Substitute Dad

© 2006 - 2011 By Scribe1971 (scribe1971@hotmail.com)

Chapter 62 - Christmas is Coming!


Author's Note: David of Hope has really come through for me here and has done a tremendous job on this chapter. This chapter is almost entirely David's work and I am greatful for his continued assistance with this project - especially during this difficult time with my family.


Bryan and I were like doting, anxious parents that first Monday in December. When the alarm went off at six that morning, we were awake in an instant.

"I'll grab a quick shower and get breakfast started, while you and Mark go for a quick run." Bryan said as we got dressed.

"That's a plan," I answered as we gave each a quick peck. I loved this man who had proved his love to me in so many ways.

While I went to Josh's room to wake him, Bryan went across the hall to wake Mark and Michael.

I hated to disturb the comfort I saw in Josh's slight grin that I never tired of, however, when I nudged his shoulder, he opened one eye. "Morning Dad, what time is it?" Just then Brutus wanted a good morning greeting too.

"Just past six son. Time to get up and get ready for your first day at your new school." I said as I ruffled Brutus' neck.

"Dad, it's too early.... the bus won't be here for two hours. I want to go back to my dream." Josh said as he tried to nuzzle his nose under the comforter.

I giggled. "Anybody I know?" I asked.

"I was dancing with a beautiful girl at school.... it was Halloween.... she'd just taken off her mask.... it was Shelly.... I was just going to kiss her."

"And now you have a hard on and a full bladder," I laughed. "Come on son, off to the shower, Bryan's getting breakfast and Mark, Michael, and I are going for a quick run with Brutus and Daisy." I kissed his forehead, "Love you Josh."

"Love you too Dad," he said as he snuggled back into the comforter. As I started to leave the room, I slowly pulled his sheet and comforter with me, leaving him nude on the bed.

"DAAAD! Oh I'm going to get you for that!" I dropped the bedding and ran out of the bedroom laughing, leaving the door wide open with Brutus on my heels.

"That's a surprise!" I exclaimed. "When did you start going commando? I think you've been spending too much time around Jake!"

"I don't normally," Josh said sheepishly. "I had another dream about Shelly earlier and I couldn't be bothered to dig out a clean pair of underwear!"

"Ok that makes sense," I replied with a knowing grin. "Joshy, remember what I told you about condoms right?"

"I remember. Don't worry Dad, we aren't going to do anything just yet."

"Ok kiddo," I replied "I'm going to leave a box in your nightstand drawer anyway just in case. Anyway, hurry and get your shower and get dressed so we can all have breakfast together," I added as I left through the open door.

Brutus and Daisy were well in front of us. Bryan and Michael were just in front of me and Mark was just behind as we ran the hallway.

"Woo Hoo! Josh had a gutter moment!" Mark exclaimed as we hit the top of the stair.

"Hey Mark," I stopped and said seriously, "Not what you're thinking...." I smiled, "it was Shelly."

Quickly Mark doubled back to Josh's door. I didn't hear what he said, but he was smiling as the three of us stood at the counter drinking a small glass of orange juice.

Mark, Michael, and I made our way to the front door, let the dogs out, then dressed into our winter coats, and started jogging our way towards the other homes with the dogs keeping up in spite of their many stops for a sniff here and there. The air was so fresh, crisp, and invigorating.

With a boy on each side of me, we began our run toward the north gate. I turned to Mark, "Was it an apology?"

"Yeah.... he said it wasn't necessary.... we're brothers.... more love gained than lost. I gotta watch what I say.... or I'll be spending all my life apologizing."

"You'll never have to apologize to me," Michael said quietly, "I'll always love you."

"Goes double for me," Mark said with a smile.

"Double it again for Bryan and I, boys." I added. "The three of you are more precious to us than Bryan and I are to each other."

Halfway to the north gate, we met Kevin and Freddie coming our way. Suddenly I wanted a hug and Kevin was facing in the right direction. I grabbed him, both of us smiling, "Good morning Kevin."

"Morning Tom," he replied as the four of us turned to go back towards the main house and the main gate.

"You've never done that before," Kevin said as we trotted.

"I know," I said, "but I wanted a hug right then and you were facing the right way."

"Weird. I needed it," Kevin said. "Dad's a bit tense with Christmas coming. I hope and pray he can hold it together."

"Has he hooked up with the AA in Calgary yet?" I asked.

"Oh yeah we've registered, but the next meeting isn't until next week," Kevin answered, "Mom and me too with Ala-Non and Al-Teen, but after Dad's last meeting in Toronto, we got home, and Dad told us how tough Christmas was for most alcoholics and well.... after last Christmas.... I'm kinda afraid."

"Kevin, I know what you're thinking," I began. "You can be sure that Darren, Bryan, and I will keep an eye on your dad. It could be that all he's worried about is how the other alcoholics are going to make it through Christmas. Those people are a different part of his life, kinda like a different family that he has to care about. Your dad is a fine example for them to follow. Just remember how much he loves you. Have faith in him and he'll make it through this if you show him your confidence. Maybe that's what that hug was all about."

"Yeah, you're right Tom. Thanks. It's my Dad that needs the hug," Kevin said smiling.

We had a leisurely run down to the main gate, each of us doing a few stretches, then the four of us picked up the pace as we headed back to the spot where we met up with Kevin - then all of us had a race to get to his house. Naturally, Mark came in first and wasn't winded.

We slowed to a trot to cool down as the three of us headed back to the main house. Even the dogs were happy to get home and into their dishes full of food.

After a quick shower, we joined Bryan and Josh at the kitchen bar, for a great breakfast of scrambled eggs, toasted English muffins, sausage and potato pancakes. More than anything, Mark, Michael, and I were thirsty after our run. Each of us had a full tumbler of orange juice and I had two cups of coffee.

"You boys ready for school?" I asked.

Josh jumped down from his stool with a giggle. "Yup, I'm ready and rarin' to go!"

Before I had a chance to swing around, he had me in a headlock and was giving me a brain burning noogie. "There!" he exclaimed with a laugh, "That's for leaving me freezing in bed this morning!"

Although it hurt, I was laughing together with everyone else, remembering how startled he looked laying in bed with the bedding pulled off him.

Once we made sure the boys had everything, all of us headed out the door and headed for the north end of the ranch settlement where the bus was to pick them up. It was a bit of a chilly morning - about minus five Celsius, but no wind. Once we were joined by Darren, Susan, Shelly, Eddie, Kevin, and their parents, including James, Anne and the twins, Mom and Andy, and Hamish and Irene, we headed for the north gate accompanied by one of the security men. This was a new routine for everyone and although there wasn't a threat yet, it was a routine we all had to become familiar with.

Each of the kids had to get a hug from each of the parents. It was a special day for all of us. The security guard was good enough to take a picture of all of us just as the bus pulled up. I wished that Angela and Howard could have been there for Michael, however Bryan and I tried our best to make up for their absence. It was 7:45. As we proudly watched them leave for their first day in their new school, happy and content that they were safe for the day, Susan, Darren, Bryan, me, and the two dogs started to head back to the main house when Grant called out from the north gate.

I didn't realize that Christmas was going to start almost right away so soon after we arrived at the ranch.

"Hey there folks, wait up. There's something I need to talk over with you." Grant called.

"Hey Grant, what's up?" I asked as we turned to wait for him to catch up.

"Umm.... after last Christmas, well.... I wanted to do something special this year," he stammered, "but I think I kinda bit off more than I can chew."

"What can we do to help Grant?" Susan asked with a smile.

"Well I wasn't going to include the ladies, but I sure could use the help of all the men." Grant paused as he looked down at the ground scuffing his feet despondently. "Uh.... I got the thought for this idea when we came here on our first trip out and really wanted to surprise everyone, but...." He looked up at us with eyes that seemed to plead for our understanding. He continued, "When we got back to Toronto, I phoned Harold and asked him if he'd do a special project for me separate from the hangar, the runway lights, and the security system. He agreed and he did it and I paid for it all. I know I put my neck out a mile if you guys don't like the idea."

"OK buddy, what did you come up with?" Bryan asked with a big smile.

"Well you've seen all the trees at the front of the houses and the ones down the side of the road.... and the ones in front of your house and down the road to the main gate?" We all nodded. "Well, I had Harold put a 110-volt outlet at the base of each of the trees and run the feed underground to an additional 200-amp service panel in to distribute the power. Actually, it's in your garage. I.... I wanna put double stranded sets of mini-lights up and down every branch on every tree."

"WOW!" I said as I went over to the nearest tree and saw the weatherproof outlet strapped to the tree trunk at the end of a short piece of conduit. I looked up at the number of branches and realized this was going to be a big job.

"Every tree!" I exclaimed.

"Yeah, I had him put another set of conduits around the houses as well so we can do them too, but Tom, I know I can't to it all myself..... I've run out of time.... it would take me a couple of months to do it all by myself."

"Maybe five months," Darren said laughing. "No problem Grant, count me in."

"Grant, how the hell are you going to get to the top of those trees?" Susan asked.

"No problem Susan, I have a cherry picker on it's way and I can get another one here within an hour. I know it's kinda cold out right now, but I really want to get it done before we get any really heavy winter weather. How about it Tom.... Bryan, can we do it?"

"Of course we can do it!" Bryan exclaimed.

"Just show us what you want done Pal and we'll get it done. It's going to take a lot of lights though." I said.

"Come with me," Grant said with a big smile as he led the way to his house. He opened up the garage door and there was his 3/4 ton extended crew cab. He lifted the gate on the cap top and revealed the truck box filled to the to the top of the cap with cartons of Christmas tree lights. "I bought all the lights I could find at Home Depot and Walmart the day after we got here. I haven't hit Sears yet. I just hope I have enough. There's some five-watters at the back of this load to put on the houses. Just in case, I had another 200-amp service put in my garage for the five houses around here."

"So let's get started!" Darren said.

"OK boys.... go to it. Get us all in the Christmas spirit. I'll organize something for lunch and supper with the ladies. It'll be at the main house." Susan said as she took off with a smile.

"How about you and I distribute the boxes to the trees," I suggested, "while Darren and Bryan get the others rounded up. I think with the eight of us at it, we just might get it done today."

"It would be great if we can get the trees done today, then we can do the houses tomorrow." Grant said.

Grant and I got in the truck and headed for the main gate at the south side. His truck was better outfitted than my Jeep. While we were on our way, I asked, "You've been uptight about this project for a while?"

"Hell yes," Grant replied smiling, "it would have been awfully depressing if you guys had kyboshed the idea."

"Grant, I gotta tell you, on our run this morning, I found out that Kevin's been feeling your anxiety," I began. "I tried to explain that you might be in the doldrums because of all the other alcoholics who are having a hard time dealing with Christmas."

"I certainly do feel for all those people," Grant sounded serious, "and I'd love to make sure that they have a good Christmas, but I can't do it. My family.... our families have to come first this year. From a security point of view, there's no way we can turn this place into a refuge for the less fortunate. Maybe I can help them in other ways, but I'm not going to jeopardize our home. I.... I guess I've got to give Kevin an extra hug tonight."

We came to the first tree and on Grant's direction, I handed him four boxes labeled clear and green. The next tree was red and clear, then the next blue and clear. We continued on, until Grant got a call on his cell phone from the main gate. The first cherry picker had arrived.

As we approached the unit at the main gate, Grant asked, "Do you think you can handle that unit?"

"Won't know 'til we have a look at it," I replied.

We looked at the controls, I tested each one, and suddenly it was a snap. "Piece of cake," I said.

"Good! We'd better get back there and show the guys what has to be done." Grant said enthusiastically.

As Grant was pulling up in his truck with me following behind driving the cherry picker, Darren and Bryan had gone door knocking and had Hamish, James, Andy, and Trevor, gathered in the driveway. It was 8:30.

Grant took us over to the first tree at the north gate by the five houses. He opened up two of the boxes and showed how he wanted the lights tested before they intertwined them and how to mount them on the tree with twist ties. On this tree, one strand was clear and the other was green.

"Hamish, I hope this idea won't hurt the trees?" Grant asked with some concern.

"Not to worry Grant, they've all gone to sleep for the winter, but be careful with the spruce trees, their needles are a bit prickly this time of year." Hamish warned.

We left Grant and the cherry picker with Andy, Hamish, and Trevor to start from the north end.

Bryan, Darren, and I headed back to the main gate and started with the first tree inside the main gate to the property, just as the second cherry picker showed up. It took us twenty minutes to complete the first tree, but after that, with Bryan on the cherry picker, we had the production line down pat and it was just fifteen minutes a tree. We left each tree plugged in as we completed it, although you couldn't see the full effect in the bright sun. Within the first hour, we had six trees completed. In the next hour, we had another eight trees finished and that was our pace for the next two hours. It was tough trying to twist the light and mount them around the branches with our gloves on, so we did it with our bare hands. Real nippy, but bearably miserable, and for sure those spruce tree needles did scratch our hands.

Meanwhile Grant manned the cherry picker at the other end of the property and was doing the upper branches while the rest of the crew started at the trunks and worked their way up. By 12:30, we had half of the trees completed when the ladies called us in for lunch at the main house.

It felt good to get out of the cold and warm our hands under the hot water. While we were eating the sumptuous lunch that the ladies prepared, Grant informed us that he was going to have to make another run into Calgary to get more strings of lights - he was about 10% short with his initial estimate. I thought that was remarkable considering he was working with so many variables - bulb colours and tree sizes. After dropping off all the five watt strings at each of the houses, Grant headed out for more mini-lights. Every one of us were enjoying the use of the cherry pickers and although they were rentals, we didn't abuse them. None of us had had the experience before.

So we spent the first part of the afternoon doing the rest of the trees. Toward the end, we were stealing coloured strings from other designated trees to finish the ones we were working on. Trevor, Hamish, and Andy were doing the same as we were, so they were at a stand still as well. Just as we ran out, Grant showed up with another truck load of lights.

By four that afternoon, with security watching, the school bus arrived and dropped off the kids from school at the north gate. For sure the dogs were happy to see them. We still had eight trees to go, half way between the north and south end.

"WOW!" Kevin yelled up at me on the cherry picker. "You have all the trees looking so beautiful."

"Hey, it was all your Dad's doing. We're just helping out," Bryan said.

"Dad! Do you know how to operate that thing?" Josh asked.

"It's a piece of cake guys! How was school?" I asked.

"Miserable!" Mark shouted at me. "We have our term exams starting next week, so we have to hit the books."

"Hey that's a good thing Mark, you'll finally get some smarts." I shouted back laughing.

"I'll get you for that one," Mark laughed, "and remember I can run faster than you."

The boys carried on home while the eight of us started to get closer and closer together. As we were finishing up, Shelly and all the boys came out to gather the empty boxes and cartons, crush them, and put them into the back of Grant's truck. We were watching Grant as he finished the top of the last tree. All the ladies came out of the main house as the rest of us stood and watched Grant lower the cherry picker to the ground for the last time today. As soon as he swung himself out of the bucket, everyone started to hoot, holler, and applaud. It was 5:30 PM and the sun had just set.

Ethel immediately ran up to him and gave him a hug and held the embrace. "Sweetheart it's absolutely beautiful," she said before planting a big kiss on his lips.

Kevin was the second to rush up to him and give Grant a big hug. Ignoring how tired he may have felt, Grant grabbed Kevin into a bear hug and lifted him of the ground. "I love you son," he said quietly.

"Love you too Dad," Kevin replied as Grant lowered him to the ground. Once again, I felt that everything was good in our world.

All the ladies praised each of the guys, however Mom's praise was the best. "Grant, you've made this our own private winter wonderland. You and the rest of you have done a wonderful job."

"I'm glad you like it Diane. Tomorrow we have the houses to do." Grant said. "I hope we have enough lights and it turns out as good as the trees have."

All of us went to the main house and used one of the main floor bedrooms to put our coats on the bed, and then made use of all the washrooms in the house. Because we did a lot of the work with our gloves off, our hands were constantly cold, but we endured. We all wanted the job done. Each of us got a few scrapes and scratches from the twigs and needles on the trees, but with a good soak in the warm water and some medicated hand cream, we recovered pretty good. Then Grant showed us the electrical panel and the timers in the garage that would control the lights. We set them to come on at four in the afternoon and shut off at midnight although today we had used the manual override as we went from tree to tree.

The ladies had done a wonderful job of setting up a buffet on the kitchen bar with more than twenty bowls and platters of food. All the chairs and stools had been moved into the family room into a cozy oval around the room. The fireplace was roaring as we attacked the food on our plates. Many of us went back for seconds. Once the kids had picked up all the dishes and loaded the dishwasher, we all relaxed in the family room.

"Seriously now Mark, how do you think you'll do on your term exams?" Bryan asked.

"Actually, I think I'll do fine." Mark answered confidently. "Michael and Josh are in the same class and Kevin and I are in another class. Our teachers were good. They said that tomorrow they would start a term review for the classes and point out some of the things we have to study. Their text books are the same as the ones I was using at the other school. How about you Kevin, are they the same books as you had in Ontario?"

"Well they look different, but most of the subject matter is the same. I don't think I'll have a problem. I suppose it's the same story for you and Michael, eh Josh?" Kevin asked.

"It's like you say Kevin," Josh began, "the books are different, but I think the content is the same. I spoke to the Math teacher and the Science teacher and they said they weren't going to do a special review just for us guys from Ontario when he doesn't know what the differences might be. After the week's review, he figures we should be good to go for the exams and judging from what our results are, he'll discuss where we need more help.... maybe assign us a tutor in the new year if he thinks we need one just to bring us up to snuff. How was it for you Shelly?"

"Actually, the History and Science is about a half-term behind what I was taking in BC. The math was on par. I asked the teacher a few questions after the classes about where they were and they told me that they were going to cover those parts after new years. So I guess I'm ahead of the others. I'll know after I try the exams in another week."

"Sounds good to me dear," Trevor said. "I know you.... all of you will try your best and that's all any of us expect. How about you Eddie?"

"School's kinda boring. The stuff they're teaching us is easy." Eddie said despondently.

"Yeah, it would have been more fun being here helping you guys with the lights," Matthew said with a smile.

"Yeah, me too," Richard said, "The teacher said we were awfully smart and was going to give us a special test tomorrow.""

"The main thing for all you kids," I added, "is to enjoy learning. You wonder why they ask some of the questions they do on an exam, but the reason is mainly so the teachers know that you grasped the concept and can use it in the future. I think for you youngsters, they'll make an adjustment to your courses so you won't be bored."

"It's important to keep your destination in the back of your mind as well," Grant added. "Think of where you want to go when you graduate. How about it Kevin, I've never asked you before, but what line of work would you like to be in when you finish school?"

"More than anything," Kevin began, "I don't want to be a cop or in the security business. Sorry Dad, but that's your line and I know you like it, but I think I'd like to be a lawyer.... that is if there's money in the budget for it."

"RIGHT ON KEVIN!" Andy exclaimed. "A man after my own heart!" He went over and bumped knuckles with Kevin.

"Kevin," Mom spoke up, "Don't ever worry about the money.... none of you kids. There's money already set aside for all of you to go to university and get your Masters Degree in any line of work you may choose. Now speaking of money.... Grant, I want all the receipts for the electrical work you had done here, including the ones for the lights and the ones for that equipment you rented."

"No, no, no, Diane, not this time," Grant said, "This is my treat to all of you and I'm paying for it."

Mom stood up, crossed the space between them, and stood right in front of Grant with her hands on her hips. "Grant.... I'll put it this way.... the IDEA was yours and we all love you for sharing it with us and we are all going to share the pleasure of it, but we all have to share the cost of making your idea come to life because that's the only way we can thank you for giving it to us. When it comes to the money that it takes to maintain this homestead, I'm in charge. There's an advantage to it as well.... next year we can budget for it and maybe hire a crew to put up all the lights. Just look at your hands all scraped and cut.... it won't be like this next year."

"Don't argue with her Grant," James laughed, "You can't win." Both Andy and I were giggling about that remark. Mom was just being Mom and we knew James was right.

"Ok Dianne, you win," Grant smiled, "but you're going to have us all spoiled rotten."

"Oh no Grant," Mom retorted, "no one is getting spoiled here. If you were spoiled, we'd have let you lay around all day and watch TV. Instead, you took the bull by the horns and gave us something important to do. Now the other thing that happened today was also important. For sure there's just too much for Irene and Hamish to do around here with all of us at work and school. We've discussed this once before. It was Susan's idea that we speak to the security folks about getting some additional domestic help. What are your thoughts about that?"

"From a security point of view I agree," Darren said, "it means that there will be people here that our security team can trust instead of more people on the property that they have to watch and be leery of."

"One stop shopping.... I like it." Trevor agreed. "What's your thoughts Tom?"

"Oh I agree," I answered, "but Irene, I want you in charge of what they do and how they do it. So long as they meet your standards, I'd be happy."

"Good by me," Bryan said, "but we wouldn't need them to start until the first of the year when we'll all be at school and the office."

"It's settled then," Susan finally said as mom sat down, "tomorrow, I'll speak to the security company and let them get something set up. We're still responsible for our own laundry and keeping our kitchens cleaned up."

"Susan," I said, "You're a brilliant lady and you always get your way. We'll also have to think about extra help for Hamish. It going to take eight of us to put up the Christmas lights in two days.... without some help, it's going to take months for Hamish to take them down.... I think you should add a few men to help him out with his chores as well."

"OK, I'll add them to the list if everyone's in favour." Susan said thoughtfully.

"Oh don't be silly Susan," Mom said giggling, "of course we're all in favour."

"Well folks," Hamish spoke for the first time, "This is far more than Irene or I were expectin' from all of you. You've really been too kind to us, but I'm sure as time goes by, we'll really be appreciatin' the help. I was thinkin' today when we were puttin' up those lights on the trees, how long it was going to take me to put them away. I just want to thank all of you for bein' so kind and generous and lettin' us be a part of.... for lettin' us join in with your families. You're all just too kind."

"What Ham said is true," Irene added, "Looking after this ranch was just a job before, although the old folks weren't unkind to us.... we certainly knew our place. Being here with all of you makes us feel like we belong and that the ranch is as much a part of us as we are a part of it."

"You two are a big part of this ranch.... you know it better than we do," Bryan said. "I know who to ask if we have any questions that need answering. We're very lucky to have both of you to help us look after it."

Just then Grant yawned.

"Well I don't know about all of you," Ethel said, "but I have a very tired husband tonight and I better get us home before he falls asleep."

"You're right dear," Grant agreed, "Tomorrow we'll have an easier job doing the houses, but it will still be a full day before we're done.... AND tomorrow is another school day. Right Kevin?"

"Right on Dad," Kevin replied as he went to the bedroom to retrieve their coats.

No doubt about it, we were all tired - not as tired as the kids, so the thoughts of bed became very comforting that night. We left the family room set-up the way it was because we thought we may be using it again tomorrow.

Even saying goodnight to the boys that night was tiring as I sat on the side of their beds letting them tell me about how their day went - I just wanted to close my eyes and fall asleep right beside them.

Once Bryan and I showered and crawled in to bed, I was out like a light.

The next morning our day started just as the day before had, although Josh did get up as soon as I nudged him. This time he was wearing his usual sleeping attire - underwear! As soon as we saw the kids off on the school bus, Grant got us organized with what lights should go where and cautioned us to watch out for the camera locations. Doing the peaks and around the second floor windows of the houses was a snap with the use of the cherry pickers. I couldn't imagine the risk to life and limb doing this job with ladders.

The other big differences today were we could wear our gloves most of the time and we weren't getting our hands stabbed by the twigs and needles that we had the day before decorating the trees. The project turned out good with not too many extensions needed to reach the purpose made receptacles.

Once again, the ladies had our lunch ready for us. We'd just finished the last house - Hamish and Irene's, which was closest to the north gate, when the school bus pulled in to let the kids off.

Again, all the kids got a hug from their dads - Josh, Mark, and Michael got twice as much, but who's counting - when my cell rang. Supper was ready at the main house. Richard and Matthew were the first to run up to their house and drop off their backpacks, then Shelly and Eddie followed suit at their house, and finally Kevin.

With the dogs ahead of us, like a stampede of horses, we invaded the main house as everyone headed for a washroom somewhere. It felt so good to feel my hands warm up under the hot water again.

During dinner, amongst all the hub-bub of everyone's conversation, I whispered to Bryan beside me, "When we're finished, grab your video cam and coat and I'll meet you in the hanger."

As soon as I was finished and I noticed that Grant and Ethel were too, I went over and knelt between them. Quietly, I said, "Grab your coats and come with me."

By the time we got to the hanger, Bryan already had the door open and was starting to push the Cessna out. With Grant and me helping, we had it out and turned around, and I invited Grant and Ethel in. I had Bryan in the seat beside me because I wanted him to get a good view for the video. I did one circuit clockwise and another counter-clockwise, then landed. Grant and Ethel were overwhelmed. I kept myself busy watching where we were headed and I wanted to take advantage of the best views of the Christmas lights for the passengers, so I had to pay attention to our direction and altitude, so I wasn't enjoying the best of the spectacle, but I really wanted Grant to enjoy the fruits of his endeavor. It was only a simple twenty-minute route and we were landed.

The three of them got out and Kevin got in with Shelly and Josh in the back. After I finished the clockwise schedule and turned around to start the counter-clockwise circuit, I let Kevin take the controls. Although it was nighttime and he was a bit unsure of himself, he got the feel for the controls of this plane and that was important. I did the final touchdown, but he did a great job of lining us up with the lighted runway.

Next, it was Mark and the twins that came up with me. I allowed Mark the same treatment as Kevin with the flying. The third trip was Michael, Irene, and Hamish. Irene and Hamish were truly overwhelmed because this was the first time they'd been in a small airplane, or any airplane for that matter, since they moved to Canada. Michael of course had soloed, so I was able to give him a hands-on experience with the Cessna as well.

When we landed, Angela and Howard Burton had arrived to offer their congratulations to Michael - they were so proud of their son's flying skills - so I invited them and Mom to come on board for our next trip around.

For two hours, I took every one of our extended family and the security folks that were on duty that night around the circuit.

On my last trip around, I took my time to actually look down at the display around the homestead. It was spectacular! Grant's colour scheme had worked out perfect. I was anxious to see the video.

With my last landing, Bryan was standing by the pump, so I taxied over to it and together we filled the tanks. We hadn't used a lot of fuel, but proportionally more than we would have for a straight and level flight of two-plus hours because of all the takeoffs and landings. I made a notation in my log book, the airplanes log book and after we hangered the plane, Bryan and I went back to the main house.

As soon as I walked in the family room, I was greeted with a bunch of cheers.

Once everyone settled down, Susan asked if we'd be free tomorrow to go to a car dealer and have a look at cars. Ethel, Susan, Darren, Andy, Anne, Mom, and Trevor all needed new cars - especially Darren and Susan - neither of them had a vehicle.

"I know just the man you need to see!" Josh exclaimed. "His name is Mr. Donalson and he's a real great guy. He sponsored me for two thousand dollars for the Terry Fox run."

"Well that's quite an endorsement," Mom said.

"It is folks, if you want a Chrysler, Dodge or Jeep," I clarified.

"Well let's not get nitty-picky about this," Anne said, "While each of us may be able to afford a new Rolls Royce, I don't think we need to attract that kind of attention to ourselves. I think comfortable 'John Doe' types of vehicles would be appropriate."

"Alright folks, hang on there a second...." Darren said, "we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves. First, we're all going to have to get Alberta driver's licenses and Alberta license plates for the existing vehicles."

"That's right," Bryan said with a laugh, "You aren't foreigners from Ontario and BC anymore. Another thing, before you take a vehicle off the lot, you're going to need insurance."

"I'm your man when it comes to insurance," Howard interrupted. "If you folks hit the Alberta Transportation office tomorrow morning around 9:00, they should have you out of there by 10:30. I'll have one of the agents from my old company there to assign temporary pink cards for your existing cars. I know we'll get a dandy deal if we go under a fleet rate for the company. Then we can head to Donalson's and he can issue temporary pink slips for the new vehicles. I'm sure they have a gopher that can hit the license office for your plates once you've decided which new vehicles you want."

"Good point," Mom said, "we'll put all the new vehicles under the company umbrella. When the rest of you decide to trade in your old vehicles, they can be put under the same umbrella."

"I wish I could come with you tomorrow Dad," Josh said. "I'd like to see Hank again."

"Well we'll tell him you were asking about him and I'll definitely speak to Mr. Donalson and thank him for his contribution to your Terry Fox run."

"Good!" Josh replied.

"AND...." Bryan added, "All five of us are going to be busy shopping on the weekend, so we'll make time to drop into Donalson's so you guys can have a quick visit with him. I just hope he's still there. Oh, and Hamish," Bryan continued, "We need you and Irene to come with us tomorrow.... just in case we need another driver or two."

After everyone had left, the boys went upstairs to study while Bryan and I were putting the chairs, stools pillows etc., back where they belonged - I asked Bryan why he wanted Hamish to come.

"Tom, he's driving a twenty-year-old half-ton rust bucket. I'm sure that a lot of wear and tear on it is because of the errands and work he's done for this place, so I'm going to buy him a new one. Maybe a 3/4 ton crew cab like Grant's. He needs it."

"I think he deserves it Bryan, but it's going to be a hard sell. I get the feeling he's a rather prideful man," I said. "You and I are OK with the Jeep and the Explorer for a couple of years, right?"

"For sure.... once you finish your courses at the university, we'll probably be using one vehicle to get back and forth to work and they both have a lot of life left in them. In just a year or so, Josh and Mark are going to have their licenses and want a vehicle. Maybe the Explorer and the Jeep would be good vehicles to start them out on 'til they finish high school. As far as Hamish is concerned, I'll just tell him it's a ranch vehicle for his and Irene's use. I don't know if Irene drives or not or I'd get her a car too. We're going to be busy tomorrow, so I'm going to throw a roast in the slow cooker to thaw tonight and put it on low tomorrow."

That was a good idea and I suggested that we have the Burton's over for dinner tomorrow night as well. So before we went to bed, Bryan pulled a big roast from the freezer and placed it in the slow cooker to thaw over night while we both peeled spuds and veggies.

That night as we were saying goodnight to the boys, we finally got to hear how their day went at school.

"I wish it was the beginning of the year so I could have joined the soccer team," Michael said, "but I'm going to join the gymnastics and swimming teams in January."

"Good man!" Bryan said. "How about you Mark.... too late for baseball?"

"Yeah," Mark replied, "but the gym teacher wants me on the basketball team."

"How do you feel about that?" I asked, noticing a lack of enthusiasm in his voice.

"I don't think I'm tall enough.... the other guys are all taller than me." Mark replied.

"That's probably right Mark," Bryan said, "but you're quick and agile on your feet. I'll bet that's what the gym teacher saw in your potential."

"Bryan's right Mark," Michael said looking down from the upper bunk, "you can really move back and forth on the floor, and your passing is dead on."

"Mark, you may not get the most baskets in a game, but with your abilities to deke and change direction on the run will make you a big asset to the team. Trust your teacher on this and give it your best shot." I said.

"Oh I'll try it for sure, but don't be disappointed if I'm not the best guy on the team," Mark said with a smile.

"It's a promise," Bryan said as he pulled Mark into a hug, "We will never be disappointed in any effort you make." He kissed his forehead.

"Mark, in our eyes, you're a son we'll always be proud of," I said as I hugged him, "so you'll always have the right to be proud of yourself because you always try your best."

"We're equally proud of you too Michael," Bryan said as he hugged Michael, "You're really good for Mark and that makes you very important to us. I know you'll do equally well and make us proud too."

"It's true Michael," I said as I hugged him, "you're a big part of our family, and we love you." I kissed his forehead as Bryan and I said, "Good night boys."

As I closed the door, I said quietly, "I meant every word of it."

"I know you did Tom," Bryan said smiling, "and they love you for it. I'll bet though, that if we went back in there, they'd both be on the bottom bunk. That's the way I found them this morning. I made it clear to both of them that we don't want any hanky-panky taking place though. It's not like with Josh and Shelly where we have to worry about pregnancy, but they still need to wait until they are ready emotionally."

I nodded my head smiling with the thought that the distance Mark and Michael travel together could only make them happier. I worried too - what adjustments we'd have to make when the Burton's moved on to the property.

When we went into Josh's room, he still had his bedside light on, reading a book.

"Hi son, you're studying pretty late.... what's so interesting?" I asked.

"It's a book on debating techniques, Dad," he replied. "The literature teacher loaned it to me. He wants me to join the debating team."

"What brought all this about?" Bryan asked.

"We're studying Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' in class and the teacher asked a question about what we thought Shakespeare meant by a certain passage. Another kid stood up and gave his opinion and I put my hand up and said what I thought Shakespeare meant by it.... before I had a chance to sit down, the other kid stood up again and added to his point and we went back and forth with our own ideas. The teacher finally stepped in and asked the rest of the class who they thought was right. They voted for me by a majority," then Josh started to laugh and between giggles said, "but the teacher said although I made some good points, by popular literary opinion, I was wrong and the other kid was right. Then he explained why the other guy was right and I understood where he was coming from."

"Hard lesson eh Josh?" I asked smiling.

"Yeah, I guess it was Dad.... listen to what the other guy is saying.... he may be right. On the way out of class, the teacher called the other kid and me aside and asked if we'd join the Debating Club because we were so good at convincing the class that I was right even when I was wrong. I thought that might be something I'd enjoy, so I said yes. Then he gave us each a copy of this book and told us to read it. It's a good book, but so far it's like just plain common sense that I use all the time when I'm talking to people."

I took the book from Josh and thumbed toward the back of it and just read a few sentences and realized there was indeed a lot of depth to the subject. I handed the book to Bryan and pointed to the passage I'd read.

"Josh, this book does have a lot to teach you," Bryan said.

"I know you'll do good at it son and you'll make the school, us, and yourself very proud. I love you," I said as we rubbed noses.

"Love you too Dad, I'll do my best," he replied as Bryan hugged him and kissed his forehead. "I love you."

"Now turn off the light, son and get some sleep.... tomorrow's another busy day." I said.

Before Bryan and I reached the door, Josh had the light turned off, then said, "Dad, Dad.... thank you for the Christmas lights."

"Your welcome son," we said together as I closed his door.

As we entered our own bedroom, I said to Bryan, "Another small step toward his future."

"Ours too," Bryan added smiling.

The next morning, after we saw the kids off on the school bus, and got the OK from the security guys that they would look after the dogs for the day, our day became chaotic, but Howard and his insurance agent were able to think on their feet and keep us organized at the Alberta Transportation office, getting all our licenses changed, including the plates for all the existing vehicles. As we invaded the Donalson new car lot and showroom, Bryan was able to get Mom to take Irene under her wing while Bryan had Hamish looking at trucks. While all that was going on, I slipped into the service department.

When I approached the service desk, I didn't see Hank, but there was another man and a lady there in their mid-twenties. The lady looked up and asked if she could help me.

"I was wondering if Hank was here?" I asked.

"I think he's in the garage at the moment. Is there anything I can help you with?" the lady (Lilly was the name on her tag) asked.

"No it's quite alright, I'll be...."

Just then I was interrupted with a voice coming toward me. It was Hank. "LILY," he exclaimed. "Please phone Dave Smith and tell him his Caravan is definitely going have to have a brake job before we can let him drive that vehicle again."

While he spoke, I turned and looked his way smiling. His eyes caught mine and he smiled broadly with his hand extended. "Tom! Tom Davis," he exclaimed.

I laughed, "Told you we'd be back! How have things been going for you Hank? I see you aren't behind the counter today."

"No Tom I'm not." he replied, "Old Graham retired and Mr. Donalson said I had what it took to fill his shoes, so now I'm the manager of the service department. What brings you here? More service for the Jeep?"

"Actually it is due for an oil change pretty soon, but I'm here with my extended family to buy a few vehicles." I said.

"Extended family?" He questioned.

"Yeah.... it's a long story that started on 9/11 and I was a part of it." I explained.

"I did see what you said before you got into the limo that day.... it was a miracle and the next day Mr. Donalson gave me this job. Those two things left me kind of emotional."

"Me too," I continued, "Anyway because of that visit to New York, Bryan and I got some front money to start our own computer programming business. So together with some very close friends and families from Ontario and BC, we're setting up our company.... Davis-Callahan Incorporated here in Calgary. There's about a dozen of them in the showroom and out on the lot right now picking out new cars."

Just then there was a page. "Hank Peerson to sales please. Hank Peerson to sales."

"Gotta go," Hank said and I followed him, inasmuch as he was heading for the showroom.

As soon as we got there, a firm voice that I barely recognized said, "Hank.... over here!" I looked around and I saw Andy, Howard, and Ethel standing, I assumed talking with a salesman. The slightly familiar voice said, "Hank, I want you to keep your courtesy vehicle man handy.... I think we'll have to have him make a trip over to Alberta Transportation office to get us some license plates. I'll need you to personally double check all sales slips, ownerships and pink slips and make sure that the right plates go on the right vehicles."

"No problem, Mr. Donalson.... Sam will be back from his morning run in about fifteen minutes." Hank replied as he returned to the service department.

I stepped closer and held out my hand. "Mr. Donalson," I said smiling, "I'm Tom Davis. It's good to finally meet you."

His smile was broad as he took my hand firmly in his. "Mr. Davis! This is indeed a pleasure. I was watching the TV when you became a hero again in New York City. Your response to the media as you came out of the hospital was classic, honest, and honorable."

"Well thank you sir. Please call me Tom.... I only said what I honestly felt. Josh asked me to thank you for your generous donation to his Terry Fox run.... in fact it was because of that donation that my extended family is here today to fill out their transportation needs."

He continued smiling warmly as he glanced around the showroom. Finally he said, "Tom.... they say that what goes around, comes around. Today, this company is getting back more than ten-fold from that little donation. So far, there's five Chryslers picked from the lot.... one is a 300M, that young fellow over there...." he pointed to Andy, "wants that Grand Cherokee and I think there's a 3/4 ton crew cab being negotiated and a PT Cruiser as well out on the lot."

Just then Mom came in followed by Hamish, Irene, Bryan, James, Darren, and Susan followed by two salesmen.

Mom was all business as she, the salesman, and Howard explained the ownership requirements for all the new vehicles. Also, she wanted to know what trade-in amount she would be getting for her 15-year-old Toyota.

What a din there was in that showroom. Bryan tugged my arm and we made our way over to Andy, Trevor, and James who was cradling Timmy in his arms.

"I hear you opted for a Grande Cherokee Andy," I said.

"Tom, it's fully loaded..... GPS and all..... I couldn't resist it. I like the deep metallic brown too." Andy replied. "It'll be great on some of the back roads for camping."

James wiggled his eyebrows. "I liked all the Chryslers, but I had to have the zing and class of that blue 300M."

"How about Anne?" I asked.

"Anne's quite happy driving the minivan for the time being and it's less than two years old." James replied.

"Debbie fell in love with the green Chrysler out there, so I decided to spoil her a bit." Trevor added.

"Bryan, how did you make out with Hamish?" I asked.

"It was a bit of a tough sell, but once he realized it was for the ranch, he agreed." Bryan explained, "Your Mom couldn't talk Irene into a Chrysler though.... in fact she wasn't going accept anything, but she happily accepted the PT Cruiser when your Mom explained that it wasn't going to cost anything because she was trading in her old Toyota.... a bit of a stretch, but Mom can swing the blarney when it's for a good cause."

Darren and Susan joined us at the side of Andy's new Jeep. "So what did you two end up with?" I asked.

Susan had a big grin on her face. "I'll be driving a fully loaded Chrysler with the most comfortable heated leather seats in it. I can't believe it, but Darren told me to spoil myself."

"How about you Darren?" Trevor asked.

"Well fellas, I thought in my business, you never know who I might have to transport for one reason or another, so I settled for that big black Dodge Durango over there." Darren pointed to the one in the showroom with its dark tinted windows.

I was impressed. "Golly Darren, stick some red and blue strobes on the top and you could pass as a cruiser."

"I think the RCMP might frown on that, but we may get some small decals for Grant's crew cab and that Durango that says 'Higgins-Brown Security'. That'll give us some recognition when we're dealing with them." He replied.

Just then Howard, Mom, Hamish, Irene, Ethel, Debbie and Anne came over to us.

"Well boys," Howard began, "They've got all the pink slips, the price has been settled and it's going to take them 'til two-thirty to do a final clean-up, fill them up with gas, and get the plates on all the vehicles. That means that it's time for lunch!"

"And I know just the place!" Bryan exclaimed. "Most wonderful chicken in town.... Swiss Chalet!"

Suddenly there were so many smiles all around as we headed for the five vehicles we'd brought with us. Many of us didn't know that the Swiss Chalet franchise had reached the west coast.

During lunch, Mom passed a piece of paper to Bryan. He read it and then passed it to me. It listed each vehicle that had been purchased with it's list price which totaled $335,000 less a 15% discount and an overpriced $5,000 trade-in for Mom's old Toyota - balance: less than $280,000.

I was astounded. I looked across the table and stared at Mom. In my best Anthony Perkins 'Psycho' imitation, I exclaimed quietly, "Mother! You didn't!"

Mom started laughing. "Tom, what can I say? Mr. Donalson is a very generous person.... and he said he wanted to do it for Mark and Josh's family."

I folded the paper and returned it to Mom, shaking my head in disbelief.

"Hamish.... Irene," Bryan said, "please don't feel obligated in any way.... thanks to Mr. Donalson's generosity, we got your two vehicles almost for free."

The chicken dinners - their specialty - were outstanding! After dessert, we sat there with refills of coffee in the restaurant chatting about what we expected in the future with the company. Bryan, Anne, and I were stretching out the conversations as much as we could, each of us knowingly teasing the others. By 2:00, they were getting a bit antsy about getting back to the dealer so they could get behind the wheel of their new vehicles.

When we went back to the dealership, Mr. Donalson assured me that his generosity was just a drop in the bucket and because of our purchases, all his sales staff would be having a very Merry Christmas because this was a rather slow time of the year to be purchasing vehicles, plus the fact that half of that discount came direct from Chrysler Canada. He also added, all those new vehicles would be serviced by his dealership and they'd make a profit from that too. I was pleased.

I phoned Harold Stemming and found that he was at the office building so that's where we headed so we could give Hamish and Irene a quick tour and show them where the money would be coming from to support the ranch. Although they didn't know that much about computers or how they were programmed, they were impressed by the size of the building and of course the atrium. With all the vehicles lined up in the visitor's parking lot, Harold took down our license plate numbers and related names and distributed access cards to the underground parking area. He explained that the spots marked 'reserved' near the elevator would be retained for all of us and the rest of any designated staff would be scramble parking. Also, the others got a chance to see the progress on the outfitting of the building. The Burton's accepted our invitation to dinner and have a visit with Michael.

From there, Darren led the way home with our caravan of new vehicles. We arrived at the south main gate just as the kids were being dropped off at the north gate. Howard, Bryan, and I parked our vehicles in the garage, closed the doors, and headed for the kitchen to put the finishing touches to dinner while the boys inspected all the new vehicles and walked the distance home accompanied by security.

As soon as they were in the front door with Daisy and Brutus, I heard Mark say, "That Durango is a real gangster mobile!"

"Yeah and those Chryslers look like their doing a hundred just standing still!" Michael exclaimed.

"Let's check out the garage guys and see what our Dads bought!" I heard Josh say.

I looked at Bryan with a smile. "I guess we don't get any hugs tonight."

Quickly with a wink, Bryan said quietly, "Plead poverty."

Howard and Angela smiled and nodded their heads.

I heard the garage house door slam and the boys scrambled into the kitchen, no doubt following the direction of the smells of the cooking food.

"Hey Dad Dad!" Josh exclaimed. "How come you guys didn't get new cars?"

"Josh," I said seriously, as I put my hands on his shoulders and looked sadly into his eyes, "We wanted to.... but I'm sorry son, we just didn't have enough money." I glanced passed Josh's shoulder at Mark's bulging eyes.

"Things aren't what they appear to be anymore." Howard said sadly. Then Mark's jaw dropped.

Josh looked at me and smiled, then with a giggle, he said, "Dad! I'm not stupid!"

"I know son," I said laughing along with the others as I pulled him into a hug, "but I had Mark believing me! Gotcha Mark!" I said as Bryan pulled him into a hug.

"Oh boy!" Mark exclaimed, "I owe you another one. I must be slipping."

"Don't feel bad Mark, I fell for it too." Michael said between giggles.

"Hey don't take all your revenge out on Tom," Bryan stepped in. "It was my idea to plead poverty. Actually our vehicles have relatively low mileage and all of us have a lot of good memories tied up in them, so we thought with you boys coming up for your driver's licenses in a year or so, you'll be wanting to have vehicles of your own. We thought the Jeep and the Explorer would do just fine until you start college. Ya think?"

"For sure!" Josh exclaimed happily.

"Good plan!" Mark agreed.

"And not to worry Michael," Howard said with a wink, "we have a good vehicle already picked out for you when that time comes."

"Hey don't sweat it Dad," Michael said, "So long as we're living at Serenity, Mark and I will be traveling together.... even when we go to university. We'll both have the same courses and extra curricular things."

While the boys went upstairs to change and think about their studies, Angela and I set the table.

"I'm worried for Michael.... even today, it's not an easy road being gay," she said out of the blue.

"Angela, don't worry.... no one is going to intimidate Michael or Mark at school," I began. "We made sure when we chose that school, the administration wouldn't tolerate any kind of prejudice in the school, and if they should get into a situation, they do know how to handle themselves. Between what we've taught them and what they've learned in cadets, they've become very capable of protecting themselves.... I'm sure you've noticed."

"Yes I know that he could handle himself in any scrap, but it's the thought of AIDS and other STD's that has me concerned. Just one little slip...."

"On that, you have no concern.... Bryan set Mark straight on that count right from their first sleep over.... and ever since then, we've made sure that their night stand always has an ample supply of condoms.... although they say they haven't engaged to that extent yet." I felt a bit embarrassed saying that to a lady as refined as Angela, and I think she may have been a bit embarrassed as well hearing it.

"You and Bryan are so good for those boys. Air cadets.... camping.... all those things that they have to be so in touch with...."

"Angela, I think for Mark and Michael it's something deeper than that. It's not just the love they have for one another, I think there's a solid underlying desire they both share for their country and their fellow man. Maybe they don't realize it yet, but I see it rising to the surface in them almost everyday. It shines a little bit stronger in Josh from time to time, but I feel the strength of their conviction more and more."

"HEY BOYS!" Bryan shouted as he came into the dining room carrying two plates with him. "WASH UP! DINNER'S ON THE TABLE!"

Howard came right behind Bryan carrying another two dishes of vegetables and carved roast. "I wonder if we'll ever be able to get Michael to move into the new house once it's built."

"Well you know how we feel about Michael," Bryan replied.

"Yes, I do Bryan and I think the final decision will come from him, but I don't want to lose my son." Harold said as the thunder of boys and dogs came bouncing down the stairs.

"We know that will never happen!" I exclaimed with a laugh as we sat down. "Michael's too much of a team player."

"I know that and either way, we're still going to build our new house here." Howard declared.

"Wasss.... there any doubt Dad?" Michael asked as we sat down at the table and started passing the dishes around.

After staring at Michael and Mark for a few moments, with a smile, Howard replied, "No Michael, never a doubt. I spoke to a contractor last week and explained this house to him and that I wanted to come close to duplicating it. He'd like to have a look at the layout if he could and see where we want to put our new house."

"You want a house this big?" Bryan asked.

"Actually we do," Angela explained, "you see Harold has two brothers.... one with a family of two in Saskatchewan and I have a brother in Montreal and two sisters in the Maritimes that have a total of five children. We'd love to have a big family reunion here sometime this summer.... maybe the long weekend in August.... that is if it's acceptable with you."

I looked at Bryan who was laughing just as hard as I was. Mark and Josh were full of giggles as well. Michael was just grinning.

"OF COURSE IT'S OK!" I exclaimed. "The world isn't going to come to an end because we put family first."

"I can't wait to see Uncle Art again," Michael said.

I looked questioningly at Angela and Howard across the table from me. "Art is my brother from Montreal," Angela explained. "He's been a great help for Howard and I in the past year. He's gay."

"So.... why should that make a difference?" Josh spoke for the first time.

"I suppose that's not a surprise to you boys," Howard said, "but being gay is a concern for one of the members of our family. He may not accept our invitation, but we'll deal with that when the time comes. Notwithstanding all of that, how are you enjoying your new school Michael?"

"Great!" Michael smiled. "From the reviews we're going through so far this week, this term exams are going to be a snap.... AND starting in January I'm going to join the gymnastics team and the swim team!"

"Bryan and I were discussing something in the kitchen Michael.... we were wondering where your home will be after our new house is built."

Michael smiled. "Here on Serenity of course, and with Mark as much as I can.... maybe at our house after it's built and maybe at this house. You know.... sleep overs."

"Makes sense to me," Josh said.

Howard smiled. His son had given the right answer. "Then let's leave it at that."

"So now that we're all unpacked," Josh began, "and the Christmas lights are up outside, the cars are all bought, what trouble are our two Dads going to get into tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow is laundry day!" I stated emphatically. "You and I have been on the road for over a week and I don't know about you guys, but I'm running low on clean underwear, so get all your dirty laundry into your hampers and I'll look after it."

"Yes boys," Bryan agreed, "Tom and I can do it for now, but come the New Year you'll all be in school and Tom and I will be at work, sooo.... the five of us will have to reserve Saturday mornings for laundry and household chores."

"I thought we were going to have housekeepers come in and do the housework," Mark said.

"Yes that's true, but they aren't here to pick up after our clutter and do our laundry. They'll vacuum, dust, polish, and clean windows, but that's it." Bryan added. "That in itself is a lot of work. Have we got a deal?"

Mark immediately dropped his fork to his plate, put his hands on his hips, pursed his lips and squinted his eyes and looked from Josh to Michael, to Angela, then to Howard before he stood up and walked from the end of the table to stand between Bryan and I. I'd seen this look before and Bryan and I had to cover our mouths to suppress our giggles. Brutus was the first to notice his menacing posture and let out a low growl as he lay at the end of the table. It was so sweet to watch Daisy get up, go over to Brutus and gently raise a paw and place it on Brutus' paw. Brutus' eyes lit up, his ears raised, as he watched Mark walk from his chair and stand between Bryan and I.

He softened his posture and stretched his arms toward Angela and Howard with his palms up. "Dear lady.... dear gentle man," he began, "I implore you to help we young children at the end of this table.... we are but slaves to these cruel taskmasters. We are seldom allowed to eat here at the big table. Before we've had a chance to warm ourselves in a hot shower, before the sun rises in the morning, before we have even a morsel of food, we are made to endure the cold, miserable, artic air and run at breakneck speed from one end of this property to the other.... a marathon of inexcusable duress and distance. I... we plead for your assistance in this matter. Even after a small morsel of food we are forced, under guard, to once again make our way through the bitter cold to the far end of this property to be placed and imprisoned into a vehicle that takes us to our daily confinement, where we are forced to listen to a babbling rhetoric that we know nothing about." By this time, all of us were starting to giggle at Mark's pleading performance.

"After eight hours of this unbearable torture," Mark continued sorrowfully with his arms still stretched out, "we are again forced to return to this compound where our every move is closely scrutinized. We've spent the day listening to all that babbling imprisoned in that other compound and then.... THEN we are sent to our cells above and required to read from books about all that babbling rhetoric that we had listened to all day. Finally, we are allowed to seat ourselves on an armless stool and try to enjoy another meager portion of food. Believe me sweet lady.... kind sir.... our lives are such torture. NOW! Now.... they want to add our burdensome toil...." All of us were holding back our laughter as Mark stifled a forced gasp of a mimicked sob, "we are going.... to have.... to do.... our own laundry. I don't know how we will ever endure this harsh and undeserving punishment. Please help us. I don't know why they do this to us.... we get so little in return."

Although we were laughing, Bryan and I put our arm around Mark's waist.

"Oh Mark, you get love...." Bryan said with a giggle, "all the love we can give you."

Mark faked a startled look on his face, glancing from one person to the other. "Oh yeah.... I guess I forgot about that part," he said quietly as he kissed each of our cheeks, then raising his voice with a smile, "In that case, it's a deal!" Then he returned to his place at the table.

Howard and Angela were laughing and stood up together and applauded Mark's short performance. "Mark, you should be a stand-up comedian!" Howard exclaimed.

"Thank you Howard," Mark said smiling, "but we're going to be fighter pilots all the way."

We spent the rest of the evening casually chatting and listening to some of Howard's detailed plans for their new house. When they left at 9:30, everyone was in good spirits. Howard put his hand on Michael's shoulder.

"You're in good hands son," he said. That felt good for Bryan and I as we said goodnight to them.

That night as we were tucking the boys in, I smiled at Mark. "You really won Angela and Howard over to your side tonight."

"They're good people," Mark said, "they just have to get used to my sense of humor."

"After your little joke tonight, they seemed to let their hair down a bit." Michael said.

"It's OK Michael," Bryan said, "they really do care about you."

"I know, but...."

"You missed that hug when they said good night at the door?" I questioned.

"Yeah.... but I shouldn't. It's always been that way." Michael said a bit sadly.

With that Bryan and I made sure that Michael got a good night hug every night and many other times when we thought it would help. Nothing would make Bryan and I more proud than to be able to share and help Michael to understand the values of the love of family and the power it gives to a man's character.

The following weekend, it came time for Christmas trees. Bryan, the boys and I had thought of going out into the bush and cutting the top off a large spruce tree and use it - it wouldn't kill the tree, but if everyone at Serenity did the same thing - in a few years we'd have a lot full of topless spruce trees.

So we opted for artificial. That weekend we bought a very large tree for the family room and another one for the living room complete with boxes and boxes of ornaments and lights.

When we went to Donalson's Chrysler for a visit, Josh and Mark didn't hesitate to give him a hug for all the generosity he's given our family.

Our visit with Hank was all too brief because of his busy efforts making the service department work like clockwork.

Once again, Mark and Bryan were in charge of the decorating of the trees. This year however, instead of teasing them as we had a year ago, Josh and I made a patient effort to assist wherever we could. Even Michael got into the decorating side of the tree under Mark's sage guidance.

The magic of the Christmas trees in our house really put us in the mood. Christmas was definitely coming to Serenity with all its fun, love, and glory.


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