The Storm That Turned the Tide


Chapter 07 – Reckoning Day


With the uncommon extremes of weather occurring in recent weeks, Cane Valley had not only been exposed to its first tornado in recorded history, but also excessive rains and moderately cooler temperatures. Pockets of standing water with varying depths were visible everywhere, intermixed with earth so squishy to traverse that any type of canvas shoe would easily be soaked within seconds. Combined with the cloud cover, the shorter days and subsequently longer nights, along with the cooler breezes now coming predominately out of the northwest, the local residents had to struggle to find some level of contentment – at least in spirit. Most were rugged, however, having endured such swings in the weather before. As far as they were concerned, it was just another phase, another spell of nature to get through, as some of the old-timers would say. They had seen and weathered such adversity before, and they would surely do it again.

When Jesse awoke the next morning, he found Noah had actually snuggled in beside him. The bed, as it turned out, was a bit larger for the two of them than he had thought it would be. Jesse and his brother had lain together a couple of times by then, but Benji’s physical presence was significantly less imposing, by comparison to the teen who slept with him now. When Noah had climbed in beside him the night before, there was plenty of room for them both to have their own personal space, if they wanted it. Not that either needed it, however. Once Benji had fallen asleep, it wasn’t long until the two older boys succumbed to the late hour as well. It was nearly midnight before they stopped and turned the TV off, having played various video games for much of the entire evening. Their only interruption had been when at one point, Makalah arrived home from her evening shift and decided to check in on them, bringing the trio ice cream treats. After chatting for a moment, the woman only advised them to not get too loud, before giving her sons a tired kiss and quietly disappearing.

Once Jesse and Noah were both in bed, the covers pulled up to their chests, each worked to actually close the distance between them almost right away. For several minutes, they whispered and chatted about different things, neither really wanting to go to sleep just yet. When they finally lay side by side, their legs and torsos touching in various places, it seemed as if for some unspoken reason they held back from anything further. Although Jessie had no reservations, he could sense that Noah still approached the moment with caution. They had reached this point before, as if testing the waters for what was okay and what was not. Jesse was indifferent to it, but he understood Noah’s nervousness, and thus the teen let his friend decide what he was most comfortable with.

It was Jesse who finally sighed and then rolled onto his side, huddling up until he reached out and placed one arm across Noah’s upper belly. Settling his head down onto the single pillow they now shared, he stared at the boy next to him. The room was not shrouded in total darkness, given a nearby nightlight that cast a subdued illumination with varying shadows. It was enough though, because each could plainly see the other, and it was the smile he saw on his friend’s face that finally set Noah at ease. Noah had begun to fall in love with this bond between them, something that both frightened him, and yet made him want to simultaneously seek it out. It felt confusing at times, bonding with a boy in such a way and then adding that to all of his other fears. Yet, here was his best friend, once again breaking through the barriers for them both. Before he spoke, he reached up and lightly grasped the arm and held it in place warmly. “Jess? Are you … are you sure you’re okay with this? With us, I don’t know, like this?”

Jesse scoffed. “Does the sun set in the west?” He too, at that moment, was wondering about what it was that brought them together like this. He imagined it probably had something to do with Noah being a lone survivor. After all, Jesse had had Benji to grow up with, at least in recent years, which made their dynamics seem somewhat different. “Can I ask you something though?” he followed, seconds later. “Are you okay with it? I mean, you know I am, but… what about you? I mean, are you afraid of it? Or afraid of me? Or… I don’t know, something else?”

Noah sighed before he answered. “Afraid of you? No… I just, I don’t know, it’s just… this just seems so personal, and… and…”

Jesse actually giggled. “It IS personal, Noah! I mean, there isn’t much of anything more personal than two people being in bed together, is there? I mean, like us… right now, in our underwear. Add to that we like to hug and hold and, I don’t know, just be close, I guess. At least, I hope you see it that way, cause that’s kind of how I do.”

Noah grunted and turned his eyes down. “You know what I mean, though… don’t you?”

Jesse relented. “Yeah, I know what you’re really saying. I’m sorry man, I wasn’t trying to tease you.” He paused a few seconds. “But… you still didn’t really answer me. This stuff is like second nature to me and Benji, but… what is it that makes you flinch and everything? Is it because we, like, touch in a lot of places, or something like that? Are you afraid of, like, bumping into my butt, or me bumping into yours? Or even worse, maybe you’ll end up feeling my willie or a part of me down there?” he whispered, still with an amused tone.

“Yeah, kind of, I guess,” Noah whispered back surprisingly. He was blushing by then, but he also felt relieved that his friend didn’t make him put into words the things he had really been afraid to bring up. “I’m sorry, I just…” He sighed before looking back into the eyes that met his own. “Honest, it has nothing to do with you, okay? It’s… it’s all me, Jess. It’s… hard to deal with, that’s all. I get scared. I mean, I get really, fucking scared sometimes, and… and…”

Jesse grunted and propped his head up further. “Noah, first of all, don’t be scared, okay? I know, it’s hard not to, but… you said you trusted me, remember? And you know I trust you, right?” When his friend nodded, Jesse moved his leg so they were now entwined completely as he pulled closer. “Okay, so I know you can feel a part of me, and guess what, I can feel a part of you, too. The difference though, is that I don’t care, and that’s half the battle you have to believe in, okay? This… it feels personal, like you said, and… and… yeah, maybe a part of our stuff is practically touching through our underwear and all, but you know something? Again, I say, ‘so what?’ To me, it’s no different from the fact that the rest of us is touching, too, see? Our legs, our bellies, our chests… Just like when we wrestle and stuff, to me it’s not that different, other than right now, maybe it’s more intimate and all.” He sighed before continuing ever so softly. “Noah, I am closer to you now than any time we’ve ever been together, because right now, we’re about as much as we can really get, right? And to me, it’s all because I trust you. So, am I right?”

Noah gulped nervously, but nodded. “Yeah,” he whispered back, before taking his foot and rubbing it against his friend’s in return. “I trust you too, Jesse. I really do.”

“Okay then, what else is there? Do you… do you think I’m gay or something? Or do you think I’m afraid that you could be gay? Or is it that the fact we’re touching and everything, that it makes us gay or something?” When Noah didn’t answer right away, Jesse smiled as the realization hit home. “So, that’s it, isn’t it? If so, then listen to me: this has nothing… NOTHING to do with being gay. You know that, right? This is just two best friends, who trust each other enough not to care. It’s just… just liking what we feel when we’re together. That’s all, nothing more.”

“Not everyone would think of it that way though, Jesse,” Noah replied, watching the face in front of him, searching for something, anything that might sit outside of the words he heard, but all for naught. What he felt, however, was the fact Jesse was being as openly honest with him, to the point Noah had never experienced anything like it before. “No, I don’t think you’re gay,” he whispered. “I don’t think you’re weird, either. If anything, I think your… what you said, just being honest with me.”

Jesse sighed with relief. “Whew! You really had me worried for a sec!” he quipped.

“It’s none of that, I promise,” Noah replied, giving his friend a weak smile before sighing. “You know, sometimes though, I can’t help but wonder if anyone else ever does this, like we’ve started doing, you know? I think some people would rather cut your balls off, especially for getting together in bed like this, you know?”

Jesse laid his head back down upon the pillow. “Yeah, I know some creeps like that – like Pete, Jimmy, Will, Billy, Anthony… and maybe some others.” He wrinkled his nose, however. “But… yeah, Noah. There are some who do this, more than you think probably. I mean, I don’t know if it counts, but Benji and I do this together sometimes, actually a lot I guess, and I know other people out there who have, too.”

Noah smiled, hugging onto the arm he still held over his belly. “But… you’re brothers. I don’t think that, uh, counts…”

Jesse shrugged. “Why not? Okay, okay… I get it. But… I’ll let you in on a little secret, if you want: this is nothing. I mean, there’s a lot of nights when I’ve been in bed and, I don’t know, I just feel like I’m alone. I feel like that – yeah, just, alone. I don’t dread it, I don’t think bad of it, its… I’m just a kid, right? It’s just a part of life for me, like a lot of things are just a part of life for you. But getting back to it – there are nights that Benji slips in beside me. Maybe he’s had a bad dream, or maybe there’s a storm outside, or maybe sometimes because he just wants to, you know? And we wrap up together and everything, and you know what? I’m like a lost puppy, then. I feel his trust for me, and his love for us as brothers. When he does that Noah, I just, like, melt on the inside, because I… I don’t feel like I’m by myself anymore. At least for a little while.” Jesse scoffed at himself. “I don’t know if I’ve ever admitted that to anyone else before, but… there you go, for you anyway. It’s… it’s just a part of me though, and really, I think it’s a part of my brother, too.”

Noah watched him before gulping. “I think that’s how I feel, too, especially the part about being alone.”

“I know you do – you have to some at least, anyway,” Jesse continued. “That’s what comes back to you and me, here like this, you know? I don’t see it as being all that different, really. I don’t know about you, but… I definitely don’t feel like I’m out in the cold when you’re with me, not lately anyway. I think… like with Benji, sometimes I melt inside, because it makes me feel, I don’t know, ‘liked’ or something.”

“You are liked, though! I mean, I think…” Noah suddenly stopped, losing his voice, because the words reflected exactly how he felt just then. Jesse watched his friend seemingly wipe an unseen tear away before he continued. “I melt, too, on the inside,” he whispered.

“Really? Then stop feeling so alone, okay? You don’t have to feel like you’re all by yourself anymore. Not really, anyway,” Jesse whispered, before rolling once again, until this time he forced the issue outright and practically stretched out on top of his friend. He threaded his arms around the other boy, forcing them in behind before hugging him close and staring into his expression deeply. “So, if you really trust me, then stop being afraid. I’m not going to be afraid you’re gay or something, if we do this, alright? Understand? I’m not afraid of you, period. Just try and believe that, take it on the inside of your heart and all. We’re friends, really close friends – best friends, even. I mean, I’m here, bro – it’s just us. Right now, there’s nobody else in the world but you and me.”

Noah slowly wrapped his own arms around Jesse and held him just as close, even rubbing his friend’s back with light strokes. “And… I-I’m here, too.” A sniffle escaped as he added, “Don’t let go, Jess. Please, don’t let go… I’ll do anything, honest. Just… don’t let go.”

Jess smiled and hugged the teen even tighter in reply. They held each other a moment before Jesse rolled back onto his side, but pulled on Noah to roll along with him. He wrapped his leg around his friend again, and made their embrace as close as one could ever hope for. “I won’t let go, bro… I promise,” he whispered. It was then Noah reciprocated, slipping his own leg up and around, until the two were entangled together. That maneuver made Jesse smile. “Kind of feels really good, doesn’t it?”

Noah clung just as tenderly as ever. “Could you please not tease me about it right now, you… you doofus?” He sighed. “Yeah, it feels … awesome, Jesse. It really does.” He fell silent for a moment before finally speaking again. “You know, God, I don’t know what this is going to cost me, but… I want… I think want to tell you something.” When he pulled back Jesse could tell something was up, something that made the teen more nervous than ever yet – at least between them.

“Hey, calm down… it’s okay. If you want, I can back away Noah. I can back away, but we can still be close and everything, or-”

“Shut up, you dork!” the other teen hissed, and then giggled. “I meant what I said, about not letting go,” he whispered afterwards, before bowing his head down and laying it into Jesse’s shoulder momentarily, hugging all the closer. It didn’t take long, however, before he found his voice again. “It’s like I said, I don’t know… don’t know what this is going to cost me, but… I- I’m falling in love with you, you creep. I feel… I feel like I’ve found something with us, like finding you and… and, well, I’ve kind of gotten that long lost brother I never had before. For some reason, it just, it means a lot to me, you know?” He smiled as tears rolled down his cheeks, tears that Jesse had no problems seeing this time.

“I think that you already know that I feel the same,” Jesse whispered. He finally laid his head back against their pillow and relaxed. “Why would that cost you anything, though? You know, my Mom told me a long time ago that there’s all kinds of love in the world, Noah, including some that just develops between friends. Especially best friends, no matter if they’re girls or boys.” When his friend did not answer him right away, Jesse poked him in his ribs. “Earth to Noah…” he whispered, “you understand that… right?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Noah replied, feeling somewhat better. Internally, he was still battling what he had finally confessed to. He thought about the fact Jesse seemed to genuinely care, yet Noah was still hesitant. Dealing with his emotions in this way was not something he had expected to ever do, but he couldn’t complain.

Jesse became thoughtful for a moment. “Uh, have you noticed or even wondered why I call you ‘bro’, sometimes?”

Noah relaxed. “Yeah, lots of times.”

“Well, then tell me, does it bother you or anything?” Jesse asked.

Noah blushed. “Heck, no! I mean, if anything it kind of makes me feel, I don’t know, good inside, I guess.” He smiled. “Why do you do it, though? I mean, we aren’t really brothers or anything… but… I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be an idiot, okay? I mean, I know, you must like me a lot to think of me being your best friend and all, but…”

“Or more,” Jesse whispered back.

“Yeah, or more, like… a brother,” Noah reasoned, surprising himself with the obvious answer. He turned upward however, looking toward the bed above them. “I just, I don’t see myself being the same as Benji is to you. I mean, like being a real brother, like he is. You two really do like each other; anyone with a brain not stuck up their ass can see it, too. Honest, I will never, ever tease you about that again, you know?”

“Thanks,” Jesse whispered, but then waited.

Noah relented. “I don’t know, Jess. I know it’s just an expression and all, but… it’s because I think you two have something that I feel like I can never have. Not because I think you won’t share with me, too, just… I’m afraid if I did get to feeling something like it, I’ll screw it up.” At that point, the teen sighed, clearly exasperated. “You know, now that I’ve said it, I think maybe that’s what scares me the most. God’s honest truth, okay? I love this, I love being together and all… I get so much out of the way you calm me down, and the way you let me… let me feel something between us, you know? I- as much as I like it, it still scares me sometimes, too.”

“Why, though? What is it you’re scared of?” Jesse asked, his own voice barely above a whisper.

“Of me, Jess… I’m scared of me! I’m scared that I’m going to do something that will fuck this all up, okay? I’m scared that I’m going to do something stupid, or crazy. I mean, you don’t know that much about me, or what I was like before, and… and… I’m so fucking scared that… that, I’m going to end up hurting you, okay? That you’re going to find out things, about me and… and… some of those things will hurt you, and in turn that’ll hurt me, especially now! Don’t you see? You’re so… you’re so smart sometimes, and me? I’m… I’m so fucking…”

“Shut up,” Jesse whispered, causing his friend to fall silent. “If you dare say something like you’re stupid, or anything like that, I swear I’ll castrate you! And if you don’t know what that means-”

Noah snorted suddenly. “I know what castrate means, Jesse. Not that I want my balls cut off or anything, but…”

Jesse had meant for it to be a joke, to try and ease the tension that was building. When he saw his friend finally smile, though weakly, he knew he had at least partially succeeded. He brought his hand up and wiped away the tears he knew that had to be there, and found he wasn’t wrong. “You know what I think, Noah? I think you worry too much, okay? I don’t know what makes you feel that way, but I don’t care. Whatever this stuff is, it’s got you wound up so tight inside, like this little ball of something that’s twisted and making you unable to breathe. I wish I could take it away, really, but… it’s something I guess you’re going to have to do. Really bro, you need to find some way to let it go.”

Jesse sighed, before he propped up and, after arranging things between them, laid his head down into the crook of Noah’s shoulder, his friend’s arm now around him. “Okay, it’s time you listen to me, though I might screw this up a bit. I’ll try though, so here goes… Like that guy in that movie says, you said a lot things that was right, but you also said a lot of things that were wrong. Like, you’re right about the fact we’re not brothers, not by blood anyway. There is nothing that will ever change that, but bro – we don’t have to have the same Mom or Dad to be brothers. We can be brothers in arms, or brothers in a brotherhood or something else all by ourselves, just as personal, if we want to. It’s not just me that feels that way, either. Remember when Benji jumped in your lap the other day, and hung onto you for dear life? He doesn’t do that with just anybody. Honest, I was almost jealous, because he usually only goes all out like that with just me! You see? He thinks more of you now, too, especially since you’re no longer being an asshole!” Jesse paused as Noah blushed. “But, there’s more, too. You have become my best-est friend in the whole world right now. And no, not because we’re together here like this, where you’re afraid I’m going to rape you or something.”

Noah giggled. “Jesse, I’m not-”

“Shhh! It was a joke, Noah! Lighten up!” Jesse whispered. When his friend finally nodded, he continued. “It’s because we’re best friends that I can lie here, and laugh and cry, and feel and just be with you, I don’t know, like this. Don’t you get it? Do you think I would do that with just anyone, besides Benji? Just a few weeks ago, I would have rather slept on a bed of nails rather than be so… so rejected and everything, because you were so pissed off at me. Or at least, that’s what it felt like.”

“No,” was the weak reply, Noah wincing at the reminder.

“Then, trust me, okay? You deserve every bit of whatever my feelings are, especially the ones I want to share with you, okay? I don’t care what anyone else thinks, really. Screw them, for all I care, if they think it’s any of their effing business. I mean, just for once, forget about the rest of the world, okay? Forget about Pete and all of those creeps who have brains about the size of their left testicle. Or rather, maybe it’s the right one which is supposed to be smaller, not that it matters that much. Still, it’s nobody’s business what happens between us, okay? I mean that – it’s nobody’s business if we want to be as close with each other, for whatever reason. Just like it’s nobody’s business how close Benji and I are together, or how him and me feel about being brothers. Get it? That is between the two of us, just like right now this, being us, is between you and me. So, decide now, okay? Decide – do you really care? Because if you do, then I’ve been wrong about us from the beginning, and I promise, I’ll back away and lick my wounds and everything.”

“Huh?” Noah asked, confused.

“We’re here, right now, sharing some pretty deep stuff with each other. And face it, I know you can feel me all over, too, just like I can feel you, too. It feels… good, okay?” he whispered, his own eyes beginning to water up. “I don’t care, it just does. It feels good to even just get in bed with you and not be afraid of what we bump into or anything, like our butts or whatever. Don’t you get it? To be free with each other enough to do this, it means we’ve built something… right? Because if we haven’t, then… I’ve been wrong about trying to figure you out, and what you’re holding back from me. And… well, I’ll just, I don’t know… I’ll back away and shut up then. I’m not trying to be a drama queen or anything, honest. I just, I want to help, okay? But I don’t want to do it for the wrong reasons…”

Noah shook his head. “You haven’t been wrong about anything, Jess,” he whispered. “If anything, some of what you say just… it makes a lot of sense, you know? It… it helps…” The teen then sighed, willing himself not to collapse. “I don’t care either, honest. That’s my decision, okay? Just… don’t be surprised if it takes me some time to get used to it though. I mean… you don’t know. You don’t know…”

“What? You think I don’t know you’ve been an asshole for the last century or something?” Jesse smiled, but Noah only grunted.

“Jesse, I-”

Jesse pushed a finger across Noah’s lips to shush him. “I don’t care, Noah. I honestly am not afraid of your past. I don’t care if you’ve robbed a bank, went jaywalking, screwed a bunch of girls, or anything. Understand? I’m not afraid you’re going to hurt me.”

Noah could see it written in his friend’s face, too. “I hope not,” he whispered.

“Then, one more thing, okay? When you talked about being scared of messing things up, you need to realize something – and that is, everybody messes up. You can screw things up, I can screw things up… heck, Benji could even screw things up, you know? But, if you stay scared of that forever and ever, then… that’s no way to live, Noah. Sometimes, well, sometimes things can happen just for a reason too, where it’s nobody’s fault, you know? That’s just something to be lived through, and it teaches us to be, I don’t know… patient, tolerant… and forgiving, too. If two people really are friends, true friends, like, down inside and everything? Then… you don’t have to be so afraid anymore, you know?”

Noah stared at his friend for ever so long, before conceding the point. “Tell me something? How the… I don’t know, how the heck did you get to be so smart?” He drew closer and embraced the teen again, and there they lay for a long, long time. Nothing more really happened beyond that point, as they loosely snuggled up again, but did not hold anything back. Jesse had even lifted their t-shirts up so that, as they laid there together, each could feel the other’s warmth even more directly. Noah had sighed then, but said nothing. It was like Jesse had said: the moment was a choice, and Noah loved nurturing the soothing tranquility that, eventually, caused them both to fall into a peaceful sleep thereafter.

Now, as the morning hour came into focus, Jesse’s senses became more alert as he smiled at those memories. The two had remained close all night long, turning uncomfortably at times, but continuing to find each other and cuddle together in some way or another. As he observed his friend’s expression, there was a certain peacefulness balanced against the early morning hour. With each deep breath taken, there was a slow, rhythmic exhale that followed.

After what seemed like an eternity, however, Jesse finally sighed and slowly, but meticulously, extracted himself and climbed over his friend, until his feet found the floor. With an effort, he stood and made his way to the bathroom, where he at once relieved himself before flushing. After washing his hands, he returned to find a note in his mother’s handwriting, stuck outside their door. “You Three Musketeers behave today, and no drowning the little brother! There’s breakfast in the refrigerator, and money on the counter to order a pizza for lunch, if you wish. I should be home around 3:30. Love you, Mom

Observing that the hour as still early, Jesse returned and climbed back into bed, pulling up the covers once again but this time turning away from his friend so he could watch outside the window. It wasn’t long though, until Noah curled up behind him, effectively spooning him from behind before settling in. The move surprised Jesse, because of all the positions they could take up, that one was probably one of the most intimate between boys. He still didn’t care though, and was all the more receptive of it as he subtly pushed back. After the evening before, both had obviously gained an even newer level of trust and freedom around each other. This, however, was a first of its kind. Spooned together, there wasn’t much left for the imagination that Jesse couldn’t feel pressed up against his bottom. In fact, it wasn’t long before a certain smaller something began to press up between the cheeks of his butt, causing the teen to almost giggle. Fortunately, he but was able to restrain himself as he continued to listen to Noah’s deep, regular breathing behind him. What should he do, he wondered? How should he react? Jesse pondered it for a moment, but then suddenly felt an ever so slight thrust push in to him from behind. Morning wood was nothing unusual, but to feel that, he wondered what Noah was going to think of it. In fact, he wondered what Noah was dreaming of just then.

It was not long, however, before there was a sudden shift behind him, and Noah quickly rolled away and sat up. Jesse could practically feel the eyes staring at him, but as Jesse rolled back, his friend very quickly climbed to his feet and disappeared. A moment later, the familiar sounds in the bathroom reached the bedroom, so Jesse just situated himself onto his back and waited. Moments later Noah returned, and finding Jesse awake, the teen suddenly blushed as he sat back down on the side of the bed where he remained, unmoving. Jesse, however, reached out and grabbed him, dragging him back under the covers again. “Listen, I know, okay? Don’t worry about it,” he whispered.

Noah, however, seemed confused. “But… doesn’t something like that bother you?”

“After all we talked about last night? Nope, nada, negative,” was the quickly whispered reply.

“But… why? Or rather, why not?” Noah asked.

Jesse finally opened one eye and gazed at his friend. “You know why,” he answered, before cuddling in. When he saw the confusion still there, Jesse sighed. “Because I trust you, that’s why, Noah. If it were someone else besides you and Benji, I would probably freak out. Not you, though.”

Noah stared at the bottom of Benji’s bed above them for a moment. “How can you do that, I mean, even for me?” He turned to face Jesse. “I mean, I’m glad, really, but…”

“Everyone gets boners, Noah. You know that, especially after waking up in the mornings when you have to go pee,” Jesse responded, giggling ever so softly, before he shrugged. “I don’t know, I just… it doesn’t bother me, that’s all.”

Noah finally sighed, relenting. “Thanks,” he whispered.

Jesse sighed and then propped himself up on his elbow, overlooking his friend. “Noah, nothing happened, okay? Honestly. I didn’t do anything, and neither did you. I’m serious… You know, if we keep doing much more of this cuddling, it’s bound to happen again anyway… maybe even a bunch of times, who knows? The way I look at it, is you can either let it bother you, or…”

“Or I can just accept it as it is,” Noah finished for him. “And maybe give you some of my own trust back, right?”

Jesse finally smiled. “See? You’re finally beginning to get it,” he whispered, before moving and tucking himself into Noah’s shoulder. “Now, unless you want to get up, get in here and put your arm around me for a change.”

Noah hesitated, but then wrapped his arm around his friend and settled in. He was amazed at how natural it felt, and how soothing. They were soon, once again, fast asleep.

 

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When school resumed the next day, students returned to their regular class schedules as if nothing had interrupted their week. The rains had finally receded, and a bright sunshine that had not been seen for days replaced the dark, low-lying clouds that had hung around for so long. Still, many of the kids excitedly saw and pointed out places along their bus route, where water was still standing in both the roadways and fields. Their driver had to drive slowly through several inundations directly in their path, although he would move through them quickly enough so that the water was kicked high around them, much to the younger crowd’s delight.

Although the Thanksgiving holiday was now officially only two weeks away, it meant little in terms of their regular school work. In homeroom that morning, the daily announcements included a notice to students that the two previously missed days of school would have to be made up for at a later date. The groans that followed were so loud, they could practically be heard throughout the building. Such things were common in any school district though, since similar days missed for snow or other weather-related events, were treated in a like manner.

The morning went smoothly for Jesse, as he made his way in and out of classes with nothing out of the ordinary happening. It wasn’t until lunchtime that he stopped and looked around for a place to sit, when he spotted a familiar girl waving at him. With a grin, he approached and recognized the older group at the table. “Hey, guys!” he greeted them, which the group returned in kind as he took his place next to Addison. “Uh, did anyone drown this week?” he asked teasingly.

“Not that I know of, but our basement flooded,” one boy announced. “When I left this morning there was still about four feet of water in it.”

“Wow! That’s deep enough to make a swimming pool, isn’t it?” Addison remarked, laughing. “And you live on a hill at that, right?”

“Only if you want to freeze your balls off,” he quipped back, before looking up. “Or, uh, in your case…” Laughter spread around the group as the teen suddenly blushed.

“Yeah, I would imagine it to be pretty cold, probably even muddy,” another boy highlighted, before swiping a French fry through some ketchup on his plate. “How do you guys go about getting stuff like that out, anyway?”

“Well, Dad and my uncle set up something called a sump pump late yesterday. It’s one of those types that pumps water continuously until the surface falls below a certain threshold, I think. Anyway, they set it up and ran the hoses through one of the basement windows. It’s been running since about six last night.” The teen sat back and folded his hands across his chest. “I guess I’ve lost most of my collectibles, though. I kept them stored in the basement and all.”

“What do you mean?” asked another girl sitting next to Addison.

“I had a lot of baseball cards, and a few oddities, too. Like, a collection of all the original Hardy Boys books, and some Star Wars books and things… comics, stuff like that,” he replied.

“Oh, my… I’m sorry,” Addison voiced quietly, and similar sentiments were heard from the others around the table. As they continued eating their lunch, Addison turned to Jesse. “Um, I was wondering about something,” she started, her voice soft and guarded.

“Yeah?” Jesse replied.

“Your little brother, Benji. Is he… okay?” she asked after glancing around the group.

Jesse was immediately on alert. “How do you mean?” he whispered back. “Has something happened?”

“Well, I’m not really sure. He’s not been acting, like, weird, or quiet a lot around home, has he?” she asked the teen guardedly.

Jesse sat back in his chair. “Kind of. Sometimes, anyway. Why?”

Instead of answering directly, however, Addison sat up straighter. “Come on, let’s finish eating and then take a walk. Okay?”

Jesse frowned, but nodded before picking up his sandwich again. Now alerted, however, he found it difficult to eat, his mind going into overdrive regarding the girl’s cryptic inquiry. The teen forced himself to take his time though, trying to be as patient as possible while the minutes passed. When Addison finally finished, so did he, and both stood from the table. It was already close to the end of the period, so none of the others who were present seemed to notice really, as both said their goodbyes and eventually took their food trays to the drop off point. Once done, Addison led the way outside into the hallway, where they walked a short distance before finding a spot that was relatively secluded. “I’m sorry, Jess. I didn’t mean to worry you or anything. It’s just, I didn’t want to say much inside there because of the others, you know?”

“That’s okay, but tell me, what’s going on? Why did you ask me about Benji?” Jesse asked, his tone measured but on the verge of something else, too.

Addison turned and leaned her back up against the wall. “Well, do you know Tammy Wilder? She’s a junior, like me, so you may not have had any classes or anything with her.”

Jesse thought briefly. “Isn’t she, like, tall and with long blonde hair? I think she was in my second period study hall for a while when school started, but then transferred out for some reason. Why?”

“Yep, that’s her. Well, she has two sisters in middle school, I think one in the fourth and another in seventh grade.” Addison suddenly looked up. “Jess, please, make sure you understand something. What I’m going to tell you, it’s just a rumor, okay? I don’t have any way at all to deny or confirm it, so please be careful, alright? You know me, I don’t believe in a lot of gossip as it is, but…”

Jesse was now beginning to become alarmed. “What is it, Addison? Just tell me, please,” he whispered.

“Tammy said her younger sister was talking about some boys the other day, picking on some second-grade kid and bullying him pretty hard. And then, I think it was this last Monday, they did it again so badly the boy ended up having to go home, all because he got into a fight or something,” Addison explained.

Jesse’s eyes narrowed. “Why were they bullying him?” When Addison did not answer straight away, he suddenly closed the distance between them. “Please, Addison, don’t stop on me now. Just tell me, okay? I- I beg you, tell me…”

Addison searched his eyes. “Just remember, it’s only a rumor, okay? Don’t do anything rash unless it checks out, but… that’s basically it. If there are some nut cases making it rough for Benji, then you’re not the only one who cares about him, alright? I care, too…” Jesse nodded, waiting patiently. Addison finally dropped her eyes to the floor. “They were picking on him, telling him they didn’t want him or his gay fairy in their schools.”

Jesse’s mouth dropped open and closed twice. The news struck him like a ton of bricks, and it showed. “How…? I mean, shit! What the hell…?”

Addison began looking worried, as well. “I don’t know, Jesse. I just know what Tammy said. Somehow, she got the impression the fairy was supposed to be his brother, and he was in high school and all,” she whispered.

Jesse finally turned to lean back against the wall, slumping heavily. So many things began to connect just then, about his brother, and possibly even Noah. He was so shocked that for a moment he couldn’t even speak. Addison turned and leaned against the wall with him, although she didn’t know what else she could say.

Jesse silently watched some other students in the hallway appear, and nonchalantly approach one of the lockers nearby, opening it and retrieving a set of books. Once they had closed it and moved on, he finally sighed. “They’ve been doing this for a while, haven’t they? More than just, you know, Monday, and then the incident last week. Right?” He shook his head, before letting out a deep, frustrating sigh. “Benji has beat me home twice now since the tornado struck, maybe three times, and Mom just said he wasn’t feeling well. I… I had no idea, Addison… not a single… fucking…”

The girl finally reached her hand out and grasped his arm gently. “But… he hasn’t said anything, then?”

“No, not one word. I mean, Monday, when I got home, I knew something was up, but then he… well, he just climbed in my lap and we sort of, uh, just fell asleep. He seemed fine afterwards, though, and I… I just didn’t….” Clearly upset, all he could do was shake his head.

Addison nodded and then stared off into the distance. “I guess, I mean, he doesn’t want you involved. But… Jesse? That’s bad stuff, and dangerous. Even for him.”

“You’re not kidding,” Jesse replied, his mood slowly turning sour. “Is there… is there anything else?” he asked quietly, but Addison shook her head.

“No, but listen: I’ll try to find out who the boys are that’s doing this. I have another friend, and she has a brother in the third grade, I think. He might know something, if we push him to talk.” Addison wrinkled her nose. “Jesse, you know, we could be wrong, really. I’m just saying, please be careful, you know?”

“Oh, I’ll be careful, alright,” Jesse replied listlessly. He looked up to find his former neighbor observing him closely, but then gave her a weak smile. “Seriously, I will. I’ll try to coax him into talking to me again, too, but otherwise I’ll wait and see what you find out first, I promise. Um, how long do you think it’ll take?”

Addison shrugged. “I’ll probably learn something tonight, but I’ll have to see.”

“Would you call me, then?” Jesse asked, suddenly taking hold of his notebook and tearing a sheet of paper from within it. “This is our new number, and… and…” He suddenly stopped when he noticed her smiling. “What? Am I missing something?”

“No, you’re fine,” she replied. “It’s just, guys are usually asking girls for their numbers, not the other way around.”

Jesse rolled his eyes, but though he tried to giggle, it was a failed effort. “Please, no girls are ever going to give me their number! I’m too much of a dork, anyway… and apparently… and…”

“Stop, Jesse. You’re not a dork, not even close,” Addison whispered to him, before taking the offered paper. “And I would give you my number any time you asked for it. I think I know a lot of others who would, too.”

Jesse only blushed. It was all too much for him right then, and it showed. “Just… call me, okay? I really want to know if you find anything out. He’s… he’s my brother, Addison. He’s… he’s…”

“I know, Jess, and I know what that means to you, too,” Addison whispered. She then surprised him by leaning in and giving him a quick kiss on the cheek.

As she started walking away, Jesse suddenly stopped her. “Um, tonight, call me after 8:00, okay? We’re supposed to go over to Noah’s for cake and ice cream, I think. It’s his birthday.”

“Oh? I will then. Tell Noah I said Happy Birthday too, okay?” she replied. Jesse nodded, but then leaned out and approached her once again where she stood, but this time came up by her side.

“Addison? Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I mean it, I owe you… big time!” Jesse whispered.

The girl was moved. “No, you don’t owe me anything. I told you, I care about Benji just as much as you do, I promise,” she whispered. “Just like you know I care about you, too.” With that, this time she gave him one last warm smile and then walked away, leaving Jesse standing there. Bewildered, the teen was at a total loss of what to think until his mind returned to the information she had given up. A fairy? Someone was labeling him as being gay? Why? Then, to top it off, they were creating problems not for him, but for his brother… his seven-year-old brother! It was an act of cowardice in Jesse’s eyes, and that made the teenager mad. As he made his way through the hall toward his next class, it was everything he could do to keep from losing it. He even considered skipping it if he could, to go and find somewhere he could calm down and think things through. The first bell had sounded by then though, a system informing students that, in this case, they had two minutes to get into their classrooms before the next period began. As Jesse approached, all pretenses of going to his locker first were left behind by the time he entered the room. No sooner than he had made it to his desk though, Noah was coming up by his side.

“Hey, you okay?” Noah asked quietly, immediately noting that something was off. When Jesse only stared at him, Noah then understood that his friend was anything but okay. “What’s happened?” he asked again, but Jesse just slowly sat down. When he still didn’t answer, Noah reached in and snapped his fingers. “Hey, Earth to Jesse, come in Jesse! What’s happened? What’s going on?”

Jesse finally came to, blinking before he realized where he was, with Noah hovering above him, concern deeply etched across his features. “I’m… okay, yeah, I’m okay,” he murmured.

“The hell you are,” Noah whispered leaning in. “What’s wrong?”

Jesse only shook his head. “Not now, okay? I’ll tell you later, I promise,” he replied, before looking down at his books. “Oh crap, I didn’t even get my notebooks or anything.” Without hesitation, he then stood and quickly approached Mr. Garland. “Sir? I’m… I’m sorry, really. I… I think I just pulled the wrong notepad for class. Would you like, maybe this once, let me go back to my locker again, please?”

Mr. Garland looked down at his student in utter and complete surprise. He could not recall Jesse ever having done this or anything similar in recent memory. He knew his student reasonably well, however, and so he nodded. “Sure, go ahead. Here,” he paused, extracting the hall-pass from his pocket and handing it over. “Don’t take too long though, okay?”

“I won’t sir, I promise.” With that, Jesse hurried from the classroom just as the second bell sounded, signaling the beginning of class.

 

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It wasn’t until their bus ride home that afternoon before Noah and Jesse had a chance to finally converse with one another. Jesse brought his friend up to speed, relaying what Addison told him during lunch, and how he had come home a few times and was caught by surprise with his little brother already being there. Noah was, in a word, astonished. After the initial shock, however, combined with what he already knew about certain things, it wasn’t completely unexpected. “Wait… they’re picking on him, because… they think you’re a fairy? That… you’re gay?” he whispered. When Jesse nodded, Noah suddenly fell quiet, thinking fast before turning around and looking toward the back of the bus. There, he saw Pete the Third, with his buddies Jimmy and Alex, all three laughing about something that was, at least in their world, supremely funny. “They’re picking on him because they think his brother is gay? That’s what you think is going on… right?”

“That’s what it sounds like,” Jesse replied quietly. He, too, turned to look toward the back, but then faced forward again.

Noah finally turned forward as well, before pulling his knees up and propping them on the back of the next seat. “Fucking hell,” he murmured.

Jesse turned to his friend suspiciously. “Is this something you’ve heard, too? Be honest with me, okay? Please?”

Noah immediately shook his head. “No, nothing like this, I swear.” He looked up. “What… what are y-you going to do?” he whispered.

“Nothing, yet,” was the eventual reply, which again caused his friend to be astonished.

“Nothing? Really?”

Jesse sighed. “Well, when Benji gets home tonight, I’m going to first try and get him to talk with me and tell me about what’s been happening. I’m hoping he’ll tell me who the jerks are that are bullying him at school. Addison also said she would try to find out, too, and give me a call sometime tonight. Supposedly, she has a friend with a brother in his class, or close to it.”

Noah considered before nodding. “Okay, that makes sense, but… then what?” he asked quietly.

Jesse shrugged. “I have no fucking clue, Noah. I just hope whoever it is has good medical insurance,” he replied, matter-of-factly. “I’m serious, I’m going to probably come close to murdering some asshole.”

Noah suddenly started to feel weak in his stomach. He wanted to tell his friend about Pete, and some of the things the teen had been talking about out of his head, but for some reason another fear began to rise inside. “I’m sorry,” he whispered instead, his eyes becoming moist.

“Why?” Jesse asked, just as quietly.

“Well, maybe if we hadn’t built up such a friendship like we have, maybe Pete would have left you alone,” the teen mused. “Seriously, Jesse, Pete’s problems only started with you when he saw he couldn’t get to you through me.”

Jesse raised both eyebrows in response. “Get to me…? What the heck are you talking about?”

“You saw him, Monday, giving me all that grief. I doubt he would have done it if I hadn’t, like…”

“Whoa, hold up one fucking minute, mister!” Jesse hissed. He turned so he could face his friend directly. “First of all, none of that makes any sense, and you know it! Pete is Pete the Fucking Third! He’s an asshole, plain and simple. End of discussion, unless for some reason you think he’s behind this shit. Do you? If so, then that’s even worse, because it makes him out to be a fucking coward, too! Especially if he thinks he is going to get to me without facing me himself!”

Noah wasn’t sure how to take his friend’s sudden, explosive outrage, but when he paused, he nodded. “Maybe, well, he succeeded. I mean, look at you…” he whispered.

Jesse tried to calm down, but his frustration grew as he suddenly started making connections over the events of the last few weeks. “So, you think he’s giving you all this grief because… he can’t get to me like that. Right?”

“Maybe,” Noah whispered. “Not so much that he can’t get to you, but… by using me, well… I know he’s done crap like that before, just not so harsh like this is.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, Jess. I just, I was… I didn’t want you hurt, you know? That’s why I always said he’s my problem, not yours.”

Jesse stared at him incredulously. “Noah, tell me the truth, and tell me now.” He lowered his voice. “Are we best friends, or not?”

“We are. Oh God, you know we are,” Noah whispered, a tear dropping down his cheek suddenly.

“Have I ever, ever given you a reason not to trust me?” Jesse continued, to which Noah shook his head. “Then there, that’s enough for us. It should be enough for anyone really, but definitely for you and me, right?” He sat back then, clearly still upset to the point he was almost crying. “Crap! He’s not your problem, Noah, he’s our fucking problem!” he whispered.

Just then, a younger boy turned around in the seat in front of them and gave both teens a wary look. That is, until he saw Jesse’s expression and decided to turn back and leave them alone. Jesse knew he was losing it, so he reined in his anger for the time being and hung his head low. “What would be his connection, though? Pete has no brothers or sisters that I know of. How would he somehow connect up with someone at the elementary school, and… and…”

It was a moment before Noah nodded. “I don’t know about that part of it, but I do know he has a burr up his ass, Jesse. He’s been talking about fairies and gays and everything for weeks now. And… yeah, you’ve been in the center of it all. I’m sorry, but… yeah…”

A knowing look then fell across Jesse’s face. “Another piece of the puzzle falls into place, then.” He stared out the window as the scenery flew by. “Noah? Why… why haven’t you told me about any of this fairy crap, bro?” he asked quietly. “Why?”

“I- I was afraid, Jess,” Noah whispered, only loud enough for them to hear. “I don’t know why, other than I just… I just know he’s been going on crazy about crap, you know? But… but I thought it was just all talk, honest! I mean, that’s just the way Pete is most of the time, like a balloon of hot air, and a motor mouth to go with it. Even Linda will tell you that!”

Jesse contemplated that for some time, and before long, the bus turned onto the road leading up to their house. Before they rounded a bend, Jesse finally sighed. “But… you said you were afraid… of me? Even after… the other night?” He shook his head. “Then if that’s true, I think we have a lot more to work on, don’t you?” He sighed heavily. “That’s a part of why you’ve been so… so… about me, and… scared, and…”

With that remark, Jesse finally stood and headed toward the front of the bus, just as it rounded the final bend before pulling up to the end of their driveways. Noah followed him and, upon departing, Jesse continued wordlessly on toward his house. He had some thinking to do, on many things it turned out, and it showed. Noah paused only briefly, another tear escaping and running down his cheek, before he quietly made his way toward his own house, upset and clueless at what he could now do.

 

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“Hey, bubba!” The smaller, excited voice called out as he entered their bedroom, causing Jesse to smile in return. He had somehow recovered by then, and was able to actually look decently normal before his brother arrived.

“Hey there, squirt! How’s it going?”

“Pretty good, actually,” was the quick reply. However, Jesse could already sense that something was off. For starters, he watched his brother seemingly go out of his way to avoid facing him.

“What’s wrong? Did some bird drop some doo-doo on you today?” Jesse teased, but then stood and crossed the distance rapidly between them. Benji sighed at that point and turned to face him, causing Jesse to raise both eyebrows. “Whoa! That’s a beauty!” he exclaimed with a whistle. “How did that happen?” One side of Benji’s face was black and blue from a growing bruise that had manifested itself near the eye.

“Meh,” Benji started, before sitting down on the lower bed and removing his shoes. “We were playing dodge ball during gym class today, and… some of the other guys, they, uh, decided to take me out.”

“What, you mean they threw a bunch of balls at you all at once or something?” Jesse asked, plopping down beside his little brother.

“Yeah, kind of,” was the only response he got, causing Jesse to narrow his eyes.

“But, that looks, well… that looks like it must have been a pretty solid hit, to leave that kind of shiner.” Jesse lowered his voice. “Is that all there was to it? Just, playing a game?”

Benji looked up at his brother sharply and frowned. “Of course, it is! Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Well, for one thing, you don’t seem to me like you’re very convinced of it. And secondly, don’t forget – I’ve played a lot of dodge ball too, bro. It takes a really, really hard hit to do something like that,” Jesse explained. He then sat back and pulled his brother with him. “I’m not saying anything, buddy, but… you’ve been kind of moody and all lately. Don’t you think it’s about time you told me what’s been bothering you?”

They sat there for a full minute before Benji sighed. “There’s nothing to tell, Jess, honest.”

Jesse was stunned by the fact his brother invoked the one word he now knew to be anything but the truth. “Are you sure?” he whispered.

Fortunately, Benji did not nod or try to shy away. “No,” the boy whispered, before heaving another huge sigh, this one filled with frustration. “But then… you already know, don’t you?”

Jesse’s fears now confirmed, he tried to keep a tight lid on his own emotions. “I found out that some boys have been bullying you at school, yeah.” There, he had made it a simple admission of fact. It would be up to his brother now as to how far he wanted to take it.

“Yeah,” Benji whispered. “Kind of, yeah.”

“Want to tell me about it?” Jesse asked.

It was then Benji made a face. “They keep calling you names, like, some kind of fairy, Jesse, and… and… they punch on me, trip me up in the halls or in the lunch room, call me names… They do all sorts of shit, you know? And… and… I don’t, I mean… I don’t understand, you know? I don’t understand why, and they laugh at me for being a little kid and all…” By this time, the boy was openly crying, and Jesse reached out and pulled him into his lap.

“SShhh…” the teen tried to soothe the youngster. He held him for a long time, as he felt the hot tears drip onto his shirt. The anguish was so touching, it even caused Jesse to add a few of his own.

“Why are they being butt-heads about it? Why are they doing it, Jess? Why? And what is all this fairy shit about, anyway?”

For once, Jesse was happy that his parents were not home just yet. Although he could have probably benefitted from their advice, the older brother knew this was not a problem that was going to be handled diplomatically. “I don’t know the why part little buddy, but I promise you something – I’ll put a stop to it. Just wait and see. Give me a day, maybe two, but I’ll get it stopped.”

That was when Benji sat up. “No, you can’t go beat them up, Jess! Then everyone will think I’m some kind of weakling or cry baby, you know?” He wiped his eyes just then. “I have to handle this. I have to do this on my own, and you know it.”

Jesse smiled, however, seeing so much of himself in the younger boy. “Really? I don’t think so. Honestly, I’ll get it stopped without ever setting foot in your school. How’s that for a promise, Short-Stuff?”

Benji frowned. “But… how?”

“Just because. I mean, I’m your big brother, aren’t I? I know all kinds of things, all wise, all knowing… I just have to get out my magic wand and robes, and… and…”

Benji scoffed. “You’re not Harry Potter, Jess.”

Jesse laughed and leaned in close to Benji’s ear. “I don’t need to be, trust me.” He sat back up just then. “Who, Benji? Who is it? I’ve got to know that much, bro.”

Benji hesitated, before slumping his shoulders in defeat. “Michael Edwards and Jay Fritz. They’re the main ones. One is in third grade, and the other I think is in third or fourth.”

Jesse once again had to exert a measure of control to keep his voice neutral. “Michael Edwards is Jimmy Edwards’s little brother, isn’t he? And I’m not sure, but I’ll bet Jay is related to Alex in some way, too.”

“They’re cousins, but I doubt any of them have what you and I have,” Benji whispered. Just then, the boy screwed up his face yet again. “You… you can’t go after them though, Jesse, you just can’t!”

“Hey, hey… don’t worry about it. I promised you, remember? I won’t touch them, Benji,” Jesse whispered. “You trust me, don’t you?”

“You’re my brother,” Benji replied simply. “If not you, who would I ever trust?”

Jesse laughed and embraced the boy again, where they ended up sitting for several minutes before Jesse spoke again. “Then, just trust me for a little while longer, okay? I promise, I’ll get it stopped.” It was not long after when first their Dad arrived, followed by their Mother. Jesse leaned in one final time. “Dry it up, okay? Don’t let Mom or Dad see us like this. I’ll take care of it, probably tomorrow, but we’ll see.”

“What are you going to do?” Benji looked up, his curiosity piquing.

Jesse only smiled.

 

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When Noah answered the back door, he was surprised to find the McAllisters, all four of them, standing outside suddenly calling out Happy Birthday. Jesse was also holding a wrapped package, which Benji was trying to take away from him – until their mother admonished the boy. “So, I hear someone turned 15 today, is that right?” Makalah announced as the teen let the foursome pass and enter the room.

Before Noah could answer, however, a new voice came from the doorway to the kitchen. “It’s about time you guys showed up!” Jennifer called, taking their coats and setting them onto a nearby rack. “Come on in and get a seat around the table! There is plenty of cake and ice cream to go around!”

Makalah frowned, however. “You did say 7:00, right?”

Allen laughed as he walked by. “Oh yeah, she said 7:00. But she always gets ready early, in case the power goes out, or a storm brews up, or who knows whatever other reason she can worry about!” She swatted at him as they all laughed. For the next half-hour or more, after much teasing and laughter, the group of seven shared in the festivities of Noah’s birthday. The teen smiled and made a decent attempt to get into it, but every time he looked in Jesse’s direction, his friend seemed to ignore him. As the evening wore on, Noah’s heart began to sink, which in turn caused his demeanor to degrade into one of lonesomeness.

By the time the McAllisters were ready to leave, Jesse suddenly pulled his Mom aside and whispered something into her ear. She agreed to whatever it was, and thus the others left, leaving Jesse behind. “Can we, uh, go downstairs for a minute?” he asked his friend bashfully, directly speaking to him for the first time that night.

Noah agreed in a heartbeat and, leaving Jennifer and Allen to deal with the dishes in the kitchen, the two made their way down the steps and into Noah’s room, where Jesse promptly closed the door. They ended up standing only a few feet apart, staring at each other, before Noah finally broke the silence. “I- I didn’t think you were, like, going to come over. Not after today.”

“Honestly? I almost didn’t,” Jesse replied, before letting go a huge sigh and then sitting down. “At first, I didn’t want to come, but then I thought if I didn’t, it would probably raise all kinds of questions, and… I didn’t want to have to deal with that.” The teen patted the bed beside him, where Noah then approached and sat down. Jesse then smiled warmly. “Then, tonight while we were having cake and everything, I think I realized something. I think you and I have both been used in some kind of game here, for whatever devious crap Pete Haskell is cooking up, and… today, I wasn’t being very fair to you. Yeah, you’ve been afraid of some things, but I’d like to think you would have told me, eventually.”

“Yeah, I would have, honest,” Noah whispered.

Jesse’s smile became even brighter. “I haven’t given you much of a chance before now though, have I? I mean, not really. I was so, I don’t know, so… upset, I guess, that I began making some mistakes of my own, and one of them… Well, one of them was not forgiving you, even though you’ve been trying to warn me and everything. I just… I never saw it coming, you know? I’m sorry for that, bro… honest.”

In the silence that followed, Noah felt a sudden rush of relief. He sat there, his eyes already watery from the emotions that began flooding him, staring back into the bright blue pair that me him. “Really?” he asked. “How…?”

“Noah, listen to me,” Jesse started again. “I understand, really, how confusing it all went down for you. I get it, okay? But after everything else I was dealing with today about Benji, I didn’t realize something until just a little while ago. Like, the part when you said you were afraid, remember? I thought it was me you were rereferring to, but as it turns out, it really wasn’t me you were afraid of at all, was it?”

Noah shook his head and whispered, “No.”

Jesse reached out and took hold of his friend by the hand. “I’m sorry, I… I just didn’t hear it that way, and… I’m sorry.” He looked up. “Give me another day or so to get all of this behind me, okay? But… don’t worry about us. No matter what happens, you’re still just as much my bro as you were before. I still trust you implicitly, only now probably more than ever. I promise, cross my heart and hope to live.”

“Really?” Noah repeated, as if finding it hard enough to believe.

“Yes, really.” It was then Jesse reached and pulled a familiar-looking package out of his jacket pocket, one which Noah suddenly recalled seeing the two brothers fighting over earlier. “This is for you,” the teen whispered, handing it over. “We, uh, didn’t have any paper to really wrap it in, but…”

Noah could not speak then for fear of losing his voice. He accepted it and glanced up into his friend’s expression, before he slowly loosened the makeshift ribbon around the container. Opening the box then, he found inside a small silver pendent, mounted to a silver-like chain. As he stared at it, Jesse leaned in and whispered, “Look on the back.”

Noah flipped it over and smiled. Engraved in small lettering were the words, Best Friends Always. “How could you?” Noah suddenly spoke, his voice hoarse. “After everything…”

“After everything we’ve been through?” Jesse asked, before grinning. “Easy.” With that, he reached inside and pulled the chain out, before shifting behind and attaching it around Noah’s neck. When finished, they faced each other again. “Now, do you want to know the really cool thing about it?” When Noah nodded, Jesse reached inside his own shirt and pulled out a similar chain hanging around his own neck, letting it fall into view. Noah caught his breath in surprise, especially when he saw that not only was the necklace a duplicate of his own, but that it had the same wording engraved on the back. When he looked back up, he saw Jesse smiling at him still. “Mom found them somewhere today, and she wanted us both to have one between us. She knows, Noah. She knows how close we’ve gotten to be.”

With those words, Noah suddenly lunged out and engulfed his friend, hugging him so fully that they lost their balance and fell back on the bed. “Oh God! Thank you… thank you for everything. For being my best friend, for… for… being my brother… for everything, Jess!” he cried softly, but then giggled soon after before hugging the boy all that much harder. Jesse grunted but laughed too, while nuzzling his nose into the base of Noah’s neck.

“It’ll take something a whole lot harder than what we lived through today, before it’ll ever break us up, bro. I promise,” Jesse whispered.

 

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The next morning, Jesse awoke from a light doze when the alarm clock buzzed. It was Friday, the last day of what had turned out to be a weird week for school, and for home life, too. As he climbed from the bed and made his way about the house, the teen followed his usual routine between the bathroom and getting ready for school. Unlike some mornings, however, there was a certain calmness in his demeanor. He had already been awake for hours before, carefully playing out in his mind what he knew was going to have to happen that day. Jesse had no fear, no reservation regarding what he was going to do. Addison’s call the night before confirmed what he discovered with Benji, and thus his course of action was then sealed. There was something bigger and more important at stake now than just himself. As he stopped to observe his brother, still lying quietly, breathing deeply and restful, the teen actually smiled. The stakes were his family, and the life of what lay ahead for his little brother. It didn’t matter what happened to Jesse, because the game was now much bigger. All he had to do was go through with it.

The only thing that had kept Jesse in a state of uncertainty was in figuring out the timing. He was going to confront Pete the Third today, and his friends, and ultimately end up with a showdown. Exactly when and where, however, was up in the air. He was still contemplating that as he entered the kitchen, and found his mother just leaving to go get dressed herself. Although they greeted one another readily, neither endured any close scrutiny of the other, which Jesse was all the more grateful for. As she disappeared, the teenager knew she would leave soon, and that his father would take care of getting Benji up and off to school a little later.

Quietly, the teenager toasted and ate some pop tarts, a morning ritual on days like this, while consuming a full glass of grapefruit juice. It wasn’t his usual thing, especially mixing the sugary taste of the pastries with the disparate sour-sweet taste of the juice. Since the tornado though, his mother had started trying to find healthier alternatives for her family to get involved with all around, and this seemed to be one of the better choices. His first time drinking the semi-sweetened but sharp-flavored liquid had made him frown, but continued efforts had changed his opinion of it for the better. Although he didn’t want to admit it too easily to his mother, he was actually beginning to like the drink.

Setting his glass in the sink, Jesse looked up at the clock on top of the refrigerator and grunted. It was already time to leave, and that caused him to take a deep breath. Picking up his bag, he quietly let himself out the back door, and started for the mailbox. Noah was already there by the time he arrived, and the two bumped fists in greeting without saying much else. Even with their jackets zipped snuggly in place, Jesse could still see the necklace, attached and swinging in place from where he hung it the night before. The teen purposefully pushed a finger up and touched it, making Noah grin bashfully in return. It was cold, the temperature well below the frost-line at that point, and given the recent rains, much of the moisture had crystalized across the landscape. It wasn’t the first frost of the season, but it was the first that left behind a kaleidoscope of silver hues blanketing the groundcover everywhere, their reflections shining brightly in the rays of the rising dawn.

As both boys stood waiting, the steam rising around their exhaled breaths, they heard the roar of the old bus engine approaching from around the bend. When it pulled into view and eventually stopped to open its doors, both teens climbed aboard quickly and found their usual seat. Before sitting down, Jesse happened to look back and noticed Linda watching them, a slight smile greeting him. He nodded, which caused her to wave in return. Jesse had not known her for very long, but as each day passed, he was finding he liked the girl. Perhaps her open friendliness was the one strength that had lured Noah into their friendship, and if so, Jesse couldn’t deny there was a certain appeal to it. As he was about to turn forward and sit, his glance fell on Pete Haskell. Already a cold, calculated feeling gripped him before he ever saw the mutinous expression just then on the face of the burly teen, who was glaring back at Jesse with clenched teeth. Even with the distance of several rows separating them, Jesse could see the undeniable red tint of carefully masked rage present in the boy’s expression.

For some reason, however, Jesse found it hilarious and he started laughing. Noah, already seated and situating himself, looked up to see his friend staring into the back of the bus. He, too, then turned to follow the gaze and saw Pete the Third attempting to stare them both down then. Like his friend, however, Noah also found the scene quite amusing and started giggling. Looking up, he met Jesse’s gaze and then shrugged, before turning back around toward the front, at which Jesse finally relented and sat down, doing the same.

From somewhere in the back though, a hushed voice was heard uttering a single word: “Motherfuckers!” Although the hour was early, there was a gasp emitted from several onboard, and even Mr. Bones himself overheard the remark from his perch in the driver’s seat. His foot slammed onto the brakes then as he looked back through his rearview mirror.

“Now, who’s back there with the potty mouth this mornin, huh? I’m tellin you youngens, here and now, I’ve heard enough of this shit the last few weeks. If you don’t clean up your mouths, I will personally get this bar of soap out up here and do it for you … the HARD way! And believe me, this ain’t one of those sweet Ivory-tasting bars, either!” Coming from some people, with a speech inflection indicative of his African-American heritage, and one that ultimately lacked proper grammar, those words might have sounded particularly funny. To his charges on this bus, however, it was quite the opposite. There had been plenty of stories about Mr. Bones and his bar of soap in the past. Even recently, supposedly not that long ago, the man had a round with a certain high school boy one afternoon. The kid’s father had even showed up the next day, planning to have it out with the driver, his own language as direct and vulgar as they come. Word was though, that Mr. Bones had stood up and threatened the old man with the same act, to everyone’s surprise. That had gone a long way in cementing the legend of Mr. Bones, and had garnered a great deal of respect from most of the other parents in turn.

When the bus began moving again, Noah leaned over and commented quietly. “It looks like he is going to be nasty to deal with today.”

“Yeah, but it’s okay. Don’t worry about it,” Jesse replied just as softly.

Noah wanted to ask more, but when he saw the look of determination that met him, he stopped. Determination was one thing, but there was also something else evident, letting him know the topic was not open for debate. Reluctantly, the teen withdrew.

The school day began like most others, where neither of the two boys saw each other again. As lunchtime approached, Jesse made his way to his locker and placed everything he had upon him inside. Throughout the morning, he had come to a conclusion, and the more he thought about it, the more sensible it seemed. Pete and his cronies shared the same lunch block, although they usually arrived earlier and were already parked themselves at the far end of the cafeteria by the time Jesse arrived. As Jesse thought about it, the timing could not have been any better. The people Jesse intended to take on were gathered collectively, and equally important, his best friend would not be around to get involved.

When Jesse entered the cafeteria, he made his way to the food line, but while going through it he only picked up a carton of milk. Then as he headed toward the cashier and paid for it, he was about to start searching the room when he was immediately set upon by a pair of older, hunkier boys he did not recognize. One dwarfed him on each side, and they spoke obnoxiously loud while suddenly steering him in a particular direction. As he was about to object, he was suddenly hit hard in the head from behind, and with two carefully placed feet from each side, Jesse was outright shoved down onto the floor hard, face first. Around him a wall of laughter suddenly erupted, until a second, similar sound originated from his right, causing an even louder level of laughter to set in from across the whole room.

Initially stunned, Jesse slowly made his way onto his hands and knees. As his senses quickly returned, he stole a glance to his right and saw none other than his best friend, Noah, spread-eagled on the floor with his face buried in a tray of food. Why his friend was there that day, and at that time, Jesse had no clue, but he did not let that little detail sidetrack him from the moment. The teenager, his anger rising rapidly, lost all pretense at that point as he continued to climb to his feet. He was oblivious to the fact his mouth and chin were rapidly covering with blood, oozing from a gash along his upper lip. As the others in the cafeteria looked on, the sudden shouts of laughter began to subside with surprise. Jesse found his quarry in no time, as Pete Haskell was still hilariously laughing it up, practically falling to his knees in the middle of the crowd. Jesse’s two sudden ‘escorts’ were by the boy’s side, along with others heckling and carrying on, all the while pointing at the chaos everyone else had focused on.

Jesse had heard enough in recent days about these stunts, as well as witnessing one in particular, and it angered him to no end. With a determined step, blood now dripping to his chin, the teen forced his way forward toward Pete the Third, others separating to give him clear access ahead. Pete, obviously impressive in terms of size, weight and stature, only stood there and bellowed louder than ever before as Jesse approached. Perhaps it was Jesse’s smaller size, or the more weakened state that Pete assumed about the boy, that caused him to have so little regard for worry. Jesse didn’t care, however, as he was about to show the other boy something he would not soon forget.

When Jesse reached Pete, he waited for nothing. No preamble, no warning of any kind, no words… nothing. Jimmy had somehow stepped up to Pete’s side by the time Jesse arrived, but even he was unprepared for what happened next. With a suddenness that surprised all the bystanders in the room, Jesse lashed out rapidly, first with his foot where he kicked Pete squarely in his groin, aiming low and hard as his foot connected with the sensitive package within. The older boy, totally surprised at the sudden move and subsequent pain thereafter, started to take both hands and cover his crotch, but by then it was far too late, as he started falling to the floor. Jesse did not stop, however. Without breaking his stride, a further step in saw the younger teen suddenly swinging both hands in an arc, downward through the air on each side of Pete’s neck and upper shoulders. With every ounce of strength that he could put into the move, he struck the pressure points there simultaneously, delivering even further pain to the older teen, making Pete yell as each hand struck.

By that time, Jimmy was beginning to make his move, but without warning, Jesse pivoted on one heel until he stood within an inch of Jimmy’s side and, clenching his hands together, he shoved his elbow sideways and back. The force of the blow that he delivered hard into the other teen’s abdomen caused him to bellow loudly. The older boy, still shocked seeing Pete suddenly floored, was equally shocked to find himself suddenly collapsing right next to with him, gasping for breath.

In a matter of only seconds, Jesse had incapacitated both boys before he turned, as if in automatic mode, to the next one who was closest in the group. By that time, the remaining of Jesse’s ‘escorts’ had finally reacted and began moving, reaching out with the intent to grab Jesse and pin him down. That was as far as the first got, however, as Jesse made another series of rapid moves, this time dropping to his own knees while simultaneously grasping both the hand and arm that reached out to him. Pulling forward, the third teen was caught off balance, and before he realized it, Jesse had pivoted onto his back before placing both feet against the boy’s chest. Yanking hard, he flipped the bigger teen high over his head before letting go, and causing him to crash into a set of tables and chairs behind Jesse. Then, as the last of the foursome stepped in, Jesse did not hesitate to turn and kick, placing a strategic foot out that connected with the teen’s groin. The boy, his face plastered with a look of complete shock, staggered backwards and fell flat on his butt.

Jesse sprang quickly back to his own feet then, before pausing and looking around. The room had fallen silent as the other students made a wide berth around them. Four boys, each in various states of pain, stared at the teen wild-eyed and in both shock and anger. In seconds, the freshman had succeeded in showing not only the bullies who and what he could do, but also the entire crowd learned exactly what he was capable of if backed into a corner. Personally, the teen despised hurting anyone, but Pete had left him with little choice. When one began to climb to his feet, one look at Jesse silently shaking his head made him reconsider. The teen was poised to deliver again, but was inwardly relieved to not have to take that step. Instead, Jesse then turned to observe the first hoodlum, who still had one hand tucked between his legs tightly, while using the other hand to massage the muscles around his neck. Jesse almost laughed, as the fetal position the boy had curled into looked comical compared to what he had seen in some time. Instead of laughing, however, he took a subtle step closer, before speaking in a low, threatening tone. “What is your fucking problem, you asshole? Do you just LIKE being branded the coward of the valley? Huh?” He took another step closer. “You can’t even fight your own battles without back-stabbing, side-stepping, and conniving your own way around people, especially when you can get others to cover your fat ass for you and do your dirty work, can you?” He stopped then as he reached up and suddenly wiped at his lower lip. Pulling his fingers away, he saw they were covered with blood, and he imagined his entire face was probably in one pitiful state. Looking about, he was suddenly stilled when someone, a girl, walked up quietly behind him and placed some damp napkins in his hand. He took them without a glance or word and, as best as he could in front of the gathered crowd, cleaned himself up briefly.

It was during that break when Pete the Third finally glared at him and shouted. “You fairy! Just you fucking wait, I’ll kill you, you queer! You hear me? Your life won’t be worth spit by the time I’m done with you!”

Jesse turned his attention back to the boy, before walking over and raising his foot, balancing steadily as if readying to stomp it into Pete’s groin again. “Big words for such a small prick, isn’t it? You know, as many times as you’ve been kicked there, you still don’t get the message, do you? Look around you, idiot: nobody cares, Pete. If we stripped you stark naked and hung your ass upside down, right here in the middle of this room for the whole school to see, they’d just probably laugh, because nobody, not one effing person in this room, would care. Get it?” Most everyone looking on were impressed that Jesse maintained his balance for so long, before slowly taking his foot and moving it out of the way. “Tell me something, asshole – what did I ever do to you, or Noah for that matter, for you to become such a first-class piece of crap? What the hell happened that bent and twisted your ass so bad, that you can’t even stand the stench of your own piss? Huh?”

“You’re a fucking fairy, moron! That’s all it takes, you… you motherfucker!” Pete replied loudly, through clenched teeth.

A sudden ripple of laughter drifted through the crowd just then, causing Jesse to look up and frown. “That’s funny? You guys really think it’s funny?”

“Of course, they do, dick-breath!” Pete shouted again, this time with more confidence. “They all know how you like taking baths and showers with little kids, and watch anyone you can catch an eye of in the gym showers! You probably even try to get in and sniff all the shorts too, and anything else you can find crotch-smells on. I bet you even take them into one of the bathrooms and have a fucking good time beating off, don’t you! And then, who knows what you do when you get home, right? You and your little brother probably play all kinds of sadistic, wicked little games then!”

Jesse suddenly froze, exercising all he could muster to keep his temper in check. “Really? Honestly? Are you even listening to yourself? You, of all people, judge me to be gay, because… because of that bullshit?” he asked incredulously. “Because of… that?” he repeated, looking out upon the crowd who were still initially giggling, but then fell deathly silent as they observed the look upon his face. What he saw in return stunned him, however, at how ignorant they appeared to be – or just plain dumb. His gaze fell back to the sneering, wicked grin that Pete braved through his pain, before he sighed again. “Little kids, huh? Really? And yet this so-called fairy is the one still standing over your pathetic ass at the moment!”

Jesse then stood tall as he turned and faced the crowd. Being a freshman, he did not have the kind of imposing-like physical build that some of the others did, but as his stance changed, there was no question he was the one predominately in charge at the moment. The other students gave him that limited amount of respect, too, while continuing to observe the other four, bigger boys still laid out on the floor. When Jesse spoke, although his voice was deathly soft, it grabbed their attention from all corners of the room. “Is there anyone here who has a brother, or sister, maybe even a cousin that, I don’t know, that you can honestly say you’ve never shared a bath or a shower with, at some point in your life… ever? Well, I have – with my now, seven-year-old brother. Did you hear that? He’s seven … fucking… years… old!!” He let that sink in for a second, before raising his voice again and pressing harder. “This piece of garbage, wants you to judge me as being gay, because I let my brother get in the shower with me sometimes. Do you see it? THAT’S ALL… I will sometimes take a shower, with my little BROTHER! What the hell? Can any of you, anyone at all, tell me you haven’t done the same thing in some way or another, with somebody? I mean, fuck people, it doesn’t matter – you, older, younger, same age, what the hell – it doesn’t matter, get it? What is there gay about trusting someone in your own family, really?”

Shaking his head, his eyes narrowed. “Sometimes people, families are exactly like that – people you love and trust, and who trust you, too. Not always, not with every family, but I bet with a lot more than you think. But… so what? Benji, he’s my BROTHER, and he’s SEVEN… YEARS… OLD! Hell, he doesn’t even know what being gay is all about yet, or about fairies or queers or whatever, you know? Not really anyway, and guess what? HE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO!” The last was shouted at the top of his lungs, as the teen drew his hand up and pointed it aimlessly into the crowd. “As far as I’m concerned, any of you potheads and creeps who think he should have been taught that stuff by now, that a seven-year-old should already know everything there is to know about that shit, then I say SCREW YOU!” When he realized his was shouting again, the teen took a breath to calm down. “What is wrong with you people? Huh? What is wrong with you… you assholes, guys and girls alike? You find that FUNNY? Really? You find that WEIRD? How can you? Don’t you get it? Even if you don’t have family like I do, can’t you see how stupid it is to expect somebody that young, that innocent, to suddenly know about all of that kind of shit? Benji… he’s my brother… he’s… and… he’s only seven years… only SEVEN YEARS OLD!”

Jesse’s eyes filled with tears momentarily, his voice pleading as he looked around him. That is, before his countenance changed and he turned toward another section of the crowd with a renewed determination. “And what about the stupid showers here at school anyway, huh? Whoever got that crazy idea started in the first place? Was it you, Pete, or one of your pig-headed assholes there? As for the rest of you, tell me: did you guys know I was the one who, every day before or after school last year, when you had your team practices or games, who collected your dirty, sometimes stinking uniforms? Yeah, someone on the team, who was never allowed to be one of the team, never allowed to even be one of the guys you know, had to still pick up after you. As if your moms never taught you any better at home, right? That means all the stinking, soaking jock straps, the stained underwear, the sweaty socks, smelly shirts and everything else you just threw around wherever you wanted to! Ugh, the thought of some of them still makes me almost want to go puke! But you – you think THAT’S erotic or something?” Jesse suddenly laughed, but it was an eerie, haughty laugh that no one found amusing. “I mean, all that you jocks did was practice, or compete, right? And then you’d go into the locker rooms and pull everything off, dumping them in the floor, who knows what. Who do you think picked them up afterwards, and then put them in the washing machines? Huh? Certainly not Coach Stevens! I mean, he can’t even use the word ‘penis’ in a sentence without hiding behind a door and whispering it, right?” A gasp murmured through the crowd, but Jesse held his ground. “I don’t care if he is here, somewhere in the back. It’s just the truth, okay? If he wants to come after me, fine, but it doesn’t avoid the fact that some people handle the word, and some don’t. You’d think a coach could, I know, but then again, you’d wonder why he has to have ‘clean-up’ boys do all the dirty work for him instead, too, right?” Jesse stopped to take another deep breath. “Yeah, you goof-balls – it was me. I did it, because it was my JOB to do it. There were times that I did step in the showers, just to see if anything was left behind in there that needed picking up. So yeah, I’m guilty of that too, I guess! According to you, anyway… right? And… and you judge me… for THAT??!!”

“You know, it’s funny, really. I mean, I remember joining the team, thinking I could be, what, a water boy or something, or just someone who could help out, you know? That’s all I ever wanted, but for one whole miserable season, all I got to do was the fucking job of cleaning up after your crap! I never got invited to a game, I was never once allowed to go with you, or support you guys – you know, be there and… and cheer you on or anything… nothing! I guess that’s what you had all those cheerleaders for, right? I mean, THEY never picked up after you, did they? Oh no, but I’m sure plenty of them rode the bus with you, probably in your laps, and who knows what went on then, right? That made you feel normal, didn’t it? But no, not me. Not according to you anyway – especially when you stand here and laugh at all this bullshit coming from the mouth of this piece of… well, you know. Oh – and while I’m at it, do you think I ever, even once, got thanked for doing any of the crap I had to go through? Not once. All Coach ever did was bark out an order here and there, and then up and disappear. So, you tell me, do you think that’s worth anything to anyone? Huh? If you do, then I’ll say it again – SCREW YOU!” He then turned and pointed at Pete, giving him his attention again. “And you… that’s the crap you want to use, just so you can paint some kind of a sadistic picture or something, and judge me by it? To make me, what… some kind of a fairy? All I was doing was my JOB, you prick! You want them to judge me for THAT??!!”

Suddenly turning angry, he took a step toward Pete again, which visibly caused the older boy to shift uncomfortably. “You know what’s worse than all of that, though? It’s the fact that you and your spineless meat-heads, instead of bringing your so-called problem to me, you decided that’s not good enough. Instead, you get your creeps to get their brothers, cousins or whoever, and go gang up on my little brother. Bully him, pick, beat, hit, bruise – all of it, you go rag on a SEVEN-YEAR-OLD KID! And why? Because you’re not man enough to face me yourself, are you? You’d rather beat the shit out of little kids, kids who have nothing, NOTHING to do with this spineless attitude of yours, just because you think it’ll get to me! Well, I hope you’re fucking happy, because as you can see, it DID get to me, you asshole! But do you have any idea how low that makes you, man? It’s lower than even digging yourself a big old grave, filling it with everyone’s piss, and then jumping in and soaking in it from now on for the rest of your life.” He looked up to the crowd. “And for this, you’re laughing with HIM? Let me tell you something, my little brother came to me last night, and he had this huge bruise on the side of his face, where he got targeted by a bunch of snot-heads. He cried – literally cried, you jerk! – but not because of the bruise, or getting beat with the ball. He cried because he didn’t understand what was going on. Get it? My little brother couldn’t understand why everyone was all of a sudden ganging up on him, making his life so miserable and for no apparent reason other than to call him names, or me names through him. And why should he, assholes? He’s SEVEN YEARS OLD!” Jesse then looked up and into the crowd of faces there. “And… and for this, you’re standing here and laughing… with this spineless waste of space??!!”

“I’m not,” a voice called out nearby, causing Jesse to turn. A boy stepped out of the background, and Jesse recognized him immediately as the senior who ran the supply office. “I won’t have anything to do with anyone like that. If you can’t fight your battles front and center, instead of using everyone else to shield yourself, then you don’t deserve spit, if you ask me,” Simon Petticoat announced loudly. “And while we’re at it, if that isn’t enough, I have to say I’m guilty too. Most of you know me. I have not one, but two little brothers, one who just started the first grade this year. And yeah, I’ve had plenty of showers and baths with them over the years. I’m not ashamed to admit it, either.”

“Neither am I,” called out a girl off to another side. “My sister and I have had baths together, although it was a long time ago.” Several others suddenly began stepping up, announcing to the world and their peers similar stories, and as each one spoke, Jesse actually started to cry with happy tears. Especially when one boy added, “When it’s family, it’s a whole different thing. Family first, more than anything else, and there’s nothing gay about it.” Jesse walked over and gave the boy a fist-bump, nodding his acceptance, and proud that there was at least someone in the crowd who seemed to understand what he was saying. As he returned to hover near Pete, he wiped his eyes briefly of the emotions that had surfaced, before taking a deep breath.

Turning back to Pete eventually, Jesse was about to start speaking again, but suddenly found Noah standing by his side. “You’re done, Pete,” Noah announced. “I happen to agree with my new best friend. He’s taught me far more about family and friendship than any of you… you bunch of assholes could ever understand. He’s taught me a lot about what’s right and wrong, and a lot about trust, too. I swear to you, the days of Pete the Third are done, as long as I can help it. I’ll make it my number one mission to see to it until you graduate, that everyone knows what a spineless coward you are, understand? So, stop it, and call the dogs off of Benji. Be a man for once, unless you want to get stripped down and show everyone you really haven’t got any balls to begin with.” A ripple of giggles cascaded throughout the crowd, which made Noah even finally smile. “Seriously man, Jesse’s brother doesn’t deserve it, Pete, and you know it, okay?” He then turned away, only to have Jesse place an arm around Noah’s shoulders. When he saw his friend up close though, Jesse finally broke into his own, genuine sincere laughter, noting the mix of food that was still smeared everywhere. Noah grunted when he realized why. “Don’t – say – a – thing! You don’t look any better!” His smile told him though, about how he appreciated the moment, and as they both continued to laugh, a few of those close by chose to chuckle and join in with them.

It seemed that now it was all over, and Jesse couldn’t be happier. Looking around, the teenager was surprised that none of the staff or teachers had intervened yet. Looking about, however, he discovered why. On the outer rim of the circle that had developed, there stood a group of juniors and seniors who were effectively blocking the adults from entering inside. He would come to learn later that, although their principal had started to break through, he had stopped to listen to the exchange, and waved others off nearby to wait. Now, that everything was over and winding down, the group of boys suddenly separated, letting the exchange of bodies both in and out of the circle to return to normal.

As the other students began to return to a more normal level of activity, Jesse and Noah stood and waited patiently. Various teachers and staff eventually found their way inside and tended to the bodies on the floor as they began to stand up. Mr. Green also chose that moment to appear, and after checking on the status of the others, then approached the two freshmen before quietly standing and sizing them up. When he didn’t speak initially, it was Jesse who cleared his throat and broke the stand-off. “Uh, Mr. Green? I’m guilty, okay? I confess, and I won’t give you any trouble about it, I promise. Noah though, if you’ll believe me – he didn’t do anything, honest. He was just, well, kind of like me – he’s just a victim and all, someone who got caught up in this mess. I’m the one who did this though, so just… lay it all at my feet, okay?” He paused a second as the man continued to stare down at him, causing him to eventually shift his feet. “Um, I know you want to talk to us sir, or at least to me, but… would it be okay at least, if maybe we could go to the bathroom and clean up first? Please?”

Mr. Garland, overhearing the exchange, suddenly approached until he was at the Principal’s side. “If you like, I’ll go with them and keep an eye out,” the mathematics teacher offered.

Mr. Green, however, shook his head. “After what I just heard, I honestly don’t think that’s really necessary. I trust you boys, so go ahead. But, umm, make sure you come on down to the office afterwards, alright? I think we’ve got a lot to sort out this afternoon.”

Noah smiled. “Don’t worry, we will, sir. We promise.”

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