Substitute Dad

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

Chapter 28

On to the Capitol

"What should we do with these?" Mark asked, holding the bag containing our sweaty flight suits.

"The hotel will get them dry cleaned for us. All you need to do is leave them in the bin by the door." Bryan replied.

I was stretched out on the bed willing my headache to dissipate. It was fading, but I just needed to relax.

"How are you feeling Dad?" Josh asked me with concern in his voice. He sat down beside me and gently placed his hand on my forehead.

"Not so bad bud," I replied. I wrapped an arm around him and rubbed his back.

"We should get our laundry done before we head out tomorrow," Bryan said. "Josh, why don't you gather your's and Tommy's dirty clothes together and we'll take it all down the hall to the coin laundry."

"Good idea Bry," I said softly and started to sit up.

"Not so fast," Bryan said firmly. "You stay put and get well. Josh, don't let him up."

Josh gently and yet firmly pushed me back down on the bed. "Let us take care of it," he said. "I know something that'll help your head until I get back and give you another massage," he said before jumping up and going into the bathroom.

I heard the water run for a few seconds and then Josh returned with a cool damp washcloth which he folded carefully and placed it on my forehead and eyes. "Better?" He asked softly.

"Yeah, that's nice," I replied.

Josh bent down and kissed the tip of my nose and then went to help Bryan and Mark get our laundry together. While they were gone, I drifted off to sleep.

I managed to sleep right through dinner. Josh, Mark and Bryan must have been extremely quiet because I didn't wake up for even a second until the next morning. When I did wakeup, I was tucked in neatly under the covers and Josh was sitting propped up against the headboard watching me.

"Morning Josh," I whispered, not wanting to disturb Mark and Bryan who were still sleeping. "You're up early."

"I didn't sleep much last night," Josh yawned. "I was worried and I wanted to keep an eye on you. I just dozed for an hour or two at a time. I spent most of the night just watching you."

I smiled and reached out my arms for a hug. Josh smiled back at me and accepted my embrace. "You're the best. You don't have to worry about me Joshy. I'm fine."

"It's just that I love you so much and I get scared when you get a bad headache like that. I keep remembering that night that you went to the hospital. Promise me that you'll see a doctor if you start getting bad headaches more often like you did before," Josh said firmly.

"I love you too son and I promise," I said sincerely. I looked over at the clock and noticed that it was only 5:30 in the morning. "I'm feeling better Joshy and we don't have to be up for a few more hours. Why don't you get some sleep?"

"Sounds like a plan Dad," he said as he maneuvered himself under the covers and snuggled up against my side.

I wrapped my arms around him and gently rubbed his back as he drifted off to sleep. Having already slept for eight or nine hours, I wasn't tired so I just lay there and enjoyed watching and holding my son as he slept. As I often did, I silently thanked God for Josh. That amazing boy had become the single most important part of my life. We gave each other so much. Just the touch of his hand on my shoulder, or the flash of his smile had the power to ease my mind or to give me comfort, and I knew that my smile and my loving touch had the same effect on him. We both knew that no matter what, there was at least one person in this world who would love us, who would be there for us, and who would never let us down.

As I contemplated the depth of the bond that Josh and I shared, I glanced over at the next bed and smiled at the sight of Bryan and Mark. Bryan as lying neatly on his back but Mark was on his stomach, splayed out in a tangle of growing teenage limbs. He seemed to be sleeping sideways on the bed with his head on his brother's chest. The more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that my family circle had indeed grown by two.

I thought about what lay ahead. It was to be our last day at the West Edmonton Mall. We planned for a day of shopping and sightseeing at the mall before heading out to see some of the other sites in Edmonton such as the provincial legislature. By that evening, we'd be checked into a motel near Jasper National Park and we'd begin our five-day tour of the chain of national parks that line the Rocky Mountains. After that, we'd be at Bryan and Mark's house in Calgary for a brief rest stop before jetting off to Ottawa for our medal presentation and a tour of the national capitol.

It was hard to believe that the medal presentation was only eight days away. Time had been flying since the shooting and I was amazed to realize that we were a full two weeks into our trip. I chose to look on the bright side and calculated that we still had eight weeks to go.

That morning, after a customary large breakfast in the Fantasy Caf‚, we checked out of the Fantasyland Hotel with our clean flight suits and baggage and embarked on our first and only shopping trip since arriving at the mall.

Alberta is the one part of Canada fortunate enough not to have a provincial sales tax and we decided to take advantage. For Mark and Bryan, it was nothing special but for Josh and me, it was an automatic 8% savings on everything we bought. While being mindful of the space constraints in the Jeep, Josh outfitted himself with a new wardrobe for starting high school in the fall and we both spent more than we should have on computer games, gadgets and movies. I even bought a DVD player to replace my old VCR.

After loading our purchases into the vehicles, we had one final stop to make - the famous West Edmonton Mall submarines. The subs are functional underwater vessels which follow a track along the floor of the lagoon. All along the route of the subs there are various displays of undersea life including sharks and numerous species of fish.

You climb into the sub via a hatch in the conning tower. After all the passengers have boarded, the crew seals the hatch and then submerges the sub. It's a good thing that none of us was claustrophobic otherwise, we'd have been in trouble. Inside the submerged sub, it was cool and the lights were kept dim to enhance the view of the outside water world.

Bryan and I sat back and smiled as we watched Josh and Mark just be boys and have a great time. The two of them were transfixed by the sight of the colourful fish streaking past the windows. Josh was filming everything he could with the video camera and Mark snapped pictures like mad with my digital camera. Both of them were cutting up and laughing like a pair of loons. The sound of their laughter was heartwarming.

"It's so nice to see those two together again," Bryan whispered to me.

"Yeah, it is. I'd like to see it a lot more often. The two of them have been friends for so long, that I hate to see them apart."

"The sooner you can move out here, the better!"

"It's going to be a long 30 months. How about you guys come out and visit us during spring break next year?" I asked.

"You won't have to twist my arm," Bryan replied with a chuckle.

The sub ride lasted about 20 minutes but it was a lot of fun and well worth the price of admission. We all wore silly smiles by the time we exited and went in search of lunch in the food court.

"Well guy's its time to bid farewell, at least for now, to the West Edmonton Mall," I said as we headed for the doors after eating our final meal at WEM.

"I could spend a week or two here," Josh said.

"People do, all the time," Bryan replied.

"Wait 'til you guys move here," Mark added. "It's only a two hour drive or so from Calgary."

After leaving the mall, we headed in convoy to downtown Edmonton and made a stop at the provincial legislature. As we had done in all of the other provinces we'd visited, we took a guided tour of the building. The Alberta legislature is a beautiful, palatial building with solid marble columns and floors inside the main hall. The legislative chamber and the committee rooms were well appointed and well decorated.

After leaving the legislature, we hopped on the Edmonton Transit subway system and took a whirlwind tour of the city, stopping at and touring places such as Commonwealth Stadium and the Skyreach Centre. We completed our last day in Edmonton by taking a walking tour of the downtown area and enjoying a large dinner at Humpty's.

By 7:30 that night, we departed Edmonton and headed west towards the Rocky Mountains and Jasper National Park. The sight of the sun setting over the looming Rocky Mountains was breathtaking. About 90 minutes into the three and a half hour drive, just east of the town of Wildwood, we pulled over to the side of the road to snap a picture.

"Let's get all of us in it," I said. I set the timer on my digital camera while Josh, Bryan and Mark posed themselves with the magnificent Rockies as a back drop. After setting the timer, I carefully set the camera on the hood of the Jeep, aimed it using the small screen on the back, and then pushed the button to start the ten-second timer. I ran and assumed my place next to Bryan behind Josh and Mark who crouched down so that all of us were easily visible in the photo. It was our first "family photo".

We rolled into the town of Hinton at around 11:00 PM and proceeded to our motel for the night. We were all more than a little tired and we wanted to be fresh and alert for the coming day which would see us begin our tour of the Rocky Mountain national parks.

The boys, bless their hearts, insisted that Bryan and I get some rest while they tended to our luggage and securing the vehicles for the night. After my head hit the pillow that night, I couldn't remember a single thing until I woke up the next morning to a wonderful shoulder rub from Josh.

By 7:30 AM we were on the road again and by just after 10:00, the Jeep and the Explorer were parked in a rest stop just inside Jasper National Park. The four of us were standing outside the vehicles, enjoying the warmth of the sun on our backs as we stared up at the snow capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

"My God, this is even more beautiful than I ever imagined," I said.

"I never get tired of seeing it," Bryan replied.

The rugged peaks rose majestically before us. As far as we could see to either the north or the south, the horizon was dominated by towering peaks of rock. The summit of each mountain was capped with a glorious coating of pure white snow and ancient glaciers could be seen clinging to the sides of most.

We were on Highway 16 just north of the town of Pocahontas. To our north was the majestic Athabasca River and beyond that, the view dominated the summit of Coronach Mountain. To the east of Coronach Mountain, we could see beautiful Mount Aeolus.

"Look!" Josh shouted suddenly and pointed at something off in the distance.

"I'll be damned," I said.

Just a short distance from the opposite bank of the river, there was a herd of approximately 20 caribou grazing peacefully in the mountain meadow. The herd seemed to be comprised of mainly females with a number of young. On the edges of the group, there were a number of large males keeping watch.

"Those are caribou," Mark said. "They're a species of deer."

"I've never seen caribou before," Josh said. "I've never seen so many wild animals together in one spot before."

After a few minutes, we piled back into the vehicles and resumed our trek. Highway 16 began to turn south as it continued to follow the Athabasca River. At one point along the way, the river, swelled by glacier run-off, widened into Jasper Lake. The long narrow lake was breathtakingly beautiful. The water was a brilliant turquoise colour that reminded me of brochures that I'd seen of Caribbean beaches.

Once again, we stopped our small convoy and admired the striking beauty of nature. Mark and Bryan, who had seen all this before, were playing the role of tour guide. Josh and I were enthralled with the beauty of this place. I could see the wheels turning in Josh's head as he stood on the banks of Jasper Lake and gazed out at a small mountain waterfall that was cascading down into the lake below.

I walked up behind him and put my arms around his shoulders. "Amazing, eh bud?"

"Totally," he replied. "It looks like its right out of a post card. I hope the government is protecting this. This is something that everyone in Canada, everyone in the world should get to see and get to enjoy."

"They are Joshy. It's a national park and it's very much protected."

"I'm glad. This is too beautiful to mess up," Josh replied. He sounded hopeful but unconvinced.

A few minutes later, we crossed a long bridge which placed us on the western shore of the Athabasca River and we continued to follow Highway 16, the Yellowhead Highway, south towards the town of Jasper. Along the way, we stopped seven or eight more times to admire the scenery or to observe wildlife. Just before we entered the town of Jasper, we came across a pair of snow white mountain goats grazing at the side of the road. Amazingly, we were able to get to within about ten feet of them before they even noticed us and headed for the hills. Incredibly, they managed to scale a considerable rock outcropping in a matter of seconds. They stood and watched us from the edge of a cliff overlooking the highway.

We ended up spending the next two days camped out in various campgrounds within Jasper National Park. Each day we'd break camp and move deeper into the mountains and father south. The higher we climbed, the cooler the temperatures got.

We had finished our supper, the tents were all set for crawling into bed, and it was still pretty early.

"Hey Dad, could we go over and have a look at the Jasper Lodge?" Josh asked, "and maybe when it gets dark, could we show Mark and Bryan the things you showed me in the night sky in Saskatchewan?"

"Son that's a great idea... what'd'ya say guys, want to have a look at the Jasper Lodge before dark?"

"Sure it sounds like it might be half of an adventure," Bryan smiled.

It seemed lately, Bryan and I were smiling a lot when we looked at each other, and when we did, the boys would start to giggle and shake their heads, looking the other way. We didn't want to embarrass them, it's just the way Bryan and I felt about each other.

All four of us jumped into the Jeep and took off down the highway, following the side road off to the lodge. It was an impressive building of about five storeys. We took a tour through the lobby and then out onto the immaculately kept lawns and gardens.

As we traversed the immense lawn, Bryan and I held hands as we followed the boys, between the lake and some guest cottages.

"Hey guys, look!" Mark exclaimed quietly. "They've got a stuffed elk out here right on the lawn."

"What a lawn ornament that would be at home!" Josh smiled as he looked back at us.

We were about twenty feet from the elk's rear from where we stood, and the boys drifted off to the right to see it from the side, still approaching the 'stuffed' beast. Its horns were more than eight feet across. As we got closer, I could relate to its size. The top of its back was above the top of Mark and Josh's shoulders. Bryan pulled out the video camera and started shooting as we approached. The boys were six feet from the elk's shoulder, when the elk turned its head and looked directly at them. It was the first move the animal had made since we spotted it.

"Whoa!" Mark exclaimed, now facing the elk and walking backwards faster and faster, until he bumped right into me. I wrapped my arms around him, giving him a reassuring hug. Admittedly, its size was a bit overwhelming for anyone to see a beast that size wandering about on this manicured lawn. I held Mark until he quit shaking. Josh wasn't so intimidated. He simply stopped, leaned casually, holding its eye contact, waited as the elk turned it head again to the front, and started to move off, very slowly, very quietly.

"WOW!" I was a bit overwhelmed by the size and beauty of the natural environment we were in.

"Double WOW!" Bryan exclaimed. "I'm sure glad I captured that moment. What a beautiful beast!"

"Holy shit!" Mark said. "It scared the hell out of me. I really thought it was stuffed. It looked so perfect. Like there was no old fur hanging out of its coat... or any dirt on it.... it looked like it just had its coat brushed!"

Josh turned and walked toward us with a big smile on his face. "Don't feel bad Mark, I was scared too, but I didn't want to scare it away, so I just stood still. I didn't think it would hurt us."

"Josh it's probably used to the few humans that invade his territory during the summer and it knows that no harm will come to it." I said, tongue in cheek, because individually, we wouldn't have stood a chance against it, if it were mad or if it were the rutting season.

"Well if he stays in the National Park, no harm should come to him. Without hunters to bother him, he may live to a ripe old age." Mark said.

We sauntered back to the Jeep, actually following the elk, until he turned and went his separate way.

It was starting to get dark, and I wanted to find an open area where we could set up the telescope. Although the mountains would cut down on the horizon limits, I was pretty sure we could get a good look at the night sky out here away from any city lights.

That night, we ended up staying up quite late and Josh thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing the role of interstellar tour guide as he relayed to Mark and Bryan the things that I had taught him about the wonders of the night sky.

"I had no idea that there was so much to see up there," Mark said. "I knew about the planets and things but I've never seen them like this. This is amazing."

"It's because of light pollution," Josh explained.

By the time we packed up the telescope, it was well after midnight and we had managed to spot most of the planets in the solar system. Both Mark and Bryan had been as awestruck as Josh had been when they gazed upon the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter for the very first time.

The next day, we experienced another of the highlights of the Jasper tour; the Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier. The Columbia Icefield is the almost 400 square kilometers in size and it's the largest icefield south of Alaska. We took a one-hour Snowcoach tour of the glacier which the boys loved.

The Snowcoach is basically a bus with monster truck tires on it and they take you right out onto the surface of the glacier. We also did the walking tour of the Athabasca Glacier and we were all glad that we had brought along warm clothes.

"Look how far down that goes," Josh said pointing down one of the towering crevices in the ice. The colour of the ice was the same striking turquoise colour of the various lakes that we seen along the way.

"You don't want to fall down there," Bryan said. "I read somewhere that if the fall didn't kill you; you'd freeze to death before they could haul you out."

"It's like winter in July," Mark chuckled.

On the third day, we crossed into Banff National Park and setup camp at the Mosquito Creek Campground just off the Icefields Parkway. The campground is located in the shadow of Mount Hector on the west side of the highway about halfway between Bow Lake and Hector Lake.

Since it was still at a very high elevation, it was quite cool at night. The night that we spent there, we had a roaring bonfire and then the four of us crowded into one single tent with our sleeping bags packed tightly together to conserve heat. In order to keep the boys as comfortable as possible, we put them in the middle and Bryan and I placed ourselves on the outside. That night, we all fell asleep to the peaceful sounds of the gently rushing waters of Mosquito Creek that ran directly behind our campsite.

We spent our final night in Banff National Park in a quite little campground just southwest of the town of Banff, not far from Mount Rundle. We had spent five days in Jasper and Banff but we could have easily spent five weeks. Of all the sights we'd seen so far in the trip, none could compare to the rugged beauty and the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. If we needed another reason to move to Alberta, that was it. By the time we left Banff the next morning and began the trek to Calgary, our decision to move west as quickly as possible was finalized. It was only a matter of time until Josh and I joined the ranks of Albertans.

The drive east from Banff to Calgary was astonishingly beautiful but it was almost melancholy. The beauty of the Rocky Mountains is almost addictive and the pangs experienced when leaving them behind is as powerful as the joy experienced when encountering them for the first time. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we would return to the Rockies and actually cross them in just another ten days on our way to the West coast.

Geographically, Calgary is a very large and very flat city. Aside from the Olympic park, the city is almost as flat as the prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The city is bisected by the Bow River that cuts a winding swath through the city centre and the Rocky Mountains dominate the western horizon. The city skyline is a handsome collection of skyscrapers with the Calgary Tower standing prominent among them.

"Are we going up there?" Josh asked, pointing to the tower.

"You betcha Josh," I replied with a smile.

At that point, Mark and Bryan had taken the lead in our mini convoy. Josh had programmed their address into the GPS and we could have found it, but they decided to lead us through the more scenic as opposed to the more direct route.

We arrived at Bryan and Mark's house just as the sun was beginning to slip behind the mountains to the west. They lived in a good-sized bungalow in the Deer Run neighborhood of south-central Calgary. It was a very nice neighborhood with plenty of old growth trees. The fact that all of the houses were different, as opposed to the newer suburbs in which cookie-cutter houses were commonplace, gave the place a great deal of character.

"Welcome to our humble abode," Bryan said warmly after we parked our vehicles in the spacious double driveway.

"Nice place," I said.

"Cool, this is bigger than our house and you have a great lawn," Josh said.

"Wait 'til you see my room," Mark replied.

The single story house was set about 30 feet back on a nicely manicured lawn that featured waist high hedges as a sort of fence which marked the property line. The right side of the house was comprised of a double car garage and the front featured a wide porch adorned with well-made wooden patio furniture. There was a large bay window looking out from what must have been the living room. What must have been the bedrooms were located on the left side of the house.

"Lets go inside and I'll give you the grand tour," Bryan said. He unlocked the front door and deactivated the security system and then we all followed him inside.

The entry way featured a nice, well cared for hardwood floor. To the right, a door led to the garage and straight ahead was a hallway that led to the kitchen and dining room. To the left, was the entrance to the living room, bathroom, and a hallway leading to the bedrooms. There was also a doorway leading to the basement stairs.

Bryan and Mark showed us around the house. The living room featured a big screen TV, leather furniture, and a well stocked library of DVDs and VHS tapes. The house featured three bedrooms. Bryan had the spacious master bedroom that was conservatively decorated and featured a wall lined with bookshelves stocked with all manner of novels. He had a king sized bed and an entertainment center with television. Directly across the hall was the roomy bathroom and Mark's bedroom was right next door to Bryan's.

Mark proudly showed off his room to Josh and me. It was obvious that it was a boy's room. The walls were painted blue, there were movie and sports posters all over the place and the room contained the clutter typical of young boys. Mark had a nice set of bunk beds placed against the far wall with a computer desk containing his laptop to one side of the room, and a wall unit containing a television, Playstation game console and DVD player against the opposite wall.

"You can stay with me tonight Josh. I always sleep on the bottom bunk so you can take the top," Mark said.

"Cool. You have a great room," Josh replied.

"Bryan bought all this stuff for me when I moved here. He helped me pick it out," Mark said as he moved next to his brother and put his arm around him.

"Bryan this is a beautiful home; you should be quite proud." I smiled, actually amazed at the accomplishments he'd made during his few years here in Calgary.

"Well, at first I thought it was just a good investment." Bryan pondered for a moment. "Then when I moved in, I found it was lonely here by myself... and you guys cured that by giving my brother back to me." He looked at both Josh and me with a big smile. "As it turns out, I think it's the best investment of my life!"

"I think so too!" Josh and I both said at the same time. Once the four of us quit laughing, we continued with the tour.

The spare room was located at the end of the hall. It was well decorated and featured a queen-sized bed, a dresser, and a nightstand with a lamp.

"Since we were only going to be here for one night out of more than two weeks, we let the food stocks get down pretty low. All we have is canned and frozen stuff, so I'm going to order a pizza." Bryan explained. "Mark, help Tommy and Josh bring in their stuff while I order dinner."

"Sure bro," Mark replied.

"I think a party size should take care of us," Bryan chuckled. "Perhaps a side order of wings too."

"Sounds about right Bry," I replied with a grin.

"Once you get your stuff unloaded, let's move the vehicles into the garage. We can take a cab to the airport tomorrow."

"Good plan. I'd better bring in the rifles. Do you have somewhere secure to store them?"

"No problem. We can lock them up in my office in the basement."

"Great," I replied and then went to help Josh and Mark unload the vehicles.

It took us each several trips to unload our gear. We brought in anything that was valuable or perishable along with our clothes and other personal items that we'd need for the trip to Ottawa. We also unloaded all the gear from Bryan's Explorer. We all had a lot of laundry to do that night before we could pack for the excursion to the nation's capitol.

Josh took all his stuff back to Mark's room, but I wasn't sure where I should put mine, so I defaulted to the spare bedroom. We put the rifles, the IMPs, and all the other stuff that needed to be secured, or would fare better with cooler storage, in the basement.

The basement of Bryan and Mark's house was fully finished and featured an office area that Bryan used when working from home, along with a rec room featuring a full sized pool table and a well stocked wet bar complete with stools.

"Cool! You've got a pool table," Josh enthused when he saw it. "Can we play later?"

"Sure, you guys knock yourselves out," Bryan replied.

While Mark and Josh started up a game of pool, Bryan and I moved the vehicles into the garage and locked them securely inside. "That should keep them safe and sound for the next week," I said jovially.

"Yeah, it's a nice neighborhood, but you can never be too careful," Bryan replied. "Dinner should be here in about twenty minutes; in the meantime, we should get our laundry done so we have some clothes to wear to Ottawa."

"Good idea. I don't think the Governor General would appreciate it if we showed up nude to get our medals," I laughed.

"I guess it would make it hard for her to find somewhere to pin them," Bryan retorted.

By the time we got back into the house, we were laughing so hard that it drew the boy's attention. They both poked their head out of the basement doorway wearing almost identical questioning looks.

"What are you two up to now?"

We explained the joke to them as best we could and we were rewarded with two pairs of rolling eyes and two shaking heads.

I went to Mark's room to collect Josh's dirty laundry, then to the spare room for my own, and then I followed Bryan to the laundry room next to the bathroom. I started a first load that included Josh and my colours and I'd need to run a second load with our whites. By the time we were all done, we'd need to run about four loads so it was going to be a long night.

Our WestJet flight to Ottawa would depart the Calgary airport at 11:00 AM. That meant we'd have to be there by 10:00 AM and would require us to leave the house by around 9:30 the next morning. The plan was to get packed and ready to go that evening, so all we had to do the next morning was get showered and dressed, eat breakfast and jump into a cab.

I wandered into the living room and sat down on the incredibly comfortable leather sofa and turned on the TV.

"Want a beer?" Bryan called from the kitchen.

"I'd love one," I replied.

A moment later, Bryan joined me on the sofa with two ice cold bottles of Molson Canadian beer in tow. "Cheers," he said and we clinked bottles.

"This Ottawa trip is really going to be something," I said. "Besides the medals, we've got a ton of stuff to see and do. I'm really looking forward to seeing the National Aviation Museum."

"I was looking up some of those places on the Internet and apparently one of them has an actual Apollo space capsule what was flown to the moon."

"The boys will love that. It's good seeing them happy like this."

We sat quietly and watched television for a few minutes before the doorbell announced the arrival of our dinner. Bryan went to the door to pay, while I went to the kitchen to get some plates. I was amazed, but not surprised to see Josh and Mark thunder up the stairs at what must have been the speed of sound and plant themselves around the kitchen table.

"I'm starving," Josh announced.

"Me too," Mark agreed.

"I can't wait until tomorrow; I've never been in a big plane before," Josh said between mouthfuls of pizza.

"It's a lot of fun. If the skies are clear, you can see quite a bit on the ground," I responded.

"You should have seen it when I flew out here. It was amazing - I could see all the lakes, the roads and all sorts of stuff," Mark said.

"It's going to be a pretty busy trip," Bryan said thoughtfully.

"Yeah, we have a pretty full schedule, but its going to be a hell of a lot of fun. Have any of you ever been to Ottawa before?" I asked.

"I went when I was in 8th grade, but that's it," Bryan said.

"I've never been," Mark added.

"Neither have I," Josh said.

"It's a gorgeous city and there's tons of stuff to do. We'll check out the parliament buildings, the National Aviation Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the War Museum, the Mint and all sorts of other things."

"They have a real Apollo moon capsule at the Museum of Natural History," Bryan said.

"Cool!" The boys said in unison.

After supper, I put Josh's and my coloured clothes in the dryer and started washing our whites while Bryan got the boys settled in the living room and the three of them decided on a movie to watch. They ended up selecting "Fight Club".

When I returned to the living room, Mark was sitting one end of the sofa, leaning against Bryan who was sitting in the middle. Bryan had has arm around his brother. Josh was sitting on the opposite end leaving a gap for me. I sat down next to Bryan who put his free arm around me while Josh snuggled up against my other side and I wrapped my arm around him. It was a tight fit but none of us minded and we sat there and enjoyed the movie together.

About an hour into it, both boys began to yawn. I looked down and saw Josh doing the old "head snap trick" every once in a while.

"Hey son, why don't you hit the hay? You look pretty tired," I said softly.

"Yeah, I'm kinda wiped out," Josh mumbled.

"Can you make it on your own or do you want some help?" I asked.

"I'm ok. Goodnight Dad, I love you," Josh said and gave me a big hug before standing up and giving Bryan one too.

"I think I'll turn in too," Mark said with a yawn before hugging his brother.

"Goodnight kiddo," I said as I got my hug.

"I'm glad those two are going right to sleep, I was worried that they'd be up half the night," Bryan chuckled as we continued to watch the movie.

"They're a pair of great kids," I said.

"The best, we're so lucky to have them." Bryan replied with a smile.

"We never did get packed," I lamented. "We'd better be up by around 6:30 tomorrow to give us plenty of time. At least we got all the clothes washed."

"Yeah, I just put the last load in the dryer a few minutes ago," Bryan replied.

Once the movie was over, we watched the evening news and then decided to turn in. Bryan went and locked up the house while I went down the hall to the bathroom to brush my teeth and get ready for the night. After leaving the bathroom, I slipped into Mark's room to check on the boys.

Josh was lying on his back on the top bunk and snoring softly. He had pushed the covers part way down, so I gently tucked him back in and then softly kissed his forehead. As soon as I did that, Josh rolled onto his side, wrapped his arms around me, and nuzzled against me. I wasn't about to climb up into the bunk bed with him so I stayed there for a few minutes and lightly rubbed his back before carefully extricating myself without waking him. With Josh tended to; I turned my attention to Mark.

Unlike Josh, Mark was sprawled all over the place with arms and legs going just about ever which way. The covers were pooled at the foot of his bed. I chuckled softly to myself and then gently pulled the covers up and over him. His right leg was sticking out and resting on the floor, so I reached down and carefully lifted his leg and tucked it under the covers with the rest of the sleeping boy. As I had done with Josh, I leaned down and placed a soft kiss on his forehead.

Before leaving the room, I turned around and looked at both sleeping boys. They were so peaceful and content and it was obvious that they both felt completely safe and secure in their environment.

"I love you guys," I whispered softly before leaving the room and gently closing the door behind me.

I bumped into Bryan just as he was leaving the bathroom.

"Goodnight Bry," I whispered and hugged him tightly.

"Goodnight Tom," he replied and kissed me on the lips. "You know, you don't have to stay in the guest room if you don't want to."

I looked at Bryan for a moment and replied. "I don't? I mean... I really don't want to be alone in there."

Bryan took my hand and led me into his bedroom, shutting the door softly after we passed through it.

That night, I experienced a complete gentleness to the act of love - to the art of love; one that I'd craved since that fateful summer with the abusive Struthers family. Bryan was patient, tender, fulfilling, sweet, understanding, kind, but more than any one thing - loving. With Josh, I felt like I was the protector, the guidance instructor, but in Bryan's bedroom that night, Bryan made me feel as if I was the protected and nurtured one, and that night I gained a renewed emotional one-on-one strength that had been missing from my life.

Before we slept that night, Bryan looked at me with a satisfied smile and asked, "A match made in heaven?"

I thought for a moment in my euphoric haze. "I honestly love you Bryan, and you're a dream come true, but dreams come from the subconscious, and you're real. I think Mark and Josh made the reality of this match, and... they're real too. I know the love between us will always come in second to our love for them."

Bryan kissed me gently. "I agree Tom, but in our old age when the boys are grown up, I'll need your love surrounding me forever." He kissed me again. "Goodnight."

As I returned his kiss, I could only reply, "Forever." Bryan gently spooned behind me until we woke.

The next morning, we were all up bright and early. Bryan and I got up about 30 minutes before waking the boys, and we used the time to shower and get breakfast started. I wasn't surprised when Mark got up right away with no fuss, but was I a little surprised when Josh did the same. Josh normally isn't a morning person, but I thought the excitement of the coming flight and the medal presentation was enough to motivate him to overcome his lack of enthusiasm for rising early.

I was in the bathroom brushing and flossing my teeth while Josh showered. He climbed out just as I finished rinsing out my mouth with mouthwash.

"Tomorrow's the big day, eh?" I said as Josh began to dry himself off.

"Yeah, I've been looking forward to it. It'll be nice to see everyone again too."

"Me too son," I said with a smile.

"Are you ok with all this? I mean, it's not bothering you again is it?" Josh asked with a great deal of obvious concern in his voice.

"No, it's ok Josh. Every once in a while I think about it and I still feel guilty, but mostly I'm fine with it now."

"I'm glad. I was worried about you last night. I got up to take a piss and I went to the spare room to check on you and you weren't there."

"I was with Bryan last night," I replied gently.

"I know, I kind of figured that," Josh replied.

"Are you ok with that?" I studied his face carefully in the mirror; just a bit worried how he really felt.

"Of course. I'm more than ok with that. I'm glad that you two are getting on so well. It's just...." Josh trailed off.

"It's just what son?" Now I was concerned.

"It's just that I don't want to be replaced or anything," Josh said softly.

I held out my arms and pulled him into me and gave him as warm and loving a hug as I knew how to give. "Joshy, you'll never be replaced by anyone. Not now, not ever. Before I went to bed last night, I went in to check on you. I tucked you in and kissed your forehead and you immediately rolled over and hugged me tightly. You were asleep but you knew it was me. That's love Joshy. You're my son and you'll always be my son. Now and forever."

Josh continued to hold me tightly and looked up at me with those amazing eyes of his. "I know that Dad. I don't know why I ever worried about it."

"Remember Joshy, there are different kinds of love. You and I love each other like dad and son. Bryan and I are developing a romantic love for each other. One doesn't affect the other. Personally, I think the family sort of love is stronger than any other and our bond is stronger than most." I leaned down and kissed Josh's temple. I noticed once again just how much he was growing. I used to be able to tilt my head down and kiss the top of his head, now he was too tall for that. "Actually Josh, Bryan and I are in love, but that comes second. Both of us know that you and Mark come first in our lives. Always will!"

Josh and I released each other and then we proceeded to shave and finish getting ready for the day. Bryan and Mark were all ready dressed and getting breakfast ready in the kitchen when we walked in.

"Smells great guys," I said enthusiastically as I took my seat.

Josh sniffed the air and licked his lips as he slid into the chair next to me. "Smells like Back Bacon," he observed.

"That's part of it," Bryan replied. "We're losing about two hours of our day here, so I'm making a BIG breakfast which should keep us well fed until we land."

"That's a pretty tall order trying to keep these human trash compactors fed," I snickered.

"Wise guy, eh?" Mark replied in a passable Curly imitation.

I didn't notice when Mark and Josh exchanged glances before Mark said, "Hey Tommy, how about getting the Captain Crunch from the cupboard next to the sink?"

"Sure bud," I replied innocently enough. I didn't see Josh pull out the video camera behind me in order to video tape the fun. I reached up and pulled open the cupboard door and suddenly there was a blinding flash of white light.

"WHAT THE FUCK?!?!?!?!?" I shouted in surprise.

I turned my head and all I could see was four big spots in front of my eyes. I could distinctly hear Josh and Mark roaring with laughter in the background. As my eyes began to clear, I could see Bryan standing in front of the stove with a spatula in his hand and a look of complete and total surprise on his face.

"What happened?" he asked in an absurdly subdued voice.

I managed to find my seat while Josh and Mark tried to explain what they had done.

"Flash bulb... batteries..... booby trap...." Was all they managed to get out between bursts of laughter.

Bryan went to the cupboard to investigate. He gingerly opened it and looked inside. "You little buggers!" He said as he pulled a makeshift contraption from the cupboard and placed it on the table.

My vision finally recovered enough that I could see properly. On the table was a nine volt battery an old disposable flash strip from a camera, a clothes peg and some duct tape. The wires had been soldered to the battery and the flash strip with a makeshift switch that would be triggered by the opening of the door. It was designed to make the victim, me in this case, think he'd been blown up. It was actually quite ingenious.

"You two clever little monkeys are really going to get it this time," I said as seriously as I could manage. In the end, I burst out laughing.

"I saw that trick on the Internet and I had to try it out. We rigged it up last night when you thought we were playing pool and we snuck down last night and installed it," Josh said gleefully.

"You should have seen the look on your face," Mark said and then burst out laughing again.

"I'm sure I'll see the video. Good thing that didn't trigger a migraine," I replied. That sobered the boys up in a big hurry. The both suddenly wore stricken looks on their faces.

"You don't have one now do you Dad?" Josh asked in a very worried tone.

"No, I'm ok bud. If I did have one, that would have been extremely painful, but I'm fine. I just saw spots for a while."

"We didn't think," Mark said softly. He looked as if he expected to be seriously punished.

"Don't worry Mark, no harm was done." I pulled both boys into a big hug to reassure them.

"Guys, these pranks are pretty funny but you have to be careful. Sometimes people can get injured or have their feelings hurt, even when you didn't intend it," Bryan said.

"This was a good one guys. Just be careful of who you play it on. If you did it in the wrong place, you could end up with the police bomb squad called out."

We finished breakfast and then all four of us went off to pack and prepare for the trip to Ottawa. By 9:30 we were all in a cab and by just before 10:00, we were at the airport checking in for our flight.

The WestJet 737-700 had only three seats on each side of the isle so we elected to take three seats on one row on the right side of the plane and the aisle seat on the left side of the same row. Throughout the flight, we played musical chairs to give everyone chance to sit at the window seat. It was a smooth and uneventful four-hour flight and the skies were clear enough to afford us a glorious view of the prairies and the rugged terrain of Northern Ontario. We even managed to catch a glimpse of Toronto as we flew past well to the North. As the plane began to descend into Ottawa, we were treated to a spectacular view of the parliament buildings, the national war memorial, and the Chateau Laurier hotel.

After deplaning, we retrieved our luggage and headed into the main part of the terminal to pickup our rental car. I was just completing the paperwork for the car when I heard the dual excited shouts.

"Uncle Tommy! Josh!" Matthew and Richard shouted in unison as they tore across the terminal and launched themselves into my arms and smothered me with sloppy kisses and hugged me just as hard as their little arms would allow.

"It's my favorite nephews," I grinned as I hugged the matching pair of adorable little boys. They cuddled in my arms for a couple of moments before jumping down and giving Josh the same treatment. I turned around in time to see my mom, Andy, James, and Anne walking towards us. Their flight had arrived just before ours did.

My newly extended family was together. Susan would arrive later that night to complete the picture.


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