Joel and I started for the car when my pager started vibrating. I had shut off the beep during the court proceeding. When I looked at the number I saw that it was my home phone. We hurried to the car where I had left my cell phone locked up in the console. I immediately dial my home number as soon as we got into the car.
"Hello," I could tell it was Hildy.
"Hildy, this is Crane. What do you need?" I queried.
Her voice was frantic when she replied, "TJ didn't get on the school van. He's not home. I don't know where he is."
"How about the twins and Chris, are they home?"
"Yes, they're here, but they don't know where he is," she almost sobbed. "They didn't notice he wasn't on the van until they were almost home. They were talking to their new friends and didn't pay any attention when they got on the van."
"Oh, my god! This can't be happening. How could they not miss their own brother? We will be home as soon as possible. I just hope that the cops are not out this afternoon because I might not pay any attention to the speed limits."
I punched the off button and pulled the car out of the parking garage giving the attendant a 20 dollar bill not waiting for my change. I wanted to get home fast even though I didn't know what I was going to do.
The trip which would normally take at least 45 minutes was accomplished in just under 25. I was extremely thankful that the evening rush hour traffic had not yet begun in earnest.
As Joel and I walked into the house the phone was ringing. Hildy answered it before I could reach it.
"Oh thank god," she said as tears began streaming down her cheeks. "Thank you, thank you so much. Let me have you talk to Mr. Johnson."
"Who is it?" I asked as she handed me the phone.
"They have TJ at their house. I don't know who they are. I just know that he is safe," she sobbed.
"Hello, this is Crane Johnson," I said taking the phone from Hildy.
"Good evening, my name is Harold Nicholas. Your son seems to have gotten on the wrong van at school this afternoon and came home with my son Joey," the voice on the other end of the line said.
"You don't know how glad I am to hear that. I was beside myself. This was only the second day that he has been attending Corinthian and I guess he just got confused as to what van he was supposed to get on. Where do you live? I will come get his as soon as I can," I said with the relief showing in my voice.
"We live just about a half a mile north of 306. Do you know where the Conoco station is on 306?" he asked.
"Yes, I do."
"If you turn north at that intersection we are the second house on the right. As I said it is about a half a mile up the road. You will see our name on the mail box."
"Thanks, I'll be there in about 15 minutes. I appreciate you calling us."
I grabbed Joel and headed for the car. "Come on let's go get your brother."
We made record time getting to the Nicholas' home. I skidded to a halt in front of a very impressive home set back about two hundred yards from the road. I think Joel and I were both out of the car a split second after it came to a halt. As we ran up to the door it opened and TJ came out.
I fell to my knees and grabbed him in a tight hug. For a moment I couldn't say anything I was so overwhelmed with emotion. I didn't know whether to be angry with him or to be happy that he was safe. The latter emotion won out.
"Oh TJ, TJ! You had us so worried. I'm so happy that you are okay. I love you so much. I couldn't bear to be without you. Please don't scare us like this again," I sobbed with tears streaming down my cheeks.
"I'm sorry, Uncle Crane. I really am. I didn't mean to worry you. Really I didn't. You're not going to whip me are you?" he cried.
"Oh, no! I would never whip you. You know that don't you? How come you got on the wrong van?" I asked.
"I guess I was playing with Joey and followed him to the van. I didn't think until we started going that Larry and Lenny were not on it. I started getting scared, but Joey said it was okay that I could come to his house. I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he whimpered into my ear.
Joel had joined in our hug at some point and was kissing his brother on the cheek. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again and it scared me. Don't ever do that again, I need you."
I stood up and as I did I picked up TJ and held him in my arms as tightly as I could and still allowed him to breathe. It was then that I noticed a tall thin man standing there with a boy about TJ's age.
"You must be Mr. Nicholas," I said as I extended a free hand to him.
"Harold, please and this is my son Joey," he said shaking my hand.
"I'm very pleased to meet both of you. I don't know how to thank you for looking after my foster son. He and his brothers have given me a new reason for living," I said bringing Joel into our hug. "This young man is Joel. He is also my foster son."
"You mean that you have two foster children living with you?" he asked.
"Actually, I have five. It is a long story but TJ and Joel have twin brothers that are also my foster sons and then there is a fifth boy that lives with us at least temporarily," I said as TJ and Joel gave me strange looks.
"God bless you! You and your wife are truly good people to take in so many unfortunate children."
"I'm not married," I responded.
"You're not? I assumed that the lady I talked to on the phone was your wife."
"No, that was my housekeeper, cook and nanny for the boys. She is the only reason that I have been able to take care of these wonderful boys," I said. "She pretty much runs the household."
Harold and I exchanged pleasantries and some personal information before I decided it was time that we got back home. I did learn that Harold was a single father, that his wife had died last year in a car crash on 281 just north of San Antonio at Stone Oak Parkway.
"If you and Joey are not busy this weekend, why don't you join us? We are going to go fishing on Saturday and you are most welcome to come along. I know that TJ would really like to have Joey come," I told him.
"Thank you that would be great. What time are you going?" he asked.
"Why don't you meet us at the marina at 10 o'clock? I'll have Hildy pack us a lunch and we can make a day of it," I told him.
"We'll be there, won't we Joey?" he said as he put his arm around his son and pulled him against his hip.
The three of us climbed into the car. Joel and TJ got in the back seat and fastened their seat belts. We all waved goodbye and we drove out of their long driveway.
As we drove home I could see in the rearview mirror that Joel was whispering something in TJ's ear. I would have loved to hear what he was saying but didn't want to interfere. It looked serious.
Hildy exploded out of the house as we drove up the driveway. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she grabbed TJ and squeezed him to her breasts. "Don't you ever do that again young man. You nearly scared me to death. What would I do without my little TJ?"
"I'm sorry Hildy. I won't do it again. I promise really I do," he said.
"Okay, you remember that," she said and kissed him on both cheeks before she put him down and gave him a swat on the seat of his pants. "Go get your clothes changed. It will be time for supper soon."
The boys and Hildy went into the house. I sat down on the front steps and began sobbing uncontrollably. I sat there for a few minutes before I felt a pair of arms around my shoulders. As I raised my head I looked into those beautiful azure eyes of Joel.
"What's wrong, Uncle Crane?" he asked.
"Joel, you and your brothers and Chris have become such an important part of my life that when TJ was missing a part of my heart felt like it had been ripped out. I love you guys with all of my heart and soul. If anything happened to any of you I don't know how I could stand it. You all are the most important things in my life. Do you understand that?"
"I think so. For the first time that I can remember I feel safe. I don't have to think about anybody beating me or making me do other things. I love you, Uncle Crane. So do Larry and Lenny and TJ too. And Chris does too. Please don't cry," Joel told me and kissed me lightly on the cheek.
"You're a very special boy, Joel," I said and returned the kiss on his cheek. "Now let's go get washed up. Hildy will have supper ready soon."
The twins and Chris were unusually quiet during supper. They were not their usual lively and outgoing selves. I thought I knew what was bothering them but did not want to discuss it at the table.
After the dishes were rinsed and placed in the dishwasher, I called all of the boys into the study. "Please sit down," I said. "I think we need to talk about what happened today. I want us all to understand how we can prevent this from ever happening again.
"TJ, can you tell me what you think you did that made you get on the wrong van?"
"Uh... I don't know. I was just playing and talking with Joey," he said.
"Do you know what van number you are supposed to get on?"
"What was the number of the van that you got on?"
"I thought it was seven 'cause a boy was standing by the van and he hid part of the number. When we got to Joey's I saw it was a one."
"Thank you, TJ. Now then Larry, Lenny and Chris what do you think that you should have done to prevent TJ from making that mistake?" I asked turning to them.
Three pairs of eyes were diligently studying their shoes but no one spoke up.
"Well, let me tell you what I think and you can tell me if I'm wrong, okay? I think that the three of you were having fun and talking and not paying much attention to what was going on around you. Am I right so far?"
Three heads nodded but their eyes were still studying their shoes.
"I want you to know that I am not mad at you, but I do want to emphasize to you that you all have to look out for each other. How would you have felt if something bad had happened to TJ?
Three pair of eyes looked up at me. All of them had tears in them.
"We're sorry, Uncle Crane," Larry sobbed.
"Yeah, it won't happen again," Lenny added.
"What are you going to do to us?" Chris asked.
"I think I'll give you all a big hug and a kiss and send you off to do your homework," I said as I gathered the three of them in a group hug and kissed each of them on top of their heads. "That goes for you too, TJ. Come here!"
Not to be left out, Joel joined the mass hug.
Shortly after eight the boys began straggling into the study to have me check their homework. Chris was the last to finish his and he had made the most errors. I decided that tomorrow night I would sit down with him while he did his homework to see if I could help him learn his lessons.
The boys had eaten their snack and were taking their showers and getting ready for bed when the phone rang. It was Jack Hogan.
"Hi, Jack. What's on your mind?"
"Just called to give you some good news."
"Great, I could use some good news. What is it?"
"I got a call from Billy Joe Slocum, the detective handling the Andersen murder case. He informed me that the DA has worked out a plea agreement with Harry Andersen. He has agreed to plead guilty to first degree murder in return for the DA not seeking the death penalty. Instead they will ask the judge for a life sentence without the possibility of parole."
"Does that mean Joel will not have to testify again?"
"Yes, at least not on the murder charge. I don't know for sure but the sexual assault of a child will probably be dropped to save Joel from any further trauma."
"Thanks, Jack. I appreciate the call. I'll phone you later in the week and maybe we can go to lunch. I'll buy if that wouldn't be considered bribing a police officer."
"That's the kind of bribe I like," he laughed and hung up.
The rest of the week went by without any more crises. I was able to get back into running the business and the boys settled into the school. They were very conscientious about looking out for one another and there were no more problems with wrong vans. Darcie called me on Friday at the office and informed me that we had a custody hearing scheduled for Monday afternoon at 1:30 before Judge Riley. The hearing for all of the boys had been consolidated to Judge Riley's court and Darcie was handling them for CPS. Every evening I spent with Chris helping him to learn his lessons and get his homework done correctly. He responded quite well to my help and I saw an improvement in just one week.
Since it was also time for Joel to have another blood test, I decided to pick the boys up at eleven on Monday so we would have time to have the test done and eat lunch before the court hearing.
Friday evening after supper I noticed that Joel was unusually quiet. I tried to draw him out several times but he seemed to be deep in thought and didn't really respond to my efforts. I was becoming more worried by the time the boys took their showers and were ready for bed. After I tucked the others into bed, I asked Joel to come with me into the family room. I steered him to the couch and sat him down beside me.
"Joel, I can tell that something is bothering you. Is there something that I can do?" I asked.
"No... ah... I don't know," he said staring down at the carpet and shaking his head.
"You know that you can tell me anything. I won't be mad at you. I just want to help," I said giving his shoulder a squeeze for emphasis.
"Well... you'll hate me if I tell," he sobbed.
"Oh, Joel, I could never hate you. Please believe me all I could ever do is love you. Nothing you could possibly tell me would ever change that," I choked out.
"Okay, you promise you won't hate me?"
"I promise, cross my heart."
"Well... there is this boy at school... ah... and he... ah... kissed me."
"How did you feel about that?"
"What did you do when he kissed you?"
"I... well... I kissed him back."
"How did that make you feel?"
"I liked it. I felt real funny like I was out of breath and my face felt hot."
"Do you like this boy?"
"Is he in your grade at school?"
"Where did this happen?"
"In the locker room after gym class."
"Do you think that you did anything wrong?"
"I don't think that you did either."
"Thanks, Uncle Crane. You're the greatest," he said and threw his arms around my neck.
"Even though you didn't do anything wrong, it would be better if you didn't do this again at school. Some people might not understand and could cause you some problems. I think that you and I had better sit down Sunday afternoon and talk about some things. Now it is time for you to get to bed. Remember, we are going fishing tomorrow with TJ's new friend Joey," I told him as we walked back to his bedroom.
TJ was asleep when Joel slipped into bed. I whispered to Joel as I tucked him in, "Goodnight, son. I love you. Sleep well."
Our fishing trip on the lake was a great success. Joey and his father, Harold, were perfect guests. Joey and TJ had a ball. They didn't catch many fish but that didn't seem to bother them. I don't know which one of the boys caught the most fish but by the time it started to cloud up and threaten rain around two o'clock we had enough for a fish fry that evening. I convinced our guests to join us. I called Hildy and told her what I was planning for this evening. She agreed to fix all the side dishes but insisted that we had to clean our own fish.
When we got home I showed the boys how to clean the fish. I didn't let the two young boys handle the cleaning knives and I watched the others very carefully to see that they handled the knives safely.
The rain had quit so we were able to put the fish on the grill when it came time for supper. Harold and I enjoyed a glass of white wine while the fish cooked. As we talked I learned that he had a small construction business specializing in building custom homes and remodeling.
"After supper, I'd like for you to take a look at my upstairs. Right now it is not really useful. I would like to do something with it and make it more accessible from the first floor," I said.
"Sure, if you're not in a hurry to have anything done. I have all of my crews tied up on projects right now. It could be a month or so before I would be able to do anything," he replied.
"I'm not in any great hurry. Whatever I have done I want it to enhance the house. I'm interested in creating a good traffic flow between all areas of the house," I told him.
Supper was wonderful. There is nothing better than fresh caught fish grilled over a mesquite fire.
Over another glass of wine, Harold and I discussed the possible remodeling of the second floor and better access to it. He suggested that I might consider a "grand staircase" leading to the second floor. He said there was the perfect spot for it in a line with the front door. One of the men that worked for him was a draftsman/designer and could probably draw it up for me. It sounded great but I told him I would need to see the drawings before I could make up my mind. He told me that he would send his man over in about a week to look and take some measurement before he could make the drawings.
It wasn't long after Harold and Joey left that the boys were showing signs of sleepiness so I sent them off to the showers to get ready for bed. They didn't complain a bit. They had had quite a busy day.
I tucked them in and decided that I should also go to bed. As I tried to settle down and get to sleep I kept thinking about what I was going to discuss with Joel tomorrow. How do you explain the facts of life to a boy who has been sexually abused and make it something that can and should be a beautiful thing? What can I tell him about the feelings he is having for the boy in his class without making him feel guilty? What do I know about gay sex? I don't even know how to explain my own feelings about Eric. God I hope I don't make a mess of this with Joel.
Sunday afternoon came much sooner than I was prepared for but my session with Joel went better that I had any reason to expect. I knew that Joel was bright but I was really impressed with his mature attitude and the direct questions that he asked. I was prepared for most of them. Some of them I told him I would find the answers and get back to him.
"Can I... I mean, may I invite John over to visit some time?" he asked when we finished. (John was the boy in question.)
"Of course, your friends are always welcome. Why don't you invite him to visit next Saturday?" I said.
Monday morning I reminded the boys that I would pick them up at eleven o'clock so we could get Joel to Doctor Sam's office for his blood test. Then we would have time to have lunch before the custody hearing. I had made them wear long pants to school over their protests. I also hung their jackets in the Land Rover as I took off for a couple of hours at the office.
They were all lined up waiting for me as I drove up to the administration building at the school. Getting everyone situated in the Land Rover was getting to be a hassle. I have got to get a vehicle that holds at least six comfortably.
Dr. Sam's office was within walking distance of the court house so I parked the car and we trooped into his office so Joel could get some blood drawn. It only took a couple of minutes and we were off to find a place to eat. I wanted something that was not too messy. I didn't want to have the boys go into court with food stains all over them. They dragged me into a small Tex-Mex place about a block from Dr. Sam's office. I had never eaten there before but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality and the boys were impressed with the quantity of the food. I made the boys wear their napkins around their necks to avoid splashing salsa on their shirt fronts. We made it through the meal without any major spots. Even those came out with a little dabbing with the wet corner of a napkin.
Benjamin was unable to attend our hearing but he did send one of his associates to assist us in case we needed any help. Karen Lin was young and very business like.
I was not very happy when I saw Gary Everett approaching with Darcie. The boys all rushed up to Darcie and surrounded her. Each one received a hug in turn from her. Darcie turned to me and shook my hand.
"It's good to see you again Crane. You know Gary don't you?" she asked gesturing to Everett.
"Yes, I do. I can't say that I am glad to see him again," I said trying not to let the bitterness show.
"Don't worry, I think that Judge Yates has had an impact on the thinking in the office," she chuckled.
Hildy and Jack Hogan arrived at the same time just as we were starting for the courtroom.
It took a little doing but we got the seven of us seated at one of the tables. Hildy and Jack sat in the first row behind us.
The bailiff called the court to order as the judge entered. Judge Riley was a large middle aged black woman who reminded me of a younger black Hildy. My first impression would later prove to be accurate.
"Alright, let's get this started. Ms. Levin, which case would you like to start with?" Judge Riley asked.