Substitute Dad

© 2006 - 2010 By Scribe1971 (scribe1971@hotmail.com)

Chapter 14

Preparation and Planning

The two weeks between Josh's birthday and my own were quite eventful. Josh, Mark and I began a regular exercise routine and were hitting the gym every second day. The boys were doing really well with their self-defense lessons and we were all starting to get into really good shape. We had begun weight training and we were all working to build up some additional muscle mass. Josh amazed me when he demonstrated that he could easily bench press 100lbs which was almost his own weight.

Most boys his age are all arms and legs but Josh was very well proportioned and was starting to fill out nicely. I was utterly amazed at how fast he was growing up. Right before my eyes, he was changing from a boy to a fine young man.

In preparation for the coming trip, I began to take a long hard look at my Jeep. As much as I loved it, the Jeep was going to be too small for the major excursion that we had planned. I made the decision to trade her in and to use some of my new found wealth to purchase a larger vehicle.

Josh and I decided to hit the Chrysler dealership the following weekend and to try to work out a deal on a new or gently used Jeep Cherokee. I was going to miss the Wrangler with its rag-top and manual transmissions, but the Cherokee was a nice vehicle and it was adorned with all kinds of great features like air conditioning, power windows, sun roof and a CD player. Being a much larger vehicle, it would provide us additional cargo room, security and comfort on the trip.

I also decided to spend some time that weekend to meet Susan's condition for the trip and purchase a cell phone. I had been meaning to get one for some time but I never managed to get around to doing it. Susan's request that I get one provided the impetus that I needed to get off my duff and get it done.

As I looked over the maps and travel information for the more remote areas of the country such as the Northern territories, it quickly dawned on me that we were going to be on our own for major portions of the trip. With that in mind, I decided to make some additional purchases. I decided to purchase a well stocked first aid kit and to get both Josh and I certified in first aid. I also decided that it would be prudent to purchase a rifle to offer us some protection against dangerous wildlife in the far north. Polar bears, Grizzlies and Kodiaks were known to inhabit some of the remote places were Josh and I would be camping so a firearm was a must. We probably wouldn't need it, but I'd decided that we would be better off safe than sorry.

I knew it wouldn't be any problem for me to obtain a firearms license given my squeaky clean record and my military experience so one day while Josh as at school, I ducked out of class and visited the local police station. Within 30 minutes my application had been submitted. As soon as I received my license, I could purchase a rifle or shotgun. I was an expert shot and I decided to teach Josh how to shoot. A buddy of mine was a member of a local gun club and he could get us onto their range for practice.

At first, Susan was a little cool to the idea but she could see that it was necessary and she gave her blessing for Josh to learn how to shoot and for me to store the rifle in a secure cabinet in my apartment. All that was left to do was to wait for the license to arrive and to purchase a suitable rifle. I figured a .303 or .308 bolt action rifle with a telescopic sight would fit the bill. I also contemplated purchasing a .22 rifle which would be cheaper to practice with and which would be easier for Josh to handle.

That Friday on the way to school, I stopped and bought one of those pre-paid long distance calling cards and I called Bryan from a payphone on campus. I had obtained his telephone number from Mark before he left for home on the past weekend. Knowing there was a 2 hour time difference between Toronto and Calgary, I waited until later in the morning to call. I hoped to catch Bryan just before he left for work.

The phone was answered on the second ring "Hello?"

"Hi Bryan?"

"This is he, who am I talking to?"

"This is Tom Davis, I'm calling from Ontario. You don't know me, but I know you're brother."

Bryan chuckled. "Actually, I know quite a bit about you. Mark told me all about you and the things you've been doing for him. Thanks for paying for his gym membership last week-end. I'll gladly reimburse you for it."

"Forget it, Mark's a great kid and I'm sure I don't have to tell you that he's got it a little rough at home," I said carefully. I wasn't sure how much Bryan knew, but I suspected that Mark hadn't told him everything.

"Yeah our father can be a little tough to live with," Bryan sighed.

"I'm afraid there's more to it than that," I said.

"What do you mean? Is Marky alright?"

"He's fine now, but I'm not convinced that he's going to stay that way. When we met him at the Y, I noticed that he had some bruises on his back. They were clearly belt marks."

"Dear God," Bryan exclaimed. "That fucking bastard. That rotten motherfucker."

"I asked him about it and he opened up to me. Evidently your father caught him looking at pornography on the Internet and beat the tar out of him," I didn't want to betray Mark's confidence so I decided to tread carefully and not reveal any more than necessary.

"It was gay stuff, wasn't it?" Bryan asked.

"Yeah, he said it was. I also told him that it didn't matter to me."

"That's kind of why I'm out here. I can't believe I'm telling you this since we haven't even met, but Mark thinks a lot of you. The old man found out that I'm gay and he threw me out just like that. I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye to Mark. I love my brother, Tom and I never would have left him with that bastard if I had any choice in the matter."

"I know Bryan, I understand completely. I can promise you that I am keeping an eye on him and I have told him that he is to come to me if anything ever happens to him again or if he feels that he's in danger."

"Thank-you for doing that. I'm glad that he has someone to watch over him. I wish I could do something. I'd have him move in with me in a second if I could find a way to make it happen," Bryan said firmly.

"My brother is a law student at the U of T right now. I haven't spoken to him yet, but I have some ideas floating around in my head which, if they work, could make that happen. Do you have the means to take him in if I can make it happen?"

"In a heartbeat, Tom. As I said, I love that kid. He's really the only family that I have left and the idea that our rotten bastard of a father is mistreating him turns my stomach. He never told me that he was being beaten or abused. If he had done so, I would have tried to do something." The bitterness in his voice was obvious as was his love for his brother.

"Well then, with your permission, I want to talk to my brother and see if we can make this happen,"

"Go for it, but I don't see any court awarding me custody. I'm a gay 23 year old, not exactly the idea parent for a 13 year old boy even if he is my brother," Bryan said sadly.

"You are the ideal parent for him, Bryan. It's clear that you love your brother and that's the main thing. It also sounds like you have the means to support him. In any case, I think we can make this happen without involving the courts. My plan is to get your father to agree voluntarily to place Mark in your care."

Bryan laughed but there was no mirth in his laughter. "It'll never happen. I promise you that he doesn't want Mark around and that he'll just toss him out as soon as he turns 16 but he'll never agree to give him to me. He'd refuse just to spite the both of us."

"I know the type, Bryan. You also need to know that I don't always play fair when kids are on the line. I've learned to play in the gray areas where necessary during my 19 years. I'm pretty certain that I can get him to agree wholeheartedly for one reason or another," I said mysteriously.

"You know, I've never met you but I get the feeling that you truly mean what you're telling me. If this requires any money, let me know. I'm not wealthy but I do well and the cost of living is very low out here. Any chance that you'd give me a hint as to what you have in mind?" Bryan asked.

I considered it for a second and decided that if I couldn't trust Bryan, I wouldn't even consider sending Mark to him. I always prided myself in being a good judge of character and I liked Bryan from the start. I knew Josh would like him too. It was easy to see that he and Mark were cut from the same cloth. It never ceased to amaze me how so many awful parents had such great kids. I guessed that their mother must have been a very special lady in order for her boys to turn out so well. I spent the next 5 minutes filling Bryan in on the details of my plan.

"Well Tom, I do believe that you are brave enough or crazy enough to try that. I also think it will work just as well as you think it will. It does sound risky but I think you're right. It appears to be the only way to make this happen. If you can pull it off, Mark and I will be forever in your debt." I could hear the hope in Bryan's voice as he spoke. I was pretty sure that he was beginning to see that the idea that he and Mark would be reunited was not just a pipe dream.

"Nonsense," I said firmly. "I really like Mark and I get the feeling that we could turn out to be pretty good friends too. Josh will tell you that I'm the kind of guy who will move heaven and earth to help his friends. When a kid like Mark is in trouble, I will do just that." I took a few moments to fill Bryan in on the relationship between Josh and me as well.

"That's amazing. I know Josh. He and Mark have been buds for a long time. He's a really nice kid and I'm glad he's finally found someone to love him for who he is. I get the feeling from talking to you that he's a very lucky kid."

"Well thanks, but I consider myself equally lucky to have him in my life. I love that kid just as if he was my actual son," I said sincerely.

"From what you told me, he IS your actual son. His father was just a sperm donor."

We chatted for a few minutes and exchanged email addresses. I also gave him my phone number. We also agreed that Josh and I would pop in or a visit this summer as our travels took us to Alberta. I hoped that Mark would be with Bryan by then.

After a very busy week, I returned home from school and received my usual greeting from Josh. I barely got the door closed behind me before I had Josh wrapped tightly around me and hugging me for all he was worth. He might have been a teenager, but he still loved to hug and be hugged.

"Hey kiddo," I said warmly as I returned his embrace and kissed his cheek.

"Hi Dad, how was class?" he asked.

"The usual, kind of boring," I said with a smile.

"You got a big letter in the mail today," Josh said excitedly as he let go of me and grabbed a large manila envelope up off the table and handed it to me. "It's from the government."

For a second, I thought it might be something related to my settlement. That notion was dispelled right away when I saw the label. It was from the Heritage department and it had to be related to my application for a Millennium Heritage Project grant. I opened it and read the enclosed letter as Josh stood and watched me expectantly. He was hopping around like he had ants in his pants and he was trying hard to read the letter over my shoulder.

"YES!" I shouted as I jumped into the air then grabbed Josh, hugged him and kissed him on the forehead which caught him slightly off guard.

"WHAT?" Josh said in a surprised voice?

"We got the grant! The government is giving us $10,000 for our trip. They loved the idea of putting together a photo and video journal of the trip across the country so they gave us a Millennium project grant!" I realized that I have never told Josh that I had applied for a grant to document our trip and to try to have the results published. I brought him up to speed and he thought it was just the coolest idea.

"Awesome! That's the book thing that you were talking about right?"

"It sure is," I chuckled. Our grant had been approved and all I had to do was complete and sign the enclosed documents, send them back and they'd issue a payment to us in short order. Any second thoughts that I had over spending a chunk of money on a new truck vanished in an instant.

That night Susan was going out with Bob so Josh and I decided to go out and celebrate the grant. We decided to hit Red Lobster for their 'Bottomless Buckets of Crab" event. For $25 you get all the snow crab legs you can eat. Josh and I were both crab fiends so it was a perfect meal. We devoured about 5 buckets of crab legs between the two of us along with a couple of baskets of their famous biscuits.

"Hey Josh, have you ever wondered how all those crabs get around without their legs and claws?" I said with a smirk.

Josh rolled his eyes and shook his head at me. "You really are a dweeb, Dad," He said with a loving smile on his face.

"Yeah, but you love me anyway," I smiled back at him.

"Of course," he said "Would you mind if Mark came with us tomorrow to look at new trucks?"

Mark had been hanging around a lot since the last weekend and I didn't mind having him around. I really liked him and I liked the idea of him being away from his father. I think the only affection and attention that he generally received was that which he got from Josh and me. "Sure, go ahead and invite him. We can pick him up first thing in the morning. Have him bring his gym stuff and we'll go to the Y afterwards."

Josh smiled and hugged me over the table. "You're the best," he said with a grin. "You turn 20 next Saturday. What do you want for your birthday?"

"How about a big hug and a day snuggled up on the couch watching movies?" I replied.

"You'll get that anyway. I'm serious, what do you want for your birthday?" Josh asked insistently.

"You don't have to get me anything, son. Just get me a nice card or make me a card on your new printer." I didn't want him to go spending his money on me and he one of his world famous hugs was the best gift I could imagine.

I paid the cheque and we left the restaurant. We had debated going out to see a movie but elected for a quiet evening at home watching movies in my apartment. We made a quick stop at Blockbuster on the way home and rented a couple of videos. We rented "Vegas Vacation" with Chevy Chase and "The Edge" with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin.

When we arrived home, we went straight to my apartment. I popped some microwave popcorn and Josh grabbed some Cokes from the fridge and got the TV and VCR setup. Before long, we were snuggled up together on the couch in our usual positions and having a great time watching 'Clark W. Griswold' and his family cause mayhem in Las Vegas.

Josh and I were both big fans of the "Vacation" series of movies but neither of us had seen that particular installment. We both thoroughly enjoyed it and we were laughing like loons. We were both partial to the "Uncle Eddie" character.

We finished off the evening by watching "The Edge" It was an excellent movie which dealt with wilderness survival and wild animals. I think it helped Josh to see the necessity of having a rifle in the truck with us when we went into the far northern bush.

"I can't wait to learn how to shoot, are you a good shot?" Josh asked.

"I had the highest qualifying scores in my regiment," I said. "In my last qualifying shoot, I fired 29 out of 30 rounds from a C7 into a 6 inch center of mass grouping from 200 yards out."

"A C7 is the Canadian version of the M-16 isn't it?"

"Yep. It's similar but it has a heavier barrel, a redesigned flat-top receiver with a battle scope instead of a carrying handle and it can be fired fully automatic or semi automatic. The M-16 can only be fired in a 3 round burst of semi-automatic," I explained.

"Center of mass means the middle of the target, right?"

"Essentially it's where the chest would be in a human target," I replied.

"Why is grouping important?"

"Tightly grouped shots show consistent aim. When I teach you to shoot, I'm going to teach you something called H.A.B.T. or 'Habit' If you can learn that and put it into practice, you'll be an excellent marksman."

"What's it mean?"

"It's an acronym, the army loves acronyms. It stands for Holding, Aiming, Breathing and Trigger control. If you can get all those things down pat, you'll score a perfect shot every time."

"Sound pretty easy to me. I hope I can be as good a shot as you are," Josh said with admiration.

"Shooting is as much a mental thing as it is a physical thing. It requires focus, concentration and skill. I have no doubt that you pack the gear to be a great shot, kiddo." Josh was no longer the lonely, affection starved little boy that I first met, but he still glowed whenever I lavished him with praise. For that reason, I made sure that I did it often.

"You know all that survival stuff too, don't you?" Josh asked when the movie was over.

"I sure do. Do you want to learn it?" Even before I joined the reserves, I had learned an awful lot about outdoor survival. During my time in the military, I took their survival training course and it multiplied my skills. I was confident that I could survive in just about any wilderness situation with a minimum of discomfort and difficulty.

"Yeah, that would be great. Since we're going to be in the wilderness it would be a good idea. Also, since I'm going to learn to fly it would be good to know in case my plane ever goes down like the one in the movie."

"Good points, Josh," I said with a smile. I was happy to see that Josh's thinking on the matter was right on the money. I would feel a lot better about him doing those things knowing that he could look after himself just as well as I could. I was really looking forward to teaching him and I decided that perhaps some spring trips to Algonquin Park would be in order before we embarked on the big adventure. I was certain that Mark would also like to come along on those trips.

"Could a flock of birds really make a plane crash like that?" Josh asked referring to the accident which befell the characters in the movie and left them stranded in the Alaskan wilderness.

"You bet. It happens every once in a while. The speed of the plane turns even a relatively small bird into a pretty powerful missile," I told him. "Many airports use hawks and other predator birds to keep the other birds away."

"Could you survive in the wilderness like they did if that happened to you?" Josh asked. I could hear a hint of concern in his voice.

"I sure could bud and you will be able too as well when I finish teaching you everything I know." I knew that wilderness survival required three key components. First, you needed skills and knowledge. Second you needed to be prepared. Finally and most importantly, you needed the will to survive. I knew that I could teach Josh the skills he would need and I knew I could equip him with the things that he would need to pull it off. I also knew that he, like me, would never quit and would fight like hell to survive if he ever had to.

By then it was quite late and we were both yawning and it was time to hit the hay. We were planning on being up quite early the next morning to hit the dealership. Both of us were excited about the prospects of a shiny new vehicle.

"Dad, even though I'm a teenager now, we can still sleep together sometimes, right?" Josh asked.

"Of course son, I like it a lot when we sleep together." I knew Josh was getting older and I knew that as he continued to grow up, he'd probably want to sleep with me less and less often. I figured I had better enjoy it while I still could.

"I do too. No matter how bad a day I had, I feel so safe, secure and happy when we're all snuggled up like that," Josh said warmly. "I sleep so much better when we're together than I do when we're apart."

"Me too," I said as I hugged him and then stood up. I really did enjoy sleeping with Josh. I found that I also tended to sleep better when I could feel his warmth next to me. I knew no better feeling than waking up in the morning tangled up with Josh. Some people might frown upon it given our ages, but there was nothing sexual or inappropriate about it. It was just an expression of the love and closeness between us. Even Susan understood it and had no problem with it. She knew how Josh and I felt about each other and she knew that nothing inappropriate would ever happen.

We stood together at the sink and brushed our teeth. Josh spent so many nights in my apartment that he had a second toothbrush in my bathroom. He usually slept in my apartment on the week-ends and on some week nights, especially when he'd had a rough day or he was bothered by something.

Josh also kept the shaving kit that I had recently bought him in my bathroom. He didn't really need to shave, but on the mornings after he slept in my room, he would always shave with me. I think we both looked at it as some intimate dad-son together time.

With our evening ablutions taken care of, we climbed into bed. Usually when we slept together, I lay on my back and Josh lay on his belly, snuggled up to my side with his head on my chest and his arm thrown over my chest. Occasionally we would sleep in some other arrangement but we always went to sleep and awoke the next morning all cuddled up together.

We actually tried an experiment one night. We went to sleep on separate sides of my bed and sure enough, but the time we awoke the next morning, we were all snuggled up with our arms wrapped tightly around each other. We seemed to subconsciously seek each other out in our sleep.

On that particular night, we opted to sleep on our sides, chest to chest. We each wrapped our arms around the other and pulled ourselves close together. Our chests and bellies were pressed together and our legs were a tangled heap. Josh cuddled his face into the base of my neck and I nuzzled into the top of his head. It might not have looked very comfortable, but it was very comfortable to us. We could feel each other's heart beating and it helped us to fall asleep quickly.

We awoke early the next morning. As I slowly adjusted to the brightness of the morning, I began to notice a familiar weight on my chest. Sure enough, when I opened my eyes, there was Josh lying face down on my chest with his arms wrapped around my neck. My own arms were crossed over his back. He looked so peaceful that I didn't want to disturb him but I needed to take a piss very badly. Thankfully he began to stir at the same time as I did.

He opened his eyes and I was treated to a sleepy Josh grin. "Morning Dad."

"Good morning bud," I replied and gave him a squeeze. As much as I'm enjoying this, I'm going to have an accident if I don't get up soon," I told him.

He thought about it for a second and then said "Me too," He climbed off me and we both retreated to my bathroom. After draining our bladders, we took turns in my shower stall and then stood together in front of the sink to brush our teeth and shave. A few months earlier, I had been able to stand directly behind Josh as we both brushed our teeth and I shaved. He had grown so much that we now had to stand side-by-side or else his head would have been in the way.

When we were done, Josh ran off to get dressed and to start breakfast. I took a moment to call Andy and seek advice on the Mark situation. It was still early, but Andy had always been an early riser. He answered his phone on the third ring.

"Hey bro, I didn't wake you, did I?" I asked

"Nah, I just got back from my morning run. What's up?"

Andy had been a jogger for some time. From the time I was 12 or 13 until my accident, I used to join him on his early morning runs. We used to have a great time running together in the cool morning air. I don't know which I enjoyed more on those mornings, the crisp, clean air, the calm quiet of the morning or the sense of closeness with my brother. I always believed that it was a combination of the three. It was one of the things that I missed most since injuring my leg.

I filled Andy in on Mark's situation and I gave him all the details on Bryan. I also told him the details of my scheme to get Mark to Calgary and out of the clutches of his abusive and neglectful father.

"Jesus, Tom....do you really want to get into the middle of this thing?" He asked with concern. Andy knew the answer before I said a word. He knew me too well to have any doubt in his mind. He knew about the way I would always bring home stray dogs and cats when I was a kid. He knew that I had once found a sparrow with a broken wing and took care of it until it was well enough to fly. He knew that I could no more ignore a kid in trouble than I could decide not to breath.

"Andy, the kid needs help," I protested.

"Tom, you can't save everyone and this one could backfire on you in a big way if you're not careful," He cautioned. Clearly, he had given up on the fleeting idea of talking me out of getting involved and was trying to come up with a way to help me pull it off with a minimum of risk.

"I know that, but you have to meet this little guy. He deserves to be in a safe and stable environment. What I want to know is whether or not my idea can work?"

"Sure it can work in theory. If you can get the father to voluntarily sign over custody to his older son, it would be a done deal. No court would have to become involved. The only one who could contest the thing would be the father himself. The question is why would he want to do such a thing?"

"Leave that to me, just get me the papers and I'll make the rest happen," I said.

"Tom, don't do anything stupid here. You have to walk a fine line. If you cross the line you could get into trouble. Just what do you have in mind?"

"I have 2 potential ideas. One, I could simply appeal to his sense of greed. Two, I could use the old carrot and stick routine."

"I don't really like the sounds of that. I have one word for you....deniability. Whatever you do, just make sure that you can deny it and not have anything conclusive to tie it back to you."

"Will you do up the papers for me?" I asked hopefully.

"Yeah, I'll do it. I'm not a lawyer yet, but anyone with the knowledge can prepare those documents for you. You know me, I have a soft spot for kids too and I know that if I didn't you'd just have someone else do it for you; someone who didn't have your interests at heart. Just be careful," he admonished.

By the time we hung up the phone, I had a promise from Andy to get the necessary papers prepared and emailed to me by the following week. I knew that what I had planned was risky but I knew that I had to try. I also knew that Andy would be right behind me and he would do everything he could to minimize the risks.

I turned around after hanging up the phone and there was Josh. He had a worried look on his face. "Dad, you're not taking any risks in helping Mark are you?"

"Josh, life is full of risks. Sometimes you have to take risks in order to help other people or to make things right. I'm not risking all that much and I have help."

"I know you want to help Mark, but don't put yourself in any danger to do it. What would I do if anything happened to you?" Josh asked softly.

"Joshy, don't worry. You're my first concern. I will do whatever I can do to help Mark without putting myself in any sort of undue risk. I promise you that it will be fine. Besides, I doubt that Mark's father would be any match for me physically," I said trying to reassure him. I reached out and pulled him into me and I saw him smile as he leaned into me and accepted my embrace.

Josh had made a pretty good breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage and we both downed large platefuls before we departed to pickup Mark and head to the dealership. Mark was waiting for us on his front porch when we pulled up. I could see his face cracking into a wide smile as he ran up to the Jeep and piled into the back seat.

"Hey guys," he said happily as he buckled his seatbelt.

"How are you doing today, Mark?" I asked.

"Not bad, how about you guys?"

"Really good," Josh replied for both of us. "I can't wait to see the new truck; it's basically where we'll be living for the whole summer."

"I wish I could go with you," Mark said sadly.

"Don't worry Mark; I'm working on your situation right now. I talked to your brother yesterday."

"He told me that you called. He was upset that I hadn't told him about my father beating me with the belt. He says that you have a plan to let me live with him. Is that true?" Mark asked hopefully.

"It is kiddo. You have to trust me. I'm working on it right now. It might take a while, but I have some help and we are working to make it happen."

"He called his brother who's in law school about it this morning," Josh added. "I'll really miss you when you move out west but Dad says we can visit you when we're on our trip."

"That would be really cool. I'll really miss both of you as well," Mark replied.

"If things work out well, maybe you and Bryan can go camping with us in Banff. It's not far from Calgary and we're going to spend a few days there," I said. Both boys' eyes lit up at the prospect of all four of us joining up for a camping trip in the Rockies.

We pulled into the dealership and Josh and I both saw it at the same time. She was parked on the corner of the lot. The gleaming, gray Jeep Cherokee with tinted windows, sunroof and roof rack. We jumped out of the Jeep and walked over to the beautiful machine and I think we both fell in love with her. She was an off-lease vehicle with very low mileage and the price was right. The doors were unlocked so we hopped in. The leather seats were soft and comfortable and the truck was loaded with electronic goodies.

"This is the one, Dad," Josh said in a dreamy voice.

"I like it, kiddo," I replied. I could see a salesman walking towards us. "Let me do the talking with the salesman. I don't want us to appear too eager."

"Okeydokey," Josh replied and flashed me his famous grin.

"She's a beauty isn't she?" the salesman said as he approached the open driver side door. I saw that his nametag read "Barry". I almost laughed out loud when I pictured Barry dressed as the stereotypical used car salesman. He was dressed quite well, but for a second, I could picture him in a tacky plaid leisure suit. I swear that Josh clued in on what I was thinking and just barely suppressed snicker himself.

"She's a nice machine," I replied in a very noncommittal tone after biting my lip so as not to insult Barry and embarrass myself.

"Thinking about trading up from that Wrangler over there?" He asked.

"Could be if the price was right. That Wrangler's in great shape and she has served me well."

We talked for a moment as Barry did a very thorough job of showing us the Jeep. It was a 1999 with only 24,000 km on it. The person who had leased it ended up moving out of the country and turned it in early. I was in love with the vehicle and it appeared that Josh as equally enamored with it. I had pretty much decided to buy it before I had even started the engine, but I was determined to play hard ball with Barry to get the best deal possible.

Barry, who must have been an experienced salesman, knew how the game was played and he had taken on the air of fisherman dangling a tasty lure before a particularly cagey trophy fish. He might not have known it, but if anyone was going to be stuffed and mounted it was him. As he went to get the keys and a dealer plate so that we could take a test drive, I admonished Josh and Mark to wear their best poker faces.

Barry came back and we all piled into the Jeep. I am pretty sure that he was more than a little chagrinned when Josh hopped into the passenger seat, forcing him into the back seat with Mark. I grinned at Josh and we exchanged one of our non-verbal communications which said much but which was undetectable to others.

The test drive was amazing. By the time we returned, Barry was indeed stuffed and mounted. I had talked him down a couple of thousand on the price, got him to agree to a very handsome trade-in on my Jeep Wrangler. He even agreed to throw in a year's worth of free oil changes. Barry was amazed when we stopped at my bank the way back to the dealership so that I could obtain a certified cheque to cover the purchase price. I talked him into a sweet deal, but I'm sure that I made his week-end for him anyway.

We completed the deal in no time and Barry even went so far as to take care of the details with the ministry of transport for us and when we left the dealership an hour later, I was the proud owner of the Jeep Cherokee and my faithful old Jeep Wrangler had taken up residence on the used car lot.

Josh expressed his approval by giving me a massive hug and a peck on the cheek. "Awesome truck, Dad. This is going to be great for the trip. I can't wait to drive it."

"I'll let you try her out later today, if you want. Right now, we have to go to the mall and I need to get a cell phone." In reality, we still had the better part of five months before the trip, but I always believed in being prepared well and prepared early. I wanted to have all my ducks in a row long before the departure date. Things always had a way of coming up at the last minute and by having all the routine stuff out of the way, the unexpected things would be easier to handle.

We stopped at the food court for some lunch before we headed to the Bell Mobility store. I treated Josh and Mark to burgers and fries from Burger King. It probably wasn't the best place to eat given our exercise routine and our intent to get into tip-top shape but I was in too good a mood to care and so were the boys. I was happy to see that Mark's worries seemed to disappear when he hung around with Josh and me. I was glad because it gave him the time he needed to be a boy and not worry about what his father was up to.

After lunch, we hit the Bell Mobility store and I ended up walking out with a new cell phone with all the bells and whistles. I also allowed Josh to talk me into getting him a phone. The salesman was no help. He made a point to state several times that I could add a second phone to my plan for a very good rate. I considered putting Josh on a restricted plan to ensure that he didn't go nuts and use up all my airtime, but I decided against it. I knew he was responsible and that I could trust him so he ended up with the same phone that I did and he was on my plan with no restrictions.

I didn't want to leave Mark out but adding him to my plan wouldn't work quite as well. Instead, I bought him the same phone that Josh and I had and I had him activated on the "prepaid plan" and I pre-loaded his account with $100 worth of airtime. That much airtime would be more than enough to last him a few months and I could easily get him more if he needed it. I was glad that he had a means of calling me if anything happened with his father. If and when he got to Alberta, Bryan could transfer the phone to his cell plan.

I was suitably rewarded with firm hugs by the two very happy boys and we left the store. At that moment, we were all as happy as could be but later I was amazed at just how quickly things had changed that afternoon.

We had nearly reached the door when it happened. I was chit-chatting with the boys just as we walked past the entrance to the TD Bank. I saw motion out of the corner of my eye as I heard the shot. There was a loud scream and I turned to my left just in time to see a masked man, dragging a woman out of the bank branch with a gun to her head. I didn't even think, I just reacted. So did the boys. The whole incident lasted less than a minute, but at the time it seemed like hours.

As the masked man exited the bank with his back to me, I whirled around and hit him squarely in the back of the head with a well placed roundhouse kick. He grunted and started to fall. As he fell, he released the woman, turned towards me and pointed the gun in my direction. At that moment, Josh hit him. He drilled him perfectly in the nose with a straight-arm punch. I swear that I heard his nose crunch. I lunged forward and grabbed the unconscious man's gun as Mark pulled the screaming woman away.

I thought everything was under control when I heard Josh yell.

"DAD, LOOKOUT!"

I turned and saw the second bank robber. He too was carrying a gun. I did the only thing that I could do. I knew that my life and the lives of the boys were at stake. I dropped to one knee in a combat shooter's pose, raised the first robber's handgun and hoped that it was loaded. I aimed the pistol at the second robber as he raised his gun. I pulled the trigger 3 times.


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