Recovered: An Unlikely Friendship

by Hunter Woods

Chapter 24: A Sense of Belonging

It was getting close to noon time as we took our time walking back to the house since some in our group didn't have a bike. Smiling down at Zak, who was chatting away as usual, I simply chuckled at one of his silly jokes. His left hand was hanging on to the hem of my shirt since I was holding on to the bike's handle bars while he also held on to Andi with his right hand their fingers intertwined The smaller boy never strayed far from my side these days as little beads of sweat were forming on our brows now that the sun was beating down on us in full force. It wasn't too bad because we took our time and there was plenty of shade as we made our way through the rows of orchard trees.

The branches on the trees were filled with apples, and I noticed workers had already begun the task of getting some of the apples picked since it was now July. They would be picking apples for the next several months, and also begin on the pears here in another few weeks. By the time they start picking pears next month things will become a bit hectic in the orchards with fruit picking in full swing.

It was a good fifteen to twenty minute walk back as we finally made our way through the small clearing of the outdoor picnic area which had a few benches and a fire pit. This was where we were going to spend the night since it would be too crowded in the house. It should be kind of fun because we would be far enough away from the house so we could have a good time without worrying about being too noisy; yet, also be close enough in case we needed something.

Uncle Walt had already set up a few of those ten by ten pop ups one sees vendors putting up at these fairs and things providing us with a bit of shelter and shade for later on. He even set out several blankets and sleeping bags for when we got ready to hit the sack. From some of his comments I knew there would be plenty of sodas, juice, and snacking items for us later on as well. I smiled because Uncle Walt really was working hard at making this a fun time for my birthday.

We entered another row of trees before emerging on the other side a few minutes later. "Mom!" I heard Zak exclaim before he bolted down the long gravel driveway towards the front yard of the house leaping into a woman's warm embrace while the rest of us slowly made our way up as well.

I was kind of surprised to see the younger boy's mom because when he had last talked to her she was still taking care of her own mom. My eyes quickly took in the scene noticing my mom and dad were there as well chatting with the Weilers. Glancing back over to Zak's mom she looked to be in her early to mid-thirties about the same age as my father. I had made the mistake earlier on in thinking it was her younger sister who my dad was seeing, but evidently the woman I had seen with my dad that one time was Zak's aunt. From what Zak hinted at his drop dead gorgeous aunt was a bit on the flirtatious side, and had made my dad a bit nervous. I could sort of understand now considering how my dad was with the curly haired boy's mom.

The woman giving her son a big hug was very pretty in her own right, but seemed more mature dressing way more conservative than her younger flirtatious sister. She had long curly jet black flowing hair with beautiful features and curves in all the right places. Her pregnancy wasn't showing yet, but I knew in about another month or so her figure would begin to change with her belly beginning to show. In many ways she reminded me of my mom who had a sort of graceful beauty and inner strength about her.

"High mom," I smiled ambling over and giving her a big welcoming hug.

Zak squirmed out of his mom's arms and literally pulled me towards his mom. "This is Sam mom." He introduced making me blush as I held out my arm to shake her hand.

"Hello Mrs., um, Ms. Kandoussi." I offered up not really sure how to properly address her as she ignored my extended hand giving me a big hug instead, her light lavender perfume fragrance surrounding my senses.

"So you are 'the' Sam I've been hearing so much about, and no need to be so formal…Sylvia will do just fine." She chuckled seeing me glancing towards my dad as she continued. "Don't worry Sam I've been hearing a lot of good things regarding you from Zak. We all know your dad tends to be a bit…well jaded." She smiled good naturedly while running her fingers through my hair in a kind of affectionate manner. "Still though, believe it or not even your dad gushes a bit when he talks about you." She emphasized while I smiled back at her once more blushing at her comments.

"Aunt Claire," I heard Zak greet my mom as he gave her a big hug. "I've been so worried about you. Are you all better now?" He asked reminding me of how worried he must have been when my mom ended up in the hospital with pneumonia.

"Oh yes sweetie…I'm doing just fine now. I'm sorry about giving you such a big scare, but I hear Sam's been taking good care of you." She smiled warmly at the smaller boy.

"Oh yes Aunt Claire. He's the bestest big brother ever." He exclaimed coming back over to me and wrapping his arm around my waist and hanging on to me once more while I glanced down and ran my hand through his hair affectionately.

I noticed the raised eyebrows of our parents so shrugged. "Um…well…you know…all things considered with what's…uh…going on between dad and Zak's mom…well…he just sort of adopted me." I chuckled with Zak looking up and gushing at me while I tried to change the subject.

"Anyway…so this is the surprise you were talking about for Zak?" I asked my dad who grinned and nodded his head.

"Surprise?" Zak interjected looking at my dad and then towards me. "Why didn't you tell me that my mom was coming?" The smaller boy pouted a bit dejectedly.

It was my father who smoothed things out at this point even managing to get our names correctly. "Zak don't be mad at Sam. He didn't know because I didn't tell him. I wasn't sure if your mom would be able to make it, besides it's a surprise for Sam too because he didn't think me or his mom would make it to his birthday party either." He tried to explain with the smaller boy nodding his head as he glanced up at me contritely.

"Oh…sorry Sam…," he apologized before focusing back on his mom, "but I thought you had to take care of Grandma. Is she alright now?" He asked getting a bit concerned about how his grandmother was doing.

"Oh yes of course sweetie. I managed to convince your Aunt to come and help out for a bit now that I've got your grandmother all squared away. We decided it was best to put her in an independent living community. It's why it took me a little longer to come back home Zak because I had to get everything squared away. She has her own place, but is in a community setting where there is extra help with people who maintains her yard, does her grocery shopping, and even helps with her medical needs. I had to rent out her house and get all her stuff moved over to her new home. Between her retirement and the money she is making on her old house she can afford to go into the independent living community. It's a really nice place Zak, and your grandmother is doing really well now. She can still do things on her own, but there is also extra help around if she needs it. She even mentioned about coming to visit with you for a week or so when it's your birthday. In the meantime I managed to get your Aunt, with Jim's help…," She paused a moment reaching out to my dad before continuing, "…to finally do something responsible and help your grandmother out with some of the smaller things for the next week or so. He's been really great about everything even taking her to the airport while also picking me up. I know he's been so busy with work and helping out with Sam's mom, but somehow he managed to do all of it including picking me up so we can all come out here to celebrate Sam's birthday." She explained leaning over to give my dad a quick kiss.

My dad glanced over towards me blushing a bit nervously, but I didn't say anything realizing this was just the way it would be from now on. Even my mom didn't seem too bothered by it, and simply smiled. Besides, I couldn't be upset at him because he really had been doing a lot of stuff in not only helping out with Zak's mom, but mine as well. I truly began to realize just how much my dad did behind the scenes which made me feel a bit bad about how things had gotten so out of control between the two of us. It was now all behind us though as I realized we were both trying to make things work.

Zak waited until the two of them separated before walking over to my dad and giving him a big hug. "Thank you so much…dad." He began hesitantly looking up into my dad's eyes who stood there for a moment in stunned silence before he picked up the smaller boy and hugged him tightly.

"You are very welcome Zak." He managed to whisper getting the hang of saying the boy's name correctly these days.

"I…um…is it alright if I call you dad…I mean…I asked Sam and he said it was alright as long as it was ok with you too." The smaller boy asked hesitantly his head laying in the crook of my dad's neck like I've seen him doing with me as the edges of my lips twitched upwards into a grin because it was simply too adorably cute.

My dad's arms constricted a little tighter hugging Zak to him as he glanced towards me with a tear tumbling down his cheek before his lips moved in a silent 'thank you Sam,' before he spoke out verbally to the smaller boy's inquiry. "I would be honored Zak…thank you for trusting me with something so important." He held the boy tightly for a few moments longer before setting him back down.

Pausing for a moment my dad finally stepped up giving me a big hug as well, the first one I've had like this in a long time. The smell of his light cologne tickled my nose familiarly as I recalled the scent of it from days gone by. His strong arms embraced me with sincere warmth, our hug lingering for several long moments before he finally released me glancing towards the other boys who had gathered around but remained quiet.

"Hello Austin…Jake." My dad offered up extending his hand and shaking their hands. "It's been a…um…while…and I owe you guys an apology for the way I ignored you before…and an extra one to Jake with the way I behaved the other day. I'm really sorry." He stated catching me by surprise while the Lorenz brothers shrugged it off as my dad looked towards the other boys before glancing towards me expectantly.

"Oh…sorry…anyway I think you already know Paavo here." I stated noticing my dad nodding and shaking the boy's hand in greeting before the Estonian boy shook Zak's mom's hand in greeting as well since he's never met her while I continued. "I don't think you've met Roger though. He's sort of…well…let's just say he was a trouble maker at first, but has become a good friend now." I introduced the older boy with my dad recognizing the kid's name as he glanced at me raising an arched eyebrow while shaking the older teen's hand. "Yeah I know…kind of funny huh? But then again I got in a fight with Austin and Jake too and they're now like my best buddies." I chuckled noticing my dad rolling his eyes at the way I tended to make friends while Sylvia and my mom shook hands with the older boy as well.

"Anyway…this here little guy…," I began picking up Andi and giving him a big hug before setting him down…, "Well…he's family now too because Zak here decided to adopt him as a twin brother." I chuckled shaking my head and smiling. "Which of course means I've picked up another brother too," I continued with my dad belting out a laugh and ruffling Zak's hair. "Anyway…this here is Andi, and I'm sure his folks will be around later too." I offered up with my dad smiling and giving the smaller boy a quick hug before my mom and Sylvia did the same.

Turning his attention back to Paavo my dad smiled pleasantly striking up a conversation with the boy. "I've heard you guys have moved to Blue Meadows. By the sounds of things your father is happy about it with his new job and all." My dad offered up.

"Yes sir and me too." He replied in that very cute accent of his. "I really like it here; especially, since Sam and Jamie are here along with some of my new friends." He offered up with my dad pausing a moment at Paavo's comment before nodding in understanding as he glanced towards Sylvia raising his eyebrows while she smiled nodding her head as if some sort of silent agreement had just passed between them.

My dad's eyes shifted back towards me as he paused once more before clearing his throat. "Um…yes…anyway Sam…uh…it looks like your mother has decided to move back into the old place so we were getting ready to head over and give it the once over to see what all needs to be done." My dad announced, with Sylvia smiling knowingly, as I looked over towards my mom with tears welling up at the corners of my eyes.

"Really Mom? Are we going to move here for real because it's what I really want? I like it here. I know I've got my friends in Des Moines, but anymore this is like home for me now. So are we really going to stay?" I asked with my mom nodding her head.

"Yes sweetie…I've already decided. It's another reason why we came over today so we can look over the place and start getting it all cleaned up." She smiled happily as I gave her a big hug noticing a sad look on Zak's features because I would be moving so far away from him.

"What's wrong sweetie?" Zak's mom asked noticing the look on her son's face as well when big tears began to tumble down his cheeks before he crumpled into my arms.

Sobbing and hiccupping the boy wailed. "But you will be so far away if you move. I don't want you to leave." He continued to cry in my arms breaking my heart because even though it had crossed my mind I truly hadn't thought of how this would affect him.

Zak's mom came over and peeled her son off of me and hugged him tightly. "Oh sweetie, please don't cry. You should be happy for Sam…besides…there's more news…maybe good news, but we will have to wait and be sure first." She sighed holding her boy while rocking him back and forth for a moment before releasing him and cleaning up his face wiping away the wetness of the boy's tears from his round cheeks.

"More news?" Zak asked hesitantly his mom glancing over towards my dad as he cleared his throat.

"Um…well yes. Actually it was Sam's idea." He began with Zak starting to settle down. "Uh…anyway…the last time I was over he made a suggestion which I thought was kind of silly, but I promised him I'd talk it over with Sylvia…and well…to say I was surprised about her response is an understatement. It didn't matter though because I didn't think other things would work out either in the end." He began with most of us looking at him like he was crazy because he wasn't making any sense.

He noticed and chuckled. "Oh…sorry…I guess I'm not making any sense. Anyway, Sam suggested I move out here and stay with Sylvia and Zak at the other house that used to belong to the supervisors running the crews who work the orchards. You know the house on the other side of the farm where the workers stay. Anyway, Walt here had mentioned a position over at the college in Council Bluffs, and when Sylvia said she thought moving here might be a good idea I figured what the heck. I contacted the college and was completely surprised when they offered me a vacant position as the head of the History department. Then I talked to your mom Sam, and to my shock she thought it would also be a good idea. Anyway, we are going to go out and look at both places while we are here." My dad offered up with Zak immediately reaching over and giving him a big hug all excited.

"Are we really going to move here too?" He asked enthusiastically while my dad looked back at the smaller boy a bit anxious.

"Um…Zak…I…please understand we are going to take a look and see. We aren't sure yet, but I promise your mom and I will really consider it. There are still a lot of things we need to look at, one of them being if we can truly afford to do the move. Don't get upset Zak, but first we have to see if it is going to work out for everyone. After all you are going to have a little brother or sister before too long, and we don't even know if the house is going to be big enough, or if we can afford to move. There's also your mom's job to consider because of the benefits she gets; especially, now since she's pregnant. After all Sam's mom and I are still technically married because it was the best way to give her the best medical benefits through my work." My dad interjected confusing and bursting Zak's bubble with all these things being thrown at him all at once before he looked over towards me a bit upset once more.

I smiled nodding my head motioning with my hand in a calming sign letting him know not to worry because one way or other things would work out. "Oh…alright." Zak sniffled letting go of my dad and leaning up against me as I draped my arm over his shoulders leaning down and kissing the top of his curly haired head.

Chuckling, I now ran my fingers through his soft coiled locks trying to sooth him. "Don't worry you will get used to it Zak. Dad tends to be too analytical about things, but I'm sure between your mom and mine they will straighten him right out." I grinned noticing my dad glaring at me before rolling his eyes knowing I was probably right.

"Well…," Aunt Harriet interjected having stayed on the sidelines while all of this was going on. "If we are going to find out about all this one way or the other you will have to go and look things over. You won't know anything by just standing around here; after all, you can't get lard unless you boil the hog. So why don't you guys go and look while Walt and I finish up things over here because in a few hours people will begin to show up for Sam's birthday." She suggested with everyone agreeing and looking around to see how we were all going to pile into which vehicles and drive over.

Looking around I noticed the used SUV in front of the Weilers' house that I didn't recognize along with my dad's car. My dad saw my confused look so tried to explain. He figured since my mom was going to move here she would need her own vehicle so he was test driving the SUV which was on loan to him. Somehow they would need to find a way to get a second vehicle now because there was no way he was going to leave my mom without a means of transportation. The SUV was a used car, but looked to be in fairly decent shape, and he said it was for sale at a good price from someone at the university where he worked. It ran a bit rough, which concerned him, but he'd have it checked out later.

While we began working out the seating arrangements we noticed another truck coming up the driveway. Paavo immediately shouted excitedly before running towards his dad's truck leaping into the big man's arms as he got out. The large man scooped his son up into his arms and began tussling around with him while we all giggled because Paavo was squealing like a stuck pig. Suddenly his dad dumped him unceremoniously on to the ground straddling the boy digging his fingers into all the boy's ticklish spots making his son screech even more before he finally relented. Getting up he helped Paavo to his feet brushing the boy clean before walking over towards the rest of us.

The man's eye's glinted when he noticed me, and before I knew it he had scooped me up into his arms and began tussling me around just like he had done with Paavo while everyone began to giggle at my expense. The man had grabbed me from behind draping his left arm over my left shoulder while shoving his right arm between my legs from behind lifting me up into the air and against his chest. Twirling around so his broad back was shielding what he was doing I felt his right hand settled right over my boy package as he gave it a firm squeeze making me yelp in surprise as my pecker immediately inflated due to the extra stimulation.

While the man jostled me around I could actually feel his fingers running along the length of my hardened shaft giving it a good groping as if sizing me up. For some reason it didn't seem to bother me so much having seen him sort of doing the same thing with Paavo at times, but still I did blush because I realized he had a pretty good sense now of what I had between my legs. Twirling me around a few times the large man finally set me back down on my feet before planting a quick kiss on my cheek.

Holding me tightly he whispered in my ear. "Hmmm, very nice Sam…no wonder my Paavo is so smitten with you." He chuckled reaching down and giving my package another quick squeeze for emphasis making me blush because it was now obvious he knew about me and Paavo being intimate as I craned my neck flashing a look towards the smaller Estonian boy who was chatting with Jamie at the moment not even paying what was happening any mind.

Glancing around I sighed in relief because it appeared like at least no one had witnessed the overt grope since the man had done it discreetly, but it was still a bit embarrassing. "I…um…thanks…I think." I managed to get out feeling my cheeks burning as he bellowed out loudly ruffling my hair while the others glanced back over wondering what was so funny with the man simply waving it off.

After another round of introduction, and getting things squared away with the seating arrangements, we left the Weilers behind slowly making our way down the dirt road which led from this farm onto my mom's property. A short while later all of us arrived at the house and climbed out of the cars making our way inside.

Pulling Paavo off to the side and looking around to make sure we were alone I hissed in his ear. "What did you tell your dad?" I asked with him looking at me a bit confused. "You know…about the two of us…and…uh…you know?" I asked nervously with the Estonian boy now glancing around as well.

"I don't understand…what happened?" He asked.

"Your dad…well…um…he sort of perved on me…you know…got a good feel of my…," I paused because this was kind of weird. "Shit Paavo…your dad kind of like…you know…he fondled me getting a good feel of what I had. Damn, it was kind of embarrassing because I popped a stiffie." I hissed with Paavo trying to stifle a giggle. "It's not funny you know." I tried to be serious, but couldn't because the younger boy kept giggling making me chuckle as well because in a way it was kind of funny.

"Yeah…he sort of does that to me too…but he doesn't mean anything by it." He assured me in-between little fits of chortles. "Back home fathers always tease their son's like this and their friends because they…well…they sort of understand…you know…since they've done similar things growing up." He tried to explain.

"I know that Paavo…I mean…that he didn't mean anything by it…but still…um…it's just…well after setting me down he said now he knows why you are smitten by me. Did you…um…like tell him about us?" I asked with the other boy shrugging his shoulders.

"Of course I did Sam. I mean I tell papa a lot of things. I mean of course I didn't give him any details…just that we are sort of boyfriends. He's not stupid Sam…so I'm sure he knows we…um…well…I'm sure he knows we do sexual things." He emphasized with me biting my lower lip. "Don't be mad Sam…it wasn't like I told him what we do together. He sort of knew we were together so he wanted to talk to me about it, and make sure I was careful with certain things. He's happy for me Sam and doesn't mind I'm with another boy if it is what I want." He assured me planting a quick kiss on my lips which made me a bit woozy and wobbly in the knees forgetting everything for a moment.

Of course I couldn't be mad at him. It was only natural he talked to his dad about some things. After all I had confronted my dad as well in regards to Jamie. At least Paavo's dad had taken it a bit better than my dad had at the time, and the way Mr. Kirsipuu behaved towards me indicated he didn't mind me being intimate with his son.

Exhaling noisily I smiled at Paavo and shrugged my shoulders. "Yeah…I know you're right Paavo…it's just it kind of took me by surprise; especially, him getting a good feel of me down there." I chuckled. "He's not going to do that all the time now…is he? I mean I notice he does that sort of thing with you…but it's just kind of…well…creepy to me is all. Besides, I only want to share that part of me with you and Jamie." I teased seeing the boy smiling in return.

"Don't worry Sam…I'll talk to papa about it. I'm sure he was just teasing, but I'll let him know you didn't mind so much this time, but would prefer he didn't do that sort of thing again. I know things are different here, and he does too Sam, but sometimes he just forgets." He chuckled.

"Um…I mean I don't mind him goofing around with me and all…just tell him to lay of my…well…you know…goods." I giggled letting Paavo know I kind of liked how his dad man handled me and all, just not the part about being groped.

I suppose in this regard I was still a bit prudish about things even though I began to realize where Paavo's from there were a lot more teasing between fathers and sons in regards to the sexual aspects of growing up. In a way it sort of made me wish our society wasn't so prudish about those things making it such a taboo issue. The more I thought about it the more I realized it allowed Paavo and his dad to be a lot closer to one another.

Joining the others we began to look around inside the house. It really was in good shape overall because the Weilers had been sure to keep up with the maintenance of it over the years. Of course it still needed a lot of work in order to bring both the inside and outside of the house back into tip top form, but overall it was in good shape all things considered.

The place was a three bedroom rambler style house with a partial unfinished basement which was nice and cool at the moment so perfect to hang out in during the hot summer months with my friends. I noticed it also had a nice small sized buck stove so would be perfect to cuddle around during the winter months as well. The main floor had an open living room and dining room combined space, a small separate kitchen, a master bedroom with a closet and bathroom towards the back of the house, and two smaller bedrooms off to the left of the house with a bathroom right across the small hallway. It was kind of nice to know my bedroom would be a little separated from my mom's room now that I was sexually active because it would provide me with a bit of privacy at night. Of course I already knew when I had several of my friends over we'd be hanging out downstairs where it was a bit secluded from prying eyes and ears.

We were all pretty much gathered in the Master bedroom looking around noticing how the attached bathroom needed some work because a few tiles seemed to be loose. It would be a fairly easy enough fix like most of the other smaller things in the house we've come across. I was staring out the sliding doors which led outside onto a decent sized patio overlooking the river listening to my dad explain how he could probably fix the tiles himself when we heard some noise coming from the main living room area. It sounded like random notes coming from a piano as if someone were simply hitting different keys on the instrument.

"Oh…it sounds like someone found the piano." My mom chuckled as we filed out of the bedroom making our way towards the spacious living room.

Of course even before we got there I knew it had been Andi who discovered the piano because who else would be so interested in it. A large sheet which had covered the large grand piano was sitting on the floor while the boy sat on the wooden bench with soft leather cushions in front of the keys running his fingers over them and hitting them in no particular order. Detecting movement the smaller boy glanced up as we gathered around.

"Oh…um…did you use to play the piano Mrs. Burke?" He asked my mom who smiled sweetly at him rolling her shoulders and spreading her hands in an uncommitted manner.

"Well…maybe a little, but it actually belonged to my mom. She was really a pretty good pianist, and I used to listen to her play on it for hours on end. From what I understand she had a college scholarship when she was younger and wanted to play professionally, but then she fell in love with my father so didn't go. Times were different back then, but still, she'd sit in front of the piano playing it and seemed happy enough." My mom explained with Andi nodding his head.

"Well I guess it sort of makes sense because this is a really nice piano. I'm sure it must have cost a small fortune back then; even now this type of piano is still played by many great pianists." He commented hitting a few more keys and listening to it closely while my mom arched her eyebrows at Andi's comment.

"Um…I suppose sweetie." She humored him.

Even though I had talked to my mom recently on the phone I had never mentioned about Andi being an accomplished pianist so she simply didn't know. I was trying to find a way to let her know right now, but didn't know how without rudely interrupting; Besides, at this point I really didn't know what to say.

"There are some keys out of tune." The smaller boy commented getting a chuckle out of my mom because to us we really couldn't tell. It's really only minor, but I'll let my mom and dad know so someone can come over to give it a tune-up." He offered up with my mom chuckling.

"Oh…that's alright sweetie. I'm sure it costs more than it is worth considering I really don't play all that much." My mom countered once more humoring the boy as he shrugged.

"It really wouldn't cost you anything since it is in our contract anyway. I mean, if I'm going to spend time over here I'll probably play the piano since it's here. So technically it means this becomes part of my practice and considered a working situation." He told her with my mom totally confused now by the smaller boy. "Do you mind if I play something? It's been like a whole day and I'm not used to going so long without at least playing a little something on the piano." He asked my mom who looked a bit astounded looking over towards my dad who rolled his eyes and nodded his head for my mom to humor the little boy.

"Um…sure Andi, but you can't even reach the foot pedals and the seat isn't adjustable." She commented.

"Oh…it doesn't matter. I'm used to it and I don't need the foot pedals." He replied shifting around on his seat thinking for a moment before shrugging his shoulders and letting his fingers settle lightly over the ivories.

Suddenly his fingers fluttered over the keys as music drifted throughout the house. I don't know what he was playing but it was beautiful and had such sweet notes which simply filled the room. Glancing towards my mom I noticed her jaw had dropped down to her chest while my dad stood rooted in place in complete awe. Everyone in the room was completely mesmerized as the boy's fingers flowed over the keys before they suddenly shifted into a tune we all seemed to recognize as Andi began belting out in a tittering voice singing at the top of his lungs becoming very animated.

You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
Too much love drives a man insane
You broke my will, oh what a thrill
Goodness gracious great balls of fire

It was "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis and Andi was doing a great rendition of it as Zak suddenly tugged on my arm and began dancing around all crazy like. Not to be outdone I suddenly began dancing too with all of us kids spontaneously jumping and getting all goofy simply enjoying the song and having a blast. I could see our parents laughing and enjoying how we were all dancing around having a great time. Even Roger, who was the oldest had joined in suddenly picking up Zak and tossing him up into the air and catching him on the way down before setting him back on to the floor. Andi was on his feet standing in front of the piano bopping around animatedly having shoved back the chair as he ran through the lyrics a couple of times before finishing up with a flourish belting out the last lines.

I chew my nails and I twiddle my thumbs
I'm real nervous but it sure is fun
Come on baby, you drive me crazy
Goodness gracious great balls of fire

Suddenly the music stopped with several of us still jumping around before we realized he was finished. Looking around we all giggled while my mom stepped up to Andi in complete disbelief.

"Oh my…that was…well…simply wonderful. I'd say you are good enough to perform at a concert." She crooned with my dad and the other adults agreeing while some of us began to giggle hysterically.

"What's so funny?" Sylvia wondered out loud looking around just as confused like some of the rest of the people in the room.

Zak was the only other person here who had been at the concert so he knew, along with Jamie, Austin, Jake, and Paavo because I had told them about it when I had talked to them on the phone afterwards. For some reason though I hadn't said anything to my mom and dad, and it didn't look like Paavo had told his dad. Of course Roger, and Zak's mom, didn't know either.

"Oh geeze…I'm sooooo sorry mom. I don't know why I didn't say anything before. Anyway, when Jamie had his incident and went into the hospital Uncle Walt took Aunt Harriet, me and Zak to a concert."

"Oh really…that was nice of Walt." My mom stated nodding her head still clueless as to what I was driving at. "So who did you guys see?" She continued thinking we had simply gotten on a different subject.

"Well…um…," I began to giggle because it really was kind of funny with the other boys sort of joining in while Zak really began to bust a gut as he wrapped his arms around his friend.

"This is just too funny." The curly haired boy began to hiccup because he was roaring so hard catching me up in the moment as I began to laugh harder too.

Noticing my mom's amused look as she glanced towards Sylvia and the others I held up my hand in a sign of peace. "I'm sorry mom…it's just…well…it was Andi's concert." I chuckled trying to get my laughing under control which was a bit difficult because my mom's expression changed from one of amusement to incredulity as she arched her eyebrows at me demanding an explanation. "Well…to make a long story short, Andi recognized Boxey from a while back so had us come backstage during intermission. Well the rest is history because he ended up coming home with us for my birthday." I chuckled while my mom crossed her arms still not satisfied with the explanation as my dad came to my rescue for once even though he didn't realize it.

"Really…no fooling?" My dad asked astonished shaking his head. "You actually perform like concerts and all? I mean just like little auditoriums and stuff at schools and things I suppose." My dad chuckled looking towards Andi with me giggling knowingly.

"Yeah…sure dad…the concert we went to had a small sold out crowd of what?" I asked Zak who shrugged his shoulders conspiratorially. "…Oh yes now I remember because Mr. Wimberley who's the manager at the 'small' auditorium Andi performed at said it held about Nine thousand people." I emphasized the word 'small' with my fingers and laughed seeing my dad's confused expression so I tried to explain. "Dad this is Andrew Casto…a child musician prodigy and he performs in places like the Mid-America Center where Uncle Walt took us. We went to his concert entitled Andrew Casto and His Musical Time Machine. It was totally awesome where he played pieces from way back like Mozart and Waltzes to things like "Let it be" from the Beatles. It was way cool because in the first half of his show he has all these school choirs come in while he plays, and then the second half he performs alone with some special famous guest stars." I explained noticing Andi blushing as he closed up the piano and covered it back up while Roger and Austin helped him.

"Geeze, enough already Sam." Andi admonished getting a chuckle out of me. "Um…anyway Mrs. Burke…if you don't mind I'd really like to get the piano tuned up for you because I'd love to be able to play on it from time to time if it is alright with you?" He asked offering up a professional to come out and look at the piano. "I mean it really is a very beautiful Steinway Grand Concert style Piano. It's a really old one too…I'd say from the fifties or sixties, but very well taken care of. It's worth a lot of money so you should be sure to take care of it." He emphasized running his hand over the cherry colored wood before allowing the sheet to drape over it again.

"Oh…really…I didn't know. "My mom admitted nodding her head indicating it would be alright. "I'll let you know after we get settled in then, but are you sure it won't cost you anything?" She asked just to be sure.

"No…but you can talk to my parents. They know how all of that works. All I know is no matter where I go there are professionals coming in to make sure the pianos are tuned up properly. Most of these things are always taken care of in contracts, and I know even when I go on vacation if we have a piano around we can call in professionals to make sure it is tuned up because it is part of my business I suppose." He admitted shrugging his shoulders as we took a last look around before making our way over to the other place.

Once again we piled into the cars driving over to the house where the foreman used to stay with his family while working the orchard. We stayed on the small dirt and gravel road cutting through the orchards instead of going around on the main road. As we pulled up I thought it was kind of a cute house. It was similar in style to the one we just came from with the typical wrap-around covered porch. The large oak trees surrounding the place kept it cool during the hot summer months, but I also noticed the same kinds of separate air conditioners sticking out through some of the windows like at the other house which would help keep things cooler inside as well.

From the outside the place looked well maintained and as we stepped out of the cars it was really quiet around the place despite the barracks for the workers just a little ways further down the road. The house was totally secluded from the workers with a couple of hills and trees keeping everything separated. The babbling sounds of the small stream just on the other side of the house which ran throughout our property gave it a peaceful kind of quality which belied the hustle and bustle of the workers a little ways down the road. I could see how this must have felt like a paradise for the foreman who worked the crews to come home to after a long day.

Taking a quick look around I noticed how the inside of the house almost felt like the other place. The only difference being it was smaller and only had two bedrooms off the side hallway like in the other place. The overall space inside the house was smaller by at least a third, and it didn't have the master bedroom off in the back or a basement. Still though, it was a cute house.

My dad was shaking his head. "I'm not sure Sylvia," he sighed.

"Oh Jim…it is beautiful here and I love the house." Sylvia sighed as we all slowly walked around to the other side of the building noticing a small slope leading down to the small creek out back.

There was a clearing surrounded by large trees providing just enough shade while also some nice sunny spots. "Still Sweetheart it only has two bedrooms and with the new baby coming." My dad pointed out to Sylvia with Zak immediately piping up.

"I don't mind sharing my room." He suggested stepping up to his mom while she smiled down at him wrapping her arm around the boy.

"That's really nice of you to offer sweetie, but the second bedroom is pretty small and will get cramped quickly. Besides, if the baby is a girl then there will be other issues."

My dad nodded his head in agreement. "Also you are a lot older and soon you will need more privacy as well." He added glancing my way while I blushed knowingly.

"Jim…things aren't that cramped. I mean it is like twice as big as the apartment we are in now so there's plenty of room." Zak's mom pointed out being more practical about things than my dad.

At this point it was Paavo's dad who stepped in. "Yes…and it could be an easy fix you know…the bedrooms. I mean…I'm sure you could probably add one on because even though the house overall is smaller than the other one it has a similar style. You can just knock out a wall at the end of the hallway and build a bedroom there." He suggested with everyone now looking at the house on the side where the bedrooms were located.

"No…I wouldn't do that." Roger shook his head catching everyone's attention.

He had picked up a pad and pencil which had been left inside the house from the last occupants. It was like one of those large drafter's pad, and I'm sure it had belonged to the last foreman who probably used it for drawing out projects. Roger had taken a seat off to the side under a bench while we had been talking and was doodling on it despite his cast. Getting up, Roger pointed towards a section of the house in the back overlooking the gentle slope towards the small stream.

"You should build the Master Bedroom over there and build a small patio with a sliding door. It's the perfect spot and will work similar to the other house. The plumbing and everything is in the right spot. Here, I drew a rough draft for you." He said holding out the sketch pad with the drawing.

Looking at it, even though it was basically a general outline of the house with a simple sketching of the attached bedroom, I could tell Roger had some talents with drawing despite his cast and how quickly he had drafted it out. My dad looked over the sketch along with Paavo's father while the ladies looked towards the house envisioning what Roger was pointing out and smiling.

"You're a genius Roger." My mom pointed out. "How do you know it would work over there?" She asked with the boy shrugging his shoulders.

"My dad has a small construction company…you know…on the side so does a lot of these little types of projects around the area for people. Well…that is he used to. I would help sometimes, and was going to be working with him this summer, but…," the boy exhaled noisily before taking a seat once more on the bench and looking over at the house as if his mind were working things out.

"But your arm got broken." I finished off with the older teen looking at me.

"Well…yeah that too. I think my dad is going to have to close shop. I mean it wasn't like a big business or anything, just a side thing like most people have around here, but he had a small crew and everything. Some people have cancelled some projects though calling over to Council Bluffs to have their construction needs taken care of through other bigger companies." He admitted getting a curious look from my mom while things started to click into place for me.

"Don't tell me people have been canceling because of…you know…what happened with Damian and all." I wondered out loud the look on Roger's face telling me everything I needed to know.

I was about to say something more when my dad interrupted. "Hey Roger…how much do you think all of this would cost to have done…you know a ball park range?"

The older boy scrunched up his face and thought for a moment. "Oh…I don't know. I mean…between some of the things which need to be taken care of at the other place and here, along with the additional Master Bedroom…I'd say maybe ten to twelve thousand dollars. That's everything though, and it depends on the contractor and what you want regarding the Master Bedroom. I'm thinking a nice walk-in closet and attached bathroom. With only one full bathroom you could use a completely separate one."

Once more my dad seemed to sigh looking over towards Sylvia. "That's a lot of money honey." He began when my mom finally clucked her tongue while I smiled because I've never heard her do that before making me wonder if it was only due to her being around Aunt Harriet again.

"Oh for Pete's sake already. I think we can make this work. Let's face it you've already indicated a colleague at work is willing to buy our place in Des Moines. After giving the bank what is owed them, and of course the IRS for any profit, whatever is left over we will pay for all the upgrades. You have to look at the endgame Jim because there are a lot of pluses to moving here. For one thing our bills will decrease. No more house payments means we can get our student loans paid off. Judge Williamson has offered me a job in the courthouse, and you have a job waiting for you in Council Bluffs. I'm sure if Sylvia wants work; the school would be more than willing to hire her since she has teaching credentials. It just seems like a win-win situation all the way around." My mom began reasoning out with her taking a step back and looking at the overall benefits.

Sylvia was nodding her head in thought. "Jim…if Claire is willing to let us stay here in the house I think we should do it. Of course once things settle down we will need to sit down with her and discuss some sort of rent because I wouldn't feel right about it otherwise, but moving in over here will give us a good start for our new family while also allowing you to stay in Sam's life. That is crucial Jim, and I'd be more than willing to take on whatever job I can get around here if it means we can all be a family. It's crucial to Zak too, and with the new baby I want to make sure he or she gets to know not only Zak, but his or her other brother as well. This is too important Jim…and we simply will have to find a way to make this work." She emphasized with my dad glancing over towards me his features softening up as he nodded his head.

My mom smiled triumphantly. "Then it's settled. Roger can you ask your dad to come over and take a look at what we have in mind. I think he'd be the perfect one to do the project." My mom started taking control with my dad rolling his eyes while Zak grinned at me before giving me a big hug.

"Does this mean we are moving here?" He asked while I chuckled.

"Looks like it." I responded seeing a confused look on Roger's face.

"I…um…," he began a bit baffled.

"Oh come on Roger." My mom sighed shaking her head. "I've known your parents all my life. I grew up here after all, and I'm not going to let some stupid silly thing which wasn't even your fault get in the way of my friendship towards them. Your father is a fair man and does a fine job. We need someone to do this, and he's the man for the job as far as I'm concerned. So get on the phone and get them over here." She chuckled seeing the look on Roger's face before the boy got on his cell phone.

A few minutes later while we all went back inside the house to take a look at where Roger was talking about making the addition we heard another truck pulling up. Heading back outside we greeted Roger's parents and sister. The girl immediately got distracted with Boxey and the two younger boys as they began heading towards the small creek to explore a bit with Roger's mom reminding the little girl not to stray too far.

When my mom proposed the project to Roger's dad I could see the relief etched on the man's features. It was difficult to survive around here on only the income coming in from the farm. From year to year you could never rely on a good crop because so many things could go wrong. Having something to supplement the income was simply a given in this area, and by the looks of things Roger's folks had been a bit worried thinking they might have to shut down their side business.

My mom was never one to let stupid things get in the way though, and she knew once the rest of the community saw how we were willing to let the incident go in this regard then things would get back on track with Roger and the rest of the family. It was really silly though, just like I had pointed out to Eli, and I was glad to see my parents feeling the same way about it. I'm sure even the Weilers weren't upset with Roger. They sure indicated things were alright as far as they were concerned.

It really surprised me at how things sort of began to fall into place. Before too long an agreement was reached; although, my father didn't seem too happy about certain aspects of it. Sylvia and my mom indicated it was important to have everything done before the beginning of the school year so Zak could get settled in. With us at the main house it wouldn't be an issue because all the little odds and ends construction work could be done around us once we moved in. With the smaller house though building a master bedroom was a major project so wouldn't work too well with people moving in right away.

The main bone of contention though for my dad was the whole money issue. It wasn't the cost of the project because he thought the price was more than fair, but rather if Roger's dad was going to start right away they would need the funding up front. My mom had decided to simply take out a mortgage against the property with my dad not all too pleased about it. My mom simply shrugged her shoulders indicating this was the quickest way to get some cash flow generated and once the house in Des Moines closed then they'd simply pay off the small mortgage placed against the property as capital.

Of course my dad complaining didn't do him any good because he was now out of his league as both Sylvia and my mom took over completely. They figured if a new master bedroom was going to be built it might as well be done right. My dad wanted a simple addition saying it was just fine for their needs while my mom looked at him stating this was an investment into improving the value of the property so well worth spending a little extra. From Sylvia's point of view with a growing family she felt they might as well use the money wisely and get what was needed not simply what would work.

"If you have something done…it is worth doing right." Sylvia pointed out with my mom crossing her arms in support leaving my dad standing there grumbling about how he was going to regret having his ex-wife and new wife living so close together.

Thinking on the comment I had to admit how weird this would seem to people. After all my dad would be moving into a house belonging to the woman he used to be married to raising a new family with another woman. It made me wonder just how we had gotten to this point. Not all too long ago I was furious with my father. In some ways we still had a lot to work out, but I was beginning to understand how important my dad was in my life. I was also beginning to enjoy the idea of having Zak being so close to where I would be living. The small tyke had wormed his way into my heart, and anymore I really thought of him as my little brother. I was even looking forward to adding a half brother or sister into my life. Frowning, I felt a bit confused by how I was feeling.

My mom seemed to notice and when I had wandered off to the side for a moment to myself she followed and sat down with me on a bench beneath one of the trees. "What's wrong sweetie?" She asked taking my hand in hers while I shrugged my shoulders frowning not really knowing what I was feeling taking a moment to allow things to settle.

"Is this really going to work mom? I mean…technically you are still married to dad and here he is going to be moving just down the road from us on the property with another woman starting a new family. I'm not sure how I feel about it all, but I do know I've come to love Zak like my own brother. In some ways I'm even looking forward to getting a new half brother or sister. It feels strange considering…well…you know." I sighed shaking my head. "I mean…I even like Sylvia, but in some ways I'm still mad at dad with how everything happened. I know he's trying." I acknowledged with my mom's features softening up as she tried to smile for me reassuringly and patting my hand affectionately.

"Sam…I don't know what to say. I…um…this is something you will have to work out for yourself. I mean…the type of relationship you are going to have with your father. All I can say is despite everything…he's still a good man. I can't hate Sylvia for finding something which makes her happy, and I most definitely can't blame Zak for any of this. You've got a kind heart Sam…you've proven it over and over again. Just give things a chance…give your father a chance. This is all anyone can ask of you." She smiled giving me a warm hug and gentle kiss on the cheek before getting up and leaving me alone to think things through.

From the corner of my eye I could see Zak watching us looking a bit nervous. After my mom left he hesitated before walking over and climbing on to my lap leaning back into me while I smiled and automatically wrapped my arms around him. We sat like that for a several moments with me lost in my thoughts.

"Sam?" The smaller boy finally spoke up with me exhaling noisily.

"Yeah Zak."

He paused for a little before craning his neck and looking at me a bit nervously. "Are you mad…you know…about us moving here?" He asked.

"What…no." I replied getting quiet and thinking on it before answering him once more with a bit more conviction. "No…I'm not mad Zak. The more I think about it the more I like the idea of you guys moving here so close to us. I…um…well of course there are still things I need to work out with my dad and all…but no…I'm not mad. It's just going to take some getting used to I suppose. It's just all so weird because technically my dad is still married to my mom…and I guess it sort of bothers me." I pointed out with the smaller boy getting a curious look on his face.

"Well what if he wasn't married to your mom anymore and was married to my mom…would that make things better?" He asked while I chuckled shaking my head.

"It's not so simple Zak. Sure in some ways I suppose, but there are still other things about it, not just my mom and dad still being married. I suppose the marriage thing is still a bit awkward for me though." I chuckled admittedly when Zak suddenly got off my lap and walked right up to our folks tugging on my dad's shirt hem getting his attention.

"What is it Zak?" My dad asked while I looked on a bit confused as to what the smaller boy was up to.

"Well…me and Sam were kind of wondering about something." He began with me yelping and immediately getting up trying to stop him from saying what I thought he was going to say, but it was too late. "When are you going to divorce his mom and finally marry mine? It's kind of weird you know. I mean…way weirder than moving in right next door." He stated in his innocent eight year old boy way with my dad gazing at the smaller boy a bit stunned not knowing how to respond.

Glancing towards me my dad opened his mouth and then closed it again scrunching up his face before finally managing to speak up. "I thought you wanted this Sam…you know…for us to move here?" He asked a bit confused now having misunderstood Zak's intention while Sylvia and my mom also glanced towards me.

Everyone had sort of stopped what they were doing to stare at me, and I could feel my cheeks burning with embarrassment from the intense scrutiny. "I…uh…well yeah sure…but like Zak pointed out it's…," I paused trying to get my thoughts in order. It didn't help with everyone still boring holes through me, but I pushed forward. "It's just kind of weird dad. I mean…don't you think it's time…you know… to make things official like. It's just too weird is all what me and Zak are saying. It's one thing for us all to get along despite the situation, but everything is too…I don't know…just weird." I stated knowing how it sounded with me constantly repeating things, but I didn't know how to explain the way I felt about it, and looking at Zak I realized he must have been feeling the same way about things.

It was my mom who came to the rescue finally. "Jim, he's right." She began with my dad staring at her for a moment before starting to say something but getting cut off as she pressed forward. "Even though we stayed married because of the medical coverage for my cancer treatments it still doesn't look right to everyone else around us. This is probably awkward for a lot of people who know us, but maybe now is the time to finally make things official." My mom suggested with my dad shaking his head.

"But Claire…what if," he began getting a bit choked up kind of surprising me because he was becoming emotional. "What if it comes back…the cancer?" He asked with genuine concern and fear etched on his features which truly indicated how much he still cared about my mom.

His reaction kind of surprised me all things considered, making me take pause and reassess some issues once more. I was beginning to see what my mom had been trying to let me know all along. There was more to my dad than I realized. Even though my parents had grown apart as husband and wife they both still cared about each other. There was still love there, but it was a different kind of love. In a way, it reminded me of the relationships I had with those around me. It made me realize my parents had come to terms with how they felt about one another now; accepting the fact of no longer loving each other as husband and wife making room for a different kind of love and bond to form between them. In a way I now understood just how lucky I was because for many families a divorce was ugly and devastating while with my parents they simply knew things had changed, but not in a bad way.

Shaking her head my mom sighed. "We can't think like this Jim. If we do then none of us will be able to move on with our lives. Besides, I'm not worried about the medical coverage because once I start working at the courthouse I'll have plenty of coverage. State employees tend to have good benefits." She smiled reassuringly with my dad nodding his head glancing towards Sylvia and then down to her stomach realizing perhaps it really was time.

"Are we going to need lawyers?" My dad asked with my mom shaking her head.

"Well if you are willing to sit down with me and Judge Williamson I don't think we will need any lawyers. We both basically agree the farm and orchard rightfully belongs to Sam, so other than this, what else is there to argue about?" She teased with my dad chuckling nodding his head in agreement.

"Then later on at Sam's party we will ask Judge Williamson to schedule us for an appointment. Once it is official Sylvia and I will get married. I don't know how you feel about it honey," my dad paused looking at Zak's mom now, "but I'd love for the judge to do the honors in this regard as well. If you want it differently we can do it however you want." He suggested with his fiancé looking at him and smiling happily.

"No Jim…I think it is the perfect solution." She gushed leaning in to kiss my dad while the rest of us gathered around to congratulate the happy couple including my mom.

Even this seemed strange with how we all truly were happy with the situation. Not many extended families got along so well, but I was beginning to understand what my mom's been trying to let me know all along. Even though we are a broken family, it didn't mean there wasn't any love there. In the end this was all what truly mattered. If my dad loved me while still showing he cared and respected my mom, then to me this was all which truly mattered in the end. It wasn't only my mom and dad who had moved on, but finally me as well. I had room in my heart for Zak and his mom, and I knew there was plenty of love for me to share with the new baby when it finally arrived. As strange as it may seem, everything finally fell into place for me regarding my parents and how our entire family has moved on to the next chapter of our lives. The situation between my mom and dad no longer bothered me, and the same was true with the impending marriage between my father and Sylvia.

By the time we got back over to the Weilers' place it was still relatively early in the afternoon. Zak was a bundle of energy immediately announcing to both Harriet and Walt how it was official and we all would be moving here soon as the construction was finished over at the small foreman's house. In addition, he giddily announced how my dad was going to finally marry his mom when everything was squared away between him and my mom. The Weilers took the information in stride noticing how I seemed to be content with the news nodding their head towards me with a bit of pride.

Janice Lorenz and Andi's parents had arrived while we were out looking at the two houses and had been chatting together along with the Weilers apparently getting along fairly well as they got to know one another. While Austin and Jake gave their mom a hug she seemed to approve of the news Zak was relaying nodding her head in support. As I watched her interacting with her boys it made me smile warmly because she seemed happier these days, and didn't look so worn out with worry. It was amazing to see her transformation as she became more confident and outgoing; especially, with her boys.

Andi's parents also gave their son a warm hug ruffling his hair and listening to Zak chattering away about the impending move into the area along with the announcement about the marriage. At first they didn't know what to make of the situation, but since everyone else seemed happy about it they also joined in with congratulating my dad and Sylvia asking if they had set a wedding date yet. Watching them I could tell they knew there was more to the situation, but to their credit they didn't pry. I suppose they figured it wouldn't be long until more information was revealed to them since their son was now a part of our small group. I liked Andi's parents because they simply acted more laid back taking things in stride as they came.

After gathering together with all of us chatting a million miles an hour about the recent events concerning the two houses, what repairs needed to be done, throwing in some tentative move in dates, and also discussing possible wedding dates Uncle Walt finally held up his hands announcing maybe we should fire up the grill. I for one was getting hungry, and when no one seemed to object we all busied ourselves with getting things ready knowing some of our other guests would be arriving here shortly as well.

No sooner had my Uncle announced firing up the grill when I saw a car approaching the house down our driveway. It was Judge Williamson, or rather Mr. Joe, as he liked me to continue to refer to him. Climbing out of the car I went over to say hello noticing one of Boxey's puppies hopping out along with him as the man grabbed his little satchel I've noticed him walking around with at times. I smiled recognizing the dog, which had been named Apollo by Mr. Joe. I had visited with Mr. Joe a few times since the puppies were born because he had insisted on it, but I still didn't know all of their names. The only reason why I knew Apollo was because he looked exactly like Boxey. He had the same charcoal gray coat with those coppery highlights along with the white chest markings typical of boxer breads. Even his tail had the same white coloration along the tip end of it. The main difference was Apollo didn't have white paws but rather the same charcoal color as the rest of his coat. At four months now the puppy was growing rapidly and looked to be about the size of a border collie weighing around forty or forty five pounds.

We made our way towards one of the tables Uncle Walt had set up under the shade of the trees so the judge could sit down. Of course Andi was immediately drawn to the puppy kneeling down and giving the dog a big hug which Apollo seemed to tolerate kind of surprising me since most puppies at this stage were a bit on the fidgety side, but then again when I thought on it Boxey had been the same way at that age, very tolerant.

After giving the puppy a big hug the boy immediately sat down on the ground and started to play with him a few feet away from the Judge in a nice patch of soft grass, of course to Apollo's delight. The other boys joined in as well with Boxey ambling over giving the puppy a once over with plenty of sniffs before licking him and allowing Andi to once more engage with the smaller dog. Zak was sitting next to his friend on the ground while I introduced the judge officially to my parents and Sylvia. Of course the elderly man knew my mom since she grew up here, and had met my dad on an informal basis a few times in the past, not to mention talking with them on the phone when all of this mess regarding Damian and the courts happened. I also introduced him to the Castos including Andi who glanced up and waved courteously to the man before focusing his attention back to the puppy. Of course the Judge knew who the Castos were, but had never met them formally before today.

I left the adults to chat with one another while I joined the rest of the guys. We all sat down in a circle with the puppy inside of it tossing around a small ball the judge had given to me just before I joined the rest of the gang. It was funny watching the puppy chase after the ball as we began tossing it to one another. Apollo seemed to enjoy the game, and we allowed him to actually get the ball every once in a while to keep him happy before we wrestled it away from him again. Boxey had settled down next to Jamie with the boy giving the dog a friendly pet so he wouldn't feel so left out. I honestly didn't think Boxey could care less one way or another so long as he was close to Jamie. Anymore, Jamie belonged to the dog now with Boxey having adopted him as family. I knew the two of them belonged together now more than the dog belonged to me, and I didn't mind knowing it was simply meant to be. I was actually happy Jamie had Boxey in his life because it just seemed right somehow. Of course the dog still remained close lavishing its love towards me, but for all practical purposes Jamie and Boxey were family now, and it was simply accepted by everyone.

"What's his name?" Andi asked looking up towards the judge who smiled at him.

"Apollo."

"Oh…you mean like the movie with Tom Hanks in it…you know the one about the Astronauts?" The boy asked innocently with the judge chuckling and shaking his head.

"No, not really. Do you know what the name means?" Mr. Joe asked with Andi shaking his head indicating no.

"It means god of truth and light. Apollo was the great Olympian god of truth for prophecy and oracles…he was a god of healing for plague and affliction…he was a god of music for song and poetry…he was a god of archery using it for the protection of the young." The judge smiled knowingly.

"Wow…way cool." Andi smiled back.

"Yes…um…way cool." The judge mimicked his voice chuckling mirthfully as he explained. "More so than you realize young man. Out of the entire litter Apollo seems to be the brightest with natural raw talents just like his father Boxey. We are training all of the puppies to be service dogs, and every single one of them has shown a lot of promise, but Apollo seems to have inherited all of his father's unique qualities."

"Really?" Mrs. Casto seemed to perk up giving the judge her full attention while Andi turned his attention back to the dog with a look of admiration on his face. "How so?" She wondered.

"Well for starters when we placed the puppies with kids who have special needs Apollo was the most focused despite his age, even picking up on the little nuances. I've hired a specialist who has worked specifically with training service dogs, and like me he is volunteering his personal time so we can match up dogs with appropriate kids in need. Well I've picked Sam's brains into how Boxey connected with Jamie and so my partner and I paid particular attention to the puppies when they were around special needs children. Apollo seemed to naturally implement the behavior of how Boxey had interacted with Jamie. It was uncanny watching it unfold and even my partner told me he's never seen anything like it and wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't witnessed it for himself. It happened just like Sam described it." The judge glanced over my way and winked while I blushed at the attention.

"So you think he will make a good service dog then?" Mr. Casto spoke up having taken a seat next to his wife with his arms wrapped around her shoulders affectionately.

"Yes I'm fairly certain of it. He's got the raw natural talent and seems to know instinctively what to do just like Boxey has demonstrated. It's one of the reasons I've decided not to neuter him. Most service dogs do better when they are spayed or neutered, but I'm thinking we may want to breed him for future generations. I still plan on mating Boxey with my Molly again for another batch of puppies since this latest one has shown a lot of promise." The judge pointed out.

"What about seizures…are there specific training methods for that as well?" Mrs. Casto wondered with me getting the feeling they may be finally ready to look into getting a service dog for Andi who currently seemed oblivious to it all since he was happily playing with Apollo.

The judge scratched his chin and nodded his head. "Oh yes indeed, but the trick here is also finding out if a dog has this innate talent. When I heard about the incident with Jamie the other day I placed Apollo with a personal friend of mine who is known to have multiple seizures throughout the week. The guy gets all these small spasms which he tells me are more annoying than harmful with them seeming more like twitches or ticks. Then every so often he gets a major one like Jamie got the other day.

My friend also has a service dog who detects mostly the major seizures so I figured if Apollo had the capability of detecting a seizure he could learn how to cue it properly from the trained service dog, but Apollo managed to cue it long before the other dog which is amazing considering he wasn't trained for it. Not only that but he seemed to pick up on even the smaller ones. We still don't know how some dogs know these things and others don't, but now since we know Apollo has those talents we will be training him to not only become a special needs dog, but also a seizure dog.

We've also tested three of the other dogs, but they weren't able to cue on it like Apollo. Well that's not exactly correct because one showed a possibility, but we couldn't determine it for sure, not like with Apollo. Maybe this one and the others have the talent, but just don't understand it yet so we will continue to give them the opportunity. I'm thinking, and my partner seems to concur, they just don't have it. We still have two more puppies that haven't been tested in this way yet, but I'm thinking for some reason Apollo may be the only one with the aptitude for it. This is a more individualized talent, and if a dog can't sense it in whatever way they do, then there is no reason to train them for it."

"I see." Mr. Casto responded looking at his wife who gazed back at him and nodded her head. "Judge Williamson…um…if I may ask…what are your plans for the puppies? I mean…once they are trained and all? You see…we…," he began glancing towards Andi his eyes welling up as he took a deep breath. "You see Andi's been wanting a dog for so long now, but with his type of schedule with performing and things, Betty and I didn't think it would be appropriate, but now…," he sighed shaking his head looking down at his son who was simply enamored by the puppy he was playing with and seemed so happy. "Well, now we are thinking maybe it is time. Do you think it would be possible to maybe get one of Boxey's puppies?" He asked quietly so Andi couldn't hear, but I was sitting close by and heard the request.

"Oh…I'm sorry Harvey…I think you misunderstand. We are training all the puppies to be service dogs since they've all shown the temperament for it in some way or other, and we've carefully matched each puppy to a specific individual already. All of them have pretty much been spoken for according to their talents. We've fostered all of them out except for Apollo. I guess I had held off on him because he's special." Judge Joe shook his head apologetically holding out his hands as if there were nothing else he could do about it as he added. "We even have a two year waiting list already for others when we get the next batch of puppies between Boxey and Molly, but that won't be for a while yet. These types of dogs can't be trained fast enough, but I also don't want to simply become a breeding program and have puppies pumped out like a factory. I want this to be done in the correct way." He tried to explain while the Castos looked totally crushed.

"Oh, I see." Mrs. Casto sighed her eyes welling up. "Then would it be alright to sign up on your list?" She asked with the judge frowning and scratching his chin in thought.

"Well sure I suppose. I mean we are apt to get puppies at some point which for whatever reasons won't be able to become service dogs. They will still need a loving family." He paused with Mr. Casto starting to speak up when the judge nodded his head and plowed forward. "Yes, that's actually a good thought. We will need families who will want the other dogs who won't be service dogs…so considered it done." The man announced with the Castos looking at one another before clearing their throat.

Mr. Casto leaned closer to the judge shaking his head getting the older man's attention. "No Judge Williamson…you don't understand…," he paused biting his lower lip and glancing towards his son and wiping away a stray tear. "Andi…well…he has epilepsy with severe seizures several times a month. We would need to be placed on the list for a seizure dog. We had kind of hoped…Apollo…you know…since Andi seems to have fallen for the puppy." He sighed looking at the elderly man hopefully.

The judge glanced towards me before looking back at Mr. Casto. "I'm really sorry, but I just placed Apollo last night to a very dear friend of mine with strict stipulation I will be able to breed him in the future." He sighed shaking his head. "It was actually a debt I owed to someone, but at least I know he will be in good hands." Judge Joe smiled apologetically at Mr. and Mrs. Casto. "There aren't many seizure dogs around for a reason, but I will place you at the top of my list. You can look around, but I know there is a long waiting list everywhere. If someone says they can give you a seizure dog right away then I'd be very apprehensive of it, and have them checked out to make sure they are legitimate." The judge offered up with the Castos smiling and nodding their heads letting the elderly man know they appreciated it as it got a little quiet around the table.

My parents along with the Weilers, Paavo's dad, and Sylvia were puttering around helping with the grilling and preparing some of the food as they would glance our way and smile every once in a while. I could tell they had been listening in on the conversations and kind of felt bad about it as well. It broke everyone's heart because Andi was such a sweet kid.

The smaller boy seemed oblivious to the conversation so he kind of caught us by surprise when he spoke up breaking the silence which had settled around Judge Joe and the Castos. "Hey Sam, is Apollo just like Boxey…I mean did Boxey act just like Apollo when he was still a puppy." He giggled because the dog had gotten on his hind legs planting his front paws on the boy's chest and began licking the boy making Andi giggle trying to push the puppy away.

I belted out laughing because Boxey used to do the same thing to me. "Oh yeah…his licking and all." I continued to chuckle. "It's hard not to fall in love with that…huh?" I asked noting Andi nodding in return as I continued to explain. "Yeah…when I got Boxey I was pretty sad and didn't want much to do with him, but he had a way of worming himself into my heart." I sighed getting a look from Andi.

"Really…why? I mean…why were you sad?" He asked curiously while I shrugged my shoulders.

"There were a lot of different reasons. At the time they seemed important…but now…not so much." I replied with Andi nodding not prying any further. "Anyway…um…Mr. Joe…did you bring my stuff I talked to you about the other day?" I asked getting Judge Williamson's attention.

"Huh…oh…of course…here let me take a look." He stated pulling out a couple of manila envelopes handing them over to me.

Taking a look inside the first one I set it off to the side taking a quick peek inside the second one partially pulling out a parchment reading it quickly. "Oh…yes this is the one I'm looking for, thanks Mr. Joe." I looked up smiling and tucking away the paperwork back into the envelope.

Zak ever the curious one asked, "What's inside?" He wondered with me chuckling.

"You don't miss a thing do you little squirt." I chuckled reaching out and pulling him towards me as I began to tickle him sending the little twerp into a frenzy of giggles as he screeched for me to stop, yet not really wanting me to.

Boxey simply huffed at the commotion as if to say 'whatever,' while the puppy that was a bundle of energy began to gnaw lightly at my fingers as if to say 'hey what gives…leave the poor kid alone.' Laughing at Apollo's playfulness I finally released Zak letting him get back into a sitting position.

"Well?" He asked not having forgotten and still curious while I rolled my eyes.

"Well!!!" I emphasized the word drawing it out. "If you must know it is a gift for Andi. I know I told everyone no gifts, but I gave Austin and Roger theirs earlier…and no…you can't know what it was since it's a secret." I added with Zak pouting his lips puffing out while also glancing towards the other two older boys who blushed but chuckled because of the pouting look they got from the smaller boy. "Anyway, I know the birthday kid is the one who is supposed to get gifts, but this year I wanted to give my special friends one instead. I'll get around to everyone eventually, but some will have to wait a bit until I can get to you. Anyway, Andi this is for you." I stated handing over the manila envelope to the boy who looked at it and then me a bit questioningly.

"Really for me…but why? I mean…we've just met so why would you do that? Besides I don't really need anything." He pointed out curiously looking at the manila envelope he was holding in his hands.

Shrugging my shoulders I wasn't really sure how to respond back. "I can't explain it Andi, but you are a friend, and it's like all of us here have known you forever. I mean look at Zak, I haven't known him all that long either, but he's like my little brother now." I sighed giving the curly haired boy a smile and hug as he gave one back to me appreciating how I referred to him as my little brother. "Besides, you gave me a wonderful gift at the concert…remember…the song. It was beautiful and I loved it very much. It made me feel special…so I think giving you a small present in return is only fair." I explained as Andi leaned over giving me a hug without even looking inside the envelope.

"Thanks Sam…this is really nice of you." He exhaled softly before releasing me and looking at his parents for permission.

They shrugged their shoulders and nodded their approval. With Zak huddling next to his friend, the boy slowly opened up the envelope pulling out a parchment and furling his eyes as he slowly read what it said. His eyes began to well up with tears as he wiped them away with the back of his hand.

"Is this for real Sam." He whispered looking over towards me as I nodded my head. "But how…I mean…really?" He asked as he handed the parchment over towards Zak before launching himself into my lap wrapping his legs around my waist and pressing his body into mine as he squeezed me fiercely.

With his body plastered up tightly against me I could feel his small erection through his shorts pressing against my stomach as the excitement bubbled up inside of him. "I…I love you sooooo much Sam…this is the best present ever." He sniffled as his body began to shake with emotion and he began to cry in earnest with Apollo now whimpering as well sensing the emotions from the smaller boy.

Andi's reaction took me by surprise as I saw Zak reading the contents getting up and handing it over to the Costa's. After giving the documents to Andi's parents Zak launched himself against me as well with tears streaming down his cute round cheeks. Now both boys were tightly wrapped around my body hugging me tightly while I let them get the emotions out of their system. Slowly they began to calm down with both boys finally untangling themselves from me. Andi immediately caught sight of Apollo who was now pawing at him wanting to know what was wrong. Reaching out the boy pulled the dog into his arms.

"Oh Apollo…you are all mine now." He began to sob once more burying his face into the four month old puppy's fur while the dog began getting emotional as well giving off little yelping whimpering noises.

It was Mrs. Casto who broke the somber mood. "Sam…I…I don't understand. I thought the Judge said the dog was matched up with someone else. Is this for real? I mean…I can see the parchment is sort of an adoption certificate of sorts announcing 'Sam Burke transfers owner title of a Boxer/Chesapeake Labrador mix by the name of Apollo to an Andrew Casto who is now the proud owner of the aforementioned service dog,' but is this truly for real?"

Judge Joe spoke up nodding his head. "Yes Betty it is legitimate. Of course the parchment declaration is simply just a fancy kind of card…you know…just for gift purposes, but Sam has signed all the legal documents through me. You see when I used Boxey to breed with my lab Molly I hadn't given Sam his stud fees. I had talked to him several times about it, but he knew I was training service dogs and wouldn't be asking people any money for the dogs so he didn't feel comfortable about it, but I had insisted feeling it was only right. So the other day, I suppose it was the same night after Andi's concert, Sam finally called up and said the only payment he wanted was Apollo. Of course I agreed right away figuring since he gave up his own dog, Boxey, to Jamie that he deserved another dog even if Apollo showed the most promise. When I agreed, he then asked me to register Apollo's new owners under Harvey, Betty, and Andrew Casto. I didn't know how to respond feeling a bit betrayed since Apollo was surely to be slated as an excellent service dog. It was one thing to turn him over to Sam, but something entirely different to someone else, but then he explained about Andi, and I had to admit it made sense." The elderly man explained with me jumping in.

"Of course we do have some stipulations." I added with the Castos looking towards me a bit puzzled.

"Um…and that would be?" Mr. Casto asked a bit nervously.

"Well…we…I mean especially the Judge…wanted to be sure we can breed Apollo when the time comes so we can hope to produce more puppies with the genes that he has inherited from Boxey." I pointed out with the Castos nodding agreement seeing no downside to this. "Second, like with all the other puppies you have to agree to allow Judge Williamson and his partner to finish training Apollo into a full fledged service dog. You see right now all the puppies; except, for Apollo are currently being fostered with other families, and not to the actual people we have tentatively paired them to. They've been fostered to locals around here so they can be socialized to people, and also so they are close by in order for the Judge to continue training them. You are the only ones who we are allowing not only to foster one of the puppies, but also officially allowed to adopt him and take him home with you. It's important Apollo continue his training though as a full fledged Service dog which could take another six to twelve months. So it is critical you bring him back to the Judge throughout this preparation period so Mr. Joe can continue to train him. This will require a big commitment of time on your part, and at times he will have to stay with the Judge for a short while. It's the only way, but important if he is going to be a proper service dog."

"Of course…it would be silly not to. After all we want him to be able to help Andi properly with his seizures." Mrs. Casto pointed out with Andi blushing because it was kind of embarrassing to talk about him like this in front of everyone while Zak noticed his friend's apprehension sympathizing by wrapping his fingers into Andi's hand reassuringly giving it a gentle squeeze.

Nodding my head I knew that wouldn't have been an issue either. "Um…the third one is a bit tricky and it isn't a stipulation, but rather a hopeful request. You see we think Apollo is very bright and smart, and with proper training he could possibly be one of the top service dogs around. Well we feel that with the type of exposure Andi has through his concerts he would be able to promote the importance of legitimate service dogs in our society, not ones people claim as service dogs because they are idiots and want to take their dogs grocery shopping with them or some other stupid lame excuse. Those people make it tougher for genuine service dogs, and through Andi hopefully we will be able to educate people why it is important for these justifiable service dogs to have access to all public places. We want to start educating people how it is illegal to refuse access to legitimate service dogs in any public place." I pointed out, this time with it being Andi who spoke up before his parents could object.

"Of course I can do that Sam. I think it is important for people to understand how important dogs like Boxey and Apollo are for people like me and Jamie. I don't want to hide the fact I have epilepsy anymore. I know when I have a seizure it is frightening to watch, but if people learn about it then they won't be so afraid. I also understand how important it is to teach people why real service dogs are allowed access to all public places. So…yes…I'll do it." Andi stated firmly getting up and walking over to his parents. "Please…it's important…and I don't want to be afraid of people finding out about my epilepsy anymore. Besides, with Apollo's help we will be able to control it better; especially, if he is able to let me know ahead of time. If he does that we can find ways to stop it from happening in the first place."

"Really…is that even possible." Roger spoke up for the first time having remained quiet sitting next to Austin and Jake, while Jamie and Paavo sat together close by as well. "I mean…can you really stop a seizure from happening?" He wondered.

It was Jamie who responded. "Well…from what my doctor at Council Bluffs told me it most definitely could help. You see Roger how this works is we don't know when we will have a seizure until we actually have one so can't take steps to prevent it from happening in the first place. There are all sorts of reasons why we can have an attack, but most of the times stress contributes to it. Some dogs that are special like Boxey, which now seems to include Apollo, can sort of sense it ahead of time. The day I had my seizure Boxey was acting weird all morning for several hours. We didn't understand at the time, but he was trying to tell me about my seizure. Well, I've never had one before so it was really scary when it happened, but if we had known then I could have found a nice quiet spot for the day and take some medication. More than likely I would have been alright then. So yes, it is important for us to have dogs like Boxey and Apollo to let us know ahead of time so we can possibly prevent it from happening." Jamie explained.

"Wow…that sort of makes sense now, but what I don't understand is why would it be such a big issue for other people to know you have epilepsy Andi?" Roger wondered.

"Well…people sort of treat you differently then. I don't have many friends to begin with, and if parents know I could have a seizure right in front of their kids they would be a little freaked out about it. I mean…I really can't blame them because ask Sam…it's kind of scary and could even be a little dangerous. Most parents don't want to put their kids through such a scare or risk." The smaller boy explained.

Roger looked over at the smaller boy apologetically. "I'm really sorry to hear that Andi, but we know and I'll always be your friend. I know what it is like for people to turn their backs on you, so if you don't mind having me as a friend, then I won't mind having you as one." The older boy spoke up with conviction while Andi ran up to him and wrapped his arms around the teenager.

"Thanks Roger…that's really sweet of you." He sniffled while the older boy looked around a bit nervously his face flushing with embarrassment before he gave in and hugged the smaller boy back while the rest of us also gathered around assuring the smaller boy we were all his friends.

Mrs. Casto wiped away the tears shaking her head while my mom, Janice, Aunt Harriet, Mrs. Rawlings, Sylvia, along with little Suzie, wrapped their arms around her comfortingly. "You know Andi was right." Mrs. Casto began getting a confused look from the others. "He called us up this morning asking for a favor. He said he loved it here because everyone was the nicest people, and how it felt like he finally had real friends. Andi told us it was special here so wanted today to be that way for everyone not just him. Of course we didn't understand, but I get it now, and it really is going to be a special day…isn't it?" She asked with the women chuckling and nodding their heads.

Aunt Harriet clucked her tongue in her usual way. "Of course this is a special day…and is going to be even better…here in a bit. Besides, look at the boys. That is the most special sight I've ever seen. A few months ago if you would have told me my little Jamie would be able to interact with others showing such love, caring, and kindness towards anyone else or receive it from others I wouldn't have believed it in a million years, but here he is, and with the best friends ever. Sam has given us and our little Jamie a precious gift…and now for Andi as well. So in my book this is a special day and every one after this to boot."

It was Uncle Walt who finally managed to get us all to separate and gather our composure when he cleared his throat apologetically. "Um…anyway…now that we have all of this out of the way…lunch, dinner, or whatever you want to call it should be ready here in a few minutes." He announced because while all of this was going on him, my dad, and Mr. Kirsipuu had continued to cook by the grill.

"Oh wait…before we sit down to eat I have another gift." I stated walking over to where I had left the other manila envelope. Bending over I picked it up and handed it to Zak who looked at me a bit shyly.

"For me…for real?" He asked with me shrugging my shoulders.

"Um…yeah. Sorry it's not another dog for you, but hopefully you will still like it." I pointed out a little nervously because in a way it was a bit of a silly gift.

The small curly haired boy immediately gave me a big hug before letting me go hesitating a moment glancing at me shyly, and then with shaking fingers, opened up the envelope. Inside was another parchment similar to the one I gave Andi as the smaller boy looked it over furling his eyebrows as he read it out loud slowly in a hesitant soft voice stumbling through some of the words.

"This cer…certificate ack…acknowledges the two boys mentioned here…um…herein?" He glanced up for confirmation with me nodding and encouraging him to continue. "Do by sol…solemnly swear to adopt the other as a brother forever more to hold in their hearts all the rights and priv…priv," he paused as I interjected.

"Privileges."

"Oh…privileges accorded to all such brothers worldwide. Hence…henceforth from this day forward, I Samuel "Sam" Burke and Zakary "Zak" Kandoussi do both hereby be…um…bequeath unto each all the rights, priv…privileges, and honors hereto with from this day forward as…ascribed to all brotherly deeds and duties." He finished looking down towards the bottom on either side noticing two blank spots with my name under one and in parenthesis 'Older Brother' with his name in the other spot and in parenthesis 'Younger Brother', along with a blank spot for a date and another spot below our two names with one having Judge Williamson printed on it.

Looking over at me he furled his eyebrows. "There's a pen inside the envelope and if you want us to make this official we can sign it now and have the judge make it permanent." I offered up noticing Zak's eyes bulging out briefly before he plunged his fingers inside the envelope pulling it out and handing over both the parchment and pen to me.

Chuckling I shook my head and walked over to the table next to the judge. I signed my name and dated it while Zak peered over my shoulder to see exactly how I was doing it. Handing the pen over to the smaller boy he leaned over the parchment taking his time and actually signing out his name in cursive writing concentrating fiercely on doing it right with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, and then matching what I wrote down for as today's date. Then it was Judge Williamson's turn as he picked up the pen and parchment looking the document over with a critical eye, and then looking intently at the both me and the younger boy scrutinizing us closely.

The Judge nodded his head looked back down at the document and arched his eyebrows "Very nice Zak…I'm glad to see some schools still teaching you youngsters how to write in cursive. It's an important skill for a developing brain you know." He complimented the boy getting serious once more as he shifted his intense gaze back towards us.

"You two sure about this?" He asked giving me a wink while looking hard at Zak. "You know this means forever once I sign it and make it all official like. This is all 'keep-sees' and there will be no 'take backs,' ever." He insisted bringing the conversation down to a little boy's level while I tried to contain my laughter and look solemn for the sake of this magnanimous occasion in the smaller boy's life.

Zak looked at me nervously while I nodded my head encouragingly at him with the curly haired boy clearing his throat. "Of course." He replied standing up straighter and puffing out his chest proudly.

"Even if the two of you get into an argument and fight…the two of you will still love and protect one another?" He asked with Zak nodding his head emphatically. "Hmmm…you know I just don't do this for everyone so you have to be absolutely sure." The judge prompted giving Zak a stern look forcing the boy to take an involuntary step backwards at the hard gaze wrapping his arm around my waist finding courage by my presence.

"Y…yes…of course. We love each other…right Sam?" He asked looking up at me for confirmation while I smiled warmly at my little curly haired tiger nodding my head in verification and support. "W…we love each other now like brothers, and nothing will ever be able to take that away." He promised with the judge giving Zak one last stern look before nodding his head, and with a flourish, signed his name before reaching inside his bag to pull out an official looking seal like you see those notary people use affixing it to the parchment and finally handing it over to Zak whose eyes got big and round as he looked it over.

"SAM…IT'S OFFICIAL!" The curly haired boy squealed excitedly holding up the parchment in front of my eyes. "We are brothers for real. It says so right here and the judge even signed it putting this special seal on it." He beamed pointing to the round official indentation on the parchment with his hands shaking excitedly.

Instead of taking it from him I simply wrapped the boy up into my arms feeling him literally collapse into me as a small sob escaped his lips while everyone around us clapped happily for the two of us. "My very own big brother…I've got my very own big brother. This is way cooler than getting a puppy." He sniffled before realizing what he said and releasing me looking over to his friend. "I…I'm sorry Andi. I didn't mean it like that…what I meant was my own puppy and not Apollo because he is a wonderful dog and gift." He apologized.

Andi knew what his friend meant and gave Zak a hug in return. "Don't be so serious all the time." The boy quipped dishing out the same thing the other boy had done to him at the hotel room the other day with both boys chuckling at the inside joke. "Besides, I know what you meant Zak and I'm so happy for you just like you are happy for me and Apollo. You couldn't ask for a better big brother." He chuckled with the two boys giggling like two silly little girls.

"Yeah…just like with Apollo…with a little training I think I'll be able to whip him into a first rate big brother." Zak quipped jokingly making all of us chuckle at my expense.

I didn't mind because I already knew what I was getting myself into with the curly haired boy's quick wit. It pleased me to see how such a silly thing like this could make the little tyke so happy.

Suddenly Zak seemed to remember something as he turned to the elderly man. "Um…Judge Joe…do you think we can do this with Andi too? I mean…I sort of adopted him the other day you know. Besides, it'll take two of us to whip Sam into proper shape. He's way older than a puppy, and thick headed to boot, so will need a lot more time to train." He quipped with everyone chuckling and the Judge roaring out a huge guffaw while I looked at Zak a bit sternly because this was now going a little over the top, yet I still couldn't help myself as I joined in chuckling at the smaller boy's persistence in extending our small little family.

Just then we saw another car driving up towards the house. It was Eli and his sister so I walked up to them welcoming the boy and girl to my birthday party. From the corner of my eye I could tell Roger was getting a bit fidgety and nervous, but ignored it for now figuring Eli would get things squared away soon enough. Roger wasn't the only one getting a bit restless because I noticed Jake looking a bit nervous now that Emma had joined the party as well. The girl had sidled up next to Roger's little sister and the two of them were chatting away conspiratorially gossiping about who knows what all, but I'm sure Suzie was filling her in on everything that's happened at the party so far.

After chatting with Eli for a few moments I glanced over noticing Mr. Joe sitting there taking in the festivities. He glanced my way and motioned me over. Excusing myself from Eli I made my way over to the elderly man and sat down next to him.

"Thanks for everything Mr. Joe…you know with Apollo and the certificate thing for Zak." I smiled warmly at the elderly man. "I've sort of fallen for the two little ragamuffins and I really do enjoy having them around. It's kind of hard to explain you know. I mean on some level they are like my friends…but also like my very own little brothers." I grinned and nodded thinking that's about as good an explanation I could come up with.

"Oh Sam…there's no need to thank me or explain my boy. You can't help being who you are." The man smiled glancing over towards the two younger boys playing with Boxey and Apollo while I wondered what he meant. The man's gaze settled back on me smiling knowingly. "Listen Sam…it's just who you are. You see the best in those around you and accept them for who they are. You have the capacity to show and share your love for those around you. It's what makes you…well…you. Being able to show your love and how much you care for others is a good thing Sam…so don't ever be ashamed about it. I can see how much you love those two boys so it was my pleasure to help you out. Actually, it truly pleased me to see their eyes and faces lighting up when you gave them exactly what they needed right now in this time of their lives." The man smiled warmly at me wrapping his arm around my shoulders and giving me a tender hug which I returned.

"Thanks for understanding." I sighed enjoying the man's company.

"Well…I know you said no gifts Sam…but I think this is one gift you've been waiting a while for." The elderly man stated cryptically once more reaching inside his magical satchel where he kept his paperwork pulling out a plastic zip like kind of bag.

Holding it out to me I took it and looked at it noticing the official investigation seal across the opening along with some signatures. Taking a closer look I recognized what it was as I glanced at him questioningly.

"It's official now Sam. All the legal wrangling has been squared away. Roy Rippner 'copped' a plea bargain, but will still be behind bars for many years. As for Damian, he's in a special facility and hopefully he'll get the help he needs. Last I heard he was throwing fits threatening staff members, but he's on medication now, and getting some psychiatric help." The judge sighed sadly shaking his head as we both fell silent for several moments as the news sunk in with me still feeling bad about how everything had gone down.

The Judge seemed to notice as he patted my knee. "None of this is your fault Sam, and it would never have been necessary if Roy had raised that kid right, or in the very least allowed the Lorenz brothers' mother to have a firmer hand in matters. Now those two boys have turned out to be good strapping young men who have their noses to the grindstone and well behaved. I'm glad you boys got things worked out from the get go after a bumpy start. I think they really needed your friendship at the time. As for Vice Principle Reardon, he won't be coming back anytime soon because the district has decided to take disciplinary action and fired him. It was either that or go to court for what he did to you. I assumed you didn't want that to happen or else what you are holding in your hand would have needed to be introduced into evidence. As it is, losing his job has pretty much blackballed him from finding any decent paying employment around here." He explained while I nodded my head in agreement.

"Anyway, what are you going to do with it?" He asked nodding his head to the little camera memory card sealed up in the evidence bag which he had secured away in the safe at his house.

The memory card had some embarrassing photographs on it from when Doctor Swanson had taken pictures of my naked backside right after the Vice Principle had swatted me. It had taken several weeks for the pain and bruises to disappear, but the memory of the abuse would never go away. Tearing open the plastic bag I took out the memory card and walked over to the barbeque grill dumping it between the grates and watched it melt away on the charcoals. Uncle Walt had watched what I was doing and nodded approvingly as he embraced me in his strong arms comfortingly.

Releasing me the man ruffled my hair before banging a couple of cups together announcing it was finally time to stop messing around and gossiping like a bunch of old women, and sit down to eat already. Getting a chuckle out of the ladies we all finally made our way to the tables which had been set up with all the food and plates. As we started filling up plates I began to introduce the two new comers to the others. Of course most everyone who lived around here knew both Eli and Emma, but Paavo and his dad along with my parents including Sylvia didn't since they weren't from around here. Even though the Castos did live in the region they didn't know them either because Andi was home schooled, and for the most part they weren't around here in the community all that much living just far enough away and being busy all the time with traveling.

As we all sat around eating I couldn't help but look around at the people who were now pretty much the closest to me in my life. It was a warm kind of feeling to know so many people loved and cared about me. I noticed Eli had taken a seat next to the other older teen with the two of them talking together in hushed tones while Austin sat next to Roger on the other side listening intently. At first Roger seemed a bit tense, but slowly I saw the expression change in his features almost like he had taken a big sigh of relief. A few moments later both of the older teenagers were smiling having a good time along with Austin as they chatted away together animatedly. It was clear Eli had indicated to the other boy things would be different from now on and not to worry.

I saw Andi trying to feed Apollo some scraps, but his parents immediately explained to their son this wasn't a good idea because the puppy should only eat what is appropriate for dogs. Eating scraps could lead to health problems down the road for the newest member of their family if Andi wasn't careful. The smaller boy most definitely didn't want that to happen so looked at Apollo apologetically until Jamie handed him a doggy treat so he could give to the puppy as a treat making me smile at how the other boy tended to have treats on hand all the time anymore for Boxey.

Jamie had taken a seat on one side of me with Paavo on the other side as I wrapped my arm around their shoulders giving them a friendly squeeze. "I'm glad you guys are here with me." I sighed happily with both of them agreeing and hugging me back before we once more concentrated on eating. I hadn't realized just how hungry I was until I started to dig in.

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