Joel Book I and II are available in paperback as Joel - Escape from Abuse and Joel and Family. 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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I walked all around the burned area until I came to the only part of the house that had not been completely destroyed. The leftmost side of the garages was all that was left standing. The boys' bicycles, fishing gear and the BMW were all that were left whole. The BMW's paint was blistered and the two tires on the passenger side were flat. Above that part of the garage, a small part of Hildy and Manfred's apartment was still standing. I doubted that anything could be saved. If it hadn't been consumed by the fire, the water the firefighters used had probably ruined it.
"Bandit's scared," TJ said. I hadn't heard the boys come up behind me as I stood surveying the damage. "He's shaking."
"I'm sure he is." I squatted down and petted the shivering dog in TJ's arms as he struggled to hold him. "He just needs you to love him. He'll be all right."
The twins and Chris were also holding their dogs. JR was petting Chris' dog. Samson was leaning up against Joel's leg as they surveyed the charred rubble. "Are you going to build another house?" Joel asked.
"Of course, we are. You guys can help to design it. This will be a family project. It's going to take a while to get it built, but it will be as good as the old one, maybe even better."
"If we can't live here, where are the dogs gonna live?" Chris asked.
"They can stay here in their kennels until we can figure out a better place for them. We'll come every day so that you can play with them and make sure they have food and water."
"But, they'll be lonely," protested Lenny.
"I know, son, but for right now there isn't any other way. Let dad see if he can figure out something. Will you do that?"
"I guess," Lenny said, giving Buster an extra hug.
We all turned as a car drove up the driveway. I didn't recognize the car. I wondered who could be coming; we weren't supposed to be back from Orlando until tomorrow, so it couldn't be one of our friends. As soon as the man stepped out of the car, I recognized it to be my insurance agent, Ernest Boyd.
"Crane, it's good to see you, but not under these circumstances," Ernest said, coming up and shaking my hand.
"Ernest, I can think of a lot more pleasant reasons to meet. How did you know we were here?"
"Actually, I didn't. I came to survey the damages. Eric Levin left a message for me on my answering machine yesterday. I dug out a copy of your policy to check on your coverage and decided to come out here to see for myself the extent of the destruction. I can see that there is very little left. It looks like a total loss. The foundation slab is probably the only thing that can be salvaged, but we won't know about that until the rubble is cleared away."
"It hasn't been that long since I updated the policy, has it?"
"I check that out, we revised your policy in May to cover all the improvements you had made and to update the furnishings and personal property limits."
"I don't remember what my coverage is. How much of this is going to be covered?" I asked.
Ernest opened the folder he was carrying and studied it for a minute. "The structure was insured for $750 thousand. The contents, that's the furniture, were insured for $110 thousand. The personal property floater was for $75 thousand. I think that was accurate at the time the policy was updated. If you remember, we had a video inventory of the house done at that time."
"I remember," I chuckled. "Hildy complained for a week after the crew was gone because they disrupted her schedule for the whole day. I'm sure she'll be glad now that we had it done."
"The policy also covers the cost of your stay in a hotel for up to seven days while you look for a place to live temporarily," Ernest said, looking up from the folder.
"We'll probably only need that for a couple of days. I have an apartment arranged, but there is no furniture in it at the moment."
"If you need some rental furniture, I know of a good place in San Antonio that has quality stuff."
"Thanks, write down their info. I hadn't even started to think about that yet. What do I need to do to get the insurance claim started?"
"Although I can see that the destruction is total, I have to have an adjuster from the home office come and verify my estimates because of the amount of the claim. She is supposed to be here tomorrow morning at ten. You're welcome to be here when she does her thing."
"I don't know what our schedule is at this point. If it works out, I'll be here. Do you happen to have a pair of work gloves with you by any chance?" I asked him.
"I think I have a pair in the trunk of the car. What do you need them for?"
"I want to check to see if I can get to the floor safe in my former den. I have some important papers in there that I would like to retrieve. It looks like there isn't that much debris in the area of the safe."
Ernest returned with a pair of badly worn work gloves that he handed to me. I put them on and walked to where I believed the safe was. After pushing aside some burned timbers and a lot of ash, I located the safe. It took a while before the dial was sufficiently cleaned to allow me to work the combination. It took me two tries to get the lock open. Thank goodness the papers were in excellent condition. Although I could always get certified copies from the court house, there were several keepsakes of my parents that could not have been replaced. I emptied the contents of the safe and carried them back to where Ernest and the boys were standing.
I started to hand the soot covered work gloves back to Ernest, but he laughed and said I could keep them. We talked for a few more minutes while the boys went off to play with their pets. He had barely gotten into his car to leave before another car drove up the driveway. I recognized it immediately as Manfred's. He and Ernest spoke briefly before Ernest drove away.
"Crane, I wish I had been here, maybe some of this could have been saved," Manfred said, as he approached and shook my hand.
"You could have been killed, too. I'm just glad that nobody was hurt. We lost a lot of possessions and a few irreplaceable memories, but we'll make more. When is Hildy going to return?"
"She's planning on flying back on Monday. She is going to be sick when she sees this. I promised to call her this evening after I had seen the damage. She'll worry herself to death. The first thing she's going to ask me is where we're going to live."
"Tell her not to worry. I have arranged for us to live in one of the apartment complexes that I own, at least for the present. All I have to do is get the apartments furnished so we can move in. I reserved a two-bedroom unit for you and Hildy just in case Gilda decided to come spend some time with you. We'll be spending a couple of days in a hotel until everything is ready. Will you need a room?"
"Thanks, Crane, but I've arranged to stay with an old friend for a couple of days. I've done him and his wife enough favors over the years, now it's time for them to reciprocate."
"Dad, I'm hungry," Larry said, as he ran up to Manfred and me.
"You're always hungry," I laughed.
"Okay, go put your dogs back in their kennels. Make sure they have plenty of food and water. How about we go eat Mexican?"
"Yea! Can we get some of those sopa things?"
"I think we might get some sopapillas if you're real good."
He giggled, "I'm always good," and ran off with Buddy at his heels.
"Manfred, would you like to join us?"
"Thanks, but I'm eating at my friend Steve's place tonight. Let me give you his phone number, in case you need to get in touch with me." He wrote the number down on the back of one of his business cards and handed it to me before he left.
While I waited for the boys to finish with their dogs, I called Barry Manson at the apartment complex to inquire about the status of the apartments. He said that everything should be ready by Saturday afternoon. I asked him if he knew anything about the furniture rental place that Ernest had given me. He said they were good, but he knew of another one he thought had better quality furnishings and if I wanted, he would call them and set up an appointment for sometime tomorrow. I agreed and asked if they would be able to come by the apartment so they would know what all we needed. He said he would and we hung up.
We had just exited the property, when we met Eric and Bran driving toward the house. "Hi, dad," JR yelled, as we stopped in the road, even before I rolled down the window.
I leaned out the window, told Eric where we were headed and asked if he wanted to join us. They agreed and we took off for the restaurant. When we arrived, JR was one of the first to exit the van. Eric's car had barely come to a stop before JR was trying to jerk his dad's car door open. It was heart warming to see the greeting between Eric and his son. Bran received the same type of greeting from JR. I think JR tried to tell them about the entire trip before we reached the door of the restaurant.
Eric and I were sitting back enjoying a cup of coffee after our meal and watching the boys devour an obscene amount of sopapillas. I could see that a trip to the restroom was in the offing before we got back into the van. There was honey and powdered sugar on all of their smiling faces. "I suppose I should find us a place to sleep tonight," I said to Eric.
"Where are you going to stay?" Eric asked.
"We'll stay in a hotel for a couple of days until our apartments are ready. We have to get them furnished first. It looks like we'll need to do some clothes shopping also. Maybe I can hold off until Hildy gets back. She loves shopping for the boys. I think we have enough to get by with what we took to Orlando."
"What about the boys' toys and things? They'll get bored very quickly living in an apartment without something to occupy their time."
"You're right, of course. It's like starting all over from scratch. I'm sure that the realization that all their stuff is gone is going to hit them before long. If there's time tomorrow, I'll take them to pick out some playthings."
"Have you considered renting some temporary buildings to put on your land? You have plenty of room."
"No, I hadn't thought that far ahead. I wouldn't even know where to start looking. I suppose I could look in the Yellow Pages."
"Why don't you go talk to that manufactured home place on I-35 north of New Braunfels? They might be able to help you, or if they can't at least point you in the right direction."
"Good idea. Even if we could get something like a couple of manufactured homes, we would still need to live in the apartments for a while. It would also solve the problem of the boys wanting to be with their dogs. I'm not too excited about living in an apartment, especially in San Antonio. I like living here in the Hill Country."
Our waitress approached and asked if we wanted anything else. I looked at the boys and was sure that they wouldn't have turned down more sopapillas, but from the looks of their faces, they had eaten enough. I signed the credit card slip and herded my five toward the restroom. Eric and his two followed.
With all traces of the sopapillas removed from the boys, we headed for the van. JR said goodbye to the boys and then came to me to give me a hug.
"Thank you, Mr. Johnson. I had a really neat time."
"You're welcome, JR. We enjoyed having you go with us. Maybe we can do it again sometime," I said, looking at Eric.
Eric loaded JR's suitcase into his car and then they took off for home. I decided that I had better call a hotel to arrange our sleeping quarters for the night before we took off. I called the first hotel I had listed in my day planner. They didn't have anything available. Thankfully the second one I called had a large suite available that would sleep the six of us. I tentatively reserved it for three nights. I thought by that time the apartments would have furniture.
When we arrived at the hotel, I found out the suite was their President's Suite. I didn't know if the insurance company would pick up the tab for it, but I didn't care. I wanted something that would comfortably sleep all of us.
I got the boys up early on Saturday morning. I wanted to be at the house when the adjuster got there, but I didn't think the boys would be too interested. I had other plans for them. I made a call to Rosie and Tracy Smith to see if they would consider going riding with the boys while I was occupied. They said they would be happy to ride with them. I hadn't told the boys my plans until I knew of the Smith's availability. It instantly met with their enthusiastic approval.
We arrived at the farm just after nine. I told Tracy that I would be gone for an hour or two at the most. He said not to worry, that he and Rosie would keep them busy while I was gone. I took Joel aside and told him what I was going to do. I asked him to keep an eye on his brothers. I knew he would take the responsibility seriously.
The insurance adjuster had not arrived when I got to the house. I went to check on the dogs. When they saw me, they started barking and racing around the enclosure. I'm sure they thought the boys would be with me. I petted and scratched each one's ears before I filled the food bowls and made sure their water was clean.
The adjuster arrived about twenty minutes later apologizing for being late. She said she got lost. I told her that was not that uncommon for people who had never been here before. She went to work making notes and taking measurements. I followed her around, but she never spoke other than a few muttered words that were not aimed at conversation. When she completed her inspection, she said she agreed with my agent that the house was a total loss. She said the claim would be processed the first of the week and a check would be issued for the policy limits within ten days. The entire process took only a little over half an hour.
When I got back to where the boys were, they were still out riding. I took a seat in one of the lawn chairs that the Smiths had under a large live oak tree to wait for them to return. Although it was July, the temperature was not too warm and there was a good breeze blowing. It was quite comfortable sitting there.
About twenty minutes later the boys came into view riding their horses at a trot. I was glad they had not decided to gallop the horses. I thought they still needed more time in the saddle before they started racing their mounts.
I thanked the Smiths for their watching the boys while I was gone. I asked them if there was anything around the farm that needed attention. They said the only thing that might need some attention was the fence between the longhorns and the rest of the farm. It was still holding, but if the bull decided to test it, the fence might not hold. I told Tracy if he needed to call in someone to repair it to do so and have the bill sent to my accountant.
After the boys had their horses brushed and back in the stalls, we took off for the hotel. I wanted to get the horse smell washed off before we went anyplace. While the boys washed up, I called Barry Manson. He informed me that the furniture rental representative would be at the apartment around three this afternoon and asked if that would be convenient for me. I told him it would.
The boys had missed their morning snack and complained they were starving to death as we got back into the van. We stopped at a MacDonald's on the way out of town to stave off their starvation. I had decided to take Eric's suggestion about possibly putting some manufactured homes on the property temporarily and to check out the place he mentioned.
I was impressed when we got to Harbour Towne Homes. I had always considered manufactured homes as glorified trailer houses. Some of the ones the salesman showed us were very nice. When I asked him about the possibility of leasing, he scratched his head for a moment before saying he would have to talk to his manager. He went off and we looked around some more.
Butch, the salesman, came back shortly to tell me that one of the companies they represented did lease units. He explained that they were not the typical units that were on display, but were modules that could be assembled into as something as large as we wanted. He showed me a brochure that identified the modules that could be put together. They included kitchen and eating area modules, bedroom and bath modules, and living room/den/game room modules. Each of the modules came in various sizes to fit a family's needs. I told him that I would need to study over the brochure and would get back to him sometime in the near future if we decided this was the way we wanted to go.
It was almost two-thirty by the time we headed back to San Antonio, so I decided it was a good time to show the boys where we were going to be living, at least for a while.
"This is nice," Joel said, as I drove up to the gate and pressed the intercom button.
When a voice answered the intercom, I explained who I was and the gate swung open to admit us. I stopped the van in front of the leasing office. We were greeted by Barry Manson. I introduced the boys to him before he asked us to follow him. He opened the door to our soon-to-be temporary home and ushered us inside. The apartment was very nice. I could tell that it had been recently and thoroughly cleaned. It was small, but it would have to do for a while.
TJ tugged at my sleeve and whispered, "Where's Hildy gonna sleep?"
"Hildy and Manfred will have their own apartment. It's up on the next floor. We'll look at it after while."
Barry received a call on his cell phone informing him the decorator from the furniture rental place had arrived. A few moments later she knocked on the apartment door. I'm glad she was as thorough as she was. I would never have thought of half the things she pointed out that we needed. When she was finished with our apartment we went to Hildy and Manfred's. She did her same thorough job with it. I just hoped that Hildy would be satisfied with what we picked out. The decorator said that if Hildy didn't like something she could call and have whatever it was replaced. She said the furniture would be delivered Monday afternoon.
When we were finished I took the boys back to the hotel and planned to spend some time in the hotel pool.
Sunday morning I let the boys sleep late. Yesterday had been a busy day. We went to see the dogs, played with them for a while and then went horseback riding. Chinese food was on the menu for supper.
Monday was the day the boys were waiting for. It was the day that Hildy was due back. I volunteered to pick her up at the airport. Her plane was due in at 1:17 PM. Naturally, it was about ten minutes late arriving at the gate. I was barely able to keep the boys from rushing the arrival gate to get to Hildy. They grew restless as more and more passengers exited the gangway and Hildy hadn't shown up. When they finally spotted her there was no holding them back. They nearly bowled her over as they surrounded her with their hugs. In the excitement, we didn't notice that Gilda was right behind her. I did my best to usher the boys out of the way of the other departing passengers.
I greeted Gilda since I couldn't get near Hildy. She stood there shaking her head and chuckling to herself at the boys' display of affection for Hildy. I was finally able to separate them from Hildy and get them to greet Gilda and for me to greet Hildy. She gave me a big hug and told me how sorry she was for the loss of the house. I could see tears in her eyes. I didn't know if it was from the boys' enthusiastic greeting or the thought that the house was gone or possibly both.
While everyone else went to collect the luggage, I went to get the van from the parking garage. They were waiting on the curb as I drove up. It was a tight squeeze, but we were able to get everyone in the van and buckled up. I headed for the apartment, hoping that the furniture had been delivered. When we arrived the furniture delivery was in progress. The men had about half of the furniture in our apartment and hadn't started on Hildy's. I was glad of that. It would allow her to arrange things to her liking.
I sent the boys to show Hildy and Gilda to their apartment and to keep them out of the way of the delivery men. It didn't take long for the men to finish with our apartment. When I looked around, it dawned on me that we didn't have any bed linens, towels or even any dishes, let alone any groceries. It looked like we would be going shopping this afternoon. Not my idea of a fun way to pass the time.
By four o'clock Hildy had everything arranged in her apartment and was ready to go do some shopping. Gilda volunteered to stay with the boys while Hildy and I did the shopping. It was a good thing that the boys didn't go with us because the van was stuffed with all the things that we bought. I think the numbers were worn off my credit card. Even with the boys' help we were all worn out by the time we finished moving everything from the van into the apartments.
While Hildy loaded the new dishes into the dishwasher for a quick wash, I called for pizza delivery. Gilda started washer loads of new bed linens to remove the new smell and stiffness. Manfred arrived shortly before the pizza. The conversation over the pizza consisted of the boys taking turns relating their experiences in Orlando. The stories were short because they had to be fitted in between bites of pizza.
Over the next few days things began to settle down. Life in the apartment had become routine, if not comfortable. Space was definitely limited and it seemed that we were always in each other's way. On several occasions I took out the brochure for the home modules trying to work out what would work if we went that way. I consulted Hildy and Gilda to get their ideas. I could tell that Hildy was not happy in the apartment. She much preferred the open un-crowded spaces that the Canyon Lake area offered. I did, too.
I contacted two architects to get their ideas on designing our new house. I gave them both a commission and asked them to present their proposals within two weeks. I wanted to get the process started as quickly as possible.
Due to my busy schedule, I had to reschedule the meeting with Carlos to discuss the sale of the land the builder was interested in purchasing. We finally met on Wednesday and came up with a counter offer to the would-be buyer. It was much more than what we expected to receive for the land, but it would get their attention.
I didn't hear anything from Carlos until the following Tuesday. Their counter offer was more in line with what Carlos and I had decided what the land was worth for what they wanted to do with it. There was a condition attached to the offer. They wanted the right of first refusal on the three hundred acres adjacent to the tract they wanted to buy. I told Carlos to go ahead with the sale. If the sale closed, I would make a tidy profit on the land. The sales price was nearly ten times what I had paid for the land a few months prior. I wished that all my investment had the same rate of return.
I asked Carlos to investigate the possibility of additional land purchases in the northwest area of Bexar County before the news of the sale became public and caused the prices to inflate. I would need to purchase land with the proceeds of the sale in order to avoid a lot of the taxes on the proceeds of the sale.
Our lives soon developed a routine. The boys and I would get up. Hildy would have our breakfasts ready. We would go to the house (I still think of it as the house even though it is no longer there) and play with the dogs. Then we would either swim or go horseback riding. Three days a week, Marie would bring Ricky and clean our apartment. Gilda fell in love with the little imp. In order for us to use the pool at the house, I had to get the electrical power restored and have the pool refilled with water before we were able to use it. Sometimes I would drop Joel off at the golf course for his golf lesson, while the other boys and I would go riding. Thankfully, Joel's golf clubs had been in the trunk of the BMW and were not damaged in the fire.
One full day was taken up with Hildy and me taking the boys to buy new clothes. The only clothes they had were the ones we had taken to Orlando in their suitcases. Hildy was in her element. How anyone could enjoy shopping as much as she did amazed me. I was exhausted after the first hour. I ended up making a seemingly endless number of trips to the van loaded down with the purchases. It was nice to know the insurance claim check was due any day. I think we had spent a large chunk of it already.
On Tuesday in the last week of July, I got a call from one of the architects informing me that he had his design ready to present. I made an appointment to meet with him in his office the next morning. Hildy said she and Gilda would take the boys to the house to play with their dogs and to swim. She wasn't keen on taking them horseback riding.
I was on my way to the first architect's office when I received a call from the other one saying his design was also finished. I made arrangement to meet with him on Thursday morning.
Anthony Gardner, the first architect, greeted me enthusiastically and ushered me into a small conference room. After offering me a cup of coffee, which I accepted, he laid out the elevation of the proposed house. It appeared to be an elegant two-storey, elegant but not pretentious. It was somewhat similar to the old house from the front view. It was built in a U-shape with plenty of garage space and an apartment for Hildy and Manfred. That was one of the requirements that I insisted on when I commissioned the design.
Next he went over the floor plan, explaining to me the location of each room and its function. I was impressed that he had listened to me when I explained my requirements and had incorporated them into the design. He had improved on many of my ideas. We spent nearly two hours going over the design. When I asked what he estimated the cost to build his design, he was reluctant to give me a precise figure. He said he would need to do a more thorough analysis of raw material prices first. I finally got him to give me a ballpark figure after I promised not to hold him to his estimate if his design was selected. His estimate was $1.3 million for construction and eleven month build.
I took a copy of the design home with me. I wanted Hildy and Manfred to go over them with me. I also wanted the boys to see them. There were a few things that I thought I would like to change, but I wanted input from others before changing anything. When I showed it to them, they came up with several very good ideas.
Thursday morning I arrived at William Gessler's office to view the second design. He first showed me a scale model of the design. It was a two-storey Spanish inspired structure with stucco and stone exterior and a red tile roof. It was built around a courtyard in the middle, enclosing it on all four sides. Inside it was very modern, almost industrial. I liked the layout of the floor plan, but wasn't that enthusiastic about all the chrome and mirrors he proposed using. He had done a good job of incorporating my ideas into his design. When I asked for the cost to build his design, he was reluctant to put a price on it. As I had with Anthony Gardner, I assured him I only wanted a ballpark figure. He thought for a minute before he offered $1.5 million and about 12 months to build. He said that could be off $200 thousand either way.
He graciously allowed me to take the scale model as well as the drawings home with me to show the family. Hildy was with me about the ultra modern interiors, but she loved the layout of the house. The model did an excellent job in selling the design. Hildy had only minor suggestions about how the kitchen layout could be improved. The boys thought this was the better design also.
I couldn't see us living in the apartments for another year while the new house was being built. I had my realtor scout around for a house to rent that would fit our needs, but he was unable to come up with anything that was better than the apartment. Reluctantly, I decided to lease some of the modular units and have them installed on the property. It took almost two weeks from the time I signed the contract for their lease before the modules were installed. It took that long, also, to run the water and electric connections. The most difficult was connecting the sewage lines to the septic system. That involved installing a pump to lift the waste up to the existing settling tank.
We finally moved into our temporary home the week before school started for the boys. I don't know who was happier, the boys or the dogs. At last we were settled.
Although I had stepped back from my active involvement in the foundation, I still looked in on it from time to time. The Friday before the boys started back to school I stopped by the foundation's office. Darcie was on the phone, so I went to talk to Carol and Paul. It had been some time since I had talked to either one. We were enjoying a cup of coffee when Darcie came into the conference room where we had migrated. There was a tear streaming down her cheek.
"Darcie, what's wrong?" I asked.
"You remember that young man, Jason, you had me contact CPS in Kansas about?"
"Yes, of course. Why?"
"I just got a call. He's dead."
To be continued.
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