The Storm That Turned the Tide

Chapter 30: Why We Care

By Sean English

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Makalah McAllister dropped off Benji, giving the youngster plenty of hugs and kisses, as well as reminders to be on his best behavior. After speaking briefly with Petey's mother, she backed out of the driveway and started for home when her cell phone rang. "Hello Christine," she said cheerfully, recognizing the number as belonging to one of her co-workers. She listened for a few seconds and then frowned. "No, I haven't heard from James all afternoon. Why, is there something going on?"

Within the seconds that followed, she quickly slowed down and turned into a random driveway, before backing out again in the opposite direction. Speeding off in the direction she had come, the vehicle hurried forward under her guidance as she continued to talk with her colleague. She did not turn in to Petey's driveway however, choosing instead to accelerate past it and head for the highway not far away. Without another word, she disconnected the line and took a deep breath, trying to control the rapidly escalating panic that she began to feel.

For some reason, the traffic through town was not as light as one would have expected, and it took the McAllister matriarch almost ten minutes to reach the hospital. As she rushed into the emergency parking lot and found her husband's truck, she slid into place right beside it and parked, turning the engine off before taking a deep breath. Exiting the vehicle and hobbling as quickly as she could move, she made her way toward the emergency room doors. Once inside, she found her friend waiting for her at the reception desk, along with both James and Noah, having a quiet conversation. When the trio turned and saw her, they then straightened as she approached. "Okay, what happened?" Makalah asked, more calmly than she felt.

"I'm afraid we don't know very much as of yet," James began. "Jesse seemed to collapse at the store a little while ago. Noah found him unconscious and pale, and when I couldn't bring him around, we brought him straight here."

"The doctors have him back in the emergency room now," Noah added in a quiet voice.

Makalah studied her husband's face briefly, detecting something she would later credit as being a raw, emotional strain - something that they were both caught up in at the moment, although in different ways. When she glanced down at Noah and saw his bewilderment, along with a struggle to contain his own emotions, she paused. She could tell he had shed a few tears, as the streaks left behind were subtly present along his face. It was then the woman realized that both of them were scared.

Makalah took a deep breath and smiled at the teenager, before reaching out and placing a hand upon his shoulder. "It's okay, kiddo. I'm sure Jesse will be alright," she tried to reassure him, but then began removing her coat and turning to Christine. "Take me back in there, please," she commanded, to which her fellow nurse simply nodded. Makalah was a long-time member of the staff for the emergency center, being one of the seasoned nurses the hospital had on staff. All had come to know her well over the years, and none were going to deny her access when the health of one of her family was at stake. "Here, hang onto this, I'll be back as soon as I know something, I promise," she stated, handing her coat to James. As he nodded, she began moving up the corridor as quickly as she had arrived, before going through the inner doors that lead deeper into the complex. Christine remained by her side the entire time until they both disappeared.

James placed an arm around Noah's shoulders, and both slowly walked back into the waiting area before sitting once again. "Well, that's that, I guess. Makalah's in there now though, she'll figure it out - or at least tell us what she finds out," the man spoke softly, trying to reassure the teenager. "We just have to patient for a little while, that's all."

Noah sat back and sighed in the silence. Earlier, when he had entered the doorway and found James as he did, he had started to panic - especially after seeing Jesse's father so broken and uncertain. Within seconds, however, the man had looked up and observed his audience, before the man collected himself and motioned the boy to come closer. "It's okay," he had told him, clearly feeling out of sorts. "I'm s-sorry, I just lost it for a minute, that's all."

"Is he... Is... where...?" Noah whispered, but the man had waved at the double doors leading into the emergency area.

"They took him in straightaway, and told me I'd have to wait out here," the man had explained, but then sighed. "So, right now, we simply have to wait it out. I know, it's the hardest job of them all, but... we have to do it." His voice was hollow and distant, and Noah could see the immense emotion behind his eyes. The teenager, however, was conscious of how the waiting game was now played, and he knew that there was little he could do or say to help the situation. He sat had back then, the man's arm still draped around him reassuringly, and nodded acceptance. Although for some people, such a gesture would be considered awkward. Noah had found he didn't mind the man's arm there, though. In fact, he had welcomed it, because in a way they both drew strength from the other while sitting there. He had glanced up at one point, and saw that James had closed his eyes, but he also observed the man closer and could see the telltale lines of stress that had been introduced. He wished he could do something, anything really - but for that, he was at a loss. After a moment, he had turned back to stare at the double doors, as if willing them to open so he could see his friend walking through them and into the room.

Still thinking back, he recalled that it was some minutes before a woman finally appeared at the reception desk. She had sat down and shuffled a few papers, all before glancing up and noticing the two were sitting nearby. Rising from her chair, she had moved around the front of the desk and approached. "Mr. McAllister? James?" she asked politely, startling the man.

"Oh, yes! Christine, isn't it?" he asked, bolting upright. "My son, Jesse... he's here, and he's-"

"Yes, I know, I just came from back there. No," she offered immediately, holding her hand up to stave off the obvious questions about to rise. "I'm sorry, but there is nothing new to tell you right now. They're still working with him, but I can tell you he's breathing, and he has a heartbeat - so, from what I observed, those are all good things." When she paused, she saw how crestfallen the man had become. "Where's Makalah? I didn't see her back there when I walked by," she whispered.

"I- uh, well..." the man stammered, suddenly realizing he had, indeed, overlooked something blatantly obvious. Fishing for his cell phone, he withdrew it from his pocket, but was shaking so much it dropped to the floor. Christine had picked it up for him and started to hand it over.

"Listen, why don't you let me call her, okay? You know how she is... Besides, she'll be here in a jiff," the woman offered kindly. James simply had nodded as he took the phone and simply stared at it blankly for a moment. After the nurse walked away, Noah lowered his voice.

"Um, are you okay, sir?" the teen whispered.

"Yeah, I will be," came the almost whispered reply. James had then looked over at him and smiled grimly. "I know... I lost it there for a minute, didn't I? But... yes, I am going to be alright." He then sighed. "What about you? Are you alright?"

"I don't know..." Noah replied honestly. "I'm... I'm worried, I guess."

"We all are, but like I've always told you boys before, many times... we should not try to jump to any conclusions too quickly. We need to know what happened, really, before we decide to panic," James had reminded him soothingly, trying to keep his voice calm. "Maybe that's where I failed earlier. Maybe I panicked too quickly, when I knew better, right? Still, I'm not infallible."

Noah recalled looking up and wanting to say something, but he wisely kept his feelings in check. James, however, seemed to sense that the teen was holding back and thus sighed heavily before smiling wearily. "I know, Noah. That was not one of my best moments really, and knowing you had to have thought the worst of it when you saw me - well, I don't blame you for feeling frightened. I'm just as human as anyone else is though, and honestly - I can still lose it sometimes. Although, I should admit, I probably haven't done THAT in the better part of twenty years or more."

Noah had smiled then, feeling somewhat better. "Don't worry, sir. I... I didn't see anything."

James chuckled. "It doesn't matter, son. I wouldn't care if you did or not, or if you felt you needed to tell someone, either. Unlike some people, it's not something that troubles or bothers me. A lot of men, they try to hold things on the inside far too much as it is. You know, those who feel they have to keep that macho-manliness persona at the forefront, lest someone think they're weak. I've never subscribed to that way of thinking though, and I think you and both my sons know that. We all need a little help sometimes, you know, young or old, male or female. Most of all, we all need to be human. To be otherwise is just wrong."

Noah had considered those words, and surprisingly felt that he understood. It was sort of the same attitude Jesse had always seemed to have, since the first day they had actually come together following the storm. Even his own father had alluded to the same thing before, trying to teach him patience and humility, but to never let anyone try and take away who he was. As he came out of his reverie, he looked around the room again in the present and sighed. He didn't know how long the two would have to wait, but there was no question that it was going to be a while.

- - - - - -

They sat for several minutes again, until the big double-doors opened and another nurse appeared. As she walked into the room, she approached the desk and spoke quietly with Christine. Somehow the both James and Noah heard her call off the name 'McAllister', and once overheard, James was instantly on his feet followed by the teenager. As they crossed the short distance, the woman pulled back slightly and only looked up and smiled, however, before disappearing once again. "It's alright," Christine informed them when they arrived. "That was Nancy. She said Makalah asked her to inform us that they just drew some blood, and got it sent off to be analyzed."

"How long will it take?" James asked quietly.

"They'll do it in two phases, getting the crucial panels back in about an hour or so. The full metabolic screening though, will probably take about two to three hours," Christine explained. "That's really all there is to tell right now, though. Try not to worry, though... We'll update you when something develops, I promise."

With nothing else to do, the two returned to their seats and sat glumly. As James had already said, there was no choice now other than to wait.

It was the one task, however, that neither wanted to do...

~STTTT~

Sheriff Hunt stopped by his house to drop Pete off. Although it was not exactly a late hour for the day, as it was mid-afternoon, the man felt that the teenager had had enough excitement for the time being. The entire drive, short though it was, lasted only minutes, and in that time-span Pete had sat quietly, staring out the window. He was still recovering from what had transpired at the school, dumbfounded at why he had never realized it before. Someone along the way had suggested a similar line of thinking, he thought, as it seemed he had overheard a conversation about the lockers before. But the words seemed murky, and he could not recall the where or how. That it had all come full circle now, however, was almost like a slap in the face.

Then there was the point made by Harland Green, about what had prompted him to look into the deal further. The kid he had built so much hatred and animosity for, for whom he had schemed and worked with everything within his power to make life miserable - was the one who had actually gone to bat for him behind the scenes. Why? For all Pete could envision, the teen could not fathom first why Jesse would do it, yet alone come up with such an obscure conclusion that helped to clear Pete from what might have been a rugged outcome. This was the kid who had had the shit beaten out of him, and who knew Pete was involved - at least, at the time. Why wouldn't he have left things in place? Pete would have been in trouble for certain, beyond just a simple school-yard brawl, and would have had what was surely coming to him in the end. All Jesse had to do was keep quiet - but he didn't. Why?

Then there was Noah, too. He thought he understood what was happening early on with the teen, when he first started to hang around their group. Pete thought of Noah as being another loner, which in a lot of ways he was, looking for someone, anyone really, that he could latch onto for the remaining years as he rode out high school life. High school sucked, Pete thought, but it was better than nothing. At least, when it came to needing a place to get away from everything else - especially home. Pete didn't mind it, not really - other than he always thought Noah tried too hard to fit in, laughing, championing his own jokes or such just to keep up with the rest of him. He was younger, but seemed to have a good enough bad-ass mentality that allowed their relationship to work. That is, until the tornado hit the valley.

That had changed everything.

Turning into the driveway, Pete was stirred from his reverie when Jim spoke. "We did good today, Pete. I have to run out to the parkway for a bit, though. As I heard, it seems there's been an accident. Tell Martha not to expect me for a few hours at least, and that I'll call her when I get free, alright?"

"Okay, sure," Pete replied, opening the door when the vehicle came to a full stop. He thanked the man for the ride, although he was uncertain why, but climbed out and shut the door casually. He then stepped back and watched the Sheriff maneuver the car around and drive away, until he was on the road and disappearing into the distance. Turning, Pete then took a moment to observe the house with a closer scrutiny. There was nothing extravagant or posh about the place. The fact that it sat on a rather large sized lot wasn't all that strange either, as many households in their small town enjoyed spacious lawns from one residence to the next. The white-board siding was accented in places with stonework, and deep red shutters sat on each side of the windows. The only thing that could possibly stand out as being more opulent was the fact the driveway was topped with asphalt, something you didn't find in many places in the rural country. The teen realized it was a cute place, really, thinking about how it differed from his own home further south of the town. The ground was frozen at the moment, but he could just imagine the greenery of the lawn in the warmer spring and summer months.

Before long, Pete began to realize that the place was not all that different from what he had always dreamed of having for his own, somewhere in the years ahead. Living alone as much as he had, the teen didn't feel necessarily encouraged that his future was very optimistic, but he had seen and even been in the houses of some of his friends. Their family dynamics always varied, he knew - some along the same lines of his own relationship with first his father, and then the gang. But some, like this one now, were built around trusting, caring families. Those visits though, clearly set Pete aside as the outcast, a "visitor" for lack of a better term. Not that he blamed them. His bad-ass reputation, and his arrogant attitudes at times, left much adjustment to be desired with the adults he encountered. He had tried to be nice on most occasions, but it seemed most of his friends' parents could see right through the fa├žade.

Pete had always wanted life to be different, though. When he stilled himself and absorbed the moment in quietness, he always wished he had had a family - a real family - like those he occasionally interacted with, or saw on television. A family that wasn't so dysfunctional as his was, having to live by the seat of their pants from one hour to the next. His own father was always looking over his shoulder, always scheming from one adventure to the next, and really discarding anything and anyone else who happened to be by his side - such as Pete and his mother. How the man had survived for as long as he did, before going to prison, Pete had no idea, really. He just wished it had turned out different, or that the man had at least tried to care. Instead, Pete was left to his own devices, to grow up the best way he could, by himself, to survive. He once overheard the old man joking with one of his 'partners', for lack of a better term, the man saying he left Pete alone so he would toughen up to the world, and learn to be independent. If it were true, perhaps it wouldn't have hurt the teen as badly as it did. Instead, the constant laughing and joking about the situation led the teen to believe otherwise.

Pete always figured his future wasn't going to be a bright one. If he was in the midst of following the footsteps of his old man, then he knew he'd be stuck in a run-down shack, hiding half his life alone, and avoiding the law. It had started with his grandfather, who had passed the business down the line - especially once he discovered his father's lack of any real morality when it came to deals that would earn quick money, left and right. Therein had lain a legacy Pete had secretly hated, having seen its ugly head all too often. It had cost him his mother, his childhood and a whole lot more. It had caused him to be raped, in the most vile and nastiest of ways, or so he thought. He had been abandoned, relatively speaking, and had his soul purged, it seemed, of anything decent in life. His own father had treated him so low, as a pimple on his ass, to speak of. Oh, how he had envied some of his friends over the years, but of course, most couldn't see what he lived through, or how good their lives were in comparison to his own. He couldn't tell them either - lest he be abruptly dragged away to lose what little grasp he had on reality.

Returning to the present, however, Pete thought it was funny regarding the point Sheriff Hunt had made once - telling him how young people just couldn't wait to grow up and leave, thinking they could search for a better place and a bustling lifestyle outside their little town. Pete had actually thought little of that idea, preferring and appreciating what their little place in the world already provided. He wanted some of the fun, sure... but for long term, all he really wanted was to find a job and settle down some day. If that place was to be here in Kentucky, then so be it - it didn't matter that much. Although he had nothing to really tie him down to the area, he still liked it. It wasn't always so, but the teenager actually came to appreciate the county he lived in. He just had never seen himself as having much of a future in it.

Sighing, Pete started for the door then, especially after observing that Martha was peering out from the kitchen window, watching him with interest. It was then he recalled the message Jim had asked him to pass on, so with a grunt, he chided himself for having stood in the cold for so long. He walked over to the side door and entered the house quietly.

"Hello, young man! How was your day, today? Is everything alright?" Martha inquired, after greeting the teenager with a warm smile.

"Oh, yeah, everything's fine," Pete replied. "I'm sorry, I just... I had never taken much time to look around outside before, at least not that way, and... well..."

Martha laughed, after pointing to the coat rack nearby. Pete listlessly hung his parka on one of the spikes and then followed her into the kitchen. "By the way, Mr. Hunt asked me to tell you he'd be a couple of hours still before he could come in. Something about a wreck out on the parkway."

Martha nodded. "I heard something about that over the police band, but I didn't pay much attention to it. It sometimes happens, though, so no worries. Are you hungry? I have to admit, I haven't cooked anything yet, because I thought we might all go out for some pizza later, or at least something more non-traditional. A body can only take so much in the way of comfort food before it becomes weary, I think."

Pete stopped and turned to her with a smile. "Ma'am, I don't think there is anything that could make me tired of your cooking. Everything last week, and then this weekend - well, it was fantastic!" The woman giggled, but blushed deeply at the compliment all the same, before she slowly approached him.

"Well, thank you, but... really, there are some who do a lot better than I do, believe me," Martha confessed modestly. "Still, I was only looking to do something a little different tonight, that's all. If you're not starving, what say we give the old bear a couple of hours then and see how it ends up. There's some snack-cakes in the pantry over there if you need something to hold you over." The woman glanced at the clock. "If he doesn't call in a little while, I'll ring him and we'll figure out then whether we want to wait for him, or just go on out ourselves. How's that? You and I can take a spin into town and go over to that buffet place. Does that sound like a plan?"

Pete smiled. "Anything will be fine with me, honest. I appreciate it, ma'am."

Martha hesitated, observing the boy further and noting something was somewhat off. "Are you sure all is well? Nothing amiss, right?"

Pete shrugged. "I'm okay, I guess. Just... I was kind of just processing some things, that's all." When he saw her curiosity, he pulled out a chair at the table, causing her to do the same in like manner. Both then sat, and Pete began telling her about the morning with the lawyer, and then the afternoon's visit at the school. Before long, he found himself giving out more details then, about all the things that had been running through his head since, and how he was still trying to believe it wasn't a dream.

It was at that point the woman smiled and reached out, pinching Pete on the arm. At first, he just watched her, but when she did it a second time with considerably more force, he pulled back. "Ow!" the teen exclaimed, before laughing. "What was that for?"

"To make sure you realized you're not dreaming," Martha replied matter-of-factly. As the teen laughed again, he rubbed the spot tenderly, still uncertain that he understood. The woman, on the other hand, sat forward in her chair and leaned in closer him. "There are a few things in life we can't always explain, you know. I mean, sometimes things do happen for a reason, when we least expect it. Not that it's always for the best, mind you, because as we grow older, life does get a little more difficult in the end. We gain new responsibilities, and we gain new loves, fellowships, roles and a whole host of other things. But sometimes honey, sometimes there is a goodness that comes from it. I think in a way, you're finding that out now, maybe for the first time in a long, long while."

Pete frowned, turning his gaze to look out the window. "You guys keep saying that and all, but... you don't understand. I've never had anything 'good' happen to me like this, you know? I mean, just over a week ago, I figured my life was about done for and over with, remember? I- I even considered just giving up and checking out. I mean, what was the use in living anymore, the way things had been going for me. But... as much of a badass as I was, especially giving so much shit to that kid at school, and... and other things... In the end, I was nothing more than a coward. I couldn't even, I mean, go through with calling it quits. I just, I chickened out." He suddenly blushed. "Sorry, I didn't mean to cuss."

Martha observed him carefully before smiling. "Well, being a 'badass' as you call it, really has nothing to do with it, I think. Everybody has their rough patches they go through, along with their weakest moments, Pete. And it's not being a coward to chicken out of calling it quits, if you mean what I think you're saying. As far as what I think, you were just having some of those moments and all, I'm sure. It's something all of us have though, some more severely than others. Believe it or not though, it just helps us realize how much more human we really are, too. I've already told Jim, I can't even begin to imagine how you survived out there, all on your own, for over a month like you did. Someone, I think, had to be watching over you - at least a guardian angel, if nothing else."

Pete slowly shook his head. "I don't believe in guardian angels, ma'am. I'm sorry, I don't mean to be disrespectful at all, I just..."

Martha placed her hand upon his arm. "You do not have to explain it to me, dear. I'm perfectly aware that a good portion of the world thinks differently than what some of the rest of us do, and even our own portion of the world doesn't always agree on the same basics. But listen to me, and listen really carefully, alright? I want you to consider something..." When Pete turned and gave her his attention, she smiled at him again. "With regard to Guardian Angels, they come in all shapes and sizes, not just the heavenly, silver-winged images you might think of. They're in life all around you, such as in a pet, a friend, maybe even a child. They're in people that are both seen and unseen, nearby or not so close. They can exist to simply point you on your way somewhere, to guide you in your thoughts and ideas, or perhaps they just keep the worst from happening to you, whether you realize it or not. They're strangers, in a sense, but they're as real as you and I are, sitting right here and having this discussion about them. That is what I believe, see? They're there to give you reassurance when you need it, or a shoulder to cry on, and to let you know you're not alone." The woman sat back and waved her arms wide. "Believe in that much dear, at least, whether you're a religious person or not. Guardian angels - they are always around you, in the best of times, and even in the worst of times. Sometimes they have limits with what they can do, but they are always, always keeping you company in one way or another."

Pete stared at her for a long while before he sighed. The teen struggled to keep his emotions from getting the better of him as he looked into her eyes. What he saw in the lady, and the last few days with her family, was enough to make him want to change in what he believed. "Then, you and Mr. Hunt must be mine, because... because that's all you've been doing since I've got here. You've been helping me, making me feel - I don't know, better - not alone. You know?" Then, without preamble, he reached out and hugged her in his arms, all the while trying to hold back the tears that he was losing control over.

It was true, Pete thought. From the very first day he had turned himself in and stepped into the Sheriff's office, he had experienced nothing but kindness from the man, and then his wife and their family. Even in just the few short days he had spent with them both, one-on-one and away from the stress of everyday living, they had set about teaching him things he had never before considered, along with the fact that sometimes you have to turn a corner in order to find the better side of life. When he surrendered that day a week before, he had given up in desperation, losing all hope of anything ever being better for him. These two and a few others, however, had taught him that hope was still alive, and that all he needed to do now was to be humble enough to see it, embrace it - and accept. Pete Haskell III was indeed grateful, and it showed. When Martha returned his embrace, she held him as she would hold any child, as complete and unbidden as she could. Pete finally began to remember what it was like, when his mother used to embrace and hold him that way years before.

More than that, it caused him to remember the peace it had given him on the inside, because now, in that moment, he could feel it once again.

~STTTT~

When the double-doors opened once again leading into the emergency ward, Makalah hobbled through with a steady gait. James looked up and noted his wife seemed to be doing better, almost back to her normal self in most respects. She no longer required the use of a cane or crutch, although she still had a limp in her stride. Perhaps, he thought, that was because of the bandages that still encased her foot.

As she saw him, the woman pointed off toward the corner of the room, specifically at the door that opened into a small consultation office. He understood immediately, as he had seen and visited within it before. Generally reserved for serious cases at least, it allowed doctors and families to come together with a semblance of privacy, and discuss information about a loved one who had been brought in. It could signal a serious matter or issue, but not always - a fact that somewhat mollified the man as he rose from his seat and began walking the short distance to join her. Once reaching the aisle, however, he stopped and turned, glancing around him and then back to the seats. Noah had sat up straighter, and with a keen interest when he, too, had spotted Makalah on the return. He had hung back though, with a sense of uncertainty as he watched them both move forward. He was not family, not in the blood sense that most people defined it with, so he hesitated with respect to that right for Jesse's parents. At least, until James suddenly waved at him to come on. With a feeling of elation and relief, he bolted from the chair and quickly moved to join the two. As Noah reached the man's side, James put an inviting arm around the teenager's shoulders with a weak smile, before all three stepped through the open doorway and into the smaller office.

Makalah smiled at the teen and took one of two chairs waiting on their side of the makeshift desk. James was going to steer the teenager into the other, but Noah quickly shook his head. "I'd rather stand, honest," he whispered. The older man grunted and then took a seat as well, while Noah took up a position behind them and leaned against the wall. It wasn't but a moment later when a door opened behind the desk, and a man Noah immediately recognized as being Jesse's doctor from his prior visits, entered the room and shook hands with the elder McAllister right away, before nodding warmly to the teenager.

Sitting down, the doctor paused long enough to open a folder and set it in front of him on the desktop. "Okay, there's good news and so-so news, I think. The first, which your wife has told you I'm sure, is that Jesse is awake, and is growing stronger again with each passing hour. His cognitive functions seem to be working normally as well, although he's a little fuzzy about what actually happened. That is not surprising, as it is not abnormal for people to experience that, especially in cases like this. The immediate blood panel came back showing that everything was mostly normal, too, but there was a high-level concentration of white blood cells in the system - more than is normal, I believe, but certainly not alarming given the magnitude of his recent incident here. We did put him on oxygen for about a half-hour, and gave him an intravenous solution combined with a general antibiotic. So far, all of his stats have improved considerably, so we took him off of the oxygen just a little while ago, and he is breathing just fine."

The doctor looked up with an expression of perplexity at that point. "Now, as to what happened today, I think there are a combination of things that contributed to his blackout. Note, as I said, he doesn't recall the fall or anything about it immediately afterwards, nor can he really recall anything leading up to it - other than he said he suddenly felt exhausted again this afternoon. We talked for a bit, however, about the last week or so and how he had been doing, and other than the exhaustion, I didn't initially see anything. Clearly, it's been two weeks since his incident at the high school, and when we released him to go home, everything seemed to be climbing up in the right direction, and to a full recovery."

"But... you agree, that something isn't right," James muttered. Makalah smiled and reached out, grabbing hold of his hand and squeezing it gently. She remained silent, however, as the doctor nodded in response.

"Oh yes, something is off... and I must admit, I may be partially to blame here. You see, while he was here the first round, we worked his stats and gave him medications to help with the swelling, as well as monitored for any side effects of the concussion. As it was, he never gave me reason to believe we needed to do another blood culture, because he was improving, right? But that's the trick here, I think. When I pulled the initial result from two weeks ago, and compared it to the full workup we just did a little while ago, there are some vast differences. For one thing, in the last two weeks, his sodium count has fallen to extremely low levels, as well as his iron - which, for all purposes now, is practically non-existent."

James frowned before turning to his wife. "Is that... bad?"

Makalah picked up the conversation at that point. "Well, without iron, his body will have a problem generating hemoglobin, which in turns means it can't produce the red blood cells needed to pass oxygen throughout the rest of his body."

"That is correct, and if the cellular count is reduced, the body will try to offset it using other natural-based mechanisms," the doctor added.

"Which means... you'll see more white counts than red," James theorized, finally understanding.

"That's right, you have the general idea, yes. It is not enough to create fatigue by itself, but one of the symptoms of having low iron levels is exhaustion, and when you combine that with a low sodium presence internally, along with a few other elements, then... that, I believe, can create a wide range of episodes, such as what he experienced in your store this afternoon." The doctor sat forward, placing his elbows upon the desk and becoming thoughtful. "Tell me, how has his food intake been since he went home from here?"

"Well, it started normal," Makalah answered, thinking back. "I mean, it wasn't as much as it usually was, but... it wasn't horribly different, either."

"The last couple of days haven't been the best," Noah offered quietly, when both parents seemed to fall into a period of silence. "I mean, he didn't eat a lot of his breakfast or lunch yesterday, and though we went out for Mexican last night, he only ate some chips and salsa, mostly. Maybe half of his burrito, but he didn't touch the other stuff, the beans or rice, at all."

Makalah glanced up at the teen and smiled before turning back. "Noah's probably right. He would know better, I think. They are like two peas in a pod, and he isn't usually wrong. I did notice that after our Christmas dinner, Jesse had tapered off quite a bit. I just figured he had a little upset stomach, or needed time to digest everything. It was a different kind of meal than your everyday sort."

"Thinking back," James interjected. "I agree. I remember him putting quite a few things on his plate, but he only ate about half of it that day, at least initially. I think I felt like Makalah did here, believing that he was still just adjusting and all, doc."

"It's quite possible that he was, I have no doubt," the doctor replied. "Regardless, I've ordered some sodium supplements to be added to his IV, and honestly, I think he needs to stay here overnight for observation again." He held up his hand, however, seeing James shoulders sag significantly. "I don't think this will be anything like it was before, Mr. McAllister. Most likely he'll go home sometime in the morning, unless something drastic was to happen. If we keep him overnight though, we can get another blood workup done and do a quick comparison, see? I want to put him on some iron supplements, too. We'll do it kind of heavy up front, then taper off and monitor it over the next few weeks or months, if need be. Seriously, it could be he just needs to adjust his diet, or if necessary, we can add the supplements to a regular daily routine, and all will be well again."

"Do you... will it be that simple?" James asked, an eyebrow stretched high as if in surprise.

The doctor chuckled. "I know, for as alarming of an event as this was, it seems like it would be an insignificant treatment, right? But, yes... I'm not trying to oversimplify it, believe me, but yes... If we go by what I have in front of me, and knowing our history as we do for Jesse... then yes, this could all have a modest solution."

"We can do that," James admitted, eventually sighing with relief. When he glanced at his wife, he knew then she had already been expecting this. "Did you get Benji to Petey's before all of this?"

"Yes, he'll be fine over there until tomorrow afternoon," she replied back, before turning to the doctor. "Did you, by chance, check out his other condition, too?"

The man smiled and nodded. "I checked everything out, Makalah, and yes - the swelling in his testicles has subsided substantially. The color is returning as well, which is a very good thing for someone with those circumstances. The other bruises are coming along nicely, too - some of which you can hardly even tell were there to begin with. Just as I suspected it would be, really. I take it he still has some discomfort getting up and down, right?" All three of them, James, Makalah and Noah alike, nodded simultaneously, causing the man to sit back and chuckle. "I'm afraid that will probably still hang around a couple of weeks more before it subsides completely. To coin a phrase, however - 'it too, shall pass'. Just don't force him to sit or do anything hastily. His internals - the muscles, tendons and the like - need to heal at their own rate. The more he uses them, the more they'll return to their old state, but pushing too quickly could put them at a disadvantage. I'll prescribe a very mild muscle relaxant before he leaves, but only let him take them if you feel it's necessary, alright? As long as he can sleep reasonably well, then the rest will work itself out."

When it was obvious the session was drawing to a close, James stood and shook the doctor's hand once again. "I don't know how to thank you, again. I admit - bringing him in here, it was kind of a scary thing for me. Not just for me, either - I think Noah was about as concerned as I was," he added.

The doctor stood as well, while Makalah climbed to her feet again, albeit a little more slowly than her husband. "I don't doubt it, really. He'll be fine though, but I think we can expect over the next few weeks that we'll have to keep an eye on him. If all this amounts to is a lack of nutrients and supplements, we can correct that oversight almost immediately. At the worst-case scenario, we'll give him some blood here to start working on flushing his body with a more normal iron-base composition. Either way, there is nothing in these test results, or in the scans we took, to indicate anything worse." The man lowered his voice as he turned and took Makalah's outstretched hand to shake it. "Just watch him, once he gets home. Let him dictate what he feels like doing or not. All is not that bad, I assure you. And be sure to watch after yourself, too. I'm happy to see you up and moving about this well, as we've been missing you terribly from the staff, but we do want you to get better soon before you get back. Alright?"

Makalah nodded. "I'll come back at any time if it's a necessity, you know that. Just have someone give me a call. If nothing else, I can sit at the desk and keep things coordinated, freeing up someone else. That might be something to keep in the back of your head too, especially around New Year's Eve and the day after here. I can help one or two to have the holiday off, you know."

"I... well, we'll look at the schedule," the man nodded in agreement. "As long as you're sure."

"I am, honestly. Otherwise, I was only hoping I could keep my leave through the weekend, at least until the boys make it back into school next week. I have to admit, as much of a pain in my rear this has been, the upside has been getting to be home and spend some time with the boys," Makalah explained with a tired smile.

The doctor smile and nodded. "It's been relatively quiet this week, and as long as that holds, I don't see why we can't work around it. Plus, the more time you get, the quicker that heel will get better. Dr. Reddy is supposed to be back up here on Tuesday, I think. You should arrange to have him check it out first, before you're totally cleared."

"Okay, I'll do that. If all is well, then I can start back that day, or whenever the schedule opens up for my turn," the woman replied, then began following her husband to the door. They both turned and thanked the man one last time, before exiting back into the emergency room. All three made way their over to the closest seats to sit down again, before Makalah turned to Noah. "Thank you for that, helping and all."

Before Noah could contemplate about what the woman was referring to, James added, "I know you were hesitant about joining us, but... there was no reason not to. You're a part of us as much as anyone else is."

"I.. uh..." Noah started to reply, but then accepted their thanks. "I'm just glad you let me come in," he added softly.

"I agree," Makalah commented, before placing a hand on his knee. "So, we need to figure out what we're going to do then, don't we?" she asked, more pointedly in her husband's direction. "Do you want me to stay tonight?"

James crossed his arms and became thoughtful. "If all they're going to do is monitor him for the duration, I don't think it's really necessary, is it? Plus, no matter what he said in there about Jesse, you really do need to get up off of that foot again for a while. Why don't you stay for a little while, so Noah and I can go back up to the store and finish some things off." He glanced at his watch. "If we leave soon, we can get there in time to do the closing, lock up and all, too. Then we'll..." He paused and chuckled. "I don't know, get something for us all to eat again, I guess. We'll come back and visit for a little while, and then I'll take you home."

A merry expression crossed Makalah's face. "And what about our adopted son, here? Or should we refer to him as something else?" She turned her attention to the teenager. "I suppose you probably want to stay with him here tonight again, don't you?" Noah tried to keep his face expressionless, but the thin smile that surfaced betrayed him, enough so that Makalah ended up laughing altogether. "Why should I ask such silly questions, I wonder."

Noah blushed as James returned his arm around the teenager's shoulders. "You'll have to get your parents' permission, of course."

Noah suddenly looked up at the man, realizing he had forgotten about them. Glancing at his watch, he sat up straight. "They might even be home by now!"

James laughed. "Well, come on, you can call them on the way back to the store," he remarked, climbing to his feet again. "As for you, honey, we'll give you a call when we're on the way back over here," he directed to his wife as the other two stood as well.

~STTTT~

Jim Hunt pulled into the driveway just as Martha and Pete were leaving the back door, readying themselves to go out for pizza. After parking, the man grunted as exited his vehicle and met them mid-way between the house and garage. "Didn't take long enough to miss out, I guess," he quipped, which drew a smack on his arm from Martha.

"Don't you start that, now! You're the one who likes their baked pasta down there, anyway!" his wife quipped. "Do you want to go in and change first, or just hop on in the car?"

Jim glanced at himself and then the house. "I think I'd rather go out on this occasion without the uniform. At least, while I can. It makes me feel a little more human somehow, instead of just an old geezer with a target on his back, you know?" He grinned, then nodded. "I tell you what, you two go ahead, back the car out and warm the old bird up. I won't need but a minute, I think. I'll just go shed the shirt and change coats, then be right back out."

"Well, make sure you find a shirt to replace the one you're shedding," Martha teased him, smiling at her own joke as the man grunted again and headed off inside. Approximately five minutes later, the trio were turning around in the driveway and heading toward the road. "How bad was the accident?" Martha asked after they were well underway.

"Not too horrible, thank goodness. Lady from Russel County was going down the wrong ramp onto the parkway. She looked to be snookered pretty bad, according to Phil."

"Oh, my heavens!" Martha exclaimed. "How 'wrong' was the ramp, given the time of day?"

Jim grunted again from the passenger seat as he sat back and relaxed for a change. "She was trying to head south on an off-ramp, so she got clipped by one of those big utility vehicles, the kind with the buckets and all. Ending up flipping her car totally over. The funny part is, she climbed out afterwards and started to curse out the poor man driving the truck! Made a heck of a scene too, from what I'm told! I can't wait to see what the newspapers write-up about this one!" He glanced at her directly. "Did Mr. Pete back here tell you about his visit today up at the high school?"

"He sure did," Martha replied, exchanging a smile with her husband as they entered town. "Talk about good luck, I would say he got an extra helping of it, wouldn't you?"

"Oh yes, without a doubt," Jim replied, before glancing into the rear where Pete was seated, listening in. "You over the shock of it, yet?"

Sheepishly, the teen nodded. "I guess so," he replied quietly. Jim Hunt observed the teen briefly, but then nodded before turning back.

As Martha drove them along, the man glanced out and observed the scenery that was passing by before eventually commenting on it. "You know, I sometimes forget all that one misses when you're driving all the time," the man remarked. "I mean, when you're driving, you can look about and all, but you really have to have at least half-your brain focused on the road, if not more. It's so easy to skip or miss things. Like, take this house up on the right here, and all the Christmas lights they have hanging outside. I've always noted they were there, but it's only now I see what I've been missing, I think. They've got quite the display, wouldn't you say Martha?"

Martha scoffed. "You old grump! Of course, yes - they are! Harold and the kids go all out almost every year, and every year you say the same thing about it!" She laughed before relenting. Glancing at Pete in the rear-view mirror, she explained. "He's right, though. He's so used to doing all the driving, it is very easy to skip over things. I know that from experience. Harold Moore back there, they go out of their way almost every year for the kids and grandkids. I've heard some of them call it the 'Moore-th Pole', and for good reason." The woman then sighed sadly. "I can't imagine them keeping it up much longer though, as Harold and Sylvia are getting up in years themselves." Pete nodded his understanding, as the trio continued a short distance further before turning off into the parking lot of a familiar, but popular pizza diner.

When they climbed out and headed inside, they stopped at the door to see that the place was much more crowded than they had expected. "I guess we're not the only ones with Italian palates being satisfied tonight, hmm?" Jim Hunt remarked.

"Where are we going to sit?" Martha asked, scanning the crowd. "Or should we just get something to go?"

Jim was about to reply when he suddenly spotted two familiar people just sitting down at a table. Smiling, he took a few steps forward. "James McAllister!" he declared. "How's it going? World treating you good tonight?" Before the man could respond, however, Jim recognized the teenager as not being whom he had first suspected. "Hello to you too! Noah, isn't it? Where's your partner in crime at tonight? Loading up on pizza somewhere?" The man had quickly scanned the line but did not see the other boy.

By that time, both Martha and Pete had joined the Sheriff and greeted the other two kindly. "Jim! Give them a chance to speak, for heaven's sake!" she admonished her husband, but all four of the others smiled.

"Um, Jesse isn't with us right now, I'm afraid. It's just Noah and myself at the moment. Would..." James hesitated, looking around and assessing how full the dining room was. "Would you like to join us? We probably won't be here all that long anyway."

After a quick, reassuring glance with his wife, Jim and his companions pulled out chairs and joined the other two as invited. Once seated, Jim regarded the man curiously and saw what looked to be anything but an expression of ease. "Okay, what's wrong? Has something happened?"

James smiled grimly, but then relaxed. "You could say that, yeah." He then launched into a short recap of the afternoon's adventure. As Martha and Jim listened, their own expressions changed to ones of growing concern. It was Pete, however, who seemed to be the most surprised of all, as he leaned forward listening and hanging onto every word.

"But... Jesse, he's going to be okay... right?" the bigger boy asked when there was an apparent pause near the end. James glanced at him and nodded.

"The doctor said he'll be fine, but the hospital is keeping him overnight for observation. If all goes well, then they'll release him to come home in the morning."

Martha sat back, looking relieved. "Thank the Good Lord!" she muttered and then shook her head. "That young man sure has had a bit of a rough go of it lately, hasn't he?"

Although she had made the remark casually, addressing her feeling of thankfulness regarding the outcome, Pete could not help think about something even deeper. The teenager's thoughts initially turned toward how it had all started that night in the gym. He frowned, however, when he realized that truthfully it had started long before then. Feelings of guilt overcame him then as he sat there in reflection, and as time progressed his shoulders drooped even further. He paid little attention to the rest of the conversation, and once they had ordered their drinks, he rose to his feet, excusing himself to go to the bathroom.

It wasn't until Noah returned to the table with a plate filled with several slices of pizza, that he noticed the older teen had yet to return. A quick scan of the line of people at the buffet table also verified Pete's absence, so setting his plate down, Noah excused himself. Casually making his way toward the back of the restaurant, he found the door to the men's bathroom and entered. Although there was one person washing their hands, no one stood at the urinals, so the teen nonchalantly checked the three stalls and noted that one of them was occupied. Taking his time, he stepped closer after the other individual finished and left, leaving the two alone for the time being. "Hey, Pete, is that you in there?" he asked quietly, not wishing to intrude in case it was not whom he expected.

A huge sigh came from the other side of the door. "Yeah, it's me ..." the teenager replied. After a brief delay, the door unlatched and swung inward, before the other boy appeared. "Sorry, I was..." When he didn't finish, however, Noah leaned back against the wall and observed him closely.

"You were thinking, I guess," Noah filled in for him. Pete searched the younger boy's expression closely before moving on to the sink to wash his hands. When he still refused to say anything further, Noah took the initiative. "So, what gives? Anything you want to talk about?"

The bigger boy paused as he dried his hands, before shrugging his shoulders, "It's nothing. I'm just glad Jesse is going to be alright." He had turned and was readying to leave, but Noah stepped up and blocked his way.

"He is, I promise," Noah announced. "I admit it - it scared us a little, but it all turned out okay." His eyes narrowed as a thought struck him. "You do realize that, right? I mean, it didn't have anything to do with you. He had some other things going on, and what happened today, well... it just happened."

Pete stared silently for almost a full minute before his shoulders sagged once again. "I understand, but Noah... you can't honestly believe that. I mean, all of this started with me after Halloween, remember? If I hadn't been such a dick-head about everything with you two, then-"

"This had nothing to do with you being an asshole," Noah growled. "This had to do with Jesse developing some kind of low iron condition or something, alright?" His voice then softened. "Seriously... I understand, you know? You might like to hide it sometimes, but I can see it otherwise. You care, and I know it. For that matter yeah, you were a royal-class jerk wad there for a while - that's for sure. But... don't over-think something that isn't meant to be thought of that way. Jesse told me something not too long ago you know, about how people should only be guilty for the things they're really guilty of, and not for the things they aren't. You didn't have anything to do with this. You should think about that too, okay?"

Pete sharply turned and threw his hands up in the air. "Jesse said this, or Jess said that... Shit, man, why does everything suddenly have to be about what Jesse says and does anymore? Will you listen to yourself? I mean... fuck!" he exclaimed. His voice was low and hollow, but filled with an obvious level of frustration. "Okay, I get it, he's your friend, alright? Probably a better friend than I'll ever deserve to have, and that's fine - I deserve it. But... shit..." When he saw the other teenager's frustration beginning to build, Pete couldn't deal with it just then, so he shook his head and quickly left the restroom.

Noah stood in place, stunned for the moment before he finally followed. Upon returning to the table, he saw the other boy was finally in the buffet line and ignoring him, so Noah took his seat with an uneasy feeling. The three adults were deep into conversation, and only Martha directly acknowledged his return. The teen sat quietly, taking a few bites of his food and trying to think about what had brought all that on, before Pete returned and sat down next to him.

Both boys remained silent for some time, nibbling away at their food, but neither was very invested at the moment. Noah had no idea what or how to respond to the onslaught he had just endured, and Pete, feeling hopelessly confused himself, only sulked and picked at his food. At least, until he finally let go of a deep breath and purposefully nudged the younger teen with his leg. Glancing sideways, he gave Noah a half-smile, which the boy tried to return, but inside it left him feeling even more confused than before.

When the two appeared to finally finish, Pete nudged the teen again a second time, before nodding toward the far corner where the now-familiar pinball machine sat, unoccupied. "Do you happen to have any quarters on you?" he asked quietly.

Surprised, Noah nodded. "A few, yeah," he replied, before getting up and indicating to James where they were headed. Both Mr. McAllister and Jim acknowledged him, and then the boys headed over. Upon arriving at the machine, Noah set up a match for two players, before letting Pete take the first turn.

"I'm sorry," Pete began, as he plunged the first ball into action. "What I said was out of line, and, well... I'm sorry." It was an apology spoken softly, but Noah could sense the bigger boy was being sincere.

Noah contemplated that for a minute before he answered. "It's okay. You should know though, he was talking about you, Pete."

"Huh?" Pete asked, frowning.

"When Jesse was talking about how people shouldn't be guilty for something they didn't do, well, he was talking about you. I think it might have been when we were talking to Mr. Green about the drugs and stuff at school and all," Noah explained quietly.

Pete dropped his head then, ignoring the ball as it slipped past the paddles and into the outgoing trap. When the machine switched up for the next player, he still stood there momentarily before looking up. Stepping aside, Noah took his place while the bigger teen contemplated the game, but clearly his thoughts were elsewhere. "I found out about it, you know. Earlier today," he finally confessed. "I just... it's hard, okay? I mean, all this shit and everything. I'm the one responsible for this crap, you know? All of it! And... but still... he's the one who seems to keep pulling me out of... out of trouble, see? And... and it's just - it's hard for somebody like me to process and understand it all, okay?" The boy was near tears, and he turned away to hide them from Noah and any other onlookers who might catch him unaware.

Noah stood silent for a moment, playing his turn out until he lost the ball, before standing back to let Pete take over again. When the boy detected it was his turn, he shook his head. "You play it," he whispered, but Noah shook his head as well.

"No, come on man, it's your turn," he responded, moving to the other side of the machine. Pete composed himself and turned back, but could not help notice how much closer Noah had suddenly moved in to stand beside him. In fact, he was practically shielding the older boy from the rest of the room.

"I'll be alright, just..." he started, but Noah simply tapped the glass, indicating that Pete should launch the ball. When Pete put it into play, Noah took a deep breath and spoke low enough that only the other teen could hear him.

"You're right, Pete. I do talk about Jesse a lot, and even his little brother sometimes. I talk about him though, because Jesse is the one who changed me a lot, for the better, see? He was... well, in the beginning, I thought he was kind of an oddball sometimes, but as I got to know him, it didn't turn out that way at all. He has this thing see, this part on the inside that cares about everyone else, but really little to nothing about himself. It took me a while to see that, and then even longer to understand it, you know? I mean, face it - who do we know in the whole fucking school that's, like, so selfless and all, and... and... who keeps picking himself up, after everything that gets thrown at him or his family? The storm, getting called queer, losing practically everything... even his brother, almost. I mean it, all he does it seems, is just shrug it off and keep on going?"

Pete thought about that for a moment before whispering, "I don't know. I mean, I don't know of anyone like that, not really."

"Exactly," Noah replied. "And then you take me. You were right about what you said that day at the park. All I ever wanted was to just find somewhere to... to fit in, you know? To just make it through high school, really. Me, the kid who practically got raped by a girl at a skating party, and got so scared and fucked over that I practically crapped my pants like a little kid." He saw Pete's look of utter surprise at that statement, and then realized what he had just confessed. Noah grunted. "Yeah, me! A kid that was so confused for a long time and... and alone. Me, who was the worst jack-ass of them all in the beginning. I mean, you don't know how bad off I was, Pete. And remember when that tornado took the McAllisters' home and everything else that they had, and then my parents pulled them in to stay with us for a week, I was one royal, pain-in-the-ass jerk, okay? I was the one who hated all of them for living with us, and I hated him the most at the time, because, well... all because... all because... Hell, I don't even know anymore."

Pete lost his second ball then, so once again the two switched places. "It probably had a lot to do with me and the guys," he whispered

Noah nodded before he continued. "Maybe, yeah. But... I'll tell you something else, man. As much of an asshole as I was to them and to 'him'... Jesse was the one who didn't give up on me. I don't know why he did it, but it had nothing to do with being gay or anything, see? He... he's the one who kind of taught me how to stop feeling sorry for myself, not just with words but... in other ways, too. He's the one who made me see things around me a lot differently than I did before, and in that I saw how wrong I was. I was wrong about him, my parents, school... really, about a lot of things I took for granted. All the time I'm being a dick-head to him, and my parents and whoever else, and there was someone who..." Noah sighed. "Don't you see, Pete? He's the one who never gave up on me. That's what friends are all about, you know? They stick with you, through the best and worst of it all, and they don't leave you. Get it? Jesse is one of those who never left me. Even when you and the others did. How... how could I not, you know, find something in that and all? That's my best friend, my real friend, and... and..."

A silence fell between them momentarily as Noah worked the pinball back into the upper portion of the table again before he spoke again. "You want to know something else? Despite everything you or the guys tried to rag on me about, I didn't care if Jesse was gay or not. I mean, that's really why you started bitching on me, right? I didn't care though, because being friends with him had nothing to do about being gay, or sex or any of that other crap! What it did have to do with was having someone who listened to me without laughing, or throwing everything back in my face. He helped me reason through everything I was going through, and then some. Besides, the whole time he stayed with us, all I saw was a normal person, you know! Don't you see? He was teaching me how to be a human being again, and that hit pretty deep on the inside." When he lost the ball, he looked up straight into the older teen's eyes. "So, yeah, I guess I do talk about Jesse a lot sometimes, and I'm sorry if it seems like, I don't know, I put him up on some kind of a pedestal or whatever. I don't mean to really, but Pete... these last couple of months? Jesse's the one who has been in my life, helping me put it all back together again! That's why he and I are so close. That's why... I mean, it's why I care so much. Understand?"

Pete listened, but as he put the ball into play, he had little concentration to give it, and it quickly exited, thus finishing their game. His thoughts returned to what Martha had told him just a few hours before, about how there are angels among us, that help us get through the rough times. No matter where they come from, sometimes in people, our friends or others, they're there to help hold us up. To Pete, it sounded like that was what Jesse was doing, not just for Noah... but for a lot of people. When the older teen glanced up at Noah again though, he was surprised to find a smile waiting for him, which helped him calm himself considerably. "I'm glad for you, really. I- I couldn't see it then, I know. I can look back on it now though, and... I can tell something wasn't right with you. I mean, I could tell you were hurting. I just... I didn't know how, or why."

Noah nodded. "It's the same with you, man. I saw you and your friends as these big bullies and everything, and I was okay with that for a while. It was just having a little playful fun, mostly, and that... that didn't bother me too bad. Heck, it kept anyone from messing with me, too, right? But... after a while, it just started to feel so wrong, and... and after the McAllisters moved in with us, I started getting even more confused. I didn't understand you at all, at least not until the day you turned yourself in." Noah suddenly folded his arms. "No, I take that back. I didn't start to see there was another side of you until Jesse and I were in the hospital. That's when he started talking about what happened, and that maybe you weren't as big of an asshole as I thought you were. It was a hard thing to accept, you know? But... That's when I started putting things together that didn't have a bullseye painted on your ass so much anymore, with pants to the knees and then you mooning everybody in plain sight." The teen giggled. "Or at least, that's what I always thought you wanted to do to everyone."

Pete grunted, but then smiled. "Never considered that one," he replied, finally giggling at the thought.

Noah grinned as well, before pulling more coins from his pocket. Seeing that the adults were still deep into their conversation, he inserted the required fare and set up another matched play. Both boys played the round mostly in silence, but this time concentrating much more seriously than before in the open competition. As they neared finishing, Pete finally sighed out loud. "I know I was a jack-ass, Noah, but I'm ready to pay for it all now. You can tell Jesse, I'll even go hang myself from the ropes in the locker room, and let everyone strip me naked and beat the shit out of me, if he wants me to. Tell him... I mean it, just tell him I'll do anything, okay? I'll even go to jail if that's what I need to do. Honest, I don't care. I just... I really need to find a way to make things right with him. More than anything, okay? I don't care what it is... just... I need to make things right with him, and you too, for that matter. Okay?"

Noah grunted, shaking his head. "That is between you and him, but somehow I don't think he has any desire to see your french-fried fruit hanging on display, just so he or anyone else can beat your balls to the size of grapefruits."

For some reason, Pete found that so amusing he practically choked on his own laughter, enough so that it made Noah grin as he took over his own turn once again. When the older teen finally regained control, he suddenly hissed. "Shit, man! Where the hell did THAT one come from? French-fried fruit?" he hissed. "That's hilarious!"

Noah only shrugged, but grinned his agreement. "I don't know. Saw it online somewhere, I think. Probably has something to do with the banana and nuts us guys have hanging," was all he would admit. Only when the game had ended for them both, did he speak again. "Just so you know, he hasn't said one thing to me about it, nor have I heard anything from his parents. If he wants to make something right with you, you'll know about it soon enough, but until then... you have to give him some time, alright? He has to get better first, more than anything. And that means not just physically, but... on the inside, too. I have to have my friend back, Pete. He's like, I don't know... he's like the brother I've never had, okay? Understand?"

Pete nodded. "Yeah, believe it or not, I do."

"And as for me," Noah went on, pausing only slightly. "It may take some time for me to get used to the new you somewhat, but otherwise, we're good. Okay? I mean that, too."

Pete observed the teen briefly before smiling. "Th-thanks, man."

Before they walked away from the game, however, he raised his fist in an unthreatening manner, mid-air between them. Noah did the same, and they bumped, but Pete held the connection just a second longer than he needed to. Neither said anything else to the other, but then there was no need to. Another one of those unspoken sentiments was exchanged between them: Pete's being one filled with gratitude, and Noah's being one of forgiveness.

~STTTT~

"Man, you are a sight for sore eyes!"

Jesse made the remark once they were alone and Noah was pulled up to the side of the bed, sitting on a stool. His parents had stayed for quite a while that evening, before surrendering the night to his best friend - but only with warnings to call if anything happened. Reassuring them, and watching them take their leave, made Noah feel extremely grateful.

The hospital had transferred Jesse once again to a semi-private room, a perk of sorts since he was Makalah's son, and since there were plenty of empty rooms to spare. One of the nurses that came by earlier had admitted that the hospital was seeing a low turnout at the present, with the only real problems focused on several patients with flu-like symptoms. Those 'victims', as she teasingly referred to them, were being kept in a whole other wing, with the hopes of minimizing the spread to others, if any at all.

Before his parents left, however, near the ending of the current shift, Jesse was surprised by a visit from one of the other nurses. When she stepped into the room, she greeted him politely and then handed him a card. "Remember the little girl you gave your balloon to, on the day you checked out? Well, her mother heard about your mother working here and all, and she came by right after Christmas to leave this with us up at the station. We promised we'd give it to Makalah, or directly to you, as soon as we could arrange it. Then, when I heard you were here for tonight, I thought I'd bring it around." She smiled at him, and after he thanked her, she quietly disappeared while he opened the envelope. Inside there was a custom, hand-made card that was obviously the work of a youth. She thanked him though, and told him that balloon made her feel better for the rest of that day and even the next. She also promised him a hug, if she ever met up with him again.

"Aw, isn't that sweet!" Makalah had commented, especially after hearing about the details with which no one had filled her in. Jesse nodded, and then set the card up on the table next to him. It was now, in their solitude, he looked upon the card again and smiled.

As Noah sat on his stool with everyone else now gone, Jesse's remark made him smile. "You are, too."

Jesse shook his head. "I doubt as much, though. I mean, when I woke up and saw where I was again..." The teen sighed. "I'm sorry. I guess I really scared you and Dad, didn't I?"

Noah shrugged. "Um, maybe a little bit, yeah, but... I'm just glad I found you and all, and we got you here before it could turn out any worse."

Jesse sank back in his bed. "I guess, but... yeah. I didn't mean to, really... I've just, you know, been so out of it the last few days. I didn't think of it building up to something like this, though."

Noah looked around the room and reached for Jesse's hand, grasping it tightly. "But it did, and it did because you're not talking to me, and telling me everything going on with you. You want to know what I was thinking when the doctor told us you were going to be alright? For just a moment there, I was thinking how much I wanted to beat your ass... for not making me realize how 'off' you were feeling. And then," he paused, shifting himself more comfortably. "And then I wanted to beat my own ass for not realizing it any sooner. All the signs were there, you know?"

"But... I'm the one who kept telling you not to worry, that I was fine... and I really thought that, honest," Jesse whispered back. "I just... I don't know, I'm still figuring it all out, I guess."

"Well, you're not figuring it out by yourself anymore," Noah replied with a whisper. "Whatever you tell your parents, that's up to you. What you're telling me, though... I won't forgive you again if you hold out on me, okay?" He leaned in close. "Don't you get it? We're brothers now, and that means we're responsible for each other."

Jesse smiled. "Yeah, I get it. I promise, I'll be, uh, more forthcoming from now on if I need to be."

"Damned straight you will!" Noah replied with a grin, but then sighed. "You know, we've got to do something about keeping you at home. We can't 'play' like we want to when you're in here."

Jesse blushed. "I know. I'm trying though, I promise."

"Did they skin you again?" Noah asked, his voice turning consciously low.

Jesse blushed even deeper still, but nodded. "Almost. I've still got my boxers on, but there was one time the Doc, well... he went exploring, I guess."

Noah grunted. "I guess old guys don't get to see enough of us teenagers like they want." Seeing Jesse begin to crack up, he made a face. "You know what I mean! They probably just get older, grey-haired and wrinkled pricks to deal with mostly!"

Jesse laughed hard then, tears coming to his eyes unabashedly. "Shit, Noah!" he hissed, but had to settle down when one of his monitors began going off. Within seconds he found the lead and pushed it back in. "You might be right, though."

"Of course, I'm right!" Noah replied, before leaning in close. "Still... I think your banana is just the right size and smooth enough to be devoured, to me anyway. So, no worries in that department." Noah nuzzled Jesse's ear then, which made the teenager lean in nuzzle them closer together.

"You know, sometimes I think I'm the luckiest kid alive, having you beside me," Jesse whispered.

"And Benji?" Noah teased, backing away just slightly with an amused look.

Jesse began to object. "Don't start with him, come on man, it's different..."

"I know it is, Jess. I'm here with you though, okay?" Noah brushed their noses together for a few seconds, before pulling back and situating himself even closer then. "Now, I've got some news for you, and believe me, you're going to freak out! I think..."

~STTTT~

"Pete, why don't you join us in the living room here for a bit here," Jim Hunt announced, once they had returned home and entered the house again. "I think Martha and I want to talk something over with you."

Pete glanced at the two with a sudden feeling of apprehension, but he nodded his agreement and followed them. The room was already lit with the twinkling, multi-colored lights on the Christmas tree, as well as an brightly illuminated garland that stretched across the fireplace mantle. Martha turned on one of the table lamps, however, before she indicated a spot at the end of the couch. As the teen sat down, she joined him as Jim crossed and took his usual place in the recliner. They sat in silence for a moment before the Sheriff cleared his throat. "So, I guess we have a question for you, and I'd really appreciate it if you'd take a few seconds to think about it before you answer, alright?" When the teenager nodded, the man's gaze fell upon him directly. "Tell us, how did it feel, being here with the family and all these last few days?"

Pete suddenly arched his eyebrows in surprise. In a sense, he thought this topic might come up at some point before he had to leave and be placed into foster care, but he was a little surprised it had not come up sooner. "I- I thought, honest, it was one of the best times I've ever had. Especially while spending time with your grandson, Justin. He was really cool to hang out with, I think. He made me... I don't know, think about some things, I guess." He paused, before lowering his voice. "I'm hoping that we can stay friends after everything else gets settled, too. I'd hate to, like, lose him and all."

"Well, friendships are kind of hard to break in this family," Martha replied. "Especially when they're sincere."

Jim cleared his throat. "I agree, and I think Justin could use having you around some, too. So, Martha and I got to talking last night, and we wondered how you might feel making this a more, ah, permanent situation."

Pete sensed there was something here he was missing. "How so? I mean, I can always call, maybe visit sometimes, but..."

"What he means is, how would you feel just staying here with us for a while?" Martha blurted out. Seeing the surprise register on Pete's face, she suddenly chuckled. "Oh, come on now, you can't be that surprised about it."

Jim laughed as well. "I don't know, dear... this one seems to be a little slow on the uptake at times," he teased before holding a hand up. "Just listen to me for a minute, okay? I know... it's a surprise, but it isn't something we haven't been considering. Since you showed up here and started being a part of the family, well... it's kind of hard for the two of us to shake the feeling we'd be letting you go into a heartless system, one where it's anybody's game on where you'll turn up at, see? For several reasons, actually. First of all, you're 15 and, if I recall correctly, it won't be too long before you turn 16. That already makes getting into the fostering process kind of late in the game, and that in turn most likely means you'll end up in one of those boys' homes, somewhere up in the state. Some of them are decent, but I have to tell you some of them aren't the best, if you know what I mean. Granted, you'd only be there for around two years, but that's two years of your life that will still be subject to a number of unknowns, overall. Second of all, from my perspective, I don't really want you getting that far away from here, especially when there are things we're going to have to deal with regarding your old homestead, your father and the others."

Pete looked on, dumbfounded, which caused Jim to pause. That in turn allowed Martha to pick up the conversation. "It's not all about the job, though. The thing is, you have little to nothing to go back to, and you really need to go forward. I openly admit, I never considered this at first. We've raised two daughters in this house, and all the experience I've had is doing just that - raising two girls. I've never raised a boy, you see, and didn't even consider I would. I would actually be against it, I think - except for one thing. From the first moment you and I sat down on this couch that first day, I could see something I didn't expect. Would you like to know what I saw?"

Pete stared at the woman and, when he realized she was waiting for an answer, he nodded. "I saw," Martha continued, "a remarkable young man who just needed to get his head on straight."

"Which, as far as I've seen, you've been doing a pretty good job with," Jim picked up again. "Now, you have to understand a few things. Most people, most teenagers at best, don't give a shit about situations like this by the time they reach your age. By then, it's to hell with the system, see, and they just can't wait to get out and away from it all. As soon as that 18th birthday hits, they're gone like a fart in the wind." The man saw his wife grimace, for which he gave her an apologetic look before sitting forward in his chair. "You'll probably do the same thing, at some point - but what would mean the most to Martha and myself, is if when you leave, it's not with that kind of attitude. You see, son, we care, and I think that's been abundantly clear up to now, hasn't it? We think a lot of you, and because we know where you've come from and all, we think you'd be a lot happier if you would stick around here. The people here know you, and from the looks of things, you're getting to acquire a few friends who would be very happy if you stayed around. I know that as far as the two of us, we'd be happier if you'd stuck around, too. Justin would probably be thrilled, and that's putting it mildly."

Martha chuckled beside him. "Oh, that wouldn't even begin to describe it!"

Pete glanced at her, but then turned his gaze back to Jim. "I... well, that's all good, but... you said it yourself, sir. There... there's still some things that have to be sorted out, things I have to answer to, and... and..."

"One of the reasons we went to see Harland today was to get one of the biggest items off your plate," Jim replied kindly. "Believe me, when Ronald gets done sifting through those videos and pulling together all the facts, I'm pretty sure he'll go before the judge and probably get it all dismissed." The man paused, however, as he regarded the boy again. "Then the only other thing that remains, I think, that could outright snag you up - is the assault up there at the school. Not the best of circumstances, I'll admit, but there's something you should know about that."

"He's right," Martha interjected again. "While you boys were playing that game tonight, Jim asked Mr. McAllister if he had had any thoughts regarding what they intended to do about it. Meaning, of course, was he going to push for charges against you, or anything else. He surprised us by saying that, according to him, neither he nor his wife had thought anything about it yet. It was his opinion that it should be whatever his son wanted to do, since he was the one on the receiving end of all that happened up there. Jesse, I believe was his name, right?"

Jim nodded. "You see, that's a big thing, Pete. If Jesse's parents get involved and press charges, you'll have no choice but to go before a judge, with a lawyer and all. Although I admit that you may have some mitigating circumstances, in the eyes of the law you will be guilty of being an accessory to an assault. Even though it was on school grounds, which tend to handle things separately, this is one of those cases they cannot interfere in. But, if they don't press charges, then it all changes and does become a school matter, you see. Right now, Harland Green is also willing to let Jesse make that decision. It's as if you have to get through two gates at the same time, one of which could force me to process you through the system, or another that could still decide to expel you for the rest of the school year. Understand? Does that make sense?"

Pete felt as if his head were spinning. "I- I think so, yeah. But... if he doesn't, what, press charges or something? Him or his parents?" he whispered.

"Like I said, if he does, then you'll have to deal with him and possibly the school system, and whatever aftermath comes from it will be your atonement. If he doesn't, then... remarkably so, then you'll have nothing more to worry about," Jim stated simply.

"But... what about social services, and... and..." Pete objected, still trying to process the information.

"Social services will leave you alone, if we apply to foster you for the next two years," Martha replied. "Seriously, that is not the problem. We know of others who have done it in such circumstances, so there is nothing extraordinary in getting it done."

"Many families have had to submit in the past, because they've found it difficult to afford the feed and care of grandchildren, or similar. So, like Martha said, the two of us getting to take over your care shouldn't be a problem - especially, again, if I get Ronald involved with it." Jim paused before lowering his voice again. "The thing at this point though, is you Pete. How do you feel about it? You understand, we're up in years, and we don't have a lot of stamina to deal with a wild, girl-crazy youngster and all. So far though, I don't think we'll have any issue with that. What you might need to consider though, son, is how you're going to have to adjust."

"Adjust?" Pete said quietly, almost a whisper.

"You're already a teenager, Pete, but you'll be one suddenly living out here with the Sheriff of Adair County! We don't know what that's going to mean to your peers at school, or out here in the real world, or if that even matters to you. The only thing we DO know is that it'll be an abrupt change of lifestyle from what you've been used to. Because of that, yes -there will be adjustments, no doubt," Martha explained. "Just like Jim and I are going to have to adjust to you being around here, there will be some trial and error for you, too. We can't promise it will always be smooth, but then neither can you. What we can say though, is that for the next two or more years, it will be interesting for all of us around here. We'll help you, though. I mean, seriously, that's what all of this is about in the end. We'll see to it you have a safe place to stay, where you'll be appreciated and, yes, even loved. We're both fully aware we'll never replace your parents, oh no! Neither of us will ever assume that, nor do we ever want to, for that matter! But... what we will do is be your friends, and your mentors, and we'll help you get yourself back on track. Don't think that means we'll smother you, either - because like most things in life, you have to be able to discover the adventure on your own. But... we promise we'll be that someone you can come home to, from school or work, and you'll know we're here to look out for your best interest when the need arises. We'll help you learn how to drive, and get a job and more when the time comes, see? We'll help you have some fun too, and teach you when you need to be serious about life. In all these things, we're willing to give it our best, just so you can give it your best shot."

"The money will be yours, too," Jim spoke up. "We'll take what the state gives us and put it aside, other than we might dip into it a little bit so you can build up a better wardrobe for yourself. Certainly, more than what you can fit into a backpack! Otherwise though, we'll drop the bulk of it into a savings account or something for you for a little while. Then, when you do get a license and can drive, and you're ready to do so, we'll see about finding you a vehicle that you can buy on your own. It'll be yours, because like I said, you'll buy it with your own money. You have my word: we won't touch a dime of it otherwise, unless something just comes up that causes us to really have to."

Pete sat back. "I wouldn't care if you took it all," he whispered, but then shook his head before laughing. "You... I can't, I mean... To think you would be willing to take a has been, someone like me, and... and..."

Martha sat up and gave the teen an indignant look. "'Has-been?' I won't have any more of that, I tell you!" she said rather sternly, then broke into her own smile. "Yes, we would be willing to take you in. It's only for a few short years anyway. That is, for me and Jim. It's not like some long, deep commitment - not monetarily, that is. But... it will be another kind of commitment, and one I personally hope you'll recognize and learn to appreciate, on the inside. You're not a has-been; you never were before, and you're certainly not one now."

Pete nodded, recognizing her point already. "I would be... I would... I would be a part of your family then, right? For a little while?"

Jim smiled. "No, not for a little while. That is something that might surprise you, I think. You see, you will become a part of our family, though it will be for as long as we are both living, I suspect, and then beyond."

Pete suddenly blinked several times, comprehending his meaning before breaking out in tears, unable to hold back any longer. "You'd do that... for me?"

Martha decidedly scooted over a little closer and then took the teen within her arms, just as he began to lose it completely. "Yes, we'd do that... just for you," she said reassuringly. She glanced at her husband, thinking about the last few days and what she had observed. "Like we said, we know it won't be anything perfect, but... we know you'll be safe, and you know you'll be well cared for. That would be worth it to anyone who cared, I think - and yes, Pete, we do care." She continued to hold him for some minutes until the teenager seemed to recompose himself. She eventually pulled back and, holding him at arms' length, the woman observed him with a gleam in her eyes. "So, does this mean 'yes'?"

Pete sat in silence for only a few seconds before smiling. "There is nothing I think could make me happier, really." He reached out and embraced her again briefly, before retreating and standing up. Moving over to Jim, he observed the man before extending his hand. "Thank you, for everything. I really mean it."

Jim grunted, however, before standing and embracing the teen as well. "See? Some of us old farts will give out hugs too, every once in a while," he whispered. "Just remember: sometimes, there are a few good things in life that turn out even better. I happen to believe this is one of them, don't you?"

Pete nodded into the man's shoulder before stepping back. "What... I mean, what happens if a-any of this d-doesn't go like y-you think it will?" Pete asked, still feeling very emotional.

"Well, then we'll deal with it when we cross that bridge, won't we? You won't have to face it alone, I assure you," Jim simply stated. "But... as I've told you before, I'm a pretty good judge of character, I think, and I've been in this job long enough to know how the ball bounces most of the time." He smiled. "I'm pretty sure it's all going to work out just fine. Remember what I've said about my family? Remember what I told you on Christmas Eve?"

Pete nodded. "Oh, yeah," he whispered.

Martha then stood and approached them both. "Okay... we do have one favor to ask: be selective who you tell this to, alright? It's going to take Jim a few days to get all the paperwork ironed out with the right people, so let's not get too far in letting the cat out of the bag until we have to." When Pete nodded his understanding, she then smiled and pulled out her cell phone before handing it over to him. "However, I do think you should give Justin a call tonight, and fill him in on the details. Then maybe tomorrow or Thursday, you and I can both take a ride up there and visit for the day. Somehow, I bet you'd both like that anyway."

Pete smiled, thinking about something that Noah had told him. What it did have to do with though, was him teaching me how to be a human being again. Pete thought about that a lot, and he realized he was really missing out on something important - until now. "I know I would," he replied to the woman.

He understood it now... in his heart.




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