Just Hit 'Send' - The Happy Years

by Grasshopper

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Ch. 10

Joshua Daniel Latham-Lawrence Langley sat on the edge of the back porch, his still stubby legs poked through the railings, swinging his feet, his cheek pressed against the wood, deep in thought.

He could hear his mommy's voice as she told Pops about this kid in her class that just would not sit still. How she'd tried everything she knew to do, but Charlie was just gonna be the death of her. JD frowned. Mommy didn't sound scared. She sounded mad.....and how could a little kid kill his mommy anyway?

He heard Pops say that if they didn't get more funding for soccer they'd have to cut the team next year and he'd think twice about staying.

He could hear Daddy telling Papa D to hold still one minute more while he adjusted the braces and he heard Papa D say the really bad F word; that he hated the braces and knew Daddy did too, that maybe Daddy should find someone who didn't need braces. JD's frown got bigger.

He thought about his new friend Riley who was always so scared, wet his pants at school and the teacher yelled at him. It wasn't Riley's fault that his daddy yelled at him all the time and he was always scared.

He wanted to go sit out on the log with Gabriel and Mitch, but sometimes they had big guy stuff to talk about and they didn't want him around. He watched Gabriel put his arm around Mitch's shoulders and knew they were talking about Marc. JD could always tell when Mitch was sad. He could hear bits and snatches of their conversation:

"...went to the cemetery..."
"...sat in the grass..."
"...never forget..."

All his people that he loved were mad and sad, but he didn't know what to do about it, not ever. JD felt tears and he snuffled his cold nose, wiping his face on the sleeve of his jacket. He tried so hard to be a big boy, but everyone just always said, "Go play, JD, smile and be happy." How could he when everyone else was so sad? His frown was turning into a quivering bottom lip.

Griff looked out the window, checking on JD. "He's still just sitting there, staring at the water," he told Markie. "What's up with him, do ya think?"

"I have no idea. See if you can get him to snap out of it," she suggested.

Griff opened the door, felt the chill of the cold wind combined with the warmth of the weak winter sun. "Hey, Buster, it's cold out here. Come on in and we'll find something on TV to watch. I bet Spongebob and Patrick are up to something today."

JD sighed. He didn't want to watch Spongebob. He wanted to make everybody happy again. He climbed up from his seat on the cold boards and walked quietly into the house. "I do not like Spongebob today," he said as he went down the hall to his room. He heard his mom call after him, "JD, smile honey."

He sat down on the floor beside his bed, stuck the tip of his thumb in his mouth and tried to think of how to help.

**

"Jordy," Markie sat down by Jordan on the sofa, "Will you talk to JD? There's something going on in his head and he's acting strange."

"Strange how?"

"He is real quiet, didn't eat his cookies and didn't watch Spongebob," Markie said, as if that explained it all.

"Maybe he doesn't feel good."

"I asked him and he said he was okay. He doesn't have a fever. I think it's more something in his head. You know how he gets."

Jordan walked to JD's door and tapped. "You in there, little guy?"

"No," came a small voice.

Jordan shook his head, "Well, do you know where JD went? I need to talk to him."

Silence, and then, "He be's thinking."

"So, he went to Think World? When will he be back, do you know?"

"In about thirty ten minutes."

"K, I'll check back in thirty ten. Tell him I stopped by, will you?"

"K, Daddy."

Jordan started to open the door, but decided to let the little guy have some quiet Think World time, but this wasn't like JD at all.

**

Gabriel came in dragging Mitch behind him. "Can we have some coffee? We're frozen."

Markie raised one eyebrow, "I'll make you hot chocolate. You work on a caffeine addiction when you're older." She moved toward the kitchen, calling back, "Want a sandwich with that?"

"Oh, yeah," both boys replied.

"How's it going, Mitch?" Danny asked, knowing how hard it had been for the boy when he lost Marc.

Mitch tilted his head down, the cap with the grinning gator hardly containing all the wild dark curls, and hid his face. "It's better, Danny. I still miss my Marc something awful, but I'm doing okay."

"You know he's always with you, right?" Jordan said softly.

"Oh yeah, in my heart....he's always in my heart."

Jordan squeezed Dan's hand, not knowing what he'd do if he lost him. This brave boy had been through so much and was still smiling, God love him.

Gabriel whispered something to Mitch and Mitch nodded. "Friends took him to see Marc's grave and he talked to him."

Mitch smiled sadly, "It was so quiet there. I sat and told him everything I was feeling, how much I missed him and lots of stuff. It made me feel all peaceful."

"Will you go back?" Griff asked.

"Prolly not, it's way far and, like my mom said, 'He's not really there.' "I can talk to him anywhere, right?"

"Right, as long as we all remember him, his spirit will never be gone."

"Like Grandpa Nic," Gabriel said, remembering the sweetness of the older man.

**

JD sat quietly on the floor in the hall, listening. No one sounded mad or scared, just sad. He remembered Marc, the nice boy who couldn't see the shell Andy tried to give him. JD closed his eyes, trying to see how it would feel not to see, but it was too dark. He popped his eyes back open.

He listened to Mitch telling about going to see Marc and how it made him feel better. JD's mind raced. Maybe he could make Mitch feel better.

**

Thirty ten minutes later, Jordan tapped on the door again. "JD, you back?"

"I am back, yes," he said.

Jordan opened the door, saw the little boy sitting cross legged in the center of his bedspread, his legos piled around him, hard at work.

"What ya building there?"

"Somethin'."

"Haha, I can see that," Jordan laughed. He sat on the edge of the bed and watched the boy who looked so much like him, who would always hold Jordan's heart in the palm of his young hand. "You got problems, punkin?"

JD kept clicking the little colored blocks together, his small hands working them expertly. "I have worries," he said, his face set in a frown.

"Can I help you with those worries?" Jordan asked, wondering what worries a five year old could have.

JD kept working, his fingers beginning to frantically click the blocks, "I cannot help."

Jordan reached over and stilled JD's hands. "Come here, you." He picked the small boy up and set him in his lap. "Now, who do you need to help? It can't be so bad that we can't fix it."

"I cannot fix anything," JD sniffled.

"Tell me. Maybe I can."

JD looked up into his Daddy's eyes, emerald green to emerald green. "Mommy's boy is death to her, Papa D is going away, Riley is scared always,

Pops is maybe leaving us, Mitch needs a place to talk to Marc, I miss Grandpa Nic." He wound down and pressed his wet cheek against Jordan's shirt.

"Whoaaa, where did all that come from?"

"I hear them, Daddy. I am not a stupid boy."

Oh dear lord. Jordan knew they talked too much in front of JD and forgot to watch what they said half the time, but what was all this?

"Okay, little punkin, can we sort this all out? No one's leaving. I can promise you that." He looked at the tears in JD's eyes and realized that the best way to handle this was to take it into the living room. Picking JD up, feeling a strangle hold around his neck, he walked into the big room. "Okay everybody, we need to talk."

Danny folded the newspaper and came over to sit by Jordan, frowning at the tears on JD's cheeks. Markie took off her apron, tossed it on the kitchen counter and came in to sit on the arm of Griff's recliner, as he cuddled Nickie onto his shoulder. Everyone was there except Gabriel who had gone back to the shelter, walking Mitch home on the way.

"What's up, Jordy?" Dan asked quietly.

"We've got a worried kiddo. I think we can undo the worry, but we need to talk to him. JD, let's take one worry at a time, okay?"

"K, Daddy."

Jordan tried to remember JD's exact words. "Markie, what boy is death to you?"

"What? I don't know what you're............oh, oh, nooo, JD, Sweetie, that's just an expression. I didn't mean he would hurt me or anything. It's just Charlie Klinker, he is naughty at school and makes me crazy." Markie shook her head, "I have to watch what I say, okay, Sweetie? He's like that little boy at Kindercare, Archie, who does all the wrong things."

"He will not kill you?"

"No, JD, he will not kill me," she said. "I'm sorry I worried you."

"Dan, why are you leaving us?" Jordan asked. "I really want to hear the answer to this one."

Danny's head jerked up from its resting place on Jordan's shoulder, "What? Where am I going?" He looked at JD in surprise.

JD's voice was muffled, "I heared you say the F word and you telled Daddy to find somebody who walked good."

Danny's eyes opened wide, "What? I never.................oh, shit, I mean, oh dang. This afternoon, Jordan , you were fixing my braces. I was tired and................... Oh, JD, I never meant I was leaving. I would never ever leave your Daddy. My legs hurt and I got mad. I wasn't mad at him, I was just mad. Oh, lord. How did you hear that?"

"I be's on the porch."

Dan put his hand on JD's arm, "I am never ever going away. I was tired and cranky. I'm sorry, JD."

Jordan gave Danny a 'talk to you later' look and switched his eyes over to Griff.

"Oh damn, what did I do?"

"You are apparently going away too."

"I am not."

"Pops, you said you had to think twiced about staying. To Mommy you said it, that there be's no funning."

Griff scrambled through his brain. "OMG! I was talking about the soccer team and the funding and that I maybe...................JD, I didn't mean I was leaving, just maybe not coaching the soccer team next year. I would never leave you and your Mommy and Nickie. You're my family."

"No one is leaving, JD. This house is full of a big family, your big family. We aren't going anywhere."

JD looked out from under his long lashes. "Promise?"

"Promise," all four voices chimed in.

"K, I have more thinks to think," he said seriously, climbing down from Jordan's lap. They all watched him walk quietly back to his room.

"Lesson learned," Danny sighed. "He may be small, but his ears work just fine."

Griff shook his head, "Unbelievable what we said and what he heard."

"He took it all literally," Jordan said softly. "There are more things he's worried about that he is still processing, I think."

"What?" Danny asked, concern etched on his face.

"He said something about his friend Riley was always scared. He talked about Mitch, and he said he missed his Grandpa Nic."

Markie thought for a minute. "I can talk to Mary Elders. We've gotten to be friends since JD and Riley are close. Maybe I can help her understand her son better."

"Gabriel can talk to JD about Mitch. It's real hard for JD to see people hurting. He knows how it feels to miss someone; he misses Nic."

**

Life went on in the Latham-Langley-Lawrence-Trainor family; a child still confused by the words adults carelessly toss out and four grownups realizing, for the first time, that the little boy they all loved dearly, was growing up.

As Jordan always said, "Life's perfect....and then you grow up!" He had grown up at the age of nine, and struggled for a lifetime with words carelessly tossed out too. But, no one had ever sat him down and said they were sorry.

**

"Gabrel?"

"Yep?"

"You could talk to me for just one minute?"

"JD, I've got a bazillion minutes for you," he grinned. They were sitting on the thinking log, parkas zipped tight, warm from the long walk along the sand. Gabriel reached out and tugged the wooly hat with the red wool ball further down over JD's ears. "Talk to me."

JD scrunched his face up and then let out a sigh. "I want to make a s'prise for Mitch, but I am too small."

"I can help you. What do you need?"

The two sat for many minutes, plans discussed. JD was quite firm in what he wanted and Gabriel's smile just got bigger and bigger.

"Will do, JD, tomorrow I'll come with the stuff and we'll make it happen."

JD sighed a contented sigh, "I love you lots, Gabrel."

Gabriel felt his heart melt. "Right back at ya, Kiddo."

**

Easy stood up, shook the lawyer's hand and watched him walk out the door.

Christopher Garrison's mother had thirty days to clean up her act or the boy would be taken away and put into the system. The court had agreed that the safest place for Chris was at the Center and Lelia Garrison was not to attempt to see her son.

Easy knew how hard this was going to be on Chris. As terrible as a child's mother really was, the child always wanted the security of what was known. To Chris, his mother, a whore and a drug addict, was better than the unknown. He had never known anything else and the big world was too frightening.

Easy heard him crying at night and knew that Gabriel was doing his best. He spent as much time with the small boy as he could, but with school and his job, he was worried that Chris was turning inward, the loneliness and confusion hurting him too much. He wasn't eating enough and he was too skinny to begin with.

"Hey Chris," he called, as he passed by the kitchen door, "Want to go out to the beach with me this afternoon?"

He watched the little boy's face light up. "Oh, yes, Mr. Easy. I love to go there." To Christopher Garrison, the house on the beach was as close to heaven as a little boy could get. No one yelled at him and he felt safe.

"Well, grab your jacket. We'll stop and pick Ms. Val up from school and go have supper."

"We can do that? Just go and they will have food for us?"

Easy stopped. He never really thought about it before. How did they always have enough food for everyone? "You're right, Squirt. We'll pick up pizzas on the way. Good thinking!" He ruffled Chris' red hair and saw the grin on the boy's face.

"Gabriel, you coming?"

Gabriel looked up from a piece of paper he was writing on, "You guys go on. I'll be there in a few. I've got some stuff to do."

"Want me to come with you, Gabriel?" Chris asked shyly, his heart in his eyes.

Gabriel glanced up at Easy, "Sure, Lil Bro. You can help me carry some stuff."

Easy looked at Gabriel, questions in his eyes, but knew he'd just wait and see. "Want some help?"

"Nah, Easy, we've got in under control, right Chris?"

"You betcha," Chris nodded, his red hair bouncing, his smile wide.

**

"So, Gabriel has a project and he's roped Chris in?" Markie asked, as they all sat around the table eating Easy's pizza.

"Yeah, I have no idea, but it involved carrying something," Easy laughed.

JD jumped down from the table and ran for the front door.

"Whoa, young man. You haven't finished eating," Griff said sternly.

"I must wait for Gabrel. I must...," he opened the front door and the cold wind whipped his shirt. "Oh.........I must find my coat," he muttered, as everyone laughed. Jordan got up to zip and pull and tug him into ten pounds of warm.

All dressed, JD ran out onto the front porch, bouncing excitedly, looking off down the street.

He saw Gabriel's bright blue jacket and took off running to the edge of the driveway. "Gabrel........I am here. You have it?"

Gabriel laughed at the little stuffed boy hopping, his toes at the exact edge of the road. "Cool, JD. Chris and I got everything."

Chris waved and patted his backpack, full of mysterious somethings.

Totally curious, everyone bunched up at the front windows to peek out. Gabriel carried a piece of plywood about 3'x3' and had what looked like some stubby 2'x4's poking out of his backpack. Chris had one of the 2'x4's in his hands.

"What in the world?" Markie wondered.

"I guess we have to wait til they unveil whatever this is," Danny laughed.

Seeing the boys head for the shed where they kept the tools and the lawnmower, everyone headed back to the table, and waited. A few minutes later, three very excited, cold, noisy boys fell through the door.

"Mmmm, pizza," Gabriel growled, grabbing a big slice.

Chris stood uncertainly by the table. "Hop on up," Danny offered. "You look like you could use some food after all that work." He gave Chris a plate and a glass of apple juice.

"Thank you, Mr. Dan," Chris said softly. Danny's heart melted. Jordan watched and knew that he was in for another 'Danny Talk' tonight.

"What you guys working on?" Val asked.

"Nothin',"
"Somethin',"
"You'll see," was all they got.

**

"Fire in the fireplace tonight?" Griff asked no one in particular.

"Oh, yes, a big fire," JD smiled. "Mommy, mushmellows?"

"I don't know, punkin. Go look and see." She laughed as he flew into the kitchen and searched the pantry shelves.

"Yes ! I see them. They be's way up high though. I can just maybe..........," he tipped the bag off the shelf with the end of the broom and the bag fell on his head. "Here they are," he said proudly.

"Better be glad those were marshmallows, and not rocks," Gabriel laughed.

"Why would there be a bag of rocks in the pantry?" Chris asked, his voice puzzled.

"It was just a joke, Chris," Gabriel laughed louder.

"Why would Mommy have a bag a rocks, Gabrel?" JD asked.

"I give up, you two," Gabriel grabbed the two small boys under his arms and headed for the TV. "Let's watch Shrek 2 again."

"He's so good with those boys," Markie smiled. "What's happening with his father and the scholarship papers?"

"I have little hope that he'll sign them. I think Gabriel's best bet is to ride it out until he's eighteen and then take the entrance exams. We can all give him recommendations. I feel sure he'll get the scholarship. Until then, since his father doesn't want him, he's ours."

"And we love having him," Jordan said, his voice raw with the emotion just thinking about a father who couldn't accept his son. Dan rubbed his shoulders, knowing where Jordan's mind had gone.

"And Chris?" Danny asked quietly.

Easy told them what the lawyer had said this afternoon. "He is one scared little boy. He wants his mother," Easy looked at Markie, "But she isn't good for him at all. It seems throwing him out on Christmas Eve was mild to some of the reports the police have gotten on her concerning her son. I took him down for a check-up requested by the court and that child has bruises and even old burn scars."

Danny felt his anger building. That little boy, so fragile and small, he wasn't any bigger than a flea. How could anyone, much less his own mother, hurt him? "Life can just totally bite," he said outloud.

"But," Easy smiled, "He has the Center....he has all of us for now. If she can't straighten up in thirty days, and I'd say that's a loud NO, then he becomes a ward of the court and goes into a foster home."

"What if the foster home people are in it for the money, and don't really care about him?" Dan asked, agitated.

"Danny, calm down," Jordan soothed. "We can't do any more than we're doing now. He's warm and safe and fed."

"But...but," Danny sputtered.

'Oh, yeah,' Jordan sighed to himself, 'I'm in for a long Danny discussion tonight.'

**

"Jordan!"

Jordan looked up quizzically. "Jordan?"

"Well, I want your attention."

"You've got it, Daniel."

"I've been thinking."

"Oh, is that what that loud noise was?"

"Shut up!"

Jordan looked back down at the surfer magazine he had been reading.

Danny waited, and then sighed. "I didn't mean to actually shut up."

"Oh? What does shut up mean then?"

"I wanted you to....................., Oh, okay, you cannot sidetrack me, so stop."

"Stop what?"

"Jordan!!!"

"Daniel!!!"

Jordan saw the frustration on Danny's face and caved. "Come here, dopey. I already kinda know, so spell it out for me, okay?"

"I want to be a foster family person."

Jordan had known Danny wanted Chris, but this was more than that. This was kids they didn't know; crack kids and abused kids. Bringing them into the home where JD and Nickie lived.

"Tell me what you're thinking," he said carefully.

"I kinda think that we could help some kids this way. Give them a bit of a gap stop and let them think things out. I was raised in a very happy home with two wonderful parents; you were too."

Jordan snorted, throwing out a, "Yeah, right."

"You were, Jordy. Before you told them you were gay, you were loved totally and even now, your mom adores you and I know, someday, your dad will figure it out. They love you though. Can you imagine what it must be like for kids like Chris to be thrown out in the snow on Christmas Eve, no gifts, just pain and rejection?"

Jordan could hear the plea in Dan's voice. "Dan, do you really think they'd let us? We can't get married. It's almost impossible for us to adopt a child. Why do you think they'd let us watch over a lost kid?"

"I think it's worth a shot because they have too many kids and not enough foster homes. I was reading up on it and .........................,"

Jordan shook his head. When Dan started reading up, the thing was gonna happen. It always did. He had learned to quit while he was ahead.

"Where would we put this unidentified child? In the linen closet?"

"Nic's room is empty and it's right on the other side of that wall right there and we could cut a door really easy and...................,"

"But, Dan, that's still on Griff and Mark's side. We can't ask them to do this."

Danny looked down at the floor, his ears turning red.

"What?" Jordan exclaimed, 'What? You've already asked them? Without talking to me first?" He stood up abruptly and walked to the window to stare out at the ocean waves. "Not cool, Trainor."

"I just wanted to see if they would agree at all," Danny whispered. "I would never do anything big without asking you. You know that. Easy said that if we.................,"

"You talked to Easy too? Damn it, Dan."

Danny scrambled up on his braces and went to Jordan. "I was just asking them what they thought."

Jordan had two choices. Be angry...............or listen. He turned around to blister Danny good with some very harsh words, but then he looked down into those wet blue eyes. "Dang, Dan. Don't cry. I can't stand it when you cry."

"Will you think about it?"

Jordan wasn't sure at all that the state of North Carolina would let two homosexual men give foster care to children, but he didn't want to bust Dan's happy bubble. "I'll think about it, punkin. Now, don't cry. I know how much you want this. We'll have to see."

**

Claire Lawrence watched her husband pace the floor. It was times like this that she missed Jordan the most. His easy laughter and sunshine smile had always managed to turn the darkest days around. She knew she would call Jordan before this evening was over just to hear his voice and know they were all safe.

The hurricanes had taken so much out of them, their friends, their community and the counties all around them. It was as if there had never been a time before the storms.

They had been so lucky not to lose their house. The barn and most of the big Florida oaks had gone, tossed and tumbled like children's toys at the whim of the winds. So many others had lost their homes and some, even their lives. Sometimes, she thought if she saw one more blue tarp nailed to one more rooftop, she would scream.

Jordan, Griff and Easy had come home for a week back in the fall, each to help clear up the damage at their own childhood homes. She had been proud of all three of them as they helped neighbors and strangers with their chain saws and pickup trucks.

The strain between David and Jordan had been thick. Oh, they had hugged and slapped each other on the back and David had been his old self, but Dan's absence was like a flashing red light.

"He couldn't have helped much anyway," David had said one night when he and Claire had been sitting on the front porch watching Jordan exercise Tinker. "It's better that he stayed in North Carolina."

Glad that Jordan hadn't heard that, Claire quickly changed the subject, but in her heart, she knew that Jordan would leave as soon as he could for that very reason. Danny might not have been able to help with the cleanup as well as the others, but it was plain to Claire that Jordan was not happy without him.

Jordan brushed Tinker down, fed her a sugar, rubbed Jolene's and Butterbean's noses and climbed the corral fence. The new barn would have to wait until a builder was available, but like Daddy said, people's homes come before a horse barn. "Night, pretty girls, see you in the morning," Jordan called as he heard their gentle whinnies.

Walking back toward the house, he felt funny. He knew now that there was a big world out there, one where he could live the way he wanted, be with Dan, and be himself. But, there would always be this deep sadness for what could have been. He wanted to share his life with his parents. As much as people said that you just walk away.......that if they don't like what you are, they can just shove it......Jordan knew he would never feel that way. He would always grieve for his father, want his love. It would always be a deep, dark, festering wound in his soul that even Dan couldn't mend.

"I think we're about done," he said as he reached the porch steps. "The drives are all clear, the ponds cleaned out, the wood stacked. I guess we'll be heading back tomorrow. Gotta get back to work. I'll try to get down later in the fall and burn more limbs, Dad."

"Good deal," David smiled. "You've been a big help, son."

Claire bit back the tears that threatened. It was like nothing had ever happened to rip this family apart. As long as no one mentioned Danny, everything was all right. But, she knew that wasn't really true. All right wasn't the right term.................safe was. David and Jordan just stayed in their safe zone; not strangers, yet not father and son either. The thing was that the longer they did that, the larger Danny's image grew.

Jordan had brought pictures of the house. He had one of Markie holding Nickie, a couple of JD, Gabriel and Mitch playing sand soccer, and several of JD and Fiddle surfing. He had none of Dan in the pile.

He thought about why on the drive down and realized that he didn't want his father's eyes on Danny. He never wanted anything about his father to touch Dan. Jordan wasn't one to hold grudges, but what had happened in the past was still unacceptable, totally wrong. There was no way, short of his father going down on his knees and begging Danny's forgiveness that this huge chasm would ever be breached....and that would never happen.

"Tomorrow is Sunday," David said. "We were hoping you would stay for services. I know everyone would love to see you."

Jordan felt walls closing in on him. Nothing ever changed. He wanted to reply, 'And Dan? They would love to see my partner? The man I love with all my heart?' But, he didn't say it and the hurt and emptiness just sank like a stone to the bottom of the deep well of hurt.

The closeness he had always shared with his mama was just as strong as ever and he spent hours late into the night telling Claire all about the adventures in the house on the beach. He told her about JD and how he was growing, about Nickie, and how funny Griff was, but what a great dad he had become. Mostly, though he talked about Dan, how brave he was, all the funny little things that made Jordan love him so much.

Claire came to see that the love shared by two people, no matter who they were, was delicate and beautiful. She listened to her child rattle on about Danny and his van, Danny and how his braces rubbed so badly but he never complained, Danny and the 'always' rings and she knew that her son had found the love of his life and was one of the lucky ones. She grieved for her husband, lying awake, but unable to share this love, these stories.

**

Easy and Griff had managed to secure a FEMA trailer for Griff's mom and they had gotten her all settled, promising to bring Markie, JD and Nickie down soon so she could spoil them good.

"My two handsome boys," Delores Langley laughed, her friendly open face smiling at her two sons, one born to her and one given to her by God. "You bring that Val down here soon, you hear me. I want some more grandkids to love."

"Don't rush me, Mama," Easy laughed.

Before they left, Delores handed Easy a sealed envelope. "Here are your court adoption papers. I realized just how easy it is to lose important things this past summer."

Easy held them tight, "Best thing that ever happened to me in my life, Mama," he said quietly and then grabbed her in a bear hug.

As they drove away, heading out to Jordan's to pick him up, Griff asked carefully, "Will you tell Val about your parents? About your past?" Both their minds flew back to a scared dirty little boy hiding under a bridge so many years ago. Why he was there and what had driven him to that life had been a secret only he and Griffin Langley had shared. He was a Langley too and for that, he would be eternally grateful.

"It's the reason I haven't asked Val to marry me," Easy sighed. "She won't want me when she knows."

"Man, that is such crap. That girl would love you if you were Dracula's stepchild," Griff argued.

"I don't know. I just don't know," was all he'd say.

**

Jordan was packed and ready to go, the thought of Dan waiting for him was making him totally antsy. They had talked constantly by cell the whole time, but Jordan wanted a kiss, well actually, he was gonna jump Dan as soon as he saw him.

He heard the horn honking as Griff pulled into the barnyard. Hugging his mama close, he said gently, "Come soon, Mama. We always love having you."

He turned to his daddy and it was all over his face, all the words he couldn't say, all the love he couldn't share. "You too,Daddy. We'd love to have you come visit." He hugged his dad and felt his father's arms hold him tight.

"I love you, Jordan," was all he could say.

"I love you too." He meant the words. He felt the pain and the emptiness burned in his heart.

**

Tapping and hammering, sawing and painting. Whatever was being built in that tool shed was gonna be something to behold. Griff tried to sneak a look one day when the boys were all at school, but a big sign was posted on the door that read:

DO NOT ENTER !!

FEIRCE GARD DOG !!

NO GROWNUPS ALOWED !!

He didn't have the heart to peek. He'd wait for the unveiling.

**

Saturday came, bringing clear skies and a rise in temperature to the middle 60s in the middle of the day. Perfect day for a cookout. But then, at the Langley-Latham-Lawrence-Trainor house, everyday was the perfect day to be in the sun.

"This family seems to be growing," Val laughed as she watched the boys throwing the Frisbee to Fiddle and Sparky, Mitch's Dalmatian. "When I look out there, it's like we have a small soccer team from Gabriel to Mitch to Chris to JD to Andy to little Riley."

"Maybe we should buy them jerseys that say LLLT on the back," Jordan laughed, then shook his head realizing that Danny had taken that joke very seriously. He knew for certain sure that within two weeks, the boys would have jerseys.

Hamburgers grilled, potato salad devoured, piles of kids and 'grownups' sitting around the fire in their usual places, it was just another perfect day. Nic's chair would always sit in its place, his memory, he and Sam, never forgotten.

Gabriel poked at JD. JD grinned. He and Chris jumped up and ran over to the shed.

"I guess we're gonna see the masterpiece now," Easy laughed.

The two little fellas struggled to carry their burden back to the fire, but wouldn't let anyone help.

JD set down a very sturdy little bench, its seat made from a piece of heavy plywood with a little back rail and four fat legs nailed securely to the bottom. It sat about twenty inches off the ground and was big enough for two people.

"This be's for you, Mitch," he said, suddenly shy. "It is for you to have a 'pecial place to talk to Marc. It be's like Grandpa Nic's chair. I sit in it and have hugs from him."

Mitch sat speechless, tears running down his face. "For me? True story? A Marc bench?"

Gabriel took over, swallowing hard. "This is all JD's doing. Chris and I supervised and helped a little. Come see what all he did." He took Mitch's hand and led him to the crooked little bench. They had painted it bright yellow for the sun, and on the seat back in bright blue letters for the sky, JD had asked Gabriel to print:

Always Make A Difference
MnM4vr

Down the legs, JD and Chris had painted little golden starfish with a big 'M' on each one.

The silence was absolute, except for sniffles and a couple of gulping sobs.

Mitch sat on the bench and pulled JD beside him. "Thank you....thank you...

Thank you," said, before his voice gave out.

"I will sit here with you, Mitch, if you are lonely," JD whispered, looking at his Daddy for reassurance. He really wasn't sure why everyone had gotten so quiet.

Jordan couldn't talk. Danny cleared his throat and said gently, "You did a very good thing, Joshua Daniel, a very good thing."

**

The fire down to embers, the boys asleep in sleeping bags by the fireplace in the living room, Jordan sat with Danny out in their swing cuddled under a blanket.

"We have so many things to be thankful for, Dan. Our lives have been like a rollercoaster ride, but we always have each other, and that's all that ever matters." He looked over at the thinking log, knowing that tomorrow and all their tomorrows, he would see Griff and Markie, Easy and Val, JD and Nickie, and now all the boys that were wandering into their lives....Gabriel, Chris, Mitch, Andy, Riley. Kids to love................Kids who would grow up strong and brave.

Danny smiled at the slightly lopsided yellow bench and his heart sang at the love that had gone into the building of it. It now had its place in the circle around the fire.

"People may leave our lives, but they never leave our hearts," Jordan whispered. "Now Marc has his place in our family."

As he heard Nic's voice, sighing from the dark green wooden chair, Danny smiled, "Chase that dream, Dan. Make a difference."

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