"Now, let me get this straight... You didn't get to see any of the group who assailed you because you were hooded. And, because they kept their voices low, there was nothing distinct enough that you could identify who they were individually. That is, all except for one person in particular. You say you heard Pete Haskell III, telling his cohorts they were going too far, or something to that effect, right?"
Sheriff Jim Hunt had not arrived at the hospital until the latter part of the afternoon, a time he had coordinated with Jesse's father so the man could be present. It so happened that Allen was also with them, but the man stood more subtly in the background while the other two engaged the teenager in conversation. With the Sheriff seated on the stool, his arms folded and looking on, James stood on the opposite side observing his son closely.
There was a brief pause in which Jesse considered the question, before the teen nodded. "Yes, sir... I'm certain of it... I was getting... kicked and hit on, but somehow... I heard someone say that... and the more I think about it... I'm thinking it was Pete's voice I made out."
The man briefly regarded him impassively for a moment before speaking again. "Okay, I have no reason to doubt you son, but... why haven't you said anything about this before now?"
Jesse dropped his gaze to the foot of the bed. "I think it was just... everything was kind of a blur... you know? It wasn't... until last night that... I started to remember some more of it... and then, when I woke up this morning... that card was here, on my chest." He had already showed the Sheriff and his father the strange card he had found, and told them that friends had already confirmed it was in Pete's handwriting. "I'm sorry, Sheriff... to be honest, before, I... I wasn't sure... if I was even right, but... after seeing that card... this morning, some things just... started to connect... for me."
Jim Hunt eventually waved away the apology. "No worries, young man, I won't hold it against you. Besides, I can't help but think about some other little things, too, in light of all this."
"Such as...?" James asked, an eyebrow stretching upward in curiosity.
"Well," the man started, before turning to include Allen in the conversation. "For one thing, did either of you happen to notice that the outside the faucets on your houses, they were not just opened in your absence, but totally broken off at where they met the pipe? Now, I've known kids to pull practical jokes plenty of times, and I can tell you, there have been some good ones over the years. But the more I think about it, what happened to you guys, and to you even twice, James, really goes a little above and beyond what kids would normally pull. I mean, let's face it: those acts resulted in the outright, willful destruction of property, and in certain circumstances, it could cause a lot of things to go severely wrong. Most teenagers wouldn't even know how to go about handling something that was so involved, if you catch my drift. Most would likely just turn the spigot on and let it run, plain as day. In your cases, however, the perpetrator, or perpetrators, beat the damn faucets clean off practically." The man shook his head. "I admit, there were no other signs of mischief overall, in all three instances, but that is what makes me think the whole ordeal was a targeted attack of some sort."
"It's true, I guess. Like you, I can't imagine young men wanting to go to that extreme and then keep everything as neat as they did," Allen mused from behind them.
The Sheriff nodded in agreement. "Exactly! Besides all that, someone appeared to have had some experience doing that, too, especially to know what they were doing in removing the outlets as cleanly as they did, and then disappear. Oh, and don't forget about the valve in front at the main junction-"
"Yeah, it was loose when we found it, like it had already been closed and then turned back on again," Allen finished. He glanced at James. "The meter was older, but still, there was some rust around the valve and all. He's saying we should have had more trouble turning the cutoff valve than what we did. Plus, we didn't put locks on our grids until after the second time, remember?"
James frowned. "That's true, too. Wait then, are you saying it's possible Pete may have not been behind all of this, or if he was, he at least had some help?"
"Oh, I'm sure there is some connection or involvement, but it may not have been one as deep as we first imagined it to be," the Sheriff mused. "Remember, we found no footprints - which isn't surprising, given all the water there and the sidewalk leading straight out to the gravel driveway. But, consider Jesse's account this morning, I can't help but wonder about it. I mean, it kind of fits in with the events the video showed us, too. The person identified as going in, wasn't with the group who came out and disappeared. We've been through that video for the entire period, too, and there are a few places where the view was obstructed, either with people driving through the ATM itself, or otherwise."
"Then... who?" Jennifer asked from the far corner of the room, where she had retreated once the men arrived.
"Well, that is something I really have no idea of, at the moment," Jim Hunt replied with a sigh. He then turned back to Jesse. "Son, is there anything else you can tell me that might help things out? Anything at all?"
"There may be something," Jesse replied, startling everyone in the room. "I mean, I'm not sure... it may be nothing, but..."
"Let us decide that, Jess. Don't be shy, tell us - what's on your mind?" James encouraged him.
"Well... It's not so much... what I saw, or heard... but I remember this smell," Jesse offered, and then took a deep breath before explaining. "You see... right before this thing... was pulled over my head... I caught a whiff of something... that was sort of out-of-place... like fish."
"Fish?" Sheriff Hunt asked, frowning.
"Well, kind of... It was like... sort of like the lake... smells when we go fishing, Dad... Then a few times... even though they were... hitting me and all... I smelled it again."
Allen sauntered up closer to the bed. "Was it a strong odor, Jesse?" he asked quietly, and when the teen nodded, Allen turned thoughtful. "You know, at this time of year, there's really only one place that would have a strong odor like that."
The Sheriff nodded. "Yep, that would be down at the marina, or at least in and around the boat docks themselves, I think."
"Do you think... that's where he's hiding?" James asked. "Perhaps in a boat or something? It would be awful cold this time of year, but still..."
"I know what you mean. We've searched them twice in the last month already," the Sheriff announced. "How thoroughly they were checked out, however, I have no idea. It wouldn't hurt us to try again, maybe make a more concerted effort as well." The man then suddenly smiled at Jesse. "Young man, you've definitely given me a few things to check up on. All I can do is express my gratitude, and promise you that although we're still working some of this out, we're far from finished. By chance, has the doctor said anything more about kicking you out of here sometime soon?" The question, delivered with a smile, alleviated some of the tension in the room, for which the other occupants were grateful.
"Yes, sir..." the teen started, but had to pause to once again to take some deep breaths. His father understood the toll it was taking for the teen to speak at length, so he offered to answer for him instead.
"Dr. Sutherland initially told us maybe Sunday, but it will depend on how well he progresses over the next couple of days. Personally, I think it may be more like Monday or Tuesday before he gets released."
"Well, it's all the same in the end. You probably won't be returning to school this year, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," the Sheriff replied. "I only meant it would be good for you to have a little time to let things heal properly." The man stood then and looked around the room. "This is an impressive display here. Do you have any idea how many cards you collected, young man?"
Jesse blushed. "I think there are... 51 of them altogether," he replied shyly, causing the man to chuckle.
"Well, good for you then! I can tell you that there's a lot of people who want to see you come out of this as well or better than before it all happened. Still, it goes without saying, son: if you should recall anything else that you think might be helpful, don't be afraid to reach out to me, alright? Someone will pass the word if you can't reach me directly, I assure you. Just don't be afraid, okay?"
"I'm not afraid, sir... and thank you," Jesse offered, moving his one free hand up and letting the Sheriff grasp it gently. The man smiled, nodded to the others and then left quietly.
James cleared his throat and returned his attention to his son. "So, is there anything we can do for you, hmm?"
"Yeah - find out when... dinner is getting here... I'm hungry!" The response provoked laughter from everyone in the room, and was something that made James inwardly relax. It was another sign of his son returning to normal, and he was grateful there didn't seem to be any psychological after-effects hanging over him for the time being.
Without waiting for a response, Jesse glanced back to his father and added, "Hey, will Mom be coming by before you take her home?"
James scoffed. "Are you kidding? Do you think I want to be in the doghouse for the rest of the year? She'll practically murder me!" He chuckled. "You know how she'll be. I'll have to make her go home, most likely. Foot or no foot, she will want to stay here as long as she can, just to be with you."
"But... we aren't going to let her," Jennifer stated, also beginning to step forward and approach the bed. "Are we, James?"
"Heavens, no!" James agreed, but then sighed. "It's for her own good, really. Dr. Reddy said she needed to stay off that ankle of hers at least until early next week, or she could re-introduce the swelling all over again. Knowing her though, she'll give me a good fight."
"Dad," Jesse began, but hesitated. "Just, stay and make her... get better, okay? ... I'll be fine, I promise."
"We'll see," James replied, giving his son a wink. "Honestly, I'm not so worried about you as I was, now that you're on the mend. Having to take care of you both isn't going to be as big of a challenge as I was afraid it might turn out to be, especially if we throw your little brother into the mix. He'll be itching to help out, you know."
"Well, you won't have to worry at all. Like you said, Benji and I will keep Makalah occupied," Jennifer added, before glancing in the direction of the teen. "We'll still slip out to see you too, Jesse, so don't worry. I might even let Noah stay up here with you tonight, if you'd like him to - and of course, if he wants to."
Noah, who had been silently leaning against the wall, suddenly stepped forward and turned to his mother in surprise. "Really? Seriously?"
"Sure, there's no reason not to," Allen interjected, chuckling as well. "As far as we can tell, you shouldn't have to really do very much, other than keep Jesse company. I'm sure that is something he'd probably like, too, eh?" the man asked, winking at Jesse. "There's only one condition: you do have to call us first thing, if something should happen or his condition changes."
"Deal!" Noah replied enthusiastically, which caused the others to chuckle as well.
"It also depends on whether Jesse feels like putting up with you, you know," Jennifer added, teasing. The resulting looks she received from both boys, however, made her laugh. "Okay, okay! My goodness, you two... you're like peanut butter and jelly, I think!"
"More like biscuits and gravy," James chimed in, smiling. He then turned and headed for the door. "Okay, let me see if I can find out how long it'll be before your dinner gets here..."
"Boy, Benji sure put a fight tonight, didn't he?"
Noah's thought penetrated through the mid-evening hour out of nowhere, causing Jesse to stir. The two were watching a movie on the TV, which was awkward to a degree because the unit was much smaller than either of the boys were used to. Still, it was better than nothing at all, and it allowed the two to pass the time quietly. Noah had first glanced to make sure his friend was not asleep, having no desire to disturb the moment otherwise, but he saw that he was awake and watching in a similar manner. Earlier that evening, when their parents had made to leave, Benji was none too happy to learn that Noah was going to spend the night with his older brother.
"He really wanted to stay, I know," Jesse breathed quietly. "I don't blame him, really... In a way, he probably... feels he's lost both of us... for tonight anyway. He's going... to be home with just Mom and Dad."
"Yeah, I know," Noah replied, before sighing. "He was probably hoping I'd stay with him some more, or vice versa. You know, he's a little runt, but at least he's our little runt. Thank you for sharing him with me."
Jesse slowly turned his head until he could observe his best friend closely. The nurse who came to collect his dinner tray, had actually suggested that the two could re-arrange the chaise so that they sat side-by-side. Although Jesse's mattress was elevated at a higher level, it wasn't a problem for the two. The woman had also returned moments later, having procured a pillow and blanket for the teen, for which Noah ended up thanking her profusely. Before long, they lay alongside each other, and with the rail lowered there wasn't a lot that separated them. More than once, Noah reached out and lightly lay a hand on Jesse's chest or stomach, and even grasped and locked fingers with his friend, squeezing them reassuringly. After the long day he had just been through, Jesse found Noah's presence a welcomed reprieve. "He has always been there... for you, Noah. You two... just had to find your own way, that's all."
The other teen nodded before pulling his blanket around closer. "I understand why you keep telling me that now. At first, I just thought you were being overly dramatic about it, but now... Well, never mind what I thought. It makes a lot of sense now, and after being with him and everything for the last two nights..."
Jesse smiled. "I take it you two must have had some brotherly moments, then."
"Yeah, you might say that," Noah replied, blushing. "I... I let him take a shower with me the other night. I thought it might satisfy some of his, uh, curiosity."
Jesse giggled, but the effort caught him off guard, making him draw a sudden intake of breath at the pain that stabbed his side. The teen had to hold it briefly before letting it out slowly as the ache eased. "Whew!" he finally whispered, noting Noah's concerned look. "I'm alright... I promise..."
Noah was relieved, but acquired a sheepish expression as he squeezed Jesse's hand again. "I didn't mean to make you laugh. I know that has to hurt."
"Not as much... as it did yesterday," Jesse replied. "Did I tell you? ... They did another x-ray... this morning to make sure, and... they didn't find anything broken... Just a lot of bruising... around my ribs." He observed his friend again. "So, now I'm not the only one... to see little-big Noah anymore, am I?" he teased. "Did it work? What did he think of you?"
"I don't know, really. He never said a whole lot about me, though he did get an eyeful, I'll tell you that. Just so you know, I didn't bone up or anything either, Jess," Noah considered. He watched his friend make a mock impression of shrugging, though with minimal movement, before he continued. "He was interested, I guess, but not like I thought he would be. I mean, the only thing he did outright was, like, finger my hairs down there. You know, comb his fingers through them, kind of like you told me he does with you, I think."
"Yeah," Jesse replied. "He can't wait... till he's old enough... to grow some... on his own. ... It's like I told you before... he doesn't process... sex like we do. Everything... to him is just something else... like being curious and all."
"I believe you. The more I'm around him, I see it and everything." He glanced up to stare into the eyes that met his. "I promise though, Jess - we talked about stuff, but... nothing more than that happened."
Jesse smiled. "Do you trust him?"
"Do you think he trusts you?"
"Oh yeah, but-"
"Then why... are you worried about it?" Jesse asked. "I've told you before... I know you, Noah... You're not going to hurt... my little, brother... You like him as much... as I do, I think."
Noah shifted uncomfortably. "I do like him, yeah, but... I don't know, it's just... I don't want to give you or anyone the wrong idea, you know? I'm not going to abuse him or anything. I mean, I'm glad he's not afraid to ask me stuff, and-"
"Then, stop worrying... I know what you're saying..." Jesse interrupted. "He asks me about... some deep stuff, too... sex, girls, Mom and Dad, church..."
"Church?" Noah asked, raising an eyebrow. "That's kind of, I don't know, funny - isn't it? I mean, at his age and all?"
"Not really," Jesse answered. "It's just simple stuff... like the things he sees... people doing, and he wonders... why we go there... why things happen, and all... Nothing complicated, just easy stuff."
Noah thought about that a few seconds before nodding. "Oh, okay, I guess I can see that."
Jesse observed his friend momentarily before sighing. "I'll say it again... I'm not worried about it, Noah... and I've never been worried... about you and my brother, okay? ... Take a dozen showers with him... pee together, play cards, do whatever... As long as Benji is okay... with whatever happens, so am I... He's almost eight-years-old, you know? ... Maybe not a big... difference, but I know him... I live with him, see? ... I know his heart. You... won't hurt him."
Noah looked away and grunted. "Maybe, I don't know... I just feel..." He turned his gaze back. "For the few nights I've had him with me, having someone to hold, someone to feel like that... just like you are when we get to sleep together. With you though, I know where we stand and everything, and I don't have to tell you what's in my heart. With Benji though, it's... it's... just different, it feels like..."
"Magic?" Jesse whispered. When Noah nodded, the teen smiled. "You know something? ... That's what he told me... once a long time ago... about us when we... slept together and I... held him. His word, not mine." He glanced down between them. "I'm almost jealous... I so wish I could hold and... hug you right now, you know? Then... maybe you would feel... some of my magic, or our magic... again."
Noah smiled. "Jesse... I feel just as much on the inside as I ever have, I promise. And I don't have to lie down next to you to feel our magic, either."
Jesse nodded. "I know, me neither... I feel a lot of it... right now."
Noah glanced at the door and thought briefly about when the nurse last visited. Deciding to chance it, the teen sat up and swung his legs around until he was up on his knees and hovering over his friend. Leaning in, he moved to the side of Jesse's mouth that didn't have stitches and kissed him softly. Pulling back, there was a smile in their expressions that they both knew required no words. Before sitting back, Noah leaned in for a makeshift embrace, in which Jesse's free hand came up from under the blanket. Encircling his friend's neck, he hugged him gently, but Noah still had to brace himself to keep from falling on top.
"You know," Jesse whispered, "When it was all happening... I so wished I had just... stayed with you, with the team... but I had to pee bad, though... and I couldn't hold out... you know? But... when they were punching on me... I was so glad... that you weren't there."
"I still wish I had been there, though," Noah mused, finally pulling back and returning to the makeshift bed. He covered up again but then pulled up close to his friend. "God, Jesse, I wish anything I could have... could have..."
"Could have what?" Jesse asked quietly, but with a hint of annoyance. "Listen, there is nothing... you could have done... to stop it. If you... had gone with me, then... you know we both... would be in here."
"Maybe, but..." Noah relented, casting his eyes to the floor.
A silence fell between them for a moment before Jesse spoke again. "Promise me something..." he began, causing Noah to look at him again. "Promise me that... you'll let this go... okay? I know how you feel... I would be doing the same... if I were in... your shoes, I'm sure. ... That's not how it happened... though, so what say we... just leave it behind. Please?"
"I'm trying to," Noah whispered.
"I know you are... and I promise, it's all good," was the ready reply. Jesse then sat back and glanced toward the door. "So, instead of worrying about it... why don't you... go see if they'll let... me have another Sprite... or a popsicle, or something, please? My throat... feels kind of dry..." Jesse asked with a smile. Noah laughed and shook his head, before pushing the blanket back and climbing to his feet. He started to walk away, but Jesse caught hold and held on until the teen turned back. "I'm serious, everything... is okay... or will be, soon... Don't worry, okay?"
"Okay," Noah shot back with a whisper, then pulled free to make the errand. "Maybe they'll give me a popsicle, too..."
Harland Green stopped by for an additional visit on Saturday morning, bringing his wife in with him. Jesse and Noah both recalled having met her once before, earlier in the school year. She had stood by the principal's side during one of the pep rally events held for the school's football team. It was only then that everyone discovered the man was not only happily married, but that they had two younger daughters as well, one each in the fifth and sixth grade. Neither of the girls had accompanied their parents, but several of the students had heard about them afterwards.
Jesse smiled regardless, welcoming their visit all the same as the woman sat down unabashedly at the edge of his bed, all the while her husband stood beside her. The conversation was light, but nonetheless spirited as they talked about the snow and what few days were remaining before Christmas would be upon them.
At one point the woman looked around at the multitude of balloons and cards were set up around the room. "It looks like you've gotten quite a few goodwill tokens here. Are most of these from family and friends at school?"
Jesse nodded. "Almost, yeah. Mom and Dad got me a new... school jersey, and my little brother sent me... the stuffed elephant." He tried to glance behind him, but found the effort was more difficult than he bargained for. "The card that you guys sent me, I think... is behind me here, somewhere. ... Thanks for that, I really liked it." Indeed, the card was rather large and stood out in plain sight on the shelf in the background.
Harland grunted. "I'm glad. Ira made me take her to three different places before she found the one that she wanted to get," he murmured, causing his wife to suddenly turn and smack him playfully upon his elbow. The man then chuckled before pulling the stool up and sitting with them both. "So, I guess you know you're not expected to return to school any next week. You've been excused until after the first of the year."
Jesse nodded. "Thank you, sir... Just send any homework... home with Noah."
"I don't think you'll have any problem with that," the principal acknowledged. "Most of the teachers are talking like they plan to go easy on their classes the last couple of days."
As they paused in silence, Jesse observed them both before speaking again. "Sir, can I ask you something?"
Harland's eyebrows rose. "Sure, son. What's on your mind?"
"Well, I saw something once... actually, I saw it a couple of times... that I thought was kind of strange... at school, see... It got me wondering... about something. Just... exactly, where was Pete Haskell's locker located at school? ... What area, I mean?" the teen inquired.
Harland sat up a little straighter, studying briefly before he answered. "Well, I think it was in the science hall, just outside and down from the cafeteria. Why do you ask?"
"It... it had a big sticker on the inside, didn't it? ... Some kind of ... supped-up truck-thingy, right?" Jesse asked, ignoring the man's question for the moment.
Harland studied, but eventually nodded. "I recall it had something large like that, maybe, although I'm not really certain what it was. It could have been one of those 4x4 vehicles, I guess. Why do you ask?"
Jesse considered before he replied. "Well, after Pete was expelled ... you'd probably empty it out and ... or put a new lock on it, right? ... I mean, he wouldn't... be needing it anymore."
"That's true, although if it was already one of the school's locks, as I recall, we may have just left it in place after it was cleaned out. We'd get it back at the end of the year, see." He chuckled before leaning forward in curiosity. "So, are you going to make me ask a third time?" he teased.
Jesse blushed. "Sorry, sir. It's probably nothing... but, I remember seeing some guys... use that locker a few times... both before and after he was expelled... I remember it because of... that big sticker and all... mostly after lunch, I think... because it was... across from the... boys bathroom and..." Jesse let the rest of the thought trail on as took the opportunity to take a few deep breaths once again.
Harland suddenly frowned. "What do you mean... some guys other than Pete, himself?"
"Yes, sir," Jesse whispered. "Right now, it's kind of foggy, really... but I remember thinking how strange it was... to see so many people... using it, you know? ... I would have thought that only Pete ... would get in, see? ... Unless, you gave it to another student."
"No, we haven't given it over to anyone that I know of," the man mused, frowning even further. "But - you're certain that you've seen other people using that same locker?"
"Yes, sir. I've seen his friend Jimmy... uh-"
"Jimmy Edwards?" Noah interjected, having remained quiet until then, following along with a certain fascination as Jesse explained his reasoning.
"Yeah, I guess. I mean, I know... I've seen him put books in there... at least one day during lunch," Jesse explained. "And I remember, there were... a lot of books and things... stacked inside. I saw it... after Pete was expelled."
Ira, looking on, found her own curiosity peaking. "That's interesting, but... what does that mean?" she asked quietly.
"It means..." Harland started, but then shook his head. "Well, it may imply that Pete Haskell wasn't the only person using his locker this year. If there were others, then..."
"Then Pete might not have been... the one actually in possession of all... those drugs the cops found," Jesse finished.
The room fell silent as Harland and Jesse's eyes connected, neither wavering in their resolve to give the other their complete attention. Noah, however, broke the silence by stepping closer on the other side of the bed. "But... we're all supposed to be responsible for our own lockers, right? One locker per person, and everyone has a lock, so..."
"That is the usual deal," Harland agreed, but then looked to the ceiling. "Students sign an agreement to take responsibility for their own, granted... But IF various people are using that locker, for whatever the reason, then it certainly makes for an alternative theory about whether Pete was in full possession of the locker, as Jesse suggested - or even partial or full possession of the drugs that were uncovered." The man then shook his head. "It's strange, for sure. I recall the day he was arrested; he didn't deny it was his locker we found the drugs in, but thinking about it, I don't think he ever admitted they were his, either. I believe we may have all just assumed that they were and left it at that."
"But if they weren't," Ira began, before her tone changed. "Then why is he running? Why is he in hiding?"
"Because of me," Jesse filled in. "Pete is mad... or was mad, because I... uh, decked him and his guys, and... he hasn't forgiven me for... embarrassing him in front of the whole school."
"He has a history of not taking things that others do or say to him very well," Harland replied, nodding in agreement. "Jimmy Edward's, huh? I think his homeroom is one of those down the English hallway. He's a Junior, right?"
"Yes, sir," Noah answered.
"Well, he comes in via the gym, I believe, when their class goes to lunch. I guess if he had books or something, he'd probably be better off storing them closer by, rather than walk all the way across the building, deposit them and then walk all the way back before eating," the Principal theorized. "It could all be legitimate, too, but Jesse is right in thinking that it begs the question: who else could be using that locker?"
"Well, I would think any of Pete's cronies or friends, really," Noah piped up. "Seriously, why not? He has maybe five or six people he hangs out with constantly, and I know of some others who were on good terms with him. Besides that, I uh, know there are other kids who share their lockers, too. Mostly just brothers or sisters, but still..."
Harland smiled. "Yes, I have always figured that would happen. Still, I think you boys have just set something into motion we all need to consider." He observed Jesse thoughtfully. "I must say though, I'm surprised with you. Consider, when we catch up with that boy, he's going to have a lot to answer to as it is. Yet, here you are, reasoning this out in his defense, and, well-"
"I know, I've got every reason..." Jesse interrupted the man, "in the world to hate him. ... But what kind of person would I be... if I thought I knew something... and didn't speak up about it? I mean... Maybe he's guilty and all... but what if he isn't the one... the Sheriff should really be looking for? ... For drugs, I mean?" He sighed. "I don't like Pete... especially for dragging my brother... into this mess, but... disliking him is one thing... yet being honest with myself... it's another thing. Understand?"
Harland Green nodded then in admiration, before falling into deeper thought.
Across town, at Columbia's Ace Hardware Store, a man walked through the entrance for the very first time in his life. He wasn't a total stranger to the town, having been in the area some years earlier for a brief spell, but he had never paused at many of the shops or stores there. He still passed through on various occasions, but other than stopping at the First Nation Bank branch a few times, located just off of the town's square, he generally moved on. On this day, he was carrying a rather silver-topped cane with a rather sharp tip, and he had both white hair and a beard that were amazingly bright and radiant against his navy blazer and tan outfit. His looks overall were something easily picked up on by two toddlers, who were just leaving with their mother before they stopped in their tracks. They couldn't have been more than three to four years old, but when both girls saw him their mouths opened, and their jaws dropped wide. Then, quickly tugging at their mother's hand, they both simultaneously pointed at him. One began whispering to the woman, but it was amusing to most who were immediately around them. Most toddlers their age often hadn't learned what their quiet voice was yet, so her whisper was one that carried easily over the aisles in that part of the store - and certainly within earshot of the old man as he stopped to get his bearings. He glanced down at both girls and smiled brightly before giving them a wink. It wasn't the first time he had observed that type of reaction from the younger children, and he knew, Good Lord willing, it would be far from the last. The man decidedly approached them while reaching into his coat pocket, and then pulled out two, individually wrapped candy canes. Instead of handing them directly to the girls, however, the man offered the treats to their mother. "I am uncertain if you would approve of the kindness of a complete stranger, but if you like, I offer these with the promise they are just as simple as they appear to be, but with a sincere desire of wishing you all the best of the holidays."
Taken aback by surprise, the woman reached forward slowly and accepted the candy, impressed by both his demeanor and friendliness. "Uh, why, thank you, mister, uh-"
The man just smiled widely and waved the obligatory attempt away. Merrily, he then began making his way further into the store, just as the mother began tugging on the girls and making their way outside. He paused only when, as the door was shutting, he heard one of the girls suddenly call out. "Mommy, was that Santa Claus?" He chuckled to himself before continuing up to the counter, where he found a young lady standing behind the register.
"Excuse me, young lady, but could you tell me, does a James McAllister work here, and if so, is he in today?" he asked cheerfully.
"Uh, yes, he works here, but I'm not certain if he has come in yet," she replied, glancing around and hoping to find one of the other employees nearby, but failing to find one. "If you like, I'll page him though, and we can see if he answers."
"That would be much appreciated, so please do, and if he responds, tell him there is a Mr. Carmichael who would like to have a word with him, if possible," the man replied. "Oh, and do you have a facilities room for the public? I've been on the road for some time now, and well... I shouldn't have had my coffee refilled this morning, I'm afraid."
Smiling, the girl pointed in a direction toward the rear wall. "There are public restrooms back there... just follow the sign." He thanked her kindly, and made his way toward the specified location.
Less than ten minutes later, he emerged and returned to the counter, only this time to find both the young lady and an older, middle-aged man awaiting him. "Mr. McAllister, I presume?"
James nodded. "I'm James McAllister, yes. What can I do for you, mister, uh-"
"Carmichael, of Carmichael, Jones and Brooks. We're a law firm, situated over in Danville, Kentucky, of which I am one of the partners. Sir, a Mr. Timothy Denison and I have been exchanging correspondence over the last couple of weeks, and I was hoping perhaps we might be able to chat for just a few minutes. I don't mean to interrupt your work here, but I was passing through the area as it were, and I have a couple of questions I'd like to hear your opinion on. Perhaps before we're finished, I might be able to return the favor and provide you with some of my own personal observations, too. You are the one, I presume, who lost your home in a tornado storm just a few months ago, and have been battling it out with a less-than-enthused insurance holder?"
James, totally taken by surprise, straightened and regarded the man closely. "I- yes, we were, or we are rather, having some issues, that's for certain." He then glanced at the girl. "I'm going to take Mr. Carmichael back to the office, Gina. If you need something, just page me, okay?"
"All right, sure thing Mr. McAllister," the girl replied. James then exited from behind the counter and began making his way, his guest following, toward the rear of the store. Once there, they found a hallway marked 'For Employees Only' which both entered, before immediately turning into a small, empty office. James closed the door and offered the man a chair, while he himself sat down behind a desk.
"Ah, this feels much better," the white-haired man exclaimed, setting his cane down beside him. "It isn't that long of a drive in itself, but I've come from Bowling Green this morning, making my way back to the old homestead, you see. It makes for a bit of monotonous driving, to say the least."
"I understand," James acknowledged, before sitting back in his chair to regard the man. "So, what can I do for you specifically, sir?"
Mr. Carmichael smiled brightly once again. "Mr. Denison and I were at a function together, some weeks ago, and then had dinner afterwards one evening. He was telling me about a rather strange, if not bizarre case he was consulting on involving a storm, harboring a sizable twister of sorts, that laid to waste several houses in the area. In almost all the cases, the various families had insurance coverage, and most were now in the stages of rebuilding or at least settling in order to get on with their lives. He did, however, exemplify one case in particular where that was not the situation. It is my understanding that case belonged to you and your family. Is that correct?"
James nodded. "Insofar as I am aware, yes, you're correct. The tornado struck roughly the week before Halloween of this year, and we've yet to even see any of the debris hauled away. In fact, we've yet to get much of any reaction out of the company thus far. I've only seen their rep make a single visit with us, and since then he keeps coming up with excuses for not returning."
"Ah, yes, I believe your counsel has told me that as well. He, too, has been experiencing untold delays of getting information and corroborations from the company," Mr. Carmichael stated. "Well, just so you know, in most cases there is an agreement between insurance companies licensed in the State of Kentucky, whereby in times such as this, the State and the company share the expenses involved in the removal of debris and the cleaning up of such properties when disasters such as this strike. It is a somewhat protective agreement, in a sense, meaning it is one conditionally implied before licenses to stakeholders are even issued. In your case, it seems, the company decided they would renege on that agreement, and therefore withdrew behind a curtain of red tape - all while the contractors worked on doing the jobs for other properties in the claim region for other insurers. By them pulling out, the contractors were, of course, uncertain if they would ever collect their usual fees in the matter, see - thus creating a stalemate in your regard. That is why you have had no initial action executed thus far."
"That's right," James admitted, acknowledging the facts presented thus far. "I'm not sure I understood it in that much detail, but the reasoning is the gist of what was explained to me."
"Ah! Well, now sir, if you don't mind, and purely for theoretical purposes at the moment, would you give me a summary of how things have been proceeding then? I ask because, again thanks to our mutual acquaintance, he felt I should probably get the particulars directly from you." Mr. Carmichael grasped his cane and held it in front of him, using it to prop both hands as he regarded the man. He was relaxed, but James noticed a distinct shift in his composure to one of astute attention. Feeling he had nothing to lose, he began with the storm and the correspondence he had been having with the various company representatives, their latest claims and eventual notification that he was being denied any further coverage. He included and covered what details came to mind, only being stopped briefly on occasion to clarify specific points of interest, but otherwise Mr. Carmichael seemed to absorb every detail like a sponge. He also inquired about any family hardships that had been endured on their own since, how the boys had adjusted to the sudden changes that life was forcing onto them, and about Makalah and how she was adjusting. James was careful, trying to stick to the basic facts without conjecture. Before long, however, the polished gentlemen's warmth and sincere personality began winning him over.
When James finished, the man sat back once again and became thoughtful for several minutes. As the silence grew, James offered the man a soft drink, which was gladly accepted. As James visited the vending machine in the break area, his thoughts turned to the man and his purpose. Denison had mentioned he might consult someone on the matter, but when nothing more was said, James had assumed it was out of his purview. Having Mr. Carmichael appear suddenly changed that line of thought, and as he returned and handed over the soda, James observed his visitor with a renewed interest. Eventually Mr. Carmichael took a long drink from his soda, before setting it down on the edge of the desk. "It does, indeed, seem that you have a rather bizarre case at that, I must agree. I thank you for that narrative, and for indulging my enquires in certain places for amplification. I can tell you, however, all of it was extremely helpful."
Mr. Carmichael then pulled himself and sat forward on the edge of his chair. "Mr. McAllister - may I call you James, by the way? I digress, and apologize, I don't believe I've even told you my own Christian name, did I? I am, of course, Sir William Carmichael." He pulled a business card from his shirt pocket and handed it over.
James glanced at the front before his eyebrows shot up. "Yes sir, I've heard of you. I'm not certain from where I heard of you, though, at the moment, but..."
The man brushed off the response. "Oh, that doesn't matter so much, but please, call me William, if you like. James, let me speak plainly. The night I had dinner with Mr. Denison, he felt that, given the certain merits of your case, you were being railroaded by an outfit which has, in recent years, taken a severe dive in credibility. Not just in the State of Kentucky, mind you, but all across the entire southern region of the nation. The company only recently, and I mean around late August of this year, attempted to abandon their certifications and shut down. A Federal judge prevented it, however, and ordered the company undergo an extensive review by the state auditors. Since that time, there have been a large number of stalling tactics and other maneuvers, designed to confuse and/or hide their assets and liabilities."
"A part of this I've heard about, yeah... but, I did not discover it until recently," James responded. "It would have been nice to know about it before-hand, but still..."
William nodded. "As I said, it was all kept very hush-hush, you see. The company has employed a variety of delaying tactics, some legal, some questionable - but all without any good intent. In fact, if it were not for recent events, this case of yours could have been held up with everything else for years in the courts."
"Recent events? Why, what's happened?" James asked, frowning.
"Well, I can't get into specifics, mind you, for many parts of this enterprise are still being investigated, and we are quite frankly, under a rather strict non-disclosure order regarding most aspects of the litigation. Still, that does not preclude your knowing the facts that are publicly researchable, or the status of the company as a whole. Most of those facts belong to those which I've just relayed to you."
James considered for the moment, before asking, "So, does this help or hurt me, Mr. Carmichael?"
"Oh, it will considerably help you, I think," the man replied with a jolly tone. "You see, I think with your permission, I am going to ask Mr. Denison to transfer your case to me. There are certain, ah, elements about it that we can go about and get you some more immediate action on, regardless of the company's pending dissolution. I believe that, although it is a personal opinion mind you, that you will probably get a preliminary ruling on your behalf as soon as a few weeks following the holidays."
"What... does that mean, exactly?" James asked quietly. "Understand sir, I'm not trying to put you on the spot, but..."
"Oh, I understand, don't worry. Be mindful, I cannot speak for the judge or the courts, outright. What I can tell you, however, comes from my experiences and the experiences of our firm. Given that, I really believe you can begin to relax. I know, it is a difficult thing to do, bearing in mind where you presently stand, but - if it can give you any peace of mind, then please embrace it. You see, we'll wait until after the holidays first, because frankly, if we file anything right away, it'll most likely just lie on someone's desk until then anyway. Then somewhere along the second or third week of the new year, we'll begin filing for several additional items, including summary judgements regarding your policy, summary judgements against the company for breaking their bond of good faith they hold with the state, and other things. We'll ask for a compliance of agreement record, and then force these data to be submitted by the end of the month. If they delay, they'll automatically default then, and believe me, when companies do that, it does not please the judge one bit! Then, once received or not, we'll force the company to execute certain clauses that are like standardized contracts - between the company and the State, and the company and you, the policy holder at the time the storm occurred."
James lifted an eyebrow. "That makes it sound like you're going to throw the book at them, doesn't it?"
The jovial laugh that was returned caused James to smile again as the man explained. "It does, and we will. But that's only the beginning, however. Since you've had to resort to legal action, we'll also bind them to the reimbursement of all legal fees, to date, thus discharging you and your family from any liability. Then, lastly, we'll file a lawsuit, asking for punitive damages. Compensatory damages are, by definition, what will be covered by your policy. Their lack of good faith, however, and the extraordinary hardships you and your family have had to face in order to get back on your feet, even if only temporary, call for consideration outside of anything the compensatory statue defines."
James shoulders sagged. "But sir, what you're talking about will take a lot of time, won't it? Not that... I don't know..."
Surprisingly, the lawyer disagreed. "No, no, no... there is something here you have to understand. Yes - the lawsuit will probably take a minimum of six-months to a year, possibly more, and truthfully there is nothing we can do that will advance that timetable. That is, unless a judge were to so order in mitigation. What I'm talking about in the meantime, however, is forcing a series of preliminary injunctions that require you to clear away the land, and begin the process of rebuilding. You'll be restricted to the terms of your policy, I grant, but even the policy has potential loopholes in it. For example, you told me yourself: you've been paying an ever-increasing premium annually since its inception, yes? That means the policy has to, by law, account for inflation and certain other factors in your favor, in order to justify the increase in rates. When I go over your paperwork, if they haven't adjusted for that, then you'll automatically have grounds for other actions, see. If they have, then that is all the better for you and worse for them. Either way, in that one, single aspect, you come out on top."
"But... how do I start to rebuild? I can't go to a bank and afford another loan-"
"You can, though, don't you see? If the services are in litigation, then your credit has no basis on the remaining mortgage you had, because that will be tied in and settled within the court. You will be free and clear to pursue whatever it takes to rebuild your family a home, once again." The man leaned forward once again. "Please try to understand, James. I know, there is no magic wand for all of this, but there are things that will flatten the curve and make everything very manageable in the end. That's what you want for both the short and long term, isn't it? That is why I tell you now, there's no reason you need to be worried about your future. That is what insurance policies are purchased for to begin with, to protect your future." The man sat back again and chuckled. "Quite sincerely, you should only need concern yourself with whether you're going to rebuild exactly what you had before, or develop a new layout - or even find a whole new location altogether, and start anew. See?"
James finally leaned back, relaxed but yet overwhelmed. "I don't... I don't know what to say, really. I mean, I always thought that was how it should be, but the fights, the battles, the... paperwork I've been sifting through... it's been unreal."
"I can imagine. That is the first thing some insurance companies try to do in cases like this, you know. They'll drown you in paperwork, and try to make you produce a copy of the policy foremost. It doesn't matter that it could be lost or damaged in the storm. The shadier companies figure if you can't produce it, then they aren't liable to hold up their end of the agreement," William explained. "You, however, are holding a couple of trump cards in your favor. There are specific laws that govern your situation, for one. Another, you do have a copy of the policy."
"Wh- what?" James asked, suddenly caught off guard. "Are you certain? Where...?"
"Your bank has a copy of the policy, although it's probably stored on microfiche film and kept somewhere safe. They are required, by a federal mandate, to maintain their copy as long as they use your property with a proper lien against your mortgage. It protects them, you see, in ensuring they don't lose out on the value of the services provided in your loan agreement."
"Wow, I didn't... I mean..." James sat back, astonished.
William Carmichael sat back and laughed again. "So, worry not. Give me and my office a little time, we'll work all of this out for you. The only thing is, you need to give me permission to do so. To do that, you need to talk to Mr. Denison and sign a waiver. Talking with him, by the way, is something I would advise you to do anyway. You can check us out, my firm that is, and discuss with him any of the other complexities involved. If you're satisfied, however, he'll then transfer his files and particulars to us and we'll begin working on them. Again, after the holidays most likely, but still..."
"And... what will we owe you?" James asked quietly. "I mean, honestly sir, I really don't have a lot to work with right now. I had to give Tim a retainer, but..."
"Did you not understand me earlier? We'll file for restitution of services to be paid by the insurance company, and let me be frank - in almost 100% of cases like this, the companies have to honor that reparation. Oh, you may have to procure a few hundred dollars or so for certain types of filing expenses, things done on your behalf that are usually exempt from having us cover for you, but no matter. I assure you that it won't be anything insurmountable, and my firm will even open a short line of credit for you if necessary. We'll also be handling Mr. Denison's fee as well, and although it may take some time, he should return that retainer you mentioned by the end of the process." He reached out his hand, which caused James to lean forward and shake it firmly. "I understand what you're going through, but trust me, even if only for a little while. We'll see to it you're not having to fight with this anymore, and in addition, we'll see to it you do not have to fight with this anymore."
James smiled at the double-play on words. "Like I said, I don't know what to say, other than thank you."
Mr. Carmichael chuckled and then climbed to his feet. "Then, don't say anything, see? We're just two old friends getting reacquainted with one another again. By the way, you said you remembered the name, but couldn't recall exactly where at. Well, as it turns out, I think I do remember. It was when another mutual friend of our acquaintance, was in an accident or something in a utility truck or van or something, around 15 years ago, if I'm not mistaken."
It was as if a light bulb had clicked on. "You're... you were the firm who handled Allen Cook's legalities!" James exclaimed, snapping his fingers. He stood with the man and offered yet another handshake. "I'm sorry I didn't remember! I feel like a heel now, really!"
William laughed heartily again. "You, young man, have had your life filled with everything going north, south, east and west! I wouldn't expect you to keep up with such minor details so relatively ancient, so there are no worries, I assure you. I was only reminded of it during my dinner that night, as Mr. Denison began calling off several of the names involved around here. I was lucky though, because it was Allen Cook's case that brought me into Columbia for my first time back in those days." Mr. Carmichael grunted. "I say lucky, however, because I'm afraid I'm one of those growing number who believe that the more knowledge we gain gets stuffed into one ear, only to have something fall out the other side in order to make room for it! That case, thankfully, has so far avoided those circumstances!"
James laughed, feeling that he was already experiencing that. The two then made their way out of the office, and James, overwhelmed, sudden felt like someone was fighting on the right side of the aisle with him once again.
Maybe everything would turn out for the better, after all.
As the new day progressed, Jesse found his routine significantly altered. Soon following breakfast, the teen received a visit by a middle-aged, black man who announced it was time for the teen to begin getting re-oriented to the modern world. "Huh?" Jesse asked initially, obviously confused.
Darius Potter laughed merrily as he pulled up the stool up and took a seat by the bed. "You don't want to be bed-bound forever, do you? Now that you've had a few days to recuperate and are on an upward swing, we need to start thinking about going forward even more. That means we need to begin getting you up and moving about. You'd like that again, wouldn't you?" When Jesse nodded, the man crossed his arms. "Well, then that's why I'm here. We're going to get you up and moving about some, simple as that. Tell me first though, have you sat up on the side of the bed any at all since your arrival?"
"No, sir," Jesse responded, his confusion rapidly ebbing away. "Honestly, it... it kind of hurts in some places, uh, if I move very much."
"I would imagine so, given the ordeal you just went through," Darius replied, picking up and scanning through Jesse's chart which had been hanging at the foot of the bed. "Yep, I can see it now. A part of that 'hurt' you feel though, comes from just not using any of your muscles for the last few days. I understand about the lower groin and all, so we'll be careful, I promise." He looked up. "Don't worry, though - I understand the why and all, but that's the whole point of us getting together today and tomorrow. We need to get started sometime, and now seems as good as any. Agree?"
Jesse nodded. "Okay, I guess... you're the boss."
Darius laughed heartily for the second time. "I don't think I've ever had a patient tell me that one before!" He leaned forward once again. "So, I suggest we take it easy at first, mostly just getting you to sit up until you're doing so without any ill effects. Then we'll get you on your feet, then gradually progress from there until you can walk around. See? Simple stuff really, but don't let it deceive you. You're more than likely going to have to take it in stages because you'll feel a bit disoriented at first. Trust me when I say that is normal, young sir. You've been on your back a few days, so sitting and standing will be bit of a hill to climb. Don't be discouraged by it - it's normal, and it will get better very quickly. It wouldn't surprise me if by the end of the day you're walking again easily enough."
"Really? Will I, well... this thing..." Jesse asked sheepishly, pointing to his groin. "Will I be able to get it out?"
Darius nodded. "No need to be embarrassed about that, son - although I certainly understand your feelings on the matter. The answer is, when you can walk reasonably back and forth to the bathroom, then yes, the staff will then get that catheter removed. Until then, we can attach the bag to a waistband or belt. Tell me, has it been hurting or bothering you any?"
"No, sir, not really," Jesse replied. "I, uh, I guess I hardly even know it's there... but, there's other, uh, problems down there, which you probably already know about."
"Well, for the most part, yes. I don't want to disappoint you, but the truth may very well be you'll have to have some of that padding for a few more days, just so you keep the twins from being juggled around too hard," Darius explained. "But the swelling there, too, will ease up rapidly, and you'll feel it receding gradually over the next week. So, as I said, no real worries in that department." The man paused expectantly, but when silence followed, he prompted gently. "Have you got any other questions you'd like to ask me? I'm no doctor, mind you, but I've been around people of all ages, in all sorts of situations, so yours is nothing new. All will be good, as long as we take our time and be patient."
"No sir, sorry," Jesse replied, again feeling sheepish, but Darius shook his head.
"There is nothing to be sorry or embarrassed about. I know, the man-regions are not common fodder for normal conversations, especially when you young'uns have got nothing more than an old grown up like me in here, right?"
"That... doesn't bother me, really..." Jesse offered, but his expression said otherwise, which made the man laugh.
"I hear you, but still, it doesn't mean you have to sit in the dark about anything you don't know. I'll tell you what I can, but I suspect your doctor will talk to you about it all too, eventually. Based on my experience though, and what I've been told about your case, you escaped a rather rougher side that all this could have turned into."
"Really?" Jesse asked, frowning. "What do you mean?"
Darius sat back and became thoughtful. "I've seen some rough things like this over the years. Such as, for example, young men to lose the ability to control their bladder any longer, become paralyzed from the waist down, or even losing the use of their man-parts. I admit, most are from people who have been in auto accidents and the like, but some have been from fights or worse. In your case, you had a bad brawl, more or less. Most are just moderate fist-fights, I'd say, but in your case, if the people who did this to you had kept it up much longer, or beat on you any harder in certain ways, you could have been in some deep shit for a while," he explained. "Pardon the language, by the way."
Jesse observed the man closely before nodding. "It's okay. I'm around people who talk a lot worse trash than that at school."
"I imagine you are," the man offered with a chuckle. "So, what say we try and do this now, hmm? Want to launch on a new adventure with me?"
"I guess so," Jesse replied, unsure but willing nonetheless. Darius checked to assure Jesse's padding was secured, and then he helped the teen rotate his legs out and over the side of the bed. Although Jesse had some initial misgivings, the movement and repositioning did not seem as uncomfortable as he had braced himself for - especially given the man's previous warnings. Darius moved beside him near his hips then, and holding a pillow, he guided the teen to lie back against it as he finished the turn. It wasn't until he began to sit up on his own that Jesse suddenly felt a strange sensation overcome him. "Uh... whooaaaa..."
Darius chuckled. "See? That's what I was talking about! It's okay though, Jesse, I got you. Just lie back here into your pillow. Don't try to do anything on your own, but instead let me keep you upright and balanced. There, that's it... just like that. See what I mean? Kind of a goofy feeling, is it not?"
"No kidding! ... Why... do I feel... this way?" Jesse asked quietly. "It's... weird..."
"Well, it's because of a couple of items, really. You see, your heart has been pumping blood for you at rest for more than three days now, while you were on your back. Now, by sitting up, it has to begin working harder, see? Look at your monitor over here," the man encouraged, pointing to the left-hand side of the display. "See your heart rate there, it's on the high side, right? But if you watch, it's leveling out and starting to drop back down. That's the first step, see? So, what we have to do over the next hour or two, is trick it into returning to its previous rhythm, and that will in turn begin to trick your brain into working differently, too. The more blood that gets pumped through your body, then the brain will respond and become more focused. You know, start to return to the 'old' way of how it was working."
Jesse nodded and eventually glanced at the man. "Can I ask, like, how long... have you been doing this?"
Darius grinned. "Soon be 22-years next-April."
"Is it something you like doing?" the teen asked, causing the other man to shrug.
"Ah, I don't dislike it. I mean, I never get tired of meeting people, young like yourself, or the elderly and anyone in between. Basically, what I get to do is help people remember things they've already done all their lives, but have taken for granted, more or less. In other words, I help them re-learn how to kickstart everything and put it all back into gear. It helps them overcome obstacles, and I get a lot of satisfaction in knowing I was a small part of getting them back on their feet and all. Sometimes the hours and the pay leave a little bit to be desired, but otherwise it's not a bad living," the man explained.
"It sounds pretty cool, to me," Jesse admitted.
Darius smiled and nodded. "It is. So, let's see if we can lay you back down for a couple of minutes, and then do it all over again. Then when you can sit up without feeling faint, we'll graduate you to standing on your feet next."
"Are you sure I... like, will be able to walk again soon?"
Darius laughed. "Oh yeah, I suspect we'll have you walking by mid-afternoon. Now, you may have to have a little help for another day or so, but that isn't anything really unexpected. Say, wasn't there another young man in here with you earlier this morning?"
"Yeah, that was my best friend, Noah," Jesse answered. "His Dad came by and picked... him up a little while ago... so that he could go home... and get some sleep. ... My Dad and brother are supposed to come back... around lunchtime and stay with me a while, I think."
"That's good. I'm not too sure we'll have you walking that quickly, but still - we'll work on it throughout the day. I believe you'll be walking well before the evening gets here."
"I'd really like that," Jesse replied, finally smiling for the first time since Darius had arrived.
"Holy shi-" Noah started, but then sheepishly stopped as he saw the warning expression his dad gave him. "Um, I mean crap! You're sitting up and all now? That's awesome!"
Jesse grinned as his father leaned in and tussled his hand through the teen's head of hair. "I happen to agree. When did all of this start happening?" he added.
"A therapist started working with me... this morning," Jesse replied with a smile.
"Looking pretty sharp then, if you ask me," Allen added, as Benji entered the room and saw his brother sitting up. He immediately squealed and then started to make a run for the bedside.
Noah, however, was ready and caught the younger boy quickly. "Hey, slow down!" he whispered, laughing. "Don't kill him!"
"I wouldn't do that!" Benji retorted, but then wiggled free from the teenager and moved to hop up on the side of Jesse's bed. "You're looking a LOT better today, Jess!
"Yeah, thanks. I feel a lot better too, squirt," Jesse replied. He glanced up at his dad. "How's mom?"
"Mad as blooming hell, all because she couldn't come up here to be with you," James replied. "I don't think she realized it would be this way when she agreed to the surgery. Anyway, we would have come sooner, but we were all trying to give Noah some time to get a nap in first."
"He practically threatened me bodily harm if we left without him," Allen conveyed, causing his son to blush.
"Yeah, but I got to wake him up... with an ice cube!" Benji exclaimed, grinning wickedly. That caused Noah to blush even deeper, giving Jesse a knowing look, all the while hoping his friend didn't press the issue. Jesse only smiled and nodded.
"So, how's it going otherwise?" James asked quietly.
Jesse shrugged. "Okay, I guess. It was really kind of weird sitting up though, and then he let me stand up a time or two afterwards. I was all dizzy-like and everything at first, but then it started getting better. Darius, uh, the physical therapist guy... warned me it would be that way, but he's been great in helping me get used to everything again."
"Where is he?" Benji asked, curious.
"He took a late lunch, I think. I think he said... he would be back around three or so," Jesse replied.
"You're certainly talking much better," Allen noted. "You're not having to take so many breaths in between now."
"I still do sometimes, but not nearly as much... as I did, yeah," Jesse nodded in agreement.
Noah then stepped forward and placed a paper sack on his friend's legs. "Mom sent you some Zucchini bread, if you'd like some. She was afraid to send you anything at all, but told us to find out how you're doing and then maybe she'd fix you something better tomorrow."
Jesse's eyebrows shot up. "Well, the how is I'm doing a lot better. They gave me this yucky soup though, and a weird tuna sandwich for lunch, so bleh. I'd really be up to better foods anytime you guys want to bring me something!"
Allen wrinkled his nose. "I'm not surprised. Generally, if you don't get killed by the time you reach the hospital, they try to paralyze you with the food afterwards. Probably as a way to make you stay as long as possible." All four of the others turned and gave the man a curious expression, causing him to laugh. "Yes, come on, you know I'm kidding!" he declared, brushing off their mock seriousness.
"It's a good thing, too!" a voice announced from behind them. They turned to see one of the nurses walk in with a clipboard, smiling in amusement. "No one ever said we had a triple-A rating in the restaurant business. At least, it's better than snails and puppy dog tails, right?" The adults laughed, but Noah, Benji and Jesse exchanged amused glances that said otherwise. The woman worked her way over to check Jesse's vitals before commenting again. "Tonight's dinner is turkey and dressing with the trimmings, so maybe you'll like that a little better."
"I'm sorry ma'am, I didn't mean to complain," Jesse offered, but was surprised when the woman turned on him.
"Sorry? I'd be sorry, too, if tuna and soup was all I had to eat in the last four to five days!" She clucked her tongue. "It's always hit and miss around here. There are good days, and then there are days where I think our dietician gets up on the wrong side of the bed. On those days, so does everybody else!"
Benji giggled, but otherwise the group remained silent until the woman thanked them and left the room. Jesse turned to lie back onto the bed again, slowly pulling his legs in and stretching them out under the covers. Once situated, he opened the paper sack and pulled a generous slice of bread out, wrapped in clear plastic. "Thank Mrs. Cook for me, guys, will ya?" he said, before unwrapping and taking a large bite.
The foursome stayed with the teen for almost an hour before Darius returned. After introductions were made, the men chatted idly while the boys conversed among themselves. "I guess that's about it," Jesse said initially. "For now, anyway."
"Nope!" Benji replied. "Noah and I are going to stay with you until Mrs. Cook comes and picks us up later, before supper!"
"Whoa, not so fast, Speedy Gonzales!" Noah announced, holding his hands up. "That's only if you want us to stay, Jess. If you're in the middle of this therapy stuff, we'll understand if you don't want us to."
"Nut... sure he does!" Benji shot back, then turned and looked expectantly at his big brother. "Don't you?"
"Of course, I do," Jesse replied with a wide smile. "As long as you don't get too bored, at least."
That was when Noah pulled a deck of cards from his coat pocket. "No chance of that," he whispered. "I brought some entertainment with me."
Jesse smiled, but had to make room as Benji leaned in closer and whispered, "And no, I promise, we won't be playing any strip poker!"
Jesse and Noah glanced at one another, which caused Benji to giggle all the same. It wasn't until he shook his head and muttered something that sounded like 'Brothers!', that caused Noah to burst out into a fit of hysterics. Jesse also laughed, but had to exercise control in managing the sharp pain in his side afterwards. The adults looked on initially, but then waved it off, returning to their own conversation.
"You just wait, Short-Stuff, until I decide to put an ice cube down on your bubbly little butt early one morning," Noah whispered, teasing. At first Benji giggled, but then quieted, giving Jesse a knowing glance.
A few minutes later, James walked over to the bedside once again. "So, will you be alright for a while, with these two nurse-maids doting on you?" he asked, teasingly.
"Dad! I'm not a nurse or maid! Sheesh, and I'm not a g-i-r-l!" Benji announced, turning to the man with a certain level of indignation.
James held up both hands. "Whoa, hang onto your britches, partner!" he announced, laughing. "What should I have said then? You do know, there are such things as male-nurses in the world, Benji!"
"Yeah, but..." the youth began, but then blushed, considering he saw the therapist observing him closely with a huge grin. "Okay, okay... sorry," he muttered.
Darius walked over, laughing. "No offense taken, young man. In fact, I was just thinking it might be a good thing you two are going to stay behind, anyway. I suspect young Mr. McAllister here will probably benefit from having a couple of extra hands around for a while, especially if we're going to get him up and walking this afternoon."
"Then I guess with that, Allen and I should split," James replied. He grasped Jesse by the hand and gave it a quick squeeze before lowering his voice. "I'll probably not be back tonight son, but I know Jennifer is coming out later, and I think Noah has volunteered to stay with you again. I'm going to be busy keeping your mother off her foot, so you can probably guess what that will entail."
"It's okay, Dad... Take care of mom, first. I'm fine... I promise," Jesse replied. "See you tomorrow though, right?"
"Wild dragons could not keep me away, I promise," the man replied. Allen also took his leave, and then moments later the three boys were alone with Darius.
"So, what say we get you out of that bed, shall we?" the man announced merrily.
"I don't get it," Deputy Josh Allen spoke up, addressing his partner currently beside him. Both men were walking down the main boardwalk between the land and the marina. "We've been out here half a dozen times already, and we never saw anything out of place!"
"I know, but the boss said the kid detected a fish-like odor and all, and there are not too many places where that's going to come from around here," Phillip Turner replied. "I agree, you and I were here just over a week ago, but..."
"Smelled fishy, huh? That could mean anything, really. Could be someone worked in the seafood department over at Walmart, or maybe they were out on the farm in this freezing weather or something," Josh reflected quietly.
"Yeah, I know, and I think the boss knows it, too. He still wanted us to check it out down here again, though. Supposedly the kid said it was a strong odor, so..."
"I hear you, yeah... Terrible what happened to him and all, though. Did you hear? Someone said they almost lost him at one point, he was beat up so badly."
"I'm not sure if it was that bad, but I did hear he got messed up something fierce, as my grandmother would say," Phillip replied, nodding. "I agree with you, it went far beyond a simple school fight with the local bully, or whoever it was. Like I said, he got pretty messed up."
Both fell silent as they reached the main building of the marina and entered. Some of the lights were on, but the massive, open-aired building appeared to be deserted. Shadows were outlined everywhere in the late-afternoon twilight, and both knew it would not be long until the area would be encompassed in almost total darkness. "Say," Josh offered thoughtfully, "Do you reckon anyone has ever checked her out during the evening or late -night hours?"
"I have no idea, really," Phillip replied. "I know each time I've been down here has been in the mornings or early afternoon." He caught on instantly, however, to the idea his partner had hatched. "You know, maybe we should stay around here for a bit, or at least head out, and sneak back down here and stake it out for a while tonight. You game?"
Josh shrugged. "I'm on the clock until midnight. Doesn't matter to me where I spend it, as long as we don't get called out on a run. And as long as I don't freeze my ass off."
"I'm with you on that one, for sure!" his partner replied, but then looked to the sky before nodding. "What say we do just that, in case anyone saw us coming down the walk there. You know, try and work our way back as inconspicuously as we can..."