Copyright 2005-2006 Ted Louis

Joel Book I is available in paperback as Joel - Escape from Abuse. To purchase a copy, follow the link to my website below or go to your favorite online bookstore.

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.

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Joel III

Chapter 26

"Welcome home," I told Hildy and Manfred. "Where's Frank?"

"He's taking the ashes up to our apartment," she answered. "I didn't know how the boys would react."

"Oh, good idea, I haven't had a chance to explain about that to them. I'd better do that soon."

"What's that, dad?" Joel asked.

"I'll explain later. Let's let everyone get settled after their long flight. Hildy, you and Manfred go sit down. Would you like a cup of coffee? I made a pot a little while ago. I think it's still fresh."

"That would be nice," she said. "Let me get it."

"No, you sit down. You have quite enough on your hands with TJ wrapped around you," I laughed.

Manfred had not said anything up to this point. "Thanks, Crane, I could use a cup."

As I brought a tray with the coffee and cups to the table, I asked, "Have you eaten anything? I was about to put some burgers and hot dogs on the grill. There's plenty."

"What they served on the airline was not too good or very filling," Manfred said. "I think I could go for a burger."

At that moment, Frank joined us. I stood up and wrapped my arms around him. "How are you doing, Frank?"

"Okay, I guess," he answered. "It's still hard for me to make myself believe that he's gone."

I led him to the table and indicated for him to sit. "Have a cup of coffee. I'm going to go put supper on the grill."

"Do you have anything stronger?" he asked.

"I could get you a glass of wine, but that's as strong as I have in the house. Red or White?"

"Red, thanks."

I took a bottle of Pinot Noir from the wine cabinet, removed the cork and poured a glass before handing the glass to Frank.

"Joel, would you please get the buns and everything ready?"

"Sure, dad, you want me to put out the coleslaw that Marie made yesterday?"

"Absolutely, thanks for reminding me."

I took the plate of raw burgers and a couple of packages of hotdogs outside to the grill. The coals were just reaching their peak. I was barely able to fit all of the burgers on the grill and still have room for the hotdogs. As hot as the fire was, it wouldn't take very long for everything to cook.

"Dad, can I help?" Larry asked.

"Yeah, take this dirty platter and the hotdog wrappers back in the house and bring me a clean one for the burgers and one for the hotdogs. Thanks for your help," I told him as I gave his shoulder a squeeze.

I had the burgers turned over by the time he returned with the two platters. The hotdogs were getting nice grill marks on them also. It wouldn't be long now.

"Larry, would you please go see if Joel has everything set out? If no one has set the table, please have your brothers help you set it. Thanks, you're a big help."

I don't know how we did it, but there was only one hotdog left by the time we left the table. I cut it into five pieces and it didn't go to waste. Each of the dogs got a treat from the table, which was something that I rarely allowed.

"Hildy, I would like to talk to you for a minute, if you've got the time."

"Sure, what's up?"

I led her into the family room as the boys cleared the table and put the dishes in the dishwasher. When we were settled, I said, "I know you don't complain, but I also know it is a struggle for you to take care of the boys and me, and still have time to keep this big old house clean. I don't know how you have any time for Manfred. What I'm leading up to is, I think you need some help..."

"Aren't you satisfied with my work?" she said with hurt showing on her face.

"No! Absolutely not! This family could not function without you. I hope you know that. You are a vital part of this family and I don't want anything to change that. What I'm saying is that you work too hard. The young lady that filled in for you while you were in Chicago did an excellent job. She needs a job. You deserve some help around here and I've asked Marie to help you out three days a week. She will work for you. You will tell her what you want her to help you with. There is something else, too."

"What's that?"

"She has a three year-old little boy. He has captured everybody's heart. I think he'll capture yours as well. You see, he's had his left leg amputated below the knee when he was just a baby. He walks on crutches. I told Marie to bring him with her when she comes to work. The boys couldn't love that little boy any more if he were their own brother."

"That poor little tyke," Hildy said, dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief. "Will she be here tomorrow?"

"Yes, she'll work Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If you need her more, we can work that out, also."

"Thanks, Crane, I'm not as young as I used to be nor as young as I try to convince myself I am. I'm sure that Marie and I will get along just fine."

Later as I was checking the boys' homework, the telephone rang. It was Eric.

"Crane, we just got back from Houston. I'm so glad that I don't live there anymore. I know I complain about the San Antonio traffic, but it's nothing compare to Houston's. Anyway, what I called for was, I wanted to know if Hildy knew of anyone who could take Mrs. Carson's place."

"She's in her apartment right now. What happened to Mrs. Carson?"

"There's been a death in her family back in South Carolina and she has gone back for the funeral, at least that is what I could gather from the message she left on my answering machine. She also said that her husband wants her to quit working and take care of him. I know she has said in the past that her husband had retired a few years ago," Eric said.

"I can ask Hildy, but I think I'll wait until the morning. They have had a trying day. How often do you need someone? Do you need them to come in every day like Mrs. Carson did?" I asked him.

"No, I don't really need someone every day. Bran is old enough to stay alone with JR for a couple of hours before I get home. And besides, dad is there, even if he's not any help at the moment. What I really need is for someone to come in a couple days a week, do the laundry, clean the house and if possible do the shopping."

"Aha! I think I know just the person. She's available two days a week and maybe Saturdays if you need her."

"Who is she? Give me her name and I'll call her right now."

"It's late, I'll ask her in the morning when she gets here."

"Is it that young woman you had fill in for Hildy? Marie, wasn't that her name? And Ricky, JR has not stopped talking about him. He was such a cute kid. Too bad he's handicapped."

"That's her. I've asked her to help Hildy out three days a week. I'll call you after I've spoken to her in the morning."

I had intended to explain to the boys about Horst being cremated, but decided not to do it before bedtime. I didn't want my explanation to disrupt their sleep, especially TJ's.

The next morning, I was walking the boys down to the gate to catch their school van when Marie and Ricky drove up. I activated the remote control for the gate as the VW stopped in a cloud of blue smoke. "I hope Sandy is successful in finding a rebuilt engine for that thing," I murmured to myself.

The boys ran to say good morning to Ricky, who waved and giggled at them and nearly came out of his car seat. I told Marie to go on up to the house, that I would be back there as soon as the boys were off to school. It was only a couple of minutes before the van arrived.

"Dad, you know we only have to go to school three days this week, don't you?" Joel said before getting on the van.

"Oh, that's right. I had almost forgotten. TJ's Christmas program is Wednesday, thanks for reminding me."

When I arrived back at the house, Hildy was holding a smiling Ricky and talking to Marie as if she were an old friend. "I see that you two have introduced yourselves."

"Yes, we have. And this little one," she said, leaning Ricky back and looking into his eyes, "is a real charmer. Aren't you?"

That just caused Ricky to giggle one of his characteristic giggles and throw his arms around Hildy's neck. "I like you."

"I like you, too, Ricky. It's going to be fun having you around here."

"Well, I'll leave you all to your business, I have to get to the office," I said, walking over to Ricky and giving him a hug. "Bye, son."

Darcie was at the office, as usual, when I arrived. As I passed Carol's desk she handed me my phone messages and said, "You received a call from a guy who said his name was Sandy. He asked that you give him a call."

"Great, I didn't think I would hear from him this soon."

I called Sandy who informed me that he had been successful in finding an engine that would fit the VW. He said that he would have it by late this afternoon if I still wanted it. I told him to go ahead and asked him how long it would take to install it. He said that model of VW was not that complicated and that they should be able to remove the old engine and install the rebuilt one in about four hours, unless they ran into some sort of unforeseen problems.

"When can you do it?" I asked.

"Well, with Christmas coming up, business is a little slow. We could probably do it Wednesday or Thursday. Would that work out?" Sandy responded.

"I think Wednesday would work out fine. Will you pick up the car at my place, take it to your garage and then bring it back?"

"You're not asking much, are you?"

"No, just want to get my money's worth out of you."

We worked out the details for one of his men to come by and haul the car to his shop before we hung up.

I had just placed the handset back into its cradle when I remembered that I hadn't spoken to Marie about working for Eric on Tuesday and Thursday. I called home and asked Hildy to put Marie on the line. When I told her about what Eric wanted she was thrilled to have the job. I told her that I would have Eric drop by the house, if she could wait, and he could explain to her what all he wanted done.

I then called Eric's office and left a message on his voice mail telling him to stop by the house on his way home.

After I took care of some pressing files that Darcie had placed on my desk, I decided to call Dr. Sam and discuss a few matters with him, if he were available. Unfortunately he was occupied with a patient, but his nurse said that she would have him call me when he was free. She said it would probably be around one o'clock since he was booked full all morning. I thanked her and then went to Darcie's office to talk to her about the files I had just reviewed.

We spent the rest of the morning going over the files together. With the new capital that we had, we could be a little less stringent than we had been on selecting candidates for our assistance. My stomach growled indicating that it was lunch time. I looked at my watch and it was almost 1:30. When I stood up and looked out the front window, I saw that it had started to rain. Not a hard rain, but with the temperature hovering in the 40s, it would be a miserable day to walk down to the deli we liked. I decided to call our lunch order in and then drive the block and a half to pick them up.

I was almost out the door to go pick up our sandwiches, when the phone rang. I stopped to see if it was Dr. Sam. Since Carol had already gone to lunch, Darcie had answered the phone and indicated to me that it was Dr. Sam. I handed her some money and the umbrella that I had picked up from the coat rack. We traded places, I answered the phone and she went to get our lunch.

"Sam, I'm glad that you called back. I have a few questions for you. Joel is supposed to take his next round of pills next week and it's Christmas week. Should we do it this week or wait a few days until you're back in the office? I assume that you will be closing the office for a few days for the holiday."

"Yeah, I'm closing the office all next week. All my grandkids are going to be at our house next week. I think I had better stock up on that Merlot that I like so well," he laughed.

"Then you'll know how it is at my house all the time."

"Why don't you bring Joel in either Thursday or Friday? I'll tell my nurse to fit him in and have her call you. Which day is best for you?"

"Let's try Friday morning if possible. The boys are out of school and Marie will be there to help Hildy take care of the other boys."

"Sounds good, it should only take a few minutes to draw some blood and give him his pills."

"I have another question for you."

"Yeah, what is it?"

"Well, you saw the little boy, Ricky, that had his leg amputated. I would like to see him have a prosthesis, but I'm sure that he would outgrow it in a matter of months. Does he have any other options?"

"You're right. A boy his age would need to have the prosthesis changed at least once a year, maybe more often when he reached his teens. I seem to remember an article in one of the medical journals about a doctor in Houston who was using an inexpensive substitute for an artificial leg. I believe he was a pediatric surgeon. Let me see if I can find the article and I'll let you know."

"Thanks, Sam, we'll see you Friday."

Marie and Eric agreed that she should work at his place on Tuesday and Thursdays when they met that evening. He explained that his father would be there, at least for the time being. He also told her that it was fine for her to bring Ricky with her. JR and Bran would be happy to see him.

After they left, Manfred told me that he and Frank had taken Horst's ashes to the marina where they rented a boat and took them to the middle of the lake. There they scattered his ashes as they slowly sailed toward our house. He said the last of the ashes were scattered just as they approached the base of the cliff at the back of the property. Tears filled his eyes as he related how Horst had fallen in love with the lake as a young boy and had renewed that love on the two visits to the house he had made prior to his death.

I pulled Manfred into a hug, knowing that there were no words I could say to him that would lessen his grief.

A few moments later I asked Hildy if she could prepare an early supper. I needed to start taking the boys to the mall to finish their Christmas shopping for each other. When I said it was going to take me all week taking only one at a time, Frank asked if he could help by going with us. I decided that the first to go would be the twins and Chris. Hildy and Manfred volunteered to stay with the remaining two boys, while Frank and I took the other three.

What followed was a complicated logistical exercise. With the lists that each boy had written out we headed for the mall. The first bit of shopping was simple. All three boys went to buy presents for Joel and TJ. I marked off on Joel and TJ's list the gifts that the twins and Chris purchased. Next Larry, Lenny and I went to buy presents for Chris, which I dutifully marked off on his list. Then Larry, Chris and I went to buy presents for Lenny. Finally, it was Chris and Lenny's turn to buy for Larry.

By the time we were finished, I was exhausted. Frank just laughed at me. He had the easy job of sitting in the food court with the one boy not buying presents while I was with the buying duo.

The following evening Frank and I followed much the same procedure, except it was a lot simpler with only two shoppers.

Wednesday morning I was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee and talking to Hildy when the phone rang.


"Mr. Johnson, this is Marie Salazar. I'm afraid I'm going to be late for work. You see, my car broke down."

"Where are you?"

"We're at the gas station at 281 and 46. I was able to coast down the off-ramp and into the station. I'm going to call one of my neighbors to see if she will come and get me."

"That's not necessary. I'll be there in fifteen or twenty minutes. I have to make a phone call first, but I'll be there as soon as I can. Is Ricky all right?"

"Yes, he's fine. Thanks, Mr. Johnson."

I hung up and immediately called Sandy to have him divert his truck to where Marie was instead of the house as we had arranged. Thankfully Sandy was in his shop when I called. He said he would radio is truck driver and have him meet us at the gas station.

I explained to Hildy what was going on and asked her to see that the boys got off to school if I were not back by that time.

I made it to the gas station as Sandy's truck was turning in. I went inside and found Marie trying valiantly to keep Ricky's hands off all the bric-a-brac and candies that were within his reach. When he saw me he crutched his way to me as fast as he could. I crouched down and took him into my arm, crutches and all.

"How are you this morning, Ricky," I said, kissing his forehead.

"Fine," he said, giving me a sloppy kiss on the cheek.

"Thank you for coming, Mr. Johnson," Marie said. "I don't know what I'm going to do about my car."

"Don't worry. See that flat-bed truck out there? The driver is going to take it to the garage where I have all of my work done. They'll fix it up so that it runs like new... well, almost new," I laughed.

"But... but, I can't afford to have it fixed," she said.

"Don't worry about that now. You need to have a car to get to work. Hildy needs your help and my boys would not give me a minute's peace if Ricky couldn't come to our house. Let's go get Ricky's car seat and put it in my car so that your car can be hauled away."

I picked up Ricky and we headed out to the VW. Mason, one of the mechanics that worked for Sandy was looking in the engine compartment as we approached.

"Think you can get it working?" I asked.

"No sweat, I had one of these in high school. I tore that thing apart so many times I think I could have put it back together in my sleep. Could you help me push it back a little so that I can get it into position to wench it onto the truck?"

"Sure, let me get this one's car seat out first," I answered, handing Ricky to Marie and going around to the passenger door.

After the VW was secured on the back of the truck, Mason took off for the shop. He said that he would give me a call when the repairs were complete. By this time, Marie had the car seat securely fastened in the back of the BMW and Ricky in it.

Ricky was the happiest child. He giggled almost all the way to the house. I guess he thought my BMW was funny. By the time we arrived at the house, the boys' school van had come and gone. We met Manfred walking back to the house as we drove up the drive. His eyes lit up as he saw Ricky in the back of the car.

"Good morning, little man," Manfred said as he lifted Ricky out of his car seat. "How are you doing?"

"Hi Manny, we gonna play games today?" Ricky said.

"Yeah, and maybe we'll go see some deer again. Would you like that?"

"Oh, boy, I like deer."

"Looks like Ricky has found a sitter," I said. "Or is that a grandpa?"

Manfred looked at me with the saddest eyes before he said, "I wish I could be a grandpa."

"I'm sorry, Manfred. I didn't think."

"That's all right. This little one has been added to the surrogate grandkid list, just like your boys."

I decided that since I had to go to the Christmas program at the school this afternoon at two that I would stay home and try to take care of some business from here. I call Carol at the office, told her my plans and asked that she call me if anything needed my attention.

I spent the next couple of hours taking care of some paperwork for the office and then began looking at the boys' trust funds to see if I wanted to make any changes before the end of the year. I had made a few changes in the stock mix earlier in the year, but after looking over their portfolios, I decided to leave them as they were. I made a few other phone calls setting up something to keep the boys occupied over their holiday break. By the time I finished all of this it was almost time for lunch.

As I walked into the kitchen, Hildy said, "I swear, between Manny and Frank, they are going to spoil that boy. They have had that boy giggling this whole morning, but you could hardly hear his giggles for theirs. But... It does do my heart good to hear Manny laughing again. Horst's death has really hit him hard."

"Nothing like a small child to bring out the kid in all of us. By the way, are you planning on going to the Christmas program at the boys' school this afternoon?"

"I'd like to go, but I hate to leave Marie here alone," Hildy replied.

"I wouldn't worry about that. She was here alone a lot of the time while you were gone. Just let her know what you want to have done. The program begins at two o'clock. I plan to leave around 1:30. I'm taking the van so that I can bring the boys home."

"I don't think Manny and Frank are planning on going, so I'll ride with you. Does TJ have any part in the program this year?"

"No, his class isn't responsible for the 'play'. He's just part of the choir this year."

"Crane, will you go tell those three 'kids' that lunch is about ready? Make sure that they wash their hands," she laughed and turned back to her lunch preparation.

Mason, the mechanic from Sandy's garage, called as I was heading back to my study. He said that he had completed the engine switch and that the car was purring like new. When I told him that I'd never thought of a VW engine purring, he laughed. He said that he would drop the car off within the hour.

True to his word, 45 minutes later he buzzed for me to open the gate to let him in. It only took him another five minutes to unload the VW from the truck. Marie had been watching all of this.

"Go ahead, start it up. See how it runs," I told her.

She was a little hesitant at first, but then climbed into the driver's seat and started the engine. "Oh my, it's like a new car," she said after she had made the circle in front of the house.

"Thanks, Mason," I said as he climbed into his truck. "Tell Sandy to send the bill to my accountant."

Marie exited her car and approached me, "Mr. Johnson, I don't know how to thank you for this. You can take a little out of my pay each week. I know it will take a long time, but I want to pay my debts."

"Marie, I have been very fortunate in my life. I never have to worry about money. I cannot think of a better way to spend some of it than helping someone who deserves it. You're a good person who hasn't had a lot of breaks in life. If I can help you and your son in any way I can, it is reward enough in itself. If you want to pay me back, take the money that you would have paid me and put it in a savings account for Ricky. He is going to need an artificial leg at some point and that is going to be expensive. When that time comes, I want you to come to me. I know of a foundation that may be able to help."

"Thank you," she said, giving me a hug and then walking back into the house.

I checked my watch and it was time to leave for the Christmas program. I grabbed my cell phone and went to collect Hildy. She was waiting for me at the back door.

The Christmas program was anticlimactic compared to last year's program. I guess it was because TJ didn't have a part to play. The choir was really pretty good for their age group. When it was over Hildy and I told TJ how good they sounded. He was all smiles at our compliments.

"Dad," Joel said, handing me a paper, "the teacher said to give this to all the parents."

"What is it?" I asked, unfolding the paper.

"It's about our vacation," he said.

I read the paper. It said that school would not commence until the 8th of January instead of the original date. The school was installing a new HVAC system and it wouldn't be completed until the fifth. That worked out great with my plans. I was afraid that the boys would have had to miss a couple of days of school.

Marie and Ricky were on the front steps as we drove up to the house. They were ready to go home, but Ricky was having none of that until Joel and the boys arrived. He was greeted by an enthusiastic five-way hug. They, in turn, were treated to his now familiar giggle.

"Come on, Ricky, get your crutches and get in the car. We need to get home. Momma has to get groceries on the way home. Say good by to your friends."

"I wanna stay," he pouted.

"Sorry, son, we have to go."

"Come on, munchkin, I'll put you in the car," Joel said, picking up his little buddy.

"Awright," Ricky said grudgingly, wrapping his arms around Joel's neck.

"We can play all day Friday when you get here," Joel told him as he buckled Ricky into his car seat.

After they had driven away, I reminded Joel that we had an appointment with Dr. Sam on Friday morning. That reminder was greeted with a frown, but resignation.

I checked my answering machine when I went into my study. I had one message. It was from Sam. He said he had found the article that he mentioned to me the other day when I called. I looked at my watch and didn't figure that I would find him in the office at this time of day, but thought I might as well try. I was surprised when he answered his own office phone.

"Sam, it's Crane. I got your message. I'm surprised to find you still there."

"If you had been 30 seconds later, I wouldn't have. I was on my way out the door when the phone rang. My nurse must have forgotten to transfer it to my answering service."

"If you're in a hurry, why don't you give me a call this evening when you're not busy?"

"Thanks, Crane, I'll call you around eight."

I was reading to the boys from the Prince and the Pauper book that I had started earlier when the phone rang. Looking at my watch, I figured it was Sam.

"Joel, will you read to your brothers while I answer the phone?"

"Sure, dad, I can't read as good as you, but I can try."

"Well," I said, heading to my study.

It was Sam. He told me that the article he had mentioned outlined that the Houston doctor was experimenting with a variation of the age-old peg leg.

"You mean like the pirates in the movies?" I asked.

"Yes, but a little more modern. He is experimenting with adjustable plastic and aluminum pegs. He hopes to fit youngsters with pegs that will last several years or until they achieve their full growth and can be fitted with a 'permanent' prosthesis. The article doesn't say whether he has fitted anyone as young as little Ricky. That might be a little young.

"I will try to contact him after the holidays. I know the medical group that he works with and have an old medical school friend who also works there," Sam said.

"Thanks, Sam, I'd like to see if there were something that we could do for Ricky before he starts to school. Wish Carol a Merry Christmas from all of us." I said before we hung up.

I thought the boys were going to drive me to distraction all day Thursday. They kept asking when Ricky was going to come. I don't know how many times I explained that he wouldn't be here until Friday. Finally, I ordered everyone to get their swimsuits on and herded them to the pool. For the next two hours we swam and played games including an aquatic version of dodge-ball.

Friday finally came, to my great relief. Joel and his brothers were waiting at the front door when I opened the gate to let Marie's car through. They weren't the only ones waiting. Hildy, Manfred and Frank were also there. Six young kids and two old kids took Ricky upstairs to play with all the toys.

"I swear," Hildy said, "I don't know what Manny will do when spring comes and his business picks back up and he can't spend as much time here with Ricky. I can't begrudge him time with that little charmer. It has done wonders for his attitude since we came home from Chicago. It's made a big difference in Frank, too."

"He does seem to capture everyone with his magic," I said.

Joel and I took off for Dr. Sam's office to get his chemotherapy treatment shortly after Ricky's arrival. That didn't sit too well with Joel, but he didn't put up too much resistance. We were gone about an hour and a half.

Manfred was coming down the stairs as we entered. "Whew, I'm not as young as I used to be. When Horst was that age, I was in my twenties. I can't believe how much energy he has."

"I don't think I could keep up with him either," I laughed.

Later in the afternoon I was in my study looking over some papers that Darcie had faxed to me to review before we requested Jack to run background checks on the people involved. Marie came in saying Hildy had told her to dust the books on my bookshelves. I told her to go ahead, she wouldn't bother me.

"Marie, what are you and Ricky doing for Christmas?" I asked.

"We'll probably stay at the apartment or maybe go to one of the neighbors in the afternoon. My father is dead and my mother disowned me after I got pregnant and wouldn't marry Ricky's father," she said, turning away so that I couldn't see the tears in her eyes.

"Would you consider spending it with us? I know that the boys would like for you to, and so would I."

"I wouldn't want to intrude on your celebration..."

"Believe me, you would not be intruding. We would love to have you celebrate with us. I'll have the boys make a stocking with Ricky's name on it and hang it with theirs on the fire place mantle. That way Santa won't forget him," I smiled.

"Thank you, you have been so kind to us. It's almost like having a family again."

"We all think of you and Ricky as part of our extended family. Bring Ricky and be here around the same time you usually come to work, Santa should have done his thing by that time."

Joel and the boys had a great time working with Ricky to decorate a stocking for him to hang next to theirs on the mantle. It turned out a little gaudy, but it seemed to please Ricky, which was all that mattered. Joel lifted him up so that he could hang his stocking. However, he was giggling so hard that Joel had a hard time keeping him steady enough for him to get the stocking hooked on the temporary hangers.

Saturday and Sunday were restless days for the boys. The anticipation of Christmas on Monday was almost more than they could bear. I just hoped that I could get them to sleep at a decent time on Sunday night so that I could play Santa. As it was, it was almost eleven o'clock before TJ settled down to sleep.

Frank and I filled the stockings as well as putting out the rest of Santa's gifts. It was nearly one before we finished with our task. We could have finished quicker if we hadn't stopped to look over each present and to play with a few of them. We were almost like kids.

Bright and early, TJ landed on my bed shaking me awake from a sound sleep. "Get up, dad. I want to see what Santa brought."

Oh," I said, wrapping him in my arms, "I think I'd like to stay like this all day."

"Dad, come on! Please?"

"Okay, go wake up your brothers," I said and grabbed him before he could get away. "We're going to have breakfast first and wait for Ricky. I want you to stay out of the family room. Okay? Tell your brothers."

"Okay, dad, when's he gonna come?"

"It won't be long, now go."

I had barely gotten a quick shower and my teeth brushed when I heard the gate buzzer. By the time I had reached the kitchen, Marie and Ricky were being greeted by the boys and Hildy.

Breakfast was consumed in record time. When the dishes were all placed in the dishwasher, I told the boys they could go to the family room. I had to check the carpet to see if they had left scorch marks on it in their rush to get to the presents.

Ricky was totally amazed when the presents were handed out and the pile in front of him kept getting bigger. That didn't stop him from ripping into them when he saw the other boys go after theirs. His familiar giggle echoed throughout the room as he opened each present. He only stopped occasionally to take a lick on his candy cane until all of his presents were opened.

When I looked over at Marie, sitting in on the couch with Hildy, Manfred and Frank, I could see the tears streaming down her cheeks. Hildy had her arm around Marie's shoulders, whispering something in her ear.

The rest of the day was total chaos. Except for a fantastic dinner prepared by Hildy, the boys never stopped playing with their new toys. Despite our assurances that we would like to have her stay for supper, at around four o'clock, Marie said that she needed to get Ricky home. She said that if he didn't get a short nap he was going to be a real bear to put up with. The boys helped load all of Ricky's new toys into the VW before Joel buckled the youngster into his car seat.

After a relatively light supper, I gathered the boys in the family room. "Have any of you ever seen snow?"

"I saw some once a few years ago," Joel said.

"I mean the kind that you can make snowballs out of and go sledding or skiing on."

All of their head shook "No" in unison.

"Well get ready for some snow. On Thursday we are going to fly to Breckenridge, Colorado. I've rented a four bedroom townhouse for a week and you guys are going to learn to ski. What do you think of that?"

"Wow!" Joel said. "But isn't it cold? Don't you need parkas or something?"

"Yes, it's cold. We'll get all of the necessary snow gear and everything that we need when we get there. We just need to dress warmly enough to get from the plane to the townhouse. JR and Bran are going to go with us, also."

"Neat! Isn't Eric going?" Joel asked.

"Yes," I said, smiling. "Eric is coming, too."

To be continued.

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