The Storm That Turned the Tide


Chapter 01 – Chaos


What started as a mixture of elaborate red and purple clouds on the distant horizon, was gradually expanding and looming larger, pushing closer as they stretched across the long valley. As they drew nearer, deep accompanying rumbles could be heard in the distance, as the sun’s veritable rays weakened behind the oncoming front. There was a penetrating darkness creeping overhead in the cloud cover, intensified along the edges like wisps of cotton as the sunshine highlighted the border. The edge raced forward, all the while some of the clouds rotated along an invisible axis. It was, in effect, a fast-moving front that left little doubt to anyone looking skyward that rough weather would arrive soon. To top that, the transition from the earlier mid-afternoon’s fair autumn temperatures, to the overcast, ominous ceiling that approached, led most people to believe this was no common storm on approach.

Immediately ahead of its edge, there was a brief stillness in the air. Walking about, people could feel a heavy stiffness settled around them, rank with levels of humidity and moisture so high in content, it felt as if they were breathing water itself. The overcast mix of blues, yellows and grays began taking on a bruise-like appearance, and before long, distant lightning began to accentuate the oncoming force, enhancing the storm’s fierceness. Then, as the lowering dark mass began crowding closer to the Earth, a breeze started to pick up, and with it came the rain. Initially scattered and infrequent, it was not long before it turned into a steadier downpour and started pelting the Earth underneath.

The erosional, but unusually flat-floored valley sat in the basin of a long stretch of hills surrounding it on both sides. Its width of several miles provided ample space, enough to host both a town and a nearby lake toward its southern end, as well as several smaller communities dotted about along the long landscape. It was in one of these northern communities that the storm began to develop more harshly as it dropped in from the hills, its wind picking up haphazardly at first, but then becoming steadier as the next few moments passed. The menacing ceiling continued to drop, but the skies were now filled with a series of zig-zag streaks of light that trailed from one end to the other, directly illuminating all that was both above and below, and followed with louder cracks and roars of rolling thunder reverberating everywhere. Below, little activity could be seen outdoors, as most residents had wisely sought shelter by now, especially as the rain continued to intensify.

It wasn’t until the winds picked up even higher, forcing the rain into both vertical and horizontal directions, that caused some residents raise their eyebrows in concern. Windows, doors, gutters and other man-made resources were pelted by the large drops in rapid succession, causing the fierceness of the elements to elevate to a new level. Such gusts reduced visibility to a minimum, and in some locations barn doors, storm doors or other accesses could be heard slamming in the distance.

The McAllisters were no exception among those noting the storm’s increasing intensity. Having just sat down to an early supper, the family of four listened closely as the gale bore down around them angrily. The bombardment of the rain on their windows and doors alike, sounded as if the entire area was sitting in the middle of a battle zone. More than once, lightning and thunder combined, punctuating everything around them with such force that it made Makalah jump. “Oh, my stars!” she exclaimed, clearly startled and rapidly becoming more concerned.

It was then the soundscape changed altogether yet again, this time with a much sharper tapping emerging out of nowhere. That was the point James McAllister looked up from his plate with a deep frown. As his wife and sons suddenly stilled themselves, there was yet another new sound gradually developing and getting louder, one that was above and far more distinct than the rest. He glanced at Makalah with widened eyes in alarm, suddenly saddled with a new fear. As the older man suddenly pushed back from the table, he leapt up and shouted, “Quick, get the boys downstairs!” In the instant that they began to move, he made his way over to the storm door that opened onto their rear lawn, and began looking about frantically.

The storm clouds appeared to have dropped to an all-time low, at least within a hundred feet or more of the ground, becoming thicker and opaque. Gone were the remnants of daylight previously illuminating the valley, only to be replaced by a subtle rich darkness that accompanied the heavy rain and winds. As James reached the door, however, he saw why the gun-like tapping was now so much more vivid, as he noted various sizes of hail had begun falling in droves, while mixed with the huge drops of rain mixed with sleet. Some of the frozen chunks found their way directly to the ground, but other pellets were being carried haphazardly by the wind.

It was the new sound that had suddenly tightened the man’s gut, however, and they had all heard it now building rapidly, growing louder and closer than ever. It was shrill, forceful noise that was not unlike that of a rushing train that continued to grow louder. Although he could see nothing, it was at that point James understood the implication immediately, and with a sudden turn he began retreating from the door. Without wasting any time, he moved hastily around the table and began running through the kitchen, just in time to see both sons disappearing with their mother down the stairwell leading to the basement. He caught up quickly, and urged them to move even faster as he hoisted his younger son into his arms and carried him along. Although he tried not to show it, he was beginning to panic in the face of what was almost certainly by that time upon them.

At the lowest level of the house, the family made quick strides toward one corner of the basement, just before all chaos seemingly unleashed itself. Makalah grabbed a fistful of some quilts she had stacked nearby, and tossed one to her husband while unfolding one herself. Both adults promptly pushed the boys tightly into the corner against the musty-smelling concrete walls, using their bodies and weight to protect them, all the while spreading their throws to head to foot, shielding themselves as completely as possible. As they managed to stop and catch their breath, the youngest of the four suddenly grabbed at his ears and began to cry out. The air pressure was now at an all-time low, and it pulled at their hearing aggressively. The rushing crescendo increased, unlike anything the foursome had ever experienced before, and for a moment it felt as if a train was gunning straight for them. For those few short seconds, it left not only the boys in a frightened state, but also their parents – just as dirt, rain and debris began showering all around them.

Being the older of the two boys, Jesse weathered the storm’s raw power, but with a bravery he didn’t necessarily feel. Huge crashes could be heard, along with wood splitting and glass shattering among them, mixed within the overbearing roar of the twister. The floor, though of concrete and nested far below ground level, was trembling as the storm progressed. Jesse felt as if the house perimeter had finally been finally breached, as the screaming winds now rushed both outside and underneath where the family was huddled together. Dust, dirt and grime were everywhere all at once, forcing him to close his eyes in protection as he huddled as far as he could into their little corner. In contrast, his younger brother clung tightly to his mother wailing loudly, not only because of the storm that set upon them, but also because of the certain fear he felt obviously gripping them all. “What’s going ooonnnnnnnn??!!! What’s happening?” he screamed at times, uncertain and unsure. Makalah eventually pulled him further into her arms, smothering the child as best as she could, all the while drawing their covers even tighter. “SShhhh,” she spoke directly into his ear, but with a voice that attempted to soothe him. “It’ll all be over in a minute.” That news did little to dispel the seven-year old’s fears, especially when the air felt as if it were being sucked out around them.

The thunder continued to boom loudly overhead, and even through the thick coverings shielding them, lightning continued to flash and illuminate everything in sudden sheets of light. Objects of all types could be felt hitting their covers, and nearby they could feel everything breaking down around them. The older wooden-framed farmhouse was disintegrating, really, but somehow their little corner maintained some level of protection from the insane pace of the wind outside. The debris continued to thrust its way around and underneath the covers at times, but thanks to the quilts and the shielding they provided, the immediate effect was at least minimized overall.

Then, almost as quickly as it had set itself upon them, the moment passed and the harshest of the noise quickly receded. Strangely enough, the air surrounding them also stilled considerably, as they heard roar heading further away from their abode. Rain still continued to shower around them, at times more intense than others, but with the wind now tapering off it was considerably more tolerable to bear with. James waited a moment to assure himself that the danger had passed, before beginning to pull the cover back and take a peek outside their makeshift burrow. What met his eyes caused him to audibly groan louder than he intended, but nevertheless just as effective in conveying the helplessness he suddenly felt.

Looking up, instead of the floor joists and beams normally in place, James could instead see the slowly lightening sky, illuminating the reality that not only the floor above, but the roof itself had disappeared in its entirety. Glancing quickly around, what was left of their home was now shattered almost beyond recognition. Insulation hung indiscriminately from everywhere, along with what was left of their muddied drywall, broken and dangling, or torn completely away in places. Much of the first floor that had been above them was also gone, with the only remaining parts nothing more than jagged sections that arched and splintered in all directions.

James sighed, and as he pushed the covers down further, he could see what remained of their outside walls. Some had imploded within the space of the house, but most of them were blown away beyond their immediate sight. Without the roof or any external structures to support them, most of the remaining inside walls were now either leaning or totally ripped away. What seemed to have remained somewhat intact, and he would have been hard pressed to describe it with that much certainty, was a centralized, concrete-reinforced column off toward one end of the structure, that had previously served as a foundation to a fireplace above. Its flue rose several feet into the air where the chimney still stood mostly intact, but not without considerable damage to the liner and crown that opened to the sky.

When it appeared safe to do so, he pulled the covers back and away from the rest of the family. As Makalah turned to look out before suddenly gasping, pulling her hand up to cover her mouth. The utter destruction caused her to begin crying as she looked out at the rampant chaos left behind. Only a short while before, their home had been nothing but scenes of modest normality, a haven of warmth and safety to them all. Now, with much of the flooring gone and no remaining shelter above it to speak of, all that remained was a level of ruin unparalleled to anything she had ever witnessed before. As if the rains hadn’t completed the job enough, water was seen bursting from compromised and broken pipes, spewing forth and raining even more water down upon them. In no time, the four of them were soaked through and through, but no one paid their dishevelment any heed.

The heaviness in the air was gone now, and the rushing roar was quickly diminishing until it was almost non-existent. Before the family could react any further though, they heard a loud bang from overhead, and suddenly a whole host of new debris and cold water descended upon them directly. Crying out, James gathered the trio of bodies beneath him, hovering in an attempt to provide what little further protection he could should it be needed. Seconds later, however, the creaking ceased and the water was reduced to a trickle. It was a stoic, if not outright cold welcome back to the world for all.

Another sound began to reach their ears then, and that was when James looked up again, studying briefly before realizing their predicament was still not one free of danger. The ledge of the floor joists and flooring that had already broken away from the outside walls, was hanging above them in a precarious fashion. “Quick, Makalah, we’ve got to get out from here!” he spoke hastily, trying to keep his voice as calm but urgent as possible. His wife looked upward, following his gaze. As another board popped almost directly overhead, the woman could not have agreed more.

James stood quickly and reached, his arms gathering Benji again as Makalah passed him on with haste. Then, while the two made their way toward the center of the debris, Makalah reached out and found her older son’s hand before pulling it along. Jesse moved with her readily as she followed her husband’s steps as closely as possible. Part of the basement stairwell, miraculously still reasonably intact, lay off to the side from its original position. After a quick pause to ascertain its sturdiness, however, James took the chance and used it to begin making their climb upward, out of the basement that had just sheltered them. When the group reached a landing at one point, they found a narrow beam that extended toward one side of the house. With careful footing and determination, James then continued and led his family out until they reached the end. Just as Jesse stepped onto the lawn behind his mother, and the veritable safety it provided beyond, an earsplitting shattering of wood erupted behind them.

“What was THAT?” the younger brother squeaked finally, now finding a level of reassurance in himself that he could trust, as his father stooped over and released him back to the ground. All four had turned and watched, as the ledge that had been precariously hanging above their lair of safety, detached completely and crashed, effectively crushing everything underneath. The stairs and beam that had given them their path to safety also twisted and sank further into the chaos, as well as other elements around the structure. To accentuate the moment, a sudden flash of light streaked through the sky once again, followed by another roaring boom as a brief shower rained down upon them for several seconds and then stopping.

The entire family backed further away while observing the utter devastation settle and stop again. There was no question at this point: very little of what they had had would be salvageable. Once the group had reached a safer distance, it was Makalah who suddenly dropped to her knees in sudden exhaustion, before the tears came earnestly. As she reached out, she pulled both her sons close, hugging them fiercely before placing multiple kisses upon their foreheads. “Oh, Good Lord… thank you, thank you!” Her quiet cries did not go unheard by their father, who also stepped closer and engulfed the three of them with his own arms.

Exactly how long they had remained there was uncertain, but after some time had passed, the four disengaged themselves, with Makalah pushing Benji into his older brother’s lap. No words had to be spoken, as Jesse fully understood what his duty was now – at least for the immediate future. As he watched his parents walk around what was left of their home, inspecting it from other places, he held his little brother closely in his arms. Eventually, the youth spoke again, but now in a much quieter tone. “Wh-what happened, Jess?”

“I think… yeah, I think our house just got hit by a… a tornado,” Jess whispered in reply. He had never lived through such an experience before, but given what he understood about the weather and such things, and knowing that where they lived was not immune to such events, he had little doubt that what had happened was anything otherwise. His gaze turned to what had been their bedroom, before sighing deeply. Everything he and his brother had was now completely gone or spectacularly destroyed. Their beds, clothes, furniture – all were either crushed, broken or nowhere to be found. Then, just as suddenly, the teen realized that it wasn’t just their things that were gone, but those of their parents, too. What had been all right and normal in their world, was now broken and twisted, barely recognizable from what it had been before. The teen knew that somehow, in some way, they were going to have to find a way to rebuild and survive. Exactly how, he had no idea, but Jesse knew his parents would find a way to accomplish it. The greatest comfort of all though, was that they had survived and were at least safe. The McAllisters would still be together, no matter what.

As if reading his mind, Benji broke the silence. “Everything… it’s gone, isn’t it? All our toys, your models… the clothes… everything we had, right?” The remark was more of a statement than a question, but it solidified what the younger brother was thinking and feeling at the moment.

“Kind of looks that way, yeah,” Jesse replied in a level, unassuming tone. Just then, however, the teen shivered as a cool breeze suddenly sprung up and fell upon them. The wet state of their simple clothing gave them little shielding against the sudden changing elements. He glanced down as noted Benji also shivered, and Jesse did his best to envelop the smaller body even further as best as he could. Benji had quieted by now, realizing that the danger had finally passed, and so he sank as deeply into his brother as he could. It was not common for them to bond in such an intimate way, Jess thought, but then again, this was an equally uncommon moment.

Moments passed before another sound began filling the air. As the storm subsided and continued moving eastward, multiple sounds of emergency vehicles and sirens permeated the expanse from the direction of town. Along with them could also be heard shouts from the road, as a number of people began appearing from various directions. The weather had calmed considerably by then, although brief periods of light rain still fell from time to time. The storm could still be seen over the horizon, with its dark overtones continuing to threaten lightning and thunder for other areas that lay in its path. For the McAllisters and the immediate area surrounding their home, however, it was now passed.

A rather heavy-set man eventually was seen coming up the driveway, huffing and puffing his way until he reached their front lawn, before stopping only a few yards shy of where the boys currently sat. Wearing his signature overalls and John Deere cap, both boys readily recognized who he was immediately. “Are… are y-you f-folks alright? Is a-anyone… hurt?” he gasped between deep breaths, his face red from the exertion.

“We’re alright, Bill,” James called out, as he and Makalah returned to the group. Approaching, the man reached out and placed a hand on their neighbor’s shoulder, steadying the portly man while he continued to catch his breath. “Take it easy there, Bill,” he quietly muttered. William Bill Davies was as good of a man as they come, in most people’s opinion. Their farm bordered the western corner of the subdivision, with both pastures and timberland that stretched for some distance. He kept the fences maintained, and was always kind with the various neighbors, often giving away various vegetables from their garden to many of them. He laughed plenty, and joked with the kids without missing a step, which was partially why he was so well liked by the community. He and his wife both were of a rare breed, and once they’d been around enough, it didn’t take long for people to see and appreciate it.

Behind the big man rushed both his wife and daughter, approaching the scene with wide eyes of disbelief as they survey the grounds. Mrs. Davies reached her husband eventually, and began slapping him on his back, though not unkindly. “My goodness, Bill! You should have known better than to tear out like that, all this way over here!”

Bill stood just a little taller then, a certain amount of pride taking over before he responded. “I know, Alice, I know. Still, I had to make sure these folks were alright, you know? If they had been trapped, or worse…” he finally breathed back, his pace becoming steadier. “I’m better now though, see?” The man then glanced at the house before finally taking a step closer. He observed the mess before glancing up and beyond. “Oh, my stars, James! Have you noticed this yet?” he asked.

James gravely nodded in reply. As the others looked up, they could see where just a few yards across the road from their driveway, the tornado had obviously touched down. Following its path, they observed the devastation that continued further, striking through several hundred yards where other houses, barns and sheds had been directly in its path. Scattered to the sides of the storm’s path lay overturned vehicles and remnants of various constructions ripped from their foundations.

It was then that Bill glanced at the stricken family, and as if reading his mind, James turned and spoke to the three younger members. “All of you, stay here and do NOT leave this yard until we return, okay?”

Both Jesse and the Davies daughter, Addison, nodded their understanding, before all four adults began making their way around the house and further out toward the other areas that had been hit. Jesse pulled his brother closer still, suddenly feeling weak and sick to his stomach. Initially, he had only thought in terms of their own losses up to that moment, but now he chided himself at realizing there were others devastated by the storm, too. Addison was watching them both momentarily before she decidedly to take a seat on the ground next to them both. Reaching out, she grasped Benji’s legs and pulled them over into her lap, where she held the soggy legs in place and run her hands just inside the cuffs and out. It had both a soothing and warming effect, one which Benji welcomed whole-heartedly along with his brother’s attempts to shield him from the cooler breezes.

As the silence enveloped them, Addison finally sighed. “Are you two, like, okay?”

Jesse turned to her slowly and shrugged. “I- I guess so. I mean, we didn’t get hurt or anything.” Looking down, he both saw and felt a tremor course through his little brother. “It’s okay, Ben. The storm is over, we’re going to be fine now,” he offered as encouraging as he could.

“He’s right, you know,” Addison quietly added. “There’s nothing more to be scared of now.”

It was a full minute before the younger boy finally turned his head and stared off into the distance. Laying his head back against his brother’s chest, he finally spoke again. “Jess? What’s going to happen to us now?”

“What do you mean?” the older boy replied, frowning.

“Well, like we said, everything… it’s gone, right? Where are we going to stay, or … you know… what happens now?”

Jesse glanced at the girl beside him before turning back and smiling briefly. “I don’t know, but we’ll figure something out for sure. Mom and Dad will work it all out, you’ll see.” He gave his brother a hug before he grunted. “Who knows, maybe we’ll get to stay in a hotel or something tonight. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Shit no,” the boy exclaimed, more forcefully than he intended. Looking over, he saw Addison’s surprised expression before he suddenly blushed. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Addison shrugged. She had heard plenty of kids, even younger, behave much worse on the school bus. “Don’t worry about it. Tell me though, why wouldn’t you want to go to a hotel?”

“Because the only one around here is that place up by the big road, see?” Benji replied, before screwing his face up. “We stayed there last year for a night, while someone fur… fumerated-”

“Fumigated,” Jesse filled in for him, then nodded in understanding as he explained. “He’s right, the place was a huge musty mess, I think. None of us got any sleep that night, because there were all these weird smells, sounds and everything. Even if a car went by outside, it sounded like it was getting ready to plow into our room and all, and there were a lot of, uh… I guess drunks hanging around in the parking lot all night long, too.”

“Oh,” Addison replied, frowning. “Uh, what does fumigated mean anyway?”

“It’s where people come in and spray your house with this stinky gunk, and you can’t stay home until it all airs out, or you’ll get really sick,” Benji replied matter-of-factly. Jesse nodded in agreement, still holding his brother in his lap. As Jesse once again glanced at the girl, he could see the answer seemed to satisfy her. Thinking back, Addison had always been nice to him, and despite their difference in age, she would sometimes sit nearby or with him on the bus. Even in school, although two years separated them, he still came across the older girl from time-to-time during lunch break, and she had always waved or smiled at him, at least acknowledging his presence if nothing else. Their friendship hadn’t extended much beyond those basics though, but as he watched her now, he saw the sad sympathy she seemed to be harboring, and he knew her concern was genuine.

Glancing down again, Jesse sighed deeply. He and his brother both were covered in filth, with soaked clothing still sticking uncomfortably to their skin. He could feel the grime in places, too, and for the first time, he absent-mindedly tried to wipe at his cheeks, but the effort came away only partially succeeding. As he glanced at the wreckage again, his brother’s words came back to him. He had no clue what was in store for them now, as this whole situation was definitely a first for them all. Jesse was about to remark on this, when he suddenly noticed something and stopped. Leaning in, he whispered into his brother’s ear, which made the boy giggle before blushing deeply. Soundlessly, he reached down and with a little effort, zipped up his pants. When he saw Addison observing him with an amused look, he blushed again. “Hey, no fair! No peeking!”

Addison laughed out loud at the cuteness of it all. “I wasn’t peeking, I promise!” she exclaimed, before leaning closer and taking hold of the smaller boy. Grunting, she pulled Benji from his current position into her own lap, before smothering him in her arms. For some reason, she had pulled on a light jacket before leaving the house, and she used it now to pull around the both of them. “I promise buddy, I didn’t see anything!”

“You better have not!” Benji quipped, and then laughed as settled back into her new, and warmer, grasp. “Because if you did, I’d have to make you show me a boobie,” he followed, grinning wickedly. That made both of the older teens laugh out loud.

“Oh, you would, would you?” Addison muttered mischievously, before she started tickling the boy incessantly. Benji started squirming and giggling, and for the next few minutes the two played relentlessly, although Addison made sure to keep him close in her arms. Jesse watched, thankful for the distraction as he saw the worry in his little brother begin to finally slip away. It was one of the virtues of being so young and carefree, having his attention span so easily diverted. At one point, the boy’s feet ended up beside Jesse, so he grabbed and pinned them both down, before he took turns with the girl and started tickling, digging into his brother’s sides until Benji could no longer stand it.

“Stop! St-stop! I’m g-gonna pee on myself!” he exclaimed.

Jesse grunted as he leaned in. “I doubt anyone would notice, as soaked as we both already are,” he smirked.

Benji’s cries had their desired effect though, as both of the older teens relented and let him catch his breath. Addison also leaned in close. “There, how about that for a substitute? Still want to threaten me into showing my boobs?” she whispered. She was already quite familiar with the antics of boys, regardless of age, probably even more so than what Jesse was used to – or so she thought, at least.

Benji lay back totally exhausted. “Nah, I wouldn’t do that to you,” he whispered, but then quickly glanced at his brother. “But I bet Jesse would give up his left nut to just get a look or feel!”

Jesse turned to him with an exasperated expression. “Ah! You’re impossible, you little turd!” He blushed, embarrassed at being put on the spot, but surprisingly Addison only grinned before leaning over and bumping her shoulder with him. She then pulled back and addressed Benji again, lowering her voice and using a conspiratorial tone.

“Really? So, you don’t think you’d have a much better chance than your brother?” she said coyly, before sitting back up. Benji, speechless, suddenly came to life and sat up with her. Before he could respond, however, Addison swatted the boy on his butt and pushed him off her lap. “Get off, you pervert!” she exclaimed, laughing heartily. The younger boy glanced at his brother again with a smug expression, before climbing to his feet. Before he could say anything else though, something suddenly drew his attention at one of the other nearby houses.

“Hey Jess, can I go over to Petey’s house?” the young boy inquired, pointing in the general direction close to where their parents had taken off.

Jesse frowned. “I- I don’t know, Ben. We’re not supposed to leave here, remember? You heard what Dad said, we’re supposed to wait until he or Mom comes back.”

Benji pouted. “Yeah, but… It’s just practically next door, and he’s out there in the yard with his Mom, see? PPlleeaaasseee? I promise – I won’t leave, unless it’s to come back here. It’s not that far away!” he begged.

Jesse thought about it for a moment. It was going to be a monumental task to keep his brother’s mind off their predicament at any rate, and besides, he knew the two were practically best friends. He glanced at Addison and, seeing her shrug, came to the conclusion there could really be no harm in the distraction. “Okay, but don’t go anywhere else! If they leave to go inside, or off somewhere else, you have come back here. And make sure you stay where I can see you, too, okay?”

With a spring in his step, Benji jumped and gave his big brother a brief hug. “Thanks, bro! You’re the best!” he exclaimed, and then scurried away.

Both Addison and Jesse watched him trek the short distance, before Addison grunted. “You know, I’m sorry about that.”

“About what?” Jess asked.

“What I told him, about how he’d have a better chance at seeing my nips than you would,” she replied. She felt embarrassed, and it showed. Glancing at Jess, however, she saw him shrug.

“It didn’t bother me any, but uh… you might want to be careful. Ben’s the type who will probably try to do it someday, and probably when you least expect it,” Jesse responded, a lilt of amusement in his voice.

“What, him? No, he wouldn’t,” Addison replied, again with a matter-of-fact tone. “Sex at his age doesn’t register like it does for teens our age, Jesse.”

“Yeah, I know that, but that’s the thing, see?” Jesse offered. “He won’t see something like that as being sex. I mean, he knows it’s supposedly taboo and all, but he’ll see it as just something fun to try and get away with. If he CAN do it and get away with it, that is. Believe me, he isn’t shy about that stuff!”

Addison thought about that for a moment. She almost responded with a ‘Unlike you?’, but then thought better of it as she shrugged. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, when it’s innocent at least,” she said softly. “Melinda Moon’s little sister was on the bus with us a couple of years ago, and she pulled my shirt up in front and practically off, showing off my hooters, you know. But… she was only like four or five years old, and she was just playing, you know? She didn’t realize it was so much of a no-no as it was.”

Jesse grunted. “I remember some kind of excitement about that, I think. I was a few seats behind you guys.” With an uncharacteristic timidness, however, he added, “Don’t worry, I didn’t see anything.”

Addison laughed. “Do you think I cared?” When she saw him blushing, however, she stopped and shrugged. “All girls have ‘boobies’, as your brother called it. It’s no big deal, really. Like I said, she was just goofing around innocently and all.” When the boy fell silent, she then reached out and placed her fingers on top of Jesse’s hand. “I’m still sorry, though. I shouldn’t have said it like I did. I know it sounded like I was putting you down and all… I, just… I didn’t really mean to do it, that’s all.”

Jesse looked down, surprised at the gesture and the contact. Looking up, he saw the sincerity in her expression and then smiled wanly. Turning his hand over, he took hold of hers in his own. “Don’t worry about it. I know I’d never have a golden chance like that anyway. Besides, I like you too much.”

The remark made Addison blush, before they both suddenly giggled. Glancing over the mess, she went on. “Um, are you sure you’re okay? You know, if you wanted to come and stay with us at our place tonight, I know Mom and Dad wouldn’t mind.”

Jesse shrugged. “I honestly have no idea what Mom and Dad will do, but thanks.” He withdrew his hand and propped himself up, listening to the sounds of the sirens which had finally found their way into the neighborhood. As they sat there and watched, more people began arriving on the scene.

 

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“Hey, James!” a voice called out in the distance.

James glanced around the crowd quickly before he saw a familiar figure waving and heading toward him. As the newcomer neared, the man relaxed and broke into a grin. “Hey, Allen! Long time no see! How’s it going?” he asked, taking hold of the offered hand and shaking it warmly.

“It’s going pretty good, I think. At least, better than I think you and the family are at the moment,” came the equally warm but quiet reply.

James glanced about, but then shrugged it off. “This? It’s just another fork in the road, we’ll make do,” he stated, although his voice was not exhibiting much in the way of confidence.

Allen understood perfectly though, as he stepped in closer and nodded. “Any of your family hurt?” he asked quietly, to which James shook his head in reply.

“We’re all okay. I admit, it was touch and go there for a few minutes, but once the thing moved on, Makalah and I got the boys outside before everything caved in.” James paused before sighing. “I guess we should all be thankful, really. It looks like it only hit, what, maybe four or five houses here down the line? There’s a lot of barns and sheds damaged, I know, but at least it wasn’t any worse overall. The Sheriff’s deputy told me a little bit ago it looked like only one person was injured seriously enough to go to the hospital.”

“Yep, that was Mrs. Maxwell,” Allen replied. A silence grew between them then, before he turned to face the man directly. “Listen, it may be far too soon to bring this up, but I wanted you to at least hear about it.”

James returned the attention with curiosity. “Sure, what’s up?” he asked quietly. All around them various people were both coming and going, but none were in a queue waiting to talk with him at the moment.

“Well, as you know, my Dad passed away a few years back, and I’ve got his place next door. It’s not a palace by any means, but it’s airtight, warm … and empty right now,” Allen explained. “You, Makalah and the boys would be welcomed to it for a while, if you like. It’ll give you a place nearby that you can regroup, all the while sorting this out.”

“Really? Last I heard, you and Jennifer were renting it out, weren’t you?”

“We were,” Allen nodded, but then drew in a deep breath. “Thing is, we had to evict the last tenants a few months back. Turned out they had some dogs and cats that were damaging and making a mess out of everything. You know, peeing, scratching everything up – you get the idea. That and the couple were fighting a lot, arguing and everything at all hours of the night. Plus, they couldn’t seem to keep up on their payments and all.” Allen paused, sizing the man up. “Not that that is anything for you to worry about, trust me. They just were not a good bunch, and we were kind of glad to get them out and on their way before anything serious happened. As for the damage and all, I’ve been taking my time lately getting it all repaired and shaped up again. There’s no smell now, and most of the doors and facings have either been swapped out or repainted. There’s still a little work to finish up, but if you’ll help me, I don’t think it would take more than a couple of days. If you and the family need a place, and wouldn’t mind me working the last few parts out, I don’t see why you can’t move in for a while.”

A thoughtful look crossed Jame’s face. “That’s – that really is awfully kind of you Allen, and I have to admit – it’s really tempting. I hadn’t even gotten that far in thinking about what to do next.”

Allen grunted. “Then just take it, James. It’s just two bedrooms downstairs, but they’re reasonably sized and all. And…” The man looked about before making an exasperated gesture at the devastation before them. “I’m sorry about this happening, man. Really, it’s a big thing, and I don’t mean to minimize it any at all. You’re going to have some heavy shit to work through over the next few days and weeks to come, though. I’m just saying, don’t let finding a place to stay be one of them, alright? I couldn’t feel any better knowing Jennifer and I could help you guys out. The Good Lord already knows how you and Makalah have been there for me a few times in the past. Or rather, been there for Jennifer and me, both.”

James saw the level of sincerity in the man’s eyes, before he relaxed. All things being equal, he could not deny this as being a blessing in disguise. “Let me talk to Makalah about it first, but if she has no objections – then sure, we’ll take you up on it, with a hearty thank you. Once we settle things up at the bank and all, we’ll work out the details to rent and everything, too.”

Allen’s eyebrows shot upward. “I don’t think you understand. I don’t want any rent, James. Just pay your utilities and all, that’s all that matters. We don’t owe anything on the place, and I know if Dad could speak from the grave, he’d be just as happy to have you make use of it while all of you recover. You can stay as long as you need to, until you rebuild or buy another place – it’s all the same to me, really. If that’s a few months, or even a year or more, it doesn’t matter to me either way.”

James frowned. “But, we can’t-”

“Yes, you can, because I said so!” There was a fierce determination in the man’s voice as he reached aside and grasped his friend’s elbow. “I mean it, please. It’ll be nice having some decent people living in the old place again. It’ll be fine, I promise, from me and Jennifer both. You’ll see.”

James finally extended his hand and shook the one returned firmly, his eyes watering up. “Th-then, thank you, Allen. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this, especially right now.”

Allen grinned and started to reply, but then a petite, middle-aged woman suddenly appeared by their side. “Hello there, James!”

“Speaking of the other devilish half,” Allen started, smiling widely as he let James hand go. His wife gave him a cross look though before laughing heartily.

“Devilish! Why, I’ll show you devilish one of these days…” she muttered, before turning back to the other man.

“Hello, Jennifer,” James smiled warmly in greeting. “How are you?”

“Oh, I’m just fit as a fiddle. I’ve been trying to track Noah down, but so far I haven’t had too much luck finding him yet.” The woman noticed James’s expression before turning to her husband. “Have you asked him yet?” she asked quietly.

Allen smiled. “Yes, dear. Looks like we’re going to be having some awfully good neighbors for a while.”

“Oh, that’s awesome! I’m sure Noah will be thrilled, too!” Turning back, Jennifer arched her eyebrows. “So, when do you want to come in? Tonight?”

James started in surprise. “Uh, I think I should run this by Makalah first, and… and…” Suddenly turning serious again, he sighed before continuing quietly. “I’m not really sure, to be honest. I haven’t even gotten myself out of our yard yet, you know?”

Jennifer nodded, a knowing look crossing her face. “Let me worry about Makalah, and yes – all four of you are coming tonight, to our house with us. We’ll find you some clothes to get by with, and you’ll have a warm bed to sleep in. Then tomorrow, you can get started working all the other stuff out.” Jennifer suddenly stopped and frowned. “By chance, have you guys even had dinner yet?”

James sighed. “No, not really. We had just sat down to the table for an early supper when all of this happened. I don’t think we even got started.” He shook his head, thinking back and wondering where the hours had gone. “Honestly, I haven’t even been in the mood for food, and I could kick myself for not thinking about the rest of us. I guess I figured if I could get the truck out of that heap over there, we’d take a little trip down to the Dairy Queen or something before they closed.”

The three of them had turned to overlook where once stood a small shed. It was now imploded, however, having caved inward completely over the farm truck still parked within. Jennifer clucked her tongue, shaking her head. “No, you won’t. That truck is going nowhere tonight, but it doesn’t matter. When we get to the house, we’ll all sit down for a late supper, and don’t you worry, everything will be fine.” Jennifer paused, speaking matter-of-factly. Looking around, she suddenly frowned. “Didn’t you guys used to have a SUV or something?”

“Yes, but it’s over the rise there, upside down and smashed pretty hard into old-man Dexter’s field,” James replied meekly.

“Well, don’t worry,” Allen chipped in. “It may take a day or two, but we’ll figure something out, and quickly.”

“Right you are,” Jennifer added. “Now, I’ll go find Makalah. If I’m not mistaken, I think I saw her and Benji talking with one of the neighbors a bit ago. By the way, if either of you should see or find Noah, would you tell him to get his butt back to the car, pronto?”

Allen nodded. “I’ll find him, don’t worry.” With that, the woman smiled and reached out to grasp James’s arm, gently squeezing it in reassurance before letting go and disappearing, leaving the two men alone once again. “Has anyone talked to you yet about what to do or anything?” Allen asked, his voice now just carrying between the two.

James nodded. “That deputy also told me the Red Cross would be setting up a shelter for the victims, down at the old community center. He also said the State would probably send investigators out in the morning, and I’m sure the insurance people will be all over the place before long, too.”

“That’s good, at least,” Allen replied. “Uh, not that it’s any of my business, but… I’m sure you guys had insurance, right?”

“We had some, yes,” James answered. “When we bought the place, the bank kind of required it, so no surprise really.” In the distance, he saw Jennifer make her way across the road and up to where Makalah and their son were standing. “But I’ll be honest, Allen, I’m not sure what all it will cover. I mean, it might be just enough to take care of the mortgage, and maybe add a few dollars for all I know. I doubt it will be anything significant, though. I’ll just have to wait and see.” He grew quiet, but was then startled as Allen clapped him on the back.

“Then don’t worry about anything, my friend. It’ll all work out on that end, just you wait and see. I’ll take care of things down at the bank, too, when I get back in the office.” Allen looked about. “So, are we done here? Is there anything in particular that you guys need to wait on?”

“Honestly, I’m just waiting on that crew over there,” James replied, pointing at a group of men wearing firemen coats and hats, who surprisingly seemed to be heading in their direction. “As I understand it, they’re supposed to check the house for any gas or other dangerous leaks, and make sure everything else gets cut off properly.” Glancing at his friend, he explained. “I just kind of figured I should stick around for that much, at least. It’ll be getting dark soon enough, anyway.” Looking up at the now darkening sky, he noted the overhanging clouds. “Looks like we’re in for some more rain, though.”

“Yep, I heard on the radio they’re looking for more tonight, but all the stormy stuff is supposedly moved on to the east by now.” Allen suddenly shivered. “That, and it’s getting a bit nippy out here, too. That cold front must be pushing close by now, if not already passing through. Tell you what, let’s go have a chat with them, then afterwards we’ll get everyone together.”

James nodded, and then followed his friend’s lead as they began moving to intercept and greet the oncoming group of firemen.

 

«««««««««« _ »»»»»»»»»»

 

Noah Cook stared at his mother with utter incredulity. “We’re doing… what? You’re kidding… right?”

Jennifer steadied herself, her expression turning dangerously sour as she stared at him. “Don’t you dare take that tone with me, young man! If you’re not careful, I’ll have that ass of yours so red, you won’t be able to sit on it for a week!” She paused to straighten her stance. “You heard me – the McAllisters are coming home with us for a few nights. At least until we can get them situated next door in your Grandpa’s place.”

“You’ve got… surely, you’ve got to be kidding! Them??!!” the teen ranted again, with no hiding the venomous disgust he obviously felt.

Seeing the expression that met her, Jennifer was overcome with an even uglier disposition as they began walking back toward the road. “Yes, them! I don’t know what’s the matter with you, but I warn you – I don’t want to hear anything out of that mouth of yours, unless it is to help the situation, you hear me? You can put that attitude of yours in your back pocket, if not throw it away completely!”

“But… but mom!” Noah started again, but stopped short of what he was about to say when she turned on him.

“Don’t ‘but Mom’ me either!” Suddenly grabbing his arm, she turned her son and pointed so that he could see the family standing together in the distance. “Don’t you see those people over there, have lost everything, Noah? I don’t mean just little stuff, I mean everything! They need our help, and they’re some of the best people you’ll ever find in this world! What do you imagine it would be like if the tables were reversed, and it had been OUR house demolished, instead? I mean, look around you, Noah – they have nothing anymore! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

Noah sighed in exasperation. “Of course, it does! But… but, can’t they stay in a hotel, or-”

The teen suddenly reeled backward as a hand reached out and connected with the side of his face. His cheek stung from the blow, and as he looked up into his mother’s eyes, he saw a resolute determination behind her expression. “Does it matter?” she finally whispered to him, after first taking a few seconds to reel in her anger.

When the silence permeated the thickened air between them, Noah finally lowered his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, slumping his shoulders in surrender.

The change was enough that his mother also relented. “You’d better be. We’ll put James and Makalah in the guest bedroom, and the little one can stay either with them or sleep on the couch. Jesse will, of course, stay-”

“With me, yeah, I know,” Noah grumbled, finishing for her. Any time they had family to stay over, he always got saddled with the boys in his bed, something that frustrated him to no end. Sighing deeply, he fidgeted briefly while kicking his feet at the ground. Jennifer took the fact he said nothing more as a sign of submission.

“It won’t be so bad, kiddo. You’ll see,” Jennifer offered softly, before placing her arm firmly around his shoulders and steering them in the right direction. Approaching the group, it appeared one of the firemen had just walked up and given the all-clear for them. James thanked the man kindly, all the while Makalah circled behind until she had joined the two as they arrived.

“It seems we’re free to go for now,” Makalah offered immediately. “They asked James to be back here first thing in the morning, though.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Jennifer responded immediately, and then noted the box the woman seemed to be carrying.

Makalah followed her friend’s gaze, and then explained. “I found some of our pictures and a few things scattered about around here. If it’s alright, I’d like to take them back with us and see what I can salvage later on.”

“Of course, you can! And we’ll come back out in the morning when we have a more daylight, and see what else we can salvage, too,” Jennifer replied. She then noted the look of utter exhaustion on the woman’s face before clicking her tongue. Disengaging from Noah, she gently pried the box from Makalah’s fingers. “It’s okay, I’ll set them between us in the van.” With a tired smile, Makalah loosened her grip and nodded, before Jennifer glanced about once again. “So, does that mean we’re all ready, then?”

“Just about,” James answered, as he and Allen approached. “I have one last little task to do, something that’ll take me about four to five minutes or so, and then we’ll be good to go.”

Allen nodded. “I’m going to get the van and meet you guys up at the end of the driveway. Why don’t you boys come with me?” he added, motioning to the two teenagers and Benji. Although there was a slight hesitation, Jesse and his brother glanced at their parents before nodding, and then set out to follow the man. Noah followed as well, although a few steps behind. The group remained silent for the most part as they walked a short distance, reaching the road. They found they had to trek about a quarter mile farther on, however, before they arrived at the Cooks’ mini-van, presently parked among a mass of other vehicles carrying people who were milling about the area. As the approached, Allen grunted and pointed. “What say you boys sit in the back there, alright? We don’t really have to go very far.”

Jesse and Benji McAllister both nodded, and as the side-door opened, they climbed in and sat directly, with Jesse pulling Benji into his lap. There was a notable delay before Noah finally scoffed and climbed in as well, taking his position next to them but not without exhibiting a certain trepidation. His mood did not go unnoticed by Allen, as the older man stared briefly at his son until their eyes met. Noah chose to ignore him, however, and gathered himself similarly to the other two, but with arms crossed tightly and with as little contact as he could achieve. Allen hesitated, but then shut the door before walking around and climbing in behind the wheel. Without a word, the man started the vehicle and pulled forward, working his way up the roadway to the end of the McAllisters’ driveway. As he arrived, the three expected adults were already there greeting them. It was then, however, that Makalah paused, glancing at her husband and then herself before speaking up. “Allen, we’re… we’re really a mess, you know.”

“So? It’s nothing we can’t clean out later, trust me,” the man replied kindly. “Now enough, come on and get in. That night air is getting cold out there!” Without any further arguments, they boarded and situated themselves.

Once underway, the adults were in lively conversation, talking about the other neighbors who had been unlucky enough to be in the path of the storm. As they spoke, the boys were left to quiet solitude amongst themselves, looking out the windows at the darkening skies and what they could make out of the remaining countryside. The atmosphere between them, however, was indifferent at best. Even Benji could feel that something was amiss, as he observed their host continue to ignore them while staring at the outside terrain. The boy had refused to even acknowledge the other two, yet alone speak, and Benji picked up the hint immediately that Noah wished to simply be left alone. A quick glance at his brother saw a shrug, so he complied, burrowing back into Jesse’s lap all the same.

Within minutes, the van turned into the Cooks’ driveway and pulled up to the house. As everyone disembarked, Allen pointed toward another house that sat roughly 30-yards away. “That’s the place there. That’s where we’ll set you guys up,” he remarked. “We might need a few days to finish a couple of things, but otherwise it should do just fine for all of you for a while.”

Makalah glanced at the building’s outline in the growing darkness. “I’m… I’m sure it will be fine,” she remarked before sighing deeply. “I don’t know, though. I still hate the idea of putting you through so much trouble.”

“Hush!” Jennifer commanded, walking up beside the woman. “You promised me, no more of that now. You’re more than welcome to stay as long as you need, and that’s all Allen and I will hear of it!”

Somewhere amongst the group was a faint, but unmistakable scoff that followed that statement, clearly heard by all. Initially, Jennifer thought it might have come from Benji, but one look at the boy would tell anyone how close to the brink of exhaustion he now hovered. Clinging at his mother’s side, she saw Makalah pick him up as they headed for the door. Allen quickly unlocked it and ushered everyone inside.

Jennifer’s senses however, were alerted again as she watched her son move rapidly through the opening and start to disappear. “Noah, in here, now,” she commanded, her voice low and serious.

Allen, however, had walked around her and uttered in a low tone. “Don’t trouble yourself, I’ll take care of this.” Quietly, the man took hold of his son’s elbow and steered him away, out of everyone’s immediate view. A few seconds later, they heard a door shut in the distance.

It was in that moment that Jennifer paused and closed her eyes briefly, as the McAllister family all gazed upon her. Embarrassed and feeling humiliated, she quickly tried to shake the mood and smile. “Now, let’s get started and see how to figure this out. I’ll order some pizzas, but it’ll take a bit before they arrive. What say you guys get yourself a hot shower?”

Makalah smiled. “I have to admit, that kind of sounds awesome right now.”

“Well, then we’ll do it! There are three bathrooms here, believe it or not. One is off the hallway with a shower, and there’s another one in our bedroom with both a tub and a shower. They both will have everything you need either already out, or in the linen closet. Oh, and…” she paused, turning to Jesse, “Noah has a full bathroom downstairs, too. Why don’t you start there, and I’ll come down and get you some of Noah’s things out to wear for tonight? Just drop your dirty clothes out by the washer when you get done, and we’ll get them cleaned and dried up by morning.” Jesse looked at her, and then glanced in the direction where Allen and Noah had disappeared. Before he could say anything though, Jennifer took a step closer and placed an encouraging hand upon his shoulder. “It’ll be alright, I promise. Just ignore him for the time being, okay? Noah… He doesn’t normally act like an outright ass so much, but that’s not your problem, okay? It’s ours, and right now, you’re our guest.”

“Are… are you sure?” Jesse asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Absolutely,” their hostess replied, smiling.

It was then Makalah spoke up. “Here, honey, take your brother with you, alright? For once, just… take care of him for a little bit, alright?”

Jesse turned and nodded. “Sure, Mom, we’ll be okay.” Taking his brother by the hand, the two then followed their hostess to the top of the stairs, where she instructed him where to find everything below.

Making their way down into the walk-out basement, both boys stopped to observe the impressive layout that met them. Although the upstairs had a comfortable-sized living room, the steps emptied into an expansive and recently finished family and game room. Along one end of the room sat a billiards table, while the opposite held a large-screen TV and dual loveseats and a recliner angled around a large coffee table. The room was finished with bright colors and lighting, with deep, plush grey carpeting throughout. Both boys marveled briefly at how comfortable it all appeared, before turning and maneuvering toward a door along the underside of the steps.

Finding the door already opened, they stepped inside where Jesse flipped the light switch. Subtle lamps engaged, illuminating a good-sized room tastefully decorated in varying shades of blues. Several posters were hung, depicting what appeared to be various music bands, though Jesse admittedly recognized none of them, other than one which showed a familiar NFL team logo. A large, queen-sized bed sat in the middle, beneath a single window that opened to the outside. Along one side of the bed was a large dresser, while the other contained a nicely-sized computer desk tucked into a corner. A computer monitor, keyboard and mouse sat atop to one side inactive, while a rack of books sat on the opposite. Next to the desk stood a nearly full bookcase filled with all manner of books and other paraphernalia, before siding up against another doorway that led into an inner chamber, one which Jesse assumed must be the bathroom they had been told of.

As they rounded the foot of the bed, Jesse noted a large rug that was even more plush than the carpeting itself spread out. On it sat two bean-bags, something he had come to desire in recent months, but his parents had yet to let him or his brother get one. He saw that these were larger than common, especially when Benji decided to plop down unannounced. “These are really cool!” the boy muttered, pushing back and looking up at his brother with a wide grin.

“Yeah, I know, but uh… we shouldn’t get them messed up with our clothes like this,” Jesse muttered. He wanted to try them out as well, and almost joined his brother before common-sense set in. “Come on, I bet that’s the door to the bathroom.” He reached out, and his little brother accepted the hand that pulled him back onto his feet.

Before the two entered further, however, both noticed the recessed cavity into the wall opposite the bed. Therein stood a custom entertainment center, complete with its own TV and stereo system. Underneath the TV was a shelf with both an Xbox console and DVD-player of some sort. Various boxes were scattered about other shelves, containing both a collection of movies and what appeared to be video games. Benji was about to make another remark when suddenly he stopped and whistled, his eyes growing even wider. “Wow! These guys must be rich or something, you know? I mean… yeah, wow…” the smaller voice asked quietly.

“Probably,” Jesse replied. “Just, be careful, and like Mom always tells us, remember to mind your manners, okay?”

“I know, yeah,” Benji responded, looking meek.

Jesse looked around briefly before the moment caught up with him again. As he observed the change in his brother, he wished he could find something more soothing to say, but given the events of the evening, he was at a loss for words. They were not a poor family by any means, but neither of the boys had grown up with access to treasures such as these. Jesse didn’t have a problem seeing it all collectively like this, as it did not make the older teen regret that he did not have Noah’s lifestyle, nor envy it. He knew, however, that being at such a younger age, it was harder for Benji to accept and understand such things outright.

Sighing, Jesse gently prodded his brother toward the other open doorway, where they both arrived and stepped inside. As he flipped on the switch, the room suddenly lit up brightly as before, revealing a nicely-sized area, with both tiled flooring and walls. It was complete with a walk-in shower, toilet and double-vanity basin, along with other various items. It dawned on Jesse how neat everything looked, too, and he wondered if his peer was one of those who managed it that way, or if it was the work of his mother that kept everything as clean as it was. The only thing that seemed to look out of place was a nearby clothes hamper, on which lay several articles of discarded clothing that were obviously awaiting to be washed.

“Almost looks as good as a hotel room, doesn’t it?” Jesse voiced aloud, causing his little brother to suddenly look up and nod. Reaching behind him, the older brother closed the bathroom door before turning. “Come on, bro. Let’s strip and get in the shower. Do you want to go first, or do you want to do it together?”

Benji looked up Jesse and then just shrugged. “We can get in, err, together I mean. If… if it’s alright with you.”

Jesse smiled at him. “Of course, it is,” he whispered, before he began peeling his clothes off one by one. Both boys found the damp, matted garments did not come off easily, the cloth clinging to their skin stubbornly. Once removed, however, the older brother gathered and placed them carefully into one of the corners. Once Jesse finally had stripped to his briefs, he reached out and helped Benji free himself from what remained of his own clothes. Then, stepping inside the shower and experimenting briefly, he got a warm flow of water going that felt fantastic, given the colder exposure of the evening. He then turned and grabbed his brother, sinking him inside the falling stream before he finished stripping himself and joining in. Both boys stood together and close for a moment, enjoying the warmness that flowed over and between them.

It did not take long for Jesse to find both soap and a washcloth, so lathering up, he squatted down. Although Benji had put on a brave front, Jesse could see the exhaustion quickly etching its way into the younger boy. With a rare kindness not common between them, he began wiping at the grime on his brother’s face and shoulders, before moving to the chest and belly. Once done, he turned the boy around and began wiping down his backside. He could have left the task for Benji to do all on his own, but the younger boy actually liked the attention and did not object. The grime came loose easily, and as Jesse moved under the arms, Benji automatically lifted them accordingly before turning back around.

They had showered before on occasion, but in doing so they usually left each other’s groins alone in the effort. Tonight though, having already noted the fatigue behind his brother’s now-closed eyes, Jesse just grunted and dived in. Benji giggled tiredly, opening his eyes to watch his big brother just long enough smugly while he spread his legs and thrust his hips forward. Jesse smiled back, but did not hesitate, instead soaping the area well before rinsing. “Aw,” Benji whispered. “That felt kind of good, you know?”

Jesse smirked as he squirted some shampoo onto the boy’s head and quickly lathered it up. Rinsing, he inspected his work before pulling Benji into a quick hug. “You know something, squirt?” he whispered. “I’m glad I’ve got you for a brother.” He meant it, too, and the younger boy ended up returning the hug equally hard. After a few seconds elapsed, Jesse pulled back and then pointed. “Go on out and dry off while I clean up, okay?” Benji nodded and opened the shower door, following instructions and leaving Jesse behind.

It wasn’t long afterwards before Jesse turned off the water and stepped from the shower himself, only to find his little brother looking upon him with curiosity. It was something each had done infrequently over the years, and Jesse knew the curiosity that his sibling had about certain things was only natural. Still, the older teen couldn’t help but tease him. “Careful little bro, you might go blind looking at me that way,” he whispered, smiling as he reached for the towel Benji handed to him.

“So? I don’t care, really. Besides, I haven’t gone blind yet,” was the whispered reply, before the boy stepped closer. “You’re… you know, you’re getting bigger and everything I think… and hairier, too.” He looked up. “Do you really think I’ll get that way too, someday?”

Jesse smiled, recognizing this was a discussion they had had before. “I guarantee it,” he whispered back. “Just wait and see, you’ll probably even get a bigger willie than me!”

Benji giggled, but then shook his head. “No way! You know you’ll always be older than me,” the younger boy voiced matter-of-factly. With a big sigh, however, he did reach out and run his fingers through Jesse’s pubic bush, causing the teenager to initially flinch, but then stand steady. “They’re silky,” was the only comment Benji made, feeling his way through the bush. After a few seconds, however, he retreated and looked up at the smile that continued to greet him.

“Being older doesn’t mean anything, little bro. Trust me, when you get old enough, you’ll understand,” Jesse replied.

Benji just nodded, too tired to pursue the subject any further. “Um, any idea what we’re supposed to wear now?”

Jesse looked around the room uncertainly, thinking hard before reaching and grasping their towels. “What say we just wrap up in these for the moment, hmm?” He wrapped his bath sheet around his waist and, upon seeing his brother having difficulty, reached out and assisted with tucking into place around the smaller body. Then, gathering their dirty clothes, both boys moved over and opened the door that led back into the bedroom.

It was hard to determine who was the more surprised just then, as they both found Noah standing outside with his hand raised, readying to knock. Their host’s expression quickly changed however, returning to the faceless mask he had been wearing all evening long. Jesse could, however, almost discern a secondary countenance of annoyance underneath, which only added to the mystery of whatever was going on. Their host, however, glanced first at the older teen and then his brother. There was an awkward moment that followed, where nothing was said until suddenly the newly arrived teenager held out a bundle of clothes he was carrying. “These should be okay for you, as we’re almost the same size. There’s underwear, a t-shirt and a pair of older sweats.”

For a brief second, Jesse was confused until the words sunk in. “Uh, okay, thank you,” he replied, taking the stack of garments.

Noah nodded, but then turned his attention to the younger brother. “I don’t have much for you though, turtle. None of my stuff will really work, but Mom put the smallest t-shirt we could find on the bottom of the stack. Maybe you can make that work until we get your other clothes washed. Speaking of which…” Noah reached out and took the bundle of soiled clothes from Jesse, all the while Benji pulled out a bright-yellow, long t-shirt from underneath the garments his brother held in his other hand. With little difficulty, the youngster slid it over his head right there.

“Look Jesse, it’s almost like a dress!” the younger boy exclaimed when he had it pulled down. Indeed, the shirt tail trailed to just below his knees. Jesse giggled as his little brother suddenly pulled the towel loose from underneath and let it fall to the floor, but then fell silent as he returned to observe his host’s utter lack of expression. One thing was clear, he thought: Noah was not happy having them there, whatever his reasons.

Despite any misgivings that may have existed, Noah finally grunted before turning, taking the dirtied laundry away as he silently left them. “What’s his problem, Jess?” Benji whispered as the door closed behind the retreating figure. He was frowning deeply, wondering what was going on.

“No idea,” Jesse replied, but inwardly he had already been entertaining other thoughts. If ever there were two people who lived on opposite sides of the railroad track, an old metaphor his parents often used, it had to be between himself and Noah. While Jesse lived a simpler life, obscured and lost among their peers, Noah enjoyed both popularity and position. There existed a group at school, in almost all the grades, which thought they were better than others. It was nothing new, something that had existed for generations it seemed. Jesse thought that perhaps their host, although not an athlete, was considered one of the emerald participants of the cool crowd. Looking about the bedroom once again with its furnishings and more, Jesse began to realize that was where Noah fitted in. His popularity with close-knit groups emanated the kind of particularities that both girls and guys liked. It made sense, too, as they often avoided those with what they considered having lower-class standards.

It was not a hard stretch for Jesse to realize where all the anti-social behavior originated from. He and Noah knew of each other in school obviously, but neither had ever had to face developing a friendship between them. Now, to have it thrust upon them while stuck in the same house over the next few days, there was no doubt how Noah must feel about it.

Jesse slowly approached the bed and dropped his towel, before remarking to his brother in a low voice, “Hang on bro, let me put these on and then we can go find Mom and Dad.” Benji nodded, brightening suddenly at the thought of food coming with the deal, too.

“I’m starving!” he hissed, walking up and grasping hold of the t-shirt Jesse had started pulling over his head. Jesse giggled at the proposed ‘help’, but he didn’t mind it. Again, it was something the two had been through before many times, and for what it was worth, it was the one thing he actually liked. Especially knowing he still had his little brother’s love and trust.

A moment later, with the rest of the garments donned appropriately, Jesse gathered their towels. Heading toward the door, they left together, but not without turning off the lights behind them.

 

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Following the late-night hour, and a healthy supply of pizza, most of the family sat back and patted their bellies while recuperating around the kitchen table. Benji had already discovered the TV in the living room, and after obtaining permission, had retired to go and watch it. The only other person absent was Noah, who had disappeared with the excuse of needing to use the bathroom, but who had also found it not convenient to return. Of the boys, that left Jesse by himself, who initially listened politely to all things going on between the adults, but eventually became bored. Excusing himself, he too found his way into the living room and found his brother stretched out on the couch, watching a Disney movie that had just come on. As Jesse sat down, his younger brother rose and turned to switch ends, inviting his sibling to sit back before placing his head on Jesse’s lap. Before long, with Jesse calmly running his fingers through his brother’s hair, the younger boy was fast asleep. At one point, Jennifer found them both before disappearing down the hallway, only to return with both pillows and blankets. With a little effort, both were able to get the younger boy set for the night.

Jesse had decided it was time for him to turn in as well. Although both Jennifer and Allen encouraged him to join the other teenager downstairs, Jesse was hesitant before agreeing to do so without enthusiasm. Finally bidding his parents and their hosts a good night, he descended the steps once again. Reaching the entertainment room, he found all the lights were off, except for a small nightlife which gave away just enough luminescence he could find his way to Noah’s door again. The teen hesitated, thinking perhaps he could just make do for the night on one of the smaller sofas, or even the recliner in the room. He shook his head, however, recalling the explicit instructions he received from Jennifer. He decided he did not want to be found in a situation he would have to explain later, nor be the cause of any more grief between Noah and his parents. He crossed the floor then and noticed the door to Noah’s room was ajar. With a sigh, he quietly pushed it open.

Inside, the room was enveloped with an almost total darkness, save the light emitting from some kind of device Noah was holding. The teen, stretched out under the covers, was propped up by a large pillow, with his back resting against the headboard. As Jesse’s eyes adjusted, he could see a set of earphones attached and being used, so he assumed his host was listening to media of some sort. He slowly entered the room and then stopped, unsure if he should close the door or not. Deciding to err on the side of caution, he pushed it up until he heard the click that latched into place. When he turned and made his way toward the bed, he was surprised to see that it had been turned down for him on what was obviously to be his side. Noah never acknowledged him, spoke or even glanced in his direction, choosing instead to ignore the newcomer, something not unexpected, but still disappointing as far as Jesse felt.

The newcomer was lost, completely uncertain as to whether he should say or do anything between them. He thought of apologizing, but he hesitated because he had no idea what, exactly, he should be apologizing for. Noah’s attitude was disheartening, and it weighed upon Jesse’s mind in more ways than one, but… was it really his fault? He didn’t think so, regardless of Noah’s opinion on the matter. It could not be made any plainer that the teenager did not belong in this place. Still, he glanced down at the bed. It was turned down for him, and he doubted Jennifer had been in the room to do it, which left only Noah himself. Was it a peace offering of sorts? Confused, Jesse had no idea, but he gulped quietly before slipping in and pulling up the covers around him. He purposefully turned to face the opposite direction, away from his host, before stilling himself for the night. He initially shivered at the coolness in the sheets, but as he lay there, it wasn’t long before his body’s heat began reflecting back around him. For his part, Noah still continued to ignore the boy, so feeling exhausted, Jesse eventually drifted off into a deep sleep.

 

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The next morning, Jesse awoke to find the room flooded with an abundance of natural light spilling in from the window. This side of the house, as it turned out, opened to the yard that faced the house next door. Shaking the cobwebs away, he slowly sat up and glanced behind him. He was surprised, it seemed, that he had hardly moved the entire night, but the covers appeared to be flattened and still neat. On the other side, he found the bed vacant, but the covers were pulled up sharp and neat, with the corner pulled back not unlike his own the night before. As his eyes focused, he glanced up to see the bathroom door open, but dark inside. Listening keenly, he heard no sounds from anywhere, so the teen concluded he was, truly, alone. He rubbed at his eyes briefly before glancing about and noting a clock sat upon the desk nearby. With bright, overly large LEDs the display informed him it was just past eight.

Grunting for no apparent reason, Jesse climbed to his feet and made his way to the bathroom. As he relieved his bladder, his mind began racing with the events from the previous afternoon and evening. Although he had his suspicions, he realized he was still actually at a loss why his host was acting so distant and strange. Jesse could not recall ever having really interacted with Noah in school, unless it was the occasional turn of ending up on the same side when playing ball or something in Phys Ed. The two had only been in a few classes together, too, each having obvious differences in what attracted them. They never rode the same school bus either, although, given the previous night’s conversations, Jesse suspected that would soon be changing. For how long though, the teen was uncertain.

Finishing, he flushed the toilet before rinsing his hands and returning to the bedroom. He had no more than reached the bed when there came a soft knock from the door. Pivoting around, he crossed and opened it to find his mother standing there yawning deeply herself.

“Good morning, honey. I was just going to drop these off for you,” Makalah announced, handing her son a stack of garments. Looking through it, he recognized they were his clothes from the day before, both cleaned and pressed.

“Thanks, Mom,” the teen replied quietly.

“Did you sleep okay? How was it staying with Noah?” Makalah asked quietly.

Jesse shrugged. “It was okay, I guess. I mean, I never really even knew he was there. He’s never said much of anything to us, other than when he brought sleeping clothes for us last night.”

Makalah frowned. “Really? Nothing all night?”

“When I came in last night, the bed was already turned down, so I got in and just went to sleep. And I just now got up, and he’s not here, so…” Jesse replied. Seeing the concern in his mother’s expression, the teen shrugged. “It’s okay, Mom, honest. It’s not Earth-shattering or anything, we’ll manage okay, I think.”

Makalah leaned against the doorframe and fell silent for a moment before she responded. “Well, okay – I won’t worry about it for now. Honestly, I suspect there’s more going on than what we know, so just give him a little time and space, I guess. Besides, after a few days, maybe we can get beds setup next door and get moved in. Then you won’t have to worry about it any at all.”

Jesse nodded. “I understand. So, can I ask what the plan is for today? Do I need to go out with Dad, or…?”

“Your father already left with Allen about an hour ago. We’re all supposed to join up with them later. Right now, I’d suggest you get dressed and then come upstairs for some breakfast. I’ve got yours and Benji’s shoes in the dryer, but they should be done in another 15- to 20-minutes or so.” She looked down at him thoughtfully. “Jesse, do you think I can ask you a big favor for today? At least for a little while?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Well, would it be okay if I pawned your brother off with you for the morning? I mean, Jennifer and I need to do a few things, and I’m not sure what to do with him really. He might can go up and stay with Petey, but… it should only be for the morning, and-”

“I’ll watch out for him Mom, don’t worry about it,” Jesse interrupted, surprising her. “We’ll be fine, but I’ll hold you to one condition.” His mother looked at him quizzically, noting the half-smile that appeared on her son’s face. “Just don’t forget about us, that’s all.”

Makalah scoffed. “What are you talking about?” she replied, pulling him into a warm embrace. “You boys and your father are my world, Jesse. None of us are going to forget about you boys!” They both cuddled warmly before she let go of him. Swatting him on his butt, she then turned to leave. “Now, go get changed and meet me upstairs. I think I heard your brother just now, probably running around trying to find the bathroom!”

 

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Both Jesse and Benji sat back from the table, having enjoyed a generous serving of oatmeal, bacon and toast. “Thanks, Mrs. Cook! That was great!” the younger boy exclaimed, as his brother hastened to agree. “You cook good to be a good Cook!” he rattled off afterwards, grinning from ear to ear.

Jennifer laughed at him while walking over to take their plates. “You’re welcome, boys. As soon as your shoes get dried, I think your mother and I are heading over to the house where the men are.”

Jesse nodded. “Did Noah go with them, too?”

“Yes, he’s over there somewhere, I’m sure,” Jennifer replied offhandedly, but not without making a face. She quickly recovered, however, as Makalah rounded the corner, carrying two sets of tennis shoes.

“Here you go, boys. They might still be just a little damp, but they’re dried out enough to get by with. Besides, it’s going to be pretty muddy and soggy over there as it is, anyway, but still…” Looking up at Jennifer, she went on. “That was Kallie on the phone. She said or me not to worry about coming back into work until James and I got things settled,” she explained while handing one pair of shoes to Jesse.

“Well, that’s good news, then,” Jennifer remarked. “Of course, it’s nothing less than what I would have expected.”

“Yes, I know. I have to say, I work with a pretty good group of people on my team. We watch out for each other nicely when things happen. I just hate putting any of them out on a limb like this, for me and James,” Makalah stated thoughtfully. She then pulled Benji’s chair around to face her and crouched down. When she made to ready one of his shoes, the young man scoffed in exasperation. “Mom, I’m 7 years old! I can put my own shoes on, you know!”

That earned him a hearty chuckle as his mother pulled back. “Well, yes, I know that, but…”

Benji grinned, taking the pair from her. “Okay, okay… but I can do it, that’s all.”

“Um, are we going over there, too? To help?” Jesse asked while lacing one of his shoes up tighter.

“Yes. You and Ben are going to go around the different yards and look for anything that might be ours that is salvageable. There’s going to be others there doing the same thing, too, so you won’t be alone. You may not find very much, with the storm and rain damage and all, but you might find some toys, pictures, or even some little nick-knacks that we can keep.”

“If you find something in good shape, but think it might belong to someone else, then pick it up, too. We’ll put it in another box later that can be shared with the other families,” Jennifer added. She stopped and stretched, standing tall – which was saying something for her shorter than common height. “Then after lunch, if we get the okay and all, you two can come with us to Walmart or somewhere, where we’ll pick you up a few things. You know, like some changes of clothes, necessities and shoes – those sorts of things.”

When Benji heard this, he groaned. “You mean we have to go shopping?” Clearly the prospect did not appeal to him, and his reaction made both women laugh out loud.

“Well, unless you want to trust me to not pick you up any girls underwear, then…” Makalah quipped mysteriously.

“Mom! NNNooo!” the younger boy exclaimed before getting exasperated working with his shoe. Handing one back to his mother, he announced, “They’re too tight, Mom.”

With a knowing look, Makalah accepted the shoe and began loosening the laces for him. “Thought so,” she muttered, but Benji’s attention was already diverted back to the shopping trip.

“Can I at least get some red sweats, like Jesse had?” he inquired, causing his mother to nod.

“You liked those, didn’t you? As long as we can find them, then yes.” Seeing her son nod, their mother turned to Jesse, who had just finished lacing and donning both shoes by then. “Where did we get those anyway? Do you remember?”

“I think you ordered them or something. Maybe from Amazon,” Jesse replied. He remained seated while his mother worked with Benji’s shoes, and after getting them on, she left him to finish tying them in place. Looking about, she noticed Jennifer had disappeared.

“Okay, just wait here while we finish up. It’ll only be a minute or two. If you need to tinkle, now would be a good time to do it,” Makalah announced, before disappearing toward the guest room.

Benji crossed his arms and turned toward his brother. “So, did you and Mr. Leave-Me-Alone get on okay last night?”

Jesse shrugged. “I guess so. Wasn’t much to it, really. He was on his side of the bed, and I stayed on mine. When I woke up this morning, he was already gone.”

“Yeah, I know,” Benji replied. “I woke up listening to him and Mr. Cook fussing at each other. He was begging his Dad to let him go with them, and Mr. Cook wasn’t all too happy about it.”

That piece of knowledge caused Jesse to sigh heavily. It bothered him, yet he continued to be uncertain as to why. Regardless of how the boy seemed to feel, Jesse was glad of at least one thing: they would not be staying overly long. With luck, a few more nights maybe, they’d be free of Noah Cook and his… whatever it was.

Moments later Jennifer entered the room carrying her purse along with two other garments. “It’s borderline cold out there this morning fellas, so I went through the coat closet and found these. They’re some of Noah’s pullovers, including one he hasn’t worn for a few years, I think. It might fit you decently, Benji; here, try it on.” She handed it to him while handing the other one to Jesse.

Both donned their pullovers and found that they did fit quite well. “Hey, thanks! I think this is just my size!” Benji exclaimed excitedly, making Jennifer laugh.

“Well, you can keep it then. Noah has certainly outgrown it, so I can’t imagine he’ll ever need it again,” the woman remarked pleasantly. “Same for yours too, Jesse. We bought that one last year, but I don’t think Noah likes the bright colors all that much. I think he’s only worn it once or twice.”

Jesse started, before smiling. “Thanks, Mrs. Cook, but if he ends up wanting to keep it, just let me know.”

Just then Makalah appeared in the doorway once again, pulling her own makeshift jacket on. Smiling at the boys, she noticed the warmer garments on them and nodded. “So, are we ready then?” she asked Jennifer, and then seeing nods all around, they all began to make their way toward the rear door.

 

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“If there is anything you need help with, Mr. McAllister, please … reach out to us.”

The statement came from an older lady, dressed simply in a blue denim skirt and white blouse, but wearing a sweater bearing a bold Red Cross emblem. James turned to her and thanked her kindly.

“The only thing is figuring out how to get this mess straightened up, but we’ll work on it,” the man replied, standing straight to stretch his back.

“That should not be a problem, sir. The State will sponsor, or we’ll tap into the emergency funds to do so, the necessary personnel to get it all cleared away for you. Although, I caution you that it might take a couple of weeks,” the kindly woman replied. “I must say, I’m glad to hear you already have something in the works for housing. Most of the folks that stayed with us in the shelter last night were just beginning to realize what a monumental task that will be.” She suddenly sneezed, before turning to him again. “Ah! Allergies, I guess!” she exclaimed softly while taking a tissue from her pocket. After another moment, she nodded toward the mess. “Can I also at least inform you of the fact, that some of the local businesses will help you to replace some of your clothing, toiletries and the like? Goodwill obviously, but Walmart and some of the grocery stores will help as well.” She withdrew an envelope from her clipboard and handed it to him. “These will get you started. They are not much, but there are two cards there that contain $250 apiece I think, but it will put you on your way.”

James hesitated, but then took the offered envelope graciously. “I can’t help but thank you enough. It will mean a lot for my family, regardless.”

“Then, I’ll leave you folks be. Please don’t try and do anything that looks too dangerous. Emergency personnel will be here throughout the next several days, and they will help to pick up and do whatever it is they do. That includes getting them to help you, accordingly. Keep your family safe, above all else!” she admonished with a smile, and then quietly retreated.

“I hate to say this, James, but…” Allen started, having stepped up once the two had finished. “Seeing all this in broad daylight this morning, I’m not too sure there is much of anything you’re going to be able to salvage. The house is completely ruined and really unsafe, even over there where some of the flooring looks to still be intact. See? There’s nothing underneath to support it, and I suspect it’ll just come crashing down as soon as anyone puts any kind weight on or around it.”

“For the most part I agree,” James stated. “There’s a few pieces of furniture that might make the cut though, so I can at least try to be optimistic.” He then sighed heavily, shaking his head. “I’m not one to dishonor the Good Lord’s will, Allen… and believe me, I am totally thankful we all came out of it relatively unscathed. That alone is probably the only miracle that matters in itself. But… regardless, the Big Man sure left a big mess behind for us to deal with.”

Allen nodded. “I understand what you’re saying, yeah. You said it best though, brother. The fact that everything held together, until you got your brood out of that basement? It’s a testament and blessing all by itself.” He glanced at his watch. “Jennifer and the rest of them should be along shortly. Bill Davies is supposed to come by, too, with a load of boxes. As soon as we get the go ahead, we can team up with some of those over there…” He pointed to a group of individuals wearing similar red jackets. “That’s the Red Cross Disaster Assistance Team, or RC-DAT. They’ll help us get inside and see what can be brought out.”

James nodded. “That sounds good. I know Makalah is anxious to see what she can save. By the way, I saw our insurance agent over there at the Tuples’ place a little while ago. I think I’m going to go over and see if I can catch him.” Allen nodded and with that, the man set out on a brisk pace to cross the road. Allen watched him for a moment, and then began walking around the various structures that had either imploded, or their construction had been compromised by the high velocity winds.

He was standing, overlooking the McAllisters’ former shed with the pickup when Jennifer and the others drove up. He waved at the boys as they got out, and then crossed over to give his wife a kiss as she strolled up with them. “So, how are you doing this fine day?” he asked softly, smiling at her.

“Okay thus far, I think,” Jennifer replied.

Makalah greeted the man too, before looking around. “I guess it wasn’t a dream, then,” she remarked candidly, before heaving a deep sigh.

“No, I’m afraid not. Although, I would certainly understand your desire for it to be that way,” Allen replied quietly.

“So, are we ready to start digging?” Jennifer asked.

“Sure,” came Allen’s quick reply. He pointed to a couple of utility carts nearby, only slightly larger than that of a child’s Radio Flyer wagon. “The Red Cross left those for us this morning. How about you boys start with one and move around the yard. Don’t get very close to any of the damaged buildings though, at least not until we know they’re safe to get into. You can go into the neighbors’ yards, too, as long as you stay in sight of this house here, and where we can find you easily enough.”

Jesse approached, crossing in front of the man as he headed for the cart. “Sure, Mr. Cook. We’ll be careful,” the teen responded. Benji joined him, and then the two began moving out into the yard.

The women watched them for a moment, before Jennifer turned to her husband. “Where’s Noah?”

Allen grunted. “He was supposed to stay with us here, but while James and I were chatting with the Emergency Response people, he disappeared. I haven’t seen him since.” The man’s eyes narrowed. “I had a pretty rough go with him last night for a few minutes. I would have thought he’d straighten out a bit, but now I’m not so sure.”

Jennifer nodded, but it was Makalah who spoke up. “I wouldn’t worry about it, really. If there’s something there, you two will figure it out eventually.”

Jennifer scoffed. “Maybe, but… Plain and simple, he’s being an ass, and we all know it.” She looked at the other woman before her shoulders slumped. “You do know, I hope, this doesn’t have anything to do with you guys or your boys. I mean, Allen and I have been putting up with this attitude of his for months now, but nothing we do seems to be getting through to him. I just…” The woman paused, looking out over the lawn at where Benji and Jesse were currently traversing toward the mailbox. “I really wish they didn’t have to take the brunt of it. Or rather, at least not Jesse. It’s really ridiculous, you know?”

There was a break in her composure, one which caused Makalah step up close and place an arm around her. “I don’t know what to tell you, really, but rather just – just give it some time, is all. Jesse is a smart kid, really. He’ll be okay I think.”

It was Allen’s turn to scoff. “Of that, I have no doubt. Jesse is far more aware of everything going on around him than some other certain teenagers I know about.” With a sigh, he lowered his voice as well. “Maybe with Jesse around, something good will rub off on Noah eventually.” He then turned his attention elsewhere. “I think I can make it down in this corner here, and get into the basement without upsetting anything. Those walls over there, they still have some pictures on them that don’t really look too damaged. What do you ladies think?”

Jennifer looked where her husband was pointing and then nodded. “If they didn’t get water damaged, then it’s as good a place to start as any. Oh!” she exclaimed, before pointing to another corner of rubbish. “Makalah, that desk, and filing cabinet! Maybe…?”

Makalah’s eyebrows shot upward. “Oh, Good Lord, I hope so! It would be awesome to be able to get a few things out of here, at least!”

 

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“Hey, Noah! My man, how’s it hanging?”

The jovial voice of Pete Haskell III penetrated the air loudly as Noah walked by one of the driveways. When he turned and gazed toward the house, the teen broke into a wide grin of relief before steering himself in the boy’s direction at a quicker pace. Reaching first the lawn and then the front porch, he saw that more of their friends were also gathered there, each sitting and enjoying steaming mugs of some liquid, he presumed to be either hot cocoa or coffee.

“Hey Pete, Linda, and Jimmy!” Noah greeted them, trading fist bumps with the other two males, but then hesitating when it came to the girl. Linda recognized his obvious dilemma, but then laughed out loud before placing her own fist into the air and muttering something under her breath about ‘boys’. Sheepishly, the newcomer bumped it, thus completing the round.

Observing a relatively open spot, Noah took a seat on the steps amongst the trio before speaking again. “So, what’s up?”

“Oh, just checking in on the hard luck cases out here. Linda and I heard about it on the news this morning and decided to ride out with my Dad,” Jimmy explained. “He’s on the county’s emergency service board in some way, though exactly how I’m not sure.”

Pete nodded in agreement. “Yeah, it all looks like a fucking mess, that’s for sure. Any of your family mixed up in this?”

“Thankfully, no,” Noah replied, shaking his head.

Linda observed him closely. “Really? Then… how come you’re out here, walking down the road? If I remember right, you don’t live anywhere near here…”

Noah notably paused before finally answering her. “Sort of the same reason, except my Mom and Dad have latched themselves onto helping one of the families out here. At least, until they can get setup on their own again.”

“Really? Which ones?” Pete asked, curiously.

Noah turned to the teen and hesitated. He knew what would happen, but he couldn’t not reveal the truth, as it would come out eventually. He finally shook his head before pointing out toward the beginning of the mess. “Over there, the McAllisters.”

Caught in the middle of taking a sip of his drink, Jimmy immediately sputtered and scoffed. “No shit! Seriously? That … isn’t that whatever his name was? The fucking, goofy fairy?”

Linda turned and gave the teen a stern look. “So? What’s it to you?” she asked, her voice oiled with quiet disdain.

“He’s… weird, that’s what! Someone was saying not long ago that he likes peeking into the boys showers every chance he gets, especially after Phys Ed!” Jimmy responded, shaking his head with a certain amount of disgust he made no attempt at hiding. “He’s probably one of those fucking dick suckers looking for someone to get off with.”

Surprisingly, Linda’s expression changed to one of amusement. “Oh, so he’s gay then? Figures that’s what would set you off!”

“And just what is THAT supposed to mean?” Jimmy retorted angrily.

Linda shrugged. “Whatever you want it to mean, I guess. I just find it amusing you’d show your true colors so easily, that’s all.”

The boy turned back to look across the field with disdain. “Well, how the hell would you feel if you had a brother or someone in the same P.E. class with him? It’s disgusting is what it is!”

“Well, for one, I don’t have a brother or sister for that matter, and two, I could care less, really. Unless he was trying to make a move on them and they didn’t want it,” Linda answered matter-of-factly. She leaned back against the porch post. “What the fuck do I care about what anyone does in the bedroom, really… it’s none of my business – and it really is none of yours, either!”

Pete laughed. “You’d be surprised at what happens in bedrooms, girl. I agree with Jimmy though: fucking fairies have no place around here – period.”

Noah glanced at the group, listening but troubled. There was no way he was going to admit that Jesse stayed with him in his bedroom the night before, knowing that he’d never hear the end of it. That is, if Pete didn’t start to automatically group Noah in with Jesse in the worst of ways. What he did instead, however, was decide he’d let them know what they were bound to discover sooner or later anyway. Lowering his voice, he cast a glance off into a distant field. “Well, I don’t know if he’s gay or not, but I can tell you one thing: He sure as hell took his time showering with his brother last night, at our place!”

Pete gazed upon him incredulously. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! So, they stayed with you guys then? That fucking queer went to your place, and he took a fucking shower with his little brother? My God, there’s no telling what they do when they’re together then!”

Linda’s expression suddenly changed. “Hey, HEY! Stop that right now, you asshole! They’re family!”

Pete, however, shook his head. “That’s what makes it ten times worse, if you ask me! Family or no, to do… to do…” His voice trailed off before he scoffed. “Shit, wait till some of the others hear this!” he murmured more to himself than anyone.

Linda’s face grew red. “Hey asshole, that is NOT something you go spreading around, you hear me Pete? Especially right now, with all this other shit going down! Have a conscience, will you?”

“Why, what’s it to you?” Jimmy asked, backing his friend up.

“What’s it to me? Nothing, but hell, don’t you two see it? They just lost their whole fucking house and everything they practically owned, you asshole! I think that would be worth giving them a break, don’t you?” The fact that the girl was extremely annoyed caused the other two to finally stop laughing.

“Oh, of course, girl! Who would I be to out the flower of the ninth-grade class, eh?” Pete said, but without conviction. He nudged Jimmy’s elbow, giving his friend a knowing look that said otherwise.

Noah watched the exchange before shaking his head. He was grateful the group didn’t put him and Jesse together, but there were other parts of the exchange that really disturbed him. Thankfully, however, the conversation started heading in other, more pleasant directions…

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