The ride home was noisy but uneventful. It seemed like everyone was talking at once and nobody was listening. It was still music to my ears to hear how full of joy their voices were.
The car had barely come to a stop when all five of them hopped out and ran into the house. Hildy was in the kitchen preparing supper and standing guard over the refrigerator.
"Hildy, we're thirsty. Can we have some juice?" Joel almost begged.
"I'll pour you each a glass but go get washed up first," she said giving them that look that said "Don't argue."
"Thanks!" Joel said as all of them scurried to the bathrooms to wash. It didn't take long before they were back waiting for Hildy to finish pouring their juice.
"Hildy, this young man," I said taking hold of Chris' shoulder "is Chris Martin. Chris this is Hildy. She takes care of us."
"Hello Chris, it's very nice to meet you. Do you like Swiss steak with mushroom gravy and mashed potatoes?" Hildy asked.
"Oh yeah, I like just about everthing. It's nice to meet you too," he said taking his juice and following the boys out onto the patio.
"I hope this is not going to be a permanent arrangement, but I just couldn't stand to take him to CPS when we got to his house and found it padlocked and his parents nowhere around. I don't think the twins would let me live it down if I hadn't brought him home with us," I told her. "They have quickly become great friend after two meetings. It's almost like there is empathy between them based on similar family situations."
"You've got a good heart," she said giving me a hug. "Don't ever lose it. You better get washed up. Supper will be ready in about 15 minutes."
Chris seemed to fit right in with the other boys. He certainly did when it came to putting away the food. He filled his plate twice and had thirds on mashed potatoes and gravy. After everyone was full the boys took their plates to the sink and helped Hildy clear the table. Chris followed the others.
"Thanks Hildy that was the best supper I ever had," he said wrapping his arms around her waist and giving her a squeeze.
"You are welcome Chris. It was a pleasure to see you enjoy it so much," Hildy said with a catch in her voice. "Now you run outside. Have the boys show you the deer."
"Deer? You mean you guys got deer?" he said as he ran out the patio door after the twins.
"Oh Crane, I forgot to tell you. Mr. Cross called and asked if you could call him back. I told him you had little league practice this afternoon. He asked that you call him at home after eight. He gave me a number for you to call. It's on your desk in the study," she said.
"I wonder what he wants. I hope it's good news," I told her as I headed to the study.
Since the boys didn't have any homework tonight I let them play outside longer than usual. When I did call them in it was time for their snack and then their baths.
"Larry, Lenny will one of you loan Chris a pair of your pajamas? I think they will fit him," I said.
They each grabbed one of Chris' hands and took off for their room.
Shortly after eight I dialed the number Benjamin had given Hildy. He answered on the second ring.
"Hello Benjamin, it's Crane Johnson. What can I do for you?"
"Crane, I'm glad you called me back. I have some news about Judge Yates. She has issued a bench warrant for Judge Frank. It seems he ignored her order to provide her with the transcript of your hearing. My source said that she was furious with him. I think this time he has crossed the wrong woman."
"That's interesting, but how does it affect the boys' situation?"
"It doesn't directly. It's just good to see him get his. The other piece of news is that she has also ordered the CPS office in San Antonio to provide her with a written recommendation as to your fitness or unfitness to continue custody of the boys. She has made it clear that she expects them to be very specific in their reasoning one way or the other. She has left them with no wiggle room. I love it! God, I wish all judges had her guts and no nonsense attitude."
"That sounds like it might work out for us then, right?"
"I would say that the odds are now in your favor, but I wouldn't get your hopes up too high. There is still a long road ahead if you plan to adopt the boys sometime in the future."
"Benjamin, there is a new development that you should be aware of. It seems that one of the boys on my little league team has been abandoned by his parents. At least that is the way it appears right now."
"How does that affect you? He asks foolishly."
"You're right. I'm a sucker for kids. Anyway, his parents have been gone for a couple of days and the house is posted and padlocked. The twins made friends with him and "convinced" me to let him come home with them and spend the night. I have my friend Jack Hogan with SAPD checking to see if the parents are in jail or dead or whatever."
"Well, I don't know. I would like to see him back with his parents if that is possible. I'm taking the other boys to Corinthian Academy tomorrow morning to be tested and interviewed and I thought I would spend that time trying to find his parents. I also plan to talk to him tonight to see if he has any idea where they might be. I would like to find out a little about his home life to see if he has been abused or neglected."
"What if you can't find his parents, then what?"
"I don't know and I don't want to think about that possibility. Maybe there is a close relative that can give him a good home. I'll try to find out all that stuff when I talk to him later."
"Okay, Crane. Let me know if you want me to do anything. Think any action you might take through thoroughly and logically before you commit yourself. I'll give you a call if I hear anything else about your other boys," he said with a smile in his voice.
All five of the freshly scrubbed boys bounced into the family room where I had just settled down to see if there was anything on TV. Larry and Lenny planted themselves on either side of me.
"Can Chris sleep in our room tonight?" Lenny asked.
"Yeah, we'll be good," Larry added.
"Well if he wants to. We do have another bedroom that he could use if he wants to sleep in a bed by himself," I said. "Chris, will you come here for a minute?"
He looked frightened as he came and stood before me. "Did I do something wrong?" he whimpered.
"No, I just wanted to check where you want to sleep tonight. You can have your own bedroom or Larry and Lenny would like to have you sleep in their bed. Which do you want?" I asked.
"You mean I can sleep with them? You mean it?" he asked.
"Yes if that is what you want. No talking and giggling after you go to bed though. The twins have to get up and go to Corinthian Academy tomorrow morning for some testing," I told him.
"Yeah, I'll be real quiet. I promise. I really will," he bubbled.
"Okay, that is settled. Larry, Lenny you guys go watch a little TV. I want to talk to Chris a little bit," I said giving them a push off the couch.
"Come here Chris," I said patting the couch beside me. "I need to get some information from you."
"Okay," he said jumping up on the couch beside me.
"Chris, do you know where your mom and dad went?"
"Have they ever gone off and left you by yourself before?"
"How long were they gone?"
"Why did they leave you alone?"
"Somebody was after them."
"Why were they after them?"
"I don't know."
"What did you do after they came home?"
"We moved to a new house."
"Does your dad work?"
"What does he do?"
"I don't know. It's something with cement."
"Does your mom work?"
"What does she do?"
"I don't know. She worked at night."
"Do you like living with your mom and dad?"
"Well... I guess it's alright."
"What do you mean 'it's alright'?"
"Well... You know... They don't talk to me or nothing. I don't think they like me."
"Did they ever hurt you in any way?"
"Did they ever yell at you?"
"Yeah, all the time. I used to go to my room and close the door so they wouldn't yell at me."
"Do you have any relatives around here?"
"No, momma has a sister in Ohio or Iowa or someplace like that. But she is dying momma says."
"Do you know what her name is?"
"Does Tammy have a last name?"
"I don't know."
"How about a grandmother or grandfather?"
"They're all dead."
"Thank you Chris. You go play with the boys for a few minutes. It's almost time for bed," I said helping him down from the couch.
I gave the boys another 15 minutes before I announced that it was bed time. No one objected and they all made for their bedrooms.
When I got to the twins' room I found Chris in between Larry and Lenny. It is a good thing they had a queen size bed.
I leaned over and gave Larry a kiss on the forehead and said, "I love you son. Sleep well."
"Goodnight Uncle Crane, I love you," he said.
Next I gave Lenny a kiss and told him the same thing I told Larry.
"Goodnight Uncle Crane, I love you too," he said.
I turned to Chris and was about to say goodnight to him when he threw his arms around my neck and kissed me on the cheek.
"Thank you Coach Johnson, it's nice to have somebody talk to me and not yell at me. I love you too," he said.
"Goodnight Chris, we all love you too," I said with a lump in my throat.
I went into TJ and Joel's bedroom to say goodnight to them. TJ was nearly asleep when I sat down on the edge of the bed.
"Goodnight little one, I love you," I said and kissed him on the forehead.
"Mmm," was all he replied.
Joel was the last on my goodnight list. Instead of just saying goodnight he asked, "What's gonna happen to Chris? Is he gonna get to stay here?"
"I don't know, son. I don't know. You go to sleep now. I love you and I love you for caring about Chris. Get a good night's sleep. You have to be sharp for your visit to Corinthian Academy tomorrow morning," I said and gave him his kiss.
Morning came all too quickly. My sleep had not been very restful. I guess I had too many things on my mind. I jumped in the shower and got ready for the day before going into the kitchen for my morning coffee. I drank one cup before I went in and woke up the boys. The twins and Chris were all tangled together. I was used to seeing the twins that way but was a little surprised when all three were intertwined.
Five sleepy boys shuffled into the kitchen just as Hildy was finishing the last of 20 pancakes. I got to eat two of them, Hildy didn't eat any and the boys finished them off along with sausages, scrambled eggs, about a gallon of orange juice and about the same amount of milk. They weren't too sleepy to eat, but come to think about it they could probably eat in their sleep.
"I'll have to go back to work pretty soon to pay for all the food this tribe is eating," I told Hildy.
"Doesn't it do your heart good to see them eating like that though? When they came here two and a half weeks ago they were timid and so skinny. Now look at them. They are filling out and they definitely are no longer timid, at least around here. I think they have gotten their self confidence back. And they do love you. You are the father they should have had," she said.
As they finished eating, each one took their plates to the sink and then helped Hildy put everything away in the refrigerator.
"Okay guys, go wash your hands and faces, brush your teeth and get dressed. Hildy laid out what you are to wear today. You have to look special. We want the Academy to like you. Now go!" I said. "Chris, there is a new toothbrush for you and a pair of pants and shirt that you can wear too."
If Chris stays around longer, I'm going to have to get a larger vehicle I mused. The Land Rover seats 5 comfortably, but that back fold down seat is anything but comfortable. The BMW was even worse. It would only seat 5. At least that is all that could be belted in safely.
We left the house at 8:30 so that we would arrive at the academy in time for our nine o'clock appointment. As it turned out we were about ten minutes early which gave me a chance to see if I could get Chris tested as well as the other boys. Headmaster Pierce was not available but I was able to talk to Harry Lyle his assistant.
"Mr. Lyle, I know you didn't plan on five boys to test, but would it be possible to have another boy done today?" I asked
"Well, it will take a little scrambling but I think we can squeeze him in. We are doing three other children other than yours so it won't be too much of a problem," he answered.
"Good, I don't know for sure if he will be staying with us long term but I want to prepare for that eventuality just in case," I said.
"The testing and interviews will last until around 12:30 at which time the boys will be taken to the cafeteria for lunch and then be given a tour of the facilities. This should all wrap up between 1:30 and 2:00 so if you could plan to be here to pick them up that would be fine," he said.
Returning to the boys, I told Chris that he would be staying with the other boys to be tested also. That provoked a strong positive from the boys especially the twins.
"I'll be back to pick you up when you are done. I want you all to do the best you can. Remember that I love all of you," I said giving each one a hug before Mr. Lyle led them away.
On the way back to the car I decided to try to call Jack on my cell phone. This can be an iffy proposition since there are a lot of dead spots for reception here in the hill country. Fortunately this was a spot with reasonably good reception. I dialed Jack sitting in my car.
It took six rings before he answered the phone. I was just ready to hang up.
"Jack, it's Crane. Have you found out anything about Chris Martin's parents?"
"We don't know where they are, if that is your question. We do know quite a bit about them. He has several warrants out for his arrest ranging from passing bad checks to drunk and disorderly conduct. She also has a few outstanding warrants. Two are for bad checks and another for prostitution."
"Sounds like an ideal family environment," I joked. "What's next?"
"I know you won't like the advice I'm going to give you, but I'm going to give it just the same. You have to contact CPS and report the whereabouts of Chris. I know from your experience with CPS so far that is the last thing that you want to do, but if you don't you could get into a heap of sh... trouble."
"You're right that I have not had a great relationship with CPS. But, I suppose you are right. Do you know anyone there that gives a damn about kids? Everyone seems to be more interested in filling out forms than seeing that kids are placed in loving homes."
"Yeah, there is this one I have come in contact with who really seems dedicated to kids. Her name is Darcie Levin. Ask for her if you decide to contact CPS. She will listen to you and evaluate the situation quickly. She is pretty darn sharp."
"You know, old friend, if you hadn't prevailed on me to help you coach the team I wouldn't be having all of these problems, so all of this is your fault. I'll get even with you someday. Thanks for the advice. If you find out any more about the Martins let me know. I'll see you Friday if not before. Goodbye," I said and hung up.
I retrieved the number for CPS from my Franklin Planner and dialed it. When the receptionist answered I asked if I could get an appointment to see Ms. Levin sometime this morning and was told she had an available time at 10:15. I told the receptionist to book that slot for me that I was on my way.
I barely made it in time for my appointment with Ms. Levin. It was good that she was running a little behind. About twenty after a very attractive woman of about 30 came into the lobby where I was waiting and introduced herself.
"Mr. Johnson, I'm Darcie Levin. Your reputation has preceded you," she said smiling.
"I don't know if that is a good thing or not but I am happy to meet you," I replied.
"Well you certainly stirred up a hornet's nest around here with that hearing before Judge Frank," she snickered as she led me into her office. "Now what can I do for you today?"
"I'm not here about the four Andersen boys," I started.
"Oh?" she looked somewhat shocked.
"No there is another boy who spent the night with us that I am concerned about," I said.
I went on to describe the circumstances of Chris staying with us overnight and the information that I had gleaned from Jack about Chris' parents.
"Let me check something," she said turning to her computer terminal. "Do you know the names of the parents and the last known address? I'll check to see if CPS has had any contact with them."
I gave her the information that I had from the form that had been filled out for Chris to play in little league.
"No, I can't find any record that we have had any reason to visit the family. Do you have any reason to suspect that the boy has been abused or neglected in any way?" she asked.
"I didn't see any sign of physical abuse, but from talking to Chris it seems that he was constantly verbally abused by both parents. That can probably be very damaging to a child," I responded.
"Yes, that can leave deep emotional scars that can be very hard to heal. Unfortunately it is not unlawful conduct. It is bad parenting though," she said with sadness in her voice. "What do you want CPS to do with the child?"
"If I had my preference it would be nothing. I don't want to get into trouble by not letting you all know that I have Chris and that I am willing to take care of him until his future in a good home is assured," I explained.
"Mr. Johnson..," she started.
"Crane, please," I said.
"Okay, Crane, I'll fill out the necessary forms to process him into the system indicating that he is in your temporary custody. I have read the file on your petition to get continued custody of the four boys. I personally believe that the case worker made an error in not supporting your application. Nothing against Joyce, but her thinking is still grounded in the seventies when it comes to the kind of homes to place foster children in. Everything in your file would indicate that you are more than fit to be a foster parent. It is becoming more and more apparent that with the number of children in the system we will have to look at some of the more non-traditional homes if we are to keep them out of the group home environment," she almost spit out the last statement as if it something bitter in her mouth.
"Thanks, I'm not looking for compensation that CPS provides for the boys in my care. I have more than enough resources to meet their needs. My only concern is that they have a loving home in which to live.
"If you need to visit my home to conduct your evaluation of it or to talk to Chris, here are the directions. It is a little difficult to find if you are not familiar with the area," I said handing her a sheet of paper outlining the way.
"Yes, I will need to talk to him. Would it be possible to come by this evening?" she asked.
"Certainly, why don't you eat supper with us? We usually eat around six-thirty. We would be pleased if you would join us. It also might be less threatening to Chris," I said.
"Thank you, I think that is a good idea. I'll be there around six if that is alright," she said writing it down in her appointment book.
"We will be expecting you," I said as I left her office.
Looking at my watch I decided I had just enough time to run by the office before I had to be back to pick up the boys.
Everything was running smoothly at the office thanks to Foster and Carol. Without their help the company would be suffering with me out for the last two and a half weeks and Eric in the hospital. No one had heard anything about the treatment he was undergoing in Houston. It was probably too early.
I took care of a few items that needed my attention and made a mental note to give both Foster and Carol a bonus for the outstanding work they were doing in my and Eric's absences.
I got back to Corinthian Academy before the boys had finished their tour of the campus. The reports on them were ready when I arrived. Mr. Lyle ushered me into his office to go over the results with me.
"I'm very please with the results of the test and interview of all the boys. Christopher will need a little extra help but the potential is there if he applies himself. Although he is 10, he would best be place in the same class as Lawrence and Leonard. He just had his birthday so he will not be much older than the other students in the class. Timothy is very bright but somewhat retarded in his social skills. He also shows signs of lacking self-confidence to the extent that he is very dependent on his oldest sibling.
Lawrence and Leonard appear to be very well adjusted and are well on track academically. Joel is also academically well placed. He is very bright and shows great potential," he wound up his review of the results.
"That is good to hear. In regards to Joel, he is scheduled to have a doctor's appointment every other week for a while. Will that be a problem?" I asked.
"No, it shouldn't be. If we know ahead of time what the schedule is we can make allowances for it and get his assignments and any additional help he need to make up any work he would miss," he answered.
"That sounds great. It looks like you have five new students," I said getting up to go see if the boys were through.
"Oh by the way Mr. Johnson, it might interest you to know that the board of directors of the school have voted to add an additional grade each year for the next four so that we will be serving grades K through 12 at the end of four years," he said with pride.
"That's a relief. I was wondering what I would do with Joel after next year," I said.
I only had to wait a couple of minutes until the boys returned. They were barely able to contain their excitement.
"Well, do you guys think you would like to go to school here?" I asked.
"Oh yeah!" the twins said excitedly.
"Uh huh, Uncle Crane," TJ said nodding his head.
"This place is neat!" Joel added.
"What about you, Chris? Do you think you would like to go to school here?" I asked the silent member of the crew.
"Yes, but what about my mom and dad? They wouldn't let me go here. It cost too much," he said looking down at his shoes.
"You let me worry about that. Let's go home, guys. I'll bet Hildy has a snack waiting for us," I knew that would get them to the car in nothing flat.
On the way home I said to the boys, "We are going to have a guest for supper tonight and I want you all to be on your best behavior. Ms. Levin wants to talk to Chris and to look over our house to see if it is suitable for you to live in."
That didn't seem to get much rise out of them. They were probably more concerned about the snack waiting for them then worrying about a supper guest.
The boys rushed into the house and inhaled the wonderful smell coming from the kitchen but were stopped by Hildy and told to go change their clothes and wash up before their snack. She had fixed some of her famous heavenly chocolate brownies.
She was soon besieged by freshly scrubbed and changed boys drooling as she set a huge plate of brownies on the table along with five large glasses of milk. I grabbed one brownie to keep from being left out of the delicacy.
"I hate to spring this on you at the last minute," I said licking the chocolate frosting from my fingers. "But we will be having a guest for supper from the CPS. Darcie Levin will be here to talk to Chris and I thought it would be less stressful for him if he got to know her informally before she talked to him."
"We're not having anything fancy," she said. "I'm frying chicken and making biscuits and cream gravy and then green beans for vegetable. Apple pie and ice cream is dessert. I hope she is willing to take pot luck."
"I'm sure it will be fine. She seems to be a very nice person and from her accent I would say she is a native Texan," I said.
The boys and I played in the pool until almost 5:30. There was one more to join in the game of king of the hill. That meant it took me even less time to get worn out. I was surprised that Chris was a really good swimmer. I found out later that he spent most of the summer at the pool when it was open to stay out of his parent's wrath.
Shortly after six the gate buzzer sounded. The security camera showed a Toyota Celica waiting to be admitted. I was sure it was Darcie so I released the gate to let her in and went to the front door to greet her.