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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This story is copyrighted by Ted Louis, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.
Jeremy had his back to the door leading to the flight line when an attractive young lady, wearing a flight attendant uniform, came through the doors.
"Mr. Johnson, the captain is ready to take off as soon as your party is on board."
"Thank you," I said.
Hearing the flight attendant's voice, Jeremy immediately turned to see where it came from. I could almost see his mouth open in surprise as he saw her. Joel did not miss it either and suppressed a giggle behind a hand to his mouth.
"Easy, flyboy," Joel whispered, "remember you have a girlfriend."
We followed the flight attendant to the plane. Jeremy's eyes widened as he saw the plane that she was leading us toward. Joel was first to climb the steps, followed by Jeremy and then me. The flight attendant was the last on board. She pressed a button beside the door opening and the door silently closed.
It was then that I noticed that there were two other passengers on the plane. I recognized one of them as being a member of Donald's board of directors. It took me a moment to come up with his name. As I approached him, his name came to me and I reached out to shake his hand.
"Mr. Lansing, it's good to see you again," I said.
"Mr. Johnson," he said, "I hope you don't mind us hitching a ride with you. We have business in New Orleans and Donald was gracious enough to suggest that we travel by his plane."
At that point, the flight attendant requested that we all take our seats in preparation for takeoff.
Jeremy had taken one of the window seats and Joel had taken one facing him. I took one across the aisle.
"This is great," Jeremy said. "I've never ridden in a private jet before. I'll have to call my girlfriend and tell her all about it when we get back tonight. I can't believe this."
As the plane started to taxi, the flight attendant began to recite the safety instructions that no one was paying any attention to. The only thing that we learned from them was that her name was Melanie. We had to wait for a few minutes at the side of the runway before we were cleared to taxi to the end of the runway and run up the engines. The takeoff was very smooth. The captain came on the speaker shortly and informed us that we would be flying at 28,000 feet and our flying time to Houston Hobby would be approximately 50 minutes.
Melanie was soon coming around taking drink orders. Jeremy appeared to be torn between the luxury of the plane's interior and Melanie. After she had served us all our soft drinks and juice, Jeremy made a valiant attempt to 'chat her up'. It was in vain. He evidently didn't see, or chose to ignore, the large diamond engagement ring on her left hand.
It seemed as though we had barely reached cruising altitude before we began descending and Melanie came around to collect our drink glasses. The landing at Hobby was equally as smooth as our takeoff was. As we were deplaning, Melanie informed me that the plane would be waiting to take us back to San Antonio any time after two this afternoon.
We entered the general aviation terminal and were greeted by the rental car agent. He handed me the keys to the car and directed us to where it was parked. The agent opened the car door to a new, white Town Car.
"Nice," Jeremy said, as I directed him to take the front passenger seat. Joel got in the back and we took off after everyone was buckled in.
Traffic wasn't too bad until we approached the Astro Dome. There was some sort of convention going on in the Dome that had cars backed up on Loop 610 for about a mile. We finally got through the traffic jam, but it took nearly twenty minutes to go a couple of miles, so much for Houston traffic.
Aaron Winters, who had been the general contractor for the remodeling, was waiting for us at the townhouse. I parked the car in a visitor parking spot since I didn't yet have the garage door opener. I apologized for the delay, but he understood when I told him we were caught in the traffic on 610.
"What a mess," he said. "When the Southern Baptists are in town for a convention, they really take over the place. You'd think the bars would be deserted, but it's just the opposite. My father used to say they preach dry and drink wet."
I introduced Joel and Jeremy to him and we entered the townhome. Neither Joel nor I had seen the results of the renovation since it had been completed and I was interested in seeing if it lived up to the design plans. My first impressions as we entered were that he and his workers had executed the plans very well.
"Wow, this is sure as heck better than the dorm," Jeremy said as he looked around the ground floor.
"Yeah," Joel said, "I think I can live here. Miss Prentiss did a good job of picking out the furniture."
"Who's she?" Jeremy asked.
"Phyllis Prentiss was the decorator we hired to do the furnishings," I said. "Let's go upstairs and check out the bedrooms."
The two bedrooms were separated by an open area that contained a couch, a couple of comfortable looking chairs, several small tables and a TV. One bedroom was on the front of the townhouse and the other over looked the rear. Both were outfitted with a queen size bed, a dresser, a night stand and lamp, and a desk.
"How do we decide who gets which bedroom?" Joel asked.
"If neither one of you has a particular favorite, you could toss a coin," I said.
"No," Jeremy said, "Joel should have first choice. Which one do you want?"
"I think I like the one at the back," Joel said.
"I was hoping you'd say that," Jeremy said. "I kinda like the one looking out toward the street."
"It's settled then," I said.
After we had done the quick inspection, I left the two boys and then did a more thorough inspection with Aaron. He pointed out all the improvements that had been done. I was impressed with the quality of the workmanship. The kitchen cabinets were extremely well made. Phyllis Prentiss had stocked them with all the eating and food preparation utensils and small appliances that the boys would ever need. The large appliances were top quality, all that the refrigerator lacked were the food items, but that would come later.
"Aaron," I said, "you did a good job and I'm very pleased with what you have done." I produced the final payment for the job and handed it to him.
"Thank you, Mr. Johnson," he said. "It's always nice to have the budget to do a proper reno. If you ever need anything that I can do for you in the future, please let me know. For your information and peace of mind, I had a locksmith change all the locks after the last of the workers had finished."
"Excellent," I said. "I had that on my mental to do list." He handed me his set of keys and pointed out that the two garage door openers were in the drawer next to the refrigerator as well as spare keys to all the doors. We shook hands and then he left.
"Dad," Joel said, coming down the stairs, "Jeremy and I are going to walk over to the campus and look around."
"Sure, go ahead," I said. "I think I'll stay here. I need to make a few phone calls. Be back in time for lunch."
"Not to worry, Crane," Jeremy said. "We never forget about lunch."
"I know Joel doesn't," I laughed.
While they were gone, I took out my cellphone and called a couple of friends that I had made when I had done a project here in Houston, what seems like ages ago. After I talked to them for a while, I called my friend, Vincent Braddock, from boarding school and told him that I had brought my son to check out where he was going to live when he started school in the fall.
"Crane," Vincent said, "I wish you had called to let me know you were coming. I would have invited you to lunch with Linda and me, but we've accepted an invitation to one of my fellow Rice professor's place for the afternoon up in Kingwood."
"There will be other times, I'm sure," I said. "His brothers and I will probably be frequent visitors once Joel has moved here."
After we ended the call, I began looking around the townhouse to see what still needed to be done before the boys moved in. I made a list: two telephone lines; cable TV; high speed internet access; security monitoring. That would do for starters. The water, electricity and natural gas were taken care of. Other things might be added as I thought of them.
It was nearly noon when Joel and Jeremy returned.
"That's a pleasant walk to the campus," Jeremy said. "Those live oak trees really give a lot of shade. That'll be great when it gets hot and the sun is beating down."
Joel sat down on the couch that faced the fireplace. "This is really a soft couch. I could go to sleep on it."
"Later," I said. "Are you guys ready to get something to eat?" I knew it was a foolish question as soon as I uttered it.
"Yeah," Joel said. "Where're we going?"
"What do you want to eat? There are a lot of choices within a couple of miles. Tex-Mex, Cajun, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, and there is even a place that serves British Pub food. Then, of course, there are all kinds of fast food places. What suits your fancy?"
"Jeremy, do you like Cajun?" Joel asked.
"Sure, I haven't had any since I got back from overseas."
"Cajun it is, then," I said. "I know of a little place that serves authentic, Louisiana Cajun food."
It took us about twenty minutes to get to the restaurant. The place was not much to look at from the outside and the inside was not much better. I could see the strange looks on both of their faces as we were seated at a table. We ordered and waited for our meals.
"Crane, do you think it's possible for me to bring some of my exercise equipment from home?" Jeremy said. "I think if we rearranged the furniture in that upstairs common area, what I'd like to bring would fit."
"I don't see why not," I said. "The only thing I would object to would be free weights. Those can be dangerous unless there are two people present when they are being used."
"I have a couple of five pound dumbbells, but that's all the weights," he said. "My parents gave me one of those Bowflex home gyms when I was in high school. It doesn't take up a lot of room"
The waitress brought our food and all conversation ceased while we began eating.
"This is really good, dad. We'll have to come back here again."
"You can say that again," Jeremy said. "This is the best red beans and rice I've ever had."
"I'm glad that you enjoy it," I said. "I could tell by the looks on your faces when we arrived, that you weren't convinced I knew what I was talking about. The old saying is true. You can't judge a book by its cover."
We finished our meal and I paid the check.
In the car, Jeremy appeared to be somewhat uncomfortable. "What is it, Jeremy? It looks as if you have something on your mind."
"Yeah, I do. This had been really great, but ..."
"But what?" I asked.
"I've been acting as if I was going to be living there and we haven't even discussed how much it's going to cost me. I'm afraid I can't afford it."
"When we get back to the townhouse, we'll sit down and talk about it," I said. "I don't like to have serious conversations while I drive in Houston traffic."
As I drove up to the back of the townhouse, I punched the button on the garage door opener and the door started up. "As you can see there are two spaces for your cars," I said.
"I was wondering about that," Jeremy said. "A car sitting out in the Houston sun can get really hot."
We entered the house and I sat down at the breakfast table and indicated that the two of them should do likewise. They did. "Jeremy, you asked what it was going to cost for you to live here. As I told you when we met earlier, I wanted someone who was mature to room with Joel. He will have just turned 17 when he begins his college career. I also wanted someone who was stable and someone who was compatible with Joel. He has never lived in a big city on his own and will need to have someone who will help him adjust, not only to being away from home, but coping with life in Houston. I think that you have demonstrated the characteristics that I was looking for. I'm convinced that you are the person I want to room with Joel. So here are the details you asked about. First, you can live here rent free. Second, all utilities will be provided, except for a telephone which will be installed in your bedroom. That will be your responsibility. Third, groceries will be provided for both of you to create your own meals. I will arrange for the shopping to be done every other week by a service that I know of. Fourth, once a month a cleaning service will give the place a thorough cleaning. You will be expected to keep things clean in between times. That goes for you too, Joel. Now, Jeremy, do you have any questions about what I have just related?"
For a moment, Jeremy just sat there with a stunned look on his face and his mouth slightly open. "This is unbelievable. It's ... It's ... I don't know what to say. It's beyond generous. You can depend on me. I'll be a big brother to Joel and help him out in any way I can. I always wanted a little brother. I accept all the conditions. I was so afraid after seeing this place that I couldn't afford it and would have to either live in the dorm or find another place that I could afford. Thank you. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this."
"It goes without saying that you both will be here to get an education. That is your primary concern. While I don't expect that you live like cloistered monks, frequent partying is something that I would frown on," I said.
"Would it be all right if my girlfriend came to visit me once in a while?"
"That would be fine. Use your best judgment as to what activities are done in public. I imagine that Joel will have his friend here once in a while as well. Not often, I hope. As long as you respect each other's privacy, what you do behind closed doors should not cause a problem. If it does, I expect that the two of you will work it out."
"Thanks, dad," Joel said. "I was going to ask you if it would be okay if Jimmy came here sometimes."
"Just remember what you're here for," I said. "Now, we should be heading back to the airport shortly. The plane should be waiting for us by the time we get there. You might want to have a quick look around to see if you want anything that's not already provided."
"I didn't see anything," Joel said as they came down the stairs. "Did you?"
"No, I can't think of anything else that we would need," Jeremy answered.
"Okay, then, let's get on the road. Maybe the traffic won't be as bad as it was when we came," I said.
We arrived at the general aviation terminal a few minutes before four o'clock. The plane was waiting for us. Our pilot, Brian Cox, was talking to someone at the desk as we walked into the terminal. When he saw us, he walked toward us. "Mr. Johnson," he said. "I'm glad that you weren't here earlier."
"Why's that?" I asked.
"We just touched down about twenty minutes ago. One of the airline's planes had a landing gear collapse on the runway in New Orleans and it backed up air traffic for several hours until they were able to get the runway cleared," he said. "We should be ready to take off in about thirty minutes."
"That's fine," I said. "I have to turn in the keys to the rental car and take care of that paperwork. Whenever you're ready, just let us know."
I could sense disappointment in Jeremy when our flight attendant came to tell us we could board the plane. The flight attendant was a male. I wanted to say something, but my better judgment kicked in. That didn't stop Joel from whispering something to Jeremy that I couldn't hear, but got him a light punch on the arm in retaliation.
It took us a little over an hour flight time to reach San Antonio. The pilot had announced earlier that we were facing strong headwinds and that he expected a bumpy ride. His expectations were correct, it was a bumpy ride. We were all glad to land at San Antonio.
The Mercedes was waiting for Jeremy to give him a ride back to the airbase as we exited the terminal building. "Crane, Joel, this has been a great trip for me and I thank you both for it. Actually, I can't thank you enough. What you have done for me has made it possible to concentrate on getting my degree without having to work or get burdened down with student loans. I can hardly wait to tell my parents. It would have been a hardship for them to provide me with a lot of financial aid, what with my sister in school as well."
"What about your girlfriend? Are you going to tell her, too?" I asked.
"You bet," he said. "I'll call her as soon as I get back to the base."
I handed him a set of keys to the townhouse and a garage door opener. "If there are some things you would like to move earlier than when classes begin, feel free to do so. The place is available to use anytime. There's no telephone or cable TV, but I think you could rough it."
"Thanks, I may just do that," he said.
"You can come ride the horses with us, if you like," Joel said, looking to me for confirmation. Getting a nod from me, he continued. "We usually ride on Sundays. Most of the time, if the weather is decent, we get there around ten o'clock."
"I'll take you up on that," he said. "Not every Sunday, sometimes I have duty." He held out his hand to shake mine, but changed his mind and gave me a hug instead. He gave Joel a hug as well and then quickly turned away and headed for the Mercedes.
It was a little after six when we got home. We were greeted by an excited group of boys who surrounded us and started asking us questions about our flight. "How about we tell you all about it over supper? I see Gilda has it about ready." That satisfied them for the moment and Joel and I went to wash up for supper. I greeted Donald with a hug on the way to my bathroom.
Over our meal, Joel and I took turns relating the trip to Houston. Joel was especially enthusiastic when he was explaining his and Jeremy's visit to the Rice campus. He had been particularly impressed with how friendly everybody was on the campus. Everybody, it seemed, spoke to them as they wandered around the campus looking it over.
Between mouthfuls, the boys had to tell us all about their day and what they had done. "Sam missed you," TJ said, talking to Joel. "He kept looking around while we were playing with the other dogs."
"I'd better go see him after supper," Joel said.
"It's been a long day," I said, when Donald and I settled down in the living room with a glass of wine after supper. "We were on the road before six o'clock this morning."
"I didn't hear your alarm go off, but I missed you when I woke up," Donald said.
"Yes, you were in the 'arms of Morpheus' when I left," I said. "Thanks for looking after the boys while I was gone."
"They're such good kids, it was no problem. They always seem to find something to occupy their time," Donald said. "I'm really glad to see how they have incorporated William into the mix. It's just as if he's a real brother. Lenore gets left out at times, but when she's around, they're very protective of her. I'm very glad that we met, Crane Johnson."
"Likewise, Donald Baker," I said. "After I get the boys tucked in for the night, I think I will turn in as well. I can feel the day's activities catching up with me."
"Good idea," Donald said.
We did just that.
Sunday morning, the sun was shining brightly, but the temperatures were in the upper 30's. That didn't stop the boys from wanting to go ride the horses. I checked the weather forecast to see what the high temperature was supposed to be later in the day. According to the newspaper it was supposed to be in the upper 50's with very little wind. I told them if they dressed warmly then we would go.
I called the Smiths to let them know that we were coming before we all climbed into the van and took off for the ranch. When we got there, Jeremy's Toyota was already there. As we got out of the van, I could see that he was helping Bert with the horses.
"Crane," Tracy said, coming up to greet us. "The temporary housing is great."
I hadn't noticed the units when we drove in, although I knew they were supposed to be installed earlier in the week. "Good, I hope they're comfortable."
"More than comfortable," he said. "I think Rosie would be happy just living in them."
"Have you gotten all of your stuff out of the house? I think the asbestos people are planning to start the removal either Monday or Tuesday."
"The temp units were hardly in place before Rosie had everybody carrying things out of the house. By the end of the first day, everything we owned had been moved," he said. "I'm glad that I was at work. Bert said she was a slave driver."
"I heard that remark," Rosie said, as she approached. "Crane, Donald, won't you come in and see the place?"
"Thank you, I'd like that," I said. "We had a larger setup like this after our old house burned down and we were waiting on the new one to be built. We found them to be quite comfortable."
Donald, Lenore and I followed Rosie into the temporary units where she gave us a tour. Afterwards, Donald and I went to ride with the boys and Lenore elected to stay and play with the baby.
Our horses were saddled and tied to the fence when we arrived at the pasture. We mounted up and went to find the boys. They were at their usual spot at the back of the pasture where they had a makeshift track where they could race against each other. I always held my breath as they raced at top speed on the hundred yards or so straight away. They were having fun and didn't seem to be in much danger, but as a parent, the last thing I wanted to happen to them was a fall off of a galloping horse.
Jeremy rode up beside me. "I called Beth Ann last night."
"Beth Ann?" I asked. "Is that your girlfriend?"
"Yeah, Beth Ann Williams is my girlfriend. I told her all about the big Mercedes that picked me up and the private plane. She thought I was dreaming. I finally convinced her it really did happen and then I told her about the townhouse and the generous offer you made to me. She thought I was on drugs or something, that nobody would do that for anybody. I told her I would ask you to call her and tell her it was all real. Would you do that?"
"Sure, what's her number?" I said, retrieving my cellphone. He gave me the number and I made the call. I repeated to her the conversation that I had with Jeremy while we were in Houston. By the time I ended the call, I wasn't too sure that she believed me either.
Later, as I was talking to Tracy, I asked him where Charlie and Ian were.
"Charlie and Jessica had to go to some sort of get-together for the company she works for. Charlie wasn't too happy. He had to put on a tie. He hates dressing up for any reason," Tracy said. "Ian went to see his friend Lionel. He should be back late tonight."
As we were loading up the van in preparation for going back home, Chris came and stood beside me, not saying anything. I could tell he had something on his mind.
"What's up, son? I can tell you have something on your mind," I said.
"You said we could go to the hospital tonight. Are we still gonna get to go?"
"I made you a promise and I plan on keeping it. We'll go to the hospital as soon as we take everyone home and we get cleaned up," I said. "You wouldn't want to go see Susan smelling like a horse, would you?"
"No, dad," he laughed. "I guess I'd better take a shower and change clothes. I do kinda smell like my horse."
"So do I," I said. "Hop in the van and we'll get on our way."
We said our goodbyes to the Smiths and Jeremy and we headed back for home. Once we arrived, I sent all the boys to get showered. I did the same. When they finished and before they went out to take care of their dogs, I told them that Chris and I were going to the hospital to see his friend Susan and that they were to behave themselves for Donald and Gilda. On the way out, I told Gilda that we might not be back in time for supper and to go ahead and feed the boys. She said she would have something to warm up for us when we got back.
Chris was excited as I drove into San Antonio to the hospital.
"I hope Susan can have visitors," Chris said. "Everybody at school told me to tell her we missed her. They hoped she liked the card we made.
"I'm sure she did," I said. "It was very thoughtful of you to get everybody to sign it. It probably meant a lot to her."
When we arrived, the parking lot was almost full and the spot that I found was about as far away from the entrance as you could get. There was about an hour left in the afternoon visiting hours when we entered the hospital.
Chris headed directly for the bank of elevators and pressed the up button. He was literally hopping from one foot to the other as he waited impatiently for an elevator car to arrive on the ground floor. Finally one arrived and disgorged a number of individuals. He was in the elevator almost before the last individual had exited. He punched the button for the fourth floor and waited for two more people to enter. They pressed the buttons for the second and third floors, much to the dismay of Chris.
Finally, we reached the fourth floor. Chris headed for the nurses station. When the nurse looked up to see what he wanted, he said, "Is Susan Reynolds in room 402 allowed visitors today?"
"Are you a family member?" she asked.
"No, I go to school with her and they said the last time we were here that we could visit her today. May we go see her?"
The nurse typed something into the computer terminal on her desk and then turned to Chris with a sad look on her face. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but Susan Reynolds passed away this afternoon."