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Chapter 11

Ben awoke next to his beloved partner and enjoyed a tranquil, untroubled moment.

Although the urge was strong to wake Cliff and show him just how much he was loved, Ben thought better of it and quietly slipped on his robe, then left the room.

He tiptoed into JD's room to check on the boys and was surprised to find that they weren't there. From the disheveled state of the featherbed in the closet floor, the boys had slept there at some point during the night. But, even so, Jody hadn't had a night terror. So that could be counted as progress.

When Ben walked into the kitchen, he was greeted by the smell of freshly brewed coffee and the sounds of industrious children working to prepare breakfast.

"Good morning." Ben said quietly.

Jody, who had been sitting at the kitchen table, studiously working on buttering toast, nearly jumped a foot in the air at the sound.

Jody hopped down off his chair and ran to Ben, with his arms held high in the air.

Ben scooped him up into his arms and gave him a long cuddle.

As he was holding Jody, Ben looked across the kitchen and gently asked, "How are you doing this morning, Spider?"

"I wanted to make you breakfast in bed." JD said in a slightly sulky voice.

"Thank you for thinking of that, but how about we save breakfast in bed for the weekends? If we do it too often, it stops being special." Ben explained as he awkwardly leaned down, with Jody still in his arms, to give JD a quick, one armed hug and a kiss on the top of his head.

"Yeah." JD reluctantly agreed, then seriously added, "You either need to let me use the stove or I'm going to need another electric skillet. I can't cook everything the way I want to like this."

After a long, thoughtful moment to consider, Ben finally said, "Why don't we do both? I think you've proven that you're responsible enough that you can start using the stove. But that's only when I'm able to be in here with you, to supervise. The next time I'm at the store, I'll pick up another electric skillet so you'll be able to cook more than one thing at a time when I'm busy with other things."

"Thanks, Daddy." JD said with a smile, apparently happy with the compromise.

"I tell you what. Since it looks like you're just about finished making breakfast, I'm going to go in and wake your Pappa." Ben said as he carried Jody back to the kitchen table and placed him back in his chair.

"Hold on." JD said seriously as he got down from his chair beside the stove.

Ben watched as JD scooted the chair, then climbed back on and took two coffee mugs down from the cupboard.

"Pappa needs his coffee." JD explained as he hurried to the coffee maker to fill the mugs.

"Thank you, JD." Ben said with a smile as he accepted two cups of coffee from his exceptionally mature and responsible son.

* * * * *

"Good morning, love. I was just going to wake you." Ben said as he walked into the bedroom, carrying the two cups of coffee.

"Good morning. Did you sleep well?" Cliff asked before stretching dramatically.

"Yes, in fact, I did. As far as I can tell, Jody didn't have a night terror last night." Ben said as he moved around the end of the bed to place Cliff's cup of coffee on his nightstand.

Cliff scooted into a sitting position and got settled before picking up the coffee.

"The boys are making breakfast for us. It should be ready in a few minutes." Ben said as he sat on the edge of the bed.

"You do realize that with Junior visiting, we're going to have three children to watch after?" Cliff asked cautiously.

"Only for the weekend, and I'll have you here to back me up. I'm not worried." Ben said before taking a sip of his coffee.

"I get the feeling that Junior's a really good kid. I see something in him... I'm not sure what it is." Cliff said thoughtfully.

"We've got all weekend to figure it out." Ben assured him, then quickly added, "But breakfast is probably just about ready. We wouldn't want for it to get cold."

"Right." Cliff said, then took another sip of his coffee before getting out of bed.

* * * * *

"Pappa!" JD crowed as he jumped down off his chair.

"Good morning, Spider." Cliff said as he gave his eldest son a warm hug.

Jody was off his chair a moment later, standing before Cliff with his arms raised into the air.

After putting down his coffee cup, Cliff was somehow able to pick up both boys and cuddle them simultaneously.

Ben watched the scene with a tender smile, then casually walked to the coffee maker and refilled his mug.

"Something smells good. Did you make us breakfast?" Cliff asked as he carried the boys to the kitchen table.

"I made cheesy scrambled eggs with sausages and mushrooms." JD said proudly.

Ben placed his coffee mug on the table, then went to retrieve Cliff's and refill it.

"That sounds really good. I don't think I've ever made it that way." Cliff said as he reveled in the feeling of being adored.

"I buttered the toast." Jody said quietly.

"Some buttered toast sounds like it will really hit the spot. I can't wait to try some." Cliff said before turning his head to give Jody a kiss on the cheek.

"The cheese should be melted just right, now." JD said as he released his grip on Cliff, signalling that he was ready to be put down.

"Just sit down and I'll put it on the table." Ben said as he disconnected the cord from the back of the electric skillet.

Cliff put the boys down and took his customary place at the table.

The sound of a scooting chair filled everyone's ears as JD moved the chair he had been using back to the kitchen table.

"JD, do you want to unveil your masterpiece?" Ben asked as he placed a slotted spoon within JD's reach.

"Okay." JD said happily, then lifted the lid off the top of the electric skillet.

"That looks wonderful!" Ben enthused, then took the lid from JD, since there wasn't any convenient place for him to put it down.

"And it smells great, too." Cliff added with a smile at his son.

"Jody, do you want to make sure that everyone gets some toast?" Ben asked as he returned to the table.

A beaming smile was Jody's answer.

Although Miss Manners might not have approved of the way Jody handed out the slices of toast with his bare hands, no one at the table would consider doing anything to diminish the joy that the boy was obviously feeling by presenting his contribution to the family meal.

Each of them, in turn, handed their plates to JD so that he could give them portions of his gooey, cheesey scrambled egg masterpiece.

Cliff took a bite of his scrambled eggs and considered the flavor for a moment before saying, "This is really good, JD. You might want to write down the recipe so you'll remember how you made it."

Ben smiled at Cliff, and was thinking of what a wonderful thing that was for him to say to JD, to boost his self-confidence. Then he took his first bite.

When the taste registered, Ben was genuinely surprised. He realized that Cliff hadn't been praising JD's cooking insincerely, the cheesy scrambled egg variation that JD had come up with actually was worth preserving in a recipe.

"I cut up the sausages and cooked them with the mushrooms, first. Then I cooked the cheesy scrambled eggs like you showed me and added the sausages and mushrooms back in just before I put in the cheese." JD explained.

"It's perfect." Cliff said before taking another bite.

When Ben turned his attention to Jody, he noticed that the boy had decided to use a spoon, rather than a fork to eat his scrambled eggs. He seemed to be doing quite well with the unfamiliar utensil.

"The toast is very good, Jody. You buttered it just right." Ben said before taking another bite of his food.

Jody stopped eating long enough to smile at Ben, then dug back into his food with gusto.

When Ben noticed Cliff's speculative gaze focused on Jody, he made an internal note to ask him about it later, when there weren't so many small ears around.

"Do you have to go to work today?" JD asked Cliff in a slightly whining tone.

"I'm afraid so." Cliff said regretfully, then added, "But the good thing is that after I'm done with work, I'm going to pick up Junior and bring him back here so you two can visit with him."

"Junior's nice." Jody said between bites of food.

"I think so, too." Cliff said to him warmly.

Ben glanced at the clock and was surprised.

"If you want to hop in the shower, I'll take care of your dishes." Ben said gently.

Cliff looked at the clock, then quickly said, "Thanks."

Ben watched as Cliff walked around the table and kissed each person in attendance before hurrying out of the room.

"Why does Pappa have to go?" Jody asked sadly.

"Because he has a job to do. Your pappa helps sick little kids to feel better." Ben explained gently.

"But I want him to stay here and make me feel better." Jody said poutingly.

"When he gets home tonight, you're going to have him here all weekend." Ben said as he slowly got up from the table and started collecting empty dishes.

"Me and Jody will do the dishes." JD announced as he scooted off his chair.

"Are you sure?" Ben asked with surprise.

"Yeah. I want to show him how to help." JD said seriously.

"Okay. But you let me know if you need me to do anything." Ben said as he sat the dishes back on the table and returned to his seat.

"Jody, if you'll bring me things, I'll scrape them off and put them in the dishwasher." JD said confidently.

Ben couldn't tell if JD noticed or not, but whenever Jody would return to the table, Ben would hand him the next thing that needed to be carried, rather than making him have to climb or stretch to reach things.

Before long, the dishwasher had been loaded and all that was left was to clean the electric skillet.

Ben nearly laughed at the sight of two kitchen chairs, side by side at the sink, with a boy standing on each as JD very carefully explained and demonstrated electric skillet cleaning.

When JD was finished, Ben followed behind and wiped down the table and countertops, but otherwise the boys had done an amazing job of cleaning up after the meal.

* * * * *

"I have a few things that I need to get done. If you boys want, you can play in the living room for a while." Ben said pleasantly.

"Do you want to play with your blocks?" JD asked Jody curiously.

Jody thought about it for a moment, then shook his head.

"Do you remember how to turn on the TV?" JD asked simply.

Jody's face lighted and he hurried to get the remote control.

JD slipped out of the room for a moment and returned with his netbook.

Once Ben was assured that the boys were going to keep themselves entertained for a few minutes, he went into his room to make an appointment to speak with a lawyer about the legalities of establishing a trust fund for JD.

* * * * *

As much as Ben wanted to sit down and work on his writing, knowing that the boys were in the other room made it impossible for him to focus on his work. He was afraid that if he became too involved in what he was doing he might miss some indication that the boys needed him for something.

So, he ended up going around the house, doing some household chores that needed to be done anyway. He did sweeping, mopping, dusting and laundry, to name a few, all the while keeping an eye on the boys.

As Ben was cleaning the shelves of the refrigerator, the sound of the doorbell caught his attention.

By the time Ben had dried his hands, JD had already answered the door.

Ben watched from the living room doorway as JD signed his name, then accepted a small package from the delivery driver.

"What do you have there?" Ben asked as he stepped into the entry hall, although he already suspected.

"I don't know, but it has my name on it." JD said excitedly.

"Why don't we go into the living room and open it?" Ben asked with a smile.

* * * * *

"What is it?" Jody asked as JD fought the packaging.

"That's what we're trying to find out." Ben said honestly, then gently asked JD, "Why don't you get the scissors so you can cut the tape?"

As JD was hurrying out of the room, Ben gently reminded him, "Remember how I told you to carry scissors, and remember not to run."

A moment later, JD returned, carrying the scissors pointed toward the floor and moving at a reasonable pace.

Ben and Jody watched as JD struggled to get the tape cut and the box opened.

"It's a book." JD said in puzzlement.

"Oh? What book is it?" Ben asked as he was barely able to restrain his smile.

JD read the cover and his eyes went wide with surprise.

"What was that?" Ben asked with a grin that he couldn't contain.

"Anathema Mythique." JD muttered in disbelief.

"This is your proof copy. The publisher went ahead and threw together a rough draft copy of your manuscript so you could get an idea of what it's going to look like in print." Ben explained, but knew that JD wasn't really comprehending his words.

Ben could completely understand. He still remembered the feeling of wonder when he held his first proof copy. Later, when JD was better able to focus, Ben would sit down with him and let JD know what he needed to do as far as approving edits and style changes, and the like. But for now, he decided to just let JD enjoy the moment.

* * * * *

JD seemed to be drifting on his own private cloud, so Ben decided that, just this once, he would go ahead and prepare lunch for the boys on his own.

About five minutes into his lunch preparation, Jody appeared in the kitchen and put his arms into the air, wanting to be held.

Ben did his fatherly duty and held the boy for a few minutes, then placed him on a chair at the table and continued making lunch.

He was actually surprised that JD hadn't noticed their absence and ended up sending Jody to find his brother and tell him that lunch was ready.

When JD arrived in the kitchen, he was still carrying his book, with his finger marking the place where he had been reading.

Ben took a post-it note from the side of the fridge and gave it to JD to use as a bookmark.

As soon as JD had taken his first bite of the tuna sandwiches that Ben had prepared, he seemed to have been snapped out of the stupor he had been in since his book had arrived.

"What you have there is the tentative edit copy. Some editors at the publishing company went through your story and fixed all the little things like spelling, punctuation and capitalization. In the box, you're probably going to find a few pages, outlining the corrections that they've made. You can ignore that, if you want. I've always found it easier to go through the word processor document and look at the corrections that way." Ben said carefully, not quite sure if JD were comprehending his words.

"They changed my story?" JD asked cautiously.

"Yes. But you're the author. You have complete control. When you're ready, you can go through and look at all the changes they made and decide if they're right or wrong. In my books, at least, most of the things that they change are minor. I look at the change that was made and consider if my way or their way best conveys my meaning." Ben explained slowly.

"So, if I spell something wrong, they fix it?" JD asked cautiously.

"They let you know that they think it's spelled wrong. You get to decide which way you want it to be spelled in the final copy." Ben said seriously.

"So, the book, it has all the changes that they made, so that I can see what the story's like if I don't want anything changed back?"

"Yes. If you don't feel like going through the whole document and approving each one of their changes individually, then you can read the proof copy that they sent you and see how it reads as a whole. If it still says everything you want it to say, then you can accept it 'as is'." Ben confirmed.

"What's this?" Jody asked as he held up the second half of the sandwich that he had been eating.

"I made you tuna salad with walnuts and apples. Do you like it?" Ben asked with a smile.

"I don't know." Jody said with an expression of deep consideration, before diving in for another bite.

"Let me know when you've figured it out." Ben said as he smiled to himself.

* * * * *

JD was uncharacteristically energetic after lunch.

In an effort to direct some of that energy to creative use, Ben rifled through his stationery supplies and found a nearly forgotten box of colored pencils. That and a few sheets of paper from the printer provided all that was needed to divert the boys' attention for a few hours.

Of course, Jody needed a lot of guidance, having never been encouraged to draw before. Ben ended up going through a few coffee table books that had inspirational images so that Jody would have something interesting to draw.

He directed JD to do artwork related to his book. JD wasn't enthusiastic at first, but soon became engrossed in the task. When Ben turned his attention back to Jody, he was surprised to find that Jody was doing a reasonably good job of duplicating the photograph before him. It wasn't necessarily a work of art, but given the supplies that Jody had to work with, Ben doubted that he could do any better.

When JD finished his picture, Ben looked it over critically, then suggested places where he might add a little more detail. He wasn't trying to discourage JD's efforts but at the same time he wanted for JD to get used to a little gentle criticism.

Fortunately, JD took the suggestions in the spirit they were intended and went back to work, adding details and definition to his overall picture.

When it came time for Ben to critique Jody's picture, he honestly couldn't find a single thing that he would change. The picture that he had been copying from the large, paperback book with glossy, full color photographs had been a collection of visually interesting examples of architecture.

Was it an exact copy?


But Jody had been able to reproduce the proportions fairly accurately and had given emphasis to the primary lines of the building. Ben only had a passing interest in art and had all but given it up completely when he made the decision to express his creativity in writing.

Be that as it may, he could see that Jody had a good eye. He didn't know if that natural talent would develop into something more. But he decided to do everything in his power to encourage it.

* * * * *

When Cliff pulled up in front of the Home, he found Junior wearing a backpack, and waiting outside the main door.

"How are you doing today, Junior?" Cliff asked as he approached.

"Wow! You came! I was afraid you weren't going to." Junior said happily.

Cliff thought how sad it was that Junior was primed for disappointment. However, he kept those thoughts to himself and said, "Let's go inside. I probably have to sign you out, or something."

Although Junior seemed to be well past ready to be far away, he nonetheless followed Cliff back into the building.

* * * * *

When it came time to sign Junior out, Cliff noticed that the sign-out sheet asked for an anticipated time of return. Their original plan had been for Junior to spend the night, but Cliff supposed that it might be better to err on the side of caution and sign him out for the entire weekend. He was sure that they wouldn't have nearly as much problem if Junior came back early as they would if he came back late.

Once they were in the car, Cliff quietly asked, "How are you doing, Junior?"

"I haven't been invited to go anywhere in... I think it's been a couple years!" Junior said happily.

"I don't know how exciting it's going to be, but I hope that you'll have a good time." Cliff said honestly.

"It'll just be nice not to be there for a little bit. I mean, I know being there is better than being in a bad home or out on the streets but sometimes... I don't know. I guess I just want to feel what it's like to be in a normal home, for a little bit." Junior quietly explained.

Cliff didn't know if he had the cajones to describe his home as 'normal', but he was more than willing for Junior to spend some time with them, if it would make him feel better.

As their ride continued, Cliff thought to ask, "What do you plan on doing when you get out of school?"

"I don't know." Junior said quietly, then quickly added, "Mr. Cooper's helping me try and find a job so I can afford to get an apartment and take care of myself. But most of the jobs that I can do are 'paper hat' jobs. I mean, I don't mind working hard. That's not the problem. But those jobs don't give enough hours and don't pay enough for someone to live on his own. And if I can't live on my own... I'm on the street."

"Don't they have some sort of a program in place for residents who become adults while they're in the childcare system?" Cliff asked curiously.

"No. A lot of kids run away before they can 'age out'. The ones who don't, usually end up homeless, in prison or dead." Junior said frankly.

"Or they get jobs and end up having happy lives... right?" Cliff suggested hopefully.

"Not so much." Junior said regretfully, then added, "At least, I don't know of anyone who made it."

"How much longer do you have before this is a problem?" Cliff asked thoughtfully.

"Mrs. Usher said that I can stay at the Home until I graduate. So I have until next summer." Junior said quietly.

"Good. Then I tell you what, I've got some friends. Let me do a little checking around and see what I can find for you." Cliff said seriously.

"If you could do that, it'd be great. I don't care what kind of work it is. I'll do anything." Junior said in a rush.

Cliff had to fight back the tears in his eyes, partly because he didn't want Junior to see, but mostly because he was driving. Once he got himself under control he finally said, "I'll see if we can't find something that you'll enjoy doing."

* * * * *

"We're home!" Cliff called out as he led the way into the house.

The sounds of two happy kids heralded the arrival of JD and Jody as they scrambled into the entry hall.

Both boys went immediately to Junior and seemed to be determined to hug the stuffing out of him.

There was a moment when Junior seemed to be on the verge of being overwhelmed by the enthusiastic attention directed at him. But he was soon wearing a grand smile, knowing without a doubt that he was in a place where he was wanted.

"Come in the kitchen! We're about to start making dinner and we need your help." JD said urgently as he pulled on one of Junior's arms.

"Hey! Guys! What about me? Didn't anyone miss Pappa today?" Cliff asked in an overly dramatic, wounded tone.

Jody immediately stood before Cliff and thrust his arms into the air.

"Come on up here and give me some sugar." Cliff said as he picked the boy up.

"Junior!" JD said impatiently and started pulling his arm more insistently.

"Go on. I'm right behind you." Cliff told their guest.

"What's the rush?" Junior asked as he started walking.

"We gotta make dinner!" JD insisted.

* * * * *

Cliff took the opportunity to enjoy a nice, long cuddle with Jody as JD started issuing orders with all the authority of a master chef.

Ben walked casually into the kitchen, then asked, "What's JD doing?"

"Making dinner, it seems." Cliff said simply and was surprised by the fact that JD appeared to be working completely under his own initiative.

"I was thinking that we could go out for dinner, since we have company." Ben said frankly.

"We already started cooking." JD called in a rush over his shoulder, before turning his attention back to Junior.

Cliff and Ben shared a look, then Ben cautiously asked, "Do you need any help?"

"Would you turn the oven on? I'm going to need it at three-fifty." JD said quickly.

"I'm going to go change. Give me a yell if our little master sergeant oversteps his bounds." Cliff said as he coaxed Jody to release him.

"Jody! Can you tear up some lettuce for me?" JD called from his place by the stove.

Light brown eyes, filled with indecision, looked up at Cliff.

"Go help your brother. I need to change clothes. Don't worry, I'll be right back." Cliff said gently, then gave Jody a quick kiss on the top of his head before stepping away.

"The oven's on. Did you need anything else?" Ben asked as he stood away from the kitchen counter.

"Cashews." JD said simply.

Ben waited for a moment to see if there were anymore orders forthcoming, then walked to the pantry.

* * * * *

"Where did you need these?" Ben asked as he returned.

JD paused for a moment, then asked, "Would you mind helping me? When I did all of this in my head, I got it done faster."

"Um, sure. What do you need me to do?" Ben asked cautiously.

"We need some kind of a heavy bag, like a freezer bag or something, about a gallon size." JD said thoughtfully, then turned his attention to Junior, who was chopping some fresh herbs.

Ben retrieved a gallon sized zippered freezer bag and returned a moment later.

"Would you hold it open for me?" JD asked seriously.

Ben did so, then cautiously asked, "What are you cooking?"

"Lamb." JD said as he opened the bag of cashews.

"But we don't have any... did you get it out of the freezer?" Ben stammered.

"Yeah. Don't worry. I'm doing a quick thaw. They'll be ready for me about the same time I'm ready for them." JD said seriously as he poured cashews into the freezer bag.

"What are these for?" Ben asked cautiously.

"Pappa! Can you help me, too?" JD asked hopefully.

Ben turned and saw that Cliff, now dressed in casual attire, had just walked into the kitchen.

"Sure, Spider. What did you need for me to do?" Cliff asked as he approached.

"Daddy, would you give that to Pappa?" JD asked as he set the rest of the cashews aside.

"What are we doing?" Cliff asked as he accepted the bag and looked curiously at the cashews.

"Lamb." Ben said simply, then flashed Cliff a sympathetic look.

"Daddy, would you mind peeling some potatoes for me?" JD asked hopefully.

"How much do you need?" Ben asked cautiously.

"Enough for the five of us. I just want to boil them, I'm not going to mash them or anything." JD said as he hurried down off his chair, then dragged it to the island and climbed back on.

As JD stretched toward the pans hanging over the island, Ben quickly asked, "What were you needing?"

"I don't know, yet. Can I see that one?" JD asked as he pointed.

Ben handed the heavy saucepan down to him and waited.

JD held the pan for a moment, then shook it a little, presumably to check it sturdiness.

"Are you ready for this?" Junior asked from beside the stove.

"Almost." JD said, then handed the pan to his pappa before asking, "Would you take this and smack those cashews about five or six times to crumble them up?"

Cliff smiled, then said, "I can do that."

"Do you need anything before I start on the potatoes?" Ben asked cautiously.

"I'm going to need to boil the potatoes, so I guess you can get the water started heating." JD said seriously.

"Or you can, since I'm here to supervise." Ben said frankly.

The sound of a loud WHACK caused everyone in the kitchen to turn at once.

"Not too hard, I don't need cashew butter, I need cashew crumbs." JD said quickly.

"There's no pleasing some people." Cliff said with a smile, then smacked the bag of cashews a little more gently.

"Junior, as soon as Pappa's done, take all those herbs you just chopped and throw them in the bag with the cashews." JD said seriously.

"I'm almost done." Jody called out from the table.

"Okay. Good. As soon as Pappa's done, I'm going to get him to help you with the next part." JD said as he hurried to scoot his chair back over to the sink.

"I didn't realize that I'd been recruited to do more than take out my hostilities on this bag of nuts." Cliff said honestly.

"Please, Pappa, it's nothing bad, I promise." JD begged.

"Of course. I'll be happy to help Jody. I was just saying that I wasn't expecting it." Cliff said, then handed the bag of crushed nuts to JD.

"Thanks, Pappa. Would you help Jody peel some carrots?" JD asked hopefully.

* * * * *

Although it didn't seem like it at times, JD's vision of dinner did, in fact, come together.

As the family sat down around the table, JD happily announced, "Since Junior helped cook dinner, he's part of our family, now."

Ben was about to say something, but Cliff beat him to it. "Let's see what it tastes like, first."

JD's eyes went wide at the statement.

"Would you pass me the salad?" Cliff asked in a seemingly casual voice.

JD sat frozen for a moment longer, then scrambled to pass the bowl of salad to his pappa.

After serving himself, Cliff asked, "What did Junior make, again?"

"He chopped all the herbs for the crust on the lamb and then he made the mint sauce." JD said quickly.

"Well, then, pass them this way." Cliff said as he sat the bowl of salad aside.

Ben tried to restrain his smile as he passed the lamb and mint sauce across the table.

Junior was looking around uncertainly, apparently not sure if they were being serious, or not.

"It sure smells good." Cliff said as he put a lamb chop on his plate.

JD, Jody and Junior were all sitting and watching, waiting for Cliff to take a bite.

"Go ahead. Don't let the food get cold." Cliff said as he passed the platter with the lamb to JD.

JD flipped a lamb chop onto his plate and passed the platter without ever looking away from Cliff.

"Could I have some of those potatoes?" Cliff asked as he pretended not to notice everyone's attention focused on him.

Ben handed the bowl of potatoes to Jody, who passed it on to Cliff without taking any for himself.

Cliff put some of the potatoes on his plate, then asked, "So, what kind of potatoes are these?"

"Boiled. Served with parsley butter sauce." JD said anxiously.

Cliff picked up his fork and knife. Just short of cutting into his lamb chop, he stopped and looked around. "Isn't anyone else eating?"

JD finally tore his gaze away from his pappa and glanced around the table before jumping out of his chair. "Aren't you hungry? It's really good! I promise!"

"I don't know. We had such a good lunch..." Ben said slowly.

JD's wide steel-blue eyes looked up at Ben and pleaded.

"Well, maybe a bite or two. Ben finally relented.

While this was going on, Jody and Junior were scrambling to fill their plates.

Once JD was satisfied that everyone had a plateful of food, he hurried back to his seat.

Cliff picked up his knife and fork again as JD, Jody and Junior watched his every move.

Just as he was about to cut into the lamb chop, he stopped and looked toward Ben and asked, "So, how was your day?"

"JD received the proof copy of his book this morning." Ben said with a smile.

"Really? That was quick. I wonder how they were able to print a book that fast." Cliff said slowly.

"They probably took it to Kinkos. Are you going to eat or not?" JD asked as tears of frustration started to well in his eyes.

Cliff put his silverware down.

At that moment, JD realized that he might have gone too far.

"Junior." Cliff said seriously.

You could have heard a pin drop as everyone waited for Cliff's next words.

"Welcome to the family." Cliff finished with a smile.

JD and Jody were out of their chairs in an instant and were soon hugging Junior from both sides.

Cliff watched the scene for a moment, then cut himself a piece of lamb chop.

"This lamb is incredible, JD." Cliff said in astonishment.

JD looked up from his hug with Junior and timidly said, "Yeah. I had help."

* * * * *

"Even though I was there when you made all this, I still can't believe that you did it." Junior said in amazement.

"It wasn't me, it was all of us. Everyone helped. Including you." JD said seriously.

"Ease up, Spider. Give him a minute." Cliff said to his son with a warm smile.

"Spider? Why do you call him Spider?" Junior asked curiously.

"That's my love name." JD said simply.

After a moment to see if a further explanation were going to be forthcoming, Junior finally asked, "What's a love name?"

"It's a special name that only the people who love you get to call you." JD explained.

"It's just another way that we can let JD know that we love him and that he's a special part of our family. I suppose it's sort of like having a secret handshake or something like that." Ben said thoughtfully.

"Do I have a love name?" Jody asked curiously.

Cliff and Ben shared a concerned look at the question.

However, before either of them could construct a reasonable response, JD said, "Squid."

"Why Squid?" Junior asked cautiously.

Cliff and Ben remained silent, but were understandably interested to know that answer for themselves.

"Because he's squishy and cute and has long skinny legs, just like a squid." JD said, as though it were obvious.

There was a long moment of silence, until Cliff finally asked, "Is that okay with you, Squid?"

"Uh huh." Jody said, and finished with a giggle.

* * * * *

By any measure, the meal had been a great success. Everyone had eaten their fill, and in some cases, a bit more.

As they were clearing the table, Cliff noticed something different and asked, "Did we get some new art work?"

JD saw that Cliff had stopped to look at the two drawings that were now prominently displayed on the refrigerator door, held in place with magnets.

"Daddy axed us to draw pictures for him." Jody said seriously.

"These are really very good." Cliff said as he took a step closer.

"Mine's supposed to be one of the twelve mountain giants from my book." JD said before continuing toward the dishwasher.

"What's your's Jody?" Cliff asked curiously.

"A picture from a book. Daddy said it was good." Jody said honestly.

"It's very good. In fact, if no one would mind, I'd very much like to have both of these framed so that I can put them up in my office, at work." Cliff said frankly.

"Really? You want to show people our pictures?" JD asked as he loaded scraped-off dishes into the dishwasher.

"Of course. I want to show off how talented my kids are." Cliff said with a smile, then got back to the business of helping to clear the table.

"Then we need for Junior to draw you a picture, too." JD said seriously.

Cliff turned to see Junior looking back at him with an expression of surprise at being volunteered.

"If Junior wants to draw something, I'd be proud to display it in my office." Cliff said decisively.

* * * * *

When the after dinner cleanup was complete, Ben looked around and asked, "What does everyone want to do now?"

The boys looked at each other, but no one seemed to have an answer.

"JD, do you feel like you're up to approving edits, tonight?" Ben cautiously suggested.

"No. That's... work. I don't want to do that when Junior's here." JD said thoughtfully.

"Good point." Ben said as he nodded his approval.

At Junior's curious look, JD explained, "I wrote a book."

"You did?" Junior asked with surprise.

JD seriously nodded, then dashed out of the room.

Junior looked to Cliff and Ben for further explanation.

"He wrote a book... seriously." Ben said with a sympathetic smile at Junior's disbelief.

"Here!" JD said as he offered his proof copy to Junior.

"Let's all go into the living room so Junior can give it a good, long look." Ben said before Junior could do more than look at the cover.

* * * * *

"JD Stone... That's you?" Junior asked as they walked.

"Yeah. I never really had a last name before, so I used Daddy's." JD explained.

"All I've ever heard you called is JD. I never even thought that you might not have a real name." Junior said quietly, disturbed by the thought.

"JD's just the name they gave me at the hospital. It stands for 'John Doe', which is the name they use for someone whose name they don't know." JD said honestly, then thought to ask, "What's your last name?"

"My official name is Michael David Ortiz Jr, but there's so many Michaels and Davids running around, that calling me Junior's just easier for everyone." Junior said shyly.

"Maybe, in some circumstances, but if other people weren't a concern, what would you want to be called?" Cliff asked curiously.

"I don't understand what you're asking." Junior said frankly.

"I just wondered if you'd like to be called something else when there aren't any other Michaels or Davids around." Cliff said simply.

"I've been called Junior for so long that that's how I think of myself, now." Junior said thoughtfully.

"Okay. I was just curious." Cliff said with a smile.

Junior nodded and seemed to be grateful that Cliff wasn't going to pursue the topic any further.

"I suppose that being a doctor, that I'm a little more sensitive than some people about things like that. When I'm at work, most people refer to me as 'Doctor' and don't ever use my name at all. It's not exactly 'dehumanizing' but when I get home, it feels really good to be called by my name... or my love name, which is 'Pappa'." Cliff finished with a smile at his boys.

There was a moment of silence that followed, which was interrupted by JD asking, "Do you want to hear some of my book?"

Junior looked to Cliff and Ben to see if they had any preference in the matter.

"I love listening to JD read aloud." Ben said frankly.

"Okay. Yeah." Junior said with a smile at his young friend.

Jody was cuddled into Cliff's side on the couch, which was becoming his usual place when Cliff was at home.

Ben was on the other end of the couch and Junior had settled into the nearby armchair.

JD collected the 'proof copy' of his book from Junior, then snuggled in beside Ben before opening the book to read.

* * * * *

A knock on the door drew everyone's attention.

During nearly half an hour of reading, no one else had spoken a word.

Everyone had been enthralled by JD's dramatic storytelling.

"I'll get it." JD said enthusiastically as he hopped up from the couch.

"Wow." Junior gasped in astonishment when the spell he had been under finally released him.

"Yeah." Cliff absently agreed.

"JD really wrote that?" Junior asked in amazement.

"Every single word." Ben confirmed.

"It was like... I had chills. And in that part when they were going into battle, I felt my heart speed up." Junior said in wonder.

* * * * *

"It's Gerry." JD said happily as he led Detective Booker into the living room.

"Hello, Gerry. It's nice to see you." Cliff said pleasantly, then thought to add, "I don't know if you two had the chance to meet at the home, but I'd like to introduce you to Michael, the newest member of our family."

"Another one!?" Gerry asked with surprise.

Cliff laughed delightedly, then explained, "Well, we haven't 'legally' adopted him but, even so, I'm proud to claim Michael as my son."

Gerry could see the emotional impact that the statement was having on Junior and quietly said, "I remember seeing you before, but I don't think we were ever introduced. It's nice to meet you, Michael. I'm Detective Booker from the Tallahassee Police Department, but you can call me Gerry, if you like."

It took a moment for Junior to gather his emotional control, but he finally said, "Yeah. It's nice to meet you, too."

"So, Gerry, were you just in the neighborhood or did you have some official business to conduct?" Cliff asked curiously.

"A little of both, actually." Gerry said pleasantly, then flashed Cliff a look that indicated that it was more urgent than he was letting on.

"Could we get you some coffee or anything?" Cliff asked cautiously.

"Yes. Some coffee would be nice. And while you're getting that, maybe Jody and I could talk for a minute." Gerry said in a leading tone.

Cliff gave a discreet nod, then scooted Jody off his lap as he said, "Jody, why don't you keep our guest company while we get him some coffee and snacks?"

"Can I have some, too?" Jody asked hopefully.

"Snacks, yes. Coffee, no." Cliff said, then leaned in to give Jody a kiss before walking toward the door.

Ben helped Cliff to quietly get JD and Junior out of the room.

* * * * *

"What's going on?" Junior asked quietly when they were finally in the kitchen.

"You know a little bit about why Jody was at the home, right?" Cliff asked carefully.

"A little." Junior said hesitantly.

"I get the feeling that Gerry needs to talk to Jody privately for a few minutes to gather some more information about what was done to him." Cliff said seriously.

"What are you doing, Spider?" Ben asked as he started the coffee pot.

"Making snacks." JD said simply.

"Do I need to start the oven?" Ben asked as he watched what JD was doing.

"Three-fifty." JD said in concentration as he placed a bowl of little smokey sausages into the microwave.

"Do you need any help?" Cliff asked cautiously.

"I got this." JD said confidently as he went to the refrigerator.

Junior and Cliff stood back and watched as JD quickly put together some 'pigs in a blanket'.

"I think I need to ask JD to teach me how to cook." Junior said in astonishment.

"Actually, I don't think you'll need to ask. Just by being here, you've already been recruited." Cliff chuckled.

Junior remembered the tasks that he'd been asked to perform to prepare dinner and smiled his agreement.

* * * * *

"Is anybody ready for some snacks?" Ben asked as he led the way into the living room.

"Oh, yeah. That really smells good. Thank you." Gerry said with a smile.

"I got your coffee. Black, right?" JD asked as he handed a filled cup to Gerry.

"Exactly right." Gerry assured him.

Cliff looked at Gerry inquiringly and received a covert nod of confirmation that he had had sufficient time alone with Jody.

"Would you like some pigs in a blanket? JD made them." Ben asked as he held out the tray to Gerry.

"If you guys keep spoiling me like this, my wife's going to get mad at me." Gerry chuckled as he took one.

"Do you want the recipe?" JD asked suddenly.

"No. Thank you, JD." Gerry said, then took a bite.

"Can I have one?" Jody asked hopefully.

Ben smiled as he held the tray so that Jody could reach it.

"Um, JD. I changed my mind. This tastes incredible." Gerry said in amazement.

JD smiled, then said, "I'll be right back."

"How does he do it?" Gerry asked before popping the rest of the snack into his mouth.

"I honestly don't know." Ben admitted.

"These piggy blankets are good!" Jody said past his mouthful.

"Yes, they are." Cliff chuckled.

* * * * *

General conversation ensued for a few minutes, but shortly after the last of the 'pigs in a blanket' were gone, Gerry excused himself and returned to duty.

Before they could get involved in anything else, Ben quickly said, "I've realized that I need to pick up a few things at the store. Would anyone like to go with me?"

"On Friday night, one week before Christmas? Are you insane?" Cliff asked cautiously.

"Yes. And, yes." Ben finished with a grin.

"Are you up to a trip to the store, Spider?" Cliff asked curiously.

JD considered the question for a moment. When his considering gaze finally settled on Junior, JD quietly said, "Yeah."

"Michael? Do you mind?" Cliff asked to be sure.

Junior smiled at Cliff's use of his true name, then quietly responded, "Sounds good."

* * * * *

Although Junior didn't make any complaint, both Cliff and Ben knew that he couldn't be comfortable, wedged between the two booster seats.

JD and Jody, however, couldn't have been happier about the way things turned out. Being on either side of Junior, both of them felt that they had him all to themselves.

To his credit, Junior did his best to hold simultaneous conversations and make each boy feel like he was paying special attention only to them.

By the time they reached Target, both Cliff and Ben were sure that Junior must be ready to get out of the car.

* * * * *

Inside the store, the boys made it clear that they wanted Junior to escort them.

As usual, Jody rode in the child carrier of the shopping cart. Junior pushed the cart and JD was his faithful escort, never more than an arm's reach away.

Cliff and Ben followed behind and watched with matching smiles.

Everyone seemed to be surprised when Cliff asked that they begin their shopping expedition in the sporting goods section of the store.

When he started looking at sleeping bags, Ben caught on to what he was thinking.

"Since both the boys sleep in JD's room, Junior could use mine." Ben said quietly.

"What kind of a sleepover would that be?" Cliff asked with a grin.

Ben couldn't help but agree with his reasoning.

After a few minutes of looking through the available selections, JD finally asked, "Why are you looking at sleeping bags?"

"So you guys can camp out in the living room, if you want to." Cliff said frankly.

"All of us?" JD asked with surprise.

"Doesn't that sound like fun to you?" Ben asked curiously.

"I don't know. I never even thought of doing something like that, before." JD said honestly.

Neither Cliff nor Ben felt like mentioning that JD and Jody were basically already camping out at some point, each night.

"I've always heard about people doing stuff like this with their friends, but I've never been able to do it before." Junior told the boys quietly.

No further discussion was needed.

* * * * *

When they left the sporting goods department, with a cart filled with three sleeping bags, Ben diverted them toward the housewares department.

It wasn't until Ben pointed out one particular electric skillet that JD started paying attention to what they were doing.

However, once JD realized what was going on, he carefully looked at each of their choices and asked several questions.

When all was finally said and done, JD asked that they buy an electric griddle rather than a second electric skillet. He reasoned that about half of what he normally cooked could be prepared more easily on a griddle.

JD was so caught up in dreams of what he could do with his new small appliance, that he nearly walked straight into a woman who was walking onto the aisle.

As soon as he was aware of what was going on, JD ran directly to Cliff and hugged him tightly.

"Excuse us." Ben said quietly, then led their way off the aisle.

* * * * *

JD was a little more subdued than usual when they walked onto the toy aisle and didn't want to let go of Cliff.

Jody wasn't the least bit interested.

Junior, as one might expect, was past the age where toys were of much interest to him.

So, contrary to everyone's expectations, they were able to leave the toy department without making any additions to their cart.

* * * * *

When they reached the checkouts, the number of women present was astounding. It appeared that, in Tallahassee at least, men didn't go Christmas shopping.

When JD realized that he was virtually surrounded by women, he went to Junior and somehow, without ever saying a word, convinced Junior to pick him up.

When Jody noticed JD's level of fear, he also became afraid, and it was Cliff who ended up picking him up out of the cart and holding him close, all the way out to the car.

* * * * *

JD was quiet all the way home.

When they arrived at the house, JD went into the living room and sat silently on the couch.

Cliff and Ben could tell that he wasn't in one of the near-catatonic states that he used to fall into. However, he wasn't anywhere near his typical, energetic self.

Jody was obviously picking up on his brother's emotional state and was sure to stay close to Juniors side.

Cliff looked at Ben and was surprised to find him smiling.

At Cliff's curious look, Ben quietly said, "I think I know just what we need."

"What's that?" Cliff asked curiously.

"Cookies." Ben said with a grin.

JD didn't move, but his eyes shifted in Ben's direction.

When Ben didn't volunteer more, Cliff cautiously asked, "What kind?"

"I don't really know. I found some on sale when I was shopping. I think the bag just said 'Cookies' on it." Ben said thoughtfully, then discreetly glanced in JD's direction in time to see him flinch.

Cliff followed Ben's glance, then asked, "Do we have any ice cream to go with them?"

"I think I remember seeing some ice milk in the back of the freezer, that's about the same..." Ben began to say, but was interrupted.

"We can make some really good cookies for you, if you'll let us use the oven." JD said firmly.

"Junior? How would you feel about supervising the boys, while they're in the kitchen?" Ben asked seriously.

"What would I have to do?" Junior asked cautiously.

"I would appreciate it if you would handle putting the cookies into the oven and taking them out when they're done. JD can take care of everything else." Ben said seriously.

"Oh, yeah. I can do that." Junior said confidently.

"Good. Let us know when the cookies are ready. Be sure to call us if you need anything." Ben said happily.

"Come on." JD said firmly.

Junior and Jody immediately followed.

"That was sneaky." Cliff said with a grin at his partner.

"Yeah. But it worked." Ben said in his defense.

* * * * *

When the cookies were finished, they were presented with a flourish worthy of fine dining cuisine.

As expected, everyone enjoyed the incredible taste, but along with that, the boys were also filled with the feeling of accomplishment and of being trusted.

After the cookies had been consumed, the family fell into what was fast becoming their nightly routine.

JD and Ben each brought out their laptops so that they could work on their own projects. Cliff and Jody cuddled on the couch as they watched TV.

Junior was in the armchair, sometimes watching the TV and sometimes talking quietly with either JD or Ben. It turned out to be a casual, relaxing evening filled with some of the most mundane activities imaginable, and yet it was everything that Junior had been longing for.

At a certain point it was decided that it was time to prepare for bed.

Cliff, Ben and Junior cleared the furniture from the middle of the living room, leaving a large open space for the sleeping bags.

Once that was done, JD decided that he and Jody needed for Junior to keep them company while they took their baths. Ben cautiously asked Junior if he minded very much.

Junior laughed at the question, then told him that, at the Home, he was often asked to help the younger residents or those who had been severely traumatized, to get cleaned up.

* * * * *

As Cliff and Ben prepared for bed, they could hear the occasional giggle or splash coming from the bathroom and, at one point, they even heard Junior laugh.

"So, are you feeling a little bit better about letting Junior spend the night?" Ben asked as they settled in for sleep.

"I wasn't really worried about him. I just know how full your days are, watching after two boys. Three might be overwhelming." Cliff said thoughtfully.

"I think that, if anything, Junior's made it easier." Ben said honestly.

"Yeah. I noticed that, too. He's really good with the boys." Cliff said softly, on the edge of sleep.

"Yes. And he's very responsible. I think he's going to be a good influence on them." Ben agreed.

There was a long moment of silence.

Finally, a soft snore came from Ben's side of the bed.

Cliff remained quiet as he considered what might be going on for Detective Booker to stop by, unannounced, to talk with Jody.

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes:

It's really great to get a new chapter of this wonderful story.

JD is getting pretty good at cooking, and it seems he is becoming better able to be in the vicinity of women. At least he didn't go all catatonic when they saw all those ladies in the store.

I think it's nice that Junior is fitting into the family.

Of course it is getting pretty close to Christmas, so it will be interesting to see what happens when we get closer to the holidays.

As always, it would be nice if you let MultiMapper know you have enjoyed reading his stories. We all appreciate knowing someone is reading and hopefully enjoying what they read.

By the way, MultiMapper is preparing copies of all his stories to date, in various E-Book formats. So you can put them on your Kindell or whatever reader you have, and read it off line if you like.

See you next time.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher