I activated the gate opener and went out the front door to greet our guests. As I waited for the car to pull up to the house, the five dogs raced around the corner of the house followed shortly by the five boys. Alan looked scared as he saw all of the dogs waiting outside the car door when Bruce drove up and stopped.
"Boys," I scolded, "control your pets."
"Yes, dad," Joel said running to grab Samson. "Come on, boy, let him outa the car."
"Mr. Collingsworthy, welcome to our home," I said as he stepped out of the car.
"Thank you," he said shaking my hand. "We would have been here earlier, but I took a wrong turn."
"That's easy to do up here," I said. "Don't be afraid, son. The dogs are friendly. They might lick you, but they won't bite."
Alan crawled out the driver's side door and grabbed hold of Bruce still not sure what to make of all the dogs.
"Alan's a little shy of dogs. He got bitten by one when he was about five years old, so he's very cautious," Bruce said.
"TJ, bring Bandit here, please," I told him. "Alan, this is my youngest son, TJ, and his dog, Bandit. Bandit is very friendly. Would you like to pet him?"
Alan stood there holding on to Bruce and staring at Bandit. TJ was holding Bandit so that his pet's head was looking back over his shoulder. Bandit's tail was wagging so fast that it was almost invisible. As TJ approached, Alan slowly reached out his hand and just about touched Bandit's back before he jerked it back. Another try and his finger tips barely touched the fur before he again jerked them back. Finally, the third time he let his fingers lightly brush Bandit's back before withdrawing them.
"He likes to have his ears scratched," TJ said as he moved closer to Alan and demonstrated what he meant getting a tongue licking for his efforts. That caused Alan to let out a soft giggle. "Go ahead, scratch his ears."
Alan tentatively extended his hand and lightly scratched behind Bandit's floppy ears. "He's kinda soft," he said with another giggle.
When I thought that Alan was more comfortable with Bandit, I turned to the other boys and said, "Guys, bring your pets and let Alan meet them, too."
Holding their dogs in their arms, my other four approached slowly so as not to scare Alan. Even so, Alan retreated to Bruce and held on tightly.
"Alan," I said softly, "this is Joel and his dog's name is Samson."
This got a barely audible "Hi" from Alan.
"And these two are my twins, Larry and Lenny. Their puppies are Buddy and Buster," I said pointing out each one.
This again elicited a soft "Hi" from him.
"This guy here is Chris and his dog Rusty," I said making my final introduction.
"Come on," TJ said. "Let's go see the deer."
Alan looked up at Bruce and getting a nod, he cautiously released his hold on him. Keeping TJ and Bandit between him and the other boys holding their dogs he slowly stepped away from Bruce.
Bruce watched anxiously as all the boys walked around the corner of the house in their search to find some deer to chase.
"Don't worry," I told him. "I'm sure he'll be fine. Joel is very protective of his younger brothers and he'll be the same with Alan. Let's go inside. I need to get the meat ready for the grill."
We had just turned to enter the house when Darcie and Mel drove up the lane. After all the greetings and introductions were made we headed into the house. Gilda was busy in the kitchen as we entered. She was talking to herself as usual, but stopped long enough to meet everyone. Darcie volunteered to help her in the kitchen. I grabbed the pork chops that Gilda had thawed and headed outside to the grill followed by Mel and Bruce.
"This is a beautiful place that you have here," Bruce said as we stepped out onto the patio. "And this view is magnificent."
"Isn't it though?" Mel added. "Every time we come to visit I'm overwhelmed by it. I sometimes wish Darcie and I lived here at the lake."
I checked the pit to see if the coals were ready. I had started the charcoal shortly before Bruce was scheduled to arrive. The coals were ready so I added some mesquite wood to get that great smoked flavor and then spread the chops on the grate. They sizzled as they landed on the hot grate.
"These will take a little time to cook up. Would either of you like something to drink? I think we have iced tea, juice or soft drinks," I asked.
"Not right now," Bruce said. "I'll have tea with lunch, if you don't mind."
"I think I'll grab a soda," Mel said starting for the house. "Can I get you something, Crane?"
"No, thanks," I chuckled. "But you probably better be ready to get the boys something."
Mel returned shortly, but was carrying a stack of dishes instead of his soft drink. Darcie followed right behind him with a table cloth, napkins and eating utensils. Gilda brought up the rear carrying a tray of glasses and condiments.
We were interrupted by a high pitched giggle coming from the direction of the boys. When I looked, I saw Alan rolling on the ground with Bandit trying to lick his ears.
"Well, at least he's over his fear of one dog," I said to no one in particular.
"That's amazing," Bruce said. "I've never been able to get him near a dog, let alone let one play with him that way. Simply amazing!"
"Those dogs are amazing. They've known nothing but love since they've been here. They have so much love that they just have to share it with everyone," I told him.
"Crane, when will the pork chops be done?" Gilda asked.
"Let me check," I answered as I went back to the grill. I turned one over and saw that it was done on the one side. "I think they'll be done in about five minutes. Will everything else be ready by then?"
"We're ready," Darcie said. "Mel will you go get the boys and tell them to get washed up for lunch?"
"Yes, dear," he said as I snickered. Mel walked out onto the new playing field toward the boys not looking at me. He got about half way there when the boys saw him and took off for the house knowing what he was coming for.
I brought a large platter with me as I exited the house after washing my hands. I checked the chops and saw that they were done. They looked almost too pretty to eat. The perfectly made grill marks made them look as though they could have been in a Pork Producers' TV commercial.
Gilda had poured all the boys a large glass of milk and set out a pitcher of ice tea for the adults. I saw Alan whispering to Bruce and wondered what the problem was.
"Gilda, I'm sorry, but Alan doesn't like milk," Bruce said apologetically.
"Would you like chocolate milk?" Gilda asked looking at Alan.
"Yes, ma'am," he said shaking his head.
Gilda picked up his glass and headed back inside. She emerged a moment later with what I was sure was the same glass of milk to which she had added chocolate syrup. "There you go, son. If you want some more, you let me know," she said patting him on the head.
"Thank you," Alan said beaming at her.
Alan fit right in with the other boys when it came to eating. Although he was only eight years old, he downed a respectable size portion of food. TJ was sitting beside him and kept him talking and giggling all through the meal.
"Anyone for dessert?" Gilda asked as she got up from the table and started picking up the dirty dishes.
The adults just groaned, but the six boys all answered in the affirmative. Darcie helped to clear away some of the dishes and then followed Gilda into the house. "Would anyone like a cup of coffee," I asked.
Both Bruce and Mel said they did so I got up to go inside to get the coffee pot. Darcie was on her way out with three plates of the boys' dessert as I was entering the house. Gilda was right behind with three more. I saw that the plates were laden with a chocolate brownie topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. I think I gained a couple pounds just by looking at it.
I brought the coffee and cups for all of us and sat down. The boys had completed their dessert and were all but licking the plates. "You're excused," I told their questioning faces. "Why don't you take Alan upstairs and show him your video games? We can go swimming after your food has settled."
"Okay, dad," Joel said. "Come on, grab your plates. Let's go."
"Will they be alright in there by themselves?" Bruce asked.
"I'm sure they will be," I said.
"I just don't want Alan to break anything. He seems to be going through a clumsy stage. I worry about him. It seems to be getting worse," Bruce said.
"With five active boys and their even more active dogs, we're use to having a few broken glasses and things," I said with a smile. I hoped that he wasn't trying to build up an excuse in case Alan had unexplained bruising. "How has Alan adjusted to his mother's death?"
"As well as can be expected, I guess," Bruce said. "He'll sometimes come and sit on my lap and cry for her. I know that she wasn't the world's greatest mother, but she didn't deserve to be murdered. It was very hard for him when he saw her in the casket at the funeral."
Bruce remained quiet for a couple of moments. He looked like he was in deep thought. "Well, should we go check on what the boys are up to?" I asked seeing that everyone had finished their coffee.
We dropped off our coffee cups in the kitchen before heading upstairs to check on the boys. The twins were sprawled on the floor playing one of their board games while Chris and Joel were playing foosball. Alan and TJ were sitting on the floor surrounded by four of the dogs watching as the fifth dog, Bandit, was being held and petted by Alan. Every once in a while TJ would reach out and scratch one of the other dogs under the chin so that they wouldn't feel left out.
"How are you guys doing?" I asked as we reached the top of the stairs.
"Hi, dad," Joel said looking up from the battle. "Hey! That's no fair, Chris. I wasn't looking."
Chris just giggled and retrieved the ball from the goal.
"Look, dad," Alan said as he struggled to his feet without letting Bandit go. "TJ said I could hold Bandit and he didn't bite me or nothing."
"That's great," Bruce said as he leaned over and kissed the top of Alan's head. As he did, he got a lick on his cheek from Bandit. "Are you having fun?"
"Yeah, they got lotsa toys and Bandit likes me and so does Rusty and Samson and Buster and... and... ah..."
"Buddy," TJ finished for him.
"Yeah, Buddy," Alan said and sat back down in the circle of dogs.
"Is anybody ready to go swimming?" I asked knowing what the response from my boys would be.
"Can I, dad? Can I?" Alan looked at his foster dad.
"Sure, come on and let's get your swimsuit out of the car," Bruce said holding out his hand. Alan handed Bandit to TJ, jumped up off the floor and grabbed the extended hand.
"There's a spare bedroom downstairs where you can change. I'll show you after you get your swimwear. Mel, you and Darcie can use my room to change. I'll change when you're through," I said as we were nearly run over by Joel and TJ rushing downstairs to get ready. Larry, Lenny and Chris had already disappeared into their bedroom.
After about forty-five minutes in the water, Bruce climbed out and sat down in one of the chaise lounges. I whispered to Mel asking him to continue playing in the water with the boys while Darcie and I had a talk with Bruce. I grabbed a towel and tossed one to Darcie as we climbed out of the pool. Then we both took a chair on either side of Bruce.
I saw no reason to beat around the bush so I came right out and said to Bruce, "We've had a disturbing report that you abused your brother when you were younger. Now while that in itself is not really any of our concern unless it has a bearing on your treatment of Alan."
Bruce sat upright in the lounger with an astonished look on his face. "Where in the world did you hear that? I can't believe it. Who would say such a thing?"
"We don't have the name of the person," Darcie said. "It was reported by someone that you grew up with. At least that is the information we have. We wanted to ask you about it to give your side or refute it."
"I think I know who it could be. He is the only one I know that holds a grudge against me. Lyndon Barnes. Let me tell you a little about Lyndon. He lived across the street from me while we were growing up. We attended the same schools up through high school. We were never really friends. He ran around with a different crowd. The only thing we had in common was Linda. Linda Wilson was in the grade behind us. She was beautiful in both our eyes and we both sought her attentions when we reached the age to be interested in girls. She was a bit of a flirt and a tease but that didn't make any difference to us.
"I guess I must have been about 15 when I first asked Linda for a date. We went to the movies. There was only one theater in town at that time. Anyway, Lyndon saw us at the movies and was furious. He had asked Linda for a date, but she had turned him down. She told him that somebody had already asked her out. I was smitten with her, but she was not ready to be tied down with only one boy. She dated several boys over the next couple of years including Lyndon.
"That didn't make any difference to Lyndon. From that first date of mine with Linda, he made it his purpose in life to make mine miserable. It got worse when I was a senior in high school. Linda and I started going steady. He was too cowardly to do anything to my face. He just spread all kinds of rumors about me behind my back. Some were very hurtful. The only time he did anything violent was once he and a couple of his friends caught my little brother, Dawson, and beat him up. Not too badly, but enough that he had a black eye. Then he started the rumor that I had beaten up Dawson. Of course, Dawson told everyone the truth but once a rumor like that starts it's hard to stamp out.
"The only time I have ever hit my brother with malice is when I caught him smoking marijuana after school. I slapped him twice and dragged him home and gave him a verbal dressing down. I never told our folks. I don't think Dawson ever smoked marijuana again. I'm not proud that I hit him, but I'm not ashamed of it either. I love my brother and I think he loves me, too."
He stopped and looked at the pool full of boys before I asked, "What happened to Linda?"
"When I left for college, I went to Baylor, Linda and I tried to maintain our relationship. It didn't work out. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but in our case that wasn't true. We grew apart. As much as Lyndon tried after that, she would never have anything to do with him. He still blames me for that. She later went to the University of Houston and married a guy she met there."
"Our concern," I said, "is the welfare of Alan. We'll follow up on the information that we've received and what you've told us. I must warn you, if we uncover any derogatory information, we'll turn it over to CPS."
"Fair enough," he said. "Alan is my only concern, also. I want to adopt him. I think he wants me to be his father. I think I've loved him from the first day that I became his Big Brother. He's a great kid. He's a little insecure, but who wouldn't be after what he's been through. He's getting better though."
"He does seem to be happy," Darcie said.
We sat in silence for the better part of twenty minutes watching the boys and Mel playing in the pool. Bandit was in there, too. I think that dog is part fish the way he takes to water. Alan would let out one of his high pitched giggles every time Bandit would try to climb on his back.
"Well, I suppose it's time that Alan and I started for home. I have some papers to correct and grades to record before I go back to school tomorrow. Crane, thank you for your hospitality. I'm sure that Alan has enjoyed himself as much as I have."
"Would you have time for Alan and the boys to have their afternoon snack?" I asked. "I think Gilda still has some of those brownies left."
"I'm sure we do. That boy has a sweet tooth so I know he'd like another brownie," Bruce laughed.
"Good, Darcie if you'll round up your husband and the boys, I'll go tell Gilda to start preparing for them," I said. "Bruce, there are plenty of towels if you and Alan want to shower before you dress. I always insist that the boys do when they get out of the pool."
Gilda was talking to herself and fussing around in the kitchen when I told her that the boys would be coming in for their snacks in a little while. Her face brightened when I told her. I think she is actually going to be sad to leave us when I take her to the airport tomorrow.
It didn't take long for the boys to demolish their snack and then head back outside. The rest of us followed at a more leisurely pace. We stood and chatted on the front steps for a while before Bruce called Alan to come and get into the car. Alan came around the corner of the house carrying Bandit and followed by the other four dogs. Bandit was giving him a tongue licking so much that Alan started giggling so hard that he almost dropped the dog.
"I can't believe the change in that boy," Bruce said. "Before, you couldn't get him near a dog of any size. Now, look at him, carrying one and four at his heels. Thanks, this has been great for him. Maybe it will help bring him a little more out of his shell."
"I'm glad that he enjoyed himself. I know my crew has enjoyed having him here," I said. "Darcie or I will be getting in touch with you as soon as we check out what you have told us. In the meantime, I wouldn't worry too much about it. We felt, based on the information that we were given, that we at least needed to hear your side of the story."
"Come on, Alan, say goodbye to your friends and then get in the car," Bruce said.
Alan gave Bandit one last hug before he put him down and patting the other four dogs. He received hugs from all of the boys and then climbed into the car. As Bruce climbed in, I heard Alan say, "Daddy, can I get a dog?"
"We'll see, son, we'll see," Bruce said looking at me and shaking his head in disbelief.
"Can you and Mel stay for supper?" I asked Darcie as we stepped back into the house.
"We can stay for a while," she said. "I think we should talk about what Bruce told us this afternoon."
"What's your take on his story? Do you believe him?" I asked as we sat down in the family room.
"I want to believe him," Darcie said. "His story makes a lot of sense and Alan didn't show any signs of being abused. No bruising that you wouldn't expect on an active eight year old. And though it doesn't mean anything, Alan seems to be devoted to Bruce. However, it's often the case that the abused will cling to the abuser in hopes that it will keep the abuse from happening again. I think that we should ask Jack to investigate further."
"I agree. I still want to talk to the boys this evening. I had asked them to see if they could learn anything from Alan. Maybe he would be more likely to talk to someone his own age if he was being abused. I think TJ may know the most about Alan. It seems like the two of them were together all the time. Would you give Jack a call in the morning when you get in? I'm taking Gilda to the airport. Her plane doesn't leave until around ten o'clock, so I won't be in until later."
We talked for another forty-five minutes or so before Darcie said that they had better get on their way. She went to the patio door and called to the boys who came running. After hugging all the boys, she and Mel got in their car and drove away.
After a relatively light supper of soup and sandwiches, I asked the boys to join me in the family room. "Did you guys have fun today?" I asked.
"Yeah," TJ said. He had climbed up on my lap with Bandit in his arms. "Alan's nice."
"I'm glad that you liked him. He was a little bit scared when he first got here, but you all made him feel comfortable. I'm very proud of each of you."
"I think he liked being here and swimming. He doesn't get to swim very often," Joel said. "They don't have a swimming pool at their apartment."
"Do you remember what I asked you to do while Alan was here?" I asked.
"Yeah," Joel said. "TJ talked to him a lot. Didn't you, TJ"
"Uh huh, he says he really likes living with his new dad 'cause he never gets hit and always gets something to eat. He misses his momma," TJ said snuggling his head under my chin. He was quiet for a while before he continued, "One of his momma's boyfriends used to pinch him and spank him and shake him when his momma wasn't home. He didn't like that."
"His momma had lots of boyfriends," Joel added. "Most of them smoked and drank lots of beer. He hated the ones that smoked. It made his nose plug up and his eyes burn. He likes his new dad because he doesn't smoke or drink beer."
"So, are you guys sure that Alan doesn't get hit or hurt in any way by his new dad?" I asked.
"Yeah," Larry and Lenny said in unison.
"His daddy doesn't hit him, I'm sure," Chris said with conviction.
"We're sure," Joel said.
TJ just nodded his head against my chest.
"Thanks, guys, you did a great job. Now, I think it's time to start your homework. Tomorrow is a school day," I said giving TJ a kiss on the top of his head.
While the boys were busy doing their homework, I decided to check on the status of their trust accounts. I had made a modification to the stock holdings at the end of the last quarter. I had dumped the Wal-Mart stock in favor of Dell. Although I knew it would be a more volatile stock, I believed it had a greater potential for appreciation. I was a little surprised to find that each of their trust accounts were worth about $300 shy of $4.7 million. That was an increase of $2.2 million since January.
I took a look at a couple of stocks that I had been considering, Amazon and Yahoo. If I got a chance tomorrow, I planned to talk to my broker about possibly diversifying into a couple more stocks for my own account as well as the boys.
I had just finished with the finances when TJ climbed up on my lap to have me check his homework. He was usually the first to finish since he had the least amount to do. Over the next half hour, I checked everyone's homework. On the schedule next was their evening snack.
The telephone rang as the dishes from their snack were being placed in the dishwasher. When I answered it, Hildy was on the line.
"Crane, thank you. The hotel is absolutely fabulous. Manny and I are thoroughly enjoying ourselves. I've never stayed in such a luxurious hotel before," she said sounding like a school girl.
"I was wondering how the trip was and if you got there all right. Are you ready to get on the ship tomorrow?"
"Yes, the limo driver said he would pick us up at 10:30 tomorrow morning. We're scheduled to get on the boat at around 1:00. I can hardly wait," she giggled.
"Is that Hildy?" TJ asked.
Covering the mouthpiece I said, "Yes, it's Hildy. Do you want to talk to her?"
The rapid shaking of his head answered for him.
"Hildy, there's someone here who would like to say hello to you. Hold on," I said.
"Hi, Hildy," TJ said when I handed him the handset.
"I miss you," he said with a sniffle in his voice.
Each of the boys took a turn talking to Hildy before she asked to talk to Gilda. I said goodbye to her, handed the phone to Gilda and then ushered the boys toward their bedrooms to get their showers taken.
Gilda was in the kitchen the next morning when I entered to get my coffee. She was talking to herself. I had to chuckle even though I knew it wasn't nice to laugh at someone. When she looked at me as if to say, 'What's funny?' I felt very self conscious.
"Oh, I know I'm a funny old woman. I talk to myself. It's a habit I got into after my husband went to the nursing home," she said. "I guess it's my way of coping with the loneliness."
I went up to her, wrapped my arms around her and gave her a squeeze. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't laugh. You have been a godsend these past few days. I think the boys love you as much as they do Hildy, but in a different way. We're all going to miss you after today. I hope you will consider coming back to visit us often."
"Thanks, I've felt more alive the past couple of days than I have since Wallace got sick. I'm going to miss them, too. They are really great boys," she said dabbing at her eyes with her apron. "You're a very lucky man, Crane Johnson. Hildy is a very lucky woman to have them as part of her life. I envy her."
After breakfast and the boys and I were getting ready to go down and meet their school van, Gilda gave each of the boys a hug and a kiss. Joel was the last one to receive his hug. She turned away with tears in her eyes and hurried toward Hildy's apartment before she could break down in front of the boys.
As we were walking down the lane, TJ asked, "Is Gilda gonna come again?"
"I don't know son. I hope she does. I invited her to come visit anytime she wanted," I said.
I escorted Gilda to the American Airlines gate at the San Antonio airport after we had checked her luggage. The closer it was to time for her plane to depart the more emotional she became. She was able to pull herself together as her plane's boarding was announced. I gave her a hug and received a kiss on the cheek before she handed her boarding pass to the attendant and walked down the gangway toward the plane.
Only seven more days and Hildy will be home again, I thought as I walked back to my car. I only hope we can make it.