I arrived home just as Donald was coming down the stairs.
"Everyone is in bed, but I'm sure they're not asleep yet," he said.
"You didn't have any trouble getting them to turn in?" I asked.
"Just Peter, he wanted to stay up until you got home."
"Well, I had better go reassure him that I'm home. He's still a little unsure of his place in the family despite the length of time he's been here. I'll be back as soon as I check on the boys. Why don't you pour us a glass of wine? I need one," I said, heading up the stairs.
I quietly opened Peter's bedroom door and peeked in. I didn't want to disturb him or the others if they had fallen asleep. The next thing I knew, I had a boy in my arms with his wrapped around my neck.
"I didn't think you was coming home," Peter sobbed into my chest.
"Oh, Peter, I could never leave you. I love you," I said, sitting down on his bed with him on my lap.
"I tried to tell him that, dad," TJ said.
"Okay, you guys, it's back to bed. You have school in the morning." I lay Peter down on his bed, slipped him under the covers and kissed his forehead. "Sleep well, my little one. I love you."
Peter gave me one last hug and rolled over in his bed. I kissed TJ and William, although William appeared to be nearly asleep.
I tapped lightly on the three musketeers' door before I opened it. I could hear them talking before I knocked. I made the rounds of their beds and cautioned them to go to sleep.
"'Night, dad," they chorused, as I headed out of their room.
There was a light on in Joel's room as I knocked on his door. "Come in," he said. "Hi, dad."
"What are you reading?" I asked.
"It's something for my English Literature class," he said, holding up a paperback copy of Tale of Two Cities.
"We have a hard copy of that in the library. If you'd rather read that," I said.
"That's alright, I've only about 50 pages left to read."
"I hope you're not going to try to finish it tonight."
"No, I was just reading until you got home," Joel said. "I need to talk to you. Can we sit down tomorrow after I get home from school?"
"Of course," I said. "It sounds serious. You know I'm available anytime. It's a little late or I'd suggest we could do it tonight."
"No, I need to get my thoughts together. Tomorrow will be better."
"Okay. Goodnight, son."
Donald handed me a glass of wine as I entered the living room. "Thanks, I needed this," I said.
"Just frustrating," I said. "Some guy stood up at the board meeting and opposed my appointment. Somehow he had gotten hold of the arrest report when I was accused of kidnapping Chris. It was supposed to have been purged from the system."
"What! You mean I'm living with a man with a shady past. A man with a criminal background," Donald laughed. "You've got to tell me the whole story."
"It wasn't funny at the time, I can tell you," I said. "Here's what happened." I told him the whole story from the time Chris played on our team in the police junior baseball league up to the time I adopted Chris.
"Those twins certainly were his saviors," he said. "If they hadn't been so empathetic, Chris may have ended up as a street kid, or worse."
"They are almost like triplets now, even though Chris is nearly a year older. They are inseparable. Where you see one, you see the other two," I said. "I don't regret for one moment taking him in and giving him a home - and brothers."
"That's easy to see. He couldn't be more loved if he were biologically related to the others," Donald said. "Oh, by the way, I have to go to New Orleans next week."
"What for and when?" I asked.
"I've been subpoenaed to testify in the federal trial of my former auto dealership manager. I'll fly over there early Wednesday morning. I should be back late that night. If I'm going to be delayed or my testimony last longer than the prosecution believes, I'll let you know," he said. "My biggest concern is Lenore. She's used to me taking her to her pre-school in the morning and picking her up in the afternoon."
"I think we can get someone to handle that job. Manfred or Hildy, I'm sure, would be happy to take her and pick her up. Are you going alone?"
"No, my lawyer will be going along as well as Leon Henry. He's my vice-president in charge of the auto dealerships both in Louisiana and Texas. We both have to testify."
"I think I'll lock up for the night and get to bed. I'm beat and I haven't done all that much today," I said.
"I'm right behind you. I'll take care of the wine glasses," Donald said.
Again it was Gilda who greeted me when I went to the kitchen the next morning to pour myself a cup of coffee. "Something smells good. What are you making this morning?"
"It's a French toast casserole1 that my husband liked so much. I hope the boys do as well," she said.
"If it tastes as good as it smells I'm sure they will. It's a wonder that the aroma hasn't drawn them down already. Speaking of the boys, I'd better go get them up."
Donald was coming out of the bedroom as I started up the stairs. "I'll get Lenore up as soon as I pour a cup."
Surprisingly, no one was difficult to get out of bed. They must have smelled Gilda's casserole as soon as they woke up. I reminded them to wash their hands before they headed downstairs and then I went down to finish my cup of coffee. A sleepy-eyed Lenore was sitting on her dad's lap when I sat down at the table.
"Hi, dad," William said, and shared a hug with him and his sister.
"Good morning, son. Did you sleep well?"
"Uh huh. What smells so good?" William asked, looking at Gilda.
"A surprise," she said. "You'll like it."
Like it they did. The contents of the two pans that Gilda took from the oven disappeared in no time. Served with maple syrup, little sausages and large glasses of milk, the breakfast was a definite hit. Donald and I enjoyed it almost as much as Lenore and the boys did.
After breakfast and the boys were prepared for school, we took off in the van. Donald and Lenore followed us until they got to the turn to go to her pre-school. Manfred had arrived at the school a couple of minutes ahead of us. He was in the process of giving his girls a hug when we drove into the drop-off area. When he saw us he approached the van as the boys scrambled out.
"Crane, if you have nothing else planned for the day, I thought we might do that van shopping."
"I can't think of anything pressing. Do you still plan on looking for a replacement for Hildy's old station wagon?"
"Yes, even though she fusses every time I mention getting a new one. That old thing is going to break down on her some day when she's out on the road, probably when she's coming home with a load of groceries."
"I'll meet you at the house and we can go in the van. There's a car dealership a block or so away from the custom van place. I don't remember what kind of cars though," I said.
It was a little after ten when we arrived at Karl's Kustom Karriages on the northwest side of San Antonio. It was a rather pretentious name for a place that modified and sold vans manufactured by other companies. Manfred decided he would stay with me while I looked over what was available. It took about two hours to decide on a van and to detail the modifications that I wanted done to it. Karl, the owner, said that it would be about three weeks to complete the modifications. We shook hands on the deal and left.
Manfred and I decided to grab some lunch at an Olive Garden that was about a mile on down the road. I liked their soup and salad lunch menu. After lunch we drove back to the car dealership so that he could look at their inventory. A silver-colored Ford Expedition almost immediately caught his attention. It was loaded down with every option that Ford offered for the model. He looked at several other models, but always returned to the Expedition.
"What do you think?" Manfred asked.
"Well, it's a lot bigger than what she's driving now. It'll be a big change for her. The Explorer is quite a bit smaller. Have you considered it? That one over there is the same color," I said.
"Yeah, I looked at that one, but it's just the basic model with no upgrades. I like this one. If she doesn't like it, she can drive my car and I'll take this one. I'm going to get it. She's going to give me hell until she gets used to it."
Up to this point, we had not been pestered by any pushy salesmen. We started to walk to the office and were approached by a salesman. "Gentlemen, have you made a decision?"
"Yes, I have," Manfred replied, offering his hand to the salesman.
"Excellent! My name is Gary Monroe. It'll be my pleasure to help you. I hope you didn't think I was ignoring you, but I had the feeling that you would prefer to be left alone. Now, if you have any questions about the vehicle that you apparently have decided upon, I would be happy to answer them."
"Thank you, Gary. I appreciate being allowed to browse through your inventory without being hounded by a pushy salesman. I'm Manfred Strasser. I guess my only question is how long will it take to get all the paperwork completed so that I can drive it home?"
"If you will follow me to my office, we can get everything started. Arranging the financing probably will take the longest time."
"That won't be necessary," Manfred said. "I intend to pay cash - if we can come up with a good price. The posted MSRP is not realistic for a cash offer." For the next twenty minutes there were some serious negotiations going on. It was apparent that Manfred was not a novice at car buying. Finally, a price was agreed on and the paperwork was signed.
I told Manfred that I would go to the school to pick up the kids as it was getting time to leave if I was going to get there by the time school let out. "Do you want the girls to ride home with us or do you want them to wait until you get there?"
"Gary said it would only be about ten more minutes before they have the car prepped. If it's not too much trouble, could you wait until I get there with the new car? I want to surprise the girls. Besides if they like it, maybe Hildy won't put up too much of a fuss."
"That's very devious of you, Manfred," I laughed. "We'll stay until you get there. I'll tell the girls you've got a surprise for them.
By the time I got to the school, there was a line of cars and vans waiting to pick up kids. I had to park quite a ways from the building and walk up to meet the boys. TJ, Peter and William were waiting at the place I had designated for them to wait if I were ever late in picking them up.
"Hi, dad," Peter said, jumping up into my arms.
"Hi, guys. How was school today?" I asked, as I was surrounded by the other two.
Peter began to relate what I was sure was his entire day. William did nearly the same thing when Peter stopped to catch his breath. As their descriptions of their day wound down, I noticed the twins walking toward us with Erin and Garth. They were talking and laughing until Erin broke off and ran toward his mother's car. Shortly before they got to where we were standing, Garth waved and headed for the school van that took him to his house.
"Hey, guys, where's your brother?" I asked.
"Oh, he's talking to someone," Larry said.
I turned my attention to the door of the school looking for Chris. It wasn't long before he walked out of the school talking to a very attractive, dark-haired girl. He walked the girl to a car that was waiting for her before he ran to where we were standing.
"Who's the friend you were talking to?" I asked Chris.
"Just a girl," he replied.
"Does the girl have a name?"
"Yeah, it's Renata," he said, ducking his head.
"She's very pretty," I said. "What's her last name?"
To Chris' relief, Joel arrived in time to end his interrogation.
"Will one of you go over to where Jennie and Ginny are standing and tell them that Manfred will be here in a few minutes? Have them come here with us until he arrives."
"I will," Chris said, and jogged over to where they were standing. They followed him back to us.
It wasn't but a couple of minutes before Manfred drove up in the new, silver Expedition. "There's your dad now," I said.
"Where?" Jeannie asked, looking around for his car.
"Hi, girls," Manfred said, coming around the corner of the Expedition.
"Where's our car?" Ginny asked, as she gave Manfred a hug.
"This is it," he said, pointing to it. "It's new."
"Oooh! It's pretty... and big," Jeannie said.
"Climb in and we'll go show Hildy," Manfred said, and then turned to me. "Thanks for watching them 'till I got here."
I held up my palm in acknowledgement and then said to the boys, "Okay, guys, let's load up and head for home."
It didn't take long, once we got home, for the boys to hurry and change out of their school uniforms and make their way to the breakfast room table to have their afternoon snack. Gilda was ready for them with bowls of a fresh, fruit salad.
"Can we talk now, dad?" Joel asked when he finished his snack.
"Sure thing. Let's go into the library." Turning to the others, I said, "And the rest of you guys, go take care of your dogs."
Joel led the way and entered the library. I closed the door behind me and then sat down in one of the chairs in front of the desk. Joel sat in the other one.
"I told you a while ago about the three colleges that I thought would be a great fit for what I want to study. I've been giving it a lot of thought recently. I have the applications for all three. The admission requirements are pretty much the same for all of them. I think I'll be number one or two in the graduating class, so academic standing is not a problem. I'll take the SAT in October. I'd like to score between 2300 and 2400. The counselor said I should consider taking the ACT as well. I can take it in October if I decide to take it, also. I think by the time I take the SAT I'll be tested out.
"As for the schools, MIT has a great reputation and graduating from there with a Masters would guarantee that I could take my pick of jobs. Cal Tech also has a great reputation and the same things hold for it. Rice is not as famous as the other two, but offers degree programs that are in every way comparable to MIT or Cal Tech," he said, and paused.
"I hear a 'but' in there," I said.
"Yeah, I've been doing a lot of research on the Internet. I could be more than happy with the education that I could get from any one of them, and here's the 'but'," he paused for several seconds. I didn't interrupt. "The one factor that I had not given any weight when I was making the selection was how far they were away from home. If I went to either MIT or Cal Tech, I couldn't come home very often. They are a thousand plus miles away. Rice is closer, but still about two hundred or so miles away. I couldn't just come home for supper on a whim, but I could come home for a weekend once in a while."
"Are you telling me that you have narrowed your choices down to one?" I asked when he paused staring down at the clasped hands in his lap.
"Is that Rice?"
"I think you've made a sensible choice. It offers a quality education with the bonus of being reasonably close to home. I know that your brothers and I would miss you if you were unable to come home once in a while," I said. "I do have to ask you a personal question."
"Did the fact that Jimmy is going to be in Houston factor into your decision?"
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't consider that fact. That wasn't the deciding factor. The overriding factor, however, in my decision was the other schools' distances from my home and family. I didn't want to be that far away."
"Son, I respect your decision, but just because you've told me is no reason not to reconsider and change your mind if circumstances change. It is your decision and yours alone. I'll support it no matter what your ultimate choice might be. I think we need to get those applications filled out and submitted. I think it would be wise to submit all three. Maybe we can do that this weekend."
"Thanks, dad, I was hoping you'd feel that way. I still want to visit Rice's campus sometime."
"Absolutely," I said, standing up and giving Joel a long hug. "You know it's hard for me to comprehend that by this time next year you'll be away at college. I can still recall the first day I saw you at the baseball diamond. To me, you're still that scared, little boy. That may have been the worst day of your life, but it turned out to be the best and most treasured day of mine. You and your brothers have brought true happiness into my life."
"Thanks, dad, I don't even want to think about what would have happened to me or my brothers if you hadn't been there for me that day. You have given us a chance for a better life than we could ever have expected before."
"I love you guys. You make me proud every day. Let's go check on your brothers. I'll bet Sam is wondering where you are," I said.
Sam, who had been playing with William, saw Joel as we stepped out onto the patio. He took off running for his master as fast as his short legs would go and leaped into Joel's arms giving him tongue kisses. You would have thought that dog hadn't seen Joel in weeks. I'm sure that Joel would have been knocked over backwards if he hadn't knelt down before Sam's friendly attack.
I looked around for Donald. When I saw him, I had to chuckle. He was giving Lenore a piggy-back ride as he slowly jogged around the yard, much to her delight. "What's your horse's name?" I asked Lenore, when they approached me.
"Daddy," she giggled.
"Well, this horse is getting tired," Donald said, as he set her down.
We settled on a couple of loungers and Lenore climbed onto Donald's lap. We talked for a few minutes before Manfred arrived with Jeannie and Ginny. Lenore immediately jumped down from her dad's lap and ran to the girls.
"You don't look any worse for the wear," I said. "How did it go with Hildy?"
"Actually, better than I had expected she would. She was a little peeved, at first, when I told her what I had done, but she mellowed quite a bit when she saw the Expedition. She even took it for a drive. It's going to take her a little while to adjust to all the bells and whistles on it. At least I don't have to ask to use your guest bedroom tonight." That brought a laugh from Donald and me.
For a couple of hours, the three of us sat and watched the kids play with the dogs until Hildy came to the door and announced that supper would be ready in twenty minutes.
"Okay, guys," I shouted, "get the dogs rounded up and into the dog run. Make sure they have fresh water and you fill their food bowls. Then go and get washed up. We don't want you smelling like dogs at the supper table."
After supper, the boys went to their rooms to do their homework. Donald settled down on the sofa with Lenore on his lap. He read to her from one of her favorite story books. I picked up my own book and began to read it. I figured I could get a few pages read before the boys started bringing their homework for me to check.
Peter and TJ were the first to bring their homework to me. Peter's was error free, but his penmanship would not earn any prize. TJ had made one division error. I had him look at it again to see if he could figure out where he had gone wrong. He looked at it for a minute before he said, "That was dumb," and quickly corrected the mistake.
Larry and Lenny were next in line for me to check. As usual they had both done an excellent job and had no errors, at least that I could find. After I checked their work, they said they were going to the music room to practice. Chris was next to have his work checked. He had to work harder to achieve that same level as the twins, but his efforts usually brought results. I couldn't find any mistakes in his work either.
"Tell me about Renata," I said. "Is she new this year?"
"Yeah, they moved into River Crossing in July. She's in three of my classes. Some of the teachers seat us in alphabetical order and her last name and mine are close, so she sits behind me in those classes 'cause there's nobody whose last name starts with K in our classes."
"It's nice that you're friendly with her. She probably doesn't know a lot of people yet," I said. "Does she have any brothers or sisters?"
"Her brother is a senior. I think Joel knows him. Are Larry and Lenny gonna tease me cause I like her?"
"If they do, it's because they are jealous of you. She is a very pretty girl. To answer your question, yes they will probably tease you a little. Just don't let it bother you. I'll try to make sure that they behave themselves," I said. "Now why don't you join your brothers and practice your drums?"
"Thanks, dad," he said, giving me a hug.
It was a while before Joel came to have me check his homework. "You must have had a lot to do," I said, when he arrived.
"Not that much, I was talking to Jimmy," he said. "He doesn't have to work Saturday evening and I was wondering if I could meet him at the theater. There's a new movie out that we want to see."
"As long as you won't be too late, I don't see why you can't go."
"Thank, I'll call him back after you check over my homework," Joel said.
"Are you confident that you've gotten everything done right?" I asked.
"Yes, I checked everything over before I came down," he said.
"How long has it been since I've found an error in your homework?" I asked.
"I can't remember the last time," Joel said, frowning in thought.
"Nor can I," I said. "I enjoy the time we spend together while I go through the motion of checking your work. It is always done perfectly. When you go off to college, there will be no one to check your work. Let's stop the pretense of checking homework and set aside this time just to talk about things on your mind or mine if I have something I need to share with you. However, if you really have a question about your homework, by all means I'll be glad to check it. How does that sound?"
"I think that'll work," he said with a grin.
"Good, we'll do it. Your brothers are in the music room, if you want to join them."
"Right after I call Jimmy."
"How did your talk with Joel go this afternoon?" Donald asked, as I sat down next to him and Lenore.
"As I told you a week or so ago, Joel has been considering three universities. He has narrowed his primary choice down to Rice. I still plan to have him submit applications to all three just in case," I said. "Frankly, I'd really like to see him attending Rice. He will have just turned seventeen when he goes off to college. Being only a couple hundred miles away would diminish my separation anxiety."
"I'm glad I don't have that to look forward to for a long time," Donald said.
"I'm hungry. Can we have our snack now?" William begged, coming into the living room.
1Recipe for the French toast casserole may be found at www.foodnetwork.com. Search for the recipe by Paula Deen.