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

A HUGE thank you to Darryl for editing and proofreading my work. Makes my job easier!

© Matt Caper



Chapter 8

"What?!  You can't do that!"

Granny leaned forward in her chair and scowled at me.  Granny had never scowled at me before, and it was fearsome.  "I can so," she drawled.  "This is my house, and I can do what I damn well please."

I gaped at her.  I literally stood there with my mouth hanging open and stared.  Nicholas came running in, despite my instructions to the kids to busy themselves elsewhere.

"What's wrong?" he asked timidly.

"Nothing's wrong," I said shortly.  "Could you leave us?  Please?"

Nicholas looked hurt, and I felt terrible.  He was used to me sharing everything with him.  He turned and left the room gloomily.  I returned my attention to Granny and sat across from her.  "Well that's ridiculous.  Don't you have family that's not in prison?  What about the boys' mom?"

"She doesn't have custody.  I do.  They're Granny's kids."

"Oh.  I thought she-"

"She's unfit for that," Granny interrupted.  "I have no other family but you.  And it's already done.  I've changed my will, and when I die, you and the boys get the house and everything I have, and you'll be their legal guardian."

I was flabbergasted.  I'd never even considered Granny dying before, much less living in her house.  "Fine," I said resolutely.  "But I forbid you to die.  Not until they're grown.  Then they'll do with the house what they please."

"Pish posh.  I can see ninety from here.  It ain't gonna be long.  All of my siblings died off long ago.  I'm afraid I've already overstayed my welcome."

"Pish posh indeed," I retorted.  "We need you around.  You can't go anywhere just yet."

She smiled.  "It's nice to know I'm still wanted."

I merely sighed and smiled in return.  At that moment, movement caught the corner of my eye.  "Nicholas!"

He peered around the corner.  "Huh?"

"You little eavesdropper.  Come here."  I patted the chair I was in, and he zoomed over, sitting between my legs.  My arms circled around him.  "What did you hear?"

"Something about Granny dying."  There was fear in his voice.

"Granny's not dying, darlin'," she said gently.  "I don't think it will be long, but it won't be today.  Don't you worry about it."

"We were just talking about when Granny does die.  She's changed her will to include me along with you boys.  She's leaving everything to us, and if you're still under eighteen then, I'll be your legal guardian."

"Oh," he replied.  "I still don't want you to die, Granny."

"Well I've got to someday, darlin'.  I'm old, you know.  When I do, you just remember how much Granny loves you and you'll be just fine.  And I'll be in Heaven, which means I won't be old anymore.  I'll be happy as a lark."

"You mean it doesn't hurt when you die?"

"Ohh, it might hurt for a minute or two.  Depends on how you go.  But then it's all good again.  If I'm lucky, I'll go in my sleep and wake up to angels."

Noah appeared in the doorway to the dining room, hugging the door frame.  "I wanna go in my sleep, too."

I gave him a hard stare.  "Well that won't be for a very long time, if I have anything to say about it.  You can go in your sleep when you're Granny's age."  I checked my cell phone for the time.  "You guys, we should leave soon.  Mrs. Henderson is coming over with Landon for a home visit."

"Come give Granny a kiss."  Of course, she meant all of us.

I was extremely nervous about Sheila Henderson's visit.  But as it turned out, I needn't have been.  It actually worked in our favor that we were living with my parents, having that additional stability and parental supervision.  Nevertheless, I made it clear to my parents and to Sheila that I expected no responsibility to be left to my parents.  I would be grateful for whatever help they gave, but ultimately Landon was my responsibility.  I figured it was enough that they were giving us a place to live rent-free.  To be honest, I was surprised they didn't protest against my choice to take on a parental role.  I expected my dad, at least, to grump about it.  But neither one of them showed any disfavor toward the situation, which was all the more reason I wanted to shoulder as much responsibility as necessary.

The day after Sheila's visit, we finally got the insurance money for the car.  I had been driving a rental the insurance company was paying for, and it was quite small.  After that experience, I thought about buying a minivan like my mom's.  I reconsidered when I reminded myself I was being raped already with the cost of gas.

I ended up with something I wouldn't have expected.  We found a beautiful Caddy, beige on the inside and out.  Big, but fuel efficient.  And very comfortable!  It was a grand more than I had from the insurance company, but Dad threw in the last bit and told me to repay him in whatever payments I could afford.  The boys loved it as much as I did, though it occurred to me that all it needed was some stylin' chrome wheels and fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror, and I'd look like a pimp daddy.  But I probably looked like a grandpa more than anything.

I still wanted a car for Landon.  But that was looking like an impossibility from where I was standing.  I was foreseeing a lot of juggling of my schedule in order to make it all work.  But I'm sure plenty of other families with high schoolers did the very same thing.  Besides, it relieved some of my anxiety about it to believe the boys would be safer not driving with a bunch of other high school drivers.

But we had a car again, and that was something.  It wasn't long after we bought it that I was thrust into a necessary situation, but one I had been avoiding.  I didn't realize it at the time, but my mother had been the mastermind behind the whole thing.  It was the weekend and dad wanted my help in the cellar below where my apartment used to be.  Mom and the kids were suddenly leaving for ice cream or whatever, and Dad and I were left alone.  There hadn't been a time since the boys came into my life that I'd had a moment alone with him, and I certainly hadn't made any efforts to make that happen.  But then there we were in a concrete cellar with the purpose of transforming it into something more comfortable, few words being passed between us.  That's when it dawned on me that I might not have another opportunity like this anytime soon.


He grunted in reply, obviously focused on his task.

"There's something I should tell you while I have the chance.  I mean, I think you should know."  I paused and noticed my hand was shaking as it cleaned an area of a wall.  I was scared shitless.

"What is it?" he mumbled.  He didn't look away from his work, but it seemed to me he was apprehensive about what I was about to deliver.

"Uhh, well I don't really know how to preface it.  It's kind of a...um...  Well.  It's just something you should know."

He turned and glared impatiently, perhaps trying not to lose his patience all together.  But not trying too hard.  "Well?  What should I know?"

I was intimidated by his irritable reaction.  My mouth went dry, and I had to clear my throat.  Twice.  "You should know...I'm gay.  That's all."  My voice quivered with fear.

Dad stared in silence for only a brief moment, then averted his gaze.  He was obviously uncomfortable.  I only hoped he wasn't angry.  But I didn't know what else he was or wasn't, because he didn't respond.  Not a word.  He continued working while I stared at him.

"Aren't you going to say anything?" I asked timidly.

"What am I supposed to say?" he asked curtly.

"I don't know.  What you're thinking, I guess."

"Well I don't know what I'm supposed to do about it."

"You're not supposed to do anything.  I just wanted to tell you."

"Well now you've told me."

I could see this conversation was going nowhere.  I turned back to my own work with blurred vision.  I fought those tears hard.  No way was I going to cry in front of my dad over this.  The tears insisted on coming still, and I felt like a big baby.  I evened my breathing enough to speak.  "I need a drink.  Want anything?"


I didn't look at him as I climbed out of there and raced toward the house.  I was bawling before I even reached my room.  I was really glad no one was there to see me hug and drown my pillow while laying in a fetal position on my bed.  Though I wouldn't have minded if Jordan were that pillow.

I didn't remain there long.  The cry was heavy and intense, but short.  After washing my face a few times, I found something to drink and returned to the cellar.  Dad was still working, lips pursed tightly, looking quite constipated if you ask me.  Oddly enough, I felt a little braver and a little less intimidated.  I returned to my work as well and decided not to speak again.  I waited to see if he would break the silence.

Finally he did.  We'd worked at least half an hour in complete silence.  I was losing heart, wondering if he intended to never speak to me again.  I was never more glad to hear his voice.

"I tried to teach you to be a man.  What the hell did I do wrong?"

His words stung in my chest.  I ceased working and turned fully toward him.  "You did teach me to be a man."

"How can you call yourself a man and do...those sort of things?"

"I assume you mean having sex with another man?"  The mere mention of it, I could tell, bothered him.  "I can call myself a man because I try to do what's right, I'm responsible with my things and my money, and because I take care of the makeshift family I have.  I thought that's what you always taught me a man was.  I also hold down a job, I go to school and get good grades, and I never get in any kind of trouble.  What more do you want from me?"

"This ain't about what I want from you."

"Seems to me it is," I went on, feeling a tad more brave.  "You want me to be a certain way, and I'd give anything in the world to please you.  But I can't change this about myself.  I don't expect you to join any gay pride marches or anything.  I was just hoping you'd love me anyway.  I didn't tell you before because I feared you'd react like this.  I would have never told you, except...  Except I have a boyfriend now."

"Oh Jesus," he sighed, turning toward the wall and putting a hand on his hip, like he was trying to catch his breath or something.  He turned back around momentarily.  "I ain't comfortable with this.  It's just not how I was raised.  People shouldn't choose that kind of lifestyle."

"You think I chose this?  Shit, who in their right mind would choose a life like this when there's so much hate out there toward it?  I didn't choose to be gay anymore than you chose to be straight.  It's just how we are.  And I have to try to make the best of it."

"You're not blaming us for it?"  He sounded surprised.  "I thought they always say it's the parents' fault."

"No, Dad.  This isn't your fault!  It is what it is.  No blame is necessary."

"Does your mom know about this?"

"Yeah, she knows.  She confronted me about it the other day.  I asked her not to tell you so that I could."

Dad sighed, apparently trying to make sense of everything.  "It would be hard on me...if people knew.  Like the fellas I work with.  You understand if I don't tell 'em," he said hopefully.

"I hardly tell anyone myself.  People around here aren't so welcome to the idea.  If I ever settle down with someone, I probably won't even live here."

Dad nodded, looking relieved.  He acted like he was going to return to his work, but then suddenly faced me again.  "I do...still love you."  I knew without a doubt he had difficulty saying that.  I couldn't remember ever hearing him say that to me in any form whatsoever.  "You're still my son.  I just ain't used to this."

"I understand."  I actually thought I might start crying again.  "That means a lot to me."

There was a long pause in our conversation, during which we both returned to our tasks.  But I suddenly realized there was more information I hadn't shared.  "Oh.  I almost forgot.  I might as well tell you now.  Landon and Noah are gay, too."

Dad turned, gaping at me.  "Are you kidding me?"

"No, I'm not kidding.  I think I've been put in their lives for a reason.  They're, uh, boyfriends with each other.  They have strict instructions not to display physical affection in front of you."

Dad looked like he was going to have a stroke.  "How come none of you are...you know...feminine like?"

"Effeminate?  Dad, not all gay people are the same.  We're regular people just like you."

"I know, I know.  I'm sorry.  I just never thought...  At any rate, I'm glad you're not.  Feminine, that is."

I had to chuckle.  "I'm more like you than either of us are willing to admit."

He snorted and retrieved measuring tape from his tool belt.  "Who's your fella, then?"  It seemed easier for him to work and talk at the same time, if he had to talk.

"It's Jordan."

"The high school kid?!" he asked incredulously.

I laughed.  "He's only two years younger than I."

He merely shook his head and sighed yet again.  "I ain't gonna know what to say to those kids."

"Just treat 'em like normal.  They're good kids, and they love you.  They might be interested in different things than you, but that might be so even if they were straight."

"I suppose that's right," he murmured.  "What's the little one got to say about all this?"

"Nicholas?  Well, it doesn't seem to bother him.  He loves us unconditionally.  I don't know which way he'll end up yet.  Doesn't really matter to me."

"I've been thinking the boys should call me 'Pop'.  What do you think of that?"

I grinned.  "That's awesome.  Gram and Pop.  They'll like that."  The fact that he suggested that, even after all I had told him, meant the world to me.

As if on cue, we heard a flow of voices trickle down the stairs.  In a few moments, Nicholas appeared first, followed by everyone else.

"What're you doing?" Nicky asked, rooting himself to my side.

"We're cleaning up the place.  Gonna make it more like the basement in the house."

"How come?"

I shrugged.  "I don't know, actually.  I was just doing what I was told."

"Oh, I meant to tell you.  Your mom and I decided on a different plan for rebuilding."  Mom stood there smirking but said nothing.

"What kind of different plan?" I asked with trepidation.

"No more upstairs apartment.  It's too impractical.  Instead, we're gonna build sort of like a guest house.  I figure with the space we got, we can build three bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, living room and laundry room.  Since we're on the corner, we might even be able to build a garage at the side driveway, where your mom and I park.  If we did that, we could gain access to your place and our place through that garage."

"What do you mean 'your place and our place'?" I asked, becoming excited.

"Just what I said.  If you think you can afford the utilities, we'll let you and the boys have the place."  Predictably, this statement immediately induced excited talk between the boys.  "It's gonna be a two-car garage, but we'll add a space for you to park next to it.  And if you want to put in the work, I'll help you build a carport over that space.  Most of the rest of the work we're gonna have done professionally.  Insurance is giving us a good sum."

"That's terrific!  Thanks, y'all!  I'll make it work somehow.  If I can't get enough hours at the YCC, I'll pick up another job somewhere.  No way we can pass this up!"

"You rock, Mr. Taylor!" exclaimed Landon, making everyone laugh.

"How about you call me 'Pop'.  Greyson says that's a good name.  What do you think, boys?"

Their reaction was as enthusiastic as it had been with Gram.  Everyone loved it, and I think it helped us all feel even more like a family.  I, for one, was ecstatic.  I knew Dad was trying very hard to accept the facts in front of him, even if he didn't understand them.  That's all I could have hoped for.  I actually considered it a small miracle.

Before long, I began to wonder how much good karma a person can have come his way.  On Tuesday when I worked again, I approached Gloria at work to see how many hours I could squeeze in after classes each day in the fall.

"Grey," she started, puckering her lips and twisting them from side to side.  She did that a lot when she was thinking something through.  "Let me throw somethin' at ya and see how it grabs ya."

"Okay," I said slowly.

"I got an Assistant Manager's position open.  If ya want it."  I waited for more info.  She gave none.

"Me?  I've barely been here two months."

"I think you got what it takes," she stated simply.  "Full time, nice raise, and you'd have most weekends off."

I drew a deep breath and exhaled very slowly.  "I can't give up school."

She shrugged.  "Take night classes."  She was very matter-of-fact.  I hadn't even considered night classes, but already I was liking the idea.

"I could definitely use the money.  Can I check the night classes schedule and then let you know?"

"Sure thing, sweetie.  I just need to know by the end of the month.  You're one of the best workers I got.  I hope you'll say yes."

I was feeling really good about myself after that.  And when my phone rang a little while later, I was soon after on good karma overload.

"Grey?  Sheila Henderson."

"Hi, Sheila.  Got any news for me?"  I hadn't heard word one from her in several days.

"As a matter of fact, I have great news for you.  You are officially a foster dad."

"YES!"  I drew much attention to myself as I punched the air after yelling.  "Sorry," I said into the phone.  "That's exciting!  Have you told Landon?"

"No, I haven't.  I thought you might want to.  I can have him moved to your place this evening, unless that's too soon."

"Gosh, no!  The sooner the better!  I don't think he even has very many things at the Stouts' anymore.  He can be moved in no time."

"Wonderful!  I'd like to come by your place to make sure he's settled all right.  Will five o’clock give you enough time?"

"Plenty.  I'll see you then."  I hung up and danced around for a minute or two.  I know I looked like a right fool, and I didn't care a bit.

I decided not to call Landon, because I wanted to tell him in person.  He had possession of my car, and all three boys showed up at four when my shift ended.  I took over the driver's seat and adopted a very solemn expression.  "Boys, before we go home, I have to take Landon to the Stouts'."  As I expected, all three of them offered whines and groans.

"But why?" Noah asked.

"I'm sorry, guys, it's out of my hands.  These are Mrs. Henderson's orders."

"Awww man!" Landon whined, folding his arms over his chest.  "This sucks.  They don't even care that I stay with you!  They still get their stupid money.  So why should I have to ever go there again?"

"Well I assume you want the rest of your clothes and things."

There was a brief silence, during which Landon was trying to figure out my meaning.  "But I don't have anything there.  It's all at your house."

"You mean you took from there everything you own?" I asked.

"Yeah..."  He drew out the word, furrowing his brow.  He was still trying to figure me out.  "They needed the space, and since I wasn't there most of the time, they gave another kid my bed and the drawer space I had.  It ain't like I have much anyway."

"Hmm," I muttered cryptically.

"What?" he asked.

"So all of your stuff is at your house then."

"No, I just told-  Wait.  You mean...?"

"You know what's weird?"

"What?" he asked again, confused.

"It's weird that I'm only nineteen, and I have a sixteen year old son."  I can only imagine what someone would've thought if they saw and heard the eruption in my car at that moment.  We all yelled and screamed and hollered for joy.  And that continued even after we parked and jumped out of the car.  This time I had three boys to dance around with.  Then Mom came out to see what all the commotion was about, and she celebrated with us, even if she didn't dance around.

Sheila only stayed a couple of minutes after arriving, then the night was all ours.  Jordan and Dad both arrived within seconds of each other, which was about ten minutes after Sheila left.  Then we got to relive the joy all over again as we shared it with them.

But as I feared, too much good karma had been doled out to me.  I had no choice, then, but to expect some negative energy.  "I have some news, too," Jordan told us.  "Good news and bad news, actually."

I frowned, not wanting to ask.  Nicholas did it for me.  "What the good news?"

"The good news is, I got the tennis scholarship I applied for in the Spring.  I'll be playing varsity tennis with a generous scholarship."

"What's the bad news?" I asked.  Even before he answered I could feel my gut wrenching.

"It's for UT Austin. I'll be leaving next summer not long after graduation to attend tennis camp until the fall semester begins."

"Well, I suppose that was inevitable," I mumbled.  "Great opportunity for you, though.  I should say congratulations, instead of wallowing in misery.  I'm happy for you.  Really.  Can't get much better than UT."

"Hey, we still have a year together.  Let's try not to think about the future for now."

Because everyone was present, and because my emotions were high at that moment, I kept my thoughts to myself.  I wondered if it was even worth it to continue our relationship, given his impending departure.  In fact, I was already wishing I hadn't been foolish enough to make our relationship exclusive.  My first boyfriend ever, and he would be gone in a year.

"You're right," I said instead.  "Can you stay for dinner?"

"No, sorry.  I haven't even told my parents the news yet.  Or Corey.  I want to go show them my acceptance letter."

I nodded, and despite my dad being present, I gave Jordan a kiss on the cheek.  "See you later, then."

I did a well enough job of acting normal throughout the rest of the evening.  I was happy for Landon's sake, that he officially belonged to me now.  I didn't have to fake a bit of that.  It just took some energy to keep it up for the entire evening.

Later that night, though, when it was just Nicholas and me in bed, I wallowed deeply in self-pity.  Nicky was sweet enough to hold me and offer tender caresses to soothe me while I bemoaned the fact I was a lonesome loser when it came to love.  He was very patient and loving, though I must have been a pitiful sight to behold.  Pathetic, even.  Eventually I fell asleep being spooned by him and snuggled securely in his arms.

I found it really ironic that Jordan had been the one to push for a relationship, yet I seemed to end up much more attached than he.  How could he be so nonchalant about leaving his boyfriend after only a year?  I sure wasn't stupid enough to think he would be faithful to me down in Austin, the gay wonderland of Texas.  The more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself we should end it now, before it became even more difficult to separate.  Except I'd never had to break up with anyone before and was pretty anxious about how it might go.

I didn't see him for a few days after his big news.  In the meantime, I had other things to focus on.  Like learning if I could take all the necessary classes in the evenings this coming semester.  Sure enough, I could attend classes from 7 to 10pm Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 7-9pm Wednesdays and Fridays.  I would still be at full time status and have enough time for full time work.  That didn't leave me much time for the kids, but I didn't see that I had any other choice.  And anyway, we'd have our weekends free together.

As soon as I could, I signed up for those evening classes.  And I told Gloria right away that I'd take the job.  That made her day.  I hadn't even told anyone else about the prospect.  But since it was practically written in blood now, I told them first chance I got.  I think my dad was happiest about the news, knowing I would be able to afford my bills and the kids.  Granted, it wasn't a great amount.  But it was a heck of a lot more than I made before.  Dad and I even agreed my allowance would cease when I started my new job, and still I would be making considerably more than I was.  I hoped I could even start saving for Landon's college tuition, which was only a couple of years away.

I also made a point to go see Granny.  I had intended to go alone, but I should've known better.  There were only three places in the world I could go where Nicholas didn't go with me: school, work, and the bathroom.  And even those were negotiable.  So the two of us popped in to see her, without Nicholas even knowing why I was there.  He joined me on the recliner; he had no intention of being left out of our conversation.

"You didn't come here just to see Granny.  So what's on your mind?" she asked sweetly.

"Hey, it's always good to see you, even if I do have something to see you about," I smiled.  "But you're right.  I wanted to talk about next month, when school starts again.  I've worked out what my schedule will be.  I got offered a full time Assistant Manager's position at the Youth Center, Monday through Friday.  I'm still going back to school, only evening classes this time, also Monday through Friday."

"Goodness!  That's wonderful!  You're going to be a busy young man."

"Oh, yes ma'am.  But most of my weekends will be free to be with the kids.  Also, I’ll get a pretty good raise with my new position.  Because of that, I don't want to accept money from you any longer.  I could start the new job as early as next week.  I'll make more than enough."

"Darlin', that's awful sweet of you.  But it wouldn't be right if didn't give you something-"

I cut her off, shaking my head.  "I'm resolute about this, Granny.  The boys and you are family to me.  I only accepted money from you before because I needed to.  If you give anyone money, give it to the boys directly."

"Yeah!" Nicholas interjected.  I whacked him lightly in the head.

"Well, your mind is obviously made up."  Granny folded her hands in her lap, taking a break from crocheting.

"Yes it is.  I wanted to ask you about something else, though.  I...  Well, sometimes I fear I'm monopolizing their time and taking it away from you.  Or that I'm overstepping my boundaries by taking over responsibility for them."

"Oh," she snorted, waving a dismissive hand at me.

"I mean it.  I want you to tell me if this isn't acceptable.  But I wondered if...  Geez, I hope you don't get angry with me."

"Go ahead, darlin'.  I'm listening.  I couldn't be angry with you."

"Well, as it turns out, the tornado hitting our place was a good thing for us.  Mom and Dad are building a small guest house where the garage was.  It'll be bigger than the apartment was, and they're going to let us live in it.  Three bedrooms and everything.  And with my new job and all, if it would be easier for you and if we still visited regularly, I wanted to suggest...um...well, that they live with me permanently."  I held my breath, waiting for Granny's reaction.  Nicholas, in the meantime, stared at me with wide eyes.

"Oh darlin'," Granny began, but got choked up.  She cried openly for just a couple of moments.  "You know that I love my boys.  More than anything.  But we both know that I can't take care of them like I used to.  They really do need to be with you."

Nicholas climbed out of the recliner and went to Granny, who cried a little more.  He sat with her and hugged her tenderly, not even saying anything.  It made all the difference to Granny, I'm sure.

"They still need your love.  You've been the only constant in their lives until now.  But you also deserve to take care of yourself and be taken care of by others.  I know your neighbors do a lot for you.  But we can too.  I hope you know I would do anything you asked."

"Grey, the only thing I need you to do is love my boys and take care of them.  I knew I was doing the right thing when I put you in my will.  The good Lord meant for you to find them and fall in love with them."

I breathed deeply, mostly so I wouldn't begin to tear up myself.  "Nicky, hon, how do you feel about living with me for good?"

To his credit, Nicholas was very respectful of Granny's feelings.  "Well I still love Granny, but I want things to be easier for her, too.  As long as we get to visit her, I would love living with you all the time."

Granny stole some more hugs from her baby boy before letting him go.  "Then if Noah agrees, that's what we'll do," I stated.

On the way home, only then did Nicholas show his excitement about living with me.  "I can't wait to tell Noah!"  He was literally bouncing in the passenger seat.  "You're like a dad, brother and best friend all rolled into one.  And we got a new set of grandparents!  Life is awesome!"  I never got tired of seeing them get excited.  Especially when I was instrumental in causing that excitement.

When I passed our house by, Nicholas's head followed it until it was behind us.  "Where we going?"

"Call Gram," I said, handing him my cell.  "Ask her if she wants me to bring Sonic home for everyone.  If she's already started dinner, we'll just get drinks."

He gasped and dialed her as fast as he could.  "Please don't be cooking tonight," he mumbled to himself.  "Gram!" he practically yelled into the phone.  "Don't start cooking!  Grey wants to buy us Sonic!"

I couldn't help but be amused, but I whispered to him not to yell.  And fortunately for Nicholas, he got the privilege of taking everyone's order.  Well, Mom and Dad's, anyway.  The boys almost always got the same thing every time.

After ordering into our personal speaker menu, I relaxed in my seat and began caressing Nicholas' head.  "You're getting a haircut before school starts."  He shrugged, not caring one way or the other.  He was apparently just enjoying the affection.  "Guess what?  I broke up with Jordan today."

Nicholas gasped.  "Why?  When?  At work?  Tell me the whole story.  Every detail."

I laughed.  "Yeah, I saw him at the Center.  He came in like he does sometimes, after playing racquetball.  I was finished with work and was swimming laps.  I got out so I could talk to him."

"What did you say?" he interrupted.

"Would you let me tell my story?  I'm getting there.  We said 'hi' and all that.  Then I said, 'Can we talk for a minute?'  He said, 'Sure.  What's up?'  We sat down on folding chairs, and I said, 'I think we should break up.'  I didn't really know how to break it gently.  I've never done it before.  So I just came out with it, just like that."

"What did he say?"

I chuckled and swatted his head and immediately went back to caressing it.  "He looked shocked.  I thought he would be expecting it.  But he said, 'Why?'  I said, 'Because you're gonna leave.'  He said, 'Not for another year!'  He said it just like that, all dramatic like.  I don't think I've ever seen him that dramatic.  He's always so calm and collected."

"I know!" Nicholas interrupted again.  "He's all Joe Cool, like 'Hey man, how's it going.  I think I love you.  Wanna sixty-nine?'"

I was going to comment on what a great impression that was, until that last bit.  "Holy shit!  Oh my god!  How did you-...  You were awake?!  Oh my god!"

The expression on his face told me he hadn't meant to divulge that information.  "Oops," he murmured.  "I didn't want you to know.  But at least now I know what sixty-nine means."

I banged my head on the steering wheel a few times.  "I'm such a bad role model," I moaned.

"I didn't mind.  Honestly.  You needed to relieve some of your sexual tension."

I lifted my head and gaped at this twelve year old.  "Where did you learn that?!"

He shrugged.  "School, I guess.  I'm not a little kid, Grey.  I'm twelve.  I'm going through puberty, for Pete's sake.  I need to know more than you've taught me already.  I can handle it."

"But...but but...  Noooo!  You're supposed to stay innocent until you're thirty!"

"Now who's the one being dramatic?" he quipped.

I lay back in my seat and whined.  "Life is so beautiful before puberty.  Everything is exciting, and you can hug people without worrying about awkward sex stuff.  And you can run around naked and hardly anyone cares.  I wanted to protect you from the heartbreak of puberty."  I looked at Nicholas just in time to see him roll his eyes.

"Well I think you should be honest with me about everything, including your sex life.  Who else do you talk to?  No one, that's who.  You have to trust me for this relationship to work."

I balked at him, speechless for just a moment.  "What are you, my brother or my boyfriend?"

"Hey, hate the game, not the player."

"What does that even mean?!" I cried.

"I dunno.  I just thought it sounded good."

I burst out laughing.  I couldn't help it.  Our whole conversation was both amusing and ridiculous.  "I just...  I don't even know what to say now."

"Finish your story before our food is done and we have to go home."

"Well shit.  Where was I?"

"He was being dramatic."

"Right.  He said, 'Not for another year!'  I said, 'But you're still leaving!  You can't say you love someone and then leave them, even if it's a year later.'  He said, 'But I'll come back!  I'll be here every summer probably.'  I said, 'Probably isn't good enough.  And neither are summers only.  You're gonna be in gay heaven.  You're young, good-looking, and everyone will be after you.'  He said, 'You wouldn't trust me to be faithful?'  I said, 'No way!  And I wouldn't expect you to be.'  He said, 'Come on, Grey.  Please give this a chance.  We could make it work!'  I said, 'How?  You'll be in Austin, and I'll be in BFE.  You can't build a relationship long-distance.  You just can't.'  He got tears in his eyes after that.  I swear to God, I nearly gave in right then.  I never even thought I would make him cry.  He said, 'You won't change your mind?'  I said, 'No.  Sorry.'  And he got up and left.  He was already gone when I showered and changed."

Nicholas turned sad eyes on me and held my hand sweetly.  "I have to admit, I was usually jealous of Jordan.  But he might've been good for you."

I sighed heavily.  "Well it doesn't matter, does it?  Not when he's gonna be a fuck ton of miles away."

He shrugged and simply held my hand in silence.  I became lost in thought until the carhop arrived with our food.  We were silent on the way home, too, until I was pulling into the driveway.  "What's BFE?" he asked suddenly.

"Butt fucking Egypt," I replied dryly.  He cackled, and immediately his voice cracked.  "Fucking puberty," I mumbled under my breath.

Life after these incidences seemed to speed up, and I became a lot more task oriented.  I began full time work, and my free time was mostly devoted to working on the guest house.  At least the parts of it that the professionals weren't handling.  Dad and I decided the best place for the carport was on the south side of the apartment, rather than the north side where the garage was being built.  There was more room over there, and a basketball goal would be perfect there, given the great expanse of driveway along the side of the main house.

I also began to do some shopping for the place, storing the stuff in my current bedroom in the meantime.  I bought another desktop computer for the kids, but I got me my own laptop.  I'd wanted one for ages, and now I could finally afford a good one.  I also purchased another television and DVD player, even before buying anything else for the house.  I was soon glad of that, because I got rather overwhelmed with the many, many items I found I needed.  If I hadn't have gotten the TV already, I might have decided not to spend the money on another one for a while.  It's amazing how many things a person uses in a house.  Not necessarily on a daily basis, but things that are required nonetheless.  My shopping list grew like Pinocchio's nose.  Sheets and bedspreads, pillows, household cleaning supplies, a thousand and one bathroom items, cookware and dinnerware, curtains and blinds, hangers for the closet, laundry detergent, and dozens of other things populated my list.  And that didn't even include the big things like a refrigerator, beds, a stove, dressers, a couch, chairs, tables, a dishwasher, and a washing machine and dryer.  If my parents hadn't been there to help me make a lot of the decisions, I think I very well could've popped a fuse in my head.  They'd have to feed me through a tube and wipe up my drool every few minutes.

The house was built before school started, but only just.  That left us still moving in when the first day of school rolled around.  That is, the first day of school for the boys.  They began on a Thursday, and I didn't have to go until the following Monday.  I was grateful for that, since it gave me the extra time I needed to complete the moving process.

Our bedrooms were considerably smaller than what we had in Mom and Dad's house.  That didn't bother me one bit.  They were all ours!  Not to mention I didn’t have to see nor hear Landon and Noah doing their thing at night in bed, because now they had their own space.  We spent all of Saturday fixing everything to our liking and deciding where everything should go.  And I learned that we all had different strengths that complemented each other.  Nicholas and I were better at practicality and organizing things, while Landon was super at making things look good and creating fantastic decor displays.  Noah had a great eye for perception and depth and knew the best ways to arrange furniture.  Working together like that, we had all of Sunday to rest.  I needed it, too.  Life was about to get super busy for me.

Only a few weeks into school, Noah and Landon wanted to invite friends to the house for a sleepover.  Noah seemed to make friends easily on account of having a Junior friend already.  I felt pretty sure that he wouldn't have any anger problems this year, too.  I couldn't have been happier about that.  As the weekend approached in which we would have a house full of high schoolers, I suggested to Nicholas he invite a couple of friends over as well.  I was actually a little worried he was neglecting his friends in favor of spending his time solely with me.  He told me he'd consider the sleepover idea.

Our place would be populated with teenagers practically as soon as school let out Friday, before I was even off work.  So Thursday night, I sat down with Landon and Noah to dole out a few basic rules.

"How many boys are spending the night tomorrow?" I began.  We'd gone over the details already, but I wanted to double check everything.

"Three, not counting us," Landon answered.  "Pete, Dane and Will.  Pete's a Senior, Dane's a Freshman, and Will's a Junior.  We invited Sam, but he has to work this weekend."

"Okay.  Are any of them bringing a car?"

"Pete is.  He's the only one who has a car."

"Okay.  Let me tell you my rules.  You don't follow them, I'll send them home.  Even if it's four in the morning.  And then I won't allow anymore sleepovers.  Agreed?"

"Agreed."  Landon often spoke for both of them, but I required a verbal response from both of them this time.


"Agreed," he echoed.

"All right.  If you go anywhere, I want to know it.  Either call me or text me, or come tell me if I'm here."  I was really glad Landon already had a cell phone, which I was now paying for.  I realized I should think about getting Noah and Nicholas their own phones as well.  "I'm sure you know they have a curfew here for kids under eighteen, which is at midnight.  I want you all here by twelve-fifteen at the latest.  And none of you are to leave again for any reason after that, until I say otherwise or unless they have to go home.  Good so far?"

"Yep," they chorused in stereo.

"Good.  Also, I feel obligated to say there better not be any smoking or drinking whatsoever, whether you're here or somewhere else.  And no drugs.  If Pete drives you around, he better drive responsibly.  If he doesn't drive responsibly, I don't care where you are or what time it is, you get out of his car and call me to come get you."

"Pete's a real good driver," offered Landon.  "He won't do anything stupid."

"Yeah, well, all teenagers think they're good drivers.  I just want you to use common sense.  You're also welcome to take Nicholas with you if you want, but you don't have to.  He can stay with Gram and Pop until I get home.  Okay, what have I forgotten?"

Landon shrugged.  "I think you pretty much covered everything.  We'll be good.  Promise."

"I know you will.  But I don't know the other boys.  I want you to make sure they know the rules, okay?"  I took a couple of twenty dollar bills out of my wallet and handed each of them one.  "That should be enough for the weekend."

"Wow, thanks Grey," Landon breathed in awe.  "The most I ever got was five dollars at a time.  Usually I got nothin'."

"Yeah, well, I can afford it now.  That reminds me, I've been meaning to start y'all on an allowance."

They both gasped and grinned really big.  "No way!"

I chuckled.  "Yes way.  The state gives me money for you, Landon, but I make enough to buy you the things you need.  So I thought I'd use that money to give all three of you an allowance.  And I want to help you learn how to manage it, like my dad taught me."

"How much do we get?" Noah asked excitedly.

"Twenty bucks a week for each of you."

Both of their jaws hit the floor, and one of them squeaked.  "You're shittin' us!" Landon challenged.

"I'm serious," I laughed.  "I refuse to use any of the state's money for myself.  It's all for you guys.”

"Damn!" he said, still balking.  "You're the best foster dad ever!"

"I know," I grinned.  "So consider that your first installment.  I'm also gonna leave forty dollars in an envelope by the door in case you want to come in early and order pizza.  Delivery closes at midnight.  Or if you wanna buy burgers for everyone or whatever.  But that money is for food only, nothing else.  If you go to the movies or anything, you use your own money.  Capiche?  And if you buy food, buy something for Nicholas, too.  I don't think he's invited anyone over."

"We don't mind if he hangs out with us," Noah said.  "I'm pretty sure the guys won't mind, either."

"That's awesome.  He looks up to you guys, you know."

"He does?" Noah asked, tilting his head sideways.  "He says you're his best friend."

"That may be so, but can't you tell by the way he acts toward you?  He thinks the world of you, Noah.  You too, Landon.  Remember how he waited on you after your car accident?  I never told him to do a thing for you.  He adores you both.  He'd be thrilled to be included in your activities, I bet ya."  Both of them appeared to be humbled by that information.

"Listen, I'm off to bed.  Don't stay up too late.  I'll see you in the morning."  They stood with me, and I received a hug and kiss from each of them.  That, of course, made me feel incredible.

Nicholas was sitting on the edge of our bed when I entered the bedroom.  He was already undressed but hadn't even turned down the covers yet.  "You heard everything, huh?" I smiled knowingly.

He nodded eagerly.  "So I get twenty bucks, too, right?  Can I really hang out with them all night long?"

I handed him a twenty as I began to undress.  "Yeah, if you want to.  I wasn't sure if you would.  And if the other boys don't mind you hanging around."

"I prefer hanging out with older boys.  I don't relate to kids my age very well."  He immediately put his money in a glass jar that sat on our dresser.  For some reason, that made me think of the box Noah had made me for my birthday, which in turn reminded me of the painting Nicholas had created.  Both of them were lost in the tornado, I realized.  I was suddenly very sad.

"Hey, Nicky?  Do you think you could paint me another picture?  You know, like the one you made for my birthday?  That fucking tornado stole it from me."

"Oh man!  I forgot about that!  Of course, hon, I'll make you another one."

Despite my sadness, a grin forced its way onto my face.  "You just called me 'hon'.  That was possibly the cutest thing ever."

"I am the cutest thing ever," he declared.  "Come to bed.  We have a long day tomorrow."

I giggled and crawled under the covers with him, chastely kissing his mouth in the process.  "I love you, little one."

"Love you, too, hon."