The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 29

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

The beginning of the week following the Christmas holiday was rather quiet throughout the valley. Residents everywhere used the time to recover from their various feasts and fellowships, return either unwanted or incorrectly sized gifts, or to do general cleanup or end-of-year maintenance. Some were lucky enough to vacation for the week, choosing to use the time for resting, or participating in fun ventures of some sort. Those working in retail or public service, however, had to return to their normal duties, processing holiday returns, or taking stock of where the holidays had left them. Some established deep discounts or close-outs specials of seasonal merchandise, while others returned stock to their various storerooms, hoping to utilize them again when the next Christmas-holiday season returned.

When it came to the terms of retail management, James McAllister knew his duties all too well. Mr. Stout always used the time between Christmas and New Years to get everything ready for inventory evaluation. Each year, following the beginning of the new year, many businesses paused and took stock of what remained in their stores, both on the floors and in the storage rooms. Doing so let them adjust inventory counts and have a clearer idea of their in-store value – items which helped with adjustments for profit and loss. Some businesses set their fiscal years at different times of the year, such as mid-winter or early-spring, but Mr. Stout was one of those owners who liked to look upon each new calendar year as a fresh beginning. That meant that James and the crew would start marking off sections immediately, preparing boxes and filling out forms – all with the intent of physically assessing what was in-stock and getting the results updated in the computers. For a hardware store, that amounted to a monumental task, especially when considering that bolts, screws, nails and far smaller items had to be accounted for as closely as possible.

This was the first year, however, that Mr. Stout offered to let James bring both Jesse and Noah onboard for the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, to help with the counting and listings they needed to get through. Both accepted immediately, giving Noah the perfect excuse to avoid the trip his parents were taking. They had talked it over hesitantly at first, but then decided it would be okay to leave Noah behind if he wanted, and stay with Jesse. For his own part, James still had reservations as to whether his son should get involved, especially as it seemed the last few days Jesse was having spells of tiring too easily. After chatting with Makalah though, they both agreed it might be a good trial-and-error opportunity, with the intent to watch him closely over the week.

Monday morning passed pleasantly enough for the teenagers. Noah had awakened early and, after dressing, knocked on the McAllisters' back door at the prearranged time. That was one of the advantages of being so close by, he knew, because it would allow him to catch a ride easily enough with Jesse. James happened to open the door that morning, though, and the man smiled sleepily before ushering the teen inside. "Jesse's still getting ready," the man announced pleasantly, after greeting the teen. "He should be out here shortly. Have your Mom and Dad already left for Nashville?"

"No, but they're almost about to leave, I think. I think Mom just finished packing them an overnight bag and everything," Noah replied.

"Sounds good. Are you staying with us, then?" James asked, before holding up a hand. "Of course, why should I even think about asking such a dumb question, really…"

Noah laughed. "If it's alright, yeah. If not, I can stay home, since you guys are next door."

James grunted. "Well, you may be 15, I agree … but if I know your mother, she'll feel more at ease if you're staying here. Besides…" The man paused for a moment before lowering his voice. "I'm not sure about Jesse though, Noah. He's still not, how do you say… over this thing. He seems to be getting better, I know, but… I'm beginning to think this exhaustion thing he's going through might be coming from something else, you know? Which reminds me… help us, son. I mean it - keep an eye on him while you two are working, and don't let him do anything too strenuous, alright? Don't forget, this isn't a timed task or anything, you two are just helping to get everything established for next week, and taking some counts while you're at it back in the storage rooms. So, don't be afraid to take some breaks every once in a while. Just… you know, if anything seems amiss, please come and tell me about it, alright?"

"I promise, I will," Noah nodded in agreement.

James smiled before standing a little taller. "Why don't you go on back there and make sure Jesse hasn't passed out or something. We're going to be late if we're not careful, and I think I'm the only one going in this morning with keys to the building."

"Alright," the teen replied, walking past the man and entering the hallway. As he approached the brother's bedroom, he saw the door was already ajar. Lightly knocking, he pushed it back enough to step into the room, where he found Jesse sitting on the side of his bed and pulling on his shoes. Before he could speak, however, the older brother placed a finger to his lips before pointing up to Benji's bed. Noah nodded and then crossed the floor and sat down next to his best friend. "Your Dad sent me to check on you," he commented softly, before seeing the other boy grimace.

"I'm not surprised. I did fall back asleep after he woke me up the first time," Jesse responded, tying his shoelace and beginning to do the same with his other shoe. "It's not like me, I know, but meh - I think there's still a lot of things I'm having to adjust to."

"It's no big deal. You're still recovering, you know," Noah remarked.

"Yeah, that's what everyone keeps saying, but… I don't know, Noah. Some of this stuff is beginning to get old anymore, you know? This… it just feels… different and all. I mean, I start out in the day just fine, but it doesn't take me long before I'm, you know, starting to lose it," Jesse explained quietly. "I've never done that before… never."

"Stop worrying about it," Noah admonished him, but not without leaning in and bumping shoulders with him. "You're just expecting too much, too fast… you know?"

Jesse scoffed. "Noah, it has been almost two weeks now. I mean, if it were just general aches and stuff, like being sore and all, I could live with that. I am living with it for that matter, but this, it just… I don't know how to describe it really, it just… it feels different, that's all." He sighed. "I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't worry about it, or worry you… It's just… I'm getting so frustrated now, you know?"

"Hey, hey… relax. Your Mom and Dad will stay on top of it, you know that," Noah stated, trying to reassure him. He tried to think of something else, but Jesse ended up giving him a waning smile before standing up. He glanced at Noah's jeans and sighed. "I would be in jeans in a heartbeat, if I could get away with it!" he replied quietly, but then headed on out the door. Noah felt uncertain, given the conversation, but one thing he was sure of: his friend was feeling unsettled, and his father's own observations were not unfounded. He would have to double his own efforts to look after Jesse now, for anything his father called 'amiss', or worth noting. His best friend was not out of the woods yet. Noah sighed, and then followed.

Five minutes later, the trio were in the truck heading towards town. "Does anybody want any breakfast?" James asked. "Once we get in and unlock the doors, I can run you two up to Sonic and get a breakfast burrito or something, if you like. Or, I guess we could try and make a run to McDonalds, as long as they aren't not too backed up in the drive-thru lane."

"Could we? I'm sorry I ran us kind of late, but I am a little hungry," Jesse replied. "Either one would be great."

"No problem, kiddo, and sure, that's what we'll do," James reassured them. "Just let me go unlock and everything so the others can get inside and start." The man then sighed. "I would really like to relax between the holidays during this time of year, but Mr. Stout has other ideas, and I'm bound by them as much as anyone else is. What you boys will be doing is going through the stockrooms mostly, today and tomorrow anyway. You can count everything up that's already packaged and still in their cases or boxes, see? Then we'll compare those to what the computer shows we should have, and look for the differences on the floor. In the meantime, you'll mark them all so that no one opens anything up until after we've finished all the counting next week."

"That doesn't sound too bad," Noah commented. "Do you guys, like, do this every year?"

"Every year, yes," James replied as he turned onto another road, this one leading them directly into town. "It's not a bad thing, really. Maybe tedious, but the upside is that when we're done, all of us can say we know exactly, down to the last detail, what we have in the store and what we don't."

"Do the counts get off by much?" Jesse asked curiously.

"Well, there are always people who get away with shoplifting sometimes, or maybe we'll have some things that were not initially keyed into the computer right when they come in. So yes, there are times when the counts can get off by a little, or by a lot," James explained. "It's usually just the little things, though. Bigger items have a tendency to be on track, which makes sense. It would be hard for anyone to drive a lawn tractor away without us knowing it, right?" The man smiled. "What we're doing at this time of year though, is creating an updated baseline for the coming year. Then throughout the year, usually every quarter – you know, three months or so - we'll recheck the numbers again. Especially when there are seasonal items involved. So, that helps us keep up with better accuracy in the long run."

Noah glanced out the window as they began passing several familiar businesses. "What about the shoplifters? Are they, I don't know, is it a bad problem around here?" When the man nodded, Noah added, "How come?"

James considered the question momentarily before answering. "That's the million-dollar question, really. I guess the most sensible answer is that we live in times considered to be pretty hard. Sometimes people need things they can't afford and just take them out of necessity, while others, well… they just steal. It's wrong, and it's illegal - but that is just the way it is, because the end result is no different than others who steal for no real reason at all. I mean, some steal just for the sake of doing it, while others have more ulterior motives. Regardless of who is doing it though, the public are the ones who end up paying the price for it."

"Huh? How do you mean?" Noah asked.

"Well, for one thing it makes prices go higher, because stores and other businesses have to cover their losses. If the store can't make a profit off of a product or service, then there's no use having that product or service to begin with, see? Breaking even doesn't cover it, either – because there has to be enough mark-up in the prices for other things – like rent, utilities and to pay salaries for the people working for us," James explained. "It's complicated, really… but you get the general idea, right?"

Noah nodded. "Yes sir, I do now," he replied solemnly. "I admit, I guess I've never thought of it that way, or that it had that kind of effect on stores." The teen then fell silent as they arrived and parked. Informing both boys he'd be right back, James hopped out and disappeared around the side.

Within a few short minutes, however, the man returned, before they were once again on their way. "Scooter is in there now, so he'll go about getting the store ready to open up and all. Let's slip out and go for those breakfast sandwiches, and I'll pick up a few extras for the guys while we're at it."

As the noon hour approached, Noah suddenly stood and stretched, arching his back as he grunted and looked around. He and Jesse had both been taking counts and masking off various areas of the stockroom, as they had been instructed, to identify items having been counted. Presently, they were working on a section of bins situated along the floor, which caused them to toil in somewhat cramped quarters. Bending over was tedious, as they registered and logged several products that would be updated in the computers later. Both boys tackled the task equally, but before long Jesse found himself sitting on a makeshift perch, while his friend continued to shift parcels and call off information from inside the bins.

As he paused and noted his friend's uncomfortable position, Jesse began to feel guilty. "Do you want to, like, switch places for a while?"

Noah, however, shook his head. "Nah. We're almost done here, and there's only four or five more cartons, I think. Then we can both take a breather." He glanced at his watch. "We do get a lunch break, right?"

"Yeah, we do," Jesse replied. He glanced at the work already completed that morning, before turning back. "That's nine bins we've made it through this morning, which isn't bad at all, I think. We should be able to finish the other four probably this afternoon."

"I hope so," Noah grumbled, then seeing Jesse's quizzical expression, the teen shrugged. "Not that I'm complaining, really. It's just, I don't know, kind of monotonous and all."

Jesse nodded. "I know it is. I should be helping more than I am though, or at least swapping places with you. That's got to be hard on your back and everything."

"No, you're fine," Noah replied adamantly. He could already once again see signs of fatigue developing in his friend. "Besides, you don't need to be overdoing it, remember? Aside from how it looks, this is really not that bad. I just can't stand up or anything when I'm in the back of the bin, shifting these things around like we are. After a bit, well… you know what I mean." He glanced down at the clipboard in Jesse's hands. "So, how many of those sheets have you filled out so far?"

"This is the tenth one here," Jesse replied, thumbing through the stack. "I tried to find some of them on Dad's printouts, but the ink is really faded, and it's kind of hard to read some of the part numbers." He shrugged. "Anyway, it's faster to just write the details down with the info, I think. All we need is the part number, the location and how many of them we counted."

"Sounds about right," Noah agreed. He was about to step back into the bin again, however, when someone called out. A moment later, James appeared at their side.

"How's it going boys?" James asked, smiling.

"Good, I think," Jesse replied, then gave his father a summary of their efforts thus far.

James eyebrows rose as he peered down along the row as Jesse had done only a moment before. "Really? You two have gotten this far already? Cataloged and counted all the merchandise and everything? That's…" The man laughed out loud. "That, boys, is impressive!" Glancing at his watch, he gently took the clipboard from his son and set it aside. "What say we break for a while, and go get some lunch."

Noah grinned. "Sounds good to me! Are we going home, or…?"

"Oh, no," James replied, shaking his head. "I have strict orders from Mr. Stout to take you two out somewhere. I thought we might go grab a sandwich or something and just sit a spell. Makalah said something to me this morning about wanting to go out for some Mexican cuisine tonight. We've all been eating so much home-cooked food lately, she thought a change of pace might be good."

"I won't argue with that!" Jesse piped up, smiling. Noah nodded in agreement.

A short time later, the trio entered the local Dairy Queen, where the boys commandeered a booth seat while James approached the window and placed their order. Noah noted almost immediately that Jesse seemed to look run-down already. "Hey you, getting sleepy already?" he quipped, teasing the teenager, but secretly he was beginning once again to feel uneasy. Recalling James' words from earlier that morning, he had started taking closer notice of his friend's state, which had prompted him earlier to take on the more demanding tasks within the bins.

Jesse grunted, but then shrugged. "I'm okay, I guess. Just… it's been a long morning, I think."

Noah nodded before scooting back into the corner of the booth. He so wished he could physically comfort his best friend right then and there, but being out in the open meant he needed to be more cautious. Instead, he nonchalantly brushed his feet up against his friend beneath the table. "I agree, but hey - the worst of it is almost over, I think."

"Yeah," Jesse replied before looking up. "The rest of the stuff that's not in the bottom bins should be a lot easier to get to from here on out. I think Dad was hoping we could get that much out of the way, and maybe start taping off sections on the sales floor by tomorrow. That way, they'd all be ready for starting next week."

"We should, I think. Is there a lot to that? Taping off the sections and everything, I mean?" Noah asked, but Jesse only shrugged in reply.

"I have no idea, really. I'm like you – I've never done anything like this before. I only know what Dad has tried to describe for me and all, and even some of that didn't make a lot of sense." The teen paused and took a deep breath. "It doesn't matter, though. We'll figure it out as we go, I think."

The two then fell silent until James arrived with their food. The trio dug in earnestly, all the while chatting about the morning and what the boys had accomplished thus far. Jesse explained once again why they didn't use the printouts, which caused his father to grunt. "I'll see if we have some replacement cartridges. The thing is, that printer is so old, it may be on its last legs. I've been telling the boss for the last six months that we needed to replace it."

Noah giggled. "Is he really a penny pincher when it comes to that kind of stuff? I know Dad talks about some of his bosses and all being like that down at the bank."

James chuckled, but then shook his head. "No, not really. He's just more of a procrastinator, if anything," James replied. "Generally, money is not that big of a thing to him. When something is needed, he usually takes care of it, or just gives me instructions. He's had the store for years, see, and it does exceedingly well – given where we are and everything. Especially when you combine it with the lumber yard out back. The one good thing is that he owns the whole franchise, see. I think he pays a fee every year, or every quarter or something, but otherwise the business is all his. Anyway, like I said, I think he's just more forgetful than anything else. That makes some things drag out more than others, particularly if they don't seem to be as important at the time."

"Then, why don't you just go ahead and get another one, Dad?" Jesse asked.

James grunted. "I'm a manager, son, and yes, I can make a lot of decisions about things - especially if he isn't around. But when it comes to purchases at a level like this - and mind you, it is a major purchase in his eyes, whether it costs a lot of money or not - then that is more in his territory than it is mine. That is, unless he tells me outright to just take care of it, which he has not done in this case."

Jesse glanced back out the window and then nodded. "I think I understand," he voiced quietly. He picked up another French fry from his plate and munched on it slowly.

James observed his son closely, and noticed that most of his food was hardly touched. "Cheeseburger okay?"

Jesse grunted and then, blushing, picked it up. "It's fine, Dad. Just… never mind," the teen replied quietly, before taking a bite and setting it down again. James traded a knowing glance with Noah, and it was clear that both were thinking along similar lines. "Take your time son, there's no hurry."

Jesse nodded, and was able to finally eat about half of his sandwich before he pushed his tray back. "I'm just not very hungry, that's all," he offered in lieu of an explanation. James did not press the issue, but he could not help but note how unusual it was.

When they returned for the afternoon, both boys resumed their work from before, completing the final sections without issue. When done, Noah once again stood and stretched, but then excused himself to go to the bathroom. Once out of sight, however, he quickly found Jesse's father at the front counter. "What is it? Is everything okay?" the man asked quietly, seeing Noah approach.

"He's okay, sir, but… he really doesn't look that great. I mean, he's dragged out again, you know, really tired. I thought maybe I should tell you," Noah replied.

James nodded. "I'm glad you did. You noticed he didn't eat a lot of lunch either, didn't you?" Shaking his head, he glanced at his watch. "Tell you what, you two have done great for the day, really. Why don't I take you on back to the house, hmm? You can pick it back up again tomorrow after a good night's rest." Seeing the teen nod, he looked around. "Um, give me about 10-minutes or so to finish something up here first, then I'll come get you, alright?" Noah nodded in agreement.

When the teenager rejoined his friend a few minutes later, he brought him up to speed on the change in plans. Jesse's shoulders visibly sagged. "It's because of me, isn't it?" he mumbled, chastising himself. "You told Dad, didn't you? I wish… I wish you hadn't said anything."

Noah sat down next to the other boy and observed him closely. "Jesse… I'm… I'm sorry, but… look at you, man… you look like you're ready to drop, and... I- I had to, bro," he whispered. "I just had to."

Jesse turned and smiled at him. "I'm not blaming you, honest. I just wish… well, never mind. I admit, I do feel kind of out of it. Maybe it's a good thing after all."

As the two were putting their things away, James appeared and beckoned them outside, where they loaded up in the truck. In the silence, Noah spoke up. "Mr. McAllister? Are you, like, still leasing this truck, or…?"

"For the time being, yes. I took a six-month lease on it, with the option to buy it afterwards, but I really haven't given it much more thought. We've had it, what, two, maybe three months?" he asked Jesse.

"More like two, I think, Dad," Jesse replied quietly. "Yeah, since just before Halloween."

"I was thinking that, yeah. I may end up buying it, though. I have to admit, it's been pretty handy so far, and I can't imagine it being any less useful when we start to rebuild the house and all. Why, you want to put a bid in on it?" he asked, teasing the teen, causing Noah to blush.

"No sir, I just wondered was all. I know it's really got a lot of room and all, for a truck," Noah remarked.

"More than a lot of them do, I agree," James responded. Turning off the main highway, he glanced at them both again. "You know, the more I think about it, you boys really did a trick this morning. I wouldn't have expected all of that to be done by the end of the day. Seems like last year it took myself and John a couple of days to get through that many bins back there."

"Yeah, but I bet you guys pulled everything out and repacked it, too, right?" Jesse offered. "Noah just climbed in and started rattling things off, and then kind of, you know, organized them from one side to the next."

"Oh, I understand what you did, all right," the elder man replied. "You two being young like that, you're somewhat nimbler than we were, I think. It's all good though, believe me. I'll do some spot checking later this week, but I'm sure it will all be just fine."

"Yeah," Jesse replied absently, watching the scenery flash by outside.

When they arrived home, both boys climbed out of the truck, but Noah hesitated before closing the door. "You know, if you wanted me to, I could go back with you and get some more done."

James, however, shook his head. "There's no need, we're good for the day. You two go on in and relax. Tell Makalah I'll be in around five or a little after, okay?" Both boys nodded, and once the door was closed, the man backed up and turned around before pulling away.

Entering the house, Jesse was surprised to find his mother standing in the kitchen at the sink. Benji was by her side, and both appeared to be putting the last of the dishes away. Benji, upon seeing Noah, pulled away and ran, tackling the teenager by jumping completely off the floor and into the teen's arms. "Noah!" he exclaimed excitedly. It was everything Noah could do to keep from either falling over or dropping the youngster onto the floor.

"You're home early," Makalah commented, amused. "Ben – take it easy, don't break him, for goodness sake! He just got here!" she admonished her son.

Noah laughed, but gradually lowered the younger brother back down to the floor. "Sheesh!" he exclaimed. "You're getting bigger, I think!"

"Dad said we were finished for the day," Jesse explained, crossing to give her a brief hug. In the exchange, however, Makalah immediately could discern that something was off.

"You're tired again, aren't you?" The words were spoken softly, but the woman's senses sharpened as she assessed her son closely. "You overdid it, I guess."

Jesse shrugged it off. "Maybe… kind of, yeah." It was at that point he looked at himself for the first time, and noted how dirty he had become while climbing through the storerooms and shelving that day. "I guess I better get a shower, huh?"

Makalah nodded. "You do look like you could use one. Say, why don't you try a long, hot bath for a change? It might do those muscles of yours some good, too."

Jesse made a face. "I'd like to, but Mom… neither of our tubs is all that great. I mean, I don't exactly fit in them as easily as Benji does. Not like we did at the other house, anyway."

"Well, you can use ours if you want to." Noah stepped closer before glancing up at Makalah. "I mean, well, you've seen it, ma'am. You can't stretch out in it or anything like you do on a bed, but it still has plenty of room and all. He can use it, while I go grab a shower and all downstairs."

"I could even watch after him, Mom, if he needs me to," Benji piped up, but then Jesse shook his head.

"Not this time, Short-Stuff. I'll be okay, I think." Jesse thought about it briefly before glancing back to his mother. "I have to admit, it does sound kind of tempting," he confessed. Makalah then nodded her agreement.

"Make sure you take a change of clothes then, and be careful, alright? I mean it, Jesse. Noah, you call me if you need anything," she instructed.

"I will, ma'am," Noah replied. Turning to Benji, he added, "Hey squirt, go grab a change of clothes for your brother, okay? Make sure you get him some boxers and socks, too!" The youngster shot off in a flash, and returned only a moment later with the requested items. Jesse thanked him and then both boys made their way out of the house, crossing the lawn to the Cooks' residence.

After Noah unlocked their back door, he led his friend inside where they kicked off their shoes, before proceeding to the upstairs bathroom. "Um, do you want me to fix the water for you?" he asked, glancing back.

Jesse sighed, but then nodded. "If you want to, yeah." In the silence that followed, he began to peel his clothes away as Noah started the faucet and poured some bubble bath into the running water. The teen did not leave, staying instead to make sure all was as it should be. When he did turn around, he found Jesse had already stripped to his boxers and was standing beside him waiting patiently. Grinning, Noah lightly poked a finger in his friend's navel, but Jesse only smiled tiredly in response. "There, all set now," Noah announced, standing up. He started to leave, but Jesse reached out quickly and held him steadfast.

"Please, don't go… not yet." The voice had dropped to a bare whisper, but Noah made out the request just in time as Jesse then dropped his boxers to the floor. Stepping carefully into the rapidly filling tub, he had to hesitate and let his body adjust to the temperature before he could continue. When he did finally begin squatting and easing himself down slowly, a look of relief crossed his face. "Oh my God! MMMmmmmm…." he muttered, oblivious to everything else around him.

Noah switched off the overhead light and replaced it by turning on a nearby lamp instead, before dropping to his knees. With folded arms, the teen perched himself on the side of the tub and watched the boy resting inside. When the water rose to an appropriate level, he reached out and turned the faucet off. "Jess?" Noah whispered, noting his friend had already closed his eyes again. When the teen didn't respond, Noah repeated himself a little louder.

Jesse then opened his eyes and smiled sleepily. "I'm okay. What are the chances of getting you to climb in here with me?"

Noah returned the smile. "On most any other day, pretty good, actually! But for today, maybe you better just rest, bro. Seriously, I think you need this, okay?" Jesse nodded, but closed his eyes again. Only a minute passed before Noah could detect the expected change in his friend's breathing. Then as quietly as he could, he stood and slipped away, walking out of the room.

Earlier that morning, in another part of town, a teenager arrived at the police station along with Sheriff Hunt. Not only was he dressed in new clothes, thanks to the gifts he had received over the holiday, but the teen also wore a new pair of footwear – hiking boots of a sort, collectively given to him by the department's deputies and staff. Although Pete Haskell III had always worn tennis shoes for as long as he could remember, he decided that having shoes which extended higher and hugged at his ankles was something he really liked better. Walking inside, he felt like a different person, and that was something extraordinary. Although Pete knew there was still a lot hanging over his head that needed to be resolved, in the last few days he had become more assured of himself, or at least more comfortable with his life. His attitude was that he'd face whatever happened, make amends if he could, and then do his best to get on with life afterwards.

The teenager had also packed his clothes, readying himself to thank Martha that morning for her generosity, and for allowing him to stay the last few days. Jim had stayed him, however, before he even left the bedroom. "I still haven't heard anything from anyone, so what say we just put that off for a bit. There's no sense hauling things around until we get some of your matters settled first."

"But… what if social services don't come up with a place for me to stay right away?" the teen asked, furrowing his brow as the man looked on.

Jim Hunt shrugged. "Then you'll have the room here, I presume. It's no big deal. If they do have a place, then… it's just a short ride to collect your belongings, so that's no big deal either. Don't worry, we'll take care of you." The man then scoffed as he turned to walk out of the room. "By the way, if you haven't figured it out yet, you'll find things don't move too fast at this time of year anyway. The holiday week always slows people down, for obvious reasons. Like me, they like having the break before the new year begins, I think. Especially in government."

Entering the station with the Sheriff, Pete followed the man back to the employee lounge, greeting various people along the way as they passed. Ida and Gail both greeted the boy warmly, and spent a few minutes asking him how his holidays went. Pete could not help but describe the awesome dinner, and the chance meeting of his new friend and their common interest. Jim stood at a distance, fixing them both a cup of coffee and listening in, his own smile betraying how pleased he was at how it all had worked out. When he approached and handed the cup over, Pete took stock of the situation while the women headed out to their desks. "So, what do you want me to do today? Help Albert again, maybe?" Albert was the building's main custodian, whom Pete had been assisting since arriving and awaiting his situation to get settled.

Jim Hunt, however, shook his head. "No, not yet anyway. Josh Aubin is going to pick you up in a little bit, and run you over to Ronald Clark's office. He's a local attorney and close friend of mine, who is going to take an account from you of everything you've told us. Don't be afraid of talking to him, alright? Like I said, he's a good friend, and he handles pro bono cases for us from time to time. If you're ever in deep doo-doo, you'll find that as an attorney, he's quite effective for people he represents, too."

Pete frowned. "What does… pro-, uh, what did you call it?"

Jim grunted before leaning back against the counter. "Pro bono. You see, in the Miranda of rights, you have the right to legal representation of your choice, or if you cannot afford it, one will be appointed for you. When we do that, it means you get whoever is next in rotation to provide you with legal services for free. The attorney still gets paid, but the State picks up the tab at a pre-arranged rate – which, I might add, is often pretty paltry. Still, that's just the way the legal system works, though."

Pete nodded his understanding. "Um, okay, I get it now. So, I'm supposed to tell him everything?"

"Yep. He'll ask you some very direct questions, I'm sure, and when he does, just give him direct answers. Don't embellish, and don't steer around what you do or don't know. In fact, tell him that up front – if you don't know the answer to something he's asking about, then say so. Be nice about it – remember, he's working for you, on your side of the fence. He may seem a little gruff, because seriously - he's about as old as you and I both put together, and then some! Still, he's incredibly sharp."

Pete frowned, but then nodded. "Well, okay, I'll do my best."

Jim smiled and leaned forward. "I know you will. I figure that will probably take up most of the morning, but he'll call us when you're done. When he does, one of the boys will run over and pick you up. That is, if I don't do it myself. Then this afternoon, I want you and me to take a ride out to the high school for a few minutes." Seeing the frown deepen, the Sheriff suddenly laughed. "Cheer up, son, it's nothing all that bad. We're just going to go and clear up a few things, that's all. Don't get your undies in a twist!"

Just then, a deputy entered the room and headed for the coffee cart. "Yo, Jim! Have a nice Christmas?" the man asked as he walked by. He saw Pete and nodded toward him as well. "Hey, how's it going?"

"We did pretty well, thanks for asking. Josh Aubin, this is Pete Haskell, the young man I wanted you to take over to Clark's office," the Sheriff replied. "Make sure he gets inside alright, then you can leave him there for a while. Ronald will call us when he gets finished."

"Okay, will do boss! Not a problem!" the deputy declared, before turning his attention to the teenager. "Let me visit the bathroom first, but then we'll set out, okay?"

"Sure," Pete replied. "I'll wait for you in here, then."

It was almost 45-minutes later before Noah returned to the bathroom, having successfully gone downstairs, showered and changed clothes. He even packed a gym bag with the clothes he thought he would need to change into for the next day, before coming back up the steps. Setting the bag upon the kitchen table, he decided he'd better check on Jesse, and upon re-entering the room, he found his best friend pretty much in the same state as he had left him. The teen's face was calm and serene, peaceful almost, which led Noah to relax, especially after he detected the light snoring that had seemingly continued during his absence.

Sitting down once again beside the tub, he folded his arms upon the side and watched. Most of the bubbles had dissipated by then, something which annoyed Noah for some reason. It was a new bubble bath his Mom had started buying recently, and it was nowhere as good as what they had been using. Not that he cared that much about it – since he rarely took baths anymore. He showered more than anything else, but like his friend stated, he still enjoyed baths from time to time, and for the very same reasons. He quietly observed though, seeing his best friend's body clearly through the water in places. He knew Jesse didn't care, as they had both gotten used to the other in so many ways, but it was still a good feeling in seeing, and feeling the abundant trust they maintained between them. Reaching in, he pushed aside what few bubbles remained, which in turned opened the view up more clearly. However, that was when he noticed the water, though not yet cold, had lost much of its original warmth. Hesitating only briefly, he then decided to reach out and pull the plug over the drain, allowing some of the cooled water to drain out before he reinserted it. Then turning on the faucet again, he carefully shielded the flow of water from his best friend's skin directly, while at the same time allowing the tub to be refreshed with a new higher level of warmth.

In the exchange, however, Jesse stirred and opened his eyes. Finding Noah there caused him to smile before he yawned widely. Acknowledging the attempt to acquire warmth again, he moved his legs out of the way while the tub refilled. Moments later, Noah shut off the stream, and his guest then returned to his previous position. When his friend remained silent, he yawned again and then abruptly breathed deeply. "Well, are you going to join me or not?" he whispered. "You know you need to take a bath too, right?"

Noah giggled before moving up closer to the head of the tub. "What are you talking about? I've already had a shower, and changed clothes, doofus! Then while you were sleeping, I even took a video of you in here, nice and naked, to use for blackmail later," he teased. Jesse opened one eye to regard him cautiously, but then grunted, causing Noah to concede. "Okay, maybe not the video part, but yeah… you've been asleep for a while, buddy."

Jesse sighed, sinking beneath the waterline even more until the water gathered around his neck. "It feels good and warm in here, though. You don't know what you're missing."

"I wouldn't be too sure about that…" Noah replied just as softly, but then shook his head. "Honestly? I'd get in there with you in a heartbeat, Jess… you know that. If for no other reason than just to cuddle up again, but… maybe it would be better if we wait for the tennis balls to shrink a little more before we try that."

Jesse opened both eyes just then and glanced in the direction of his groin, only to find the reflection on top of the surface revealed little underneath. He then regarded his friend with a sad expression. "I would so let you, though. I don't care if it killed me, you know?"

"I know, but… it might kill me, if something happened to you, especially with your nuts and all." Noah smiled, then quietly slipped his hand inside the tub and underneath the water, before reaching Jesse's groin. Once there, he cupped the boy's genitals and held the oversized testicles in his hand. Jesse, in turn, thrust his hips upward, but then slowly fell back to the bottom of the tub before letting out a sigh of frustration.

"I sssoooo want to… want to…." Jesse started, but couldn't finish.

Noah giggled, before leaning in. "What? Fuck my fist? Or fuck my mouth?"

Jesse immediately nodded. "And I want you again, too. Oh Lord, do I so want you again! So bad…" At that point, Noah could feel Jesse's manhood beginning to get hard. Amused, he leaned in closer to his friend's ear.

"Oh? Just how is it you think you want me again, hmm?" Noah asked, but giggled when Jesse opened a single eye again and gave him a pointed expression. "What? How am I supposed to know? You tell me you want me, see, but you never say anything about HOW you want me, right? What am I supposed to think? I mean, for all I know, you could be wanting to whip my butt, or beat my ass, or put me in handcuffs, or… or…" he continued, teasing.

Suddenly a wet hand rose from the surface of the water and cupped Noah on one side of his neck, before pulling him closer still as Jesse rose up and met him midway. When he finally spoke, it was a deep throaty reply, and Noah could see the fierce look behind the expression that met him. "I want your dick in my mouth, and I want you to fuck my throat until you give me your sweet boy cream straight from the source! You heard me, right? Straight from your nuts, until it squirts out the end of your plump, fat dick! Then, while you're doing that, I'm going to be grabbing your ass and pulling and squeezing it, too, hard - so as to make sure you don't get away from me! And that's not all… when you're done, I'm going to roll you out on your back, and spread your legs as wide as they'll go, so I can gobble up your nuts and suck on them! Then I'm going to get between your legs see, and… and lick and clean everywhere I can reach down there. At least, everywhere my tongue can get to! Then lastly, I'm going to come back and make sure there's none of your boy juice left trying to escape from that first go, because if there is, I'm going to suck it all out of you again!" Jesse let go of Noah's neck at that point, and grinned as he lay back into the water again. "So, how is that? Was that graphic enough for you?"

"Wow!" Noah replied, impressed. "You've never talked dirty like that to me before, or that sexy!" He leaned over the side and gave his friend a soft kiss on the lips before pulling back. Noah felt a throbbing in his hand, which made him grin before giving Jesse's penis a gentle squeeze and then letting go. "Okay, slow down partner… You're going to end up making your own eruption if you're not careful."

Jesse closed his eyes and sighed once again in frustration, but then sullenly nodded in agreement. "It's okay, I'll be alright. Just give me a minute is all. Maybe get me a towel, too. I probably should be getting out of here. What time is it?"

"Um, not quite 4:00 yet," Noah replied.

"Seriously? That means… that means I've been in here, what – a long time, right?" Jesse exclaimed, frowning.

"Well, yeah, but… what's the deal?" Noah asked, confused.

Jesse hesitated, thinking about it, but then came to realize his friend was right. Sighing yet again, he shook his head. "Sorry, bro. I wasn't thinking, that's all. I was somehow confused, thinking it was adding up to, like, a couple of hours or so. If that was it, then… wow!"

"No, not that long. Just a little less than an hour, I think," Noah replied. "That's why I warmed your water up though, because it was beginning to get cold."

"I'm glad. I've only done this once before that I remember, and not that long ago. Remember? I think I told you about it, where Benji came in and found me…"

Noah nodded. "I remember, yeah. But… meh, it's okay." They fell silent for a few minutes, Jesse closing his eyes once again and absorbing the warmth around him. Eventually, however, he drew in a deep breath and let it slowly escape. That was when Noah nodded. "So… I guess you want to get out, right? Maybe I could play doctor or something…"

Jesse laughed out loud then, the mood breaking into a more entertaining exchange between them. He looked into Noah's eyes and thought about what had almost happened. "You know, I would have done it. I don't care what my crazy doc says, I… I would have done it, just for you."

"I know you would have, but… I've told you too many times already though – you need to get better first. There will be times we'll can get to dance again, you'll see," Noah responded slyly. "And by the way, watch out: I'm going to hold you to all that you just told me, too!" Seeing the look of confusion caused Noah to lean in again and whisper. "About me fucking your mouth, bro." Jesse blushed then, causing Noah to giggle, but then he moved back and offered his friend a hand. "Come on, let's get you out of this thing and dried off. I can still be your personal nurse, at least one more time."

Jesse nodded and began making his way to his feet. "And a good nurse you are, too," he whispered. "But I bet you'd be a fantastic doctor!" he teased, before pulling the plug on the drain completely. When he stood, he lifted his arms out one each side, giving his friend full access to his body, which Noah rapidly took advantage of. Grabbing a towel and drying Jesse along his sides and upper half, he then turned his friend around so he could reach the back. Once completed, he turned him again and assisted in getting Jesse to step out of the tub. Dropping to his knees, Noah was pleased to see that Little Jesse had deflated considerably, allowing Noah to handle the precious cargo with a great deal of care.

"You don't look as big down here, to me," Noah remarked, careful with the testicles as always, but obviously studying the latest state of the injuries. Looking up, he saw his friend nod in agreement.

"Yeah, I think the swelling is going down faster now, but they're still kind of sensitive and all," Jesse offered by way of explanation. As Noah finished, Jesse reached to the counter to grab his things, but Noah smacked his hand away. Without a word, he picked up each garment separately, and expertly helped Jesse get into them. When finished, the teenager crossed his arms and stood tall for his friend. "I should probably thank you, but somehow I think you get a kick out of doing all this for me, don't you?"

"Oh, hell yeah!" Noah whispered, grinning widely as he collected Jesse's dirty clothes and rolled them up. "Come on, we'll put these in a grocery bag and then head back over."

"Yeah, we should. If we don't, Mom is likely to send Benji over here looking for us," Jesse muttered, following his friend out of the room.

They had no sooner than reached the kitchen when a sharp rapping could be heard at the back door. Opening it, Noah found the youngster outside without a coat and in his sock feet, dancing from one foot to the other. "Hurry up and let me in! I've gotta pee, sheesh!"

Noah laughed and Jesse rolled his eyes, all the while the smaller boy rushed past them both and down the hallway to the bathroom. Within seconds, they both heard an 'AAAhhhhh…' uttered, making them giggle. Jesse had pulled out a chair and was putting his shoes on, when he glanced up at Noah. "See? I told ya…"

"Told him what?" Benji announced, returning to the room.

"That your Mom would probably send you looking for us," Noah replied.

"Yeah, she kind of was expecting you back by now," the younger brother replied. "We're supposed to go out and eat tonight, I think! She wanted to make sure you were okay to go first, though," he added, directing the last at his brother.

Jesse grunted. "I'll be alright. Come on Short-Stuff, we were getting ready to come back anyway." With that, they exited with Noah locking the door again behind him, before making their way across the lawn once again.

When they entered the McAllister household again, Makalah was already in the kitchen, as if expecting them. "Well, that was a quick return!" she told Benji, before looking up. "I was beginning to wonder if you got teen-napped!"

Benji immediately started laughing out loud. "Teen-napped! That's a good one, Mom!" he declared, before taking off in the direction of their bedroom.

"Sorry, Mom. I, uh, fell asleep for a bit, I think. Noah didn't want to wake me up too early," Jesse offered in way of explanation, although blushing all the same. "I know, I shouldn't really do that, but… I did."

Makalah smiled. "It's alright. You probably needed a short nap, anyway. How do you feel now? Do you think you would want to go out and grab some Mexican with us tonight?"

Jesse smiled. "Wild horses couldn't keep me away, honest."

Later in the afternoon, Sheriff Hunt pulled into the parking lot of the Adair County High School, before approaching the main entrance where he stopped. Once parked, he shut off the engine and turned to his passenger. "Harland is supposed to meet us here in a few minutes, so let's just wait. We're about ten minutes early anyway. How did things go with the lawyer this morning?"

Pete nodded before settling back. "Okay, I guess. I mean, I did what you told me. I answered a bunch of questions, and told him what I knew – which was basically just the same stuff I had already told you guys." The teen scoffed. "I understand what you meant about him being rough around the edges and all, though. Several times he interrupted me and asked if I knew what I was talking about, or if I was just guessing."

"Yep, that sounds like old Ron, for sure!" Jim Hunt replied with a chuckle. "He does that a lot in court, too, when he's questioning witnesses on the stand. Sometimes it's hilarious to watch him, and even more fun to watch witnesses react to it all when he does!" The man paused for a moment before continuing. "Several judges never cared for his antics much, I can tell you, but he's gotten so up in years now that I think most of them just tolerate it. Like I said, it makes for some amusing moments."

"He looks like he's ready to drop dead, if you ask me. I mean, he's sort of rough looking and all, and he has this kind of wheeze in his voice and everything," Pete commented.

"He's looked that way for years, though. The wheeziness, well, he's not always like that. It comes and goes," Jim replied. "Still, for your circumstances, he's a right decent catch to have, if you ask me. I'm telling you though, he is about as sharp as they come."

Just then a car pulled up beside them, and Harland Green alighted. Both Jim and Pete got out of their vehicle as well, and greeted the man with a firm handshake. When the Principal grasped the teenager's hand, he was impressed at seeing the young man respond to the contact and follow-thru. "Hello there, Pete! How's it going?" he asked, not unkindly.

"It's going okay, sir. A lot better now, actually, thanks," the teen readily replied. He then followed as the two men began walking to the main doors, where Harland opened one of them with his keys.

"I have to say, Jim, I'm still a little puzzled as to why we're here," the principal eventually confessed once they were inside.

"I just wanted Pete here to show me where his locker was - especially in relation to some of the other people he associated himself with," Jim explained. "And, if it's alright, I'd like to inspect that locker one more time."

Harland shrugged. "I've got no problem with that. In fact, I've been thinking about that somewhat myself. If you've got a moment, let's drop by the office first and let me show you some video footage we've pulled and pieced together."

"Sure," Jim answered. A moment later, the trio was in one of the conference rooms used by the staff. Once inside, Mr. Green logged into a computer there and brought up a folder containing several files. Opening one, a video started playing, but the man suddenly paused it, before taking a pencil and pointing out a particular area in the screen.

"Now, this is roughly where the locker is located. The camera isn't a hi-def unit, so we can't zoom in very hard here without it going all blurry and everything. You can still see enough though, I think, to make out a few basics. Now watch, this file…" The man paused to refer to a printout he had nearby. "This is one of the class changes recorded prior to third period, dated the 14th of October of this year." He then continued the playback, as the halls began swarming with various students. Before long, a young male appeared and opened a locker in the designated area, seemingly exchanging books inside for other items. Once he closed it, he began joining the rest of the crowd and approached the corridor where the camera was stationed. As his image grew nearer, Pete determined right away that it was no one he recognized. Baffled, he looked over at his former Principal, but for the moment the man ignored him.

"Now, that student opened and used Pete's locker on several other occasions, beginning roughly 3 weeks prior to Halloween. In fact, I can show you nineteen different files, all with different people that include two young ladies doing pretty much the same thing - all in periods prior to when we did our so-called 'raid' on that Saturday," Harland continued. "That's not all, either. There are 44 instances we've uncovered, same camera, same view, where all of those students involved did the same thing…. and THAT was just for the month of October!"

Jim frowned. "Nothing earlier?"

"No, I'm afraid not. We have several of Pete himself doing it, too – but that's to be expected, I think. After all, it's his locker, right? But as you noted, there a limited number of occurrences here. You see, the system only keeps a 90-day rolling window on video files, before it begins purging them. There are about 60-some instances showing Pete himself at the locker, maybe more – we just stopped after a point, when we were sure it was the same locker in use."

Pete, astonished, sat down in one of the chairs looking onward as the Principal began playing through more files. Some of the people he recognized as being in his classes, but overall, he had no idea who the others were. Jim observed the teenager for a moment, before inquiring. "So, how about it? How many of these people, if any, do you recognize in the videos, son?"

"Huh?" Pete exclaimed, startled as if coming out of a trance. "Oh, sorry, uh… I don't know… three or four, sure, but not the girls, or… or… the others. I mean, I've seen them around, but not necessarily in my classes or anything."

Jim Hunt considered that for a moment before walking around the table and taking a seat next to the teen. "Listen to me, okay? Listen very carefully to what I am going to ask you, and then consider what I'm asking - before you answer. Understand?" When Pete nodded, the man lowered his voice. "Would it be safe to say, that you had no idea that this locker in question, your locker in fact, was being used by a lot of different people without your direct knowledge?"

Pete observed the man with a blank expression briefly, before nodding. That was when Harland Green himself frowned, and then moved over to take a seat opposite of the other two. "How could you not know though, Pete? That's your locker, and your combination. You used it daily, right? As I said, there are a lot of videos showing you using it at least, I don't know, three times a day on average. How could you not know it was being so heavily used like that, by other students in the school?"

"Whoa," Pete exclaimed, holding up his hands. "I didn't say that, sir! I mean, I let Jimmy, Dale and Michael have my combination, but just those three guys, alright? I did it so that they could have a place to put their books and stuff at times They were supposed to do it mostly during lunch hours, or while they had to go to Phys-Ed class. I mean, their lockers are on the far side of the school, see? And those little cubicles in the locker rooms and all, they don't have enough room for sticking books and things in much at all, right? So, that was the deal we had, and as far as I knew, that was it! I mean, I kept my stuff on the top shelf anyway, see. I told them they could use the bottom part and all, but leave the top for me. So, I never paid that much attention elsewhere, really. See?" He sat back briefly. "Yeah, I saw things going in and out, you know, books, notepads, and stuff like that, but… I just thought it was the guys and all doing their thing! I never saw, or suspected anything like drugs or that kind of shit!"

Jim Hunt sat back, thinking hard, before turning to the Principal. "He may have something there, Harland."

The Principal nodded his own agreement, sitting back in his chair. "I agree."

"What?" Pete asked, frowning.

"The drugs… they were not found in the upper part of the locker, Pete," Harland explained. "They were found in the bottom that day, hidden behind a box… remember?"

Pete was stunned, thinking about how he had been called up to the school that day, on a Saturday of all days of the week, and then learned his fate. In that moment, the teen then realized he had overlooked that minor detail all this time. "I'll be damned," he whispered, more for himself than anyone else in the room. He turned his attention to Harland, frowning. "But… how? How did you know?"

Harland then smiled. "For that, you actually have two young fellow students to thank. You see, my family and I were visiting Jesse McAllister in the hospital, I think just before he was released. I don't remember exactly what brought it all about, but somehow, he made a comment about this. How on earth he put two-and-two together and came up with his theory, I haven't the slightest clue, but he and Noah both offered up enough details that aroused my curiosity. Then the last day of school for the term, the one that got called off because of the weather, Mr. Borders and I came up here and began going through some of these videos and all. The more we found, the more our curiosity started to get aroused, so you can see… well…"

"You're… you're shitting me," Pete whispered, but then blushed. "Sorry, I didn't mean that, like…"

Both men in the room suddenly laughed, before Harland leaned forward again. "'Shitting' isn't too strong of a word to use sometimes, son," Harland went on. "As long as it has purpose, and I think we can excuse it on occasion." The man then turned to the Sheriff. "I take it, this is what you were hoping to look for?"

"Oh yes, but this is far more than I expected to retrieve, believe me," Jim Hunt answered with a look of relief. "So, by chance, do you think this might affect the school board's decision, then?"

"It'll be revisited, yes. The only thing is, Pete will still have to answer for breaking the rules regarding sharing of lockers. That rule was actually devised some years ago, just to thwart scenarios like this. Each student would become responsible for their own locker space from day one, until the second term ended." Harland brought his hands with his fingertips together in front of him, while regarding the teenager. "I think though, we have enough evidence that we can call into question the ownership of the drugs that were uncovered that day."

"How did you even know to do the search, by chance?" Jim Hunt asked.

Harland seemingly blushed, which surprised Pete. "We were tipped off by a note, and when the custodian checked it out the evening before, that's when I called you." The man grunted and then shook his head. "Truth be told, that's the procedure we're supposed to follow, so for better or worse, I didn't have much choice."

Jim Hunt sighed deeply then, but seemed to relax afterwards. "That would correlate with our own investigation, too. There were no fingerprints on the package, you know. Nothing – zilch, nada. Nothing to tie it directly to any one individual, and with these videos, we can now surmise there were quite a few individuals it could have belonged to."

Harland Green actually smiled. "Well then, I see no reason to keep this going. Pete," he said, turning to the teen. "I am uncertain where you're going to be over the coming weeks or months, but if it is still within the district here, then come on back. I'll let you return to school on a probationary basis, at least until the school board makes their ruling. That'll be about mid-January, but… I wouldn't worry about it too much. I have a feeling it'll all turn out fine, now."

Pete, still stunned, turned from one man to the other, unable to speak initially. Jim Hunt could detect the emotions running rampant within the teen, and thus reached out to place a hand upon his shoulder. "It's okay, son. We understand how you feel. If you think it's necessary, or if you insist, I guess I can still lock you up for a while, until it all sinks in." Of course, the man was teasing the teen, but his smile and demeanor spoke volumes about something else entirely. When Pete faced him again, he finally sighed before breaking down there in the chair. There were tears that began streaming down his face unbidden as he hung his head low, afraid to even look up again. The Sheriff was right about one thing – it was all just beginning to sink in, and the effect was overwhelming.

Harland Green, being the empathetic person he was, rose from his chair and rounded the end of the table, before reaching Pete's side and adding his own hand upon the teen's other shoulder. "I know, you've had a rough way to go now. I'm sorry none of us could see it before, and it probably seemed terribly unfair. But, if you'll accept it, you have my apology, and the knowledge that it is behind you now. There are better days ahead, trust me. You just have to embrace them is all. You'll see."

When Pete finally raised his eyes to stare at the man, he saw nothing but kindness greeting him. He nodded through his tears, smiling weakly, but grasping the arm briefly with a gentle squeeze. "I don't know how to thank you," he whispered, before turning to Jim Hunt. "Or you, either. This has been… I don't know… shit!" He then laughed at his own curse, which caused the other two to laugh as well.

"Well, just try to remember that the whole world is not out to get you. Not this time, anyway. We all make mistakes sometimes, but for the most part, we try to remedy them," Harland replied. "The biggest part though, is that no matter what - and above all else - we learn from our mistakes, and try to make better of ourselves afterwards. Understand?"

Pete's smile grew wider. "Yes sir, I do."

"Come on then," Jim said, standing. "We won't take up any more of your time, Harland. Can you get copies of those videos made and sent up to me soon?"

"Mr. Borders has already said he would stop in later this week and make you some discs," Principal Green replied.

Jesse sat in the floor with his back against his bed, his knees pulled up and wrapped within his arms. Beside him, both Noah and Benji were going all out, playing a new game the boys had received for Christmas. The game did little to interest the older brother initially, but as he watched the other two play, his curiosity began steadily rising. It was a game of matchups, between up to four players, where each chose from a collection of 80+ characters to compete against each other – thus achieving its name Super Smash Brothers. Each 'character' had a unique set of skills that could be applied in a battle royal, and of course depending upon the person's skill level with the game, other factors could inevitably determine the outcome. His brother loved the premise of the game from the start, and Noah was not far behind him once he determined it was not the kid-like game that some had initially made it out to be.

Jesse had tried a couple of rounds, but seeing they only had two controllers, he eventually handed his turn over to his brother, who was doing quite well given his youthfulness and developing skills. Noah, not to be taken lightly, proved to be a respectable opponent, having played in several warfare and other fast-moving games where you had to think on your feet quickly, or be subject to elimination.

Before long, Jesse stretched his feet out and leaned in against Noah's bean bag, all the while simultaneously wiggling his toes around Benji's feet. Before long, however, a drowsiness overtook him, and he closed his eyes while continuing to listen to the other two play. They had made it out to dinner earlier without issue, although Jesse didn't eat as much as he usually was known to do. He asserted after a point that he just wasn't hungry, which caused his brother to 'help himself' to finish off the teen's burrito. Otherwise, nothing else was really notable, and the five of them enjoyed being out and away from everything for a short while. As it turned out, Addison and her family were also dining there that evening, and when they accepted the McAllisters' invitation to join them, the two families then spent some time together catching up. William Davies even admitted that things were not the same with their former neighbors now gone. "The place just doesn't seem right anymore, I tell you. Mind you, all the other houses have been cleared away, leaving yours as the only one still standing and reminding everyone of what happened. I've noticed that two of the others have begun rebuilding, too. It's a shame what your insurance company is doing, I tell you… a damned shame!"

James nodded as he sat back in his seat. "It hasn't been the same for us either. Honestly though, so much has been happening these past couple of months, we haven't even been able to breathe, yet alone take it all in."

"Good Lord, I know how that feels!" William's wife, Alice, declared. "Addison and I were just talking the other day about how the days are flying by now."

"We know, but…" James paused, but then sighed. "It's the curves in the road, I'm afraid. We'll get by. If we can keep from hitting any more potholes for a while, then it'll be all the better, I think."

The Davies smiled, understanding the sentiment without the need for further reflection. When the subject shifted to more recent events, Addison slid closer to the boys and turned to Jesse and Noah. "Do you guys know what your schedule is going to be for the Spring term yet?"

Noah shook his head. "Not yet, no. Don't they usually come out this week?"

"Yep. I got mine today," the teenage girl explained. "Not a lot of change for me, other than for my first two periods. I get to have Ms. Gravitas for Home Ed first thing in the morning, and then Mrs. Russel for French."

Jesse made a face. "Eww… You can have all the French you want. Spanish, Italian, and German too - any of them in fact, really…"

Addison laughed. "What's wrong? You don't want to take a foreign language before you graduate?"

"Are you kidding?" Jesse replied. "I have enough trouble just dealing with English all by itself, yet alone even think about talking or writing in another language!"

"I agree with him, mostly," Noah added whole heartedly. "I don't understand why anyone would want to learn another language really, unless they're, like, foreign-born or something."

Addison giggled, but then sat back. "That might be one reason, but… I can think of some others. For one, it helps you get into college easier, and some jobs – I mean, the employers – look for people who can successfully speak and read or write in a second language. Of course, there's another reason, too."

"What's that?" Benji piped up, suddenly taking an interest in the conversation.

"Well, it's one of those things that's kind of fun, I think!" Addison replied. "I mean, it's kind of neat learning how common, everyday phrases match up to words or phrases we take for granted. Take this salsa, for example…" The teen picked up a small bowl of salsa by her plate. "Or even just the bowl itself that's holding it. Did you know, there are thousands of languages spoken by people, and most of them will have a different way of saying 'this is a bowl of salsa'?" She then lowered her voice and leaned in closer to Noah and Jesse. "Or, think of it another way… how many different ways are there you can use to curse somebody out? Huh? Think about it… It's kind of cool, right?"

Jesse's eyebrows shot upward at once. "Addison! You're a girl!" he hissed quietly, but then their friend broke out into laughter.

"Why Jesse, you noticed!" she spurted, making the others suddenly laugh as well. Blushing Jesse sat back and simply grinned. Then leaning once again, she effectively whispered to the other boys, "Just because I'm a girl though, doesn't mean I can't talk like a bunch of sailors with the rest of them!"

"Yeah, I know… sorry," Jesse apologized. "I guess I just, I don't know… guys talk trash all the time, I just don't hear, like… girls and all do it."

Addison looked kindly upon him before leaning in closer still. "It's okay. Just remember, when boys say 'fuck', it usually means they want to 'fuck girls,' and then girls say it vice versa, for the other way around. Right?"

Noah snorted, having overheard the exchange, which caused Benji to raise both eyebrows. He was seated too far away to make out the last part, however, and Jesse simply shook his head, signaling to let it go for the time being. For his own part, Jesse blushed a deeper red, enough to cause Addison to giggle again before wrapping an arm around him and giving the teen an affectionate squeeze.

Jesse was still thinking about that when he closed his eyes, wondering what other surprises were in store for him and Noah in the future. His best friend had admitted that he also was caught off guard to hear it from her, but he told of times when Linda could speak loosely in the back of the bus. That news mollified Jesse somewhat and did make him feel better otherwise, but it still left him feeling embarrassed at having formed such obvious conclusions about girls in general - and apparently being wrong.

Before long, however, Noah glanced down at the boy who had maneuvered himself until his head was practically situated in Noah's lap. The rhythmic breathing had returned once again, accented with more light snoring. "Your brother is already out of it again," he whispered at their next break.

Benji peered at them and nodded. "Yeah, he's sleeping a lot more lately, I think."

Reaching for the TV controller, Noah reduced the volume on their game and then sat back. He didn't mention anything else for a time, knowing that if he did then Benji might start getting worried, too. They played several more rounds of matchups before Noah laid his controller aside. "Okay, that's it for me. Your brother and I have got a long day tomorrow, so maybe we should start getting this sack of potatoes into bed."

"Sounds like a plan. Are you going to sleep with him?" Benji asked. When Noah shrugged, the boy lowered his voice even more. "You can if you want to, I don't care. You two can even get naked again, if you want to. I promise, it won't bother me."

Noah giggled. "Wow! What brought that on?"

Benji grinned too, but then shrugged. "I don't know. I… well, me and Jess have done it a few times, and I know how good it feels and all. I kind of figure you two have done it, too… especially after we stayed with you on Christmas Eve."

Noah blushed, but did not deny it. "It is kind of nice," he confessed. He slowly, but carefully, extracted himself, laying Jesse's head against the bean bag while he stood up. "Be right back," he announced, before leaving the room. In the meantime, Benji put the game away and changed the TV channel until he found a cartoon to watch. Then standing, he stripped to his underwear, dropping his clothes off to the side. Noah returned as the youth was discarding his socks. "Hey, help me with your brother first, okay?"

It didn't take a lot of effort, as Jesse groggily awakened enough to crawl up onto the bed at least. Both boys stripped him completely, however, which he allowed without fuss – even as Benji threatened to pull his boxers off him. Jesse never reacted, however, and eventually his brother relented. Whether the teen fully woke or not, Noah didn't know, but when he himself undressed and climbed in behind him, Jesse immediately reacted by pushing back, spooning deep into his friend's almost naked body. Benji watched them both for a moment, grinning widely, but then nodded before turning off the light. The boy then climbed his ladder and settled in above them, oblivious to everything else. Noah watched, and made a note that if he ever slept with the youngster again, he was going to appeal to that sense of trust and cuddle with him, too – in any way the boy wanted.

The next morning, Noah was the first to wake to the sound of the alarm going off. Having been there often enough by now, he reached out and quieted it quickly, before assessing the fact that he was still snuggled up against Jesse's back. Had he slept in that position all night? He honestly could not remember having woken at all, but as he moved, he began to feel a soreness along his side almost immediately. Grunting, he extracted himself and sat up before rubbing his hand up and down his ribs. They did not hurt, at least not deeply, but he could feel the rigor in his muscles surrounding them. Glancing back, he saw that Jesse had finally rolled back and was beginning to open his eyes. When they focused on the teen sitting beside him, he smiled. "Morning, bro," was the soft offering, which made Noah grunt.

Glancing up and seeing no disturbance in the bed above them, Noah leaned over and planted a soft kiss upon Jesse's lips. "Ready to get up, buddy?"

Jesse shrugged. "Not really, but meh. We might as well." Yawning deeply, he began to stretch, while Noah rose and slipped on his sweats before leaving the room, closing the door behind him. By the time he returned, Jesse was sitting on the side of the bed, as if waiting his turn. Getting up, he left the room as he was in just his boxers, something Noah noted with amusement before he began looking for his gym bag. Finding it, he shucked his sweats and began to pull on a pair of working jeans. As he was beginning to fasten them, however, Jesse returned and then stopped in front of his friend. Threading his arms around, he engulfed Noah in a loving embrace. "Thanks for last night, bro. I owe you another one," he whispered, before pushing his hands deep inside of Noah's waistline underneath the briefs, only to grasp a pair of firm buttocks in each hand. It wasn't so much a sexual gesture, as it was one of continuing to exhibit the complete trust and affection that they had between them.

"You're welcome," Noah replied just as softly, although he was uncertain to what his friend was referring to. He, in turn, ran his hands all over the other boy's back and sides, before duplicating the effort inside of Jesse's boxers. He heard his friend sigh before hugging him harder. They continued to hold onto each other for a moment, until a distant thud could be heard elsewhere in the house. With a smile, Jesse pulled back. "Dad must be up, or Mom… or both…" he stated. Then turning, he left his friend and approached the closet, where he rummaged inside and extracted his own set of clothes to wear that day.

Noah saw that the teen had pulled out a pair of jeans, and after holding them up, asked curiously. "Hey, are you…?"

Jesse shrugged. "They're the biggest pair I have, so I thought I might at least try them on and see." After getting a fresh shirt pulled on over his head, he took the pair from Noah and tentatively pushed first one, and then the other foot inside the leggings. Pulling them up, he carefully dragged them into place. "Ah… uh…."

Noah immediately shook his head. "Don't, Jesse. I know we both saw the swelling was going down, but don't, like, do something like this so soon that'll make it uncomfortable, alright? Please?"

Jesse glanced at his friend, but then nodded. "I can button them together and zip up, but yeah… it's still kind of a tight squeeze…" He then pushed them down and sat on the side of the bed. Noah reached out, and helped pull the garment from the end of his feet, then retrieved another set of sweat-pants for him.

"That's your last clean pair, by the way," Noah commented.

"I figured I was getting close. I'll ask Mom to wash my others today," was the quiet reply. Before long, the two began making their way to the kitchen, where they were surprised to find Makalah standing by the stove, slipping a pancake from a skillet onto another stack that was already accumulating there.

"Good morning boys!" the woman announced cheerfully, though with a quiet voice. "Sleep good?"

"Yes ma'am," Noah replied at once.

"Yeah, I guess so," Jesse replied. His mother turned momentarily to eye her son closer.

"What's wrong? Couldn't sleep? Or something else?" she asked.

Jesse, however, just shrugged. "Maybe I had too much caffeine last night, I don't know." Sitting down at the table, he changed the subject. "So, are you making breakfast? What's on the menu?"

"Blueberry pancakes, with some sausages in the microwave keeping warm. Will that do?" she replied, becoming more cheerful.

"Hear, hear!" a voice rang from the doorway, as James suddenly entered the room. "Make mine a double portion!" The group laughed, and then began to dig in to the plates she set before them.

"Thanks, Mom!" Jesse whispered, giving her an affectionate bump as she hobbled by him. Luckily, and to her immense satisfaction, she saw her son enjoy more of a serving than he had eaten the evening before. Noah, also pleased, watched for a moment, but was disturbed somewhat by Jesse's confession. As far as he and Benji knew, the older brother had conked out and remained so throughout the night. If Jesse was feeling tired now, for some reason, then… why?

It wasn't until later that morning, while the two boys had completed the storeroom tasks and were readying to use masking tape out on the sales floor, that Jesse suddenly pulled up short. He said nothing, but something about his eyes seemed unfocussed, and when Noah noted it, his friend suddenly turned on him. "Shit! I'm fine, Noah! Stop being such a mother hen!" he snapped, but then within seconds, he closed his eyes and dropped his voice to a whisper. "I'm sorry, no… I didn't mean that! Please… I'm sorry…"

Noah, shocked, immediately stepped closer. "Hey, okay… but – what's wrong, man? What is it?"

Jesse's shoulders began to sag. "I- I don't know… I just… I…" He stopped and looking around, took a seat nearby. "I just felt strange, that's all. It's like, everyone keeps watching me, and… and… expecting me to do something, like fall apart again, or go jump in the lake! It… I don't... it's just… it's weird, okay? Everyone keeps asking what's wrong, and… and… I just, I don't know! It's just getting to me, I guess!"

Noah dropped to one knee beside him. "Well, if you'd quit playing the brave-as-a-smart-ass-Samurai-warrior game and talk to us a little more, then maybe people wouldn't have to watch you so close, you know?" He stated it with a grin, attempting to disarm him. "I've got tougher skin than you think, so no sweat bro… but really, come on. You know you can talk to me, right? I'm right here, and I'm not going anywhere."

Jesse sighed, closing his eyes all the same. "I know you are, Noah. I just, sometimes I feel like I'm falling and… still on my feet and all, but like, that weird sensation you get when you imagine falling from the top of a high building or something, you know? I don't know about you, but I dream about that sometimes, and it leaves me feeling anxious and all, and really funky-like in the bottom of my stomach and all." Glancing around, the teen was making sure the coast was clear before he grunted. "I'm sorry, okay? I really … I didn't mean to snap at you. I promise, it was just, I don't know, me feeling so fucking frustrated again. Not at you, but like, at having all this stuff happening and everything. It's making me go crazy!"

Noah regarded his friend for a moment, but then nodded. "Apology accepted. Like I said, no sweat, okay? BUT… maybe you should take a break for a few minutes all the same."

Jesse nodded. "Please don't tell Dad, okay? It's nothing… I was just going nutty for a minute, that's all. Please don't tell him," he begged.

Noah hesitated, but then nodded. "Alright, I promise I won't tell either of your parents anything, as long as you're shooting straight with me, unless something really bad happens. Good enough?"

Jesse smiled in relief. "You bet. Thanks!" They both then sat for a few minutes until Jesse declared he was feeling better again, before they both rose and started to make plans on how to handle the sales floor. "Let's leave the Christmas stuff until last. I mean, who knows, maybe some more of it will sell and we don't have to break the sections down as much."

"Good idea," Noah agreed. "How about starting with the paints and things, over here?" The two set off, and systematically began dividing several shelves into sections which they methodically marked and counted. They knew they could not label anything as non-sellable, but by using a gradual approach to updating the computers interactively, they were able to establish baselines going forward. They did that section by section for the rest of the morning and early afternoon, once they returned from lunch.

Approaching mid-afternoon, Noah suddenly excused himself to go to the bathroom while Jesse finished counting a section of shelves they had just completed marking off. He was gone for several minutes, but thought nothing of it really until he came back out and started looking around. Jesse was nowhere to be seen, so he started walking toward the back office, thinking maybe the teen was entering their data into the computer. Checking outside James' office, and then the other areas he knew where computer terminals would be, he didn't find his best friend anywhere. Becoming concerned, he started going back into the storerooms, where he found James standing outside one of the aisles with his own clipboard in hand. "Have you seen Jesse?" he asked quizzically.

James arched his eyebrows. "Why, no, I thought he was with you."

"Well, he was, but then I had to go to the bathroom for a few minutes, and I haven't seen him since I got out," Noah explained. "I checked the terminals, and some other places, but…"

James frowned, but then turned and walked to the entrance of the largest storeroom. "Jesse?" he called out. "Are you in here son?" When there was no answer, he and Noah both went inside, but quickly determined the boy was not present. Coming out, James stopped. "You check the break-room, and then check the other bathrooms, too. I'll go up front and see if Carl or any of the others have seen him."

Finding his friend in none of those places, Noah began to really get worried. Moving quickly through the store, he stopped when he thought he heard something crashing along one of the walls toward the back of the store. Turning, he quickly hurried down the aisle before coming to a stop near the end. There, sprawled on the floor, was his best friend, seemingly unconscious. "Mr. McAllister! Over here!" he yelled out. "Near the power tools!"

Dropping to his knees, he quickly assessed that Jesse was at least breathing, although he looked quite pale. James joined him within an instant, before dropping to the floor in like manner. "Jesse? Jesse! Can you hear me son?" he called out, but the teen was unresponsive. James quickly checked for vitals before picking the boy up completely in his arms and standing. "Grab your coats, meet me at the truck," he commanded, which sent Noah off at a run.

By then, one of the other workers had arrived and helped James steady his grasp of the boy in his arms, before the two headed toward the front door. "What happened?" the man asked, with obvious concern.

"No idea," James muttered. "He appears to have just collapsed. He hasn't been feeling well for a few days, but this is the first time…" They reached the door, which the man held open for him, then followed as they made a beeline for their truck.

By the time Jesse was stretched out in the back seat, Noah breathlessly caught up, handing James his coat while donning his own. They both rushed into the cab, but before closing the door, James turned to the man. "Charlie? Make sure everything gets shut down tonight if I'm not here, but I'll try to come back and set the alarms if nothing else. Alright?"

Charlie nodded. "Don't you worry about it! I promise, we'll take care of everything. Just… go!"

While James started up the truck, Noah had turned and crawled into the open space of the back seat before awkwardly depositing himself on the floorboard. He stroked through Jesse's hair, and called out to him, but the teen was unresponsive. He remained that way throughout the short trip, all the while James zipped through various back streets until he pulled up beside the hospital's emergency room doors. Without even waiting to shut the truck off, he placed it in park and exited quickly to run inside. Seconds later, he returned, with two orderlies following rapidly behind him.

Noah felt overwhelmed, uncertain as to what to think or do from that point onward. Both orderlies arranged for a gurney to quickly appear, which Jesse was loaded onto before being wheeled inside. When it appeared that he was alone, Noah glanced around him. The truck, still running with the keys in the ignition, sat idle in the middle of the lane. He quietly slipped behind the wheel and carefully put it into drive. Although this one made him nervous, the teen had driven on a few occasions before so the task was not strange to him. His father had made attempts over the last year to introduce his son to driving, which during the time the two had been not getting along very well, and Noah had alienated himself even further from his parents. He had already reconciled with the fact his Dad was trying to find a way for them to have common ground again, maybe as a peace offering that would let them come closer. It had succeeded, but only minimally. Regardless, Noah was glad they had at least shared those few moments that they did, because it helped him remain calm as he slowly maneuvered the vehicle out of the lane, and into a nearby parking slot. Putting the vehicle back in park and shutting it off, he sighed with relief. Getting out, he locked the doors and then rushed inside the now familiar waiting room – but then pulled up short.

Sitting on the nearest chair to the desk, was James McAllister. He was one of the strongest individuals Noah had ever met, with a straight-forward view of life that was full of kindness and understanding to everyone he met. A man who would do anything for you, and as his Dad had said once, would stand by your side in a heartbeat. This man before him now, however, was not the stout, strong person that Noah had come to know and grow so fond of. Instead, he was grasping his sides and bent over in his seat, crying. No one was around him, nor was there anyone nearby to pay attention. The waiting room was totally empty, as was the reception desk. The only sounds outside of the heartfelt sobs, was that of an alarm at the desk, persistently going off in the background. Yet, James sat there, in his chair, and continued to weep with tears rolling down the sides of his cheeks.

Noah stood motionless, unsure of what to do, what to think, or even worse… what to feel. The thought occurred to him that something awful may have just happened in those few short moments he had taken to park the truck. As he looked around, his heart fell, and his stomach bottomed out. Where was everyone, he wondered? And why was it so quiet?

And what had happened to his best friend, his brother now, of all people? A feeling of immense dread descended on him as he tried to keep from panicking, although his own tears had begun to well up and threaten to release. For what it was worth though, the teenager couldn't avoid the most important question of all that faced him:

What had happened to Jesse?

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