The Storm That Turned the Tide


Chapter 08 – Barriers Can Be Broken, With Trust


“I guess I kind of made a mess of things for you, didn’t I sir?”

Jesse sat across the desk from his school principal, who was presently leaning forward and rubbing the temples of his head in a circular fashion. The man, an African-American in his late 30’s, both tall and slender with closely cropped black hair, looked as if he had aged ten years just in the last few hours, but Jesse was certain that observation had no real merit. He recalled seeing the man upset once, and knew he could be intimidating if the need arose, but otherwise he was generally well-liked by his peers. They were alone for the moment, with Mr. Green having already dismissed Noah to return to his classes only moments before. Other teens had also come and gone in the last two hours since lunch, some of whom were invited into the room with Jesse, others who were guided elsewhere and interviewed privately. As Jesse glanced at the large analog clock hanging above the door, he saw that it would not be long before school was dismissed, not only for the day, but also for the upcoming weekend.

Without question, the halls and classes were abuzz all afternoon, filled with varying details as the news of the cafeteria encounter spread rapidly. In no time, every student present in the school that day learned about how one boy, alone, faced down and got the better of four older, bigger teens in the school lunchroom – all in a matter of seconds. Of course, as the story was exchanged, some from first-hand witnessed accounts, to others passed on by word of mouth, it wasn’t long before the details were susceptible to embellishment. Some likened Jesse to being a type of karate student, who had made his presence known in the cafeteria like a Chuck Norris wannabe. Others, however, merely shrugged at the idea, instead suggesting that Pete must have been in one of his drug-like fogs. It was not surprising that he had become known for that as of late, at least in some circles, as it spawned its own set of rumors to fit. Although certain individuals clung to that teenager, riding with the laughs, exchanging their proverbial friendships for a certain level of protection, most others avoided him like the plague. Drugs were rampant in many places in society, and sadly, schools were no exception. Many heard that he had been seen dealing, and perhaps by being a participant himself, many saw the harder, uncontrolled attitude falling in a spiral – and his personality to match it.

Principal Green sat back and sighed heavily, observing the young man in front of him wearily. “Oh, I guess you might say that, but it’s nothing I haven’t had to face before,” he mused, the trace of a half-smile on his lips. When he spoke, it was in a kind voice, not harsh or monotonous as he was often heard in the morning announcements. “What I don’t understand though, Jesse, is… why? Why didn’t you come to us, why didn’t you let any of us know what was going on? A teacher, a coach, a… I don’t know, just somebody?”

The words caused Jesse to pause, as he observed the man with arched eyebrows. “Well, what good would it have done?” he asked. “Seriously, sir, I honestly mean no disrespect, okay? But… you know as well as I do, unless a teacher, or staff, or somebody witnesses anything that happens in this school or on the bus, you guys can’t do anything. I mean, this sort of shit – er, excuse me, sorry – this sort of crap goes on every day. Kids are shoved from behind, knocked on the back of the head, punched on, pushed, tripped up everywhere. These… meat-heads… they’re good about hiding it. In fact, they excel at it, because they’re smart, see? They never get caught, and all their cronies end up laughing at the whole deal like its one big, fat joke. Which, to everyone except the victim, well, it is. We’re the ones who lose our lunch trays, end up with bloodied noses, or bruises and sprains… and what do you guys do about it? Nothing. We end up going the day without lunch or breakfast, because we don’t have the extra money with us to buy another. If our clothes get messed up, we’re the ones who have to wear them the rest of the day, like some sort of prize flag or something, right? ‘Oh, hey! Yeah, I got screwed over today in the lunchroom!’ By the way, we have to do it that way, too, because if anyone is seen carrying extra money by chance, then they get harped on all that much more, sometimes having their wallet taken, bribed or just… just, worse. So, tell me, what are you guys going to do? What can you do? From what I hear, everyone says the teacher’s hands are tied, and I suppose yours are, too. So, what do you expect us to do then? Just get up and walk away like nothing is happening? Ha, that’s a fart-joke if there ever was one!”

Jesse scooted forward onto the edge of his seat. “We’re the ones on the receiving end, sir, we’re the ones who… what, get our pride wounded, I guess. All because we have nowhere, no place to turn, get it? We’re the ones who have to live with the humiliation that others talk about, behind our backs, and we’re the ones always made out to be the dweebs, sometimes by even our own teachers! And the jocks and creeps, what do THEY get? They get to just go on and keep doing the same old shit, because they know nobody can do anything about it!”

“But, Jesse, if we don’t know what’s going on…” Mr. Green started, but stopped as the teen shook his head emphatically.

“Okay, say we do tell you guys all about all these things when they happen. Do you even realize that half the teachers, half of your staff, just laugh about to our face? They don’t care, they see it as making men out of us, or some such garbage. They treat it, like, it’s OUR responsibility to get along with everyone, and not the other way around! That… that just makes it as bad as us seeing the same reaction in all the other faces around the crowd, you know? These aren’t simple jokes, you know… not the kind of things to ‘toughen us up’ as one of the coaches loves to say. It’s bullshit, really. I mean, what’s so funny about getting your face shoved into a plate of food, or when someone steals your milk or whatever, huh? Besides, those teachers who do try to talk to the assholes about it, what good does that ever do? All they have to do is give you a bunch of crap, like, ‘Oh, we’re so sorry, yes, we’ll not do it anymore, blah, blah, blah’… Huh, all it ends up being is just a bunch of lip service, and you know it! It’s not but minutes later they’re out there laughing, joking about it and then doing it again! I mean, all the while they get away with it, we’re the ones who get ratted out as being your stupid tattletales. I mean, really? Some of the teachers, they really just don’t give a shit – sorry – err, crap – and others would rather just ignore it altogether, I guess hoping it will just all go away. Then these creeps, most of the time they all start doubling up on us, making life twice as bad as it was before, if not worse. I mean, face it, as far as we’re concerned, none of you guys care about us, not really. You just hope and pray to make it through to the end of the school year unscathed, right?”

The teen ran out of steam just then and sighed, before scooting back in his chair again. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go off like that, sir. I know, all of you have hard enough jobs to do as it is. I- I really am sorry. I didn’t mean to make this that hard for you. It’s like I said, I’m the guilty one here. No one else raised a fist or hit anybody today but me – I did all of it, Mr. Green. So, just… do your thing, alright? Suspend me, expel… I don’t care, really. Not right now anyway. I know what I did, and why… and unlike the slimy cowards the others usually turn out to be, I’ll own up to it. But… at least try to do me one favor, if nothing else… try to understand why, okay? I didn’t have a choice. As much as you or anyone else might like to believe, I was the only one who could stop this crap from getting any further, especially before my little brother got hurt any worse than he already is. See? I had to stop it, sir… When I learned what was happening to him last night, I… I mean… I had to… I just had to… and…” Jesse finally quieted, having nowhere else to go.

Mr. Green sighed again, crossing his arms over his chest as he sat and thought. Not surprisingly, he had already decided what needed to happen, but listening to the boy’s explanation bothered him deeply on several fronts. “How in Hell’s Bells…” he whispered quietly, before raising his voice to a more normal tone. “How on Earth did you figure, did you plan…?”

Jesse scoffed as he looked down. “Plan? Are you kidding? I didn’t plan anything, sir. I only knew I was going to have it out with Pete sometime today, and I figured it was going to be during the bus-ride home at first. That was before I realized we had the same lunch block together, though.” He shrugged. “But… that never went down, not really. Those two goons of his, well… they kind of changed everything when they tripped me up and shoved me to the floor. And then when I saw what they had done to Noah, too, well…”

A silence fell between them for a moment before Mr. Green spoke again. “I- As much as I don’t want to, Jesse, I…” He started to say it, but then paused and changed his mind. “You know what? I don’t have to decide this today, so why don’t we just call this a week and go home for now. Deal?”

Jesse was surprised, and it showed. “But-”

“No, don’t go there. Look, you’re right: what we can do as a staff about some things IS rather limited. It’s never in a student’s best interest to take matters into their own hands, though. You’re a smart young man, and I suspect you know that probably better than most do. Still, I… I’m bound by some rules, but I’m also given a lot of discretion in certain ways, and I think… Yes, I think I want to take the weekend and consider all of this before making a decision as to what needs to happen.” The man smiled before glancing up at the clock. “There’s only about 15-minutes to go until the bell. Why don’t you go get your things for the weekend, maybe stop by the bathroom and all, and then head on outside to the bus lines. We’ll talk again on Monday.”

Jesse frowned. “Can I ask you something first?” When the man nodded, Jesse became thoughtful. “Why haven’t you called my parents? I mean, you did for some of the others, but…”

“Why, indeed,” Mr. Green grunted, but then shook his head. “Don’t worry, I’ll probably stop by the hardware store this afternoon or tomorrow morning and catch your Dad, and give him the low-down.” He paused, watching Jesse curiously. “But, as to the why… Jesse, I have no deep reason, okay? Maybe it’s because you’re one of those teenagers who wear your honesty on your sleeve a little too well. I mean, that plus the fact I’ve already had a visit from two girls, three boys and two teachers – none of whom were even involved in this escapade, mind you – all giving me every reason to believe that what went down was legitimate. You understand, I hope, that I can’t condone fighting in any shape or form, but…” He chuckled. “I guess it’s on me, son. I didn’t want to confuse the issues any more than I had to by bringing in a bunch of parents, who would have made our day a whole lot longer in the end. You’re correct – someone came in here and picked up his son, as well as Mr. Edwards’ mother.”

Jesse studied briefly before nodding and then standing up. “Well, if you decide you don’t want me around next week, sir, I’ll understand. Just… let my Dad know, and-”

“You’re going to be here next week, in school, Jesse,” the principal announced, interrupting him. “I’m not expelling you, so have no fear of that. Now, whether you’ll sit in classes all week, that probably remains to be seen for the time being.” He stood as well, smiling wearily. “Still, it’s been a long day for both of us. Come on, let’s leave our day at that for now, alright?”

In that moment, the two exchanged an unspoken understanding, and Jesse surprised the adult by sticking out his hand. Mr. Green accepted the handshake, as the teen whispered. “Thank you, sir, for everything.” With that, he turned and opened the door to the office quietly and exited.

As the door closed behind the teen, Mr. Green sat back down at his desk and once again breathed deeply. Closing his eyes, he nursed the developing headache as calmly as he could.

 

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When the school bell sounded outside, Jesse was already on the bus. Mr. Bones had pulled up only moments before and, finding the student standing outside mostly by himself in the shivering cold, the driver had taken pity and allowed the teen to board and gain shelter from the elements. As Jesse sat down, the driver could see the weariness etched in the young man’s face. “So, everything okay thar, young’en?”

Jesse looked up to see the man had turned around, comfortably sitting back and observing him. “Uh, yes sir, I guess.”

“You out here awful quick, aren’t you?” the man mused with a sly grin. “You get in trouble with the coach or someone?”

Surprisingly, the teen scoffed. “I wish. At least that would have been more definitive.” He looked up and saw the curiosity. “I got in a fight today, and Mr. Green told me I could come on out and wait for the bus.”

“Oh? Who with? Anybody I know?” the elderly black man asked, his curiosity piqued.

“Pete, and his cronies,” Jesse replied, and then gave the man an abbreviated version of the events that went down during lunch. When he finished, he could not help but note the astonishment that met him.

“You? You… took on four boys, all of which have a good measure of meat and bones over you… all by yourself?” The man shook his head. “I’m flabbergasted, I think! I mean, don’t get me wrong son, it’s not that I don’t think you couldn’t handle yourself and all, but… that by itself, it’s impressive. And Haskell, well, I don’t doubt he’s up to his neck in cow manure as it is. Never could understand that boy, really. He looks to be heading down the long end of the barrel mighty quick lately. Some days, just your typical, arrogant teenager, but respectable at least. Other days…”

Jesse nodded. “Some say he’s mixed up in drugs and stuff,” he offered quietly, which the driver nodded his head.

“Well, I wouldn’t put it past him. His old man was sent up the river for a spell a few years back. All for dealing, I think. Got out early on good behavior, or something like that, and then caught again.” Mr. Bones sighed. “I’m sorry, Jess. You need something though, you holler, alright?” Just then, a group of students showed up at the door, and both realized that the conversation was over.

Moments later, Jesse watched as Noah boarded the bus, carrying his usual sports bag. When their eyes met, there was a noticeable transition in his expression to one of relief. As he sat down, he leaned over heavily, bumping shoulders against Jesse, who eventually giggled. “You okay?” the teen whispered, making Noah roll his eyes.

“Me? What about you? I’ve been worried sick wondering about you! Are YOU doing okay?” Noah asked in hushed tones.

“I’m fine. I just… It took Mr. Green a while to get through everything, I think,” Jesse replied.

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Noah mused, before straightening up and setting his knees against the seat in front again. Before they could converse any further, however, a familiar figure leaned over from the seat behind.

“Jess?” Linda spoke, before reaching a hand over and squeezing the teen’s arm. “I just wanted to say I’m so happy for you. What you did today… That took a lot of guts. Most of us were stunned, but then we were all glad to see Pete put in his place like you did.”

Jesse smiled at her, but then shrugged. “I didn’t do that much, really,” he began, but then she cut him off.

“You don’t really believe that, do you?” The girl was smiling herself, but she fixated his gaze long and hard until he relented.

“Well, if it stops them from going after Benji, then…”

Linda scoffed. “Oh, hell yeah, it will! I’ve already heard from Sheena that Jimmy’s mother was giving him all kinds of shit, not just about bullying you, but snagging his brother into doing the same to Ben. Evidently she was outside the office while they were leaving today.” She sized the teen up. “You know, I probably shouldn’t do this, but…” In a quick movement, she leaned forward and, this time with both arms outstretched, engulfed and pulled the boy back into the seat. Inside the makeshift hug, she also pulled his head in close and gave him a quick kiss on the temple, eliciting a few expressions of surprise around them. She then sat back and blushed as people called her out, but upon seeing Jesse blush as well, she finally laughed. “Oh, just deal with it, doofus!” she exclaimed, before rising to find another seat further back in the bus.

Jesse continued to blush as he turned forward again and dragged his own knees up, mimicking his best friend. When he noticed Noah watching him with a mocking grin, he shook his head. “Please, don’t go there… alright?”

Noah was still smirking as the bus pulled out and got under way moments later, before he finally leaned in closer. “So, did you get suspended, or…?”

Jesse shrugged. “To be determined, I guess.”  He then explained his discussion with Mr. Green just before school dismissed, surprising Noah yet again.

“Wow! Well, at least I can be grateful he didn’t expel you,” the boy whispered, before shaking his head. “Not that he would, anyway. You do realize though, don’t you, that there was practically no fight to begin with. You… you…” He turned to observe Jesse closely. “I mean, how in the hell did you learn to fight like that, anyway? Did you take karate lessons or something that I don’t know about yet? I admit it: it took me a few seconds to get up off the floor, so I never saw very much at the beginning, but I say plenty right at the end! Someone told me you had those guys on their backs, in like four or five seconds at most!”

Jesse scoffed as he began to blush again. “I doubt it was that quick, Noah.”

“Really? Well, it doesn’t matter how fast it went down, the point is, they did just that – they went d-o-w-n!” Noah shook his head as another thought came to him. “Pete’s going to have to start wearing a jock protector permanently from now on, I think, as much as he keeps getting kicked in the balls! That must have been… I don’t know, epic, I guess…”

Jesse stared out the window for a moment, before grunting. “Well, if he didn’t act like a dick-head so much, then maybe people would leave his family jewels alone.”

“True,” Noah conceded. “Still… you didn’t answer my question.”

Jesse took a deep breath and let it go slowly. “Nowhere really, Noah. No, I don’t know karate or Tae Kwon Do, or any of that other stuff, either. I mean, a long time ago Dad kind of taught me and Benji that if we’re ever in a fight and going up against someone bigger and all like that, just… you know, aim for their you-know-what and punch or kick away as hard as we could. He also taught us to make sure we go after anyone like that one at a time, and to be quick about it so they don’t get the jump on you. So, that’s kind of what I just did, you know?”

“It seemed like it was a lot more than that, though,” Noah theorized, but he suddenly stopped. “I’m sorry, if you don’t want to talk about it, then just tell me to shut up, and I will… I promise.”

“I’m not afraid to talk about it, Noah,” Jesse interrupted. “Not with you anyway. I just… I really don’t know, okay? I don’t have an answer for everything. Today, I just… when those guys knocked me down and then I saw them do the same thing to you, I just… I just walked up to Pete, see. I knew Jimmy was standing right there, and I knew I’d have to do something quick to take one of them out of action if I was going to have any luck dealing with the other. Pete, he seemed the most, I don’t know, gullible I guess, so… I just… Does that make sense? I didn’t think so much about what I was doing, I just… I just… I did it…” As he concluded, Noah could see a certain amount of frustration creeping in, and thus knew he needed to not press the issue any further.

“Hey, okay! Calm down, I believe you!” Noah whispered, before offering a fist bump, which caused Jesse to sigh in relief and gladly meet halfway.

“I’m sorry, Noah. I don’t know, I guess I’m still kind of on edge or something,” Jesse admitted.

“You look really tired,” Noah observed quietly, to which his friend nodded.

“I’m exhausted, really. I’m just, you know, glad it’s over with now. I guess the adrenaline or something is finally leaving me,” Jesse mused quietly before sitting back.

Noah considered. “Can I at least ask you one more thing, and please, try not to get mad at me?”

With Noah’s gym bag in his lap, Jesse tugged it over between them, before slipping his hand underneath and finding his friend’s hand already there. He locked fingers in the hidden space and gave his friend a weak smile. It was a gesture, but also a show of strength as he whispered in reply, “Ask me anything you want, bro, I don’t care. I won’t get mad…”

Noah smiled. “This morning… is this something you already had planned out?”

Jesse immediately shook his head. “Not really. At least, not the way it went down. I actually had figured I’d have it out with Pete on the way home today here, on the bus, but then his goons got involved, and well…” The teen suddenly looked up. “By the way, what the heck were you doing in the cafeteria today?”

Noah grinned. “We had a substitute today for history, and she got all confused about how some of the lunches worked and all. Not just her, but I think some other classes got it screwed up, too. I was actually going to try and surprise you, really.”

Jesse laughed in relief. “Well, you did! When I looked over and saw it was you with food stuffed up your nose… I didn’t know what to think!”

Noah shrugged. “You had other things going on, like your own bloody lip and… well, meh.” He paused, suddenly becoming quite nervous before he lowered his voice. “Jess?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry, man. I’m… I’m really sorry.”

Jesse raised an eyebrow. “For what?” he whispered.

For the first time since sitting, Noah hung his head. “The bath thing, and Benji…”

Jesse quickly connected the dots and understood. He paused to stare out the window for a moment, before turning back to his friend. “Forget it,” he said quietly.

Noah turned to him. “Seriously? I mean, I… I…”

“Yes, seriously. I don’t hold grudges, Noah, and besides, I already figured that Pete had to have learned about that from you,” Jesse replied.

Noah sat stunned. “But… how? I mean, I didn’t say it like he made it out to be or anything, honest! I just… I don’t know, I… I…”

Jesse squeezed the hand he was holding again gently. “Noah, outside of you, no one has ever seen me and Benji come out of a shower or bath like you did that night, okay? And for what it’s worth, I know my brother: he can get hyper, kid around and do a lot of things, but he knows that when we do that, it’s not one of those things you broadcast around. Besides, he doesn’t process stuff like that yet, so I’m pretty sure we’re safe for the most part. Whatever you thought, it was before you really understood what it means to have family – a brother – I think.” He grunted. “So, how can I hold it against you now, you know? It’s like, that was then, but… this is now. It really doesn’t matter anymore.”

Noah visibly relaxed. “You’re… thanks. From my heart,” he whispered. “You promise me, right? You’re okay?”

Jesse quietly laughed and then squeezed the hand yet again, but this time much firmer. “I am fine, honest. Other than just being really tired, it’s over now.” He looked out the window. “Whatever comes next Noah, it just happens. Other than being a little nervous about what my Dad is going to say, I’m… I’m not going to worry about it. I promise.”

“It’ll be alright, you’ll see,” Noah whispered back, squeezing gently in return. He waited a moment before pushing ahead. “Do you, like, want to do anything tonight? I mean…”

“I know what you mean, yeah. I just… if it’s okay, let’s just see how the evening plays out. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet Mr. Green talks to Dad this afternoon, and if so, my butt might get toasted for a while,” Jess replied tiredly. “Dad really has this hang-up about fighting… and, I guess in a way, it’s a part of why Benji and I get along so well.” He looked up then. “I’m going to go in and just lie down for a while, I promise. You know, kind of unwind if I can. Maybe even cry it all out, if I need to.” He smiled as he saw the other teen start to object. “I’m teasing, Noah. Honest, I’m just… really, I just feel exhausted.”

Noah nodded finally. “Okay, fair enough, but just for the record… I doubt the reason you and Benji get along so well has anything to do with your Dad. I mean, I might be blind about some things, but I don’t think I’m the only one who sees that.” He rubbed his nose with his free hand before sitting back again. “Jess? I mean it, you’ve got nothing to worry about now. Trust me, okay?”

Jess smiled before leaning his head back and closing his eyes. “I’ve never stopped yet, have I?” he whispered.

 

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Jesse awoke, startled from his nap by the sounds of a door shutting in the distance. He still felt overly drained, which didn’t help his nerves as he attuned himself sluggishly to everything around him. He saw the TV had been turned on, with the volume muted and a video game in progress. Although he couldn’t see directly, the teen did note a single controller cable was stretching across the distance to someone on the mattress above him. A moment later he heard a muffled voice exclaim “Oh man!”, thus confirming that his little brother had arrived at some point, but who had chosen not to disturb him.

Jesse yawned and then rolled over onto his back to stretch out. Their room was a bit cooler than usual, thus causing him to pull the blanket covering him up closer as he stared at the ceiling. A quick glance to their clock told him it was almost seven, a detail that left the teen surprised. He had had short naps before after school, but none like this! As he lay there, he contemplated what he wanted to do, but before he could decide there was a soft knock at their bedroom door. A second later, his father’s head appeared. “Hey sport!” he called out softly to Benji.

“Hi, Dad! When did you get home?” came the equally hushed reply from above him.

“Oh, about a half-hour ago, I guess. Your mother and I have been talking a while. So, what’s up with big bear, did he fall asleep on you or something?” the man asked.

Benji shrugged. “He was asleep when I got home, so I just left him alone.”

Jesse, now processing the moment more clearly, yawned again before sitting up. “I’m awake, Dad, though I haven’t been for long.”

James smiled and then stepped into the room. Walking over to the bed, he squatted down. “How’s it going, champ?”

Jesse shrugged. “Okay, I guess.”

James observed his son for a few seconds and then nodded. “Want to talk?” he whispered.

It was at that point Jesse knew what he had already suspected. He sighed, pushing back the blanket from him. “Um, sure… Let me go to the bathroom for a sec first, though.”

“Sure thing. Just come on outside afterwards and help me unload something from the truck, okay?”

Ten minutes later, Jesse had donned his shoes and made his way outside to find his father pushing a heavy-looking box to the rear of the truck, readying it to be lowered onto what looked like an old wheelbarrow beneath. “Here, help me set this down,” the man requested, and Jesse obeyed. The effort wasn’t as bad as it looked to be, especially with the box being lighter than anticipated. It was rather large, however, something that would have been difficult for one person to handle at least. The two then wheeled the container into the shed and placed it against the wall, out of the way from the main floor. “There, that should help us take care of the lawn next spring.”

“Huh?” Jesse asked, confused.

James laughed. “We found this out in the warehouse this afternoon, and Mr. Stout didn’t want to re-adjust it back into inventory. It’s a two-year old model anyway, so he offered it to me for $25.” His father then shrugged. “Sorry son, that was one deal I couldn’t really pass up. It’s one of those rear-wheeled, self-propelled types, too.”

Jesse smiled. “I bet!” he replied as cheerfully as he could, but then stood quietly in anticipation. When his father walked up beside him, however, the man put an arm around his shoulders, and guided them both to lean back against the wall of the shed.

“I, uh, had an interesting visit this afternoon from your principal, Mr. Green,” James started.

Jesse nodded, leaning in against the man. “Yeah, I know. He said he would probably talk to you today or in the morning.”

James smiled. “Want to tell me about it?”

Jesse hesitated, before looking up. “There’s really not that much to tell, Dad. Some guys have been picking on Benji, and… well, I learned last night it was because of this creep Noah and I have been dealing with at school. You and Allen met him and his friend crowding us around the pinball machine that night at the diner. Anyway, today during lunch, he and his weirdos started in on a bunch of crap again and… and…” He looked away. “I couldn’t let it go on. I mean, I could have tattled I guess, but you know what that’s like. Unless a teacher or someone sees something, especially when it happens, they don’t do anything but make it all worse, you know? And… today, it wasn’t just me, they laid in on Noah too, and… these guys, they were all laughing their asses off, like it was just one big joke. A joke that never ends, because they’ve been pulling their shit- err, sorry, their crap for weeks now, and things for Benji was getting worse and all, and… and…” The teen sighed heavily. “I don’t know, Dad… I just couldn’t let it go on, especially with Ben getting caught up in all of it, too. I… I just couldn’t.”

James remained silent for a moment before nodding. “Believe it or not, that’s pretty much what Harland Green told me, too. The way he put it, you boys kind of got backed into a corner, and you had to come out fighting.” The man suddenly chuckled. “According to him, you must have done a pretty solid job by it. Is that right? Four boys, decked to the floor in under 5-seconds?”

Jesse blushed, but then shrugged. “I don’t know how long it took, Dad, honest. I… all I could think about was, well, the stuff you taught me and Benji, and… and making sure I didn’t have to deal with all of them at once. Something like that, anyway…”

James pulled his son closer. “What’s this about Benji, though? What exactly was happening to him? Harland didn’t tell me anything much about that…” Jesse then explained over the next few minutes, how he, Noah, Linda and some of her friends discovered the real reason why Benji had been coming home early. Among other things, he explained the scheme Pete created to use by attacking Benji in a way of harassing himself and Noah. “They had their brothers, or their family or whoever, see, bullying Benji, Dad – all just so they could get at me! That’s why I called them all cowards and assholes and… That’s… that’s why… I mean…” Jesse had to stop at that point, his emotions beginning to get the better of him.

With a renewed effort, his father gradually turned the teen around and embraced him, hugging him close. “Listen… it’s okay, son,” was all the man said, as Jesse finally let his guard down. For the first time since waking that morning, the stress and emotion finally caught up. Jesse wasn’t one to lose control often, a strength of his character well-observed by his parents over the years. Still, he was human, and this was one of those times that events from not just that day, but over the last week, had seemingly caught up to him. The teen wept quietly, and as James held him warmly, he could physically feel the tension letting go. “You know, I’m quite proud of you,” he remarked eventually.

Jesse finally pulled back with tired, red eyes looking up at the man. “Why? I mean, I did it, Dad… I’m the one who made the fight, I’m the one-”

“Who stood up and protected not only himself, but others, too. Even your brother, although maybe indirectly. How could your mother or I not be proud of you, hmm?” James then chuckled. “You’ve always loved your brother, despite being the older one, and you’ve always looked out for him, I know. He really looks up to you, too, and that’s saying something.”

Jesse fell silent once again, and after a moment, the teen looked up at his father. “Then… you’re not mad?”

“No, I’m not mad at all,” James replied soothingly.

“Even if I get suspended?” the teen whispered.

“Harland doesn’t think he’s going to suspend you. We both agreed, we cannot condone the fighting, so there may be some repercussions somewhere along the way yet. Honestly though? Don’t worry about those right now. Whatever happens will just happen. From the sounds of it though, Pete and his, what did you call them – weirdos?” James laughed. “A nice way of saying ‘his gang’, I guess. Either way, all around I think this gang of his has been giving you and some others a rough way to go already. You did your best trying to handle them the right way, but they wouldn’t let you. Isn’t that the sum of it?”

Jesse searched his father’s expression, but then relented when he saw the kindness within it. “I don’t know if we did our best, but…”

“Well, we’ll pretend that you two did, at least for this once,” James announced. “Son, please understand something, okay? It’s like the old song goes by that country singer, Rogers, I think was his name: turning the other cheek isn’t always the answer, but only you can decide when it isn’t. That’s what you did today, and I’ll stand behind you 100% for that. As long as you’re satisfied that you did what had to be done, for the right reasons, then… I’ll say it again, how can your mother and I NOT be proud of you. Okay?”

Jesse wrapped his father in another embrace and squeezed tightly. “Thanks, Dad. Believe it or not, that… it means a lot.” They hugged for another brief moment before he finally pulled back. “Hey, Dad? Can I ask a favor?”

“Hmm?”

“Can we, uh, not tell Benji? I mean, I know he’ll hear something eventually, and probably sooner than later, and I’ll have to shoulder that when he does, but…”

“You want to wait and see if the other boys lay off of him at school first, is that it?” James asked.

“Yeah, kind of…”

“I don’t see why not. I’ll tell your mother, too, so she doesn’t let the cat out of the bag.” The man then chuckled. “Just be careful. You know what the wrath of Benji is like when he gets wound up!”

Jesse rolled his eyes. “Boy, do I ever!”

 

«««««««««« _ »»»»»»»»»»

 

“I guess you’ve heard all about what went down at school today,” Jennifer remarked on the phone call with Makalah. She had just finished chatting with both Linda and her mother from up the road, and decided to dial her friend next door tentatively. “It sounds like it was pretty involved, the way our neighbors described it.”

“That’s what James was telling me. He got a visit from the school principal down at the store this afternoon,” Makalah replied, pulling a chair out and taking a seat. Hearing silence at the other end of the connection, she then prompted. “Is everything alright?”

“Oh, yes, sorry about that, I was trying to put something away,” was the cheerful reply. “Believe it or not, I got Noah to actually open up to me about it this evening, and he told me what has been going on.” She let go an exasperated sigh. “You know, I don’t understand how these kids get through a day anymore, dealing with all the crud they have to put up with! Sometimes I think it’s just unreal!”

“I know what you mean,” Makalah replied. “Drugs, sex, alcohol, and then this bullying and all… it’s hard to teach our children any values they can hold up for themselves with a level of pride, without having assholes trying to tear them down all the time.”

“I agree, that’s exactly how I feel about it,” Jenifer remarked. “You know, if I was over there, right now, I’d grab Jesse and hug him for all it’s worth. He not only took care of himself and his brother, but what he did ended up standing in for Noah, too. I know you and James have to feel really proud about it.”

Makalah smiled. “We do, to be honest, Jenn. I- In a way I think I want to whoop his butt, but in another… I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than grab him up tight and just hold on for dear life.”

“I’m sure you do. A lot of us would, I think,” Jennifer offered. “Well, that’s all I wanted, really. I’m not even sure why I called, I just…” Jennifer caught herself short before losing control of her own voice. Setting aside her remarkable feelings of motherliness, she eventually sighed. “I just wanted to say thank you, that’s all, and to let you know how much I appreciate you and your whole family. I wish you could have seen and listened to Noah this afternoon. He hasn’t opened up to me or anyone, and talked like he did, in a long, long time. This last month or more, it feels like I’m finally getting my son back, you know? It isn’t perfect, and we still have a ways to go, but…”

“Jenn,” Makalah started. “You’re fine, don’t worry about it. You know, it just isn’t you guys that are affected, either. Jesse has, I don’t know, ever since the tornado and we’ve all come together, he’s… matured, too. He’s not so much different than before, but yet… he seems a lot happier, I think. Surprising or not, I believe that’s because of him and Noah finding not only some neutral ground between them, but also building such a good friendship together. You have a good son, too, you know? Don’t discount that.”

The voice of the woman on the other end was filled with emotion when she finally replied after a short silence. “I – I guess I’m not used to hearing that from anyone else,” she whispered. “Allen and I, we’ve had some rough spots to get through.”

“I bet you have, really,” Makalah replied. “Maybe everything will be on the up-and-up from here on out. Maybe everything will just keep getting better, girl. Trust it, anyway. We’ll all make it through, you’ll see.”

“I know we will,” Jennifer continued in a hoarse whisper. “You know, it seems like only a short while ago you were telling me those same words, at another time in our life, for an entirely different reason.” There was a deep sigh then, before she concluded. “Still, thanks,” was the whispered reply. The two then bade each other farewell and hung up.

When Makalah visited the boys’ room that night, she walked in to find them both huddled together on the top bunk, watching a movie on their TV. After first giving Benji his nightly hug, she then gave a lengthier one to Jesse, one which did not escape her younger son’s notice. “Hey! No fair!” he exclaimed, laughing.

“What do you mean, no fair?” his mother shot back, a wide grin betraying her amusement. “You got all the kisses, so he gets an extra hug!” True enough, she had smothered the younger boy with kisses, giggling as he squirmed until she let him go. All three laughed before she quietly wished them good night and left the room.

Benji turned to look at his brother then. “Okay, what’s all the hush-hush going on?” he asked quietly.

“What do you mean?” Jesse asked innocently.

“Well, Mom and Dad were both kind of, I don’t know, different tonight, and then I saw them talking a bit ago when I went to the bathroom. In the living room, I mean, they were having some kind of talk all quiet-like and everything,” the younger boy explained. “They don’t usually do that kind of stuff.”

Jesse shrugged. “No idea, really,” he muttered, but Benji turned to him sharply afterwards. “What?” he asked again, feigning as deep of a level of innocence as he could muster.

“You, that’s what! You’re holding out on me,” he hissed, before twisting around and jumping on the older boy, tickling him under the arms. Surprisingly, Benji had the bigger boy pinned down quite well, given their perch and limited arena, something that Jesse discovered he had to take extra care while struggling to fight back. Both squirmed and laughed for several minutes until Jesse finally put his hands up.

“Okay, I give! I give!” he croaked, before grabbing Benji and holding him within his arms.

The younger brother grinned. “Aha! I know how to beat you, now!”

“Yeah, you got one up on me…” Jesse admitted. “This time, anyway.” He stared down into the eyes staring back at him. “It’s nothing bad, bro. In fact, I’m hoping it turns out to be a good thing.”

Benji stilled immediately. “Does it have to do with what we talked about last night?” he whispered.

Jesse nodded. “Yeah, it does. Just… be patient, okay? We’ll see how everything goes next week. If anyone, and I mean ANYONE, bullies or picks on you again, let me know, okay? Promise?”

“I will, I promise,” Benji whispered back, before stretching his arms out and wrapping them around Jesse’s neck. Neither said anything more from that point on, as they eventually turned their attention back to the TV. Before long, the pillows were pulled up close, and both were snuggled together again. At one point, the room began feeling somewhat cooler, so Jesse brought a blanket up and over them. There they lay, almost motionless for the rest of the evening, falling into a peaceful sleep. When their father checked in on them later, he turned off the TV and then quietly left the room.

 

«««««««««« _ »»»»»»»»»»

 

Saturday arrived with bright sunshine and more seasonable temperatures throughout the valley, a welcome change from the last several days. At the breakfast table, the McAllisters had all sat down together to a rare breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast. Both parents were off for the day, strangely enough, but neither intended to waste the day away idly. “Jesse, how about you and your brother go with me this morning?” James suggested.

“Um, okay… What’s up?” Jesse asked.

“Well, I was going to go over to the old house and see how far along they’ve gotten with cleaning and clearing it out. I also thought we might see if we can go through the shed, too. There might still be an item or two we can recover, especially anything along that one wall still standing,” James explained.

“Like my bike?” Benji asked, suddenly alert.

“Yes, we can look for your bike, too,” their father agreed, laughing. “I don’t know, we might find some odds and ends, but don’t get your hopes up too high. Then afterward, maybe we could take a trip over to Campbellsville. Your mother wants me to pick up a turkey for next week, and if you’re up for it, maybe we can swing by that burger joint you boys like.”

“Really?” Benji exclaimed, before pushing his chair back from the table. “What are we waiting for?!”

“Whhhooaaa there cowboy, finish those eggs and bacon, first!” Makalah admonished him, causing the others to laugh.

When they arrived sometime later at their old address, both Jesse and his father frowned. “Uh, when did you say they were supposed to get to ours, Dad?”

As he placed the gear into park and shut off the engine, James muttered under his breath. “We were supposed to already have our house cleared away by now, or at least most of it.”

The trio alighted from the truck to find that, although the house had been cordoned off with the familiar Do-Not-Cross warning tapes, nothing otherwise had been touched practically since the storm. “I don’t get it,” James announced, scratching his head. When he turned to look across the field toward the other houses, his confusion deepened. Jesse, following his father’s gaze, understood why. In each of the locations where a house had stood and had been damaged by the twister, the land was already practically cleaned and graded, with much of the destruction already bulldozed and hauled away.

“It doesn’t look like they’ve done anything here,” Benji stated matter-of-factly, summarizing the obvious.

“Well, maybe there was a problem, or … maybe the storms stopped them this week,” Jesse theorized. “You know, all the rain and stuff.”

After a moment, James shook his head and then smiled. “Perhaps. I admit, I’m not sure, but I’ll make some calls come the first of the week and see what we can learn. Come on boys, let’s take a look through the shed and the well house over there, shall we?”

The trio spent the next half-hour, sifting through a lot of debris that was either resulted from the collapse of the house, or had been blown in from the outside. There was very little to be salvaged, however, as what few items they uncovered seemed either outright broken, or damaged beyond repair. So intent were their efforts, however, none of them heard when another vehicle approach outside and shut off. Only when two doors shut in succession, did James suddenly look up. “Hey, Bill! How you doing? You too, Addison!”

Their ex-neighbor broke into a wide grin before pumping the outstretched hand. “I thought that might be you, James!” As they began to chat, Addison paused outside, and both Benji and Jesse walked out to greet her. As they approached, Benji suddenly leapt forward and rushed into her arms without preamble, giving the girl a huge hug and making her laugh.

“Hey there, Caterpillar!” Addison exclaimed. It was another one of those nicknames she had saddled the boy with during his toddler years. When she finally let go, she turned and approached Jesse, threading her arms inside of his and embracing him just as warmly, to his surprise. “How’s it going, Jess?” she whispered into his ear.

Twice now, in two days, Jesse found himself in the arms of two separate girls who went out of their way with such affectionate gestures, and it made him feel strange. As he blushed deeply, he did even more so when Addison suddenly added a kiss to his cheek. “Wow, what did I do to deserve that?” he whispered as she pulled back.

Addison’s eyes twinkled. “You know why,” she replied, before slipping back and finding that Benji had wrapped his arms tightly around her waist.

“You can’t have her, Jesse, she’s mine!” the boy declared, making both of the older teens giggle. “Besides, I get to see her boobies first, remember?”

Flabbergasted, Addison looked down at him. “What the heck are you talking about?” she asked, laughing.

It was then the boy pulled her down so he could speak quietly into her ear, although only marginally since Jesse could still overhear the conversation. “Remember? You peeked at me that day, and I told you no fair unless I get to see your boobies. Then you told me I’d have a better chance of seeing them before Jesse ever would! Remember?”

Addison blushed, but laughed heartily along with Jesse as she looked down into the brightly lit face grinning up at her. “I- I don’t t-think I said it quite like that! And… I don’t remember peeking either!” Addison hissed, but still wrapped the boy up in her arms again anyway. She looked up at Jesse with a helpless look, but he grinned and quickly turned his hands up in the air.

“Don’t look at me! Remember what I told you? He’s not shy about certain things!” the teen responded, causing Addison to stick her tongue out at him.

Holding Benji ever closer, Addison leaned down. “What if I were to give you a kiss instead? Will that work?”

Benji hesitated, thinking about it, before giving her a sweet look of innocence. “Really? On the lips and all?”

In response, Addison bent down and planted a very smart kiss right onto the boy’s lips, and even held the contact between them briefly. When she pulled back, his eyes were shut, but he was in an unmistakable state of pure bliss. “Uh… maybe one more?” he asked whispered sweetly, but then saw the look she gave him. “Okay, okay! Well, maybe, some other time then?” he whispered.

“I might, sometime,” she whispered back, before reaching under him and pinching his butt. At that he giggled, his playful charm once again returning. He squirmed away from her and ran back inside the shed then. Jesse walked up beside the girl, impressed.

“Sheesh, I don’t remember ever being that lucky at his age!” he remarked. Then blushing, he held up both hands again. “Not that I’m looking for anything more, mind you, it’s just… sheesh!”

“Like you told everyone yesterday, he’s just seven years old, yeah,” Addison replied with a giggle, but then turned to him. “Jesse, I want to tell you something, okay? Linda and I were talking last night, and she said something about you not thinking you did anything all that special yesterday.”

“Well… I didn’t Addison, not really,” Jesse replied, though slowly beginning to blush again.

“There’s no way you can honestly believe that, is there? I mean… you faced four boys who were older, bigger and who knows what. If they had gotten hold of you even once, I hate to think what might have happened, really. But… they didn’t, and you took them down, and then you… you…” The girl sighed deeply. “You told Pete a thing or two, all the while telling the rest of us that we were idiots if we believed all the shit he was shoveling at us. And… best of all, you were right, Jesse. You were right, about all of it.”

Jesse blushed even deeper, but then the girl stepped closer and lowered her voice. “All afternoon, in my classes and study hall and everywhere, people were talking about what you said, and how it made so much sense. I’m telling you: you struck a home run, you know? People understood you, because they felt what you felt. Maybe they hadn’t seen it quite the way you laid it out to them, but whatever the excuse, when you finished – they understood. They really, really understood on the inside, where it counts.”

Jesse stared at her for a moment before looking at the ground. “You think s-so?” he croaked, but then glanced back up. “You know, I wasn’t trying to do that. I was… I just…”

“You wanted the world to understand why you love your brother so much, and how much trust the two of you have together was exactly that – because you are brothers! Some of those people in the crowd, those with good families Jesse, they understood it already, right away. But what you have to realize is that, some of them are from single or broken homes, or live with grandparents, aunts and uncles. Some even now still live in foster homes… You know, places where no one really gives a crap about them being there,” Addison responded. “That’s the thing, see. A lot of them don’t know what it means to have someone in your life like a brother – a real brother. You showed them, though. In those few short minutes, you showed them what it was like, and when you got finished, they understood. So, don’t be surprised if you don’t get a few more hugs, a clap on the shoulder or back, or something, like, maybe get noticed a little more from now on. You really struck home, Jesse. Not by just what you said, but how you said it, too. We felt it, see? For whatever it’s worth… I was very proud of you. I almost wanted to cry. Hell, I think I did cry by the time you finished…”

Jesse stared at her, his own eyes watering up. He could feel the sincerity and the emotion behind what she was trying to say to him, and before long he reached out and gently embraced her. It wasn’t his first time hugging a girl, but in that moment, he couldn’t help feeling awkward while holding her chest-to-chest. Addison seemed to sense and realize it though, as she then purposefully pulled him inside of her own arms and pushed, bringing them together fully for the moment. “They’re just boobs, Jesse. Don’t be scared of them,” she whispered, making him blush again. He didn’t know what to say, but it didn’t really matter, as she didn’t seem to expect anything else.

“Thanks,” he whispered finally, to which she responded with an extra squeeze before pulling back.

“Now, does this mean I have to give you a kiss on the lips, too?” she teased, causing him to giggle.

“No, you and Benji can have that one just for yourselves,” he quipped quietly, before giggling. “Besides, I’ll never hear the end of it if he finds out. He’ll dog me like crazy if he thinks I stole your heart away from him.”

Addison laughed. “Let him, I don’t care. He’ll always be my caterpillar, I think.”

 

«««««««««« _ »»»»»»»»»»

 

When the trio returned home later that afternoon, they found both Jennifer and Noah visiting in the kitchen with Makalah. “Hey, welcome back!” Makalah called out. “How did the fishing trip go?”

Benji stopped in the middle of the floor. “Huh? We didn’t go fishing, mom! We went to our old house!”

James, stepping around his son, ruffled the boy’s hair while handing a sack to his wife. “Here, it’s probably cold by now, but we brought you a sandwich anyway.” Looking down, he addressed his son. “I thought we went fishing for your bike. Didn’t we?”

“OOOhhhhh… FFiiisshhiinnngg…” Benji replied, before shaking his head. “You grown-ups talk weird sometimes!” All three adults, along with Jesse and Noah, burst out laughing.

“That we do,” Jennifer remarked, pulling the boy into her lap. “We forget how to talk, I guess.”

“That’s what school is for, isn’t it? Maybe you guys need a refresher class or something!” Benji quipped, then slipped out of her grasp quickly before she had a chance to tickle him. It was to little avail, however, as Makalah caught and held him close.

Once the laughter died down, the woman asked him. “How would you feel about going over to Petey’s again for the night? Interested?”

“Sure! What’s up?” the young boy asked immediately, causing their mother to laugh.

“Why does anything have to be up?” Makalah asked mysteriously, but then shook her head. “Don’t answer that. I think your father and I are going to drive up to Ohio tonight, and I didn’t think you or your brother were really up for a long, overnight trip out and back.” She looked up with a knowing glance to James. “It happened yesterday morning.”

James nodded in acceptance. “When is the funeral?”

“Monday, but I figured we wouldn’t be able to get away very easily. That’s why…” Makalah paused, nodding at Jennifer and Noah, before turning to Jesse. “I figured you would probably like to stay with Noah, again.”

Jesse arched his eyebrows, but then nodded. “Who, mom?”

“It’s just a long-time friend of the family,” James answered instead. “I don’t think you’ve ever met him, son.”

“Actually, it’s the preacher who married your father and me. Like your Dad said, I don’t think you’ve ever met him, but you might remember him from some of the pictures we used to have,” Makalah filled in.

Jesse turned to Noah and grinned slyly. “You sure you want to put up with me tonight?”

“Why do you think I’m here?” was the coy reply, causing the others to chuckle. At that, Makalah stood up. “I’ve already packed you a bag, Ben, and Petey’s mother should be here in a little bit. You, dear,” she announced, turning toward her husband. “You’d better grab a quick shower, especially if we’re going to get on the road.”

“Right you are,” James answered quickly, before heading off.

Jennifer also rose. “I guess I better get back, too. Are you going to wait for Jess?” she asked her son, who then nodded.

The teens headed to the bedroom, where Jesse picked up his backpack and emptied the contents onto the dresser. Grabbing some fresh underclothes and packing them, he suddenly stopped. “Do, uh, I need any nice clothes? I mean, I – uh, we just came from poking around the other house, so… I need a shower, I guess.”

“We won’t be going to church or anything,” Noah responded, taking a seat on the bed. “Maybe some fresh jeans or something would be enough, in case we go out to eat.” Jesse nodded and grabbed a clean change as recommended, then closed the bag up.

“It’s kind of funny. I mean, what stuff would I normally bring anyway?”

Noah grinned. “I know. We share a lot of stuff already, but…”

“Gotta keep the ‘rents happy,” Jesse whispered as he offered Noah a hand up. Together, they left the room just as Benji showed up at the door.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” the younger brother quickly prompted, before squeezing between them to get inside. The teens glanced at each other and then laughed, before continuing on.

After Jesse bade his mother goodbye, the two older boys headed across the lawn. “So, what do you want to get into?” Jesse asked nonchalantly.

Noah grunted. “I don’t know. How about we play some basketball? It’s not that cold out today, for a change.”

Jesse grinned. “Sounds perfect!”

 

«««««««««« _ »»»»»»»»»»

 

Later that afternoon, Allen returned home and greeted the two boys, who were by then taking a short break and lounging on the porch. Afterwards, the man asked Jesse if he liked seafood.

“Well, mostly, yeah. I mean, fish and shrimp are pretty good,” the teen answered.

“Good,” Allen replied. “You two get ready then, and we’ll all go out in about an hour or so.”

“Coe’s?” Noah prompted, to which his father nodded. “Yes!” he declared with a wide grin.

The outburst surprised Jesse completely, as he could not recall seeing that much of an enthusiastic reaction from his friend before. “You okay over there?”

Allen laughed. “Coe’s is a place where we like to go out to, over in Russell Springs. We haven’t been since, what, early this year?” When Noah nodded, the man shrugged. “Just haven’t had that much of a chance, I guess. Anyway, like I said, off you go.”

Moments later, both boys entered Noah’s bedroom and Jesse set his bag down at the foot of the bed. “Um, are you gonna grab a shower?”

“I guess so. The way we’ve been playing, I kind of feel icky,” Noah answered. “Plus, Dad said about an hour, so that gives us time.” When he saw his friend nod in agreement, he crossed to his dresser and extracted a clean pair of underwear. As the teen started for the bathroom, however, he pulled up short. “Uh, you’re our guest, so maybe I’m supposed to let you go first, if you want.”

Jesse laughed. “Wow, prim and proper!” he teased, but as Noah blushed, he shrugged. “Nah, go ahead, I can wait.”

“Well, okay,” Noah replied, before continuing on. “I won’t be but a few minutes,” he called back.

Jesse decided to sit down on one of the bean bags and open his backpack. From within, he pulled out the fresh clothes he had brought along, stacking them to his side while he waited. He heard the shower activate, and initially thought nothing of it until he looked up and suddenly stilled in surprise. Noah had left the door to the bathroom wide open, something uncharacteristic when compared to previous visits. Why it surprised him, he wasn’t sure, but with his curiosity getting the better of him, Jesse leaned over to one side and stretched, peering inside. The teen could see nothing, even with the mirror that was hanging on the wall, but he could make out various shadows as his friend obviously moved around.

As he returned to his previous position, Jesse tried to push the moment out of his mind, but found it difficult. It was true, he and Noah had been steadily building a closer relationship between them over the last couple of weeks. He found it hard to believe, however, that they had really advanced to this level. Jesse knew that, deep inside, he had no reservations being as free and open around his friend. His take on trust and being comfortable with him was surer than Noah’s was toward him; it’s just that Noah was actually drawing closer, but Jesse knew he had to give him time and respect his hesitations, whatever their deep reason was. Although his friend had broken barriers by seeking out their cuddles and more lately, Jesse always felt something was held back, which in turn made him try to be careful.

Jesse watched Noah usually hesitate with any level of intimacy that came between them. His friend clearly wanted to avoid any sexual precedence, that much was clear, but each time they had gotten together, they seemed to inch along even more. Both had found something magical in being able to hold each other up close, as if drawing on some unspoken strength between them. When they slept together, each night seemed to progress just a little farther, and honestly, Jesse couldn’t be happier. Having Benji to hold and be close with was one thing, but being able to have Noah – someone that was his own size and had his general physical presence – seemed to soothe the teenager even more. He glanced over toward the bathroom again. The door being wide open now was like another milestone being crossed. It was as if Noah was giving him an invitation of sorts, trying to tell him something. ‘Hey, I don’t care, I trust you!’ Jesse audibly gulped. If that were true, he felt his heart would melt on the spot, but he didn’t dare give into it. Too much was at stake for him to start reading too much into the moment, and he knew it. As much as his friend had changed, Jesse couldn’t yet come to accept the fact that Noah had changed this much, or come this far – and this soon. Not for him.

As wrapped up in his thoughts as he was, Jesse never noticed when the water was shut off, so he was startled when Noah walked into the room with his waist wrapped in a towel. “These undies are full of holes,” he announced with annoyance, tossing them in the nearby garbage can and then crossing over before extracting another pair from the drawer. “Shower’s all yours,” he added, moving on to his closet, presumably to extract fresh clothes.

Jesse initially just sat there, first watching his best friend before turning back and observing the still open door to the bathroom. He wondered briefly if his friend realized what he had just done, but then Jesse shook his head slightly, trying to dismiss the thought. With a sigh, he finally climbed to his feet and started across the floor, carrying his clothes with him. For an instant, he hesitated at the doorway, wondering if he should close it or not, but then decided it really didn’t matter. In fact, Jesse began to relax as he stepped through, becoming more comfortable with each passing second.

With no inhibition, he stripped completely and stepped into the shower, pulling the door up behind him. He had decided that, if Noah was testing him in some way, he didn’t want to fail letting his friend know how deeply his own trust was established. If he wasn’t being tested, then no harm could be done, right? Jesse hoped so, at least. It could just be another one of those moments that might, somewhere down the road, prove to be another step between them, or another hurdle they had cleared. Such a hurdle did mean something to the teen, because it crossed an intimate threshold of sorts, a barrier that allowed the most personal parts of him physically, not to be hidden away. Either way, over the next few minutes the teen quickly washed his head and wiped himself down with soap and water, before rinsing everything away and turning the water off.

It was then he realized that, in his reverie, he had forgotten to pull a towel from the linen closet before getting in. Standing in the middle of the shower, dripping wet from head to toe, he grunted as he pondered what to do. He turned to the shower door, wiping the water away from his eyes, but then stopped abruptly. Hanging over the top of the rail was a fresh towel already waiting for him. There was no question in his mind as to how it got there. At least, he hoped it had been Noah, and not his mother who had hung it. As he pulled the cloth down and began to dry himself, the debate he had just let go of now returned in his mind again. Was he reading too much into this? To Jesse, it was a huge step for Noah to undertake – if, indeed, his friend was doing it deliberately. In the back of Jesse’s mind, he found his head – and his heart – hoping so.

When Jesse finally stepped from the shower, he found the bathroom empty, but with the door to the bedroom still in its previously opened state. Slowly, he pulled his briefs off the top of the sink and donned them, followed by his shirt. He then picked up his jeans and paused, taking a deep breath before heading back into the bedroom.

Noah was nearly dressed by then, having donned a long-sleeved, white polo shirt with his usual stonewashed jeans. He was just pulling on a pair of socks when he looked up. “Uh, everything okay?” he asked, then made a face, grunting as his sock didn’t seem to want to cooperate in covering up his foot.

Jesse nodded and walked over before sitting down next to his best friend. After a moment, Noah won the struggle and pulled the sock into its proper place, before leaning in and bumping shoulders. Jesse returned the gesture, but then cleared his throat. “Um… your Mom or Dad didn’t come in, right?”

Noah narrowed his eyes. “No, why?”

“No real reason, just being sure, bro,” Jesse replied. When Noah regarded him curiously, the teen suddenly blushed. “Sorry, I just – I take it you got me the towel and all, right?”

“Oh,” Noah replied, suddenly understanding. “I had some soap in one of my ears, and needed a Q-tip. Since you left the door open and all, I kind of figured it was okay if I came in to get one, that’s all. That’s when I saw you didn’t have a towel out, so I… uh, yeah.” He suddenly propped himself back on the bed, looking embarrassed. “Sorry man, if that wasn’t, um, cool,” he whispered.

“Nothing to be sorry about. I wouldn’t have cared.” Jesse observed him with a feeling of relief. “You’re the one who left the door open, though. I just… I guess I never shut it.”

Noah grunted. “Don’t worry, I didn’t see your sorry ass or anything, I promise. The door is frosted, remember?”

Jesse shrugged. “Do you think I’m worried about it? It’s fine, honest.” He joined his friend and propped up as well. “You kind of surprised me, that’s all. I mean, I didn’t think you and I had made that kind of a big step yet. At least, on your part.”

“What step?” Noah asked quietly.

“Being, ah… like that, like naked around each other and stuff,” Jesse whispered.

Noah fell quiet for a long time before he sat back up. “I’m sorry. I just… I don’t know why I did it. I wasn’t thinking, I guess. I mean, consider that until you guys moved in with us that week Jess, I never closed my door for anything. I mean, I’m the only one living down here, you know? My bedroom door, yeah, I close it all the time. But in here, it’s like my place and all. I’ve never needed to do it before, and I just, I don’t know, I was okay with it, even though I knew you were in here. So, yeah, sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, Noah. Good grief, no, don’t be sorry!” Jesse whispered in reply, sitting back up with his friend. “Like I said, I don’t care, honest! It’s just, I thought you would be the one who did care, and then… you didn’t.” The teen drew a deep breath and scooted a little closer. “I don’t think you understand, really, and I know I’m not explaining this the best either. You see… well, that meant something to me, in a weird kind of way. I mean, think about it: you told me before that you thought you could never have a brother-like relationship with me, like I have with Benji, remember? But yet, you just proved the exact opposite of that. Don’t you realize, by doing that, you just trusted me like we’re real brothers! Come on, you… heck, you knew I might see you naked and all, even though I didn’t by the way, but… that, and… you didn’t care. Don’t you get it?”

Noah smiled, though timidly. “Yeah, I think so, Jess. And you’re right, I really didn’t care,” he whispered. “I don’t worry about stuff between us so much anymore, you know? Not since… well, not since you kind of drilled some sense into me, if not adopted me and all.”

Jesse stared into the eyes that met him. “How do you know you’re the one who didn’t adopt me?” he whispered, before leaning in and bumping shoulders again. “Noah? We’ve got to talk sometime, about us… just you and me,” he whispered. “I… I get some of these mixed feelings and everything, and… and… I worry, okay? I worry about you, and that maybe my way of thinking and all that stuff, well, maybe it isn’t right for you, see? And… and…”

Noah scoffed. “Not right for me? Bullshit, Jesse,” he whispered, but then sighed deeply. “I know we need to talk, yeah, and I’ve… I’ve got some stuff I need to tell you, too. Stuff that might explain everything…”

Although Jesse saw his friend was trying to stay calm, he immediately sensed something more was troubling him, so he decided he had pressed the issue enough already. “I’m not pushing, Noah, honest. I promised you I would never push, but… I just… I meant it like I said it, I just… I feel like we do, that’s all.”

“Don’t worry, I know you’re not pushing,” Noah replied, though tiredly. He then reached out and pushed Jesse back onto the bed before stretching out beside him. What followed was another one of those special embraces, the kind they had both grown so fond of, full of feeling and warmth that neither feared to share with one another. “I’ll promise you something Jess, okay?” Noah announced after a moment, pulling back so he could see his friend’s expression. “Let’s get through the next few hours with Mom and Dad, and then tonight… if you’re ready, I’ll try to tell you everything, and I won’t hold anything back.”

“Really?” Jesse whispered. “You’re going to let me inside that head of yours?”

“No,” Noah smiled slyly. “But I’ll let you inside my heart. Seriously, cross my heart and hope to live,” he whispered back.

 

«««««««««« _ »»»»»»»»»»

 

It was nearly 8:00 when the family returned, feeling overly stuffed but extremely satisfied. Jesse had never quite had a fish dinner, fried and fixed the way they had been served that evening, complete with a huge baked potato and all the coleslaw one could eat. Although it was just the four of them, the teenagers got into a fit of giggling with each other over a variety of antics, with some of which Allen joined and played along. From silly caricatures to mocking the fish, each built on the previous with more hilarity. “Don’t eat me! Don’t eat me sir!” Allen mocked their fish at one point. “There’s not enough room in your tummy for all of us!” The way it was delivered, and the timing, had all four of them in stitches more than once, and even drew the eye of nearby patrons who regarded the family amusedly. Jennifer rolled her eyes and only sat back as the ‘boys’ played their pranks, but finally intervened when she felt it was getting out of hand.

The ride home was uneventful, short of Allen stopping to fill up the gas tank, and Jennifer making a quick inside trip to the bathroom. Both boys sat quietly in their seats, relaxing and watching the traffic go by while their stomachs settled. Although they had taken the parkway north to the restaurant that evening, Allen had decided to take a more leisurely return route once they finished – even though it was dark outside, and there was little to be seen in the way of surrounding countryside.

Once home, the boys descended the stairs again and reached the basement, before turning into Noah’s room. Jesse started to close the door, but Noah grunted and shook his head. “Let’s wait a bit,” the teen whispered mysteriously, before pulling the bean bags around again and, after removing their shoes and getting comfortable, began playing a video game. It wasn’t long before Jennifer appeared, carrying two bowls of her banana nut bread and ice cream. Jesse grinned and gave Noah a knowing glance then, to which the teen winked in return, but then both bade the woman goodnight. She closed the door behind her on the way out, as if signifying they wouldn’t be disturbed again that evening. “How did you know?” Jesse asked curiously between bites.

“She made it today before we walked over to your house, so… I don’t know, I just figured she’d end up bringing us some,” Noah answered. “It’s not the first time, remember?” Jesse nodded. Indeed, he recalled times before, while they were staying there, that the woman had done something similar.

When they finished consuming the tasty treat, Noah stood up and stretched. “Want to pop in a movie?” Jesse readily agreed, and then helped the teen go through a stack of various discs, until they finally selected a James Bond film. As Noah set it up, Jesse made a quick trip to the bathroom and then returned to put the game controllers away. Afterwards the teen hopped up on the bed, pulling the bean bags with him and waited. When his host finally turned off most of the lights, leaving only the one on his nightstand active, he approached the bed and pulled his shirt off completely. Then, surprisingly, Jesse watched the teen unbutton his jeans and drop them to the floor, before stepping over to grab a familiar-looking blanket from a nearby chair. Returning, the teen climbed onto the bed and situated himself for the movie, before turning and giving Jesse an expected look. “So? Are you going to get in here with me, or am I going to sit here and freeze my ass off all night?” he whispered beneath an amused expression.

Jesse giggled and stood up, quickly stripping his clothes down until he was in nothing but his own briefs, before climbing under the blanket with his friend. When he pulled in reasonably close, Noah did not wait and play the game they usually ended up with, where their supposed shyness preceded any immediate closing in on each other. Instead, he chose to reach out and pull Jesse next to him, the veritable contact of their skin giving both a deep gratification. Feeling the arms wrapped around him actually made Jesse relax as he melted into being held for a change. The room, its usual coolness settling around them, enhanced the warmth they gave each other in their makeshift intimacy.

As the movie began playing, it was only minutes before Noah broke the silence between them. “Jess?”

“Yeah?” was the whispered reply.

“I have a confession to make… I- I knew what I was doing tonight, about the bathroom door and all,” Noah admitted quietly.

Jesse twisted so that he could turn and look at his friend with a grin. “Somehow, I kind of thought you might,” he replied, although equally as quiet. “It’s okay though, honest. I might have done the same thing, really.”

“I kind of hope so,” Noah replied. After another moment, he took a deep breath. “In a way, it was a test, Jesse. I wanted… like, I wanted to know if you would go all screwy on me or anything. You know, like, be one of those ‘Oh my God, he’s naked! Eww!’ creeps. You know the kind I’m talking about.”

Jesse scoffed. “I know some guys who are like that, yeah,” he replied, but then shrugged. “But I’m not like them. I think you knew that already, though.”

Noah nodded. “Yeah, I kind of did …”

Jesse studied him for a few seconds. “What’s wrong, Noah?” he whispered.

Noah stared blankly ahead for a moment before looking down into the eyes that met his own. “I need to tell you something, and… and I’m afraid, kind of anyway. I mean it, I’m… I’m really scared.”

“Why?” Jesse asked.

“Because… I’m afraid I might lose this,” Noah confessed, holding his friend even closer for emphasis. “You know, I wanted to do this the other night, when we were lying together in your bed, without our shirts or anything, and… you know, just cuddle up together and all. But… I was afraid.” He sighed again. “Jess, you’re the only person I’ve ever let my guard down with, you know? And… and… hell, you’re a guy at that!”

Jesse was torn between the seriousness of the moment, and the expression that reached his ears. He could sense the nervousness, the hesitancy. The battles Noah was fighting were there, but Jesse had no idea how to make his friend feel any better. So, he instead decided to play the moment down by making an exaggerated show of pushing his hand down onto his crotch under the covers. “Umm, yep. Unless girls have suddenly found some way to grow a pair of family jewels with a hot dog flopping around on top, then yes, I’m a guy – one-hundred percent, boy.”

“You… you’re crazy, doofus!” Noah croaked, laughing at his friend and rolling his eyes. The tension broke considerably, however, and he visibly relaxed as he held Jesse even closer. When he recovered, he smiled before he spoke again. “Jess? Can you try to promise me something?”

“If I can, sure… what, Oh Mighty Noah?” Jesse replied, still trying to keep an air of lightness between them. Noah, however, didn’t buy it this time.

“If you’re going to hate me, at least… don’t forget this moment, okay? I mean it; this means everything to me right now, and I mean everything, bro.”

After a slight pause, Jesse rolled over in Noah’s lap so that he could now face his friend completely. “Okay, out with it. No more stalling… what has got you so afraid I’m going to cut you balls off or something? It’s me, remember? We’ve already poured our hearts out before, so there is nothing you need to be afraid of now. We’re bros, remember?”

Noah visibly winced, before he took a deep breath. He tried not once, but twice to open his mouth and say something, but he failed on both attempts. Jesse waited patiently, although becoming concerned. He reached out and found the remote, pressing pause and effectively stopping their movie in the background. “Take a deep breath Noah, and just talk to me, okay?” he whispered. “I promise, I’m listening, and I’m listening with my heart.”

Noah did take a deep breath then, and eventually found the words he needed. “Remember what you said to me the other night, about us being so close, and the touching and feeling each other’s parts and all? About how you didn’t care, even if it seemed like being gay or anything, about us being together and all?” he whispered.

Jesse nodded. “Yeah, I do. And?”

“Would you… I mean, I don’t know Jess… I think… Oh, God!” Noah hissed, squeezing his eyes tightly together. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he whispered.

“Sure, you can,” Jesse whispered. He lay still for a moment, before he reached a hand around his friend and held him. “Are you thinking you’re gay or something? Is that it?”

It was a long time before Noah responded, and when he did, he opened his eyes to see a smiling face observing him. Right then, Noah could have hugged the stuffing out of him, just for not reacting already to such a nervous situation. Noah searched that expression, but found no intent of deception, no teasing nor amusement. All he found was kindness, and it gave him a renewed feeling of strength.

“I… I don’t know. I… might be, yeah,” Noah finally admitted. “It’s just… it’s kind of complicated Jesse, but at the same time, it’s everything. To me, at least.”

Jesse eventually nodded. “Believe it or not, I can understand that, seeing how it’s got you all worked up and everything.” He waited, but when the silence continued, he prodded. “So, are you going to tell me about it, or…?” he whispered.

Noah studied him for another minute before he nodded. “If you want to hear it, then … yeah. I need to tell someone, and… and I’d rather it be you, more than anyone else in the world.” His voice started to break again, however, as his fears resurfaced. “But, Jess? Are… are you going to hate me?” A sudden rush of tears began brimming up, and eventually started to escape down his cheek.

In reply, Jesse raised up and moved until he now was holding his friend, nuzzling Noah’s shoulder. He did not let it stop there, however, as he re-arranged and pulled the blanket around, closing off the outside air. Jesse then finally found his friend’s arm and drew it around his own back, creating a makeshift embrace that allowed them to snuggle in closer. After a moment, he felt the tears continue to drop, so Jesse pulled back just enough to take his hand and wipe them away gently. “You’re afraid of THAT? You think I’m going to hate you… for THAT? No way, Noah,” he whispered. “You’re my bro, remember? And my best friend.” With that, he leaned even closer into Noah’s ear. “So, come on, talk to me. I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”

Noah took a deep breath, summoning up a courage he had rarely ever felt. This was it. He was committed, and he knew he had to come clean. After all the time he had held his secrets bottled up inside, he knew that now was time to let them out into the open. He just hoped… No, he prayed, that Jesse would understand.

“It… something kind of happened about a year ago, maybe a little longer, and…” Noah began as Jesse held him close, all the while snuggling into his side…

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