The Storm That Turned the Tide

by Sean English

Chapter 32

Confessions For The Soul

"I don't want to seem rude or anything, Mr. Carmichael, but… would you explain, for my sake anyway, exactly what it is we are signing here?" Makalah asked, before laughing. "I'm sorry, really. I know you and James have already been talking, but…"

Sir William Carmichael sat back and emitted a low, hearty chuckle. He was presently seated at the McAllisters' kitchen table, perched casually with both hands forward and propped upon his cane. Both James and Makalah were seated across from him, with several folders spread upon the table. Jesse had also joined them, with their permission, and was seated off to the side, looking on quietly as his parents and their guest navigated through the paperwork. Sir William had been most impressed from the start, after greeting the young man who then asked if he could watch. They had shaken hands firmly, something most teenagers or youths had little concept of in his opinion, and the teen had displayed a higher level of sophistication than his age. Jesse, in turn, had also been impressed with the attorney, who was dressed casually with an ensemble of dark slacks, a matching button-up shirt and a coordinated cardigan sweater, all which were crisp and freshly pressed. Benji also met with the man, observing his Santa-like appearance with some amusement, but then had easily disappeared afterwards, having no real interest in the proceedings as he returned to their bedroom to watch cartoons.

"You're not being rude, madam," the man chortled good naturedly. "It does look like quite a bit to contend with, doesn't it? I daresay, to be perfectly honest, it may be almost as bad as signing your life away when you go to secure a mortgage, doesn't it!"

Makalah nodded, though blushing. "I'm not sure I would go THAT far, but…"

"I understand, though, and it's perfectly fine. Let's see what I can do to clear it up a bit." The man reached out and pointed to one of the folders containing a set of documents they had just been completed. "This first set of papers represent what we're going to submit to the court on Monday morning. It certifies, more or less, that everything your policy states is the coverage you believed you had, for the duration you held it. It acknowledges that the premium has been paid, on time and without refute, when the account became due for renewal. In your copy folder over there, by the way, is a copy of that policy, obtained from the First National Bank's archives."

"You found it, then?" James asked, his eyebrows shooting up. "I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that!!"

"Oh yes," Sir William replied. "As I've mentioned before, banks are required to keep copies as a measure of preservation, mostly for their own self-interest. What's surprising is that insurance companies know this as well - yet for some reason, American International chose to pursue a course of action under the assumption that you do not. It's an awful weak point of contention, if you ask me, but nevertheless it is a practice that some employ. Regardless, it is a legally certified copy, and it will suit our purposes precisely. Of that, you need to have no concern."

"Well, as my husband said, we're grateful to you then," Makalah commented. The attorney smiled before he then continued.

"The basics of what we intend to pursue through the courts then, are really straightforward: we'll focus sharply on each of the components in your policy that American International has attempted to dispute. That includes coverages for both your home and your personal property, their responsibilities, schedules and so forth. We're going to initially ask them to recant their explanations before a judge, with our copies of your letters and correspondence you provided, and get them to put it all on record, with every excuse they have employed to date. The objective, you see, is to get them to come to the table first, then one by one, we'll present our arguments and evidence to the contrary. All of this will be performed during a summary hearing, see, and if the judge finds it favorable - which I'm most assured he will - he'll grant you a summary ruling regarding the policy itself. That will then free your obligation to the bank, as it then places everything in litigation. Litigation normally implies that two sides of an issue come together and work on drawing a compromise or conclusion, mind you. In our specific case, however, we'll use it as a deterrent to say 'Hey, I insured my property with you, and I have a claim. Why aren't you honoring your agreement?'"

"That's exactly how we've felt about it," Makalah agreed.

The elderly gentlemen smiled. "I can imagine, yes. Anyway, if the judge gives your family a summary conclusion, it releases you from the contract, and turns everything else about it over to the bank. You see, they hold the outstanding value of the mortgage, and as you have met your obligations to them also in good faith, they can no longer hold you responsible for the outcome in cases like this. Does that make sense? It frees all of you to begin working out what you want to do next. Do you want to rebuild on the same property? Or put it up for sale and go elsewhere? Or are you more interested in pursuing something else?"

"And that means…" Makalah started, but then paused when she saw the man smile again.

"It's all about being able to get on with your lives, dear lady. Also, the State will be able to come in and return as before, to clear the land of all the wreckage left behind, as it should have been done earlier." Sir William chuckled. "Best of all, it'll be done at no cost to you, but for American International it will end up being a bit of a bruise. If they had gone through in the first place, the cost would have been about half of what it is going to take now. What they did by ignoring it in the first round really lacks a certain level of common sense, in my opinion, but, that's not our concern." The man then pointed to another folder. "Anyway, after that, we'll be filing motions that argue against the stress and dishonorable treatment they asserted toward the four of you - again, all extended this time in bad faith. In a sense, without getting this cleared away, we'd have an uphill battle because it would be a slight against you whenever you go after new credit – say, for another house or vehicle. The papers in this folder will be used for giving us permission to pursue that issue with the State Insurance Commission, and again, it is more of a formality than anything else. It isn't something you should be concerned with. The State, see, has certain rules in place for insurers, including some unspecified bond money, to prevent events like this from unfolding in the way that they have. We'll be arguing that American International misrepresented themselves, and were failing to be accountable to you on purpose, for whatever reason that may be."

"Seems reasonable," James muttered.

"The last set of papers then gives my firm permission to represent you in court without your presence. It is not a power-of-attorney, per se, but it does grant us what we'll need in order to take over and argue the case in your favor. It includes a clause as well, to pursue damages – something also done in your favor, should that be the recourse of action warranted by a judge," Sir William concluded. "Please understand though, we're going after the policy elements first, because they are paramount in getting things rolling for you again up front, so you can begin to rebuild. Then, we're going after the company itself in terms of malpractice. The first will free you from your current obligations, too, while the second will hopefully extend some more funds for you to work with that aren't necessarily covered by the policy itself."

"I- I can't argue against that," James replied, although he frowned. "I have no desire to punish anyone, really, but… I have to admit, this has all been pretty taxing on us thus far."

"That is precisely what this whole business is about, sir. You folks are now two-months along from the storm, and their paddle-footing around has caused nothing but unnecessary grief at your end. Why, the paltry amount they want to settle for is only pennies on the dollar, as you already you know! With all of the items rolled together, it doesn't even pay off the balance of your mortgage, which is preposterous!" Sir William announced in a rather animated fashion, before settling back and calming down. "James, Makalah… Let me blunt, please: you aren't going to get any fantastical, landslide ruling that is going to make the headlines. What you should get, however, if we go that far, is an award adequate enough to pay off a modest mortgage with your equity left over and intact, and/or put these children of yours through college, if that is something they desired to pursue."

"Really?" Makalah spoke again, finally beginning to understand the significance of what the man was saying. "I mean, well…" she laughed as she repeated herself. "Really?"

Sir William Carmichael smiled pleasantly as he regarded the woman. "Mrs. McAllister, we've handled hundreds of these situations over the years, or we've sat in arbitration on similar cases all across the United States, meaning not just in Kentucky. We've built the cornerstone of our firm's reputation in watching out for the little guy, see. I assure you, that is where you and your family now sit. You have one added benefit though, that most of our other cases didn't have, and that is the fact the American International is trying to quietly disband and go defunct, without giving any apparent reason to date. I have no idea how many claims they may have outstanding, but they cannot just up and pull out like they're attempting to do, leaving people like you and your family high-and-dry. They are attempting to railroad you, and believe me, I know it is no fun. You bought into an agreement, just so you could have a safety net around you. It is no fault of yours that they've decided they want to tear huge holes in the mesh, so to speak, and hope you don't pursue them afterwards."

"But… isn't something like that expensive to do? How do you and your firm get paid, if I may ask?" James asked.

Sir William laughed. "For arbitration of the case, your policies and their misconduct? They will be forced to recompense us, as I've told you before. That will also include Mr. Denison's retainer. You won't have anything to worry with on that front."

James thought about that for a moment before lowering his voice. "And… what about beyond that?"

Sir William sat back in his chair and relaxed. "Well, let's cross that bridge when we get there, okay? But let me assure you of this, folks: we're talking something that could take anywhere from six-to eight months minimum, and even stretch out up to a couple of years before it ever gets settled. Mind you, I believe it will be far sooner than later, because like I said, American International is already trying to file for protection and close its doors. They are not going to want this to drag out, see, as that will cost them far more in legal fees than anything else in the long run, as long as it is being pursued."

Makalah and James glanced at each other, both frowning. "But…" James began.

"I know, I know… I still didn't answer your question, did I," the man interrupted. Sir William sighed. "I will not hide it from you: most firms get an average of 30-35% of the award for punitive damages. So, if you're awarded, say, $250,000 when all is said and done, then the usual fees would amount to anywhere from 75 to 85 grand." The man sat forward, however, while purposefully maintaining their attention. "I say usually though, because that is what most firms do, if not more. Some want half of the award, if you can believe it. Our firm, however, does not do that. We take into account the time and expenses involved by the time of award, factor in a small markup and call it even. So, depending on those aspects, you could see our rate resulting as low as around the ten-to-twelve percent mark."

"What if Mom and Dad lose, or don't win anything?" Jesse suddenly interrupted, but blushed immediately. "Sorry sir, I didn't mean-"

"It's a perfectly valid question, young man, so I don't mind it at all. The answer is really quite simple: IF we lose our case entirely, then everybody loses – including us. We won't collect anything, see? The only money your parents would be out of pocket is probably a few hundred dollars at most, to cover certain court costs that we, as a licensed body, are not allowed to provide in the name of our clients, under the law. We will, of course, take care of everything initially, but at some point… you get the idea, right?"

"Yes, I do," James smiled, relaxing.

"Then I'll say it one more time: American International will end up picking up the tab for us, including any precursory charges Mr. Denison expended on your behalf." The man smiled again, one certainly practiced for putting people's concerns at ease. "Folks, let me be blunt again, alright? You're not going to have any problems here. The worst of it is, you're going to have to indulge the system and be patient for a while. That initial ruling that I spoke of, will help you immensely, and that can come as early as the end of next month. The rest will be different, because unfortunately, that's just the way the legal process works. I can assure you, however, that all of this will move along relatively smoothly. We'll keep you updated too, every step of the way."

"Will, uh, we have to appear in court?" James asked, handing over the final documents he and Makalah had just finished adding their signatures to.

"Only once or twice, I think, and most of that will be near the end. The judge may want to see you, perhaps question some of the facts we put into play and get a first-hand account from you, but otherwise it will be mostly a formality. It will probably be done in Lexington, as that will be the nearest federal facility we'll be operating out of. I think, however, it'll mostly be covered in a day, perhaps two at the most. Everything else, barring any surprises, my firm will handle for you, most of it even remotely."

James and Makalah both sat back in their chairs again, slightly overwhelmed. "I don't know how to thank you, Sir William," James began.

"Neither do I, really," Makalah added. "We've worried over how this was going to get handled, but… you seemed to have thought of everything, and then some."

Sir William leaned forward, placing both elbows upon the table. "That is, effectively, my job, madam. Bear in mind, there are still some variables in parts of this, but I'm telling you – based upon our experiences, and in knowing Kentucky law, you'll come out of it all just fine. Mr. Denison did well in reaching out to me. He could have handled this, mind you, but not without some guidance. In the end, he felt we should take over, and that's all we're doing." He sat back then and became serious. "I should advise you on one thing, however. You can, of course, find other counsel, or retreat anywhere along the path should you have reason to. I only caution you, however, to be careful. There are other firms out there who will promise you the world to get their hands on a case like this, but then deliver only a scanty percentage of the results in the end. Be wary of those types, please. I've tried to be as forthcoming and honest about all of it, up front – because you seem to be good people. Believe me when I say, I welcome working with people like you."

"Mr. Carmichael," James stated quietly, before standing and extending his hand. "The way I see it, you're giving us a chance to at least get everything back on track. For that sir, myself and for my family, we thank you. Even if we just end up with a house that we can call our own again, that will mean the world to us. Everything else is just, well…"

"Oh, I understand," William replied, standing as well and accepting the handshake. "And now, with that said, let me leave you folks in peace for the evening. It's almost six now, and I have a good hour-long drive before I can get home." Turning to Jesse, the man pulled some keys from one of his front pockets. "Young man, would you mind heading out there and starting my car up for me? That way it can be warming up before I get out of here."

"Yes sir, sure thing!" Jesse announced, slowly climbing to his feet. Sir William observed the teen until he had disappeared, before turning back to both parents again.

"I've heard about some of the things this boy has been going through, and I just wanted to express my heartfelt admiration and understanding for you folks. If looks amount to anything, however, let me just say that he appears to be on the mend very positively."

"He has been keeping us busy, for sure, but you're correct – he does seem to finally be getting better," James replied, equally as quiet.

Sir William then smiled again as he collected the various folders into his attaché. Then, setting it upright on the table, he paused. "I really hate to ask this of you, but would you mind if I made a quick dash to your restroom? I had a rather large unsweet tea on the way in here, and I'm afraid it's going to get the best of me if I don't do something about it."

Makalah smiled and pointed toward the hallway. "Of course, sir. It's the first door to the left, right down there." As the man disappeared, she took a moment to observe her husband closely. "What do you think?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

James smiled back at her. "I think he's the real deal. I'm glad he's on our side."

"I agree," she replied, stretching up and giving him a quick kiss on his nose. A moment later, Sir William returned.

"I thank you, and so my bladder certainly thanks you, too!" the man quipped with a chuckle, before picking up his briefcase. Jesse had returned by then, whom he thanked before looking up. "If there is anything I can do, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. That goes for all of you, including him or your other son… alright?"

"We'll keep that in mind, and thank you again, sir."

As their guest turned to leave, he was stopped as Makalah approached and gave the man a brief embrace. "That goes for us, too. Thank you, and if there is anything that we can do for you, you be sure to let us know, too." The man nodded before giving everyone a final farewell and disappearing.

"Well, that was… something else, I think," Makalah announced, leaning back against her husband in the doorway. "I know you said he impressed you that day at the office, but… wow, I had no idea just how much until now!"

James nodded. "No kidding. I admit, he could just be an old-fashioned smooth-talker, pulling his sweet southern charm on the rest of us, but… Like I was saying last night though, Denison spoke highly of him, and if you listen to him, he does seem like a genuinely well educated, yet nice man. Tim said he grew up around Danville, and has a small estate out there somewhere." The man then patted his stomach as it emitted a low-growl. "Okay - I, pray tell, am famished! What are we going to do about dinner for ourselves?"

"Well, I tried to bake a roast earlier today, but it ended up way over-cooked for some reason. I don't think it's worth the trouble, really – it's about as tough as leather," Makalah explained. "So, that means I can either whip something up quick-like, or we could do sandwiches…"

"How about some fried chicken, Mom? Didn't I see that sign at that place about how they were doing some kind of family specials tonight and tomorrow?" Jesse asked.

"You know, he's right… Lee's restaurant is doing something like a year-end buffet, for like six-bucks a person, less for kids under twelve," James piped up. Poking his finger lightly onto Jesse's forehead, he added, "Sorry, that doesn't include you, though." After chuckling as Jesse rolled his eyes, he glanced up again. "For all of us though, hot food, all-you-can-eat, roughly $26 or so plus tip? I'm game, if you all want to try it!"

Makalah smiled. "Then it's settled. Will one of you take care of getting Benji ready, while I go change into something warmer? Then we can go and pig out!" Both parents looked to their son, who grimaced good naturedly before turning and heading toward their bedroom.

"So, everything worked out alright between Pete and Jesse?" Allen asked.

Noah nodded. "I haven't really talked with Jesse yet, but it seemed like it has, yeah. Mr. McAllister took a call from him during lunch, and I know they chatted for a long time, or at least it seemed so anyway. From what I saw, his Dad was smiling a lot, and he told me later that he thought it was all over and done with for now. Then he got really busy, and we haven't had much of a chance to talk anymore."

Jennifer scoffed. "I'm surprised, really. As thick as you two are, and you say you haven't even talked to Jesse at all… yet?" she teased.

Noah blushed as his father chuckled. "Okay, I confess… I did try calling him around 2:00 or so today, but his mom said he had just fallen asleep again, so I didn't bother him. She said something about Benji had worn him out over doing something, I think."

Both parents chuckled again. "That sounds like something Benji could easily do," Allen quipped, but then nodded.

"Was I… I mean, was I like Benji at that age? Like…" Noah started asking.

"You were a ball of energy for a while, yeah," Jennifer replied with a grin.

"Hear, hear!" Allen added for effect. He twirled another fork of spaghetti and took a bite, before glancing in the direction of the neighboring house. There was no direct line-of-sight of course, but Noah could sense the far-away look in his father's eyes was not for naught. "I hope that lawyer they latched onto can actually do them some good, really. Wouldn't it be great if they could start the new year off with something positive?"

"I agree," Jennifer commented before passing around a plate of garlic toast and offering each of them another slice. "I wish we had been here Tuesday, especially when that all went down with Jesse again. At least this time it resulted in something a lot more manageable, but still - you know it had to be pretty scary for them both."

"Yeah, it was," Noah added softly. "I can tell you that much, at least. For me, too."

"I'm sorry, honey, I didn't mean to exclude you. I know you had to have found it unsettling, to say the least," Jennifer apologized. She then sat up. "Makalah did tell me later this afternoon, that Jesse seemed to be feeling a lot better. I guess those shots and supplements did him some good after all."

"I think so, too," Noah offered. "I mean, when he came home from the hospital yesterday, he was almost like a different person. I mean, peppier, maybe stronger… I don't know, just… better. You could see it in him."

"Well, that's certainly a good thing then," Allen remarked before studying his son from across the table. "So, have you two made any plans for tomorrow night yet? It's New Year's Eve you know, and well, I just kind of figured you'd be wanting to get into something together again."

"I actually don't know, yet," Noah confessed. "I mean, I want to do something, yeah, but then again we've always kind of made a night of it for ourselves here, haven't we?"

Jennifer and Allen both glanced at each other in surprise, but then exchanged smiles. After a few more bites of their meal, Jennifer eventually spoke up again. "Yes, we have always done something amongst just the three of us, I know… but, your father and I also know that sometimes it gets to be kind of a wearisome thing after a while. A lot of people your age sort of outgrow that and everything. We only asked because, well, we didn't want you to feel like you were being pressured into staying with us again. You and Jesse can get together if you want, and Benji too, if you like."

Noah observed his mother closely for a moment before responding. "Well, I think Jesse told me that Benji is going to stay with Petey again tomorrow night. Something about they were all going to have a party of some sort, I think, maybe even shoot some fireworks." The teen then set his fork down and studied both of his parents closely. "What about you two, though? What are you two planning to do, then?"

Allen laughed. "Do we have to have a plan?" he asked, but his voice was mysteriously veiled, which ultimately caused Noah to become suspicious. In the meantime, Alan glanced at his wife before he commented again. "I swear, he's getting smarter every year. We can't put anything past him anymore!"

Amused, Noah knew his Dad was teasing him, but then again – the whole topic was a tease. Or was it? "Okay you two, spill it. What am I missing here, and please don't tell me I'm not missing anything, because - well, I just know you both better than that!"

Jennifer giggled, but then took another bite of her food before speaking up. "No, you haven't missed anything, but your father should learn to keep his trap shut a little more often," she teased the man back, causing him to express mock indignation. She ignored the man however as she turned back to her son. "Okay, I'll confess. Your father and I were invited to a party tomorrow night, and we thought that maybe - if you and Jesse were getting together or something - we might consider going this year. Actually, all three of us were invited, but… it's one of those that I doubt you'd be very interested in. It's going to mostly be just a bunch of us adults getting together."

"Ah, one of those, I get it." Noah's eyebrows drew closer. "You mean, an adult party with, uh… probably alcohol and stuff, don't you? Is that it?"

For the first time in as long as Noah could remember, he watched his father blush. Allen recovered quickly, however, and set his napkin down upon the table. "Yes, son, there will probably be plenty of drinks going around. We're not sure if we want to go, mind you, but… I'll be honest: my boss at the bank throws one almost every year, and he's asked us to come just as often. We've always turned him down before, see."

"This year though," Jennifer picked up, "we thought we might go. Partly because it's the people your father works with and all, but also because it might be good… well…"

"What your mother is saying is that it might be good to put in an appearance every once in a while," Allen explained. "After all, I'm on the road to becoming one of the senior vice presidents, and well, it's good to be seen with the natives, as the old expression goes. It kind of makes it look like I'm a team player and all."

"But… Dad, you've always been a team player!" Noah muttered, frowning.

"Thank you for that," Allen replied, looking humbled. "I try to be son, but I'm not perfect. I've just been lucky for the most part."

"Hmph," Jennifer grumbled. "He's being modest, Noah. Your father has saved that bank on countless occasions, finding various loop holes and discovering contract issues from the get-go. He's the best advisor and research analyst they've had in years, and believe me – they know it!"

Noah could not help but smile at the thought. Before he could react, however, Allen brought the conversation back to the topic at hand. "We just thought that maybe, if you two have plans together, then we know you'll be alright. Whether you stay here or next door, I think James is going to be home holding down the fort, in case anything happens that might require attention. Plus, I'm sort of figuring we'll be back here around, I don't know, early morning, I guess. No later than one or half past."

Makalah nodded. "As far as the alcohol goes, I agree with your father, I'm sure there will be plenty of it there - but you know how we are. We might indulge a little on occasion, but it's not something we really do much with. Not because anyone or anything made us that way, it's just more by choice."

"Yeah, I know…" Noah held up both hands. "Hey, just so you know, it doesn't bother me, okay? Drinking, I mean. I know you don't do it much as it is. In fact, I think I've only seen you have wine before a few times, haven't I?" A thought then struck the teen. "As far as the parties go then, well, I guess you guys never accepted much of that stuff before either, probably because of me. Right?" Although the words were spoken quietly, their effect on his parents was not lost in the slightest.

"No, honey," Jennifer objected, setting her own fork down. "Don't start thinking like that, alright? You had nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, to do with those decisions. I admit, we probably have used you as an excuse a few times, just to politely get out of any commitment, but – no, never, nada. You were never a hindrance to us. If we really wanted to go, we would have."

"Your mother's right, son," Allen added. "We could have always gotten a baby-sitter, or taken you with us if we wanted to go. Mr. Saltsman always told us we were welcome to bring you along. The truth was, however, neither I nor your mother were all that thrilled about going. That is, I promise, scout's honor!"

Noah then scoffed. "Doesn't count, Dad - you were never in the scouts!"

Allen laughed before picking up his napkin and throwing it at the boy. "You know what I meant, Turtle-Butt!"

That caused Jennifer, who was taking a drink at that same moment, to suddenly cough and spurt through her nose. "Oh, my Lord!" she declared, suddenly laughing. "You have both been hanging around that… that… Benji for far too long now!"

Noah grinned, but then shrugged. "He's moved on to other things now though, like 'Bubble Butt', and 'In a bit, banana split'!"

Both parents began chuckling hard once again. "Where on Neptune does that boy come up with that stuff? Did you say 'Bubble Butt'? Sheesh!" Jennifer finally was able to gasp between breaths.

Noah shrugged, but then Allen glanced at her in amusement. "Oh, I don't know, that one has been around for ages, I think. My brother and I made plenty of bubbles in the bathtub when we were growing up together. You know, it was like having our own jacuzzi, see?"

Jennifer then lost it, and Noah had to finally laugh, as he tried to picture in his mind such a scene. "Y-you mean y-you two… what? F-farted a lot in the tub?" Noah asked, gasping for air himself after almost getting strangled on his own soda.

Allen grinned. "Why, sure, all the time! Haven't you ever done that?"

Noah shrugged. "Not that I can remember, but…"

"He did. When he was a baby, I used to bathe him in the sink, and let me tell you, it was not as funny as he thought it was. Thankfully it was mostly just farts," Jennifer informed them, though with a sly look at her son. "But not all the time!" All three laughed at the notion, although Noah blushed.

Once everyone had settled down, the teen relaxed. "Okay, if you want to go to the party tomorrow night, then plan and just do it. If Jesse and I can get together, I'll invite him to come over here so we can hang out and watch that New Year's thing they show on TV every year. You know, the big ball dropping and all."

"And if he doesn't…?" Allen asked, although he already knew the end result.

"If he doesn't, then I'll go with you guys and park myself in a room with a TV somewhere, or take my tablet with me," Noah confessed. "It won't be as fun, but meh… I can suffer it for one night. Just… don't count on me being any kind of a designated driver for you two!"

"Well, I doubt you'll have to do that," Jennifer hinted, but raised a fist regardless and bumped it with her teenager.

Once dinner was finished, Noah helped his mother clean up before announcing he was going to take a shower. "Do you work tomorrow?" Jennifer eventually prompted.

"Nope! James said we were in great shape for them to get started Sunday night, so I guess Jesse and I are finished," the teenager replied. "Besides, he said they're closing early tomorrow anyway."

"Well, that much is good then," his mother replied. "If you chat with Jesse tonight, see what they're planning to do tomorrow night before you decide anything, okay? If he does come over here, we'll leave some money for you boys to order a pizza if you want. Does that sound alright?"

"You bet!" Noah then kissed her on the cheek and quickly made his way out of the kitchen, down the steps and into his bedroom. The first thing he did was approach the window and gaze across the yard, but it appeared the McAllister residence was all dark. "They must have gone out to eat or something," he mused to himself. He thought about sending his friend a text to ask him, but decided against it for the time being. Instead, he stretched, arching his back as he considered what he should do. Settling upon the idea of a good hot shower as he originally intended, he turned toward his dresser and retrieved fresh underclothes.

A half-hour later, the teen emerged wearing his customary t-shirt and briefs. Glancing at the clock and seeing it was only half-past seven, he turned out the lights and flopped down on the bed before turning the TV on. He doubted either of his parents would check on him again that night, so he rolled back and grabbed one of his pillows, pulling it up to prop on while he searched the channels. He eventually found a movie that looked half interesting, so he settled in to watch it. At some point though, he grew drowsy and drifted off into a light slumber.

It was close to nine before Noah was suddenly startled awake by a familiar ringtone coming from his tablet. Rolling over and picking it up, he saw Jesse was trying to establish a video call, so he answered. "Hey there, how's it… going?" he asked sleepily, stifling a yawn. Quickly rubbing his eyes, he then pulled his legs up and sat at the head of the bed, placing the tablet in his lap. Noticing that the lighting wasn't as good as usual, he reached out and turned on his bedside lamp, which improved the image substantially, as Jesse's face finally filled the screen from his end.

"Hey, there you is!" the other teen exclaimed, using one of his phrases he seemingly only exchanged with Noah. "Were you asleep or something?"

"Kind of," Noah confessed. "I dozed off watching a movie is all. I've been waiting for you to call, though."

"Sorry. We had a late dinner tonight. That guy, Dad's new lawyer, came by and didn't leave for a while. Then Mom told us she had overcooked a roast, so we all decided to go out to that chicken place. You know the one - on the road leading out of town toward Greensburg. They had some kind of sign out yesterday, I think. Something about an end-of-year buffet through Sunday."

"Oh, yeah, we saw that," Noah nodded in recognition. "Dad even mentioned tonight we might go out there sometime this weekend, if Mom wanted to go."

"It was pretty good, really," Jesse replied. "It had more on the buffet than I expected. Chicken, fish, ham, vegetables… you get the idea."

"Did you actually eat anything?" Noah asked, his voice laced with hesitation.

Jesse, however, knew the reason behind the question. Rolling his eyes, he lowered his voice. "Yes, Papa Smurf, I ate two chicken legs and a chicken breast, happy? I also had some slaw, green beans, and a biscuit, too."

"Good boy," Noah grunted. "Sorry, I just… I'm glad to hear it, that's all."

"I know you are. So were Mom and Dad, so no worries. Benji even got in on it – making me take the second leg!" Jesse shook his head. "I really am feeling a lot better though, Noah. Ever since they pumped all that stuff into me, I don't know… I guess I'm just finally beginning to feel more normal again."

"I'm glad," Noah replied with a smile. "So, I have a question for you."

"Okay… shoot!" Jesse replied, settling back.

"Plans, tomorrow – New Year's Eve, specifically. Do you or your family have any?"

Jesse looked thoughtful for a few seconds before he responded. "Kind of funny you should ask that, really. We've always, well, me and Benji anyway, just stayed up and hung out for the most part doing goofy stuff and whatever. But like I told you earlier, he's thinking about going to Petey's again. Supposedly they're having some kind of a party, and then doing some fireworks afterwards, I think."

"Yeah, I remember. So, are you going to go, too?" Noah asked.

"Nope, I wasn't invited, really, and I got the impression it's more for Petey than anything else. Not even his brother is going to be there, if I heard right. Something about he's going off to stay with some friends," Jesse explained. "So, as of now, no plans. Mom is going back to work so that one of the other nurses can get off for the night, I think, and Dad, well… he'll probably be catching some Zs. This week has been pretty hard on him, you know?"

"Yeah, I imagine." Noah glanced away for a couple of seconds before turning back. "Well, how would you feel about coming over and spending the night with me then? I'm going to be pretty much alone for a while, because Mom and Dad are going to a party at his boss' house. Or, I could come over there if that makes any difference, but I thought, well… you know. It'll be a chance for us to get some together time, you know?"

"Really?" Jesse asked, surprised, before breaking into a grin. Noah saw the teen look up, as if checking on his brother, before he leaned in close to the camera. "There's not a hundred wild, naked girls who could keep me away from you, bro!" he whispered, causing Noah to snicker.

"What about a hundred wild naked guys, though?" the teen whispered back.

Jesse initially feigned being hurt, but then both fell into giggling before he pointed above him. "I have to be careful. He doesn't hear the best, but he is awake right now. In fact, hang on a sec…" Jesse then began moving his tablet, creating an image that darted around the room hectically until it steadied somewhat while being lifted to the upper bed. There, he found Beni lying on his stomach, a game controller in his hand, dressed in nothing but his own usual briefs and t-shirt. Jesse moved down to his brother's butt and reached out to pinch it. Benji ended up smacking his brother's hand away, but upon seeing Noah on-screen, he stopped and waved at him enthusiastically. "Hey, Noah!"

"Hey, Short-Stuff!" Noah replied with a grin. Before he could continue, however, Jesse had pulled the tablet away and the next thing Noah could make out was the image of walking through the hallway. "Wow, you know how to make a kid dizzy!" he remarked as the screen continued to tilt and move about with each step.

Jesse giggled in the background before hissing, "Hush!"

A moment later, Jesse had entered and shut the door to the bathroom, before working through the obvious motions to situate himself on the toilet. "Whew!" Noah remarked when the teen had steadied the tablet once again. "It's a good thing I'm not there, if you're doing what I think you're doing!"

Jesse grunted but nodded. "It's not THAT stinky, doofus!" he retorted in a soft voice, before adding, "Both Benji's poops and farts are ten times worse than mine!"

"Some of them are pretty bad, yeah," Noah replied, obviously amused. He thought about teasing his friend further, but changed his mind when it looked like Jesse was thinking about something. "Okay, so what's up?" he finally asked during the silence.

"Nothing, I'm just thinking about tomorrow. Is there anything special you want to tackle? What time should I plan on coming over?" Jesse asked.

"Actually, there is," Noah informed him. "It seems there is this big box on my desk that we're supposed to get started on sometime soon. I mean, don't worry, the week has been busy enough as it was, but…"

"Your model, yeah," Jesse acknowledged, nodding. "I've been wondering about that, too. We really should separate out all the pieces and start thinking about the things you're going to need to build it. Things like plastic cement, some paint, sandpaper… stuff like that. Do you, like, have about $30-35 or so to spare? That's about what all the paints would normally add up to for a model like that, if not more. I can probably show you some ways to cut the cost down a little, though."

"Well, yeah, I guess so, but… can't we, like, get that stuff at Walmart or somewhere around here?" Noah asked, frowning.

"Not really. I mean, we might can find some cement there, but I haven't seen model cars or anything up there in a long time now. Dad's store has a plastic cement I've used before, along with sandpaper, too, that are really good. Paints are trickier, though. You have to get the kind that is used for modeling, because it's made for drying and sticking to plastic parts a lot easier. I mean, when it dries it comes out a lot smoother on the plastic than other paints do. The thing is, I don't know of anyone around here that will have colors like you'll need. Dad usually had to order mine online, which was okay because it was cheaper and all. If it wasn't for the tornado, I'd still have a bunch of them you could use. But, well, you know…"

"Yeah, I get it, it's cool," Noah replied. "So, how do we do it? Can we, like, make a list of them or something? That way, I can get my Mom to order them?"

"Yep, that's exactly what I was thinking! That's what I was meaning by pulling everything out of the box and going through it. In fact, if we can come up with some of the plastic cement, there's probably parts of the model you can go ahead and start putting together, while you're waiting for the paint to come in," Jesse explained. "At least, theoretically."

"You mean 'we' can put together, while 'we' wait for the paint to come in," Noah corrected him. "Remember, you're supposed to help through all this. That means you're going to be doing some of this with me… right?"

Jesse grunted, but looked pleased all the same. "I will help, Noah, but… it's YOUR Christmas present, okay?" When it looked like his friend as going to object, he shook his head. "Let's not argue about this right now, okay? I understand, as long as you understand, that sometime over the next few weeks, we'll have a job to do putting it together and all, and we'll eventually get it done. Yep, we'll do it together, but I think you're going to find it kind of fun. Just remember, you won't get it done overnight, or in just a few days. These kinds of kits take some time to do them right, and they're pretty fun once you start getting into it!"

"I understand," Noah replied quietly. "So, okay… I figure we can work on that, and maybe, I don't know… find something else to get into, too. If you can spend the night, I've got a new Star Wars movie we can watch, too."

"Is it 'The Rise of Skywalker'?" Jesse asked, his eyebrows arched. When Noah nodded, he immediately perked up. "Benji and I wanted to go see that so bad when it came out last year, but we never got to go!"

"Dad and I got to watch it at the theater in Campbellsville. I thought it was pretty awesome, really, but Dad thought it wasn't as good as he had expected it to be. I don't know, I think his expectations get a little high sometimes, because he compares a lot of that stuff with the original Star Wars movies and all when he was growing up. To me, all of the latest ones are still pretty cool."

"Yeah, my Dad kind of says the same thing about them, too. Hey, have you seen, like, chapters one through three? The ones that George Lucas did before Disney took over?" Jesse asked.

"Oh yeah! Those were kind of funky though. You know, kind of good in some places and goofy in others. Like, I hated that Jar-Jar Binks character. He was sort of stupid, in my opinion," Noah explained.

"Yeah, I agree, although Benji loved him. It was probably more for the kids anyway," Jesse replied. "I really liked that water planet stuff, though. The one where Obi-Wan finds the cloning facility and all. To me, that was probably the coolest part of the whole series and all."

"Yeah, that WAS pretty cool!" Noah lay back and relaxed. "Anyway, my aunt and uncle, the ones Mom and Dad went to see this week, got me the Blu-Ray disc as a Christmas present," Noah went on. "I haven't watched it yet, thinking you and I could watch it together if you wanted. Benji, too, sometime anyway."

Jesse nodded. "He'll love it, for sure. Since he won't be here tomorrow night though, you may end up having to watch it again with him."

Noah shrugged. "I don't care. I usually watch these things nine or ten times anyway before they make their way to cable or regular TV."

Jesse nodded and then blushed. "Um, hang on a moment, I need to do some, uh… you know…" With that, he set the tablet aside on the wash basin and, in the sounds that followed, Noah grimaced as he could hear the teen finishing his necessities. To his surprise, however, the image changed after a moment to show Jesse standing at the sink and washing his hands, but with his sweats still dropped and his groin partially exposed to the camera below the hem of his t-shirt.

When the face returned, Noah grinned. "You just had to do that to me, didn't you?" he challenged, but then laughed as Jesse arched his eyebrows a couple of times in response. "Those nuts of yours though, they didn't look to be so swollen anymore," he observed quietly.

"Yeah, I know. They are doing way better now, compared to just a few days ago," Jesse replied quietly, finally pulling the tablet up close as he began turning toward the door. He stopped before opening it however, to observe his best friend and then blush. "Um, sorry, not sure what came over me to do that, I just… I guess I was just being goofy."

"You don't hear me complaining, do you?" Noah admonished him. "Besides, I could… uh, yeah, never mind."

Noah nodded, a knowing look crossing his face. "You did it probably because you were feeling horny," he whispered.

Jesse blushed again, but nodded. "Probably. Since yesterday, I've been, I don't know… just feeling better, I guess, and… kind of antsy."

"Yeah, I get it," Noah whispered in reply. "Um, do you want to go into the chat room tonight? I bet there will be a lot of people online."

Jesse shook his head almost immediately. "No, not yet. If I do, I'm likely to, you know, be tempted and all, and then lose it. That's something I don't want to do until, well, we can get together again. If you want to, that is. I mean, I've told you… I owe you."

Noah knew very well what his friend was referring to. "With me, huh? Really? I'm… uh, flattered, I think, but… you don't owe me, Jess. I promise."

Jesse grimaced. "You better be flattered!" he warned his best friend with a smile, but let the rest of the argument go.

"Maybe you won't have to worry about it much longer," Noah offered. He saw his friend nod, and then a minute later Jesse had apparently returned to the bedroom. Once there, for his friend's sake, Noah turned the subject elsewhere in order to take his mind off of what they had just gone through. "How about four or five o'clock tomorrow afternoon? Is that late enough?"

"Perfect, really! That'll let me spend time with Short-Stuff before he goes off to Petey's," Jesse replied, but his mind was elsewhere at that moment. The teen was grateful that Noah had diverted their conversation, really, but Jesse was distracted for a moment, thinking about that last remark: 'Maybe you won't have to worry about it much longer…'

Perhaps the time was coming sooner than they were expecting. Jesse certainly hoped so.

On the morning of December 31st, Jesse approached his father before the man set off for his opening shift at the store. "Hey, Dad?"

Pulling on his winter coat, the elder McAllister paused and turned in the direction of his son. "Yo, that's my name, Dad, and it's not at all sad, and since none of us are really bad, it actually makes me kind of glad!"

Makalah, currently in the kitchen, could be heard bursting out with laughter, as Benji suddenly stuck his head around the corner only seconds later to peer into the living room. "What… the heck… was… that??!!" the youngster exclaimed loudly, his face an expression of apparent bewilderment.

"What do you mean, 'what was that'?" James rebutted, before pulling his coat on the rest of the way. He then struck a pose with his hands upon his hips. "Didn't you like your old man's attempt at Rap? I thought it was kind of smart-sounding, didn't you?"

Jesse tried his best to keep from laughing, but failed miserably. "Just… d-don't give up y-your day job!" he sputtered, earning him a quick grin from his father before he shrugged.

"I never liked Rap as a genre anyway, so no danger of that," the man conceded. "So, what's up? Did you want something?"

"Oh, yeah," Jesse replied, his thoughts quickly returning to what had initially brought about the entire conversation. "Um, do you guys still have any of that plastic cement up at the store? You know, the kind I used to put my models together with?"

James thought quickly before nodding. "Yup, I think so. Didn't you boys – ah, I don't think you two got around to inventorying that section of the floor, did you?" the man reasoned. "There are still a few tubes there, if I'm not mistaken. I take it you'd like me to bring one home tonight, perhaps for you and Noah?"

Jesse nodded. "If you would, yeah. I think Noah understood we'd have to order some paint and all, which we will, but we still need the cement. Oh, and some of that polishing-like sandpaper, too. You know, the really super-fine-grain stuff?"

"Sure, I can arrange that. Tell you what though, send me a text later to remind me, and add anything else you can think of that we might have, that you two can make use of. I know we do have some small modeling-like paint brushes, for example, that are used for other types of crafts. Truthfully, they're not really any different than the ones you've ordered before, I think. I'll see if I can't pick up a package of them too, and save Noah a little money while we're at it," James replied. Standing straight, he stretched briefly. "By the way, we're closing around three this afternoon, so don't wait too long to send me that list. I'd hate for you to not be able to get your stuff before the weekend."

"I won't. Do you… I mean, did all the prep work get finished and everything? Are you guys ready for the big rollout Sunday night?" Jesse asked.

"Oh, yes… you boys did a good job, really. When you consider us older folks, who try to do this stuff every year while still waiting on customers and so forth, it was a big help. Seriously, it takes a good while to do what you two were able to accomplish. You boys helped us cut our time, oh, maybe not in half, but close to it at least. We'll start Sunday night, but instead of getting done in the middle to late afternoon on Monday, we might be able to be finished in the early morning hours – which a lot of us will be very grateful for." James explained. "By the way, I'm not going to turn in the hours for you and Noah until we're finished though, alright? Probably around the middle of next week."

"That's fine, Dad," Jesse remarked, sounding pleased. "You can, uh, give my hours to Noah though, if you want. He's the one who did the big stuff, anyway."

"Nah, you still contributed quite a bit, son. You might not think of it that way, but keeping the paperwork straightened out as well as you did, and helping adjust the computer counts was a big deal. So, maybe not physically, but still just as important. Actually, if it all works out as well as I expect it to, we might start doing it this way from here on out, or at least over the next few years." James zipped up his coat before lowering his voice. "Now, you and your brother try and keep things down today, alright? Your mother is going to try and go back to work tonight, so I suspect she'll try and take a nap sometime up in the afternoon before she goes in. She's been off work for so long now though, it won't be an easy thing to do, trust me. She's trying to go back in so that some of those ladies who covered for her so much, can at least spend New Year's with their families. Either way, don't let her do too much on her own today, okay? That way she can be as rested up as possible."

Jesse stole a look toward the kitchen entry before lowering his voice as well. "Okay, but you're kidding… right? She never listens to us, Dad - you know that!"

"And how," James chuckled. "You know what I meant, though. Just, no fighting, alright? I'll be home by, oh, around half-past three or so."

"We'll be good, I promise," Jesse stated. "What about you, though? I mean, with Benji gone, and me and Mom…?"

James laughed. "I'll be fine, son. It'll be awfully quiet around here, I know, but your old man might just take advantage of it. After all, maybe I can catch up on some sleep for a change, or I might go down to the church for once. I haven't been to a New Year's Eve service in a long, long time." Jesse nodded then, accepting his father's answer.

Moments later, the man had left the house and was backing out of the driveway while Jesse watched him from the living room window. After he had turned onto the road and disappeared, Jesse turned, thinking heavily before calling out, "Hey, Ben, got a minute?"

Almost immediately, Benji rounded the corner from the kitchen. "What's up, Sir Butter-Cup?" he announced, causing his brother to smile slightly before continuing.

"What say you and I dress up really warm and take our bikes out for a spin? You know, try them out," Jesse proposed.

"Oh wow, sure!" the youngster replied enthusiastically. "Uh, can we wait a few minutes first? The New Teen Titans are about to come on, and well…"

Jesse laughed. "You still like watching that cartoon, don't you? Yeah, we can wait for a bit, Sir Ben."

"Thanks, Sir Jess!" was the spirited reply, before Benji returned to the kitchen. Jesse watched as he disappeared, inwardly thinking about what they could do for the rest of the day, since it would be mid-afternoon at least before Benji departed for his sleepover, and even later before he'd head over to Noah's for the evening.

Pete Haskell III had just finished his breakfast consisting of a homemade western omelet and toast, a new and pleasant experience to say the least, when there came a knock from the back door. He and Martha were both surprised, as not only were neither expecting company that morning, nor did they detect anyone coming up the driveway. As the elderly woman rose and started to cross the floor toward the porch, she suddenly smiled widely. Bounding through the doorway were Chelsa, Justin and Shelby, each sporting big smiles. "Surprise! Hi, Ma!" Shelby's voice rang out, quickly followed by similar greetings from her mother and brother.

Pete smiled, observing the newcomer's arrival. "Hey," he offered, responding to Justin's quiet wave, while half raising his own hand in response. The younger boy sauntered over while the women began an earnest conversation, before Pete continued. "How's it going over there in Russel… uh, is it Russel County, or Russellville, or… where you live?"

Justin laughed. "How about Russel Springs! But… you're right about Russel County, though. Actually, we live in Beckham Ridge, if you've ever heard of that before. It's kind of on the north side, but it's back this way somewhat, too," the teen replied as he sat down, bumping shoulders with the older boy. "It's like two minutes from the city limits, so we're practically in Russel Springs. Anyway, it's going well, actually. Mom and Shelly wanted to go shopping for some stuff, and they stopped by to see if Ma might want to go with us. Well, with them, I should say. I thought if you were here, maybe we just could hang out for a while - if you wanted to, that is."

Pete's eyebrows shot up. "Sure!" he replied enthusiastically.

Chelsa overheard the response, causing her to turn to the two boys. "You two have to behave, though. No wild parties or anything," she teased, drawing a laugh as her son rolled his eyes.

Martha chuckled herself. "No, no parties around here today, that's for sure. Especially after I just got the place cleaned up!" She turned to her daughter. "Sure, I think I would love to tag along for a little while. Let me change my blouse and get my coat, and I'll be ready, I think," she announced, before walking out of the room. In the meantime, Pete rose and picked up their breakfast dishes, carrying them to the sink. Seeing several containers on the counter, he began closing and putting things away, including those that needed to be refrigerated.

He was surprised, however, when all three of their visitors were suddenly by his side and assisting him. Chelsa ran water in the sink, along with dish detergent, all the while Shelby began separating and stacking the dishes in a seemingly prescribed order. "Uh, how come you're doing it that way? If I can ask?" Pete asked curiously.

Shelby glanced up at the older teen and the shrugged. "I don't know, it's just how I was always taught, I guess."

Chelsa laughed as she reached out tweaked her young daughter's nose. "It's just kind of a Home-Ed thing, something I learned in school many, many years ago. You see, when you wash dishes, you're supposed to clean the glasses and silverware first. Then come the plates, followed by bowls before the pots and pans. See, dishwater is usually at its cleanest when you start out, which makes it best for those items you use directly. Then it eventually gets a little murkier as you go along, so you wash bowls and pans last. If it gets too murky, or if you lose suds by the time you get there, you can always let the water out and then start with a fresh sink again as often as you need to. Make sense?"

Pete was bewildered, and it showed. "Sheesh, I never would have thought there was such a science to it all!"

Justin came up beside him as all three laughed once again. "That's nothing, really. Wait until you learn about how Ma and Mom cook and stuff! They have a whole science for that to!"

Chelsa attempted to reach out and tweak her son's nose, but he hastily stepped out of the way. "Well, it's no different than what you boys do, is it?" the woman intoned. "I mean, I bet you have a science for all the sports that gets played, or when you're trying to work on or fix a car, or go fishing, or play basketball, or… right?"

"Or take a shower," Shelby chimed in. "I mean, you always wash your butt last, right?" she declared, after seeing her mother's questioning look.

The entire room broke out in laughter then, causing the young girl to blush. Eventually, however, she shrugged it off. "I'm just saying, is all!"

"Well, a little unorthodox, but yes, that would be one of them, too," Chelsa acknowledged.

Justin grinned sheepishly afterwards before retreating. "Well, yeah, I guess… Speaking of which, I'll be right back. I need a natural turn," he added mysteriously.

As he disappeared, Pete glanced after him with curiosity. At least, until Shelby dropped her voice to an almost whisper. "He meant he needed to go wiz," she informed him, giggling.

Observing the astonished expression on Pete's face, Chelsa suddenly laughed. "See? That's one of those things that has a science all to itself, too! I mean, imagine how many ways exist that people all over the world use in order to say that they need to go to the bathroom!"

Pete suddenly laughed, although he began to blush. How many ways, indeed! The teen then pulled a towel from a nearby drawer and started to help by drying the dishes as they were placed in the drainer. Between him and the younger girl, within minutes the job was completed, and Shelby was wiping off the table when Justin returned. "Err, sorry about that. Hit some ruts in the road after all."

Pete snorted, before he turned out a full belly laugh. Chelsa and Shelby exchanged knowing grins, before leaning back against the cabinet and observing the boys. "What?" Justin asked, although he clearly already knew or suspected what was behind the exchange. When no one answered, he gave Pete his own knowing expression. "Sheesh, okay, so I ended up having to do number two! Is that better?"

"Whatever you say, man," Pete replied. "Although, that might be a little TMI, or too-much-information," he declared. The three engaged in a short round of chit-chat until Martha appeared from the hallway, carrying both a coat and a pair of shoes with her. Crossing to the table, the woman dropped the shoes to the floor and sat down with a grimace.

"Justin, you need to learn how to spray some air freshener, young man. Toots or poops, there is no denying you have some feisty ones!" the woman remarked. Laughter erupted all around the kitchen again while Justin blushed, but the young teen, like his sister, quickly shrugged it off. Once his grandmother slipped her shoes on, she stood to don her coat. After delivering quick instructions to not burn the house down, the group promised to return within a couple of hours.

Both boys watched as the women backed around and pulled out of the driveway before Justin glanced up. "So, how about we shoot some more arrows again? I brought my bow I got for Christmas, just in case!"

"Sounds good to me," Pete replied. After acquiring his own coat, they both picked what archery equipment they needed and left the house, heading toward the now familiar shed. Along the way, the older boy took hold of and examined Justin's new bow, admiring the quality of it. "If you ask me, this looks pretty slick! Have you tried it out yet?"

"Oh, yeah! I've been shooting all week, really. Notice, it's a full-sized bow, too! It's not a compound one like Grandpa's, but still, I really like it!" the boy replied, enthused. "I was hoping you guys would come up one day this week so I could show it to you, but…"

"Yeah, Martha mentioned coming up the other day, but honestly, Jim and I had some other things that needed to be taken care of first," Pete explained. "I really would like to come around sometime and visit, though."

"You will," Justin replied. "Believe me, you most definitely will - or I'll give everyone all kinds of hell!" He laughed, a cheerful, welcoming sound to Pete's ears as he found the teen's enthusiasm engaging. As they began setting up the target, Justin changed the subject. "So, did you end up getting anything else for Christmas?"

Pete smiled. "Not really. I mean, the guys at the station gave me these shoes, but that's about all – physically, anyway."

Justin nodded. "That's cool. I was just curious is all. Oh, and here," the boy replied, pulling a small wrapped container from within his coat. "This is from me. I saw it the other day and thought, well, maybe you might not have one. At least not anything like it, anyway. They're kind of handy to have around when you need one."

Pete's eyebrows rose as he slowly accepted the package. "You didn't have to do this, Justin. I mean, sheesh," he muttered. At the boy's bidding, however, he opened the package on one end and slid the wrapping off of a plain white box. Opening it, inside he found a simple, but nice-looking pocket knife. "Wow!"

Justin grinned. "You don't have one, do you? Not like that one anyway, right?"

"I don't have a pocket knife – period! Thanks, man!" Pete offered with a sincere grin. He toyed with pulling the blades open and admiring the simplicity, but quality of the knife as he balanced it in his palm. Closing it finally, he saw the fist that rose toward him, so he met it in mid-air, bumping between them. "I… I mean, I really like it… thanks!"

"I thought about finding you something more, uh, playful… like a book, or game, or you know - just something to do. I mean, I don't mind getting clothes and stuff, but they can be kind of boring sometimes. To me, anyway," Justin explained. "But then I saw some of these knives and, well… now you know."

Pete shrugged. "I haven't had much in the way of Christmas things before, so all of this – the clothes, shoes, and this… everything is pretty cool to me." He looked up. "I just wish, you know, I could give you something back in the way of a present and all."

"Yeah, I understand how you feel," Justin replied. "But, honestly? You don't need to give us anything back. We all know your basic story, and well… I don't think anyone would expect you to do that, so it's all cool."

Pete nodded, thinking. "I guess I did get one other gift, kind of anyway. You know that Jim and Martha, err, sorry… your grandparents, they're thinking about taking me in and all for a while. In a way, that's probably the best thing that's happened to me in a long time, you know? That's kind of a present, in a way."

"Yeah, I understand. I think it's awesome, really. Plus, it gives me someone I can pick on and do stuff with for a while, now," Justin teased, earning a snort from Pete. Grinning, the younger teen moved forward and, after carefully aiming at the target, took the first shot. When the arrow struck just off-center of the bullseye, he cried out, "Holy shit! Did you see that??!!"

Pete laughed. "Yeah, I see it. Is that luck or something else from all your practicing?" Justin simply stuck his tongue out and readied a second arrow before once again taking careful aim. Letting loose, it ended up outside the bullseye by about eight-inches.

"Meh, I knew it was too good to be true," Justin muttered, before stepping back so that Pete could take his turn. "Still, those aren't too bad, are they?"

"No, not bad at all. Still better than I'm doing," Pete replied, before pulling the compound bow in place and letting his own arrow fly. He had rushed the release, however, causing the arrow to end up in the dirt just below and to the right. "Ahh!" he exclaimed. "Wind is up a little, I think."

"Yeah," Justin replied. "Make sure you take your time though when you're setting up. You know, don't get in a hurry and all." He then glanced around the yard. "You know, I really do think it's awesome that you're going to be around from now on - at least for a while. I hope everything works out. Dad told me there were still some things that had to be worked out - like, up at the school and stuff. He said something about you were in a fight with another kid. Was that it?"

Pete, readying to draw the bow back again, slowly stopped before turning to the other teen. He studied his new friend carefully, all the while suddenly sorting through mixed emotions that had cloaked around him. "I did, yeah, but… that might not be an issue anymore. I mean, I got to go talk with him yesterday, and… well, maybe it's all going to be okay now. He's not going to press charges or anything."

Justin's eyes practically popped from his head. "No shit? Honest? Wow – that's… that's fantastic!" he exclaimed jubilantly. "I'm serious, that's great!"

Pete smiled weakly, but set up to try his target again. "I know. I mean, I don't know what I expected, you know? I was really hard on him, Justin, and... I… I deserved anything he would want to dish back at me. All because… well, because… I don't know man, it was just hard, that's all."

A silence filled the void then, and after a few seconds Pete took his turn. The arrow missed yet again, this time flying to the side and hitting the shed with a thud. Justin watched curiously before he stepped in closer. "Okay, I'll bite this time… Why do you feel like it's so hard? Want to talk about it? What happened?" he asked quietly.

As Pete lowered the bow, he turned to his friend again. "It was because of me that he got beat up at a basketball game one night. I mean, it was so bad that he ended up in the hospital for almost a week, I guess," Pete finally explained, his voice barely above a whisper. As he stood there, he had been trying to decide if or how much he should explain, but the thought hit him that Justin would find out anyway, someday. After he said it though, a nervousness encompassed him as it suddenly occurred the news might not be received that well by the younger teen. The expression that developed on Justin's face even reinforced that idea even more.

"Whoa!" Justin replied quietly, frowning. "Wait a minute, you mean up at the high school? Dad was talking about that before Christmas. He said there was something in the newspaper about a kid who got jumped, like, at a ball game and got the shit beat out of him."

Pete winced, but then nodded as his eyes dropped toward the ground. "Yeah… That was me. I mean, some of the guys I was with, they… we, I mean… he got tied up in the locker room see, like a punching bag and, and… the guys I was with went loose on him. We stripped his clothes, and they…" Pete's voice trailed off, and in the silence that followed, he couldn't help but feel a sudden tension developing between them. He looked up in time to see Justin's face covered with an expression of both surprise and alarm. "Yeah, it was me, Justin. I was part of the ones who beat up on him. I wish it had never happened, really, but…" He sighed. "So, if you don't want to be friends now, then… yeah…" he whispered.

Justin's face then became passive once again before he grunted. "But… why? What would make you… I mean, I don't really… help me understand."

Pete gathered himself together and took a deep breath. "It's like I told you Christmas Eve, man. I had some deep, I don't know, problems I was dealing with and all. Stuff that even now I'm still kind of working out and everything. Earlier this year, me and some of my friends started razzing that kid at school, all because we thought that he was gay, okay? I mean, not just me alone, but I did it probably the worst, see? And… it got kind of bad and all. Then one day when we were harassing him at lunch, you know, giving him a bunch of shit, he got mad and fought back. He… he kicked us in the balls, and… and… all kinds of shit, see? And from there, it just… it just… got worse."

Justin's eyes narrowed slightly. "Yeah? How?"

Pete shrugged before visibly slumping his shoulders. "Then nothing physically, not really anyway. I was caught having drugs in my locker at school, and so I was expelled. The deputies that were taking me to jail, see, stopped for some drinks or something. They never cuffed me up or anything though, and… and… I saw a way to get the door open, so… so I did it. I ran away from everyone… and I was on the run, see?"

A knowing look then crossed Justin's face. "I remember hearing something about that, too. Grandpa was talking about how they had been on the lookout for someone, a teenager and all. But man, I didn't know that was you, though…" He observed the bigger boy curiously, and noticed the distinct change in his demeanor. To him, it looked like Pete was ready to collapse, so in deference Justin turned about and nodded toward the shed. As he started walking, he subtly drew Pete to join him. Once inside, they found two old, metal folding chairs which the teen pulled out and put to use, before sitting down. Pete hesitated at first, but then joined him by sitting in the other chair heavily.

As Justin regarded the boy, his face remained impassive, but there was no mistaking the curiosity that nagged him. "So, I take it this is what you were afraid to talk to me about last week, isn't it?" When the older boy nodded glumly, Justin sat forward with his elbows upon his knees. "Okay, maybe I should have listened, or pushed more than I did, I don't know… but, why now? Why tell me all this now?"

Pete peered deeply into the eyes that were searching, as if examining his soul. "I… Justin, I kind of like you, okay? You're one of the first real friends I think I've made, and… and… I don't know. When you started talking about what your Dad told you, I just, I figured I better come clean, that's all. I think you have a right to know who you're dealing with, okay? No matter how bad it might make me look. I know… you probably hate me, now… but if so, then at least I won't be carrying a secret like that anymore and have, you know, something hiding from you."

Just hesitated, but then nodded. "I appreciate that, yeah, but… okay, I get it. You… did you say you saw this kid yesterday? And… you two worked it out? How?"

"Yeah, I guess," Pete grunted. "I mean, there's a lot of stuff I've still had to work through, okay? I mean, I've been around him, this guy, a few times, and there's nothing about him that seems gay at all. Before though, I guess I was just being a big jerk – a homophobe or something. You know what that is, right? Someone who… who hates…"

"Gay people, yeah," Justin filled in. "Yeah, I know about them."

Pete took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "You see, I got hurt that way when I was younger, and… and I've never really dealt with it before, you know? I had a bad attitude about gays and stuff, and well… it turns out the guys I was hanging around with did too, some of them even worse than me. What went on at the school started out just so-so, but it quickly got worse and everything. I was kind of in the middle of it all, see, and… then the lunchroom thing, and then they found drugs in my locker and all. I was arrested, but I got away and lived on the run for a long time, several weeks at least."

Pete stared off into the distance through the open doorway. "All those weeks I spent on the run and everything, I had a lot of time to think things over, but it was so confusing and all. Then the night of the game, someone got me a ticket so I could go in and watch, see, but I didn't stay long. There were some people who started looking at me funny and I thought, well, I thought they might recognize me and all, so I got out of there. Some of the guys I was hanging around with though, saw him – the kid. The next thing I know, I'm with them when they trap him in the locker room. We stripped… I mean, we skinned him see – ripped his clothes off and everything see, and I thought that was going to be it. You know, I just wanted to humiliate him mostly, especially when the team came back and found him and all. That was kind of the plan anyway, but instead… the guys I was with, they… they…"

"They pulverized him, didn't they?" Justin asked quietly. When Pete nodded, the younger boy continued. "So, you didn't, like, beat him up, right?"

"I'm the reason-"

"No, stop," Justin retorted sharply, then took a deep breath. "Answer me, and tell me the truth, okay? Did you beat on him, or do anything besides tear his clothes off?"

"No!" Pete replied firmly, before lowering his voice again. "I didn't, I swear. I mean, when they started hitting him, I- I tried, I mean, I begged them to stop, tried to pull them back and all…" Pete confessed. "But… they wouldn't. One of them shoved me away, and I tripped, and… I saw them go at it, like hitting him over and over in his nuts, and ribs and… and… and I got sacred, okay? I ran, like a coward, but…" The last was offered as a whisper. When he saw Justin just sitting there, processing it, he sighed again. "I'm sorry, Justin. I don't mean to scare you or anything, I'm... I just… I've had a lot to deal with, okay? That's why I keep telling you that. It's not because I'm hiding all this stuff, it's … it's just…"

Justin nodded. "Okay, I can see that, yeah," he whispered, before offering Pete a weak smile. "Just so you know, I'm not scared. Maybe a little disappointed, but I'm not scared or mad or any of that shit, okay?" He reached out a hand and placed it upon Pete's knee, surprising the teen with the firm strength the gesture conveyed. "It's okay, honest."

Pete observed his new friend with suspicion. "Maybe, I don't know. I think… I think this is something that's going to hang around my head for a long time though, you know?"

"I think… well, as long as you're trying to process it and all, then yeah, it will. But… I also think there is something else in that head of yours, too, that you're not giving yourself enough credit for."

"What's that?" Pete asked.

"A part of your heart," Justin replied with a smile. "Didn't you just tell me this kid wasn't pressing charges or anything? If that's so, then that means he's probably forgiven you, right?" He sat back and shook his head. "Your guys must have really gone to work on him pretty bad. I only remember what Dad told me, but… it didn't sound very good, whatever it was."

Pete sighed. "I never wanted that. I never wanted him physically hurt, not like that. Humiliated, yeah, but… not that."

"But… it happened anyhow, right?" Justin looked away before turning back. "Man, you really were a badass I guess, weren't you?" He suddenly snickered and shook his head. "I hope you never decide to beat my gonads to a pulp like that! Ouch!"

Pete winced. "Justin, I-"

"I'm messing with you man, come on!" Justin interrupted him. "Lighten up, seriously. Otherwise, it looks like I'm going to have one hell of a job coming up."

"What do you mean?" Pete asked, finally letting his curiosity replace his overall sense of unpretentiousness.

"Well, if you're becoming a part of our family see, then… I'm the one who will be closest to you, right? I've already warned you… I'm not gay, but I do things sometimes just for the fun of it, and well, I do kind of like hugs and stuff, so…"

Pete suddenly burst out laughing, which was a good sound as far as the other teen was concerned. "Justin, you really mess with me sometimes, you know?" He finally whispered, glancing up at the kid. "I promise you, I'm not a homophobe, okay? Maybe at one time I was kind of close to being that, but if you knew why, well… it might be different, you know? But… I can promise you, hand on a bible even - if you wanted - I'm not a homophobic person anymore."

"Okay, I believe you. But… can I ask, then? What happened to you, to make you say that?" Justin asked quietly.

Pete observed the younger teen for a moment before looking away. "Do you… like, do you know what it means to be molested and all? Like, guys raping boys and all?"

Justin nodded. "Sure, that's when creeps fuck their dick up another guy's ass and…" The boy stopped, his eyes narrowing. "Wait, are you saying… are you saying you were raped? When? By who?"

Pete winced. "I don't know, five or six years ago, I guess. By a man that got high on drugs one night at my house, and who decided… who decided…" He couldn't finish the sentence, but luckily Jesse didn't need him to.

"Whoa… shit! I get it now! I truly, fucking get it now!" Justin whispered.

"Get what?" Pete asked meekly.

"Last weekend, when we slept together, then… then the next morning, and I stripped and… and…" Justin let out a deep breath along with a low, sorrowful whistle. "That's why you were so nervous, wasn't it? That's why…" He then shook his head. "I'm sorry, Pete. I mean, if I had known that, then I… I mean…"

"You would have what? Gone into the bathroom to change? Slept on the floor or something?" Pete shook his head. "Justin, none of that bothered me, okay? Except, well, maybe it opened my eyes and made me realize something. It told me inside that you really trusted me, see? Here I was, thinking I was basically just a piece of garbage, and… I never thought of myself as someone worthy of being trusted like that. That's how I felt, anyway, but yet… you did. We had only met just that night before, and though everything was cool and all, then we're suddenly sleeping together, see? It… it kind of caught me off-guard, because I – I hadn't done that, and…" Pete stopped and sighed before recollecting his thoughts. "Don't you see? Even though I was still kind of a stranger to you and all, you didn't care. The way you explained it and all, and you made me just feel better about it and everything. It made me realize, too, that I was wrong about a lot of things and all. For the last few days, people had been hugging me, and… and… I don't know, just – caring, you know? It was all weird, and new, but… it was something good, too. People were actually caring about me, and… then you cared, too. That meant something to me, you know? Not so much what you did, but the fact that you didn't think anything about it, see? You made me your friend, and I saw I was making you my friend, and… I know, okay? It sounds stupid and all, but I'm glad we, I mean… I'm glad YOU did it, because, well…"

Justin suddenly giggled. "Are you saying you're glad you saw my ass? Wow!" The boy then outright laughed, but bumped shoulders with Pete hard until they both were laughing. The tension was easing, and Justin realized he had just heard the biggest compliment he had ever had in his life, come from a friend who was opening himself up from the inside. "I believe you, Pete - I really do. I'm still sorry though, about what happened to you. I know that kind of stuff can really screw with a guy's head sometimes. I had a really good friend once, not that long ago, who got really messed up by some things his cousin did with him one weekend, or tried to do with him and all. I mean, the stuff he told me, some of it was hard to believe at first, but then again, it's what we read and hear about it almost every other day in the news, or in the paper." He sighed. "We live in some messed up times, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Pete whispered.

"But, okay, I'll be honest about something, too – just between us: I like you, too - a lot. But liking you doesn't mean I'm going to hump you, or jerk off with you, or lay a bunch of kisses on you, or start Frenching… or even start acting all girly on you. Sheesh, I get enough of that girly stuff from Shelby as it is, sometimes!" he added, with an underlying tone of annoyance. "Point is, though, what it does mean is that you're right - I do trust you, because… well, because I think your trustable. Does that make any sense?"

Pete smiled. "It does, because I'm starting to feel that way about you, too."

"Good!" Justin then laughed, shaking his head even more. "That's… wow, that's messed up, man! But… I still don't care." He sat forward again, turning in close to lean next to the other boy. "Pete, I will promise you something. I'll be better around us from here on out, okay? I don't want you getting off into some kind of funky mood or-"

"Stop," Pete commanded, though softly. "I don't want you to change, Justin. If you do, then I'm going to feel guilty probably for the rest of my life. Get it? I want you, like, to just be you, but… I'm hoping that now I've told you everything, well… maybe you'll forgive me. I mean, Jesse told me something yesterday, about since he forgave me, maybe… maybe I needed to forgive myself over this shit, too. Now that you know, I just… I hope…"

"Of course, I forgive you. Why would I not?" Justin asked, frowning.

"I don't know man, I just… I don't know. I feel like, honest, I don't want you mad at me, or afraid of me or anything," Pete whispered.

Justin unexpectedly laughed. "Me? Afraid of you? You've got, what, six inches and 30 pounds on me, if not more? At the rate I'm going, you'll always be capable of pounding me to a pulp!" He laughed. "But - I understand what you're saying. Afraid of you, no – I won't be, I promise." The boy then suddenly covered his crotch purposefully with both hands. "Just… um, yeah - don't mess with my twins, please! They are quite attached to me!"

The joke caused them to both crack up. Once they settled, Pete blushed. "I wouldn't, I promise. Not on purpose, anyway."

Justin nodded. "I know you wouldn't, Pete." He then smiled at the teen. "Listen, it sounds like this guy, Jesse, really knows what he's talking about, too. If you've really repented, as Dad likes to say, then… all you have left to do is learn from it and move on. That's what he tells me all the time, but I think he's right. You have to forgive yourself, too, because otherwise… It's like the dark side of the force, see. If you don't forgive yourself, then it's something that will forever dominate your destiny." The last was spoken in an uncharacteristic voice, but at least this time Pete knew and understood the Star Wars reference.

"Okay, Yoda, point taken…" Pete remarked. "I meant what I said though, Justin. Please, don't change, okay? Please?"

Justin stared at him for a few seconds before nodding. "Okay, I promise nothing will change from my side, and hopefully nothing will change with you, either. I'll be me, if you promise to let yourself be you. If you see my naked ass again, you'll just, I don't know, have to ignore it or something." They both smiled, but then Justin continued. "Pete, seriously… you're going to be a part of our family, now. You understand what that means, right? We're not going to be brothers or anything, but you'll get me for something a little closer than just being a friend… and I'll get you, too. That means you'll have to put up with all my faults and everything that goes with me, myself and I. I'm not perfect either, buddy. Not by a long-shot."

Both feel silent for a moment, before Pete giggled. Justin, curious, poked him with his elbow. "What is it?"

Pete shrugged. "I was just thinking about when we talk, you always end up making me feel better, you know? When we came in here and started talking about this stuff, I was pretty sure you were going to hate me and end up walking out or something. And… I'll confess… I was feeling pretty miserable about it."

Justin laughed. "I don't know, maybe it's because I'm so loveable or something?" Pete glanced up quickly to catch the grin there, and then moved to not only pump shoulders, but actually push the boy nearly off his seat. Justin could not keep from laughing harder. "O-Okay, okay!!!" he cried out, before getting an assist and being pulled back upright. After a moment, he did sigh. "Pete, I'll be honest - I thought about it, I really did. I thought about just walking down the road and taking off or something. I don't have much room in my life for bullies, really. I mean, I have enough of them to deal with already. Believe me, I know some nasty ones, too, so that's nothing new. Actually, some may even be way worse than what you've just told me about you, honest."

"But… that's not you, okay? I don't see that kind of person in you. I mean, like today, when we sat down here, you started to talk with me, see? Not down to me, or at me, but you really talked WITH me, man. That says a lot to someone like me, you know? And the more you talked, yeah – it got a little darker and dirtier and all, but there was also something good that was coming out of it in the end."


"Yeah, good... because I could see you were beginning to trust me, just as much as I trusted you." The teen then reached out and propped his elbow upon the older boy's shoulder, pulling in closer. "You know something? I could never hate you for that, as long as I felt you were telling me the truth - and that's what you were doing. So, tell me, how can that make me hate you, when it just makes me like you even more?" Justin was smiling, but his entire demeanor changed to one even softer. "You and me, Buddy, we're going to have some fun times ahead of us. Do you like camping or fishing? Because if you do, we're going to go – a lot! And video games, and… and… archery, and four-wheelers, and shit, all kinds of stuff, man! Just you and me, I promise, until you get comfortable being around me, with everything the way I am. Then I'll bring some other guys in with us, and you'll really start having a blast. Believe me, okay?"

Pete smiled back. "I'm already okay with you Justin," he whispered. "But… I know what you're saying. Thanks, man. I owe you. Oh shit, do I owe you… big time."

Justin shrugged. "Meh, we'll work it out some day, if you really want. Maybe you can dance your naked ass in front of a mirror or something. That might even things up a little," he teased, which made them both begin giggling yet again. "Just, do me a favor, okay?"

"What's that?" Pete asked. "Please don't tell me it's about not busting your balls or something goofy like that, or…"

Justin rolled his eyes, but then leaned in even closer. "Remember what I said, about not being gay or anything, but that I did like hugs sometimes? Especially at the right time, and in the right place?" The younger boy's voice had also dropped to a whisper. "Well…"

Pete suddenly felt a wealth of emotion hit him, just as Justin turned and engulfed him in a huge embrace. "Thank you" Justin whispered after a moment, once Pete threaded his arms and returned the gesture.

It was Pete's turn to shake his head. "No, buddy. Thank you… for everything."

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