As the two teens boarded the bus Monday morning, Mr. Bones greeted them cheerfully. Outside, it was still rather dark, the nights getting progressively longer as they progressed thought the autumn months. Recently, the implementation of daylight-saving time had turned the clocks back an hour, thus postponing the arrival of the early morning pre-dawn skies. Off to the east, one could see the dawn was approaching, but it would be some minutes before it lit up the valley.
Jesse and Noah took their usual seat, only this time Jesse let Noah sit next to the window first, causing the teen to glance at him curiously. "I'm always by the window, you know? I figured you'd like to sit there sometimes, too," Jesse explained with a shrug.
"Thanks, I think," Noah replied, although he had not really considered it before. He settled back in silence as the interior lights blinked off, something activated only when the bus came to a stop when someone was stepping on board. "So, how goes it this morning? Still doing okay?" he asked quietly, breaking the silence after they had traveled a few minutes.
Jesse turned and gave his friend a knowing look. "Just as good as yesterday morning, I promise. How about you?"
Noah grinned. "The same," he replied, while pulling his gym bag up between their laps once again, and inserting his hand underneath. There, he and Jesse grasped hold of each other and locked their fingers together, content for the moment.
As the bus moved along, Jesse finally commented, "You know, if you looked any happier than the last few weeks, somebody might start to think something, like... maybe you got laid or something."
Noah scoffed. "Let them think whatever they want, I don't care." He leaned in close. "It's not like I don't have something to be happier about though, you know?"
Jesse giggled. "Yeah, I know. Did you happen to notice that neither Pete nor Jimmy are on the bus today?"
"Oh, yeah," Noah replied. "I noticed, big time! It actually seems overly quiet back there, I think!"
Jesse shrugged. "Meh, it's probably because it's a Monday..."
They rode the rest of the way to school in silence, each lost in his own deep thoughts about the coming day. For Jesse, he knew he was about to discover his fate with the principal, over the fight from the previous week. He wasn't nervous, nor did he feel any regrets. He had done what, in his mind, he had to do in order to protect his little brother, and Noah for that matter, from what had been happening. Moreover, his own father had understood and didn't hold it against him, something that had worried the teen more than anything else for a time. Now, whatever the punishment might be, he was ready and willing to accept it. His father had even pulled him aside before leaving the house that morning. "So, whatever happens, just keep you chin up, sport. It'll all be okay, trust me," the man had whispered, offering and accepting a fist-bump with his son. Since then, Jesse just wanted to get it behind him, although realistically he knew that might take some time.
Noah's mind was elsewhere, however. Jesse's remark had hit home, in more ways than one. Reflecting back over the last few weeks, the teen knew he was feeling a lot happier now. It wasn't just his new friendship with Jesse, and it was really not the sex they had just discovered with each other. Instead, it seemed to him that it was because everything looked so much brighter now than it did before, without the oppressive, negative vibes he had always felt when hanging with Pete and his friends. It had never occurred to him how dark of a hole his personality had fallen into over the last year. So much of what they had thought as being common to them, really ran contrary to what Noah believed or thought was right. Attitudes such as those toward gays, lesbians, dweebs, nerds and others - anyone being lower than themselves in some mythical hierarchy of life. Now, feeling freed from having that dangle over him any longer, Noah had started seeing people in a different light. Pete's whole attitude in his discourse, and how he had treated Noah since the storm, was sadly unforgiveable as far as the teenager was concerned. It hurt Noah too much to consider what he had lost for a short time, but as he started to find and understand Jesse, he learned what real friendships could really be like. That was when the hurt began to heal.
Jesse was right, Noah thought to himself. He certainly was happier now, and he had good reason to be: he had begun feeling alive again.
Arriving at school, the two bumped fists as they stepped off the bus before parting, and then heading to their homerooms. Each stopped by his locker first, and as usual collected the books and supplies they needed for their first couple of classes. When Jesse entered the door to his homeroom, he nodded to Mrs. Bagby, who smiled and acknowledged him directly, before turning to other students who were entering. All of them sat and waited until the bell rang, after which their teacher called the roll. Once completed, however, she turned and asked each of them to stand and to quietly make their way with her toward the gymnasium.
The move surprised Jesse and others, as he could not recall their class ever having done that before. As they moved into the hallway, however, several other students were streaming out of their homerooms to join them. Although they had been requested to move quietly, that definition was only loosely enforced as many students began asking others if they knew what was going on. Of course, no one really did. The varying collection of teens made their way through the hallways and down the steps until they entered the gymnasium, where they were surprised to find sections and seating had been established for the four designated class groups: Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors.
The entire teaching staff eventually joined in and walked the aisle-ways, encouraging students to bunch together and not leave gaps between seats. All, of course, for the purpose of making sure enough seats were available to hold the entire assembly. There were between 450 and 500 students in the school, Jesse recalled. Not exactly an overly large crowd, but certainly sizeable for such a rural county where they lived. He looked around and soon spotted Noah, who caught his attention and arched his eyebrows, but Jesse shrugged and shook his head in return. He had no idea of what was going on, either.
The noise level had risen steadily as more students arrived and filled the seats, and the entire gym was abuzz with mixed conversations and light laughter. When the last seemed to have arrived and were seated, there was a change as Principal Harland Green walked up the steps of a makeshift stage where he approached a microphone. "If I can have everyone's attention, we'll get started," he announced pleasantly. Although it took a few seconds, the crowd gradually fell silent, and the man cleared his throat.
"Now, I'm sure all of you are wondering what is going on, and I don't blame you. Although we've done this in the past, it's been some time since we last pulled all four grades together like this. The purpose of it, however, is because some things have happened over the past few days that, if you'll permit me for just a little while, we need talk about. You'll notice," he paused until he felt he had their rapt attention. "I said that we need to talk about, and I want you to understand I am fully committed to exactly that. Although I'm going to kick this off with a few announcements, I want you to understand that we means you, me, and my staff."
There was a silence rippling through the crowd just then, as various people sat up a little straighter, as others cocked their heads, and even some leaned forward in order to hear the man and what he had to say. Mr. Green then smiled. "Let's get through these basics first, shall we? First of all, I want to announce that one of our Juniors, Pete Haskell III, is no longer with us. As of Saturday morning, a joint operation between the Adair County Sheriff's department and our school, in cooperation with the Kentucky State Police, had reasonable cause to have a warrant and conduct a search of Mr. Haskell's locker. Once conducted, a sizeable amount of cocaine was uncovered. In compliance with State Education Department regulations, and the prevailing local school board policies, Pete was expelled, effective immediately, and for the rest of the current school calendar year."
A murmur rippled through the crowd before it fell silent once again. Mr. Green looked out over the assembly and paused as his words sank in. "I do not have any personal knowledge regarding the Haskell family, or whether it has previously had trouble with the law. I can say, however, that this is the first time that Pete, one of our own, has gotten caught up into something as dangerously serious as this. Let me say this, please: we all are aware, I'm sure, of the altercation that happened on Friday, involving Pete and a few other students in the cafeteria. The other students that were there have either been suspended for the next few days, or are going to be working to amend their breaking of the rules. I hope you will believe me, however, when I tell you that in no way, shape or form was THAT incident related to Mr. Haskell's expulsion. As it turned out, other things were happening in the background, and were being factored in because of a larger-scaled investigation. I am not at liberty to discuss that investigation freely for the time being, other than to assure you of its independent nature. Pete violated our no-tolerance policy of having illegal substances on school grounds, and once found, the board had no choice but to enforce his expulsion. So, suffice it to say, we wish Pete the best of luck, and if it's in your nature, perhaps you could offer up a silent prayer, wishing him the best of luck in the coming future."
Principal Green cleared his throat again. "Now, let's talk about the altercation that happened on Friday, in the school cafeteria. In no way will you ever find me condoning fighting as a means of resolving problems, especially problems that develop in this school, on school property or on our school buses. Fighting, even in its most basic form, can turn ugly, or even deadly in extreme cases. Recently, a fight broke out at one of the high schools in Oklahoma City, over a simple disagreement. Simple by nature, but deadly thereafter, because one of the students pulled a knife and stabbed his aggressor in the stomach. Last year, at another high school in Northern Texas, their staff had to deal with the use of unusual brute-force tactics, when a member of the school's football team snapped and brought a gun to school. He then proceeded to pull it on a classmate, and fired a bullet that went into his spine. In that situation, the classmate survived - in other words, he recovered. He is now, however, restricted to the use of a wheelchair probably for the rest of his life."
"People, these are but two examples of what can happen in the wake of devastating violence. I could go on with more stories like this, but then, so could you. We've all heard about the shootings, the stabbings, and the countless violence happening across our nation persistently, especially in the last decade. We watch in horror, thinking 'whoa, it could never happen here'. We're too far removed from the craziness of world to let that type of thing, that kind of situation develop here in Kentucky, right? Is that not our attitude at times? We live in a bible belt even! It's just not possible!"
"Be careful, though - because those two schools I just mentioned? They're located in districts just as remote as the one you live in here, right now. Moreover, the fact is that it HAS happened, and right in this very school." Mr. Green paused to look out across the crowd at various individuals one by one. "Perhaps not to the extreme of the disasters I've just described elsewhere, but nonetheless, it has happened here, via the same mentality, and with the same cause and effect, that students are experiencing nationwide. You might think that perhaps what happened here last Friday wasn't on the same scale as these other disasters - and yes, I do purposefully refer to them as disasters. They are disasters because someone, somewhere, let things get out of control, and serious damage resulted. In other words, whether it be the principal, the school board, the teachers or the students themselves, someone was either involved, or knew something was going down... and they failed to act on it."
"I know it sounds like it, but honestly, I do not want to preach to you here today. It's just, I happened to have one of the students involved with that incident last Friday in my office later, and while we were talking, he said something that disturbed me to no end. So much so, in fact, I ended up spending much of my weekend pacing the floors, waking at night, and filled with a restlessness I haven't experienced in quite some time. You see, part of our problem is rooted in simple communication. Nearly all schools across our nation, even worldwide, have run up against barriers that prevent students and staff from being able to communicate freely with one another. I mean, you'll probably find it amusing if I say anything about how teachers never seem to know about anything that is going on, and I wouldn't find your humor offensive. Why? Because there is a fundamental truth in that statement. You will scoff, if I say anything about how some rules are rarely enforced, unless we witness what happens - and once again, there is an undeniable truth in that statement. We, as proponents of public education, seem helpless with what we can or cannot, or are even willing to do. To that end, you would also be, absolutely, 110% correct, if not more."
The Principal stopped to look around once again. "I'm not afraid to openly admit those facts. I know we have weaknesses, and that the system has flaws. You will never, ever hear me dispute those elements, but here is the thing... what this student said that bothered me, was this: we were talking about, and I was asking, why we, the staff or myself personally, was kept in the dark about what was happening. In other words, why didn't we know there was something happening, in the background, that led up to the altercation that took place. His response was, 'what good does it do to tell anybody what's going down, or what's happening, when they're being bullied, hit upon, or worse.'" Mr. Green paused and then sought out, from the assembled freshmen group, Jesse himself, giving the teen an encouraging smile before he continued. "It took me a while to understand what he was telling me, I'll admit, but in the end, he was right. There are times when the world stacks the chips against you, and no matter how hard you try, you can't seem to find a way around them. You can't cash them in, nor can you add or take away from them, because first of all, they're not your chips to begin with. And that, young ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of why we're here today." He looked back into the rest of the crowd. "I'm not going to lament what the experts teach us to do in cases like that - and mind you, there are thousands upon thousands, with their own thousands of opinions on the matter. We hear them, we read them, but most forget one simple principal, and that is, sometimes they just don't work. Well, I sincerely want to change that. Can I get all of the staff, teachers, volunteers, everyone - to please come up here and stand around this stage with me."
There was a slight murmur that rippled through the crowd as they watched various teachers respond to the request, along with bus drivers, lunchroom personnel and other staff. Some climbed up on the stage with Mr., Green, while others found places along the sides and front of the platform. "All of you now, look upon us, please," Mr. Green appealed to the students once again when the noise died down. "I'll say it again - a lot of our problems, I feel, come from a lack of communication. We - the staff - are just as guilty too, about not fostering the kind of environment that encourages anyone to really talk to us, either. We freely admit it, and we will own up to the fact we have allowed ourselves to drift apart. I understand that yes, there is a hierarchy here between us, but... young ladies and gentlemen, we are also a family. If you'll believe it, if you'll see and feel it, we WANT to see you, our most precious commodity, the students, succeed. Not just here in school, but for life in general, too. Whether you go on to become a farmer, or go into industry, or become the next governor, perhaps even the next President of the United States, we really, and truly want to see you succeed. We, as teachers and staff, make that a commitment every day, in trying to teach you the tools to better yourself for both the short term and the long haul."
"That is why, from this day forward, you have another solemn promise from me, from all of us really: no teacher, no coach, no volunteer, not a bus driver or janitor, or even a line server from the cafeteria, no one will ever laugh again in the face of a student, when they hear of bullying going on somewhere. You have my word - and anyone, teacher or staff, that does so intentionally and the incident is verified, will be released without prejudice, and allowed to go elsewhere."
A loud murmur suddenly erupted among the crowd of students just then, but Mr. Green did not wait this time for them to quiet. "I mean this, whole-heartedly. I spent most of my day yesterday, talking with the bulk of this staff - and believe me, that was no easy feat. The bottom line is, however, that we're making this a promise, a commitment not to ourselves, but to YOU, our student body. Don't you see? It has to stop, people - the bullying, the fights... they're senseless, even worthless in the end. Most of you know it, especially those on the giving and receiving ends. I know, sometimes tempers flare, and feelings get encroached upon, but... use some common sense, please."
Harland Green then sighed. "Now, here's the thing I want to bring out: we cannot ask something like this of you, unless we ask it even further from ourselves. That is why I'm imploring you to look, to listen and to believe - that we are reaffirming our commitment to you. Remember, 'What can we do?' is the question that student asked of me, and I honestly had no answer for him at that moment. That student felt he had been backed into a corner, with no one and nowhere to go to, no one to listen to him or help, and the truth is, perhaps he was right. I have an answer now though, but only if we're willing to help each other by taking a step forward. Surely, somewhere within yourselves, you can hear this and find an element of truth behind it. Right?"
A sudden chorus of general agreement rippled throughout the crowd. Jesse watched in amazement, awed at the responses he heard around him. Although partially blushing, he knew as most everyone else did, that this was fundamentally an attempt to make things better between both the teachers and the students. Given the solemn faces and general acceptance he saw, however, left him with little doubt that his peers were actually listening, and that made it at least an encouraging step forward. Then, for the next 45-minutes or so, not only the teachers and staff, but students from all grades alike, engaged each other in a discussion about the types of things going on in the school, and what some of the ways were to deal with it. All were encouraged to speak up, without naming names, because no one wanted it to be a finger-pointing session. Instead, they aired their concerns, fears, hopes and more, and by the end of the hour, a much lighter mood rose among the assembly. When they finally were dismissed, and stood to depart, several talked amongst themselves about how the hour had been one of the best conversations between both students and staff alike, in a long time. Was this what Jesse had set into motion? He silently gulped as he moved slowly toward one of the exits, but not before Noah caught up with him and bumped shoulders. "Wow!" When Jesse smiled grimly and just nodded, his friend suddenly frowned. "Hey, you okay over there?" he whispered quietly.
Jesse sighed deeply and then smiled more brightly. "Never better," he replied, and was about to answer further when he heard his name called out from behind them. Turning, he saw Mrs. Bagby approaching, so he waited.
"Hello, Jesse. I think Mr. Green wants to have a word with you, so you'd probably better report to the office in a bit," she advised pleasantly.
Jesse thanked his teacher and, turning to Noah, told him he'd catch up later. As they made their way out of the gym, Jesse changed directions and began heading toward the main office, where he arrived and sat down while he waited for the man to arrive. He did not have to wait long, as Mr. Green entered and greeted him pleasantly a few moments later. At the man's request, however, Jesse waited a little longer while the man saw to it that the school day resumed as normally as possible.
Some fifteen minutes later though, Jesse was finally ushered into the inner office, where Mr. Green closed the door and took a seat behind his desk. "First things, first: tell me, how do you think this morning went?"
Jesse, surprised, became thoughtful. "I- I thought it was awesome, really. But, I'm not the one who has to be convinced, sir. It's the other guys and girls who do, I think, and even the teachers, too. Like, the ones doing the bullying, or the victims, or even the ones who witness it going down, or... or..."
"Yes, yes, I get the idea. As usual, you're correct. It has to be a team effort though, Jesse, because none of us can do anything on this scale, on our own. Certainly, from my point of view, the staff has tried in the past, but we've failed by your own admission, and I can visibly see and understand why. Unlike your little episode, most of the time students end up failing, too, because - again, by your own admission - the situation just gets exponentially worse." The man sat forward then, arms resting on the desktop. "This is not going to be an overnight answer, Jesse. It will take a lot of time, and I mean a LOT of time and commitment from all of us, before a level of comfort develops where we can deal with it more directly. I think though, it's a start, isn't it?"
"Oh, yeah, definitely!" Jesse admitted. "I didn't mean any disrespect, sir."
"Oh, I know you didn't," Harland Green replied and then smiled. "So, I want to put you on a committee, Jesse. The one I mentioned toward the end of the gathering, remember? A committee where students and teachers will begin meeting at the beginning of each month, to talk about issues between students and staff. I want to build a team, with two people from each grade level, along with a select group of teachers, that will come in each morning of the designated day, and spend up to two hours talking about issues. Not only about how to improve them, but also to bring up any other topics and the like, so that we develop a rapport between us. What would you say to that?"
Jesse laughed, but then shrugged. "Why me? I mean, I'm nobody special. There are others who would probably do a lot better job than I would. They know how to talk about stuff like that, whereas I... I haven't done anything like it before. I'm, well..."
Principal Green shook his head. "Perhaps, but in truth, you're one of those people who knows what is happening from down low, and I already suspect you're one of those who sees things that others easily overlook. This isn't some exclusive kind of club, mind you. It doesn't have preferential benefits or the like for members. It's also not something for people to get up on their high-horse and grandstand... especially for parents or outsiders. There are plenty of other venues for them on the outside, such as the PTA - that is, if one can get them involved. What this is, however, is an internal forum where students can walk in, talk and not be ridiculed for having thoughts, ideas, feelings or anything else about what is happening in the school. See? In this way, students and teachers can have a say together, meaning it will work bi-directionally."
They fell silent for a moment before Jesse shrugged. "I'm willing to try, sir."
Harland smiled widely then. "Good! I'll be in touch, probably after the holidays next week, and we'll get some of the details worked out. Now, ready to go on to class?"
Jesse frowned. "I thought... well, we said..."
"You're not suspended, Jesse, although I probably should do so. I'll shoulder that decision though, especially considering the fate of three other boys right now. For you, however, I'm thinking of something more productive in the longer run. I'm putting together an idea, of which you and a few others will be front and center, where you will go to the elementary school after the first of the year, and give a presentation to a younger crowd. If all works out, I'll consider that to be your direct, so-called punishment, if you like."
"Huh?" Jesse asked, looking up at the man in confusion.
Mr. Green smiled and leaned forward once again. "'Huh?' indeed. It's simple, really. I want a few of us to go over there and have another discussion, demonstration or something, about bullying and the effects it has on everyone, including families. You and a few other, shall we say, chosen candidates will be the presenters. I haven't quite worked out all of the details yet, but I will over the next few weeks, I think. We won't plan it until the first of the year, that way we don't have to feel rushed during the holidays." Harland sat back in his chair and studied the teenager once again. "Now that I think about it, I am also going to ask you for one more consideration. This one, however, is totally voluntary, and I am only simply ASKING, not telling you to do this, in any way whatsoever. Understand, it's only if you want to."
"Okay, what's that, sir?" Jesse asked.
"Would you like to return and become one of the new inner support crew for the basketball team again?" the man offered after a slight hesitation.
"Huh?" Jesse repeated himself again, this time frowning even further.
Harland laughed at seeing the confusion on his charge's face. "You made a point, in your so-called lecture the other day, to tell us about how you spent the better part of a year picking up after the teams, meaning the players and all, but never once even got a thank-you, or a pat on the back, or anything for doing all of that. In other words, it was like you were given a job to do and then just abandoned by the coaching staff and everyone else, including your principal down at the Junior High School. Coach Stevens handled some of the teams down there last year, as I recall, so it's no surprise he was a part of this. Anyway, as I understood it from your father, you only did the job because you felt you had to, even though you hated it. That was something else that troubled me somewhat, too, but I have to confess that I really admired your commitment, too. Most boys would not. You maintained an obligation that you really didn't have to keep, without complaining about it to a single person."
Principal Green paused before he continued. "Now, I chatted briefly with your father late Friday afternoon, and I had a rather extensive conversation yesterday with Coach Stevens about this. The man grudgingly admitted that no one on his staff really follows through with a lot of the other non-team participants. Partially because they don't hardly ever get anyone to stay in the job to begin with, but I think it's obvious as to the why, wouldn't you say? Even though we make the statement that you boys are supposed to be treated, for every practical purpose, as if you're a member of the team, it just doesn't happen. It hasn't for quite some time, it seems, and I'm afraid I raked him over the coals pretty hard, really. I had always wondered, to tell the truth, how come the end-of-season banquet was always short on participants, and I'm beginning to get the picture, it seems. So, purposeful or not, Coach Stevens seems to feel pretty bad about it now, and I think he wants to make it up to you. So, the word is if you'd like to come back and try it again, he'll make it more worth your while this time around. He even promised he'd never say a word about the 'penis' part of your little speech," the man concluded, clearly amused.
Jesse's eyebrows arched again in surprise, but then he blushed. "I, uh... yeah..." was all he could say for the moment. When he sat in silence, Harland leaned forward again before addressing him with a much softer, quieter tone. "That is, only if you're interested. Do you like basketball?"
"Like it? I love it, actually. It's one of the few sports I find interesting!" Jesse replied.
"I hear you can handle yourself pretty well on the court, too," the man replied. "Have you ever thought of trying out for the team?"
Jesse immediately shook his head. "No, sir. I can't do that. I mean, my Mom and Dad work odd hours as it is, and I've got to take care of my little brother, too." He looked up. "Don't get me wrong, okay? I like my life; I don't regret any of it. I just... being on the team is a different kind of commitment that I don't think, uh, any of us can really follow through with. Even if we could, I think I honestly would just prefer watching people play anyway, more than anything else."
"I can both understand and respect that," the principal replied. "So, are you a Wildcat or a Cardinal fan?" he asked, referring to the state's two main colleges, which each had exceptional ball teams in their respective conferences.
The question came out of thin air, making Jesse giggle as he suddenly relaxed. "Both, really, but if they play against each other, I think I cheer more for the UK Wildcats. It keeps Dad happier, too, I think," he added with a conspiring look that made Harland laugh. Jesse sat back and regarded the man thoughtfully. "You're serious though, aren't you? About getting back in to do the cleanup and everything?"
"The job is yours to try out again, if you like, but I guarantee a different outlook is on the horizon. It's supposed to be a lot more than handling dirty uniforms, I assure you. If you'd like to try it out, but end up not liking it, no one will make or ask you to stay. You have my word on that. It's totally up to you. Right now, there is one boy helping out I think, Mark Benningfield, and word is he's overwhelmed as it is and wanting to quit, too, since football season has finished up. I imagine for the same reasons you've already overtly aired." Harland leaned forward again, both hands upon his desk. "I'm not trying to convince you, Jesse, but rather extend the offer so that you know it's out there. You know how it was run and done before, but I suspect you'll find quite a few changes in effect from here on out. Plus, if you get freed up on game nights, there is no reason why you can't join in and be with the team and all while they're playing. You can be one of those in charge of wiping water from the floors, or handing out Gatorade, or whatever it is they need. The point is, you'll at least be right there with the team, right where with the action. That is supposed to be one of the fun perks and all, you know? For that matter, bring your little brother along too, if he wants to come. There's no reason he can't share in the excitement."
"Seriously?" Jesse considered, and then nodded. "Um, if I do, could we consider one other person too, sir? I mean, we live next door to Noah Cook, and... well, I know he really likes basketball and the team, too - almost as much as I do, if not more. I - well, between two sets of parents and everything, it might also help with us having rides and everything, if you follow my meaning."
"It's alright with me, if Coach Stevens gives the okay," Harland replied. "Let's not worry about anything until after Thanksgiving next week though, alright? Someone will let you know when we're ready to get started again, and we can do a kind of trial-run for a bit then." The man then paused and looked Jesse directly in the eye. "Like I said, I'm not suspending you, Jesse, not this time. But... you are going to be on probation for a while, understood? I know what went down and why. I promise you, with the Almighty as my witness, I do understand why you did what you did, okay? Personally though, I think you and your friend have already received the brunt of harsh treatment long enough. Just... let's not make a habit of this, okay son?"
"Yes, sir," Jesse nodded. When it was obvious that they were at the end of the discussion, the teen rose to his feet and extended his hand once again toward the man.
Harland chuckled, reaching out and shaking it firmly. "I hardly ever see any of you young men do this anymore," he explained, but then thanked the teen. "See Lucille as you go out. She'll give you an excuse slip to get back into class, alright?" As the boy left, he stared after him for a moment, shaking his head again once the teen was out of sight. No student in that school, ever, shook hands with him - except on the day of graduation, it seemed. Yet, here was a freshman who had already performed the deed twice. The man silently hoped, and prayed, the incident would now be behind them all.
No, he thought, that's not what he wanted. His desire was to have it in front of them, but only to be reminded that they all had some work to do. He himself, his staff, the teachers, everyone - needed to start taking issue with bullying more seriously. He had promised the entire student body that he and his staff were going to do just that.
And he, Harland Green, was determined to live up to that promise.
Noah dropped his fork onto his plate. "You're shitting me, right?" he whispered, causing Jesse to giggle aloud.
Due to the morning assembly, the entire school's lunch schedule ended up shifting, and once again Noah found himself entering the same block that Jesse was in. They had quickly found a table and huddled together, where Jesse filled his friend in on the conversation that he had with their principal afterwards. "I swear, I am not kidding! He asked me to be a part of this panel thing he's going to create, and then he asked me if I still liked basketball, and if I'd like to try out the team support stuff again."
"No way," Noah whispered. "No... fucking... way!"
Jesse, amused, leaned in closer. "Yes way, and before we were done, I asked him if we could get you involved, too." He grinned widely as he watched the transformation of his friend's surprise change to one of utter shock. Noah sat back, both dumbfounded and speechless. "That is, assuming you'd like to," Jesse added.
"Well, sure!" the teen exclaimed, but then frowned. "Tell me, how the heck did you ever get roped into that job in the first place?"
Jesse blushed. "Dad, mostly. You see, last year he and Coach Stevens got to be pretty good friends, and the coach was telling Dad one day up at the hardware store that they were having trouble getting someone to take care of laundry and a few basics. Dad kind of, well, he volunteered me." Jesse sighed. "It was no wonder though, as to why they couldn't get and keep anyone. It's one of the most thankless jobs in the whole sports program, I think. I, uh, agreed since Dad kind of pushed and asked me too, thinking it might be fun to go to some of the games and stuff, but you know the result. Pickup, cleanup, wash... and that was it. I never got to go to a game, never even really met the guys who were playing or anything either. I was just a runt in the background to them, a nobody."
"Why did you keep doing it then?" Noah asked.
"Mostly because of Dad, I guess," Jesse answered thoughtfully. "He was always on our case, me and Benji, to stick it out with anything we start. You know, finish a job, never leave it half-done, do it well the first time, that sort of stuff. So, I just... I just did it. Then, only at the end of the season, he kind of learned what it was like and all, and he apologized to me one night. He told me then I'd never have to do anything like that again. I think he felt really bad about it."
"Still, though... wow," Noah remarked, picking up his fork again. "Are you sure you even want to go back again? I mean, if they didn't do anything good before, then..."
Jesse shrugged. "It can't be any worse, and I have to admit, it would finally be cool to get into some of the games. Mr. Green told me it would be a lot different from now on, so I figured why not give it another try? I like basketball, just like you do. I don't think I play well enough to be on a team, but still, it's a lot of fun!"
"Yeah, you do," Noah replied. "You do as well as me and some others, especially when you do those freaky flat-footed jumps that block everyone's shots and all." Indeed, most of the boys in their gym class had witnessed several such feats from his best friend, cleanly blocking both passes and shooting attempts. "But... I agree with you about playing. It's a whole different thing, I think."
"Yep," Jess mused, nodding. "For my Mom and Dad, there is no way I could commit to the practices, getting to all the games, the money for participating - all that stuff they require. Plus, I have to take care of Benji, too. Not that I mind it, but... you get the idea. That's why the pick-up, water-boy, whatever you want to call it, worked out as well as it did for us the first round. I could do some of it after school and Mom or Dad would pick me up, or I would get to school early sometimes and do it during first period, since I had a study hall and all then. The timing worked out pretty good, at least it did then."
A silence fell between them momentarily as they ate their lunch, before Noah turned to him. "So, you really asked him if I could join you?"
"Yep, as long as the coach doesn't object. At least, he thought it would be okay. Plus, it might let me and you swap in and out some, if one of us can't be around or anything like we should. He even told me I could bring Benji along to the games, if I wanted to," Jesse explained. "Not that I would want to take him ALL the time, mind you, but if that's the price of getting to actually GO to a game? Then, heck yeah, I'll do it!"
"I hear you, and yeah, I can understand that," Noah replied, before nodding. "That's cool, then. When do we start?"
"After Thanksgiving next week. He said not to worry about anything until after the holiday and next weekend," Jesse explained. He then sat back and pushed his tray away, making a face. "Ugh, I don't think I want any more of this stuff. It's... bleh!"
Noah nodded. "I agree. Whoever thought of adding corn as a side for a pizza dish, anyway?"
Jesse laughed. "Probably something the government cooked up, so they could call it a 'balanced' meal - which, of course, is a joke..."
"So, how was school today? Did you get the big suspension you were worried about?"
James was sitting at the table when Jesse walked through the door, after arriving home from school. The teen greeted his father, who smiled back as he placed his newspaper aside. Jesse grabbed a soda from the refrigerator and then decided to sit down in the chair across from him before responding.
"Nope, although I did get put on probation," Jesse replied, then went into a full-scale breakdown of the day's events, including the assembly of students that morning, the offer to be a part of the newly-being-formed committee, and the basketball details.
James listened in earnest, but was surprised to hear about the team-helper offer. "Really? That's kind of unexpected, I think. Are you sure you want to do it again?" He paused, but sat back and held a hand up. "I didn't do that, son, just so you know. We didn't discuss any of that when he came to the store the other day. In fact, if I had known what it was going to be like last year, I would have kept my big mouth shut."
Jesse giggled. "You? Never!" he teased, but then shrugged. "I know you didn't Dad, you're off the hook. Honestly, I wasn't that big on the idea really, but the more he talked about it, Mr. Green said it would be a lot different from here on out. I mean, according to him, it was never meant to be like it was before, and he says he didn't have any idea of it being done that way until I opened my own big mouth the other day. He told me he had a big talk with the coach about it over the weekend, too. There's one other thing, too: Mr. Green said it would be okay to invite Noah to help out, as long as the Coach doesn't object. So, since we live so close together, I thought maybe for a while that might help you and Mom out for the better, too. You know, like in not having to worry about picking me or any of us up and stuff."
"That's... a perk, I have to admit," James agreed with a smile. "Although, as I recall, it didn't seem to be that bad the last time around."
"I know, but that's because I was able to do a lot of things before school, or afterwards when it didn't really interfere with you or Mom so much," Jesse explained.
James nodded. "You say you'll get to go to some of the games this time around?"
"I figure at least the home games, yeah," Jesse replied. "Maybe some away games, but... it'll all kind of depends, I guess."
James thought about it briefly, before nodding his approval. "Then, if you want to try it again, go for it... but, Jesse, promise me something, okay? If this turns out being a bunch of crap like it did the last time, for once in your life, don't stick it out, alright? Don't degrade yourself, or let anyone else do so, to the point of becoming some lazy-man's scapegoat. The coaches should know better, as well as anyone else. They treated you badly, and they knew it, but didn't give a shit, I think." He grinned. "Don't tattle on me to your mother for that one," he added slyly.
"Why, Dad! Careful, Mr. Bones has a bar of soap on the bus he has supposedly used in the past!" Jesse teased, before they both ended up laughing.
"If I heard right, there were a couple of brothers that got into it with him, and one of them went overboard," his father chuckled. "That was quite a tale for a few weeks, I tell you!" He glanced at the clock. "It'll be a bit before your brother gets home, but I was thinking we could all drive over and pick your mother up when she gets off, then go by the Burger Shack and grab some grub. I've been hankering for some tater tots all day, today."
"Sounds fine to me. Did you learn anything about the house today?" Jesse asked.
James nodded. "More than I wanted to, but don't worry about it. We'll get some things straightened out over the next few days and then everything should get back on track." He glanced at his son curiously. "I wonder, have you given any thought about what you'd like to do? Would you rather we just rebuild there in the same place, or sell the land and build somewhere else? Or even just start looking for a house to begin all over in again?"
Jesse paused, becoming thoughtful before he shrugged. "Not really, no. I figured you and Mom would decide all of that stuff, really. Although, I..." He hesitated before looking his father in the eye. "I have to admit, if I had any say in it, I'd like to be able to stay here for a while at least, next to Noah. We... we get along a lot better now, and it's kind of nice having a friend so close next door, you know?"
"Oh, yes," James agreed with a smile. "Well, I wouldn't worry about that part too much right now. It'll be months before building or rebuilding anything gets finished. I would think it would be toward the end of the school year, at the earliest, before we'd be able to move out of here - if not sometime on up in the summer. Unless we decide to buy a place, of course. Regardless, it'll take a while to prepare the groundwork, and then at least three to four months for construction otherwise." He noticed his son smiling. "I know, for you of all people, having a good friend close by means a great deal. That's something we didn't have for you before, not like your little brother did at least. But... tell you what, I'll promise you something right now. Even when we do move, you and Noah won't have a problem getting together, okay? We'll find a way to make it all work out. You have my word on it."
"I'm not worried about it, Dad," Jesse reassured. He rose and gave his father a quick hug from behind. "But... thanks, I appreciate it." The teenager then started for his bedroom. "I'm gonna start on some homework I didn't get to finish today, before Benji gets home anyway." He then stopped and turned. "Speaking of Noah, we have some more math to do later on tonight, if that's alright. I think he's going to come over here for a change."
"Sounds good," James remarked, before picking his newspaper back up to continue where he left off.
"So, tell me Benji, did anyone pick on you today, or give you a hard way to go?" Jesse asked quietly, pulling his brother down to sit beside him on the bed.
Benji turned and grinned. "Nope! Not today, anyway. In fact, I didn't even see Michael or Jay at all today, and... gym class, we just played kickball, and no one got picked on that I know of. It was a pretty cool day, mostly!"
"Mostly?" Jesse asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Well, I've got to do a poster for homework, supposedly by tomorrow. Our teacher gave us these big sheets of paper to use, but..." The young boy paused to pull a folded sheet from his backpack. "I'd rather have it on poster-board, so it doesn't bend and wrinkle up so easy."
"Dad says we're picking Mom up in a little bit and going to eat. Maybe we can go by the drug store or somewhere and get you some," Jesse mused.
"Really? That would be cool!" Benji looked up. "Can you help me with it?"
"I don't know, what's it supposed to be about?" Jesse asked.
"Bullying," his brother announced. Immediately Jesse arched both eyebrows again, and was impressed that the message seemed to be reaching out faster and further than that of the high school. He wondered if Principal Green had been involved with it in some way. He would not be surprised if he ever found it to be so.
"I'll try. Noah is going to come over later to do some math with me, but... we'll find some time for you, too," the older boy replied.
"Yippee!" Benji shrieked, suddenly hugging his brother's neck. They both laughed before he eventually pulled back and stood up. "How long do you think we've got before we leave to get Mom?"
Jesse glanced at the clock. "I don't know, maybe 15 to 20 minutes. Why?"
Benji leaned in and hissed, "Because, I've got to do number two!" The boy then turned and quickly headed to the bathroom, leaving Jesse shaking his head.
"Did you get that last problem? It's... I don't know, kind of a weird one if you ask me," Noah asked, scratching his head. Both teens were stretched out on the bedroom floor, with various notebooks, textbooks and other items surrounding them. Benji was currently propped up on the lower bed, coloring in various sketches that he and Jesse had worked out earlier to support the theme of his project. The TV, presently on and showing some comedy show, was muted.
"No, not really. I agree, it is kind of a funky one. Remember? He told us to just try it and see what we came up with," Jesse replied. "It looks almost like it should be an easy one, but..."
"Yeah, it ends up being tons more involved," Noah agreed, before closing his tablet. "Well, we did our duty, so I say we're done. How about you?"
"Yep, I'm done for the night, too," Jesse replied, mimicking his friend and closing his book. Glancing at the clock, he asked, "How much longer can you stay?"
"Um, probably an hour or so. As long as I head back over before nine, it should be okay. Why, got something in mind?" Noah asked.
"Actually, I do," Jesse replied, putting his books away into his backpack before extracting a deck of cards from nearby. "Interested?"
Benji looked up and smirked. "No strip poker guys, unless I get counted in!" he teased, causing Noah to scoff and grab a pillow, throwing it at the younger boy.
Their guest glanced over at Jesse with amusement, but then cleared his items away before they set up across from each other. "You don't even know what strip-"
"Don't go there," Jesse advised. "That little punk can skunk, as well as skin, us both if he wanted to!" He shook his head. "He's really nasty to play cards with. I mean it, he's too good, if you ask me. Wins at everything."
"Hey, I do not!" Benji protested, but with a knowing grin.
"Is that something you guys have done before?" Noah whispered eventually, glancing up while Jesse was shuffling and passing out cards for them both.
"Play cards? Lots of times. Strip-poker, though, no, not really," Jesse replied, stealing a glance at his brother, who returned a smirk again from his elevated position. "Benji just likes throwing peeps off guard sometimes, I think."
Noah grinned. "He did a pretty good job of it then." As he picked up his hand, he frowned. "I thought you shuffled these... didn't you?"
"I did," Jesse replied, but once he had picked up his own hand, he scoffed. "At least, I thought I did."
Without waiting, Noah laid his hand down directly with four sevens and three jacks. "Rummy!" he called, making Jesse laugh.
"I had three pairs and a deuce," Jesse replied, spreading his hand for his friend to see. "YOU shuffle them this time!" he declared, handing the deck over and climbing to his feet. "Be right back, bladder break..."
Noah nodded and began to shuffle the deck in earnest as the other teen disappeared. Benji decidedly scooted forward then to appear over the teen's shoulder. "Noah, can I ask you something?" he asked in a hushed voice.
"Sure, what's up?" Noah replied, equally quiet.
"Were you, like, in the fight together with Jesse last week, at school?" the smaller boy asked.
Noah turned to look at the questioning expression that met him. "Not exactly in 'the fight', but I was there in the cafeteria when it happened, yeah. Why?"
"I'm just wondering... did Jesse get hurt any?" the boy inquired.
Noah grunted. "No, he didn't. No one even laid a hand on him, really."
Benji thought about that before he was seemingly satisfied. "Good. He won't, like, he won't tell me about what happened, and... and..."
"Okay, I get it, it's alright," Noah replied, suddenly understanding. "Truth is, we got tripped up in the lunchroom, and then he got up and let Pete have it. That was basically it," the teen explained, purposefully keeping the details minimal.
"He didn't get expelled, or suspended or anything though, right?" Benji asked.
"Nope. He's on probation, but that's the most of it."
"What's probation?" the young boy queried.
Noah hesitated for a second before explaining. "Um, it's like your being told that the teachers and everyone are going to be watching you for a while, and if you get involved in any more fights or such, then they can suspend the probation and punish you. Otherwise, they leave you alone."
"Really? That's kind of ... uh, nice, I think," Benji replied.
"It is. It's something that kind of means the teachers and everyone realize what you did wasn't exactly right, but they understand why you did it. They'll give you a free pass for the moment, as long as you don't get into any more trouble." Noah watched the young man and saw the understanding set in. It was then Benji surprised the teen and rolled over closer, extending both arms around Noah's neck and hugging him.
"Thanks, Noah," he whispered.
"Ugh," the teen replied, feigning an over-exaggerated choking expression. "Don't kill me!" he croaked, but then grabbed the arms and pulled them down on his chest. Why he did it he wasn't sure, but in that instant, it ended up being something that felt really nice. As he held them there, he squeezed them affectionately, and noted that the younger boy was hugging him back in equal proportion. The smaller arms, the warmness against the back of his shoulders, and the feel of Benji's breath crossing his neck, stirred something inside Noah yet again. Since Jesse had yet to return, he swiveled around and pulled Benji down into his lap, which made the boy squeak at first, but continue to hang on for dear life. They both cuddled close for a moment, and in that brief interlude, Noah suddenly began to understand why Jesse was so fond of his brother, and the sweet innocence that the younger boy projected.
It was Benji, though, who finally leaned up and nuzzled the older boy in the neck, before whispering into his ear. "Thanks, bro. Love ya."
Noah pulled back and looked into the eyes meeting his own with surprise. "I love you, too, but I'm not a brother," he whispered. Benji gave him a curious look, but then simply shrugged.
"Who says? You are to me," he commented. "You make me and Jesse happy, and we trust you, so what else do you need?"
Noah grinned. "Maybe nothing, but... thanks. I trust you both, too."
Benji gazed up. "Good."
Just then, there was a knock at the open door, where Makalah stood outside yawning deeply. "Time for your bath, Benji," she announced afterwards, before noticing that Noah was there. "Oh, hi Noah! You and Jesse get done?"
"Yes, ma'am. We thought we'd play a couple of hands of Rummy before I had to go back though, if that's okay."
Makalah nodded. "Fine with me, just don't get in trouble. Come on Benji."
"Aww, Mom..." The younger boy sighed and then rolled out of Noah's lap before climbing to his feet. As they turned to go down the hall, Jesse came out and returned to the room. Sitting down, he observed Noah was still shuffling.
"That ought to do it, don't you think? Sorry, it took me a couple of minutes," he announced.
"Have a good time?" Noah whispered, then ducked underneath the pillow thrown at him before laughing. He sat up and continued shuffling. "Sorry, I couldn't resist. And no, I haven't been shuffling all this time. Your brother and I had an interesting little exchange while you were gone."
"Oh?" Jess replied, arching an eyebrow. "What about?"
Noah glanced at his friend as he started dealing them a new hand of cards. "Seems you aren't telling him much about what happened Friday. He wanted to know."
"Oh," Jess mused, but then shrugged. "Not on purpose, just... there isn't really anything to tell, you know? Not that he would fully understand, anyway."
Noah nodded. "I kind of figured as much, yeah. Still, I told him you were the superhero, that no one got their hands on you, and you ended up not getting in trouble. Oh, and I had to explain to him what probation meant, too. I think he understood."
Jesse nodded. "Thanks, I guess." He paused for a moment, looking at his hand. "These are shuffled way better, I think. I'm glad you two talked," he added nonchalantly, then noticed the look his friend gave him. "Seriously, I've told you before. He likes you, Noah. Don't ask me why, I just know he does."
Noah blushed. "He did something else that surprised me, too. He hugged me, and then I pulled him into my lap and he hugged me even harder. It was... I don't know. Kind of like you tell me, I guess. It felt awesome."
Jesse smiled. "I told you so, see?" He sat back on his hands briefly. "A lot of families aren't close, Noah. I know that from watching them and all. Older brothers and sisters don't get along all that great with the younger ones." He turned to stare out into the empty hallway. "But ours isn't like that. To be honest, I'm kind of proud of it, really."
Noah nodded. "Yeah, I think I understand why, too." With that, the two began playing an extensive round of the card game, collecting suites and discarding back and forth. It was Jesse who eventually won the round, before the two started a second game. They were both well into another good session when Benji suddenly walked through the door, a towel wrapped around his waist. "Cool! You haven't quit yet!" the boy exclaimed, as he plopped down next to Noah and watched, before pointing out something in his hand.
"Hey now, careful! You don't have to give away my secrets, you know!" the teen hissed, laughing. Noting Jesse's amusement, Noah sighed and suddenly sat upright before laying his cards down on the floor. "Rummy!" he declared, discarding an ace to the played deck. Benji squealed and offered him a high-five, which Noah accepted.
"Humph," Jesse declared, turning over his remaining cards. "Not fair is it? Two against one?" he teased.
That was when Benji launched himself at his brother, wrestling him to the floor and digging his fingers into Jesse's armpits. Surprised, Jesse was unable to initially recover, eventually curling up into a fetal position to protect himself from the onslaught. That was when Noah decided to join into the fray. At first, the teen helped the younger boy by attacking against Jesse, but then eventually changed tactics to attack them both. As all three began rolling and turning about on each other, Benji's towel gradually loosened and fell off. The young boy did not stop however, as he progressively took the older boys on.
The trio continued laughing hysterically as they fought, at least until Makalah poked her head in from the open doorway. Observing the obvious fun the three were having wrestling, she simply shook her head and chuckled, but then called out to Benji to get some clothes on before she disappeared. It was then the three stilled themselves, where Benji had ended up Noah's lap, with Jesse wrapped around them both from the outside and holding his brother's legs. He threatened briefly to tickle the younger boy's feet, but relented and relaxed instead. All three quieted and lay there, catching their breath, before Benji finally rolled off and crawled over to their dresser. There he pulled out a pair of briefs and donned them, all the while both of the older boys looked on. When he found a t-shirt and pulled it over his head, he announced he'd be back in a minute, before disappearing into the hall.
Jesse glanced over at his friend and was surprised to see the emotion there. "Hey, you okay?" Noah did not reply immediately, so Jesse both crawled and scooted around next to his friend's side. "Noah?"
The teen finally looked down to the floor. "Yeah, I'm f-fine. I just..." He looked up. "All these things, about family and stuff, it... it just..."
"It hits home, doesn't it," Jesse whispered, to which Noah nodded. "You and me, we have something special, just like I have something special with my brother. But, to see him accept you, too... you're understanding what I've been telling you all along."
Noah nodded. "He is kind of special, isn't he? Wow..."
"You bet," Jesse replied cheerfully, raising his fist and having it met mid-air. He nodded toward the doorway. "I doubt he's ever done that with anyone naked like that, outside of me anyway. And of course, when Mom or Dad make him take his bath."
Noah nodded, but then glanced at the clock and sighed. "I guess I better be going." He extended an arm around Jesse's waist and, pulling them together, hugged him from the side before climbing to his feet. "So, same time tomorrow?"
"Yeah, as always," Jesse replied, coming to his feet. "Hey, Noah? You're okay, right?"
Noah laughed. "You have no idea how okay I am, Jess."
"Good, because I've got to warn you, this... isn't over by a long shot." Jesse grinned. "You're our bro now, okay? Not just mine, but Benji's too."
"You're both mine, too," the teen replied. After another minute, he started out the door, just as Benji was coming back. The young boy wrapped his arms briefly around Noah's waist, but then let go.
"See ya later, Mr. Potater!"
"You got it, Little Hobbit!" Noah replied, laughing before heading out. The smaller boy jumped back onto the bed and resumed working on his poster.
Jesse picked up the various cards and put them away, before crawling over to the bed and propping up where he could see Benji's efforts thus far. "Hey, not bad, sport! It looks like you just need to put some blue around these clouds, and fill in the rainbow here and there. Right?"
Benji sat up and nodded. "Yep, I almost got it finished before Mom came in."
Jesse nodded and then pulled the poster over between them, picking up a crayon. "Well, go to it then. I'll do some highlighting of the outsides for you, and you work on the rainbow. If we hurry, you can finish it up before Mom comes back to check on us again."
"Cool!" Benji replied, and for the next ten minutes, the two worked on finishing the effort. Makalah did appear, but after seeing how close her son was to finishing, she nodded her approval of letting them continue. She kissed both boys on the head goodnight, and then disappeared.
As they neared completion, Jesse finally rose and closed the bedroom door, before stripping down to his underwear. Searching their drawer, however, he couldn't come up with a fresh t-shirt. "Did Mom not do any washing today?" he wondered aloud, which made Benji pop his head up.
"Yeah, she did, it's in there on top of the dryer, I think. I saw them a few minutes ago." He then put his crayon down and stood up. "Be right back, stay here," the younger brother announced, before high-tailing it from the room. He returned a moment later with a stack of underclothes for them both. "Here, you should find something in these."
Jesse smiled. "Thanks, little buddy!" Indeed, he separated the garments and placed them in their dresser in the proper places, but not without first donning a sleeping shirt in the interim. When he walked back over to the bed, Benji was pulling the poster out and putting the markers and crayons away.
"All done! What do you think?" he asked.
Jesse held it up and gave it an approving nod. "I think this is pretty good, myself. It's really colorful and easy to read."
Benji grinned. "Thanks for helping me come up with it all!" he replied, before setting the board next to the door. Turning back, he saw Jesse turn off the light and climb into bed. "No shower tonight?" he asked with a whisper, to which Jesse shook his head.
"I probably should, but I don't feel like it tonight. I might in the morning before school though," the teen replied.
Benji watched him momentarily, before stepping in closer. "Jess? Can I?"
Looking up, Jesse saw the questioning look, but he also surmised what his brother wanted. Pulling the covers back, he let Benji crawl in beside him before returning the covers and wrapping the warmth around them. Once done, the younger boy melted into his brother's embrace, who swallowed him up with his arms and legs both. Jesse held him for a while, enjoying their closeness until Benji pulled his head back. "So, do you think I surprised him tonight? Noah?"
Jesse giggled. "Oh yeah, and how!" He looked deep into the eyes that met his own. "That was really special to him, you know?"
Benji nodded. "Do you think he felt like a brother then?"
"I know he did, Ben. You made him feel like a special brother, for sure." Jesse smiled. "Noah is finally beginning to believe, buddy. He's finally beginning to see what he's missed out on, being filled with so much... so much..."
"Ass-hole-ness?" Benji offered with a whisper, grinning all the while.
Jesse laughed. "Yeah, ass-hole-ness. Good word," he whispered back, making his brother squeal. "You know," Jesse continued. "You didn't have to do that though, pounce on him naked and everything. I bet a simple hug would have done it, too."
Benji shrugged. "Maybe, but... he's a boy, isn't he? It didn't bother me any," he replied, which made Jesse giggle all the same. He loved how his brother had such a simplistic view of the world - at least for right now. He reached down and mock-pinched his brother's butt. "Ow!" Benji hissed, but then laughed as Jesse smothered him again. "Don't kill me!"
"I won't, I promise," Jesse shot back. "I wouldn't have anywhere to hide the body, if I did!"
Benji squirmed until he faced his brother again. "You wouldn't do it anyway. I'm too loveable, remember?" Another playful pinch on the butt made them both giggle before cuddling in again. Soon, both fell fast asleep.
The upcoming week passed quickly. Perhaps it had something to do with the approaching Thanksgiving holiday, but one teacher remarked confidentially to her colleague, that there seemed to be a different atmosphere among the students themselves. Since the assembly on Monday, students seemed much more relaxed, and many were conversing casually with the staff once again, something that hadn't been realized in quite some time.
As the days flew by, Jesse and Noah were both unusually preoccupied. Aside from homework and practice problems, each began working other chores around their houses, including a second raking of leaves, and in Jesse's case, attending with his father to collect firewood. The rented residence only had a single fireplace in the living room, but James had theorized it would not be a bad idea to have a supply of wood, in case of power outages or the like. Once done, Allen also took to the idea, and thus set out with Noah the next afternoon to do the same thing, borrowing the McAllisters' truck.
By the time Friday evening arrived, both teens felt drained. It had been a long and tiring week, and it showed. Another cold front had found its way through the area, and the temperature was forecast to fall into the mid-teens that night. Benji, once again, got invited to spend the night with Petey, but this time Makalah turned the tables and had his friend come and be their guest instead. Jesse gave his mother an amused look, before she quietly nodded. "Yes, you can see if Noah will let you come over for the night," she whispered, making Jesse's heart skip a beat as he suddenly gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.
One phone call, an excited response, and followed by an even more excited reply (once Noah had consulted with his mother), had Jesse packing a change of clothes. As he was zipping his backpack altogether, Benji suddenly stood by his side. "Jess? If Petey wants to, can we, like, sleep in your bed tonight?"
Jesse looked down and nodded. "Don't either of you wet it, though!" he teased. Benji scoffed at the weak attempt at humor, but nodded nonetheless. Minutes later Petey arrived, so after a quick greeting, Jesse quietly departed and crossed the lawn.
The teenager had no more than set foot on the Cooks' porch when the door suddenly opened, and Noah beckoned him inside. "Hey!" Jesse replied, which his friend returned the greeting quickly. Then, following his friend through to the kitchen, he found both Jennifer and Allen were waiting at the table, where a board game was presently setup, comprised of various colored marbles and dice. "What's up?" Jesse asked, curiously.
"Have you ever played the game 'Aggravation' before?" Noah asked.
Jesse shook his head, and then joined the trio for nearly the next two hours, learning and becoming fascinated with the simple, but often perplexing experience. Each had a fantastic evening as they, at differing times, ended up sending other players back to their starting positions - especially when they succeeded in getting their marbles into the home-stretch and threatened to advance. "Sheesh!" Jesse exclaimed more than once, as he got bumped back to the starting position. "I see why it's called Aggravation, now! Gee whiz!"
Allen laughed. "This game has been around for decades, although I don't think I've seen it in any stores now for, what, a few years maybe? My parents always loved it."
"Mine did, too. This was what Allen and I played a lot of when we were dating, wasn't it?" Jennifer remarked.
"Yep, this and Monopoly," Allen replied, before shaking his head. "Jesse, trust me: you do NOT want to play against this woman at Monopoly! She whines, connives, cheats, steals-" He was suddenly cut off by a shriek from his wife, and then had to defend himself against a physical onslaught as Jennifer launched a series of smacks and pokes around him.
"I do not! Don't listen to him, Jesse!" she exclaimed in the middle of the ruckus. "He's just a natural born sore loser!"
Noah, however, had his own opinion which he chose to share. "Dad's right, Mom is the QUEEN BEE of Monopoly..." he teased, "... and she loves to gloat about it all the time!" That made his mother stop and give them both a crafty glare.
"Just you two wait, you hooligans! You're both going to be in for it now!" she replied haughtily, before turning back and plopping down in her chair. Glancing toward Allen, she added, "In fact, you might even want to sleep with your clothes on tonight, peanut butter breath!" she hissed, causing both the teens and her husband to roar with laughter.
Sometime later, the group broke up and the boys finally headed downstairs to Noah's room, where he closed the door and locked it. "That was kind of fun," he commented nonchalantly.
"Yeah, I've never seen that one before," Jesse replied. "If it's not around anymore though, I doubt we'll ever get one."
Noah shrugged. "You could always make one. I mean, the pattern is pretty simple for the board, it's just got holes to hold the marbles and all. And I bet we could find the marbles pretty easily online, or maybe even at Walmart."
Jesse nodded, smiling at the idea. "That sounds awesome! Maybe... maybe you and I could do it together, if you wanted to. I mean, Dad lost most of his tools in the storm, but..."
"My Dad has some tools, though. All we'd need is a good square of wood or something to drill the holes out with," Noah agreed.
As they talked, Jesse dropped his bag and began removing his shoes. Meanwhile, Noah dragged the beanbags over underneath the ventilation ducts and stacked them atop each other before climbing up. "I'm not shutting the vents off, it's too cold outside for that. We need to have some heat, at least," he explained, seeing Jesse's inquisitive look. "If I close them partially though, we can have a kind of cooler room to sleep in tonight. See?"
"Sounds good," Jesse acknowledged, before picking up his shoes and placing them by the door. "Benji and I have been keeping our room cooler at night, too." As he walked back, he watched Noah perform his task for a second vent, before returning both bean bags to the floor in front of the bed.
"So, games? Movie? What do you want to do?" Noah asked, before glancing at the clock. "It's not all that late yet, especially since it's not a school night."
"Yeah, I know. Um, what about that James Bond movie we tried to watch last week? We never did really, uh, see any of it," Jesse offered, to which Noah nodded.
"That's a good idea. I think it's still even in the player," the teen announced, then confirmed it before turning the device and the TV on together. "Um, floor, or bed, or...?"
Jesse smiled sheepishly before walking up and standing by his host. "It's really up to you, but..." When Noah remained silent, he finally shrugged. "Got anything particular in mind?" he whispered, which caused his friend to smile.
"Now that you mention it," Noah mused slyly, before leaning in close. "I say we cuddle up in the bed again under some blankets, if you're game."
"Why wouldn't I be?" Jesse whispered back. Glancing about, he happened to noticed the blinds toward his house were open, so he pointed. "Um, you might want to close those. I wouldn't want Petey or Benji seeing something they shouldn't, you know?"
Noah followed his glance and then nodded. "Benji, I wouldn't care about so much, but yeah, not Petey," he reasoned, before walking over and pulling the blinds shut. He stopped, however, to cock his head sideways. "Have you, like, been peeking in on me or something?"
Jesse grinned. "I saw you last night, although more by accident than anything else," he whispered. "Not all that clearly, but um, yeah, when you came out of the bathroom, I could make out you didn't have any clothes on and you were walking around and everything." Giggling, he added, "And no, you weren't jacking off or anything. I don't think you were even hard."
Noah blushed, but then laughed. "Wow! I guess that makes you my personal peeping Tom, doesn't it?" He then grunted. "I wasn't hard because I already did it in the shower," he whispered, before pointing and laughing at Jesse's expression. "You doofus!" he whispered, again.
Jesse blushed a deep red, but then finally giggled. Noah then crossed over and stood in front of his friend. "You two can peep all you want with me, especially now," he added, before falling silent. When Jesse only nodded in return then the teen slowly reached out and took hold of the hem of his friend's shirt. When he met no objection, he quietly lifted it up and over Jesse's head, who extended his arms until the garment cleared his fingertips, his upper half then clearly exposed to the room. Grinning, Jesse observed that Noah was now waiting, so he reached out and did the same. The only difference was, he found out he had to do it twice, as Noah was wearing both an outer shirt and a t-shirt underneath. When they both finally stood facing each other topless, Jesse found he had to resist the urge to reach out and touch his friend. He didn't know exactly how far Noah was intending to take this, but it was something he found exhilarating.
Noah stepped forward and put his toes on the end of Jesse's feet, locking and holding the socks in place until the teen pulled his feet free. Then again, Jesse reciprocated the favor, smiling all the while - but even more so when Noah next unbuckled Jesse's belt before stopping. "You know, we don't have to do this. I just... I kind of thought it might be fun," he whispered by way of explanation.
"Do you hear me complaining, do you?" Jesse replied as he reached out and unbuckled Noah's belt as well, but then made the extra effort of unbuttoning and unzipping his jeans. Noah grinned before duplicating the effort. In the process, underneath he could feel a fast, hardening bulge beginning to build and match his own, but the teen ignored it for the time being.
It was then Noah moved up close and tucked his lips into the crook of his friend's neck, nuzzling it before hooking his thumbs inside and pushing Jesse's jeans down and over his hips with both hands. Effortlessly, the garment fell to the floor and Jesse easily stepped out of them, before once again following through until both boys were standing practically inside of each other, their underwear fully tented and pressed against the other. That was when Noah whispered once again into his best friend's ear. "Should we, like, take them off, or just...?"
Jesse grunted. "You know we're going to strip all the way eventually," he whispered back. Then, without waiting for a reply, he grasped Noah's briefs and pushed them down, dropping them to the floor, where the teen stepped out while Jesse dropped his own with them. In the coolness of the room, standing together again, each stepped back in and pressed up close. "MMmmm..." Jesse murmured. "This kind of feels good," he breathed, as he ground his groin against Noah, who was equally relishing and returning the effort.
"You're not kidding," Noah whispered back, before slipping his hands below Jesse's waist and grabbing what flesh he could from behind, to pull themselves together even tighter. After a minute, he leaned back and stared into his friend's bright blue eyes, and he saw an acceptance that gave him courage, so he gave Jesse a soft kiss on his lips. It did not take long for it to progress further, as his friend parted his lips, and they were both deeply exploring one another again. There was a hunger between them as they clawed each other, pushing and turning, their tongues digging deeper as their bodies came alive with a renewed passion.
Eventually Noah guided his friend gently to the bed, and slowly laid him down before climbing on top. Although they continued to kiss ardently for the first few minutes, the two progressively began turning, flipping and sliding about, each wrestling with the other in their nakedness with much muffled giggling and laughter. It was the first time that they, alone, had enjoyed scuffling with one another since they had met, and as such they found enjoyment in seeking to pin the other, before releasing and going at it again. From time to time, they would fall from the bed, only to climb back up and launch themselves again. It was fun, and would have been completely natural if not for the fact that both were sporting boners throughout the whole time. At times, one would grab the other's shaft or testicles, whether purposefully or by accident, causing various expletives to be hissed in shock as it got in the way of their rough-housing.
Eventually Noah had Jesse wrapped up with his legs, holding on dearly as he tried to pull up and dig into the ticklish ribs and underarms of his opponent, when suddenly Jesse quieted. Both were breathing hard, and as Noah rested for a few seconds, the mutual timeout gave them a chance to recharge. He observed his friend staring once again at his crotch, which he found interesting. With little effort, Jesse then shifted them both until he came eye level and in front with Noah's groin, and eventually stared at the hardened member facing him. Noah watched as he saw that natural curiosity return once again, before lifting a knee up and spreading his legs even farther. He was about to comment on it, when he instead received another surprise.
Jesse had glanced up to see the sparkling eyes observing him, before he visibly gulped and came to a decision. Wanting to follow through before any doubts got the better of him, he quickly lowered his chin and took the tip of Noah's cock between his lips, which made his friend gasp in disbelief. There, Jesse held it tentatively before slowly pushing down further, drawing his friend's full length inside. He was prepared to pull off right away, as the massively swollen member grazed over his tongue and brushed along the roof of his mouth. Once he had it inside though, the teen didn't find it to be as gross as he had feared it could have been. In fact, he stopped just short of having his nose buried in the pubic patch at Noah's base, and instead pulled back slowly, all the while gently sucking on it. Arriving at the tip, he kissed the head with a pop before pulling off completely. Then, since the experience did not at all seem distasteful or offensive, so he lowered his mouth onto the pulsing member and did it a second time.
Noah watched, initially sucking in his gut as he felt the warm wetness engulfing him. As he watched his cock disappear, sliding into the open cavern that Jesse provided, he felt the contact inside as it changed. At first, it inspired a feeling of wonder, but then he felt the tongue suddenly lick across his glans, not once, but multiple times. He gasped and quivered, his shaft pulsing with pleasure at the new sensations. He let out another gasp and sucked in his gut as Jesse suddenly created a hard vacuum while licking more rapidly, giving him a new kind of ecstasy as it took over. He knew his dick had provided for him a veritable, single point of pleasure for his body for ages, having discovered its benefits as he continued to mature and progress through puberty. Never before, though, had he imagined it doing this, taking over so sensually and sending such a torrent of feelings internally throughout his nether regions. As Noah closed his eyes at this new phenomenon, he felt Jesse continued to do it repeatedly, until he could no longer remain silent. "Oh... my... God..." he muttered uncontrollably.
Jesse glanced up then and pulled off completely, thinking only for an instant that perhaps he had gone too far. Although he had heard of blow jobs for years in school, it was only that night he had contemplated this deal. Call it a natural curiosity, or a willingness to do something special for his friend, he ultimately thought that it might be cool - especially since they were becoming so comfortable around each other. Hearing the gasp and those words, however, struck an uncertainty within the teen. That is, until Noah opened his eyes and regarded him with awe. "Wow!" he whispered, still relishing the new sensations that were leaving him in a heightened state of arousal. His eyes practically begged for Jesse not to stop. Within seconds, Noah sat up and twisted around, suddenly dropping his own lips into Jesse's groin full force and doing the same thing for his friend, taking him in and going down on the longer, skinnier shaft there. He had been lusting for it all night already, and once he got over the shock of Jesse's move, he wanted to show his best friend what it was like to be on the receiving end.
Jesse could not keep from gasping and sucking his own gut in, especially when he felt Noah playfully nibble around his own glans. That was when he suddenly understood the magic behind what they were discovering. He had closed his own eyes and fell to the side at first, using a hand to push into the base and pull his skin back. The raw tip was then the recipient of a repeated, moist and warm sensation that almost made him lose control. Noah pushed his hand away, though, and used his own to pull the skin back so that the head remained fully exposed to his tongue. Jesse gasped even harder, followed by a long moan. "Oh sshhhiiiiiiiittt," he whispered, writhing about in place. He eventually opened his eyes to observe Noah's lower abdomen practically in his face, so, without any thought afterwards, he slipped an arm over and pulled them both together in close where, without preamble, he took his friend's fatter cock inside again. The resulting sixty-nine move sealed both their fates, as Noah slowed briefly with the renewed sensation between his legs, and their result of giving and receiving simultaneously became a rhythmic machine. He moaned deeply with pleasure again, burrowing his own nose deep into Jesse's pubic hairs and scrotum, content as ever, thus alleviating any hesitancy or doubts Jesse might initially have had.
Both boys sucked and played, catching each other's unique musky scent as their noses nuzzled around the other's groin. Jesse eventually attacked the entire region, not content with just the simple sucking he applied to Noah's cock. The teen explored around and underneath, into places he could stretch and reach, nuzzling, licking and tasting. He found his friend's testicles and did his best to pull each one inside his mouth and sample them independently. He even pushed Noah's legs partially apart, so he could nuzzle down between the crack and into the leg joints. He playfully nibbled and sucked all around and underneath his friend's scrotum, before coming back up eventually and drawing the now pulsing member back inside to suck on some more. He was sampling, feeling anything and everything that he could up close, observing with a continued curiosity and not caring about whether he offended his friend - especially as Noah was returning the favor on his own package below.
Each paused at times, as their midsections escalated into a new heightened phase that left them speechless. That is, until Jesse could feel a change beginning to occur in front of him. Noah stretched long and hard finally, a certain tenseness taking over and, pulling his cock from Jesse's lips just in time, he began erupting thick, white ropes of pure semen, ejaculating all over Jesse's face. Jesse giggled and brought his hand up to take over, pumping his friend's hardness to completion as he drew huge, deep breaths while gasping for air, yet let loose a flurry of semen to the outside world. When it died down and he seemingly had given up all he was going to give, Jesse lay utterly awed, and while watching and feeling that exchange take place, he started to feel his own familiar tug pull behind his navel. Like his friend had done, he quickly pulled out, but having finished Noah to his conclusion, Jesse lay back flat on the bed, sucking in his gut and grasping the covers beneath his fingers. Noah recognized what was happening immediately and grabbed hold of Jesse's boyhood as he had done himself. As he started moving back and forth, Jesse thrust his groin upward hard and deep into Noah's hand, before closing his eyes and grunting, giving way to one of the most intense orgasms he had had in a while. He creamed several globs before they tapered off, after which he finally collapsed back onto the bed. Noah grinned and fell back as well, although he did not at all let go of Jesse's boyhood. Both lay back panting, easily lost in another world as they fought to regain their normal breathing.
It wasn't long before Jesse opened his eyes and realized he had a lot of his friend's cum covering parts of his face. It caused him to giggle all the more, especially when he glanced down at Noah's face and saw none. He could see, however, a lot of his own cum had made its way onto his chest and all over Noah's hand. Grinning, he brought his hand up and swiped a finger through some of the cum on his cheek, holding and staring at it, even sniffing it for better measure. Noah was watching him by then, but was startled when he saw Jesse pop the finger between his lips and suck it clean. "Whoa!" he whispered. "Seriously?" he asked, causing Jesse to look up and grin sheepishly at him.
"What, you've never done that?" he asked, whispering. "Never, like, tasted your cum?"
Noah shook his head. "Never," he whispered back. "Wha- what's it like?"
Jesse shrugged. "I don't know... It's nothing gross, if that's what you're thinking. I mean, I've done mine before a few times, you know, just to taste it and try it out."
"Really?" Noah asked, finally twisting himself so that he propped up beside his friend. "It's not, like, yucky? I mean..."
"Not to me," Jesse replied, shaking his head. "It has like... I don't know, a kind of a salty and nutty taste, with a kind of creaminess to it, too - but not thick or anything." He paused. "And, I can tell you, yours tastes different than mine does. It's still the same, but... I don't know, it's just different, I guess. Yours is more thin-like, I think."
Noah made a face but then laughed. Leaning closer, he whispered, "I can't believe you did it, though," he finally whispered, giggling. When he saw Jesse blush, he hastened to add, "It's okay, don't worry about it, it's cool. I'm just saying, is all..."
"My first time I did it was an accident," Jesse whispered, then seeing the look of curiosity, he explained. "I'd been jacking off, I don't know, maybe six or seven months by then, and one night I was really worked up, see. So, I'm in my bed, it's the middle of the night, Benji's in his own bed and fast asleep, and... and I've got the covers pulled down and all. I'm doing it, you know? I'm harder I think than I had been for a while, and when I suddenly let it go, some of it flew up on my mouth and chin."
"Really? Wow!" Noah hissed. "So, you just, you mean it kind of... like that?"
"Yeah," Jesse whispered, but then reached out and pulled Noah in for a deep kiss. As their tongues begin to wrestle back and forth, Noah suddenly stopped and opened his eyes in surprise. Pulling back, he looked questioningly at his best friend. "Is that...me? Is that my...?"
Jesse giggled. "Yep, that's you. So, do you think it's gross?" he asked. Noah studied for a moment, shifting his tongue around before smiling. In reply, he leaned back in and kissed his friend deeply again.
It was only moments before the two parted again and Noah arched his eyebrows. "What do you taste like then?"
Jesse shrugged. "You can find out sometime if you want. I don't think you'll find much now, though. We've kind of squished about all I had between us... you know?"
Noah hesitated, but then pulled up looking down upon Jesse's chest and belly. "Yeah, I understand," he whispered, then took a look at his hand, before realizing he had absent-mindedly wiped it earlier. Turning back to his friend, he rested his head upon Jesse's lower chest and observed the bright blue eyes that were watching him. "Promise?"
"I promise, yeah, but only if you want to," Jesse whispered back. "Thanks, bro," he added.
"For not getting mad at me," Jesse replied. "I- I didn't know how you'd feel about doing that one really, but... like kissing, it was something I wanted to try, you know? Us messing around is one thing, but... sucking, and... and..."
Noah giggled. "Do you want to know the truth, Jess? I did, too. I had already thought about it before, in a goofy kind of way, but like you said, it was something I didn't know if you'd want to do. But, when you like went down on me, I was like, 'Oh, wow!' and everything." He sighed happily. "This stuff, it's like... I don't know, it's just cool and awesome, you know? The way that felt was so... so fucking different, and awesome, you know?"
Jesse nodded and smiled. He felt as if his heart skipped another beat, because he could feel their bond tightening even more than before. Inside, he actually felt quite happy. "Can we make a pact?" Jesse whispered, which piqued Noah's curiosity.
"What kind of pact?"
"Well, if we're going to do this stuff between us, can we like make a promise not to get mad at each other for just trying things out? I mean, ever since you got into my heart, and I found out you're gay at least, I've... I've been... I don't know, curious about stuff, and wanting to try things, too. But I've been nervous about it, you know? Like you were with admitting stuff to me about, you know... I've been kind of afraid that the things I think about, well, might be going too far between us, you know?" Jesse explained. "But, you know, if we make a pact to not get mad or anything, then..."
Noah moved up closer until their noses were only inches apart. As he lay upon his friend's chest, he listened to the heartbeat underneath it before replying. "I'll make that pact with you any day, Jess. We're bros, right?" Jesse smiled at him and leaned in with a soft kiss. When they broke, both embraced each other warmly again. "I've got a confession to make too: I feel the same way, sometimes."
Jesse finally giggled before sitting up. "I think we're kind of like peanut butter and jelly, aren't we?" he mused aloud while Noah laughed and sat up beside him. "Um, I don't know how you feel about it, but I think we kind of made a big mess again. And I haven't had a shower yet today, so... what do you think? Can we get away with one tonight?"
Noah nodded. "Oh yeah, definitely. This time is different, though. We can take a shower and no one will be any wiser - as long as we turn the water off for a minute in the middle, and then start it up again," he whispered. "That is, assuming you want to shower together again. It is kind of fun that way, I think!"
"Oh yeah, definitely!" Jesse responded. "Noah? Just so you know bro, I really liked tonight. Playing the game, us wrestling and goofing off... everything." He looked up and mouthed two simple words without voicing them: 'Thank you.'
Noah leaned in and whispered into his ear, "You're welcome, Jess. See, I'm not a crybaby all the time, I do have a heart. And I get horny sometimes, too."
"Just sometimes?" Jesse whispered, teasing him.
Noah rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay... a lot of times, how's that?"
Jesse giggled, but then pulled him in for another kiss, before leaning up close to his ear. "Me, too, bro." He then lay back and placed his hand over Noah's heart. "I've always known you had a heart, Noah. That's something I have never, ever doubted," he whispered. Sighing deeply, he made his way from the bed, pulling Noah with him. "Hey, after we get done, do you think we could actually watch our movie for a change? I know, it might sound a little lame but, I've kind of really wanted to see it."
Noah giggled. "Okay, yeah. And it's not lame, I promise you. I'll promise not to rape you any more for a little while - as long as we can still be next to each other."
Jesse stopped in mid-stride to look back slyly. "We can still cuddle up naked though, right?" he whispered.
Noah giggled and nodded. "I was hoping so, yeah," he whispered back. Coming up beside him, he paused as well, and added, "You know, I don't know how we're ever NOT going to be able to do this from here on out."
"I don't know either," Jesse giggled. "But who cares? I know I don't!"
"Me neither," Noah whispered as he led the way.