The Storm That Turned the Tide

Chapter 04 – What a Hug Really Means

After everyone throughout the valley had not only survived the storm itself, but also made it through the aftermath, Halloween offered all a welcome respite. Although it was not as popular of a holiday as it was in other parts of the country, if it could be called that, nevertheless it was considered a fun excursion for people kids and teens of all ages, and not forgetting the adults. After crossing the autumn equinox in September, the days were now gradually becoming shorter, as nature intended, just as the nights began to grow longer. By now, the late afternoon shadows overtook the sunny, but cooler days, and that caused the evening air to chill more quickly. Still, most kids, many with older siblings or parents in tow, ignored the temperatures and turned out in droves, swamping the neighborhoods near and far while going from house to house.

As it was, Benji’s original costume he had planned to wear, a rather smart edition of the comic’s infamous Spiderman fame, had been lost during the storm. Sweeping through what remained available in the nearby stores, he found little that satisfied him as a replacement, and as the magical Sunday evening grew nearer, the youth had given up on the idea of even going, and accepted the fact he might just not participate in trick-or-treating that year. His mood the entire weekend had been both up and down at times, likening to that of a see-saw, as the reality of what the storm had done to upset their lives continued to sink in.  That is, until he returned home on that Halloween afternoon. Walking through the doorway, he stopped suddenly upon seeing a strange sight. Standing in the kitchen was his brother, completely transformed beyond any sense of his normal appearance. The older teen had gone through a great deal of effort, dressing up as an impoverished vagrant, complete with a bindle stick, and a grimy complexion on his face and arms. So inspired was the younger brother by the change, that Benji suddenly decided he wanted to do the same, and so with a lot of makeshift preparation and help from their mother, before long Benji stood beside his sibling, dressed in a similar fashion. Within the hour, they both likened themselves to a pair of young hobo-like misfits, ready to take on the modern world, which was completely appropriate for the occasion. Makalah squealed more than once, before finding her cell phone and snapping an endless supply of pictures.

As both parents watched the two head off down the driveway, Makalah sank back into the arms of her husband and sighed. “I am so glad Jesse did this… Benji needed a little pick-me-up, I think.”

James nodded as his chin came to rest of his wife’s shoulder from behind. “I agree. He’s so spirited as it is, but I think he’s still processing everything from last weekend.” He watched as Jesse put an arm around his younger brother. “I don’t know how many more times Jesse will do this in the coming years, but for tonight, it’s definitely all worth it.” The man sighed. “He loves his brother dearly, you know?”

“Oh, yes. I don’t think there is anything that would ever separate them, especially after the way he takes care of and watches out for him,” Makalah whispered, holding her husband’s arms around her chest, as if absorbing his strength and sense of certainty. “We’re are among the few lucky enough to have two sons that get along that way.”

“You can say that again,” James whispered.

As the brothers turned and started down the street of their new neighborhood, Jesse had already come to terms with the fact they would get a generous collection that night, given the numerous streets and houses available to them. They passed other groups who were also beginning their own trek in the subdued twilight, some of whom recognized and greeted the two brothers with high spirits. This was one of those communities that, as long as the kids stuck to the basic rule of not leaving the immediate area, parents did not necessarily feel the need to have their charges chaperoned so tightly. As a result, everyone gained a bigger sense of freedom that included the older teenagers, who made it a point not to disrespect anyone for the sake of the event. In larger towns, it was a different story, but here in the rural valley where they lived, everyone had a good time, as it was intended to be.

As the brothers crossed a short bridge and into the heart of the neighborhood, Jesse and Benji both stopped in surprise when a familiar figure ran up from behind and joined them. “Hey!” came a breathless greeting, which caused both brothers to turn and grin widely.

“Hey yourself, ninja elf!” Benji replied, and then whispered. “Wow, not bad Noah! I like it!”

“I agree, it does kind of look sophisticated on you,” Jesse added.

Noah just shrugged. “Thanks. I have a lot of black-ish clothes, so it wasn’t too hard to put this together,” he replied nonchalantly. “You two look pretty homeless, too, by the way.”

“Jesse came up with the idea,” Benji explained, obviously beaming by then. He then noticed the teen had no bag or anything with him. “Hey, aren’t you gonna get some candy?” he asked as they started to turn into one of the side streets.

Noah giggled, but then shook his head. “Nah, I’m not into candy all that much, runt. I just thought, well, maybe I’d tag along with you guys, if that’s alright,” Noah replied.

Jesse grinned. “Sure!” he replied, as Benji suddenly grinned and high-fived their neighbor by way of acceptance.

Looking around, Noah commented. “There’s a lot of peeps out tonight, though. You’d better get cracking if you’re planning to open up a candy store anytime soon.” The brother agreed, so they then began their share of invading the neighborhood, laying out a pattern that would let them hit most of the houses without having to retrace their steps. Some of the older residents squealed upon seeing the varying costumes and creatures that visited, while others simply handed out candy from their porches. At one house, with his masters nearby, a dog carried a large pail of candy around the yard to costumed trespassers, but with a wagging tail, he barked very little while getting all the attention. Instead, the kids were allowed to pet the animal before reaching in and selecting an item or two as they desired.

Along the way, Jesse and Noah talked, chatting aimlessly about different things, all the while watching as Benji approached various households and collected his treats. From time to time, Jesse joined in, but mostly just for the sport of the moment while Noah hung back. “I’ll probably end up giving it all to him, anyway,” he explained later in a low voice to their new friend, to which Noah nodded in understanding.

“You really do watch out for him a lot, don’t you?” Noah commented during one long stretch as they sauntered down the street.

Jesse looked up, observing as his little brother fell in line behind a group of other kids at one, well-lit residence. “Yeah, I guess I do. I mean, he’s my brother and all, but…” When he didn’t finish the sentence, Noah glanced over at him.

“It was rhetorical, McAllister. I understand, believe me. I’ve never had a brother or sister, though I’ve kind of wondered sometimes what it would have been like to have one.”

Jesse scoffed. “A royal pain in the ass, every once in a while, anyway,” he offered, surprising the other teen. “I probably shouldn’t put it that way, though. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s sometimes more like he’s just a pest, I guess, but… honestly? Neither of us have very many friends close by to get out with, and I figure, right now he really doesn’t know any better. I honestly don’t have the heart to burst his bubbles all the time, so I put up with it. But honestly, he’s a great kid for a little brother. Besides, I can remember being just like him when I was his age – especially after my sister died.”

Noah stopped in his tracks. “Huh? What do you mean? You had a sister?”

Jesse nodded. “Yeah. Rebecca Ann McAllister, born about four years after me. She only lived about three months or so, though.”

“Oh,” Noah frowned. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know that.”

“Most people don’t,” Jesse replied, shrugging. “She had this kind of hole in her heart, one of those types they couldn’t fix, and it kept getting weaker and all until it just stopped. I don’t remember all that much about it really, other than she came home for a few weeks, and then ended up going back to the hospital. She never came home again, afterwards.” The teenager sighed at that point. “All I remember was, for a long time, I worried it was something that was going to happen to me, too. I mean, I was four, okay? I didn’t know any better, and a lot of kids around me, they … they didn’t know any better, either.” He didn’t elaborate any further, but Noah had a feeling he understood the unspoken meaning behind it.

“I get it. I’m still sorry, though,” Noah replied quietly.

“Meh, there’s no reason to be. Benji see, he’s got a few friends obviously, and most of the other kids are pretty good to him, I think. To me though, he’s my little buddy, one of my best-est friends, I guess. To be honest, it really wasn’t until he came along that I finally understood what had happened to my sister, especially after I understood he wasn’t going to leave me, too. At least not like that, anyway.” Jesse suddenly smiled as he looked around. “So, yeah, I guess you’re right. We’ve always been kind of close, me and him. I try to watch out for him, as much as I can.”

“I’m glad. I think that’s kind of cool,” Noah commented thoughtfully, before changing the subject. “So, how’s the new digs? Glad to be out of my room and bed, and into your own for a change?”

Jesse giggled. “I really didn’t mind sleeping with you, Noah. That part was fine, honest – especially after, well, you know. As to our new room, meh, it’s okay. This morning I woke up though, and it took me a minute or two to realize where I was, so I’m still getting used to it.”

Noah grinned as well. “Did you panic?”

“Nope, nada, zilch – but I tell you, it sure took me like a whole minute or more to find the blooming bathroom and get rid of all that Sprite we drank last night!” Jesse quipped. After the haunted house visit, the two had crossed the road to a diner, where Noah had bought them both soft drinks and a large order of cheese fries to share. “How many refills did we get, anyway?”

Noah laughed. “Just one, I think, but they were large cups.” He shook his head. “You were not alone in that. I had to get up and go in the middle of the night, too.”

When they fell silent, each walked along with their own thoughts, watching as Benji moved across the lawns with other groups, rather than come back out to the street. Noah was continuing to be impressed at how easy it was to talk with the other teen – a lot easier, it seemed, than it was talking to any of the others in his group.

They walked for a bit before Jesse finally sighed. “It’s cold, tonight.”

“Yeah, I know,” Noah replied, before nodding at the group in the distance. “It’s a wonder none of them are freezing to death, really.”

“Are you kidding? They probably are, but they’re not going to let anything interrupt collecting their hoard of treasures tonight! Besides, they aren’t going to realize how cold it really is, at least not until they get near the end or get back home!” Jesse replied. Noah nodded in agreement.

As expected, it wasn’t until more than an hour later that the group, having been around to most of the houses by now, started breaking up and Benji rejoined his older brother. “Did you see that one kid? He had a Spiderman costume like I had before… well, you know!”

Jesse nodded. “Yep, I saw him, but I still think you were dressed up better than he was!” He reached out and temporarily took hold of Benji’s bag, lifting it twice into the space between them. “Whoa! I bet you’ve got 10 pounds of stuff in here!” he exclaimed, exaggerating somewhat but making as if weighing the bag for practicality.

Noah reached out and also took hold of the bag, testing the weight for himself. “Hmm… Maybe even more than that by the way it feels,” he added with a mischievous grin. “So, how much do we get to keep, since we were your hired bodyguards and all tonight?”

“Hmph!” Benji replied, quickly grabbing the bag back. “You know, if you wanted candy, all you had to do was bring a bag and trick-or-treat like Jesse did! There were some that I saw who looked like you guys. At least, they looked to be older and all!”

Jesse laughed. “We know, we saw them, Ben. We’re only teasing,” he added, before bringing his bag around in front of him. “Besides, hold out and open your bag up for a second,” he commanded, to which Benji complied with a puzzled expression. At least, until he watched his older brother pour the contents from his own bag and added it to his brother’s stash.

“Seriously? Thanks bro!” the boy exclaimed, suddenly giving Jesse a quick, one-armed hug right there on the street. It was then Jesse gave Noah a knowing look, as if saying ‘See what I mean?’. Noah ended up smiling as he realized that, at that moment, he was witnessing something special. The teenager felt some inner tug of his own, but it came along with a measure of sadness, or at least a longing of sorts. Confused, however, he quickly shook it off, as he instead listened to the younger of the brothers begin a rapid dialog, recapping the night’s adventures, and the different costumes and characters he had met along the way. There was an enthusiastic excitement in his voice, and neither of the older boys interrupted him, instead nodding and playing along here and there to maintain at least a minimal level of interest.

As they approached home, Noah suddenly diverted and guided them both down his own driveway, especially after noticing his mother still had the porch light on. Prodding them along, he led the two go up to his front door and rang the doorbell. Shortly thereafter, Jennifer opened it, grinning widely after she recognized her new guests. “So, a couple of hobos and a ninja! Who would have thought!” she responded laughing, after Benji gave his usual trick-or-treat greeting. With that, she grabbed a handful of candy and dumped it into the waiting bag, before shuddering. “Are you boys done for the night, then? It’s getting awfully chilly out here!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jesse replied. “Thanks again, though, for everything.”

“I’m going to walk over for a little bit Mom, if that’s alright,” Noah announced, causing Jennifer to raise an eyebrow, but nodding her permission all the same.

“Just don’t stay too long, since tomorrow’s a school day, alright?” When Noah agreed, she closed the door and the trio left the porch before heading across the lawn to the house next door. Benji, still full of energy and excitement from the evening’s adventure, ran ahead of the other two. When they caught up with him inside, he was already jabbering at an excited rate with his mother, while they both dumped the contents of his treat bag onto the kitchen table. For the next half-hour, the four of them scoured through the stash of candies, organizing and dividing the loot into groups: hard candies, soft candies, lollipops, sour treats, chocolates, chewing gum and more. Upon closer inspection, by the end, Makalah declared the entire lot to be acceptable, making Benji screech in excitement. His outburst caused James to then make an appearance, walking through the entrance from the living room.

“Oh ho, the loot hath made its way-th into the castle-th!” their father declared, quickly swiping a piece of chocolate from the treasure hoard, and then opening it on the spot. He then had to raise his arms in defense though, as Benji playfully started to punch and push him back.


They all laughed, but then Benji stopped and picked up two more chocolate bars and handed them to his father. “Here, you… you choco-holic! There – now leave me the rest!” he declared, causing another round of laughs as he succeeded in getting his father turned around, and heading back toward the room he had just come from.

Makalah looked on in amusement. “Well, I guess you can each have a couple of pieces tonight if you want, but don’t start digging until tomorrow. Especially you, Ben. Right now, it’s bath time for you!”

“AAwwwww Mom!” Benji declared, disappointed. “Just two?”

Makalah laughed. “Yes, just two! It’s going to be time for bed in a little bit, and I don’t want you bouncing off walls and burning off energy all night long! Neither you or your brother will get any sleep then!”

With his mother giving him a hug from behind, Benji relented and accepted it good naturedly. Reaching out, he began scooping up the remaining candy and refilling the bag from which it had originated. Jesse and Noah both helped him, to which Benji giggled. “Don’t you two start eating a bunch of it, either! I’ll give you some later!”

“Deal,” Jesse declared, giving his brother a high five before he was whisked off by their mother toward their bedroom.

Noah then cleared his throat. “I guess that’s it for me, too. I’d better be going. So, see you tomorrow then?”

“You bet,” Jesse replied, then bumped the offered mid-air fist with the teen. As Noah smiled and left, Jesse watched after him momentarily. There was a good feeling that came over him then, something that he would never have expected after being together the week before. Whatever was changing inside his new friend, Jesse gladly noted it as being a good thing. The same old Noah still shone through at times, but instead of the cold, aloof exterior, there was now a kinder, gentler persona in its place. The stark difference was undeniable, and Jesse hoped it would hold up. Aside from his brother, he had never had anyone much as a close friend before now.

He sighed as he turned off the overhead light and began heading to his bedroom.


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The start to the school week the next morning was as common and uneventful as always. When Jesse and Noah boarded the school bus, Mr. Bones said nothing to them other than his habitual “Good morning.” Jesse took his usual seat, but Noah moved back about midway down the aisle where he stopped and joined Linda once again. Initially the girl was seated and leaning against the outside wall, her eyes were closed as if trying to doze. Sensing the boy beside her, however, caused her to grunt. After a moment, she yawned and then sat up straighter.

“How’s it going? Survive the weekend?” she asked quietly, to which Noah nodded.

“Actually, a lot better than I expected,” Noah replied softly. “A whole lot better.”

“Good! I know you were kind of torn up when you got off the bus Friday,” Linda drawled, but not unkindly.

“I-” Noah started, but then paused. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pull you into all of that.”

“You didn’t,” Linda replied, before stifling a second yawn. “As I recall, a certain ex-friend of ours brutally called into question my parentage, among other things.” She sighed. “He’s still being a piss-ant about it, too. He tried to call me at home last night, and get ME to apologize to HIM!”

“No shit? What for?” Noah asked in surprise.

“For taking everything out of proportion, or so he said. I told him I had nothing to apologize for, and neither did you. He was being the ass-wipe, not us,” she replied, but then frowned. “I’m afraid he doesn’t see it that way though. He told me to leave you out of it, that he was going to take care of you later.”

“Really?” Noah asked, but then contemplated the meaning behind that. Turning, he glanced toward the back where he could see his ex-friend, as Linda now referred to him, seated in the last seat on the opposite side and pretending to be asleep. “What’s his problem though, you know?” Turning back, he breathed deeply. “I don’t get it. I honestly don’t get it, at all.”

“I think he was high on something Friday, though I’m not sure what it would have been. I mean, I’ve never seen him with drugs or anything before, so it was… different, anyway. Not like the Pete we normally know, for sure. It’s like I said, someone told me he got into all kinds of shit in his last class. It’s a wonder he didn’t get suspended or anything, really,” Linda mused. “Somehow, he either still hasn’t processed that, Noah, or he has – and the after effect has him thinking he’s in the right, and that we’re the butt-heads.”

“I… Okay, I guess I can see that, but…” Noah sighed again, frowning. “What am I supposed to do about it, though? I’m not scared of him, not really, but… shit, you know?”

Linda scoffed. “Meh. There’s really nothing you can do, Noah, other than just watch your back. Sorry my friend, but this is one of those things where you have to either hope he comes to his senses, or hope he’s as much of a slob as we’re all beginning to think he is. Either way, uh, watch your back though, all right?”

“Yeah, okay…” Noah conceded.

“So,” Linda started, after they had fallen silent for a short distance. “I couldn’t help but notice you and Jesse were walking the street last night. Are you two, like, getting to be friends and all?” When Noah glanced at her wearily, she smiled and tried to put him at ease. “Hey, easy there. I think it’s cool, actually. I’ve never seen anything wrong with him, and Addison Davies… do you know her? I think they were neighbors over there on whatever that road is they lived on. She says Jesse’s pretty up-and-up, a cool kind of guy as far as she’s concerned.”

Noah relaxed. “He is pretty cool, I think. A lot more than I ever gave him credit for, at least.” Glancing forward, he saw Jesse had scooted into the corner and laid his head against the window. “We were taking his little brother around trick-or-treating last night, so yeah. And we went up to the haunted house Saturday night, you know, the one at the armory. He’s… well, he’s kind of fun to be around. Doesn’t act dorky or screwy or anything, like some people I’ve been around before.”

Linda looked on with understanding. “Well, I’m kind of glad then. It does sort of look like you’ve got a friend in your corner, now. Someone in your league.”

Noah frowned. “In my league?”

“Yes, you know … your age, your grade.” She leaned in closer. “Listen, Noah, I’m going to tell you something, but do NOT take this the wrong way, okay? We like you and all, and we even think you’re funny as hell sometimes, alright? But… we’re all older by a year or more, and you know how some groups kind of separate on that, like, in the grades and all. I’m just saying, I know you get teased about that sometimes, from Pete, Jimmy and the others, but… it’s just nice to see you have someone your own age to do things with too. Understand?”

Noah smiled. “Linda…” He hesitated, but had already relented by the time he turned and met her stare. “You know something? You’re the best, girl. I honestly don’t know how I would make it without you, sometimes. Even if you do paw at me to get a feel and everything, but deny it all the time!”

Linda giggled, swatting him mischievously. “I don’t think I’m going to answer that, really.” She studied him for a second, as if measuring his reaction. “I’ll tell you something though, although you might not believe it – not right now, at least.” Leaning closer, she whispered, “I know how you would make it, and trust me – you would make it just fine.” She pulled back and then turned to stare out at the scenery going by. “Do something for me though, okay? Be careful. Last week, I caught little pieces here and there about things Pete and Jimmy have been so hush-hush about. My friend Rose, she’s also overheard some others talking that hang around with them, too. Point is, it sounds as if he’s up to no good – like, he’s planning something, but none of us could make out what it is, unfortunately. Whatever it is though, after that build-up about Jesse last week, I’ve just got this funny feeling. You understand what I’m telling you, right?”

Noah nodded, suddenly becoming troubled again. “That’s what you couldn’t tell me about last week, isn’t it?” When she nodded, he sat back. “You’re right. I know Pete a lot better now though, and I think I agree. I wouldn’t put something past him either.” He once again observed Jesse ahead of him. “Do you think I should tell Jesse?” he asked quietly.

Linda shrugged. “I wouldn’t. I mean, what are you really going to tell him? There is no proof, not even enough to go beyond just simple guessing, is there? It’s just a feeling is all, and that isn’t enough to really start something. Just watch your back, and maybe keep an eye out for him too, while you’re at it.”

Noah nodded. “See? I told you… you’re the best. I mean, you helped me keep it together the rest of the ride home, you know? That makes you pretty cool in my book.”

Linda giggled again, before sitting back with him. “Well, as a friend, you’re pretty cool to me, too. Just don’t let Tyler know I said that, okay? I don’t need him getting jealous right now,” she murmured, rolling her eyes.

Noah only grinned in response.


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That afternoon, a smiling Noah walked out of his math class, holding an exam in front of him and beaming at the 94-score that he received. He had never made an A-grade before, at least in this class, and it gave him a feeling of elation he hadn’t experienced in quite some time. When he saw Jesse up ahead waiting, he turned and flashed the paper. Jesse saw the grade and then grinned widely himself, before offering the proverbial fist-bump which Noah gladly met. “So, you’ve impressed Mr. Garland now. Good job!” Jesse commented.

“Yeah, he even asked me what turned me around,” Noah responded before stopping. He stared at his friend for only a second before he confessed. “I, uh, I told him that you did it. That we kind of started studying together some. Is… is that okay?”

The answer surprised Jesse, but the question even more so. “Well, heck yeah! Why wouldn’t it be?”

Noah stood for a second before finally shrugging. Taking Jesse by the elbow, he maneuvered them both over to the wall of the long hallway, out of the way of the crowding bodies trying to pass around them. “Because, he may ask you about it, and some of the others might, too. Look, brains or not, you understand this stuff a lot better than the rest of us. And… as bad as my grades have been, well… at least I need some help, and I’m man enough to admit it when something is over my head.”

Jesse nodded. “Okay, I get it. It’s cool, though. You’ll make it, at least with us helping each other out.”

Noah grinned. “Good! Now, how did you do?”

Jesse blushed. “Uh, are you sure you want to know?” When he saw the other teen roll his eyes, he pulled the paper from his folder.

“Whoa! A 97? That… that’s great!” Noah then looked puzzled. “Why are you blushing about that, though?”

Jesse shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s the highest I’ve made on one of his math tests, so far anyway. I- I just didn’t want it to look like I’m, uh, parading it around, I guess.”

Noah rolled his eyes a second time, this time raising his hand and popping Jesse gently on the back of his head. “Dope! Come on, McAllister… We’ve got to get to the gym.”

Later, in last period study hall, Linda sat down beside Noah once again. After asking about how he did on his math test, and seeing the result, a tiny squeal escaped her. Luckily, there was enough noise by the other students arriving that it went unnoticed by any of the teachers. “That is awesome! How did you do it?”

It was Noah’s turn to then blush. “Uh, Jessie helped me, actually. We ended up studying and going over everything the night before after dinner.”

Linda laughed softly. “Wow? See? I told you so, didn’t I? He’s turning out to be a good guy after all!”

Noah grunted. “Yeah, he really is. I wish…” he started, but stopped. That is, until he saw the questioning look that met him, waiting for him to go on. “It’s kind of like we said this morning, I wish I had taken the time and gotten to know him a lot sooner, now.”

“Sometimes it just works out that way, Noah. Really though, ask yourself: does it really matter now? You found him, and in a way, he’s found you, too. There’s no harm done by it, either way. The question is, are you brave enough to care about going forward with it?”

Noah frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, are you brave enough to let Pete and the other creeps know how wrong they were, and that you don’t care what they think anymore? Besides, it’s what you think and feel that matters Noah, not them,” Linda answered.

That thought stuck with Noah throughout the entire period, as he reflected on what she was trying to tell him. It wasn’t until the bell rang though, and the students were heading toward the buses, that the proverbial lightbulb suddenly switched on in his head. As Noah drew closer to the door, the idea solidified at how much of a chump he had been since the storm. Finding his bus waiting, as he stepped aboard, he looked about and once again found that Jesse had already boarded and was seated by himself, close to his usual spot. That was when Noah smiled and slid in next to him, totally surprising the other teen as he glanced up. Just as Noah finished getting settled, Linda boarded and, after making eye contact, they both smiled at each other. As she passed, Noah reached out and pulled her down where he could whisper in her ear. “Thanks, that’s two I owe you now.” She only smiled at him and then went on her way down the aisle.

“Uh… are you sure you’re in the right seat?” Jesse asked, still not believing the moment.

Noah pulled his knees up as usual before turning and responding. “Yes, I’m sure. Come on, it can’t be THAT big of a surprise!”

Jesse grinned, but then shook his head as he mimicked his friend by pulling own his knees up as well. “Well, I don’t know… maybe…”

Noah sat quietly for a few moments, until the bus began leaving the parking lot for its usual afternoon journey. It was then he decided he needed to get something off his chest, and he needed his new friend to understand it. When he spoke, his tone was casual, but there was a definite seriousness laced within it. “Listen, Jesse. You need to understand something, okay? I’m not getting after you, or dissing you or anything, but there is something we need to come to an agreement on.”

Jesse picked up on the gravity of the moment right away. “Okay… shoot, I’m listening.”

Noah hesitated before lowering his voice to the point it was just enough to be heard between the two of them. “I know, okay? I’ve been a doofus, and for a long time. I’m sorry for that, honest, and I can’t think of any other way to say it that’ll make you believe me any better. But, like I told you the other night, I want to be friends. I really, really want to. I want to push everything aside, and try to be someone from here on out that you can believe me when I tell you that. I’m being sincere, okay? I don’t know what that will take, but I’m really willing to do anything I can.”

Jesse raised both eyebrows in surprise. “Well, okay… I mean… huh?”

Noah giggled. “Yeah, huh… I know, big words coming from a little mouth.” He relaxed and leaned in slightly. “The thing is, it’s you. I’m trying hard, okay, but you… no more huh, no more disbelief, or anything else like that, okay? Whatever I have to do to make you believe me, just tell me, okay?”

Jesse sat back, turning to look out the window briefly before turning back. “You don’t have to do anything, Noah. You never did, actually. I’m sorry, too, because… well, it’s like when you asked me to be patient with you. For that, you might kind of have to do the same for me, man. I’ve – I’ve not had anyone much to even give me the time of day before, so it’s not something I’m usually used to. Not from you, not from anybody, really.” He observed the other teen. “It’s a good feeling though, honest. I want to be friends too, Noah. Only… to me, we’re already friends now. You might still surprise me sometimes, but meh… Honest, I already believe you. I really do.”

Noah smiled. “Okay, fair is fair I guess,” he replied, bringing his fist mid-air between them. When Jesse met it, however, Noah held his in place for a moment longer. “Listen, I already know I owe you, and I owe you big time. I still want to say thanks, though.”

Jesse creased his brow. “For what?”

“For believing in me,” Noah answered. “Especially after what happened the weekend you came to stay with us. I know, even my parents sometimes feel like giving up on me, but you didn’t. You didn’t complain or anything, you just let me have my space and all. That… that did something, trust me. Something good.”

“I’ve never had a reason to not believe in you, man,” Jesse replied, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Well, hopefully I’ll never give you one then, from here on out. I mean it, I’m glad we’ve kind of teamed up now,” Noah replied, before giggling. “If it wasn’t such a public taboo, I’d even consider giving you a hug for it – if you wanted one, that is. I mean, I was prepared in case, well, if it would help convince you, I’d do it.”

Jesse laughed out loud. “That’s okay. Like I said, I believe you.” Their eyes met one last time before Noah finally dropped his hand, and sat forward.

“Now, what kind of stuff do you want to get into today? When we get home, I mean…”

Jesse turned forward as well. “Well, it’s really too cold to do much outside, I guess.”

“How about you come over and we play some video games then? You were at my house a whole week, and you never even asked or tried any of them out!” Noah declared, before he immediately raised a hand. “Alright, don’t go there. I’m an idiot, we both know why.” When Jesse rolled his eyes, Noah’s shoulders slumped. “Hey, listen, I’ve got an idea… can we, like, pretend to just start over? Something like that, anyway? Maybe… I don’t know, maybe it would help us both, or me at least.”

“Well, sure, I guess,” Jesse replied. “I don’t know that we necessarily need to completely start over, though. I mean, Saturday night, and then last night were both pretty awesome starts already, weren’t they?”

“I agree,” Noah replied, grinning. “What say we kind of just start our reboot from, oh, maybe Friday afternoon onward? Yeah, I know, I lost it. I was a wuss, more or less… but honestly, that’s when I think I saw the better part of us really becoming friends, you know? You… your being there… it helped, man, in a lot of ways I can’t explain. It just did.”

“Believe it or not, it helped me, too. I mean, you didn’t bust my balls or anything, you know?” Jesse whispered. When Noah smiled and nodded, he then sat back. “So, okay… Friday afternoon on it is,” he replied light-heartedly. The rest of the trip home found both boys engaging in a deep discussion about various games then, and which ones were better than others.


«««««««««« _ »»»»»»»»»»


“Hey, where’s Jesse?” Benji exclaimed, walking into the house and not finding his brother anywhere.

Makalah smiled at her younger son. “He called. He’s over at the Cooks, playing video games for a change,” she answered him, all the while smothering him with a big hug from behind.

That caused the boy to turn around and face her. “What! Really? Have you called the cops yet?”

Makalah laughed. “Oh, I don’t think it’s that bad, is it?” she replied, which made Benji giggle.

“No, not really. Noah was really nice walking with us last night, and I know he’s beginning to talk with Jesse a lot more. You know, nice and everything.” He looked up. “Can I go join them? I want to play, too!”

Makalah thought about it, but then shook her head. “Not now, buddy. Why don’t we let those two have a little time to themselves for once, hmm?” Seeing the disappointment, she dropped into a chair and pulled Benji into her lap. “I know, it’s kind of hard to understand some things like that, but… you and your brother are sssooo close, you know? I just think it might be good to let him have some friends his age, too. Just like you have Petey for a friend. And you know, Noah has had some issues, too, so in a way maybe he needs a friend like your brother around. Maybe it will calm him down so he can work some of his problems out in the end.”

“But…” Benji started to protest, but then relented. “Okay, Mom, I get it. You’re telling me don’t be a pest, right?”

Makalah laughed. “You’re not a pest, sport. I’m just trying to keep you all for myself!” With that she began tickling and covering him with kisses, making the boy squirm and laugh. Eventually, Benji hugged his mother before pulling back.

“Okay, NOW can I go dive into some of my candy?” he asked sweetly.

“Yes, but no more than, say, three or four pieces. We’re having spaghetti for dinner tonight, and I don’t want you ruining your appetite,” Makalah relented.

“I won’t!” Benji announced excitedly. “I’ll divide some of it up though, so Jesse and Noah can have some later, too.” He stopped at the entrance to the hallway. “That is, as long as you’ll let me take it over and give it to him. Noah, I mean.”

“Yes, after a while, you may go over and fetch your brother and tell him to get his rump home for supper,” Makalah replied, her eyes twinkling.


«««««««««« _ »»»»»»»»»»


As the evening was fast approaching, Jennifer was surprised to hear a knock and open the door to find Benji standing there, without a coat, and holding a bag. “What on Earth are you doing? Get in here kiddo! Don’t you know how cold it is outside?” she barked, laughing as the boy slipped by her quickly.

“Yeah, but I thought I could make it this far without a coat,” Benji replied, though not without shivering. “Can I go down and get Jesse? Mom said to tell him he has to come home for supper.”

“They’re downstairs playing video games, but yes,” she replied. “Go on, you know where to find them.”

“Yes ma’am. Thanks!” Benji replied, then took off, reaching the stairwell and dashing down as quickly as he could. When he turned, he saw the bedroom door open so he rushed in, finding his brother and Noah in the floor, sitting on bean bags and just finishing a race on the screen. As he approached, he unexpectedly stumbled over a pair of shoes between him and the two older teens, causing him to fly face forward into his brother’s lap.

“Hey, careful buddy!” Jesse exclaimed, dropping his controller and catching him at the absolute last second before he would have hit the floor.

Giggling, Benji rolled over and, using his brother for support, swung his legs around until he faced the other two boys. “Hey!” he announced toward Noah, who grunted but then grinned at the youth.

“Hey squirt, how’s it going?”

“It goes good, I think!” Benji replied. Looking up at the screen, he suddenly asked, “What are you two playing? Can I see?” For the next five minutes, both teens introduced the racing simulator to the boy, who laughed and squealed when he got to try it out. Unfortunately, the boy flipped his vehicle over within the first ten seconds from the start. “Ah, man, but it’s still cool!” he announced, causing the older boys to laugh. He tried again twice more, before finally setting the controller down. “We’ve got to go home, Jess. Mom has supper ready.”

Jess nodded. “I figured she sent you over here to fish me out.” Glancing at his host, he handed his controller over. “Thanks! This was pretty cool!”

“Did you guys not have a game system before, you know…?” Noah asked, taking the controller and putting it away.

“We had a Nintendo,” Benji piped up, answering while Jesse rose to his knees and crossed over to grab his tennis shoes. “We had, uh, Mario Kart, and Mario Party, and Zelda… and, I don’t know, some others.”

Jesse rolled back onto his butt, before beginning to don his footwear. “He’s right. We had a few good games, but nothing very, uh, intense. Not like this anyway.”

“Yeah, Mom says I have to get older before I can play the shoot-em ups and everything,” Benji added.

“I can understand that. A lot of the Sony titles are kind of powerful, or intense and everything like you said, at least to play. There’s a few that are not so complicated, but meh, most of their games are made for, uh, older teens, I guess,” Noah replied.

“Hmph. You mean they have the naughty stuff, or lots of blood and guts,” Benji replied, before seeing the bag he had dropped. “Oh yeah, I almost forgot! Here, this is for you,” he announced, handing the bag to their host.

Noah raised an eyebrow and peeked inside to find several pieces of candy. “For me?”

“Yeah, it’s your cut. I’ve got another stash I separated out for numb-nuts here,” Benji replied, then swiftly moved out of the way, giggling as Jesse threatened to throw his remaining shoe at him.

“You little fart,” he breathed, then giggled as he pulled the shoe on and began tying the laces.

“Uh, well, thanks but… this is your candy, Benji,” Noah replied softly. “I just wanted to get some fresh air last night. You know, just get out of the house for a while.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jesse spoke up. “Ben has always kind of split things up between us.”

“Bubba’s right. Like I said, it’s your cut. I still have a lot left over, trust me,” the youth said, before rolling up onto his knees and scooting over to where Jesse was readying to stand up. Pausing, he waited until the older boy had finished and then stood, grabbing Jesse by the hand and helping him stand.

“Well, thanks then,” Noah replied, standing with them. He turned his gaze to the other teen. “Um, no homework in math tonight, right? So, I guess I won’t see you again until tomorrow?”

Jesse nodded. “Same bat-time, same bat-channel!”

Noah sputtered. “What the f-, err, heck?” he said, laughing.

Benji laughed as well. “Careful, you might have to wash your mouth out with soap!” the youth teased.

Jesse grinned. “Our gramps, and our Dad too, I think, used to say that a lot. Something to do with an old Batman TV series that used to come on TV. They ended every episode saying something like that.”

“Ohhhh….” Noah replied, then shook his head. “Sheesh!” He then looked up to see Benji holding his fist out, waiting as he had seen the two, and other teens, do as of late. With a grin, Noah closed the short distance and bumped it, before having a similar exchange with Jess. “See you in the morning, then.”

“Yeah, you bet!” Jesse responded, before he and his little brother left the room. Noah walked to the door and stopped, leaning against the frame until the other two rounded the corner and disappeared. Standing there, he thought about the afternoon, and how easy it had been for him to connect with Jesse. Once again, he wondered why anyone got the idea the boy was such a dweeb to begin with. For everything Noah could tell, his new friend was far from it. If anything, the teen might even be the most real, down-to-Earth friend he had ever encountered.

That also went for his brother, Noah thought. He didn’t have a lot of experience around the younger McAllister, but he noted that, leaving aside his youthful exuberance, the kid was really well-mannered for a seven-year-old. He noted their exchange, too, when he helped his older brother to his feet, without being asked or prompted. Is that a dynamic in families he simply had missed, Noah wondered? The teen realized suddenly that there were a lot of things he didn’t know about family dynamics like that – or his new friend, for that matter. He was going to have to change that some way, and soon.

It was only moments later he heard his mother calling out to him, informing him their own dinner was ready. “Okay, Mom! I’ll be right up,” he called back, turning back into his room to shutting the TV off. His socked foot touched the bag of candy that had been left behind, and it made Noah smile again. It was a gift, the only one he could remember ever having received from someone outside of his parents, for a long, long time. It was a little gesture, simple in intent, but it registered something else with him. The boy had given it, unassuming and without compunction, to him – just for being with them last night. He picked up the bag and set it on his nightstand, before finally turning and leaving the room.


«««««««««« _ »»»»»»»»»»


“So, are you and stone-face becoming friends, now?”

Jesse, sitting with his back against the bedpost, looked up as Benji entered the room, wearing nothing but a towel draped around him. He had just come from the bathroom, his hair wet and water dripping along the side of his face. “I see Mom let you take a shower tonight,” he commented, before turning back to his science book sprawled in his lap.

“Uh, huh,” Benji replied, shutting their door and then dropping the towel completely. He pulled it up to his head and rubbed it through his hair vigorously. “You still didn’t answer me, though.”

Jesse looked up and grunted. “Yeah, I guess we are. He’s… he’s not like we thought him to be, you know? Or, maybe he was, but he’s kind of different now.”

“Yeah, he’s a lot nicer,” Benji replied, before stopping and crossing over to where Jesse sat in the floor. Without preamble, the youth used a foot to push the book aside before he half-hopped into Jesse’s lap, causing the teen to laugh.

“You little fart,” he exclaimed, but then swallowed the youth up in his arms, hugging him close.

“That’s what you say, I know, but I still think your farts smell worse than mine,” Benji quipped in return, before totally relaxing. “See? I’m naked now, and I don’t care. And I know you don’t care, either. Right?” he whispered.

“Nope, I don’t!” Jesse whispered back into his brother’s ear. “It just goes to show how much you still trust me,” he added, reaching down and pinching the younger one on his butt.

Benji squealed, but ever so quietly. He remained in place, however, squirming as Jesse attempted to tickle him in other places. Eventually though, they both stilled themselves while the older brother just held on. “So, are you going to tell me about, you know…” He pointed toward his groin. “Tonight?”

Jesse smiled, but then shook his head. “I bet Mom will be in here in a minute, so you’d better get some underwear on at least, if not pajamas.”

“Aww, mmaannnn…” Benji replied, crestfallen. “But… when?”

Jesse thought for a moment. “Maybe Saturday morning, if we don’t have to get up for anything. I know Mom will be working, and you know Dad, he’ll probably head up to the store. We’ll probably be alone with the whole house just to us… You know, just you and me.”

Benji stared up into the eyes meeting his own. “You promise? And… you’ll tell me anything I want to know, right?”

Jesse smiled. “I’ll answer anything you ask of me, yeah. I promise.” With that, he held out his hand with his index and middle fingers pointed together. Benji mimicked the gesture, and they crossed the ends together as if making a pact. “I swear it,” he whispered.

In response, Benji leaned up and, grasping his brother by the neck, pivoted around to give him another full hug. “Love you, bro,” he whispered, which Jesse responded by hugging him tighter.

“Now, get some underwear on. I already hear Mom in the bathroom cleaning up after you!” Jesse whispered, pushing the boy back. He watched his brother hurriedly turn and pull a pair of briefs from their dresser and, just as predicted, it was only moments before their mother arrived, knocking on the door first. “Come on in, Mom,” Jesse announced, pulling his textbook back into his lap. Benji, he noted, had just finished donning a t-shirt as the door opened.

“Well, seems you’re ready for bed for a change,” Makalah remarked, walking over and tussling her fingers through Benji’s short, light brown hair. “Did you brush your teeth?” Benji replied by pulling back and gritting his pearly whites for her to observe, making his mother laugh. “All right, all right you squirt. Come on,” she announced, before grabbing him under the arms and lifting him to the higher loft of the bed. “Umph! You’re getting a lot heavier now, kiddo! Time for you to do your own climbing, I think!”

“You always say that, Mom!” Benji snickered in response.

“Well, yes, but one of these days, dear old Mom is going to break her back trying to lift you up anywhere again!” Makalah replied with amusement. She waited until the youth scooted in under the covers, then leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Now, try to go to sleep, will you?”

“I will, I promise,” was the timid reply. She patted him on his chest and then turned, looking down at Jesse.

“Are you set, too? Need anything from us old grups?”

“Ah Mom,” Jesse replied, with a slight tinge of annoyance. “I’ve told you before, you’re not old!” Setting the book aside once again, he climbed to his feet and gave the woman a quick hug, as she kissed him on the top of his head.

“Well, maybe not, but it’s still kind of nice to be reminded about it every once in a while, especially from her son,” Makalah whispered. “Love you, kiddo, but don’t stay up too long, alright?”

“I won’t,” he promised, waiting until she left the room before he started to strip his clothes off. He had made it to his underwear when he noticed a pair of lively eyes watching him closely through the rails. “Don’t go blind, little brother,” he whispered, giggling to himself. Finding a sleeping shirt, he pulled it on over his head and then approached the side of his bed, taking a step up so that he could peer over the safety rail. “Remember, I said I would do it Saturday, and I promise – as long as we’re alone,” he whispered.

“I know. I believe you, bro,” was the soft reply. A moment later, Jesse was stretched out on his own mattress, pulling the covers up. He lay there for a few moments, thinking about the last few days, and wondering what Noah was doing just then. He sat up and peeked out the window to the house next door, and noticed the blinds had not been drawn. Peering inside, he thought he could make out his new friend lying on the bed, stretched out as he had been captured before, with the light from his tablet illuminating the immediate area. Curiously, Jesse wondered what Noah listened to each night, before realizing there were several things he did not know about the boy – something that he would have to rectify in the coming days.

As he lay back down on his pillow again, Jesse also started to think about other things, including the promise he had just made to his little brother. Exactly what and how he was going to accomplish it, he wasn’t sure, but he was determined to give his little brother all the information he wanted – at least with a certain level of respect. He remembered learning things at that age, finding out that what he did and did not know wasn’t quite always right. Although it was first and foremost sex – or mostly anyway – he wished he had had someone to set him straight long before he eventually learned the truth.

What he needed to know first, Jesse figured, was what Petey had been telling Benji about already. That might not be the easiest thing to accomplish and be smart about, but then again, if he could succeed in getting his brother to admit that much up front, then Jesse could at least make sure Benji understood what really was ‘bullshit’…

… and what was not.


«««««««««« _ »»»»»»»»»»


As the week progressed, both Noah and Jesse found that the more time they spent with each other, the more each became comfortable with their developing friendship. Jesse found Noah to be far more of an in-depth individual than the teen normally revealed, all the while Noah discovered his new friend was far more normal than the conventional masses seemed to believe. There was little that the teenagers couldn’t learn from each other, as each helped to build the other’s self-esteem and confidence in little, abstract ways. It was a friendship much welcomed by them both, and their parents could not have been happier.

As the weekend approached, other events and elements were beginning to unfold in both households. Makalah and James had returned to the working world, and none too soon. Makalah, a registered nurse at the nearby hospital’s emergency ward, was having to fill in and assist in covering partial shifts, due to an outbreak of illness among the staff that week. James, although not a partner but instead a long-time, well respected employee and manager of the local Ace Hardware store, was also kept overly busy. Although the hardware chain was bringing out seasonal merchandise for the upcoming holidays, which kept many of the employees on their toes, this particular store was also fortunate enough to supply many of the local victims of the storm with supplies. For everyone involved, things seemed to progress very slowly toward getting their claims or repairs, to their damaged properties, resolved.

The overlapping of schedules became haphazard for the McAllisters, and the boys were often found at home alone after school. The Cooks, hearing of the sudden changes hampering the family, began inviting Jesse and Benji both to start eating dinner with them – something that Noah seemed to look forward to and actually enjoy. Gone were the days of sitting far away and separating himself at the dinner table, or disappearing completely in order to avoid Jesse and his brother. Instead, the three now often giggled and played into the chaotic afternoons while visiting and eating. Afterwards, the older teens would often do their homework together, especially math, while Benji played video games. Both teenagers had, by the end of the week, purposefully made it a point to bring their classwork for math in from school, as Jesse continued helping the other to understand how to go about tackling the new material being introduced. It helped them both really, because Jesse, while working through and explaining the problems, was helping himself reason them out and refine his own thinking.

On Friday evening, Allen, Jennifer and the boys decided to go out for dinner at a local pizza buffet. Shortly after arriving, James walked in and joined them, smiling widely as Benji ran and jumped into his arms with a fierce hug. Others from school were present that evening, too, including Petey, Benji’s friend and next-door neighbor from their previous residence. Many stopped by to converse briefly with James and the boys as the night went on, all wondering how well things were going and how the family was doing, offering their best wishes. James would chat with them while the others ate, grabbing a few bites in between. It became comical at one point, as James would get a bite or two before the next one in the crowd would walk over. During one break, Allen leaned in. “That’s what you get for being one of the more well-known people around here, I think,” he remarked amusedly.

James scoffed. “It’s not just here. Almost everyone coming into the store now pulls me aside, always the same questions, too.” He then grinned. “I don’t mind it, though. It’s a bit of a morale boost for me, in a way.”

Allen nodded. “Well, don’t forget, there’s another boost coming tomorrow night. Don’t be surprised at what all shows up, either. I’ve heard a lot of business and churches have gotten involved.”

“That’s right,” Jennifer interjected. “Tomorrow’s the benefit concert, isn’t it?”

James sat back. “That’s what I’ve heard. Charlie Stout, our owner, has put in some tools and things, too. In fact, I had to get the bulk of them boxed up this afternoon so they would be ready for delivery in the morning. It’s being held up at the high school gymnasium, right?”

“That’s what I was told. It was moved there because the gym had more room to set up and all. They’re supposed to open the doors in the morning around 10:30, I think,” Allen replied.

“Are we going to get to go, Dad?” Jesse asked, causing all three adults to turn in his direction.

“Of course, along with all of us!” Jennifer replied. “It’s a benefit for you two just as much as everyone else! I wouldn’t be surprised to see some things for all you kids.”

“Besides clothes?” Benji asked. Clearly, his tone did not reflect any enthusiasm for that prospect, which made the adults all laugh again as the youth reached for his drink.

“I think you’ll be surprised,” Allen replied. “There probably won’t be so much in the way of toys or anything, mind you, but there’ll be other stuff you’ll find to your liking, I’m sure.” The response did little to change the youth’s mood, but he nodded his acceptance anyway.

About that time, young Petey King walked up to their table. “Hey, Benji, would you like to come over tonight and stay? Mom said I could ask you, and,” the boy paused long enough to turn to James. “I’m supposed to ask you if it’s alright, too.”

James smiled, then glanced down to his younger son, who was looking up at him with a questioning expression. “Do you want to go?” he asked quietly, to which Benji nodded emphatically. James then sat back. “It’s alright with me. I can swing by and pick you up after I get off work tomorrow.”

“Awesome! Thanks Dad!” the young boy announced, suddenly giving his father a second quick hug for that evening. Grabbing one last drink from his glass, the youth then scooted his chair back and took off with his friend, who guided them to his parents who were already at the register.

James laughed as he disappeared. “And… just like that, he’s gone. No thought to needing clothes or anything! It’s almost as if he has a one-track mind!” They all laughed, as he sat back and patted his stomach while glancing at Jesse. “That’s okay, though. If you’ll grab some things when we get home, I’ll run them over to him.”

Jesse nodded, but then spoke up. “You know, you probably don’t have to, Dad. They’re the same size and all, so I’m sure Petey would loan him some things to make it through the night.”

“You know, that may not be a half-bad idea,” James remarked, before pushing his chair back from the table. “Be right back,” the man announced, getting up and hurrying over to the King family just as they were readying to leave. He conversed with Mrs. King for a brief moment, then nodded and returned with a satisfied smile. “Done!” he announced, sitting back down.

As the adults continued to converse, Noah rose and moved around the end of the table, taking the seat now vacated by the younger brother, so he could chat with Jesse in lower tones. “You know, with your brother gone, if you wanted to, you could stay with me again tonight.”

Jesse raised both eyebrows in surprise, but liked the idea. At a convenient point, he interrupted his father to ask for permission, which the man readily gave along with Noah’s parents. Then at Noah’s urging, both boys rose and walked toward the back of the dining area, where two, old-time pinball machines were setup. As they began to play, James watched them before commenting. “It’s a total turn-around, isn’t it? Compared to only, what, two weeks ago now?”

“You’re not kidding,” Jennifer agreed. “Honestly, if I hadn’t watched it all unfold, I’d corner Noah and ask him what had happened to my son, and what had Jesse done with him.”

Allen snorted. “I think I’d have to agree with her on that,” he added. Looking up, he observed the two teens in the distance as well. “I don’t know how to thank you people, really. It’s like the daylight and dark difference for us all, especially now.”

James shrugged. “We didn’t do anything. They’re just kids, Allen. Growing kids, I know, but they’re coming into their own. From what I can tell, I think Noah may have just needed a friend.”

“A real friend, yeah,” Jennifer mused. “By the way, I do know a few TVs were donated for the benefit tomorrow night. Unless you and Makalah have any objections, make sure Benji gets to pick one out for him and Jesse. I’m sure that would make him feel a lot happier, too.”

James smiled. “You bet, especially since I’ve got the cable company coming out early next week to do an install.” He glanced back at Allen amusedly. “I assume there’s nothing wrong with us doing that, right?”

The landlord grinned. “I never could get Dad interested in doing that. A pity really, too, as he just watched what he could get off the antenna. Always complained about why he should ever pay for something he could get free.” The others laughed heartily.

At the pinball machine, Noah had just lost his last ball in the set and stepped aside. “Here, your turn,” he offered, putting the quarters in before Jesse could object. Jesse stood hesitantly, before moving into position. “You know, I can pay for my own stuff, Noah,” he said quietly.

Noah looked on. “Yeah, yeah, I know…” Seeing the cold look that met him, however, he relented. “I know you can, just… I wanted to do it, that’s all.”

Jesse relaxed and pulled the plunger to release his first ball. He could not help but notice, however, how close the other teen was leaning in next to him. It was comforting, in a way, making him feel as much as Jesse got from the times that he and Benji would hang close to one another. There was a sort of intimacy in it, something nurtured and filled with trust and understanding. As Jesse played, Noah was right there, guiding, pointing out things to try for or avoid. Pinball was not normally a thing for the McAllister brother, but playing the round with Noah was certainly changing his feeling about it.

And his feelings about the other teen were changing, too.

It might have been a fantastic round altogether, if not for the sudden appearance of two beefy, older boys who came up to the table beside them. “Well, well, well… look who we have here, the fairy and the butt-wipe,” a familiar voice announced rather loudly, with a wicked grin spread wide upon his face.

Noah looked up to see Pete the Third and his friend, Jimmy Edwards, both of whom crowded into the space around the table, cutting off any real means of escape for either of the younger teens. With a quick scoff of annoyance, Noah lowered his voice to a grave tone of its own. “Piss off, Pete, and take your boyfriend with you.”

Upon hearing those words, Jimmy moved in quickly and pushed Noah hard up against the wall, pinning him using his much larger body. “What did you say, cocksucker?” he breathed. “Did you just refer to me as a homo, shit-face?” he breathed, his eyes lit up with a rapidly rising anger.

Noah looked up into the face that met him, and saw the underlying rage. “No more different than all the times you pick on just about everyone else about it.” He tried to shove against the brute, but only partially succeeded in regaining any space of his own. “Move it, you fucking brontosaurus!” he breathed.

A sudden, harsh laughter filled the air again as Pete the Third roared aloud, “I think he just called you fat and ugly!”

The overall chatter in the dining room fell, as many people turned toward the corner to observe where the group was standing. Allen, who had already noticed the two bigger boys’ approach from the corner of his eye, watched and observed the two corner and pen his son against the wall rather forcefully. He quickly rose to his feet then, and began moving in their general direction at once. James, as it turned out, was not far behind.

“Is there something we can do for you, boys?” Allen announced as they stepped up.

Pete the Third suddenly spun on his heel to face the two newcomers. Seeing who it was, however, caused him to stop. “Oh no, no sir! We just decided we’d see how these two were faring at pinball is all,” he answered, his voice dripping with sweet, sneering sarcasm.

“Well, I think they were doing just fine before you two decided to bulldoze your way up here,” James responded, stepping around until he was by Allen’s side. Although both of the older teenagers were rather stocky overall, both adults were equally as impressive as they stood nearby. “How about you fine fellas give them some space.” When neither responded, Jame’s complexion turned sour. “That, girls, was NOT a request.”

“You know, I think it would be better all-around if you just disappeared altogether, don’t you?” Allen followed up, raising his voice so that it could be clearly heard throughout the room. By then, all eyes in the now silent dining area were on the six of them. He was about to go on when he suddenly caught a scent of something familiar. “After all, underage drinking can, and will, get you into a mighty fine heap of trouble, if you don’t move it. Like, now.”

Suddenly another individual appeared by their side, dressed in a Deputy’s uniform. “Everything alright here, fellas?” the man asked in a burly, deep voice.

James smiled sweetly. “Hey, Josh! Sure, I think these die-hards were just about to leave, weren’t you boys?”

Pete the Third and Jimmy glanced at each other, before Jimmy finally backed away and turned around. Pete, lingering only briefly, glared with pure hatred at the two younger boys. “We’re not finished with you yet, punks…” he sneered, then turned away before anyone could react. Following his partner in crime across the floor, both were soon out the door and gone. All five who were still standing around the pinball machine, watched and sighed in relief.

Josh glanced back over the crowd. “It’s okay folks, go on back to enjoying your dinner. It’s all over,” he announced, friendly but still with that deep, commanding edge of his. He turned back to observe the two boys still standing with them. “I take it you two are alright?”

Noah nodded, as Jesse joined him before speaking up. “We are. Thanks, sir.”

“Those other two are a couple of wise-asses, to be blunt,” Josh replied. “It’s not the first time I’ve seen them get riled up about crap, and then try to make something out of nothing. Watch it though, boys. Not meaning to sound preachy or scare you, but they’ve got size on you. They could do some damage, if you’re not careful.”

“We will, sir. I’ve been around Pete some already, and you’re right – he’s full of a lot of hot air, but I wouldn’t want to face him in an all-out fight,” Noah commented. “We’ll be careful.”

Josh nodded, then respectfully returned to his table. Their fathers looked on for a moment, before Allen finally cleared his throat. “If you two are done, what say we all get out of here then? Sound like a plan?”

“Hear, hear,” James replied quietly. He turned to Jesse. “Why don’t you just go ahead with them. I need to run by Walmart for something anyway. You have a key, right? You can get in and get some things if you need to.”

Jesse nodded and then bade his father goodnight, as Jennifer joined them at the register. Once there, James pulled out his wallet to pay for the entire meal, much to Allen’s objection. “Look,” James said, his tone low but determined. “You two have kept and fed these boys almost all week for me and Makalah. Let me do something nice in return, okay? Things will get a little more organized in the coming week, I think, and we won’t be twisting our schedules up as badly afterwards.”

Allen relented. “It’s nothing, though. We know what it’s like, and we’ve been happy to have them over.”

“Hear, hear!” Jennifer added. Both conceded, however, and let the man pay the bill.

Once done, each family made their way out, and back to their respective vehicles. Inside the van, however, Allen turned to the boys before starting the engine. “Tell me, are you guys having problems with those two? Have they been harassing you?”

Jesse shook his head no. “Not really. I’m hardly ever around either of them any.”

Noah had hesitated, however, and Allen picked up on it immediately. Staring expectantly, his son finally relented. “Well, you know I used to sit with them all the time, but… the last couple of weeks, Pete has been kind of different and all. You know, spaced out, mean, loud… I quit messing with them now, although I’m not so sure Pete understands why.”

Allen sat back with a knowing look. “Don’t let them bully you, boys. If they start anything at school, find one of the teachers or Mr. Green, please. I know, you can handle a lot of your own problems, but when it comes to those two… we’d prefer if you don’t take any unnecessary chances, alright?”

Jennifer whole-heartedly agreed. “Bullying is bullying, no matter how you slice it up. Your Dad is right, Noah. Those two have got 30 or more pounds over you, and a good four to six inches taller. Stay safe, alright? I don’t care what others might say, or what you have to do… just don’t let them get an edge on you.”

“However, mind you – that does not mean start a fight, now. You understand that, right?” Allen added, after which both boys nodded. He then started the van up and began the homeward drive. Nothing more was said afterwards, as the group fell into utter silence, the two adults digesting what they had just witnessed, and the two teens reflecting on what had happened.

It wasn’t until they reached the house, and both boys made their way to Noah’s bedroom, before they spoke again. “What the…? Crap!” Jesse whispered, to which Noah nodded before shutting their door.

“It’s like they said, Pete is a hot-head,” Noah offered, before dropping down onto the bed, face-up.

Jesse mimicked him, where both ended up staring at the ceiling. “Uh, do you think I can ask you something?” Jesse broke the silence after a moment.

“Sure,” Noah replied, waiting.

“Is he… well, is Pete the reason that caused you to, like, get so down and everything?”

Noah sighed before he rolled to his side and faced his friend. He propped his head up with his wrist before he answered. “Not really. I mean, honestly, he just started to kind of, well… be an asshole about a lot of things these last couple of weeks. Me and Linda got to the point where we didn’t want anything more to do with him, that’s all.”

Jesse adjusted his position to roll and face the other teen, propping his head in a similar manner. “Ah… So, was that what the fight was all about last week then? The one on the bus?”

“Yeah,” Noah replied, then giggled. “She slapped the shit out of him for calling her a bitch.”

Jesse giggled as well. “Sounds like he really deserved it, then.”

“She said it seemed like he was high on something. Linda’s friend told her he got in trouble at school during last period, too. Something about the teacher couldn’t get him to shut up,” Noah explained.

Jesse frowned. “Drugs maybe? Really?”

“Yeah,” his friend replied, before lying back. Only this time, he scooted closer, narrowing the space between them as he stared up at the ceiling. “I have to be honest though, I’ve never seen any of the stuff outright on him, but I’ve heard some people talk about his Dad a lot, being messed up in the stuff.”

There was a short silence, before Jesse spoke again. “You… um, you don’t do any, do you? I mean, drugs?”

The question was voiced so timidly, and with a volume barely above a whisper, that its very nature startled Noah. He turned his head sideways, and looked deep into the eyes that searched his own. “No,” he replied, rather forcefully before he continued in a quieter manner. “I swear to you, on my heart, I’ve never done drugs. I’ve never touched any alcohol, either. Not even so much as tasting beer or anything. As moody and ugly as I can get sometimes, I know some people probably have wondered, but I swear I’ve never even come close to doing that shit.” He hesitated, before softening his tone even further. “That’s the truth, Jess, I promise. You believe me, don’t you?”

Jesse smiled with relief. “Oh, yeah. Me neither, on my heart, too.” The change in his countenance caused Noah to smile as well.

“I know I’m a lot of things, including a screwed up whatever, but… like I told you, I AM trying. I’m trying to let a lot of stuff go, and just deal with the here and now,” Noah added by way of explanation, but he stopped at that point, hoping it would be enough. “I know that doesn’t make much sense, but… it’s the truth.”

“I believe you, honest,” was the small reply, before Jesse decided to do something. He scooted closer and placed an arm over Noah’s chest, before giving him a mini hug. “I know, I’ve sort of done this once already, but… if you’ll let me…”

The move startled Noah, even to the point of gasping. In the same instant, however, he grasped the arm and held it snuggly in place. “Of course, I would… why wouldn’t I let you?” he whispered, then chastised himself immediately afterward. “Please don’t answer that,” he breathed, before he rolled, leaning into the makeshift embrace. “Dude, I’m not a prude like a lot of pricks are. Especially now that I know more about you, and who you are. That goes for your brother, too.”

Jesse gave the boy an extra squeeze before he pulled his hand back. “I’m glad. I didn’t think you were, but meh, you know how it is sometimes. People see what they want to see, and well, they also think what they want to think. When it comes to hugs, people can think all kinds of things in the end.”

Noah nodded. “Yeah, I know… but I’ve seen you hug your brother sometimes though, and your Mom and Dad and all, so I kind of understand.” After a few seconds, he added, “I’m sorry. Like you said, I guess people think what they want to think, no matter what. Not everyone is huggy-like and all, though. I mean, my parents will hug me sometimes, but… not a lot, not really.” He shrugged. “The truth is, I never let them do it much, I guess.”

“Really? Why, though?” Jesse asked, his curiosity piqued.

“Well, for a long time, I guess… I guess…” Noah paused. Was he really ready to give this part of himself up, especially to Jesse? One look at the expression that met him, however, left no doubt as to the answer. “Guys are supposed to be tough and everything, you know? We’re not supposed to show our feelings, or cry or… or… stuff like that. Parents are one thing, kind of different, and even girls that hug girls and all, well, it’s another, I guess. But I… I used to think boys who hug boys and all was, like, really only for gay people, and… yeah…” Blushing, he added, “Sorry, I know I’m being stupid and all, but when you get used to thinking that way, then you kind of get to the point you don’t want them, or want to be seen and all. I know, I have a lot of times, but only because, well, I never knew or understood why and everything…”

The answer surprised Jesse to no end. His jaw dropped, not once, but twice before it closed and he just lay there, staring at the boy in bewilderment. When Noah began to blush in embarrassment, however, Jesse slowly pulled back and rose to his knees before closing the distance and coming up beside Noah. Then with a surprising gentleness, he whispered, “Come here.” Noah frowned, but obeyed as Jesse pulled his friend into a sitting position, and then into one of the warmest, all-encompassing hugs he had ever given anyone before, outside of maybe his own brother.

Noah reacted awkwardly at first, almost as surprised as Jesse had been in hearing his reasons. The embrace he gave back to Jesse felt clumsy initially, as he tried to wrap his arms around someone his own size, and that someone being another boy at that. He had only ever tried to do something similar once before, and recalling it being an utter failure made the teen immediately push it out of his mind. It was a good thing he did, too, because he felt Jesse shift and bring himself even closer, their personal space invading each other as the teen threaded his arms inside of Noah’s in a whole new way. Then, just as he had done in the bathroom that afternoon, Jesse rested his chin upon Noah’s shoulder, nuzzling the crook of the neck he found there, all the while rubbing Noah’s back in a gentle fashion. It was a connection that made the teen suddenly want more, as Noah closed his own eyes and tried to reciprocate. Suddenly awed by something more powerful between them in that moment, he held on tightly, and the two remained that way, chest to chest and more, both drawing a warmth and sense of spirit between them. It was like nothing Noah had ever experienced before, and he felt confused, but happy. ‘Crap, no!’ his mind screamed as he started to become emotional, but Noah couldn’t help it. He lost himself in the feeling, as he subliminally squeezed back, holding Jesse ever so close and not wanting to let go.

Jesse did finally pull back after a minute, but not completely. As he observed his friend, he looked into the eyes that met his own. He saw the raw emotion his friend was trying to fight and hide, and it made him feel a sense of relief because Jesse, too, was also feeling something special. “Noah, hugs between guys aren’t just for gay people. I know a lot of people probably think that, but… it isn’t true. Hugs are for people who trust each other, and I mean really, really trust each other. Guys, girls, parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts… anyone, really. Sometimes they’re just little expressions, but other times, well, they’re different because they mean so much more. Like, when someone is feeling down, or hurting inside, or feeling alone and by themselves, there is nothing, NOTHING gay about showing someone you care, no matter who or what they are.” As Jesse paused to catch his breath, Noah suddenly recalled the afternoon after school, and his meltdown, and nodded before the teen continued. “It’s all about giving something to someone, bundling up what you feel inside, and being willing to share it without any fear of what they might think or feel. It’s like saying ‘I care,’ and ‘I’ll be here for you’, without actually saying the words. You get to feel it, at least the personal ones, on the inside, you know? It’s…” Jesse paused, looking up at the ceiling before going on. “Okay, it’s even sometimes a way of saying I love you, too, but… it doesn’t mean it’s like a gay kind of love. It’s just one heart, see? One heart telling another heart, that you’re not afraid of being yourself.” A tear left his own cheek just then, and he wiped it away. “Don’t you see, man? That’s what I mean when I tell you I trust you, Noah. That’s why I’m not afraid of you. You’re my friend, most likely my best friend, too, right up there with my brother. That’s how I feel about you right now, you know?”

The words stunned Noah, and as he listened, somehow, he understood. He had never understood something so plain and simple that way before, not like it had sunk in just then. It made sense – so much more sense than all the other bullshit he had been fed by others. Instead, as he listened and took Jesse’s words to heart, he could feel the sincerity in them and… something else. That was when the tears came unbidden again, this time falling slowly as so many emotions forced their way to the front like they had in recent weeks. “Honestly?” he croaked, his whisper edged with an tinge of hope.

Jesse pushed then, gently laying Noah back onto the bed before he then climbed on top, straddling the boy’s legs and half-pinning him underneath, before sneaking his arms around the waist. It was as intimate as he could make it between them, and he wasn’t afraid to do so in the slightest. “Do you think I would do this, to you, if I didn’t trust you?” he whispered. “You can make fun of me all you want, but I’m telling you Noah, you’ve become one of the best-est friends I’ve ever had. And yeah… honest. I’ll give you a hug anytime you need it, bro. Not a silly one, or anything – I’ll give you a real one, I promise.”

Noah cried quietly, using his own legs to wrap around and pull Jesse even closer. “I-I wouldn’t m-make fun of you, not for t-this,” he whispered back. To hell with what it could mean, lying there like they were; Noah honestly didn’t care. What he felt was something he didn’t necessarily understand completely, but it opened up the heart beating inside of his chest, and he knew from just the feeling alone it was completely out of this world. He clung as tightly as he could, not wanting to let go. “Y-You… you’re not alone, Jess. I think… I think you’re my b-best friend, too,” he finally whispered back.

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