Substitute Dad

© 2006 - 2010 By Scribe1971 (

Chapter 37

Together Again – How We Got Here and What If

"You look pretty tired," Bryan said as he came up behind me and placed a hand on my shoulder. The boys and the dogs were outside running around in the yard. Bryan had been working on grilling some steaks and the remaining fish that Josh and I had caught up north. I was in the living room staring at the screen of my laptop.

"Yeah, we spent a lot of time on the road over the past few days," I replied.

"Supper's almost ready. Why don't you grab a beer and come out back?"

"That sounds good," I replied. "This program is driving me nuts."

"That's the multimedia authoring program that you're working on?"

"Yeah, this compression algorithm is giving me trouble... I can't find the bug in it."

"Mind if I take a look?" Bryan asked.

"Sure," I replied and handed him the laptop.

"Tom, this code is really well written," Bryan remarked after a few seconds. "This is damned good! I'd never believe that you're only second year from looking at this code."

"Thanks," I replied.

"You know, maybe I can help you with this. I spend all day on coding and it's not something that I really want to spend my evenings on, but I wouldn't mind running through this."

"That'd be great. I could certainly use a second pair of eyes with it. I'm sure I've got every step covered... so all I can think of is a typing error that's stopping the thing from running."

Just then we heard the back door slide open and Brutus and Daisy came tearing in. Both big puppies leapt onto the chair with me and began madly licking my face. Mark and Josh were hot on their tails with the video camera and had a great time video taping me struggling under the puppy assault and Bryan laughing his head off at the sight of it. Evidently the boys had instructed the puppies to "get Tommy".

"YUCK!" I protested as Brutus and Daisy continued their sliming efforts.

"Want some treats?" Mark finally said and spared me any further indignity. As soon as they heard the word "treat" both Brutus and Daisy jumped off my lap and sat attentively in front of Mark. Their tails were wagging so fast that they were practically sweeping the carpet down to the underpad.

Mark tossed each of the puppies a cookie. "I taught Daisy a trick. Watch this," he said. He reached down and placed a dog biscuit on Daisy's nose. "Daisy, wait," he commanded.

Amazingly, the little dog sat perfectly still with the cookie on her nose until Mark said, "Get it!" As soon as he said the word, she flicked her nose up and tossed the cookie into the air then caught it in her mouth.

"That's amazing!" I said and Mark soaked up the praise with a big smile.

"I taught Brutus a trick too, "Josh said. He pointed his finger and Brutus and said "BANG!" Brutus promptly fell over on his side and rolled over on his back and remained almost motionless until Josh said, "Good boy!"

"That's cool," Mark said and tossed Brutus another cookie.

"Those two are just about the smartest dogs I've ever seen," Bryan said. "Absolutely amazing. Daisy has been such a sweetheart. You should see her when I get home from the office. She's all over me like she hasn't seen me in years."

"How long 'til supper?" Josh asked.

"Oh shit! I almost forgot," Bryan replied and ran outside leaving us all snickering as we followed him to the back yard.

"Do you want a beer?" Mark asked.

"Sure bud, that would be great," I replied.

I sat down in a patio chair in the back yard and right away Josh took up position behind me and began massaging my shoulders. "Your muscles are pretty tense. Too much driving, I think," Josh remarked with a forlorn sound in his voice.

"Here's your beer," Mark replied and handed me a cold bottle. "I even frosted a glass for you," he said and handed me a cold, frosted beer glass. "You really could use a rest after all that driving," he remarked as he sat down.

While I knew they were both good boys who would do those things for me anyway, I had a feeling that a conspiracy was underway. I had a pretty good idea that Josh and Mark were trying to finagle a way for Josh and I to stay an extra day in Calgary. They didn't know that I'd already pretty much decided to stay for an extra day to get the Jeep serviced, but I figured that I'd play the line and enjoy a tease them a little bit.

I glanced at Bryan who had also obviously figured out what was going on and he rolled his eyes. I winked at him to signal that I was playing along.

"Supper's almost ready guys. The steaks are done and those fish should be ready in another minute or so," Bryan announced.

Josh and I had saved a couple of the arctic char that we'd caught and Bryan had thrown them on the barbecue. The cooler that we kept the fish in was loaded with ice and it was powered by the Jeep's electrical system. The fish were actually frozen solid when Josh dug them out of the cooler.

"Could you boys go and grab the stuff from the fridge?" Bryan asked.

"Sure," Josh replied. He gave my shoulders one last squeeze and then followed Mark into the house.

"If I'm reading this right, you've made the sensible decision to stick around an extra day, but the boys don't know it yet," Bryan chuckled.

"Unless you object," I teased with a smile.

"Of course I object," Bryan retorted. "We can't have you easterners hanging around here. It makes us look bad," Bryan said trying to sound serious but failing miserably because of the grin on his face. "Those two are really laying on pretty thick aren't they?"

"I'll say," I laughed. "I've been a fisherman for a long time and I always liked playing the big fish rather than just hauling them into the boat. I think we can have some fun with this scenario."

"Evidently, you've hooked a couple of whoppers this time," Bryan replied and we both broke out laughing.

"What's so funny?" Josh asked as he and Mark returned with a plate of corn on the cob and a large bowl of fresh salad and potato salad.

"Alzheimer's," Mark deadpanned as he placed the salad bowl on the table.

"Oh that does it," I replied and grabbed him in a headlock and gave him a light noogie. Mark's sense of humour never failed to keep me in a good mood.

After I released a madly laughing Mark, I grabbed the stack of plates and helped Bryan dish out the thick and juicy steaks along with the fish. We'd wrapped the fish up in tinfoil with butter, salt and pepper and a touch of garlic and it looked and smelled to die for. Josh topped up my beer and poured one for Bryan while he and Mark each had a large glass of milk.

The meal was fantastic and the conversation was even better. It didn't take long for the four of us to clean our plates and then Mark and Josh even grabbed what was left of the fish and picked the bones completely clean of every morsel of meat they could find. It was actually quite amazing to watch.

We had apple pie with ice cream for dessert and it was amazing too.

"There's a little bakery down the street that makes these pies fresh every day," Bryan said. "They're always excellent."

"They make really good meat pies too," Mark said. "If you guys didn't have to leave in the morning, we could get some to take with you," he added.

"Hmmm.... you think we should stay to get some pie?" I asked Josh.

"YEAH…. well, not only to get some pie. You should get some rest too," Josh said enthusiastically.

"Hmmm, let's see. We can rush off tomorrow morning and get back on the highway or we can stay here and relax and have some more pie," I said thoughtfully. "It's a tough decision," I said and shook my head slowly. Both Josh and Mark looked like they were about to pass out in anticipation of my answer.

"What do you think Bry?" I asked.

"I don't know. I mean spending eight hours a day behind the wheel is such fun. All we'd be doing here is relaxing and going to Mark's baseball game and maybe get some more pie. It's really tough when you weigh all the pros and cons." I was beginning to think Bryan was a pro at this sort of a tease.

"Well, I guess that settles it," I said and then paused.

"What? Are you staying or going?" Mark asked.

"Well... I don't know yet. Maybe...." I paused again. "Maybe we should check the weather. Bryan do you get the Weather Channel here?" I was really starting to enjoy this. Bryan just kept looking at the ground, keeping his hand over his mouth.

"Yeah,yeah,yeah!" Mark exclaimed excitedly. "I was lookin' at it this afternoon before you guys got here. I wanted to see how it'd be for tomorrow's game. The weather's going to be good all week." He was talking a mile a minute in anticipation. Josh was looking at me with a worried, furrowed brow.

"What? There's no rain in the forecast?" I questioned with the most serious look I could muster.

No,no! Mark nearly yelled. "The weather's going to be good all week. Honest!"

"No tornado warnings or watches?" I questioned.

Josh tilted his head with the most bewildered and priceless look of innocence on his face. "Whaaat?" he asked softly.

Bryan couldn't contain his laughter any longer. Holding his stomach, still laughing, he had the punchline. "I still don't know Tom.... we're due for one hell of a snowfall in about six months.... maybe you'd better head out tomorrow.... before it gets here!"

That did it for me - with Bryan leaning his head on my shoulder laughing, I couldn't contain my deadpan any longer and just burst out laughing too, hanging onto Bryan for dear life. Mark had both fists clenched, mouth clenched and looked like he was vibrating them on an imaginary drum in front of him. I was only too glad it wasn't me he was pounding on.

"Oh God Josh...." I said between bouts of laughter, "I think.... we'd better stay for another day..... or Mark'll have a conniption."

"YES!" Mark and Josh hollered and high-fived each other as they jumped from their chairs. Very quickly Mark and Josh stepped over to us, Mark grabbing me and Josh holding Bryan in a headlock and gave our heads a fast scubbing. That only added to the hysterics that Bryan and I were engulfed with.

"Payback's a bitch Tom," Mark exclaimed through his own laughter as they released us, "and one day.... I'll get you good."

Once we calmed down, the four of us worked together and in no time we had the dishes loaded into the dishwasher and had the kitchen cleaned up. It was a nice warm night so we all decided to sit outside in the backyard and talk.

As we sat around the table and chit-chatted, Brutus and Daisy played their little hearts out and chased each other around the yard. Every once in a while, they'd get tired and they'd come up on the deck and flop down on someone's feet to snooze. I had a thought gnawing at the back of my mind - the conversation I'd had with Masons and how Bryan and Mark might react to it.

"When we were at the Mason's for Shelly's birthday party," I began, "we had a rather private conversation that kinda started about us moving to Calgary in about a year and a half."

"Oh, and how did they take that news?" Bryan smiled.

"They were ecstatic about the idea.... that we'd only be a day's drive away from them, but then they turned the conversation about.... and hinted about how close you and I were. Well.... Bryan, I told them that you and I were a gay couple, and Mark.... I told them that you were gay as well." I said sheepishly like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Bryan continued to smile, but before he could say anything, Mark stood up abruptly, hands on his hips and spoke with anger in his voice, his teeth clenched, and his lips pursed.

"YOU WHAT?!!" he seethed. "How dare you! How COULD you?!!"

"MARK!" Bryan admonished. "What's gotten into you?"

"Oh God," I thought, "now I've done it." I stared at Mark, speechless with embarrassment. Josh's hand went to his mouth, I thought in astonishment.

"Bryan," Mark whined still with anger in his bulging eyes, "he outed me! He even outed YOU!" He held his stance, but looked at me with some of the anger ebbing from his face. "Tommy, how will I ever be able to face the Mason's again?"

I was almost in tears when I looked at Bryan's concerned face, then at Josh whose hand was still over his mouth, but his shoulders were shaking. With all sincerity, I looked at Mark.

"Mark, I'm truly sorry. I... I didn't mean to hurt you in any way....." THEN Josh burst out laughing!

"GOTCHA!!" Mark exclaimed and then he too burst out laughing. "Oh man, that felt sooo good! I didn't have to set it up either."

Both he and Josh were laughing; the dogs were yipping and yelping around the deck wondering what all the excitement was about.

Me - I was stunned, dumbfounded, and filled with a mix of emotions before the relief set in - he said he was going to get me - and he sure did. He was truly convincing. I was still shaking when Bryan came to me and pulled me into a hug.

"Tom, it's OK," Bryan said quietly trying to calm me down. "Mark and I have had this talk about being gay before and we don't go around openly announcing it, but we'll never lie about it to anyone either. I was just as surprised at his outburst as you were. I'm glad it was only a joke." I hung onto him until all the emotions drained from my body.

"A joke," I started laughing, "Mark! You son of a gun! You said payback one day. I didn't think it was going to be today!" I went over to him and gave him a big hug. "I think you're a bigger joker than I am. You honestly had me going. I really thought you were mad at me."

"Tom, you gave my life back to me," he said with a smile, "I could never get mad at you. You think I'm that good huh?"

"Mark, I think you could sell crushed vehicles to a used car salesman." I said still laughing.

"Dad, I couldn't believe how quick Mark picked up on that." Josh said still giggling. "I'd already told him about our visit with Shelly and what you'd told the Masons and he was cool about it. Mark, that was priceless, you pulled it off so beautifully."

Again, we sat down, our excited breathing slowly returning to normal, our conversation returning to quiet smiles and sighs as each of us relished the closeness of the love in our family unit.

"Did you ever wonder how things just seem to work out sometimes?" Josh finally said thoughtfully.

"What do you mean?" Bryan asked.

"You know. I mean the way that things happen even if it's not what we expect and it leads us to where we are?"

"You mean fate. Yeah, I think about that a lot," I replied. "I've had a lot of twists and turns in my life. I always figured that I'd be in RMC on my way to becoming an army officer right about now."

"I know about your accident, but I never heard all the details," Bryan replied. "Do you mind talking about it?"

"No, not at all. I don't really regret anything. I'm happier now than I probably would have been otherwise."

"Everything happens for a reason. That's what you told me," Josh said. "I haven't heard the whole story about the accident either."

"I guess I never really spoke about it much to anyone. I was pretty out of it most of the time after it happened. The last time I really told the whole story was before the board of inquiry. I only remember parts of it.," I replied.

I took a deep breath and then began. "I was only 17 at the time and I was a newly minted Private in the Queens York Rangers regiment. We were participating in a massive regional combined arms exercise called 'Operation Snow Leopard'. There were tanks, infantry, armoured personnel carriers, helicopters, fighter planes and even airborne troops. It was one of the largest military exercises every conducted at CFB Borden."

"Must have been pretty cool," Mark said.

"It was. I was the loader in a Cougar armoured recce vehicle. That's short for an armoured reconnaissance vehicle. My regiment was one of the lead elements and we were simulating an attack on a dug in enemy force. The snow wasn't falling all that hard, but it was being kicked up by all the vehicles and aircraft so visibility wasn't great. We were about half way to our objective and we were firing just as fast as I could load the main gun. We were ordered to break to the right and encircle the objective along with a platoon of Leopard tanks and another platoon from my regiment. The objective was a hill that sat near the top of a very deep and very steep ravine. The driver lost control and slid sideways. We went straight over the edge of the ravine. Pretty well the rest of what I can tell you is what I was told and what I read in a report of the incident. I don't remember much of it. The report read something like...."

* * *

Travelling at more than 60 km/h, the armoured vehicle slide sideways, crested the ridge and then tumbled down into the ravine, rolling 5 times before coming to rest on its side at the edge of a frozen creek. Inside, the three occupants had been thrown around like rag dolls. The Sergeant in command of the vehicle suffered a compound fracture of his left arm and a gash on his head. The driver, a young corporal, had a dislocated shoulder and a concussion. The worst off was Private Davis who had suffered a severely broken right leg with multiple compound fractures, multiple cuts and bruises, a dislocated shoulder, a dislocated knee and a serious concussion. When the vehicle rolled, he had been thrown into the ammunition rack and then slammed repeatedly into the loader's seat and the armoured ceiling.

As the massive exercise continued around them, the rescue of the downed soldiers began. The other vehicles in the recce company halted immediately and, despite the dangers posed by the steep and slippery slope, men began to gingerly make their way down to their fallen comrades. Inside the downed vehicle, despite his own injuries, the sergeant took charge of the situation and began to attend to the critically injured private under his comment.

The severity of the situation became apparent by the time the first field medics arrived at the downed vehicle. Realizing the massive extent of the injuries to Private Davis and the difficulty in extracting him from the ravine, the call went out for a search and rescue team.

Within minutes, the distinctive thumping of helicopter blades could be heard approaching in the distance. Snow was thrown up in great clouds as the bright yellow Cormorant search and rescue helicopter arrived overhead and began to hover over the ravine. The side door slid open and a thick rope dropped to the ground. Within seconds, two rescue jumpers clad in day glow orange jumpsuits emerged and rappelled down the rope to the snow covered floor of the ravine.

Inside the armoured vehicle, the medics and Search and Rescue Techs (SAR-Techs) worked on the fallen soldiers. The Sergeant refusing any treatment or evacuation from the vehicle until his fallen soldier was first taken care of. Despite the terrible fracture to his arm, he remained at Private Davis's side, holding his hand and admonishing him to "Hang in there."

Minutes later, with Private Davis strapped to a backboard, his neck in a cervical collar and his leg immobilized, was hoisted aboard the hovering Cormorant in a basket with one of the SAR-Tech's clinging to the side. After the second jumper was hoisted back aboard, the chopper's door was closed and it sped off towards the Base hospital.

After the chopper landed at the hospital, Private Davis was whisked into the emergency department where a team of doctors and nurses, was standing by. In less than an hour after arriving at the base hospital, Davis was assessed by the military doctors, and a decision was made to transfer him by air ambulance to the world renowned trauma centre at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

One of the province of Ontario's air ambulances, known as Band-aid One, arrived and the young private along with a military doctor and a nurse were whisked to the Toronto facility in what ended up being a valiant and ultimately successful effort to save his leg.

* * *

"I don't really remember much about the chopper ride," I said. Around me, Josh, Mark and Bryan sat is stunned silence. "I had seven operations, not including the most recent one on my head. My right leg is more metal than bone these days. The rehabilitation period was the toughest. They have a great team there at Sunnybrook and they'd stretch me to the limit at every session, but they kept telling me that it was going to be worth it. Looking back, I realize they were right."

"I can't imagine how painful that must have been," Bryan said softly as he held my hand.

"That was it for your military career," Josh remarked with moist eyes.

"It was painful and yes, it was the end of my time in the military," I replied. "I don't have any regrets though. Had I followed through with my plans for a military career, I wouldn't be here with you guys today."

"I hate that you got hurt," Mark said. "But I'm glad that you're here. If that hadn't happened to you, I'd probably still be stuck with my father. I'd.... I'd never have gone to Ottawa and received a medal for bravery."

"I don't know what I'd be up to," Josh said. "If it wasn't for that accident, you'd have never gone to Camp Tonawonka that led to us meeting for the first time."

"I remember that like it was yesterday," I replied with a smile. "You really tried to get my goat in the beginning there."

"I know. I guess I was testing you, but I thought there was something different about you and I was afraid that you'd just be like everyone else and not really care that much about us kids."

"What finally convinced you that he was the real deal?" Bryan asked.

"It was our second week at camp and we were going up to the top of the mountain for an overnight camp out. We got to the top and, as usual, I was horsing around and being silly," Josh chuckled.

* * *

"You guys watch where you're going. There's logs and rocks and stuff all over the place up there," the harried camp counselor shouted to three of his charges as they tore past him and raced up the hill.

"I'm always careful Tommy," Josh hollered back.

"Hey Tommy, why did you want us to bring binoculars with us tonight?" Gary, another of the campers, asked.

"Are we going to spy on the girl's cabins?" Ricky chuckled.

Tommy smiled and shook his head. "No, Ricky we aren't going to spy on anyone. We're going to look at the night sky."

The eight, ten, and eleven-year-old boys who made up Tommy's cabin group could be a handful but in the two weeks that he'd been a counselor, he'd come to enjoy their company. Even Josh, the boy the other staffers called the "Terror of Tonawonka" was a neat kid. When he wasn't playing tricks and being silly, Tommy could see that he was a really nice kid. He suspected that he didn't get much attention at home and that was what was behind his often outrageous behavior. Josh had pulled more than a few tricks on him in the first two weeks of camp, but none of them were malicious and Tommy had recognized most of them from his own childhood.

"Hey Paul, we'd better keep an eye on Josh and Steve. We don't want one of them tumbling off the cliff or something," Tommy remarked to his junior counselor. Paul was only a couple of years younger than Tommy and the two had become fast friends.

The group had just reached the top of the hill where Josh, Steve, and two other boys were waiting for them.

"What took you guys so long?" Josh asked.

"I guess none of us has your energy Josh," Tommy replied.

"You guys are just old," Josh teased.

"Old? I'm only five years older than you are!" Paul remarked.

"That's almost 50% older than me," Josh observed.

"Alright guys, lets head over to the fire pit and start setting up for the night," Tommy said to the assembled boys.

"Alright men, let's take the fire pit," Josh shouted. "TAKE NO PRISONERS!"

Josh and three of his cohorts including Steve took off at full tilt running towards the fire pit at the top of the cliff making machine gun sounds with their mouths as they ran. Tommy, Paul, and the remaining boys watched in amazement as Josh and the others leapt over the logs that had been arranged as benches surrounding the fire pit. At that point, three of the boys stopped, but Josh appeared to lose his balance and tumbled into the thankfully empty fire pit.

"OW! My leg!" Josh hollered and rolled around on the ground.

"Shit," Tommy whispered under his breath and trotted over to his fallen camper. "You ok Josh?"

"My ankle hurts," Josh said with tears in his eyes.

"Hold still kiddo," Tommy said softly as he began to examine the boy's leg and ankle. Josh was clearly in pain and his accident seemed to take all the energy out of him. Tommy couldn't quite explain it, but it hurt him to see Josh upset and in pain. He cared for all of the boys, but somehow this boy was different. Despite Josh's efforts to test him, Tom truly liked him and felt a kinship of sorts with him.

"I twisted it on one of the rocks in the fire pit," Josh said through clenched teeth.

"Your leg seems fine; I think it's just your ankle. I don't think it's broken. Maybe sprained or just jammed," Tommy said. "We'll need to get you back down to see Rachel."

"You want me to take him Tom?" Paul asked.

"No, you stay up here with the kids. I'll take him down and see if Andy can come up here to join you.

"You sure?" Paul asked.

"Yeah, I'll be fine. I have a bit of a headache anyway. I could use a quiet night in a real bed. Josh, can you stand?"

"I think so," Josh replied.

Tommy reached down and took Josh's arm in his hand and helped the boy to his feet.

"Try to put some weight on your ankle and see how it feels," Paul instructed.

Tommy kept his hand on Josh's arm to steady him as he tried to take a step.

"Ouch. It hurts when I walk on it," Josh grimaced as his face paled from the severity of the pain. "I can't walk too far like this."

Tommy thought about it for a minute. "Ok, I guess you're getting a piggy-back ride down," Tommy said. He knelt down in front of Josh with his back towards the boy. "Put your arms around my neck and lean into my back. I'll wrap my arms around your legs like stirrups."

Josh did as he was instructed. As soon as the boy was in place, Tommy stood up. Only Paul saw the grimace of pain that crossed Tom's face when he put the extra weight on his leg.

"You sure you can do this with your leg?" Paul asked.

"Yeah, I'm going to be fine. I need to try to exercise it more often anyway."

"What happened to your leg?" Josh asked.

"I had an accident not that long ago and broke it pretty badly. It's still kinda sore."

Tommy began the trek back down the mountain with Josh on his back. At first they were both pretty quiet and then Josh began to speak.

"Is your leg ok?"

"It's not too bad Josh," Tommy replied. "How's the ankle?"

"Sore. How come your doing this for me with a sore leg?"

"That's what I'm here for. To look after you guys."

"I know, but some counselors would have made me walk or waited for someone else to come get me or sent me down with Paul. I've been kind of rotten to you and yet, you're so nice to me."

"You weren't rotten Josh. I was an eleven-year-old boy once and I liked to do tricks on people too. You know everyone warned me about you when I started working here. They said you were a handful and could be a pain, but I didn't believe them."

"You don't think I'm a pain?" Josh asked.

"No, I don't. I think you're a pretty neat kid actually. I was a lot like you when I was your age. I figured that you were testing me to see what kind of guy I was."

"I was kind of," Josh said. "At first I thought you'd be like all the rest. I guess I was wrong."

"Maybe you were. Everyone else was wrong about you too," Tommy replied. A smile crossed his lips as he felt Josh's head come to rest against his back. The arms around his neck seemed to tighten just a little bit too. It was barely another ten minutes of walking before he heard him snoring softly. They boy had actually fallen asleep on his back.

As Tommy trudged his way down the trail and neared the camp, his leg began to throb. He knew that he'd pay for doing this in the coming days, but he was happy that he'd probably turned the corner with Josh. Something had changed in their relationship that night and he had little doubt that Josh would start to come out of his shell and would start to be the kid that Tom always knew he could be.

When they arrived at camp, he headed straight for the administration building. Rachel met them at the door. A look of concern on her face turned to a smile when she saw Josh sleeping peacefully on his counselor's back.

"That is so cute," she remarked. "He's so peaceful when he sleeps, you'd never know he could be such a terror when he's awake," she said.

Tommy explained what had happened as he followed Rachel into the first aid room and gently set Josh down on the cot. Rachel removed Josh's shoe and sock and examined his ankle. After confirming Tommy's suspicion that he had just jammed it, she told Tommy just to take him back to the cabin for the night.

"I'll send Andy up to give Paul some backup. The two of you need some rest," Rachel said.

Tommy carefully picked up Josh once again and carried him the short distance to the cabin. He gently set the boy down on his bunk and removed his shoes and shirt before tucking him under the covers.

He sat for a moment on the edge of Josh's bed and watched the boy silently. He finally softly tousled his hair and stood up.

"You're a great little guy Josh," he whispered and then went to his own bunk.

In the dark, unbeknownst to Tommy, Josh opened his eyes and smiled to himself. "You're a good guy too Tommy," he thought to himself. Despite the lingering pain in his ankle, he drifted back to sleep happier than he had been in a long time.

Until the events of that afternoon and evening, Josh and Tommy had been camper and counselor - and now they'd become friends.

* * *

"From that night onward, we were buddies," Josh said.

"I remember that night well. You were pretty much my shadow after that. The other staffers couldn't believe the change in you."

"I heard all about the tricks you used to pull," Mark said with a grin. "I could hardly believe it when you told me about this amazing counselor you had when you got back."

"It just goes to show you how good things can come of bad things," Bryan remarked.

Brutus and Daisy gave us a brief but welcome bit of entertainment when a large fox squirrel ran through the yard. Both puppies gave chase, barking all the way, and finally managed to tree the small animal.

"What do you feed the squirrels out here?" Josh asked. "That thing's huge!"

"I know. It's called a fox squirrel," Bryan replied.

"I thought they were weasels or something when I first saw them," Mark added.

"I've never seen a squirrel that big before," I said.

"Daisy chases them regularly," Bryan said. "I've always wondered what she'd do if she caught one."

"Brutus was the same way when we were camped out," Josh said and proceeded to tell Mark and Bryan about the bear encounter as well as the injured mountain goat that we had dispatched.

"It's amazing how dogs bond with their owners," Bryan said. "The bear could have had Brutus for a snack, but his instinct was not self-preservation, it was to alert and protect his masters."

"Someone once said that dogs are just about the only things on earth that love you more than they love themselves," I replied.

"That's so true," Josh replied.

Before long Brutus and Daisy gave up on tormenting the squirrel and returned to the table to once again lie on our feet.

"We were talking about important events and I think mine had to be the day I found out I was coming here," Bryan said.

"I remember that day real well," Mark replied.

"I got the letter that I'd been waiting for. I had been accepted at the University of Calgary and I was going to leave within days. I felt great, but the toughest part was telling Mark that I had to leave him... at least temporarily."

* * *

Bryan sat on the motel room bed and stared at the letter that had changed his life. He'd been accepted into the University of Calgary for his final year. He had a plane ticket booked, all his possessions packed and he was ready to go and leave his previous life behind him. He had one difficult task left to do before he left. He had to tell his younger brother that he was leaving.

It hurt him to no end to leave his brother with his viscous thug of a father, but he had no choice. He had to help himself before he could hope to help Mark. Mark was a smart and sensitive boy and he hoped that he'd understand. He had to ensure that he knew he wasn't abandoning him to their father. He picked up the phone and dialed his father's house, hoping that he'd already be drunk and that Mark would answer.

"Hello?" Mark said into the phone.

"Mark, it's Bryan," he said.

"Bryan! Where are you? Are you alright? I heard that fight last night and I was so scared when you left."

"I've finally had it buddy. I've had it with him and I'm not coming home."

"What do you mean you're not coming home?" Mark replied, obviously choked up.

"I mean that I'm going away. I've transferred to the University of Calgary to complete my degree. I'm leaving in the morning."

Mark was silent for a moment. He was too stunned to speak.

"Mark, are you there?"

"Take me with you! You have to take me with you," Mark replied.

Bryan took a deep breath. "Mark, I'd take you if I could but there's no way I can do that right now. Dad would never allow it and until I graduate and get a job, I'd never be able to support you."

"You're just leaving me with him?"

"No, I'm not just leaving you. We'll be in touch all the time and I'll only be a phone call and a plane ride away if you need me. I need to get setup out there and then come up with some way of getting you out there too."

"How long will that take?" Mark sobbed.

"I don't know. I've got one year left in school and I may be able to shorten that if I work my ass off. As soon as I've got a job and a house, we'll try to find a way to get you out there too. I'm going to do everything I can to make that happen as soon as possible."

"I'm going to miss you. Since mom died, you're all that I've got," Mark said softly.

"I know Mark. I'm going to miss you too. We'll talk every day on the phone and I'll see you as often as I can. If you have any problems you can call me night or day. Just stay out of the old man's way and don't do anything to make him mad."

"You know how he is. He drinks and then gets mad at everything."

"I know Mark. You just have to trust me. I love you and I may be going away, but I'll always be there for you."

"I do trust you and I love you too," Mark replied.

A few minutes later, the brothers hung up and by then, both were in tears.

* * *

"It was thanks to you two that I was finally able to keep my promise. I'd talked to lawyers and none of them gave me much hope of being able to get custody of Mark."

"The first time I met Mark, he was such a sad little guy that it broke my heart," I said. "He looked so forlorn that morning at the YMCA."

"I can't thank you enough for everything you did Tommy," Mark said and leaned over to hug me.

"You're a new person these days kiddo," I said. "You're so full of energy and you smile all the time. That makes it all worthwhile."

"You've been my best friend since kindergarten," Josh said. "How could we not help you?"

"Now we're brothers too," Mark said with a smile.

"Damn right," Josh replied.

"Coming out here to Calgary was the real turning point in my life," Mark said. "I remember feeling scared, relieved, happy, and sad all at the same time."

* * *

The boy sat seat belted into the window seat of the 737 and played a video game on his Gameboy as he waited for the rest of the passengers to board the plane. He was really just going through the motions. His mind really wasn't on the game. His thoughts were of the changes that had taken place in his life in just the past two weeks.

It seemed like just yesterday that he was a lonely kid with only one friend in the world, a brother half a continent away who couldn't help him, a father who beat him, and the only peace he could have, would be at the end of a rope - and the end of his life.

Now, just a few weeks later, he was happy and looking forward to seeing his brother again and starting his new life. At the same time, he was scared because he was leaving all that was familiar behind. He was also sad to be leaving Josh and Tommy behind too. He'd be close friends with Josh for about eight years and they were as close as brothers. He'd only just met Tommy a few weeks ago, but he loved him deeply. He still didn't fully understand why, but Tommy had been so nice to him from the first moment that they'd met. He treated him like a person rather than an annoyance or a dumb kid. It was Tommy who had put his father in his place. It was Tommy who had fixed it so that he could live with Bryan in Calgary and it was Tommy who had put him on the plane. He couldn't understand why someone who had been a complete stranger cared more about him than his own father did.

"You ok hon?" The kindly looking flight attendant said as she stood next to Mark in the aisle.

"Yeah, I'm ok. I'm really ok actually," Mark replied and smiled wanly.

"You look like kind sad," the woman said.

"I am kind of. I'm happy too. I'm moving to Calgary to live with my brother which makes me happy. I'm kind of sad though because I'm leaving two of the best friends I ever had."

"That can be tough. A lot of people move to the west to start new lives."

"That's what I'm doing," Mark replied with a smile.

"What's your name dear?" the flight attendant asked.

"Mark. My name is Mark."

"I have a son named Mark. I'll tell you what Mark, my name is Brenda and if you need anything at all, even if you just want to talk, press that call button and I'll be right over," Brenda said with a kindly, almost motherly smile.

"Thanks Brenda," Mark replied and rewarded her with his brightest smile.

Brenda left to go about her rounds while Mark craned his neck trying to catch a glimpse of Josh and Tommy. He knew that they were heading to the top of the parking structure to watch the plane leave and he hoped to get a glimpse of them as they departed.

The three and a half hour flight to Calgary was over in no time. During the cross-country flight, Mark marveled at the sights below. Massive lakes, flat prairies and towering mountains passed far below him. He managed to nap for part of the time and spent the rest of the trip playing video games and reading the magazines that Tommy and Josh had bought for him. Brenda had checked on him often during the flight and she'd brought him extra cookies and several cans of Coke.

When the plane landed, Mark felt his heart thudding in his chest as he deplaned and went to claim his luggage. With his luggage loaded onto a wheeled cart, he headed into the public part of the terminal and began looking for his brother.

It didn't take him long. Mark and Bryan spotted each other from across the crowded terminal. Bryan smiled and began a hasty walk towards his brother. Mark let go of the baggage cart and ran into his big brothers arms. The two hugged fiercely and silently for what seemed like an eternity, with tears of happiness streaming down their faces.

"Welcome to Calgary Mark. Welcome home," Bryan said as he held him closely.

* * *

"I was never so glad to see anyone before in my whole life," Mark said.

"Same here," Bryan said and squeezed his brother's hand.

"Mark I'm glad that I could do those things for you. I don't know why your father is the way that he is, but it isn't because of you. You're an amazing young man and you deserve the life you have now."

"I know. It took me a while to realize that, but I know it now. I love all of you guys so much. I can't tell you how happy I am to have you guys and the gang back in Ontario, especially the twins, as family."

"The twins love you too Mark. You and Josh are like big brothers to them," I replied.

By that time, it was getting close to eleven. The four of us corralled the dogs and then after exchanging hugs, we all turned in for the night.

"I really love this family thing," Bryan said as we started undressing. "It's so different from my previous experience."

"Luckily for me, this is pretty much what my experience has been when I was growing up," I replied.

"You know, I look at those two boys and I can see that they're both going to go far. Josh with his personality and his smarts is going to take the world in his hands and Mark, with his dedication and his intelligence is going to go places and do things that neither of us could imagine," Bryan said.

"And he's got a devilish sense of humour." I added with a grin.

I'd never told Bryan about the dreams that I'd had about the future and I decided to share them that night. "Maybe it's wishful thinking, maybe it's just that my brains got scrambled a bit in the accident or maybe someone is trying to tell me something," I said in conclusion, "I really don't know, but those dreams are so real."

"I've heard of things like that and I can tell you that I think it's something that could quite possibly come to pass. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if it did. Just look at the way he interacts with people and how they respond to him. I've said it before, you can't help but like him," Bryan said as we worked our way under the covers.

"According to Shelly Mason..." I added as I pulled Bryan into my arms, "you can't help but love him!"

"Oh really!" Bryan said quietly surprised as he kissed me gently.

"Yep... and Josh seems to be happy with the idea." I said as I returned the kiss with more passion than I had ever dared before.

It seemed like only moments before the eagerness of our passion was satiated, and I was saying, "I love you Bryan."

Wrapped in each other's arms, my eyes were closed and my consciousness was quickly taking me into another realm as I heard Bryan reply, "I love you too Tom. Have more pleasant dreams."

When I woke up, Bryan wasn't there. I had a quick shower, got dressed and headed for the kitchen. Bryan was sitting at the table with my laptop in front of him.

"You're up early," I said as I rested my hands on his shoulders, leaned down, and kissed his cheek.

"Yeah, I'm usually up about six to go to work. I guess good habits die hard. Actually, I woke up from a dream I was having about this program of yours.... hang on...."

I watched carefully as he typed a few character changes to two lines of the code.

"THERE!" he declared excitedly, "Let's run it!"

I wrapped my arms around him, watching over his shoulder in anticipation as the program ran. It went perfect!

"YES!" I said with relief. "This sucker is going to work."

"You bet it is." Bryan declared as he stood up and hugged me. "You still have a lot to add to make it complete, but at least you're over that little hurdle. Did you see what I did?"

"Yeah, you made it so clean. I think I'll be able to use that technique when I do the wrap-up."

"Of course you can. I discovered that little trick by accident one day at the office. Got a good raise for it too. The other guys are always debugging their work time and time again.... not me. So far, no one has ever discovered my little secret. Use it to your advantage.... even at school."

"Oh Bryan, I owe you big time for that one." I said with all sincerity.

He held my face in his hands and gave me a quick kiss. "No.... you.... don't," he said deliberately with a smile. "You and the boys are the biggest part of my life and if it wasn't for you, I'd be nothing but a hacker on a keyboard without a family. I love you."

I smiled in acknowledgment and kissed him again. "Hey, where ARE the boys?"

"Oh, they were up just before me and they've gone out with the dogs." I looked at the clock. It was 7:30. "Mark has taken up running each morning," Bryan said. "He started that shortly after we started hitting the gym every other day."

"He's really turning into an athlete."

"He's in better shape than I've ever been," Bryan chuckled.

Just then the door opened and Mark trotted in with Daisy, Josh and Brutus trailing behind. It was funny seeing the differences between each of them.

Josh wasn't exactly a slouch. He was a pretty athletic kid, but he was no match for Mark. Mark looked like he could run another few kilometers while Josh looked kind of bushed.

"Morning Dad," Josh said and hugged me. "Man, that was some run."

"I usually go farther than that," Mark chuckled.

"I usually only run when someone's chasing me," Josh said.

The dogs pretty much mirrored their owners. Daisy, who ran every morning with Mark was padding happily around the kitchen looking for any scraps that Bryan, who had started cooking breakfast, and might feel inclined to send her way. Brutus on the other hand looked as bushed as Josh. Brutus loved to run and frolic with Josh or with other dogs, but distance hadn't been his thing. He guzzled water from the water bowl and then sat down next to Josh with his tongue hanging comically out of the side of his mouth. He looked like he wanted to do nothing more than sleep.

Bryan and I finished preparing breakfast while the boys took turns in the shower and then dressed for the day. After breakfast, I made it a point to take the firearms and ammunition out of the Jeep before we departed with both vehicles and drop the Jeep in for routine service at the local dealer.

I was a bit apprehensive as Josh and I approached the service counter. It was Saturday and I hadn't made an appointment. A young, rather harried looking service clerk looked up from his work space.

"And what can I do for you gentlemen?" He said dejectedly. I thought it was odd, no smile, no 'good morning'. He looked back down at his paperwork and continued to shuffle the papers in front of him.

"Good morning." I started as the phone started ringing. "We're traveling cross-country and I'm due for my 50,000 kilometer service. I..."

"Oh yeah," he interrupted still with some distain in his voice. "What time...." At that point, he was interrupted by a young lady who tapped him on the shoulder and stood at his side. "Alright Mabel, what is it this time?"

"I have a customer over at the cashier's counter wondering what this charge for realignment is about? He only came in...."

Just then the customer came up to the service counter. "I only came in for an bloody oil change for God's sake. Why the hell did you guys do an alignment on it?" He sounded angry.

"I DON'T KNOW WHY YOU HAD A BLOODY ALIGNMENT!" Hank roared. Even I was getting annoyed by the incessant ringing of the telephone.

I DIDN'T NEED AN ALIGNMENT!" the customer roared back.

I thought this was going bad and was ready to say something when I heard a big heavy voice from behind me. "WHOA!" the voice boomed. "Hank, cool it! You have a very important customer in front of you... Josh Chambers and Tom Davis. Gentlemen, it's an honour to have you in our dealership. I'm sure that Hank will see to it that your every need is looked after, WON'T... you.... Hank."

"Ye... Ye... Yes Mr. Graham." Hank replied quietly.

"Good," Mr. Graham said firmly. "Mabel, go back to your cashier's counter, take a message for all of Hank's calls, and sir, about that alignment problem. Come with me please." The few moments of chaotic anger was dispelled, now you could have heard a pin drop in the silence, and Hank had his complete focus on Josh and I.

"Sir," Hank began giving me complete eye contact, "I'm sorry about that, but Saturdays can be like boiling hot hell in this place. Mr. Chambers, you must be very important or the Service Manager wouldn't have stepped in like that. What can I do for you?"

"Actually, I'm Tom Davis and this young man is Josh Chambers. We're traveling cross country and I need my 50,000 kilometer service."

"I suppose you need it back today?" Hank questioned.

"Well yes I do. We're on a tight schedule to get to the east coast and back home to Toronto in the next two weeks."

"OK. Point taken. Could you pick it up at four this afternoon?"

Certainly, no problem." I replied.

"Can I ask, what is it that makes you guys so important?" Hank asked politely as he indicated where I would have to sign the work order.

I looked at Josh who stood there with his Cheshire cat grin. He simply shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't know."

Mr. Graham came up behind me. "Young man," he said as he looked at Josh, "After what you had to say to the Prime Minister, I can't believe you're so modest. Gentlemen, I'll make it my personal responsibility to see that your vehicle gets a thorough inspection and it will be ready this afternoon. Do you need a ride anywhere?"

"No sir, we're fine," I answered. "Bryan and Mark are waiting in the parking lot for us."

"Mark! Mark Callahan is with you? We are indeed honoured!" Mr Graham exclaimed. "Hank, after you get some of this paperwork out of the way, you and I are going to have a short talk."

As Mr. Graham left us at the counter, I turned the keys for the Jeep over to Hank, who by this time had a very worried look on his face.

"Hank, don't worry," I said smiling, "I'm sure all you're going to get is a bit of a history lesson."

"Well, you'll find out for sure when you come back and pick up your vehicle. If I'm not here, you'll know what happened." Hank said, then with a smile. "Not to worry though, I've been offered another job over at the Ford dealership."

As we were walking out the door, Josh turned and said loudly enough for the whole dealership to hear, "WE'LL SEE YOU AT FOUR HANK. CHIN UP..... THERE'S NOT THAT MUCH TO BE DONE ON THE JEEP!"

As we approached Bryan's Explorer, we saw Mr. Graham smiling and talking with Mark and Bryan. They stopped talking as we came closer.

"Mr. Graham," Josh said with a certain calm confidence in his voice, " Sir, I think you're not sure about what'd going on in that service department. You know poor Hank in there is overstressed. He really needs an assistant to do his job properly. I've seen a lot of people on this trip who have been stressed.... mothers with babies... waitresses.... gas attendants.... many people from all walks of life that are stressed and they can't do a good job like they want to because they need someone to help them... to be their assistant. Just from what saw in there, I wouldn't blame Hank if he took a hike and was off to another dealership that appreciates his talent. I'll bet if things don't change, you're gonna lose him. To put it another way sir, he needs to know that he's a valuable employee and sir... I think Hank's a nice guy, but he hasn't been given a chance to show it."

Bryan, Mark, and I were trying to contain our giggles. Josh was in another one of his diplomacy kicks to cure the ills of the world. He was so observant and me - I was so proud. Poor Mr. Graham stood there, mouth agape. After a few moments, he composed himself.

"Good grief," he said quietly. "Now I know how the Prime Minister felt. Josh," he started to giggle, "believe me, I am going to get Hank an assistant AND for sure, he's going to get a raise in salary. You're a very observant young man, Josh and I appreciate you speaking up. Sometimes it takes a jolt like this to remind me that our customers are always right. Gentlemen, as much as I'd like to stay and chat, I have to get busy and do some reorganization in there. It's been a pleasure meeting and talking with you."

We all shook hands before Mr. Graham went back into the dealership and the four of us piled into the Explorer.

Mark started laughing. "Josh! You did it again! Man, that must have been some scene inside there."

"Well it was kinda wild," Josh said, "at first I thought Hank was just being a ignorant prick, but once I saw the way the other people were treating him, I began to wonder if he'd ever been given a chance to be a nice guy."

"Son, what amazed me, is that while all that confusion was going on in there, you never said a thing... you just watched." I said questioning his motives.

"I didn't want to say anything Dad, but I would have if Mr. Graham had gotten mad at Hank. As it turned out, I didn't think he'd said all the right things to Hank at the counter. That EVEN embarrassed me. That's when I realized that Hank was just doing the best job he could."

"Josh, you have excellent instincts." Bryan interjected. "When you were talking to Mr. Graham in the parking lot, you remained very respectful and really showed him some things that I think he didn't realize." Bryan started to chuckle, "I thought he was going to offer YOU a job as a business consultant."

"HA!" Josh laughed. "No way! But it will be interesting to see what happens in a year or so when we move to Calgary. Mr. Graham doesn't know it, but," then Josh added in his best, yet threatening Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation, "WE'LL BE BOCK!"

That totally cracked us up as we headed for the mall. 'Yes,' I thought with a great deal of comfort as I looked at Bryan, 'We will be back.'

We did some shopping (yes, we did pick up more pie) and had lunch before taking in Mark's baseball game. Once again Mark excelled on the field and in the batter's box. His performance throughout the game made it exciting for us as we joined the crowd cheering him and the rest of the team on to victory. It was no secret why his team was in first place and heading into the play-offs as the team to beat.

I watched Bryan's smiling face beam with pride as he hugged Mark after the game. Josh and I were equally proud as we praised his skill on the field, Mark - he was a sponge - soaking it all up with a mile-wide smile that never seemed to quit.

Again I thought, 'Yes, I made a good choice all those months ago, to follow my instincts where Mark was concerned.' He worked hard to make his family happy - and he succeeded. Mark had said, 'Payback's a bitch' - in a way he was right. When I saw the happiness and pride in Bryan's face, I too was happy - almost to the point of tears. I realized that a few tears were a small price to pay for happiness.

After the game, we headed back to the Chrysler dealer to pick up the Jeep. Bryan and Mark insisted on coming into the service department with us. They were anxious to meet Hank - just to find out for themselves what sort of a person he really was.

The first thing I noticed as we entered was that there were two people behind the service counter. As we approached, Hank looked up and a big smile formed as he stood up. He didn't say anything, but he didn't take his eyes off us either as he walked around the counter to stand before us.

Still smiling he said, "I... I, uh... got my history lesson, and I.... I got a clerk to help out.... and I .... got a raise." Hank held out his hand to Josh. "Mr. Graham says that I owe you a big one.... actually he said that this dealership owes you big time."

Josh shook his hand. "OWE!" Josh exclaimed shaking his head. "No! We owe you for servicing the Jeep and that's all there is to it.... but... on the other hand," Josh smiled and winked, "You're welcome."

"I haven't had much of a chance to watch TV and I'm not much for politics either," Hank said apologetically, "but like I said, I got my history lesson from Mr. Graham. He told me about the bravery medals, the story behind them, and your.... conversation with the Prime Minister. He said I should be honoured if I got to shake hands with all of you. You're quite the celebrities."

First I introduced Hank to Mark. I think Mark was still enjoying his cloud nine victory from the baseball game.

"Hank, it's good to meet you. Ya know last night we were just talking about what if this or that hadn't happened." Mark said thoughfully. "I heard what Josh said to Mr. Graham this morning and I wonder if the two of you will look back on today and wonder what if." Then with a smile he continued, "Actually, I'm no hero or anything, but I did win at a baseball game today. Other than that, all I do is keep these nerdy guys in line. This one here is my dad; actually he's my brother Bryan. To me, he's the most important member in our family here."

"Hank, I'm really happy to meet you," Bryan said with a smile as he held his left arm around Mark's shoulder. "There's no doubt about it, these two boys do keep Tom and I on our toes keeping them in line, but after today, I wouldn't change them for all the money in the world."

"I know what you mean Bryan," Hank said and he shook hands with Bryan. "I have an eleven-year-old brother and some days I could throttle him, but most days he makes me so proud and happy." Then turning to me he held out his hand. As I was shaking his hand, he held out his left hand with the keys to the Jeep hanging from his fingers. "Mr. Davis.... Tom, your vehicle is in stall twelve out back. The invoice is sitting on the driver's seat as a record of the service performed. No charge. Those were the orders from Mr. Donalson, the owner. Believe me, today started out like crap in a paper bag and it's ending like the most wonderful day of my life. Thanks a lot for... well... everything. I just wish you were a regular customer."

"WOW! We.... I.... only did what we thought was right." I was stuck for words. "Thank you... I really mean it. Uh..." I started to smile at the thought. "Hank, don't tell Mr. Graham, but Josh and I will be moving to Calgary in about a year and a half... and... well..." I glanced at Mark and Bryan and together we pointed at Josh.

Right on cue Josh said, "WE'LL BE BOCK!"

The five of us had a good laugh as we headed out of the service department. As Josh and I headed back to Bryan's, Josh was reading the invoice that had been on my seat.

"Dad, you better check this invoice when we get home."

"Oh! Is there something wrong with it?" I said with some concern.

"No, it's fine, but man, did they ever do a lot of work on the Jeep."

"OK, I'll look it over. I think we better check in with your Mom before we hit the road again. What do you think?"

"Good idea Dad. Sometimes I miss her, but I really have a lot of fun being here with Bryan and Mark. We feel so much like family when we're together."

"You're right about that son. For me, this has been a weekend that I'll remember for a long time." I meant what I said as I thought about the five months ahead of us without having Bryan and Mark around us.

As soon as the four of us walked in the front door of Bryan's house, we were ambushed by two very happy, jumping, squealing, barking, tail-wagging big puppies. They weren't satisfied until all four of us individually knelt down and gave each of them lots of love and attention. Then it was time to let them out in the back yard to answer nature's call. What great dogs Daisy and Brutus were. There were no accidents in the house while we were gone and no signs of anxiety chewing anywhere.

"OK!" I announced once Bruutus and Daisy were settled, "Mark, Josh.... I have a favour to ask of both of you. It's kind of important to me."

"Hey, just name it Tommy! Be glad to help out." Mark said with some glee in his voice.

"Thanks Mark, I knew you'd be eager, so I think you'll enjoy it. Josh, while Bryan and I get supper ready, how would you like to show Mark how to program the navigation system on the Jeep?"

"Sure Dad, that's a piece of cake. How far?" Josh was equally enthused.

"Well on the way back east, we're going to take a route that sort of parallels the Trans Canada. I'm sure it's highway 9 in Alberta and then it changes numbers as it goes into Saskatchewan and then again when it goes into Manitoba. Our destination is Dauphin, Manitoba. Think you can do it?" I was sure I knew the answer before I asked, but once again Mark and Josh surprised me.

With his hands on his hips and his nose nearly touching mine, Mark asked, "Does a bear shit in the woods?"

Then Josh pulled my arm so that I was facing him, now with my nose touching his. "YES... HE... DOES!" he exclaimed. Then with a big laugh, both of them took off and were out the front door while my startled ego came back to normal.

As we headed for the kitchen, our laughter settling into a few giggles, Bryan asked, "What's so special in Dauphin?"

"Well it's not Dauphin that's so special," I said, "but between Dauphin and Brandon Manitoba, there's a park they call Riding Mountain National Park. It's not like the Rockies of course, but it is a big huge escarpment that pops right out of the flat prairie land that surrounds it."

"Sounds a bit like Ayr's Rock in Australia." Bryan observed as he pulled out the hamburger, onions, oatmeal, eggs, and seasonings for a meat loaf.

"Well in a way, only with Riding Mountain, there's a highway that runs right up one side and down the other to Brandon. I think its one of the places that Josh and I should document for our project." I said as I chopped the onions.

"This Heritage Project is really important to you isn't it?" Bryan asked while he started mixing the ingredients.

Well yeah," I replied, "but I think it's going to be more important to Josh. Remember the dream... I think this sort of experience at his age is going to go a long way to making that dream come true. All I can do now is sit back and wait and hope a little bit, that it becomes Josh's dream as well. For sure, I can't force it, but I have to give him all the exposure to all the right things that I can. What direction he takes, will be up to him." I started peeling the potatoes while Bryan put the meat loaf in the oven.

"Tom, I don't think you have to worry. Josh and Mark have all the right instincts. You and I are very lucky... no drugs... no bad habits.... the right attitude.... the two of them amaze me. Today they both shone like new pennies. I thought I was going to bust with pride."

"I thought you were too!" I laughed. "I didn't think you were going to quit smiling when that baseball game ended."

With the same prideful smile, Bryan said, "He was good, wasn't he?"

"Does a bear shit in the woods?" I asked as the boys came into the kitchen.

'YES... HE.... DOES!" Bryan, Mark, and Josh answered together.

The four of us went into the living room laughing while the potatoes and vegetables were cooking on the stove and the meat loaf baked in the oven. Josh handed me the invoice from the Donalson dealership. Before I read the details, I noticed the amounts column - it was loaded with a long line of N/C's all the way to the bottom. Then I started to read the details. The more I read, the more astounded I became. Brakes replaced, front end alignment, new tires, new wipers, new spark plugs and wiring, oil, transmission, transfer cases and coolant systems flushed and fluids replaced - the list went on and on. I was speechless. I handed the invoice to Bryan.

After a few moments of scanning the list, Bryan looked at me and exclaimed, "Tom! This has to be at least a two thousand dollar tune-up plus all the extras they changed.... tires... wipers."

"God, I didn't ask for all that! I think the 50k check-up is just an oil change and tire rotation." I gasped.

Bryan flipped the invoice to page two. There was no service recorded there, but there was a note that read:

"Mr. Davis and Mr. Chambers:

It has truly been an honour for this dealership to have served you and honour you as two of Canada's true heroes. We wish you well on your journey and great successes as you move into the future. Considering your past success, I know that the people you touch in the future will benefit greatly by the wealth of your presence and knowledge of what is right. After careful inspection, we know you can have all the confidence in your vehicle. Drive safely and have a happy journey. At your own discretion, please pass any benefit that this 'no charge' service invoice gives you, on to someone deserving, that you may meet on your journey through life.

Edwin Donalson"

While we ate dinner, I argued that we couldn't honestly accept that kind of a benefit for doing what just came naturally to us. Bryan agreed, but pointed out that the dealership did perform all that work of their own free will, and that I had only contracted for the 50k check-up. Josh and Mark agreed and the money should be spent on some other deserving individual, as Mr. Donalson said, at our discretion. I didn't feel too comfortable with it, but the family outnumbered my vote to reimburse the dealer.

The dinner turned out to be another success for us. Bryan's magic touch with the spices made the meat loaf tang the palette just right. I prepared the mashed, then whipped potatoes with butter and creamed cheese - no milk - a treat that was usually reserved for special occasions when I lived at home.

After dinner, Bryan and I snuggled up together on the sofa while the boys did the clean-up. I wanted to try, as much as possible to have a quiet and restful evening before Josh and I had to hit the road bright and early the next morning.

Before long, the clatter and din of dishes and pots and pans clashing with each other ended and Mark came into the living room to join Bryan and me.

"Josh is on the phone to his Mom," he announced.

"Oh, that's good," I responded a bit sleepily. "Were you able to get Bitchin' Betty programmed?"

"Yup, she's all wound up and rarin' to go. That was cool!" Mark said with a smile.

Bryan opened his eyes. He too was nodding off like I was. "Bitchin' Betty? Who the hell is she?"

"That's what we call the GPS navigation system." I explained. "It's a woman's voice, she tells us where to turn, and how far we have to go on any given road. You know... always naggin and bitchin' at us?"

Bryan started a giggle that eventually became a laugh. "I was beginning to think you had a girlfriend tucked away in the Jeep that you hadn't told me about."

"No chance of that Bryan," I said as Josh came into the room and handed me his cell phone.

"Dad, Mom wants to talk to you," he said as I sat up and took the phone from him.

"Hi Susan, how are you doing?" I said blinking the sleep from my eyes.

"I'm fine Tom. Josh tells me that you boys are having a good weekend together."

"Remarkable Susan, absolutely remarkable. We're so proud of them. Mark won his baseball game today and Josh got us a free tune-up on the Jeep at the local dealer. More than that though, they keep getting me with their practical jokes."

"Oh I heard all about that. I also got another earful about Shelly. Do you think my boy is a bit smitten?" There was a certain motherly lilt in Susan's voice.

"Well," I started, "you may be right." I winked at Josh. "He hasn't mentioned anything to me lately though."

"Well maybe you're going to have to bring up the subject. It's certainly not a problem with me if it's OK with you Tom."

"It's no problem Susan, the Mason's are the greatest family you would ever want to meet. I know you'd love them as much as we do." I said as I watched Josh turn a little flushed from the embarrassment.

"I'm glad to hear that Tom. Listen, something odd happened at the supermarket the other day when I was checking out. There was this miserable looking man at the customer service desk creating a lot of commotion about what a lousy store it was because it didn't sell booze. After I was checked out and was walking by the service desk, he was ranting about this 'effin' thing and that 'effin' thing. When I looked closer at him, I realized that it was Bryan and Mark's father. Then an officer came towards me and ushered me to the side, said that I was to stay there and he would get right back to me. Then the officer went over to the service counter, grabbed Mr. Callahan by the arm, and took him outside. When the officer came back in, he told me that he was going to escort me to my car... which he did. I did see Callahan in the police cruiser as we walked by. The officer said that I'd be all right and that I was always being watched. I didn't want to tell Josh about this because I'm not sure if you want to tell Bryan and Mark or not... I'll leave that up to you."

"Susan," I hesitated, not wanting to reveal anything. "Life can be tough enough. It sounds like Darren is making sure that Bob or any of his cohorts aren't going to get near you though." Josh started to get a very worried look.

"OK, they're listening. I understand your decision. Yes Tom, that surveillance makes me feel safe. You two look after each other and drive carefully."

"We will Susan and for what it's worth, don't worry about us, although I'm sure you will. We'll be home in just two weeks."

"Yes... and I'm really looking forward to it. Give my love to Bryan and Mark."

"You bet Susan, bye now."

"Bye Tom." I bit my lower lip as I closed the phone and handed it back to Josh, wondering how to dispel the anxiety that I saw in the three sets of eyes looking at me.

"WELL...!" Josh exclaimed.

"What's going on?" Mark asked with some concern.

"Tom, tell us what's happened?" Bryan asked quietly with a concerned look.

"Hang on guys. First things first." I stalled for time trying to think of how to handle the situation. I just didn't want anything to spoil the fun, good times, and love that the four of us were enjoying this weekend. I got up from the sofa and went over to Mark, kissed him on the forehead, and said, "Susan sends her love." Then I went over to Bryan and repeated the same greeting.

"Guys, it was nothing to worry about." I began as I stood there - all eyes staring intently at me. "Susan was at the supermarket and there was a just a little problem with one of the customers and Susan found out that when the uniformed cops showed up that they were there to protect her as much as to clear the argument the store manger was having with one of the customers. Josh, your Mom was surprised that she was still getting protective surveillance, that was all."

"It wasn't Bob was it?" Josh asked still with apprehension in his voice.

"Oh hell no," I added with confidence. "Bob's locked up, waiting for trial. We have no problems there."

"That's good," Mark said with some enthusiasm, "'cause he sounds like one mean cookie. Hey Bryan, can we watch that Monty Python video before we go to bed?"

"Sure thing Mark. You're in charge of the TV tonight." Bryan replied - I noticed, with some of that same pride in his voice.

While Mark retrieved the DVD and got it going, I resumed my position on the sofa nestled against Bryan, and then, not to be left out, Josh came over and nestled against me. It felt so good - like home with a loving family. Mark looked at the three of us, grinned, and with a wiggle and a squeeze, we made room for him too. I knew that Josh and I had seen the movie before, but we laughed all the way through it again. This evening the movie served a greater purpose for me - the comedy relieved the tension that Susan's situation had given me.

By 9:30 the movie had ended and Bryan announced that it was time for bed realizing that Josh and I were taking off as early as possible to make our way east. Brutus and Daisy amazed us once again. As soon as they heard the word 'bed' they headed for the back door, ready to go outside and do their nightly ritual of sniffing the backyard, perform their bladder/bowel evacuations, then right back to the door to be let in. As soon as they were in the door, they started heading for Josh and Mark's bedroom and if we didn't follow right away, they would stop and look back. Again, Bryan and I gave each of the boys a hug and an 'I love you' goodnight, which they in turn gave us as well, then we headed to our bedroom.

That night Bryan and I discovered more ways to please each other than we had before and I began to realize that our life together was going to be a wonderful experience as the years went by.

As we reached the final deep sighing stage before we closed our eyes, Bryan asked me softly, "Tell me what really happened."

"Huh?" My mind was still a bit fuzzy around the edges.

"Tom, please... we can't have any secrets. What really happened with Susan?"

"Oh... I'm sorry. I just didn't want to ruin the weekend for you and Mark. It's been so wonderful. Bryan, the guy in the supermarket... he was mad because they didn't sell booze. It was your father."

"That fuckin' sleeze ball asshole. He didn't hurt Susan did he?"

"No, no... but she did say that he was in the police cruiser when she was escorted to her car."

"Yeeess!" Bryan exclaimed quietly. "I hope they stick him into an isolation cell and throw away the key!"

"Bryan, I didn't want to upset Mark... he's had so much fun this weekend. How did you know that I..."

I could feel Bryan smile in the dark as I ran my finger lightly down his cheek. "Tom, I can read you like a book. When you were telling us, you were a bit flushed and while we watched the movie, your laugh was a bit on the shallow side for you."

"I guess I'm not a good liar am I?" I asked in all humility.

"No you're not, but that's one of the reasons I love you so much. You're one of the few people in this world that I can trust with my life... even my soul. Don't worry about Mark, I'll tell him when the time is right."

"I'm sorry that..." I was going to say, 'that he didn't have a good family unit to enjoy', but Bryan interrupted me.

"Don't!" he said emphatically, "you, Josh, and Mark are all the family I need right now. Besides, the bastard will probably be out of the drunk tank in a few days anyway."

I thought then that Bryan could read my mind. "Thank you Bryan... you know I love you."

As I felt him kiss the top of my hair, he said, "Goodnight Tom... I'll always love you."

As my conscious mind relaxed, I was content, very happy, and confident that maybe I'd really found the meaning of the term 'soul mate'.

When we finally departed early Sunday morning, it was an emotional scene for all of us. Even the dogs! After Brutus had jumped into his space behind Josh's seat, Daisy stood at the open door with her front paws on the door sill bidding goodbye to her brother with a little whimper.

Although we knew that the goodbyes were only temporary and that we'd all be together again for Christmas, it was still tough. It was hard on all of us to steel our emotions and go our separate ways once again, but we all looked forward to the time when we'd all be together permanently. In the meantime, Josh and I had a mission to complete and we were still needed in Ontario for the next year and a half.

Unlike the drive west, we didn't make many stops on our way back east. My decision to take the highway that was off the beaten path paid off. There was far less traffic on it than we encountered on the Trans Canada Highway during the busy summer months, although the scenery was very similiar. Driving the flatland of the prairies can get a bit boring after you've already driven through them once.

On Monday afternoon, we arrived at the North entrance to the Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, the enormous escarpment in front of us and the flat prairie land visible in the rear view mirrors. Although at its highest peak it's only 500 meters (1640 feet) above the prairie below, which is pretty shy of what we enjoyed going through the Rockies and British Columbia, Josh was still impressed by its immensity. While driving up to the peak, we saw much of the rolling landscape of mixed forests and grasslands, with various lakes and bogs interwoven. The park is said to be a mix of Canada's East, North and West. At the heart of the park is Clear Lake, a large and fairly cold spring fed lake, but still swimmable on a hot summer day - and this was one very hot day, so we took advantage of it.

We were fortunate to get a campsite at the south side of Wasagaming, the only town within the park limits. Although we were self sufficient, we decided to take advantage of one of the town's restaurants. A trip to the Interpretive Centre to gather more information about the park, and we were bushed for the day. I started to realize that this would be a great spot to spend a whole two-week vacation and still never enjoy all the things the park had to offer.

Back at our campsite, we spent a few hours lazing around, giving Brutus a lot of time to play with us in the water and enjoy the chatter of the other campers. Naturally, Josh had on his charm hat of diplomacy as he went around gathering great bits of information with the video camera from the native population and the visitors. All of it was great material for our project.

That night it felt so comforting to have Josh tucked in beside me as we slept, both of us feeling just a bit homesick for our family in Calgary and our family back in Ontario.

As I was just dozing off, Josh asked, "Dad?"

Looking at the back of his head in the dim light I said, "Yes son."

"It was Bryan's father, wasn't it?"

"Yes Josh it was. How did you know?"

"Just the way you acted at the time. I thought you were hiding something. I knew it wasn't Bob.... and it just came to me... it had to be him. Does Mark know?

"Bryan said he would tell him when the time was right." I confessed.

"Thanks Dad. I think you did the right thing. Goodnight Dad, I love you."

"I love you too son."

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter