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 copyright 2005 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.
A copy of the story has been assigned to the Nifty Archives under the terms of its submission agreement. Comments on the story are appreciated and may be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org
All the chapters of Joel may also be found on my website at www.gvtc.com/~tedlouis/. The chapters are posted in TXT and HTML formats.
The next few days were rather chaotic. Ethel's funeral was scheduled for Saturday morning which meant that I would have to get Peter to take over coaching the team's game. Although he hadn't had much experience with baseball he had learned a lot over the course of the summer and he did know how to work with kids. I also call Chris' coach to let him know that Chris wouldn't be able to play on Saturday.
We planned to leave for Houston on Friday afternoon in the van. I didn't think that Hildy or the boys were up to flying again, at least not for a while. I'm not sure that I was either.
One thing that I did get accomplished before we left for Houston was to contact Cindi Sessions and convince her to make Bill and Karen Boise the temporary foster parents for Benny. She wasn't hard to convince but she did have to stretch a few CPS rules to make it happen. When she heard what the foundation had in mind it made it easier for her to justify the placement.
Samson would have liked to come with us but that was not going to happen. The boys said their goodbyes to him and then I put him in the fenced area of the yard. It had shelter for him to get out of the sun and I made sure that he had plenty of food to last until we got back on Saturday. There was also plenty of fresh water available that was refreshed automatically every two hours.
I made reservations at one of the hotels that offered multiple bedroom suites that was not too far from the Levin's home. I was thankful when we arrived that they offered bellhop service. It looked like we had packed for a month instead of a couple of days. I was grateful for assistance carrying the luggage into our rooms. The bellboy was equally happy with the large tip I gave him for his help.
We had arrived shortly after six in the evening and naturally the boys were hungry. I made them wait until I had called the Levin house. I spoke briefly with Darcie and found out that the viewing for Ethel was scheduled for this evening from 7:30 to 9:30. I got directions for the funeral home before we left to go eat.
After loading everyone into the van we took off for an all you can eat buffet I knew about that was just down the street a mile or so. Thankfully it was not crowded when we got there. Hildy and I had a hard time convincing them that they didn't have to take everything on their plate the first time through the line. They finally understood that they could come back as many times as they wanted so they would have an opportunity to sample everything if they wanted to.
I helped TJ fill his plate and I do mean fill. I was sure that his eyes were bigger than his stomach but once again I was proven wrong when it all disappeared and he went back for dessert. I tried to be restrained but did allow myself to have a small slice of cherry pie. At least I didn't cover my dessert with soft serve ice cream like the boys did.
When we got back to the van I inspected the boys' clothes for food stains and was pleasantly surprised that all of their supper had made it into their mouths and not onto their shirt fronts. I explained to them that we were going to the funeral home to see Grandma Ethel before we went back to the hotel. I didn't know how the boys were going to react to seeing Ethel in her casket.
I shouldn't have worried. The boys were perfect gentlemen as we approached the casket. I did have to lift TJ so that he could see in the casket and when he reached out to touch her I whispered to him not to do it. Darcie and Mel were there along with Eric. Alan was not there. Each of the boys gave a hug to Darcie as we went through the family line.
As TJ approached Darcie he said, "Daddy said Grandma Ethel is in heaven with my momma."
"Yes, she is," Darcie said choking back the lump in her throat but with a tear running down her cheek. Giving TJ a squeeze and a kiss on the forehead she added, "I love you my little one."
I put my arms around Eric when I reached him. All I could think of to say to him was that I was sorry. It seemed to be enough. His eyes were reddened from crying but there were no tears in his eyes now. I think there is always something special between an only son and his mother. We embraced for a while before I followed the boys to the side of the room where JR and Bran were sitting. They seemed to brighten as we approached them. I'm sure it was not a pleasant thing for them to sit quietly in a room full of mourners.
Alan walked in with two older women as we were talking to JR and Bran. He made his way to the casket with them and then went to Eric and Darcie. I went up to him after a minute or so to pay my respects. He introduced the two women to me as Ethel's sisters, Edith and Edna. Although he didn't say, they looked to be older sisters.
Turning to Eric I said, "Look, why don't I take JR and Bran with me back to the hotel. It's going to be a long evening for them sitting around here."
He looked at Alan and nodded. I told him which hotel we were staying at and he said that he would pick them up around ten. All the boys were enthusiastic about that.
As we walked to the van Joel whispered to me, "Can we stop and get a snack? Bran is hungry."
"And I suppose you're not," I said giving his shoulder a squeeze. "You know it's only been about an hour since we ate."
"Yeah, I know" he giggled.
We stopped at the Dairy Queen and everyone decided they wanted banana splits except for Hildy and me. We settled for a small cone. They put two of the staff in an assembly line putting together the seven high calorie concoctions. Joel saw to it that TJ got his banana split first. Away from the funeral home all the boys were more their animated selves as they waited for their treat.
Hildy and I just shook our heads as the boys laughed and talked and ate their treat. Even though Bran was a couple of years older than Joel he still seemed to fit in like he was a member of the family. He seemed to be very solicitous of JR. I had seen him act like that towards Benny, but since Benny wasn't around he seemed to know that JR needed someone to lean on. It's amazing the change that has occurred in him since we first found him sitting against the wall of that apartment about three months ago. That sullen, withdrawn and scared little boy has blossomed into a confident, outgoing teenager.
I wondered what was going to happen to him now that Ethel was gone. Alan may not want to foster him without Ethel. I knew Alan had deep feelings for Bran, I just didn't know whether he would be able to manage a young teen and deal with his grief at the same time. One thing was for sure; I didn't want or need another boy to take care of no matter what my feelings for him were.
When we got back to the hotel the boys sprawled out on the floor in front of the TV and watched some mind numbing program. I don't know how much they really saw of the program because of all the chatter that was going on among them.
Within a half an hour TJ had climbed up on the couch and snuggled under my arm. I guess the day had finally caught up with him. I brushed the hair off his forehead and gave him a quick peck. "Are you tired, son? Do you want to go to bed?" I asked.
"No," he said with a yawn.
"Well, you just sit here with dad. Eric will be here to pick up JR and Bran in a few minutes and then all of you need to hit the sack."
He didn't make it until Eric arrived. In fact he only lasted a few more minutes before I could tell by his regular breathing that he had fallen asleep. I was tempted to pick him up and put him in bed but decided to wait until after our guests had left. I didn't want him to possibly wake up alone in a strange bed and panic.
It wasn't very long before Eric knocked on the door. I asked Bran to let him in. I didn't want to disturb TJ by jumping up to answer it. Slowly I laid TJ out on the couch and went to Eric. I could tell that he was on the verge of breaking down so I steered him into the kitchenette and sat him down at the table. We talked and I consoled him for maybe ten minutes before he was more in control of himself.
He took Bran and JR and left but not before everyone got their hugs. I walked them out and down to the lobby of the hotel where I again embraced Eric. I'm sure that the few people in the lobby thought it strange, but I didn't care. I was comforting a friend in need.
When I returned to the suite the boys were trying to decide which bed they would take. The suite had two bedrooms. One had two queen size beds and the other a single queen size. Hildy had her own room across the hall. Once the big decision was made I picked up TJ and carried him to the bed that Joel had selected. I decided that it was too late for them to take a shower tonight so they put on their pajamas while I started undressing TJ. Joel helped after he was ready for bed. I was surprised but TJ never woke up with all the wrestling of him we did trying to get his pajamas on.
Since the funeral was at ten I had to get the boys up fairly early in order for them to shower, dress and have breakfast. The latter being the most important to them, I'm sure. When we entered the restaurant in the hotel, the greeter did not seem too happy with the thought that five active boys might disrupt the tranquility of the upscale establishment. She took us to the far corner of the dining area in an attempt to isolate us from the rest of the patrons. I knew what she was doing and was a little bit ticked off but didn't want to create a fuss. After our waiter took our drink order, we decided on the buffet breakfast which would be faster than ordering from the menu.
Hildy and I escorted the boys to the serving line and they began loading their plates. We supervise to make sure that they took a variety of foods rather than a plate filled with just scrambled eggs. I had to help TJ since he was hardly able to see over the edge of the buffet. Their plates were filled to overflowing with nearly everything on the serving line.
The boys' behavior at breakfast was excellent. They were quiet and as well mannered as I could have asked for. Hildy never allowed obnoxious behavior at home so it didn't surprise me that they were well behaved in the restaurant. Our waiter was a young man who appeared to be maybe twenty. He was very attentive to us and particularly the boys. He made sure that they had all the milk and juice that they wanted and even brought a plate of sweet rolls to our table for them.
"Hal," that was the name on his nametag, "I appreciate the service that you've given us. Do all of your customers get this level of service?"
"Well, no," he blushed. "I have five younger brothers and three sisters at home and these boys remind me of them. I miss them. They're back in Tyler."
"Are you going to school in Houston?" I asked.
"Yes, I go to Rice during the day and work three nights and weekends here," Hal said. "My scholarship doesn't quite cover all my expenses."
"You must be a pretty good student to get a scholarship to Rice," I said with renewed respect for this young man. Rice University is considered by many as Harvard on the bayou.
"I do okay," he said again blushing.
Hal finished clearing our table and then brought our check which I signed having it added to our hotel bill. As we stood to leave I shook hands with Hal and slipped him a large tip for his excellent service and wished him good luck with his studies. When he looked at the bill I had slipped him he shook his head in disbelief and when he recovered, thanked me profusely. Hildy and I took the boys back to the room to get ready for the funeral and get our luggage loaded in the van.
The church where the funeral was to be held was only a few blocks from the Levin house. We arrived about a quarter to ten and took our place in the pews. The organist was playing some solemn music on a large pipe organ. Ethel's casket was placed at the front of the church. Many of the people approached the casket as they entered church and before they took their seats. I didn't see the need to do that since we had been to the funeral home the night before and I really didn't want to put the boys through it again.
The service lasted longer than I had anticipated. It was far longer than most protestant services that I had attended over the years. The minister could have put an insomniac to sleep. His voice was a droning monotone. It didn't take long for TJ to become restless. He climbed up on my lap and laid his head on my chest. The twins were fidgeting quietly in the pew. Even Hildy was beginning to get restless. Thankfully the service ended and the ushers led everyone past the casket as we left the church.
I hadn't noticed that Bill and Karen were there with Tony and Benny until we were on our way out of the church. We waited for them in the parking lot because Joel wanted to talk to Tony. Benny was upset and clinging to Karen as they approached us.
"How's he doing?" I asked Karen after everyone had been greeted.
"He's happy to be with his brother," she said, "but he misses his Gram. He doesn't understand what's happened."
"I'm sure it's hard for him. He has been jerked around so many times in the last few months. Hopefully he will have some stability very soon," I said.
We chatted a couple more minutes before we loaded into the van and joined the procession going to the cemetery. I just hoped that the minister would be a bit more dynamic and most of all shorter winded at the grave site. He wasn't. I learned later that he was the associate pastor of the church and was filling in for the head pastor who was on a retreat in Northern Minnesota for a week.
We were invited back to the house after the burial as is the custom. Besides the family, the Boises were the only others there. Hildy immediately went to help Ethel's sisters and Darcie in the kitchen preparing the food. The nine boys went out in the back yard to play and work off some of their pent up energy.
There was so much food. Most of it had been brought by friends and neighbors. There were casseroles of all kinds plus cakes and pies. The women in the kitchen had made what seemed to be a mountain of ham sandwiches and plates of cold cuts. The food hadn't been laid out a minute before there were nine hungry boys rushing into the house. Hildy gave them a stern look and JR quickly led them to the bathrooms to wash their hands.
When Bill laughed I said, "Has she gotten them well trained or what?"
"She certainly has. I think I had better go wash up myself. I wouldn't want her to look at me that way."
The mountain of sandwiches was reduced to a molehill by the time the adults got to it. I sat with Eric as we ate. He was still feeling down but the realization of his mother's death was beginning to sink in. That didn't make the pain any better but it was becoming manageable. When I asked him what was going to happen to Bran, he said that he was going to take him back to Canyon Lake until his aunts left. He thought that they would be staying with Alan all next week to help get Ethel's affairs taken care of and for Alan to have someone of his own age to grieve with.
Joel came and squeezed in beside Eric and me on the couch. I could tell that he was getting tired. "Why don't you go lie down on Benny's bed for a while? We will be leaving in about an hour. Okay?"
"Okay, dad," he said as I gave him a hug.
Turning to Eric I said, "I will be so glad when his chemo therapy is over. It really saps his strength."
I noticed that Tony had snuggled up to Bill and was resting as well. I know that the weakness is part of the price that the boys pay for the treatment to get well but I still get angry that they have to endure it.
Wondering what the rest of the boys were up to I went out to the back yard to check. Mel was there playing with them. It looked like he was having the time of his life. They were throwing a Nerf football around. He made sure that everyone of the boys received their share of the throws. TJ was just getting his turn when I walked out the back door. He made a great catch for a six, almost seven, year-old. He tossed it back to Mel and then he saw me standing there and ran to me.
"Did you see? I caught it! I really did!" he almost yelled as he jumped up into my arms.
"Yes, I saw you. That was a great catch. You're getting good. I'm proud of you," I said giving him a squeeze before I put him down. He ran off with a big smile on his face to play with the other boys.
I watched for a while and then gave Mel a rest. Playing with seven boys can be very wearing. They have a much higher energy level than adults have. I had been throwing the ball to them for maybe ten minutes when Lenny came up to me and asked if they could get a drink.
"Okay, guys, let's take a break and get something to drink. It won't be too long before we have to leave to go back home," I told them. "You need to rest and cool down. It's getting hot out here."
Hildy drew up enough chairs around the kitchen table for the seven boys to sit down while she poured them all a large glass of milk and Darcie set out a heaping plate of assorted cookies. Tony was still sitting beside Bill and leaning his head against Bill's chest looking like he was asleep. Otherwise, I'm sure that he would have been at the table too.
I went to check on Joel in the bedroom. He was lying on the bed but was not asleep when I walked in. "How do you feel now?" I asked sitting on the bed beside him.
"Okay, I guess," he said. "I wish I didn't get tired so easy."
"I know," I said. "Why don't you go into the kitchen? Darcie set out some cookies and if you don't get there soon your brothers will have them all eaten."
That got him up off the bed in no time and he joined the others. Since there was no room for him at the table he hopped up on a stool at the breakfast bar next to Tony, who had been roused from his slumber by the sound of the other boys eating. Hildy placed a smaller platter of cookies in front of them along with their glasses of milk.
It was almost three o'clock by the time we got our goodbyes said and everyone loaded into the van. I made sure that everyone visited the restroom before we started out. I didn't want to have to make a pit stop on the way. I wasn't looking forward to the three hour drive back to our home but I was anxious to get there. "When are you going to come back to Canyon Lake?" I asked Eric as the boys were getting buckled into their seatbelts.
"I think sometime tomorrow after church. I plan to go back to work on Monday. The project I'm working on will take my mind off things and it's also at a critical stage which needs my attention."
"Well, you know I'm here for you if you need anything. Why don't you send JR and Bran over to the house Monday? Tell Mary Jane she can help her sister out taking care of all of the boys. I think JR needs to be with the other boys to help him work through his grieving. Also, plan on staying for supper," I told him before giving him one last hug and getting into the van.
"Thanks, Crane, I appreciate your support," Eric said with just a hint of a tear in his eyes.
The boys waved to their friends until we were out of sight. The traffic on the freeway was heavy until we got past Katy on our way home. I never really liked driving from Houston toward San Antonio. The scenery was not interesting, there were few towns to break up the monotony and worst of all today the sun was shining in through the windshield all the way home. I was always happy when I reached Seguin. It seemed like I was almost home even though it was still close to fifty more miles to go. We made relatively good time and drove up to the gate just under three hours from the time we left.
"Hildy, we're hungry," Larry whined.
"Me too," TJ piped in.
"I don't know what we have in the house to eat that I can fix in a hurry. How about if I call Manfred and see if he will pick up some pizzas for us? How does that sound?" Hildy asked.
"Yea!" was the response from five hungry boys.
While the boys helped me unload the van, Hildy went to phone Manfred. After we were finished with the unloading Hildy gave each of the boys a banana to stave off starvation until the pizzas arrived. With their bananas in hand they all went to see Samson. He was all over them as they released him from the fenced in area. You would have thought that he hadn't seen his boys for weeks instead of a single day. He stayed within reach of at least one boy the rest of the evening.
It was only about forty-five minutes before Manfred arrived with four large pizzas. I just hoped that would be enough. It turned out that there was not a single slice left when we finished. A gallon of milk was also consumed.
Everyone seemed to be lethargic after supper. Hildy and Manfred went to her apartment and the boys and I settled into the family room. I turned on the TV to see if there was anything worth watching. I found a program about the tigers of India that I thought would be both interesting and educational so that's what we watched.
A few minutes after we started watching the program, Joel whispered to me, "May I call John? I want to see if they won his soccer game today."
"Sure, tell him to say hi to his mom and dad for me."
It wasn't long before TJ climbed up on the couch beside me and tucked himself under my arm. "I know one little boy who is tired," I said kissing the top of his head. "When Joel gets off the phone why don't you guys take your showers and then I'll read some more of the story?"
"Okay," he whispered snuggling closer to me.
The tiger program ended on the TV and Joel hadn't returned to the family room and TJ was nearly asleep. I got up to see if he were still on the phone. He was going to use the phone in my study so the sound from the TV wouldn't bother them. When I entered the study he looked up at me with wide eyes as if to say "Am I in trouble?"
"I think you have been on the phone long enough. Say goodbye to John. I want you to make sure that TJ gets his shower taken."
"Okay, dad. Can John come over tomorrow afternoon?"
"If his folks say it is all right he may. Tell him to plan on staying for supper and we'll take him home afterwards."
"Thanks, dad!" he said and then turning back to the phone, "He said it was okay. Tell your mom and dad we'll bring you home after supper."
I left the study door open as I went back into the other room but I heard Joel say, "I gotta go. I don't want dad to get pissed." Then in a quiet voice I could barely hear, "I love you, too."
"Oh boy!" I thought. "How do I keep this relationship from getting out of hand?" I didn't want to stifle it. I just wanted to make sure that no one got hurt. "I'm too young to have to deal with teenage love. I don't even know how to deal with my own."
After they had taken their showers and put on their pajamas, they wanted their snack. All we had was ice cream but that didn't seem to matter to them. With the dishes put in the dishwasher we settled into the family room again where I finished reading A Horse's Tale to them.
Sunday morning I was up early to fix everyone's breakfast. I didn't know what Hildy's plans were but today was supposed to be her day off. I did notice when I went out to get the newspaper that Manfred's car was still parked in the driveway. I was just putting the finishing touches on breakfast when Joel stumbled into the kitchen.
"The bacon woke me up," he said rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
"Good morning, son," I said giving him a one armed hug. "Why don't you go upstairs and wake your brothers and then see that TJ gets washed up for breakfast?"
It was a lazy morning. After breakfast the boys entertained themselves reading the Sunday comics and just relaxing. About ten o'clock, Chris came up to me and asked if they could go swimming. So that's what we did for the next couple of hours until lunch time. Lunch was a quick one. I fixed sandwiches, chips and milk followed by some cookies that Hildy had taken out of the freezer last night.
I was getting the kitchen cleaned up after our lunch when the gate buzzer sounded. When I checked the security camera I saw it was John and his dad. I activated the gate opener and told Joel that his friend was here. We all went out to greet our guests.
"Bruce, it's good to see you again. Can you come in? I was about to make a pot of coffee," I said as I shook his hand.
"Thanks, but I can't stay. We promised the girls that we would take them shopping for school supplies this afternoon but Pauline is not feeling well so I get the honors," he said with a snicker. "If I know my girls, they will also end up doing some clothes shopping."
"That sounds like a lot of fun. I'm going to have to take the boys to do the same one of these days. It won't be long before school starts."
"John, you behave yourself and do what Mr. Johnson tells you. I'll see you tonight," Bruce said. Then he turned to me, "What time do you think you will be bringing him home?"
"Oh, I imagine it will be around seven. I'm going to grill some hamburgers for supper and it will be after that."
After Bruce left the boys went into the house to check out the new video game that John had brought. I followed them in to see if the game met with my approval. It turned out to be a NASCAR game where you raced cars. The most violent things in it were the car crashes when you couldn't keep your car on the track.
About an hour later it was time to get ready for TJ's T-ball game. His game was scheduled to start around three o'clock. He was all excited about going. He had already dressed in his uniform and informed me that he was wearing his cup.
We were preparing to leave when Joel came up to me. I knew he wanted to say something but was having a hard time deciding how to start.
"What is it, son?"
"Well... Could I... That is could we..." he trailed off.
"Come on, son, what do you want to ask?"
"Can John and I stay here while you go to TJ's game?"
"Hmm," this took me a little by surprise. "I guess that would be all right. But, there are some rules you need to follow. Okay?"
"Yeah," he said hesitantly.
"One, no swimming while we are gone. Two, stay away from the lake. And three, don't eat too many cookies," I said giving him a hug. "I trust you, Joel. Please don't disappoint me."
"I won't, dad," he said. "Thanks."
I knew we would only be gone a couple of hours, but this was the first time that I had ever left him alone in the house. I tried to convince myself that after all he was now a teenager and needed to start becoming more independent. That didn't mean I wouldn't worry about him all the time we were gone. I also hoped that those teenage hormones didn't over rule his good sense.
To be continued.
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