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The Talon House

What's The Difference Between Me And You?

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What's the difference between me and you?????

Chapter Three, Book 2

By Nick

"Would you like another hamburger James?" Charles asked, holding the long stainless steel spatula up. A plume of white smoke escaped the grill as soon as he lifted the lid, and the aromas it brought with it were mouth watering in Nick's opinion. James had gobbled down two hamburgers, and Nick was working on his second one, something that seemed to make Charles happy.

"No thank you sir," James answered politely from his spot at the picnic table. "They were delicious, though. Thank you for making them."

When Friday rolled around, there was no indication that the weather would allow them to be outside enjoying food cooked on the grill. It was cold, windy and raining heading into the weekend, and Nick was sure that the plans Taylor's parents made for a cookout in conjunction with his party were ruined. The wind got so bad at one point, in fact, that yard furniture from Tom and Linda's backyard blew right over into the back of Jim's house, making a loud noise the moment it made impact.

But as Friday night turned to Saturday morning, rays of sunlight poured into the window and carried with them the promise of a nice birthday party for Taylor. Practically everyone from their class at school was there, and they were all playing rambunctiously in the bounce house Charles somehow managed to have placed in the middle of the yard that ran along the side of their strip of houses. Right behind it was a long fence that bordered the golf course, on the other side more military housing similar to the strip that Taylor and his parents lived in.

Everyone was having fun, though, and Charles looked right at home with the big, round, black barbeque he was cooking hamburgers and hotdogs on. Inside, safe from the chaos of twenty-plus eight and nine year old kids was Taylor's birthday cake, featuring Tommy and Chucky from The Rugrats. Nick had taken the time earlier to admire the massive cake, not sure how they were able to so perfectly draw the two cartoon characters on a cake. It looked scrumptious, even though it wasn't his favorite kind, carrot cake. He knew that at his party, he'd get to have one. Jim never let his birthday pass without buying him one, but he always made sure to have a different kind for everyone else.

Earlier that week, Nick wasn't so sure they'd be at Taylor's party. The fact that they'd made it there at all was no small miracle in Nick's opinion, especially after the episode they had with James's mom and dad. Things were really hectic all around him when they got home and James found out they were next door, especially when Jim called over there and said he wasn't going to make James see them. Nick wasn't sure what was being said on the other end, or who Jim was speaking with, but there was a lot of shouting and that bothered him a lot.

Once Jim hung the phone up, he went upstairs to be with James. There was a lot of silence in the house, an almost troubling silence, but it was broken by the sound of the phone ringing. Jim had taken the phone with him, so he was able to answer it and once again, Nick had to wonder what was going on, especially since he was alone downstairs and Jim was upstairs with James. After a long, uneasy period of time, Jim and James came downstairs together. James didn't even bother to look at Nick. He simply looked straight ahead and walked with Jim to the family room, where they took a seat. Once they were seated, Jim addressed Nick.

"Son, I want you to please go upstairs and do your homework," he said. "I'll be up to check on you in a little bit, okay?"

"Yes sir," Nick said, hopping up and doing exactly what he was told to do. He went into the kitchen and snagged his backpack from the table, then he went up to his room and closed the door. About five minutes later the doorbell rang, and Nick couldn't help but look out the window. He saw a couple standing with Tom and Linda who looked older, but nothing like he'd imagined they'd look like. They were both dressed nicely and seemed to have a touch of class in their demeanor that made their actions even more confusing in Nick's eyes.

When they were let in, Nick went back to his desk and started his homework. He worked in silence for a good twenty minutes before his door opened and Jim walked in, smiling warmly at him.

"How's it going up here, buddy?" he asked.

"Okay," Nick reported, happy to see his dad. "I'm almost done with my homework."

"Good boy," Jim said, leaning down and planting a kiss on Nick's cheek.

"Can I come downstairs when I'm done?" Nick asked, and Jim nodded.

"We're probably going to go out to eat again tonight," Jim said. "James's mom and dad are going to be coming with us."

"Are they mean?" Nick asked, but instantly wished he hadn't asked such a thoughtless question. His dad didn't seem to bat an eye, though, and answered his question honestly.

"They're being very polite right now, Nick," Jim said.

"How come they came?" Nick asked, and Jim shrugged.

"I think they miss James," he said. "They'll be leaving in a couple of days."

"Does James have to go with them?" Nick asked, and Jim shook his head no confidently, bringing a smile to Nick's face. "Good. I'd be scared if he did."

Jim messed his hair up playfully and said, "You don't have anything to worry about, kiddo."

When Nick was finished with his homework, he went downstairs like his dad said he could. James's mom and dad, Mark and Paula, both regarded him with a warm smile as he shyly made his way to Jim.

"Would you like to introduce your mom and dad?" Paula said, looking at James, who was sitting right next to Jim. By this time, Nick had settled himself between his dad's legs on the couch and was insecurely holding his arms up so Jim could lift him up into his lap.

"Okay," James said awkwardly. "Nick, this is my mom and dad, Paula and Mark. Mom and dad, this is Nick."

"It's nice to see you again, Nick," Paula said in a sweet voice. "The last time I saw you, you were about ten months old. You've grown into a handsome young man."

"It's nice to meet you ma'am," Nick said politely, trying not to be rude but finding it hard to fight the urge to hide his face in his dad's chest. "It's nice to meet you too, sir."

James's dad smiled at him again and nodded, then he turned his attention back to James.

"So where do you feel like eating, son?" Mark asked. "What's your favorite restaurant?"

"Can we go to Fudruckers?" James asked, but he seemed to be addressing Jim more than Mark.

"Is that what you want?" Mark asked, seemingly indifferent to the direction of James's question.

"Yes sir," James answered. "I love it there because you can build your own hamburger."

"Is that okay with you, Jim?" Mark asked almost snidely, but Jim just nodded as if he weren't phased by Mark's tone. Tom and Linda looked a little uneasy about something, but said nothing. Nick wondered to himself if it didn't have something to do with the obvious tension between James, Mark and Jim. He could feel it, and it was making him feel uncomfortable, but he tried to be as nonchalant about it as he could.

Before they left, Tom took Mark and Paula off to the side and seemed to be having an intense discussion with them. Mark shrugged as if whatever Tom was saying meant nothing to him, then he used a remote on his keychain to unlock his car, offering Tom and Linda the front seat so Tom could drive.

Dinner at Fudruckers was normally a happy affair for Nick and James because Jim would give them each about ten dollars to turn into quarters so they could play video games to their heart's content. On top of that, Nick loved having the run of the condiment bar for his burgers and fries, and often challenged James to make a grosser combination than he could of cheese sauce, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, relish and whatever else they could find to mix together and dip their fries in.

This time, though, it was awkward to say the least. The tension in the air between Jim and Mark seemed to intensify, especially when James called Jim dad. The look on Mark and Paula's faces were a sight to behold, and once it became obvious that they didn't approve, James seemed to do it more often and at every turn. As if he enjoyed the fact that he was bringing his parents some unhappiness, he made sure they heard him call Jim dad over and over.

"Aren't you going to make a recipe this time for your fries?" James asked, recklessly combining all of the saucy offerings at the condiment bar in one porcelain dish, then adding onions, relish and chopped tomato to it and using a large French fry to stir it all up.

"Okay," Nick said, deciding to go along with it since it seemed to make his cousin smile. When they made it back to the table Paula looked mortified by their creations, and James was sure to dip a fry in his sauce and slurp the nasty concoction off of it so his mom could see it, then he dipped it back in and ate the fry.

"Jim you allow this?" Mark asked, sounding appalled.

"I allow what?" Jim said, sounding puzzled by Mark's question.

"This is a restaurant," Mark said. "You know, there's a proper way to act when you eat out. James knows better than this."

"Actually, I bring them here so they can do this," Jim said, sounding irritated by Mark's comments. "It's not hurting anyone."

"It's not proper," Paula said, reaching for James's dish, but Jim beat her to the punch. He slid it his way and gave her a look that said she'd crossed a line. Without another word, Mark got up and said, "I need to smoke a cigarette."

While Mark was gone, Paula sat still, not touching her food and just looked forward. It was as if she was suddenly aware of something, and it was something hurtful. Jim slid James's dish back his way, but by this time, James wasn't eating. Instead, he looked upset, and Nick could tell it was because of the way his mom looked hurt. Jim reached over and rubbed James's shoulder and whispered something in his ear. He nodded and got up, walking around the table and wrapping his arms around his mom for a hug.

"Thank you sweetheart," Paula said. "You know mama loves you, don't you?"

"Yes ma'am," James said sadly.

"Your daddy loves you too," she said. "I'd like you to give him a hug before we go home, okay?"

"I will," James said, his voice cracking with emotion. "Are you still mad at me?"

Paula never answered James's question. In fact, she seemed to be ignoring it altogether. She kissed him on the cheek and said softly, "Go sit back down and finish your food, James."

Before they left the restaurant, Jim gave Nick and James their normal amount of quarters and they went wild in the game area. Nick played a few songs on the jukebox and lost a few dollars in the mechanical arm machine trying to win a stuffed animal, so his money seemed to go faster. When they were out of coins, they went back to the table, where Tom and Linda seemed to be commanding the conversation while Jim, Mark and Paula all nodded in agreement with what was being said.

That night when they got home, Mark and Paula visited with James until it was bedtime. Nick and James raced upstairs in their normal fashion to get ready and brush their teeth, then they raced back down for their vitamins, which Jim had waiting on the counter in the kitchen. When they prayed, Nick took note of the fact that James's parents looked uncomfortable joining hands in a circle with everyone, but they did it anyway. Nick opened one of his eyes to peak at James's mom and dad, and he noticed that Mark's eyes were closed, but Paula's were wide opened, though her head was bowed.

It was at that moment that another thought crossed Nick's mind. He knew that Paula was his mom's aunt, so that made her his blood relative. He had a hard time reconciling how someone he was related to could treat anyone the way she had treated James. Except for his Oma, he'd never seen the ugly side of anyone in his family. It made him wonder what his great grandparents on his moms side were like, because his Grandpa was so kind and gentle. This was the woman that hadn't even given James a birthday party in years and took all of his birthday cards away from him.

Of course she was also the woman who, along with Mark, hurt James and made him feel worthless. Nick couldn't understand how she could just be there in the family room of his home, of James's home, praying with them before his bedtime. He wanted to ask her so badly why she did it, and if she was sorry, but he knew his punishment for such disrespect, even towards people as contemptible as Mark and Paula, would be swift and severe.

The next day when Jim walked Nick to the bus stop, James walked with them. That was rare because normally James caught the bus before Nick did, but he was staying home today. Nick silently feared that the reason he was staying home was so his mom and dad could take him back to Tennessee, even though Jim promised him it wouldn't happen. Taylor was already there, as usual, and he seemed to pick up on Nick's distress. Before he got on the bus, Nick made sure he gave James a hug because something told him that it might be his last chance.

"What's wrong Nick?" Taylor asked when they were seated on the bus.

"I hate James's mom and dad," Nick said bitterly. "I wish they'd go away forever."

"Are they mean?" Taylor asked, and Nick nodded sadly.

"They want to take him away from my dad," Nick almost sobbed. Taylor grabbed Nick's hand and held it the rest of the way to school as Nick looked out the window, fighting back tears and wondering if James would still be there when he got home from school.

A feeling of relief swept over him when he got off the bus and James was standing there with Jim. He smiled at his cousin when he saw him, then at his dad, who took his back pack and asked him how his day was. Nick's head was swirling as he tried to recount the details of his day, but his attention was on the driveway in front of his grandparent's house, which was still occupied with two vehicles. One was Tom's Explorer, the other belonging to James's parent's.

As they walked up the path to the front door, Nick's mind drifted back to the night James first arrived. He had only one suitcase, and it didn't have much in it. He remembered the silent conversation between Tom and Jim while Jim was unloading James's luggage. Especially the look of confusion on Jim's face and the look of disgust on Tom's. It was obvious that James didn't come from a poor family, and he couldn't understand why they'd drive such a nice car and have such nice clothes for themselves but not give any of that to James.

He didn't have much time to dwell on it, though, because when they walked through the door, James's mom and dad were waiting in the family room with Tom and Linda, who had obviously been there a while. Nick couldn't help but smile when he thought about the fact that James went with Jim to the bus stop even though Mark and Paula were there. It was a signal to them that even Nick could see, as if James were letting them know that he'd rather spend time with Jim in any capacity than one minute alone with them.

"Nick, I want you to take Skalaki out, okay?" Jim said as he handed Nick a Capri Sun and an apple. "Then you need to get started on your homework."

"Yes sir," Nick said obediently. He did everything Jim told him to do, but he made sure he did his homework at the dining room table so he could hear what was happening in the family room. Paula turned her head his way a couple of times, looking in at him from her spot on the couch next to her husband. Every time she looked at him, she smiled as if she were admiring something, which made Nick extremely uncomfortable. When he was done with his homework, he made his way into the family room with the others, making sure he sat somewhere he was comfortable. This time, he found a spot with Tom and Linda on the love seat and watched silently as James and his parents interacted. Nick found it so curious that these were the people who brought his cousin into the world and had raised him for 13 years. Then they tossed him away, as James said, like he was garbage.

Not that they treated him much better than that before they sent him away. How could they have?, Nick wondered. When James got there, all he knew how to do was play Pokémon and ride a bike. He didn't know how to do his homework, he couldn't throw a football and he was still recovering from so many things his parents had put him through. Walking by his bedroom door and hearing him sobbing in private was one of the hardest things Nick had to learn to live with, and it was all brought on by the actions of the two strangers sitting on his couch with James. Jim was sitting in the recliner, seeming to watch the entire room from where he was, as if he were keeping watch over everyone.

That night they wound up eating out again. Things were a lot calmer this time around, though, and James's mom and dad looked more comfortable with the nighttime routine when it was bedtime for James and Nick. The next morning, Nick was off to school, and once again, James didn't go. Nick found himself worrying again about what would happen while he was gone for the day, but he wasn't nearly as upset as he had been the day before.

When he got home, Jim was at the bus stop by himself, and Nick instantly panicked.

"Where's my cousin?" Nick asked worriedly as Jim took his backpack.

"He's at home, buddy," Jim said. "His mom and dad left today."

"I'm glad," Nick spat before he could catch himself. He looked guiltily up at his father, who gave him a disapproving look, then he said, "I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it son," Jim said. "But don't you dare let James hear you say that. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir," Nick said quietly, ashamed that he'd been admonished in front of Taylor. When they got home, Nick got a Capri Sun for himself and Taylor, then Taylor walked home, promising to return shortly. While he was gone, Nick took his homework out and got busy. He finished it all in about twenty minutes, then he wandered into the family room, where he found James and his dad sitting side by side on the couch. James looked a little distressed but Nick didn't say a word. Instead, he took a seat on the love seat and tried to concentrate on the TV, but it seemed futile because his mind was really on James and all he'd been through. Not just in the last couple of days, but what he'd been thorough his whole life.

It didn't take long for Taylor to return on his bike. It was getting dark really early, and most nights, Jim would drive Taylor home because he didn't like the idea of him riding his bike in the dark. When he got there, he seemed to be in a really good mood, which rubbed off on everyone.

"I'm going to be nine in seven days," he bragged. "My party's on Saturday, but my real birthday's next Thursday."

"Are you having two parties?" Nick asked, and Taylor nodded.

"If my birthday was on Saturday I'd only have one party," he informed them. "But since it isn't, I have to have two parties."

"I never get two parties," Nick complained, looking at Jim for an explanation.

"Boy, for the way you act all year you're lucky to get one," Jim said, making all three boys giggle. "I ought to make you throw me a party on your birthday for what I have to go through."

"Ha Ha," Nick said slowly and sarcastically, sticking his tongue out at his dad for effect.

As the night wore on, Nick found himself more and more excited about Taylor's party, and he even felt a little excited about spending the night, even though he was still really nervous. He felt like he was ready to do anything for his boyfriend, though, even if it meant braving a night away from home.

Before it was time to load Taylor's bike up in the back of the Bronco, Nick wanted to spend a few minutes alone with him, so he offered to feed Skalaki and dragged Taylor out with him. Once Nick poured his food and filled his dish with water in the laundry room, the two of them slipped out to the garage to be by themselves.

"I'm glad James is okay," Taylor said sweetly, leaning up against Jim's workbench. It was chilly out, and Nick could feel the cold in his hands and fingers, even though he'd put a coat on before he went out to the garage. From where Nick was watching him, Taylor looked so cute and the only thing Nick wanted to do was steal a kiss from him. Taylor gave him a small grin and batted his eyes, so Nick instinctively moved toward him, resting his head on his boyfriend's shoulder and letting Taylor wrap his arms around him for a hug.

"I missed spending time with you," Nick said quietly. "I wish you didn't have to leave already."

With that, Nick lifted his head and gazed into Taylor's brown eyes for a moment, letting himself get lost in their beauty. Taylor puckered his lips and held them out, prompting Nick to lean in and press his own lips up against them and smile. He felt Taylor's lips part and his tongue invade his mouth. Nick pressed back with his tongue and sighed contentedly as he enjoyed a long kiss that he'd been missing for days. When they broke it, Nick found himself looking forward to spending the night at Taylor's house and realized that all of his nervousness was gone. That night, after they dropped Taylor off they stopped at Wendy's for something to eat for dinner.

"We haven't eaten at home since Monday," Nick commented in the drive thru.

"Is it a problem?" Jim asked in a playful tone. "Would you rather have spinach and liver tonight?"

"Yuck!" Nick exclaimed. "I'd rather eat porridge."

"That's what we're having tomorrow," Jim said with a smirk.

"Let's have SOS tomorrow instead," Nick said.

"We haven't had that in a while, have we?" Jim agreed.

"What's SOS?" James asked, and Nick giggled out loud.

"You've never had SOS?" Jim asked, and James shook his head.

"Can I say what it is?" Nick asked through his giggling, and Jim nodded.

"What is it?" James asked, looking confused but still smiling in anticipation.

"It's s**t on a shingle," Nick said, then he used both hands to cover his mouth.

"Gross!" James said with a grin. "Why's it called that?"

"Because that's what it is," Jim fibbed, winking at Nick.

"It can't be," James argued. "What's it really made of?"

"It's true," Nick said in his most convincing voice. "And we really eat it."

They pulled forward and Jim paid, then, while they waited for their food, James persisted.

"Seriously dad," he whined. "What's it made of?"

"You'll have to wait and see," Jim said. "I guess I haven't made it since we lived in Modesto."

"It's my favorite," Nick said. "Wait till you try it."

That night when they were finished eating, Nick and James ran upstairs and got ready, then they hurried back down so they could be in front of the TV by eight o' clock, when Smackdown! would be starting. Jim brought their vitamins to them, then he sat in the middle and let them each snuggle up to his chest and get comfortable. Usually both boys would fall asleep during the show, but for some reason, Nick was able to stay awake. At around nine o' clock, he heard the front door open and close and heard a familiar set of footsteps coming down the hallway into the family room.

"Hi Miss Lori," Nick said, holding his lips out for a kiss.

"Hi sweetie," she answered. "How was your day today?"

"Pretty good," Nick said, turning his attention back to the TV. James was sleeping soundly, and Nick could hear his dad and Lori talking about his mom and dad. Lori expressed relief that they were gone and gave James a peck on the cheek, then she waited while Jim scooped him up and transported him to the love seat, where he laid him down gently. When he came back to the couch, Nick instinctively snuggled back up to him and Lori took James's old spot until Smackdown! was over and Jim told Nick it was time for bed.

"Aren't we going to pray first?" Nick asked, and Jim smiled and nodded.

"Let's see if we can get James to wake up and pray with us," he said, getting up from his spot and sitting on the edge of the love seat, where he gently shook James awake. James sat up and blinked, so Jim helped him stand up and they walked together back to the couch, where the four of them joined hands. Jim said the prayer that night, then he sent the boys upstairs and said he's be up to tuck them into their beds in a little bit.

The next morning when Nick woke up, he wasn't sure if he was imagining that James's parents were gone and hadn't taken him with them, so he was relieved to hear the shower running in his bathroom, a sure sign that James was up and getting ready for school. He got up and sleepily made his way down the hall to his dad's room, where the door was opened and the bed was empty. He rounded the corner and walked into Jim's bathroom, where he unzipped his pajamas and emptied his bladder. He couldn't get them zipped back up, as usual, so he just scratched his head and walked out of the bathroom and down the stairs to the kitchen, where he could smell coffee and toast.

"Good morning buddy," Jim said when he spotted Nick, kneeling to line the teeth on Nick's pajamas up before zipping them closed . "I take it you've already gone to the bathroom."

"Good morning daddy," Nick said sleepily, holding his arms out for Jim to pick him up. "I used your bathroom."

"Did you aim?" Jim asked knowingly, and Nick slowly shook his head, which was resting on his dad's shoulder.

"What are you making us for breakfast?" Nick asked as Jim carried him over to the stove, where he had a frying pan with a lid on it. "It smells like bacon."

"The bacon's over there," Jim said, pointing to the table where a plate of bacon sat, resting atop some paper towels to soak the grease up. "These are eggs."

"How come you cooked a big breakfast today?" Nick asked.

"I just felt like getting up and making my boys something good before school," Jim said. "How come you got up so early?"

"I don't know," Nick shrugged. "Maybe it was because I smelled food. Or maybe because I could hear the shower."

"You're going to soak in the tub tonight," Jim said, holding his nose up to Nick's chest. "You should have had a bath last night."

By the time James made it downstairs for breakfast, Nick was sitting at the table waiting to be served and Jim was filling three glasses with milk. He took a seat next to Nick at the table, and Nick couldn't help but notice that his cousin had a different earring in than usual.

"Did you get a new earring?" Nick asked jealously, and James nodded.

"My mom got it for me on Wednesday," James said. "We went shopping at the mall while you were at school."

"Oh," Nick said, feeling guilty for his flash of jealousy as soon as he found out that Paula had bought the earring. Then he added with a smile, "It looks cute."

"Thanks," James said, digging into his eggs. "I thought it looked cute too. Do you really like it?"

Nick nodded as he picked up a piece of bacon and said, "I wish I could get my ear pierced."

"We'll see when you're older," Jim said. "Right now I think you're too young for that."

"How old do I have to be?" Nick asked defensively.

"At least James's age," Jim said, and Nick sighed dejectedly. Jim gave him a look, though, that told him it was time to drop the subject, so he did. Instead, he concentrated on his food, then Jim took him upstairs and picked him out an outfit to wear to school.

That afternoon, almost as if it were by design, Charles was waiting for Taylor at the bus stop with Jim. They seemed to be talking and smiling between each other, but when the bus pulled up they straightened up. To Nick it seemed as if they were scheming together, but he had no way of proving it.

"Daddy!" Taylor exclaimed as soon as he got off the bus, running up to Charles for a hug. "You're home early."

"I wanted to see my birthday boy," Charles answered happily, planting a kiss on Taylor's head. "How was your day, Sport?"

"Good," Taylor answered, handing Charles his backpack and reaching out for his hand. Nick watched and listened curiously as Charles and his dad talked between each other the entire walk to his house, where Charles's truck was parked. Nick and Taylor went inside and each got a Capri Sun and an orange, then they walked back out to the garage to rejoin their dads, who Nick was sure were up to something.

"So are you spending the night tonight, kiddo?" Jim asked, looking at Taylor with a smile.

"Am I allowed to?" Taylor asked, and Charles nodded casually.

"Why wouldn't you be allowed to?" he asked.

"Because tomorrow's my party," Taylor reminded his dad.

"It is?" Charles asked in a confused tone, but it was obvious he was only teasing.

"Daddy," Taylor whined with a pouty grin. Nick watched the interaction between Taylor and his dad with a smile, knowing that there was something else going on but not sure what it was.

"Do you have homework?" Charles asked, and both boys shook their heads. With that, they asked for permission to ride Nick's bike back to Taylor's so he could get a change of clothes, but Charles seemed ready for that. He walked out to his truck and came back with Taylor's old backpack, which was packed with clothes, in one hand and his Scooby Doo doll in the other.

When James came home from school, the three of them took Skalaki for a walk around the neighborhood. They cut down the trail and into a clearing, where James found a sharp rock and used it to carve practically every cuss word Nick had ever heard in his life into the dirt. Taylor didn't have his pocket knife with him, so he had to use that same rock to do his own dirty work while they waited for Skalaki to go to the bathroom. There was an old dead tree that had fallen over, and Taylor was able to pull the bark away easily and use the sharp side of the rock to carve his initials, then the word f**k, into it. Nick took his turn, carving his name and then f**k you into the tree.

When Skalaki was finished, James took a plastic bag out and picked up after him. He held it up in the air, smiled mischievously at Nick and Taylor and said, "Watch this."

With that, he wound up and hurled the bag up against a nearby tree. The bag broke on impact and its contents splattered all over the place, causing all three of them to yell triumphant obscenities and laugh. When they got home, they were still laughing between themselves and talking about the mess they left behind, but they quickly changed the subject when they got inside.

In the kitchen, Jim was whipping up mash potatoes in a large post and cooking ground beef in a pan. At the back of the stove he had a smaller pot of corn cooking. The boys made their way through the kitchen when they got home and went straight for the fridge, but Jim shooed them away.

"I know you didn't just come in here from walking your dog and start touching things without washing your hands," he admonished them. With that, the three of them raced to the bathroom and crowded in front of the sink, trying to steal the soap and push each other's hands out from under the water.

"Is that s**t on a shingle?" James asked Nick curiously as they washed their hands, and Taylor gasped because the door was opened.

"Yep," Nick said with a nod. "We mix it all up and eat it. It's good."

"Well at least it smells good," Taylor said, drying his hands behind James.

"It doesn't smell like s**t," James said with a silly grin, but his expression quickly changed when the sound of Jim's booming voice sailed into the bathroom.

"You better not have just said what I think you said," he called out.

"I didn't," James lied, looking nervous.

"Uh huh," Jim said knowingly. "It's almost time for supper. I want the three of you to come sit down."

That night, instead of the normal routine of going to bed upstairs, Jim let the boys move the couch, love seat and recliner around and use blankets to build a tent in the living room. Once it was finished, they got in and watched DVDs until they fell asleep. It had started to rain outside, and the wind was whipping hard, making Nick think for sure that Taylor's party was going to be an indoor one. Sometime in the middle of the night Nick got up and went to the bathroom, then he crawled back in to go back to sleep. He noticed that Taylor and James were wearing their regular tee-shirt and undies and Taylor had his Scooby Doo doll. At his pillow was his Pooh Bear, and he realized that he was the first one to fall asleep because he had no memory of having a pillow or of Taylor and James getting ready for bed.

The next morning he was up first, and Jim marched him to the bathroom and made him get in the tub for a long soak. When he was finally allowed to get out, he got dressed and went back downstairs, where James and Taylor were still out cold. Instead of turning the TV on, he went into the kitchen to help his dad and Lori get breakfast ready before he woke his cousin and his friend up. Once they were up, though, the morning went by quickly. They ate and James and Taylor both took showers, then it seemed like it was time to leave for Taylor's party.

As soon as they pulled up they could see the bounce house, which Taylor not Nick had any idea would be there. They both excitedly jumped out of the car and raced across the yard to the side of the strip, where they ran around the giant inflatable structure over and over but never got in. Nick was scared something he'd do would pop it, so he decided to let Taylor make the first move. Before either one of them acted to get in, though, Cindy came out and met them.

"Well?" she asked expectantly as soon as she saw them. The look on Taylor's face was sheer delight when Cindy gestured for them to get in, and he recklessly kicked his shoes off and accepted the invitation to hop in. Nick quickly followed, and they stayed there for the remainder of the morning.

As guests started arriving, the bounce house seemed to fill quickly and things got a little chaotic inside, so Nick got out and joined his dad and James at the table, hoping for something to drink. Eventually, Charles started serving food, which was good because Nick had worked up an appetite from playing all morning. Taylor had been called to come eat several times but refused over and over, saying he wasn't hungry. Nick figured that it was his loss, though, because the food Charles was cooking on the grill was scrumptious, and Nick was able to finish his entire hamburger before leaving the table.

"So are you having a good time Nick?" Cindy asked from behind Nick as he admired the cake, startling him.

"Yes ma'am," he answered politely. "That's a neat cake."

"Well we're going to cut it soon," she said. "As soon as we can get Taylor to come out and eat, we can cut the cake and he can open his presents."

Taylor never sat down at the table for lunch, so they just skipped that part and went right to the cake and presents. Everyone sang Happy Birthday, then Taylor cut the cake. He cut the first several pieces for his parents, Jim, Lori, James and Nick, but he let Cindy cut pieces for everyone else because he was anxious to eat a piece of his birthday cake.

Not long after Taylor opened his presents, kids started leaving. At about five in the evening, everyone but Nick was gone, including Jim, Lori and James. The bounce house was gone, too, and Nick suddenly came to the realization that his sleepover at Taylor's house had begun. Out of nowhere, he felt a wave of anxiety sweep over him and he almost felt like crying because he didn't want to go through with it.

He knew, though, that he'd ruin Taylor's birthday party if he didn't. Taylor, on the other hand, seemed enamored with all of his presents and wanted Nick to play with them in his room. He dragged Nick up the stairs and laid everything out so the two of them could have their pick of the toys. Silently, Nick was wishing that his dad would come get him, but outwardly, he played and pretended to have a good time so his friend's feelings wouldn't be hurt. As he played, though, he forgot about how scared he was to be away from home and started enjoying himself.

Until Jim called.

As soon as he heard his dad's voice, he started to feel scared again. He waited until he was alone in the kitchen, then he told Jim he wanted to go home.

"I'm scared daddy," he said, on the verge of tears. "I want you to come get me."

"What are you scared of, buddy?" Jim asked. "You're at Taylor's. You go there all the time."

"But I never spend the night," Nick pleaded. "What if I get in trouble?"

"What would you get in trouble for?" Jim said. "Did you do something?"

"No sir," Nick explained. "But I don't know the rules here. What if I break them?"

"Nick you're being silly," Jim said. "You aren't going to break the rules."

"Please daddy," Nick begged. "I don't want to spend the night."

"Son, I want you to stay there tonight," Jim said with a tone of finality. "You promised Taylor you would, and you're going to keep your promise. I'll come pick you up in the morning."

"Okay," Nick said with a quiet sob. "What time will you be here?"

"You can call me when you wake up and I'll come get you," Jim promised him. "I love you, buddy."

"I love you too daddy," Nick said, wiping his tears away with his sleeve. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Nick hung the phone up and held it in his hands, trying to get his tears under control. In the other room, he could hear Taylor talking to his dad about going to the movies the next day, but all he could think about was how homesick he was feeling. He set the phone on the table and wiped his eyes again, then he stood up and turned to walk into the living room but Cindy was standing right in front of him.

"Are you okay, honey?" she asked softly, and Nick nodded sadly. She led him back to the chair he was sitting in and had him sit, then she went to the refrigerator and got him a soda, opened it for him and handed it to him.

"Thank you Miss Cindy," Nick said as bravely as he could.

"Are you feeling a little homesick?" she asked, and he nodded.

"Are you mad at me?" Nick asked, and she shook her head no with a warm smile.

"Is this your first time spending the night away from home?" she asked, and he nodded. "Well we're going to make sure you have a good time, okay?"

"Yes ma'am," Nick answered. "I don't want Taylor to get his feelings hurt."

"He isn't going to get his feelings hurt just because you're nervous," she said. "Did you have a good time today at the party?"

Nick smiled and nodded, thinking back on all the fun he had that day. Then he thought about how much fun Taylor had been having and knew he'd ruin it all if he went home, so he let all of his tears stop and resolved to have a good time one way or another. From the living room, he heard Taylor question out loud where he was, so he got up and gave Cindy a confident smile, then he joined his friend.

One of the presents Charles and Cindy got Taylor was a Karaoke machine. It wasn't an extravagant machine, but it was still nice. They put some DVD's in and Taylor got up and sang the theme from Grease. Nick laughed when Charles and Cindy danced like they were in the seventies, and before long, he realized that he was having a really good time again.

When they went to bed that night, Nick and Taylor stayed up late talking and giggling about a lot of things. Charles and Cindy popped their heads in a few times to tell them to try to calm down and get to sleep, but it was no use. They were both so wound up that they couldn't sleep.

"Look at the clock on my VCR," Taylor said, pointing to the entertainment center he had in his room with a TV, VCR and stereo occupying the two top shelves and about five dozen tapes taking the bottom three shelves. Nick gasped when he realized it was after midnight and they were still wide awake. Taylor gave him a naughty look, then he got out of his bed and motioned for Nick to follow him. They crept down the hall and looked into Charles and Cindy's room. The TV was still on, but they were both asleep, so Taylor very quietly shut their door and took Nick by the hand. Nick let Taylor lead him down the stairs to the kitchen, where they got into the cake. Taylor cut them each a huge piece, then he picked each one up with his hands. He handed Nick one piece, then he shoved as much of his own piece into his mouth. Nick followed his example, but he had a feeling they were about to be caught.

Just when it seemed like they would get away with their crime and be able to head back upstairs, Taylor opened the box and cut two more pieces of cake. Nick took his piece with serious doubts, then he proceeded to shove it in his mouth while Taylor did the same. Nick had resolved to tell Taylor he didn't want another piece if he tried to give him more, but he didn't get the chance to see it through because out of nowhere, he and Taylor found themselves face to face with Charles, who didn't look amused.

"Taylor what's going on down here?" he asked irritably. "I thought I said to go to sleep."

"We wanted a piece of cake," Taylor answered smugly. "We aren't tired, anyway."

"I want you to wash your hands and get back to bed, boys," Charles said calmly, but Taylor didn't agree.

"No," he said in a matter of fact tone, then he walked back to the box that contained the cake and opened it back up for more. Nick watched in amazement as Taylor casually cut each of them another piece of cake and tried to hand him his piece, but Nick shook his head, looking at Charles with fear before he moved to the sink to wash his hands. Taylor just shrugged and shoved the piece in his mouth and put the other piece back in the box, then he went behind Nick and washed his hands too.

"Thank you Taylor," Charles said while they washed their hands, as if Taylor had somehow listened to him and not just said no to him.

Much to Nick's surprise, it was as if it hadn't happened. Charles tucked them in and kissed Taylor goodnight. Taylor called out for his dad to close the door, and he did. Seeing all of this made Nick blink because he couldn't believe what Taylor had just gotten away with.

"Did you like your cake?" Taylor asked. Nick just looked at him for a moment, not able to believe that this was the same person who spent the night at his house so many times. Finally he answered.

"Yeah," he said. "Doesn't your dad get you in trouble for not listening?"

"I listened," Taylor told him, but Nick couldn't see how.

"But you said no to him," Nick said. " My dad would whip me for that."

"Not my dad," Taylor boasted, his smile evident even in the dark. "I can do whatever I want."

Nick sat in the dark and let the idea process in his mind that any kid would be allowed to do what Taylor had just gotten away with. He'd never heard of such a thing, and he wondered how long something like that would go on at his house. He knew his dad would have a belt to his bottom faster than he could count to three if he ever told him no, especially the way Taylor had done it. But before he could mull it over any further, he felt Taylor's arms wrap around his chest his head on his shoulder, then he felt a kiss on his cheek.

"Good night Nick," Taylor yawned. "I love you."

"I love you too," Nick said quietly. "I'll see you in the morning."

With that, Nick wrapped his arms around Taylor and let himself get comfortable on the pillow they were sharing and closed his eyes.

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