaled communities elsewhere. From the local boys who got a little too intoxicated, to the usual share of accidents and fender benders, and even the occasional domestic disturbances, Adair County was not immune to the usual outbreaks of mischief in the modern world. A little bit of everything happened from time to time, really. Robberies, occasional shootings – nothing was really strange to their little community. Especially when it came to drugs.

Being in such a rural area, high-class or high-paying jobs were few and far between. Not that the whole of Adair county was considered poor, but economically there was little industry to drive it. With only a few factories, and having no central stewardship for shipping and transportation, most companies chose to locate closer to interstate highways, or even more municipal-like areas. All that was left then were the necessities – groceries, hardware, regional support services, and farming. Not to be discounted, Columbia also had a fairly sized retirement community, too – which added to the allure of giving its residents a peaceful, small-town feel overall. That, perhaps, was what gave their community its most inviting appeal.

Combined, those elements also made the area prime and ripe for the darker side of society, too. All manner of drug trafficking, money laundering, or other trades beneath the law were prevalent. It wasn't that big of a surprise, either. For some, rural life added a level of boredom to their daily rituals, thus leaving them with needs to be fulfilled - as was made evident by the successful raid executed only nights before.

Grunting, the Sheriff finally opened the door of his vehicle and climbed out, feeling the force of the breezy morning outside that hit him head on. By the time he had closed and locked the door, and made it halfway to the building's main entrance, ice crystals had already started to collate on his mustache and the areas of his head not protected by the cap he was wearing. He bowed his head as walked briskly over the remaining distance, and exercised caution as he crossed to make sure he didn't encounter any sudden slick spots on the sidewalk. When he finally stood before the huge double doors to the station, he only paused long enough to take one final glimpse skyward. Shaking his head slightly, the man then stepped inside into the welcoming foyer, and area in stark contrast by enveloping him with an inviting warmness. Two large metal detectors greeted him a few feet inside the doorway, but he ignored them and walked off to the side, where one of the attendants pulled back a portion of the partition to let him through. He greeted a new deputy who had just recently joined the force then, and chatted with him amicably for a few minutes while he continued to sip his coffee. They both agreed there were probably few people likely to show up that day, especially since Judge Haggle had already canceled all of his court sessions, and instructed his staff to reschedule them for a later date.

Eventually the Sheriff approached his office, and as he glanced down the hallway, saw that Pete Haskell III was being escorted. That was another curious turn of events in his evening before, one that continued to weigh on his thoughts all night long. Like the other prisoners being held, the teenager had initially been given a fresh, clean and bright-orange jumpsuit to wear, one which the teenager probably found welcoming - at least considering the dirtied and musty-smelling attire he had arrived in. When he had arrived, the Sheriff had looked upon the boy in astonishment, along with the high school principal who brought him in, as he was led into his office. Several deputies and staff had even gathered at the doorway, just as dumbfounded as the rest at seeing the boy turn himself in like that. Within seconds of his initial reaction, however, Jim Hunt waved at a set of chairs, on which both the teen and his former principal obliged by sitting down as the Sheriff closed his door.

To say Jim Hunt was beside himself, was an outright understatement. The man tried to ask a few questions, but it became evident right away that the teenager was suffering from excess exposure, malnutrition and utter exhaustion. After a quick glance at Mr. Green, the Sheriff decided any questioning would have to wait, so he quickly instructed one of his deputies to tend to the teen, with orders to let him shower and get some food. After he had left, Jim and Harland than had had a nice long talk, during which the Principal filled him in on the what he knew, and how the evening had unfolded. Following that conversation, the Sheriff ordered that the teen not be held downstairs, but in the staff's boarding room instead.

The boarding room wasn't exactly a secured area, but rather a small room equipped with the necessities of a simple apartment. It was used by staff at different times for emergencies or other needs, especially during excessively long shifts, or when a crisis required someone to stay behind at the station. It was a simple corner room on the building's top floor. It had no security bars nor other deterrence to speak of, even with a single window that overlooked the town square. Not that anyone would have found it easy to try and escape anyway being so far from the pavement. It wasn't designed in terms of entertainment, but it hostel-like layout for one was still comfortable. It did have a small TV mounted in the corner opposite the bed, which made it perfect for watching the news or other items of interest.

Once Pete had fulfilled the sheriff's instructions for the evening, the deputies reported the teen had entered and simply fell into the bed, pulling the covers around him tight and drifting off to sleep. Initially Jim Hunt had been uncertain what he should do with the boy, but he and Harland had quickly worked out that it might not be beneficial placing him into a cell with the others recently picked up. As Harland explained, there were things about Pete's situation that were not adding up as one might expect, and for once, that troubled the Sheriff. Seeing the teenager now brought those feelings he had nurtured back to the surface once again.

Continuing on through the door, the officer hung his overcoat on a nearby rack and approached his desk before sitting down heavily. Front and center on top was a single unlabeled folder, which the man immediately reached for and opened, before browsing through the contents. He had only made it to the second page when there came a knock from his doorway, and Fred stuck his head inside. "Got a second, boss?"

Jim Hunt waved the man in, who entered and took a seat in one of the chairs. "Rather nasty outside this morning, isn't it?" the man remarked cordially. The Sheriff grunted, before finally looking up and asking the foremost question on his mind without preamble. "Do I understand this right?"

Fred, having been the one to put the folder in the first place, was not surprised as he simply nodded. "It was on my desk out there when I arrived this morning, and after checking it out, I brought it in here. It seems to be on the level - the kid's clothes had no residues of any substances on them. No drugs, no blood, nothing anywhere other than just grime, dirt and varying levels of lake-water. At least, I assume lake-water, as there are no salt-based marine bodies in the area. The lab result came back on his urine, too - clean as a whistle, other than it did indicate the kid might have the beginnings of an infection. Otherwise - nothing, no drugs or anything of the sort. That alone is, I have to confess, somewhat surprising."

The Sheriff sat back, returning the folder to the desktop before staring at his deputy. "So… nothing? Then how in the hell…" The man shook his head in further confusion. "What about his pockets, then? I don't see an inventory list here anywhere."

"It's on the last page Jim, but it was really only two items," Fred replied. "He had a pocket knife, nothing fancy or huge, just a kind of everyday version, I think, but obviously used quite a bit in recent weeks… and also a wallet. That one contained nothing but a picture of his mother, and literally a nickel and a dime. Fifteen cents may have been all he had to his name. At least, from what we can tell. Unless you want to account for a pair of gloves that were shoved in his pullover, that was it. Shoes were pretty threadbare too, as if they had seen better days, like the rest of his attire. I started to throw them away, but…"

The two men observed one another closely before the Sheriff sighed deeply and pulled himself forward. "You say the blood work was clean, then? One of the reports we got from the school is he had row with one of his teachers one afternoon, who noted he looked like he might have been high or something."

"Honestly, it was clean – so if he was, it wasn't the usual stuff. Maybe he sniffed too many magic markers or something, I don't know. The fumes from some of those could knock a horse flat, if you asked me, but anyway… What it did show was some extensive use of acetaminophen, you know - Tylenol - but otherwise that was it, and it wasn't something you'd consider habitual. The rest of the blood work just showed a lot of nutritional deficiencies."

"Well…. Crap," the Sheriff muttered to himself more than anything.

"I know the feeling, yeah. Thing is, boss, I tried to talk to him for a few minutes right before you arrived, asking him what he'd been eating lately, and he just shrugged." Fred paused, but then added, "From the way he wolfed down his food last night and this morning, I'm not too sure he's been eating anything of consequence, really."

Jim grunted. "Going on the run can do that to a person, I suspect," he muttered under his breath before taking a deep breath and nodding. "Give me a minute to go to the restroom and get some coffee, then let's bring him back in here so I can talk with him for a bit."

"Sure thing, boss," Fred replied, standing up with the man, then disappearing down the hall as the Sheriff headed in the opposite direction. Ten minutes later, he returned to find the teen already in Fred's previously occupied seat, looking rather dejected. As Jim Hunt entered, he did note the teenager looked somewhat improved compared to the night before, insofar as being cleaned up considerably. The expression though, was one of pure defeat, which for some reason, seemed to have an impacted the man the most. Closing his door, Jim turned to nod at Fred to take another chair nearby, all the while he returned to his own seat behind the desk.

"How do you feel this morning?" the Sheriff asked gently, setting his coffee on the desk. Without waiting for a reply, however, a thought occurred to him. "Say, do you drink coffee?" When the teenager nodded, he glanced up and noted that Fred was already rising again. Jim Hunt did not wait, however, before continuing on. "So, Pete… do you feel like answering a few questions for me this morning? Mind you, you don't have to answer anything for me. You can, if you feel you need it, request legal counsel be here, and I'll oblige you wholeheartedly. I was kind of hoping, though, you might at least have a little chat with me for a bit."

The teenager raised his head and stared toward the man for several seconds before finally shrugging. "I guess so. I mean, you probably already know most everything by now anyway, don't you?" The voice was quiet and non-threatening, reinforcing the teen's recognition that he was no longer on the run, but instead in the care of the Sheriff and his men.

"Well, not everything, no," Jim replied, also keeping his voice softened and non-threatening in nature. "I take it you've had a rough time these past few weeks. Tell me son, where have you been staying?"

Pete scoffed, but then shrugged yet again. "Here and there, a little bit of everywhere, I guess. Mostly in the woods around the lake, then on one of the boats down at the marina. Sometimes up at the school, out in the lawn shed behind the football field. Just… different places. I didn't stay anywhere very long, in case someone wised up and reported me in or something."

Jim hunt nodded. "It's been pretty cold out there though, especially some nights more so than others, right?"

"Yes, sir, it has," was the soft reply, but then the teen fell silent.

"What about food?" the man continued to prod gently.

"Mostly I just ate anything I could find," the teen replied softly. "I had a little money at first, but I eventually ran out. I just… like I said, I ate anything I could find mostly."

"So, you mean you didn't visit any of your friends or…"

"I don't have any friends, Sheriff. I mean, I thought I did, but that turned up bust, really. Sometimes I found food on the boat, in the refrigerator there, or maybe, uh, Jimmy would leave me some food out on his back porch some nights. That was the closest I could come, anyway. Everything else though, I paid for at one of the Quick Stops, or got from that pantry box thingy on the other side of town. You know, the one next to that church where people donate stuff for hard-hit families and everything." Pete paused on briefly before adding, "When I ran out of money, I… I had to do some other things. Things I'm not proud of, but…"

"You shoplifted some food, is that it?" Jim prompted him when the teen did not go any further, but not without kindness. "So, you really … wow! Son, I guess it goes without saying, but… why didn't you come in to us sooner?"

At that, Pete glanced up quickly with a certain fiery expression. "And do what? Get sent up to the pen like my old man? You're the one who found the drugs, you… you…"

"Whoa, hold up now… calm down so-" The man caught himself quickly, realizing what he had called the boy now more than once, and after being warned about by Harland the night before. "I'm sorry, I'll try not to call you 'son', but… old habits die hard, I guess." He watched as Pete calmed down somewhat before casting his eyes back to the floor. "Still, let's hold up for a minute, alright? First, if I'm not mistaken, you're 15 years old. Unless something has happened to the penal code that I'm not aware of, then no - we do not send 15-year-old teenagers to prison - period. Group homes, maybe, but…"

"Same thing," the teen muttered under his breath.

The words were almost indiscernible, having been uttered so softly, but Jim Hunt picked up on them nonetheless. "Pete, listen to me - I can assure you beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is a world of difference between the two. I understand why you may have thought otherwise, but one is far, far worse than the other. But, for now, let's just agree to disagree and leave that one alone, because I have a feeling you won't be as bad off as you think. At least, once we get finished."

Pete looked up again, this time with a certain shrewdness in his expression. "Yeah, right. You and I both know that's not going to happen. There's been… too much to happen, and…"

Sheriff Hunt leaned forward once again. "What? What has happened? What are you involved with? Maybe knocking off some water pipes, perhaps? Stealing some food? Face it, kid - you got in a fight with some kids at school. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I have a lot more pickles to fry than to worry myself over little things like that."

Pete's eyes narrowed even further, but his expression changed to one of confusion. "Knocking off some… what?"

"Those outdoor water pipes at the Cooks' and McAllisters' residences. You know what I'm referring to," Jim answered with a matter-of-fact tone, but keeping his voice carefully neutral all the same.

The teen, however, frowned even deeper. "I have no idea what you're talking about," was his response, and for a moment, his sincerity caused the Sheriff to hesitate. The man then gradually explained about the incidents, dropping a few details and hoping to jar some kind of reaction from the youth, but the more he spoke of it, the more the teen frowned and seemed lost. "Seriously, I- I didn't do any of that."

Jim Hunt sat back and scratched his head in surprise. "Really? Well… tell me this: Someone was spotted behind their property one morning just before daybreak. A Sunday, I think it was, heading back into the marshland and woods that led over and surround the north side of the lake. Does that ring any bells?"

Immediately Pete's face changed to one of recognition. "Yeah, that was probably me. I… I think I was looking into a couple of houses around there, seeing if anyone might have left a door unlocked and all. I… well, I hadn't eaten for a couple of days, and… and I was getting desperate. But…" The teen paused, as if struggling to recall. "I think I tripped over something, and it scared me because, I don't know, it made a lot of noise. I made a run for the trees afterwards, just hoping that it didn't wake anyone up, or… you know."

"So, you don't know where you were when that happened?" Fred asked him curiously, seated beside him again.

"No," Pete replied, but then looked off into space as he took a sip of his coffee. "I think… I'm not sure. I know I was on the north side, like you said, and… yeah, I may have been near where Noah lives. I mean, the Cooks' house, but… I can't really be sure. I mean, it was dark, and well, I had been going along a lot of places on that road and all… Like I said, I was kind of getting desperate, and I was really hungry by then."

"Yet, you knew about the entrance to the woods, didn't you?" Fred voiced again, before glancing at his boss apologetically.

"Well yeah, kind of, but really – if you walk the edge of the marsh around the whole hill and everything, you can actually find entrances everywhere – that is, if you know how to look for them," Pete replied frowning again, before falling silent.

Sheriff Hunt stared at the teen hard for a long time before finally nodding, accepting his explanation. "Okay, so maybe that isn't as much to worry about then as we thought, at least for now."

"It's the truth," Pete mumbled quickly, but immediately sighed before apologizing. "Sorry, I… I just…"

The teen had frowned again, and was clearly staring off into space deep in thought. The Sheriff took a sip of his own coffee and sat back in his chair. When the silence continued, however, he spoke up. "What is it, son?" Pete's gaze finally fell to the floor again, but it was clear he was in deep thought. "Now that I think about it, I- I've heard talk from someone about doing that type of stuff before. I mean, about how they pulled those kinds of stunts, and others, while they were still in school and all."

"Oh, really? Who was it? Do you remember?" Jim Hunt prodded gently.

Pete's frown deepened as he stopped to study, but eventually he shook his head. "I'm… I'm not sure, I mean…"

The Sheriff then moved forward again, placing both arms upon his desk. "Young man, I want you to listen to me, alright? If you're not responsible for those occurrences, then fine – we can work with that later. But - if there is anything you can provide otherwise, a name or a clue of sorts, then you have to realize it does nothing but help your situation, right? I agree, this has the makings of nothing more than just a simple high school prank, but to those people who lived there, they had to deal with some serious damage – all because of somebody's idea that it was a prank. If you weren't involved, then good, but… just consider how it would help all the way around if we could find the perpetrator responsible. Understand?"

Pete looked up then, his expression now serious. "You say, it was the Cooks' and McAllisters' houses, right? Both of their places? Does that mean the old house that's next door?" When the Sheriff nodded, the teens shoulders fell again. "Well, like I said, I'm really not sure, but… I think it was Michael Cloyd's old man who used to talk about some of the things he and his friends would do when they were in high school. I mean, it might have been him, or at least, it seems like he might have been the one. I remember he seemed kind of proud of it, too, when he was bragging about it at least."

Fred's eyebrows stretched upward in surprise. "Seriously? Walter Cloyd? I think he has an older son named Michael. Jeez, Boss - I just pulled that man over last week for reckless driving! Rough looking feller, too."

Sheriff Hunt nodded, before returning his attention to Pete once again. "I know the man, yes. He's also got a record for a whole host of misdemeanors, plus getting caught with some marijuana last year."

"That would be him," Pete interjected. "He… He was… well, he and my old man used to hang out a lot, before he was up to the pen."

"Really?" Sheriff Hunt became thoughtful then, before addressing Fred. "Have we still gotten no identification on our other 'guests' downstairs?"

"Not yet, no. FBI database has been on-again, off-again last couple of days, they said because of upgrades or something like that," the deputy replied. When the room fell silent again, Fred added, "Why, what were you thinking, boss?"

Instead of answering right away, the Sheriff turned back to the teenager. "Pete, tell me something else. Your Dad, did he have visitors very often?"

The teen looked up thoughtfully. "Well, yeah… sure. I mean, lots of times both before and after he went to prison. There's always someone coming around the house and getting in and everything. Some of them, well, they brought food, see, like groceries and stuff. That's… that's how I've made it for so long, I guess."

"Really? You mean to tell me, you've been living on your own, in your house, for the last what, almost three years or so?" the Sheriff replied, an eyebrow arched high in surprise. "Didn't anyone come to get you after he was arrested? A social worker or something? Or did your mother come back?"

"Mom has been gone for a long time, and no – I have no idea where to even look for her." The teen then shrugged. "As to the rest, no, I've never seen anyone. I've just… you know, just been staying, try to keep out of everyone else's way."

Fred scooted forward to the edge of his seat. "But… that can't be right, can it? What about your bills, the utilities and … whatever else? You do have electricity and everything, right?"

"Well, yeah," Pete replied. "We get the bills and everything just fine, but… I was told to leave them on the kitchen table, and every so often I'd get home and find them gone. I figured, well, someone in Dad's crew just picked them up and … you know…"

"That would make the most sense, I agree," Jim Hunt mused aloud. Inwardly he was astonished at the lengths the gang had gone to, so as to keep the place on tap for their gatherings, or more - all the while letting the kid stay behind the scenes. He admitted it probably wasn't that much of an intrusion, especially for one who had learned to be as resourceful and self-sufficient as Pete had come to be. "Let me be certain I understand here, though: you say that people came and went all the time, even after your father was arrested… right?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, I didn't always see them, but they've been around. Even now, after I was caught and everything up at the school. I know because I saw a new-ish envelope on the boat, one that was addressed to us and everything. Anyway, sometimes it might be weeks before I'd see anyone, because like I said, for the most part I stayed and kept to myself. Some of them would come by, spend the night or a day or two, and then just disappear again. You know, be gone and all." Pete frowned. "For the most part, they left me alone, so I did the same. I mean, I had my bedroom, and that's where I stayed when I wasn't hanging out with some of the guys."

"Tell me something else, then," Jim Hunt started, but then paused briefly before nodding. "I think we may have some of those men downstairs. If we show you their pictures, do you think you could tell us if you recognize any of them?"

"Well, yeah, I guess so…" Pete replied, though not without curiosity. Immediately, Fred rose to his feet and left the room, only to return a moment later with another folder which he handed over to his boss.

Jim Hunt then rose and walked over to a table, currently sitting adjacent to the wall, and spread a set of photographs in the open space. "Come here, son," he said kindly, to which Pete rose and walked over. Starting with the one on the left, he pointed. "That's Gregory Allen, he's the one who brought food in most of the time since Dad, well, since he was arrested. And that one next to him, he's Jerry-somebody. I don't think I've ever heard his last name, or if I did, I don't remember it now."

The teen moved to the third picture and paused. "I think some of the guys called this one John, but… I heard the big man call him Walter too, so… that's all I remember about him, really. The guy next to him is his first cousin, Jake."

"You mean, the one that looks like he could be his brother?" Fred asked, fascinated as he made notes on a pad of paper he had obtained.

"Yeah, I know. Dad thought they were brothers, too, when he first met them. They came to the house one night, and Dad let them stay until the next morning," Pete replied. "I… I remember I had to give up my bed that night." When he didn't continue, the Sheriff nodded, and so Pete moved on. "This one, I… he's the one they called Abe… Big Abe, I think. I think he might have been Dad's boss, if you can believe it. He didn't come around all that often, but when he did, he was always dressed like, you know, better clothes and everything, kind of snazzy like, and the others, they kind of had a different attitude when they talked with him. He… yeah, he was the one the other guys answered to, especially after Dad was arrested."

"Abe?" the Sheriff mused. "Did you ever hear his last name or anything else?"

Pete frowned, thinking hard for almost a full minute before responding. "I want to say… well, maybe, I don't know…" The teen paused briefly once again before continuing. "I want to say it was something like 'Gallardo'. At least…"

There was a larger than normal smile on the Sheriff's face when the teen looked up. "Abraham Gallardo, yes… a big name in the underworld! He's been on the FBI's most wanted list for the last decade, if I'm not mistaken!" With an unusual display of excitement, he turned to his deputy. "If he's right, we have to let Bowling Green know about this, and right now! Get with Gail, make the call and let them know we have a very high possibility that we've identified him. Oh, and while you're out there, send Josh in here. I saw him come in a bit ago."

"You got it, boss!" Fred replied, heading quickly for the doorway.

Sheriff Hunt observed the teen with interest as he stared at the last picture on the table. "The last one, do you recognize him, too?" The teen, however, remained deathly silent, staring and frowning even deeper, prompting Jim to step closer. "Pete?"

"Yeah," the teen whispered finally, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. It was still several seconds before he spoke again. "If that's who you have now, you'd better keep him then, Sheriff, and never let him go."

"Why is that?" Jim Hunt asked, curious. "Who is he?"

Pete finally looked up, but for the first time, the Sheriff saw a steely expression of ice cold in the boy's features that caused the man to take note. "He's one of those bastards that, if I ever catch him… I swear, I'll fucking kill him."

Surprised, the man looked on. "Why?"

Pete slowly turned to explain how he knew the man, and why. "That's Jimmy Edward's weirdo father. He… he's the one who raped me when I was, like, nine or ten."

"You don't have to do that," Makalah finally said, sitting in near shock as their friends had pulled chairs up around the recliner, and James sat on the chair's arm by her side.

Jennifer shuffled forward. "No, we don't, but… we'd like to. Allen's brother and sister have other plans, obviously, and it's not the best time for us to go visiting anyway. So, as it turns out, we're going to be staying home alone this year… unless you two and the boys want to join us."

Allen cleared his throat. "Now, mind you, if you have plans then that's different. We wouldn't want to interfere with-"

"Who are you trying to kid?" James drawled quietly, also fighting his own emotions that were slowly rising. He turned to a nearby window and watched the shrubs and trees bending to the wind in the distance. "Honestly? Too much has been happening all the way around, for me to even keep my head on straight, I think. I- I mean, I haven't even…" Once the man fell silent, Makalah reached out to take hold of his elbow. He glanced down and saw her smiling at him with moistened eyes, before she turned her attention to the other woman in the room. They stared at one another briefly, as Makalah was truly at a loss of words as the impact of the offer began to hit home.

Jennifer, on the other hand, continued before the woman could object "Listen, there's not a one of us who can deny we've all been going through various states of chaos these last few weeks, just trying to get things to settle down. We're at a breathing point though, and you guys have to agree – it's slowly getting better. This, though, is something Allen and I want to do – not just for you and your family, but for us as well. We think it would be really good if we could all have a nice, quiet weekend for a change, and the fact that it's Christmas just makes it all the more special. I don't know about you two, but the days have slipped by us rapidly now, and we're facing a holiday all of a sudden. Not just any holiday either, mind you, because it's… well, Christmas!"

With tears in her eyes, Makalah finally sighed. "But… coming together like this? It goes, well, way above and beyond. You both know that… right?"

Jennifer only smiled in return. "Above and beyond what? Tell me, do you two even remember all that you went through for us? Not for days or weeks, but for months? Do you remember the first Christmas Allen and I spent with the two of you, at a time when I had no one or nowhere to really turn?" The woman then paused and sat up a little straighter. "This? This is nothing, honest. We're just friends who are going to be home alone this Christmas, and we're asking if you might like to spend a part of it with us. The boys, they adore each other as it is, and us? Well, these men can end up watching their silly football, and we can all get fatter for the weekend, pigging out and laughing and… whatever suits our fancy!"

"Hey now," Allen started to object, but relented when he saw the twinkle in his wife's eye.

"I- I don't know, though," James hesitated, feeling uncertain. "I know things are, well, have been different, but… Christmas is that one holiday we have, once a year, that… that… well, it's special because we all get to stop, hopefully, and…and show our kids and siblings and everyone what they mean to us, and…" He then sighed. "I know it has to be like that to you as well, right? Especially as a family? And… and…"

"James," Allen spoke softly, leaning forward as his wife had done. "It is special, yes, but so was Thanksgiving. I mean, do you recall what Jesse said that day at the table? Something along the lines about being thankful that we could all come together as a family. He meant all seven of us, remember? When I heard that, I took it to mean that he was referring to one family – sharing and caring, together. Well, all Jen and I are doing is asking ourselves why we can't do it again? I mean, come on - for just a little while, let's get together and be exactly that - one big, happy family. That, in itself will be just as special to Jennifer and myself, and I think you already know how it will be to our boys. So, how about it? Don't you think we can pull it off?"

James sat back and sighed, the emotion threatening to overtake him. "I, well…" Just then, he felt Makalah's grip tighten, and he glanced down once again to see both her smile and eyes brimming with tears. No words needed to be exchanged, because they both silently exchanged their feelings on the matter. He inwardly admitted to himself that it would be something… something very special indeed.

"Okay, but… only on one condition," Makalah suddenly announced. "You have to let me help. These men have other jobs to do, especially James, up until Christmas Eve, so let's you and I…" She paused to meet Jennifer's smile. "Let's you and I make it happen… if we can in, what, the next three or four days?"

Jennifer laughed. "Oh, we'll make it happen, you'll see!"

All four chuckled before Allen sat back in his chair again and crossed his arms. "You know, I'd say we ought to keep this from the boys, if at all possible. You know, surprise them even… but I have a feeling that's going to be a hard thing to accomplish."

"Peas in a pod, yeah," Makalah mused. "Nah, let them help out, too. James was going to try and go over to Walmart later today I think, and do some last-minute shopping of the Santa-Claus-kind, if you know what I mean. With everything that has happened, we… well… At least, if we can find a way to keep the boys occupied, then…"

Jennifer laughed. "You leave that to me and Allen. We have just the thing, I think." She turned to her husband with raised eyebrows, which made the man grunt.

"I'll go with you James, if you don't mind. We, uh, have an item or two that we need, too, that are being temporarily stored there in lay-away. They were supposed to come out last Friday, but I talked the manager into holding them out for us just a few more days, at least until we could all get Jesse home."

All four adults chuckled at the sentiment, before James ended up nodding. "I'm afraid we didn't get to do that this year. With all the uncertainty, the only thing I've picked up so far is a pair of those things they seemed to like. You know, those big bags like Noah brought over."

"Bean bags? Oh yeah, they're a blast – until you get so old you have trouble getting in and out of them anymore!" Allen remarked with a grunt.

Jesse awoke with a start, but then lay back sighing with a deep satisfaction when he realized he was still at home. The weather outside his window was bleak, with dark grey overtones in the wintry mix falling outside. As he lay there, he could hear the tiny pecking of sleet hitting the glass on occasion, and as his eyes focused, he could see a shrub not far from the window, coated in places with both ice and snow already. It was as the weatherman had already predicted, and after glancing at the clock, he knew school had to have once again been called off. He wasn't sure why, but even in the dreariest of hours outside, he found the comfort of his bed, the room's coolness and the low-lighting to be both inviting and relaxing.

Behind him, a body stirred and eventually rolled in close, spooning him from behind. Jesse smiled, recalling the scene from the night before, where Noah had practically argued with his Dad to spend one more night, at least, with Jesse. Both of the older men had begun discussing how much better Jesse had made it through the day and evening, and probably wouldn't have as much of a dependency now for help. They strung the boys along, but eventually Jesse could see that his father was only teasing them. Once the game was over, however, Allen gave in without much fanfare, and Noah, relieved, got out of the room in a hurry – lest someone changed their mind.

With the situation diffused, and with relief suddenly overflowing in the teenager, Noah quickly assisted Jesse back to his bedroom, only to find that Benji had already fallen asleep in his upper bunk. That was when Jesse realized Noah hadn't brought any clothes to sleep in, and as he had started to point it out, he found fingers suddenly pushed upon lips shushing him. "I don't need clothes anymore, when I'm with you," Noah whispered into his friend's ear as he started unbuckling his belt. In silence, both boys undressed to their underwear, before Noah guided his friend into the bed first, and then followed behind. The entire night was spent holding each other, or curling in first one direction and then the other. Both even took advantage of slipping their fingers inside the other's underwear, feeling gently and softly everything contained within, but neither grew aroused. Instead, they had spent the evening, the first in recent nights, completely at each other's disposal, but with an intimacy and feeling if total contentment. Jesse smiled at the thought, because he had slept so well with his friend by his side. He knew it would be hard to overcome when, eventually, the two would be separated again – but for now, he truly loved every moment he could have. As Noah settled in, Jesse grasped the arm hanging over his side and held it close, pushing himself back into the embrace even more, before sighing and closing his eyes.

Not long afterwards, as he was lying there, Noah stirred again. This time, however, his friend pulled a pillow up so he could peer over Jesse's shoulder. "Morning, buddy," he whispered ever so softly.

"Morning," Jesse replied. He tried to turn his head to glance back, but the two were lying in such a way it wasn't really possible. Instead, after a moment, he sighed and scooted enough so that he could roll onto his back, before pulling Noah up into his shoulder. There they both lay, staring at each other with a smile, taking each other in. "Sleep good?" Jesse finally asked, breaking the silence.

"Mm hmm… you?" Noah replied with a whisper.

"The best, ever," was the quick reply. "I always sleep better when you or Benji are with me, but especially you."

Noah, looking amused, raised an eyebrow. "Why me?"

"Because," Jesse started, then gave him a sly look. "With you, I don't have to worry about my dick doing something, or waking up when it shouldn't. Oh, and I get to hold and feel and touch you all over."

Noah scoffed. "I doubt he would care about your dick, Jess. He's your brother, after all, isn't he? As close as you two are?"

"Maybe," Jesse replied, shrugging. "I love him, and trust him, just not enough to… well, not like…" Once again, fingers were moved to his lips to shush him as Noah settled back in.

"Don't explain, okay? I understand," the teen whispered, before sighing. "Speaking of dicks, though… I, uh, I need to go get rid of some tea I was drinking last night, you know?"

Jesse nodded. "Me, too. I just didn't want to get up and disturb this until I had to."

"I know what you mean. You know, I sleep better when you're around, too," Noah admitted sleepily. Seconds later he yawned and then stretched. Jesse could feel his friend completely as he lay by his side, from the outstretched arms, all the way down to the feet which curled forward. "Come on," Noah whispered afterwards, beginning to extract himself from underneath the covers. Once up, he helped to quietly pull Jesse to his feet, where they found Benji still in his bed, snoring peacefully. They each found sweatpants to don, and then quietly disappeared.

Moments later both boys returned, and while Jesse took his place on the bed once again, Noah searched about for the rest of his clothes from the evening before. They had heard the adults talking discretely in the living room, but neither bothered to join them initially. After Noah pulled his socks on, he sat down beside his friend once again. "Okay, any big plans about what we're going to do today?"

Jesse shrugged, but then turned so he could slide up closer. "I think I'd better get Mom and Dad's presents wrapped up and everything. Your Mom got the pictures and everything back, right?"

Noah sat back. "Uh, yeah. I've got a confession to make, though. I forgot to tell you something."

"About…?" Jesse asked.

"Well, it's like this, see. While you were laid up and everything, and we were keeping Benji… we kind of, well…" Noah blushed, which caused his friend to smile.

"You and Benji already made the album and everything up then, didn't you?"

"Well, we let Benji do most of the sorting, but yeah… Mom and I helped him put it all together, and then we wrapped them up, too. There's an album of most of the pics, then a couple of 8x10s that Mom fixed up and put into frames. You know, for hanging on the wall," Noah explained.

"That's okay then," Jesse replied, slightly disappointed, but happy nonetheless.

"Sorry, Jess. We were, well, Mom and I were trying to just find stuff for Benji to get involved with and do, see? And… and… it's not that we thought you wouldn't be able to get to it, we just…"

"It's okay, honest," Jesse reassured him. "I'm just glad I didn't get any worse than I did." He became thoughtful for a moment. "You know, there is one thing you might help us all out with, since I can't, well… you know. Not very well yet, anyway."

"What's that?" Noah asked.

"Well, I don't know what Mom and Dad are planning. I mean, we may not even have one this year, see? We used to have one, an artificial one we kept at our other place, but the storm, well…"

Noah giggled slightly. "Okay, okay, but… are you going to tell me what it is you're talking about, or keep beating around the bush?" The teen suddenly stopped. "Wait… artificial? You mean… you had a Christmas tree, right?"

"Yeah," Jesse answered, smiling. "Like I said, I don't know what Mom and Dad are thinking, but no one has had any time to go out and cut one, or… you know. And, too, money hasn't been the easiest for us over these past couple of months. They may be planning to skip it altogether this year. If not though, you and Benji could really, you know…"

"I got you, yeah," Noah replied, becoming thoughtful. "Honestly though, I kind of wondered why you guys didn't have one set up yet, but… sorry, I just wasn't really thinking."

"We were supposed to do something a couple of weeks ago, I think, before I got hurt. Mom said something about me and Benji doing it one night, but then something came up I think, and… you know, it just didn't happen. Then her ankle started getting worse, too. I noticed you guys had one set up upstairs though," Jesse offered. "It's really pretty, too."

"We… Mom did it one day while you were in the hospital. We've always waited until, like, the week before Christmas to put it up. Benji helped us, too. I got some of the lights plugged up, at least but, well, you know." Noah's voice suddenly dropped. "I'm sorry, that's one thing I didn't think about so much for you guys. You don't even have much in the way of decorations either, do you?"

Jesse shook his head. "No, we lost all of that, really. I know we've been getting Christmas cards, though. Maybe… I don't know, maybe the three of us can hang them up around the doorframe in the living room or something. Yeah, that would actually be kind of nice!" He sat up, suddenly seeming happier. "I heard Mom and Dad talking in the front room. Forget about the tree, okay? Instead, why don't we get Benji up and just go do that? You know, work on the cards and stuff. Maybe we can get some breakfast while we're at it, too."

"Sounds good," Noah replied, following his friend as he slowly made his way back to his feet. He could not help but notice, however, when Jesse gripped the side of the bed and swayed somewhat before standing still. "Whoa, take it easy there… you okay?"

"Yeah. I- I honestly thought I was over this part, but… uh, I just felt lightheaded for a sec. I'll be okay though," Jesse replied, gradually becoming more assured of himself. He stared at his brother before reaching out and shaking his shoulder. "Hey, Short-Stuff, you going to sleep all day?"

Benji slowly opened one eye. "Who you calling short, Bubble-Butt?" he whispered. Both teenagers grinned at each other, surprised at the remark, before Benji yawned. "But I don't wanna go to school!" he whined, rolling onto his back.

"Wish granted," Jesse declared, which caused the youth to suddenly take note that Noah was standing there with him.

After he yawned, the youngster stared at the other two. "Wait, why are you here? Did you miss… Oh, did the snow come? Did they call off school? Really?"

"Uh, because I wanted to be here and whup your sorry ass when you got up," Noah replied for them. "That, and, in order… No, I didn't miss, yes, the ice and snow are coming down outside now as we speak, and yes - they called off school. Oh, and yes, 'really'."

Benji sat up on his elbow and glanced out the window before turning back. "Smart ass," he whispered, but his grin was infectious. When Noah stretched his arms out, the boy climbed into them from his upper perch, letting their guest grab hold and lower him to the floor. Without another word, he walked out the door and seconds later, they heard the bathroom door shut.

"He likes you. In fact, I think he REALLY likes you!" Jesse smirked, turning around and grabbing fresh socks from the dresser. At Noah's insistence, however, he let his friend put them on for him. By the time they finished, Benji had returned and began looking for his own set of sweats to put on. Within moments, all three were then leaving and heading out into the hallway.

Arriving in the living room, the trio were surprised to find all four of their parents seated at the table, obviously having an important discussion of some kind. Upon their approach, the women simply sat back and smiled. "Good morning sunshine numbers one, two and three!" Makalah greeted them. Both Benji and Jesse walked over to give her a hug, while Noah approached and sat on the couch with his parents. Jennifer placed her arm around his shoulders in like manner, pulling her son back against her, but remained silent otherwise.

"What's up?" Jesse finally asked, seeing that the three had definitely intruded on whatever the adults were doing. He carefully took a seat on the stool beside his mother before observing the others.

"Oh, nothing much," Allen replied. "We were just talking about some things in general. Have you boys seen the weather outside yet?"

"Yep!" Benji replied excitedly, walking over to the window and staring out into the dreary looking morning. "It's snowing! Hey guys, things are starting to get frosty again! Jack Frost must have come by!"

Everyone laughed at the outburst, before Makalah spoke up again. "Yes, winter's breath is but upon the horizon, and the horizon is now upon us, for sure." She paused, and then motioned to the arm of her recliner. "Come here, Ben. We want to talk to you boys for a minute." Benji frowned, but otherwise did as he was requested. Initially, no one spoke, as the adults were doing their best to figure out how to break the news. It was James, however, who finally cleared his throat.

"Listen boys, we've all been talking, and we… uh, well, we've come upon an idea that we want to discuss with you. Mind you, it's not set into stone yet, meaning it's not definite, but we wanted to find out how you felt about it first." The man hesitated, and then charged forward. "You know we lost a lot of our Christmas stuff-" A sudden cough from Makalah made the man smile at the interruption. "Okay, okay… I should have said, we really lost all of our Christmas stuff this year. We would have bought some by now, you know, to replace it – but things have been a little up in the air, and well…"

"It's okay, Dad. We understand," Jesse offered softly. "Believe it or not, Noah and I were just talking about that this morning."

James smiled in reply, but Makalah picked up the conversation. "We don't want you to think all is lost, okay? We don't have to have a Christmas tree, or a bunch of decorations, to enjoy the holiday and all. It means so much more than all of that stuff, you know? It's just… there were some things we felt were a little more important to take care of first, and well… there's no denying these last few weeks since Thanksgiving. We've had our own little four-ring circus around here, I guess. Between Jesse being in the hospital, and my ankle, and other things - time has just kind of gotten away from your father and me."

"Like Jess said, Mom," Benji spoke up. "It's okay, we understand. Really!"

James cleared his throat. "We appreciate that, son, but… like I said, we've been talking some things through this morning, and well, we wondered how you might feel if we spend part of our Christmas next door, with the Cooks this year."

Noah suddenly smiled, as he relaxed into his mother's hug tightly. He had thought that might be where this was going, but he could tell both Jesse and Benji were in complete astonishment. "What?!" Benji squealed, causing Noah to suddenly laugh. The others chuckled, too, until Jennifer finally sat up.

"Allen, Noah and I want the four of you, to come eat and stay with us Christmas day. We've got plenty of room, and although I'm not sure how big the menu will be, I'll at least have a turkey and trimmings for you guys to enjoy. It would be our honor, really, if you'd say yes."

Benji climbed from the recliner and approached the woman, his eyes shining brightly. "Really?" he whispered. When she nodded, he fell into her lap, colliding with Noah who suddenly had to move out of the way, before the youngster hugged her tightly.

Jesse, smiling just as brightly, looked over at his father. "Me too, Dad. It would be super, as you used to say."

James laughed, but then shook his head. "Don't tell me too many of those old phrases, now. When I hear them, it makes me feel all that much older, especially compared to all the 'awesome-s', 'cool-s' and whatever other lingo you boys have these days."

Jesse slowly climbed off the stool and approached his father, before declaring softly. "You're not old, just wiser." He then leaned down and gave the man another one of those rare embraces, all the while feeling the tension easing in the room. The teen suddenly laughed as he could not imagine what had made it all seem so serious. Before leaving however, he turned and gave his mother a second hug. "You get one, too," he added simply.

Makalah returned his embrace, but then held onto his hand afterwards so that he couldn't pull away. "You do understand, right? We… it's our first Christmas we won't really get to celebrate like we always have before, but…"

"But it's still going to be us," Jesse replied, nodding. "Just, a bigger, happier family, I think. That's all that matters, right?"

"Oh yes," Jennifer replied, climbing to her feet and crossing the space to embrace put an arm around the teen for herself. As she squeezed, the group then relaxed a bit more while Benji began asking the obvious questions, such as what they were going to do about presents and everything, but then James stopped him.

"Whoa, buddy, slow down! Some of this we have to figure out as we go along, alright? We don't have all the answers yet."

Jennifer, however, started toward the kitchen. "In the meantime, since I'm here, how about I make you boys some pancakes this morning? I think I saw some baking mix in the pantry the other day, didn't I?"

Benji's eyes got wide again. "Yeah! And, uh, maybe some sausage links, too?"

"Just got a call, Boss," Fred announced, walking into the Sheriff's office once again. "The Feds are very interested in our party downstairs, especially once they picked up on who we thought one of them might be, as in Abraham Gallardo. They're going to try and get a van out this afternoon and set up for the transfer immediately, IF the weather doesn't shut everything down."

Jim Hunt glanced out the window, and saw the skies brightening already. "Forecast was updated a bit ago, saying everything was changing over to just light snow now. Trouble is, we don't have much of a feel for how much ice is still out there on the roads, do we?" It was more a statement than a question, one which Fred correctly picked up on before responding.

"I agree, but… maybe if they're careful enough, it won't matter," Fred replied. "Uh, boss, what about the kid? What are we going to do about him?"

The Sheriff became thoughtful before responding. "Why don't you get Ida, and the two of you take a trip over to Walmart and pick him up a couple of pairs of jeans, along with some shirts and under clothes. Get him a new pair of shoes, too, so he can discard those he's got. They're like you said, literally falling apart anyway, I think. Tell Ida to use the discretionary funds to pay for it all." Turning, he saw surprise on his deputy's face. "I've already talked to social services. Seems that they are going to have a hard time finding him a place to go before Christmas is over. First of the week, they might have an opening in one of the boys' homes over near Danville, but honestly…" The man's voice trailed off momentarily before he sighed and stood. "To be honest, I'm not too sure I want him off on his own like that, in a place so far from home as that will end up being. There is still a lot of things we need to get worked out, with the priority being that group downstairs."

Fred nodded. "I see your point, but…"

"I know what you mean. Still, I'll figure it out over the next day or so. Right now, you two go do some shopping. Nothing extravagant, mind you, but no one can deny he really needs a few changes of clothes. When you get back, go ahead and also have him change out of that jumpsuit, and then see to it he gets another square meal, a hot one if you can. In fact, I'm going to leave that to you to take care of while he's here. Not asking for you to babysit him or such, just – while you're here, make sure he gets some decent food, preferably half-way healthy too, if possible. Maybe check in on him before you leave, that sort of thing."

"Alright, boss. I can do that. Should we get him socks and a belt, too?" Fred asked.

"Yes, if he needs them," was the quick reply. "Just… you know what I mean, get him something decent, alright? No sense in him looking like some criminal around here, given everything we know now."

"Yeah, I understand. Say, where are you off to?"

"I need to run an errand, and stop by the house for a minute. Might take a sandwich or something in to the better half while I'm at it. I'll be back afterwards, though," Sheriff Hunt replied with a half-smile.

"Good grief!" Benji complained, although under his breath. Noah, standing next to him, nodded in agreement. It was the middle of the afternoon, and both boys were perspiring, having just brought in several armloads of firewood from the wood-box outside on the Cooks' back porch. Although the snow was gradually abating, at least three-inches had stacked up, leaving a pure, crystalline layer of white over the valley. The wind had subsided as well to an occasional breeze, signaling that the front had finally passed through. It helped reduce the chilling effects, but the temperature still hovered in the mid-20s, assuring residents that the snow would not be melting anytime soon.

"That about fills it up, though," Noah announced, checking the inside box on the porch afterwards. "In fact, I think we can stop now. That should be enough to keep the fireplace going for the rest of the week. It'll have to be done again by Friday, for the weekend, I mean… but that'll not be so bad."

"Do you guys do this every year?" Benji asked, wiping his face with the back of his arm.

"Usually only at Christmas, unless there's really cold weather or something coming through. Mom likes having the fireplace going for the holidays. She says it reminds her of when she was a little girl and all." Noah paused, glancing out the window. "Uh oh, we didn't shut the door on the garage. You go on inside, I'll take care of it. See if you can talk Mom into letting us have some hot chocolate."

"You got it!" the younger boy announced as they separated.

Moments later, Noah returned to find Benji had shed his outer coat and was sitting at the kitchen counter, twisting on his bar stool and chatting with his mother. "So… does that mean we're going to, like, open presents and stuff over here?"

Jennifer looked up, while setting two empty mugs down on the counter. "We might. That part is really going to be up to your parents, but I told them it was okay if they wanted to. They don't have a tree set up for you and your brother, see, and…"

"Christmas isn't about trees and decorations, Mom," Noah piped up as he joined them. "Like Makalah told us, it's just about being together, like with family and everything."

Jennifer smiled as she emptied two packets of instant cocoa mix into the mugs. "I know, and I'm glad to see you feel that way, too. I didn't mean to imply otherwise, really. Considering though, it's a deviation from what they're used to. Heck, it's even a little deviation from what we've been used to as well."

"A what?" Benji asked, frowning. "What did you call it? A devi…uh… huh?"

Jennifer giggled. "A deviation. Sorry, my bad… It's just a big fancy word. I just forgot who was sitting here," Jennifer replied, winking at the youngster before explaining. "When you're used to doing certain somethings, but then suddenly can't do them and have to make up or follow with an alternative path. I mean, after all, none of us have really done this before, so we're all kind of winging it as we go, right?" She reached out and touched the tip of her forefinger onto Benji's nose. "Like Noah says, we'll figure it all out, don't worry. It's just that this will be the year we'll all share Christmas together, kind of like we did at Thanksgiving. Remember?"

Benji smiled. "Oh yeah, I most certainly do! I'm glad, too." Seeing the woman arch an eyebrow, he added, "I can't think of anyone I'd rather spend Christmas with than you guys. I know Jesse feels the same way, too."

"Well, that's how we feel, too. Isn't it, honey?" Jennifer responded quietly, glancing toward her son.

"Yep!" Noah replied, then held his mug as his mother poured boiling water into the container. Taking a teaspoon, he stirred the contents until the cocoa dissolved. "Have you got anything else you want us to get into, Mom? I think Benji was hoping to watch some Christmas specials on TV for a while."

"No, that'll do for now. When your fathers both get back, we're going to walk across to the other house and have soup and sandwiches tonight. That'll not be for a couple of hours, though," his mother replied, taking the teaspoon and stirring Benji's contents in a similar fashion. "You boys be careful, this water was boiling hot, so it may take a few minutes for it to cool down some. Do either of you want some marshmallows in it? I think I saw some in the pantry this morning."

"Oh, wow! Yes, please!" Benji announced, with a comical grin. His expression made the woman laugh heartily as she turned and found them in them pantry. After adding some to their mugs, she shooed them away. "Okay, off with both of you. Be careful with those mugs, though!"

"We will, Mom," Noah replied, and purposefully reached out to take the mug from Benji's grasp. Leading the way, the teen headed downstairs with the younger boy following closely behind. When they reached Noah's room, he sat the mugs down and arranged the bean bags for them both, stationing them in front of the TV. Benji announced he'd be right back, and then disappeared into the bathroom. Since he didn't close the door behind him, Noah smiled to himself when he heard the familiar sound of a water stream finding its way into the toilet.

As he sat, Noah relaxed and reclined, kicking his shoes off and pulling the mugs up closer. When Benji reappeared, he also kicked his shoes free and then plopped rather heavily onto the bigger boy. "OOooff!" Noah exclaimed, taking care to keep them both away from bumping into table with the mugs nearby. "Careful there, you do have a sharp tailbone, you know! Sheesh!"

Benji laughed. "You like it, and you know it!" he whispered, squirming to roll over until he was on his stomach, lying against Noah's chest. They stared into each other's eyes for a moment, before the youth lowered his voice. "Can I ask you something?"

Noah arched his eyebrows. "Are we going to go through that again?" he whispered. "Remember my promise?"

Benji blushed. "Yeah, we're supposed to be able to ask each other anything, anytime." The young boy pulled up until he could cross his arms upon the bigger teens chest and rest his chin. "So, uh… how do you feel about Christmas and everything? You know, Santa Claus, and Ho-Ho-Ho and all of that stuff?"

Noah was startled, not expecting that topic in the slightest. "What do you mean?" he replied nervously, uncertain where he should go. "Why?"

Benji sighed. "Petey told me there is no Santa Claus. That it… it's just something parents make up and everything for us kids. He said his brother told him, well…"

Noah's shoulders visibly sagged. "So, his brother told him, more or less, that Christmas isn't real? Or rather, that Santa isn't real? Is that it?" When Benji nodded solemnly, the teen studied the youth closely. "Down in your heart, you tell me - what do you think?"

Benji glanced away briefly before turning back. "I think Christmas is real and everything, just… I'm not sure about all of it, you know?" he whispered.

This was not something Noah wanted to do, or get into. He felt that to say anything would be trespassing into something the McAllisters might not want him involved with. As he observed the youngster, however, he found it difficult to just back away. "Well, what does Jesse tell you? Have you asked him?"

"No," Benji replied wistfully. "I- I'm afraid to, really. I mean, I love my brother, and I trust him more than anyone can know… but this is something, well… I don't know what he'll do. Like, will he tell me the truth, or will he try to just make me feel better. I'm kind of afraid it's like one of those 'biggie things' he tells me sometimes, like that I'm not quite old enough to understand and everything."

Noah nodded. "Yeah, I know the feeling," he whispered in reply. In the silence that followed, he was certain that Benji was waiting for an answer, so he finally placed his arms around the youngster and hugged him up close. "Your brother loves you, though, and he wants to take care of you, you know? There really are some things you should wait and learn when you're ready, though. But… I understand what you're saying, about this anyway. Tell me, what do you want to believe, Ben?"

"I don't know, really. I- I want to trust you," was the soft reply. "I want you to tell me."

Noah closed his eyes and was about to give in, when an idea came to him, and as it formulated, he chose his next words carefully. "Listen to me a minute. Christmas is real, buddy. You're right - it's far more than just an idea. You know what it means, the birth of Jesus and everything. That is something that will never change, okay? I'll tell you something else though – the whole thing behind Christmas, and family and everything that goes with it, is not all that different. It's never going to change. I mean, it was alive hundreds of years ago or more, and it's going to be alive for hundreds more years to come. You know why? It's going to be that one time of year where people come together in the cold of winter, no matter what, to love, to feel… and to believe. That's the truth, and really that's what Santa Claus and everything boils down to. He might not be one of those people who can be everywhere in one night, like we've always been told - not physically, anyway. But, in here," Noah paused to poke himself along the side of Benji's chest. "In your heart, he's always been just as real since the beginning, hasn't he?"

Benji thought about that. "But… what do you believe?"

Noah smiled. "I believe he's just as real as you are here, lying on top of me here. I believe he's real, because of all the happiness he brings to everyone, especially us kids. I believe he's a spirit of sorts, someone who existed at one time in the hearts and minds of people, especially kids who needed him, in more ways than one. I believe…" He paused as he saw Benji begin to smile. "I believe he's a part of you, and a part of me, and a part of your brother and your parents, too. That's what makes it all feel so warm and fuzzy, you know? That's what makes all of us feel so close sometimes, and… and…"

Benji didn't let him finish, as he suddenly leapt up and grasped the older teen by his sides, hugging him fiercely. Noah held the boy again, but this time pulled him up further until he could nuzzle into his neck. There was a feeling exchanged, and once again he felt blessed to be able to share something like this with the youth. "Ben, you can't let what other people say like that affect how you feel. Even when you get to my age, I haven't forgotten what Christmas is, or what it means to me, or what it did for me since I was little. I don't forget about the things that make me feel the happiest. I don't forget about what isn't forgotten either, little buddy. Petey, well, he and his parents will have to deal with whatever they think and feel, I guess. His brother should probably be belted in the nose, or something anyway, you know?"

Benji giggled. "Like, have his ass whooped?" he whispered.

Noah chuckled, but agreed. "Yeah, definitely. Just, always remember something - what you think and feel, and me, and your brother… that's all that matters, okay?"

Benji reared up with a smile. "Thanks!" he whispered. "And thanks for not whooping me, either."

"You're welcome, Short-Stuff," Noah whispered back. He then pushed his hands down inside of Benji's already loose jeans, outside of his underwear, but still grasped and squeezed each butt cheek. Ever since Jesse had started it with him, he understood it had different implications for different people. In Benji's case, it was a personal thing he had developed with the youngster, one that reinforced their trust with one another. "I wouldn't whoop your butt, you know. It isn't big enough, yet," he whispered with a grin. Benji giggled and blushed, but then leaned forward and kissed the teenager on the tip of his nose.

Noah, now seeing a happy expression replacing the one when they started, finally pulled away and rolled the youth over. "Now, are we going to watch TV or not?" he teased, which made Benji giggle again, before curling up close. They turned on the TV and then retrieved their mugs, which had cooled somewhat by then. Noah took extra special care, however, to wrap himself around his smaller friend. He had dodged a bullet, he thought. At least partially, but he wasn't going to worry about it. He'd tell Jesse the details later, and if there was damage control to be done, they'd figure it out together.

Somehow, though, Noah felt like all would be right in the world. Especially since Benji looked up and smiled at him again.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead