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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 7

By Nick

"There he is!" Taylor shouted, pointing at the large calico that had taken refuge on the back patio, somehow managing to get himself cornered by Nick and his friends.

"Someone give me the hose," Nick said mischievously, grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of teaching the big cat a lesson. For months, Nick, James and Jim had been chasing him away when they'd catch him on their lawn going to the bathroom. A few times, Nick heard his dad comment that he wanted to shoot the cat with a bb gun, but he never acted on his threat.

But this time, in the presence of four of his classmates, Taylor, Michael, Ray-Ray and Greg, Nick had plans to detour the cat from ever coming back. Someone handed him the hose while Taylor cranked the water pressure all the way up, and Nick aimed as the cat sat helplessly in the corner. With a vindictive smile, Nick let loose and shot water at the large calico, but the cat instantly darted off, stealthily making his way between two of Nick's classmates before the first drop could touch him.

"God damn it!" Nick brazenly cursed as he watched the feline round the corner and disappear.

"Excuse me?" he heard from behind him, and he turned just in time to see his dad cutting his eyes at him, then looking over at Taylor, who looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car as he frantically tried to turn the water off.

"I meant to say darn it," Nick fibbed as Jim slowly gazed over the patio, which was soaking wet, and the group of boys who had spent the night before.

"Boy what were you thinking?" Jim exclaimed with a loud sigh, giving Nick a disapproving glare as he held his hand out expectantly, waiting for Nick to hand him the hose. Nick handed it off to him, then he turned to his friends and cracked a grin as Jim rolled the water hose back up. When he was finished, he turned back toward his son and said, "Make sure you let me know if you plan to take off on your bikes."

"Yes sir," Nick called back to his dad as he and his brood made their way to the side of the house, where Ray-Ray dug a lighter out of his pocket and produced a cigarette.

"Is he inside?" the boy asked, his eyes shifting from side to side as he stuck the cigarette in his mouth and prepared to light it.

"It's clear," Taylor said, as he peeked around the corner for any sign that they were being watched. Once Taylor gave him the all clear, Ray-Ray lit the cigarette like a pro and took a long drag from it, pointing to the end, which was burning bright. As soon as he pulled it away from his mouth, though, he started to cough hard. So hard, in fact, that everyone got out of his way so he could slobber on the grass as he tried to get his coughing under control.

"I don't think I want to smoke any," Nick said, his nose itching from the smell of the cigarette.

"Try it, it's menthol," Ray-Ray said with a grin, but Nick waved it off. Instead, Ray-Ray passed it to Michael, who was a lot taller than the others but really skinny. Nick, Greg and Taylor watched as Michael put the cigarette to his lips and took a drag, then they all cleared out when he instantly dropped it and broke into a harsh coughing fit. Ray-Ray looked exasperated as the cigarette rolled into the puddle of spit that he had produced only moments earlier.

"You dummy, you ruined it," Ray-Ray said, rolling his eyes. "It's the only one I had."

"Who cares?" Greg said, looking almost relieved that the cigarette was out. Nick felt the same way, too. He was worried to death that his dad was going to catch them in the act and that he was going to be busted.

"Where'd you get it anyway?" Nick asked, and Ray-Ray grinned widely, flashing his pearly white teeth that seemed to be accentuated by his caramel colored skin and African American features before he answered. He was one of the first people Nick noticed, besides Taylor, when he first started going to school in Virginia, and along with the others who were there with him, Ray-Ray was one of his best friends.

"I took them from my mom's pack," he boasted. "I could have took a whole pack if I wanted to, because she has a whole carton."

By that point, Michael was starting to recover from the harsh drag he had taken, and was now spitting repeatedly, obviously trying to get the taste out of his mouth.

"Do you want some gum or something?" Greg offered, reaching into his front pocket and producing an unopened pack of Wrigley's that came out of Nick's Piñata the day before at his party. Instead of answering verbally, Michael reached for the pack almost frantically and pulled the red tab, pealing the top of the pack off as he did. He pulled a piece out and barely had it out of its foil wrapper before he shoved it into his mouth and passed the pack of gum to Ray-Ray.

Eventually, Nick did go inside and tell Jim that they were leaving on their bikes, and that they'd be in the neighborhood. He asked James if Michael could ride his bike since he didn't bring his, and James said yes, so he hurriedly ran back out to the garage. Nick let Ray-Ray ride his old bike, but before they could go, they had to pump the tire full of air. Once they did, they took off for the trail, where Taylor led the way to the newest ramp that he, Nick and James built.

Everyone took a turn on the ramp but Greg, who was more than a little bit apprehensive about trying it out. Everyone tried talking him into it, but he wasn't budging, so Nick just shrugged and continued to take his turns as they came around. On about his sixth or seventh jump, he noticed that Taylor had gotten off of his bike and was talking to Greg, so he rode around to find out what was going on.

"You don't have to be scared," Taylor was telling Greg as Nick approached them. "Me and Nick do it all the time."

"I just don't want to," Greg said nervously, but Taylor persisted.

"Everyone else is doing it," he said, trying to convince his friend to try the ramp once.

"I've never jumped my bike before," Greg admitted sheepishly. "What if I crash?"

"It's just like popping a wheelie," Nick said with a smile. "I know you won't fall."

"We can build a smaller ramp for you to practice on if you want," Taylor offered, and Greg shrugged.

"Okay, I'll try it out," he said. With that, he pedaled over to the path that the ramp was on and studied it closely. Nick and Taylor rode over to where he was on his bike, and Nick was about to tell him to build up as much speed as he could when he suddenly took off on his own. It looked to Nick like he was pedaling as hard as he could, but as he approached the ramp he slowed down and turned around.

"What happened?" Michael asked as he rode back toward everyone.

"I just needed to warm up, that's all," Greg said weakly, and Nick knew he was fibbing. "I'm gonna really do it this time."

"Just go as fast as you can," Ray-Ray said, patting him on the back. Greg looked around at everyone and gulped, then he started pedaling again, this time moving further away from the ramp. He finally stopped about twenty yards back from everyone, then he started to pedal hard. By the time he whizzed by Nick, Taylor, Ray-Ray and Michael, he had enough speed built up. Before Nick had time to blink, Greg's bike was sailing through the air. It landed kind of awkwardly, and Greg wound up putting his feet down to catch himself as the velocity of the jump took his bike out from underneath him and he tumbled around in the dirt before coming to a stop.

"Oh crap," Michael exclaimed as he threw his bike down and ran to his friend with Taylor right behind him. Ray-Ray and Nick rode their bikes over and got there at the same time Taylor and Michael did. Greg was holding his knee as he rolled over, and Nick realized that he was in trouble, so he ditched his bike and ran over to look his friend over, along with everyone else.

"It hurts," Greg whined as all of his friends knelt down to tend to him. "Someone rub it for me."

Ray-Ray grabbed his leg and started to rub on it when out of nowhere, Greg looked up at everyone with a huge grin on his face and said, "You rub good, Ray-Ray. Maybe next time you can rub my dick."

With that, everyone started laughing and pulled him to his feet. Ray-Ray gave him a punch on the arm, then he helped him dust off before they climbed on their bikes and took turns on the ramp for the remainder of the morning. When it was lunch time, they rode back to Nick's house and raided the food from the cook out the day before. One of the presents Nick got the day before was an electronic dart board, and after lunch, Jim set it up in the garage. He put some tape on the garage floor that marked the spot they weren't supposed to cross, and Nick and his friends spent the better part of the afternoon trying to set the high score.

As it got later, Nick's friends all had to go home, especially because it was Sunday and there was school the next day. Of course, Nick didn't mind that, because the next day was his real birthday, and his dad already arranged with his teacher to bring enough cupcakes for the entire class so they could sing Happy Birthday for him. Jim explained to him that there wouldn't be any presents to open until he got home from school and they had his other party.

"I know daddy," Nick said happily. "I don't have to get presents twice tomorrow."

"I can't believe my big boy is nine years old," Jim said, reaching down and grabbing Nick under his arms so he could pick him up and give him a kiss. "You're still my baby, though. I love you."

"I love you too daddy," Nick said, holding onto Jim's cheeks with his hands and smiling at him before he gave him a kiss. "Is papu taking a nap?"

"No, he went to the store with your grandpa and James," Jim said.

"Are they buying dinner?" Nick asked, and Jim smiled knowingly.

"No, they went shopping for something else," he said, carrying Nick into the family room. Nick knew they were getting him presents for his party the next day, but he decided to ask anyway.

"What are they shopping for?" Nick asked as Jim took a seat in the recliner with Nick still in his arms. Nick snuggled up to his dad's chest and waited for Jim to tell him that they were shopping for his party.

"They're looking for a present," Jim said, and Nick smiled up at him. "Something for Skalaki."

"Skalaki?" Nick giggled, and his dad nodded with a grin that told Nick he was kidding.

"Sure," Jim said. "He needs stuff too."

"It's not even Skalaki's birthday yet," Nick said.

"Sure it is, buddy,' Jim said. "Dogs have seven birthdays a year."

"That's silly, daddy," Nick giggled. "Dogs don't get presents."

"They do too," Jim countered teasingly, reaching down to tickle Nick's ribs with his fingers.

"Like what?" Nick asked with a wide smile, enjoying the time he was spending alone with his dad.

"Like chew toys and new doggy bowls for food and water," Jim told him, obviously trying to keep a straight face but not doing a good job.

"And leashes?" Nick asked through his laughter, and Jim nodded. "I don't believe you daddy."

"I wouldn't tease my boy," Jim said, running his hand through Nick's hair.

"What are they getting him?" Nick asked, and Jim raised an eyebrow.

"It's a surprise," he said. "What do you think it is?"

"A pooper scooper?" Nick guessed with a silly smile, and Jim smiled down at him.

"No, that's what we're getting for you, little boy," Jim said, tickling Nick's ribs again. "Guess again."

"NFL Blitz?" Nick asked hopefully, and Jim shrugged, so he guessed again. "Need For Speed Five?"

"They haven't released that one yet, buddy," Jim said. "When they do, I think daddy's going to have it before Skalaki gets it."

Nick giggled again and wrapped his arms tightly around his dads chest. Jim hugged him back and rocked him gently as Nick soaked up Jim's attention, glad that he was alone with his dad.

"Did you have fun this weekend?" Jim asked, and Nick nodded.

"I had a good party and we had fun last night," Nick said. "Thank you for letting my friends spend the night, daddy."

"You're welcome babe," Jim said. "I'm glad you had fun this weekend."

"I almost got the cat this morning," Nick said into his dad's chest.

"I saw that," Jim said. "I don't think you should corner him next time, son."

"Can I spray him if I catch him going poop on our grass?" Nick asked, looking up at his dad, who nodded.

"You can spray him but you can't corner him with the hose and soak him," Jim said. "It's way too cold outside. He might get sick, and you need to remember that he's someone's kitty cat."

"Why don't they make him stay home?" Nick asked. "We don't let Skalaki go into other people's lawns."

"It's harder with a cat, buddy," Jim told him. "They like to be free to roam."

"Dogs like to be free to roam, too," Nick said, and Jim gave him a gentle squeeze.

"But cats don't scare people," Jim said. "And dogs bite. You never hear of anyone getting a cat bite, do you?"

Nick started to giggle again and shook his head, then he rested quietly and watched TV with his dad. They stayed in the recliner until James and Big Nick got back, and despite Nick's protests, Jim held on tight and didn't let him run to his papu so he could see what was in the bag he had from Toy's-R-Us. Big Nick made a quick right turn and went up the stairs with James right behind him, and as soon as they was out of site, Jim let Nick go.

Knowing that it was too late to follow his papu and James up the stairs to see what they got him, he wandered into the kitchen, where his dad was standing with the refrigerator wide open. Nick watched as his dad surveyed the contents of the fridge, then lifted his head and looked at Nick with a shrug and said, "Maybe I should have had your grandpa and papu go to the store for some supper after all. I guess we're having leftover burgers and pork chops."

"Can we have grits too?" Nick asked hopefully. Jim nodded and opened the cupboard where he kept the can of grits. Nick climbed up onto a stool and from there, he climbed up onto the countertop and watched his dad cook grits and put the cold meat on a large baking sheet before he put it in the oven.

After supper, Nick and James went upstairs to get ready for bed. When they met up in the bathroom to brush their teeth, Nick begged James to tell him what he was getting the next day. James smiled naughtily, then he motioned with his finger for Nick to lean in close so he could whisper it into his ear. Nick was bubbling with anticipation as he extended his neck and put his ear up to James's cupped hand.

In a low whisper, James said, "It's this." Then he belched loudly in Nick's ear and cracked up laughing while Nick stomped his foot in frustration.

"That's what you get for trying to cheat," he heard his dad's voice say from the hallway. Nick turned to see Jim smiling and nodding with a knowing smile as the sound of running water filled the room. Nick grabbed his toothbrush, trying to muster his most convincing pout but finding it hard because he couldn't stop grinning because he knew he'd been caught. He held his toothbrush out for James, who put toothpaste on it for him, then he brushed his teeth while Jim leaned up against the door jamb and waited.

"Are you gonna wear any jammie bottoms tonight?" Jim asked Nick and James as the three of them made their way back down the stairs. James shook his head no at the same time Nick said, "No." Jim just shrugged and led them into the kitchen, where he gave them each their vitamins. After they chewed them up, they went into the family room to pray and calm down before bedtime.

"Where's Miss Lori?" Nick asked, taking note of the fact that while she was normally there on a Sunday night, she hadn't been there all day.

"She had to work tonight, buddy," Jim said. "She'll be here tomorrow for your party, though."

"Can Taylor come too?" Nick asked, and his dad smiled at him.

"Of course he can sweetheart," Jim said softly. "But I doubt he'll have another gift for you."

"It's okay," Nick said. "I want him to come no matter what. Miss Cindy and Mr. Charles too."

"Then tomorrow, you need to call them when you get home from school and invite them," Jim said.

"I will daddy," Nick said happily.

"You had a big day, didn't you buddy?" Jim said, tousling Nick's hair. "Actually, you had a big weekend."

"When I wake up I'll be nine," Nick reminded him.

"I know babe," Jim said, leaning down to kiss him on the cheek. "You're getting to be such a big boy now."

"Am I growing fast?" Nick asked, and Jim chuckled.

"Not too fast, buddy," he said in a soft voice, and to Nick, it sounded more like a request than an answer. It didn't take long for Nick to start yawning, and James looked like he was about to nod off too, so Nick wasn't surprised when Jim got them to get up and go to their rooms. They both gave Big Nick a hug and kiss goodnight, then Jim followed them up the stairs to tuck them in.

The next day, Nick felt a rush when he woke up and realized that he was officially nine years old. He hopped out of bed, went to the bathroom, then made a beeline for his dad's room. It wasn't quite 5:30 in the morning, but Nick was so excited that he couldn't wait to wake Jim up. He turned on the light and hopped into the bed, where his dad was snoring loudly, and crawled across the bedspread to shake his dad and get him to come around.

"What time is it buddy?" Jim asked in a groggy voice as he opened one eye and used his arm to shield from the light.

"It's in the morning," Nick said excitedly. "It's my birthday."

Jim groaned and his head dropped back down to his pillow, then Nick heard him take a deep breath before he reached over and turned his alarm clock off so it wouldn't go off.

"Why can't you be this excited when I come into your room to wake you up every morning?" Jim asked in a groggy voice. "Happy birthday, baby."

"Thank you daddy," Nick said happily as Jim held his arm out for Nick to come snuggle up to him under the covers.

"Aren't you freezing?" Jim asked, rubbing his hands up and down Nick's bare legs, which actually were a little bit cold.

"I was just a little cold," Nick said. "But I'm too excited to be freezing."

"Did you go potty already?" Jim asked, and Nick nodded with a smile. "Good boy. What do you want for breakfast?"

"Candy," Nick said hopefully, but Jim cut his eyes at him and he knew it was out of the question.

"What else?" Jim said, and Nick pondered the question before he asked his dad to make him pancakes. They spent a few more minutes under the covers, where Nick snuggled as closely to his dad as he could, but eventually Jim got up to go to the bathroom and wash his face. Nick watched from the bed as his dad sleepily started the shower and shaved his face. He came back to the bed and motioned for Nick, who pulled the covers back and crawled across the bed to his dad, who was waiting to hoist him up. Jim put his nose to Nick's chest and sniffed him before saying, "You need to get in the shower with me this morning."

Twenty minutes later, they were out of the shower and standing in the mirror as Jim dried Nick off with a large towel. When he was dry, Nick scampered off to the bed, where he crawled in to get warm while Jim brushed his teeth. Nick watched as his dad gargled with mouthwash, then he came into his room and went into his dresser for a pair of boxers and a tee-shirt. His slid his robe on and walked out of room. He returned quickly with a pair of undies, some jeans, a shirt and some socks for Nick. Once he was dressed, Nick followed his dad back down the hall, where Jim opened James's door and told him it was time to get up.

Nick was beaming when, with fifteen minutes left in class, Mrs. Fritzen presented a tray filled up with cupcakes. They all had chocolate frosting spread over the top, and before she passed them out, the class sang Happy Birthday to Nick. As soon as class was over, Nick and his friends made a beeline for the door and out to the loading area for the school busses. He was shocked when Jim was standing by with a smile, waiting for him. Taylor wanted to go with them, but he didn't have a note saying he could, so he had to ride the bus home. Nick was a little bummed out about it, but he brightened up when Jim said it would be okay for him to ride the bus too.

When they finally made it to their bus stop, Jim was waiting for them. They got in his car and Jim drove Taylor to his house, where Nick and his dad got out and went inside with him. Nick invited Taylor, his dad and Cindy over for cake and ice cream later, and Nick smiled excitedly when Cindy said they'd be there. Nick followed Taylor upstairs and waited in his room while Taylor went to the bathroom.

When Taylor made it back to his room, he was systematically stripping his clothes off and leaving a trail of them wherever they happened to fall. Nick raised an eyebrow when he saw Taylor nonchalantly drop his shirt on the floor in the hallway, right outside his bedroom, and walk into his room as if nothing were the matter. Nick cautiously peeked out into the hallway and saw that there was a trail of shoes, socks and a towel, all that weren't there when they came upstairs, that Taylor left on his way from the bathroom to his room.

He smiled silently and watched intently as his best friend finished stripping down to his undies and went into his dresser for a pair of jeans and a plain white tee-shirt. When he was finished dressing, he turned and flashed Nick a bright smile, causing him to blush because he thought Taylor looked so cute, especially with the blue jeans and white tee on. Nick sat back down on Taylor's bed, and Taylor smiled sweetly at him before he walked over and sat next to him.

"Happy birthday, Nick," Taylor said sweetly, taking Nick's hand in his.

"Thank you Taylor," Nick said quietly, feeling electricity run through him because he was sitting alone with his best friend, holding hands and hoping for a kiss. Taylor didn't let go of Nick's hand when he stood up, so Nick got up with him and they walked to the door, where Taylor peaked around the corner and into the hallway. When he was finished looking, he very quickly pressed his lips up to Nick's lips with a daring look in his eyes.

When they got back downstairs, Taylor had a guilty look on his face, especially when he looked at Nick. He looked nervous, but the adults were talking about something else and didn't seem to notice anything wrong, and eventually, he seemed to relax. By the time Nick and his dad left, Taylor seemed to be his normal, happy self, especially when Nick commented that he left a trail of clothes from the bathroom to his room. Cindy just rolled her eyes and sarcastically said, "Yes, Taylor's my good little helper. He always cleans up after himself."

As soon as they got home, Nick raced inside and straight up the stairs to the bathroom. When he was finished, he went into his room, where Jim had already laid out some clothes for him to change into. After changing, he bounded down the stairs, where Big Nick was waiting for him in the family room. Nick ran right up to his papu and gave him a long hug.

"How's my birthday boy?" he asked as Nick rested his head on his shoulder.

"Good," Nick said, tightening his grip around his papu. "I missed you today."

"I missed you too my little polakia," Big Nick said affectionately. "Are you ready to open presents later?"

Nick nodded silently, content to rest his head on his papu's meaty shoulder and be held. He could hear his dad and James in the dining room, working on James's homework and remembered that he hadn't had his snack yet, but he wasn't very concerned with having a snack. He had a comfortable spot and wasn't planning to move until he had to.

"What time are my grandma and grandpa coming over?" Nick asked his papu.

"Whenever we call them and tell them dinner's ready," Big Nick said.

"Papu, do you wish you lived by my grandma and grandpa?" Nick asked.

"Of course, Nicko," Big Nick answered. "I wish I lived by all of you."

"I wish you did too, papu," Nick said. "How much longer are you going to be here?"

"It depends on when the baby's born," Big Nick told him. "But I planned on coming for two weeks."

"Do you miss my Uncle Brandon and Uncle Alex and Yia Yia?" Nick asked listlessly.

"I sure do," Big Nick said. "I think about them every day."

"I do too, papu," Nick said softly.

"Are you hungry or thirsty?" Big Nick asked, and Nick nodded.

"I am, but I don't want to move," Nick admitted.

"Well your papu's thirsty," Big Nick said. "Why don't we go together and find something for me to drink?"

With that, Big Nick stood up with Nick still resting his head on his shoulder and carried him into the kitchen with him. He opened the fridge and found a can of Fresca, then he got a glass down and filled it with ice before he poured the soda over it as Nick watched on. The two of them wound up at the table, watching as Jim and James wrapped up the homework they were doing. Jim beamed proudly at James as he talked to his dad about the improvements he had made. Even though he was called to school because James hadn't been turning in assignments, he said he was really proud of how well James was doing.

"His report card looked so much better last semester," Jim boasted to his father as James organized all of his work by putting it in separate folders.

"Oh yeah?" Big Nick said. "What's your favorite class, James?"

"PE," James said without hesitation. "I always get an A in it."

"Probably because there's no homework," Jim said knowingly.

"All I have to do is dress out and run," James bragged. "I'm one of the fastest runners in my class."

"I can run fast too," Nick announced, and James gave him a perplexed glance.

"You can't run as fast as I can," James told hm.

"Only because your older than me," Nick said. "My dad runs faster than you do."

"He has longer legs," James explained. "That's why I'm faster than you, too."

"No it's not," Nick countered, but Big Nick and Jim corrected him.

"Sure it is buddy," Big Nick said. "The longer your legs, the faster you should be."

"Yep," Jim agreed. "Someday when your legs get long, you'll see what we mean."

"Well I can still run fast," Nick pouted, his feelings a little hurt because everyone disagreed with him about being a fast runner.

"I know you can babe," Jim said with a sympathetic smile. "When you get a little older you'll be able to give your brother and I a run for our money."

"When I'm ten?" Nick asked hopefully.

"Maybe a little older than that," Jim told him. "Just be patient. It'll happen soon enough."

"Do you run fast papu?" Nick asked, looking up at Big Nick for an answer."

"Probably not anymore," Big Nick said. "But when I was a little younger, I used to run all the time."

"Really?" Nick said.

"Your papu used to run me till I threw up," Jim told him. "We'd go jogging and I'd try to keep up with him. He'd just keep on going and after a while I'd have to give up."

Hearing that his papu was a strong runner wasn't too surprising to Nick, but the thought of his dad not being able to keep up with him was a little shocking. Especially because of the memories he had of he and Jim going to the junior college in Modesto, where his dad would run the track over and over again, then run up and down the bleachers until he'd gone from one end to the other. After that, he'd get back out onto the track and run some more.

He was always drenched in sweat by the time he jogged back to the middle of the track, where Nick would be waiting for him on a blanket with his keys and wallet. Jim would down a big bottle of water, then he'd playfully race Nick back to the Bronco. He'd never seen his papu jog before, but he always figured he was in great shape because of the way he so easily lugged his diving equipment up and down the cliffs when they went to the ocean.

The sound of the timer on the oven grabbed everyone's attention. Jim got up and grabbed an oven mitt as Nick watched from the table. He opened the oven and pulled Nick's birthday cake out, and as the aroma of a freshly baked carrot cake drifted into Nick's nostrils, a smile spread across his face. He raised his head just enough to see Jim setting the cake on the top of the stove, where he left it to cool. From where he was sitting, Nick could see the counter top, which he surveyed carefully to make sure that there was no possibility of someone ruining his cake with frosting.

By the time everyone had arrived, James was finished with his homework and Nick was excitedly showing Charles how good he was at darts.

"My dad and James haven't beat me yet," Nick halfway fibbed, leaving out the fact that he hadn't played darts with his dad or James yet. "Do you like darts?"

"Well, I've played a few rounds," Charles said, taking the darts from Nick and standing well behind the line that Jim set up over the weekend with orange tape on the garage floor. Nick watched with great interest as Charles took a serious posture before he let the first dart fly. He seemed to have an established technique, which turned out to be very effective, because he hit a bulls eye right off the bat. His next two throws were almost dead on as well, and Nick stood in stunned silence as Charles walked back up to the dart board and retrieved the three darts Nick had handed him.

When the cake was ready, Jim came out to the garage and listened with a look of amusement as Nick reported the skill that Charles displayed throwing darts. When they got inside, Nick grinned as the large, unfrosted carrot cake with a number nine shaped candle burning in the center was carried to the table and everyone sang Happy Birthday to him.

"How come there's no frosting on it?" Taylor asked in a hesitant voice as Lori handed him a piece of cake.

"I don't like frosting on my carrot cake," Nick told him. "It's better without it."

"I've never heard of having a cake without frosting," James said, and Taylor nodded in agreement. "At least we have ice cream to wash it down with."

Nick just shrugged and figured to himself that they didn't know what was good, then he happily dug into his piece of cake. When everyone was finished with their cake and ice cream, Big Nick and Tom brought a few normal sized wrapped presents to the table, and one really big one too, while Cindy dug into her purse and produced a large envelope that obviously contained a card. Nick opened it right away and smiled widely when he found a crisp ten dollar bill inside. Jim made him read the card out loud, then he got up and gave Cindy and Charles both a hug before he returned to his seat to open his wrapped gifts.

The first thing he opened was from Tom and Linda, and it was a large Hot Wheels case that looked like the back of a big rig. He quickly ripped the package open and opened the case, where several Hot Wheels cars were neatly arranged in their slots.

"I love it!" Nick exclaimed, holding his lips out for his grandma at the same time that his grandpa playfully messed his hair up. The next gift Nick opened was long and wide, and it felt heavy. Not too heavy for him to lift up, but it was definitely awkward to try to maneuver it. Out of the corner of his eye, there was a flash from Lori's camera, and Nick knew that whatever he was about to open, it was something special.

He carefully started to remove the wrapping paper and as soon as he saw what it was, he gasped.

"What is it buddy?" Jim asked, as if he didn't already know.

"It's a guitar," Nick exclaimed, trying to hold it up for everyone to see. "Here, open it for me, dad."

With that, Jim took it from Nick and proceeded to remove the guitar from its box. There wasn't a case, but Nick didn't mind that. He just wanted to get his hands on it so he could try to play it. He had no idea how to play the guitar, but he'd always wanted one because it looked so easy on TV. Plus, one of his favorite wrestlers, Jeff Jarrett, was always smashing people over the head with his guitar.

While Jim was getting the guitar out of its box, Big Nick handed him a much smaller present. He had a feeling that it was a game for his Play Station, but he wasn't sure which one it was. His heart raced when he ripped the paper off and found NFL Blitz, the game he was hoping for. Almost as soon as he finished opening that present, he was handed one more, which had a card on it from Lori. He tore it open and found a brand new back pack with The Rock on it, then he sheepishly went back and opened the card after Jim gave him an admonishing glance. He didn't find any money in the card, but he still read it out loud, then he gave Lori a hug and a kiss.

After all of his presents were opened, Nick, Taylor and James went to the family room and took turns trying to play the guitar, but it was fruitless because none of them knew what to do. The guitar came with a book, but Nick didn't have the patience to look through it at the moment. All he could think about was trying to make music with it the way he saw the rockers in music videos do.

Just when he thought he had a good tune going, he strummed too hard on one of the strings and it snapped, eliciting a loud gasp from both Taylor and James. Such a loud gasp, in fact, that all of the adults came into the family room to see what happened.

"Oh, buddy," Jim said dejectedly. "Well, so much for the guitar for now. We'll have to restring it tomorrow. There's nothing we can do for it tonight. Why don't you go play your new game?"

For the rest of the evening, Nick, Taylor and James played with Nick's new toys, plus the one's he'd gotten over the weekend. When they got bored with that, they turned to rough housing on the stairs. Nick laid flat on his stomach at the top of the stairs while James and Taylor each grabbed one of his arms and pulled him down the steps. Taylor went next, then it was James's turn. They were about to head back up the stairs to take their turns all over again, Jim appeared out of nowhere with his arms crossed and an irritated look.

Nick took that as the cue for he and his cousin and Taylor to move on to something else, so they migrated to the family room, where they had a mini battle royal with the couch pillows. Nick kept an eye out for his dad or another adult to come break the rough-housing up, but they never came. It seemed to Nick like they played for hours before Charles and Cindy finally said it was time for them to get going. The boys all groaned a little bit, but only because they were having so much fun and didn't want to stop.

Not long after Taylor and his folks left, the phone rang. Moments later, Jim appeared with the phone to his ear and told Nick and James to take Skalaki out one more time, then get ready for bed and hurry back down so they could tell Tom and Linda goodbye. Still wound up from rough-housing in the family room, they raced each other to the laundry room with Skalaki hot on their heels. James beat Nick out the door to the garage, where a blast of cool air gave Nick a refreshed sensation after working up a sweat in the family room.

Nick followed his cousin out of the garage and from the side of the house to the back of the house, where they stood side by side on the patio and watched Skalaki sniff around on the grass.

"Go knock on the door and tell someone to turn the light on," James told Nick. "I'll keep an eye on Skalaki."

Nick shrugged and did what he was told. Almost as soon as he knocked, the patio light came on and Jim pulled the blinds back, the phone still up to his ear. Nick could tell that his dad was having an important conversation, because it wasn't like him to stay on the phone so long when there were gusts visiting. As soon as Jim turned and walked away from the patio door, he heard James giggle and exclaim "Gross!"

"What?" Nick asked as he quickly joined his cousin at the edge of the patio.

"Skalaki just pooped and it's runny," James said with a mischievous grin as he pointed to the mess on the lawn. "I'm glad it's not my turn to pick up after him."

"It's not my turn either," Nick countered, and James shook his head in disagreement.

"Yes it is," he said. "I had to do it all weekend and dad said I won't have to do it for two days."

Nick was about to argue, but Jim opened the door and both boys turned their attention his way as he made his way out to where they were standing with a warm smile on his face.

"What are you two arguing about?" he asked knowingly, causing Nick and James to grin at each other before James answered.

"Who's turn is it to pick up dog poop?" James asked, and Jim gave Nick an affirming look and a nod.

"Nick, you'll do it tomorrow after school," Jim said. "Your brother's been doing it for two days. I'll take care of it on Wednesday."

"See I told you," James said with a grin and in a tone that matched his words.

"Is he done?" Jim asked, causing the boys to turn their attention back to the dog, who was sniffing around the grass and trees with his tail in the air.

"Yeah I think so," Nick answered.

"Why don't you two get ready for bed then?" Jim said. "I'll stay out here with Skalaki a little longer so you can get moving."

With that, they both turned and bounded towards the door, anxiously wrestling for an advantage when they got there. They struggled for about thirty seconds for control of the door handle, and finally Nick managed to open the door. That only gave James an opening to dart through the door with Nick right behind him as they tore up the stairs, each one peeling their shirt, shoes and socks off as they tried to make it to the top first.

Surprisingly, Nick made it to the bathroom first, but only because he hurriedly stripped down to his underwear and didn't bother with a tee-shirt before he went to brush his teeth. Not long after he got there, he heard James close his dresser drawer.

"I win" Nick said triumphantly when James emerged from his room to join him in front of the sink.

"You have to put a shirt on silly," James giggled.

"Uh uh," Nick countered. "I'm hot, so I don't need one."

With that, James just shrugged and took the toothpaste down, putting some on his and Nick's toothbrushes, then replacing the cap and putting it away. Nick hurriedly finished brushing his teeth, then he scampered back down the hall to his room, where he quickly found a white tee-shirt to wear before heading back downstairs with James right behind him. When they got to the bottom of the stairs, Jim called them into the kitchen, where their vitamins were waiting. After they chewed them up, Jim asked Nick to give him a minute to talk with James, so Nick obediently went back into the family room alone.

"Come here, birthday boy," Tom said, scooting over a little bit and patting the cushion on the couch so that Nick would sit between him and Linda. "Your grandma and I want to see you before we go home."

"Grandma are you ready to have the baby yet?" Nick asked, wedging himself between his grandparents and gently rubbing Linda's swollen belly but silently wondering what Jim could be talking to his cousin about.

"I've been ready," Linda answered, snapping Nick out of his thoughts. "I'm just waiting on him to decide that he's ready to come out."

"Did you have a good birthday this year?" Tom asked him, and Nick nodded, pleased that his grandparents' attention was on him.

"I got to have three parties," Nick boasted. "Two at home and one at school."

Just then, James and his dad joined everyone in the family room, taking a spot on the love seat. He looked over at the love seat, where his dad and Lori were sitting side by side, and he jealously took note of the fact that James was sitting on Jim's knee, resting his head lazily on his shoulder. Jim was saying something to him, but Nick couldn't hear it. He saw James smile sadly and nod, and at the same time, Lori ran her hand affectionately through his hair and gave him a kiss.

"Did you get everything you wanted?" Tom asked him, and Nick looked around the room at his dad, Lori, James, his papu, and then at Tom and Linda before he nodded happily.

"The only thing I didn't get yet was my new uncle," Nick said sweetly, and Linda gushed as she pulled him into her for a hug.

"He'll be here soon," she promised him.

"What's his name going to be?" Nick asked, and Tom and Linda both shrugged.

"We haven't decided yet," Tom answered.

"We may name him after his daddy," Linda said, giving Tom a loving look.

Just then, Jim scooted a sleepy looking James off of his knee and said, "Give your aunt and uncle a hug and kiss goodnight."

James let loose with a long yawn as he approached the couch, where he wrapped his arms around Linda's neck and gave her a long hug.

"I love you Aunty Linda," he said sweetly, giving her a kiss when he let go of the hug.

"I love you too honey," she said with a warm smile. "You have sweet dreams tonight, okay?"

"I will," James said as he moved to Tom, whom he leaned into for another hug.

"I love you pal," Tom said, squeezing him tightly and playfully swinging him from side to side. "Are you alright?"

James nodded and smiled half heartedly up at his uncle before Tom released the hug and James moved over to the recliner, where Big Nick was sitting. Nick felt a surge of jealousy run through him when James climbed up into the recliner to give Big Nick a hug and said, "Goodnight papu. I love you."

"I love you too James," Big Nick said. "I'll see you in the morning buddy."

With that, James made his way back to the love seat where Jim and Lori were sitting. Jim lifted him back up into his lap while James grinned and puckered his lips toward Lori, holding them out for a kiss. Lori leaned over and gave him a kiss, then James held his lips out for Jim.

"I love you sweet boy," Jim said as he leaned forward and gave James a kiss. "Are you ready for daddy to tuck you in?"

James nodded, then he reached out with his arms for Lori, who wrapped him up in a hug and told him how much she loved him.

"I love you too," James said. "Will you come upstairs and help my dad tuck me in tonight?"

"Of course I will, honey," she said.

"We need to get going before this one starts nodding off," Linda said, motioning toward Tom. In reply, Tom just rolled his eyes and stood up, stretching his arms out as he did. Everyone got up and walked with them to the front door. When they stepped out onto the front porch, Big Nick and Jim followed them outside while Nick and James watched from the doorway.

"Why don't the two of you come back inside so you don't catch cold," Lori said, and Nick immediately did what she said while James opened the storm door and walked out onto the front porch instead. Nick watched as Lori assertively walked down the hallway to confront James for not listening to her. She stepped out onto the porch and gave James a pointed look as she spoke. Nick couldn't hear what she was saying, but he knew it wasn't good because James was frowning and looking up at Jim almost pleadingly.

Nick saw his dad mouth something, then point to the door, and James's shoulders dropped. He shook his head no and seemed to be getting more upset, but Jim gave him a stern look. Finally, James stomped his feet with a hurt look, but he turned and opened the door. Lori was right behind him, silently guiding him to the family room, where he plopped down on the couch and folded his arms with a cross look on his face. Lori sat next to him and said something, but he just looked straight ahead and sealed his lips. Not long after James and Lori sat down, Jim and Big Nick came inside, closing the front door behind them.

"I think James is mad at Miss Lori," Nick told them as they approached him, and Jim let out a loud sigh.

"What's the problem, son?" Jim asked, taking the spot next to James and reaching out to rub his bare legs, which were covered in goose bumps from the cold night air.

"Nothing," James mumbled, leaning into Jim's shoulder with a sad look on his face.

"I think I know the problem," Jim said as he let out a long breath and stood back up. "You were ready for bed a long time ago. Come on, buddy."

"I'm not ready to go to bed anymore," James said testily as he stood up behind Jim.

"James, let's go have a talk in the other room," Jim said, guiding James into the kitchen by the shoulders. Nick quickly moved to the couch so he could see if James got a whipping or not, which was the first though that ran through Nick's mind when his dad took James to the kitchen alone. Nick watched as Jim used his finger to lift James's chin, revealing James's sad eyes. Jim's expression softened and he pulled a chair out. He took a seat and said something to James that Nick couldn't make out from where he was sitting. Whatever it was seemed to frustrate his cousin, because James looked like he was almost on the verge of tears as he shook his head and talked. Jim nodded and gave him a look of finality as James looked sadly at his dad and talked.

Jim said something to James, who replied with a sad nod as he buried his face in Jim's chest. Jim reached out with both hands and ran his fingers through James's hair, then he grabbed his cheeks and pressed his forehead against James's. Something he said brought a smile to James's face, and soon as he smiled, Jim rubbed his nose against James's nose, then he gave a long hug. When James lifted his head off of his dad's shoulder, Jim asked him a question and he nodded with a shy smile. James said something else, then he puckered his lips and held them out for Jim to give him a kiss. Nick watched as his dad affectionately leaned forward and gave James a kiss, then he stood up and held his hands out for James. James held his arms up for his dad, who reached down and hoisted him up, slinging him playfully over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes as they made their way back into the family room.

"Miss Lori I'm sorry for not listening to you," James said sweetly as Jim took a seat on the couch between Nick and Lori.

"It's okay, sweetie," she said. "Are you feeling better now?"

James nodded as he clung to Jim's shoulders, obviously enjoying the attention he was receiving. Nick felt extremely jealous but decided to show James that he could be a bigger kid than him by walking up the stairs behind his dad instead of asking to be carried. Jim called Nick over so they could pray together, so Nick got up and joined his family at the center of the couch. They joined hands while James said the prayer, and Nick couldn't help but notice that James mentioned his real mom and dad with an emotional voice and a sniffle. When James was done, they all said Amen and Nick got up to gave his papu a quick hug and kiss goodnight, then he waited patiently for his dad to follow him up the stairs with James in tow.

"Nick, do you have to go pee?" Jim asked, and Nick nodded.

"I have to pee too," James whined.

"Is it an emergency?" Jim asked, and James nodded. Nick knew he was lying, but stayed silent as Jim let him down in front of the bathroom door. While James was in the bathroom, Jim knelt down and gave Nick a hug.

"Do you need to use daddy's bathroom?" he asked, and Nick shook his head.

"I can wait daddy," Nick almost boasted. "Is James mad at Miss Lori?"

"No, he's having a rough night, buddy," Jim said. "His mom called tonight, and I think he got a little jealous because you had your birthday all weekend. He just needs a little extra love, that's all."

Just then the door opened and James came out with a bratty look on his face. He immediately went to Jim while Nick went into the bathroom, where it was obvious that James hadn't even bothered to lift the seat, much less aim or flush the toilet. Nick just shrugged and peed, then he flushed and washed his hands before he went down the hall to his room, where Jim was waiting for him.

"James peed on the seat," Nick tattled, hoping to get James into a little trouble.

"Well he's not the only boy in this house who pee's on the seat," Jim said as he pulled the covers back for Nick to climb into his bed. "I'm about to go sit down and have a talk with him, okay? I want you to sleep tight, son. Happy birthday and I love you."

"I love you too daddy," Nick said, smiling up at his dad, who leaned down and gave him a kiss before he stood up and shut the light off. Nick fell asleep in no time flat, but out of nowhere, he heard a commotion in the hallway that brought him out of his slumber. Startled, he got up and opened his bedroom door to see what was happening. He saw James's door opened and his light on, but he never ventured out of his room to see what the trouble was. He was about to close his door when the hallway light came on and he saw his papu standing by the switch. He stayed silent as Big Nick peered into James's room, then he heard him say, "Are you alright buddy?"

"Yeah he'll be okay, dad," Nick heard Jim say. "He's not having a good night tonight."

With that, Nick let out a sigh of relief and closed his door. He shut the light off and navigated his way back to his bed, where he got comfortable and closed his eyes once more. He heard his dad walk across the hallway with James, who was still sobbing, then he heard Jim say, "You're alright buddy. Dad's gonna run a warm bath for you, okay?"

Nick opened his eyes and watched the ceiling as he listened to the sound of water running into the tub drown out James' crying and his dad's soothing voice. He was wide awake, still shaken up by the commotion, so he glanced over at his alarm clock and saw that it was almost midnight. He knew he needed to close his eyes and try to go back to sleep, but he didn't feel tired at all. When he heard the water stop, he decided to get up and see what was happening. He was about to open his door when he heard Jim's footsteps coming out of the bathroom and into the hallway.

"Is he alright?" he heard his papu ask, and Jim sighed loudly.

"Yeah, he's just having a really bad night, dad," Jim said. "I think I'm going to keep him home from school tomorrow."

With that, Nick felt a rush of jealously run through him, so he opened his door just in time to see Jim walking down the stairs with a rolled up towel and James' tee shirt in his hand. He knew that big Nick must've gone downstairs too, because he didn't see him anywhere, and when he looked in the spare room, his papu was nowhere to be found. He moved back down the hallway to the bathroom door, which was opened, and carefully peaked inside. James was sitting in the tub, still sniffling. He turned to head back to his room when he heard his dad's footsteps coming up the stairs, so he waited for him in the hallway instead.

"Son, what are you doing up?" Jim asked with a frustrated tone as soon as he spotted Nick.

"The noise woke me up and I can't sleep," Nick said, trying to read his dad's face.

"Well I need you to try, buddy," Jim said quietly. "Do you have to go to the bathroom?"

Nick nodded, so his dad took him by the hand and they walked into Jim's room, where Nick went into the bathroom while his dad waited on the bed. When Nick came out, he decided to ask Jim what was wrong.

"Your brother's having a rough night," Jim said sadly. "He's going to be fine though."

"How come he has to take a bath?" Nick asked, and Jim stood up before answering him.

"It's nothing to worry about, son," Jim told him, and Nick knew that meant that his dad didn't want to say why, but then he relented. "He just needs to calm down a little, son. Sometimes a nice soak in the tub makes people feel better. Do you want a little snack before you lay down? Your papu's making celery and peanut butter for James. Why don't you go down to the kitchen and tell him to make you some, too."

"Yes sir," Nick said, a little anxious to go downstairs and get a snack from his papu because he never got to be up at midnight, especially when there was school the next day. As he made it to the bottom of the stairs, the family room was dark. He could hear the sound of the washing machine from behind the closed door of the laundry room, and he saw a glow from the kitchen light as he made his way down the hall. As he got closer to the kitchen, he heard the dishwasher running, and when he walked in the room, he spotted his papu right away, standing at the counter spreading peanut butter across pieces of skinned celery.

"Does your daddy know you're up?" Big Nick asked, and Nick nodded.

"He said to ask you to make me some celery sticks," Nick reported, climbing up onto a stool at the breakfast nook. For what seemed like forever, Nick and his papu sat alone on the kitchen and talked while they waited for Jim and James to come downstairs. At some point, while they were talking, the sound of the bathtub being drained could be heard from upstairs, but there was no sign of his dad or his cousin. Finally, the washing machine started to spin fast, and Nick knew that it was almost done and that his dad would be down to put whatever was in there in the dryer.

A couple minutes later, just as Nick suspected, he heard his dad's footsteps coming down the stairs and the door to the laundry room open. Nick hopped down from the stool to see what his dad was up to, making a beeline to the laundry room to ask his dad when they were coming downstairs. When he walked in, his dad was taking a load of laundry out of the washer and putting them into the dryer.

"Daddy?" Nick said, trying to get his dad's attention.

"What do you need buddy?" Jim asked quietly. "I thought you were going to try to go back to sleep."

"I'm not sleepy," Nick said. "I thought you and James were coming downstairs."

"I'm going to take your brother his snack," Jim said as they walked out of the laundry room and to the kitchen.

"Where's James," big Nick asked as Nick crawled back onto his stool and Jim took a seat on another one.

"He doesn't want to come down," Jim said. "He's still upset, so I'm just going to take his stuff upstairs. Are you ready to lay back down, Nick?"

Nick felt a little disappointed, but he nodded obediently and slid down off of his stool, walking around the breakfast nook to hug his papu one more time before he followed his dad up the stairs. When Nick made it to the very top, Jim told him to go lay down and that he'd be in to check on him in a little bit, then he watched his dad go into James' room with the plate of celery sticks.

The next morning, Nick opened his eyes and realized that it was dark and rainy, but that it wasn't night time anymore. He looked at the clock and almost panicked when he realized that it was after nine in the morning, but his panic soon gave way to a grin when he figured out that he was staying home from school. He made a beeline for the bathroom, then he carefully peaked into his dad's room. The bed was empty, so he went to James's door, which was wide opened. The bed was empty, so he crept down the hall to see if his papu was up. Once he saw the empty room, he made his way downstairs, where he saw the glow of the TV in the family room and the smell of coffee drifted into his nostrils.

He saw his dad in the recliner with a mug in his hand, looking worriedly across the room at James, who was sleeping face down on the love seat. Seeing his dad's fretful expression made Nick frown, and as he made his way to his dad for a hug, he wondered what was wrong.

"Good morning buddy," Jim said as Nick climbed into the recliner and gave his dad a hug. When he let go, he settled in next to his dad and the next thing he knew, Jim surprised him by reclining the chair. Nick giggled quietly, not wanting to wake his sleeping cousin, and his dad smiled warmly at him. "Listen son, I know it's not the regular day, but James and I are going to go talk to Miss Sue this afternoon, okay?"

"Yes sir," Nick said. "James' feelings don't feel good?"

"No, they don't, son," Jim said sadly. "Your papu's going to stay with you while I take him, okay?"

"Yes sir," Nick said. "Where's my papu right now?"

"He went next door to have coffee with grandma and grandpa," Jim said. "Are you hungry?"

Nick nodded silently, so they got up and started toward the kitchen when Jim stopped at the love seat and knelt down, looking worriedly again at James. He sighed and looked up, staring almost hopelessly at the back of the couch before he ran his hand lovingly over James' cheek. When he stood up, he smiled at Nick and they proceeded to the kitchen. Nick took his same stool from the night before and watched as Jim opened the cupboard, displaying about five different kinds of cereal. Jim gave Nick a silly grin, then he reached out with both hands and grabbed all five boxes, holding them in place by pressing them together as he carried them to the breakfast nook, where he set them down.

Nick knew that his dad was trying to be positive, even though he was really sad for James. His eyes looked weary, and Nick knew it was because Jim was probably up most of the night with his cousin.

"Which one do you want?" Jim asked him, walking to the dishwasher for a clean bowl.

"One of each, please," Nick said with a grin. With that, Jim put the normal sized bowl he was holding down and went back into the dishwasher. He pulled a large salad bowl out and playfully set it in front of Nick, then he grabbed a large wooden spoon and put it inside while Nick giggled.

Just then, James staggered into the kitchen, still half asleep, and went directly to Jim for a hug. Jim knelt down and wrapped an arm around James, pulling him into his chest and letting him rest the side of his head on his shoulder. Nick watched as his cousin let out a long, loud yawn and wrapped both of his arms around Jim's neck.

"Good morning buddy," Jim said, standing up and lifting James with him. "Are you still sleepy?"

James took a deep breath and nodded, apparently still trying to find his bearings. When he let go of the hug, he rubbed his eyes and yawned one more time, then he planted a kiss on his dad's cheek and rested his head back down on his shoulder as he wrapped his legs around his dad.

"I'm thirsty daddy," James said sleepily. "I want something to drink."

"Do you want daddy to get you some milk?," Jim asked gently. "Or do you want juice?"

"I want milk," he whined.

"Did you go to the bathroom already?" Jim asked, reaching into the cupboard for a cup. James rubbed his eyes and shook his head, so Jim let him down and told him, "Go to the bathroom and when you get done, your milk will be waiting."

"No, I'm thirsty now," James demanded, wrapping his arms around Jim's waist and burying his head in his stomach as he let out a sob. Jim sighed and rolled his eyes as if to say, 'Not again,' then he knelt back down and gave James a hug and tried to soothe him.

"Son, I want you to go before I give you your milk," Jim said softly but assertively.

"But I'm thirsty now," James cried hysterically. Nick was shocked at what he was seeing, mainly because he'd never seen his cousin act so emotional before. Before he could say another word, Jim stood up with him and turned to carry him out of the kitchen as James' crying got louder. He heard his dad open the bathroom door in the downstairs hallway and tell James to let go with his legs, then he heard James tell Jim no.

"Son, I don't want to ask you again," Jim said, the frustration building in his voice.

"I don't want to," James sobbed, but Nick knew he was doing what he was told because he heard his feet hit the floor. Nick wanted to get up and go see what was happening, but was afraid that his dad would yell at him too, so he stayed where he was and listened as his dad tried to reason with James. He was still crying as he finally listened to his dad and did what he was told, then he heard Jim tell James to wash his hands.

"No," James wailed defiantly, then he heard the water in the sink start at the same time the toilet flushed.

"You see, that wasn't so bad," Jim said softly as James continued to cry. Almost in an instant, they were back in the kitchen with James sobbing on his dad's shoulder and clinging tightly to him with his arms and legs. Jim was softly shushing him while he went into the refrigerator for the milk. He took it out and poured it, then he held the cup up for James to take a sip. Nick watched as James, who still had tears pouring down his cheeks, tried to stop crying long enough to take a drink from the cup Jim was holding. When he finally got a drink, he rested his head back down on Jim's shoulder and let out a new series of sobs. Jim set the cup down and softly caressed his head as he gave Nick a sad smile, then he used one hand to pour Nick a bowl of Coco Pebbles.

"Are you hungry babe?" Jim asked James, who sadly shook his head and sniffled. "Do you want to sit with daddy while he eats his breakfast?"

James nodded, his head still buried on Jim's shoulder, so Jim poured himself a bowl of Kix and carried it to the table along with James' milk. Nick watched from the breakfast nook as his dad took bites of his cereal and talked softly to James, who was still crying. Jim scooped up a spoonful and offered it to James, who accepted it. Nick felt really bad for his dad, and for James, as he watched them eat. He knew how worried his dad was for his cousin, and it was easy for him to see why now. Jim fed James every other bite of his cereal, then James whined that he was thirsty, so Jim picked his cup up and offered him a sip of milk. When Jim pulled the cup away, James said he didn't want any more, so Jim finished what was left, then he downed the milk at the bottom of the bowl.

"Are you feeling a little better now, babe?" Jim asked softly, and James shrugged. "Do you want to go sit with daddy in the family room so we can have a talk?"

"What are we going to talk about?" James asked in a sad voice.

"Just a couple things, buddy," Jim said, making it sound like it wasn't that big of a deal. "Why don't we get up and go talk. Do you need a ride?"

He nodded, and Jim stood up with James still clinging tightly to him. Jim put James' cup inside of the bowl and carried them to the sink, then he walked over to Nick.

"Are you okay, buddy?" Jim asked and Nick nodded quietly. "Your brother and I are gonna have a talk in the family room, alright. You can come in there and watch TV when you're ready, or you can go watch TV in your room. Do you want another bowl of cereal?"

"No thank you," Nick said with a smile as Jim leaned down and kissed the top of his head. He noticed that James looked jealous as he watched Jim and Nick talking.

Nick watched while James sat in Jim's lap and looked up at his dad while he talked. Jim said something to him, and James shook his head no. Nick decided that he wanted to hear what they were saying, so he wandered into the family room and grabbed the remote. He found something to watch on the Cartoon Network and tried not to stare as Jim talked to James about going to see Miss Sue. James tried to argue, but his dad would have none of it.

"Son, we're going," Jim said. "I'm not doing it because I'm mad at you, babe."

"Then why?" James pleaded tearfully. "I didn't do anything bad on purpose."

"James you didn't do anything bad at all," Jim told him sadly. "We're going because we need someone to talk to."

"About last night?" James asked with a sob.

"Well, yeah, and about this morning, too," Jim said. "I don't think you're trying to be bad, son. We just need to talk to her and see if she can help us figure it out."

With that, James let out a long, loud sob and Nick couldn't help but look. His dad was rocking him back and forth, trying to calm him down but it didn't seem to be working. Finally James cried out, "I'm sorry daddy."

"I know you are sweetheart," Jim said, his voice full of emotion. He gave James a kiss on top of the head and ran his fingers through his hair gently, then he turned his attention to Nick. "Do you want to take a bath or a shower this morning, son?"

"I'll take a shower," Nick said quietly, feeling shaken by what he was watching.

"Take Skalaki out and feed him first, okay?" Jim told him.

"Yes sir," Nick said, dutifully standing up and doing what his dad said. When he came back in, he washed his hands in the bathroom, then he went back into the family room. It was dark and empty because while he was feeding the dog, his dad shut the TV off and took James upstairs.

When Nick got to the top of the stairs, he could hear his dad's voice coming from the spare room his papu slept in, so he turned left and went to the doorway to see what was happening. James was standing in front of Jim, looking out the window while his dad talked to him. Nick didn't listen to much of their conversation because he was afraid he'd hear something that he didn't want to hear.

He quickly grabbed a towel from the hallway closet and went into the bathroom, where he started the shower without any help from his dad. Even though Jim hadn't said so, Nick knew that his dad needed him to start doing things for himself, especially now. Because he had a bad feeling that something was terribly wrong with his cousin, and for the first time in his life, he understood that his father had no idea what to do about it.

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