Chapter One

"Yo Jimmy!" A familiar voice rang out as a smiling boy dropped into the seat next to his in the the first period class.

"Oh, hey Nate." Jimmy replied with a tired smile. "Did you guys go to the bowling alley last night?"

"Dude, you should have come with us." Nate replied as he tucked all of his books except his science text book under his seat. "Debbie was there and she was asking for you."

"She was?" Jimmy smiled. Debbie was one of the cutest girls in the school, and he had just heard from a friend, who had heard from a friend, that Debbie liked him. "I wish I could have gone."

"I told her you were going out with Cathy Butterman." Nate giggled.

"Shut Up! You did not!" Jimmy raised his voice, gaining the attention of the teacher.

"Mister Fitzgerald. I'm aware the bell hasn't rung yet, but if you could manage to keep it down to a dull roar it would be appreciated." The teacher scolded as she stood up and waited for the class to find their seats.

"I'm just messin' with ya bro. I wouldn't say that to her." Nate reassured him. "She was asking why you weren't there. Maybe we can try to plan for some night when your Dad will let you go."

Just as the bell rang, Jimmy looked down at his desk and sighed. "Yeah. Some other time."

"Take your seats, class." Mrs. Endyke said in her grandmotherly tone as she did every morning. She silently waited at the door as the last couple of students ran in from the hallway, earning a warning glance from the woman. After closing the door, she looked back at the room, who was now paying attention. "Last night's homework assignment was to read pages 115 through 127 and write a short essay about the water cycle and each of it's functions. Who can give me the definition of water cycle?" She asked as a hand full of students raised their hands, Nathan and Jimmy shrunk in their seats to try to not get called. "James, the definition please."

"Yes ma'am." Jimmy sighed. "The water cycle is the cycle of processes in which water circulates between the earth's oceans, atmosphere, and land, involving precipitation as rain and snow, drainage in streams and rivers, and return to the atmosphere by evaporation and transpiration."

"Excellent James. And would you please read your homework assignment out loud to the class." She smiled.

"I wasn't able to finish it Mrs. Endyke." Jimmy looked at his desk in embarrassment.

"It wasn't a difficult assignment James." The teacher sighed. "Who can read their essay to the class? Amy?"

As Amy read her assignment, Nate glanced at Jimmy. "Was he drunk again?"

"Shut up Nate!" Jimmy replied a bit too loud.

"Mister Fitzgerald. Remain seated at the end of class today. Not doing your assignments is your choice; but I will not tolerate disruptions that prevent others from learning. Please proceed Amy."

"Sorry dude." Nate mouthed before focusing his attention back toward the student who was reading.

The rest of the class focused on the assignment, and Jimmy simply stared out the window. The teacher made note of his inattentiveness, but said nothing and focused on the room as a whole. When the bell rang to end the class, Jimmy's attention snapped back to the teacher as she rushed to assign the homework for the weekend.

"...and don't forget that I will be expecting to see diagrams as well as explanations on your paper." She said as she saw Jimmy closing his textbook. "James, please remain seated."

"Yes Ma'am." Jimmy sighed, looking at Nate and shrugging.

"If she kills you, can I ask Debbie out?" Nate grinned.

"Fuck you." Jimmy whispered and laughed. "Get out of here before she makes you stay to help bury my body."

Once the room was empty, Mrs. Endyke closed the door and then walked back to her desk, leaning on it and simply looking at Jimmy with a puzzled expression. "James, what are the seven stages of the water cycle, in order off the top of your head please."

Jimmy tilted his head, surprised at the question but replied: "Um, they are evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, and runoff ma'am."

She shook her head and took off her glasses to rub her eyes. "So why did you not do a homework assignment that obviously would have been easy for you?" she asked, receiving only a shrug of his shoulders in reply as Jimmy stared at the floor. "James, is there something wrong at home that we should be aware of?"

"No." Jimmy half whispered as tears began to well up in his eyes. "I'm sorry."

Putting her glasses back on, the woman sighed and crossed her arms, "James, you are one of my best students in class. I know you enjoy science and it is a pleasure to teach you. But your homework assignments are thirty percent of your overall grade. If this continues, you will end out failing this class for no good reason. Please buckle down and complete the homework assignments."

"Yes ma'am." Jimmy replied looking at her as he tucked his emotions as deep as he could and finally made eye contact.

"This one last time, I will allow you to make up the assignment and turn it in Monday morning. Please don't forget."

"I won't." Jimmy replied as he stood up and grabbed his books. "Thank you." he said on his way by and rushed out of the room.

"Dude! She didn't kill you." Nate said as Jimmy ran into the emptying hallway, startling Jimmy.

"Jesus, you scared me!" Jimmy said through clenched teeth, punching his friend in the arm. "I gotta skip lunch man. I really need to get that homework assignment done."

"Do it at home bro." Nate replied, getting a dead stare as a reply. "Your parents suck." he added with a shrug.

"Sometimes I just wish I was an orphan." Jimmy muttered as they rushed to the next classroom, the bell ringing indicating that they weren't going to make it on time. "You shouldn't have waited for me."

"Meh, we all need to stop being on time. Show these losers who's really in charge here!" Nate shouted, finally getting Jimmy to laugh.

"You're nuts." He said as they reached the door. Mr. Burke, the math teacher who was about to close the door, overheard and shook his head as he watched the boys suddenly go silent and serious as they walked into the room.

"And you both are late." Mr. Burke chided.

"We wanted to make an entrance." Nate smiled, knowing this teacher at least had a sense of humor.

"Mister McNally, I'd give you detention but I don't believe Mister Winslow appreciated the last time I sent your smiling face to him." Mr. Burke smiled. "Take your seats please, and do expect to get called on today...often."

"They all love me." Nate laughed as they both sat down, Jimmy thankful knowing that his friend was acting out more to cheer him up than to be smart with the teacher. "They just don't know it."

"Ethan!" the gym coach yelled from across the gymnasium. "Ethan... Mr. Fitzgerald?"

"Yeah?" Ethan snapped out of his daydream.

"Care to participate?"

"Huh?" Ethan responded as he twiddled his thumbs.

"This is gym class, you just can't sit here," spoke the gym teacher as he walked over to Ethan. "You're supposed to be active and moving around."


"No buts Mr. Fitzgerald. This isn't the first time you've done this. Now participate with your classmates, or I'll mark you down half a letter grade, ya understand? Now go."

"Fine," Ethan responded as he picked his skinny boy frame up from the bleachers. At ten years old, Ethan wasn't the most developed boy in his age group. He was reasonably short, standing around 4'3 and weighing in at a light 62 pounds soaking wet. His boyish looks defined his face with brown hair that curled up in the front but was short on the sides.

"Hey idiot, catch," yelled a fellow student that whipped a frisbee towards an unsuspecting Ethan.

"OW!" Ethan bellowed as it smacked the left side of his face.

"Oops, nice catch, idiot" giggled Troy as he walked over and picked up the frisbee. "You get new shoes, or they your brothers hand me downs too?"

"Probably his brother's," laughed another classmate.

"Shut up Troy." Ethan shot back, "just... just leave me alone."

"They are his brother's hand me downs! Your parents can't afford new ones or something?"

"Shut up!"

"Boys!" hollered the gym teacher. "Stop standing around... MOVE!"

The rest of gym class went on without incident, and the bell rang to switch back to Mrs. Divins Class. It wasn't that Ethan disliked sports or gym, but during this hour of physical activity he was an easy target. However, he was just thankful he didn't have to change his school clothes like his older brother yet.

After gym, Ethan was back in Mrs. Divins room for Math and Language Arts. At his desk, he felt safe or at least safer with the teacher around. Once those two classes finished, it was time for lunch. Lunch was Ethan's time to relax, well at least it usually is. Ethan's best friend Pete has been sick the past few days, so he has had to sit by himself at the end of the table, while all the others chatted about video games.

"I just got Call of Duty," hollered a fellow classmate as they chowed down on their food.

"I've had that game for so long," responded Troy. "I'm already prestige II."

"You have Xbox or PlayStation?"

"PlayStation," Troy responded and then looked towards Ethan's direction. "Hey, idiot!"

Ethan knew Troy was referring to him, but he didn't want to respond.

"Hey Ethan, I'm trying to ask you a question!"

"Dude, just let him eat alone."

"Shut up Adam, I want to ask him a question," Troy went on, "Ethan!"

"What?" Ethan answered as he dropped the school pizza.

"You have an Xbox or PlayStation?"


"Why not?"

"I just don't."

"You're so lame," Troy chuckled which caused the others to laugh. "Maybe you could get your brother's like you have his old shoes."

"My brother doesn't have on either."


"Are your parents poor or something?" Asked another

"No... I don't know," Ethan said as he looked down to his tray of food that the school paid for. "Just... leave me alone."

"You're such a loser," Troy added as he turned his attention back to the majority of the group. For Ethan, getting picked on wasn't the most unusual thing to happen for him. He never had the nicest clothes, the newest toys, nor the best grades. It made him an easy target, especially from classmates like Troy. Even though Ethan was used to it, the bullying seemed to intensify over the past week. Maybe it was because Pete wasn't around to take some of the heat off Ethan. Whatever the case, Ethan just kept to himself for the remainder of lunch.

After lunch and recess, the class returned to Mrs. Divins' room. They had two more subjects to cover before the end of the day. Ethan's attention turned towards the clock instead of the teacher. He usually spent most of his time wishing the minute hand would slow down. You would think, that Ethan couldn't wait to leave the school to escape the bullying for open air and freedom. However, Ethan was more fearful of returning home to see what chores he had to do, or how he had to help his older brother, or how he had to watch his younger brother. There was always something for him to do and he hated it.

"Hey Freckles, wait up!"

Kasey turned his head, allowing himself a small smile after confirming that the voice belonged to his partner-in-crime, Adrian. Like Kasey, the blond third-grader was in his Cub Scout uniform today, as they had a meeting after school. "Hurry up, dufus! We gotta get our swings!"

The two eight-year-old boys would seem an unlikely pair at first. Kasey generally was the quiet one of the skinny pair, only opening up to a few people he completely trusted. Generally is the operative word, however - as one of their classmates found out last year. Kasey decided that he'd had enough of being picked on for his red hair and freckles when second grade had started, and issued multiple warnings that only Adrian was allowed to use nicknames that referred to them.

One of their classmates, Billy Young, did not heed the warnings, and pushed Kasey a little too far. There was no warning, one minute Kasy was standing there with silent tears running down his face, then the next thing anyone knew Billy was on the ground being severely beat by a berserk Kasey. It took four teachers to pull Kasey off of Billy, all four of which suffered bruises. Once Billy was loaded on the ambulance, the principal, Mr. Hawkins, had taken Kasey to his office after talking to the teachers that had witnessed it.


Mr. Hawkins suspected that there was more to what happened than the teachers saw, especially with the dazed expression on Kasey's face. Following his gut instincts, he had Adrian join them in his office, as it was a common topic in the teacher's lounge about how close the two boys were.

"Adrian, right now Kasey needs his friend," Mr. Hawkins instructed softly. "Don't talk about what happened out there, just be his friend and help him calm down."

"Okay, Sir," Adrian replied as he took a seat in the chair with Kasey and cuddled up to him. "Earth to Freckles, Come in Freckles!" Adrian giggled.

Neither occupant of the room was prepared for what happened next, as Kasey flipped over and pulled Adrian into a tight hug, immediately breaking into tears as he cried on Adrian's shoulder and released his pent-up emotions. Not knowing what else to do, Adrian wrapped his arms around his friend and closed his eyes.

An hour later, the two boys woke up just as the secretary left after bringing in snacks for them. Looking around without leaving go of Adrian, Kasey asked "How'd we get in here? What happened?"

"Why don't you two have a snack while we figure that out?" Mr. Hawkins offered. After having grown up with Kasey's parents, he'd suspected what now seemed to be the case, but was still looking for confirmation.

As he watched the two boys get their snacks, the confusion exhibited by Kasey and the worry on Adrian's face proved to Mr. Hawkins that this wasn't an act. As he hoped, the snacks helped relax the boys, so once they were finished he addressed them both.

"Boys, I just need to ask you a few questions; just be honest, there are no wrong answers as long as you tell the truth. The teachers already filled me in on what they saw today, so I just need to hear your side of it too. Kasey, can you tell me about first recess today?"

Kasey nodded. "We went outside, and I was goin' over to play on the monkey bars with Adrian. Billy stopped me and was callin' me names because I have freckles. My head started feeling funny, I couldn't see too good... then I woke up with Adrian hugging me in here. Why do my hands hurt?"

At that point, Mr. Hawkins' theory became fact. "I'm going to explain it, so don't worry, there is nothing wrong with you. Adrian, after I explain things, I'll have you tell what you saw. First thing I need to do, though, is call for Jimmy; I'm going to have to help him understand what happened today." He paused to pick up the intercom. "Doris? Locate Jimmy Fitzgerald in 6th grade. Have him excused from the rest of his classes today for a family emergency, I'll need him in my office. Notify Mrs. Harrison that both Kasey Fitzgerald and Adrian Simmons are excused for the rest of the day, and have her stop by my office before leaving."


Adrian was the exact opposite of Kasey, always free with his emotions and friendly to everyone until they gave him a reason to do otherwise. He was the risk-taker of the pair, always looking to try things that the adults said they were too young to do.

After the second-grade incident, Billy became a part of their team. He'd been taken to the office when he came back to school, and once Mr. Hawkins had explained what his actions had caused Billy apologized then began sticking with Adrian and Kasey to help keep Kasey from having a repeat occurrence. Towards the end of second grade, he'd slipped and called Kasey 'Red'; to his and Adrian's surprise, Kasey had responded by telling Billy that he'd be okay with Billy calling him Red, but only Adrian could call him Freckles.

"You guys ready to go for your knots badge?" Kasey asked as him and Adrian joined Billy, who was reserving three swings for them. "Ethan says I'm ready, and if I don't get it he's gonna tie me up and make me figure out how'ta get myself out!"

"I'm good, Red," Billy replied. "Dad says I do them better than he does!"

"I think I got it too," Adrian admitted. "I'd better; Dad won't let me live it down if you two clowns make it and I don't!" Giggling, Adrian added "I think he's just tired of me practicing on him!"

Later that day:

"Okay class, before the bell rings, remember to take some time to review your multiplication tables tonight," Mrs. Lathrum instructed as she looked over her class. She managed to add "Have a great evening, I'll see all of you tomorrow!" just before the bell rang, dismissing school for the day.

As the rest of the class quickly left the room, three boys hung back, going to the back of the classroom and putting chairs up on the desk.

The three boys were Kasey, Adrian, and Billy; all three did this every day. The pattern was the same no matter what day it was; the bell would ring, then all three would straighten up the classroom until either their bus was ready to load or Adrian's father picked them up. Since they were in Scout uniforms, today would be Adrian's father.

As they were finishing with the chairs, Adrian's father came to the doorway. "Hello Mrs. Lathrum; you ready for me to take these little rats off your hands?" he asked with a smile.

"Feel free, Dan," she replied.

"Hi Dad!" Adrian exclaimed as he dropped his chair in place, then ran over to give his father a hug.

"Hey there squirt; did you guys have a good day in school?"

"Yep!" Adrian giggled as he collected his hug, then broke free.

Dan went to the remaining two boys and straightened their neckerchiefs before giving them quick hugs. "You guys did a great job with the chairs! You ready for your meeting?"

"Yeah, Dan," both boys replied, neither wanting to admit how much they enjoyed the attention.

"Let's get rolling, then," Dan smiled.

Commotion in the class erupted as the final bell rang. The teacher tried getting in a last few words, but knew it was falling on deaf ears. Jimmy sat in his chair and smiled as he watched his teacher just give up trying to be heard over all the noise. When the room finally began to empty out and get quieter Jimmy stood and began to gather his things.

"Jimmy, why aren't you ever in a rush to leave like the rest of the class?" Ms. Teoli asked as she began to erase the blackboard. "I mean, when I was your age I couldn't wait to get home to my friends and go out."

Jimmy stopped what he was doing and crossed his arms to think. "I don't know." He shrugged his shoulders. "I guess I don't have anything planned for after school so, what's the rush?"

Ms. Teoli shook her head and set the eraser down. "Well, I appreciate having at least one student who doesn't turn off his brain the moment the bell rings," She laughed, "But you really should find fun things to do outside of here. Then maybe you'd have a reason to rush off."

Jimmy laughed and picked up his books off his desk. "So, you want me to make noise and be loud once the bell rings. Gotcha."

"That's not what I meant James." she laughed. "See you tomorrow."

"Later." Jimmy said as he stepped out into the hall. Jimmy opened his locker and pulled out his backpack. He didn't need to bring any books home because thankfully, he had finished it all during lunch and study hall earlier in the day. It was a relief just to know he wouldn't need to try to do it at home.

"Who's your best friend?" Nathan laughed as he startled Jimmy when he wasn't paying attention.

"My doctor now you jerk. I almost had a heart attack." Jimmy grinned as he dramatically slammed his locker and put the combination lock back on. "What are you doing here? I thought you had some 'jock pissing match' to go to?"

"Really?" Nate shook his head. "Jock pissing match? Bro, that hurts."

"Oh please, you give worse." Jimmy laughed. "So does that mean I'm not walking home alone?"

"Yes, I will be your escort. Aren't you lucky?" Nate said as he wrapped his arm around Jimmy's shoulders. "What are the odds the warden allows you to come over to my place tonight? Taco night man. My mom misses you."

"I wish," Jimmy began as they stepped out the front doors, "your mom makes the best tacos I've ever had." He sighed and sat down on the bottom step. "I can't though. Kasey has Scouts tonight and..."

"I know, you don't want to leave Ethan home alone with Captain Jackass, I get it." Nate screwed up his expression as he sat next to his best friend and watched the other students wander off to their lives outside of the bubble they all called their school lives. "Hasn't he found another job yet? It's been what, 8 months, 9 now maybe?"

"No he hasn't." Jimmy replied, watching an ant scurry down the railing. "I don't even think he's looking anymore. He never leaves the house." After watching the ant reach the end, Jimmy stood up and took a deep breath. "C'mon, I don't want Ethan to get home alone."

"Man, I don't know how you do it." Nathan frowned. "You are breaking my mother's heart though. I hope you know that."

"Shut up." Jimmy laughed. "She has you wolfing down everything she cooks. She doesn't need me."

"But you clean up after yourself. According to her you are the only reason she doesn't put me up for adoption." Nathan put his hand over his eyes. "If you never come over again, I may end up Nathan Philipé Gonzalez Pdtrovalavsky."

"You can't even spell half of that." Jimmy laughed.

"So you can see how screwed I'd be." Nate laughed. "So you gotta save my ass and come over for tacos."

"Some other time dude. Things aren't right at home and I'm not leaving my brothers alone there." Jimmy sighed.

"Bring the ankle biters." Nate smugly stated. "They can help with the clean up."

"Wow, and Kasey thinks you are so cool too." Jimmy smiled wide. "Crushing a little kid's dreams, I hope you're proud of yourself."

Reaching the corner where the two needed to head their separate ways, Nathan shrugged his shoulders. "I'm really not, but I'll be eating the best tacos in the neighborhood while I recover." With a laugh, they both bumped fists and said 'later'. The rest of the journey would only take either of them a few minutes. Jimmy wouldn't be in a rush, if he didn't have a bus to wait for.

Once the final bell of the day chimed, Mrs. Divins hollered, "Don't forget to do your homework... oh and Ethan, please wait one moment."

"Okay," Ethan replied as he sat back down and watched the class leave.

"Ethan, your permission slip for the field trip next week was not signed."

"Oh," Ethan replied as he lowered his head.

"In fact, I don't even think you showed the letter to your parents."

"Yeah, I did."

"Ethan," Mrs. Divins spoke. "It's not good to lie. I know you didn't. The envelope was never opened."

Ethan lowered his head even more and twiddled his thumbs.

"I don't really want to go, it's stupid anyway."

Somewhat taken back by the comment, "You couldn't stop talking about it a few weeks ago. What changed?"

"Nothing, I-I just don't want to go."

"Alright... well, you know since you're not going, you'll need to complete an assignment."

"Okay. Can... can I leave now."

"Yes... but Ethan, I'm concerned for you. You're attitude and attention level have changed so drastically since the beginning of the year. Is everything alright?"

"Umm... yeah," Ethan hollered as he walked out the door, holding back his tears. The truth was Ethan didn't want to ask his parents, because he already knew they wouldn't approve. It saved him from being let down, so he decided to not ask at all. As he searched for a seat on the bus, Ethan peeked around for his younger brother Kasey, but then remembered he had something after school. Once he found his seat, he sat down and clenched his book bag in his lap. Ethan hoped for an easy day of chores.

Arriving at the bus stop, Ethan saw Jimmy walking home. As they approached the stopping point, Jimmy waited for his little brother to jump down the stairs. The bus stop was a block away from their house, so they usually started a quick conversation.

"Hey Jimmy," Ethan said as he pulled the other strap of his book bag over his shoulder

"Hey squirt, your day go any better than mine?" Jimmy asked as he messed up his brothers hair.

"Ehh, not really, stupid Troy... made fun of my shoes. Oh and I forgot Kace had his scoutin' thingy today. Scared me when he wasn't on the bus."

"Wait, what's wrong with your shoes?" Jimmy laughed looking at his brothers feet.

"I didn't think nothing was wrong. They fit me pretty good."

"Probably jealous then." Jimmy laughed. "Just ignore him. Guys like him will end out sayin' the wrong thing to the wrong guy someday."

"Yeah, but," Ethan said as he dropped his head from embarrassment. "Troy also said that-that we are poor. Are we?"

"Nah." Jimmy said motioning toward the front yard as it came into view. "We got our own little castle here." He paused and wrapped his arm around Ethan's shoulder. "We got it better than some and worse than others. What Troy don't have is a big brother lookin' out for him so, add that to your score card."

"Yah!" Ethan half chuckled as he looked toward their house. Part of him didn't want to enter and just stay outside with his brother. "Why... umm why was your day bad?"

"Just..." Jimmy paused and stopped walking. "Dad wouldn't let me finish my homework last night. He said it was taking too long so he ripped up what I had started. I'm gonna get in trouble if I never get to finish that stuff."

"Oh... Can-can I help? Let me do your homework!"

"I wish." Jimmy laughed. "Thanks though."

The house was nothing special or great, basically a roof over their head to keep them warm and dry. Better than some people have it, but if you were to approach the house, you could tell it had been neglected for years. The siding had moss and vegetation growing from the ground to the roof. The grass, that's if you want to call it that, was mostly crab grass and weeds. The yard was littered with garbage as empty beer bottles and cigarette butts consumed the fenced in front yard. The little patio, had two chairs on it, where the boy's parents would spend numerous nights smoking. It wasn't a pretty site, but the boys thought none of it.

As they approached the front steps, the weekend 'banter' of their parents flowed outside.

"You ready?" Jimmy asked as he grabbed for his brothers hand.

Ethan simply shook his head and the two boys opened the front door to chaos.

"You fucking asshole, Joey." Tonya yelled at her husband. "It was suppose to be our fucking date night."

"Shut your damn trap woman, and get me a damn beer." Joe responded.

"No! Fuck you. We are going out for dinner at the diner. Get your ass up."

"No, I'm not spending my hard earned money at the fucking diner. It's shit anyways."

"Well you're taking me somewhere," Tonya replied as she chewed her gum. "I didn't get my nails done for nothing."

"Woman, I got my night planned out perfectly. I'm spending it with Bud and Weiser. They're both chilling right now," Joey answered, chuckling, as he thought his little joke was clever.

"Yeah? Well I'm about to dump Bud and Weiser down the damn drain."

"Don't you dare. I just spent 30 bucks on beer."

"Watch me."

"Hi-hi-hi daddy," Ethan stuttered as Jimmy and he had shut the door.

"Go to your fucking room, can't you see adults are speaking."

"Jesus, he just said hi." Jimmy muttered gaining the man's attention quickly.

"Look who thinks he's grown a set. You got something to back up that smart mouth all of a sudden?"

"No..." Jimmy looked at the floor and clenched his jaw, "...sir."

"Damn right you don't, now get in your fucking room, both of you. And I don't want to hear a peep out of either of ya!" Joey continued by raising his hand just to make his oldest boy flinch, laughing when he did.

"You're such an asshole," Tonya hollered as she threw her magazine at her husband. "I can't stand you."

"Just shut up already.... my god, you're just like your mother. You won't shut the fuck up!"

"Oh... oh... is that so? Well guess what. I'm outta here. Go fuck yourself!"

"And where you gonna go?" laughed Joey.

"To my loud ass mothers."

"Fine, leave. Take the boys."

"Fuck no, they are yours to watch."

"Get the fuck outta here,"

"I'm taking the car too."

"You paying for gas?" chuckled Joey.

"You think your so funny, don't you?"

"I must admit, I do amuse myself."

"Well fuck you," Tonya hollered as she slammed the front door shut.

"You'll be back bitch... you'll be back." Joey said as he cracked open another beer and turned on the TV. A few minutes had passed before Joey spoke again.

"JIMMY!" He bellowed. "BOY, get your little white ass down here and start cleaning the kitchen. Your bitch of a mother left, you'll be making dinner too! Come on now, hurry up. Don't make me come up there boy."

Den 452:

"... and then you pull the two ends really tight and cut them off. Now your rope is whipped, but you gotta fuse it too if it ain't a natural rope," Kasey explained as he performed the knot demonstration for the younger pack members. "Remember, if you tie the square knot wrong, you'll make a granny knot. Granny knots are junk!"

"Does anyone have any questions?" Kasey added as the Denner, Jake, stood up to join him.

Jake had been surprised when Kasey had asked to do this, but agreed that it could count towards his Leader Achievement. As Kasey answered the few questions the younger Scouts had, Jake exchanged glances with the Den Mother. Once Kasey answered the last question, Jake stepped up. "Guys, say thanks to Kasey before you go today! Just so you know, Mrs. Wilson has agreed that I need an assistant, and Kasey has qualified today to take the position. Whadda you think, Kasey?"

"Really?" Kasey exclaimed, "YEAH!"

Jake reached into his pocket, pulling out a single-strand shoulder cord. "Could I have everyone's attention?" he stated loudly.

The rest of the Den quickly finished what they were doing before coming over to see what Jake wanted. Once all of them were paying attention, Jake announced "Kasey's just completed his 'Tying It All Up' achievement. He started on his Leadership Achievement today as well, and has agreed to be an Assistant Denner as part of his achievement. Starting today, Kasey is qualified to answer your questions and help with problems. If he doesn't know the answer, he'll get with me then get back to you." Jake then fastened the cord he'd pocketed for the possibility that Kasey would accept onto Kasey's left shoulder, then announced "Let's hear it for our new Assistant Denner!"

By the time the rest of the den were done cheering and congratulating Kasey, you could have lit a fire from the heat of his blush. For once, however, he bore a genuine smile, graciously accepting the praise for his new position. His next surprise was being orchestrated by Jack, who discussed making a change to the closing ceremony for the meeting. "Scouts, make a circle around Kasey for the Grand Howl," Jake instructed.

The boys quickly scrambled into position, squatting as they found a place in the circle. Following Jake's prompts, they then made the Cub Scout sign with both hands, then touched it to the ground between their feet. Tilting their heads back, the den gave a long howl in unison, then jumped to their feet and yelled "AKELA! WE'LL -- DO -- OUR -- BEST!"

Once the meeting completed, Kasey helped Jake organize the cleanup. With both of them directing the cleaning efforts, the room was returned to normal in record time. Kasey walked with Jake for the final check, then discovered that Dan, Adrian, and Billy were standing there waiting for him.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to take that long!" Kasey quickly exclaimed.

Dan smiled, "Don't worry, Adrian told me you needed to help. You did great, I'm proud of you."

"Thanks, Dan," Kasey replied in relief. He turned back to Jake, exchanged Scout handshakes, then joined his friends as Dan led them out to the car.

As Dan drove them towards Billy's house, all three boys filled him in on the meeting and the achievements that they had mastered. Once Billy was dropped off, Dan headed home. Once they arrived, Kasey gave his thanks, then joined Ethan, who was waiting for him on the porch.

"Get me a beer!" Joey barked from his chair in front of the television. "You hear me out there?"

"Yeah, I heard you." Jimmy said as he put down the cloth he was cleaning the table with and went to the fridge. "You should get it yourself." he mumbled under his breath.

Handing the beer to his father, Jimmy simply turned to return to the kitchen. "Thanks. You'll make someone a nice little wife someday." Joey laughed before realizing the cap was still on the bottle. "You forget to do something there, Jenny?" He laughed at using his favorite way to demean his oldest son. "The fucking cap is still on it."

"There's a bottle opener right there on the coffee table." Jimmy shot back, ducking just in time as the full, unopened bottle went sailing toward his head to smash on the doorway. "What the hell?"

Joey squinted his eyes and simply shook his head. "You just go on and keep testing me. One of these days I'm gonna forget what a little bitch you are and beat you to the fucking ground." he slurred. "Now get me a fucking beer and open it this time." He turned toward the TV and when he didn't hear movement fast enough yelled "Then you can clean up that fucking mess in the doorway."

Jimmy went into the kitchen and grabbed another beer out of the refrigerator. With shaky hands he pried off the cap and took a couple of deep breaths before bringing it back to the man. He said nothing, just set the bottle on the end table next to his father and simply turned to leave the room.

"Thank you... Jenny." His father said, trying to further instigate his son. Laughing when he knew he had rattled the boy's cage once again. "Now clean up your fucking mess!"

It seemed like a few hours for Ethan as he was relegated to his room, but in reality it was a few minutes. Trying to be as quiet as possible, the boy tiptoed around the room, trying not to piss his father off. With Jimmy busy in the kitchen, no one would be able to stand up for Ethan if Joey was feeling his son was being to unruly or annoying. So with his best interest in mind, Ethan tried to not make a sound.

That was until he had to go pick up his little brother from a few houses down. However, the timing had to be right. He didn't want to draw any attention to himself, so when he thought his father had gone to the bathroom, Ethan bolted for the kitchen to tell Jimmy.

"I'm going to get Kasey."

"Okay, umm dads already had a few," Jimmy responded as he made a drinking motion with his hand. "So leave through the back door and warn Kasey."

"Okay," Ethan answered as he put on his coat and walked out the back door and then around the house. Once he made it to the sidewalk, he knew he was in the clear for a little while.

Now as Ethan walked, he didn't really notice a change of scenery. It was only a few houses, but the change was drastic. No over grown grass that consumed the front yard or beer bottles leaking whatever fluids remained inside, and certainly no cigarette butts laying around. However, to Ethan, he didn't seem to know any different. After skipping up the steps to pick up Kasey, he noticed he had arrived a bit early and beat his brother home. He planted his little butt on the bench swing and waited for the car to arrive. This had sorta became a routine for him, as Ethan would rather wait than be sitting at home.

Although he felt bad for Jimmy, especially since mom took off for the night, again. That's when dad was at his worst. So Ethan wasn't trying to be in the house at all tonight and enjoyed his alone time without worry from his father.

He was simply enjoying the peace and quietness that he lacked at his house, and didn't have to wait too long before he saw Dan's car driving down the road. The vehicle was hard to miss, as the Ford Expedition was ginormous. The big SUV pulled into the driveway as Ethan stood up from the swing. He saw the back door fly open, and his little brother hop down as his feet hit the ground.

As soon as Kasey had spotted Ethan, he had ran over to give his brother the important news from his scout meeting. "Ethan! Guess what! I did really good on the knots stuff and even got to show the little guys howta do them and then Jake said I did so good that I was ready to start my leadership badge so he made me the Assistant Denner and now I get to help him help ever'one learn stuff!"

"What?" Ethan giggled and looked at his brother as they broke their hug.

"You're silly, you heard me!" Kasey giggled.

"Barely," Ethan replied as he tousled Kasey's hair. "But... good job, what knots did you have to do?

"I did square knots, slip knots, and half-hitch's, then I got to show the little guys howta make the ends so they ain't gonna fray!"

"You're little too, Freckles," Ethan remarked which caused Kasey to playfully punch his brothers ribs.

"They're little'rer!" Kasey shot back.

"Im just joking... Oh, umm.... Hi Mr. Dan! Hey Adrian ."

"Hi," Adrian shyly responded as he held onto his Father's arm.

As Dan watched, he smiled at the interaction between the brothers. "Ethan, you did a great job helping Kasey learn his knots, you should really be proud of yourself,"

"Oh yeah... umm thanks, he's pretty good at this stuff."

"He's good because he has a good teacher," Dan replied.

"Yeah," Ethan blushed and looked towards Kasey.

"I've got the bestest big brothers EVER!" Kasey agreed with a giggle.

"I'd have to agree," Dan stated with a smile. "Is your Dad home? I'd like to take all three of you with us to the waterpark tomorrow, my treat. I hit a lottery ticket for a few hundred dollars, so I thought it'd be nice for all of you boys to get a treat."

"Umm yeah... he is umm here. But like-like he is umm, busy I think," Ethan said as he was trying to cover for his Dad. He wasn't sure why either as Ethan hated his father, but he didn't want to be embarrassed in front of Dan.

Dan thought over Ethan's response, something in it not ringing true in his head. He couldn't put his finger on it, but something was nagging at the back of his mind. "Knowing your Dad, I'm sure he wouldn't mind a visit. I know what it's like being between jobs, and I've got a little extra from my winnings that I'm going to give him to help with bills. I'll be by after supper."

Kasey seemed to cuddle in closer to Ethan, his brother's response to Dan's question giving him a hint that it was going to be one of 'those' nights.

"No umm," Ethan responded as he wrapped his arm around Kasey's shoulder. "I mean, no... I-I don't know. I gotta ask Jimmy."

Dan nodded, deciding that pushing the issue at the moment was not a good idea. The boys had went to the waterpark with him and Adrian multiple times before, and he had no idea why Ethan was suddenly trying to avoid something that he usually really enjoyed. Figuring that he'd ask anyway, he just let the question drop.

"What if umm, I see if dad wants to come over here instead?"

"Don't worry, I'll work out a way to get the money to him," Dan replied, trying to sooth Ethan's obvious discomfort.

"O-Okay... Come on Kasey, we should go home."

Kasey nodded. "Thank you for taking me to Scouts, Mr. Dan," he stated, obviously not as excited as he was when they had first arrived. Taking Ethan's hand, he softly asked "Can we play with the Legos?"

"Maybe, bye Mr. Dan. Cya Adrian," Ethan replied as started to tense but did his best to hide it from Kasey. "Wanna piggyback ride?"

"Yeah," Kasey replied as he got ready to climb on his brother's back.

"Here," Dan chuckled as helped Kasey on to Ethan's Back.

"Thanks, Mr. Dan." Ethan replied as wrapped his arms under Kasey's thighs and began the walk back to their house. "You need a bath, Freckles! You smell, I think it's Jimmy's turn to help you."

"Do not!" Kasey protested.

"Whens the last time you had one? Like two nights ago?"

"Yeah, but I don't get stinky like you old guys!"

"Gonna have to see what Jimmy says."

"No fair! Jimmy always agrees with you!" Kasey giggled. "He thinks I needta get a bath every night, and he makes me put soap on my butt!"

"You're suppose to... Wait I do too!" Ethan laughed. "Thats the stinkiest part!"

"But it's yucky touching a butt!" Kasey tried to argue.

"Then make Jimmy wash it... I don't know, its your own butt though!"

"EWWW!" Kasey replied with a scowl. "I don't want Jimmy washin' my butt! I ain't a baby!"

"Then you gotta wash it!" Ethan laughed as he almost dropped Kasey.

"But it's POOPY!" Kasey quipped.

"DUH! Why it needs cleaned!"

"I wipe it!" Kasey replied in defense.

"Not good enough, gotta wash it with water and soap!" Ethan chuckled as they came to their front lawn. The laughter from him quickly went away as Kasey was still in good spirts. Ethan took a deep breath, clenched his brothers thighs a bit tighter, and made their way past the front fence. "You ready?"

Kasey sensed the change in his brother's mood, and seriously replied "Can't we play outside?"

"Umm... maybe later, I think dinner is gonna be ready. And you need a bath... I mean just need to see what Jimmy says, okay?"

"Okay," Kasey whispered as he tightened his hold on Ethan. "If we gotta..."

"Yeah! maybe we can play upstairs and wait for dinner." Ethan answered as he realized he was starting to scare Kasey. They were at the front door, and Ethan reached out to turn the knob. As the door creaked open, the two saw their father sleeping on the chair with a beer in his hand. A wave of relief swept over Ethan as he slowly crept by his father with his little brother on his back. "Got Kasey," Ethan said to Jimmy. "He needs a bath, but Kasey doesn't think so. It's your turn, though."

"After dinner," Jimmy quickly replied as he focused on the stove.

Kasey snuggled tighter into Ethan's back, the mood of his brothers dampening his own mood. "Okay, Jimmy," Kasey acknowledged.

"We're gonna head upstairs, okay?" Ethan said

"He needs out of his scout uniform!" Jimmy stated. "Dinner's gonna be ready soon. Dont wake dad."

"Okay, let's go, Freckles." Ethan directed as he walked back into the family room and they made their way up the steps. "We gotta hang your stuff up this time, so Jimmy doesn't get mad!"

"Yeah, he's scary when he gets mad!" Kasey agreed with a giggle.

"I know... can you do it yourself?" Ethan asked as he released his brother to the ground. "Like hang everything up and get new clothes? I gotta use the bathroom."

"I need ya to hang them, please. I can't reach," Kasey replied.

"You just gotta put underwear on this time! We don't want Jimmy yelling at us," Ethan giggled. "I'll hang them up after I pee."

"Okay, thanks bro!" Kasey giggled as he split off to the bedroom.

"Don't crumble them up either!"

"I won't!" Kasey promised.

A few minutes later, after a failed attempt to wake his father, Jimmy listened to the commotion upstairs for a few minutes, before going back into the kitchen to put 5 bowls on the table; filling three of them with mac & cheese with a couple of hot dogs each. Not knowing when his mother was going to come home, or when his father would eventually stagger back to life, he just left their bowls empty. As he was cutting Kasey's hotdogs, the other two boys quietly came down to the kitchen. Dinner was eaten in almost complete silence, knowing that their father being woken up with that many empties around his chair would mean being punished.

The only words spoken were by Jimmy, who sent the younger two back upstairs as he made up two plates for each parent, covering them in foil and putting them in the fridge. Cleanup was quick and he soon found both boys in their bed room, sitting on the floor with Kasey's toy cars spread out in a make-shift neighborhood.

"What's up guys?" Jimmy asked as he sat on the bed closest to the door.

"Do I gotta take a bath?" Kasey whined, squinting his eyes and looking at Ethan, who just laughed. "Ethan says I gotta."

"Judging by the smell in here, I'd say he's right." Jimmy replied with a laugh. "Why don't we just get it over with so you can play for a while before bed."

"Fine." Kasey growled as he stood up. "I'll even put soap on my butt, okay?"

"Okay..." Jimmy laughed. "I'm sure the neighbors will appreciate that."

"They'll know?" Kasey gasped.

"We all will." Ethan added.

"Nuh uh!" Kasey shot back as Jimmy stood, shaking his head.

"March, stinky!" he commanded, pointing to the door. "Argue later."

Finally getting the tub filled and the little guy into it, Jimmy sat on the edge of the tub to wash his brother's hair, as was the routine.

"Here." Kasey said as he squeezed out the facecloth, passing it to Jimmy who folded it up to cover the little guy's eyes as he rinsed the shampoo out of his hair. "Ethan still won't cover my eyes."

"I talked to him about it." Jimmy said in a 'what are ya gonna do about it' tone.

"I know," Kasey said as Jimmy put the face cloth over his eyes and grabbed the cup they used to rinse off. "But he says he don't gotta do it."

Pouring the first two cup-fulls over the little one's head, Jimmy mussed his hair a bit, "He probably just needs both hands for the cup. Maybe you should cover your own eyes when he washes your hair."

Holding his breath for the next two cups, Kasey loudly spit water off of his lips and took a deep breath. "But it's hard."

"It gets easier when you get a little bigger." Jimmy smiled as he mussed the boy's hair again checking for soap. "One more time big guy."

"Okay." Kasey said and took another deep breath. After the last of the water had passed, Jimmy soaped up the face cloth and started on the boy's back. "So, how did scouts go? Did I hear you made Assistant Denner?"

"Yes!" Kasey replied in an excited tone. "I even got to teach knots and Jake said I did so good that I was ready to start my leadership badge!"

"My man!" Jimmy proudly said as he moved to the boy's arms. "I told you you were learnin' fast. You never believe me."

"Nuh uh!" Kasey giggled. "I learned it slower than Jake."

"He's older than you are. There's no way to tell who learned faster," Moving to the other arm, Jimmy continued, "you're learning faster than I did. I never made Denner."

"Assistant Denner." Kasey proudly corrected.

"Right, my bad." Jimmy laughed. "Turn around, gotta get the feets."

"Don't tickle this time." he barely got out before Jimmy intentionally tickled as he washed. "No, no, no Jimmy! St-stop it! Stop it!!!" Kasey laughed as Jimmy squirmed and splashed. "Uncle!!" he shouted, getting a laugh from his older brother, who finally stopped.

"That's right." Jimmy laughed. "One of these days you will wash the feets and I will need to find a new way to torture you."

"You're silly." Kasey said as he took the cloth and continued going over himself while Jimmy sat down on the toilet. "Jimmy, is Dad gonna be okay?"

"What do you mean?" Jimmy questioned as he watched his brother fidget with the face cloth.

"He's always mad now." Kasey huffed. "He kicked me cause I was blocking the TV yesterday."



Jimmy took a deep breath and shook his head. "Squirt, you gotta learn to just stay out of his way. Especially when I'm not home." Locking eyes, he took a deep breath. "I mean it. He gets angry easy so we gotta just stay out of his way. Get it?"

"But he gets angry all the time now, and sometimes he is happy then goes angry and I don't know when he's gettin angry or nuthin. I'm tryin' ta be good, honest!""

"I know you do, and you are bein good." Jimmy sighed. "How do you know when it's time to come in here and close the door?" Jimmy questioned.

"I know but..."

"No buts, answer me. How do you know?"

"When there's brown bottles on the floor." Kasey droned. "But it's not fair."

"I know it isn't buddy but, this is how it was when he lost his last job too. He gets mad for nuthin so you gotta just stay out of the way."

"I know." Kasey whined as he squeezed out the face cloth and put it on the side of the tub. "Am I done?"

Jimmy sniffed deeply in Kasey's direction, "I can't smell ya so I guess we did good."

"I wasn't that stinky!" Kasey said as Jimmy stood up to grab a towel.

Jimmy stopped and smirked, "Skunks packed suitcases bro."

"Nuh uh!"

"Oh Yeah." Jimmy laughed. "Nose plugs and everything."

Just then the door swung open and slammed into the wall behind it, silencing both boys instantly. "What the fuck are you doing. He doesn't need you to fuckin' wash him." Joe slurred as he pushed past the older boy.

"But daddy, he gets all of tha soap off better." Kasey whined as Jimmy hit the wall.

"Don't be such a fucking baby. Rinse yourself!" Joe yelled as he turned on the shower.

"Dad! No!" Jimmy yelled as Kasey screeched when the ice cold water hit him. Shoving his father harshly out of the way, Jimmy rushed to the tub and grabbed his panicked little brother out of the tub, quickly wrapping him in a towel.

"What happened" Ethan yelled as he ran in through the open doorway, just as Joe regained his balance and turned to hit his oldest son in the back of the head, bouncing him off the wall. "Dad!"

"Shut the fuck up, Ethan," Joe yelled as his oldest fell to the floor.

"Take Kasey, Ethan! Now!" Jimmy yelled as he pushed his little brother away.

"Yeah, take the little baby while I find out why Jenny here loves playing in the closed room with a naked 8-year-old." Joe sneered as he kicked Jimmy in the side.

"Go. Just go..." Jimmy coughed as his father hit him again.