Harold showed up shortly after seven with his son Joey. TJ was waiting at the front door and ran to meet his school friend. They ran off around the side of the house to play while Harold and I went inside to talk about what I had in mind.
"Joel, would you keep an eye on TJ, Joey and your brothers while Mr. Nicholas and I talk a little business?" I asked.
"Sure dad," he said marking his place in the book he was reading and went outside to mind the other boys.
"How's he coming along?" Harold asked.
"He's doing very well, thanks."
"That's good. Now, what was it you wanted to renovate? I thought we took care of everything the last time."
"Well you see Hildy, my housekeeper/cook/nanny is going to get married and they plan to make their home here in her apartment. The thing is it is kind of small. It's fine for a single person, but it will be a little cramped for two. What I want to do is to enlarge it to include another bedroom and bath and expand the living room. As part of this, I want to add garage space for two more vehicles and some storage space. My van sits out most of the time because it doesn't fit in any of the spaces so I want to make sure that the new garage bays will accommodate it. Right now our six bicycles take up one of the three existing garage bays."
"Okay, let's go take a look at what we've got to work with. Let's start outside so I can see the footprint," Harold said starting back outside.
As we walked around, Harold jotted down some notes in a small book he carried. He muttered to himself and paced off what I assumed would be the new garage extension. After about fifteen minutes he seemed to be satisfied and suggested we go inside and take a look at the existing apartment.
Hildy had retired to her apartment when we got back inside. I knocked on her door and when she answered I explained to her what we wanted to do. Although she protested that it was not necessary, I could tell that she was pleased.
Harold spent another twenty minutes surveying the inside of the apartment and again making notes in his book while Hildy and I watched. "I'll need to have my designer come and take a look, but I have a good idea of what is possible with what you have told me. He may have some ideas as to how to accomplish what you want. Do you think it would be possible for him to come tomorrow?" Harold asked.
"Yes, what time would he be here?" I asked.
"I'll send him around nine if that's alright?"
"That'll be great. Let's go see what the boys are up to."
I poured Harold a glass of iced tea and we settled ourselves into lounge chairs on the patio to watch the boys play. All of the boys except Joel were playing a game of kickball. That brought to the surface of my mind something else that I had been thinking about.
"Harold, I have been thinking of creating a bigger play area for the boys over there where that semi-flat area is. What would it take to make that area big enough to play baseball or soccer?"
"Well, a lot of it would depend on how much rock would have to be broken up to get an area flat enough. The soil around here is only a few inches deep so we would have to bring in a lot of topsoil to make the surface safe enough to play on. We are going to have to do some excavating for the other project so we will have all the equipment to do it. When Konrad gets here tomorrow, I'll have him look at it and see what he thinks about what it will take," he said.
We sat and talked for an hour or so until the sun was casting its last light over the tops of the hills to the west. It finally got too dark for the boys to play and they rushed up to the patio wanting something to drink. It was time for their evening snack so I invited Joey to join my sons.
After the apple pie and ice cream were ravaged, Joey and his dad left for home and my boys went to shower and get ready for bed. Tonight was the night that the twins and Chris were planning on sleeping upstairs in the bedroom that I had built up there. I wondered to myself if they would make it through the whole night. They hadn't moved their clothes to the new bedroom so I wasn't convinced that they had really made up their minds that this was going to be a permanent arrangement.
When everyone was clean and dressed for bed I asked if they wanted me to read some more of the book we had started, A Horse's Tale. I read for a little over a half an hour until TJ fell asleep in my lap. I picked him up and carried him to his bed and everyone else headed for their bed. I kissed my youngest and tucked him in before doing the same to Joel.
"Are they really going to sleep upstairs all night?" Joel asked.
"They said they wanted to. We'll have to see if they make it all night," I said smiling.
I climbed the stairs to where my other sons were. I could hear them talking and giggling as I approached their beds. I was a little surprised that they each were in a separate bed. I had just assumed that they would keep the same arrangement of all sleeping in one bed. I didn't care because that is why I had put three beds in the room. Chris was on the left. Larry was in the middle and Lenny was in the right-hand bed.
I started on the right and worked my way across all the beds tucking them in and giving each a kiss on the forehead. Before I left for downstairs I cautioned them to go right to sleep and no talking.
"Good night guys, I love you," I said. "I'll leave a night light on in case you get up in the night and forget where you are."
"Good night dad," they all three said in unison.
I went back downstairs and picked up a book I had been reading but hadn't had a chance to read recently. It was a book by Piers Anthony, one of my favorite prolific Sci-Fi Fantasy authors with a really warped sense of humor. I read for about ninety minutes before sleep started to overtake me. I quietly slipped upstairs to check on the boys and was pleased that they were all asleep and each in their own bed.
Hildy was in the kitchen beginning her breakfast preparations when I entered to pour myself a cup of coffee. I took my coffee and went upstairs to check on the boys again. I don't know what I was worried about. They were totally safe up there. I chuckled when I saw that they had all migrated to Larry's bed and were once again a tangle of arms and legs. Old habits die hard. I let them sleep and went back down to the kitchen to visit with Hildy.
We chatted a while before I asked, "Does Manfred have a job? I know he is a retired Air Force Colonel, but he is awfully young to just sit around his apartment all day."
"Yes," she laughed, "he has a lawn and landscape maintenance business. He has, I think, ten crews. They work mainly in the New Braunfels area but do some work in Canyon Lake. Why do you ask?"
"Well as many times as he has been here he has never mentioned what he did now. I guess I just wanted to see if he was a fortune hunter," I laughed as I got up to pour myself another cup of coffee.
"Good morning dad," Joel said sleepily as he padded into the kitchen still wearing his pajamas.
"Good morning son," I said giving him a hug. "You're up early."
"I wanted to talk to you. Can you take me shopping for TJ's birthday present? It's on the seventh. Larry's and Lenny's are on the sixteenth. Are we going to have a party?" he asked.
"Of course we're going to have a party. We'll have one for TJ and another one for the twins. Why don't you come with me to work today and we can go shopping later? I'm only going to work at the foundation for a little while this morning. We can go shopping after that. Besides I want to talk to you about Tony. Finish your breakfast and then go get dressed."
Becky Sue arrived right after the rest of the boys had sat down to eat breakfast. Konrad came shortly after she arrived. I talked to him for several minutes and told him to show himself around and to call me if he needed anything. I knew from the last time that all I needed to do was to give him a general idea of what I wanted and he would come up with something much better than I could have imagined. I gave all the boys a hug and then Joel and I left for the foundation office.
Darcie was already in the office when we arrived. I could tell by the sparkle in her eyes that she was excited at the prospects of what we were going to do with the foundation. She greeted us when we entered and gave Joel a hug.
"Are you going to help your dad this morning," she asked.
"Yes, ma'am," he answered, "then we're going shopping for TJ's birthday present."
"Oh, when's his birthday?"
"Darcie, I asked Joel to come to the office today so that we could talk to him about the first prospective beneficiaries of ASEC. He spent a lot of time with Tony this last weekend so I think he has some insight into what Tony feels about the possibility of the Boises adopting him.
"Joel, why don't you go get something to drink out of the refrigerator while I take care of a few things and then we will sit down and talk to you. Okay?"
"Can I boot up that computer?" he asked pointing to the PC in the reception area. "I get to take a computer class this year in school and kinda want to get a head start."
I just nodded to him as I kicked myself mentally. For being a computer nerd for so many years, it never dawned on me that the boys just might be interested in them too. It looks like I had better talk to Eric about setting up a home network so that I could train the next generation of nerds.
It only took me about thirty minutes to take care of the business that needed my immediate attention. When I finished I asked Joel and Darcie to join me in our new conference room to discuss what Joel learned from talking to Tony.
"Son, is Tony happy living with Mr. and Mrs. Boise?" I asked.
"Yeah, he likes living with them but he's afraid."
"Afraid. Afraid of what?"
"He said he was afraid that those people might take him away from them."
"You mean that CPS might take him away from the Boises?"
"Yeah, he said that every time he started to really like the people he was living with they took him away. They did it two times before."
"What did he say about Benny?" I asked.
"Every time I asked him about Benny he got really sad. He wants him to live with him, but he says that's never going to happen. His old caseworker told him his mom and dad can't have any more foster kids. How come, dad? His mom and dad are really nice."
"Did he say anything about his mom and dad wanting to adopt him?" Darcie asked.
"Yeah, he said his dad kinda talked to him about it. He just said his dad said that they would like to adopt him."
"What did he think about being adopted?" I asked.
"He really wants to be but he wants Benny to be adopted too. He... ah... I don't know if I should tell you..."
"If you think it's important, son, maybe you should tell us. We need to know as much as we can if we are going to be able to help Tony and his brother," I said.
"Well... He really wants Benny to be with him. He said they might run away so that they could be together. I told him not to do that 'cause he didn't have any place to live if he did. He said Benny needs him. I guess it's like TJ needs me. Benny feels safe when he is with him. He didn't want me to tell anyone. He said they would put him back in one of those awful places where you get locked up all the time. Don't tell anyone. Please dad?"
"I don't think we'll need to tell anyone. We need to see that he has no reason to run away. Did he say anything else? What does Mr. or Mrs. Boise do when he does something wrong?"
"They make him go to his room and he can't listen to his music. They never hit or spank him. He said that his mom always hugs and kisses him after his time out and tells him she loves him. He said he usually cries when she does that."
"Would he be happy living where he is if Benny and he can both be adopted?" I asked.
Oh, yes! He's so worried about Benny. Sometimes he cries himself to sleep after Benny gets to visit him."
"Thank you, Joel, you've done a great job. I think you have helped your friend more than you know," I said. "Darcie, do you have any more questions to ask Joel?"
"No, I think he has done an admirable job for the foundation, Thanks Joel," she said squeezing his hand and giving him a smile.
"Can we go buy TJ's present now?"
"Sure, go turn your computer off and dad will be ready in just a couple of minutes."
Our shopping trip did not take very long. Joel knew exactly what he wanted to buy and where he could buy it. We parked at North Star Mall and were in and out in less than twenty minutes. He is definitely my kind of shopper. I really hate the crowds in malls.
I glanced at my watch as we were getting into the car and noticed it was only a little after eleven. "Do you want to stop and eat lunch or do you want to wait until we get home?"
"Let's stop. I'm hungry," he said giggling.
"You're always hungry," I said. "How about if we stop at Applebee's?"
I knew that wherever we stopped would be fine with him. I hadn't found too many foods that he didn't like. When we walked in the front door of the restaurant I was so proud of him. Despite being bald he removed his cap like a gentleman and didn't let the stares of the other customers bother him. I could have hugged him right there but I waited until the waitress showed us to our booth.
"You know, you are one special boy. I don't know what I did to deserve finding you, but I'm sure glad that I did," I said with a lump in my throat.
He just blushed and looked at the menu until the waitress returned with glasses of water and took our order. Joel ordered a bacon cheeseburger, fries and chocolate milk while I ordered what they called a Santa Fe Chicken Salad. Because we beat the lunch crowd our meal came rather quickly. Joel ate his burger and fries and then looked from the dessert menu to me and back.
"Go ahead, you can order something for dessert. I think I'll just have a cup of coffee," I said.
He ordered a dessert called Blue Ribbon Brownie. When I looked at the menu it was described as "Hunks of dark chocolate and nuts are baked into this massive mountain (brownie) that is draped in hot fudge and sweetly hugged by two scoops of vanilla ice cream." I think I gained weight just reading the description. He ate it all and looked like he could have eaten another one.
On our way to the car after paying our bill Joel asked, "Dad, can we go do something? Just you and me?"
"Sure, what do you want to do?"
"I don't know. I love my brothers, but... Ah... Well, sometimes I just need to not be around them all the time. Does that make me bad or something?"
"No, of course not. We all need to get away sometimes. How about if we go find a movie?"
"Yeah," he said running the rest of the way to the car.
We ended up in one of those mega-movie complexes with a dozen or so different movie screens each showing a different film. After eliminating the "R" rated ones we settled on a "PG" rated one called "Jumanji" with Robin Williams. It was a dreadful movie. It was so bad that we both laughed all the way through it. Thankfully there were very few other patrons in the theater. The best part of it, besides the sinfully buttered popcorn, was that Joel and I were sharing some time together, just the two of us.
"Thanks, dad," Joel said on the way back to the car. "That was fun."
"You're welcome, son. Remind me to do this again if I forget," I said reaching my arm around him and giving him a sideways hug as we walked to the car.
Becky Sue was giving the boys their swimming lessons when we arrived home. Joel quickly changed and joined them. I went into my study and called Eric. I hadn't seen him in a few days and was anxious to talk to him. I also wanted to discuss what the best option was for a home computer network. He wasn't in the office so I left a voicemail message for him to call me if he had time and went to join the boys in the pool.
After I was in the pool for about twenty minutes I realized how negligent I had been about swimming my laps in the morning. It seemed that every since Joel was hospitalized I had not swum on a regular basis and I could definitely feel it. I vowed right then to start to remedy that the first thing in the morning.
When I hadn't gotten a call from Eric by eight o'clock I called his house. There was no answer. He didn't have an answering machine so I couldn't leave a message. He hated those abominable machines as much as I did. I was a little concerned but not overly so. After I put the boys to bed I called again and still, there was no answer. Now, my concern level went up.
I made good on my promise to get up and swim laps the next morning. I pushed myself a little harder than I should have after having been away from my routine for a couple of months and I was sure that I would pay for it tomorrow.
I was getting ready to leave the house for my old office to make up the day I missed last week to meet my contractual commitments when Becky Sue came in. "Have you heard how Eric's mom is?" she asked.
"Why? What's the matter with Eric's mom?" I asked stunned.
"I don't know," she answered. "He called Mary Jane last night and told her he was on his way to Houston with JR because his mother was sick. He told her not to come to work today. I just wondered if he had called you."
"What time did he call Mary Jane?"
"Oh, it was about eight, eight-thirty, something like that."
"Thanks, Becky Sue, I'll call his folks' house to find out how she is. It must be fairly serious if he left for Houston last night," I said.
I hugged the boys and left for the office. Then it dawned on me. If Eric left for Houston last night, what about Darcie? I broke a few speed laws on my way to the office. I wanted to have time to call Houston before everyone else arrive for work.
I shouldn't have been surprised when I walked into the office and Carol was at her desk. She was almost always the first person to arrive. "Have you heard from Eric?" I asked.
"Yes, I had a voicemail waiting for me when I got in. He said he was taking a personal day, that his mother was very ill and that he would call later if he wouldn't be back in tomorrow. Have you heard anything more?" she asked.
"No," I said and rushed into my office.
I did a quick review of my voice mail messages to make sure that I didn't have one from either Eric or Darcie before I dialed their parents' number on my cell phone.
"Hello," a voice said I thought I recognized as Alan's.
"Alan? This is Crane Johnson. I heard that Ethel was sick and I called to see how she was."
"Oh, Crane, here's Eric, I'll let him talk to you."
"Crane," Eric said in a throaty voice. "I'm glad you called."
"Is something wrong? Is your mother all right?" I asked.
"Mom died," he said with a tremble in his voice.
"Oh my God," I gasped. "What happened?"
"She had complained of a headache yesterday morning before they took off for home. She took a couple of aspirins and it seemed to get better, dad said. When they got home she said she was going to lie down for a while and rest from the trip. She never woke up. The doctor said she had a massive stroke. I can't believe she is gone," Eric said, his voice clearly showing that he was on the verge of tears.
"I am so sorry, Eric. Is there anything I can do? Do you need anything?"
"No, I don't think so. JR is really shaken up about this. Benny is inconsolable. Dad says he hasn't stopped crying. Bran is a real trouper. He's doing everything he can to soothe Benny. I'm going to call Karen and Bill to see if they will take care of him at least until the funeral."
"Eric, I think that's a wonderful idea. Now, remember, if there is anything you or anyone there needs you let me know. You and your family are very special to me. And let me know where and when the funeral is going to be. Tell Darcie to take all the time she needs. I'm sure that Alan needs her more than the foundation right now. Do call if you want to talk. I'm a good listener."
"Thanks, Crane, you're very special to me also. I'll call you when all the arrangements have been made."
We said our goodbyes and I went to tell Carol what Eric had told me. I spent the rest of the day coaching the two new project managers that I had worked with last week. The guys were sharp but the whole idea of looking at a project from all sides to help anticipate problems or bottlenecks had not quite been incorporated in their thinking. They were still locked into looking at their projects in a linear manner. They would learn, it would just take time.
I dreaded breaking the news to the boys when I got home, but they needed to know. They were very fond of "Grandma Ethel" as they called her. That's what JR called her so they just assumed it was her name. I think all of the boys with, I think, the exception of Joel had sat on her lap and been cuddled into her ample bosom. She had been a very warm and loving woman and it showed in her children.
I barely had time to change my clothes and rush off with the boys to baseball practice when I got home. The news about Ethel would have to wait until later. Chris went off to his ball diamond for his practice and I went off with the twins to coach their team. Joel and TJ played catch and watched their brothers practice.
When we got back home, I sent the boys off to shower before they sat down to supper. While they were out of the room I told Hildy of Ethel's death. She was visibly shaken but recovered before the boys returned.
"We're going to have a family meeting right after you get everything cleaned up after supper," I told them as we were eating dessert. They barely looked up from the banana pudding.
A few minutes later we were all assembled in the family room. TJ took his usual position on my lap with the rest of the boys sitting beside me on the couch. I still had not figured out a good way of telling them. I guess the best way was to just tell them as gently as possible.
"Do you guys remember JR's grandmother?" I asked.
"Yeah, Grandma Ethel's nice," TJ said getting nods from the others.
"Something happened to her yesterday. She went to sleep and didn't wake up."
"How come she didn't wake up?" asked TJ.
"Well son, she went to be with your momma in heaven."
"Does that mean she's dead too?" TJ asked looking into my eyes. I could see the tears beginning to form in his.
"Yes son, I'm afraid she is," I said giving him a hug.
As I looked around I saw Larry and Lenny holding each other. The same was true of Joel and Chris. There was no great sobbing, just quiet tears for a lady we didn't see that often but felt close to because she was such a fine person. The rest of the evening was rather subdued. Even their snack time was not as boisterous as usual.
I tucked the boys into bed, the twins and Chris upstairs and Joel and TJ in their usual room. Not being tired, I picked up my book and went to bed to read until I got sleepy. I read for an hour or so before I turned the lights out and settled under the covers.
It must have been around three o'clock when I was awakened by someone crawling into bed with me. My first guess was that it was TJ. When I turned over I discovered that in fact, it was him.
"What's the matter, little one?"
"Is Grandma Ethel really gonna see my momma in heaven?"
"Yes, I'm sure she is."
"But how will she find her?"
I had to think a moment before I could answer that. "Well, she will be watching her children just like your momma watches hers. Her children are Eric and Darcie and they live around here so I'm sure she will find a spot in heaven to watch them and your momma will be in the same place watching you."
I kissed his forehead and pulled the cover up over him. "Go to sleep son. Grandma Ethel is probably talking to your momma right now."