"That sounds like an excellent idea. I'll call Bran on his new cell phone as soon as the movie is over." Eric reached over and squeezed my hand. Just then the movie previews started.
By the time the feature movie started nearly all the seats were taken. We both enjoyed the movie, although it was a bit more violent that I would have preferred. I guess that was to be expected for a war movie.
Our movie lasted longer than Joel's and John's movie despite having started a few minutes before theirs did. They were waiting in the lobby for us. "How was your movie, guys?" I asked.
"It was great," Joel responded enthusiastically. "It was so funny and there were some great car chases and lots of crashes."
"Yeah," John added, "I liked it when the guy drove his convertible over the cliff and jumped out before it hit the water below."
"Dad, can we go get some ice cream?"
"How can you guys possibly be hungry after that meal and all those snacks you had in the movie?" I asked, shaking my head.
"They're growing boys," Eric laughed. He paused before adding, "With bottomless pits."
"Well, can we?" Joel asked.
"Sure, do you have a place in mind?"
"There's a Baskin Robbins in the shopping center not too far from where we ate."
"I may have to run a couple extra miles to work it off, but a hot fudge sundae sounds awfully good," Eric said.
I declined, with regret, the sundaes that everybody else ordered. Instead, I settled for a single-dip vanilla cone. The boys and Eric made quick work of their sundaes and we were on our way home.
Hildy and Manfred were upstairs in the Media room reading when we arrived. After asking us how the movies were, they went to their rooms. Joel and John said goodnight and after both of them got a hug from me, went off to Joel's room. I looked in on the other boys to see if they were sleeping. Eric and I both went in to check on the twins, Chris and JR. The latter two were sharing Chris' bed while the twins were in their own beds. TJ and Peter were sound asleep when I checked on them. I gave them each a soft kiss on the forehead before leaving their room.
"How about a glass of wine?" I asked Eric.
"I don't think that would sit too well on top of that sundae, but a cup of coffee sounds good. Decaf if you have it."
"I'm sure Hildy has some in the cabinet." I went about preparing the coffee maker while Eric sat at the kitchen island watching.
When the coffee was ready, we took it into the conservatory and sat looking out over the lake. It was always so peaceful at night. The few lights on the far shore reflecting on the gentle waves were almost hypnotic. We sat and talked for over an hour, catching up on our separate lives. When the conversation dwindled down to long pauses, I got up and took our coffee cups to the kitchen. Finishing in the kitchen, we walked to the bedroom.
Hildy was in the kitchen the next morning pouring cups of coffee for her and Manfred. "Pauline Gordinier called last evening and asked us to bring John to church when we went. We're going to leave in about an hour. You may want to wake him up," she said.
"Okay, pour me a cup and I'll be right back," I said, turning to go upstairs. When I got to Joel's door, I knocked several times before I heard a sleepy answer. "John, Hildy and Manfred are going to take you to church to meet your mother. You've just got time to get a quick shower and grab some breakfast."
"Okay," John's muffled voice said through the door. "I'm up."
I snickered at the unintended meaning of his words and headed back downstairs. Eric was coming out of my bedroom as I descended the stairs. "Morning, Hildy has coffee in the kitchen."
"Thanks, I need some," he said, giving me a meaningful look.
We sat down at the kitchen island to enjoy our coffee. Manfred joined us, but Hildy was busying herself in the kitchen. Whatever she was doing, it smelled great. Fifteen minutes later, John and Joel arrived looking freshly scrubbed. When Hildy saw them she quickly set glasses of milk in front of them before going back to the kitchen. It wasn't long before she returned carrying a platter of cinnamon rolls, dripping with sticky caramel. This was what smelled so good earlier.
"As soon as the aroma reaches the upstairs, I'm sure we'll have six more boys racing down the stairs," I told Hildy.
"I've got another pan in the oven ready to come out, so I'm sure there will be enough."
I was right. It wasn't five minutes before we heard bare feet coming down the stairs at a rapid pace. The six of them skidded to the table and sat down with mouths drooling.
"Did you guys wash your hands?" I asked. That stopped them from grabbing for one of the rolls with hands in mid air. Without a word they all pushed back from the table and headed for the three bathrooms to wash their hands. I'm sure they gave their hands what my mother used to call 'a lick and a promise', because they were back at the table in no time devouring the sweet rolls and glasses of milk that Hildy put in front of them. As the last roll disappeared from the platter, another platter full appeared to take its place.
JR, evidently, hadn't noticed his dad until he had finished at least two of the rolls. When he did, he jumped up from the table and ran to him. "Hi, dad, do we have to go home already?"
Eric neatly intercepted his son and held him at arms length. "I love you, son, but I'd prefer to get a hug from someone less sticky than you are," he laughed, and led his son to the nearest bathroom to wash up.
They returned shortly. JR was tucked under Eric's arm. "You didn't answer me, dad. Do we have to go home now?"
"Not right this minute, but soon. I'm sure that Bran is missing you."
"Yeah, but he's gonna be gone someday," JR said bitterly.
"We've talked about that, son," Eric said, giving his son another hug. "Now, run upstairs and get your clothes on. You can play with your friends for a little while before we go."
While this was going on, Peter sidled up to me and then crawled onto my lap. I wrapped my arms around him and kissed the top of his head. We sat that way for a few minutes before he spoke. "You didn't tuck me in bed last night," he said, barely above a whisper.
"I know, son. Mr. Levin and I went to a movie last night. I did check on you when I got home. You were sound asleep."
We sat there like that for several minutes, not saying anything until TJ came over. "Come on, Peter, let's go get our clothes on so we can play with Bandit." That perked up Peter. He gave my arms a squeeze and then jumped down from my lap, grabbed TJ's outstretched hand and ran with him up the stairs to their room.
John and Joel headed back upstairs to pack up John's overnight bag. It was nearly time for him to go with Hildy and Manfred to meet his mother at church. They came back down the stairs with Joel carrying the overnight bag and headed for the garage to put it in Manfred's car.
A few minutes later, Hildy and Manfred arrived downstairs, dressed for church. "Is John ready?" Hildy asked.
"Yes, he and Joel took his bag out to the car a little while ago and to say goodbye," I replied. "Thanks for fixing breakfast. You know you didn't have to do that. That's supposed to be my job on Sunday."
Before Hildy could reply, Manfred spoke up. "Crane, you know this woman of mine is never happier than when she's doing something for those boys ... and their friends."
"I know, she's our own personal angel," I said. "But even angels need some time off."
"Come on, you two," Hildy said, giving Manfred a light punch on the shoulder. "You'll make an old woman blush."
I walked with them to the garage. Manfred's car was always parked in the stall farthest from the door, so it would give Joel and John ample warning of their approach. Joel and John were standing beside Manfred's car having what looked like a serious discussion. When they heard footsteps approaching, they stopped their conversation and turned to see who was coming. As Manfred activated the garage door opener, Joel gave John a quick hug before John slipped into the back seat of the car.
I stood beside Joel as the car drove out of the garage and down the driveway. "Joel, we need to have a talk."
"I know, dad."
"You go into the library while I go check on your brothers. I'll be right there."
The other boys were outside throwing Frisbees for the dogs to catch. Every time Bandit caught a Frisbee, he would run back to Peter and place his front paws on his chest, usually causing Peter to fall down backwards laughing so hard he could hardly get back up. I motioned Larry over to me and told him to make sure nobody went near the pool until I came back out.
"Sure, dad, you can count on me," he replied. I gave him a smile and a pat on the back before going back into the house.
I would have asked Eric to watch the boys, but he was upstairs helping JR pack up his overnight bag.
Joel was sitting in one of the leather chairs in front of the desk when I returned. I turned the other chair so that it was facing his before sitting down. "Son, I'm a little disappointed with you and the way you handled John's coming to spend the night. We have always been able to talk these things over before."
"I know, dad, but ..."
I held up my hand indicating that I wasn't finished. "You put me in a very uncomfortable position. If I had said no to your last minute request, you would have been embarrassed in front of your friend and his mother. Because of your special relationship with John, I was a bit concerned about what I was permitting by letting him spend the night. You're 15. I know that hormones are raging at that age. My main concern is that you not get hurt."
"I should have asked you before," Joel said, hanging his head. "John called me yesterday afternoon and said he had asked his mom if he could spend the night. I wanted him to stay, but I knew I should ask you first. Then Eric and JR came and you were never alone so I could ask you. I'm sorry, dad. It won't happen again. We didn't do anything except hold each other and talk. I'm not ready for anything else. I can't forget what my old dad did to me."
This last revelation surprised me. I thought this had all been worked out with Dr. Adams a long time ago. "Oh, Joel, why didn't you say something to me? Maybe we should schedule some more time with Dr. Adams."
"Most of the time I don't even think about him or what he did to me. I guess being close to John in my bedroom brought back some bad memories. I think it'd be good to talk to Dr. Adams again. I don't want to be afraid to love someone." A couple of tears trickled down his cheeks.
I stood up, took the step that separated us and lifted him out of the chair and wrapped my arms around him. The dam burst and his sobs wracked his body. We must have stayed that way for five minutes; at least it seemed that long, before his sobbing ceased.
"Are you mad at me?" he asked.
"No, son, I'm not mad at you. I was disappointed in the manner the whole thing was handled. In the future, if you have something of importance you need to discuss with me, always know that you can interrupt what I'm doing. There is nothing in this world that is more important to me than you and your brothers. Nothing takes priority over you guys. I love you guys with all my heart and it would kill me if anything bad happened to any of you."
"I know you love us, but I know that Eric is your friend."
"Yes, Eric is my friend. He's very special to me, but he's in a distant second place when it comes to you guys," I said, giving him another hug and kissing the top of his head. "Why don't you go wash your face and then go play with your brothers? I'll bet Sam is wondering where you are. Now, go!"
"Thanks, dad, you always know how to make me feel better."
I thought to myself as he left the room, 'You make me feel better just because you're my son.'
Eric was on the terrace when I went to check on the boys. "JR and I are going to take off. I called Bran and he was beginning to wonder when we were coming home. Last night was special. I hope we can get together more often."
"I do, too. It seems there are so many demands on my time with the boys, Peter's situation, my businesses and this mess with the fundamentalist bigots, that I rarely have time for just me. I'd really like to spend more time with you."
"I know. Being a single father is a full time job - and then some," he said. Then turning toward where the boys were playing, he gave a loud whistle to attract JR's attention and motioned for him to come.
A sullen JR, surrounded by the other boys, walked slowly to where his dad was standing. "We gotta go?"
"Yes, son. Remember, we're going to see Ricky this afternoon. You'll see your friends. They'll be there."
The seven boys and five dogs trooped through the house and out the front door with JR in the center being comforted by my sons. There were hugs all around, including Eric and me, before Eric drove his car down the driveway.
"Can we go swimming?" Chris asked.
"Sure, go get your swimsuits on." I had barely gotten that out of my mouth when I was standing alone on the front steps. I started to follow them into the house when I saw one of the security guards heading my way on his ATV.
"Mr. Johnson, I thought I ought to inform you that there has been a suspicious vehicle driving slowly by. We've noticed it on several occasions. Kent, that's my partner, has called the license plate number into our office. Our contact with the Texas Rangers is running a records check to see who it belongs to. We should know in a couple of hours. You might want to be aware if you plan to leave the property," he said. "It could be nothing, but it's better to be safe than sorry. We'll keep you informed."
"Thanks, Harry," I said, reading his name off his uniform shirt. "We plan on visiting some friends this afternoon a few miles from here. Would it be possible for one of you to follow us there?"
"Of course, Kent can stay here and I'll stay close to you and your family."
"We'll be leaving around 1:30." Harry nodded, got back on the ATV and drove off. I rushed back inside to get my swimwear on before the boys beat me to the pool. They beat me to the pool despite my best effort to break a record changing clothes.
I hadn't closed the door from my bedroom to the terrace when there were six splashes as the boys jumped into the pool. That was followed by another smaller splash as Bandit joined the boys into the pool. That dog loved the water and loved playing with the boys in it even more. We stayed in the pool until it was time for lunch, except for a break about halfway through for some juice. Manfred and Hildy had returned by that time and despite it being her day off, Hildy had a platter of sandwiches, vegetable sticks, chips and glasses of milk waiting for the boys when they came back downstairs after changing.
When I gave her a questioning look and a shake of my head, she said, "You and the boys were having so much fun in the pool, I knew you wouldn't have time to fix them lunch before they starved to death."
By 1:30 the boys were all hanging around waiting for me to say they could get in the van to go see Ricky. It hadn't been that long since we had seen Marie and him, but they missed seeing him every day. I did, too. He was such an adorable little rascal that you couldn't help but love him.
I was vaguely familiar with the area where Marie and Dirk's new house was, but I'm glad Dirk had called and given me turn by turn directions or I would have gotten lost. Their house sat at the end of a cul-de-sac. There was only one other house nearby separated from theirs by several empty lots. We drove into their driveway followed by Manfred and Hildy in their car. They had elected to drive their own as they had a meeting at the church later in the evening. Our security guard brought up the rear, parked his vehicle on the street and remained in it.
The boys rushed to the door and were about to open it and walk in when I stopped them. "Hey, guys, this isn't our home. Ring the doorbell."
Joel pushed the button. We only had to wait a few seconds before Marie appeared at the door. Ricky was partially hidden behind her, but when he saw Joel he yelled, "Joel!" and nearly knocked Marie down getting to him. He leapt into Joel's arms and planted one of his sloppy kisses on Joel's cheek.
"Hi, munchkin, did you miss me?" Joel asked, returning the kiss on the cheek.
"Yeah," he said, nodding his head vigorously, "I thought you was never coming."
"Come on, Ricky," Marie said. "Say hi to our other guests."
"Hi," he said, as Joel put him down. He was surrounded by the other boys giving him hugs.
"Please come in," Marie said, ushering her son into the house. "Dirk is out back fooling around with his new barbeque pit. He'll be in shortly."
"What's this?" I asked, pointing at a small, nearly all-white bulldog with a few light brown spots.
"That's the latest addition to the Soznowski household," Marie answered.
"What's his name?" Joel asked Ricky.
"Buppy," Ricky answered, running to the dog. He flopped down beside the dog and wrapped his arms around its neck and received a wet tongue to the side of his face.
"It's really Winston," Marie said. "Dirk thought he looked like Winston Churchill. It's an English Bulldog. He's three months old, but he won't get all that big."
"I've heard they are very protective of their masters," I said.
"You can say that again. If I scold Ricky for anything, Winston will get between us and growl at me. I don't know what he would do if I had to punish Ricky for anything."
"I see you've met Stinky," Dirk said, coming in the patio door.
"Stinky, I thought his name was Winston," I said.
"It is," Dirk said. "But, he tends to be a little flatulent, if you know what I mean. It doesn't seem to bother Ricky, though. They sleep in the same room and the same bed most of the time. He's either sleeping on Ricky's bed or Ricky's sleeping on the floor with Winston."
Marie had just finished giving the adults a tour of the house when Eric and family arrived. She did a quick tour with Eric while the boys greeted JR and Bran. Hildy headed for the kitchen to see what she could do to help Marie.
"Manny, go bring in that cake from the car," Hildy said. Manfred just shook his head and did as he was told.
"Eric, Crane, as soon as Manfred gets back you have to see my new barbeque setup," Dirk said.
Manfred arrived back carrying what looked like a jelly-roll pan with a two-layer German chocolate cake. I don't know how Hildy had time to make the cake or how she had kept it hidden from the boys. It was their favorite, and one of Hildy's specialties. It's a good thing the boys were occupied in the other room or Manfred might have been trampled with them trying to get a piece.
Dirk led us out the patio door to his so called "barbeque setup". It wasn't just a barbeque pit. It was a complete outdoor kitchen. There was a barbeque pit with a smoker on the side, but there was also a built-in gas stove, an under counter refrigerator, a sink with hot and cold running water and a fully stocked bar with seating room for five people. I was jealous.
"This is fantastic," I said. "The stone work and the granite counter tops really set it off."
"Marie thought it was a little excessive, but I figured if I was going to have something built, I might as well go first class. She got to do her thing inside. I got to do mine out here."
"Well, you certainly did," Eric said.
"I agree," Manfred added.
"When are you going to put in a pool?" I asked.
"The company is supposed to be here tomorrow to start the excavation. They said it would take about two weeks to complete, if the weather cooperates. We're having a fence built around it so that Ricky and Stinky can't wander in without Marie or me being here to watch them."
"That dog is going to be totally confused," Manfred said. "His name is Winston, but Ricky calls him Buppy and you call him Stinky. He'll end up having multiple personalities."
"We've tried to get Ricky to call him Winston, but every time we tell him, he shakes his head and says, 'Buppy'."
"Where did you get Winston?" Manfred asked.
"He's a rescue dog," Dirk answered. "We took Ricky to the shelter to look for a pet. When he saw Winston, he wouldn't look at any other dog. He sat down in front of the cage and wouldn't move until they opened the cage door and let him play with Winston. It was love at first sight for both of them. I think Ricky would have crawled back into the cage, if we didn't adopt his new found friend."
"You can tell they are very attached to each other," I said.
The rest of the afternoon, Winston was in heaven with all the boys to play with. He did have to stop and rest a lot. English bulldogs are notorious for having breathing problems. It didn't help either that his legs were so short that he had to run all the time to keep up with Ricky and the other boys.
Joel and Bran spent a lot of time talking to each other. When I asked Joel what they were talking about, he said he wanted to find out how Bran decided among all the colleges where he had been accepted.
"Are you thinking about which college you want to attend already?" I asked. "You do have at least two more years before you graduate."
"The old counselor at school talked to us at an assembly before school was out and told us it was never too early to begin making plans for college. I haven't really thought about it too much as yet. I just wanted to find out from Bran how he made up his mind."
"What did he say?"
"He said he already knew what he wanted to study, so he spent most of his research on colleges that had the best programs and compared them. He also said he downgraded colleges where it got too cold in the winter. He didn't think he was cut out for trudging through the snow to get to classes," Joel said laughing. "I think that would make a difference to me too."
"I think Bran gave you some good advice. Although I don't like the winter snow, I wouldn't rule out a college strictly on that basis. There are an awfully lot of great colleges in the snow belt."
"I know. I really liked the snow when we went skiing, but I'm not sure if I would like it as much if it was around all winter."
"We need to sit down and have a talk about what you want to study at college. It's a little early to make a final decision. Maybe we could schedule a series of aptitude and preference test before school starts, and then when you have elective classes, you can choose the ones that would benefit a career path. However, if you were to choose a technical field, you would be missing out if you didn't also take some humanities courses. Being well rounded is better than just being a techie."
Dirk had used his outdoor kitchen to its fullest advantage. The slow smoked ribs were so tender that the meat literally fell off the bones. The brisket was equally as tender. It was a good thing he had prepared plenty; everybody had seconds and sometimes thirds of both meats. Marie's side dishes complimented the smoked meats and were received with equal enthusiasm by all of us.
I don't know how many racks of ribs that Dirk had prepared, but by the time the main meal was over, the table looked like a bone yard. I was stuffed from everything that I had eaten and let out a groan when Marie and Hildy started bringing large pieces of Hildy's cake to the table. I waved away the offer of a piece and settled for a cup of black coffee. I didn't see any of the boys turning down one of the pieces of cake, however.
When the dishes were being cleared away, I asked Dirk if it would be all right if I took some food out to our security guard.
"Of course," he said. "If I had known he was sitting out there I would have invited him in to eat with us. Marie, do we have something we can prepare a plate of food for their security guard?"
"I have an aluminum foil pan. Will that work?" she answered.
Dirk looked at me and I nodded. Marie handed the pan to Dirk and he started piling the food into it. From the amount of food placed in the pan, it looked like it would feed both Harry and Kent. Hildy added a couple large pieces of cake to a separate paper plate and covered it with plastic wrap. I thanked Dirk for the pan and went to deliver the food.
"Harry, if we had thought, we would have invited you in to eat with us. Since we didn't, this will have to do," I said, handing him the food. "I think there is enough for both you and Kent."
"Thanks, Mr. Johnson, I was beginning to get hungry. I left my food back at your place. Oh, by the way, we found out the info on that suspicious vehicle. I don't think you have anything to worry about. The car is registered to a real estate agent by the name of Calvin Jones. One of our people contacted him and he said he was looking for a piece of property in the area for one of his clients. Supposedly, there is some vacant land that is about to be put up for sale and he was trying to determine where it was."
"That's good news. If you think it's safe, why don't you go take the food to Kent before it gets cold?"
"I think you'll be okay. I haven't noticed anything unusual all the while I've been here." He started his car and waved as he drove away.
"I hope you're right," I said to the disappearing vehicle.