Joel: Book Three ~ Back To Normal

Chapter Fourteen

The tears were running down my cheeks and falling on top of TJ's head as I held him to me. He was sobbing into my chest as we lay on the bed.

"Dad, can you get this off my hands?" he whimpered through his tears.

In all of the tension when we entered the room and with the gun being held to my son's head, I hadn't noticed that TJ's hands were bound with duct tape until he asked and I sat up with him. "Of course, son, let me get something to cut the tape with." I looked around the room for anything that might be sharp enough to cut through the silver tape. Seeing nothing that looked promising, I asked, "Jack, or one of you guys, do you have a pocket knife?"

Jack looked at me strangely until I pointed to TJ's hands. "Oh sure, I just wanted to make sure what you wanted it for. I didn't want you to do anything stupid."

"Believe me, I'd like to," I said as he handed me a small pocket knife no more than an inch and a half long. "Thanks, but this is not big enough to do what I would like to do to those... men."

I cut the tape holding TJ's hands together and as carefully as I could I peeled the tape off trying not to hurt him any more than was necessary. I handed the knife back to Jack and stood up preparing to go. TJ threw his arms around my neck and his legs around my waist and hung on for dear life. We made our way to the door of the house and down the steps. Jack's men had already taken both of the kidnappers to one of their waiting cars.

"Jack, will you take us back to my car?" I asked.

"Sure, I'll have one of my people come with us and I'll drive you home. It looks like you have a son who is not about to let go of you."

"Thanks, I don't ever want to let go of him either."

It was nearly one o'clock in the morning when Jack drove us through the gate to our home. TJ had never let go of my neck the whole way. He had stopped crying, but he hadn't said anything since he asked me to free his hands.

"You know that the FBI will be chomping at the bit to talk to TJ," Jack said as we got out of the car. "They're probably at the site right now. One of the guys called the agent in charge and let him know what had happened."

"You can tell them that they can come around tomorrow afternoon sometime. I guess that should be this afternoon. We all need some sleep," I said. "Thanks, Jack, for all that you did. Send the bill to Gerald. Just make sure that he knows that it is for my personal account and not for the Foundation."

Hildy met us at the back door and pried TJ from my arms. Â"Oh, baby, we were so worried about you. Come on. Let's go see your brothers." The tears glistened in her eyes as she held her surrogate grandson tightly to her bosom.

I followed this tall German woman as she hurried toward the stairs carrying TJ and giving him a kiss with every step.

The other five boys were in the communal bed as we entered the upstairs bedroom. Manfred was sitting on the side of the bed with a book in his hand and appeared to be reading to them. Joel was the first to see Hildy striding into the room. Before she had barely reached the foot of the bed, he had sprung up and landed on his feet reaching for his youngest brother.

"TJ!" was all Joel said.

TJ turned his head and in one motion flung himself into Joel's arms causing Joel to fall back on the bed and into the arms of the other boys. There were a lot of tears, a lot of hugs and a whole lot of giggles expressing their happiness to have their brother back.

"Did they catch the kidnappers?" Manfred asked as he joined Hildy and me at the foot of the bed.

"Yes, thanks to Jack and his people. They had them confined when we left. The FBI hadn't arrived yet. Jack said that they would want to interview TJ, but I told him to tell the FBI they could do it this afternoon. I think the boys need to get some sleep. I do, too. This has been an exhausting day emotionally."

"I'd still like to get my hands on them," Hildy said icily.

"You and me both," I said giving her a hug. "We'll leave it up to the law to handle. From what Jack was telling me about their records, they won't ever see the outside world again. They're both three time losers."

"It's a good thing!" she said emphatically. Saying good night to the boys, she took Manfred's hand and they headed for their quarters.

I sat on the edge of the bed watching the boys share their love for a few moments before I broke in, "TJ, I think it's time for you to go wash your face and brush your teeth. It's way past everyone's bedtime."

"Can't I sleep here?" he pleaded.

"Of course you can sleep here. You'll be back here in no time," I said picking him up.

Five minutes later we all climbed into the oversized bed. I was in the middle with the twins and Chris on one side. TJ snuggled up to me with Joel next to him and John on the outside. I can't say that it was the most comfortable sleeping arrangement, but as long as I had all my sons with me I could have slept anywhere.

I let all the boys stay home from school on Friday. ÂI called Darcie and told her what had happened and that I wouldn't be into the office. Naturally she was shocked to hear what had happened to TJ. She reminded me that we were supposed to hear from the Mohr Trust today about their possible grant. I told her that I was sure that she could handle the situation, but if she needed me that I would be home all day.

By ten o'clock the press was at the gate clamoring to get in to get a story and pictures of TJ. I refused to let them in or to give them a statement either from me or from TJ. There was even a helicopter flying over the house. I kept the boys inside the house so that they wouldn't be bothered by the news hounds. I even walked the dogs so that the boys wouldn't have to go out. Thankfully the reporters had all left by around three.

Dick Manson, the FBI agent in charge, and another agent came by in the afternoon and interviewed TJ. He couldn't provide them with too much additional information other than what the FBI already knew about what had happened. He had not been physically abused other than having his hands taped together. TJ sat on my lap all during the interview. He still needed to be held close either to me or to Joel. Bandit was also his constant companion.

Hildy went out of her way to fix everything that TJ like to eat including his favorite chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. By the time supper was over, he seemed closer to his normal self.

As the boys were cleaning up the supper dishes, the gate buzzer sounded to indicate that someone had opened the gate. The security camera showed that it was Eric's car coming up the lane.

JR and Bran bolted out of the car almost before it had come to a complete stop. They ran up and hugged TJ. Bran picked him up and spun around with him causing TJ to giggle. It was good to hear that happy sound.

Eric walked up to me and wrapped his arms around me, "How are you doing? Are you okay?"

I returned his embrace, "Yes, I'm fine now. Yesterday at this time I was a basket case."

"Why didn't you call me? I would have come over to be with you," Eric scolded.

"I wasn't thinking too clearly about anything except getting my TJ back. It was agonizing just sitting here waiting for something to happen or for the kidnappers to call. Once they made contact things started to happen. Thanks to Jack Hogan and his organization we had a happy ending."

While Eric and I were talking on the front steps, the eight boys and five dogs had gone back inside and upstairs to the game room. Their happy voices and high pitched laughter gave me hope that things would return to normal shortly with no long term effects. Every so often I would go upstairs to check on the boys. The last time I went up, TJ ran to me and asked if they could have their snack. I told him I would check with Hildy and let him know. Instead he grabbed my hand and led me back downstairs. I think he wanted to make sure I went directly to talk to Hildy. His happy demeanor seemed to have completely replaced the scared little boy of twenty-four hours ago. It did my heart good to see it.

Eric and his boys left after they all had their snacks promising to come back tomorrow if the weather permitted to take swimming lessons from David.

After they left, TJ approached me and climbed onto my lap. "Are you feeling better tonight?"

"Uh huh," he murmured. "Uh... can I sleep with Joel tonight?"

"If Joel doesn't mind. Did you ask him?"

"Yeah, he said okay."

"Then I say okay," I said giving him a kiss on the top of his head and a squeeze. "I love you little one." I cuddled him for another twenty or so minutes before I suggested that he go take his shower and get ready for bed. He hopped down after giving me a quick kiss on the cheek and ran to find Joel.

After the boys were all in bed, I turned on the TV to watch the local news. The network programming had finished and the seemingly unending string of commercials was droning on before the news started. I wanted to see if there would be any coverage of TJ's kidnapping. The first news story was of a house fire in one of the upscale neighborhoods northwest of the city. The second was about the kidnapping.

"On a story that this station first broke late last night, the kidnapping of a young boy ended with the boy being rescued unharmed. Although the details are sketchy, we have learned that the victim of the kidnapping was a son of Crane Johnson, the multimillionaire former owner of Alamo Consulting Consortium.

"From what we have been able to piece together, Mr. Johnson is a bachelor and the adopted father of five young boys. Which one of the boys was the victim has not been determined. The police report says only that the kidnap victim was the minor son of Mr. Johnson. The boy's name was withheld at the request of the FBI who were involved in the search for the boy.

"Mr. Johnson has not been available for comment.

"The two men believed to have been involved in the kidnapping have been apprehended and are now in the Comal County Jail awaiting arraignment. They have been identified as Peter Kelly and Cameron Smith. Both of the individuals have long criminal records. They were released from prison less than three months ago.

"We have also learned that the local office of Independent Investigators was instrumental in the capture of the two suspects. Jack Hogan, the manager of Independent Investigators' San Antonio office, declined to give any information other than to say that they worked closely with the FBI to affect the capture."

That was the end of the story. I turned off the TV and decided to go to bed.

Saturday morning Helen Davis called to see if it was all right if she brought Roger over to use the pool. She said that Celia would like to start Roger on some water exercises. I told her she was welcome to come and use the pool. I expected David to be here around ten o'clock.

When I told the boys that Roger was going to be coming by this morning, they were all excited to see their friend again. He hadn't been back to school yet because of the operation.

Just before ten, we heard David's old clunker of a car coming up the lane. I really was beginning to wonder how that thing continued to run. It stopped out front with a bang and a shudder as the boys rushed to greet their friend.

Helen Davis' car pulled up right behind David's followed almost immediately by Eric's. Brian got out of their car and quickly retrieved Roger's wheelchair from the trunk, then lifted his brother into it, all the while surrounded by six other boys only to be joined by two more. Ten boys can make an awful lot of noise.

"I thought you could walk now," Larry said looking at Roger.

"I can a little," Roger replied. "I gotta learn how and get my legs stronger."

"Let's go get changed so we can swim," Brian said. "Bran, give me a hand with the runt's chair." That caused Roger to giggle and punch at his brother's arm.

The air was still a little chilly when the boys got into the pool so they spent most of the time submerged in the water and very little time sitting on the edge. Celia spent all of her time working with Roger having him walking in chest deep water or doing kicking exercises with him holding onto the edge of the pool. It didn't take too long for him to get tired and they had to stop and rest. Helen, Eric and I sat on the lounge chairs drinking coffee and watching the boys enjoying themselves in the water.

"How is TJ holding up?" Eric asked.

"He's doing remarkably well. I don't think he will have any lasting effects from his kidnapping."

"Kidnapping? You mean he was kidnapped?" asked a startled Helen. "When did it happen?"

"Yes, TJ was kidnapped off the school van Thursday after school. I just supposed you knew. It's been on the news for the last couple of days."

"I haven't seen a newscast or read a paper for several days. I've been working a lot of overtime and haven't had any time."

"Thanks to a friend who runs a private detective agency in San Antonio, we got him back after about eight hours."

"Thank heavens. I'm glad he wasn't hurt. I suppose they wanted ransom?"

"Yeah, they wanted two million, but instead now they're going to spend the rest of their lives in prison."

We continued to talk and watch the boys frolicking in the water. I noticed that John was doing much better than he had the first time he had taken a swimming lesson. He didn't seem to fear the water as he did before.

When the lessons were over, I asked Helen if she and her boys would like to stay for lunch. It wasn't going to be anything fancy, just sandwiches. At first she started to decline, but the pleading look on Roger's face made her change her mind.

David and Celia accepted my invitation to stay for lunch, much to the delight of the boys. David fit right in with the other boys when it came to putting away the food. The boys' hearty appetites kept a happy Hildy in the kitchen making multiple plates of sandwiches to feed the fourteen of us. Manfred was the only one missing. He had to take care of some things for his business.

Helen and her boys left shortly after lunch amid much grumbling from her two. She reminded them that they had chores to do and they grudgingly went to their car. David and Celia left at the same time. I shook my head as his car chugged down the lane leaving a trail of exhaust fumes in its wake.

The weather was turning out to be rather pleasant after a cool morning. Eric and I followed the boys outside where they attempted to play a rag tag game of soccer. It was difficult with five dogs chasing the ball as it was being kicked.

"How is your dad doing?" I asked Eric after we had been watching the boys for a while.

"He's not doing too well. Mom's sister, Edna, has moved in to help take care of him. He's just lost the will to go on, it seems."

"That's too bad. Has he seen a counselor to help him handle his grief?"

"No, he won't go. He thinks he can handle it himself. I've been thinking about bringing him here to live with me. Maybe being around the boys would help snap him out of it. It would really make things crowded at our house, but it would be worth it if it helped."

"Eric, I know you mean well, but are you really ready to take on that responsibility and at the same time maintaining your job and raising two growing boys?"

"I know, but I can't ask Darcie to do it. She needs some time to establish her relationship with Mel."

"It's none of my business, but I think you would be making a mistake if you had him come live with you. He needs counseling whether he wants it or not to help him through this."

"I know," he sighed. "I know."

I sensed that he didn't want to talk about it so I changed the subject.

"Dad, can we get a drink?" Chris hollered as he ran up to us.

"Sure, let me help you. You guys need a break, anyway."

When we went inside, Hildy was preparing a heaping platter of cookies. "Chris, you grab the plastic cups and napkins, Crane, you get a couple of gallons of milk out of the refrigerator and I'll take the cookies," Hildy said. "I want to make sure they make it out to the other boys."

At the sight of the cookies, the other seven boys came running. Luckily Hildy was able to set them down before she was trampled.

"You would think that we starve those boys," Eric laughed.

"Yeah, it's been at least an hour and a half since they had lunch," I said. "Can you and the boys stay for supper? I could throw something on the grill."

"Thanks, but Darcie and Mel are stopping by on their way home from Austin this evening. They went to some country music doings up there today. I think she said they would be at our house sometime around six," he said. "Do you think it would be safe to try and grab a cookie? I'd hate to lose a hand."

Hildy laughed at him, reached in, retrieved a couple of cookies and handed them to Eric and me.

The rest of the afternoon went by quickly, much too quickly for the boys. They were having too much fun to want to stop. Finally, Eric called JR and Bran and cajoled them into their car after getting a round of hugs from everyone.

After supper, I heard John go up to Hildy and ask her if he could go to church with her tomorrow, to which she readily agreed. She usually let it be known to the boys that they were welcome to go to church with her. More often than not, they declined her offer. Once in a while TJ would want to go with her to 'talk to his mother'.

When John returned from church on Sunday morning, I asked him how he liked going to Hildy's church.

"I liked it," he said enthusiastically. "The preacher was really nice. He didn't yell and tell everybody that they were sinners and they had to repent. He said we should love each other and that Jesus and God loved us. That was nice. He didn't make me feel bad like my preacher does."

"I'm glad that you liked it. I'm sure that Hildy will be happy to take you every Sunday if you want. Now, go get your clothes changed. The boys are outside playing with their dogs."

The boys were just putting the lunch dishes in the dishwasher when the phone rang. It was John's mother, Pauline. She wanted to know if she could come over and see her son. I said that we had just finished lunch and they were welcome to come over any time. She said she would be right over.

About twenty minutes later she arrived at the gate to be let in. John rushed out the front door to wait for them to drive up the lane. When they stopped, his three sisters jumped out and surrounded him, all of them talking at the same time. Pauline got out from behind the driver's seat and came around the car to her son. John immediately ran to her and threw his arms around her. It wasn't until then that I noticed that Bruce was not with them.

After the hugging was over, I greeted Pauline and invited her into the house. It took several minutes for Pauline to get all the usual parent questions asked, such as: Are you behaving yourself? How's school? Are you eating? etc. etc.

Then John asked, "Where's dad?"

"Your dad couldn't come today," Pauline said with what I thought was a look of sadness in her eyes.

After a half an hour or so, the conversation began to lag. That was when Pauline suggested to John that he take his sisters and go play with them for a while. She said that she needed to talk to me privately.

John got up and summoning his sisters they went upstairs to play with the other boys who were impatiently waiting for them.

"Crane, there is something that I need to tell you about Bruce. He's..."

"He's not sick or anything is he?" I asked interrupting her.

"No, not really, it's just that we've separated."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Well this thing with John is what brought it to a head. I had always submitted to Bruce's authority because that's the way I'd been brought up. It's the way my mother was. It's the way my church told me to be. But, I don't want to lose my son. I accepted it when Bruce sent him away to that school because Bruce said it was the right thing to do. After I learned what those people did to my son, it started me thinking. I started to question things and that didn't go down too well with Bruce. Our marriage has had its share of problems. What marriage hasn't? Anyway, the comment that John made when we were here to visit the last time about killing himself if he couldn't escape that school and you saying that gay teenagers are more likely to commit suicide, it really made me think.

"I stood up to Bruce for the first time in our marriage when he told me he was not going to go to a counselor that the court had suggested. He said that if his son couldn't change, then he was no son of his and John could just stay where he was. I want my son back. I want my son back more than I want my husband back. Bruce has moved out of the house."

I sat silently listening to her tell her story. I really didn't know how to react. My interaction with Bruce had never revealed this side of his personality. I was a little stunned. I knew about his fundamentalist religious views and his abhorrence of homosexuality, but I thought he was at least not hostile towards his son.

"Pauline, I don't know what to say. I was hoping that you and Bruce could come to an understanding of John being gay. My hope was that he could be returned to you as soon as possible. I don't know what the judge will say about this turn of events. My guess is that he wouldn't return John to a household where Bruce would be if he didn't follow the judge's instruction for counseling. I think that he would also like to know how you feel about your son being gay."

"I can't say that I like it. What I can say is that I love my son and always will. I have set up an appointment with one of the counselors that the court suggested to see what help that he can offer. There is a PFLAG group in San Antonio that I have contacted. I want to find out more about them, but perhaps they can help me understand my son better."

"That sounds like you're on the right track. What about Bruce?"

"He is out of our life unless he can change his attitude about our relationship and even more important about his attitude toward John. If he can't, then divorce is a real possibility."

"I would hate to see that happen, but that has to be your decision. I always thought that Bruce loved John. What has made him become the way he is?"

"In his own way, I know he does still love his son. I thought that after Fullwell was no longer our pastor that his strong feelings about gays might soften a bit. Our new pastor, Pat Robinson, is just as fanatical in his preaching against gays. Bruce can't seem to shake off the years of religious teachings. He can't seem to be able to think on his own on the subject."

"How are you going to manage without Bruce?"

"I have my own money. I can take care of the expenses. That doesn't bother me. What bothers me is the girls growing up without a father. For all his faults, they love him dearly and will miss him."

"It's not easy being a single parent. I know. If I didn't have Hildy I don't know what I would do and I don't want to find out."

"Dad, we're hungry," Lenny said. Larry, Linda and Cassie were right behind him. "Can we have something?"

"Sure, check with Hildy, I'll bet she has something you can have," I said.

"Oh, boy!" Lenny shouted and took off for the kitchen with the others in tow.

"Pauline, would you like a cup of coffee?"

"It looks like we'll be staying for a bit, so thanks, I'd love a cup."

Kid food radar was working perfectly as Joel, John, Rachel and Chris came quickly down the stairs before Pauline and I were able to reach the kitchen. Hildy was ready for them and had bowls of fruit salad dished up just waiting to be topped with whipped cream.

"Did you wash your hands?" Hildy asked sternly.

That stopped all nine kids in their tracks and they immediately reversed directions and headed for the bathrooms. Even the girls knew that Hildy meant business when she spoke. Pauline and I could barely suppress our amusement.

After the kids enjoyed their snack, Pauline decided that it was time to leave. John's sister all gave him a farewell hug and then said goodbye to the other boys. They didn't get hugs except TJ got one from Rachel. John walked with his mother to the car before giving her a kiss and a long hug. He waved at the car as long as it was in sight. When he turned to go back into the house, there were tears streaming down his cheeks.

Joel put his arm around John's shoulder and walked with him back into the house. I felt like I should say something to him, but I didn't have any words that seem appropriate at the moment.

Later as I was reading a book, John came inside and stood beside my recliner. He looked as if he were going to cry. I put down my book and reached out to him and pulled him into the chair with me.

"What's the matter son?"


"It must be something or you wouldn't be sad."

"I guess."

"John, you know that you can tell me anything that's bothering you."

"I know. It's just that Rachel said my mom and dad had a big fight because of me."

"Parents often have arguments. Why do you think it was because of you?"

"'Cause Rachel said she heard dad say so."

"He probably said that because he was angry. Sometimes people say things when they are angry that they don't really mean."

"Yes, he does. Rachel said that he said that I couldn't come home until I decided not to be gay. How can I decide that?"

"I don't think that you can."

"And then Rachel said that mom told him to get out until he changed his mind. Now he's gone and it's all my fault," John broke down and sobbed.

I held him tight and rubbed his back. I didn't say anything until his sobbing began to subside. "Son, listen to me, it's not your fault that your dad isn't living at home anymore. Your dad has a problem. Until he can solve his problem, he can't come home to live."

"But, my sisters love him and miss him."

"I'm sure that they do."

"I'll bet he'd come home if I was dead."