I sat there momentarily stunned. "But... But, what about us?"
"Crane, as much as I hate to say it, there is no us. I'm very fond of you, maybe even love you. I think you have feelings for me as well. But, there are five people, maybe six, that come before me and you know it. Those boys are your life. They are now, and always will be your top priority. I can't fault you for that. It's one of the things I love about you. We make promises to each other that we will spend more time together, but it never happens. It's time for me to move on with my life. I wish it could be with you, but that's not going to happen."
"As much as I hate to admit it, also, you're probably right," I said. "I wish things could be different. I don't suppose there is anything I can say or do to make you change your mind."
"I wish there were, but we both know it wouldn't work," Eric said.
"When will you be leaving?"
"Raj wants me to start by the end of September. I've got a little over a month."
"What's the name of this company?"
"It's called Innovative Network Products. I'm excited about the work they're doing."
"How's JR taking this?"
"He has mixed feelings about moving. He likes the thought of being closer to Bran. He couldn't love Bran more if he were his natural brother. On the other hand, he's going to miss all his friends here."
"I'm sure he will. Have you checked out schools for him?"
"Raj is sending me brochures on a couple of private schools in the area. I think that will be the biggest problem he will have with the move. Changing schools is always hard."
"You keep mentioning this Raj. I assume he's the owner."
"Yes, I'm sorry. Raj Patel is the founder and brains behind the company. He's a couple of years older than I am and when the company goes public he'll be a multi-millionaire."
"You said he has a venture capital group supporting him. Do you know who it is?"
"Let's see. He told me when we were talking," Eric said, and paused for a few seconds. "Oh, yes, I remember now. It's called Mathew Parsons Capital. Why? Do you want to get in on it?"
"I'm always interested in investment opportunities. You really think this company has a future? So many start-up companies go belly up within two years."
"I did a lot of research on Raj's company before I decided to accept his offer. The product that he's developed is revolutionary. My only real concern about accepting his offer is if sometime down the road a big company buys him out. If it happens after he takes the company public, I'm not worried. The pay package and stock options that go along with the job would make me a very rich man."
Just then Chris ran into the room. "Dad, JR said he's moving," he said, with a stricken look on his face. He and JR had always had a close relationship. Chris seemed to think that he was JR's protector in much the same way that Joel felt about TJ when they first came to live with me.
"Yes, son, I know. Mr. Levin just told me. We'll have to have a going away party for them."
"Mr. Levin is taking a job out in California, so they have to move. They'll be close to Bran, too. I know you hate to see JR leave. We all do. We can always go visit them sometime, and they can come visit us," I said, getting up from my chair and giving him a hug. "Why don't you go back and play with JR and your brothers? He'll have to go home after while."
"I guess," he mumbled.
"The boys were awfully quiet when they had their snack. That's highly unusual for that bunch," Hildy said, as we were enjoying a cup of coffee after the boys had gone back upstairs to play.
"I think they are a little bummed out that JR is moving to California," I said.
"Oh, dear," she exclaimed, and turned to Eric. "When's this happening?"
"By the end of September," he said.
"You all will be missed ... by all of us," she said, looking at me. I nodded my head in agreement.
The topic of conversation centered around the move until around eight o'clock when Eric decided it was time for him and JR to be getting home. He and I went upstairs to find the boys. They were in the music room. When we opened the door we were greeted by a cacophony of noise. It couldn't be described as music since keyboard, guitars and the drums were playing different music. It didn't seem to make any difference to the boys. Larry was playing the electric guitar while Joel played the newly acquired acoustic guitar. They, at least, were trying to play the same tune and were succeeding, for the most part. Lenny and TJ were at the keyboard. Lenny was playing the chords with his left hand while TJ was playing the melody with his right. Their synchronization left something to be desired. Chris was banging away at the drums. Peter and JR were standing there covering their ears with their hands and laughing. Eric and I stood there and watched for a couple of minutes before we interrupted the "jam session".
After Eric and JR left, I had the boys finish their homework. Peter was so cute when he brought his art project homework for me to look at. He had seen all the boys except Joel sit on my lap while I checked their work. Since this was the first time that he had anything for me to check, he had to crawl up on my lap, also. The picture that he had drawn was really quite good for a five year-old. He beamed with pride when I complimented him on the good job he had done. I gave him a hug and told him to go find TJ to take a shower and get ready for bed.
When I dropped the boys off at school the following day, I reminded Joel that Kurt Wilson was going to be at the house around four o'clock to start giving him driving lessons. Joel gave me a look that only a teenager can give that said, "Do you really think I'd forget that?" I had to chuckle to myself as I drove away. That scared little boy that I rescued some three years ago was beginning to exert his independence. I just hoped it didn't go too far.
Kurt Wilson was a portly man in his early fifties with a severely receding hairline. He managed to calm a very nervous Joel within minutes of his arrival with his friendly manner. I would have loved to watch the lesson, but I knew it would make Joel self conscious. Kurt's car was equipped with a dual set of controls so I knew that Joel would be safe. That still didn't keep me from worrying for the hour that Kurt conducted the lesson.
Joel burst into the house with a big smile on his face. "That was fun, Mr. Wilson. Thanks." he said, and headed for his room.
Kurt had followed Joel and laughed at the enthusiasm. "He really did very well for a first lesson," he told me. "He listens and learns very quickly. I don't think he's going to have any problems completing the course."
"I'm glad, I think. Thanks, we'll see you next Thursday," I said and walked him to the door.
"You know he's going to want a car when he turns sixteen, don't you?" Hildy said, as I walked into the kitchen.
"Yes, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. There's nearly nine months before we have that conversation."
Our lives settled into a routine. School, homework, music lessons, swimming, horseback riding, playing with the dogs, Joel's driving lessons and of course eating Hildy's and Gilda's wonderful meals kept the boys busy. Fullwell's retrial began the second week of September. It lasted three days and with the excellent assistance of Clark Behm, he was convicted for the second time. Clark assured me that this time there were no technicalities that would overturn the verdict. The sentence handed down was exactly what the first one was. The judge did give Fullwell credit for the time he had served before his appeal was granted.
Gilda decided it was time for her to return home. She was missing her friends. The night before she was to leave, I took everybody to a nice restaurant in San Antonio. The boys complained about having to dress up, but when the food came, the complaining stopped.
After I took the boys to school the next morning, Hilda and I drove Gilda to the airport. The boys had given Gilda hugs and said their goodbye to her before leaving for school. Due to bad weather in the Kansas City area, Gilda's plane was delayed leaving San Antonio. The nearly hour delay gave me an extended time to thank her for filling in for Hildy so well. There were tears in both Gilda's and Hildy's eyes as Gilda headed down the passageway to the plane. We waited until the plane pulled away from the terminal gate before heading to the car.
Later that day, Marie called to talk to Hildy. I had answered the phone and after I talked briefly with her, handed the phone to Hildy. I went into the library to pick up the book that I had been reading. Ten minutes later Hildy rapped on the open door.
"May I speak to you a minute?" Hildy asked.
"Of course, what's on your mind?"
"Dirk is scheduled to go to Hawaii for a conference and well... Marie would like to go along, but she doesn't want to take Ricky out of pre-school."
"Why doesn't she leave him with us?" I asked, before Hildy could continue. "We'd all love to have him stay."
"I was hoping you would say that. I suggested that to her, but she was hesitant about asking."
"When is the conference? Did she say?"
"It starts next Thursday. They are due to fly out Wednesday afternoon. She said the conference is over Sunday at noon, but they were wanting to stay until the following Wednesday as a vacation. I'd love to have the little rascal for a whole week."
"I'm sure the boys would enjoy it as well. Do you know her number? I don't know it off the top of my head."
"Yes," Hildy said, and handed me a slip of paper. She knew me too well after all these years.
I made the call to Marie and insisted that she leave Ricky with us while she and Dirk were gone. It didn't take much to convince her that it was the best option for Ricky and she acquiesced.
When I told the boys about Ricky coming to stay with us for a week later that evening, they were thrilled. It had been several weeks since he had been to our house. Joel was especially enthusiastic about Ricky's stay with us. I think he thought of Ricky as another little brother. I just hoped that Ricky didn't get homesick for Marie and Dirk. Now that he was in a home with a father and mother it might be different from when he stayed with us while Marie and Dirk were on their honeymoon.
Friday I got a call from Carlos informing me that he had someone contact him about purchasing the large tract of land I owned on Highway 46 east of Boerne. It seemed that a developer was looking for a large tract to develop an upscale subdivision with a golf course designed by a famous professional golfer. He said that the developer was looking for a partner for the project. Carlos suggested that I might want to become involved. If I held onto the land and sold the plots of land while the developer installed the infrastructure, I could probably make more money than if I sold the raw land to the developer. I told him to work up some numbers for me and I would consider it. This was something that I had never done before and wanted to go into it with my eyes wide open if I decided to do it. Carlos said he would get with Gerald and work up the numbers and get back to me in a few days.
I arrived at the school to pick up the boys and was met by Mr. Benedict. He was the twins' and Chris' tennis coach. "Mr. Johnson, your sons are showing great promise as tennis players. Chris will make a fine singles player. Larry and Lenny have a knack for playing doubles. They seem to know where the other one is and never seem to get in the other one's way. They remind me a lot of a pair of identical twins I saw out in California last summer, the Bryan brothers."
"What do you suggest? How should they go about developing their talent?"
"Have you heard of John Newcombe?"
"He has a tennis academy in New Braunfels. If the boys continue to exhibit an interest in tennis, you might consider one of Newcombe's summer camps. I can help them develop the basic skills, but the people on his staff are professional tennis coaches."
"Thanks for the information. I'll think about what you've said and give it consideration the closer we get to summer. You never know, they might be on to some other sport by that time."
The boys had been talking to their friends while I spoke with Mr. Benedict. When he left, I called to the boys and we loaded into the van and headed home. After the boys had their after school snack, I sat down with Chris and the twins. "I hear from Mr. Benedict that you guys are doing really well in tennis."
"Yeah, it's a lot of fun. I hardly ever whiff the ball anymore," Chris said.
"Mr. Benedict is neat," Lenny said. "He knows a lot about tennis. He played in some professional tournaments when he was younger."
"He's nice, too," Larry added.
"I'm glad that you guys like the sport. It's something you can play for many years."
"I wish there was a tennis court around here. The only time we get to play is at school," Larry complained.
"You're right," I said, trying to think where the nearest courts might be. I couldn't come up with any that were available for public use. I didn't relish the idea of joining a snobbish private country club just for the boys to be able to play tennis.
Later that evening, Eric called to say the movers were coming the following Friday to pack up their belongings. It was the news I didn't want to hear, but I was resigned to his leaving. I told him we would schedule his and JR's going away party for that evening. I also invited them to stay the night since all of their furniture would be on the moving van. He accepted the invitation.
After talking to Eric, I went to speak with Hildy to plan the party. We decided it would be a small affair. The guest list would only include Darcie and Mel outside the family. Marie and Dirk would be in Hawaii and would be unable to attend.
Manfred arrived home around ten o'clock from a VFW meeting. The boys were in bed. Hildy and I were sitting in the family room having a cup of coffee and planning the party for Eric and JR. He saw us and went to the kitchen an poured himself a cup.
"Is this decaf?" he asked.
"Yes," Hildy responded. "Otherwise we would be up all night. How was your meeting?"
"Same as always, a bunch of old men sitting around swapping lies about their exploits in the military. The only thing we accomplished was setting the date for the annual fish fry."
"It's a little late in the year for that, isn't it?" I asked.
"Oh, it's not until next April. It takes us a long time to get everything organized... because we're not very organized."
"Not to change the subject, but I'll change the subject. Do you know of any public tennis courts anyplace near here? The boys were asking me and I couldn't think of any."
"The closest ones I can think of are in New Braunfels. Are they getting serious about tennis?" Manfred asked.
"Yes, their PE teacher said the twins are making good strides as doubles players and Chris shows promise as a singles player. It's a good sport they can play long after they leave school. I have some friends in Houston who are in their sixties and both he and his wife play tennis regularly. Even if they don't make a career of tennis, it's good exercise that can last a lifetime."
"You could always build one here. You have enough land," Hildy said, and grinned at me.
"I'd thought about that, but if they lost interest in it in a couple of months it would be a colossal waste of money," I said. "Do you have any idea how much a court would cost?"
"I have no idea," Manfred said. "But, I know someone who might. You want me to ask?"
"Sure, why not. It doesn't cost anything to ask."
On Wednesday, Marie and Dirk stopped on their way to the airport. Hildy was going to pick Ricky up at preschool at two o'clock and Marie felt she needed to give some last minute instructions. I could tell she was probably going to miss her son more than he would miss her and Dirk. The boys would keep him so busy while they were gone he would have little time to miss them.
By the time I had returned with the boys from school, Ricky was waiting for them. When he saw Joel coming in the back door from the garage, he yelled, "Joel," and took a running leap into Joel's arms. As was usual, he gave Joel a sloppy kiss on the cheek.
"Hi, munchkin, did you miss me?"
"Uh huh, I ain't seen you for a long, long, long time. Can we go swim?"
Joel looked at me and I nodded.
"Sure thing," Joel answered. "Have you had your snack?"
"No, Hildy said I had to wait for you."
"Well, what are we waiting for?" Joel said, tickling Ricky and making him giggle. "Let's get our hands washed so Hildy will let us have our snack."
In some sort of unspoken communication, the boys split up into three groups and headed for the three bathrooms on the main floor to wash their hands. By the time they returned to the breakfast room table, Hildy had dished up bowls of banana pudding topped with a dollop of whipped cream. It looked so good that I decided to have some as well.
"Thanks, Hildy," one after the other boys said, as each loaded their dish into the dishwasher.
"Where's his swimsuit?" Joel asked.
"I put all his clothes in your room," Hildy said. "I didn't think he would sleep anyplace else."
"You're right about that," I said.
Joel picked up Ricky and headed for the stairs taking them two at a time to the delight of Ricky. A couple minutes later they came down the stairs, this time one at a time. Ricky's prosthetic leg had been removed. The other boys weren't far behind. "Wait in the shallow end of the pool until I get there," I cautioned. I don't know why I told them that. They were all excellent swimmers, except for Ricky and I knew that Joel wouldn't let anything happen to him.
"Aw, dad," Lenny moaned.
"Okay, okay," I relented. "No horsing around then. How about that?"
"Yeah!" the three musketeers shouted, and made a beeline for the pool.
When I got changed and to the pool, Chris, the twins and TJ were racing up and down the length of the pool. TJ was lagging behind, but he didn't seem to mind. Chris was still the better swimmer and was leading the pack. Peter and Ricky were holding onto Joel in the shallow end of the pool. Peter could swim reasonably well, but I didn't want him in the deeper water without someone close by. Ricky also could swim well enough to keep himself afloat; he just wanted to hang onto Joel.
We swam and played in the water until it was almost time for supper. At first the boys didn't want to get out of the pool, however, when I mentioned food they seemed to levitate out of the pool. Grabbing towels, they raced for the door.
"Make sure your feet are dry before you enter the house," I hollered after them. Their feet were dry before they entered the house, but I don't think the rest of them were. Joel and I dried the two youngest off before tending to ourselves. Peter ran after the other boys, while Joel carried Ricky.
Hildy informed me that supper would be ready in about 15 minutes. I was sure the boys would be ready before then. I was right. When I left my bedroom all but Joel and Ricky were hanging around the table. Joel and Ricky came walking down the stairs shortly. It was fairly slow going for Ricky. Stairs gave him a problem with his prosthesis. He held onto the banister with one hand and Joel's hand with the other.
After all their exercise in the pool the boys were starved. If someone saw the amount of food the boys put away at supper, they would have thought we starved them. When the last morsel of food had disappeared from their plates and the dishes stacked in the dishwasher, I told the boys it was time to practice their instruments. I informed Lenny he could use the real piano while TJ could use the keyboard. I took Peter and Ricky upstairs and got them involved with some toys while the rest of the boys practiced.
Before I sent the boys off to get their showers taken and don pajamas, Ricky came up to my chair and climbed onto my lap. "Where's my mommy and daddy?"
"Your mommy and daddy went on a trip. You get to stay with us while they're gone," I said, not knowing how he was going to react. He had been kept busy from the time Hildy picked him up from preschool until now and he hadn't had time to think about his parents being gone.
To my surprise, he said, "Okay," and jumped down off my lap and ran to find Joel. It always amazed me how fast he could run with his prosthesis. I wondered how the other children in his preschool class were reacting to his leg.
The next morning, Hildy took off in her car with Ricky to get him to his preschool and I took off in the van with the other boys to get them to the Academy. The rest of the day Hildy and I spent making sure that everything was in place for the going away party tomorrow. We were about to leave the house to pick up the kids when the phone rang. I answered it.
"Crane, I'm glad I got hold of you. We have a problem about the party. Our babysitter is not able to sit with Rebecca."
"I just assumed that you would bring her with you. We haven't seen her is quite a while. I know the boys would love to see her again and if you don't bring her, Hildy just might send you back home to get her." I could see Hildy nodding her head in agreement.
"Okay, if you're sure it's all right. We'll be there as soon as we both get off work and can get Rebecca ready. Sometimes I think we should get a pickup truck to haul around everything she needs when we take her somewhere."
I was about to leave the house to go pick up the boys from school when Eric called. He said the moving van had just pulled away with all their belongings except for the clothes they were going to need for the trip. I told him there was no reason for him to hang around the empty house and to come on over. He said he would pick up JR and come directly from the school.
Eric was sitting in his car when I drove the van into the parking lot at the school. Classes for most of the students hadn't let out yet, although Peter was standing at his pick up point talking to one of his classmates while waiting for TJ. When Peter saw me walking toward him, he gave me a big smile.
"Look, Ms. Landau gave me a gold star on my picture," Peter said, holding out the drawing. "She said it was the best."
"That's great, son. I'm proud of you."
Eric walked up to where we were standing. We talked until all the boys had been dismissed from their classes. JR was lagging behind. It was apparent that he was saying goodbye to all of his friends for the last time and wasn't too happy about it.
"We'll meet you at the house," Eric said. He placed his arm around his son and led him to the car. JR looked as if he was going to burst into tears, but didn't want to in front of his friends.
As soon as we reached the house, the boys ran to change out of their school uniforms and then went to see what Hildy had fixed for their snack. JR eagerly joined them. The chocolate chip cookies were a great hit. Eric and I settled for a cup of coffee and took it to the family room.
"How long is it going to take you to get to Sunnyvale?" I asked.
"I don't want to rush things, so I plan on taking three days to get there. We'll stop in El Paso tomorrow night. Sunday we'll drive through to someplace in Southern California, probably around Palm Springs. Monday we should make it to Palo Alto where Bran is. I'm glad that Bran has a two bedroom condo, that way we'll have a base to operate out of for a while."
"That'll make it convenient. Sunnyvale isn't that far from Palo Alto. What about JR's school?"
"I think I've decided on one. It's in Mountain View and comes very highly recommended and priced. We have an appointment to look it over on Tuesday. If JR and I like it he'll begin classes probably later that week or the following Monday. If that doesn't work out, there's a second school that's closer to Sunnyvale we'll look at."
"Are you going to try to buy a house or are you going to rent?"
"I'd like to buy something. On Wednesday a real estate agent is going to show us some properties. I really want something that's relatively new with at least three bedrooms. If we can't find something, I guess we'll have to rent. Staying with Bran won't be a problem for a while, but it will be a little cramped."
About an hour later Darcie and Mel arrived to be warmly greeted by everyone. Hildy immediately took Rebecca from Darcie and went to sit down on the couch in the family room. "She's getting cuter every time I see her," Hildy said, "even though that's not very often." The look she gave Darcie caused everybody to laugh.
"She's beginning to walk," Darcie said.
"Now she can get into everything," Mel said. "By the looks of our house you'd think we were preparing for a flood. Everything that's breakable is stacked up out of her reach."
"Crane, you should take in a girl to raise," Darcie said.
"I think that would be a wonderful idea," Hildy agreed.
"Whoa! Back off! I've got my hands full with my boys and Peter."
"What's the situation with Peter? Are you planning on keeping him?" Darcie asked.
"I don't honestly know. He's made himself a part of this family and the boys would be terribly disappointed if he didn't stay. There's an uncle who may be a possible placement for him, although that doesn't look very likely. The parental rights haven't been terminated as yet. There's another hearing coming up where that may be settled. TJ would be devastated if he left."
"Well, Rebecca, as much as I would like to stay here holding you, I think I had better get back in the kitchen and finish up supper." Hildy gave Rebecca a kiss on the cheek and handed her to Eric.
"Can I help?" Darcie asked, and followed Hildy to the kitchen.
"Where are the boys?" asked Mel.
"I think they are all upstairs, probably in the music practice room," I said. "Shall we go check on them?"
Manfred came in the back door as we started up the stairs. "You know I'm never going to forgive you for taking Bran away from me," he said, patting Eric on the back. "I was counting on him working with me during the summer. Now it doesn't look like that's going to happen. By the way, how does he like college?"
"So far, so good," Eric responded. "He called last evening and said he was looking forward to seeing us. He's also made a lot of friends."
We found all the boys in the music room creating instrument noise. Mel picked up Joel's acoustic guitar and started playing. It didn't take long before the boys had stopped their playing and were listening to him play. When he stopped, we all applauded.
"That was good," I said. "Where did you learn to play so well?"
"I was in a rock band in college and played in a few bars, mostly for beer," he laughed. "I haven't played in a long time. I'm surprised I can remember how."
Hildy called up the stairs telling us that supper was nearly ready. That was the boys' cue to head to the bathrooms to wash their hands. "Come on munchkin, let's get our hands washed," Joel said, as he picked up a giggling Ricky. The adults headed downstairs to do the same.
The meal was fantastic. Hildy had really outdone herself with this one. Nobody went away from the table hungry and we hadn't even had dessert yet. We decided to wait a while before having it. The boys went back upstairs to play and the adults went into the living room for coffee and conversation.
After about an hour, the boys came downstairs looking hungry, if that was possible. That sent Hildy into action. Before long she called us into the formal dining room where she had placed slices of a four layer German chocolate cake on plates at each place. It was heavenly. I could see that I was in for a lot more laps in the pool to wear off all the calories that I had consumed this evening.
There were tearful goodbyes when Darcie and Mel left. They promised that they would visit as soon as Eric and JR were settled. Darcie whispered something in Eric's ear as she kissed him goodbye. He blushed and returned her kiss.
I tucked the boys into bed after they had finished their showers. JR insisted that he would sleep with Chris, so Eric tucked him in. He and I returned to the living room downstairs for a glass of wine. Hildy and Manfred left us and went to their quarters. After the first glass of wine, Eric started to yawn.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I haven't been getting much sleep lately. I think it's time I turned in."
I looked at him expectantly.
He shook his head and said, "I think it would be best if I slept in the guest room."