We did bring Tony and Benny disposable cups of hot chocolate when we returned about an hour later from the cafeteria. The boys raced ahead with Bran pushing Joel's wheelchair while Alan and I followed behind trying to keep the herd in sight.
Benny was resting with his head on Tony's chest exhausted from the outpouring of emotion. Tony's arms held his brother tightly as if not wanting to ever let go again. Karen and Ethel were sitting across the room from the boys as we entered the room. Both women were tightly clutching handkerchiefs as they talked quietly.
"Tony," Bran said, "we brung you some hot chocolate."
"Thanks, Bran," he said sitting up in bed with Benny. "Did you bring Benny some too?"
"Yeah, and we put little marshmallows in them too," JR added.
I helped Joel get back into his bed while the hot chocolate was delivered. I stayed with him until his lunch arrived. After I made sure that he could manage everything on his tray, I gave him a hug and a kiss and then left telling him his brothers would be coming this afternoon.
Benny was still there when I brought the rest of the boys to visit Joel. After they had greeted their brother they began looking over at Tony's bed.
"C'mon guys, I want you to meet Benny," I said and led them to his bedside. I introduced each one of the boys in turn.
When I introduced TJ he said what I think all the boys were wondering, "Do you have leukemia too? Is that why you don't have no hair?"
"TJ, that's not nice to ask questions like that," I chided him.
Benny blushed as Tony answered for him, "No, he had some bad mom and dad. They cut all his hair off so he looks like me." Tony hugged his brother even tighter.
Alan, JR and Bran returned as the boys were talking to Benny and Tony with containers of lemonade. That brought the expected reaction from my troop. We had to go to the cafeteria to get them some. I helped Joel into his wheelchair and began pushing him out the door but not before TJ took his usual position on Joel's lap. Chris gently pushed me aside and grabbed the handles of the wheelchair as we started down the hall. The twins flanked the chair.
It seemed like a reversal of roles. Joel had always been the one to protect his brothers and now they were the ones looking after him, if only in their own small way.
"Where's Hildy and Becky Sue?" Joel asked.
"They went grocery shopping. Your brothers have eaten everything in the apartment," I said smiling at the other boys.
Before long, Tony arrived at the cafeteria in his wheelchair followed by his entourage. I wasn't too surprised. They joined our group pulling up another table so that we could all sit together. They all began talking and laughing like boys will do. Despite being cautioned to keep the noise level down a couple of times the chatter kept getting louder as everyone was trying to be heard over the other voices.
When I noticed several customers giving us nasty looks I got the boys' attention, "Hey guys, why don't we go outside in the garden where we won't disturb anyone?"
That met with agreement from all of them, so the nine boys and four adults made our way outside. For a June 2nd in Houston it was a remarkably pleasant day. The temperature was only in the lower eighties which is unusual. Despite the comfortable temperatures, first Tony and then Joel began to show signs of fatigue. Both of them resisted weakly when we started to wheel them back to their room about a half an hour after we went outside. During this time Benny had opened up and was interacting, although timidly, with the other boys. It was a little intimidating for him because all the others knew each other and he had just met them.
Once back at the room my four said their goodbyes to Joel and to Tony before turning to JR and Bran and whispered something to them. I guessed that it was about the birthday party for Joel tomorrow but I didn't ask.
We got back to the apartment shortly after Hildy and Becky Sue returned from their food safari. They were still unloading the bags of groceries and putting them away in the pantry and refrigerator.
"Hi, guys," Becky Sue said. "If you go put your swimwear on, I think we have time for your lessons before supper."
It didn't take long for the boys to return dressed for the pool carrying towels. They waited impatiently while Becky Sue went to her apartment to change.
"I think a swim sounds like a good idea. Hildy if you don't need me for anything I think I will join the boys in the pool." It had been quite a while since I had played with the boys in the pool. I don't know who enjoyed it more. It did take my mind off Joel's problem at least for a little while.
The rest of the evening after we had eaten supper was spent wrapping the boys' presents for Joel. Hildy spent the evening baking and decorating the cake for the party. The boys went off to take their showers and I sat down to read the rest of the morning paper when the phone rang. It seems like there was some sort of conspiracy to keep me from finishing the paper.
It was Jack.
"Jack, it's good to hear from you. What's SAPD's finest cop calling this late for?"
"I've got some news," he said. "I just heard from Billy Joe Slocum. You remember him. He was the investigator working on the boys' mother's murder. He told me that Harry Andersen was found dead in the prison's food storage area. He had been brutally murdered and mutilated."
"Oh my god! When did that happen?"
"They found him after breakfast this morning. I've seen this happen a couple of times to other sexual predators over the years. What's strange is that because of the plea deal he was never charged or convicted of sexual assault of a child. For that reason he was not segregated from the rest of the prison population as is the case with other predators."
"Have they found out who did it or why?"
"No and they probably never will. The hierarchy among prisoners places sex offenders at the bottom and ones who molest their own children are considered almost fair game. Evidently someone found out about him raping Joel and put out the word. From what I have been told it took more than one person to do this."
"I don't think that I will lay this on the boys right now. I don't want to put a damper on Joel's birthday party tomorrow. Besides, I don't think that they would care anyway. I have never heard them even mention him in the eight months they have been with me. What will happen to his body?"
"If nobody claims it they will bury it in the prison cemetery in an unmarked grave."
"Thanks Jack, I appreciate you letting me know. By the way have you heard anything new about Chris' parents?"
"The last I heard was that they were trying to negotiate a plea to involuntary manslaughter which would put them in jail for maybe 15 years. I'll see if I can find out anything from my contacts over there. Oh, and tell Joel happy birthday from the Hogans at the party tomorrow. I wish that we could be there, but Carolyn's folks are coming to visit tomorrow. Timmy misses the boys."
"I will, Jack. It will be two to three weeks before we will be back in town."
As I hung up the phone, TJ climbed into my lap. "My, you smell good," I said kissing the top of his damp head. "Let's get you guys tucked in. We have a big day tomorrow."
On our way to the bedroom, we made a side trip to the kitchen where Hildy was finishing up the birthday cake.
"Wow, Hildy that's pretty," TJ said.
"Thank you, son, do you think Joel will like it?"
"Hildy, that looks like it came from a professional bakery. How did you do it?" I asked.
"Well, I guess all those years working in the bakery taught me something," she said smiling. "Do you think that it will be big enough? As I figure it, there will be around 18 people at the party. I baked another one layer cake that I didn't decorate just in case."
"Hildy, there is enough sugar there to keep the boys wired for a week. With the ice cream and cookies and soft drinks, there will be more than enough for everyone. What would we do without you?" I said as I gave her shoulder a hug.
"Good night, little one," she said as I started to lead TJ toward the bedroom.
TJ turned and ran to her, throwing his arms around her waist, "G'night, Hildy. I love you."
Putting her hands on either side of his head she tilted his face up toward hers. "I love you too," she said kissing his forehead.
I was surprised but very pleased when we reached TJ and Chris' bedroom. Chris was propped up in bed reading a book. He always liked it when I read to the boys but I had never seen him pick up a book and read it just for fun.
"What are you reading there, son?"
"Hunting for Hidden Gold," he replied.
"Oh, one of the Hardy Boys books, I always liked those."
"I only got one page to go in the chapter. Can I finish it?"
"Sure, I'll go tuck the twins in and then be back for you guys."
Saturday morning I grabbed a clean pair of pajamas for Joel and took off for the hospital. I wanted to get there before the nurse would be in to give him a sponge bath. He had been very good with everything that was done to him by the hospital staff, but having someone give him a bath he drew the line. I just made it in time.
"Good morning, son," I said giving him a hug and a kiss on the forehead. "Happy birthday, you are now officially a rotten teenager."
"Yeah," he giggled. "I guess I better start practicing."
"You better not or I'll let the nurse give you a bath instead of me helping you into the tub. How are you feeling today? Can you make it by yourself or do you need me to steady you?"
"I feel good, but I think you better hold on to me, dad."
He didn't have any trouble getting to the bathroom after we got the plastic wrapped around his left arm. He was a little unsteady and probably could have made it on his own. He sat on the edge of the tub while I started drawing the water and adjusting the temperature. I got everything ready for him when he told me he needed to use the toilet but thought he could do it by himself. I stepped outside but told him to give a yell if he needed any help.
While Joel bathed I chatted with Bill and Tony. Karen was busy doing the laundry and would be in later in the morning. Bill said that Dr. Kerner indicated that if everything went alright that Tony might get to go home next Friday or Saturday.
"Joel is going to miss him when he does go home, but I know Tony is anxious to get out of here. I don't blame him a bit," I said.
A few minutes later Joel called out for me to come help him back to bed. "Look at my hair," he said when I got there. "It's really falling out now."
It was. There were large patches where the hair had fallen out completely and other places where the hair was still in place.
"We knew this was going to happen," I said giving him a hug. "No one is going to care. Everyone who sees you will still love you whether you have hair or not. Come on let's get your hat to put on if you want."
When we came out of the bathroom, Dr. Kerner was waiting for him. "Let me see how you are doing this morning," he told Joel as I helped him back into his bed. Kerner went through his regular examination routine before writing something on Joel's chart. "Now," he said clearing his throat, "you have an IV treatment scheduled for Monday morning and another on Thursday. You will also have to take another round of those big pills on Wednesday. Those ones you called 'horse pills' last time."
"How do things look doctor?" I asked.
"Everything is going just as we expected. He is well on his way to beating the cancer. We just have to keep after it to be sure it is completely beaten into submission. With the results that we have so far it looks very positive."
"Thanks doc, this boy means the world to me."
"Ah, dad," Joel blushed.
Kerner left a few minutes later. I read from the book to Joel that I had brought to him several days ago. That lasted for about forty minutes until the boys' lunch trays were delivered. Food then became their major focus. After I made sure that Joel could manage everything on his plate, I gave him a hug and told him I would bring his brothers this afternoon around two o'clock.
Since the conference room that I had reserved was down the hall and around the corner from Joel's room, I went to check on it before I left to go back to the apartment. It looked like it was set up and ready for us. I just hoped that the cafeteria would have the soft drinks and cartons of milk delivered by the time we were ready for them.
When I got back to the apartment the boys were bouncing off the wall with excitement. After I grabbed a quick bite to eat, I had the boys take their presents for Joel to the van. I told them they had to come back and help Hildy and Becky Sue carry all the party things too. TJ took the paper napkins, Larry took the bag of paper plates, Lenny took the plastic forks and spoons and Chris took the two half gallons of ice cream. The rest of us took the two cakes and the cookies.
It was only 1:30 when we left for the hospital. I told the boys that they had to help Hildy set up for the party before they could go see Joel. As it was we had to make two trips from the van, one with the food and the second for the presents.
They made quick work of setting up for the party and then tugged on my hand for me to take them to Joel's room. He was napping when we arrived but TJ soon took care of that as he climbed into bed with him.
"Hi, TJ," Joel said giving him a hug. "Hi, guys."
After everyone had given and gotten their hugs, I suggested that we go for a stroll and invited Tony and his mom and dad to go with us. I didn't know of any other way to get Joel to the party without giving it away. It only took a few minutes and we were set to go. TJ took his position on Joel's lap while Chris took over pushing the wheelchair and the twins flanked the chair.
We made our way down the hall away from our usual path to the cafeteria.
"Where're we going?" Joel asked.
"Oh I thought we'd try going someplace different," I said.
When we reached the door to the conference room where the party was planned, Lenny ran to the door and opened it. Chris quickly pushed the wheelchair into the room.
Hildy had strung a banner across one side of the room that said "HAPPY BIRTHDAY." The table was loaded down with the cake and cookies. Becky Sue was still arranging chairs around the tables so everyone could sit.
TJ turned on Joel's lap and threw his arms around Joel's neck, kissed him on the cheek and said, "Happy birthday Joel. Open your presents. We wrapped them, I helped."
"Hold on a minute, son. Let's wait until everyone gets here. JR, Bran and Benny should be here in a few minutes. Why don't you take Joel to see his birthday cake that Hildy decorated?" I said to the boys.
"It's chocolate," Chris said.
"That's my favorite," Joel said.
"Mine too," chorused the others including Tony.
As the boys were admiring the cake I saw a few cookies disappear off the table which brought a smile to Hildy's face and a shake of her head. The cake was decorated with chocolate frosting, little flowers made of red and white icing and swags of icing along the edges and sides. Hildy had written "Happy 13th Birthday Joel" and under it "June 3, 1995."
The door to the room opened and Ethel and Alan arrived with Bran and Benny. "Eric and JR will be here in a minute. They are parking the car," Alan said.
Benny headed to where Tony was standing and grabbed a hold of his brother's waist before saying hello to the other boys. Bran made a bee line for the table where the cake was. When he saw Hildy standing there he looked at her with pleading eyes. She pointed to the tray of cookies and raised one finger. He took one, content that he at least got something.
A couple of minutes later Eric, JR and John came in the room. Chris, the twins and TJ all ran to the newest arrivals giving them each a hug.
"John," Joel choked out propelling himself toward the group. "Why didn't you tell me you were going to come?"
"I didn't know until after we talked the other day. I wanted to surprise you, too," John replied leaning down and giving Joel a hug.
"I'm so glad you came. I miss you," Joel said quietly.
"Okay, everybody, I think we are all here now. I know that Joel is anxious to open his presents. TJ you come sit with me while Joel opens his presents. Maybe you could help by handing them to him."
"Yeah. Here, this one's from me," TJ said as he handed a box to him.
Joel opened the box revealing a soccer ball. "Thanks, TJ, I hope we can play with this when we get back home."
The next box was from Chris. It was a new video game. "Thank you, Chris. John this is the game that Kevin was telling us about at school. He said it was really neat."
Next was a joint present from Larry and Lenny. It was a small box that contained a gold chain for Joel to wear around his neck. "Thanks, Larry, thanks Lenny I've always wanted one of these."
"I got one of those for my birthday too," John said displaying the chain around his neck.
"Can you fasten it for me, Lenny?"
"Sure," Lenny replied.
Then it was time for my present. I handed it to TJ who gave it to Joel. Joel carefully removed the ribbon and bow before ripping the paper off the box. He took the hinged box in his hands and slowly opened it. "Oh, dad, it's a watch, a gold watch. It's beautiful."
"Turn it over."
"TJ, I can't see, your head's in the way," Joel said as he gently pushed his brother out of the way.
"What's it say?" Lenny asked as he brought his head alongside Joel's.
"It says, 'Joel, You bring joy to my life. Dad'."
"Let me see it," Chris said.
As Joel handed his new watch to his brothers to look at, John leaned down and whispered something in his ear. Whatever he said made Joel smile broadly.
"Come, Joel, it's time to light the candles," Hildy said.
John pushed Joel's wheelchair up to the table where the birthday cake was sitting. Hildy struck a match and began lighting the thirteen candles.
After an absolutely horrendous rendition of "Happy Birthday," Joel blew out the candles to everyone's applause.
"Thank you, everybody, I never had a real birthday party before. Mom would bake a little cake or a pie but I never had a party," he said with his eyes beginning to glisten with tears of joy for the present and sadness for the past.
Hildy cut the decorated cake into large pieces, took out the corner piece and scooped an equally large portion of ice cream onto the plate. That first plate went to Joel. Ethel moved in beside Hildy and helped her dish up and hand out the heaping plates first to the boys and then to the adults. My resolution to skip desserts melted at the thought of Hildy's chocolate cake. I did ask for a smaller piece. After all I did have some will power.
We hadn't planned any organized games for the boys to play because both Joel and Tony would get worn out before the games could be played out. They didn't seem to mind. They were having too much fun talking and laughing. It was a little loud but with ten teen and preteen boys what could you expect?
I was enjoying myself talking to Eric. It had been a while since we had seen each other and as we talked I realized how much I missed seeing him. As we were talking, Karen came up to me and said that they were going to take Tony and Benny back to the room. Tony was showing signs of fatigue. That brought me back to reality. I went to check on Joel to see if he too was tiring.
"How are you doing, son? Are you getting tired?"
"A little, but can't I talk to John some more?"
"Okay, a few more minutes and then you should get back into bed," I said in my best fatherly tone.
"How's he doing?" Eric asked as I returned to our table.
"He is starting to tire, but he doesn't want to go back to his room. By the way, when are you going back home?"
"Mom wants us to stay for lunch tomorrow after church. That means we'll probably start back around two. Why do you ask?"
"I thought that maybe John could stay here at the hospital and I would bring him back to your folks' place this evening. I have to take the other boys home after the party but I will be coming back later this evening so I could take him with me when I left."
"I don't see why that wouldn't work. It is quite a round trip from here to the house and then back to your apartment."
"I know, but those two seem to be developing a special relationship. I think it would do Joel's attitude good to have his friend with him a little longer. Dr. Kerner says that a positive attitude is very important in his treatment. I know Joel is not looking forward to another round of chemo next week so this might keep his spirits up."
A few minutes later I could tell that Joel was definitely beginning to tire. It had been about an hour and a half which was about as long as he had been out of bed since the chemo had started affecting his stamina.
"Joel, let's go back to the room. I don't want you to get too tired."
"Alright, dad, I am feeling a little weak."
"Say goodbye to everyone. The boys and I will take you back to your room and then we'll come back and help Hildy clean up in here."
"Thanks, Hildy, the cake was wonderful," he said stretching his arms up to give her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
"Honey, it was my pleasure. I'm glad you liked it," Hildy said returning his hug.
"Can John come with us?"
"Of course he may," I said. "Come along now."
By the time we got back to the room, Joel was really showing how worn out that he was. I think he was putting on a front so the he would have more time to spend with John. I got Joel in bed and told him to get some rest before his brothers crowded around to hug him and again wish him a happy birthday.
"John, I asked Eric if you could stay and talk to Joel and I'll take you back to his parents' house tonight after I come to visit Joel. Just don't let him get too tired. He may need to take a nap."
"Thank you, Mr. Johnson," John said wrapping his arms around my waist. "I promise I'll make him take a nap. I don't want him to get sicker."
"Okay, then, I'll be back around seven o'clock. You boys behave yourselves."
The boys and I helped Hildy and Becky Sue clean up the party room and carried all the garbage and what few leftovers there were to the car. TJ carried the soccer ball that he had given Joel.
"Joel really liked my present, didn't he?" TJ stated more than asked.
"Yes, son, he liked all the presents that he got. But the best present that he gets every day is his brothers' love."
"And yours, too," Larry and Lenny said together.
Surprisingly, or maybe not, the boys weren't too hungry when it came time for supper. Hildy fixed some tuna salad sandwiches and chips to satisfy what appetite that they had.
On my way back to the hospital, I realized that John probably did not get any supper. I didn't know whether he had any money to get something from the cafeteria. I should have given him some and showed him where the cafeteria was. To remedy my oversight, I stopped at the Wendy's on the way and picked up a couple of cheeseburgers and fries at the drive through window.
Feeling guilty as I got to Joel's room, I saw that the curtains had been drawn around his bed. I just assumed that one of his doctors was there examining him. I didn't see John any place. I opened the curtains a crack to look in. What I saw surprised me. No, a better description was shocked.
Joel and John were in a serious lip lock.