Janice's surgery went very well according to the doctor. Dr. Grant said she was extremely pleased. She cautioned us that she wouldn't know how successful it was until Janice woke up, but she said we had good reason to be optimistic.
We all certainly needed that bit of good news. Reporters had shown up at some point during the afternoon, but Reynold had gone out and spoken to them. I had no idea what he told them, but I trusted him to handle the situation.
Janice woke up for a few minutes late that evening. I was sitting by her bed when she did. The first thing she did was look at me.
"Where's Beth?" she whispered.
"Beth is gone, Janice," I told her. "There was an accident...."
"I know that, you dumb blond," Janice interrupted. "Is Scooter taking care of her?"
"Yes, he is," I answered. "Is that what you wanted?"
"If she has to be handled by a man, at least it's a gay man," Janice smiled wryly. "She wanted to be cremated," she added seriously. "Keep her for me, Cam. I want to be there for her memorial service."
"Scooter and I will take care of her," I promised. "You concentrate on getting out of here."
"Cameron, I'm sorry... about earlier," she said gripping my hand tightly. "I want to see Andy. Please bring him in here. I know you said he's fine, but I need to see my son."
"Karen has him in the waiting room, right now," I told her. "I'll go get him." I went out to where the family was still waiting. "She's awake," I announced. Everyone said a quick prayer of thanks and asked when they could see her. I told them that everyone would get their chance, but that she had asked to see Andy first.
Within a couple of minutes, Andy was tucked into the crook of his surviving mother's arm. As she stared into his tiny face, tears rolled down her cheeks. I moved to wipe them for her, since her other arm had the IV in it.
"Don't bother," she told me. "I'm not going to stop any time soon, I don't think."
"Me either," I agreed.
"It's not fair, you know," she said still looking at Andy. "My egg and your sperm.... I don't even get to see a little of her in his face." She actually grinned as she added, "The poor child looks just like you."
"I love you too," I told her seriously. If she felt up to insulting me twice already, my best friend would be okay. She got tired pretty quickly after that, so I took Andy and the rest of the boys home. Brooke and Daniel volunteered to stay at the hospital that night.
A few days later, we held a memorial service for Edan on the campus. The school had asked to host it as their tribute to him. I readily agreed as I wasn't sure where else to have one. We would still be having a private funeral service later in the day for just family at the church.
I was amazed when I got to the campus. There were black ribbons around many of the trees and the lamp posts. The humanities building was draped with black banners. One of the art professors had painted a beautiful portrait of Edan and it was displayed in the lobby just outside the auditorium.
I was standing there staring at it when I overheard two familiar voices coming closer. Peter and Ephraim had volunteered to watch Andy for a few minutes while I met with Dean Marenger. The dean was running late, however.
"Dad, do you have Andy's diaper bag?" Ephraim asked me hopefully. "He's nasty."
"He's not nasty," I both scolded with a smile. "He's a baby."
"We don't mean that we don't love him," Peter spoke up. "It's just that he will be a lot more fun to babysit once he's potty trained."
"Well, you do have a point there," I admitted. Even I wasn't thrilled with diaper duty. I couldn't complain, though. I'd already had three sons that I didn't have to housebreak. I was a pretty fortunate father in that respect. "I don't have the bag, boys. I thought you got it out of the car."
"We went back to the car already," Peter told me. "It wasn't in there."
"Boys, please tell me that we didn't leave it on the table at home?" I begged. They both stared at the ground.
"We're sorry, Dad," they both mumbled.
"Look up at me, guys," I told them. "I am not upset with you," I assured them. "I said we forgot it, because that's what happened. We all forgot it."
"What are we going to do about it, though?" Ephraim asked.
We were interrupted at that moment by a young woman who held out a few diapers and a package of wet wipes. I instantly felt a glimmer of recognition when I saw her, but I couldn't quite place the face.
"The diaper might not exactly fit your baby, but it beats staying in a dirty one," the stranger said. Peter and Ephraim thanked her and ran for the men's room. "Little Blade's almost eight months now," the girl added, for that's what she was now that I saw her closer. A woman my age walked up to join her at that point carrying an adorably happy dark haired baby boy. I looked closely but didn't see any resemblance to my brother, however. "I named him Blade because that's who I wish the father had been," the girl explained, answering my unspoken questions.
"Aren't you the man who broke up that gang my girl was in?" the woman asked me. I nodded as the recognition now made sense. The girl's mother kept talking. "You brought my baby back to me. I never thought I'd see her again. Now I have my daughter back and this precious boy too. I can't ever thank you enough, but if you ever need a maid, just call me. Your house will always be free."
I took the card she offered and smiled. "I wouldn't say that if I were you," I warned her. "Our house has four teenage boys and two... I mean one grown man in it."
"My April's worth any hundred teenage boys at dirtying a house," the woman laughed.
"MOM!" the girl cried out, blushing.
"I know because she's had at least that many chasing after ever since puberty hit her," the woman continued, oblivious to the deepening shade of red on her daughter's face. "Of course, they've all run off now that she's got Little Blade here. I knew they were all no good."
"Jason still comes around," April pointed out. "He's a good one."
"I told you he would," her mother countered. She turned to me and explained, "Jason's the neighbor's boy. He's a year or so older than April, but he's been sweet on her ever since she was this one's size," the woman said indicating her grandson. "She turned him over for them bad ones and now she sees where it got her." April rolled her eyes, and blushed at the same time, but again Mom paid no attention.
"Jason never stopped pining for her, though," the woman continued. "I'll bet he's going to pop the question one of these days."
"He already has, Mom," April blurted. "I've told him no four times."
"Why on earth would you say that?" her mother cried out. "You've told me what a great guy he is. It's obvious that you love him, finally."
"I wanted to say yes the first time he asked me," April admitted. "I thought he was just doing it out of pity, though. The other times I've turned him down for his own good. I messed up my life by getting into that gang and getting pregnant. I won't mess up his by letting him saddle himself with a wife and a baby now."
"April, don't you think I knew what I was getting into when I asked you?" We turned to see a nicely dressed young man stepping next to April. He wore the college colors on a black band on his left arm, signifying that he had been one of Edan's students.
"Jason, what are you doing here?" April asked.
"I was wondering the same thing about you," he returned. "Dr. Draper was my academic advisor and friend. He talked with me over last semester about my feelings for you and Blade. He helped me realize that I want to share my life with you, you and Blade. He said I shouldn't miss out on being with the person I love, no matter what."
Jason turned to look at me as he continued, "He told me that he had been very fortunate to finally find his soulmate, even if it did happen late in his life. He said he never regretted a minute of his life with you, Mr. Ragland. He also told me that I would be a fool to turn away the chance to be a father to any child who needs one. He said it was the most rewarding experience of his life."
"Edan told me much the same thing quite often over the last year." We all turned to find that Dean Marenger had joined us during Jason's conversation. "I do apologize for keeping you waiting, especially today, Cameron," he added to me. "I was attending to some of the last minute details of the service. Speaking of which, if you don't mind, and he's willing, I'd like to ask this young man to speak today."
"Me?" Jason squeaked.
"Certainly," I responded. "No one could tell of Edan's reach in life better than one of his students. I want my sons to know what you learned from their Pop."
"Ok, I guess," Jason agreed nervously.
"You'll be fine, Jase," April encouraged him. "Your fiancée and son will be watching."
"Thanks," he told her absently, and then his mouth dropped open. "Do you mean it, April?" he whispered.
"I should have said yes the very first time you asked," she told him.
"Well, actually you did," he corrected her. "You were seven and I was nine, do you remember? We even had the pretend ceremony in the basement."
"I got into Mom's makeup and painted my face up for it," April suddenly laughed.
"What do you say we old folks give the lovebirds some private time?" Dean Marenger suggested with a smile.
I was only too willing to oblige. I didn't want to admit it, but I was suddenly feeling jealous of April and Jason. I was supposed to be that happy with Edan still. I had always known that Edan being fifteen years older than me, I would lose him at some point. I wasn't ready this soon. I shouldn't be at his memorial service yet. We had just had our civil union service a month ago. It wasn't fair.
I asked to be excused and went to the men's room. I met Ephraim with Peter and Andy on their way out. I wanted to get past them, but Ephraim must have needed me as much as I needed him at that moment.
"I love you, Dad," he whispered as he wrapped himself around me in a tight hug.
"I love you too, son," I returned.
"I didn't tell Pop that enough," he wept. "I should have told him more."
"He knew, Ephraim, he knew," I reassured him. "He loved you and he was very proud of you. Do you have any idea how happy it made him that first night when you came downstairs wearing his old t-shirt to tell us goodnight and you called him Pop?"
"It's not fair, Dad," he cried. "I had a lousy excuse for a father for so long. I just got you and Pop. I wanted more time. Is that selfish?" he asked looking up into my face.
"I don't think so," Peter murmured. "I had my dad for my whole life, but I still wish he was here for the rest of it."
"You're right guys, it's not fair." We looked around to see Scooter standing beside us. "It's never fair when a boy loses his father. There's times that you wish you were dead, too. Other times you get so mad at everyone out there who still has a dad that you can't see clearly."
"But it's not their fault," I pointed out.
"That doesn't matter to a boy without his dad," Scooter said firmly. I suddenly realized that I didn't know what my boys were going through, but he did. "I'm almost thirty years old now and my dad was taken from me when I was your age, boys. I love Reynold, and I do call him Dad most of the time. He and his wife kept me going when I didn't want to face another day. None of that makes me miss Daddy any less. It did teach me that Daddy wasn't the only person who loved me. Edan and Dan weren't the only ones that loved you guys, either. You've still got Cameron, and Gramps, and now even Uncle Ray."
"And you?" Ephraim prompted.
"You know it, little buddy, you know it," Scooter smiled as he squeezed the boys into a hug.
"OOOO!!!" Peter squealed. "Your hands are like ice!"
"Sorry guys," Scooter apologized. "Occupational hazard."
"I don't want to know!" Peter said quickly, as he shuddered and grimaced.
"Where's my starving grandbaby?" I looked up to see Grandma and Gramps walking toward us. Grandma was holding Andy's diaper bag. "This doesn't do much good on the dining room table, boys," she scolded all of us.
"Thanks Grandma," Peter and Ephraim said contritely.
"You're welcome, boys," Gramps told them. "Do you want the relief crew to take over now?"
"Yes sir," they said eagerly. They both kissed Andy on the head before they turned him over to Grandma, though.
"Let's go find a drink, Rimmer," Peter said quickly. "Watching Andy drink is getting me thirsty."
"Make sure you're on stage on time," I reminded them.
"On stage?" Ephraim gasped. "In front of all those people?"
"Yes, we want Dr. Draper's family together on the stage," Dean Marenger explained as he rejoined us. "Speaking of your family, Brendan and Derek should be here momentarily. I saw them earlier on a tour of the campus with one of our admissions counselors. From what I hear from friends in the local school system, we will be very fortunate to have them here."
"They have amazed me with how well they've done in their studies," I bragged. "I'm told Brendan is doing extremely well at the family business as well."
"James Sherman, your current president and CEO happens to be my brother-in-law," the dean informed me. "He is quite impressed with Brendan's performance. He was telling me just last night that by the time Brendan finishes school, he will be more than capable of taking on day to day operations of the company."
"Mr. Sherman said that about me?" Brendan asked with a slight blush as he and Derek joined our conversation.
"James told me that you'll be taking his job before he knows it," the dean smiled at the boys. "So are you boys going to be regular faces around here this fall?"
"Well, we still have one more year of high school," Derek answered.
"I'm sure Cindy explained on your tour that you can take some courses here while still in high school and get a jump start on your degrees," Dean Marenger added.
"She said something about it, yes sir," Brendan confirmed while looking at me questioningly.
"It sounds like a good idea to me," I told them both. "If you're taking classes here, I'll be able to keep closer tabs on what you're doing when you're not at home."
"Maybe we should wait," Derek mused aloud, although he was grinning.
"You certainly wouldn't be the first students to attend at the same time as a parent," the dean pointed out. "Sometimes they even have the same classes."
"That's gotta be miserable," Brendan said, thinking out loud.
"Excuse me?" I questioned. "What exactly is that supposed to mean?"
"I think I'll shut up while I'm behind," he grinned.
"Discretion is one of the earmarks of a good student," the dean observed wryly.
"The only marks around his ears are hickeys," Ephraim teased as he walked up with Peter.
"Watch it, Rimmer," Brendan growled playfully.
"Vengeance must be postponed gentlemen," the dean said tactfully. "The service is about to begin."
Dean Marenger had arranged a very nice service for Edan. Jason started off nervously as expected, but he did an admirable job of speaking for his first time in front of such a large audience. All in all, the program was moving without getting too emotional. That was just as well since we all got emotional at the private funeral at the church. The pain of saying goodbye to Edan was only the beginning of the trauma that day however.
"Cameron Ragland, I presume." It was a statement rather than a question. I looked at the speaker. He was a short bald man with pudgy features. "I'm Paul Boyer, Director of County Youth Services."
"No sir, you are not," I corrected. "Janice Wehrmann is Director of County Youth Services."
"Ms. Wehrmann, I'm sorry to say, is on medical leave," the man responded icily. It was very clear that he was not sorry to say it at all.
"I am well aware of Ms. Wehrmann's condition," I told him as pleasantly as I could manage. "Given that knowledge, I must point out that your title can only be Acting Director of County Youth Services." I put great emphasis on the word acting, as I could tell this was a man putting on a show of his supposed power.
"Be that as it may," the man snapped, "I do still have the authority to revoke your foster parent certification and remove any and all minors from your care until such time as a thorough and complete investigation has been completed into the extent of your corruption and abuse of said minors."
"What did you just say?" I couldn't believe my ears.
"I believe you heard me," the man sneered. "I am taking these boys into the custody of the state. You are not being charged, YET, but I plan to make a full report of my findings with the county sheriff."
"You can't do this!" Grandma Sarah cried out.
"It's already done," Mr. Boyer replied. "Here are the legal documents I need to remove Brendan Ragland, Derek Elliot, Ephraim Draper-Ragland, and Ragland Wehrmann-Prevett from the custody and domicile of a suspected child molestor."
"He's never touched those boys inappropriately," Reynold called out. "You can't take them now. We've just come from their father's funeral."
"Are you saying that you are not the father of these boys?" Boyer asked me.
"I am not Brendan's father," I told him. "He is my half-brother. I am the father or foster father of the other boys though. Edan Draper was their other father."
"That is an unacceptable situation," Boyer snapped. "Children must have a loving, stable home with both a father and a mother." He looked over his shoulder and called out, "Deputies, I need your assistance."
"My apologies, sensai," one of the uniformed men said as he approached. I recognized him from one of the classes I had taught in martial arts at the sheriff's department training facility. "He has the legal power to do this, even if it's wrong."
"How dare you apologize to him!" Boyer bellowed. "He is the criminal here!"
"Not until he is proven to be," the deputy responded.
"I'll have your badge for this insolence," Boyer snarled. He looked at the other deputy and barked, "Take those older two to juvenile detention right away. They are both known criminals and flight risks."
"They are also honor students at their high school entering their senior year," I pointed out. "Brendan is president elect of the student council, and Derek is state president of the Gay Straight Student Alliance."
"Well, I'll be sure to include that in my report to the state psychiatrist who will be treating both boys for sexual deviancy," Boyer responded coldly.
"I will review that file as their attorney to make sure that you do," Ray warned him. To me, he said, "I'm sorry, Cam, but we have to cooperate with him right now. The law is on his side for the moment." He put heavy emphasis on those last three words. "Boys, go along peacefully and we'll have you back at the farm in no time."
"We'll see about that," Boyer snapped as he jerked Ragland from my arms. "Ephraim, you will come with me. I have a good Christian home for you."
"I have a good Christian home, thank you very much," Ephraim responded proudly.
"Mind your tongue, boy," Boyer growled. "If it were a Christian home, you would have been taught to respect your elders."
"Dad says respect must be earned, not demanded," Ephraim told him.
"Keep this up and you will join the older boys in juvenile detention," the man threatened.
"May I say goodbye to my family?" Ephraim asked very politely.
"You have no family here," Boyer said as he pinched Ephraim's shoulder painfully and dragged him toward the car.
"Now I know how he must have felt on New Year's Day," Peter said, breaking the silence that had fallen over all of us as the boys were taken away. "It feels like I got the knife in my gut this time."
"You're not the only one," I told him.
Author's Notes: I apologize profusely for the mix up on this chapter. My only excuse for such a mistake is that I am blond and while I refuse to use the word old..... What was I trying to say? I knew if I didn't write it down first.... Now where is that note about where I put my pen?
P. S. I do not apologize for the cliffhanger. This isn't a Clan Short Universe story, so the CHP can't get me for this one. Can they? Hmmmm........ Better hide just in case. Now what did I do with that note about where the suitcases are kept?