Disclaimer: This is a work of complete fiction.  It does not and will not exist outside the fantasy world.

Matt Caper

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Chapter 17

 

Noah's party had taken place on a Saturday.  Because I was collaborating with the Shilohs on homeschooling as well as Mary Mason, now, since she'd let TJ join the rest of the boys that Fall - I expected the boys would have to face Dane on Monday.  But he didn't show.  Then Linda called and explained how sick he was.

"I think he's sick with guilt," she stated.  "And he should be.  Sam's a nice boy, but not like Will."

"Well, tell him he'll feel better when he comes back to the group and faces the music."

"I will.  He's just too embarrassed, is all."

I let Will know the Shilohs were going to miss him, when he came into work.  "I hope you and Dane can patch things up."

"I shoulda never dated a kid that young.  He's not ready for commitment," he sighed.

"Hell, Will, you're too young for commitment.  Most teenagers are far too fickle.  I don't know why we insist on trying to find true love so early.  It just creates heartache for us."

Will and I were putting together a new weight machine, or at least attempting to.  At least one part of the Center was getting upgraded.  "Why shouldn't we search for true love?" he countered.  "People find it at young ages all the time."

"Because we end up latching on to the first object of infatuation we find and try to force it to be true love.  Anyway, apparently most kids don't know the value of being faithful."

"So are you saying my feelings for Dane weren't real?  Were you just infatuated with Pete?"

I smiled.  His argument was stimulating to me.  "No, of course not.  They were definitely real.  I'm just saying that we don't take the time to get to know a person before jumping into an exclusive relationship with them.  Our relationships were more likely to fail because we didn't form a solid friendship with them first."

"Okay, good point," he acknowledged.  "I knew Dane all of five minutes before we started macking on each other."

"I did the same with Jordan.  He was beautiful, and I had stars in my eyes.  Hopefully I won't make that same mistake again."

"He was a good guy, though.  At least he didn't cheat on you."

"True enough," I agreed.  "But I didn't give us a chance to develop feelings.  Then falling for Pete was a surprise to me."  I shook my head and sighed softly.  "You think I was just being desperate for love?  I always thought I'd fall for a guy when it was right.  When it was meant to be."

"You don't seem desperate to me.  Jordan and Pete are really nice guys.  Ryan, too.  They just happened to not be a good fit for you, that's all.  Besides, you need a man who's as crazy as you are, if you keep taking in rogue kids."

I laughed heartily.  "I'm thinking Eli won't be my last."

"I thought as much," he winked.  "Me and Landon were talking, and we were thinking maybe we would do online classes next year like you are, instead of going to community college.  That way we can stick around and devote more time to helping you with the kids.  I mean, if you haven't kicked me out by then."

My face lit up like the sun, and my heart welled up ten times its size.  "Will!" I exclaimed.  "That would be so amazing!  You've just made my day!  Heck, my whole year!"  I bounced in place with excitement.  "I hoped Landon would stick around here for at least a year, but I wasn't sure what he wanted.  And I figured where he went, you would go, too."  I clapped him on the shoulder.  "Man, I'm so glad y'all are staying next year."

Will smiled in return.  "Truth be told, we like helping out.  And Landon doesn't want to leave Noah, anyway.  But he doesn't want to leave you, either."

"Me?  Really?" I asked in surprise.

"Yeah, man.  I don't know if you know how much Landon loves you.  It's why he does whatever you ask.  He'd do more if he could.  He loves Nicholas, and he even loves Eli.  But mostly he takes care of them because he knows you need him to.  Because he loves you."

"Damn.  You're gonna make me cry."  I smiled, feeling grateful I had Landon in my life.  "You should tell him he doesn't have to try so hard.  I'd love him even if he did his own thing.  Maybe I'll tell him that."

"Well, that's why I'm here now.  I can make things easier on you and Landon.  If we share the responsibilities, it's easier for all of us."

I was keenly aware of how fortunate and how loved I was.  "I hope I never take you guys for granted.  I love y'all so much."

A blush darkened Will's facial features for just a moment.  "We love you, too, you know."

That was really a touching moment, and I was glad to have shared it with Will.  I also made a mental note to bring it up to Landon when we had our one-on-one outing, which was sporadic these days, but not non-existent.

After work, however, Noah and I had some time together.  It was his actual birthday, and this was to be our last time together that focused on driving.  He was about to take his driver's test.  I think I was about as nervous as he was, even though I knew without a doubt he could pass it.  I'd even taken him out on the highway by now, and he drove brilliantly.

I sat in the waiting room while an officer took him out with my car.  I texted Landon and Nicholas until Noah returned.  In fact, I texted them up to the second he drove up and approached the door.  I held my breath, waiting for his reaction.  I didn't have to wait long.  He came running toward me with the biggest grin ever on his face.

"I passed, I passed, I passed!" he cried.  A few people clapped for him, and I gave him a bear hug.

"I knew you would!"  I sent a fast text to let the others know the outcome.  We had another, smaller party waiting for him at home, though this one was a surprise.  Just something to say "Congratulations", along with "Happy Birthday".

I, of course, let him drive home as he told me every detail of the test.  I knew I would hear all those details again at home, but I didn't mind.  I texted the boys when we pulled in the driveway and let Noah walk in the house first.

"SURPRISE!" everyone yelled.  Everyone being Landon, Will, Nicholas, Eli and Jake.  A huge banner that mostly Nicholas had drawn, reading "Congratulations", was hanging from the ceiling.  Noah ate up all the attention.

"Congratulations, babe!"  Landon stepped forward and kissed him, then everyone else followed with a hug.  At this party, there was no boyfriend drama, and everyone had a great time.  I didn't stay up as late as the others, though I was still awake when two boys joined me.

"You boys are growing up too fast," I mumbled sleepily as we cuddled with each other.

"Whatever," said Eli.  "I hate being smaller than everybody.  I want to grow up already."

I kissed his little head.  "I love you just like you are."

He raised up and peered at me in the dark.

"What's wrong?" I asked, lifting my head slightly.

"You ain't never said you love me before."

"Haven't I?"

"Never," he repeated.

"Well I do.  Very much."

He was silent, and I couldn't see his face to read it.  I'd only had him just over two months, but I was getting pretty good at reading his thoughts on his face.  He wasn't exactly good at hiding his emotions.

"Is that okay?" I asked.

"Does that mean I get to stay here as long as I want?"

I sighed and propped my head up on my palm, elbow resting on my pillow.  "Ideally, yes.  But you probably know that your natural parents' rights haven't been terminated, yet.  God knows why.  But that has to happen before you become free for adoption."

"Holy Shimoli!  You would adopt me?!"

I laughed, unable to answer his question.  I was too distracted by his words.  "Holy Shimoli?  I've never heard you use a clean word like that before."

"Landon says I have to work on my language, and that I can only swear once in a while.  He said I can swear more when I'm older."

I was more impressed with Landon every day.  And impressed with Eli for trying.  "Good for you, Eli.  I'm proud you're working on that.  And to answer your question, I would totally adopt you in a heartbeat."

Eli suddenly knocked the air out of me as he plowed his body into mine and hugged me fiercely.  "Please please please make them terminate their rights!" he cried.  "I want you to be my dad!"

I was completely floored.  After only two and a half months or so, he already wanted to live here permanently.  Sheila was definitely going to do a song and dance over this.  "Wow, kiddo!  I didn't realize you wanted it that badly.  I tell you what, I'll talk to Mrs. Henderson tomorrow and see what she can do."

"I do want it that badly!  I never wanna go back to them again!"

"Believe me," I said seriously.  "I won't let you go back there.  Even if I have to kidnap you and escape to Mexico.  Those fuckers don't deserve you."

"Language!" Eli said, though he was still holding on tightly to me.  Nicholas joined in, too, hugging Eli from behind.

"I won't let you go, either!" he exclaimed.  "You're staying here forever!"

We hugged and giggled and played around until we were too sleepy to keep our eyes open.  As I drifted into slumber, I savored the happiness I felt for Eli being a part of our family - and wanting to be a part of our family.

I followed through the next day, asking Sheila if she could get the parents' rights terminated.  She informed me proceedings were already being followed, and she was still waiting on a hearing date.  And I was right, she was truly overjoyed that Eli was such a good fit with us.

The following day, Wednesday, Dane returned to the group.  He couldn't avoid homeschool any longer, and his parents insisted he continue it with my boys. After Will came in to work that afternoon, we were on break, which we'd grown accustomed to taking together in my office, when he recounted the details of the day.

"He just kind of stood there at first, like he didn't know what to say," Will remembered.  "It's so weird, Grey.  I always thought he was this intelligent being - and he is!  But he always seemed older because he was so smart.  When I looked at him today, all I saw was this helpless little kid, and it was hard to imagine the kind of relationship we had."

He paused to suck down some fruit juice.  We were both sweaty and tired after putting in some work in the exercise center.  We got more than our fair share of exercise.

"When he didn't say anything, I decided I would," he continued.  "I said, 'So you and Sam are together now?'  He looked up at me real pitifully, it was so surreal.  Anyway, he said they are together now.  I said, 'Fine.  Just give me an apology, and we'll move on.  No hard feelings.'  He said, 'I really am sorry.'  I said, 'Okay.  Apology accepted.'  We shook hands, and that was it.  Well, no, he apologized to TJ, too.  That was the last of it."

I gazed at him worriedly.  "Can you really move on that easy?  I mean, how's it affecting you inside?"

He rolled his eyes.  "Why do you always have to ask the hard stuff?"  He offered a tiny smile to show he wasn't upset with me.  "I'm trying my best, okay?  It ain't easy.  But it's getting better already.  Maybe next time I'll wait more than a day when I meet someone, to jump into a relationship with him."

"That's always a good plan.  I think you were nice not to yell and scream at Dane.  I probably would have."

"Wouldn't have changed anything," he said wisely.  "Or made anything better.  I still want to be his friend.  We've had some good times together.  All of us have."

"You know, I think you just get more awesome every day."  I drank the last of my own juice and stood.  "Come on, sweaty boy.  We have work to do in the locker room."

"Sweet!"

Eventually I hired a guy for full time custodial work, and Will and I didn't have to do so much extra work.  Then I was able to leave Will to his own duties by himself most of the time.  That allowed me the freedom to accomplish my own tasks and gave me much more time to rest and relax.  I thought it was kind of nice, though, when I could pal around with Will on the job.  Going back to working mostly alone seemed that much more, well, lonely.

Nevertheless, I wasn't as stressed anymore when I came home from work.  I think that helped me concentrate more on my studies, too.  Those were getting more intense, the more specialized they became.  I kept waiting for my brain to reach its full capacity and do an emergency shutdown.  Thankfully that never happened.

December brought its own host of problems, as well as unexpected surprises.  Christmas was coming; that was no surprise.  But everything else seemed to overshadow the holiday.  For one thing, since my online classes didn't necessarily follow the schedule of campuses, I had school work to do up to a few days before Christmas Day.  As a result, I wasn't as prepared for the holiday as I had been last year.  Shopping for last minute gifts is not a fun task, even when doing it online.

Also delaying my readiness for Christmas and all its festivities was the near-disaster that occurred in my family.  It had been a busy day at work this one particular day.  Few people populated the Center, but the Powers That Be had decided it was time for the entire weight and exercise center to be renovated.  And while much of the heavy work was done by contractors, Will and I both had our own full plates of duties.  The next month or two was going to be super taxing.

Near the end of the day, I pulled Will from his work.  "Save your energy," I told him.  "Let's take a break.  You can do light work the rest of your time.  Otherwise you'll work yourself to death."  He followed me to my office.  I'd put a small fridge in there, and we both grabbed large bottles of water.

Will spread out on the floor instead of resting in a chair.  "I'm so fucking tired," he moaned.

"It's no wonder, dude.  You work like you're Hercules or something.  You gotta space yourself."

He panted for a minute before looking up at me.  "I'm only trying to impress you.  Do a good job.  You know?"

I decided to join him on the floor.  I was completely dirty anyway.  "Impress me?  Are you kidding?  Well, stop, because I'm already impressed with you.  I won't be impressed if you collapse from exhaustion."

"You're one to talk.  Mister workaholic."

I snorted.  "Well, now that I'm taking care of four boys, I feel driven to work as hard as possible."

"I bet Gloria would say she's impressed with you and not to exhaust yourself."

"Well, Gloria probably works more than we do," I pointed out.

"True dat," he replied, lifting his head for more water.

While we were lying there, my cell rang.  Unfortunately, I'd left it on my desk and had to get up to answer it.  The number calling belonged to Mom's cell.

"Grey?  I need you."  She sounded very tense.

"Where are you?  What's wrong?"  Will rose from the floor as soon as he heard the worry in my voice.

"I'm at the hospital emergency room.  Your dad had an accident at work."

"Oh no!  Is he okay?  I'm leaving right now."

"I don't know anything yet.  Just get here as soon as you can."

When I hung up, I relayed to Will what Mom had said and asked him to let Gloria know I was leaving.  As I drove, I texted Landon to say Pop was in the ER and to meet me there.  Incidentally, I left out the part that I was driving already while texting.  I would never let the boys see me do that.

While parking near the ER, I grumpily thought I was seeing too much of this place.  This may have been only my second time this year, but that was two times too many.  The familiar stench of sterility filled my nostrils at the entrance, and my heart began to race as I searched for Mom.  I found her pacing back and forth near the service desk.

"What happened?  Do you know anything yet?" I asked.

She seemed very relieved to see me.  "No.  There was an accident at his work.  I don't know any more than that."

"Wouldn't you relax better if you sat down?"

She shook her head rapidly.  "I can't sit still.  I'm too nervous."  She continued pacing, and I stood with her until the boys arrived.  I quickly got them seated, as well as myself, and filled them in on the little we knew.  Then we played the waiting game.

We waited and waited, and we waited some more.  Mom checked with the desk occasionally for any updates without luck.  The lady behind the desk was surprisingly very patient.  I began to rub one of my shoulders absentmindedly; my entire body was a bit sore from moving heavy equipment at work.

"What's wrong?" Nicholas asked.  I gave him a strange look, not following why he asked.  "Your shoulder," he said, pointing at my hand massaging it.

"Oh, that.  Will and I have been working hard, and my body is particularly sore today.  We were just taking a break when Gram called me."

Nicholas spread his knees apart and patted the end of the chair between them.  "Sit on the floor and lean back here.  I'll massage your shoulders."

I grinned.  "How can I say no to that?"  I slid smoothly into place and moaned immediately when he put his hands on me.  "Oh god, that feels good."

"Shh, Grey," Landon whispered.  "That sounds dirty."

I giggled, but kept my moans to myself while Nicholas worked his magic.  I began to tune out everything else and focused on relaxing.  That is, until a repetitive noise brought me out of my reverie.  Eli began drumming on his seat, softly at first, but performed a crescendo that ended in a terrible racket.  Without looking up, I snatched my arm outward and grabbed his ankle.  Only then did he stop.

"Come 'ere," I motioned for him to sit between my legs.  Once there, I ministered to him the same as Nicholas was to me.

"Ooooh, that's nice," he sighed.

When the automatic doors opened, I felt compelled to look up, and I gasped when I did.  Not because of who it was; it was only Will.  But I realized I had forgotten to go pick him up from work.

"Hey!" he half-whispered.  "How's your dad?"

"We don't know yet," I said.  "Shit, Will, I forgot about picking you up.  I'm so sorry!"

He plopped down on the floor beside me, so we could chat.  "Hey, it's cool.  I got a ride from Gloria.  She said to call her if you need anything."

"That's nice of her.  You could've called one of us, though."

"Don't worry about it," he said emphatically.  "I didn't wanna bother you right now."

"You know, if you wanna get a cell, I could add a line to my plan.  It'd be a lot cheaper that way," I suggested.

"Yeah!" he smiled.  "That would be awesome!  Then you could find me at the Center when you need me."

"Yep, like when I need to show you the hotties in the locker room."

Will and I broke into fits of giggles.

"You two behave," Nicholas said somberly, pausing his massage briefly.

"Yes, sir," I replied.

"You lucky dog.  You got your own personal masseuse," Will said wistfully.

"He's brilliant, too," I said.  Then leaning forward, I whispered in Eli's ear.  Seconds later, he got up and moved to the seat behind Will, who lightly gasped in surprise as Eli began massaging him.

"Damn Eli," he said.  "That's really nice of you."

"Grey said he'd buy me a milkshake if I did it," Eli said matter-of-fact.

Will giggled and elbowed me in the ribs.  "That's okay, it still feels really good."

After more waiting, I knew I'd soon have to take care of four hungry boys, not to mention Will and myself.  Just as I was about to tell Landon to take the others home, a doctor approached Mom.  The six of us gathered with her as he spoke.

"Your husband is doing well, despite his injuries.  He and two others were injured when a machine malfunctioned and exploded in their shop.  There were no fatalities, but we had to perform emergency surgery on Mr. Taylor.  He had pieces of metal in his leg, hip and side from the blast.  But he pulled through extremely well."

Mom was nearly beside herself with worry, I could tell.  "Is he conscious?  Can we see him?"

"He's conscious," said the doctor.  "But he was administered anesthesia before the surgery, and he's still groggy.  I'm sending him upstairs.  Trudy, at the desk, will tell you where to go.  We need to keep him here for a few days.  I want him to move as little as possible."

"Is his condition critical?" she asked fearfully.

The doctor sighed.  "Realistically, he could be looking at some physical therapy.  His leg and hip were severely damaged.  He's lucky to be alive, but walking may not be an option for him again."

Mom gasped and pulled lightly at her hair.

"You can see him," he said.  "But he needs his rest.  Try to keep it short tonight and come back tomorrow.  I'll have more information for you then."

After seeing Trudy, we all trekked upstairs.  Seeing Dad in his helpless state was difficult.  For someone who worked so hard all his life, he seemed entirely out of his element.  He lazily opened his eyes as we gathered around his bed, barely nodded his head to us, and closed them again.

"Go home, Mama," he mumbled.  "I'm fine."

Mom made a small guttural sound of impatience.  "I think I'll stay a while, thank you," she said defiantly.  "The boys have come to say hello."

Dad somewhat waved some of his fingers.  "Bad day at work, boys.  Nothing to worry about."  We were all silent.  No one knew what to say.  "Noah?" he said, opening his eyes.

"Yeah, Pop?"  Noah moved a little closer where Dad could see him.

"Do me a favor, son.  Keep my yard mowed, okay?"

"Yes, sir, I will," Noah readily agreed.

Dad nodded and then his eyes were closed again.  "Now you boys get on home and do your homework."  They looked to me for confirmation, and I nodded.

"We'll see you tomorrow, Dad," I said.  "Let's go, guys."  There was a barrage of well wishes and goodbyes from all of us, then we were finally leaving that place.  In the elevator, I drew a deep breath and exhaled with a hum and a sigh.

Will put his arm over my shoulders.  "You okay?"

"Yeah.  I'm fine.  That was hard, but I'm glad he made it through.  I hope they give him enough pain meds."

"You mind if I come with y'all tomorrow to see him?" he asked.

"That would be great if you did," I said.  "He'll like it, even if he doesn't say so."

"Oh my gosh, it's already dark outside," said Noah, as we headed toward the exit.  "It feels like we've been here forever."

"Do I still get a milkshake?" Eli asked.  "I'm starving."

I chuckled.  "How about dinner first?  Braum's?" I suggested.  It was one of the better burger and ice cream places in town.  "On me."  I said that primarily for Will's benefit.  They all happily agreed, like I knew they would.

Landon had parked a few spaces away from me, and he and Noah headed that way.  "Will, you coming?" Landon asked.

"If you don't mind, I'm gonna ride with Grey this time," said Will, which surprised me greatly.  Nicholas was about to claim the front seat, until Will spoke.  Then he backed out of the doorway and opened the back door.

"No, you sit up front," Will told him.  "It's where you always sit.  I'll sit back here with Eli."

"It's okay, I don't mind," Nicholas said, but Will was already climbing in the back seat.  Nicholas shrugged and moved to the front once more.

I glanced back at Will from the driver's seat.  "Well, this is a rare privilege for us."

"What is?" he asked, brow furrowed.

"You riding with us.  I thought you'd ride with Landon."

"Oh.  I still like it okay, but I always have to sit in the back by myself.  I wanted to be with Eli this time."

"Really?" asked Eli.

"Yep.  Wanna do thumb wars?"  And just like that, Will had Eli entertained the whole way to Braum's.  I was both impressed and delighted.

Despite Dad's accident overshadowing the evening, we still had fun together.  We stuffed ourselves silly and practically waddled through the front door at home.  We filled Jake in on the happenings of the day, and those of us in school went to studying and doing homework.