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Chapter 90 – Let the Fireworks Begin

 

I stopped in the kitchen on my way to join the gabfest taking place in the living room and just about lost it on the sight that greeted me.  And while I managed to internalize the hearty guffaw that was about to escape, there was no covering up the rather piggish snort of laughter that refused to remain contained.

 

Ron quickly closed the oven and spun around to look at me, “What?”

 

“Nice apron, ya goofball,” I snickered.  “It, uh, really brings out the blue in your eyes.”

 

“Thanks, I kinda like it, too.  Did you know these things are good for more than just protectin’ your junk when cookin’ bacon and burgers?”

 

“Never thought about ‘em that way, I guess.  ‘Course, there was never that much concern about it before recent times.  Were you able to get it on in time?” I asked with a smirk.

 

“Barely,” he chuckled.  “While Arlene and her boys just missed seeing the sun, I was still tying the back and they got a really good gander at a full moon,” he added with a snigger.

 

“Oh god, please don’t say gander around me.  Not for a while, anyway,” I moaned.

 

“Why not?”  I quickly filled Ron in on our exciting and terrifying return to Illinois, Ron’s expression changing with each new detail.  When I finished the tale, he wrapped me in a hug and whispered, “Glad you’re all safe.”  That bit of drama handled, it was time to move on.

 

“So, how’d they react to your, uh, uniform?” I queried.

 

“I think the boys were just embarrassed at seeing another guy’s bare ass, but Logan’s aunt seemed to like what she saw.  Quite a bit, I might add.”

 

“Uh-oh,” I chortled.  “Of course, she’s been married to that asshole Troy for so long, she’d probably take a shot at any halfway decent-lookin’ piece of beefcake these days.”

 

“Thanks, Max, I’ll take that as a compliment,” he grinned.  “We’re cool, though.  Once Logan got done tryin’ to pop my head off with his hug and saw her checking me out from head to toe the way she was, the little squirt quickly let her know it would never work since I’m not into women,” Ron giggled.  “Damn, I missed that brat when he was down there.  Glad he gets to stay for good now.”

 

“We all are,” I agreed.  “Tom and Mike won’t be back for a while yet.  Is that gonna cause a problem with your supper schedule?” I asked.

 

“Nope, I kinda planned for a flexible time.  The ribs have been in the oven for about four hours now and by the time we’re ready to sit and chow down, the meat should be fallin’ off the bone.  I’ll just need a little heads up to get the all-rotten taters in and crank the temp on the oven so they’ll be ready at the right time.”

 

“Well, he was just pullin’ off the interstate into Normal when we talked, so figure close to two hours from now.”

 

‘I’ll keep an eye on everything like always, Max, but that at least gives me a rough time to work towards.  It’s four-thirty now, so I’ll pop the potatoes in, say, about six.  They’ll be ready to go about seven, then.  Sound workable to you?”

 

“Yep, sounds like a plan to me,” I agreed before adding, “Make it so.”

 

“Yessir, Cap’n Picard, sir!” Ron retorted with a half-assed salute while crossing his eyes and sticking his tongue out at me.

 

“Don’t ever change, Ron,” I laughed.  “I needed that right about now.”

 

“Always happy to help, boss.”

 

“You will join us shortly, right?”

 

“Affirmative, Cap’n,” he laughed.

 

“The first smartass doesn’t stand a chance against you,” I muttered as I turned to join the rest of the family and finally have a chance to sit down with Arlene, Daril and Arley and have an enlightening discussion.

 

During the next hour and a half, we learned Arlene is thirty-seven, Daril is sixteen and Arley, fifteen.  Arlene and Troy had been high-school sweethearts and married the summer after they graduated from high school, just as everyone expected they would.  Life had been pretty good the first several years of their lives together.  They borrowed money from their parents, bought 300 acres of land and planted the peach and apple trees that would later become their orchard.  Both worked other jobs while they waited for the trees to start producing the fruit that eventually became their main source of income.  Troy and Arlene worked together during weekends to make sure the trees they’d planted were healthy and growing as they should.

 

Four years after their marriage began, Daril was born and Arley followed just over a year later.  By that time, the orchard had become a profitable business and their futures looked to be very secure.  They built a house to replace the mobile home they’d started in, constructed the dam to create the lake behind their home and subdivided the property around the small lake into fifteen separate home lots.  With the income received from the sale of those lots, they were able to pay back the loans to their parents and the loan from the bank they’d taken out to build their new home.  Yes, life was certainly looking good for the young family. 

 

When Arley and Daril reached the age of seven or eight, they joined Troy working in the orchard, mostly helping to pick the ready for market fruit from the lower branches they could reach while other workers took care of the higher ones with the aid of ladders.  Once picked and loaded onto a wagon, the harvest was hauled to the shed where it was machine sorted by size and then loaded into bushel baskets and half-bushel bags.

 

The young boys’ real forte at the orchard was their salesmanship, though.  They had thoroughly enjoyed spending their evenings and weekends at the shed, using their charm and cuteness to entice customers into buying more than they really needed.   When they felt folks weren’t stepping up to the plate, they’d put on a sad puppy dog face to seduce them into buying even more.  Both boys blushed with embarrassment as Arlene touted their finely-honed skills.

 

Unfortunately, it all started to go to hell in a handbasket five years ago when southeast Missouri was dealt a serious blow due to a drought that killed almost a third of the trees in the orchard.  They tried irrigating from the lake, but all too soon, it ran dry and was ultimately of little help.  The next year was even worse because of a late freeze.  Despite hiring helicopters to fly over the orchard for four nights in a row in an attempt to force slightly warmer air down to the ground and keep the blossoms from succumbing to the extremely low temperatures, the effort and the year were almost a complete loss.  And after having run through their reserves the previous year, they went back to their parents to borrow more money to keep themselves afloat.

 

With the boys now being eleven and twelve, their grandparents gladly pitched in what they could to ensure food would be on the table and property taxes were paid on time.  During that year, Troy became increasingly obsessed with keeping the family business going and more and more despondent over his failure to adequately support his family.  When another year rolled around, the parents were tapped out and unable to continue providing even minimal support for their kids and grandkids.

 

That was when Troy began going to extreme measures to keep his dream alive, borrowing money from the unsavory type of people who don’t take very kindly to people who can’t repay their debts. His depression about the situation and the stress of dealing with such shady individuals is what led to the dark side of his nature rearing its ugly head.  As increasing pressure was applied by his ‘lenders’, Troy became angrier and angrier and it finally boiled over into the outright abuse of Arlene and the boys.  The past couple of years had been profitable again, but with the sharks circling and demanding more and more every month, Troy became exceedingly toxic and unbalanced, taking out all his frustrations on his family.

 

Arlene had planned to escape many times over the past three years, but with no money to facilitate her ideas, she and the boys were stuck in a bad situation with little hope of ever following through on her dreams of starting a new life and bringing an end to the ongoing and worsening abuse.  When Charlie died, Troy hatched his despicable plan to pilfer Logan’s inheritance by any means necessary, all in an effort to save what he’d spent the last twenty years of hard work building up.  Living with the continual threat of abuse and in fear for their lives if they didn’t go along with the deranged man, Arlene, Daril and Arley had little choice but to give in to Troy’s demands and follow his lead.

 

When Logan had finally fought back against Troy and won the war with the asshole, she knew their chance to start anew had finally arrived and the three began planning their next moves in earnest.  The only real problem they still faced was the ongoing lack of funds, and the offer from Logan to live on what was now his farm was like a sign from above.  All three were expressing their undying gratitude for Logan’s assistance, but the munchkin downplayed his generosity as if it were nothing.

 

The other big thing we learned from Arlene was that while Troy had always accused Rebecca (Becky according to Arlene) of forcing Charlie to move away from Dexter, it really wasn’t her idea.  Charlie had planned to get away from Troy as soon as he possibly could because he had seen the darkness that resided deep inside his brother’s heart and didn’t want his own family to be exposed to it.  So, shortly after Charlie and Rebecca married, they moved to New Berlin and bought the farm.  I felt fortunate in the fact that if she knew about him, Arlene didn’t bring up any mention of William.  I don’t think I could’ve have maintained my composure and kept the secret of who’s coming to dinner.

 

Arlene’s biggest concern at the moment was to make sure her sons didn’t let their educations flounder.  And while she claimed neither of them would ever be mistaken for geniuses (much to the boys’ chagrin), they did fairly well in school and were looking forward to getting started here as soon as they could.  Of course, I promised to take them to the school Monday morning to get them enrolled so their interruption would be minimal.

 

All three were looking forward to moving onto Logan’s farm.  While the boys knew there would be some work involved in living there, they were more than willing to do it for the opportunity they were being given.  They insisted they wouldn’t have any issues dealing with what needed to be done since they were both hard workers and used to dealing with tractors and other heavy equipment after all their experience on the orchard.

 

In the middle of their stories, Ron had finally joined us after taking a call in the kitchen.  Of course, he’d also slipped down to his bedroom before returning wearing a pair of shorts, causing more than a few giggles among the crew when he finally plucked Andy from his spot on the couch, taking the space and allowing the rugrat to settle into his lap.

 

Once it seemed that Arlene and her sons had run out of things to share, I asked Ron, “Who called a while back?”

 

“Nobody important.  It was Tom letting us know they’d just picked up the special delivery and were on the interstate back home.  They’re gonna zip into a Walmart to pick up a few things on the way, though.”

 

“Sounds good to me.  I’m famished and they can’t get here fast enough.”  Everyone enjoyed a good laugh at that comment.

 

“Well, I’m gonna get the potatoes in the oven and the salad ready to serve.”

 

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Arlene asked.

 

“Thanks for the offer, ma’am, but I got a handle on this,” Ron replied before getting up, setting Andy back into his original seat, and disappearing into the kitchen.

 

“Hey, Dad,” Logan started, “we was talkin’ while you was on the phone and I was thinkin’ ‘bout spendin’ the weekend at the farm to make sure they know where ever’thing is.”

 

“Well, we’ll have to think about that,” I hedged.  “Let’s see what Pops says when he gets back, okay?”

 

“Yeah, I guess,” he grumped in response.

 

“Can we go watch TV ‘til Pops and Mike get here?” Alex asked.

 

“Fine with me, guys,” I answered. 

 

As the five younger ones headed across the living room, T.J. stopped by my chair, dancing a little jig of expectation.  Daril and Arley looked to their mom, uncertain if they were allowed to join the others and Daril asked, “Can we go, too, Ma?”

 

“ ‘Course you can,” Arlene answered quickly.  “You might as well start enjoying life now that you don’t hafta worry ‘bout your dad screwin’ things up for ya no more.”  With big smiles on their faces, the two jumped up from the loveseat and followed along, hustling to catch up to the others.

 

Turning my attention to the still-hovering youngster, I asked, “What’s up, kiddo?”

 

“Is Logan’s brother really coming here tonight?” he begged quietly, eyes lit up with excitement.

 

“How long have you known?” I asked with resignation.

 

“Since right after Pops talked to that Randy dude,” he admitted.  “Alex and Joey know, too.”

 

“You three are gonna drive us crazy, you know that, right?”

 

“Yep,” T.J. replied happily with a huge grin flooding his face.

 

“Yes, William’s going to be here for the weekend,” I admitted, “but keep it under your hat, please.”

 

T.J. immediately lifted both hands to the top of his head and giggled, “Uh, what hat?”

 

“You know what I mean, ya goofball.  Now scoot,” I added with a light swat on his behind.  “And mum’s the word, you hear me?”

 

“Even when you don’t say it out loud, Dad,” he chirped as he hauled ass to the theater.  When he’d moved on, I turned back towards Arlene and saw a look of shock on her face at T.J.’s question.

 

“Did I hear that right,” she muttered in disbelief.

 

“Yes, Logan has a brother,” I replied.

 

“We never knew nothin’ ‘bout that,” she breathed quietly.  “I can’t believe Becky never mentioned him all these years.  How’d you find out ‘bout ‘im and where’s he been?”

 

“William was mentioned in Charlie’s will.  According to that, he was born shortly after Charlie and Rebecca bought the farm, and with them just starting out and not having much money at the time, they decided William would be better off being adopted by someone who was in a better place to raise him.  Unfortunately, he never found his forever family and has been in state care for the last fifteen years.”

 

“Sure sounds like somethin’ those two would do,” Arlene nodded.  “Always more worried ‘bout somebody else than themselves, they was.  Ol’ Charlie’d give you the shirt off his back if it was the last thing he owned, and Becky, well, she’d feed a person in need ‘fore her own family, even if it was the last can of beans in the cupboard.”

 

“Well, we’re kind of hoping this weekend goes well as we’d like to finally give William a real home.”

 

“Don’t s’prise me none,” she commented.  “I hope it works out for y’all, too.”

 

Changing topics, I asked Arlene, “Are you absolutely sure you’re okay with our lack of a dress code around here.  We really don’t like for our guests to be uncomfortable.”

 

“Yeah, y’all are fine.  It’ll take some gettin’ used to, but we will.  Just don’t expect us to follow suit.”

 

“That’s fine with us, Arlene,” I replied as the phone rang again.  Expecting it to be Tom calling to let us know they were finally on the way home from Walmart, I was ready to continue our chat when Ron yelled from the kitchen.

 

“Hey, Max, you wanna talk to some guy named Ray!?  Says he works for Channel 17.”

 

“Sure, Ron,” I yelled back.  “Excuse me a minute, Arlene, I need to take this.”  I picked up the phone from the coffee table and greeted him with, “Afternoon, Ray.  How ya doin’?”

 

“Pretty well, Max.  How’s everyone out there?”

 

“Still suckin’ air and takin’ sustenance,” I joked.

 

“That’s good to hear.  Listen, the reason I called is I’m in Springfield tonight and have something for you guys.  Would it be okay if my wife and I were to swing by, say around seven-thirty or eight?”

 

“Um, yeah, I guess that’d be okay.  We have some company for dinner and we’ll probably be eating then, but if you don’t mind watchin’ some pigs at the trough, you’re welcome to stop in.”

 

“We won’t stay long, I promise,” he replied, adding, “I just want to get this out of my hands so I’m no longer responsible for it.”

 

“Sounds like whatever it is must be important,” I commented, intrigued with what he had to deliver.

 

“You have no idea,” Ray intoned mysteriously.

 

“Think you can find us in the dark?”

 

“Piece o’ cake, man.  Just head up the road and look for the little red schoolhouse,” he cracked.

 

“Yep, that’ll work.  Well, we’ll see you in a while, then.  Thanks for calling.”  Hanging up the phone, I turned to Arlene and said, “Looks like we’re going to have an unexpected visitor tonight.  I hope he won’t delay us getting you to the farm by too much.”

 

“Psshh, don’t you worry none ‘bout that, Max.  We certainly don’t ‘spect y’all to put your lives on hold for us,” she commented before we moved on to other topics.

 

 

I took the 6th Street exit ramp at twice the posted speed because, well, we are in a Shelby and I can, so why not?  Mike was hooting with glee from the back seat and I noticed a tiny hint of something resembling a smile from Will as well before I had to slow down for the stop sign at the end of the ramp.  A couple of quick right turns and we were in the parking lot of Walmart, searching for a safe place to leave the ‘Stang while we took care of our shopping.  As usual, I ended up about the middle of the large paved and well-striped area, away from other cars to minimize the chance of somebody dinging Max’s baby with their door or shopping cart.

 

Mike was leading the way as we hoofed it across the lot and I asked William, “So, are the other clothes you brought with you like the ones you’re wearing?”

 

“What’s wrong with what I got on?” he retorted angrily.

 

“Nothing, really, they just don’t seem to fit you very well,” I replied.

 

“Well, yeah, I can’t argue that a bit.  If I didn’t have a belt on, my jeans would’ve fallen right off my ass as soon as I got outta the car.  ‘Course, you’d probably like that, wouldn’t ya?”

 

“Well, not particularly,” I lied smoothly, knowing full well I’d like nothing more than to see young Will wearing nothing but a smile.  Of course, not in the middle of Walmart’s parking lot.  Mike shot me a quick knowing look over his shoulder, his face was filled with a huge grin and I knew he was thinking, ‘Whatchu takin’ ‘bout, Pops?’  After a quick negative shake of my head and a wink to the youngster, I returned to Will and asked, “Would you like to get some new clothes that fit better while we’re here?”

 

“Yeah, guess so.  As long as you’re springin’ the dough for ‘em ‘cause I got none.”

 

“That was my intention,” I agreed.

 

“Fine by me, mister, but don’t you go thinkin’ you can buy me ‘cause I ain’t for sale.”

 

“I would hope not,” I replied.  “ ‘Specially since it’s illegal to sell people, even smart-mouthed little punks like you.  I’d probably have to pay somebody big bucks to get them to take you off my hands,” I added with a smirk.

 

“Yeah, good luck with that,” he snorted in reply.

 

After about twenty minutes browsing the boy’s department, we had picked out a decent assortment of socks, underwear, some shorts and t-shirts, and, of course, the swimsuit that had necessitated our little shopping spree.  After that, we made a quick stop in the shoe department to pick up a new pair of tennis shoes to go with everything else, then headed for the checkout lanes.  Using my recently acquired debit card that was linked to a seemingly bottomless account, we paid for our purchases, headed out of the store, loaded everything into the trunk and hit the road for home.  Once on the interstate, I called to let them know we were on the way and hungry enough to eat a hippo or two.

 

 

Arlene and I were still chatting about getting her and the boys settled into their new home when Ron yelled from the kitchen, “That was Tom and they’re on the way!”

 

“Oh boy, this is gonna be fun,” I giggled excitedly.

 

“I hope it turns out the way you want,” Arlene smiled.

 

“Well, yeah, it would really suck if it doesn’t,” I agreed.  The two of us headed across the house to join Ron and I asked, “Have you told the boys yet?”

 

“Nope, gonna let you have that privilege tonight,” he replied with a smirk.

 

“No problem.  I’ll get ‘em out here to set the table.  We should be ready to eat when the others get here, then.”

 

“Um, what about Logan’s surprise?” Arlene queried.

 

“Well, the food can stay in the oven until the excitement’s worn off,” Ron replied.  “Then, once everyone has chilled out a bit, it’ll only take a minute or two to get it all on the table since it’s all cooking in its own serving dish.”  He then turned to me and added, “You better get those rugrats on the stick.  With Tom’s lead foot when he’s in the Shelby, they could be here a lot sooner than normal.”

 

“Oh crap, didn’t think about that,” I muttered as I spun on my heels and headed for the theater to roust the work crew from in front of the boob tube.  As the herd descended on the kitchen, we were surprised to find Daril and Arley were carrying their shirts, pants, shoes and socks, but they were still wearing their loose-fitting boxers and ball caps with the orchard’s logo on them.  “If you guys want to drop your clothes on the couch for now, go ahead,” I offered.

 

“Thank you, sir,” Arley drawled.

 

“Max is fine, boys.”

 

“Is that okay with you, Ma?” Daril asked.

 

“Fine with me long as it’s okay with Max,” she answered.  “I can’t believe you two have gone as far as you have, especially so quickly,” she added.

 

“Well, seems kinda ridiculous for us to be dressed like we’re working in the orchard when none of ‘em ain’t got a stitch on,” Arley replied.

 

“That’s your call, boys, whatever you feel comfortable doing,” Arlene said.

 

“Thanks, Ma.  We didn’t much figger you’d care,” Daril commented.  On that note, the two disappeared across the house, deposited their clothes in the living room and returned, big smiles on their faces.

 

Arlene quickly commented, “If you two should ever decide you’re wanna lose the boxers, too, I won’t have no problem with that, neither.”

 

“Uh, don’t see that happenin’, Ma,” Arley grunted in reply.

 

“Nope, me either,” Daril agreed.  “Ain’t ready for you to be seein’ me in my wherewithal.”

 

“Don’t you two forget I used to change your diapers and help you in the bath, so I done seen what y’all got already.”

 

“Not for a long time, you ain’t,” Arley argued.

 

“ ‘Sides, after seein’ nothin’ but your daddy’s diseased and worthless, um, you know what the past eight or nine years, I think I deserve to see some nice, young, healthy tallywhackers,” Arlene commented with a laugh.

 

Both boys snorted loudly and Daril retorted, “OHMIGOD, TMI, MA, TMGDI!”  He then plugged his ears with his fingers and started humming to himself to block out any other sounds.

 

“You wanna see that, Ma, there’s five boys right there,” Arley added while pointing to the group coming out of the kitchen to start their job.  He then turned to T.J. who was busy placing the plates around the table and asked, “You need any help, guys?”  I was pretty sure he only asked to get out of the embarrassing conversation with his mother, but he got a taker anyway.

 

“Sure, dude,” T.J. answered.  “Ron says we need salad bowls, too, but I can’t reach them without the stepladder.  You wanna grab them?”

 

“Sure, where they at?”

 

“Just ask Ron and he’ll tell ya.”  Arley soon disappeared around the corner, then came back with thirteen bowls and started placing them next to each plate.

 

“What ‘bout me?  Anything I can do?” Daril asked.

 

“It looks like we’re gonna need another chair,” Andy piped up.  “Why don’t you grab one from one of our bedrooms?”

 

“Be right back.”

 

Arlene had a mild look of surprise on her face and muttered, “Those two have never helped out ‘round the house, not in fifteen damn years.  What the devil’s got into them?”

 

“New attitudes to go with their new lives?” I posited.

 

“Could be, I s’pose.  Whatever it is, I sure ain’t gonna complain none,” she laughed. 

 

Logan was soon delivering drinks to the table once they’d been prepared by Joey and Alex and when he’d finished his rounds, every plate had a glass next to it.  Confused by that development since I hadn’t heard them ask what anyone wanted for their beverage, I called the twins over and asked, “How can you be sure you got all those drinks correct?”

 

“There he goes with those silly questions, again,” Alex joked while looking to Joey.

 

“Yeah, you’d’a thunk he done figured it out by now,” Joey giggled in reply.

 

“Okay, okay, ya got me there,” I muttered.  “But how do you know what a certain someone wants?  I mean, you’ve never even met him before.”  After taking a quick look around to ensure nobody else could hear, they leaned in close and provided the answer.

 

“We got it from Logan,” Joey whispered.  Seeing the confused look on my face, Alex quickly waded in to clear the fog.

 

“Yeah, they may not know it yet, but those two been linked up since Logan was born.”

 

“Well, okay then.  I guess we’ll find out if you’re right soon enough,” I muttered in disbelief at their ever-growing mental abilities.  “I hope that means things go well this weekend.”

 

“Well, the start’s gonna be a bit ugly …,” Joey began.

 

“… but T.J. thinks it’s gonna turn out okay,” Alex added.

 

Hoping the three were right with their premonitions, I called all the boys over to give one last request before Tom, Mike and William arrived.  Once they’d gathered around me and Arlene in the corner of the dining room where we’d been hovering out of the way, I told them, “Okay, you all need to find some shorts to wear for a while, please.”  After numerous complaints and angry grumblings at my request, I got them to quiet down and continued, “You guys remember Ray Snell from Channel 17?”  With nods from all but Daril and Arley, I added, “He and his wife will be dropping by in a little bit and you know the rules.  Now, hop to it,” I commanded while aiming a finger towards their rooms.

 

As they shuffled off, Arley asked, “What ‘bout us, Mr. San…, uh, Max?  We ain’t got no shorts.”

 

“ ‘Cept what we got on right now, and I don’t think those count for much,” Daril grinned.

 

“I think Ron’s not much bigger than you guys and I’m sure he can come up with something,” I offered.  The two quickly returned to the kitchen and were next seen crossing the living room with Ron leading the way.

 

“Uh, Max, I hate to ask this, but how did the twins know what everyone wants to drink,” Arlene asked quietly.

 

“You’ll find out soon enough, I suppose.  Joey, Alex and T.J. all have the ability to read minds and sense feelings from other people.  It can be a little off-putting to folks who don’t know about it, but once you get used to them completing your sentences and asking questions you’re not expecting, it’s really not as disconcerting as you’d think.  At least, I don’t think so.”

 

“That’s a little spooky,” Arlene admitted with a quaver of uncertainty in her voice.

 

“Speaking of that …,” I began just as the herd started returning from their rooms.  “Well, I’ll save that story for another time, I guess.”  As Ron was following the little parade, the drive alarm dinged and the boys all started jumping around and hooting that we could finally eat.  Ron just moseyed on through the ruckus, a strange look on his face.  Daril and Arley finally rejoined the other boys and the whole group started towards the dining room to take their places at the table.

 

I followed Ron into the kitchen and quietly asked, “What?”

 

He turned to face me and answered, “Well, I pulled some clean shorts outta my dresser and tossed ‘em to those two hulks.  Since their mom wasn’t in the room, they just dropped their boxers in front of me and pulled the shorts on.”

 

“So, what’s the big deal?”

 

Ron snorted and replied, “Funny you should ask it that way.  Arley’s a cute enough little bugger and just about right for a kid his age, but that Daril’s packin’ some serious heat in his drawers, let me tell ya.”

 

“Down boy,” I commanded the panting hound dog with a chortle, patting him on his head like a good puppy.  Once we’d both calmed down, I asked, “You ready for this?”

 

“Ready as I’ll ever be, let’s go meet our special guest,” he answered.

 

Rejoining the rest of the crew in the dining room, we found Logan sitting at the end of the table with his back to the living room.  T.J., Andy and Arley were sitting on one side to Logan’s left with Alex, Joey and Daril across the table and to Logan’s right.  That arrangement left the extra chair at the end of the table next to Logan for William.  Just as we reached Arlene, who was standing by the glass doors behind the twins, we all heard the door from the garage closing and the excited chatter of Mike leading the way down the hallway.

 

“C’mon, dude, ya gotta meet everybody,” Mike was saying when he reached the end of the hall, his hand wrapped around William’s and dragging him along.

 

When Mike’s reluctant tagalong could finally be seen by all of us but Logan, Alex quietly muttered to Joey, “Holy shit, he looks just like Logan,” to which Joey retorted with a giggle, “Short little fucker, ain’t he?”  I gave the mouthy little rascals a quick finger thump to the back of their noggins for their choice of words and both spun to glare at me, eyes wide with fear.

 

“Oops, we said that out loud, didn’t we?” Alex asked, slapping a hand over his mouth with.

 

“Sorry, Dad, we meant to use the ‘inside our head’ voices,” Joey quickly added.

 

“I’ll let it slide this time, you two, but get it under control, please,” I admonished the chagrinned duo.

 

Our interaction had attracted Logan’s attention and he finally turned in his seat to see who we were talking about.  Once he spied his brother being led across the living room, Logan was out of his chair like a slice of bread ejected from an out-of-control toaster and flying towards William and Mike at full-tilt boogie.  A look of abject fear flooded William’s face at the sight and Mike was barely able to get out of the way before Logan crashed into William and tightly wrapped his arms around his older brother.

 

William’s reaction to the attack was as instant as it was surprising.  He shoved his arms down inside Logan’s grasp, pried the youngster from his bearhug, pushed him back a couple of feet and yelled, “Get the hell off me, ya little puke!”

 

Mike quickly scuttled away from the pair in fear, joining us in the dining room while Tom firmly laid a hand on William’s shoulder and yelled, “Will!”

 

Before Will could turn around or shake the hand off him, a stunned and very pissed off Logan was back in Will’s face screaming, “Who the hell you callin’ little, ya fuckin’ midget?”  It was at that point Tom decided to remove himself from the line of fire as he stepped back about five feet and allowed the two to have at it.

 

“I’m not a goddam midget, I’m just short!” Will retorted angrily.

 

“Ain’t you s’posed to be fifteen?  You ain’t no bigger than Joey’s boyfriend, and he’s only eleven.  No way in hell you’re older than him.”

 

“Whatever, shrimp!” Will grumped.  “Just get the fuck outta my face.  Who the fuck you think you are, anyway?”

 

“Well, if you had half a brain and ever looked in a damn mirror, you’d know I’m your brother, ya idjit,” Logan replied with heat.  “Or you just too all-fire stupid to see that?”

 

“Bullshit!  I don’t have a brother!” Will screamed back.  “Haven’t had one for fifteen years and sure as shit don’t need one now.  ‘Specially a spoiled little turd like you.”  A look of pure hatred flashed on Logan’s face just before he crumpled to the floor into a sobbing heap.  Tom and I started to move in to try and comfort Logan, but Will held his hands up and halted us in our tracks.  He then knelt beside Logan, put a hand on his shoulder and quietly started, “I’m sorry, man …”

 

Logan was having no part of any attempt at an apology and lashed out viciously, swinging his arms frantically and pummeling his older brother much as he had done a few weeks ago to his dad.  The whole time he was flailing away and between his continuing sobs, he was yelling, “NO!!  Just get the hell out of here then!  If you don’t want a fuckin’ brother, then I don’t either!  I already got five brothers who mean more to me than you ever could!”  He then curled back up and continued to cry.

 

Will stood up, turned to face Tom and demanded, “Take me back right now!  I tried to tell you this shit wasn’t gonna work, but you wouldn’t fuckin’ listen.”

 

“No, I don’t think so, Will,” Tom replied calmly.  “I asked you to give us a fair chance this weekend and we’re going to do the same for you.  And the first thirty seconds doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

 

“I don’t fuckin’ care, I want outta here!” Will screamed.

 

“I don’t give a shit what you want, you insufferable little prick!” Tom bellowed at the young man, stunning everyone in the house.  “You’re gonna go sit at that table and have supper with the rest of us whether you like it or not.  Now GO!” he added while pointing the way.

 

A sufficiently cowed Will angrily stalked into the dining room and grumbled, “Where’m I s’posed to sit?”  Alex nervously pointed at the empty chair next to himself and the young man slouched into the chair, looking less than thrilled at being forced into this situation.  Of course, I can’t say any of us had expected his introduction to the family to go the way it had and everyone was more than just a little uncomfortable with the somber mood that had suddenly replaced the joyful hopes of just a few minutes ago.

 

Tom had picked Logan up from the floor and carried the limp rag to the dining room.  Setting him back down on the floor next to the chair he’d just vacated, he said, “I know you probably don’t care to eat much right now, buddy, but at least try, okay?”

 

“Fine,” Logan seethed.  “But I ain’t sittin’ next to him.  I wanna sit ‘tween you and Dad.”

 

“No problem.”  Tom turned to Arlene and asked, “Would you mind trading places with Logan, please?”

 

“Absolutely,” she agreed immediately as she moved from where she was to sit next to Will. 

 

With the seating arrangement modified, Ron started bringing the ribs, au-gratin potatoes, salad and bread to the table.  With everything finally in place, we started filling our plates and digging in.  Though we knew Logan was unlikely to eat very much, I still put a little bit of everything on his plate in the hope he might change his mind.  Our meal was unusually quiet for once, nobody willing to risk reigniting the fire and fanning the flames to see a return of the screaming match we’d just witnessed.

 

Until Logan looked up from his plate and said, “So, ‘bout me staying at the farm this weekend?  Can I?”  Tom almost choked on his mouthful of food and several of the boys stared at Logan in surprise.  Looking back at them, he asked, “What?  Ain’t like I got no special reason to hang ‘round here all weekend, is there?”

 

“But don’t you wanna spend time with your brother?” T.J. asked.

 

“What the hell, man, you deaf?” Logan retorted.  “He don’t have a brother and don’t want one neither, ‘member?”

 

“I’m sure he didn’t mean it, Logan,” I offered.

 

“Sure sounded like he meant it to me,” Logan protested.

 

“Look, dude, I …” Will started.

 

Logan interrupted whatever Will was going to say when he looked around the table and asked, “Okay, which one o’ you sickos taught your asshole to talk when you fart?  That’s gross guys.”  I’d had enough and decided it was Logan’s turn to receive a quick finger thump to the back of his skull.  After dishing out the minor punishment, Logan was rubbing the back of his head when he turned back to me and asked, “What the hell was that for?”

 

“Because you’re being a rude and obnoxious little brat and it’s time you stopped.”

 

“Oh, so only he gets to be mean and nasty, huh?” Logan pressed while shaking an angry finger in Will’s direction.

 

“No, he’s done, too,” I replied calmly.  “And if I have to remind Will of that like I just did for you, I’ll be more than happy to do it.  And if I’m not close enough when it’s needed, I’m sure Tom, Ron or Arlene will gladly take care of it for me.”  All three adults promptly nodded their heads in agreement, then I looked to Will and asked, “You got it?”

 

“Yessir,” he muttered in reply.

 

“Good!  Now that we’re all happy campers again …,” I started before Logan snorted in disgust, “… let’s see if we can get the train back on the tracks and have a nice meal with some civilized conversation.  Ron, why don’t you get us started and introduce yourself to our guest, then we’ll just go around the table so Will knows who all the players are?”

 

It took almost ten minutes to hear from everyone even though we skipped over Tom and Mike since they’d just spent a couple of hours with Will.  Arlene, Daril and Arley made sure to include they were Logan and Will’s aunt and cousins just to make sure our special guest knew Logan wasn’t the only blood relation at the table.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t tell from Will’s reaction whether that meant anything to him.  He seemed to be the most interested in the twins after hearing they’d spent over four years in foster care.  The only person who didn’t join in the introductions was Logan as he was still pouting.  Everyone continued stuffing their faces when they weren’t involved and once Will had heard from everyone, Arlene tried to pull Logan into the ongoing chatter.

 

“Logan, I wanted to ask what church you and your dad went to so we could join you?”

 

“We didn’t,” Logan grumbled.

 

“Well, that don’t sound a bit like Charlie,” she countered.  “His faith was always important to him.”

 

“It mighta been at one time, and yeah, we used to go every Sunday, but we ain’t been back since momma died.”

 

“Seems to me you’d have gone more after Becky passed,” Arlene suggested.

 

“Well, it’s pro’lly all my fault he stopped goin’.  Once momma got sick and we had to watch her waste away to nothin’ while the doctors didn’t do a damn thing but twiddle their useless thumbs, I decided that god don’t exist.  I mean, what the hell kinda lovin’, all-knowin’, all-powerful god would give somebody leukemia and force their kid to watch ‘em slowly die in misery and pain?  That sure ain’t the kinda god I wanna follow and believe in, and I don’t think anybody else would want to, either.”

 

“Well, I can kinda see that happenin’,” Arlene agreed tentatively.

 

Logan continued his diatribe with, “Then, when the old man started beatin’ on me and blamin’ me for momma gettin’ sick in the first place, well that just iced it all for me.  ‘Fore momma got sick, he never laid a hand on me for no damn reason, but after was a whole other world.  Seemed like I couldn’t do nothin’ right no more, no matter how hard I tried.  And it got even worse after she died.  By the time the preacher came ‘round the house a couple o’ weeks after we buried momma, Daddy musta finally agreed with me as he done told that lyin’ sumbitch to get the hell off our property and don’t never come back.  We never went back to church after that.

 

“ ‘Course, he didn’t stop kickin’ my ass a couple times a week until the day after Joey and Alex’s birthday party.  It got so bad then, I done thought he was finally gonna kill me and I called the cops on his ass.  They took ‘im to jail and brought me over here where I could be safe.  Once he got out, he was gonna start seein’ somebody to get his shit back together.  After he done gone a few times by hisself, I was s’posed to join ‘im so we could work out our problems and I could move back home.  Too bad he up ‘n’ croaked hisself.

 

“Then, I get stuck with that ignorant asshole Troy who wants nothin’ more than to steal my money and make me disappear.  And as if all that weren’t ‘nough punishment already, I find out after daddy dies that I gots a brother I never knew existed.  I told Dad and Pops that they needed to find him so he could have his half of our inheritance.  And lookit how that’s turned out – I finally meet him and he don’t want nothin’ to do with me.

 

“So, if’n it bugs you I don’t believe in god no more after dealin’ with all that shit the past couple o’ years, tain’t my problem.”  On finishing his little soliloquy, Logan pushed his plate back from the edge of the table, laid his arms in the space he’d just cleared and rested his head on his arms, his little body shaking as he started crying again.  Tom and I quickly wrapped an arm around his shoulders in a feeble attempt to console him.

 

While everyone had taken a break from eating while Logan shared his frustrations with us, they quietly resumed cleaning their plates, all further conversation brought to a screeching halt.  Being as big as they were, Daril and Arley were the first to finish and the rest of the boys were right behind them.  With Logan still dealing with his raw feelings, the other five of our boys started their regular task of clearing the table.  Daril and Arley took the hint and followed the others into the kitchen with their own plates.

 

When Alex returned to retrieve the empty rib pan, Will asked, “What can I do to help?”

 

“Well, bring your own dishes and then come back and keep clearing the rest of the table.  ‘Course, don’t take anybody’s plate if their still workin’ on it,” he added with a little giggle.

 

“Well, du-u-uh!” Will laughed.  “I might be a pain in the ass punk, but I’m not a totally stupid one.”

 

“Then you’ll fit in just dandy with the rest of us,” Joey chuckled as he picked up the dish holding just one lonely serving of au gratin potatoes.

 

As the trio headed into the kitchen, I caught the first glimpse of what I’d consider to be a smile forming on Will’s face.  I was silently hoping that small break in the ‘tough-guy’ façade he’d been wearing since arriving would be the beginning of something positive but, as usual, only time would answer that question.  Since Logan had finally stopped his quivering, Tom and I took advantage and quickly finished our supper so the cleanup crew could continue their task without delay.

 

Soon enough, T.J. snuck between us, gently laid a hand on Logan’s head and asked, “You done eatin’, bro?”

 

Logan finally lifted his head, looked up to T.J. and answered, “Naw, I guess not.  If’n I don’t eat now, I’ll be starvin’ like Marvin at three in the mornin’.  I think Ron’d kick my skinny little behind up ‘tween my ears if I woke him up to fix me somethin’ then.”

 

“You got that right, farm-boy,” Ron agreed with a smirk.

 

T.J. patted Logan’s back before he moved on to grab Tom’s plate.  Logan then pulled his back to the edge of the table and dug in.  He must’ve been hungry because he didn’t let the fact the food was cold slow him down in any way.  Once he’d wiped out the two ribs and spoonful of potatoes I’d dished up for him, he shoved the empty plate out of the way and attacked his salad with gusto.  He made short work of the greens and was just reaching for the breadbasket when Andy tried to grab it.

 

“Oh, no you don’t,” Logan demanded.  “I’m still hungry,” he added while grabbing a slice, plastering it with butter and drowning it with enough honey for three slices.  Once prepared, he stuffed the whole mess into his mouth in one shot so none of the honey had time to drip off the edges.

 

“Well, hurry the heck up, dude,” Andy retorted, “we wanna go swimmin’.”  With a mouth so full he looked more like a chipmunk hoarding its next meal in his cheeks than a nine-year-old boy, Logan could only nod in agreement and give Andy a quick thumbs up.  After finally finishing the first piece, he loaded up another one and stuffed it away, too.

 

Daril and Arley stepped back into the dining room to retrieve Ron and Arlene’s now empty plates and before they could return to the kitchen with them, Arlene asked with a mischievous grin, “Who the heck are you and what’ve you done with my boys?”

 

“Oh, Ma,” Arley groaned.  “It was all dad’s fault we never did nothin’ before.”

 

“What’re you talkin’ ‘bout?” she asked in surprise.

 

“He always told us that cookin’ and cleanin’ was your job and he better never catch us doin’ anythin’ to help out,” Daril answered.

 

“Well, that disgustin’, lazy, good-for nothin’ pig,” she vented.  “I’m glad we don’t have to deal with his shit no more.”

 

“We are, too, Ma,” the two agreed before taking their load to the kitchen.

 

The drive alarm suddenly dinged and Tom looked at me in surprise, asking, “Any idea who’s comin’ in this time of night?”

 

“Yeah, with all the fireworks and excitement, I forgot to tell you that Ray and his wife were dropping by,” I replied.  Ron had already left his place at the table so he could be ready at the door when they reached the house.

 

“Um, we’re not doing another interview, are we?” he queried.  “I thought once was more than enough.”

 

“No,” I chortled.  “He said he has something for us that he wants to get out of his hands.  And before you ask the obvious question, I don’t have a clue what it is.”

 

“Should boys pull on shirts?”

 

“Nah, they’re fine.”

 

We heard Ron open the front door and a little bit of chatter as he introduced himself.  The greetings completed, the door closed and the trio soon joined us in the dining room.

 

“Greetings, Tom, Max,” Ray called out cheerily as they rounded the corner.  “I’d like you to meet my wife, Donna.  Dear, this is Max Sanders and Tom Wright.”

 

“Pleasure to meet you,” Donna commented.  “I loved the interviews you and your boys did.”

 

“You’re just saying that because Ray told you to,” Tom joked.

 

“Absolutely not,” she ruffled in response.  “I thought what you all shared was important and needed to be said, especially your boys’ stories,” she added just as the whole herd finally returned from the kitchen.  “Hearing them tell about where they came from, how they ended up being adopted by two loving dads and how positive and accepting they all are about who they are was inspiring.  I hope other young people who saw your interviews will take what they said to heart and live their best lives because of the example they set.”  All six of our boys turned beet red with embarrassment on hearing her praise for them.

 

“So, seems like you’ve added to the headcount ‘round here,” Ray chuckled.  “Adopting a few more, are you?”

 

Tom and I both laughed and he answered, “Thankfully, not yet.  The lady next to you is Arlene, Logan’s aunt, and the two big boys failing to hide themselves behind the others are her sons, Daril and Arley.”  All three gave Ray and Donna a quick wave on their introduction.

 

“And the other young man in the middle there?” Ray prodded, pointing to Will.

 

“Hi,” Will replied.  “My name’s William and I’m Logan’s brother.”  On hearing that, Logan shot a fleeting but decidedly dirty look at his sibling.

 

“Well, it’s nice to meet you William, though Logan already has five brothers, doesn’t he?”

 

“Maybe, yeah, but I’m the real deal since we have the same parents,” he replied with pride, wrapping his arms around Logan and pulling him closer.  Logan seemed to be a bit uncomfortable with Will’s sudden and unexplained change of attitude but didn’t pull away from the embrace.

 

Ray looked back to Tom and I and asked, “Do I need to come back with Greg and Zeke to do another interview?”

 

“No way, José,” Will retorted.  “You aren’t puttin’ me on TV for anything.”

 

“Well, if you change your mind, make sure you let me know, okay?” Ray joked with a wink.

 

I finally decided to get right to the point and bluntly asked, “So, you said you had something for us?”

 

“Oh, right, that,” he responded.  He slowly reached into the pocket of his sport jacket and retrieved an envelope, held it thoughtfully for just a moment, then laid on the table and slid it down to Tom and me.

 

“An envelope?” I asked in surprise.  “You made it sound like it was something of major importance on the phone.”

 

“Well, the envelope itself isn’t, I suppose, but what’s inside it is,” Ray kidded.  The boys were watching all of this with intense interest, anxious to know what was hiding inside.

 

“C’mon, Dad, open it already,” Joey prodded.

 

“Yeah, quit wastin’ time, old man,” Alex quickly added.

 

With similar pleadings from all the others in the room, I stretched forward, pinched the envelope from where it rested and pulled it closer.  Not sure I really wanted to know what was inside, I leaned on the table and lifted the flap before spreading the opening just wide enough to catch a glimpse of what was contained within.  The next thing I remember was waking up on the floor, surrounded by a whole host of worry-filled faces.

 

“What happened?” I mumbled to Tom who was the closest face I could see clearly.

 

“I think you fainted,” he answered with concern.  “Musta been a helluva surprise,” he chuckled.

 

“Did I really fall off my chair?”

 

“No, after your forehead slammed into the tabletop, I laid you down and propped up your legs, just like they taught us at the Academy.  You think you can sit up?”

 

“I’m willin’ to give a try,” I answered with a grin.  With Tom’s assistance, I was soon back in my chair and being inundated with questions from everyone.  I finally held my hands up to bring a halt to the cacophony and answered with, “I’m fine now, folks.  Just a little flabbergasted.”  Seeing the looks of worry still aimed my way, I corrected that statement with a sheepish grin, “Okay, a lot flabbergasted.”

 

Never one to pass up the chance to crack wise, Joey joked, “Good to hear, old man.  We thought you done had a heart attack and we were gonna have to bury you out in the cemetery with Sammy.”

 

“Sorry to burst your bubble, kiddo, but not today,” I retorted.

 

“So, what is it?” Alex asked while pointing to the envelope still laying on the table.

 

I pushed the item over to Tom and said, “Here, you open the damn thing, I’m not taking any more chances.”

 

He hesitantly grabbed it as if a snake might slither out and strike at any moment, pried it open and pulled out what had put me on the floor.  His eyes flew open wide with surprise before he looked to me, then to Ray and then back at the item in his hand.  Shaking his head violently to make sure he was seeing things properly, he looked back to Ray and muttered, “You can’t be serious ‘bout this.  Can you?”

 

“Serious as a prostate exam, guys,” Ray laughed.

 

“What is it, Pops?” T.J. whined impatiently.

 

Tom finally turned his attention to the herd and while reading from the piece of paper he was holding with a very shaky hand, answered, “Still not sure I believe it, boys, but this is a cashier’s check for twelve million, four hundred sixty-five thousand, three hundred sixty-two dollars and twenty-three cents.” 

 

Everyone stared dumbly at Tom and then turned their attention to Ray and Donna for just a moment before all hell broke loose.  The sensational six-pack started jumping with joy, dancing with delight, and bellowing like banshees as they celebrated loudly enough to disturb Sammy and the rest of his family.  When calm had finally been restored and we could carry on a normal conversation again, it was time to get to the bottom of where the money had come from.

 

“What the hell bank did you rob, Ray?  The Federal Reserve in Chicago?” I asked.

 

“Nothing of the sort, Max,” he replied.  “What you have there is the proceeds from everyone who decided to join our station manager in helping you with your cause of helping kids.”

 

“But twelve million?” I mumbled.

 

“Yep, and there’s still more coming in every day.  Besides our own manager’s pledge of $100,000, several other stations that aired your interviews matched him.  It almost became a competition between them all.  Of course, the biggest donation was a cool mill from a Burton Productions in Los Angeles.”  Tom and I shared a quick knowing glance as Ray continued.  “That was followed up with half a million each from Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden and Wil Wheaton.  We don’t know how the hell any of them even found out about what you’re doing here since we’re pretty sure nobody in California even saw your shows, but we’re not going to argue with success.  You guys obviously run with a different circle of people that Donna and I do.”

 

“We have a pretty good idea how that happened,” Tom grinned.

 

“Well, between them and the station managers, that accounts for around five million,” I offered.  “What about the other seven?  Where’d all that come from?” I asked.

 

“All kinds of people from everywhere, from kids as young as nine to folks who are well into their nineties,” Ray replied.  “We have a list of everyone that donated, complete with their names, addresses, amount received and any other information we could glean from their letters.  Of course, we also have all the letters for you.  Let me know when you want all that delivered to you and I’ll make it happen.”

 

“Kids are giving, too?” Alex asked in surprise.

 

“They sure are.  And from their notes, some are dealing with abusive parents, some who’ve been stuck in foster care for years and others who are starting to deal with issues relating to their sexuality,” Ray answered.

 

“I told you what you all shared was important, didn’t I?” Donna added.  “You’ve obviously struck more than just a few nerves with your interviews and gotten people to put their money where their mouths are.”

 

“Well, we’ll be on our way,” Ray offered.  “It’s quite a drive back home, but we wanted to get what we’d already collected to you now.  We’ll continue to receive and track any more that filters in and get it to you as soon as we can.”

 

Still somewhat stunned at the sudden windfall, I couldn’t say much more than, “Thanks, Ray, we appreciate it.”  Finally feeling stable enough to stand without falling over, Tom and I stepped around the table and shared a quick hug of thanks with Ray and Donna.  Of course, once we were done, the boys had to join in and that took several minutes to get through all of them.  Daril, Arley and Will politely recused themselves from our standard ritual since the bearers of good tidings were strangers to them and after Andy got the last hug, Tom and I followed Ray and Donna to the front door.  After a final round of thanks, sharing our goodbyes and a quick wave as they headed down the sidewalk to their car, I slowly closed the door and unceremoniously slouched against it for a moment.

 

“Well, I guess we know how we’re going to pay for the new house,” I commented as I put my feet to work and headed back towards the dining room, Tom right next to me and holding my hand.

 

“And then some,” Tom agreed.  “I can’t believe LeVar did that.  And to get all those others to chip in the way they did?  What the hell was he thinking?”

 

“We’ll have to have a little chat with him tomorrow, don’t you think?”

 

“Without a doubt,” Tom agreed as we reached our destination.

 

The two of us broke out in laughter on seeing everybody standing around the far end of the table, gawking at the check that lay there.

 

Andy was the first to react to our presence when he tore his eyes away from the tabletop and asked, “What’re we gonna do with all that money!?”

 

“Have the biggest dang party Berlin has ever seen,” Joey answered with a laugh.

 

“We’re gonna help a whole lotta kids,” Alex countered seriously, punching his brother on the shoulder.

 

“Party pooper,” T.J. groaned.

 

“With that much green, we can do both and still have plenty left over, ya goofs,” Logan giggled.

 

Mike, seemingly not all that impressed with what the check meant, asked, “Can we go swimmin’ now?”

 

“Um, it’s a little late for that, Mike.  We still have to take Arlene and the boys out to the farm,” I reminded the group.

 

“It’s only eight, Dads.  We gots plenty o’ time to hit the pool,” Logan countered while looking to his aunt for her approval.

 

“Yeah, that’s fine by me.  I’m sure Daril and Arley wouldn’t mind a quick dip ‘fore we get settled in.” 

 

With quick affirmative nods from those two, a decision was made and Tom said, “Okay, everybody get ready and we’ll meet you at the doors in a minute.”

 

“Do we have to wear shorts?” Joey asked, looking to Arlene for her opinion.

 

“Don’t make no difference to me.  Y’all do whatever you’re used to,” she replied.  With loud cheers, the sensational six-pack tore across the house to dispense with their shorts and grab towels.

 

Arley looked to his mom and quietly asked, “What ‘bout us, Ma?”

 

“If you an’ your brother wanna skinny-dip, too, won’t bother me none,” she answered.

 

“Cool, let’s go, bro,” Daril grinned.

 

“Ron, why don’t you let them use your room to get ready?” Tom asked.

 

“You bet,” he replied with a lascivious grin.  “’Sides, it makes sense since that’s where they left their boxers.  Follow me, you two.”  That trio soon disappeared and left Will behind, a look of concern filling his face.

 

“I hope you don’t think I’m gonna swim naked, too” he protested.

 

“Only if you want to, Will,” Tom answered calmly.  “Let’s get your stuff out of the car real quick and I’ll show you where you can change.”

 

“Cool, thanks, Mr. Wright,” Will sighed with relief.

 

Tom stepped around the table, laid a hand on Will’s shoulder and guided him towards the garage.  As the duo crossed the living room, I heard Tom remind the young man, “And I told you it’s Tom and Max, none of that stupid ‘mister’ crap.”

 

“Yes, sir, I’ll try to remember that,” Will agreed just as the two reached the hallway.

 

“Well, I’m gonna put this check in the safe and get ready, too,” I commented.  “Are you going to join us, Arlene?”

 

With a tight grin, she answered with, “No, I don’t think so, Max, but thanks for the kind offer.  I believe I’ll stay inside and relax by the fireplace if that’s okay with ya.  That way my boys won’t be embarrassed by their momma seein’ ‘em in their birthday suits.”

 

“Well, if you’d like something to read, follow me and see if you can find something in my library to help keep you entertained.”

 

The two of us headed down the hallway and after opening the door to my study, Arlene started searching for something to occupy her time.  While she did that, I turned for my bedroom then stepped into the closet to deposit the check in the safe until I could do something with it on Monday.  While I was in there, I also pulled out a bit of cash to give to Arlene so they’d be able to stock up on some basic necessities tomorrow.  That taken care of, I dropped my shorts and was just wrapping a towel around my waist when Tom came in.

 

“You get Will all set?” I asked.

 

“Yeah, he’s using the bathroom at the end of the hall to get changed.  It’s a good thing we stopped at Walmart on the way to get him some shorts and some other things he needed.”

 

“I noticed his clothes didn’t seem to fit very well, but I didn’t want to say anything about it since I wasn’t sure how he’d react and didn’t want to chance pissing him off about something so inconsequential.”

 

“Considering his overall attitude about most everything, you probably would have,” Tom muttered.

 

“What’re you talkin’ about?”

 

“Well, Randy told me before we met Will that the kid is a pretty nasty homophobe.  And a few things he’s said since then seem to back that up.”

 

“Oh, geez,” I grumbled.  “Do we even want him around?  I’d hate to see how his attitudes might affect the others.”

 

“Max, you worry too damn much.  Do you really think the others will let him get away with that shit around here?  Besides, I told Will we’d give him a fair chance at proving himself as long as he’d do the same for us in return.  And the way he introduced himself to Ray and his wife seemed like a step in the right direction.”

 

“I’ll give you that, I guess, but you can’t really say he was thrilled to meet his brother, was he?”

 

“Not at all, and that really caught me by surprise.  But I guarantee you this, those six rugrats of ours will tie that punk into knots if he gets too mouthy.  They aren’t gonna put up with any shit from him against them or anyone else who’s gay.  And Logan will lead the pack, brother or not.”

 

“I don’t doubt that a bit,” I agreed with a grin.  “Well, you ready?”

 

“Yep, let’s make it so.”

 

As we left the bedroom, we bumped into Arlene leaving the study with a copy of my first book.  She looked a little surprised to see us with towels wrapped around our waists, but commented with a smirk, “Thought I’d give one of yours a shot, see if it’s any good.”

 

“Well, if you like it, you’re welcome to keep that one and I’ll give you copies of the other three.”

 

“Sounds good to me,” she agreed as we reached the foyer and spied the herd waiting for us by the doors.

 

Crossing the living room, Arlene hooked a right turn and settled into my chair by the fireplace while Tom and I waded through the crush of bodies to lead the way outside.  The boys followed along until the moment Tom unlocked the shelter door.  Once he opened the door, though, all nine were fighting to see who could hit the water first.  It really wasn’t much of a contest as with all their practice, the six-pack easily won, Daril and Arley were close behind and Will was bringing up the rear.  As for Ron, Tom and I, we dropped our towels on the table, then joined the rest.

 

As soon as we’d gotten wet, we realized there had been some advanced discussion to create teams and the attacks started.  Logan, Daril and Andy surrounded Ron, Joey, Alex, and Arley headed my direction and Will, T.J. and Mike went after Tom.  With Arley’s bulk added to the devilish quickness of the twins, after about five minutes of intense battle, I was worn out, crumpled under the onslaught and went down without any more fight.  Ron was the next to succumb and he promptly begged off any more action, wading to the far corner of the pool to relax and catch his breath.

 

I joined him soon enough and we watched as Tom continued his valiant battle, now against all nine boys.  And though he’s built like an ox and normally doesn’t have a problem with the munchkins, with Daril, Arley and Will adding their muscle to the ongoing conflict, it was only a matter of moments before the big guy was calling ‘uncle’ and escaping their clutches.  He soon joined Ron and me in our quiet corner and we spent the next forty minutes watching the boys play and have fun.

 

It was obvious that Daril and Arley were accustomed to skinny-dipping and were enjoying their freedom.  As for Will, he seemed a bit uncomfortable with the situation, but the more the group cavorted wildly, the more relaxed he became.  Not so relaxed he decided to lose his shorts, mind you, but at least he finally quit cringing every time one of the others would brush against him.  Daril and Arley had taken up a game of ‘toss the rugrat’ and the other seven were all giggling and having a blast.  Daril had no problems winning the competition and he came very close to beating Tom’s best throw.

 

With the crew starting to wind down, we decided it was time to get a move on so we could get Arlene and her boys delivered to the farm.  As the three of us climbed from the pool, the boys followed, and we were soon wrapping towels around ourselves to head back inside.  Arlene was still reading but she put down the book, lifted her head as we stepped inside and went our separate directions to run through the shower.

 

“Y’all have fun?” she asked her boys.

 

“Yeah, Ma, it was a blast,” Arley answered.

 

“We hope we can come back,” Daril added.

 

“Well, don’t see why not since we won’t be that far ‘way no more.”

 

“Sweet!” the two crowed as they shared a high five just before turning down the hallway.

 

Tom and I had just stepped under the spray in our own shower when there was a knock on the bathroom door.  “Hey, you guys mind if I climb in with ya?” Ron called out as he popped the door open. 

 

“Sure, Ron,” Tom agreed.

 

“I didn’t think Daril and Arley would think too much of me joining them,” he chuckled as he opened the glass door and stepped inside.

 

“Are you gonna go out to the farm with us?” I asked.

 

“I think I’ll just hang out here if that’s okay with you,” Ron answered.

 

“Fine with us, just checkin’.  If any of the boys want to stay home, you okay with that?”

 

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

 

“No reason, I guess, just thought you might enjoy a little peace and quiet for once, especially after all the noise we just put up with.”

 

“No big deal, guys.  Like I’ve said before, I’ve gotten used to it,” he retorted with a grin.  “I would like you to have a word with Arlene, though.”

 

“About what?” Tom asked.

 

“About whose job it is to keep things cleaned up ‘round here.  I stopped in the kitchen to get a quick drink on my way across the house and she took care of everything the boys left for me.  That’s not right.”

 

“That sounds like a conversation you should be having with her, bud,” Tom replied.

 

“What, you think I want her pissed at me?  No way, man,” he laughed.  “ ‘Sides, you two are the bosses ‘round here, I’m just the hired help.  If she’s gonna listen to anybody, it’s gonna be you.”

 

“Fine, ya big chicken, we’ll say something to her.  Can’t say it’ll do any good, though,” I responded as Tom and I stepped out of the shower and grabbed our towels.

 

“Just do your best, please,” Ron called out as we left the steamy room to dry off and get dressed.

 

We pulled on a pair of sweatpants and t-shirts before grabbing the cash I pulled from the safe earlier, heading out of the bedroom and grabbing our jackets from the coat closet to offset the chill of the late April night.  Arlene, Daril and Arley were ready to go and Logan was bouncing excitedly in front of them.  The other five were lounging in the living room with their books and it quickly became obvious none of them intended to go with us since they weren’t dressed.  Will was sitting on the hearth and staring at the floor, nervously bouncing his legs.  Before heading towards the garage, I let them know Ron would be out of the shower shortly and they needed to behave while we were gone.  With nonchalant hand waves and mumbles of agreement, we started to lead the way down the hallway.

 

“Hey, is it okay if I go with ya?” Will asked tentatively.

 

“Of course, it is,” Tom answered.

 

He jumped up from his uncomfortable seat and joined us, bringing up the rear as we stepped into the garage.  With Logan and Will being the two smallest in the group, they got stuck in the back row of the car while Arlene, Arley and Daril took the middle row.  The ten-minute ride to Logan’s farm was a quiet one and thanks to never having been here at night before, I almost missed the turn into the driveway.  If Logan hadn’t said something at just the right moment, we would have motored right on by.  Pulling in the drive, I parked beside the house like we’ve done before, and everybody started climbing from the car.  After a quick stop at the rear to grab the luggage, Logan led the way up the steps to the front porch and unlocked the door.  He quickly reached just inside and flipped the switches that would illuminate the porch and entry hall inside.

 

“Welcome to your new home, Aunt Arlene,” he said happily as he stood aside and waved them inside.

 

“Thanks, Logan,” she replied quietly, setting her bag at the bottom of the stairs.  Her boys did the same and all three loitered restlessly, unsure of what to do next.

 

“Give me just a minute to make a quick call and I’ll show ya ‘round,” Logan said as he headed for the kitchen, turning on lights as he moved through and looking around at the repairs the security company had done.  The next we heard was, “Hey, this Ryan? … Oh, sorry, Cail, you sounded like ‘im.  It’s Logan from up the road, your dad there? … Thanks, buddy. … Howdy, Mr. Bartley, it’s Logan Campbell, how ya doin’? … Glad to hear it. …  I’m doin’ okay.  Listen, I know it’s a little late, but you got a few minutes to come up to the house? … Well, I brought my aunt and cousins up from Missouri and they’re gonna be livin’ here now.  I’d like y’all to meet so you kinda know each other ‘fore you just bump into ‘em ‘n’ freak out ‘bout there bein’ strangers in the house. … Thanks, that’ll be great, see ya in a few.”

 

On rejoining us in the foyer, Logan said, “Mr. Bartley’ll be here in a few minutes.  Why don’tcha grab your bags and let’s get ‘em upstairs ‘fore he gets here?”  Without waiting for a reply, Logan took the steps two at a time and started turning on the upstairs lights.  Deciding it would be best if we stayed out of the way, Tom, Will and I stepped into the living room and got comfortable on the new couch and chairs.

 

From upstairs, we heard Logan saying, “Arley, that room use ta be mine, and I bet you’d like it.  You can climb out the window and lay on the roof of the back porch in the summer.  Daril, the middle one used to be momma’s sewing room, but it should work out okay for ya, and Aunt Arlene, you should pro’lly take Momma and Daddy’s old room since it’s got its own bathroom.  That way ya ain’t gotta share one with those two lunks,” he laughed.  “Y’all drop your stuff, come on back downstairs and I’ll show you ‘round the rest o’ the place.”

 

As Logan was coming back down, we heard three thumps of bags being dropped to the floor, followed by more pounding of feet on the steps.  Logan stepped into what used to be Charlie’s office, flipped on the light and whispered ‘wow’ on seeing the room the way he remembered it.  After the new residents joined him, he added, “This used to be Daddy’s office, but you can use it for whatever ya want.”  The tour continued into the dining room and then on to the kitchen, Logan pointing out where light switches and such were. 

 

In the kitchen, he showed them the door to the basement and while standing at the back door, said, “Daddy’s truck is in the garage out there.  The keys should still be in it ‘cause he always left ‘em there.  It’s yours now, so feel free to use it.”  Joining us, he commented, “ ‘Course, this is the living room.”  He turned his attention to Tom and me and added, “That security company sure fixed ever’thing up real nice.  Kinda sad that most of the old stuff was trashed by them losers, but the new things look good.”

 

“I’m glad you approve, Logan,” I replied as headlights flashed through the windows and the rocks in the drive crunched under tires.

 

“That’ll be Mr. Bartley,” Logan offered.  “Be right back,” he added as he turned for the front door.  We soon heard footsteps on the front steps and Logan called out, “Ryan!  Didn’t know you was comin’, too.”

 

“Ain’t seen ya since your dad’s funeral, dude.  I had to come find out how you’re doin’,” Ryan retorted.

 

“Doin’ pretty good now, I s’pose.  Just glad I get to live with Max, Tom and my brothers.”

 

“That’s great,” Ryan agreed.  “ ‘Least you’ll still be close by.  We missed ya at school that week ya was gone.”

 

“C’mon in, guys, I’ll introduce y’all.”  Stepping into the living room again, he said, “Mr. Bartley, this here’s my Aunt Arlene, the bigger lunk’s my cousin Daril and the smaller one’s my other cousin Arley.”  Turning to face his family, he added, “This here’s Mr. Bartley and one o’ his kids, Ryan.  They live just down road a piece and been takin’ care o’ things ‘round the farm for me after Daddy died.”

 

Arlene and Joe met in the middle of the room and shared a brief handshake, Arlene saying, “Nice to meet y’all.”

 

“Pleasure to meet you folks, as well,” Joe replied while also shaking hands with Daril and Arley.  “How long you gonna be stayin’?”

 

“Forever,” Arlene smiled.  “Or ‘til Logan gets sick of us and kicks us out,” she added with a giggle.

 

“Ain’t never gonna happen,” Logan retorted seriously.

 

Ryan poked Logan in the back and while pointing towards Will, whispered, “Ps-s-s-s-t, who’s that other kid?  He’s gotta be related ‘cause he looks just like you.”

 

“Oh, yeah, him,” Logan grumbled angrily.

 

Sensing no introduction was about to be tendered by Logan, Will left his chair, stepped towards Ryan and answered with, “Hi, Ryan.  I’m Logan’s brother, Will.”

 

“No way, dude,” Ryan whispered in surprise before punching Logan in the shoulder and adding, “You never told me you had a brother.”  Surprise also flashed across Joe’s face.

 

“Didn’t know ‘bout ‘im ‘til after Daddy died,” Logan muttered in reply.

 

Ryan wrapped Will in a hug and gushed, “Nice to meet ya, Will.  I hope we can be friends.”

 

“That’d be nice, man, but I guess we’ll see how things turn out,” Will replied noncommittally.  On that note, he retreated to his chair and curled back up.

 

Logan then turned back to Joe and continued, “I really ‘ppreciate you takin’ care of things for me the past couple o’ weeks, Mr. Bartley, but I gots one more favor to ask of ya.”

 

“Name it, buddy.”

 

“Would you show Daril and Arley how to deal with the feed grinder and stuff?  They’re gonna take over dealin’ with things here so you don’t have to no more.”

 

“Well, sure, I’d be happy to do that.  Are they ready for some hard work?”

 

“Yessir,” Daril answered proudly.  “Least we can do for Logan lettin’ us live here.”

 

“Then, I’ll be here about eight in the morning to get you guys started,” Joe commented.

 

Logan turned to his cousins and said, “There’s only one rule y’all gotta follow and if’n ya don’t, I’m gonna kick your asses up ‘tween your ears.”

 

“What’s that?” Arley asked hesitantly after hearing the serious tone in Logan’s voice.

 

“You don’t ever run the feed grinder by yourself.  That’s what got Daddy killed and I ain’t gonna have either one o’ you dyin’ the same way.”

 

“I’ll make sure of that, Logan,” Arlene replied.

 

“Well, okay then, sounds like we got ever’thing set,” Logan offered.  “Thanks for all your help, Mr. Bartley.  And you better be keepin’ track o’ your time, still.  Once you feel Daril ‘n’ Arley can handle things, you let me know how much I owe ya and I’ll get ya paid.”  Turning back to Ryan, he added, “You, too, ya goober.”

 

“What about Cail?” Ryan asked.  “He helped me most every day with Bessie ‘n’ Buster.”

 

“If’n he helped ya, he’ll get paid, too.  Just tell me how much I owe ya and he’ll get the same.”

 

“You got it, Logan,” Ryan agreed with a grin.

 

“Since I ain’t been out here for a while, how they doin?” Logan inquired.

 

“They’re doin’ just great,” Ryan replied.  “You sure were right about them likin’ bein’ brushed.  Ol’ Buster won’t hardly let us leave, keeps wantin’ to follow us right through the barn.  Guess he thinks should move down to our farm,” he added with a smile.

 

“Well, Buster ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Logan retorted smartly, “But you and Cail can come down an’ see ‘em anytime you want.”

 

With another round of handshakes for everyone, Joe said, “Well, I guess we’ll be headin’ back home.  It was nice to meet y’all and I’ll see you bright and early, boys.”

 

“We’ll be ready, Mr. Bartley,” Arley replied.

 

Logan and Ryan shared a quick hug before the father and son headed back outside, climbed in their truck, and backed out of the drive.  Taking that as our cue to get moving, too, Tom, Will and I left our seats.  Before heading for the door, I pulled the $2500 out of my pocket and handed it to Arlene.

 

“What’s this for?” she asked with surprise.

 

“Just a little something to help get you started.  There’s probably not much food in the house and I’m sure you’ll need to get some other things as well.  And if you need something for breakfast after Joe’s done working with your boys, give us a call and we’ll come out to get you.”

 

“You don’t need to do that, Max,” she replied with a little embarrassment.

 

“Well, since you couldn’t really see the route I took tonight, you’d be hard pressed to find us on your own in the morning.  And when you’re ready to do your shopping, I’m sure Ron would be happy to take you on one of his own trips to town to make sure you know where things are.”

 

“Well, thanks just don’t seem to be ‘nough for ever’thing y’all ‘re doin’ for us.”

 

“Don’t you worry about it,” Tom replied.

 

Before we could take a step towards the door, Arlene grabbed Logan, wrapped him in a huge hug and whispered, “Thank you, Logan.  You have no idea how much this means to us.”  As soon as she let him go, Arley and Daril followed suit with their own hugs.  When Daril finally set Logan back on the floor, the poor kid was beet red with embarrassment at the attention.

 

“I just hope y’all’ll be happy here,” Logan muttered.

 

With a final round of goodbyes, the four of us headed for the front door, leaving Arlene, Daril and Arley to begin this new chapter of their lives.  On reaching the car, Will climbed into the back row to sit by himself while Logan settled into the middle row.  With the exception of the music emanating from the car stereo, our return trip home was carried out in silence.  After parking in the garage, Logan quickly clambered from the car and headed inside, leaving Will to extricate himself from the back seat. 

 

Tom and I felt a little sorry for Will after how things had gone so far this weekend, but neither of us had a solution to the ongoing problems between the two brothers.  When the three of us finally stepped inside, we saw Logan peeling his shirt over his head and turning into his bedroom.  Reaching the living room, we found the rest of the crew relaxing and reading.

 

“Ah, you’re back,” Ron greeted us.  “Where’s Logan?  Did he stay?”

 

“No, he just stopped in his room,” Tom answered.

 

“Okay, guys,” I began, “it’s getting late and we have a birthday party to get ready for tomorrow, so time to put your books away and hit the sack.”

 

“We’ll be along in ten minutes to say our goodnights,” Tom added.

 

“Um, where’m I supposed to sleep?” Will asked with concern as the five younger ones left their perches and headed for their rooms.

 

“We assumed you wouldn’t be very comfortable with the idea of sharing a bed with anybody …,” I began.

 

“Ya got that right,” he quickly agreed.

 

“… so we set up a second bed in Ron’s room for you to use,” I continued.  “We hope that’ll be acceptable.”

 

“Don’t have many options at this point, do I, guess I just have to deal with it,” the young man grumbled in defeat.

 

“Well, if you don’t like that idea, there’s always the couch or the floor somewhere,” Tom commented. 

 

“I swear I don’t snore.  And if I do, it doesn’t bother me at all,” Ron offered with a smirk.

 

“Whatever, man.  Just show me where ‘cause I’m f’in’ beat,” Will replied.

 

“Right this way, buddy,” Ron said as he left the loveseat and turned down the hall, Will following along.

 

Tom and I collapsed in our chairs while we waited for our time to make sure all the munchkins were settled in for the night.  While I’d silently hoped for even a few minutes of peace after the loud and eventful evening we’d just survived, that hope was summarily dashed when the big guy opened his mouth.

 

“So, what d’ya think?”

 

“ ‘Bout what?” I asked.

 

“Arlene and her boys, Will, global warming, Logan, anything,” he replied with a grin.

 

“Well, I’m glad the three are at the farm and I hope that turns out well.  I am wondering what Arlene plans to do about the orchard, though.  As for global warming, I know it’s not a hoax but until the whole planet takes the necessary steps to really do something about it, we’re all gonna die.  Let’s see … what else?  Oh yeah, our president’s still a useless, ignorant twatwaffle and I can’t wait for the next election to evict him from his free public housing.  This country’s medical system still needs to be completely revamped to make healthcare affordable and accessible to everyone, from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor.  Oh, and last but not least, the people in this country really need to pull their heads out of their asses and understand that human rights are meant to be applied equally to all humans, straight, black, gay, pink, trans, purple, whatever.”

 

“Um, you smoothly bypassed the two most important subjects in your little diatribe, bubba,” Tom prodded me.

 

“Oh, yeah, Will and Logan.  I honestly don’t know what to make of those two right now.  It seems to me they hate each other with a passion, and I don’t know of any way to fix that.  And if the rift can’t be fixed, what happens to Will?  Does he go back to juvie until he’s eighteen or what?  The whole thing just sucks.”

 

“I don’t know the answers to that problem, babe, but we’ve got two more days.  Let’s give it a little more time and see what happens.”

 

“Do we really have any other choice at the moment?” I asked.  With a shrug of his shoulders in response, we both fell silent until it was time to take care of our nightly duties.

 

 

“Here ya go, kiddo” I said as Will and I entered my room.  “Bathroom’s right there,” I offered while pointing to the door.  “That’s my bed over there and yours is under the TV.  Think you can deal with it for a few nights?”

 

“Guess we’ll find out,” he grunted.  “Shouldn’t be much different from sleeping in an eight by ten with my cellmate.  Except we got a lot more room here.”

 

“And privacy when you have to take a dump, too.”

 

“Yeah, like that’ll make up for my supposed brother hatin’ my fuckin’ guts,” Will retorted angrily.

 

I sat on the edge of Will’s bed and while patting the mattress, calmly said, “Pull up a pew, kid.”  I waited until he reluctantly climbed up and sat cross-legged in the middle.  “I wanna give you a little food for thought.  The way Logan reacted when you got here is entirely your fault,” I began.  Seeing a protest coming, I plowed on without giving him a chance to say a word.  “I wasn’t here yet when your dad died, but I’ve been told that as soon as they read Charlie’s will and Logan found out he had a brother, he demanded Max and Tom find you.  And he hasn’t stopped asking if they’d found you since then. 

 

“So, he really, really wanted to meet you and have you become a part of his life.  Then, when you finally get here and he tries to show just how much he wants that, you shove him back and yell at him to get away.  Well, if I’d just found a brother I didn’t know I had and he pulled that shit on me, I’d be fuckin’ pissed off at him, too.  Probably want to kick his ass for bein’ a complete jerk.”

 

“Look, man, he just freaked me out.  I mean, you just don’t latch on to other dudes at juvie like that.  That’s a good way to get the shit beat outta ya for bein’ a fag.”

 

“You say that word again and you won’t have to worry about Logan or anybody else straightenin’ your attitude out for ya ‘cause I’m gonna do it myself.  We’re not fags, queers, fairies or anything else along those lines, we’re gay, plain and simple.  And the sooner you get that through that thick skull of yours, the better off we’ll all be.  Besides, Logan’s not gay, so you can’t use that as an excuse to hate him.”

 

“Whatever,” he replied with disgust.

 

“Just think about it, okay?  Maybe a good night’s sleep will help bring things into better focus,” I offered as I stood up.  “Go ahead, get ready for bed and curl up, Will.    Towels are in the cabinet in the bathroom along with soap, shampoo and anything else you might need.”  I turned to leave but stopped as a thought popped in my head.  Turning back to him, I asked, “Um, what do you usually wear at night?”

 

“My boxers, why?”

 

“Well, I sleep naked and have for years.  If that makes you uncomfortable, I’ll be happy to try wearing shorts while you’re.”

 

“What do ya mean by ‘try’?” Will asked.

 

“Well, I’m so used to not havin’ anything on, I usually end up peelin’ ‘em off in my sleep.  Don’t even realize I’ve done it ‘til I wake up in the mornin’.”

 

“So long as you don’t flit around like a fuckin’ fruit fly, whatever blows your skirt up,” the obnoxious punk spat.

 

I took a step closer to Will before stopping myself and reprimanding him with, “See, shit like that right there is what’s gonna get all six of those boys to hate you, so if you wanna blow any chance of finally becoming a part of a real family, just keep it up.”  On that final note, I spun on my heels and bolted from the room before I smacked the kid so hard he wouldn’t wake up until it was time for him to leave.

 

 

Tom and I were just about to check on our sons when Ron came back and sank heavily onto the loveseat, a look of pure disgust on his face.

 

“Do we want to know what that’s all about?” Tom asked.

 

“Just the smartass I’m sharing my room with for the next three nights,” he sighed.  “He keeps goin’ the way he is, I can see why nobody’s ever adopted him.”

 

“But did you get him settled for the night?” I asked.

 

“Who knows?  I told him to get a shower and crawl in bed.  We’ll see if he can follow instructions when I go to bed.”

 

“We know it’s not gonna be easy for anyone this weekend with everything that’s going on, but try to not kill him the first night, okay?” Tom commented with a smirk.

 

“I’ll do my best, but I make no promises,” Ron retorted smartly.

 

“That’s all any of us can do, buddy, our best,” I responded.  “We’ll check on the boys and then we’re gonna hit the sack, too.  You might want to wait out here until we come back through.”  Receiving nothing more than a simple thumbs up in acknowledgement, we headed down the hall.

 

“What order we gonna do tonight, boss?” Tom asked.

 

“Let’s check on Logan and the twins first, then jump down to T.J., Mike and Andy.  That should give Will enough time to be done with his shower before we look in on him.”  Accepting my plan of attack, Tom rapped on the first door and we stepped in to say our goodnights.  All three were curled up in the middle of the bed, Alex and Joey hugging each other and already sound asleep.  Logan had his back to them and his eyes were still wide open.

 

“Can’t sleep, kiddo?” Tom asked.

 

“Nah, my brain ain’t ready to shut down yet,” he replied.

 

“Look, Logan, we know this evening didn’t go the way you hoped it would, but give Will a chance,” I proposed.  “He’s basically been alone for fifteen years and it’ll take some time for him to accept the fact he finally has other people who really care about him.”

 

“I’ll try, Dads, but he better pull his head outta his ass real damn quick ‘cause I ain’t gonna put up with no crap from him.  He makes one nasty crack ‘bout you guys or my brothers bein’ gay and I’m gonna thump his head so hard, he’s gonna think ol’ Wile E. Coyote done pushed that boulder off the damn cliff.”

 

“We hope it doesn’t come to such drastic measures,” Tom snickered.

 

“All up to him,” Logan muttered.

 

Seeing we weren’t going to solve any issues tonight, we doled out our regular hugs, forehead kisses and love yous to the three before turning the light off, closing the door and continuing our trek down the hall.  On reaching the last bedroom, we found Andy, Mike and T.J. zoned out and quietly shared our nighttime rituals with them.  On reaching the door to Ron’s room, we both hesitated a moment before I finally gave the door a light knock.

 

A quiet, “Yeah, hang on a sec,” slipped under the door.  Five seconds of rustling later, a slightly louder, “C’mon in,” reached our straining ears.

 

Tom cautiously pushed the door open and we stepped inside to find Will just plopping his head onto the pillow, covers pulled up to his neck.  The big guy asked, “You settled in okay, Will?”

 

“I guess,” he muttered glumly.  “I hate sleepin’ in strange places.”

 

“I’m the same way,” I volunteered.

 

“Bet you haven’t had to do it every six months to a year for the last fifteen, though, did ya?”

 

“No, I guess not,” I agreed.

 

“Then quit tryin’ to make it sound like we’re the same.  I just wanna try to get some damn sleep, survive the next couple days of ignorant bullshit and go back to my cell.  At least nobody there is faking how much they like me.  Truth be told, they all hate me, just like Logan does,” Will groused.

 

“I’m sure Logan doesn’t hate you, he just doesn’t know you yet,” Tom suggested.

 

“Nah, the little puke despises me, I can tell.”

 

“Well, if you’d quit callin’ him ‘a little puke’, maybe he wouldn’t hate you quite as much,” I added with a touch of heat in my tone.

 

“Doesn’t matter, dudes.  Come Monday, you’re gonna take me back and forget I ever existed, just like everybody else I’ve ever lived with.”

 

“If you keep up with that attitude, you’re goddam right,” Tom agreed.  “See you in the morning,” he vented before grabbing my arm and dragging me into the hallway, pulling the door closed behind him.

 

“Wait, we didn’t give him a hug or say goodnight,” I protested, trying to pull away from his grip.

 

“And I don’t think he deserves it ‘til he shapes up,” Tom grumbled.

 

“Well, you just go on to bed, then, and I’ll be there in a few.  I’m not leaving Will in that state of mind.”

 

“Go for it,” he grunted before letting go of my bicep and stalking on across the house.

 

I gave the door another quick rap and when I didn’t get a response from within, I stepped inside and flipped on the light.  The sight that greeted me broke my heart.  Will had rolled over and had his face buried in the pillow, but from the shuddering of his body, it was obvious he was crying.  Stepping over, I sat on the edge of the bed and gently laid a hand on the middle of his back.  I’d so spooked him, he damn near bolted from the room.  Since he wasn’t much bigger than Logan, I was able to hold onto Will and pulled him into a hug, allowing him to continue letting his feelings flow while he wrapped his arms around me and squeezed so tightly, I was having a hard time catching my breath.

 

I let him go for several minutes and he eventually started to calm down.  Once he’d reached the point of loosening his grip slightly, I extricated myself and stepped across the room to grab the box of Kleenex and wastebasket from beside Ron’s bed.  My shirt was a sodden mess, but that was the least of my worries at the moment.  As soon as I set the box on the bed, Will grabbed a couple to dry his eyes and cheeks.  After tossing those in the bucket, he yanked out some more to blow his nose and pitched them away, too.

 

“You feel any better?” I asked with concern.

 

“A little bit, I guess.  Sorry, Mr. Sa…, uh, Max,” he answered.

 

“You have nothing to be sorry for, Will.”

 

“Yeah, I do.  I was a complete ass tonight and now my brother hates me.”

 

“Well, I sure won’t argue that with ya,” I agreed with a grin.  “But the person who really needs to hear you say that is Logan.”

 

“I know and he will.  I just hope he’ll believe me when I say it.”

 

“I’m pretty sure he’ll accept an apology,” I offered, unsure if I was telling the truth.  “Logan’s a pretty level-headed kid despite what he’s been through the last couple of years.”

 

“Ya sure coulda fooled me,” Will cracked with a twisted grin.

 

“Keep in mind his emotions are still raw from losing his dad, sorry, I should have said your dad, a couple weeks ago, so it doesn’t take much to set him off these days.”

 

“No shit, man!  I thought I’d just run into the Tasmanian devil.  And I’m sorry he’s had a couple bad years, but I’ve had a helluva lot more of ‘em.  Fifteen damn years, nobody’s wanted me and I finally found someone who might and go and fuck it all up,” Will explained as he plucked a few more tissues from the box to dry the new tears that were forming in the corners of his eyes. 

 

“I don’t know about anybody else ‘round here, but I haven’t written you off just yet.  Not completely, anyway.  Let’s see what the next few days bring and go from there.”

 

“Let me tell ya somethin’, man, it really sucks gettin’ shuffled from place to place with no warning, takin’ nothin’ with ya but the clothes on your back.  And at least he got to know our parents for several years before they died.  I’ve always wondered who my mom and dad were and why they didn’t keep me, but now I’ll never know,” he whimpered before blowing his nose again.

 

“I bet I know someone who’ll be more than happy to tell you all about them.”

 

“Fat chance of that happenin’ after what I did to ‘im,” Will muttered sadly.

 

“Look, it’s been a long and emotional day for everybody.  Just get some sleep and things will be better tomorrow, I promise.”

 

“I’ll try,” he agreed softly.  “Oh, and thanks, Max.”

 

“For what?”

 

“For holding onto me while I cried like a little baby.  Nobody’s ever done that for me, not that I can remember, anyway.  And I’ve done lots of cryin’ wonderin’ if I’d ever get a real family.”

 

“Well, I can’t make any promises since I’m not the only person involved in making big decisions like this around here, but I’d say your chances are looking better now than they were just a few hours ago.”

 

“I sure as hell hope so,” Will smiled.  “I really don’t want to spend the next three years locked up in that hellhole I’m in.”

 

“And we don’t want you to, either,” I agreed.  I reached my arms out towards Will and he hesitantly crawled closer before leaning in and we shared another hug.  “We’ll see you in the morning, buddy.  Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

 

“Oh, those little bastards won’t bite me, man, I’m way too sour for them,” he laughed with a smile and I chuckled along with him.

 

“Well, let’s see what we can do to make you a little bit sweeter,” I offered while ruffling his hair.

 

As I stood to leave, Will quietly commented, “Yeah, all right, Max.  Thanks for not giving up on me.” 

 

Flipping off the light, I closed the door and headed across the house to join the rather testy teddy bear waiting for me in our bedroom.  Passing through the living room, Ron was sitting on the edge of his chair and ready to head for bed.

 

“Is it safe to go in now?” he asked with a smirk.

 

“Yeah, I think you’ll be fine.  See you in the morning, Ron,” I replied while continuing my trek, uncertain of what I was going to find when I crawled into bed and tried to curl up with the love of my life.

 

 

I’d been trying to get to sleep for quite a while and like I told my Dads, my brain just wouldn’t shut down.  I was so pissed off at that obnoxious little shit in the room next door, I knew it was gonna be a long time before I’d be able to nod off.  I also knew that my continued tossing and turning to try and get comfortable was going to eventually wake up Alex and Joey, so I decided that I’d just get back up and read by the fireplace for a while.  The book I was reading, Speaker for the Dead, was getting really interesting and I couldn’t wait to climb back into Ender’s world and life, if for no other reason than to escape my own miserable existence for a while.

 

When I finally saw the hallway light go out and heard Ron shuffle down the hallway, I knew I could finally sneak out of bed without anybody knowing I was still up.  I carefully slid off the mattress and headed for the door, hoping I didn’t wake either of the twins as I did.  After quietly closing the door, I tiptoed to the living room, grabbed my book off the table and climbed into Dad’s recliner.  In minutes, I was off the planet Earth and walking alongside my buddy Ender on the planet Lusitania as he headed out of the human colony to talk to the pequeninos.

 

 

Ron had finally come into his room about ten minutes ago.  After taking a quick shower, he crawled into his bed, whispering ‘night, Will’ as he pulled the covers up to his chin.  I remained silent since I was faking sleep, knowing I wasn’t going to get to sleep anytime soon tonight.  Despite that effort, I still caught a glimpse of the guy’s bare ass as the moonlight filtering through the windows flashed off the pale white skin of his own moon.  I had to seriously stifle my giggle at the sight to keep up the dead possum act I was playing.

 

Of course, seeing bare butts and more wasn’t really new to me with where I’d been living the last year or so.  My seventeen-year-old cellmate had absolutely no qualms about sleeping naked and slipping off the top bunk in the morning, his ass practically in my face.  Nor did he have an issue climbing up to bed at night, his fat, hairy seven-inch dick and low-hanging balls swinging to and fro just inches from my nose.  There were times I thought he was going to try stuffing that thing in my mouth, but he never did, thank God.  Of course, I always knew when he was horned up as the bunk shook like we were in the middle of an earthquake while he jerked off like a madman.  And while I didn’t really care he was getting his rocks off just above me, I really wished he wouldn’t do it two or three times every damn night.

 

As for all the other assholes in the place, shower time was a freakin’ free-for-all most of the time.  Plenty of sick assholes playin’ grab-ass or groping each other, with most of them sporting boners before leaving the shower room.  It also wasn’t that uncommon for some of the fairies to be down on their knees and suckin’ off one of bigger bullies in an effort to keep from getting their asses beat, or worse.  And though it was a rare occurrence, I’d still witnessed several poor kids gettin’ fucked by some of the gang-affiliated jerks, mostly newbies who’d just arrived and ‘needed to learn their place’.

 

I’d somehow gotten lucky and avoided being screwed by any of them.  That didn’t stop them from raggin’ on me endlessly because I was so damn small.  And I’m not just talkin’ about how tall I was.  Thanks to the long-time health issues and shitty care in some of the places I’d lived over the years, the puberty fairy had bypassed me.  It was embarrassing as hell to have to shower with all those assholes, them knowing I was fifteen and yet as hairless as the day I came into this damn world and still hung like a fuckin’ two-year-old.  Oh well, that was my cross to bear, I guess, and I’d just have to learn to live with it.

 

After about ten minutes of stewing on the nightmare that had passed for my life so far and all the crap I’d dealt with the past fifteen years, I heard Ron start snoring and decided it was as good a time to slip out and either find something to read or maybe watch a movie in the theater.

 

 

I’d just started a new chapter when I heard a door close down the hallway somewhere.  While I didn’t really care somebody would find me out of bed, I still wasn’t too interested in talking to anyone, so I kept my nose buried in my book and tried to return to Lusitania.  My return trip to that faraway world was immediately canceled when the jerk walked around the corner and spied me. 

 

“Oh, it’s you,” I muttered in disgust.

 

“Sorry, dude, I couldn’t sleep and thought I’d watch a movie or something,” Will replied.

 

“Well, don’t let me stop ya,” I retorted angrily.  The pain in the ass surprised me when he settled onto the loveseat instead of continuing on across the house.

 

“I won’t, but before I do, I wanna tell ya I’m really sorry for bein’ a complete dickhead earlier.”

 

“You were, ya know.”

 

“Yeah, I do, man.  It’s just that dudes don’t hug other dudes like that where I’m stuck right now,” he explained with a hint of sadness.

 

“That’s a pretty shitty excuse, blaming other people for how you are,” I countered.  “That crap won’t fly ‘round here.”

 

“It won’t happen again, Logan, I promise.”

 

“It better not or I’m gonna sic my brothers on your sorry ass.”

 

“If that’s what ya think ya gotta do, go right ahead.  I deserve it.”

 

“Damn right, you do,” I agreed with what I hoped was an evil grin.

 

“So, do you guys ever wear clothes?” he asked with a smirk.

 

“Not if we don’t hafta,” I answered.

 

“Isn’t that weird?” Will asked with interest.  “I mean, I guess it’s not a big deal for you guys ‘cause you don’t have that much to show off in the first place, but I’d be embarrassed as hell for Max, Tom or Ron to see me that way.”

 

“It was a little, um, different at first, but once ya get used to it, who cares?  We all got the same thing so what’s the point o’ tryin’ to hide it?”

 

“But what if there’s any girls ‘round?”

 

“Don’t make no difference to us,” I giggled.  “There was a couple at T.J.’s birthday party Wednesday and it didn’t bother us none.  Them either, I guess, since they swam naked just like the rest o’ us.  ‘Course, when our grandparents or aunt and uncle are here, they usually don’t wear nothin’, either.”

 

“That just seems wrong,” Will mused.

 

“What?” I asked.

 

“Y’all seeing girls and women naked all the time.  I don’t think I could do it.”

 

“Why’s that?  Ya ‘fraid somebody’s gonna laugh at your tiny pecker?” I asked.

 

“It ain’t tiny!” he disagreed angrily though he turned beet red in an instant.

 

“Dude, thanks to those boxer briefs you’re wearin’, there ain’t no hidin’ the fact ya got a small dick.”  He looked down at his lap and suddenly realized he’d neglected to pull anything on over them.  While I knew the situation was far from funny for him, I couldn’t help but laugh my ass off as his hands flew to his crotch and he tried to cover himself.  “Don’t worry ‘bout it, Will.  Ain’t nobody ‘round here gonna think twice ‘bout how big you are or aren’t.  ‘Cept maybe you.”

 

“Ron said you aren’t gay.  Why the hell you lookin’ at my junk?”

 

“All guys do that, comparin’ themselves to others.”

 

I don’t do sick shit like that,” he protested.

 

“Sure ya do, you’re just too chicken to admit it,” I replied.  “Well, ya better go start that movie or you’re gonna be up all night.”

 

“I will in a minute, but can I ask ya somethin’ without pissin’ ya off?”

 

“You can sure as hell try,” I smirked.

 

“Will you tell me about Mom and Dad?” Will begged.

 

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