There was something notable about the exchange which took place between Noah and Jesse that evening. Noah had learned more than just what one view of hugging was all about. Of course, he had always had his own simplistic view of such an act, one intensified not only by certain acquaintances of his, who frowned on even the thought of it, but also by society in general, which regarded hugs of any type between males with a wary eye. In his eyes though, Jesse had taught him something else, too, about forgiveness. Maybe Noah had looked for some other kind of overly dramatic redemption to happen, before he could accept forgiving himself. He was uncertain, but as they held each other, he was drawn to the intimacy and the feeling of safety and security it provided. That was when the teen finally began to understand what Jesse was telling him. After what felt like a lifetime, but was in fact only a minute or so, he pushed Jesse back, but only far enough so that he could sit up. He blushed as he wiped at his eyes. "Sorry, I don't mean to be so... whatever it is. So... cry-baby-ish, I guess."
Jesse laughed, twisting and turning until he could sit beside his friend, still just as close as before, and still without any hesitation. He maintained what he hoped his friend would understand was something between the two of them, and the two of them alone. "You're worried about THAT?" he exclaimed softly, causing Noah to face him.
"What? Am I missing something here?" he asked, uncertain.
"Oh, only that I was here doing it, too, in case you didn't notice," Jesse replied lightheartedly, before turning serious. "No, you're not missing anything. It's just, you seem to worry about that stuff more than you need to, I think. At least around me. I told you, I don't care, Noah, really. I mean, I get depressed sometimes, too, and there's all kinds of things that go through my head when I do."
"I doubt that," Noah scoffed, amusedly. "You seem to have your shit together a whole lot better than I do, Jess. Me, I'm just... I don't know..."
"A bundle of nerves, yeah. Right?" When Noah nodded, Jess giggled. "Well, then you can be my bundle of nerves, and I'll be yours." Seeing the look of curiosity that met him, he explained. "Noah, just... be yourself, okay? I don't know what's going on with you, honest, but... in there..." Jesse paused and pointedly reached out to touch Noah's heart. "In there, that's all I care about. As long as you'll be honest with me, about how you're feeling, or thinking, then what else can I ask for, right? I'll do the same for you, too. Then, when we do get upset, we'll always know we have each other to fall back on, see? Deal?"
Noah smiled and nodded. "That I can do, yeah," he replied softly. He searched the eyes watching him before relaxing. "So, what are we supposed to, like, do now?"
"How should I know?!" Jesse replied, raising both hands in a comical display of surrender while laughing. He leaned in and bumped shoulders with his friend, however, before pulling further back. "I don't know about you, but I need to pee first, and then I'm thinking about coming back and whipping your butt on that NASCAR simulator you've got!"
"You and who else?" Noah replied in relief to the challenge, laughing quietly. Jesse only grinned before turning and bouncing off the bed. A moment later Noah heard a familiar sound of water colliding with the toilet, causing him to glance up and see that his friend hadn't closed the door. It made him smile as he thought about the trust thing once again. Why he felt so strongly about it, he didn't know, but regardless, Noah knew the trust was building between them now, something he could feel deep inside. He was glad about it, actually happy, a feeling he had had a lot more of in the last few days.
Noah rolled from the bed finally and began to arrange his bean bags once again, sitting down in one just as Jesse returned. "Hey, uh, I should probably ask one thing before we get started," Jesse announced, causing Noah to pause and look up. "Like, you can loan me a t-shirt or something to sleep in tonight, right?"
"Sure," Noah replied, relaxing. "Um, I don't know about pajama bottoms, though. I think you took those with you when you guys packed up, and I, well..."
Once again, Jesse giggled as he walked over and took his place in the bag beside him. "I don't need them," he replied, then seeing his friend's look of surprise and curiosity, he added in a lower voice. "What? You don't wear any, and I don't either. At least, not normally, not till we came here that night."
"Really?" Noah mused, surprised. "But..."
"Remember, you said your Mom found those for me. And I, well... No, stop," Jesse commanded as Noah suddenly began to blush again. "You have to stop being so friggin embarrassed, okay? It had nothing to do with you!" The teen then giggled again. "Remember? None of us had much in the way of clothes that night. I think your Mom was just looking out for me and Benji the best way you guys could, that's all." He paused, softening his tone. "Listen, I think it's kind of like you've already said. We didn't know each other that much, and I remember thinking anyway, I don't know... if I wore them then maybe it would make you feel more comfortable and all. I mean, since I was sharing your bed, and... you know."
Noah relented, staring back thoughtfully at his friend. "You were right, I guess. I... it probably did make me feel somewhat better," he admitted. "Sorry about that."
"For what? We both slept alright, we both made it okay, right? That's why I keep telling you, Noah - stop being so sorry all the time!" Jesse whispered, offering a fist-bump between them, which Noah met. "Like I said, bro... I trust you. No worries, okay?"
Noah nodded. "Thanks for that," he whispered, making Jesse smiled. The two teens then turned on the game system and started playing.
The dawn was just breaking over the valley the next morning when Jesse awoke. He was lying on his side with the quilts pulled in tightly, and it was several minutes before the cobwebs began to clear. The scene around him was different, including the covers that were pulled up so close, but it did not take very long for him to realize where he was. As he looked about, he also discovered that for some reason, he was no longer favoring the edge of the bed as he had been. In fact, though not exactly in the center, he was stretched out relevant to his side, but more toward the center of the bed than anything else. To top it all, lying relatively close to him was yet another certain boy - someone who was considerably larger than he was used to sharing a bed with when it came to his little brother.
It was such a stark contrast to all the other nights he had spent in this room. Although nothing was ever said, no complaint ever made, Jesse had always made it a point, even subconsciously it seemed, to hug the edge of the mattress and keep the farthest away from the other teen he could, giving Noah the benefit of having as much space as he might. In the beginning, those were the nights his host had silently broadcast his feelings directly, as if saying 'stay away from me'. Jesse had taken the hint and complied as much as he was able. When each morning arrived, the teen had awakened to find Noah already gone, thus leaving him alone - which added a subtle emphasis regarding the perceived and unspoken 'stay away' attitude.
Although that change was subtle, on this morning it left Jesse feeling different. The teenager thought back to the night before, how both had played for hours and then eventually stripped, pulling t-shirts on in front of each other, and climbing into the bed together. It was a first, no different than that of changing in the locker rooms he guessed, but the fact this new friend initiated it seemed to send Jesse another subtle message. What followed, however, was even more profound, as by habit Jesse started to subconsciously take up his usual place, but then felt Noah reach out and grab him. "Get over here, doofus!" the boy had whispered, pulling first his friend and then the accompanying pillow inward, toward the center of the bed. They ended up sharing a much closer space to each other for a long time, continuing to talk about different things, lying on their backs at times, or rolling in such a way as to face the other. They rarely touched, but when they did, neither shirked away from the contact. Noah had even pushed his foot over and played with Jesse's at one point, another subtle gesture to be sure, but not unwelcomed - especially when Jesse reciprocated.
Neither teen spoke to the other regarding those moments or the closeness they now shared, as if what they were doing was hushed by some unspoken rule. As it was though, each had a kind of understanding they accepted, now given their new-found trust. At least, that was the way Noah felt about it. Jesse had already been comfortable with such ideas long before that night, having held his brother following the aftermath of many nightmares, rough thunderstorms, or for other similar reasons. Noah was only beginning to warm to the idea, however, and he was awed by the simple feeling of peace it gave him to share that personal space, as much as it was, with a friend. As the night wore on, both quietly slipped off into restful sleep, their heads even sharing a pillow initially with no fear.
They remained that way for much of the night, because even now as Jesse's world came into focus that morning, he could sense his friend was backed up against his side. The result was as if they were enclosed in a makeshift cocoon, where both enjoyed a level of shared warmth they brought together. Jesse did not regret it in the slightest as his thoughts turned to his little brother once again, and how the two were known to cuddle at times like this. It was something from the beginning that had always melted Jesse's heart, especially when Benji would snuggle in close. That was the love and trust they had as brothers that bound them together, and as Jesse thought about it, he started to realize it was not so different than what he was feeling now. Maybe it didn't have the same physical attributes, but compared to how he and Noah had slept before the iciness of their friendship was broken? This was as different as daylight was to the dark of night.
Jesse also reflected on how their relationship was evolving so quickly. Although he did not fear it, he felt he understood why, even though they still seemed to exercise a certain amount of caution around the other. That didn't matter so much though, as Jesse felt he was treating the teen the same way he would any other person in his place. Even with their rough start together, and their obvious differences, they still had things in common. Jesse was just more complacent and passive in nature, which made him more open to people, unlike his new friend. After all, Noah said it himself, he was the one who had initially been an asshole, something Jesse didn't necessarily disagree with. He had observed the outright disobedience and cold indifference the teenager engaged in with everyone around him, as if he were shrouded within a wall of hatred in some way, that blocked out the rest of the world. It was bad enough his parents worried about him constantly, and even Jesse's own parents showed concern. Something was off, drastically.
The thing was though, every time Jesse had observed the boy since only weeks before, he always felt there was something else in the teen's expression - something besides the superficial jack-ass attitude. It always looked as if there was something painful, or at least masked in some way as to hide a deeper feeling. It became more evident the night Noah had offered his flag of truce, too. It was there, in that bedroom, that the teen first admitted he was dealing with some things, but couldn't name them. Whatever those things happened to be, were obviously still a mystery, and Jesse knew enough not to push into something that really wasn't his business. Little to nothing had been said about them again, since until last night. Regardless, whatever they were, they were buried deeply, and they had to be painful in some way - because they pushed Noah into a darker corner at times. That was when Jesse realized, perhaps, Noah's anger hadn't necessarily been pointed at himself or his family after all.
That was the point when Jesse started to forgive.
Before long, Jesse's began to become uncomfortable, as another part of his body began to demand more attention. His bladder ached, as if asking 'Are you going to empty me or not?', and he had to admit the longer he put it off, the more uncomfortable it became. He didn't want to get up, though, for fear of breaking this shared moment with his new friend. He knew he had to though, so with an eventual sigh, he quietly pushed the covers back and rolled over until he could sit on the side of the bed. That's when he noticed how cool it was in the room. Not exactly what you would call outright cold, but being in the basement of a house imposed a certain inevitability concerning warmth - especially when it came to overhead ductwork. Then, as he set his feet on the carpet, the teen found the low temperature to be even more profound. With a renewed quickness, he rose and made his way into the bathroom with its even colder tiled floor. At least there were rugs, including one immediately in front of the toilet which gave him some semblance of shielding from the now ice-like flooring. By the time he had finished and returned to the bed, however, he was near shivering as he climbed back in. He tried to find and return to his previous position, and once there began absorbing the warmth that had thankfully not yet escaped. He did wrap up tightly, however, curling up sufficiently so he could take advantage as best he could.
Evidently, between Jesse's actions of rising, returning, and drawing the covers closer, Noah was wakened. The teen was still sleepy, however, and whether intentional or not, he scooted further back in the bed until their backs were now very much in physical contact with one another. They both lay silent then, Jesse in surprise but not objecting in the slightest. After a brief spell, however, Noah finally yawned. "Wh-what time is it?" he asked groggily.
"Um," Jesse started, turning and raising his head just enough to glance at the clock. "A little after seven, I think."
Noah grunted and continued to lie still a moment longer, before he sighed and rolled to his side of the bed and got up. After taking his own turn in the bathroom, he returned moving quickly across the floor, which Jesse found amusing for some reason. Before climbing back into the bed, however, the teen opened his closet door and retrieved a heavy blanket, which he then spread across the bed before sliding back under the covers. As he settled, he scooted close to his friend again, huddling up but facing away. "Come on, payback... it's c-cold this morning!" he whispered.
Jesse smiled and almost giggled. There was no question to what his friend was referring to, and in response he did not hesitate to finish closing the distance, lying flat on his back and tucking himself in against the other boy. He pulled the added cover tightly around them both, and then closed his eyes. It was another sharing of sorts, but neither seemed to mind. Not surprisingly, they both fell asleep again.
It was after 10:30 that morning when there came a knocking sound from their bedroom door. "Are you two going to sleep your whole day away?" Jennifer asked in an amused tone. She knew the boys had not gone to bed until the early hours of the morning, and as such she wasn't really inclined to disturb them. She knew it would not do them any good, however, to make it a habit of sleeping in too late. "I have you a bite of breakfast upstairs, if you want."
"Okay, Mom," came the weak reply of her son behind the door. She smiled and then quietly retreated.
Inside the room, Noah rolled backwards until he ended up partially on top of Jesse, causing the other teenager to grunt. Neither spoke for a moment, until Noah finally turned and rolled in place, until he was able to watch the other teen closely. "So, I guess we've gotta get up sometime..."
"Yeah, I know," came the whispered reply, before Jesse stifled a huge yawn. "I don't think I've slept this late in a long time though," he added. "It really feels kind of nice."
Noah grunted, but then drew closer. "It's probably because we stayed up so late, you think?"
"Maybe, but I think there's something else that's making it nice, too." Jesse giggled, but then nodded. "I know it was after two before we fell asleep."
"Is that all?" Noah replied before shaking his head. "I've been up later than that before. Sometimes, I don't know, I think it's like three or four in the morning before I fall asleep."
Jesse finally opened one eye. "With friends?"
"No," the other teen replied. "In fact, you're the only one who has ever stayed with me overnight. Like this, anyway."
That caused Jesse to open both eyes and slowly sit up in surprise. "Really? No one, at all? No cousins, or... Pete, or..."
"Despite what it may have looked like, Jesse, Pete was never a close friend, and is not a friend at all right now," Noah replied, clearly annoyed, but then he sat up too. "Nor the rest of that gang. I told you, I really don't have any friends. Not any close ones, anyway."
Jesse looked on with wonder. "Must be kind of lonesome for you, then."
Noah shrugged. "I don't know, maybe. I mean, I've got some cousins, but they're all, like, four or five years younger than me, and they never, ever spend the night. Even the ones that come up from Nashville, they like, never stay over."
"So, you're the oldest in the brood?" Jesse inquired. "Both sides of your family? I mean, your Mom and your Dad?"
"Yeah, kind of. I'm the first-born on either side," was the reply that met him, before Noah broke into his own yawn. When he finished, he turned to face his friend and change the subject. "So, what's on the agenda today? Anything?"
"I'm afraid I told Dad I would rake leaves today. I'm going to wait until Benji comes home first, though. I don't want to have ALL the fun doing it," Jesse added, somewhat sarcastically. "Then tonight, we're supposed to go to that benefit concert and all."
Noah nodded. "Oh yeah, that is tonight, isn't it? I hope you guys get some decent stuff there," he commented, then became thoughtful. "Dad hasn't asked me to rake any leaves here yet, but if you guys are gonna rake leaves, I guess I might as well do ours, too."
Jesse's eyebrows rose. "Really? Well, I guess we could all do it together then, I mean all three of us. Benji isn't that great with the raking part, but he does help a lot by holding the bag open and all when I'm filling it. Who knows, we might get done faster that way, for both of us."
Noah smiled, nodding. "That's not a half-bad idea. I say we give it a try then."
Jesse walked into their room wrapped with a towel around his waist, closing the door behind him. Benji raised up from his elevated position to peer over the side of his bed, before he grinned and whistled as Jesse dropped the covering. Jesse gave him a wary look, but then calmly crossed to their dresser and pulled out a new pair of briefs. "Are you ready to go yet?" he asked casually as he donned them.
"Yeah, except for my shoes," came the reply, before two smaller legs pivoted and swung around at the ladder's opening. Once there, Benji rotated up, but rather than watch his brother, he instead pulled an open comic book into his lap before continuing to read where he had left off.
After withdrawing a pair of clean jeans from nearby, Jesse stepped over and peered at the publication. "Amazing Spiderman?" he asked, flexing the garment until he inserted first one and then the other foot, pulling them up.
"Yep! Petey let me borrow it and some others to read," Benji replied, turning and pointing at other similar comics nearby. "Uh... there's two Spiderman, one Hulk, one Avengers and... oh yeah, two Fantastic Fours!"
"Sounds like a pretty good stash then, I think," Jesse commented. "Can I look at them later?" he asked while buttoning and zipping up.
"Of course!" Benji replied. As Jesse walked over to their closet, he searched and withdrew a button-up and pulled it on. The younger brother glanced up again. "Um, sorry about this morning, bro."
Jesse grinned, but then shrugged. "It's okay, we'll do it, just like I promised, as soon as we can find some quiet time together," he remarked softly.
"I hope so," Benji replied, equally as quiet before he set the comic aside and jumped down. "I'm not going to let you off the hook, you know that... right?"
Jesse finished buttoning his shirt and tucking it into his pants, before he approached his little brother and grabbed him, picking him up off the floor into a big hug. "Yeah, I know little bro." He looked into the eyes that met his own, filled with both amusement and expectancy. "You want to know the truth about something?" Seeing the nod, he whispered, "I think I'm kind of looking forward to it."
"Really? No way!" Benji exclaimed, his own whisper laced with surprise. When Jesse's grin met him, the kid suddenly engulfed the bigger boy in a huge hug. "I still love ya, bozo!"
"Same here, buddy," Jesse replied, before letting the boy back down to the floor. "Come on, let's get our shoes on. Mom and Dad are going to be ready to leave in a few minutes. We're supposed to get up there by 5:00, I think."
Earlier that afternoon, he and Noah had begun raking leaves as requested, and upon Benji's arrival after spending the night with his own buddy, the three made haste to get as much bagged as possible. It was the first time in the season the lawns had gotten such attention, and being mid-way or better through the autumn period, leaves had already been bunching heavily in places. The boys spent the next three hours or more working in both yards, bagging leaves and removing loose branches that had fallen due to recent higher-than-normal winds. It wasn't a constant effort, as they took several breaks overall, but they did not slack in effort when performing the actual work. Even Benji, who at one point decided to jump into one large pile for the fun of it, immediately picked up a rake and brought the collection back together.
When the trio had finished what they could, Benji had been sent off to the house to get his shower, while the two older teens collected and carried the numerous bags, from both yards, to the end of the driveway. "There, the county will pick these up early next week, I think," Noah had remarked. He counted their results before raising an eyebrow. "Wow! We've got 33 bags here, I think!"
Jesse was equally impressed. "I knew we were moving on, but I didn't think there was that many!" As he dragged the last of their bags into place, he suddenly turned and flopped down on the group. "Ah, not a bad spot!"
Noah grinned and, only after a slight hesitation, joined next to him. They could both smell the earthy-scent coming from the bags as they re-formed to support the teen's weight. "I agree, not bad I guess." He glanced around. "Uh, thanks, though... I mean, for helping me out, too."
"You helped us out a lot too, by just filling and pressing this stuff down inside the bag," Jesse responded. "So, I'd say we're about even."
"Uh, I'm not sure about even, with two of you to one of me, but oh well..." Noah grunted, then ended up giggling when he saw his friend roll his eyes. "Well, if not two-to-one, then we'll count Benji as a half, how's that? You know, one-and-a-half to one... get it?"
Jesse laughed. "Yeah, I get it. Well, if you insist, you can pay Ben back by letting him play some more of your video games," Jesse teased, this time causing Noah to roll his eyes.
"Hmph," he uttered, before adding. "And what about you? What do I need to owe you?"
"Nothing," Jesse answered mysteriously. "Payment already made, in full."
The reply caused Noah to rise up on his elbows. "How so?"
"Because of last night, and this morning," Jesse whispered. "For not kicking me out of the bed or anything when I was hugging you."
Noah blushed. "And here you are getting after me about not being a cry-baby," he admonished his friend, before Jesse broke out into giggles.
"I guess we're just getting soft," was the whispered reply. "But, honestly man, thanks. That kind of meant a lot to me."
Noah nodded. "It did to me, too." He wrinkled his nose before adding, "As to this morning, I don't blame you... it was cold in my room! I don't think Mom or Dad turned on any heat last night to amount to anything." He then shrugged. "I like my room cooler though. I always sleep better that way, when I can get under a lot of cover and all."
"Makes sense to me," Jesse replied. "I like it that way too, sometimes, but because of Benji, Mom and Dad like us to keep things warmer in our room." The two fell silent then for several minutes, until Jesse finally sat up and sighed. "I guess he should be about done by now, and I need to go get a shower before we go to the benefit tonight. You guys are going too, right?"
"Yeah. Mom warned me not to overdo it today, since I've still got some of this sinus stuff in my head. She said we were going to go though, so yeah, I probably should go take a shower myself," Noah replied. He accepted a hand up from Jesse after the other teen climbed to his feet. "So, I guess we'll see each other in a little while."
"We'd better," Jesse grinned. The two then bumped fists and parted ways.
As Jesse finished tying his shoes, he smiled while recalling their afternoon together, and both the playful banter and fun they all had made out of their chores together. He found himself actually wanting to be around his friend, now more than ever for some reason. The longer they hung out, they both were discovering they shared so many more common interests than either had realized. Perhaps more than anything though, there was something else: in no small way did Jesse discount the fact that, through their friendship, Noah had become a different person - and it showed.
Jesse was about to stand when he noticed that his little brother, with one shoe on and already tied, was having trouble with the other one. "Need some help?" he asked, and then without waiting for a reply, he took the shoe and loosened the laces more, before grabbing the associated foot and working it back on.
"Thanks," Benji whispered before proceeding to tie the laces on his own. There was an unspoken agreement between them: Benji knew quite well how to tie laces without issue, and Jesse never intervened at that level. Sure, there were times shoes could be a little distracting for the younger brother, when knots in the laces or other issues developed. Jesse only ever offered doing what was needed, however, and only when it was needed when it came to helping out. The rest of the time let the younger boy maintain a certain amount of pride in the fact he was growing up - and not at all too soon.
A moment later, both boys walked out of the bedroom and down the hall, just as their mother appeared. "Oh, good! You two are ready!" she gasped, looking slightly flustered. Both boys knew she had arrived home from work only minutes before, and her state of rushing to change clothes and ready herself was readily apparent. "There, grab us some coats, will you?" Both boys complied.
"Where's Dad?" Benji asked, looking around but not finding their father anywhere in view.
"He's already left. Something about needing to go by the store and grab a box that got left behind this morning," their mother replied as they each donned their outerwear. She suddenly stopped and ran her fingers through her hair. "Do I look okay?" she asked Jesse, to which he smiled and nodded.
"You look fine, Mom," he replied, causing her to take a deep breath and let it go before grabbing her purse. Without another word, the trio exited the house, pulling the door up behind them, before crossing the short space to where their van was waiting and getting in. Once there, they chatted about her day, including how hectic the emergency room had been all afternoon, admitting people because of accidents or illness. Other topics were also brought up, including their round of chores they had completed.
"You three sure made good work getting the leaves up," Makalah remarked. "That is, I assume Noah helped you?"
"Yeah, he did. Benji held the bags while we filled them up and all," Jesse remarked. "We did ours, and then most of their yard, too. We had over 30 bags before we stopped."
"Wow, that's a pretty good count!" their mother exclaimed, before glancing back in the mirror to her son. Benji had chosen to ride up front for the trip. "So, is it safe to say you guys are getting along a lot better now?"
Jesse blushed. "Yeah, Mom, a whole lot better."
"He's not being such an asshole anymore," Benji added, then suddenly froze as he realized what he had said. "Uh, sorry Mom."
Makalah gave him the look, but then laughed it off. "Alright, I'll forgive it this once, but just be careful young man!" The youth blushed as he suddenly nodded. Glancing again as Jesse, she added, "I'm happy for you, really, and I'm happy for him, too."
Jesse nodded. "Me, too. He's... I don't know, Mom... He's not at all the kind of person I made him out to be at first, you know?"
"Yeah, I think he's a lot nicer now than before," Benji chimed in.
"Well, sometimes you have to get to know someone before you judge them," Makalah mused. "Of course, the Good Book says we're not supposed to judge anyone, but still..." Nothing more on the matter was said, as each became lost in their own thoughts afterwards. When they arrived at the school, they were surprised to find a large number of vehicles already there, and even with volunteers assisting the incoming flow of traffic, it still took the trio a few minutes before they found a parking spot. "Wow!" Benji announced, impressed as he peered out the van's windows.
"Yes, my sentiments exactly," Makalah responded, as she and her sons got out. The evening sun was beginning its descent toward the west, and clouds had already begun thickening in the distance. A moderate breeze had also picked up, making the evening feel cooler than it had the last few days. The woman placed her arms around both boys' shoulders briefly. "Listen, I know I don't have to tell you two to behave, but um... I have no idea what to expect in there, so..."
"Behave anyway, right?" Benji piped up. Seeing his mother's smile, he nodded. "Don't worry Mom, I won't get Jesse in trouble, and he won't get me in trouble... right bro?" In reply, Jesse reached out and tweaked his brother's nose before nodding.
The three McAllisters hastened toward the entrance to the gymnasium, mingling with other families along the way as they, too, sought shelter from the rapidly cooling night. Once they arrived just inside the doorway, the three of them stopped in amazement. Multi-colored streamers had been run from high in all four corners of the gym, to the middle of the floor where a small stage had been established, currently empty other than having a microphone and stand placed in its center. Around it and scattered all across the floor were a large quantity of matching balloons. Some looked to be helium-filled, tied down in varying places along the floors, seats and tables, while others lay loose or floating across the expanse. Toddlers and kids of all ages were laughing and chasing the inflatables, tossing or bumping them with others in attendance.
Lively music was playing from the many speakers the gym held, making the benefit somewhat festive as people streamed in. Numerous shrieks of laughter could be heard, coming from one corner of the gym, where several inflatable play-pens and bounce houses were setup, and many of the younger crowd were energetically jumping about. In yet another section of the floor, tables were established and volunteers were offering face-painting, cartoonist renderings and other festival related activities.
In still yet another quarter of the gym, a line was forming to enter a roped-off area containing tables for dining. People gathered for the advertised chili supper, where for five-dollars per person, they could get all the chili and trimmings they wanted. From the looks of the line, it was obvious the supper was already a big hit with the crowd. After giving payment at the beginning of the row, patrons were then ushered to the frontline tables, containing a large number of slow-cookers and kettles of what were advertised to be soups and chilis of all flavors. Beyond them was another long table filled with stacks of grilled cheese, peanut butter and crackers, dill pickles, sour cream and other side dishes. Huge chests rounded out the end of the line, filled with all manner of iced, canned or bottled drinks.
Last, but not least, Jesse and Benji both stood with their jaws ajar, as the remaining floor-space of the large gymnasium was occupied with row upon row of tables and goods. The tables contained a huge variety of items, all donated in favor of the families who had lost so much, if not everything, due to the storm. From where they stood, the McAllisters could see linens, pillows, caps, coats and clothes, as well as quilts and blankets. On other tables were yard, kitchen and household tools, along with rugs, lamps, picture-frames, and more. In the corner, separated out sat several flat-screen TVs of varying sizes, along with disc players and other electronic items too numerous to count. The corner also was home to several stacked boxes, containing vacuums, new microwaves, and other appliances. It was an event that defied description, given the generosity of not only the area's residents and churches of the community, but the various surrounding businesses as well.
As Makalah finally began stepping forward, Jesse noted immediately that his mother had begun shaking uncontrollably. He quietly moved in close and placed an arm around her waist, half-hugging and half-supporting her as she took her next few steps. Looking down, he saw his bewildered brother had remained beside his side and, unconventionally, taken hold of his hand. It was not an understatement that all three were mesmerized, looking about the gym as they progressed. When they were about half-way toward the makeshift stage, they were suddenly intercepted by a lady in uniform carrying a clipboard. "If I'm not mistaken, you're the McAllisters, right?" she asked kindly. When Makalah nodded, the woman reached out her hand. "Hello, I'm Rosemary Clifton, with the American Red Cross," she stated. Makalah shook her hand then and introduced the two boys beside her. "Ah, I am happy to make your acquaintance!" she exclaimed, smiling brightly.
Benji, coming out of his reverie, quipped back, "Me, too!"
The woman laughed and then gestured off to the side. "Why don't you folks come with me. We have a place established for all of the storm families near the stage there, just off the center," she invited, explaining as she began leading the way. As they walked, the woman explained that all they needed to do was sit down, and once Mr. McAllister arrived and joined them, they would get served by some of the volunteers. Toward the end of their walk, she couldn't help but notice Makalah continuing to look around, and so the woman following her gaze, commented, "Quite a turn-out, wouldn't you say?"
Makalah shook her head, still bewildered. "I've heard of benefits before, but I've never... I never thought... I mean, it's overwhelming!" she gasped.
"It is," Rosemary agreed. "I, too, have participated in a number of these events, but this one is by far larger than most. Plus, to believe it was organized within just these past two weeks is saying something as well. I don't think I've ever seen something pulled together so well in that short of a time-frame."
"Oh, yes, I agree," Makalah mused. She suddenly stopped and waved at a group of people she saw joining the food line, and when Jesse followed her glance, he recognized and waved, too. The people consisted of several of his mom's co-workers, many of whom he had seen at times over the years, and they too waved back, before breaking from the line and approaching the family. Ms. Clifton pointed out their table assigned for their use, but then politely excused herself and disappeared as the group engulfed them and chatted for the next few minutes.
Once these friends returned to the food line, however, the family took their seats. A young lady walked by a moment later and asked what they would like to drink, naming off several options available to them. They gave her their preferences, and she had just turned away when James suddenly appeared and joined them. The man smiled as he reached an arm around his wife's shoulders, but it was clear from his expression that he was just as awestruck as the rest of his family. The lady returned moments later with their drinks, and then instructed them each to sit back and relax, while they waited for some of the other families to arrive and be seated. James's eyebrows arched then, prompting the lady to explain each table would have a pair of volunteers assigned to them, and that they would serve the families directly until they finished for the evening.
For the next two hours or more, a live band played in the background from somewhere, while the crowd either made their way through the food lines, or mingled among the tables where the storm victims were all gathered. At one point, the Cooks walked by with Jennifer giving all four of them warm hugs, all the while Allen shook their hands. Shaking the man's hand felt funny in a way, at least to Jesse, but he just grinned as he and Noah exchanged fist bumps, and Benji settled for a high-five. The families chatted for a bit, talking about the turnout. Noah could not help but be amused as he looked about, conversing in low tones with both Jesse and Benji. The trio of boys were still pointing out things on the various donation tables when Jennifer and Allen finally pulled their son away so as to get in line for food. Neither Jesse nor his brother saw him again after that, as they ended up being directed to other tables away from the group.
That was probably for the best overall, because once the visits and well-wishers got started, the group of storm families were then constantly bombarded by hordes of people for the rest of the evening. Some of the people they recognized straight-away from places of work, from churches, from school or businesses and more. Others were not readily known, but were still varying members from around the area who wanted to express their regrets as to the disruption in their lives, but at the same time leave their well-wishes. It was hard to not feel lifted and loved by the community, as many laughed with them, and offered to help in any way they could that let the victims reconstruct and rebuild their lives. All the affected storm's families, both young and old alike, were kept busy the entire time, meeting and greeting all who sought them out. It was a huge outpouring, one which even drew a nearby TV station to document a story of it, planned for broadcasting later that evening.
The McAllisters, for their part, were humbled at the effort. Even their two sons seemed to understand, taking nothing for granted regarding what all that this was going to do for them. Other families, they noted, seemed to be just as grateful too, as they walked amongst their own groups, greeting each other and more. This was something they would never forget for as long as they lived.
When things began to settle down, a man finally stepped up onto the stage and asked for everyone's attention. As a quiet fell across the room, he began by thanking everyone for coming, and then named off a few special accolades to the various volunteers, the school board, and varying churches and other groups for making the event such a massive success. When the applause died down, he then informed everyone that, based on donations that had come in from all across the state, and various efforts on the part of local businesses, and from the food sales that evening, he was confident to inform them what the current estimated tally was. It turned out that each of the families would be receiving a check in the amount of about $2000, give or take a few dollars, as well as a comfortable split of all the donated merchandise sitting in the gym that evening. Considering the seven families that it affected, that meant donations outside of the items themselves on the tables, had totaled in the neighborhood of $14,000 - which caused the crowd to roar to life with whistles and applause.
Finally, the man bade the crowd a final round of thanks, before instructing the heads of each family come to the stage. Once gathered, the man explained how the distribution process would work. Before long, each were given color-coded decals, and then each family, with one or more volunteers assisting them, walked through and tagged the items they would take. At first there was some reservation, as a level of uncertainty grew among them. Before long, however, with help it became more of a fun exercise. No one quarreled, and not a single item came up wanted by the multiple people present once the task was completed. Benji, as Jennifer had promised, even got to select both a TV for their bedroom, and a new Nintendo game system to replace the one they had lost.
It was midnight before the McAllisters made it home and wearily unloaded the bulk of their chosen treasures into the front room. They had also found a note on their door, left behind by Jennifer it seemed, inviting them all over for breakfast the following morning. "Can we go, Mom? Please?" Benji asked, stifling a yawn. The evening's activities had not only left the youth exhausted, but the rest of them, too.
"I guess so," Makalah replied. Looking about, she immediately took stock of her family. "Let's get to bed. We're all exhausted, and this stuff isn't going anywhere. I suspect it'll take us a few days just to get it all sorted, anyway."
"But... Mom!" Benji started, to which she interrupted.
"No, don't but Mom me, okay kiddo? Not tonight, anyway. I know, you're all excited and everything, but it isn't going to do us any good right now. We're tired, and all of us could use some rest, believe me. We will start sorting everything out tomorrow after we've had a relaxing breakfast," Makalah prodded gently, all the while taking hold of Benji's shoulders and turning him toward the hallway. "You, too, Jesse... Go get some rest, honey," she added, to which the teen merely nodded.
As the boys disappeared, their parents stood in the living room observing all the boxes and packages they had brought in. "I still have to go back in the morning and pick up that microwave and another box or two," James remarked, before shaking his head. "I truly cannot wrap my head around all of this, you know? Have you ever seen so many people come together like that before?" he asked, walking up behind his wife and taking her in his arms.
Makalah sank heavily into his grasp. "No, I haven't," she whispered. "I've walked into a few church benefits and the like a few times, but none of them ever compared to what we witnessed tonight." She turned until she met his eyes. "Do you think... I don't know if it's even possible, but... can we send thank you cards out?"
James thought for a moment, but then quietly shook his head. "I know how you feel, and it's the honest truth to say we're blessed far more than we'd ever expected... but, in the end, we'd end up missing someone, or some place, and... it wouldn't be that fair, I think. I did have an idea earlier though, that maybe all the families could get together, and buy an ad in the newspaper next week. You know, one of those half-page or full-page spreads, where we could try to thank everyone all at once, from the bottom of our hearts."
"I think that would be a fantastic idea," Makalah whispered, turning back around and holding her husband's arms with her own. "Do you think the other families will do it? I mean, I have no idea what it will cost, but..."
James shrugged. "It'll cost whatever it does, and we'll let everyone contribute what they can if it's too high of a price tag. I suspect they are all probably as awed as we were tonight though, and they'll readily be willing to do it. I mean, look at everything that came in - it's totally unreal, if you ask me."
They remained only for a moment longer before Makalah sighed. "Come on, I know you're as worn out as I am." With that, the two of them switched off the lights out and headed to their room.
Jesse and Benji had gone straight to their rooms after leaving their parents, where they closed the door. Benji was already feeling the effects of the day as he moved sluggishly inside, something Jesse noted right away. He sat his brother on the edge of the lower bed and pulled the shoes and socks free from his feet. Then, after quickly doing the same thing, the older teen slid into the bed against the wall before pulling Benji up close. There he covered them both with a blanket, before lying back onto the pillow he shared. Benji didn't object in the slightest, as he rolled in to face the older boy, yawning wildly. "Thanks," he whispered.
Jesse didn't know what he was being thanked for, but it didn't matter. His little brother had cuddled in close, and was quickly dozing off already. Jesse put an arm over him and hugged him warmly. It reminded him of his night before with Noah, but here there was a tighter bond. Here with his brother, their caring for one another was unquestionable.
Jesse leaned in and gave his sibling a quiet kiss on the top of his head, but he suspected Benji was already gone by then. As the deeper, measured sounds of his breathing met him, Jesse then closed his own eyes and fell asleep, too.
"Last night, that was... it was awesome, really!"
Noah and Jesse had just entered Noah's bedroom, having finished a big breakfast of eggs, ham, sausage, fried potatoes, and biscuits with gravy - a southern classic menu that was rarely consumed by either family really, given their work commitments and haphazard schedules. Jennifer had outdone herself this time, however, making everything seemingly delicious, except for one item. Upon arriving that morning, the McAllisters were surprised to discover that Noah, of all people, had mixed up the batch of homemade biscuits for the meal all on his own, and they turned out to be fantastic.
Jesse plopped down onto one of the bean bags, nodding his head in agreement. "Yeah, it was really cool. I've never been to anything like that, really, but it was really kind of fun."
"What time did you guys get home last night?" Noah asked, taking the other bean bag. "I was going to wait up for you, but I kind of fell asleep around 11 or so, I think. Unusual, I know, but still..."
Jesse laughed. "It's just because we were up so late the night before. You didn't get your nap out yesterday morning."
"Yeah, that might have something to do with it," Noah conceded. "So, what's your plan today then? Dad and James said they were going back for some more stuff this morning."
"There was a microwave, I think, and some more boxes, yeah," Jesse mused, before shrugging. "I don't know, I guess we'll go back and help start putting things away. You know, un-boxing stuff or whatever. There's a LOT of stuff."
Noah nodded. "It's cool. Want some help?" he asked, then lowered his voice. "Honest, not trying to be nosy or anything. I've, well, I've got nothing going on today."
"Sure! You could help me setup the TV in our room, if you'd like. And there's a few other things, too," Jesse replied with a grin. Right then, Benji walked up outside their door and knocked against the frame. Noah motioned for him to come on in, which the youth did by crossing over and climbing into Jesse's lap.
"Umph!" the youth grunted before getting settled. Glancing across to their host, he remarked, "Good biscuits!"
The teens laughed, but then Jesse added, "Yeah, they were. Do you like to bake and cook a lot? Stuff like that?"
Noah shrugged. "Sometimes. I used to cook a lot before... well, up until about a year ago or so. I just kind of stopped, I guess."
When the teen did not elaborate, Jesse was about to inquire again, but then he picked up on the fact Noah was pointedly watching him. When he succeeded in getting the other's attention, Noah began moving his eyes subtly toward Benji, and then Jesse understood. Whatever was behind that answer, it was not a topic to pursue in the younger brother's presence. Jesse nodded, making Noah finally relax with a look of relief, before he changed the subject. "Say, do you, like, have any Nintendo games?"
Noah arched his eyebrows. "Actually, I do! My cousin got rid of his system last year I think, trading it up for a PlayStation. He ended up giving me a box of odd stuff, and I think it had a couple of Nintendo discs or something in it." With that, the teen rose and approached his closet, where he slid the door aside and began going through several containers that were neatly stacked along the side and toward the back. Benji, his curiosity piqued, rose excitedly and approached. "Need any help?" he asked, but there was little he could actually do in the narrow space. Before long though, Noah uttered a sound that implied success. "Yeah, here they are!" extracting a Legend of Zelda, and a second, much more obscurer title that none of them had ever heard of before. "Will either of these games work? They say... uh... here it is, yeah, they're for the Nintendo Cube."
Benji screeched with delight. "That's what we got last night!"
Noah handed them over. "Well good, then. They're yours." Benji squealed again as he grasped them, before launching himself into Noah's arms, taking the older boy by complete surprise as he struggled to catch the boy. They both ended up falling backwards in a heap, causing additional laughter as Benji proceeded to give the older teen a huge hug, one which he held onto for several seconds.
"Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!" Benji told him, before finally extracting himself and hurrying over to show Jesse their new prizes. Jesse examined the packages. "These look like their brand new!" he commented, as Noah gradually recovered and closed his closet door, before crawling back to his previous position.
"I think they've come out with a new system now, but there are still a lot of the Cubes on the market. What did you guys have before?" Noah asked.
"A Nintendo 64," Benji answered. "It was the best at the time we got it, but the Cubes are supposed to be a whole lot better!" He suddenly looked up and grinned. "Wait until you play it! I'm gonna beat your sorry ass off with our Mario Kart!"
Noah looked up at Jesse with a knowing look, but then nodded. "You can try, I guess."
The three chatted a few minutes more, before Benji rose to go show his new treasures to his mother. As he ran from the room, Noah spoke again, although in a quieter tone. "I can kind of see why you like those hugs, now."
Jesse grinned. "They're awesome, really. Especially from him, because he has no idea about how to hold back or anything. When he gives hugs, you know they're from his heart."
"Yeah, I know. It's... it's cool, honest." He sighed. "Thanks for not pushing on about the cooking, too."
Jesse wrinkled his nose. "Cool beans. I figure, like I've told you before, if you want me to know something, you'll tell me eventually. Otherwise, it's not my business, you know?"
"I will tell you, though," Noah agreed, staring through the open doorway into the other room. "I'm not sure... well, we'll have to see, that's all." His voice had dropped even further, and there was a certain sadness in it that seemed to resonate with his friend. Jesse raised a fist to bump mid-air, and Noah suddenly grinned, shaking off the weird mood that had started to develop. "Let me change out of these sweats, and then we can go work on your room, deal?"
Jesse nodded. "Deal!" He stood up, intending to leave Noah alone, but his host had already closed the bedroom door and effectively trapped the teen inside with him. Without another word, he crossed to his closet and pulled out a pair of jeans and proceeded to drop his sweats, donning the new apparel. Jesse sat down on the edge of the bed, trying to be nonchalant about the moment, but he could not help watch from the corner of his eye, as Noah quickly changed and then rounded the bed toward him.
"I think I might have pulled my shoes off upstairs," Noah stated as Jesse stood up. The teen nodded in acknowledgement, and then they both began to leave the room.
It was another one those firsts that had caught Jesse by surprise, as he reflected on it. It wasn't the fact the teen had changed and bared himself so much now. Jesse had seen Noah in various different stages of undress before, whether in gym class, or from when he had just spent the night. Both seemed to feel comfortable and noncommittal about it, he guessed, and there was certainly no mystery regarding their budding friendship building stronger. Somehow this incident felt different, though. Noah had purposefully kept Jesse from leaving the room and following his brother upstairs, and thus made it feel more personal between them. Jesse wasn't used to such moments or exchanges except with his brother, really, and somehow feeling that freedom building between himself with Noah was becoming special. It was a feeling that something was now beginning to build between them, something he hadn't experienced before - at least not with someone his own age.
It wasn't until later in the afternoon that the brothers, along with Noah's help, had their new TV out of its box and mounted on the wall. With the somewhat limited space, given the furniture the two boys now had in their room, Allen made a suggestion that had won out all over. He made a short trip to a local shop, and returned with a wall-mount bracket, perfectly sized for the appliance. It allowed the boys to keep what prime desktop space they had for other purposes, but it also came with a sturdy shelf attachment underneath. After a little experimenting, Benji ended up squealing once again when they found the new game system could remain with it, altogether unobtrusive to the normal viewing of the TV.
As the older boys took a break by sitting in the floor by the bed, they turned on the system and tried it out. Benji joined in from his upper bunk excitedly - until they loaded the racing game. It was then he discovered Noah was already quite good at playing it. "Hey! How come your such a hot shot playing this?" he barked, after being defeated twice in a row.
Noah turned to look directly at the youth with a sweet smile. "Hey, just because I've never owned a Nintendo, doesn't mean I haven't played with one!" he snickered, before explaining. "My cousin had this, remember? I played theirs whenever we went over there to visit."
Benji's expression suddenly transformed. "AAwww... and I was hoping me and Jess would have something we could whoop your butt with for a change!"
Jesse, listening to the exchange, laughed. "You will, buddy. You just have to get some more practice in is all." Noah nodded in agreement, which then seemed to improve the boy's spirits.
Before long, however, Allen stuck his head into the open doorway. "Hey, you about ready to go, kiddo? These guys haven't had much family time at all this weekend. What say we give them a rest, hmm? Tomorrow's another school day anyway."
Noah frowned, but could not come up with any reason to counter the argument. "Yeah, I guess so. Give me a minute or two though, or better yet, go on ahead. I'll be along in a few minutes." Allen nodded and then quietly disappeared.
Noah sat deep in thought, watching the game on the screen and contemplating something. Jesse observed the change in his demeanor, but decidedly remained silent for a moment before speaking up. "Hey, Earth to Noah... you okay over there?"
Noah glanced back but then blushed. "Sure am! I just, I don't want to leave yet, you know?"
Jesse stopped what he was doing, which in turn allowed his brother to pass him in the game. "Um, not much we can do about that, is there?" He then giggled before scooting closer and lowering his voice to a whisper. "We're just across the window from each other, though."
Noah laughed. "What are we supposed to do for entertainment? Moon each other?" Both teens cracked up laughing, but then Noah suddenly smiled as another idea surfaced. "You know, we've got some old 2-way radios that Dad has had for years. Interested? I'll see if I can find them if you want! Might kind of be fun."
Jesse nodded. "Yeah, they might be, so sure!" He made no remark about how old fashioned the idea seemed, especially since teens in their current generation were more into texting, chat rooms or the like. Still, neither he nor his brother had a computer, and none of the three had anything like a smart phone yet, so the idea did have a certain appeal to him. "If you want me to, I'll sneak over and get one of them. That is, if you find them and all."
Noah raised a fist and bumped the one that met him. Their eyes met, and it made Noah relax. "Um, do you think I can say something, like one more thing? Just between us, before I go?" he whispered, glancing above them.
"Sure," Jesse responded. Glancing toward the upper bunk, he then added, "It's okay. Benji doesn't always hear the greatest anyway. It's the one part about him that none of us can do much about."
That statement piqued Noah's curiosity. "Really? What's the deal with that?"
"Not a whole lot. He's always been that way, I think. Mom and Dad have had him tested and all, and they just say he doesn't hear as well as normal people. He's on some kind of borderline I think, needing some thingies, like hearing aids and all, but so far, we haven't gotten him any yet. I think Mom said they told her it could do him more harm than good if he got them too soon, or something like that," Jesse explained.
Suddenly, Benji's head popped over the edge of the bed. "Hey, what are you two whispering about so much?"
Jesse laughed. "We're making plans on how we're going to skin and hang you upside down in the shower one night!" he teased.
"Puhlleeaasseee... I'm smarter than that!" came the sly reply, before the youth giggled and started to shift. The next thing the older boys knew, he had lowered himself onto the ladder and, eventually, the floor. He gave Noah a high five, and then rushed from the room, calling out behind him. "See ya later, gator! I've gotta go lay an egg!"
Both Noah and Jesse laughed as the youth disappeared. "Did he say 'Lay an egg'?" Noah asked.
Jesse rolled his eyes, but then nodded. "Yeah. That's his way of saying he has to go do number two," he explained.
Noah accepted the exchange gracefully, but not without a grin. When he turned back to the other teen though, his demeanor changed. "Look, I just, I wanted to say thank you." When he saw the surprised expression that met him, the teen then shook his head. "Listen Jesse, I don't know why I'm being this way, okay? I mean, all gushy and stuff. It's like I've been telling you, it seems there's a lot of stuff going on in my head, and... and... these last few days, this last week at school, everything - I've been seeing something about myself, a part of my past that I don't like very much. You've helped me begin to realize why now - you and Benji, both. And... I'm not going to say I'm sorry anymore, because you already know I am, but... I will say thank you. You giving me that hug the other night, it ... it like, it's opened something up, something good inside of me, you know? I just wanted to tell you, like, thanks.... for everything."
Jesse smiled. "Are you going somewhere? Are you leaving me or something, or going back to your friends, or planning on joining a monastery, or running away and joining the Marines, or...?"
Noah giggled. "No way." He paused, considering. "I... I really hope nothing changes right now, ever."
Jessie hesitated but for a second, before he moved up onto his knees. He then closed what little distance there was between them before speaking again. "First, you're not being mushy or gushy at all, and even if you were, I couldn't care less. Second, there's a lot more days ahead of us than there was behind, so unless you know something I don't know, I think we're going to have a LOT of fun. And finally, third, don't make the mistake that you're the only one feeling things between us, okay? You're not alone, Noah. You never were."
Noah watched his friend as he gazed deeply into the eyes that met his own. He realized that he had, unfortunately, been thinking a lot of things lately from his own perspective, and not from thinking about how Jesse might be feeling, too. Regardless, it was all pushed aside when Jesse, for the second time that weekend, bent over and whispered into his ear. "Come here, bro."
Noah sat up then and accepted the arms that engulfed him again, before both sat back and managed to scoot closer again, enveloped with another one of those warm, intimate hugs that they liked. To Noah, once again all he could think about was holding onto the moment for all it was worth. "God, I hope you feel this as much as I do," Noah uttered with a whimper. He successfully fought down his emotions this time, but inwardly he could still feel the tug between them, and the happiness it brought him was immeasurable.
"Like I told you, I do. Trust me, I do," Jesse whispered back. They did not hold the embrace overly long, however, as Jesse finally sat back on his legs with a smile. "You know, you and me, we have got some things we need to talk about, eventually... okay?"
Noah considered the implied meaning behind that statement, but then readily agreed. He knew he wasn't going to be able to keep his secrets much longer, especially the way things were developing between them so rapidly. He just hoped he would have enough courage to trust that the pair of them could work it all out. "I... thanks, man."
Jesse grinned and nodded. Noah had not explicitly agreed, something he noted outright, but it was still good enough for now. When it was obvious the moment was sealed between them, they both climbed to their feet, grasping hands and balancing the other. "Uh, have you got a flashlight? Maybe if you find those radio thingies, you could try to point it out your window over here. Flash it a few times and, if I see it, then I'll sneak over."
Noah laughed. "Oh boy, you got it! Give me a little bit to look for them, though!" With that, he left.
As Noah walked into the kitchen, he found his parents sitting at the table and enjoying a slice of his Mom's banana nut bread again with ice cream. She turned and glanced in his direction before pulling out a chair. "Here, want to join us?"
Noah considered briefly, and then surprised both of his parents by sitting down casually. "Can I have some, too?" he asked, which spurred Allen to rise and extract another bowl from a nearby cabinet. Jennifer set within it a thick slice of the bread, as well as spooned a substantial amount of ice cream as well.
"You doing okay, kiddo?" she asked him nonchalantly as he attacked the food.
"Yeah, I guess so. Why?" the teen asked, glancing up.
"No reason, just wondering," his mother responded. It was then Allen cleared his throat.
"Actually, your mother and I were just discussing your birthday coming up this Thursday. We're surprised you haven't said anything about it to either of us."
Noah paused, frowning, but then just shrugged. "I guess I haven't thought so much about it, either."
The surprise that registered with both his parents was unfathomable. "What, a teenager, forget about their birthday?" Allen remarked.
"I didn't say I forgot it," Noah giggled. "I just, other things have been going on, I guess. I just haven't thought a lot about it this year, not much anyway."
"Well, now that we're at least thinking about it," Jennifer started, "what do you think you want to do this year? Anything special?"
Noah thought long and hard before he replied. "Not really. I mean, I don't want a party or anything, obviously. Um, if you'd make me one of those funny carrot cakes you make, that would be nice."
Jennifer sat back and crossed her arms. "Of course, I'll make you almost any cake you want. But... well..."
"I think what your mother was asking, is if there is anything you want this year, in the way of a present or something?" Allen interjected. "I know, Christmas is around the corner, but we've always gotten you at least a little something in the past, remember?"
Noah glanced between both his parents, before finishing his treat. Pushing the bowl back, he sighed. "Honestly? Not really, but uh... there might be something you could do that would be cool."
"What's that?" Jennifer asked.
"Well, there's that new movie out I've been kind of wanting to go see. I know it's a school night and all, but maybe we could go watch it? Or, even better, maybe Jesse and Benji could go with us?" Noah asked timidly. "That is, if they want to. I think I'd like to surprise them though, if I could." He glanced up at both his parents. "Maybe we could, uh, arrange it with Mrs. and Mrs. McAllister first, before I tell them?"
Allen exchanged a surprised look with his wife. "And that's it? Just a night at the movies? With your new friends?" When Noah nodded, he sat back and relaxed. "I don't see any reason we can't do that, for once. If you're sure, that is," he added, still unconvinced.
Noah suddenly laughed out loud, with a level of relief the other two had not realized he was concealing. "I'm sure, Dad. Really, there's not much of anything I want otherwise this year, and besides - I overheard you guys saying something last night, about how there wasn't a lot of stuff for the younger peeps to have or do and all. You know, from the benefit donations and everything. So, maybe this would be a good way to get Jesse and Benji out and doing something kind of fun, even if it is just for one night. I know, we'll have to go to Campbellsville, but..."
Allen shook his head. "It's not that far. What, 20-minute drive, maybe?"
"More like 25, I think," Jennifer remarked. She suddenly reached out, however, and placed her hand across Noah's forehead. "Are you sick? Where is my son at?" she teased, before explaining. "Did I just hear a certain someone start looking out for someone else for a change?" she whispered.
Noah blushed, but then shrugged. "Mom, I... I'm sorry, okay? I know, I've been a jerk sometimes, and... I'm trying to do better. You know, not be such an asshole anymore."
Jennifer looked upon her son and smiled, for once ignoring his choice of vocabulary. "I'm sorry, too. I didn't mean to embarrass you, not like that anyway. It's just..."
"It's been a long time since I've acted like a human, is that it?" Noah asked, recalling something she had once said to him the night of the tornado. "Trust me, I know."
In a rare move, his mother rose from her chair and circled in behind him, wrapping her arms around the boy and holding him close. "I love you," she whispered. "I always have, and I always will. Never forget that, please."
The teen held her arms and replied, "I've never doubted it, Mom. For you or Dad, really. I love you both, too."
Allen, watching the exchange, was also moved as he reached out a hand and squeezed his son's shoulder fondly. When their own eyes met, there were no need for words to be exchanged. It was a family moment that the three of them had not shared in a long, long time.
The following morning, life returned to normal as the teens stepped onboard the bus for their journey to school. Jesse and Noah were now used to meeting at the end of one driveway or the other, much to the irritation of Pete the Third as he looked on. The fact that Noah readily took his seat with the fairy annoyed him even further. With his elbow, he nudged Jimmy, who happened to be sitting beside him leaning up against the window, dozing lightly. The teen ignored him, however, which did not improve Pete's mood in the slightest.
Pete's attention was then drawn closer to two other girls, sitting about midway down the aisle and currently in lively, though subdued conversation. He scowled at Linda, for no other reason than the fact she had slapped him that day, something he had vowed she would regret. The other girl, however, puzzled him for a moment until he finally recognized who she was. Not that it should have been that hard, really. He had had a crush on Addison Davies for years throughout elementary and middle school, but although playful initially, she had come to ignore him after a certain point. He had not noticeably seen her in some time, so the change in her appearance as she matured threw him off briefly. It caused him to forget about the other two pimples in his life, as he had come to think of them, and smile - at least until the girl turned and glanced in his direction at one point. He had tried to find some simple, friendly way to acknowledge her presence, but the deep frown she gave him with her eyes drawn closer together, subdued his effort. It was then that his anger began to build, wondering what lies Linda must have been filling her head with. It doubled his resolve then to make his now ex-friend pay for her insolence.
Jesse had paid no attention to anyone else on the bus, having woken with difficulty that morning from an unusually peaceful sleep. He had stepped on first and took the fourth-row seat as he commonly did, with Noah sliding in behind him. As the bus continued on its way, both had slumped down into the seat, knees forward once again onto the back of the seat ahead, and relaxing quietly. However, when they had traveled about half the distance to school, both felt someone slide into the seat behind them. Before either could look back, a familiar girl, at least to Jesse, leaned forward. "Hey, Jesse!" Addison announced herself brightly.
Jesse turned to the girl and then grinned, sitting up and twisting around in his seat. "Addison! Hi there!" he beamed, before adding, "How's it going?"
"It's going great, how about you guys?" she responded. Noah listened politely, first turning and greeting the girl as Jesse introduced them to each other. When he heard that the girl was his friend's former next-door neighbor, his curiosity was piqued, as he recognized then that this was the girl whom he had first heard of through Linda. The girl that, in fact, gave an all-good reference to the McAllisters, especially Jesse.
It was then she jerked her thumb back to where the other girl was sitting, watching them casually. "I spent the night with Linda last night, and will probably do the same tonight. My parents have gone up into Ohio for a funeral for a couple of days, and though they didn't mind leaving me by myself, they felt better about me staying with a friend," she explained. She and Jesse then chatted for a couple of more minutes before she started to get up. "It's just been a while Jesse, I wanted to say hi, that's all."
"I'm glad you did, honest! Sorry, I didn't notice you were here, really. I was still half-asleep when we got on," Jesse confessed with a smile, before reaching up and offering the girl a mid-air fist bump. Addison giggled, but then grinned widely and met it before taking her leave.
Once the girl returned to her original seat, Noah commented. "So, do you like bump fists with all the girls now, too?" he teased, but Jesse only grunted while shaking his head.
"Only her, really. Most girls don't like high-fives or bumps or such. I don't even know if there IS anything they like to do, except giggle all the time!" Jesse declared with an air of exasperation. "Me and Addison though, I don't know. She's just always been nice to me and Benji, you know? I guess we kind of developed that thing between us when we were younger, and it just never really seemed awkward. Benji gives her high-fives all the time, and we... well, just bump fists."
Noah nodded. "Linda and I have done it a few times too, yeah. You're right though, most girls don't like to do that stuff, always teasing us guys about playing with our hands with each other, or some kind of crap like that. But then, those on the girls' basketball teams do something similar, and don't think anything of it. Kind of a double standard, if you ask me."
"Um, yeah, I see your point," Jesse replied before wrinkling his nose. "I honestly never thought very much about it, really. It's, I don't know, just an easier thing for guys. Better than shaking hands, at least."
"And how," Noah agreed, before they both fell silent for the rest of the trip.
In the back of the bus, Pete watched the entire exchange in a restless state, his mind playing with all sorts of various scenarios regarding what the group was doing or talking about. The depth of his displeasure went well beyond that of jealousy, as his imagination began to go wild with speculations that grew darker by the minute. By the time the bus had arrived at school, he was feeling flustered and wanted to let off some steam quickly. He was unable to reach either of the groups, however, as everyone quickly stood and began flooding the aisle-way, making their way forward to depart dependent upon whoever was directly ahead. By the time Pete stepped off, none of the conspirators, as he started thinking of them, was in sight. With reluctance, he headed for his locker, ignoring the fact that Jimmy was close behind him.
It was in the long corridor of the school hallway, however, when Pete chanced upon seeing Noah just finishing up at his locker, shutting the door and spinning its combination lock. He sneered as he worked his way closer to the unsuspecting teen, who had already turned away, readying to head to his homeroom just as Pete came up behind him. With a well-placed foot stuck ahead, and a harsh bumping of shoulders, he effectively shoved the teen, tripping him to the floor. Pete quickly moved out of the way and tried to blend himself into the crowd, as several turned toward the commotion now behind him. Most of the students spontaneously erupted in laughter as they saw Noah had fallen on his hands and knees, his books and papers flying in every direction.
By the time the teen looked up into the crowd, with a simultaneous expression of both surprise and annoyance, Pete had already made his way along the far wall, with several bodies of students now separating him from the teenager. Noah grunted, before sitting back on his feet and collecting his papers. Surprisingly, two girls came to his rescue, helping him get his things back together before he recognized one of them was Addison herself. When she handed him one of his books, however, there was an ugly scowl on her face, and before Noah could ask or even thank the girl, she had started off quickly. He turned to the other girl and thanked her as he stood up. By then, most of the crowd had already recovered and were moving along their way.
Meanwhile, Addison threaded her way through the bodies of people quickly, closing in on a certain individual just ahead of her, who suddenly turned in to apparently stop at his own locker. As he stood there spinning its combination, she reeled herself right in next to him. Instead of speaking, however, she reached up and slapped Pete the Third hard on the back of his buzzed head. "Asshole," she called out to him, before moving on. Unlike him, she did not attempt to sneak back into the crowd and hide.
Pete turned after the blow, rubbing his head as he saw here pass and retreating. "Hey, bitch!" he shouted at her back.
Several students stopped altogether, a silence developing rapidly as they turned toward him with raised eyebrows. So did Addison, who suddenly halted and turned around. "What did you call me, cunt?" she hissed. By then, whistles and catcalls began to fill the air as the crowd between the two began separating, clearing a path for the girl to retrace her if desired.
Surprised, Pete was initially undecided about how to react, but now that he had an audience, he knew he couldn't let the girl get away addressing him in such a derogatory manner. "You wish," he hissed back, "just so you could have the fish to go down on!"
His reply infuriated Addison to no end. Closing the short distance between them, Pete prepared himself for another slap, the usual response girls like to give guys in such situations. However, the teenager was totally surprised when, instead, the girl sharply kneed him in the groin. Down he went, doubled over as she smirked in triumph. After assuring herself that he was indeed incapacitated, she turned and quietly walked away, with the many eyes in the hallway following her. After their initial shock, most of the students ended up laughing out loud as they broke up. The first warning bell for homeroom had just sounded, and not one of them had any desire to be caught outside in the hallway...
...with Pete the Third, clearly in pain, glaring after them.