After breakfast, I walked with the boys down the lane to wait for the van's arrival to take them to school.
"Remember," I told the twins, "you still have to go to Room D instead of recess today. Tomorrow you will be back to normal."
As the van arrived I gave each of them a quick hug and sent them on their way. I returned to the house to await Harold Nicholas and his designer. They arrived a few minutes before nine.
It took about an hour to discuss with them my ideas and to merge them with what Konrad, Harold's designer, suggested. I was extremely satisfied and excited at the prospects of the new space when we finished.
The rest of the day went by quickly and without any major crises. I did invite Eric to bring Darcie and JR to Thanksgiving dinner next week. I was sure that the boys would enjoy seeing JR again. He accepted and said that he was sure that Darcie would be able to come also.
I got home just before the van dropped off the boys. They were their usual exuberant selves as they ran toward the house. That is except for TJ. He seemed to be more reserved than usual. After they deposited their books, washed their hands and had their after school snack, TJ climbed into my lap. He didn't say anything, he just sat there leaning against my chest and sighed every so often.
"What's the matter, little one?" I asked as I brushed the hair back off his forehead.
"Nothin'," he mumbled.
"Come on now, you can tell dad what's wrong. You know I love you."
"Well... we... ah..," he started. "We are supposed to invite our mommas and daddies to the Thanksgiving play we are going to have on Friday."
"You know that I will come, don't you?"
"Yeah, but... but... I don't have a... a momma," he forced out as the tears and the sobs started to wrack his little body.
I hugged him tighter to me and rocked him back and forth. "Your momma has gone to heaven to be with the angels. She may not be able to be there in person but I'm sure that she will be there with you. As long as you remember her and love her she will always be with you. Your mother would be very proud of you for being the fine young boy that you are.
"You know that my mother is in heaven also. I'll bet that your mom and mine are watching over us both. Since your mom can't be there in person, how would it be if Hildy came instead? I know that she loves you the same as she would if you were her own son."
TJ paused his sobbing and thought for a moment. "I love her too. Do you think she'll come?"
"I'm sure she will, if you ask her," I told him as I hugged him again and gave him a peck on the forehead. "Why don't you go ask her?"
"Thanks, daddy you're the best," he said as he squirmed down off my lap wiping his eyes on his sleeve. "Can you come with me?"
When TJ asked her, tears came to Hildy's eyes. "Of course, I will be honored to go to your play. I wouldn't miss it for the world. Now go play while I finish fixing supper."
Hildy turned away wiping the tears from her eyes with her apron. "Crane, I want to thank you for giving me a new life. Before these boys came into your life and mine, I was just existing. I had my late husband's pension which provided for my basic needs, but I had no real purpose to my life. Now I have five wonderful boys to love and care for. I can't imagine my world without them. They have given meaning to my life again. I didn't think that was possible after my husband died," She turned back to me and paused before she said, "You are the luckiest man in the world to have them in your life. You are truly blessed."
"I know... I know," I said.
Wednesday was a fairly easy day. Things at the office were quiet as most of the consultants were out on projects. The most exciting thing that happened was the conversion van company called and told me that the van I had ordered was ready and that they could deliver it this afternoon around two o'clock. I had kept the van a secret from the boys. I wanted it to be a surprise. The van had seating for nine. There had to be enough so that we would have room for all of us and a friend or two of the boys to ride comfortably. There were six comfortable captain's chairs arranged two across with a bench seat at the back that would accommodate three. All seats were equipped with lap and shoulder seat belts.
I had the cabin reinforced with roll bars, discreetly hidden, for added protection. The engine was a gas-guzzling V-eight which produced something over 400 horsepower. It was fully air-conditioned with a unit for the front and one for the rear seats. Good air conditioning is a necessity in South Texas. A good six speaker sound system rounded out the van's interior. The exterior of the van was painted a pearlescent gold. Very appropriate, I thought, considering how much it cost.
That reminded me I needed to talk to my accountant, Gerald Cousins. After we exchanged the usual pleasantries I got down to what I called for.
"Gerald, I need for you to prepare a statement of my net worth. I'm not worried about the house and cars being included. The main things I am interested in are stocks, bonds, other investments such as the business and of course cash. How long do you think that it will take to prepare that?" I asked.
"Well, if I use the figure for the business that we used for the sale of Eric's portion it shouldn't take too long. I have most of your assets set up in a spreadsheet so all I have to do is to wait until the market closes to update the value of your stocks. The bonds are automatically updated based on their interest rates and the assumption that they will be redeemed at face value. Given those conditions, I should be able to fax or email the results by around four o'clock," Gerald replied.
"Gerald, you are amazing! Fax the results to my home fax if you would. I'll review it tonight and let you know what I want done in the next few weeks. Thanks, friend," I said as we hung up.
I left the office around one so that I would be home to take delivery of the van. Hildy was surprised when I arrived. She thought that I must be sick to be coming home that early. I had no more than started to explain why I was home early when the gate buzzer sounded with the reason.
"Is that yours?" Hildy asked. "What a beautiful color."
"Yes, it's ours. At least now we can all ride comfortably and safely," I answered. "I think I will call the school and tell them I will be picking up the boys instead of them riding the school van."
I arrived at the school before the classes were let out. TJ's class was the first to be released. I was waiting next to the van that they usually rode home. When he saw me he ran and jumped up and threw his arms around my neck giving me a big hug.
"I didn't know you were gonna pick us up," he said. "I gotta learn my lines for the play. Will you help me? I gotta memorize them all. I just gotta."
"Whoa, of course, I'll help you. So will your brothers," I told him as I set him down.
The three musketeers were next to be released. They were so engrossed in their own conversation that they didn't see me until they were almost to the van. When they noticed TJ and I standing there they launched themselves at us but then stopped dead in their tracks.
"We didn't do anything. Honest we didn't," Larry said
I couldn't let this opportunity slip by. "Are you sure? I'll bet that you three have been up to something," I tried to keep a straight face but when TJ started giggling I broke up too.
"That was mean, dad," Lenny said.
"Yeah," echoed Chris. "You scared us bad."
"How come you're here to pick us up?" asked Lenny looking up from our group hug.
"I'll let you know in a minute when Joel gets here," I answered.
We only had to wait a couple of minutes before Joel and John appeared around the corner of the building. He saw us almost immediately and they both took off running toward us.
"Hi dad," he said as he wrapped his arms around me for his hug.
"Hi son," I said. "And hi to you John, it's good to see you again. Are you looking forward to your vacation next week?"
"Yeah, I guess," he answered looking down at his shoes.
I was a little confused but continued, "I know that Joel is looking forward to visiting you on Tuesday," That seemed to brighten him a little. At least he looked up and smiled. I gave him a quick hug before telling him, "You had better go get on your van. You don't want to miss it. I'll see you next week when I bring Joel over."
As John left to catch his van I said, "Grab your backpacks, guys. Let's go home."
"Where's your car?" Joel asked as we approached the parking area.
"That's why I came to pick you up. I have a surprise for you. Remember how crowded the Land Rover was for all of us to ride in? Well, I have fixed that. This is our new van," I said as we approached it.
"WOW!" all five of the boys said in unison.
"Is this really yours?" Joel asked.
"It's ours," I corrected.
"This is so cool," Chris said as I opened the sliding side door.
"Each of you can have your own big chair to sit in when there is just the six of us. There is also room for three more to sit in the back. Now hop in and let's go home. Be sure to buckle up your seat belts," I told them. I made sure that they did before we took off for home.
I thought they would jerk those seat belts out of the anchors the way they tried to take in everything in the van. It looked like the van was going to be a hit.
Later in the evening, TJ came to me holding a piece of paper, "Dad, I can't remember this."
"Okay, let me look at what you have to memorize. Hmm. Let me show you a trick one of my teachers taught me when I had to memorize something.
"First, I want for you to read this to me three times out loud," I told him.
I handed the paper back to him and he did what I said. It was only about seventy-five or so words, but I'm sure to him is seemed like a whole book.
When he finished reading it for the third time I said, "Now read the first sentence out loud again and then repeat it without looking at the paper."
"Now read the first two sentences out loud and then repeat them without looking."
We kept this up until he had read and repeated the four sentences that he had to memorize.
"That's great. Let's try reading it all the way through and then repeat it without looking three more times."
He did it perfectly.
"I think that you have it memorized, don't you? Now you need to do it in front of an audience. Go ask your brothers to come in here. I'll get Hildy," I said.
TJ was a little nervous when everyone was assembled but he performed flawlessly. In fact, with each repetition, he became more and more confident. I had him run through it three times without looking at the paper. My old teacher always told me that three was the magic number for memorizing. I don't know if it really was or that it made you concentrate more on what you were doing. Whatever, it seemed to work.
TJ got congratulatory hugs from everyone before I told the boys that they had homework to complete.
We got a recitation of TJ's part at the breakfast table the next morning. He got through it without a hitch. He fairly beamed with pride. When I hugged him he whispered in my ear, "Thanks dad, I love you."
"I love you too little one," I whispered back.
Friday afternoon Hildy and I drove to the school to watch the school play. The first, second and third graders each had twenty minutes for their part of the program. The other elementary grades were not involved in the program, but were allowed to watch.
We watched Indians, Pilgrims, the landing at Plymouth Rock, assorted pumpkins and turkeys all parts of the varied program. TJ's part came close to the end of the program. He walked onto the stage as if he owned it and delivered his lines clearly and projected them like a pro. Of course I was prejudiced, but he really did a very good job. I was so proud of him and so was Hildy. I saw her wipe a tear from her eye when he finished.
When it was over and each class had taken their bows, we met TJ outside the auditorium. It was just starting to rain very lightly, just a sprinkle really.
As usual, he launched himself into my arms and put his arms around my neck. "You did really well! You didn't forget your lines and we were able to hear everything you said."
"The teacher said I did the best," he said proudly.
"Your teacher is a smart lady," Hildy said.
"I'm glad you came, Hildy. I wish my momma could've been here, but you're like my grandma," TJ said.
"Thank you my little one. I wish I were your grandma," she responded. "I'm sure she is watching over you. The rain is probably her tears of joy for you."
"You think so?" he asked.
"I'm sure of it honey," Hildy said.
"TJ, you were great," Larry said as the three inseparable ones appeared. "See, I told you."
The three surrounded him telling him how good he had done as Joel joined the group. "What's going on?"
"TJ did a really good job remembering his lines," I told him. "Let's go home. Remember Billy is coming to visit tomorrow."
Right at 9:30 Saturday morning, the Suttons buzzed the gate announcing their arrival. I think that Larry and Lenny were actually looking forward to Billy's visit. They had said that he had been acting differently this week and was even playing with Jerry and them at recess.
The six of us were standing on the front steps as the Sutton's drove up. It must have been a little intimidating because the first thing Mrs. Sutton said was, "You really have a crew there. Are you sure that you want another one to take care of today?"
I laughed at her comment, "Of course, one more is no trouble. I hope you brought Billy's swimsuit. The weather is supposed to be great today and I know my troop will be itching to get in the pool this afternoon. Please come in. Hildy has coffee and pastries fixed for us. That is if the boys didn't eat them all."
"Thank you, Mr. Johnson," Mr. Sutton said.
"Crane, please. Why don't we take our coffee out on the patio? It is so nice out there in the morning."
"That would be fine. And I'm Max and my wife is Janet. You have a beautiful home here. I can't wait until our home is complete. I'm so tired of living in an apartment. We've been there since last spring."
The boys had disappeared into the house, probably to show Billy their PlayStations. Soon they joined us on the patio looking longingly at the pastries that Hildy has set out for the Suttons and me.
"Go tell Hildy I said that you could have some," I said. They were gone back into the house before I had completed my sentence.
"Are your boys always hungry too?" Janet asked. "I think that one of ours has a bottomless pit for a stomach. He never seems to get full."
"Yes, it is a fulltime job for Hildy to keep them supplied with food," I chuckled.
Max spoke up, "I don't want to be nosey but all five of your boys have last names different from yours..."
"It's a long story. Joel, Larry, Lenny and TJ are brothers and I am in the process of trying to adopt them. My petition should go before the court sometime in January. Right now the court has granted me permanent custody of them. Chris is my foster son. I only have temporary custody of him but I will be seeking a permanent arrangement for him with the intention of adopting him also. All of the boys come from abusive backgrounds."
"That is wonderful," Janet said. "I don't envy you the job of raising them. One seems to be more than I can handle at times. Billy has always been so rebellious and hard to handle. I hope he grows out of it. He has seemed to be less so recently. I hope that it's a good sign. I think that your boys befriending him has had a positive effect on his behavior."
We chatted for about forty-five minutes drinking our coffee before they took off for home. Before they left they gave me their home number in case Billy got into anything. They also reminded Billy to behave himself and to mind what I said.
It turned out that all of the boys had a great time. Billy was really very funny. He was full of wisecracks and could turn almost anything that you said into something funny. He had us in stitches most of the day. He was a little afraid of the pool. He went in with the rest of the boys and me but you could tell he wasn't comfortable. Chris took him aside and showed him some basic swimming strokes and how to float. After that, he was a bit more comfortable but he stayed in the shallow end of the pool most of the time. I kept a close eye on him to see that he didn't get himself in trouble.
Janet had warned me that he was a first-class eater and he was. I thought my boys could put away the grub, but he more than held his own in the eating department. Hildy fussed over him like he was one of the family. He also got his share of hugs.
Max and Janet returned shortly before seven. Hildy was just in the process of finishing her cooking. We did her proud. I think every plate was licked clean and no one left the table hungry.
The Suttons were a little surprised when my boys started clearing the table and taking everything into the kitchen for Hildy. Janet was even more surprised when Billy joined in the clean-up. "Do they always do that?" she asked.
"Yes, that's one of their chores. I don't even have to remind them anymore. With five of them everyone has to do their share," I said.
"I hope this rubs off on Billy," Max added.
We sat in the family room drinking coffee while the boys lay on their stomachs in front of the TV watching The Flintstones special. By the time the program was over at nine o'clock, the boys were beginning to get sleepy. It had been an active day.
Lenny came up to me and whispered in my ear, "Can Billy stay all night?"
"I don't care, but you will have to ask his mom and dad," I whispered back.
He turned to the Suttons and stammered "Can... ah... can Billy... ah... stay all night?"
"I'm afraid not, son. We have to get up in the morning and drive to Dallas to visit his grandmother. We are going to spend Thanksgiving with her. Maybe some other time. Is that alright?" Janet replied.
"Okay," Chris said.
With that, the Suttons took their leave. Billy got hugs from everyone including Hildy.
TJ followed Hildy back into the kitchen. "Can I go to church with you tomorrow?" he asked.
"Yes, of course, you may, little one," she answered.
"Thanks, I want to talk to momma," he said and ran off to join his brothers in the showers.
When he came back from church the next morning I asked him how he liked it. His only comment was that he liked the singing, nothing about talking to his mother. I didn't press but I was dying to know more.
I decided to take the week off since the boys would be off from school. I knew Hildy had things she need to do during the week so I would be needed to watch the boys some of the time. Monday was spent shopping for cool weather clothes for the boys. Everything that they had to wear was for summer. I guess I never thought that they would be around to need anything else. Chris had been making do with the twins' clothes since they were the same size, but now he got to pick out his own. The new van came in handy when it came time to haul all of the clothes the five of them loaded up on.
Tuesday morning when I went in to wake Joel so that he would be ready to go to John's house he was already up and dressed.
"My you are eager this morning, but it is a couple of hours before we are going to leave for John's house," I said. "Do you still feel the same way about John?"
"Yeah, I guess," he said. "He is my best friend and I like to be around him. Is that wrong?"
"No, of course, it's not. Whoever gave you that idea?"
"Well, John's mom and dad said it's not right for us to like each other that much."
"How does John feel about that?"
"He wants to do what they say but he still wants to be my friend."
"I'm glad that you and he are such good friends. Just remember what I told you before about showing your affection for each other around people who wouldn't understand," I told him and gave him a hug. "Let's get some breakfast. We'll let your brothers sleep."
I dropped Joel off at the Gordinier's house just after 9:30. John was waiting on the front steps as we drove up. I got out briefly and talked to Bruce. I told him I would pick Joel up around five o'clock if that was alright. He agreed that would be fine and I left after giving Joel and John a hug since they were standing there together.
It was too cool to swim so the boys entertained themselves chasing the deer and throwing rocks down the steep path leading to the lake. I finally got around to reviewing the information that Gerald had faxed me the other night concerning my financial status. I must admit that since the boys came into my life I had not been as actively involved in buying and selling stocks as I had previously. It looked like that was a good idea. My investments had increased in value as a result of my inattention. It confirmed that I had sufficient funds to do what I had in the back of my mind but I wanted Gerald's accounting to prove it before I did anything.
It was nearly 1:30 when the phone rang. We were sitting on the patio enjoying the warm afternoon sun as I picked up the receiver. I was surprised when I recognized Joel's voice on the other end.
"Daddy can you come and get me?" he sobbed.
"What's the matter? Are you hurt?" I asked frantically.
"I want to come home, please," he begged.
"I'll be there as soon as I possibly can," I told him.
Turning to the other boys I said, "Dad has to go get Joel. Stay away from the pool while I'm gone and be good for Hildy."
I told Hildy that I had to leave as I passed her in the kitchen on the way to the car and asked her to watch the boys.
The BMW and I made record time getting to the Gordinier's house. I was out of the car almost before it stopped. I hardly noticed the brand new Mercedes sitting in the driveway. My focus was on finding out what was wrong with Joel. I knocked furiously on the front door and rang the bell at the same time. Bruce answered it almost immediately.
"What's wrong? Where's Joel" I almost demanded.
"He is in John's room and won't come out," Bruce said pointing down the hall toward a closed door.
My manners left me as I brushed Bruce aside and ignored the expensively dressed man sitting on their couch as I rushed to the closed door.
"Joel, it's dad. May I come in?"
I didn't hear anything for a few seconds until the door started to open. Joel's beautiful eyes peeked through the crack. He was still sobbing as he opened the door fully and lunged into my arms. I held him for what seemed to be several minutes until his sobbing let up. I led him to the bed and lifted him up on my lap.
"Tell me what's wrong. Why are you crying? Are you hurt?"
"I... I... don't want to go to hell," he sobbed.
"Who told you that you were going to hell?" I tried to ask calmly as I felt the anger rising in me.
"That man out there. He said that John and I were bad and God would punish us. I didn't do anything bad, did I?"
"No, you are a good boy. You have done nothing wrong. Who is that man?"
"He... he's their preacher. I think his name is Reverend Fullwell."
"Here is what I want you to do. I want you to find John and then go outside and play until I come to get you. I need to have a talk with Reverend Fullwell. Will you do that for me?" I asked.
"Okay," he said crawling off my lap and going to the closet door and opening it. "Come on John, let's go outside and play."
I tucked both of the boys under my arms and led them to the back door and let them out before returning to the living room.
Turning to the man I had ignored on my way in I asked, "Are you Reverend Fullwell?"
The man stood up and offered his hand to me, "Yes I am. It is a pleasure to meet you Mr. uh..."
"It's Johnson," I said ignoring his outstretched hand. "Did you tell my foster son that he was bad and that God would punish him and that he would go to hell?"
"I... uh... yes I guess I did."
"What in God's name made you do such a stupid thing? And who gave you the right to judge anyone?"
"He and John have sinned against the word of God. It is God's judgment that he be condemned to spend eternity in hell to pay for the sin of homosexuality."
"And I suppose that God himself relayed this to you personally?"
"Well... no... But it's written in the Bible."
"And just how do you know that Joel and John are homosexual?" I asked barely able to control my increasing anger.
"I have been told that they kissed."
"So, just because they kissed each other that means they are gay and are condemned. Is that what you are saying?"
"Yes, that's God's law."
What I did next shocked even me. I did it strictly on impulse. I put my hands on both sides of the reverend's head and leaned forward and kissed him full on the lips. The good reverend was so surprised that he just stood there speechless.
"There, you have been kissed by a man. Does that make you gay? Are you condemned to hell with John and Joel?"
"Nnn... no, that's not the same. You're twisting the word of God."
"No reverend, and I use that title advisedly, you are the one that is twisting the word of God. What I think you are is a sanctimonious hypocrite who gets his jollies by intimidating others with his selective use of the writings in the Bible.
"The God I know is a loving God. You say that you are a Christian. Well, I'm not an expert in theology but from what I have been taught, Christ died for our sins. That all of our sins can be forgiven if we believe in Him.
"Now let me tell you what is going to happen, and it will happen the way I tell you, you are never to speak to Joel again. If you see him on the street you are to cross to the other side. I don't care if you have to cross Interstate 35 at rush hour, you will do it. You will never speak to anyone else about what you imagine John and Joel's relationship is.
"Do you know why you are going to do as I say? Because I will spend my entire fortune to investigate your background and dig up all the dirt in your past and publish it to your parish if you don't. I will make it my life's work to see that your reputation follows you wherever you go. Knowing your type, I'm sure that finding the dirt will not be hard for my private investigators. They would probably start with how you got that Mercedes sitting out front.
"Have I made myself clear, reverend?" I asked as my anger subsided to a manageable level.
The good reverend's face was as white as a sheet. I knew that I had struck a nerve. "I... I... I understand. If you will excuse me I'll be going," he almost whispered as he rushed to the door.
All the time I was talking to Fullwell, the Gordiniers were standing there not saying anything. They were still speechless after he fled out the front door.
"Bruce, Pauline please forgive me but I am very protective when it comes to Joel. I simply will not let him be hurt again if there is any way I can prevent it. I'm usually not the confrontational type but that SOB got my dander up," I said apologetically.
Bruce replied, "No, we were wrong to allow that man in the house. I think he has seen the last of us in his church. We had gone to him for counseling when we feared that John might be gay. I mentioned in that session that Joel would be visiting today. I never expected that he would show up uninvited."
"I think it would be best if Joel left with me now. I'm sure he needs to talk about this and I want to be available for him. He was very shaken up by Fullwell's comments.