Ben's eyes flew open at a tapping sound.
"Did you hear that?" Ben asked as he looked around uncertainly.
"Hear what?" Cliff asked groggily.
The tapping sound repeated, then the door slightly opened and a little wheat blond head peaked in.
"JD wants to know if we can come in." Jody said cautiously.
Ben looked over himself and Cliff to be sure that they were presentable, before saying, "Yes. Come on in. That's fine."
Jody withdrew for a moment.
Ben quickly adjusted the pillows behind him so that he could comfortably sit up in bed.
Cliff was doing the same when Jody opened the door and stood aside, clearing the way for JD and Junior, each carrying lap trays filled with breakfast foods.
"How long have you guys been up?" Ben asked with a delighted smile as the tray was placed over his lap.
"For as long as it takes to cook breakfast." JD said simply.
"I guess that makes sense." Ben chuckled, then looked curiously at his plate. "Did you make homemade biscuits?"
"Yeah. We didn't have any buttermilk, so I had to sour some milk to do it. But besides that, they should be okay." JD said as he looked at the biscuits consideringly.
"If you're going to use the oven, I'd rather you come and get me so that I can supervise."
"Junior was there and he did just like you said last night."
Ben glanced at Junior and could tell that he was worried that he might have overstepped his bounds by allowing JD to bake.
"You're right, JD. Junior's old enough and mature enough to be trusted."
"We'll be right back." JD said with an immediate smile, then ran out of the bedroom, with Jody following right behind him.
"Is it really alright?" Junior asked to be sure.
"It's fine, Junior. Just as long as you know that I expect you to tell JD 'no' if he asks to do something that could potentially harm him."
"Yeah. Don't worry. I'm the only one who handled the hot pans and stuff."
"Good. Thank you."
"Junior, yours is on the tray table, by the refrigerator." JD said as he carried another tray into the room.
Jody was following along, like an ever faithful puppy.
"Go on, Squid. Get up on the bed so I can put this down." JD said as he stood aside.
Jody obediently climbed onto the foot of the bed by Ben's feet and sat with his legs straight, so that JD could place the tray over his lap.
"Try the biscuits." Cliff whispered, drawing Ben's attention.
Ben reluctantly tore his gaze away from Jody long enough to find a split and buttered biscuit on his plate and take the top off of it.
"I buttered the bikkits" Jody proudly announced.
Ben had to fight down his smile as he took a bite.
The flavor was almost overwhelming. The butter, the flaky biscuit, and the almost imperceptible tang of the soured milk all merged into a perfect storm of flavor in his mouth.
"Is it okay?" JD asked as he walked into the room, carrying another lap tray as Junior followed with one of the tray tables that they kept in the living room.
"Okay? JD, this may very well be the best biscuit that I've ever tasted in my life." Ben said honestly.
"It'd be better if we had buttermilk." JD said as he offered his tray to Cliff to hold so that he could climb onto the bed.
After another bite of his biscuit, Ben finally said, "Remind me to buy buttermilk the next time we go to the store."
Cliff was about to inject his own praise into the conversation, but then he noticed the discomfort in Junior's expression as he tried to unobtrusively set his tray table in front of the chair by the bathroom door.
"You can just drop that robe on the floor." Ben said to Junior casually, when he noticed what Junior was doing.
Cliff had an idea of what might be bothering Junior, but resolved himself to speak to him about it later, when there weren't so many little ears present.
"So, how was it sleeping in the living room? Did you all sleep comfortably?" Ben asked, mostly directing his question to the boys at the foot of his bed.
"The sleeping bags were too hot, so we slept on top of them and I got the blankets from the beds for us." JD said between bites of food.
"Good thinking." Ben said with a smile, then noticed that although Jody was using a spoon instead of a fork, he seemed to be keeping up with his older brother, bite for bite.
"Do we have anything planned for today?" Cliff asked into the silence that followed.
"If you wouldn't mind keeping an eye on things around here for a little while, I've got quite a bit of work that I haven't been able to get done this week." Ben said regretfully.
"How bad is it?"
"Not terrible, but it could take me a few hours to clear out."
Cliff turned his attention to the boys and asked, "Did you guys have anything planned?"
The boys looked from one to another before JD finally said, "I guess that I could read Junior and Jody some more of my book."
"I'm sure everyone would enjoy that." Cliff said with a smile, then glanced at Junior to find that he seemed to be pleased with the suggestion.
* * * * *
When the breakfast was finished, the boys collected all the trays and went to the kitchen to clean up.
After returning from the bathroom, Cliff quietly asked, "Do you need for me to do anything while you're working?"
"No. The housework is all caught up. There shouldn't be anything needing to be done. I just desperately need some time so that I can focus on my work."
"I'll do my best to keep the boys from disturbing you."
"If it's something important, I don't mind if you interrupt me. What I need more than anything is to be able to devote my full attention to what I'm doing without having to listen for what the boys are up to. In the past week, I haven't been able to get ANY of my work done."
"Got it. You go ahead and do what you need to do and I'll watch after the boys for a while."
"Thank you." Ben said sincerely before leaving their bedroom to go to his office.
* * * * *
Cliff walked into the kitchen to refill his coffee and was happy to see that everything had been cleaned up.
From there, he went to the living room where he found JD reading aloud to Junior and Jody who were snuggled together in a cushioned chair.
Cliff quietly walked past JD and sat on the other end of the couch from him.
It didn't take more than a few sentences for Cliff to become enthralled in JD's story telling.
* * * * *
When JD reached what was either a logical break in the story, or the end of a chapter, he stopped and announced that his throat was getting tired.
"That's fine, Spider. Thank you for reading to us. It was a wonderful treat." Cliff said sincerely.
"Yeah. If all stories were like that one, I'd probably be reading all the time." Junior interjected.
"Is it okay if I write, now? While I was reading that, I got some ideas for my new story." JD asked hopefully.
"Do you have everything you need? Your Daddy's hard at work right now and we don't need to interrupt him." Cliff asked cautiously.
"I brought my laptop in here last night, just in case I woke up with any ideas." JD said as he took the netbook from underneath the coffee table.
"Good thinking." Cliff said with a smile, then looked at Junior and asked, "While JD's doing that, would you like to choose a movie for us to watch?"
"Um, no... not really. Actually, I was wondering if, when you had the time, if maybe I could ask you about something."
"As far as I know, I have nothing but free time right now."
Junior looked from JD to Jody with frustration, suggesting to Cliff that Junior might want to talk privately.
"Jody? Since JD's done reading, do you want to watch some TV?" Cliff asked as he held out the remote control toward him.
Jody seemed to be torn by the decision, but finally got out of the chair that he had been sharing with Junior, then hurried across the room to accept the remote from Cliff.
"Junior, why don't you come over here so that we can talk while the boys are entertaining themselves?" Cliff asked in what he hoped sounded like a casual voice.
Jody moved to the floor beside the coffee table, where his Lego set was located, then turned on the television.
Junior moved to the couch and sat down a respectable distance away from Cliff, near enough so that they could speak somewhat privately.
Cliff looked around and verified that JD was in the process of getting his netbook ready to use and Jody was opening the lid of his Lego set as the TV chattered in the background.
"So, what's on your mind?"
"I don't know if I can talk to you about this..." Junior trailed off uncertainly.
"Well, remember that I'm a doctor, so I'm used to dealing with embarrassing topics."
"It's not that... I mean, not really." Junior stammered. "It's just that, you know, when you ask a teacher or someone like that about some stuff, they either get mean and nasty or preachy with you or they tell you that they'll get fired or arrested or something if they talk to kids about certain things."
"Yes. I can think of a few circumstances where that might be true." Cliff said with a nod. "Go on."
"Well, when someone has parents, they can ask them about those things and even if it's weird for them or something, at least they've got someone to go to..." Junior trailed off in frustration, unable to properly articulate what he wanted to say.
"Let me stop you right there for a moment."
Junior gave him an anguished look, certain that Cliff was about to tell him that he couldn't help him either.
"Junior... Michael, I'm a doctor. Not only am I allowed to talk to you about sensitive subjects that your teachers or counselors might be forbidden to discuss with you, but I'm also legally obligated to never talk to anyone else about anything that we've discussed."
"Really? You mean that I can ask you anything and you're not allowed to tell Mr. Cooper or anyone else about it?"
"Yes... Well, for the most part. I mean, if you told me that you're planning to murder someone, then I'd break confidentiality and call the police. But other than a few extreme circumstances like that, the law protects Doctor-Patient Confidentiality."
"But I'm not your patient."
"Do you have a dollar?"
"Um... Yeah. I think so."
"Can I see it?"
Junior pulled a wallet that looked older than he was out of his pocket and fished out a dollar bill.
"Open your mouth."
After a moment of hesitation, Junior cautiously did so.
Cliff made a show of looking into his mouth, then snatched the dollar out of his hand as he rested back on the couch.
At Junior's puzzled look, Cliff said, "In my professional opinion, as your doctor, your tonsils look fine. Now, would you like to discuss anything else while we're here?"
It took a moment for Junior to catch on to what Cliff was doing, but once he did, he broke into a smile.
"Honestly, you're free to ask me anything that you want and I'll do my best to help you. But now I'm legally bound not to share anything that you tell me. It just gives you an added layer of protection..."
"Like those pantyliner things that they're always advertising?" Junior asked cautiously.
"Yeah. Just like that." Cliff chuckled.
The chatter of the television became noticeable as Cliff waited for Junior to formulate his question.
"I've been wanting to find someone to ask about this stuff for a long time, and now I don't know what I want to ask first."
"You can ask me whatever you want, whenever you want."
"Do I have to pay you a dollar each time?"
"No. I'm your doctor from now on, until you say that I'm not. And even then, I still wouldn't legally be allowed to break confidentiality."
"Okay. I just thought of one. When you're shaving, how far down are you supposed to shave before you stop?"
"That's one of those things that comes down to personal choice, but if you're interested, I'll tell you my thoughts on the subject."
Junior immediately nodded.
* * * * *
After a discussion of several things related to male hygiene, some of them rather personal, Cliff felt that Junior was comfortable enough that he might be able to introduce a more sensitive subject.
"Would you mind if I asked you something?"
"Do I have to answer?"
"No. I guess not. I was just kind of curious about what was bothering you when you brought us breakfast in bed this morning. I could see that you were upset about something but there's no way that I can try to fix it if I don't know what's wrong."
"I don't know what that was." Junior said frankly, "I mean, I know that you and Ben are a gay couple and that's never bothered me. Honestly, I don't even think about it. But then I saw the two of you in bed and... I don't know, I guess it became 'real' or something. It's not like I was grossed out or anything like that, it's just that... I don't know. I saw you two in bed and... the way I look at you changed."
"In a bad way?"
Junior thought about that for a moment, then said, "I don't know if it's good or bad. It's like before, I had this one label on you, and then when I saw you like that, all of a sudden, that label wasn't right anymore and I had to figure out what the new label was."
"What label did you come up with?"
"I don't know. In fact, I don't even know what the old label was, I just know that how I thought about you and Ben changed all of a sudden and it kinda threw me for a minute."
"I can accept that. Let me know if you figure out what the new label says, I'd be interested to know."
Junior nodded that he would.
"So, do you have any questions about male sexuality or anything along those lines?"
"No. They talk about stuff like that at school all the time. I've seen slideshow presentations, videos and even a puppet show about that. But it's the stuff that you're supposed to do every day to keep yourself clean and healthy that they just kind of figure that someone else already told you about."
"Remember. I'm your doctor, now. You can ask me anything."
"Okay. I will."
* * * * *
When the phone rang, Cliff immediately reached over to the side table and picked it up.
"Cliff, is that you?"
"Yes. Who is this?"
"It's Ron Cooper. Were you serious about helping me out if I needed you?"
"Yes. Of course. What did you need, Ron?"
"Is there any way you could drive over here... and bring your medical bag?"
"Sure. I guess so. What's up?"
"My usual pediatrician has other commitments right now and I need an honest evaluation. Are you up to it?"
"Yes. Are you at the home?"
"Yeah. I hate to ask, but I've got a funny feeling and... just get here as quick as you can."
"I'm on my way."
"I'll see you in a few minutes. Thanks." Ron said before hanging up the phone.
* * * * *
"Is something wrong?" Junior asked with concern.
"Mr. Cooper just needs me to look at one of the kids at the home." Cliff said as he stood, then thought to ask, "Would you keep an eye on the boys while I'm gone?"
"I guess so."
"Just watch after things and if you have any problems you can go to Ben and let him know and he'll take care of it."
"Thanks, Michael." Cliff said warmly, then hurried out of the room.
* * * * *
Junior could see through the window as Cliff pulled out of the driveway.
Since he had been talking with Cliff, he really didn't have anything going on and didn't know what to do next. The children's program on the television wasn't of any interest to him. From the way that Jody was paying all his attention to the Lego blocks, he guessed that no one else was interested in it either.
As Junior watched, he noticed that Jody seemed to be taking each individual Lego block out of the carrying container and examining it carefully.
"Do you want to know what else you can do with those?" Junior asked as he moved off the couch so that he was sitting on the floor with Jody.
It took a moment for Jody to realize that Junior was talking to him.
"Watch this." Junior said as he picked up two of the blocks and snapped them together.
Jody stared in wonder at what Junior had just done.
After a moment of hesitation, Jody experimentally picked up two more blocks and duplicated Junior's accomplishment.
"If you snap a bunch of these together, you can make a house or even a little city, if you want."
"Can we do this?" Jody asked as he picked up the container and showed Junior the picture on the side.
"I don't know, but we can try." Junior said simply, then added, "Go ahead and dump all the blocks out where we can see them and we'll see what we can do."
Jody's eyes lighted with delight at the thought, then he quickly poured the remaining contents onto the floor between them.
In the background was the chatter of the television and the clickety-click of JD studiously typing on his little laptop.
* * * * *
Junior lost all track of time as he and Jody worked together to reconstruct the princess and pony scene depicted on the side of the Lego box.
"Did I miss anything?" Cliff asked as he walked into the room.
Junior looked at him with surprise, then over at the clock above the television.
"No. We've been doing this since you left."
"It looks like you've got quite a project going there. I like that." Cliff said with a smile as he walked to his customary place on the couch and sat down.
"Was it a big problem at the home?"
"Mr. Cooper just wanted for me to look at one of the new kids, to be sure that she was alright." Cliff said simply, then thought to ask, "Did you guys leave me any lunch?"
"We haven't had lunch yet." Junior answered, then realized that it was long past time.
"Hmmm. I wonder what we can do about that." Cliff said speculatively, then looked at JD with a smile.
"Junior, can you help me?" JD asked as he closed the lid on his little laptop.
"Yeah, just tell me what I need to do." Junior answered as he stood.
"Jody. I'm going to need lots of bread buttered." JD said as he looked at his younger brother.
Without a word, Jody automatically stood to help JD prepare the meal.
"Do you need my help with anything?" Cliff asked, fairly certain that he already knew the answer.
"Could you go and check on Daddy? He hasn't come out of his room since breakfast." JD asked as he started walking toward the doorway.
"How long do you figure until lunch is ready?"
JD paused in the doorway for a moment and finally answered, "About twenty minutes."
"I'll let him know." Cliff said as he got up from the couch.
* * * * *
After a gentle knock on the door, Cliff quietly stepped in and asked, "How's it going?"
"I'm making good progress. I can't believe that I let things get this far behind." Ben said honestly, then noticed the time and said, "I got so busy that I forgot lunch! The boys must be starving by now."
"Actually, I think that they all got so involved in what they were doing that they forgot, too. All three of them are in the kitchen, fixing it, now."
"I think that if I keep after it, I should be able to get all my work done before dinner, then I'll be able to enjoy the rest of the weekend with you and the boys." Ben said as he stiffly stood.
"I think that everyone is just fine with spending a nice quiet Saturday afternoon doing the things that they enjoy. Just go ahead and take all the time you need. We're doing fine."
"Do you think that we should be in the kitchen to supervise?" Ben asked as he looked toward the door.
"No. I'm sure that Junior's got it under control. JD said that lunch would be ready in about twenty minutes." Cliff assured him, then grinned as he asked, "What do you think we might be able to do in twenty minutes?"
"Right this minute, what I need to do most is to go to the bathroom."
"Not exactly what I had in mind."
"I'm sorry. I've been sitting there since this morning. Excuse me." Ben said before dashing away.
Cliff couldn't help but smile as he slowly walked out of the room.
* * * * *
As Cliff drifted into the kitchen, he saw that JD had his troops hard at work and was, himself, working on the countertop beside the stove.
"How's it going in here?" Cliff asked casually.
"Do you still want to help me?" JD asked hopefully.
"What do you have for me to do?"
"I'm heating the potatoes from last night in the microwave. When they're done, could you kind of just smash them a little, then dump them into the electric skillet?"
"Whenever you ask for my help, it seems to be to do something aggressive. Are you trying to tell me something?" Cliff asked with a smile as he walked to the sink to wash his hands.
"I think you're big and strong. That's just the best way I can think of to use it." JD said simply before turning his attention back to the electric skillet before him.
"I can accept that." Cliff said with a chuckle, then saw that Junior was stationed at the griddle, toasting hamburger buns.
Beside him, JD had the electric skillet filled with loose lunchmeat style ham.
"It looks like the electric skillet is in use." Cliff said frankly.
"By the time you're done with the potatoes, it won't be." JD said simply, then hopped down off his chair and ran to the refrigerator.
"How you doin, Squid?" Cliff asked as he drifted over to the kitchen table where Jody was buttering hamburger buns.
"JD says that I gotta hurry cause Junior needs these done."
"Yes. It's best not to mess with JD's timetable." Cliff said with a grin.
The sound of the doorbell caused everyone to look up at the same time.
"I'll get it." Cliff said simply, then hurried out of the room.
* * * * *
"Zeb! It's wonderful to see you. How are you doing today?" Cliff asked as he stood back to invite Zeb into the house.
"I'm doing fine. I got ready for work a little bit early and thought that I'd stop by and see how you're doing."
"Actually, we got thrown a little behind schedule, so we're just making lunch. Everyone's in the kitchen." Cliff said as he automatically led the way.
* * * * *
When Cliff walked into the kitchen, he was happy to see that Ben had joined them.
"Look who came to visit." Cliff said pleasantly.
"Zeb!" JD said happily and jumped off his chair so that he could run over and give Zeb a big hug.
"You remember Jody, don't you?" Ben asked as he gestured toward the table where Jody was looking back at them uncertainly.
"Yeah. Hi." Zeb said and waved at him.
Jody waved uncertainly in return.
"Zeb, I'd like for you to meet Junior." Cliff said pleasantly.
"Did you adopt him, too?"
"Just about." Cliff said playfully, then said more seriously, "Junior's visiting for the weekend, but even so, we're still counting him as a member of the family."
"It's nice to meet you, Junior."
"Nice to..." Junior began to say when he was interrupted.
"Junior, your buns!" JD barked.
"What? Oh!" Junior said and frantically started pulling toasted hamburger buns off the new electric griddle.
"If you will excuse me, JD has a job for me to do." Cliff said as he walked to the sink to wash his hands again.
"Come on over to the table, Zeb, and tell us what's going on." Ben said invitingly.
"Nothing really. I just got up and got ready for work and realized that I was really early... I just thought I'd stop by..." Zeb trailed off with a shrug.
"Have you eaten?"
"No. I was going to..."
"JD, do we have enough for one more?"
"I wouldn't be much of a cook if we didn't." JD immediately responded, then called out, "Jody, can you butter one more bun for me?"
"Okay." Jody automatically responded.
"Really. You don't need to go to the trouble." Zeb tried to explain.
"Trouble? I have a feeling that JD thrives on chaos." Ben chuckled.
When the timer on the microwave beeped, Cliff immediately walked over to it and as he was reaching for the handle, JD quickly said, "Pappa, those things steam really hot. You'll need a mitt."
"Yes, sir." Cliff said as he moved to the drawer where the towels and potholders were kept.
After looking around at the bustling chaos of the kitchen, Ben cautiously asked, "Do you need any help with anything?"
"Would you set the dining room table? With this many people, I think we should eat in there." JD asked before hopping down off his chair, then dragging it quickly over to the sink.
"Yeah. I'd be happy to." Ben said as he got up from his place at the kitchen table.
"Are they all ready?" Junior asked Jody as he ran to the kitchen table with an empty plate.
"Yeah." Jody said as he set his butter knife aside and started loading the buttered buns onto the plate.
"Thanks, Jody. Those look good." Junior said before hurrying back to the griddle.
"What did you mean by 'smash'?" Cliff asked as he looked at the potatoes in the bowl.
"You're not trying to kill them, just make them sorry that they ever met you." JD said as he ran to the refrigerator.
"I'm not sure that I understand."
"You start with something round and make it flat with one hit. It doesn't have to be perfect, just whack it and move on." JD said as he carried the salad from the previous night's dinner and placed it on the island.
"Okay. I think I can do that." Cliff said, then started looking through the utensils to try and decide which one might do the job best. When he came across a wooden mallet, he smiled.
"JD, is your electric skillet supposed to be smoking like that?" Junior asked cautiously.
"Yeah. That's just right. It's ready for Pappa's potatoes." JD said as he began to clean and wash a head of lettuce in the sink.
"Do you want me to do the lettuce?" Jody asked as he approached his brother.
"No. I'm only using a little bit so this will just take me a minute." JD said as he hopped off the chair, then ran the dripping head of lettuce over to the island.
As he was turning around, he saw that Jody was scooting the chair over to the island for him.
"Thanks, Squid." JD said gratefully and climbed onto the chair as soon as it was placed.
"Do I need to do anything to the smashed potatoes before I put them in the skillet?" Cliff asked as he crossed the room.
"No. Just dump them in." JD said as he ripped lettuce at a rapid pace.
After dumping the potatoes, and waiting for the resulting hiss of steam, Cliff asked, "Do I need to stir them?"
"Nope. That's it. I'll finish them off when I'm done here." JD said as he finished ripping up the lettuce.
When JD looked down beside him, he saw that Jody was looking up at him hopefully; wanting something more to do.
"Will you wash your hands, then toss the salad for me?" JD asked his younger brother with a smile.
"You'll need your own chair, I'm going to need this one." JD said as he hopped down.
"Okay." Jody said as he hurried toward the table.
"JD, I'm just about done with the bread." Junior said as he carefully moved toasted buns to a plate.
"Good. Then take the meat that I already heated and make piles of it on the griddle, each one about the size of a bun. When you've got six, then put a slice of the cheddar cheese on each of them. When you're done with that, put a top bun on top of the cheese, so it will trap the heat and make it melt." JD said while he was moving his chair so that he'd be in front of the electric skillet.
"How..." Junior began to ask.
"Use the tongs." JD said as he started to turn the 'smashed' potatoes.
"Right." Junior said as he noticed that the utensil had already been set out beside the griddle for him.
"I told you that you'd be learning some cooking, whether you wanted to or not." Cliff chuckled as he washed his hands again.
"I don't know what I'm learning, except to always listen to JD." Junior said with a grin as he proceeded to do what JD had told him.
"When it comes to cooking, I'm learning that too."
"Junior, are they ready?" JD asked suddenly.
"Just about." Junior answered as he hurried to finish.
"Then all that's left is to use a turner spatula to pick up the meat and put it on the bottom buns. You can hold it by the top bun to balance it as you move it." JD said simply as he started to pull the fried potatoes out of the skillet.
"What do you need help with?" Cliff asked as he looked around.
"Would you help Jody clean up?" JD asked without looking up from the potatoes.
When Cliff looked toward the island, he couldn't help but smile at the little boy up to his elbows in salad greens.
"I think that's as mixed as you're going to get it." Cliff said as he approached, then gently asked, "Would you like for me to carry you over to the sink so you can get washed up?"
Jody looked at Cliff for a long thoughtful moment, then nodded energetically.
"Come on, Angel." Cliff chuckled as he picked the boy up off the chair.
"What do I do now?" Junior asked cautiously.
"Take those into the dining room and put them in the middle of the table, then sit down. It's ready." JD said as he moved his bowl of potatoes near the edge of the counter before he climbed down off the chair.
"Let's go into the dining room. It looks like they're just about ready." Ben said to Zeb as he passed through the kitchen with a drink in each hand.
"Are you ready for the salad to go in?" Cliff asked as he worked on getting the last traces of lettuce off of Jody's arms.
"Yeah. And grab the dressing in the gravy boat on the top shelf in the fridge. I made it just for this meal." JD said as he walked through the kitchen carrying his potatoes.
"You look like you're good to go." Cliff said as he gave Jody a firm hug before setting him down on the floor.
Cliff glanced toward the stove. There was no doubt that some intense cooking had been going on, but he could see that both the electric skillet and the griddle had not only been turned off, but were also unplugged. So he decided that everything else that needed to be done in the kitchen could wait until after they'd eaten.
* * * * *
"So, Zeb, how are things going?" Ben asked as everyone settled in around the dining room table.
"Things are great. I guess one of the reasons that I got ready for work so early is because I can't wait. Now that I don't have to worry about Rex acting like a jerk, I'm looking forward to going to my job."
"Zeb was having some problems with a bullying coworker." Cliff explained to Junior.
"That's one of the things that I'm worried about when I get a job." Junior said honestly.
"Junior's going to be finishing high school in a few months, so he's going to have to find a job so that he'll be able to move out on his own." Ben told Zeb quietly.
"This is good!" Jody said suddenly.
The boy's exclamation drew everyone's attention in time to see him take another large bite of his toasted ham and cheese sandwich.
There was a long silent moment as everyone enjoyed their food. It was finally broken by Junior timidly saying, "Zeb is an unusual name. Is it short for something?"
"Zebediah." Zeb said simply, obviously used to having to answer the question.
"It must be nice to have an interesting name like that. Mine is Michael. It's so boring that no one remembers it."
"I used to hate my name, but whenever I'd say something about it, my sisters would jump all over me and tell me that my name was a lot better than theirs, so I wasn't allowed to complain about it."
"Were their names bad?" Junior asked curiously.
"I don't think so, but they got teased a lot at school, so I guess maybe they were."
"What are their names?" Junior asked before taking a bite of his smashed potatoes.
"Gomer and Dorcas."
"Yeah... Okay, Michael's not so bad." Junior finally admitted.
"Neither is Zeb." Ben said with a smile.
"How are you doing for time, Zeb? You're not running late, are you?" Cliff asked cautiously.
Zeb glanced at his watch before saying, "I was planning to stop somewhere to eat before I went into work today. Thanks to you feeding me, I don't need to rush."
"I'm glad it worked out that way." Cliff said with a smile.
"What kind of work do you do?" Junior asked curiously.
"Usually I'm a cashier. Sometimes they put me to doing other things." Zeb said casually.
"Do they need any help?"
"How old are you?"
"Then there's only one job that they'd hire you for, that's cart clerk. It pays minimum wage and you don't get many hours. As far as I know, they're not hiring right now, but I'll keep my eyes open for you."
"I'm going to do some asking around at work." Cliff said seriously. "I'm sure that between us, we'll find you a decent job."
"Thanks. I'm just worried about what's going to happen when I graduate." Junior said honestly.
"What are your grades like, Junior?" Ben asked curiously.
"They're usually pretty good, I guess."
"Have you thought about going to college?"
"No. You've got to have money to do something like that. I'm worried about having a place to live in a few months."
"There's all kinds of grants and scholarships that can help you. If you can get financial aid and a part time job, you might be able to manage."
"And if you're able to get a degree, then you'll be likely to get a much better job once you're done with college." Cliff said with a nod.
"I like my job, but there's no future in it. If I had the chance to go to college, I'd do it." Zeb said honestly.
"Have you looked into it?" Ben asked curiously.
"No. I've mostly been focused on keeping a roof over my head and food on the table." Zeb said frankly.
"It's been a few years since I was in college, but I think I still remember a few things about the process." Ben said slowly, then glanced at Cliff.
"It's been longer for me, but I work with a few people who've been through it recently. In fact, Brynna is just about finished with community college and will be moving on to start on her bachelor's degree this summer. I could ask her for some advice or maybe even arrange it so that you could meet with her, since she has up-to-date experience on how these things work."
"Do you really think that I could go to college?" Junior asked cautiously.
"Sure. I don't see any reason why you couldn't." Ben said honestly.
"But college is for rich kids. I don't have any money at all. They'd never let me in."
"They'll never let you in if you don't try. But I think that if we all put our heads together, we might be able to come up with a way to make it happen." Cliff said seriously.
"That is, if you want to. Going to college 'just to go' sounds like a recipe for disaster. You'll need to go into it with a vision so that you'll have something to fight for and a goal to reach." Ben added.
"I never even thought about me being able to go to college before. I'm going to have to think about it." Junior said in an overwhelmed tone of voice.
"The same goes for you, Zeb. If you're interested, we'll do some investigation and see what options are available to you." Cliff said in his direction.
"I'm like him. I haven't even dreamed about it, so I don't know what I'd do if I got the chance to go." Zeb said quietly.
"For now, just think about it. Take some time to investigate the possibilities and dream about what you'd like to do, when you've got the credentials to do what you want." Ben said warmly.
"Zeb, how are you doing for time?" Cliff asked cautiously.
After a glance at his watch, Zeb said, "It's getting close. I should be leaving soon."
"JD, this is an amazing lunch. Thank you." Ben said with a warm smile at his son.
"It wasn't just me. Everyone helped."
* * * * *
After seeing Zeb to the door, Cliff pulled Ben aside and quietly asked, "You need to go back to work now, don't you?"
"Yeah. But just for a few hours. I'm almost done."
"Why don't you go ahead and get started and I'll see that the kitchen gets cleaned up?"
"So, no tinkering in the garage today?"
"I need to save something for tomorrow." Cliff said warmly, then got more serious and said, "Enough stalling. The sooner you start, the sooner you'll finish."
* * * * *
When Cliff walked into the dining room, he was happy to see that the boys had already cleared the table.
Walking into the kitchen, he found Junior stationed at the sink while JD was instructing Jody on how to properly position the dishes in the dishwasher.
"Do you guys need any help?"
After a moment to consider, JD finally said, "I think we've got it."
Cliff accepted him at his word and took a seat at the kitchen table so that he could watch them work.
* * * * *
"Spider, can you come over here for a minute?"
It took a moment, but once JD was certain that Jody and Junior knew what needed to be done, he hurried to the table to see what Cliff wanted.
"Have you thought about dinner, yet?"
"Not really. We used up the leftovers from last night, so it'll have to be a full meal."
"Well, after the production that you put on for lunch, I was thinking that none of us is probably going to get hungry until later tonight, and even then, we're probably not going to be in the mood for an elaborate meal."
JD thought about that for a moment, then slowly nodded.
"So, what would you think about having pizza delivered?"
"I like pizza, but I wanted to do special things since Junior's here."
"But special things stop being special when that's all you do. Besides that, it's entirely possible that Junior will look on pizza as being something special."
JD slowly nodded again.
"I just wanted to go ahead and talk to you about this now, before you had the chance to make any elaborate plans. Besides, there's nothing saying that we can't change our minds and throw together a Peking Duck, at the last minute."
"We don't have any plums." JD said absently as he thought over Cliff's proposal.
Cliff smiled at the statement, then waited for JD's reaction.
"Is it okay if I ask Junior about it, or did you want it to be a surprise?"
"I suppose it would be best to ask. It's always possible that Junior doesn't like pizza."
"Okay. Thanks Pappa." JD said as he rushed forward and gave Cliff an unexpected hug.
Cliff chuckled with surprise.
After a moment of hugging, JD broke away, then hurried across the kitchen to talk with Jody and Junior.
A few minutes later, JD happily announced, "They both like pizza!"
* * * * *
Ben finally finished his work in the early evening and ventured into the living room to find what was possibly the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.
On the couch, Cliff was sitting and reading the proof copy of JD's book.
At the other end of the couch, JD was typing with single-minded dedication.
On the floor by the coffee table, Jody and Junior had an elaborate little house built and they seemed to be in the process of building another.
Ben stood in the doorway for long minutes, just drinking in the sight and appreciating everything that he had been blessed with.
* * * * *
When Cliff looked up from his book and noticed Ben, standing in the doorway, he quietly asked, "Are you done?"
"Yes. I'm free for the rest of the weekend."
"Then why don't you come over here by me? I've been missing you."
"I know. I'm sorry. I feel like I should have been able to keep up with everything so it wouldn't interfere with our weekend..."
"Shhh... I wasn't accusing you of anything. It is what it is. I was just saying that I've been missing you."
After a moment to consider, Ben quietly said, "I've been missing me, too."
"What's that?" Cliff asked curiously at the unusual statement.
"The person who I was, who I've always been, seems to have been consumed by 'Daddy'." Ben said distantly, then continued, "Do you remember when we were 'us', not just Daddy and Pappa?"
"How do you mean?
"I don't know. I feel like I'm going insane. It's like I'm losing myself, I'm losing everything that I was. I used to be a writer, a guest speaker, and a respected contributor to various magazines."
"Don't forget 'hot sexy lover'."
"Now I'm 'daddy', twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Who I was is gone and this is all that's left."
"It sounds like you need to get away."
"No. I'm not saying that. I love the boys. Please don't think for a minute that I don't want them here or that I want to leave them. I'm just saying... I don't know what I'm saying. I just feel like everything that I've worked my entire life to achieve is slipping away from me, and I don't know what to do to stop it."
"Love, I'm not talking about you leaving the boys, at least, not for more than a few hours. But I think you're right. I get a break from it when I go to work each day, so it doesn't hit me as hard. I think you need some time off every now and then." Cliff said thoughtfully, then broke into a smile as he said, "What would you think if, one night this week, we went out to dinner at a shamefully expensive restaurant, then maybe to a movie or a club for a few hours?"
"We can't. The boys need us to be here."
"What if we got Junior to stay with the boys? He's mature and responsible. The boys love him. We can give him my cell phone number so that he can call if he has any problems or questions."
"They do love him... And I think he'd appreciate the chance to earn some extra money."
Cliff sat forward on the couch so that he could see around Ben, then asked, "Junior, how would you feel about coming over on Wednesday night to stay with the boys while Ben and I go out for the evening?"
"Yeah. Sure. That sounds like fun."
"How does fifteen dollars an hour sound?"
"Really? I mean, yeah. That sounds great!"
"I'll pick you up from the home on Wednesday just after five."
"I'll be ready."
Cliff rested back into the couch, then turned to Ben and asked, "Is that okay with you?"
"Now you ask."
Cliff quirked an eyebrow and waited.
"Yes. That's very okay with me."
"Good." Cliff said happily, then added, "Next, we're going to have to work out something so that you can get a little time for yourself during the week, so you don't have to play catch-up on the weekend."
"I don't know what we can do."
"Maybe Zeb would like to earn a little extra money watching the boys during the day so that you can work?"
"No. I mean, we should talk to him about it and see if he'd be willing to do it, just as a fallback position if Junior isn't available sometime. But I wouldn't want to pay someone to watch the boys while I'm working. It sort of defeats the purpose of working at all when what I earn gets paid right back out in babysitting wages."
"Maybe we can set up some sort of a nanny arrangement or something like that."
"Whatever we're going to do, we're not going to do it before Christmas, so let's not worry about it right now."
"When did you want to do the Christmas decorations?"
"I was thinking that tomorrow might be the perfect time. That way Junior could be included."
"I like that plan."
"Thanks for being so understanding." Ben said as he cuddled into Cliff's side.
"I love you. Understanding is part of the deal." Cliff said before turning to give Ben a quick but gentle kiss.
"Pappa? Can we have pizza now?" Jody asked hopefully as he cautiously walked toward the couch.
"Of course, Angel. Would you ask everyone if they'd like pepperoni or if they'd like something else?"
"Uh huh!" Jody happily responded, then hurried over to ask Junior and JD what they wanted.
* * * * *
The pizzas were ordered, delivered and promptly eaten.
Although everyone absolutely adored JD's cooking, the simplicity and ease of having pizza delivered was an absolute joy. To top it off, it was some really good, tasty pizza.
Once the pizzas were consumed, everyone settled back to enjoy their individual projects in the group setting.
Ben had taken out his laptop.
When Cliff looked at him with concern, Ben explained that he felt like 'writing for pleasure'.
If Cliff hadn't already known what that meant, one look at JD, tapping away on his keyboard, was evidence of how immersive and entertaining writing could be.
Cliff noticed that when Junior and Jody completed recreating the scene depicted on the front of the Lego box, Junior made suggestions of how they could modify the design and also made up simple little stories that they could act out using their princesses and ponies. Cliff watched with a tender smile as Junior, in essence, taught Jody how to play.
* * * * *
"Would you look at how late it is!" Ben said suddenly, snapping them all out of whatever spells they had fallen under.
"When did that happen?" Cliff asked with surprise.
"Boys, bath time."
"Can Junior go with us?" Jody asked timidly.
"Sure. If he wants to."
"Do you want to? Please?"
"Yeah. Do you want to do the bubble soap again like last night?" Junior asked as he stood.
"Yuh huh." Jody said as he hurried to stand up, then forced his hand into Junior's.
"JD, are you coming with us?" Junior asked as he walked to where JD was typing.
"I've got an ogress to finish off before I can stop. It'll just take me a couple minutes."
"We'll go ahead and get the water started." Junior said with a smile, then led Jody out of the room by the hand.
* * * * *
When JD was finally finished with his typing and was in the process of shutting down his netbook, Ben quietly asked, "So, how's the story going?"
"It sounds good in my head. I'll have to read it tomorrow and see how it sounds for real."
"I know how that is."
"Pappa, you were right about the pizza. After the lunch we had, the pizza was really good for dinner." JD said as he set his laptop on the shelf under the coffee table.
"Are you going to need to charge your netbook tonight?" Ben asked curiously.
"Oh, yeah. Thanks. I thought about going in and getting the cord this morning but I didn't want to interrupt you while you were working."
"If you need something like that, don't worry about bothering me. I understand what it's like."
"Okay." JD said easily, then quickly added, "I've got to hurry or Jody's going to be done with his bath before I even get started."
Cliff and Ben watched as JD hurried out of the room.
As soon as they were alone, Ben quietly asked, "Do you want to help me shift the furniture so the boys will have a place to sleep?"
"Sure." Cliff said as he stood.
* * * * *
After hugs and kisses all around, Cliff and Ben finally left the boys in the living room and retired for the evening.
"I love you." Cliff said quietly, once they were both in bed.
"I love you, too."
"I've been thinking about what you said about us becoming 'Daddy' and 'Pappa'."
"What about it?"
"I have the feeling that we might be looking at it the wrong way."
"We are 'Daddy' and 'Pappa' now. It's not the situation that we're in. It's something that's happened to change us. I have the feeling that we're both fighting it, trying to hold on to what we were instead of embracing who we're becoming."
"I haven't thought about it like that, but I can see what you're saying."
"Taking this step, having the boys here, it's made us grow into something more than we were before."
After a long moment to consider, Ben quietly asked, "Are you saying that you think that we might be growing apart?"
"No. I don't think so. We're not to that point yet." Cliff quickly assured him, then continued, "But I think that we could grow apart if we don't pay close attention to what we're doing."
"In the rush to adapt our lives to care for the boys, we're each making different decisions and accommodations. Even though we're doing it for the same reasons, it seems as though we might easily end up veering off in different directions."
"What do you suggest that we do about it?"
"I think, for this to work in the long term, that we're going to need to be sure that we keep our focus on each other rather than on the boys."
"That sounds good in theory, but I don't know what you're suggesting." Ben said honestly, then explained, "I don't know what that means in practical terms."
"I'm saying that I think that if we each focus only on the boys and make all of our decisions based on what's best for them, that we'll eventually lose sight of each other and end up leading separate lives."
"But if we focus on us first, then we can make our decisions regarding the boys with a unified vision..."
"It sounds kind of simplistic, and it's probably more easily said than done, but I think that it's something that we need to address now, before it can develop into something that could drive a wedge between us."
"Considering what my life has been like the past few weeks, I can see what you're saying about the focus being only on the boys. I guess that it's time for me to take a good long look at my priorities."
"I think that goes for both of us. This has had a lot more of an impact on you than it has on me since I'm not here all the time. But, even though I've tried to be supportive, I don't really know all of what you're going through on a day-to-day basis, so I don't have a clear idea of what I can do to take some of the pressure off of you."
"I don't know either. I've been fighting the change, trying to do things like I've always done them and that's been creating all kinds of stress. I'm not sure what changes need to be made, but now that I'm aware of the problem, I can be on the lookout for things that I can do differently to adjust my life to better fit around my new priorities."
"Remember that I'm here for you, however you need me."
Ben smiled, then turned on his side and gave Cliff a loving kiss.
Cliff enjoyed the kiss, but then reluctantly added, "But I won't be able to help you if I don't know what kind of help you're needing."
"We'll figure it out."
"If we're going to be putting up the Christmas decorations tomorrow, we'd probably better get to sleep. With three boys, it could turn out to be an adventure."
"Every day is an adventure, now."
"Goodnight. I love you."
"I love you, too. Goodnight."
It's always such a pleasure to look in on Ben, Cliff JD and Jody, along with Jr. and Zeb. Even if there are issues, things seem to find a way of straightening themselves out.
Thank you, MM for another wonderful visit.
I can hardly wait for more.
Darryl The Radio Rancher