Sibling Rivalry


By Zipman

I was shopping for a few things at the hardware store one Saturday morning when I saw Mike. He was shopping with his son and hadn’t seen me yet. I knew Mike from work — he and his dad owned a plumbing business and I saw him when he came in to the wholesale supply warehouse where I was a salesman.

Mike was a big, burly guy in his late thirties. Too many beers had given him quite a gut. His son was wearing a purple tank top and black shorts and looked like he could still be in grade school. The boy grabbed two cans of paint off the shelf, but instead of putting them in the cart he started curling them up and down. I watched the smooth muscles of his arms swell and stretch as he did this. The boy was also admiring the way his biceps moved as he kept pumping. Finally his dad told him to quit playing around and put the cans in the cart. Before he did, the boy caught me looking at him and stared right at me with a blank expression on his face. It kind of unnerved me that I was caught looking and I quickly turned away, but I heard Mike’s voice call my name. He greeted me and introduced his son, Ben, who I found out was 12 years old. I offered to shake Ben’s hand and the boy took mine with a firm grip. As we shook hands Ben kept tightening his grip until I reacted from the pain. Mike apologized and laughed as he said he guessed his son didn’t know his own strength. He said Ben used to have a “wet noodle” handshake until Mike taught him to give a firm grip “like a man.”

I caught a twinkle in Ben’s eye as he released my hand. The boy was lean and tan and athletic-looking. Mike and I made some small talk and Mike told me he was putting some finishing touches on a new deck he had built. He invited me over to his house to see it.

“Come on, Tom, you can follow my truck. A single guy like you ain’t got nothin’ better to do on a Saturday afternoon, right? If you don’t have a hot date lined up tonight, maybe I can talk you into staying for a barbecue,” he winked.

We left the parking lot and drove toward the suburbs. Mike’s truck pulled into the drive-thru at a McDonald’s and Ben jumped out of the cab as I pulled in behind. I rolled down the window of my SUV as the boy approached.

“Dad says he’ll buy you lunch, just tell me what you want.”

It’s not my usual fare, and while I thought about it, Ben reached up and jammed his fingertips into the narrow groove formed by the drip guard above my window. He pulled his body up, doing chins on my car. It seemed like he was doing it just to show off, and I didn’t quite know how to react. Maybe he just had a short attention span and a lot of excess energy he had to burn off. Every time he lowered himself down the window his eyes were staring right at me calmly. It was unnerving. The lean bands of muscle in his arms were getting a workout. Finally, I told him I would like a Big Mac and a diet Coke, and he jumped down and ran back to his dad’s truck. We passed through the line and resumed our trip to Mike’s home.

The house was in a new subdivision of rather large and stylish homes. The plumbing business must be very good for Mike. Before we ate, Mike took me out back to see his deck. We went out the sliding glass door onto a patio covered by a ten-foot awning that ran the length of the house. Most of the back yard was taken up by a big, beautiful in-ground swimming pool with sparkling blue water. There was a small area of nicely manicured lawn on the far side of the pool. It was a big yard, all surrounded by a high privacy fence. Mike led me to the new deck he had built at one end of the pool. There was a fancy-looking new stainless steel gas barbecue there and a redwood picnic table. We went back inside the house and joined Ben at the kitchen table to eat our fast food. The kid was a good eater and showed a lot of nervous energy. He was always jiggling one knee or drumming his fingers on the table.

Suddenly Mike’s cell phone rang. He excused himself and spoke briefly.

“There’s a problem at the job site,” he said. “Someone screwed up and I’ve got to go sort things out. Could you help me out and stay with Ben for a while? I’ll be back as quick as I can. I’m really sorry to ask you this. Beth will probably be back from shopping soon.” He was already heading out to his truck as he talked. “If you have to leave, Ben knows a neighbor’s house he can go to.”

Before I knew it, Mike was tearing off in his truck and I was left with Ben. We sat in the kitchen and talked. I asked him if he was interested in any sports.

“I like baseball, I guess,” he shrugged. “I’m not very good at it, though.”

I thought he was being modest. “You look pretty strong to me,” I said. “I thought you were probably an athlete.”

Ben shook his head. “If you think I’m strong, you should see my brother!”

This was getting interesting. I didn’t know he had a brother. “He’s pretty strong, huh?”

“He whips my butt all the time,” Ben sighed. “J.T.’s at football practice today. The summer league starts its season next weekend.”

“Well, it’s not easy being the younger brother sometimes. How much older is J.T.?”

“Older? He’s not older. J.T. is my younger brother. He’s ten.”

I couldn’t hide my astonishment. A ten-year-old who’s stronger than this kid?

Just then we heard the front door slam. A few seconds later, J.T. walked into the kitchen. He was still wearing his uniform. There’s something about a kid in a football uniform. The way the shoulder pads exaggerate his shoulders, and the shiny white pants that cling tightly to his legs showing every pad. He even had those black marks painted under his eyes. The cleats on his shoes made a loud clatter as he strolled across the kitchen floor. There was a certain swagger in the boy’s walk. He acted like a real tough jock kid. J.T. ignored us completely and made a beeline for the refrigerator.

“You’re marking up the floor again. Mom’s gonna be mad,” Ben said.

J.T. opened the refrigerator and stared at it like it was the television. “Ask me if I care,” he said, without looking up. He pulled out a jug containing some kind of fruit juice, tossed the cap onto the counter, and began to drink right from the bottle. I watched his little Adam’s apple move up and down as he held the jug high and drained the last few swallows. J.T. tossed the empty plastic bottle into the sink and wiped his mouth with the back of his forearm. Only then did he turn to notice me.

“Who’s this?” he demanded, speaking to his brother instead of me.

Ben spoke up before I could answer. “He’s some guy dad knows. Dad had to leave on a job.”

“So you’re the babysitter, then?” J.T. said. I felt like he had already dismissed me as somebody unimportant. I started to respond but J.T. suddenly interrupted me with a very loud burp and both he and Ben broke out in laughter. J.T. managed to belch loudly again and their giggles continued. After that, both boys kept trying to burp as loud as they could. Ben was gulping and making short little high-pitched burping sounds, but J.T. seemed to be able to swallow huge amounts of air and expel it with a very loud, low and long belch. They both were laughing so much I thought they were going to get the hiccups. I kept trying to say something, but the boys were totally ignoring me. I felt very much like a stranger in their home.

When J.T. finally stopped laughing he pulled out the front of his jersey and stuck his nose down inside the collar. “Man, I reek!” he cried. “Tough practice today. The coach really made us work. I gotta take a shower!”

His cleats clattered back across the kitchen floor and he left the room. Ben was still smiling from their burping game. He clearly loved and admired his tough young brother. I was still having a hard time believing that J.T. was the dominant sibling here. He was several inches shorter than Ben, although I couldn’t tell much about his body because so much of it was covered by the uniform and padding.

“Do you ever play football, Ben?” I asked.

Ben’s smile faded and he looked down at the floor. “No. I wouldn’t be any good at it,” he said.

Ben seemed to have an inferiority complex, and I didn’t know why. He looked like a healthy, strong, active young boy to me. “Are you a swimmer?” I asked. “You’ve got a really nice pool.” Ben had that lean swimmer’s build.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m okay, I guess. J.T. is a better swimmer than me. He’s the athlete.” Ben’s voice got real quiet as he said this. Then he suddenly perked up a little. “I like to collect things. You wanna see my baseball cards?”

I said, “Sure,” and we headed off to his room. When we got there, J.T. was sitting on his bed removing the last of his uniform. I didn’t realize they shared a bedroom. Ben froze just inside the doorway, like he didn’t want to disturb his brother. We watched as J.T. struggled to unlace the front of his shoulder pads. He had removed all the rest of his clothes.

“Damn pads are too small; I’ve gotta get some bigger ones,” he complained. “I can’t pull ’em off without ripping my ears off, unless I untie ’em first.”

He finally loosened the knot and took off the shoulder pads, tossing them aside as he stood up. They landed in a heap next to his shoes and the other parts of his uniform that were scattered across the floor where he had shed them. For the first time, I saw J.T. without any clothes on. He stood there and stretched a little, not at all bothered by the fact that he was nude and we were not. Like most jocks, he seemed to be comfortable around other guys without his clothes on. If I had one word to describe J.T.’s body, it would be “strong.” Everywhere you looked you saw well-formed young muscle that could have been on a teenager instead of a ten-year-old. In fact, his muscles were so mature-looking and well-proportioned that it was like looking at a miniature version of a high-school athlete. He didn’t look like a little kid at all, except for his face. J.T. was a handsome young kid with a mature attitude, but his boyish features were typical for a kid just entering the fifth grade. That muscular body, though, was something special. Anyone could tell at first glance that J.T. was a uniquely gifted physical specimen. You hardly ever see that kind of development in a child so young.

Ben noticed my impressed reaction and nodded toward his brother.

“See, I told ya he was strong,” he said. “He’s got good muscles but he’s still only got a tiny little pee-pee!”

Ben laughed and tried to bolt from the room, but I was partially blocking the door. J.T. lunged at Ben immediately, with a furious look in his eyes.

“Shut-up-shut-up-shut-up-shut-up!!” J.T. yelled, as he pounced on Ben knocking him to the floor. He jumped on top of his older brother and held Ben’s hands down on the floor above his head. J.T.’s knees straddled his brother’s hips.

“Take it back!” J.T. shouted. Ben just looked at him and struggled. He would occasionally raise one arm off the floor with a loud grunt, but J.T. easily forced it back down again.

“Say you’re sorry or I’ll really make you pay!” the younger kid growled. J.T. stretched out his body a little and slid his knees down around his brother’s thighs. Ben closed his eyes and thrashed his head from side to side. I heard Ben groan softly and wondered what was going on. J.T. let out a little grunt and I saw the muscles in his legs tighten. He had Ben’s thighs and hips trapped between his legs and was starting to crush them by squeezing his legs together. I noticed a thick ridge of muscle pop up along both of J.T.’s hamstrings as he increased the crushing power. Ben groaned louder. Then J.T.’s young buttocks tightened into solid mounds and he arched his lower back. Ben started howling with pain. I worried that this was becoming more than just a spat between two brothers. I wondered if I needed to do something to protect poor Ben, but I was reluctant to physically interfere, especially since it meant grabbing hold of a friend’s nude ten-year-old kid.

“Come on, now, that’s enough,” I said, but J.T. ignored me. Instead, I saw his strong thigh muscles bulge out more prominently as he poured on the pressure. His buttocks were now dimpled into full hardness and the two ridges of muscle in his lower back stood out sharply. J.T. actually laughed a little as his brother’s moans and groans became more and more agonized. He moved Ben’s wrists together and gripped them with one hand, leaving his right hand free to humiliate Ben by patting him on the cheek.

“How does that feel, sucker?” he gloated. “You are such a moron! Did ya think I was gonna let you get away with that?” J.T. spotted his jockstrap on the floor nearby and grabbed it, shoving it right in Ben’s face. “Yeah, smell that, boy!” Ben thrashed his head from side to side, but J.T. kept pushing his sweaty jock firmly into his nose. “Smells pretty rank, don’t it? Take a good whiff! That’s what a real jock’s sweat smells like!” J.T.’s triceps bulged as he pressed on the jockstrap so hard that his brother couldn’t breathe. Ben had to open his mouth to take a big gasp, and J.T. immediately shoved the jockstrap in, using his fingers to stuff as much of it into Ben’s mouth as he could. J.T. laughed as Ben’s muffled squeals became frantic. “I bet that tastes pretty funky, huh? Chew on that for awhile! Maybe you’ll get some vitamins out of it and start to grow some muscles! Like these!” J.T. flexed his right arm and shoved it right in Ben’s face. His hard-bulging biceps flattened Ben’s nose. “That’s a real muscle — check it out! And this is real muscle sweat!” He moved his armpit right over Ben’s nostrils. “Yeah — smell that jock muscle sweat! Ever smelled anything like that? Probably not!”

Ben’s struggles managed to get one arm free and he used it to hit J.T. in the head. J.T. immediately grabbed it and forced it back down. “Okay — fun’s over, moron!” J.T. said. He bore down on his legs and squeezed. Ben moaned. “You’re gonna really feel this now!” J.T. bit his lower lip and increased the crushing pressure of his legs to maximum. Ben threw his head back and let out a long groan that sounded desperate. It was time for me to move in.

“That’s enough!” I said. I tugged on J.T.’s shoulder and was surprised at how easily he resisted my efforts to pull him away. His muscles were clamped so tight around his brother’s body that I couldn’t pull him off! I reached down with my other hand to try and tug harder, but J.T. suddenly jumped up with an annoyed look on his face and gave me a hard shove right in the chest. I stumbled backward and fell onto the bed.

“You stay out of this!” J.T. cried. “This is between me and him.” He paused a moment to let his words sink in while I sat open-mouthed on the bed. “Who told ya you could come in my room, anyways?” He stormed out the door and headed for the shower. I rolled off the bed and stood up. Ben pulled the jockstrap out of his mouth and slowly picked himself off the floor. We had just had a taste of J.T.’s rage.

“Are you all right?” I said.

Ben spat several times into the wastebasket, getting the taste out of his mouth. “I’m okay,” he answered, but he still looked a little shaken. “Maybe we’d better go. I don’t think J.T. wants you in here.”

“It’s your room too, isn’t it?” I asked. It seemed like Ben was too frightened of his little brother. I looked around the room. The two single beds were pushed up against opposite walls. It was like there was an invisible line down the center. You could easily tell which side was Ben’s — it was neat and tidy. J.T.’s side was a pig sty. I stepped around the dirty clothes and saw some weights on the floor beside the closet. There was a junior-sized barbell loaded with real iron plates, and several pairs of plastic dumbbells, each pair a different size and color.

I reached for one of the dumbbells. “Do you guys work out together?” I asked.

“Don’t touch it!” Ben screamed. I froze and put the dumbbell back on the floor. “I’m not allowed to touch J.T.’s weights. It may look messy but he knows where everything is — if he sees that I’ve moved anything, I’m in big trouble!”

I looked at the genuine fear in Ben’s eyes and felt sorry for him. It must be awful to feel intimidated like that. To ease his distress I agreed to follow him back to the kitchen. In the hall we could hear the shower running in the bathroom. J.T. was singing something — not very well, but loudly. It made me smile. Little by little I was getting to know more about J.T.’s personality. I wasn’t sure I liked it, but he certainly was an interesting character.

Back in the kitchen, Ben seemed to relax a little. We talked a little about his collecting and about school, but I was really interested in his relationship with his brother. I asked him exactly when he thought J.T. became stronger than him.

“J.T.’s always been stronger than me,” he shrugged. I frowned at him in disbelief. “No, really — as long as I can remember, anyway. I remember when I was in the first grade, there was a high-school athlete who came to our class and told us all about wrestling and being on the team. He used me as a demonstration opponent, so he taught me how to do a few moves. When I came home I was real excited and I wanted to show Mom and Dad what I learned, so I got J.T. and did a few moves on him. No matter what I tried, my little brother came out on top every time. I was so embarrassed. I was six and he was only four and already he could out-wrestle me, even after my lesson. Ever since then he’s pretty much known he could out-muscle me whenever he wanted. He’s just really strong and I’m not.”

“I can’t believe that,” I said. “You look pretty strong to me. I saw you lifting those cans of paint in the store and doing pull-ups on my car. You’re probably stronger than most other twelve-year-olds.”

Ben shrugged again. “It doesn’t matter. J.T. is always gonna be stronger. That’s just the way it is.”

Just then J.T. walked into the kitchen with a white towel wrapped around his waist and his brown hair still damp. Once more he went straight to the refrigerator and paid no attention to us. After staring inside for several seconds, he shot an angry look at Ben.

“Did you eat the rest of the pizza, buttface?” J.T. said, in a threatening tone.

“No,” Ben answered. “I didn’t touch it, I swear. I think Dad ate it.”

“Liar!” J.T. shouted. “You are such a liar! I know you ate it! You knew I was saving that!”

J.T. slammed the refrigerator door and balled his hands into fists. I expected Ben to run, but instead he actually smiled. I was getting more and more confused by their relationship. J.T. walked up to Ben and gave his shoulders a hard shove, shouting, “Liar!” He repeated this several times. Each time Ben stumbled backward, but he kept smiling. Suddenly, Ben reached down and yanked the towel off J.T.’s waist. He threw it at J.T.’s head and took off running. J.T. pulled the towel off his face and chased after his brother. I caught the flying towel and followed.

Ben made it through the sliding glass door, but J.T. caught him on the patio. He grabbed Ben around the waist from behind and spun him around, slamming his back into the wall next to the door. J.T. threw one punch into Ben’s gut and the older boy groaned loudly and doubled over. J.T. ducked down and let Ben fall over his shoulder, grabbing his legs and carrying him toward the pool. It all happened so fast — he managed to do this before I got through the door. When they got to the pool’s edge, J.T. pulled Ben off his shoulder and cradled him in his arms. With a 1-2-3-heave, the younger boy threw his struggling brother out into the deep end of the pool. J.T. quickly dived in after him, and as Ben rose floundering to the surface, J.T. slipped up behind him and got him in a headlock.

J.T. clamped his right arm under Ben’s chin, squeezing his jaw between his biceps and forearm, then wrapped his left forearm over the top of his head, holding it securely. Ben tried pulling at J.T.’s arms, but every time he did this his head slipped down under the water, so he had to thrash his arms on the surface to keep himself afloat. I watched from the side of the pool as J.T. asserted his superior position. Through the clear water I could see him performing a strong bicycle kick that held him in position over Ben’s back.

J.T. jerked his arms a couple of times to demonstrate the complete control he had over Ben’s trapped head. “Say you’re sorry!” he ordered, but he didn’t wait for a response. J.T. rotated his shoulders and easily dipped Ben’s face into the water. He held it there while Ben’s arms thrashed even more wildly. I saw bubbles coming to the surface around his head. J.T. counted loudly and slowly to ten before lifting Ben’s face back up out of the water. Ben wheezed and sputtered while J.T. gave him a few seconds to recover. Then he yelled, “Say you’re sorry!” again and pushed Ben’s face back under the surface.

As the bubbles boiled around Ben’s head a second time, I had to make a decision. If I dived in and tried to separate them, I would probably end up pushing both of them underwater. But no matter what I yelled from the sidelines, J.T. simply ignored me and kept up his slow count. He finally reached ten again and pulled up Ben’s head. Ben was coughing and spitting up water now, and appeared to be in bad shape. I couldn’t believe it when J.T. shouted, “Say you’re sorry!” a third time and dunked his brother again. I pleaded with J.T. to let him go, but all I heard was the slow count, “1… 2… 3…”

By the count of five, Ben’s arms stopped thrashing and his body went limp. I was ready to jump in when J.T. took a fistful of Ben’s hair and pulled his face out of the water. The older boy coughed up some water, then drew in air with a loud, long gasp. J.T. released his brother and gave him a hard shove toward the far side of the pool. Ben reached for the ladder and hooked one arm around it as he noisily tried to catch his breath. My heart was beating about twice its normal rate. J.T. swam over right in front of me and grabbed the edge of the pool with both hands. With one continuous effort, he pulled his body up and then pushed with his arms to propel his body out of the water and onto the pool deck. The boy looked completely unconcerned as he stood up and used his hands to brush the excess water off his nude body. I was still in shock.

“How could you do that to Ben? You almost drowned him!” I said.

J.T. glanced over his shoulder at his wheezing brother. “He’s okay,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“I think I’m going to have to tell your father about this,” I said.

“About what?” the boy said, totally unconcerned.

“About the way you treated your brother right now!”

“Dad knows how I treat my brother. We do this all the time. Anyway, Ben’s no squealer — he won’t go crying to Dad.”

“How do you know?”

J.T. shrugged. “Just ask him.”

Ben had recovered enough to start climbing the ladder out of the pool. The boy still looked a little shaken. I realized I should have gone to help him, and I trotted over and took his arm.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “I’m fine.” He gave one last cough, then suddenly pulled out of my grasp and ran off. He grabbed one of those huge super-soaker water guns and went after his brother. Ben began pelting J.T. with painfully strong blasts of water as they both ran around the yard giggling. Suddenly J.T. spun around and just stood there with his feet apart and his hands on his hips while Ben aimed the gun straight at his chest and kept firing. J.T. flexed his pecs hard like he was Superman deflecting a death ray. The heavy stream of water just bounced off his solid chest.

“That doesn’t even hurt,” J.T. boasted.

Frustrated, Ben pumped his water gun up to maximum force and blasted J.T. at point-blank range. J.T. let his flexing pecs take the hit without even flinching for several seconds. Then he just grabbed the barrel of the gun and easily snatched the gun out of Ben’s hands with one powerful tug of his arms. Ben ran off squealing, but the gun’s tank was soon out of water. J.T. tossed the empty plastic gun into the pool and caught up with Ben as they tumbled down and wrestled on the grass, laughing all the while. I just scratched my head in confusion. These brothers seemed to mix innocent fun and dangerous fighting without making a distinction between the two.

J.T. ended up on top of Ben on the grass, of course, but instead of trying to hurt him he tickled him mercilessly until Ben was helpless with laughter. When J.T. got tired of this, he got up and slowly walked over to me.

“I got him back pretty good!” he said cheerfully.

“Do you think maybe you could put on a swimsuit or something?” I asked.

“Why?” he said, innocently.

“Because it would make me feel more comfortable,” I answered. “I think your parents would want you dressed around company.” I didn’t want his mom coming home and seeing us this way.

J.T. shrugged and grabbed a small, red swimsuit that had been left to dry on one of the lounge chairs. He struggled a bit pulling it on, and I noticed it was a bit too small for him. It looked like his strongly rounded buttocks would soon split the seat open. Ben came over and sat down to take his wet shoes off. His tank top and shorts were also sopping wet and clung to his body, but he left them on.

I went over to Ben and spoke to him in a lowered voice.

“Why do you let J.T. get away with that? You’re older than him, and bigger too. I bet you could stand up to him, if you tried.”

Ben eyed me suspiciously. “You try it! He’ll probably whip your ass, too! All I know is, he’s got stronger muscles than me.”

“You got that right, bro!” J.T. laughed, surprising me from behind. I turned around to see him smiling at us. “Hey, Ben!” J.T. shouted. “Let’s do the flexing game. You make a muscle and then I’ll show him how I beat it!”

Ben rolled his eyes but raised his right arm and flexed it. His biceps made a nice ridge of muscle. J.T. bounded over and held his right arm directly in front of Ben’s, stretched out straight. “Now watch!” he said gleefully.

J.T. slowly began to flex his arm, smiling all the way. “Are ya ready, bro — here it comes!” he laughed, as his fist came up a few inches and his young biceps sprang to life. It was shocking to see how the muscle popped at the slightest tension. J.T.’s arm was swelling up impressively as his forearm kept rising. “Look out, bro — ya better flex harder!” he joked. Ben bit his lip and held his arm flexed tight, right alongside of J.T.’s. As the younger boy’s fist moved up to nearly ninety degrees, he said, “Whoa, look at that sucker grow! I think I’ve got ya beat already!” J.T.’s incredible ten-year-old biceps was rising up into a nice ball. Ben’s arm was beginning to shake as he tried to match it. J.T. moved his fist past the ninety degree mark and laughed out loud. “Mine’s still growing bigger ’n’ bigger!” he bragged. “It’s makin’ yours look kinda puny!” I noticed Ben frown as he held his arm right next to J.T.’s and tried his best to keep flexing harder. J.T. finally reached the fully flexed position and stopped. “Oops! You lose again, bro! My muscle’s way bigger! Lookit that wicked peak, man! I guess everyone can tell I’m the one that gots all the muscle in this family!”

I had to admit J.T. had his brother’s arm beat in every way. It was bigger, thicker, more rounded and peaked up much higher. J.T. not only had a more muscular body than his brother, his muscles underwent amazing growth when he flexed them. Although he was two years younger, and his body was smaller, it looked like it was carved out of pure muscle. No wonder he had such a confident attitude — he’s probably been the strongest kid in his age range, and beyond, for as long as he can remember. I would guess that not many of his friends can match his strength, and he knows it.

J.T. stepped right in front of me and proudly flexed his muscles. “Ya like my body, mister?” he asked. Each biceps contracted into a solid lump of muscle bigger than a golf ball. I swallowed hard and felt my heart thumping in my chest. “Everybody wants to feel my muscles,” J.T. bragged. “Go ahead!” I reached out with both hands and felt his bulging arms. He tightened his fists to make sure he was flexing as hard as he could. “Hard, aren’t they?” he boasted. I squeezed and felt the firm resistance of his young biceps. J.T.’s arms felt very strong. I wondered what it must feel like to be only ten years old and have so much muscle.

He happily held his arms flexed for as long as I wanted to feel his muscles. When I finally took my hands away he said, “Now let me feel yours!” and reached for my arm. I was unprepared for this, but before I could react J.T. had gripped my right upper arm with both of his hands. “Flex!” he commanded. I felt his strong little fingers already digging into my flesh. I made a fist and drew my forearm up, but even when I flexed, my arm didn’t get very hard. J.T. shifted his fingers a little and squeezed hard again. “C’mon — flex!” he shouted.

“I am flexing!” I said.

J.T. squeezed his fingers repeatedly all over my upper arm. Even though I was flexing, he was still able to work my muscles like they were made of clay. I felt my biceps change shape as he squished it with his strong hand.

“Man! — how come your muscle is so flabby? It kinda feels like a sponge!” He dug his fingers in so deep I felt my eyes begin to water, but I refused to show any pain. “Are you really flexing it? How come it’s not hard like mine?”

“I guess I need to exercise more,” I said weakly.

“No kiddin’, man!” J.T. laughed. “You must not get any exercise at all! Hey! I bet I could even beat you at arm-wrestling!”

Although I thought he was getting a little over-confident, I didn’t want to be put into another potentially humiliating position. “Why don’t you arm-wrestle your brother instead?” I suggested.

“Aw, he’s no fun. I beat him every time. It’s too easy. I win even when I let him use both hands.”

I wondered if that was really true, or if he was just exaggerating. I couldn’t comprehend how he could be that much stronger than his older brother.

“Hey, I’ve got an idea!” J.T. shouted. He ran up onto the deck and moved out the benches from the picnic table. J.T. picked them both up at once, lifting them in the center for balance and tucking one under each arm. He hauled them back over to Ben and me. I think he was showing off a little because he knew we were watching, but carrying the heavy benches that way was a pretty good display of strength.

J.T. set the benches down and lined them up parallel, a couple of feet apart. Then he got on his knees between them. “I wanna arm-wrestle both of you at the same time,” he said. He put an elbow in the middle of each bench. “Come on, you guys! Ben — you get over here on my left hand.”

Ben knelt down in position and worked at getting a good grip on his brother’s hand. I hesitated, but J.T. kept needling me until I finally got on my knees and put my right elbow next to his. As soon as I got a grip on his smaller hand, J.T. shouted, “Ready — GO!” He caught me by surprise, and I felt my hand move down a little before I was able to react. I pushed back hard, determined not to let him show me up again. Although Ben was biting his lip and screwing up his face with effort, his arm was easily being held frozen in place. J.T. ignored his brother and stared at my arm instead. I moved his arm back to neutral and strained to get it moving down. I was astonished at the effort it took. J.T.’s strength was amazing! A ten-year-old boy should not have been any competition for me, but J.T. fought me like a tiger. I moved in with my shoulder and tried to use my longer arm as leverage as I forced his arm a bit farther back. It was like working against a heavy spring, the way his arm resisted. I could see his shoulder and pectoral muscles being stretched as his arm moved back, and I could feel the tension in his muscles and ligaments building as I pushed harder. Maybe I was unconsciously holding back a little, afraid I would tear something in the boy’s shoulder, but I found it almost impossible to move his arm past a certain point.

Then J.T. tightened his lips and got a determined look on his face. He threw his head back, closed his eyes, and thrust out his chest as he started to lean forward. The force pushing against my arm seemed to double in an instant. My arm moved back to the neutral position and I started to panic. I heard Ben groan and saw his arm start to move down. J.T. stared at my arm with a wild and furious look in his eyes and I saw his nostrils flare as he took a deep breath. My trembling arm was being forced downward with a sudden burst of power that I could not match. J.T.’s forearm was bulging with solid, rippling muscle as he poured on the pressure. I saw Ben reach over with his free hand to help, but it seemed to make no difference. Our arms continued moving steadily downward. With a final surge of energy, J.T. slammed both of our hands down to the bench at the same time.

I gasped for breath and found myself panting and sweating. My heart was thumping in my chest. J.T. jumped up and hopped around like he was on a pogo stick. “Yeah! Yeah! I won!” he shouted. Then he stopped jumping and put his hands on his hips while he caught his breath. “I knew it! I’m stronger than both of you guys put together!” he bragged. I looked up at him standing there proudly, with his hard young physique shining in the sun. It was hard to admit it, but he just might be right.

Ben walked over to J.T. and patted him on the shoulder. Then he got behind his brother and jumped on his back, giggling. J.T. grabbed Ben’s legs and carried him piggy-back around the pool. He dumped Ben off onto the grass and jumped on him as they wrestled some more. J.T. always ended up on top and I heard him talking to his brother, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. Everything the two did together seemed to reinforce the idea that J.T. was the dominant brother. Ben appeared not only to accept this relationship, but to enjoy it.

I sat down at the poolside table under the umbrella. Ben jumped up and ran from his brother, but it wasn’t much of a chase. J.T. was much faster than Ben. He caught him quickly, picked him up, and tossed him into the pool again. Ben swam over to the ladder and climbed out.

“Hey, J.T.!” he yelled. “You almost broke this ladder. Lookit how loose you made it!”

J.T. ran over and checked out the pool ladder. One side wobbled quite a bit as he shook it. “I bet I could rip it out now,” he said.

“You better not!” Ben warned. “Dad will really be mad!”

J.T. ignored his brother and kept moving the U-shaped chrome tubing back and forth. Ben came over to where I was sitting and I handed him a towel.

“He’s always showing off how strong he is by destroying things. He breaks everything and bends things out of shape and Dad bawls him out, but I think he lets him get away with it because he thinks it’s cool that J.T. is so strong. It’s kind of unfair. If I did the stuff he does, I’d really get into trouble!”

J.T. grabbed the loose side of the ladder at the top of the loop and wrapped both hands around it with an underhand grip. He bent his knees a little, then pulled up with all of his might, like he was doing a dead lift. He kept this up for about fifteen seconds, with his entire body tensed and straining. The muscle definition popped out all over his body. Then, with a gasp, he relaxed and caught his breath. He tested the amount of wobble again.

“I think I almost got it that time!” he yelled.

Ben shook his head. “I bet he breaks that too,” he said to me. “You should see all the things he’s broke around this house. He likes testing his muscles against other things. He’s been working on that ladder for about a week now.”

J.T. tugged on the ladder again. The muscles popped out and froze into their locked position. You could see the cords in his neck bulging with strain. Veins started to appear all over his tensing muscles. His thighs flexed powerfully and his popping biceps were pulling up with all their might. Large concrete bolts that had been buried deep into the deck started to rise up as the boy continued to pull relentlessly. I could hardly believe what I was seeing, and I stood up to get a better look. J.T. could feel something start to give, and he tried to force himself to pull even harder. The boy’s thighs showed amazing definition as they bulged into maximum tension. Then, with a final yank of his arms and a squeal of metal being wrenched out of position, J.T. violently ripped the ladder loose from the deck. He thrust his hands into the air and let out a loud yell. The long concrete bolts that had held that side of the ladder in place dangled uselessly over their holes.

J.T. walked up to Ben with a big smile on his face. “You didn’t think I could do it, did ya?” he said, taunting his brother. “You thought my muscles weren’t strong enough! Well, what d’ya think now?” With his hands on his hips, J.T. puffed up his chest and flexed his pecs like a bodybuilder doing a lat spread. His young muscles were all pumped up and looking mighty powerful. It was an impressive display of just how muscular a ten-year-old could become with the right genetics and training. I wondered how he compared to the other budding young super-jocks on his football team. Were they all being encouraged to train extra hard to achieve this kind of strength and muscularity? I knew that children were becoming more competitive in organized sports at younger and younger ages. It seemed like some parents, dreaming of future high-school football heroes, were starting to get professional physical training for their boys as young as kindergarten. Maybe J.T. was and example of how early strength training was turning some of our next generation into super-jocks at a very young age.

Ben seem to be as amazed as I was at J.T.’s muscle show. He walked up to his brother and put a hand on his shoulder, then rubbed his other hand across J.T.’s flexing chest. The younger boy held his pose while Ben moved his hand down over the tight, rippling abs and back up again to the muscular pecs. He ran his other hand down from the shoulder and felt the thickness of the muscle in J.T.’s upper arm. Then Ben dropped to his knees and placed both hands on his younger brother’s powerful thighs. J.T. responded by tensing his legs, forcing his quads to pop out into sharp relief. Ben stroked the bulging muscles and also moved his hands down to feel J.T.’s thick calf muscles as the younger boy went up on his toes several times. It was a fascinating kind of body worship that I didn’t expect from these two. Ben was clearly enjoying his exploration of every flexing muscle on J.T.’s incredibly strong young body.

“Man, you are so buff, J.T.!” Ben said respectfully. “Your body is like, pure solid muscle! When you go back to school everybody’s gonna freak! You’re gonna be Mr. Hot Bod! Everybody’s gonna want to feel these muscles!” J.T. just smiled and proudly kept tensing every muscle in his body.

Ben reached up and felt his brother’s stomach muscles again. “I wish I had abs as hard as yours,” he said wistfully. “Then I’d let all the other guys slug me in the gut as hard as they could and I’d just laugh at them when they hurt their hand!” Ben pulled off his damp tank top and compared his stomach to his little brother’s. Ben’s tummy was flat and firm, but it didn’t have the sharp muscularity and ripped, washboard definition that J.T. had. J.T. crunched down harder on his abs and made them stand out even more sharply. Ben gasped, “Wow!” and jabbed at his brother’s solid gut with his fingertips. I even let out a little groan when I saw how J.T. could make his already hard abs even harder. It was easy to see why this kid loved to flex his muscles so much.

J.T. felt Ben’s stomach and probed his abs with his fingertips. “You’re gettin’ there, bro — just keep doin’ your sit-ups!” J.T. walked over to where I was sitting. “Hey mister, let’s see your abs!”

I began to protest, but J.T. moved right in and started unbuttoning my shirt. I was a bit startled at his forwardness, but I guess J.T. was used to doing whatever he wanted. As soon as he spread my shirt open his hands were poking at my tummy.

“Man, you ain’t hardly got any abs at all!”

I resented that remark and sat back in my chair so I could tense my stomach muscles better. J.T. was still unimpressed.

“Well, maybe you got a little, but not much. Feel how hard my abs are!”

J.T. rippled his stomach muscles into full hardness again and I watched his perfect washboard abs pop out. I reached out with my hand and ran my fingertips over the surprisingly hard ridges of muscle.

“I always had good abs, even when I was little,” J.T. bragged. “People always told me so. I could probably do a thousand million sit-ups, right Ben?”

“He could do sit-ups all day long — no lie!” Ben agreed.

“Hey — I know!” J.T. suddenly yelled, grabbing his brother by the arm. “You get me in a leg scissors and try to squeeze me as hard as you can!” J.T. sat down on the grass and Ben got down into position next to him. The older boy wrapped his thighs around J.T.’s midsection and tightened his legs as he locked his ankles together. J.T. lay back on his elbows and smiled as he watched Ben start to squeeze his midsection. Ben grunted with strain and you could see the muscles in his thighs harden, but they were not doing much damage to J.T.’s brick-like abs. Ben’s legs were longer than J.T.’s, but they were not as thick and the muscles were not as defined. The younger boy kept his stomach muscles fully tensed and laughed at his big brother’s puny attempt to crush them.

“Come on, Benny — ya gotta squeeze me harder than that! I can hardly feel it!”

Ben repeatedly snapped his legs around J.T.’s waist, letting out loud grunts each time. Then he grit his teeth and squeezed as hard as possible, straining until his face turned beet red. He held this maximum flex for as long as he could, with his legs trembling from the effort. J.T. never lost the smile from his face as he watched his older brother’s futile attempts to crush his hard flexed abs. Ben finally collapsed from exhaustion. He removed his legs from J.T.’s waist and rolled away, panting to catch his breath. J.T. patted his solid, flexing midsection with a chuckle, then began tracing his fingertips over the deep-cut segments of his perfect washboard abs.

“I guess these babies were too strong for ya, huh?” he bragged. “My abs are stronger than both of your skinny legs put together!” J.T. sprang to his feet. “Now it’s your turn!” he said playfully. “What d’ya think these legs can do to your abs?” J.T.’s big thigh muscles bulged out as he tightened them.

Ben scrambled to his feet and backed away. “Oh no, you don’t!” he wailed. “I’m not letting you wrap those pythons around me!”

J.T. lunged at his brother and the chase was on. The brothers giggled and shouted as they ran around the yard. It was really no contest, however, because J.T. was clearly faster and more agile than his older brother. He toyed with Ben a little, cornering him or cutting him off, then letting him escape so he could use his superior speed to trap him again. Finally J.T. caught Ben from behind and wrapped his arms around him. He reared back and squeezed, holding his brother off the ground and torturing him in a rear bear hug. Ben struggled to free himself, but J.T. easily held him tight, jerking and thrashing his body from side to side as he poured on the pressure. Ben was shouting “Ow! — Ow! — Ow!” so loud I wondered if the neighbors would investigate.

J.T. threw Ben down on the ground and jumped on top of him. “Now it’s time for the leg squeezing!” he said, with a devilish grin. Ben cried out in fear and exploded like a bucking bronco, throwing J.T. off him as he scrambled away. He ran around the pool, being chased by J.T., but when Ben saw that it was inevitable his brother was going to catch him again he jumped into the pool and swam to the middle of the deep end.

“You can’t get away that easy!” J.T. yelled. He made a nice, head-first dive into the pool and went deep under water.

Ben spun around nervously, treading water, trying to see where J.T. was going to surface. J.T. finally popped up right behind his brother and wrapped his legs around his torso before Ben realized what was happening. J.T. crossed his ankles and locked his legs tight around Ben’s chest, but it was hard to keep his head above water in this position. Ben thrashed around, trying to struggle free, but J.T.’s powerful legs held him firm. After having his head dunked under water a few times, J.T. saw he was under the diving board and with a strong thrust downward with his left arm he was able to reach up and grab the edge of the board with his right hand. Then he grabbed the other side of the board with his left hand and held on tight. Now J.T. could concentrate on squeezing his brother between his legs. Ben grunted and moaned as the pressure around his chest increased. He tugged furiously at his little brother’s shins, but his arms were of no use against the tremendous power of J.T.’s muscular legs. I moved to the side of the pool for a better look. I knew that they didn’t like me to interfere, and I had seen Ben take a lot of punishment from his brother, but I worried that J.T. didn’t know his own strength and might end up really hurting Ben one of these days.

J.T. saw me watching and tightened his legs again with a fierce growl. Then he did something amazing. He began to pull himself up with his arms until the top of his head was touching the diving board. It was like doing a pull-up and holding yourself at the top. J.T.’s biceps contracted into rounded peaks of solid muscle as he lifted Ben’s shoulders out of the water. You could see the tops of J.T.’s bulging thighs as he ground down on his brother’s torso. They looked so powerful that I hoped Ben’s ribs were not in danger of being cracked.

J.T.’s flexing biceps were bulging like billiard balls. Just as I wondered how long J.T.’s strong arms could hold this position, he did something even more incredible. The younger boy began raising his legs by flexing his abs and lifting Ben’s body further out of the water. I gasped as I saw Ben’s body rise up higher and higher until his entire torso was exposed up to the waist. J.T.’s legs were now being held parallel to the water, and his abs were tightened into sharp ridges of muscle. I saw J.T.’s thighs twitch as he gave his brother’s torso another long, hard squeeze. Ben’s moans were becoming softer and his tugging at J.T.’s legs was getting weaker. The huge muscles in J.T.’s legs were trembling as he poured on a final, tremendous squeeze. My heart was pounding as every muscle in J.T.’s body went into full, rigid flex. Ben’s hands dropped down into the water and his entire body went limp. I snapped out of my trance and ran over to the diving board. Seeing Ben’s lifeless body dangling between J.T.’s flexing legs was shocking.

“Let him go, J.T.,” I yelled. I stepped onto the board and felt it bend a little. I couldn’t see J.T. but I could see Ben’s head drooped over his chest.

“No — he’s faking it!” J.T. grunted. He held the position with his legs locked around Ben.

“Come on, now,” I warned. “Don’t make me force you to let go.”

“Faker!” J.T. yelled. “He’s playin’ dead ’cause he wants me to let him go!”

I had seen J.T.’s rage before in his bedroom. I knew he was only ten years old and didn’t have good judgement. And he was too strong to be allowed to go unchecked. As the only adult here, I knew I had to do something, fast. I put my shoe on J.T.’s hand and kept increasing my weight on it. I heard J.T. grunt a little, but he didn’t let go, so I raised my foot up and stomped down on his hand.

J.T. let out a howl and released his brother as they both fell back into the water. I saw Ben floating face down and was going to dive into the pool, but J.T. grabbed his brother under the shoulders and swam him over to the broken ladder, where Ben hung on, gasping for air. J.T. avoided the ladder and thrust his body smoothly up onto the edge of the pool as he did before. He shook out the hand I stomped and looked at it, feeling it with his other hand as if testing it for broken bones. I heard him cursing under his breath. My heart was still pounding.

J.T. turned to me with a furious look. “What did ya go and do that for, huh?” he shouted, as he started walking toward me. “You coulda busted my fingers!”

I backed up a few paces without even thinking. This angry muscle kid was making me nervous. “You were hurting your brother!” I cried. Behind J.T., I saw Ben slowly climb up the ladder out of the pool. “I thought he might have blacked out or have a cracked rib or something!”

J.T. turned and saw Ben walking up behind him. “You don’t know nothin’ about me and my brother!” He faced me again and moved closer. “Why don’t you just butt out!” J.T. lunged at me and shoved hard, sending me onto my butt. I scrambled quickly back to my feet, but J.T. kept advancing. “You wanna play?” he said, shoving me again. I went down hard a second time. “I’ll show ya how we play!”

“Yeah, J.T., let him have it!” Ben said. “Let’s see how tough he is!”

My mouth dropped open in astonishment as I looked up at these two scowling brothers. I couldn’t believe Ben was defending J.T. against me. I was still confused by their complex relationship. J.T. was clenching his fists as if he were challenging me to try and get up. Ben was standing right behind his muscular little brother with a condescending look on his face. I held up a hand in defense.

“Okay — okay! I’m sorry! You guys go beat yourselves up all you want — I don’t care. I’m taking you over to the neighbor’s and leaving!”

“What if we don’t want to go to the neighbor’s?” J.T. said, menacingly. “What if we want to beat up on your sorry ass instead?”

“Yeah!” Ben agreed, getting carried away by J.T.’s macho attitude.

A cloud moved over the sun and everything got darker. For the first time, I was actually feeling afraid of these kids. To keep me from getting up, J.T. moved over me until his feet were straddling my body. I looked up into his dark and solemn face. My heart was pounding again and I was having a hard time catching my breath. I couldn’t think of anything to say. J.T. pulled his right fist up to his shoulder and curled his lips into a smile. I saw the boy’s biceps ball up into a tight flex. I held my hands in front of my face and winced. J.T. laughed, and I realized how pathetic I must have looked. A grown man being terrorized by a ten-year-old boy!

J.T. dropped to his knees and I let out a yelp, thinking he was going to throw his punch. Instead, he clamped his knees around my ribs and grabbed my left hand.

“How would you like it if I crushed your hand?”

Before I could say anything, J.T. pulled my fingers into the crook of his elbow and flexed his right arm around my hand. It was like being crushed in a vice when his flexing biceps mashed my fingers against his equally hard forearm muscles.

“How does that feel, huh?”

“No — please, J.T.! Your arm is too strong! You’re hurting me!”

“I know I’m hurting you. Just like you hurt me. How do you like it?”

“No — please — I don’t think you realize how strong you are! Your biceps is so hard it’s crushing my fingers!” J.T. was still holding my wrist tightly with his left hand and I couldn’t pull it free. “Please, J.T.! Your muscle is too powerful! You could hurt people if you’re not careful. You don’t want to break my fingers, do you?”

“Do it, J.T.!” Ben said. “Break his fingers with your muscle! I wanna hear ’em crack! I wanna see your hard biceps snap ’em in two!”

Ben’s encouragement of his little brother was shocking to me. J.T. grit his teeth and I could feel his hard-bulging biceps crushing my fingers down to the bone. He grabbed his wrist with his left hand and pulled on it to increase the pressure. In desperation I put the heel of my hand under his chin and tried to force his head back. My hand slipped off his jaw and a finger poked him in the eye. I swear it was an accident. J.T. covered his face with his hands, then started bawling like the little kid that he was.

I didn’t know what to do. J.T. quickly went from aggressive muscle-kid to crying little boy. Ben stared open-mouthed at his little brother. I think J.T. was embarrassed to be seen crying. He fought hard to control his sobbing as he rubbed his injured eye. I tried to prop myself up on my elbows, but it was too difficult with J.T. sitting on my stomach, so I just lay back and waited.

As soon as J.T. caught his breath he started spewing curses at me through his sobs. I tried to apologize, but I could hardly get out two words before J.T. attacked. With tears running down his cheeks he started throwing hard punches left and right at my chest as fast as he could. My unbuttoned shirt was pulled open and J.T.’s fists were thumping against my bare chest. He literally knocked the breath out of me with his sledgehammer blows.

“That hurt me, dammit!” J.T. yelled, as he kept throwing super-hard punches at my pecs.

The young boy’s strong arms were pounding me with all the power he could unleash. The pain was incredible. I could feel the muscles in my chest being beaten into mush as J.T.’s little fists impacted them with unbelievable force. I tried to flex them in defense, but the boy’s knuckles still tore into the flesh and sent spasms of pain across my chest. He was terrifyingly strong.

“Yeah, J.T., let him have it!” Ben yelled.

I was so stunned and out of breath that I hardly knew what was happening. I was flailing out with my hands trying to ward off J.T.’s blows, without much effect. Suddenly I felt weaker, as if my arms weighed a ton. They dropped to the ground like dead weight and I realized my chest had gone numb and I could no longer lift my arms. J.T. saw my reaction and finally stopped throwing his punches.

“Hey Benny, look at his chest!” J.T. sniffed, wiping his eyes and runny nose. “It’s wiggling like Jell-O!”

I could feel my paralyzed chest muscles quivering as tiny little muscle spasms made them tremble uselessly. J.T. reached down with both hands and grabbed my bruised pecs, digging in with his fingers. I was powerless to do anything. The nerves in my chest weren’t working properly, but I could feel J.T.’s hands kneading my battered pecs. His fingertips seemed to be tearing deep into the muscle tissue as he squeezed.

“Lookit, Benny, his muscles are all squishy like mud!” J.T. laughed.

The boy was working my injured pecs like bread dough. I moaned and pleaded with him to stop, thrashing my head from side to side. I wondered how long this torture was going to continue. I never felt so helpless.

“I think he’s gonna faint,” I head Ben’s voice say.

J.T. let go of my chest. I caught my breath and blinked up at him. He put one hand on my throat and squeezed a little.

“Say you’re sorry!” he demanded.

“I’m — I’m sorry — I really am!” I gasped.

“Ya better not try hurting me again, ’cuz I’m really strong and I could beat you up if I wanted!” he warned. J.T. raised his arms and struck a double-biceps pose for me. “You know my super-strong extra-hard muscles can destroy your muscles and turn ’em to mush, so ya better be extra nice to me from now on!” J.T.’s left eye was still a little bloodshot and watering, but he looked down at me with an angry sneer to let me know he meant business.

J.T. turned his head to look at his right biceps and bit his lip as he flexed his arms as hard as he could. They had become quite pumped from throwing all those punches, and each biceps was bulging up into a very hard-looking rounded peak. I swallowed hard and tried to catch my breath. J.T. looked so powerful and invincible as he flexed, it was hard to remember he was just a ten-year-old boy.

Ben walked up behind his brother and reached down to feel the younger boy’s solid biceps.

“You better watch out!” Ben said, giving me a serious look. “My brother is the strongest brother in the whole world!” Both boys solemnly stared right into my eyes as J.T. held his pose and Ben continued to stroke and squeeze his brother’s big biceps. It was an image that will forever be burned into my memory — the tough young muscle-kid flexing proudly while his idolizing older brother ran worshiping fingers over his hard-bulging muscles.

I was so mesmerized by these kids that it almost didn’t register in my brain when I first heard the far-away voice.

“Ben — J.T. — where are you?”

J.T. sprang to his feet and jumped off me. Ben stepped back with a worried look on his face and began fidgeting with his hands. Suddenly they were both just boys again. Although my chest was tingling with pain, the feeling had returned to the muscles and I found I could move my arms now. I winced as I managed to prop myself up on my elbows.

The sweet-voiced woman appeared through the sliding glass door. “There you are!” She eyed the three of us questioningly. “What have you guys been doing?”

“We was just playing, Mom!” J.T. said innocently. I almost believed him myself. The cloud had moved on and the sun was shining bright again.

Beth looked down at me with a big smile on her face. If she was wondering what I was doing on the ground with my shirt open, she didn’t show it.

“You must be Tom! Mike called me on my cell phone and told me the terrible thing he did to you! I hurried home as fast as I could — I hope these guys weren’t too much trouble?”

I assured her everything was fine. I got up slowly and smiled at Beth as I buttoned my shirt. My pecs were red and sore but Beth might have thought it was just a sunburn. She offered me a drink but I said I had to be leaving.

“Mike said to apologize for leaving you like this. He really feels awful about it. He’s going to be tied up at the job site for awhile, but we both want to invite you back for a barbecue next Saturday — can you come? I feel we owe you that much, at the very least.”

I looked at the two boys standing behind their mom with little angelic smiles on their faces. J.T. put his arm around Ben’s shoulders and Ben did likewise.

“Yeah, come back next week!” J.T. said cheerfully. “We had fun — right Ben?”

“Yeah!” Ben agreed.

Beth chatted with me as we walked back into the house. I looked over my shoulder to see the boys huddled together, whispering and giggling. As I reached my car, I told Beth I’d be in touch. I’m sure the boys behave differently when their parents are around, but I’ve never met two brothers as intriguing as J.T. and Ben. I sat in my car and tried to figure out what my feelings were about them.

I don’t know — should I go back next weekend or not? •

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