My Flock

Chapter 3

I had to chuckle at Tim as the day progressed. Shortly after I opened a beer he disappeared back to his house where his workers were waiting for him. I was on the patio, lighting the barbeque pit only ten minutes or so later when he reappeard. "I thought you had to work all day," I commented as he stepped out the door.

"I do, it looks like I'll be working all afternoon," he answered. "Everyone has their assignments and knows what has to be done." he said as he walked toward his ice chest. "Mine is to keep an eye on Mike, make sure he feels comfortable settling into his new placement." he told the beer can as he popped the top open.

"I admire your dedication, you could end up working late into the evening!" I teased. I grabbed a fresh beer before adding, "Of course we want to present a relaxed, casual atmosphere."

"You should have been a social worker!" he tittered, offering me a toast with his can.

After Tim and I talked for the next hour or so, something started bothering me, something seemed out of place. It took a few more minutes for me to realize what was out of place, the house was way too quiet for a Saturday afternoon. Even the allure of the barbeque pit's aroma had failed to attract any of my young eating machines, especially the twins who were normally on-station nearby before the grill got hot. A few minutes later, after Judy and Dad joined us on the patio and we put the meat on the pit and still no kids, I began to worry.

Had I been too harsh on the twins? I asked myself. They were getting to that awkward age where emulating adult influences, including my own foul mouth, was coming into vogue. Did I frighten Mike? Is he more traumatized than we thought? Something told me this whole thing is going too smooth, I silently groaned as I slipped away from the others and stepped inside.

I felt a little relieved when I heard music reverberating through the hall as I started toward the boys' rooms. At first I didn't pay any attention to what seemed like a flaring in my nostrils as I tapped on Carl's bedroom door, writing it off to allergies. After a second or so when I opened the door the burning in my nose seemed to be advancing up toward my forehead as I felt my stomach tighten slightly.

At first I was relieved when I looked into the room, all the boys, and even Bandit and Binki seemed to be napping. It took me a quick second to realize Jerry was napping on the floor only a foot or so from the door, and that Carl was sprawled half on, half off his bed. At the same time I began to feel lightheaded, then my head began to spin.

The next thing I remember was trying to convince my eyes to focus to the bright lights shining down on me. After a second or so I became aware of a mask fitted tightly over my nose and mouth, as I looked around I realized I was in what appeared to be a hospital emergency room, and a husky face was staring down at me. "Just relax, take deep breaths," a slightly muttered voice echoed into my ears.

I closed my eyes and took his advice for several seconds, trying to convince myself I was dreaming. When I opened my eyes again I risked a somewhat wider glance around the tiny room. It wasn't until I raised my head slightly and looked down toward my feet I realized I was in an ambulance, and that there seemed to be a couple more of the big bread box units, along with several police cars and a fire truck parked behind us, all with their emergency lights flashing.

I tried to ask about the boys and Dad, but mumbled something even I couldn't understand. I was still trying to clear my head enough to communicate when I felt the small cot I was laying on jerk and begin vibrating, and the distant sound of a high pitched siren entered the little room on wheels as it seemed to bounce around.

After what seemed like about a hundred hours, a thousand or so needle sticks and a million unanswered questions from the hospital staff, Tim finally appeared in the small curtain-bordered cubical I was in. Even though I was still somewhat groggy, his usually expressionless face told me he did not have good news. I tried to ask him what had happened, what was going on, but my extremely sore throat cut me off.

"Your boys are going to be okay, so is Timmy," he began in a fright ridden voice I had never heard from my friend, or more brother, of more than twenty years. I guess he read my face and added, "Sam is fine. He took your pets, I mean Binki and Bandit, to the anim. . . pet hospital. He'll call me when he knows something."

I closed my eyes and took a rather painful deep breath, both trying to believe what I was hearing and to keep from vomiting. "What, , ," I managed to grunt more than say. My panic heightened toward hysteria when my big friend turned away from me and stared out into space for a second or so.

"Mike," he all but sobbed. After a pause that seemed to last forever he told the wall, "We are sure Mike has been abducted. They threw a gas canister through the window and then grabbed him. The cops don't know what it was yet, but the docs think everyone will be okay."

I tried to sit up, I guess try to get out of bed, but my head started spinning, then swimming.

"Damn, it must be nice to sleep until noon!" Tim's voice barked into my ear. I glanced around as my eyes adjusted to the light and I tried to wake up, and found myself in what seemed to be a hospital room. "How you doing?" he added as I looked up.

I glanced around the room again, I guess hoping it was my bedroom at home, that I had woken from a bad dream, that Tim was for some strange reason standing next to my waterbed. I shuttered as the events I had hoped I dreamt flooded back into my consciousness. "Where are the boys?" I whispered, my voice as raspy as my throat felt.

"They are doing great!" Tim announced. "Timmy and Carl are going home this morning, and Jerry and Jeff might get out tonight or tomorrow. You might go home this afternoon."

"Where, , , want to see them," I asked, my throat telling me to keep my comments short.

Someone knocked on the door before he could respond, and a second later Ernest and another man entered. I bit my tongue but tried to remain polite as the newcomer introduced himself as an FBI agent, and was about to turn back to Tim and demand to see the boys when they got my attention as they began filling me in on what they knew.

As I dimly remembered Tim telling me yesterday, someone had thrown a canister through Carl's bedroom that disbursed a chemical agent into the room, then climbed in and kidnaped Mike. Although I don't remember doing it, they told me I had alerted Dad and the other adults on the patio by throwing my cell phone through the door glass. They added something, that was at least somewhat encouraging, was that one of my neighbors was able to provide the licence plate number of one of the vehicles they were in, a partial plate number on the other and a vague description of the three men involved.

My stomach turned inside out when the FBI agent added, "It's a good thing you happened in when you did. The agent they used was potentially lethal, another ten minutes and all four boys would have been dead."

Those are three dead mother fuckers, I told myself. I just hope I find them before the law does, I decided.

With the help of a cup of crushed ice to sooth my throat I managed to grunt my way through telling them what little I remembered about the incident, and tried to appear grateful for their assurances that they would find Mike and his captors, although I didn't believe them.

I was trying to decide if I should chase everyone out of the room and find out where the boys were, or try to get out of bed and go looking when someone else knocked on the door. My office isn't this busy! I silently groaned as I turned toward my head the door. As the door opened I caught a brief glace of Judy before a blond streak flashed across the room, then a thin little body sprang into the air and flew over my bed's safety rail at what seemed like ballistic speed. Before I could react a thin pair of arms encircled my neck and a pixie little head buried its face against mine.

"Hi Turkey," I whispered, just getting a soft whimper as an answer.

"Young MAN! You promised to stay in your wheel chair!" a woman's stern voice barked. I had just glanced over at the middle aged nurse coming toward my bed when she added, "Carl, you get out of that bed immediately! Your father is recuperating!" making the youngster hug my neck even tighter.

She started to reach over the bed-rail toward him then froze; after an instant she pulled her arms back and stepped back, her harsh face melting almost toward fear. "Now I'm recuperating," I grunted as I stroked his thin back.

"You're not too sick," Tim snickered as the nurse stalked out of the room. "The death glare you gave her would have shut down an entire biker bar."

"I thought she was going to turn to stone," Judy tittered. When I looked over Judy was tucked under her husband's arm, and Timmy, wearing shorts and a tee shirt, was tightly tucked between them.

As I cuddled my little angel for the next ten minutes or so I could feel his little body relax, as it molded against mine. We where still tightly tucked together when a man in a white coat stepped into the room. "Good morning Mister Miller, have you grown a tumor?" he began, giving me a warm smile. "I'm Doctor Greene, Carl knows me already," he added as he brushed the boy's hair with his hand. "I'll tell you what, if you let me examine your dad, you might be able take him home with you! Can I do that?"

After a couple minutes of coaxing the boy reluctantly released my neck, and slid under my arm, still glued to me. The doctor and I ended up performing somewhat of a contortionist's act, but he managed to check my eyes and throat, Carl watching his every move like a watchdog preparing to attack. The physician listened to my heart and lungs for several seconds before his expression changed to somewhere between being in deep thought and being mildly concerned.

"I'm not sure," he said, as he used one hand to remove his stethoscope's earpieces from his head, still holding its diaphragm to my chest. "What do you think? Is he well enough to go home?" he asked, slipping the earpieces into Carl's ears.

The youngster gawked at the doctor then me briefly before his face tightened in concentration, an instant later his eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened so much his lower lip pushed outward somewhat. He tilted his head slightly for a second or so and leaned forward a little, then looked up at and enthusiastically nodded his head up and down.

"That's good enough for me!" the doctor exclaimed. "Thank you for your consultation," he added, tousling the boy's hair. "Both of you are going to have sore throats for a few day, but I don't expect any long lasting effects." he told me. "I want both of you relax at home for a couple of days, and I want to see both of you at my office at the end of the week." he added, handing me a business card. "I'm prescribing an inhaler to help your throat and lungs, Mrs. Young already has Carl's. You get dressed, and I'll have a respiratory therapist stop in to show how to use your, , ,"

He stopped in mid-sentence, and turned to Carl. "Gordon is going to bring your father an inhaler in a minute, will you teach him how to use it?" The youngster's eyes bugged but he gave us a slight grin and nodded he would.

"What about my other boys, I want to see them," I asked.

"They're at University Hospital, your Dad is with them." Tim answered. Seeing my lost look he added, "You're at Methodist."

"They are also my patients, and doing fine," Greene injected. "I'm going to see them when I leave here, they should go home soon."

Tim's comment jogged my memory about my two fur-covered kids, but I decided not ask while Carl was close by. I hadn't noticed that Ernest and the FBI agent had left until Tim and Judy excused themselves while I dressed. Judy tried at first to coax, then pry Carl away from me to go with them, but it didn't take long for all of us to realize that was a futile effort.

Somehow I managed to get dressed with a thin youngster glued to my side. At first I thought I would end up with him inside my tee-shirt, but finally got him to lean a millimeter or so away from me for a split second. A quick visit with the respiratory therapist, and a ton of paperwork at the admitting office later, we were climbing into Judy's car, Carl still glued to my side. Somehow I managed to get Carl into the middle seatbelt, and with a little gentle force pried him away from my chest, allowing him to cling to my arm as I buckled myself in.

"Let's go to University, I want to see the twins," I asked as Tim climbed behind the wheel.

"You're supposed to rest, all of you are," Judy countered.

"You think I can get any rest until I see my boys?" I barked. Both my conscience and my throat quickly told me I had spoken too harshly as soon as it came out. I was trying to think of the best way to apologize when Tim turned onto the freeway toward University Hospital, instead of toward home.

Doctor Greene in the twins' room was bent over Jerry examining him when we arrived at the hospital. "Dad! Carl! Yeah!!!" they hoarsely shouted as I stepped into the room.

An instant later Greene turned toward us with one of the most horribly startled expressions I think I had ever seen, the poor man look like he had must stuck his finger into an electrical socket. It took me a second to realize his stethoscope was still in his ears, and that he clearly had been listening to Jerry's chest when the boy shouted.

Both boys were jumping up and down as they hugged Carl and I, and I could barely understand the physician when he stammered that I could take them home, his face silently added 'the sooner the better'.

"I've already prepared the dismissal forms, Doctor," a female voice announced from the doorway. Before I could look around a nurse rushed past me and somewhat harshly thrust a clipboard at Greene. Almost at the same time another nurse rolled two wheelchairs into the room, flashing a somewhat triumphant smile at the twins as she left.

I hadn't noticed Dad, standing off to the side, until he chuckled, "I wonder why!?!" He exchanged wily glances with the nurse, who had already grabbed a stack of clothes from a nearby closet, before adding, "The last time they were in the Hospital they weren't too cooperative either, they were anxious to leave."

"On the medical history forms you completed, you indicated they had never been hospitalized before," Greene said. He gave Dad and I a somewhat distrusting glare before adding, "May I ask why they were hospitalized, and when?"

"When they were born, the hospital even released them before they did their mother," Dad answered. "We heard rumors the entire maternity ward staff was threatening a walkout," he snickered toward the twins and I.

"Did you need a pen Doctor?" the nurse more demanded than asked as she pushed one into Greene's hand. "Everyone step outside quickly, so the boys can dress," she ordered. "Quickly boys, don't keep your father waiting!" she barked as she all but yanked the twins from our hug.

For a second I thought Carl was going to be stretched until he split in half as he tried to cling to both the twins and I, but after he glanced between his brothers and I a couple of times he let go of my waist and pushed between the twins.

"I take it the twins have been, , , restless?" I tittered to Dad after the nurse more wrestled than ushered us into the hall.

"I understand the entire hospital is having a going away party for them, and the boys are not invited!" he quipped, flashing me an almost sinister grin. I was about to asked him what they had done when he added, "After all, they are YOUR sons!" telling me to let the subject drop.

I briefly filled him in or Carl and my medical condition and he did the same regarding the twins before I risked asking about our pets.

"Bandit is doing great, we can pick him up on the way home," he began. He looked away briefly, then turned back to me his face slightly pale and taught. "Binki is, he was touch-and-go all night, and he is still not out of the woods." His expression said much more than his words.

"Did Carl talk to you on the way here?" Tim interrupted.

"I couldn't get him to speak a single word when I checked him out," Judy added.

"I hope his throat is sore is all, but keep a close eye on him." Tim said.

The door to the twins hospital room opened before I could respond. Jerry and Jeff, both in wheelchairs, appeared in the hall with Carl glued so tightly against Jeff's chair the tire was rubbing on his thigh. As soon as he saw me he bolted to my side, throwing his arms around my waist.

"Keep a close eye on them," the nurse instructed the attendants pushing their chairs. "And no more wheel-stand contests!" she barked at the twins. "Your children are very, unique," she all but snarled at me before walking away.

After agreeing to meet Tim and Judy at our house shortly, we climbed into Dad's minivan. It took a couple of tries, but I managed to get Carl to release his grip on my belt and strap him between the twins before I climbed into the front passenger seat.

The van was quiet for most of the drive to the animal hospital. The twins softly whispered a couple of times to each other, but each time I glanced around it was clear they were also conversing telepathically, their eyes flashing between each other I waited to see their little antennas push out of their hair.

I was trying to think of a subtle way find out if Carl was so quiet because of his sore throat or because he was traumatized when Jeff hoarsely asked, "Is Mike okay? Where is he?"

"Carl wants to know," Jerry chimed in.

I took a dose from my inhaler, as much to have a little time to think as to treat my throat. "I hope he is okay, I think he is. We don't know where he is right now, but they are trying to find him." I answered. "I know you are worried about him, but Tim and the police are working very hard to find him. Give them a chance, can you do that?" I asked directly at Carl.

The youngster diverted his eyes toward the van's floorboard as his only answer. "Can you answer me Son?" I tried. He pushed his head against Jerry's thin shoulder in response.

I made several more unsuccessful attempts at getting Carl to talk, or to at least respond in some way, before Dad turned into the animal hospital's parking lot. As soon as we climbed out of the van the twins rushed toward the building's entrance as Carl pushed tightly under my arm and put his arm around the back of my waist. My nervousness about what we were going to find inside intensified when Jerry and Jeff abruptly stopped right outside the entrance, seem to have a brief silent exchange of thoughts, and in unison turned back toward us with identical ghost white faces.

"Come on guys, do you want our four-legged friends to see those faces?" I said, trying to sound cheerful, and hoping the twins psychic abilities had not unearthed bad news.

A split second after we stepped inside Bandit's high pitched barks and whines brightened everyone's spirits. Before I could react the twins bolted across the waiting room, bounced off the door leading to the treatment area in their haste to open it, and disappeared behind it completely ignoring my and the receptionist's orders to stop.

"You must be Mister Miller," the nurse snickered as she ushered Dad, Carl and I down the hall. "Bandit has been just as anxious as those two seem, I'm sure he heard your car a couple of minutes ago."

Bandit looked better than I had expected. When we entered the room he was already out of his cage and being held by both boys, his tail wagging at what seemed like supersonic speed, almost as fast as his tongue was flapping as he lick kissed one then the other of his kids. When he saw us he squirmed so violently I was afraid he was going to fall from his four armed human perch, but went back to trying to drown all of us with a massive tongue bath, Carl even slipped from my side and provided the dog two more arms to roost on.

When the dog finally calmed down somewhat I felt my heart sink as I noticed Binki, in an open cage at the other end of the room. The tiny rabbit was laying on his side with a tube running into his little front paw, another going into his nose, his usually bright, joy filled eyes were just slightly open and seemed lifeless. As I approached the cage the only sign of life I could detect was his chest rising slightly every few seconds, but his breathing was clearly labored.

The boys' mood, even Bandit's quickly became subdued, then somber as they joined me and looked at our little friend; all three boys pushed against my stomach still holding Bandit between them. I heard a couple of sobs as I wrapped my arms around them.

"Dad?" Jerry whimpered in a questioning voice. I waited for the better part of a minute for him to finish his statement, trying to decide how to comfort, or prepare them for what I hoped wasn't the future, but all four of them remained silent, even Bandit staring at the little bunny.

"You can pet him," a female voice behind us said. The twins glanced up at me with tear-filled eyes until I nodded and she added, "It's okay, you won't hurt him."

Cautiously Jerry, then Jeff reached out and touched Binki, then gently stroked his thick fur. After a second or so they leaned into the cage with Carl still between them. "The doctor would like to speak to you," the nurse whispered to me. I nodded to her and paused briefly to be sure the boys were okay before slipping out of the room, and was quickly guided into a small treatment room.

"Bandit is doing fine, you need to follow-up with your vet, but I don't see any problems with his recovery," the veterinarian began after introducing himself.

I waited for him to continue for the better part of a minute before risking, "And Binki?"

His face told me not to expect good news. He glanced away a couple of times before his expression changed from uncertainty back to professional. "I'm afraid the little rabbit isn't doing well," he began, then paused again. "His vital signs are fairly stable, but, , , but he is completely comatose, completely non-responsive, I strongly suspect he is brain dead."

I reached out to steady myself against the little room's examination table as his words sank in. My knees had just begun to recover their strength when he added, "I realize it is a hard decision, but I recommend you should consider euthanasing him."

I looked around the room for a trash can as a load of bile rushed up my throat as visions of little Binki's happy face, perched on my pillow waiting patiently for me to wake up most mornings, flashed through my head like a psychedelic flashback. The breeder I bought him from's voice rang through my head, 'Dwarf Rabbit's are a very unique breed, they cannot survive without receiving a lot of affection, physical contact.' I remembered him as a six-week-old bunny, and when I brought him home a couple of months after my wife and oldest son' death, and how the twins used to carry him around in a coffee cup; how the little guy most certainly saved all of our sanity.

"How, , ," I stammered. "How can, , , can we be sure?" I took a couple of deep breaths to control my sobbing then risked asking, "Do you treat many rabbits? Should I get my vet over here?" I didn't realize I had pulled my cell phone off my belt and opened it until I followed the doctor's gaze to my hand.

"Yes, Mister Miller, I am trained in treating rodents and several other exotic animal species. I know how difficult this decision is for you to make, and I don't make the recommendation lightly, but, , ,"

A gentle knock on the door interrupted him, and before he could respond it opened and his nurse stuck her head into the room. "Excuse me Doctor, but I think you better come in here, right away." She disappeared before we could respond.

I stood motionless as the doctor rushed out of the room, trying to build up enough nerve to face what I feared had happened, what could be important enough to interrupt our discussion, but shuffled out the door and into the treatment room.

I was as unprepared for the scene in the room as was the doctor, who was standing just inside the door with his mouth agape. Carl was half leaning, half laying on his stomach inside the cage, the twins standing on each side of him reaching into the cage. Carl was in nestling his face against Binki's, with Bandit sitting next to his fir covered friend. My eyes almost popped when I realized Binki was sitting on the elbows of his short little front legs, his head up and moving toward Bandit then Carl.

"Remarkable," the doctor mumbled as we started over to the cage. "I will never cease to be amazed at the power of love," he softly added when the twins turned and flashed us identically happy grins.

I put one had around Jerry's shoulder and the other on the back of Carl's waist, then jerked slightly as I felt Carl's thin torso vibrate. It wasn't until Binki raised and pointed one of his ears that I snapped the boy was whispering to his fur covered friend. The little rabbit seemed to listen intently for a instant before he twitched his nose then brushed his paw against the tubing coming out of his nose. He gently thumped one of his rear paws a couple of times as he looked up at me.

I felt a little sorry for the doctor as he tried to reach over then around the boys to check his tiny patient. Jeff gave me a dirty look, but reluctantly stepped back from the cage and tucked himself next to his twin when I gestured to him. "Come here Son, let the doctor take care of Binki," I said, rubbing Carl's back.

Carl whimpered, squirmed a little further into the cage and draped an arm around the bunny's back as his only reaction. "He's okay where he is, he's doing more good here than I am," the doctor half chuckled. With a little stretching he managed to position his stethoscope and listen to Binki's chest, then abdomen. After a second he gently cupped the bunny's head in his hand and pulled the tube out of his nose. "Let's see what a hug does," he said as he ran his hand through Carl's hair. "Go on, pick him up," he instructed.

The back of Carl's head twisted toward the doctor, then back toward Binki a couple of times until the doctor gently nudged Binki's haunches, making the rabbit inch a little toward his young master. "Binki!" Carl exclaimed in a soft voice as he scooped his little friend into his arms.

There was a collective sigh of relief throughout the room as Binki wiggled his way up Carl's thin chest and nestled his head on the boy's shoulder. The twins bolted from my side into a group hug around Carl, then giggled softly when the little rabbit looked around at them and twitched his nose. Bandit began whining as he leaned over the edge of the cage and tried to paw the twins until Binki oinked in his direction, and the boys picked him up and pulled him into their hug.

"I think I know exactly what my patient needs," the doctor chuckled. He somehow snaked his hand through the maze of arms and paws and checked Binki's ears and nose, then gently pushed Carl's head to the side enough to check the bunny's eyes. After a little maneuvering he wormed his way between the boys and removed the IV tube from Binki's little paw. "I'm going to give Dad some medicine," he said, I'm not sure if to Binki or Carl. "Take your friend home, take good care of him," he added, tousling Carl's hair.

"Binki! Yeah!" Carl exclaimed in a soprano voice. The youngster looked up at me with a happy but questioning look. My slight grin seemed to be enough of an answer and he pulled away from his brothers and rushed toward the door, tucking Binki more tightly against him as he did. He was about half way out the door when he turned back toward us, hesitated for an instant, then rushed back to the doctor. "Thanks sir!" he whined as he gave the vet a one armed hug. Before the doctor could react he was back out the treatment room door with the twins on his heels.

As we loaded everyone into the van I was concerned about Binki, we always transported him in a travel cage. I considered asking to rent one from the Vet's office until I looked into the back seat to be sure the boys had buckled their seatbelts; the almost death grip Carl had on his little fluffy-tailed friend made the little rabbit probably the most securely restrained creature in the cabin.

It didn't take long after we got home for me to feel comfortable that the boys were not too ill. I got a series of dirty looks when I sent everyone to wash up and get into clean clothes, but they begrudgingly disappeared into their rooms. When I came out of my bedroom after changing my clothes a couple minutes later all three of them were already in the kitchen, with Jerry and Carl assembling a mountain of sandwiches on the kitchen counter while Jeff rushed about, loading the table with glasses, bags of chips and snacks. I bit my lip, but decided not to say anything when I noticed Binki comfortably perched on a thick, fluffy bath-towel on the table.

A minute or so after Carl retrieved a carrot got Binki from the refrigerator and the boys sat down to attack the huge stack of sandwiches the doorbell rang, and a second later Tim, Judy and Timmy stepped into the kitchen. Timmy cast a longing glance at me, then his mother, but didn't wait for an answer and darted to the table and snatched a sandwich up, stuffing it under his headgear's facebow and seemingly inhaling about half of it in one bite.

If looks could kill she'd not only be dead, but turned to stone, I silently snickered as Judy dumped a pile of facebows and headgear straps onto the table, announcing she had 'rescued' them from the ambulance attendants. I'm sure my near death glare prompted a series of clearly halfhearted 'thank you ma'ams' from my crew.

The boys had just shifted their eyes to giving me pleading looks when Judy commented, "I didn't think I was going to recover Jerry and Jeff's before their helicopter took off."

I felt a knot develop in my gut as I digested her statement, that the twins were so seriously ill they had to be medi-vacated to the hospital.

"Helicopter?" Jerry howled.

He coughed and reached for his inhaler as his brother added, "We got to ride in a helicopter? And they didn't tell us or nothing?"

"Did I get to too?" Carl all but demanded. His face sank as Judy informed him he was transported by ambulance. "That sucks!" he groaned at his sandwich. "I mean, ah, I never rode in one, , , ma'am, sir" he added red faced.

"Hey, we got to and they didn't even tell us or nothing!" Jeff complained, giving me a nasty look like it was my fault.

"We could have flown it!" his twin snapped at me.

"I didn't even get to go," Carl complained.

"You're too little!" Jerry barked.

"Am not!" Carl snapped back. He coughed then took a shot of his inhaler as he glared at his brothers.

"I guess they are finished eating," I interrupted. I picked up half a sandwich before adding toward the adults around the table, "Anyone want a snack?" My distraction worked perfectly, and eight thin arms instantaneously cleared the table of extra sandwiches, the only sound to be heard in the room was mass chewing, all the boys mouths far too full to speak.

A minute or so later I followed Tim's nod and joined him on the patio. "Any word on Mike?" I asked as I closed the door.

"Nothing concrete, but they have one hell of a dragnet out for him," he answered. I was impressed at the different efforts he described, and at how many agencies seemed to be involved in the manhunt, from local to federal law enforcement. I started to feel a little upbeat until he said, "If Mike is still alive, they will find him."

We chatted for several more minutes until the boys began drifting onto the patio a couple at a time. I started to shoo them back inside, but the concern in their usually innocent faces told me not to. "Okay guys, ask Gramps and Judy to step out here, let's have a family meeting," I suggested.

As soon as I sat down I found myself with a lapful of skinny kid. After he squirmed until he was comfortable, much more comfortable than I was, he sat Binki on his lap and looked up at me with an almost blinding silver grin. "Someone's feeling better I think," I commented as the twins pushed against my sides. "Are you taking good care of your boy?" I asked my little rabbit as I wrapped my arms around the boy's thin waist, earning a soft giggle from Carl and a nose twitch from Binki.

Our little meeting went better than I could have hoped. The boys listened intently as Dad, Judy and Tim filled them in on exactly what had happened yesterday, then Tim briefed them on efforts to find and recover Mike. I was surprised when Dad threw in that we had to be sure to thank two of our neighbors, who not only cleaned up Carl's bedroom, but replaced his broken window.

"Is Mike going to be okay? Is he gonna get to come back here?" Carl finally asked Binki more than anyone else.

"I'm very hopeful, I'm pretty sure he will be back soon," I answered, praying I was right. I pulled his thin body more tightly against me and paused briefly. "I had a job for you guys before everything happened, that I still want you to do.

"Spring break is only a week off, and I want to go on a trip. What I want you guys to do is suggest some places to go, then plan the trip. You guys choose three possible trips, and prepare flight plans for each to start with." I instructed. I took a deep breath, but managed to cut the youngsters off before they began cackling and added, "And include Mike and his luggage in your flight plan, I bet he's going to with us."

It only took a second or so for my request to sink in, and the patio was quickly filled with both young voices hooting at each other and the sounds of inhalers being discharged. "Flight plans!" I demanded, wishing I had brought mine with me.

The four of them exchanged glances for an instant before bolting into the house, Carl planting his hand painfully into my groin as he sprang out of my lap.

"How are you going to get reservations this late to any of the places you know they are going to recommend?" Dad asked after the boys disappeared inside.

"Because I know what one of their choices is going to be, I got a good deal on reservations a month or so ago!" I chuckled. "I think I can keep their minds off of Mike's problems for awhile at least."

The boys came back outside quicker than I expected, to my surprise Binki now hopping next to Bandit Carl instead of in his arms. As they lined up in front of me I at first didn't notice Timmy was no longer with them until he appeared in the doorway a second or so later. He flashed his dad and I a nervous smile as he set a beer next to us and fell into formation with the other boys.

They exchanged nervous glances, then all eyes fell on Carl, clearly the first speaker in their presentation. "Ah, can we go to Disneyland?" he began. When I didn't answer for a second or so he consulted his shoes for an instant then asked the shoes more than me, "Or, , , can we go to England? Maybe London?"

Wow, I'm glad they didn't stack the deck or anything! Disney, or England yeah sure! I silently chuckled. "I don't know guys, both of those are a bit distant, I don't think my little Mooney would hold enough fuel to reach the UK." I answered, pleased that I could keep a straight face. "I had an idea, we could go to Washington. I know you would love it there, we could tour the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court Building and a lot of interesting places like that." I suggested. I silently cursed Tim when he choked on his beer and stifled a snicker.

After everyone consulted each other shoes for a split second the twins eyes jerked at each other for an instant, clearly having a quick conversation. Carl studied Jerry's shoes for an instant, then almost whimpered, "Ah, that would be neat sir." he took a deep breath and added, "Well, ah, we could go back to Houston, maybe visit NASA again, well, , , or maybe Disneyworld?"

"Houston sounds great!" I responded. I let their faces melt for a second before adding, "

I was planning on being gone all week, but if you think there is enough things to do all week there, it's fine with me."

The twins went into such an intense telepathic exchange I was sure their headgear straps would begin to smoke. Carl shivered slightly, then risk a quick glance toward my waist before consulting his shoes again. "Well, there's more stuff to do at Disneyworld, sir. We could go to, , ," he looked at Jeff's then Jerry's shoes then added, "They got Sea World, and, , , the movie thing, , , and, , , Epic Center."

"Epcot!" Jeff barked under his breath.

"Yeah, that place!" Carl exclaimed.

"Okay, I think Orlando would be a good choice," I answered.

"But Dad, there's a NASA there and, , ," Jerry began in a high pitched voice, but stopped in mid phrase.

"Ok?" Jeff cried. "You mean we really can?" Carl and he started toward my chair flashing blinding bright silver grins, then froze, and stepped back next to Jerry and Timmy. "Oh, well, we can't do a flight plan" Jeff groaned. I waited as all of them exchanged nervous glances and Timmy's face paled. "Well, ah, our plane only has five seats Dad, and if Mike gets to go, well, that's six of us. If you go sir."

What now, they want to take off in MY aircraft for a week without me? I asked myself. It wasn't until Timmy's face turned from ashen to red I realized what was going on. "Something I hadn't thought of," I admitted. "I guess someone could ride in the cargo hatch! I guess whoever is smallest will."

Timmy and Carl's expressions were priceless as they stiffened into perfectly upright postures and surveyed each other, each trying to look taller than the other.

"Timothy!" Judy screeched. "Mister Miller did not invite you, how dare you!" I felt sorry for the youngster as he blushed every color in the rainbow and his knees quivered.

"Well, but, , , but Dad told all of us to go get ready and stuff!" Jeff countered.

"Ma'am," Jerry injected, nervously jetting his eyes between Judy and my chests clearly dodging our eyes.

"Why don't you guys go inside for a minute, get on the internet and see where all we can go in Orlando," I told the boys. "And figure out who is smallest, who will fit into the cargo hatch. Go!" Timmy was back inside so quickly I didn't see his legs move, with the other boys right behind.

"I apologize Christian, he knows better than that," Judy said as she glared at the door.

"He damn sure will when I'm done with him." Tim added.

"No, they are right, I did include him when I set them to work," I answered. "Besides, he would love it, I'd like to take him with us, and he behaved perfectly when he went to Colorado with us."

Tim and Judy exchanged looks a couple of times, glancing at me in between. Dad distracted everyone when he injected, "You might consider it, a week kid-free isn't something I'd turn down!" His face told us he was sincere.

"But, how would you get him there? Were the boys right about your plane?" Tim asked.

"That's not a problem!" I exclaimed. "We'll ship him UPS, if we use overnight air he'll be fine!" I enjoyed Judy's completely shocked face for several seconds before adding, "I can rent a bigger aircraft, actually I think I know where I can borrow one. Can he go with us? You know he'd love it."

After a quick phone call I called the boys back outside. I thought for a minute I would have to pry Timmy away from the door where he poised himself clearly for a quick escape, but he finally shuffled next to my boys and stared at the decking.

Carl and Timmy's jaws dropped against their chests so hard I thought they would bruise when I began, asking, "Okay guys, Timmy can go, but we have to decide who's the smallest, who's gonna ride in the cargo bay."

To Be Continued…