Copyright 2005-2008 Ted Louis

Joel Book III is available in paperback as Joel III Back to Normal. To purchase a copy, follow the link to my website below.

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 IV

Chapter 32

"You be a good boy for Mr. Johnson," Marie said to Ricky, before giving him a kiss and stepping into the limousine. Dirk, who had been holding the door for her, also gave Ricky a kiss before he too stepped into the limousine.

"Bye-bye," Ricky said, and waved to them as they headed down the driveway. I had been holding him up until then. As the limo disappeared out of sight, he wiggled out of my arms and rushed over to Joel.

"Hey, munchkin," Joel said, picking up Ricky. "Do you want to go play with your toys?" Marie had brought some of his toys from home so that he would have something to play with.

"Uh huh, I wanna play wif my truck."

I wondered how Marie was going to handle not having Ricky around for a whole week. The same went for Ricky. I thought he would be all right today. I was worried how he would react over the next few days.

It wasn't long before the wedding guests were all headed home and the caterers started cleaning up what was left of the food. Unfortunately, Eric had to leave shortly after the wedding to take JR and Bran to their soccer practice. Before Marie's mother left, I asked her if she would like to take some of the leftovers home with her. At first she was hesitant, but I convinced her that it would probably go to waste if she didn't take some. Hildy had overheard my conversation with Mrs. Salazar and started putting all of the leftovers into plastic containers and aluminum foil. There were enough leftovers for at least one good meal and possibly more.

Marie's mother and siblings were the last to leave. As they were climbing into the hired van, Mrs. Salazar turned to me, gave me a hug and a quick peck on the cheek. "Gracias, Señor Johnson," she said, turned and entered the van.

I could hear the laughter from the boys upstairs as I re-entered the house. The caterers were just wrapping up the last of their tables and equipment. I handed the head caterer the check for their services along with my thanks for the excellent job that they had done. Hildy and Manfred were busy pushing the furniture back into its former position. I began helping them and it wasn't too long before the place looked like it had before the wedding.

"I'm bushed," Hildy said. "Do you think the boys would mind if we got some pizzas for supper?"

"Great idea!" I said. "I know the boys won't mind a bit. We haven't had pizza in quite a while. I think four large ones will be enough. I'll call and order them."

One of the few bad things about living where we did was they didn't deliver pizza this far out of the way. When I arrived at Little Italy Pizzeria, our order was not quite ready. I sat down on a stool and looked around the place. They had done some redecorating since the last time I had been here. As I was scanning around, I saw Jesse Cantu in one of the booths with his family. I waved at him when he saw me and he motioned for me to come over to their booth.

"Crane, you remember my wife, Jessica and my son Leo," Jesse said.

"Jessica, it's good to see you again. It's been a while," I said. "I saw Leo at the marina the other day and didn't recognize him. He has grown so big. It must be at least four years since I've seen him."

"Have you been keeping your nose clean? You haven't been arrested again, have you?" Jesse laughed.

"No, thank you very much. That once was enough," I said.

Jesse had to explain to his wife what had happened. We chatted for a couple more minutes before my pizza order was called. I said my goodbyes to the Cantu family and went to pay for the pizzas.

Hildy had the table set by the time I returned with the pizzas. The boys had washed up and were waiting to sit down at the table. The pizza boxes were hardly on the table before the slices were flying onto plates. There were very few left when everyone was full.

When everything was cleared away from our supper, Hildy picked up Ricky. "Come on you little stinker, let's get your bath taken and get you into some pajamas. It's almost time for you to go to bed."

"No, I wanna play."

"You can play some more after you get your bath."

"Okay," Ricky said, giving Hildy a loud kiss on the cheek.

Twenty minutes later, Hildy and a freshly bathed, pajama clad Ricky emerged from her apartment. The boys were in the media/game room playing video games or occupying themselves with other toys or books. She put Ricky down on the floor and he quickly crawled his way over to Joel. He was not wearing his peg, but that didn't slow him down any. Joel and Chris were intently involved in a video game when Ricky climbed his way up Joel's leg and grabbed hold of his arm. This made Joel lose control of his car in the game and it crashed, much to the delight of Chris.

"Hey, munchkin, you made me crash," Joel said, putting down the game controller and picking up Ricky. He just giggled and wrapped his arms around Joel's neck. "If you weren't so darn cute, I'd be mad at you."

"Can I take your place?" Larry asked Joel.

"Yeah, come on. I'll beat you, too," Chris said.

"In your dreams," Larry responded with a laugh.

Joel handed the game controller to Larry before he and Ricky went and sat on the love seat. "Do you want me to read you a story?"

Ricky just nodded his head.

"Which one?"

"The wolf."

"Okay, kiddo," Joel said, and sorted through the small library of books that Marie had brought for Ricky. "Little Red Ridinghood, it is."

When Joel finished reading the story, Ricky said, "Again." So Joel read the story again. This was repeated when he finished the second reading.

"Sorry, Ricky, but Joel has to go take his shower and get ready for bed," I said, sitting down on the love seat beside them. "Why don't you come sit on my lap? I'll read you a different story."

"Okay," he said, crawling over to my lap.

I chose the story Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I don't think it made any difference to Ricky what the story was, he just liked to have someone read to him. I was happy to do that. I had always enjoyed reading to my boys. When I read the part of the story where Papa Bear was speaking, I lowered my voice to almost a growl. This sent Ricky into a fit of giggling. The same thing happened when I changed my voice to imitate Mama Bear and Baby Bear.

"Again," Ricky pleaded. He looked up at me with those big brown eyes and I couldn't deny him anything.

I read the story to him again, but I was saved from reading it the third time by Joel coming back dressed in his pajamas.

"Are you ready to go to bed, munchkin?" Joel asked, picking him up.

"No," Ricky said shaking his head rapidly from side to side.

"Where's he going to sleep?" Hildy asked, pointing at Ricky.

"I thought he could sleep with me. My king sized bed is big enough. He could have the spare bedroom, but it's so far away from everyone that he might get scared," I said.

"Why can't he sleep with me?" Joel asked.

"You sure you're up to sleeping with a wiggling four year-old?" I asked.

"Sure, you're my buddy aren't you, munchkin?"

"Uh huh," Ricky said, giving Joel a tight hug around his neck.

"Okay, son, but if it gets too much for you, bring him to my bedroom."

As it turned out, the sleeping arrangements worked out just fine. Joel said that Ricky was asleep almost before his head hit the pillow. He must have had a good night's sleep, because he was full of energy the next morning. I was glad of that. I had made an appointment for him at a prosthetist at eleven o'clock in San Antonio. Dr. Alverez, at my request, had given the prosthetist's office a prescription to fit Ricky with a true artificial leg to replace the peg. The investigational trial for the experimental peg leg for below knee amputees had ended. This had meant that Ricky would no longer receive a free replacement peg leg as he grew.

Although the peg leg served Ricky well, when he started to preschool he might bear the brunt of ridicule by the other children. Young children in a group can sometimes be cruel to someone who is different. I hoped that wouldn't happen, but a new "normal" looking leg might help prevent that.

Ricky took to the young woman prosthetist right away. She told him her name was Alice. He even held still while she made a mold of his stump. She talked to him all the time during the procedure. At the end of the appointment, she gave him a sucker and told him what a good boy he had been. She was rewarded with one of Ricky's sloppy, and this time sticky, kiss on the cheek.

After looking over the wide selection and with Alice's advice, we picked out a leg that we felt would be functional, practical and look reasonably natural. It also had the advantage of being extendable, which would lengthen the time he would be able to wear it. I asked her what could be done with his new leg after he outgrew it. She said that she liked to recommend that it be donated to a charity that would refurbish it and provide it for free to a child that could not afford one. The one we had picked out for Ricky was priced at a little over $18,000.

As we were leaving, Alice told us to return on Thursday morning. The leg would be ready for a final fitting. If everything was perfect, he could wear it home. She said that since he had the experience with the articulated peg leg, she anticipated that he would have little trouble with the new leg.

Ricky was hungry by the time we left the office, so spotting a McDonald's, we stopped for him to have a Happy Meal. I indulged myself and had a Big Mac. We got home just in time to take TJ to his baseball practice and for Ricky to take his nap.

The rest of the week was a series of baseball and soccer practices and games. There were also the music lessons on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Horseback riding was fitted in on Wednesday and Saturday. I started to wish I owned a gas station. It seemed like every time I turned around I was filling up either the van or the BMW with gas. The only activity that didn't require gasoline was swimming.

Thursday I took Ricky back to get his new leg fitted. It was perfect. I even remembered to bring along a shoe to put on it. Ricky took a few hesitant steps on it and then began running from one side of the room to the other.

"Well, I see he won't need much instruction on how to use it," Alice said, as Ricky ran by one more time.

If he had on long pants, it wouldn't have been possible to tell that he didn't have both legs. When he was quiet, which was seldom, I could barely hear a faint hiss of the hydraulics in the ankle.

I was surprised at how well Ricky was doing without his mother being around. He did ask about her a couple of times, but accepted our telling him that she was with Dirk. Sunday afternoon, he had just gotten up from his nap and was having a snack with the other boys when Dirk and Marie drove up to the front of the house. They had used her access code to open the gate so no one was aware that they had arrived until the doorbell rang.

"Mr. and Mrs. Soznowski," I said, opening the front door. "Please come in."

"Thank you," Marie said. "Did Ricky give you any problems while we were gone?"

"None whatsoever, he was an angel," I told her.

"I'm sure," she laughed.

Ricky must have heard his mother, because he came running at top speed and jumped into her arms. "Did you miss me?" she asked, giving him several kisses and squeezing him tightly."

"Uh huh," he said, and gave her kisses on both of her cheeks. "I gotta new leg. See?" He held out his new prosthesis for his mother to see.

"Where did you get that?" she asked, looking at me.

"Alice," he replied.

"Alice was the prosthetist that fitted him," I told her. Marie looked quizzically at me. "Well, I didn't want him to be different when he started to preschool. Now he's pretty much like the other kids."

As we walked on into the kitchen area where Hildy and the boys were, I explained the fund I had set up to provide for him to have a new leg when he outgrew the old one. I told her that I had arranged for the prosthetist to give his outgrown leg to a charity. She agreed that was a good idea.

"Why are you doing this for Ricky and us?" Dirk asked. It was the first words he had uttered since he entered the house.

"Two reasons; first, we all love Ricky and second, I can afford to do it. And I guess there's a third reason, it makes me happy to see this bright little boy run and play like any other kid his age. Oh, I know there will be some things he won't be able to do, but all the really important things he can." I retrieved a booklet that Alice had given us on care of the prosthetic leg and how to ensure that Ricky's stump was kept in good condition. The care of Ricky's stump was very much the same as for the peg leg he had been wearing.

"Crane, I didn't have a chance to tell you in all the confusion of the wedding, but we've bought a house," Dirk said. "It'll be about 30 days before we can move into it."

"Where did you buy?" I asked.

"It's a mile or so on down 306 and off to the right. It's a new, four bedroom house on two acres with a lake view," he said. "It's a brand new subdivision called Mystic Shores. There are only a few homes built there so far. There's no pool, but I'm going to have one put in."

"That's wonderful. You can bring Ricky to see us more often then. I know he'll want to go horseback riding with the boys."

"I'm sure he'd like that," Marie said, still holding Ricky. "Let's get your things rounded up so we can go home."

"No, I wanna stay with Joel," Ricky pouted.

"Hey, munchkin," Joel said, taking Ricky from Marie's arms. "You can come back and see me again. Now, you be a good boy and do like your mommy says. Okay?"

"Okay," Ricky said, ducking his head under Joel's chin.

"I wish he minded that well for me," Marie said.

After they left for home, the house was a lot quieter. I think we all missed the exuberance and playfulness of Ricky. I know Hildy did. I saw her several times looking around for him and then realizing that he was gone. A couple of times I saw her dabbing her eyes with a corner of her apron.

The July Fourth weekend was coming up next week so I decided to invite some of our friends. Of course, Eric and family would be invited as well as John. When I called Pauline to ask if she and the girls would like to come and bring John, she said the girls and her were invited to one of their friend's house. John didn't want to go there because he would be the only boy there with six girls. I asked her to bring him over as soon as he had his breakfast the morning of the Fourth. I talked it over with Hildy and we sat down and figured out the menu. We decided on brisket, baked beans and coleslaw.

Early on the day of the party, I received a phone call from Bert informing me that Rosie had been taken to the hospital the night before and had delivered a baby girl. He said they hadn't named her yet. I asked if he would like to come to the party. He hesitated and then said he would like to since Tracy was still at the hospital. I gave him directions and told him to bring a swimsuit if he wanted to go swimming.

John was the first to arrive. Pauline said he had been pestering her since seven o'clock to bring him over. Joel greeted him and with barely a hello to Pauline, they went off into the house.

Eric and family arrived shortly after John had. Bran and JR took off upstairs to find the boys. I received a hug from Eric before we went into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Hildy was busy getting everything ready for the day and shooed us out of the kitchen. We took our coffee to the breakfast area where we could look out over the lake. It was nice, just the two of us sitting and talking without the boys being around. The tranquility didn't last very long. The gate buzzer sounded and I had to get up to see who it was. As I expected, it was Bert. I opened the gate for him and then went to the front door to greet him.

"Mr. Johnson," Bert said. "Thanks for inviting me. This is a beautiful house or I guess I should say, mansion."

"You're welcome, Bert. Please come in. It's not a mansion, just a big house. The boys are upstairs playing. I think you know all of them except for maybe Bran. He's about your age. Make yourself at home. If you need or want anything just ask one of the boys."

I went back and joined Eric. He was now standing in the conservatory looking at the new grand piano that had been delivered earlier in the week. "Do you play?" I asked him.

"I used to play when I was younger, but it's been fifteen years since I last sat down at the keyboard. This is a beautiful instrument," he said, running his fingers lightly up and down the keys.

"Play something, if you like," I said.

"Well... Okay, let me see if I remember anything my music teacher tried to make me learn," he said.

He thought a moment before he began some fairly intricate fingering. He played for maybe 30 seconds before he quit.

"I recognize that as Chopin, but I can't remember what it is," I said.

"It's Chopin's Waltz in D-flat Major, but that's all I remember of it. It's a wonder I remember any of it. Mrs. Kreutzer would have slapped my wrists for my sloppy fingering. She was a perfectionist."

"Dad, we want to go swimming," Joel said, interrupting Eric and me.

"Okay, get changed and we'll be right out."

He and John took off for the stairs. I could hear the other boys' excited voices as Joel told them it was okay. Eric and I went into my bedroom to change and the boys scattered to the other bed and bathrooms. The nine boys, Eric, Manfred and I swam until Hildy called us for lunch. Since she was serving it on the picnic tables outside, she didn't require that the boys don shirts before sitting down to eat. Bert fit right in when it came to the eating department. It's a good thing Hildy always fixed plenty; nine boys can sure put away the groceries.

Around four in the afternoon, Tracy called. He said that the baby and Rosie were doing fine. He had only come home to change clothes before going back to the hospital and wanted to know if Bert wanted to go with him. I asked Bert and he said he would drive himself to the hospital in case Tracy wanted to stay longer.

"Have you named your daughter yet?" I asked Tracy.

"Yes," he answered. "We named her Carrie Lucille Smith. She's a beautiful little girl. I know I'm prejudiced, but she's the prettiest baby I've ever seen."

Bert left shortly afterwards to go home and change clothes before he too went to the hospital. Later, I started up the grill and fixed hamburgers for the boys' supper. Hildy topped the meal off with one of her delicious sour cream, chocolate cakes with chocolate frosting.

Shortly after nine o'clock the fireworks started. From the upstairs balcony we had a perfect view of the different areas around the lake that were putting on a display. It was well after ten when all the fireworks ended. I sent the boys to get their showers taken after we said goodbye to Eric and his boys. It was with regret that I gave Eric a warm hug before he got into his new Lexus and drove off. John spent the night. His mother picked him up the next morning.

The rest of the summer went pretty much as it had up to this point. With sports, music lessons and horseback riding, the boys didn't have time to get bored. We did get to see Carrie Lucille when we went to the ranch to ride. I had to admit that Tracy wasn't far wrong about her being a beautiful baby. We also made it to Fiesta Texas and Water World in San Antonio. Our visit to Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels was by unanimous consent much better than Water World. The Schlitterbahn has been voted the best water park in the world. I found that to be amazing, since it's located in a city of less than 30,000.

Two weeks before school was to start, I had the boys check their school uniforms to see if they needed to have any of them replaced. Naturally, nothing fit anymore so first thing on Friday after lunch, it was off to San Antonio to buy new uniforms. It took about an hour and a half to get the boys outfitted for the coming school year. Before we took off for home, there was a movie that they wanted to see at one of the multiplexes on our way home. I made a call to see when the next showing was going to start and found that if we hurried, we could just make it.

It's impossible to watch a movie in a theater without a box of popcorn and a soft drink; at least that's what the boys think. By the time we took our seats, all the previews of coming attractions were over and the main feature was about to begin. National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation with Chevy Chase was a thoroughly forgettable movie in my opinion. There were a few good laughs in it and the boys appeared to enjoy it. I guess that's all that matters. When it was over, the boys made a mad dash for the restrooms to empty out the sodas they had drunk during the movie.

"Can we stop for a snack, dad?" TJ asked, as we were walking to the van.

"After all that popcorn and soda you drank? I think we had better wait until we get home. It's not that long before supper," I said, giving him a one arm hug. That didn't sit all that well with them, but they didn't put up much resistance.

It was a little before 6:30 when we turned off on the road to take us home. As we approached our gate, I saw a young child sitting under a tree a few yards to the right of the gate.

"What in the world is that kid doing out here?" I said out loud.

I stopped the car, got out and walked to where the boy was sitting. The boys had followed me out of the van. The boy appeared to be sleeping. As we approached, the boy's head jerked up and his eyes had the look of a deer caught in the headlights. Now that we were near him, I could tell he was about five years old. He had blond, almost white hair and his skin was very light, but was showing signs of sunburn. He was wearing a light blue tee shirt, tan shorts and sandals. His clothing looked as though it had been worn for several days. There were bruises showing on his arms that looked like a handprint where someone had grabbed him.

"What's your name, son?" I asked.

He didn't say anything until TJ went and sat down beside him. TJ wrapped an arm around him and whispered something in the boy's ear that I couldn't hear.

"Peter," he said, barely above a whisper.

"Where are your mom and dad?"

"I don't know."

"Did they leave you here?"

He nodded indicating they did.

"When are they coming back for you?"

"I don't know."

"I think we had better get you out of the sun. You look like you're getting a little burned. Will you come with TJ? He's the one sitting next to you."

Again he nodded his assent.

We all piled back into the van and drove up to the house and into the garage. With Peter sticking to TJ as if they were conjoined twins, we made our way into the house.

"Hildy, we have a guest," I said, as we entered the kitchen.

She looked up from her food preparation and saw the young boy holding onto TJ. "My goodness, where did you find him?"

I explained to her everything I knew including that his name was Peter. "I think I need to call Dr. Sam and see if he will come over and check the boy over. I also need to call Theresa Shannon. CPS probably needs to get involved."

"Sam, I've got a bottle of that Merlot that you like so well just waiting to be opened," I said after he had answered the phone.

"Okay, the last time I had that kind of invitation from you was a couple of years ago. Don't tell me you're at it again," Dr. Greene said.

"It's a little different this time, but yes I've found another stray." I went on to explain the situation. "Could you possibly come over and check him out. I'm about to call Theresa Shannon to see if she can come over. I hope she's home."

"Okay, Crane, since it's you I'll make an exception and make a house call. Also, I can't think of a better bribe than you've offered. I'll see you in a few minutes," he laughed and hung up the phone.

Thankfully Theresa was home when I called. She said she could be here in about 45 minutes. When I returned to the kitchen, Peter was sitting at the bar drinking some apple juice. From the looks of the way it was disappearing, he was very thirsty.

Sam arrived and did his examination of Peter. The report was not too bad. There were a few additional bruises other than the ones I had seen on his arm, but otherwise he appeared to be uninjured. His sunburn might be uncomfortable for a few days, but it was not serious. A topical pain relieving salve at night should be sufficient to treat it.

Sam was enjoying his glass of wine when Theresa arrived at the gate and buzzed to be let in. I met her at the front door. She commented on the new house as I ushered her inside. I explained to her everything that I knew about the boy, which wasn't much, before we went into see Peter. Once again he had attached himself to TJ.

Theresa took Peter into the spare bedroom and talked to him for about 15 minutes. When they emerged, he had tears running down his cheeks. "It looks like his parents have abandoned him," she said, as Peter went and sat down beside TJ. "I don't know why they chose to do it out here in the middle of nowhere. Maybe they were hoping you would find him. Perhaps they'd heard about you rescuing your sons." She paused, looked at Peter and shook her head. "The poor boy, how could anyone throw away such a beautiful child?"

"What's going to happen to him? Did you find out who his parents are?" I asked.

"I think his last name is Johansen. That's as close as I could come to a family name from him. I'm not familiar with any family that has had contact with the department with that last name. As far as what is going to happen to him, I don't know. What I do know is that the emergency shelters are full to over flowing. We even have children sleeping in our offices for lack of space. I know it's asking a lot, but could you keep him for the weekend? By Monday, maybe things will be better. I checked and your foster care license is still valid

"I don't know..."

"Yes, we can, dad," Joel spoke up. "It's just like when you brought me home. We can't let him go to one of those places." There were tears in his eyes as he spoke.

"You're right son, we can't. Theresa, we'll keep him until Monday."

"Thank you, Mr. Johnson. I really appreciate you doing this. I know he'll be better taken care of here than where I could place him this weekend."

"Thanks, dad," Joel said, giving me a hug.

As soon as Theresa and Sam had left, Hildy served supper. Peter ate a hearty meal, but I noticed he was a little pickier about the vegetables than my sons. He wasn't picky about the ice cream that Hildy served for dessert.

When bed time approached, I began wondering where Peter would sleep. I told the boys to go take their showers and get ready for bed. He followed TJ to his room. I guess that matter was settled. There were twin beds in TJ's room. I began searching around for some pajamas for him to wear to bed. Everything we had was going to be too big for him, but a spare pair of TJ's would have to suffice.

I tucked TJ into bed and kissed his forehead. When I went to do the same for Peter, he ducked his head under the covers, so I just straightened the covers and gave him a pat.

Saturday morning Hildy took off for Wal-Mart to get Peter some clothes to wear. Although she had washed the garments we found him in, he needed something more to wear. He was thrilled when we took him horseback riding later that day. I don't think he had ever been near a real horse before. He rode with me. I wasn't about to turn him loose on a horse by himself.

He was not really afraid of me; he just seemed to be tense around me. The only one he really appeared to feel comfortable around was TJ. Where you saw one you saw the other.

By Sunday afternoon Peter was more talkative with the boys, but would only answer any questions I posed to him with as few words as he could. I could tell the boys were growing attached to him and that worried me.

Monday morning after we had breakfast, I took my cup of coffee and went to sit in the family room to read the newspaper. The boys had gone back upstairs after they had loaded the dirty dishes into the dishwasher. I had been reading the paper for maybe ten minutes, when I heard something in front of the chair where I was sitting. I put down the paper to see my five sons standing there in front of me, grouped around Peter. I could see from their expressions that they had something on their minds.

"Dad, can we talk to you," Joel said. Evidently, being the oldest, he had been elected spokesman.

"Of course, son, what's on your mind?"

"I thought... Well maybe... If it's all right with you... Can Peter stay here with us?" he finally got it out in a rush.

"Please, dad, can he?" TJ begged.

Even though I suspected what they were going to ask, until they did, I didn't know how I was going to react. The big question was whether I was willing to take on another boy to raise?

End of Book IV

END of Book IV

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