Gilda arrived a few minutes before one. "How're Hildy and Manfred?" she asked, even before her luggage had been unloaded.
"She's fine," I answered, as I took possession of her luggage and paid the driver. "Manfred was still unconscious when I last spoke to her. I told her that I would come to the hospital as soon as I got the boys off to school. I didn't tell her you were coming, so it will be a surprise when we show up together."
"How bad is Manfred?"
"The doctors say he has some brain injury with some swelling. They won't know how serious it is until they do more tests. They'll probably know more by the time we get there. Now, I think it's time to get to bed. It's going to be a short night.
As we were talking, I was leading Gilda to the guest bedroom on the ground floor. I placed her suitcase on the bed, told her goodnight and left her to go to my own room. Thankfully, I was able to drop off to sleep almost immediately. It was still a shock when my alarm sounded at 6:30. I hurried around and got dressed before heading for the kitchen to prepare breakfast for the boys.
I don't know why I was surprised when I found Gilda busily fixing breakfast and talking to herself. I smiled at her and poured myself a cup of coffee.
"I think I was able to find everything," Gilda said. "I'm going to have to talk to that sister of mine about her organizational skills."
"Why? She just reorganized the kitchen a couple of weeks ago."
"Well, it's not the way I would have done it," she said, and went back to preparing breakfast.
I took my coffee and walked down to the gate to retrieve the morning paper. By the time I reached the gate, I realized that I should have put on a coat. There was a sharp wind blowing out of the north that seemed to cut right through the long-sleeved shirt I was wearing. Even the hot coffee didn't keep me warm. I had never tried jogging with half a cup of coffee before, but today I tried. After a few steps, I decided that it was a bad idea and dumped the coffee and increased my pace.
Gilda heard me coming in the back door and announced, "Breakfast will be ready in ten minutes."
That was my cue to start waking the boys.
"Who's that?" Peter whispered to me, as Gilda brought the platter of pancakes and sausage to the table
"Don't you remember Gilda?" I said.
He looked at her again and then said, "Oh, yeah," and took two pancakes from the platter being passed.
I took the boys to school and returned to pick up Gilda. While I was gone, Gilda called Hildy at the hospital to see what she wanted us to bring to the hospital. She had picked up a change of clothes for Hildy from her house and had them ready when I arrived home. It took us about a half an hour to drive to the hospital. Gilda was unusually quiet as we drove.
"What's on your mind?" I asked. "It's not like you to be so withdrawn."
"I guess I'm just worried about sis. She and Manfred haven't been married that long and she seemed so happy. I don't know what she would do if anything bad happened to him."
"I understand how you feel. They were in the early stages of getting certified as foster parents for a couple of young girls. I hope Manfred is all right so that their plans work out."
"Oh, I didn't know about that. There has always been something missing in her life ever since she lost her baby. Your boys helped fill the void, but it's not quite the same as having a child to raise."
I drove up to the entrance to the hospital and let Gilda out and went to park the car. By the time I got to Manfred's room, Hildy and Gilda were quietly talking up a storm. I went to Manfred's bedside and saw that his eyes were open and there was what appeared to me to be recognition in them. The monitors at the head of his bed looked fairly normal to me. Of course I was relying on my experience when Joel was in the hospital.
"He's doing better," Hildy said, to my unasked question. "He's still on some strong medication that keeps him pretty much out of it most of the time. The doctor says he'll know more if there is going to be any permanent damage probably tomorrow. He's very hopeful."
"That's good news. How are you doing?"
"I'm okay, a little stiff and sore from being manhandled by those punks, but other than that, I'm fine."
"It seems strange that this all happened right after that inspector had been to your house," I said.
"I've been thinking about that," Hildy said. "I've had a lot of time to think. Those punks must have seen the inspector, Jordon, leave in his car and they assumed that no one was home. They seemed to be surprised when they saw Manny and I there."
"Do you have any idea who they were?" I asked.
"No, but I'd recognize them again in a minute. I gave Jesse a sketch of them that I drew and he said he would distribute it around. Maybe someone will be able to identify them. One of them looked like someone I know, but I can't put my finger on who it is. Maybe it'll come to me later."
We talked for a few more minutes before the doctor came into the room. He acknowledged us and went to check on Manfred. After a quick examination, he said, "He's looking good. From all indications, it looks like he's going to pull through this with no long lasting effects. We won't know for sure until we get him off the medication. We'll start tapering off the medication and by tomorrow morning we should know for sure."
"You said no long lasting effects, what about the short term?" Hildy asked.
"I'm guessing at this point, but I would say that he will probably not have any, or only sketchy, memory of what happened to him. That memory should return sometime later. It usually does in these cases. There is a possibility that he could have some weakness in his left arm and that, too, should go away after a while. He sustained a fairly severe blow to the head."
"When do you think he will be able to go home," I asked.
"Unless there are complications when we withdraw his meds, he should be able to go home the day after tomorrow," the doctor said. "I'll check on him again this afternoon."
After we talked for a bit longer, I told them that I would leave them to talk. Gilda asked if I would pick her up after lunch so that she would have time to fix the boys and me our supper. I told her that I didn't invite her to stay with us so that she could be our cook, but she insisted.
By the time I returned to the hospital, Manfred was more awake than he was when I visited this morning. He was still groggy, but was able to speak in a very slurred voice. It was difficult to understand him and he would often drift off in mid-sentence.
On Thursday, Manfred was well enough to come home. He was still not 100 per cent. His speech was coherent and other than some bruises that would take time to heal and the cut on his head that would need to have the stitches removed he was returning to normal. Gilda moved to their house, but continued to come with Hildy to take care of us. We were getting spoiled by all the attention we were getting.
Friday night, Donald and I went out to dinner. He picked me up. We drove to Austin to a very nice restaurant that I had heard of, but had never been to. The food, service and atmosphere were excellent and the prices were outrageous. We lingered for a couple of hours over dinner and conversation. Gilda stayed with the boys until we returned. I invited him in for a nightcap. It was a long nightcap. He didn't leave until well after three.
On the way to school on Monday, Larry said, "Dad, Coach told us that if we really wanted to get good at tennis, we would need to build up our stamina."
"Okay," I said. "What did he tell you to do to build up your stamina?"
"He said we should start jogging," Lenny put in.
"Yeah," Chris added, "he said swimming laps would help, too."
"Let me talk to Mr. Benedict, if I can find him before classes start, and see what he suggests to begin with."
I had never been a fan of jogging, although I had done some when I was younger. I always preferred swimming laps for my aerobic exercise. Even that had been sadly neglected recently. I made a resolution to correct that.
Mr. Benedict was in the coaches' office when I went to search for him. He suggested that the boys start out slowly by jogging a half a mile and increasing the distance over a week or so to a couple of miles every day. Since the weather was cool this time of year, he warned about trying to overdo it right off the bat. I thought about what he had told me on the way home. It would be easier if we jogged on the road that ran in front of the house, but I was worried about traffic. Although, the number of cars that traveled on the road was not heavy, the ones that did tended to exceed the speed limit.
After considering all the options, I decided to mark out an approximate half mile route on the property. The flat area where the boys played soccer would provide about a quarter mile circuit. A couple of times around it would be good to start out with. We could always jog up the hills in the area to create a challenge. I added swimming laps to the program and made sure that the heater was working for the pool.
We started our exercise routine as soon as the boys got home from school. TJ and Peter joined us for the first lap around the soccer field, but dropped out after the first lap and waited for us to finish. We had all worn our swimming suits under our jogging clothes and when we completed the two laps, we stripped down to our swim wear and jumped into the pool. Joel must have heard us in the pool, because it wasn't long before he joined us.
Saturday was the day that Joel and John had to go to the University of Texas campus to take the exam to replace a required high school course. The other boys and I took in some of the sights in Austin that we didn't have time for the last time we were here. Both Joel and John were smiling when we arrived back to pick them up.
"Things must have gone well," I said.
"It was easy," John said.
"After all the studying we did," Joel said, "it should have been."
"When will you get the results of the exam?"
"They said they would email the results to Mr. Pilgrim in a week to ten days," Joel answered.
On Monday, Gilda announced that she was going to be leaving to go back to her home on Thursday. I think that Peter was the most disappointed when he learned the news. Gilda had quickly decided that Peter needed some extra special attention and he thrived on it. I could see that TJ was a little jealous, but he tried not to let on.
Our daily jogs had increased in length until we were running for approximately three miles every day, except those days when the weather was too bad to be outside. We also swam laps in the pool to help build upper body strength. The jogging became very boring to me after a couple of weeks and I think the boys were getting a little tired of it also. TJ would now run with us for at least three laps, while Peter usually didn't make it for two. He would find a spot beside the track to sit and watch us. He was always ready to get in the pool with us. Most of the time Joel joined us in the pool, but he opted out of the running. His sport, golf, didn't require the aerobic stamina that tennis did.
After another boring jog, I decided I had to do something to break up the boredom. I spent a couple of days mulling over different options. Nothing that I could come up with made a lot of sense. I considered constructing an exercise room or building. I rejected that, but thought I might purchase a stationary bicycle, a treadmill and an elliptical trainer. The boys could use those when the weather was nasty.
I called a local sporting goods store and ordered the equipment. I had picked out the ones that I wanted on their internet site. They promised to deliver the items Friday morning. True to their word, the delivery truck arrived a few minutes after I had returned from taking the boys to school. I had the new exercise equipment placed in the room above the garage where the boys practiced their music. There was a fairly large area behind where the boys' instruments were that was currently unused. I'm glad the two deliverymen were strong, because they struggled with the weight of the boxes carrying them up the back stairs. I offered to let them use the elevator, but they declined.
I showed the boys the new equipment when I brought them home from school. I didn't have any worries about them using the stationary bike safely, the treadmill was another matter and to a lesser extent the elliptical trainer. I showed them the "dead man's switch" and instructed them they were never to operate the treadmill without it being in operation. It was simply a device that plugged into the control panel which would allow the treadmill to be activated. It was attached to a looped cord with a clip on the end that could either be fastened around a wrist or clipped to an article of clothing. If the wearer fell or slipped off the moving belt the plug would be pulled from the controls and the treadmill would stop, hopefully, avoiding any injury to the operator. Although the elliptical trainer was not equipped with a "dead man's switch", the only danger was if it were operated at too high a speed.
Peter was disappointed that his legs were too short to use the bike and the elliptical trainer's stride lengths couldn't be set small enough for him. He could use the treadmill, but never without someone standing beside him while he used it.
Instead of our usual jogging, the boys wanted to try out the new equipment. They would spend about 20 minutes on one machine and then trade off so that each one got to try them all. TJ and Peter "entertained" us by playing the keyboards. TJ was getting reasonably proficient and now since his hands had grown some, he was able to stretch his fingers enough to play a complete chord. About halfway through the exercise session, Hildy stuck her head in the door and told me I had a phone call from Donald.
"Tell him I'll call him back in about 30 minutes. I don't want to leave the boys alone with the new equipment until they are more familiar with it." I had thought about putting a phone in this room, but decided against it. I didn't want anything to interrupt their music practice time and now their exercise time.
As soon as the boys had finished their exercises they went to get some juice to tide them over until Hildy had supper ready. I returned Donald's call. We had been talking frequently on the phone over the past couple of weeks. We spoke for quite a while, it was only when Hildy announced that supper would be ready shortly that we said goodbye. I was beginning to think that this relationship would go somewhere. At least this time I was trying not to make the same mistakes that I had made with Eric.
Toward the middle of February, Hildy and a fully-recovered Manfred were approved as foster parents and Jeannie and Ginny were placed with them. Both of the girls were blonds, Jeannie's hair had a hint of red in it, while Ginny's was a golden blond. They were very timid around the boys and clung to Hildy for the first week or so. Hildy would return to their home each morning after she had fixed our breakfast to get 'my girls', as she called them, ready for school. Manfred would then drive them to school. They went to the public school to finish out the year. When school started in the fall, they would be attending Corinthian Academy.
I noticed a change in both Hildy and Manfred within days of the girls' arrival. Hildy had always sung or hummed while she worked, but now it seemed there was more joy when she did. Manfred had been a fairly somber man. Now, there was a smile on his face every time I saw him. My only concern, now, was how Hildy was going to keep up with the work at our house and at the same time maintain a home for the girls and Manfred. Right now it appeared not to be a problem, but when summer came and the girls were out of school it might be a strain.
One morning when I went to get my first cup of coffee, I could see that Hildy was upset. "What's wrong, Hildy?"
"I got a call last evening from the hospice administrator where Jeannie and Ginny's mother was living. He told me that their mother, Gisele, had passed away."
"Have you told the girls?"
"Not yet. I think we'll wait until they get home from school. That way they won't be upset all day and Manny and I will be able to comfort them. I don't know how they are going to take her death. We took them to see her a few days ago. The administrator had called and said he believed that her time was near and if the girls wanted to see their mother alive for the last time, that we should come. It was the first time that Manny and I had been there. At one time she must have been a beautiful woman. Now, with all the tubes sticking out of her, it was hard to tell."
"How did they react?"
"Jeannie held her mother's hand and talked to her as if she could hear her. Ginny just stood there and looked at her mother. When we were ready to leave, Jeannie leaned over and kissed her mother's forehead and then urged Ginny to do the same, which she did."
"What about the funeral?"
"I asked the hospice administrator about that. He said everything was taken care of. Gisele had one of those prepaid funeral packages."
"That was planning ahead. Has the date for the funeral been set?"
"I haven't contacted the funeral home. I hope it can be set up for Saturday."
As we had been talking, Hildy had been going about the process of preparing our breakfast. I could see that it was nearing completion, so I went to wake the boys.
When Hildy returned after seeing her girls off to school and I had taken the boys to school, I said, "Hildy, we need to talk about this summer."
"What about this summer?" she asked.
"Well, I know you will want to spend more time with Jeannie and Ginny..."
"You're not firing me, are you?"
"Lord, no!" I said. "I don't even want to think of your not being around to take care of us. I was thinking that you might need some help so that you would have more time with them."
"I hadn't thought about it, but you're right. I do want to spend more time with them this summer. What do you have in mind?" she asked.
"I was thinking along the lines of when Becky Sue helped out that one summer. Do you know of anyone who would be interested in helping out?"
"Not off the top of my head, but I'll ask around. You know how the 'old lady's network' is. We can surely come up with someone," she laughed.
Our conversation was interrupted by the phone ringing. I went to the library to answer it and she went to the kitchen. The call was from Carlos.
"Good morning, Carlos. What gets you out of bed this early in the morning?"
"Hey, be nice or I won't tell you the news I have."
"Okay, I'll be nice. So what's up?"
"When I got to the office this morning, there was a fax waiting for me. It was from a homebuilder in Las Vegas. He's interested in a portion of the Solaria property. He wants to know if you would be willing to carve the land up so that he could build on about 500 acres. That would leave you with 350 acres."
"Did he indicate which 500 acres he was interested in? That could make a lot of difference. I wouldn't want to have the remainder cut off without any access to a roadway."
"There was no mention of the exact acreage, but I'll make a call as soon as it's a reasonable time in Vegas. You might want to call Fenton to see what he thinks of this developer. I'll send this fax on to you so you can review it."
"I'll do that. Let me know what you find out."
I read the fax when it arrived and then waited until it would be nine o'clock in Las Vegas before I made the call to Fenton.
"Crane, I was going to call you later this morning," Fenton said. "Arthur, the executor of the Granger estate, called me last evening and asked if you might still be interested in that 1300 acres on the north side of the road. It seems he hasn't been able to get a buyer to meet his expectations as to price. I think he's willing to deal."
"Hmm, that's interesting. I'll have to think about it. I might be," I said. "What I really called you about is to check on a builder who has expressed an interest in part of the Solaria property." I gave him the information that I had, which was not very much.
"I know of him. He's a small developer. Five hundred acres might be a stretch for him unless he has someone backing him. I'd advise you to have him checked out thoroughly before selling any land to him, especially if he wants you to carry a note."
"I have no intention of financing his purchase. However, if the price is right and he has the cash, I'm not averse to making a profit on the sale. You know; now that I think about it, make a counter to Arthur for those 1300 acres. Let's say I offer $2000 an acre. Wasn't the last offer $2250?"
"Yes, it was. I don't think Arthur will be happy with that, but he should have accepted your last one. I'll let you know what he says. I should be able to contact him later this morning."
I still had my hand on the phone while hanging it up when it rang. It was Donald.
"Hi, I was hoping you would call," I said.
"I called a few minutes ago, but the line was busy. I've been meaning to ask you if you had any plans for the boys' spring break."
"I hadn't given it much thought. It's coming up in a couple of weeks, isn't it?"
"Actually, it's the second week of March. I've checked and William is off the same week your sons are. If you would be interested, I have a proposition to make."
"Dad owned a villa on St. John and I was wondering if you and your sons would like to spend the week in the Virgin Islands with us? There's plenty of room. The villa has seven bedrooms and seven and a half baths. Plus there are two swimming pools and the private beach."
"That sounds great. Let me talk it over with the boys tonight and I'll let you know. Right now I can't think of any reason why we wouldn't be able to accept your invitation. I'll call you tonight."
When I told Hildy about the invitation, she insisted that the boys and I go. She said it would give her and Manfred more time to spend with the girls while we were gone. Then she added that she had talked to her girlfriend, Alice, about having a college student help us out during the summer. Alice said that one of her younger sister's sons was looking for summer employment. He was a 20-year-old pre-med student at UTSA and she thought he would be ideal. He was living in an apartment with several other guys, but was anxious to move out so he would have some peace and quiet.
"Alice gave me her nephew's number. Do you want to call him?"
"Sure. I hadn't considered a guy, but I don't know why he wouldn't work out just as well." I took the piece of paper with his name and number and went to the library to make the call. He wasn't in, but one of his roommates took a message and promised to give it to him when he came back from class.
Manfred joined Hildy and me for lunch. We spent a leisurely hour talking. The conversation was mostly about Jeannie and Ginny. It was easy to see that they both were in love with the girls. I was sure that eventually they would end up adopting both of them.
I settled down in my recliner with a cup of coffee and a new book I had recently started when the phone rang.
"Mr. Johnson, this is Mike Potter returning your call."
"Mike, thank you for calling. I've heard in a roundabout way that you are looking for summer employment."
"Yes, sir, I am."
"What I'm looking for is for someone to help take care of my six sons while they're on their summer break. Is that something you would be interested in doing? You would have your room and board provided plus a salary."
"That sounds like home. There were seven of us kids and I was the oldest, so I got to take care of my brothers and sisters while my parents worked. Yes, I'm interested."
"Fine, I'd like for you to visit us so that we can get acquainted and see if you would fit in with the family. When would you be available to come for a visit?"
"I'm out of classes for the day and don't have another until two o'clock tomorrow. I do have some studying for that class, but I can do that tomorrow morning. I guess I could come later this afternoon."
"Why don't you come around five and stay for supper. That way you will have an opportunity to meet and interact with the boys. If you would like to jog with us, you could come an hour earlier and bring your swimsuit. We always swim after we jog."
"I'd love to. I'll be there by four."
I gave him directions and hung up. Later I went to get the boys from school. On the way home I told them about Donald's offer for their spring break. Joel and I had to explain to the others that St. John was an island that was part of the US Virgin Islands and was located in the Caribbean. That led to a series of questions that I was hard-pressed to answer. I promised to get out the world atlas and show them where the island was located. I did that as soon as we got home.
The buzzer went off indicating that Mike had arrived at the front gate. I activated the gate opener and went to greet him at the front door. He drove up in a four or five-year-old Camry that appeared to be in good condition.
"It's good to meet you, Mr. Johnson," he said, reaching out to shake my hand.
"Crane, please. It's nice to meet you also, Mike. Come on in and meet the boys." Mike stood about 5' 10" with an athletic build. His brown hair was cut fairly short and lay in tight curls. He had a pleasant face, but not what you would call handsome. He followed me into the library where the boys were still looking over the atlas.
After I introduced him to everybody, I explained why we had been looking over the atlas. "That will be a great adventure," Mike said. "You're lucky to get to go."
"Okay, guys, go get changed. It's time to do our running. Mike, follow me and I'll show you where you can change."
Evidently, Mike was a jogger because he kept up with us with no problem. I got the feeling he would have gone on longer when we finished our three miles and headed for the pool.
"This is great," Mike said, after he had completed about ten laps in the pool. "I could get used to this." I learned later that he was on the swim team in high school and had been a lifeguard at one of the local pools in his hometown.
We swam a little longer before drying off and heading for the house. After he had showered and changed, I introduced him to Hildy. They started talking about his family. Hildy knew most of his family in some way or another.
Mike fit in very well with our family. The boys liked him and he reciprocated. More importantly, I felt very comfortable with him. After supper while the boys went to do their homework, he and I sat down to discuss the particulars of the job. We agreed on a salary and when he would be available to start when his school was finished.
"Tell me, Mike, what are your feelings about gays?"
"I guess you could say that I feel sad for them."
"Why is that?"
"My little brother, he's 17, is gay and I see the hassle that he goes through. I was always able to protect him, but now I'm not there anymore. It's not fair."
"So being around a gay person wouldn't bother you."
"Good. Mike, I know we have only been talking about a summer job, but I was wondering if you would be interested in starting before then. I heard that you were living with several other guys and that you didn't have a lot of peace and quiet."
"Yes, it would be great if I could begin work for you as soon as possible. I have to spend most of my out of class hours in the library just to have a place to study without interruptions. The guys I live with are great guys, but two of them are jocks and don't spend a lot of time studying. They like to party."
"Good, let me show you where you'll be staying." I led him upstairs to the suite where Hildy and Manfred had lived before they bought their house.
"Man, this is great. I can't believe this. It's bigger than the whole apartment where me and my roommates live. I can't wait to move in. Is it all right if I move my stuff on Saturday?"
"Of course. If you get your things all moved by around noon, you could go horseback riding in the afternoon."
"You mean you have horses, too?"
"Yes, we have a little ranch where we keep a few horses. Do you ride?"
"Doesn't every Texan?" he laughed. "It's been a couple of years since I've ridden, but I always like to. I think I've died and gone to heaven. Thank you for this, Mr. Johnson...I mean, Crane."
"I expect you'll earn your keep."
After Mike left and I had checked the boys' homework and sent them off to bed I called Donald. I accepted his invitation for spring break. I told him about hiring Mike to help care for the boys and wondered if he could accompany us on the trip. I hadn't mentioned it to Mike because I wanted to get Donald's permission first. He agreed that Mike could accompany us on spring break.
"How are we going to get to Saint John?" I asked.
"One of dad's companies has a Gulfstream that seats up to 16. It's used mainly for business. Since the company has a presence in the Virgin Islands, this will technically be a business trip."
"Donald, you are as devious as my accountant."
"Thank you, I think."