***Chapter Twenty-Eight***
Word Count: 2,769

June 2005

"Daddy," Marci said.

"Just a second, sweetheart," he said.

"Daddy," she said again.

"I said just a second," he said, working on fastening Christopher's tie for him. Claire wouldn't hear of buying him one of those fake ties. No, it had to be a real tie, as if he'd have reason to wear it again before Justin's graduation in four years.

"But Daddy, I can't find my ribbon," she said.

"Well, we'll find it. Where did you see it last?" He glanced at Marci then. She was all set to go except her hair, which she always wore pulled back or up in some fashion. It was down so evidently she'd had her heart set on a particular ribbon. It probably matched her dress or something that John just didn't comprehend. That was Claire's department.

"On my floor."

"Was Ralph in there?" he asked.

"Uh huh," she said.

Wherever Marci went, Ralph went. The dog was eight so no longer a puppy but he sure was active around Marci. They'd settled for a puppy instead of a baby right after they'd gotten married, waiting a year. The dog wasn't nearly as attached to Christopher as he was to Marci for some reason. It was kind of comical and more than a little cute. John suspected that the ribbon in question was now in Ralph's belly.

Great.

Marci had been a surprise. Well, the baby hadn't been a surprise because after Christopher Claire had agreed to try once more for a girl. She swore after that one that one of them was going to get it so they couldn't have anymore. (He had not liking the idea of anything being done to her no matter that doctors did the procedure every day.)

They'd been told at the ultrasound that she was going to be a boy. No big deal since they didn't have to go out and buy new stuff. She didn't have a shower or anything either so it wasn't like they'd been bombarded with tons of new boy stuff.

She hadn't been a boy, though. Ultrasounds were only as good as the technician, and as willing as the baby was to reveal the boy or girl parts evidently. She'd been shy and Claire's obstetrician could only assume the tech had mistaken the umbilical cord for the boy parts.

To top it off, Marci looked just like her mother. John was glad it worked out that way because none of the boys had her hair. John loved her hair, but had to admit it probably worked better for girls to have it than boys. Then he'd never really paid attention before, but red headed boys did seem to get picked on he noticed as he'd gone to things over the years.

"Well, we'll have to get another one then."

"But I want that one. It matches my dress." Just as John thought. She was learning her mother's habits of color coordinating everything. She was going to be a force to be reckoned with when she got to school this coming fall.

"I understand that, sweetheart, but you shouldn't leave things on the floor for Ralph to find. He's not a puppy anymore, but he'll still eat something if it's laying on the floor." John had lost more than one sock over the years to Ralph.

"I'm sorry, Daddy."

"It's all right. Go ask your mother. I'm sure she has something she can use in your hair."

"But…"

"Either you want something in your hair or you don't. I don't have anything in here in Chris' room to help you. So, if you do, go see your mother."

"Okay," she said. She did this thing with her lower lip that was John's undoing every time she did it. He knew she was about to cry.

"Hey, sweetheart, it's okay."

"You're mad at me."

John noticed Christopher roll his eyes, obviously seeing where Marci was going with this, too. And John gave her the answer she wanted every time, too. He could never stay mad at her, her brothers knew this, too. More times than he could count Marci had taken the blame for something happening around the house he knew she hadn't caused or done. Her brothers knew though, John would let it slide.

"No, I'm not. You just have to be careful of your stuff. You know? Ralph is just a dog, he doesn't know any better. Hair ribbons don't belong on the floor."

"I only put it there for a second."

Something told John it was longer than that if Ralph gained enough interest in it to eat it. Like she was twisting it around her fingers or something, waiting for her mom to come help her. She probably got bored waiting and set it on the floor, but by then Ralph's interest would have been piqued on the brightly colored thing his friend had been playing with.

"It's okay. Go see your mom. She'll fix you up I promise."

She ran off, black patent leather shoes echoing on the hardwood floors as she went in search of her mother. John shook his head slightly.

"Sorry, Chris."

"It's okay," he said. He was used to it it seemed. For whatever reason, Marci always seemed to know how to gain the upper hand and get the attention of whichever parent she was talking to over her older brothers.

Hard to believe there'd be one fewer in the house in a few months. Bill was off to UCLA. He'd be closer to his grandparents there, but oddly Bill didn't seem to see that as a huge selling point over other colleges he'd looked at. He liked their football and baseball teams and chose it and the scholarship they offered him over a few other schools. Claire wasn't ready to let him go, but he knew she'd do fine when the time came. She'd have the ability to stay with Dan's parents anytime she wanted to go out and visit him, too. Not that she couldn't afford a hotel room for a weekend trip or whatever, but she still had a nice relationship with Dan's parents and could take the kids with her when she visited so they got to see their grandparents, too. His parents had also offered their house to Chris and Marci, which was more than nice of them since they weren't theirs. John could go, too, if he wanted to, but he'd avoided doing that to this point. Now, he imagined he'd have a reason to since he'd want to see Bill, too.

Justin took after his big brother and was all sports all of the time. Baseball, swimming, and soccer were his sports. John wasn't sure what type of scholarships those sports would garner him, but John and Claire had money set aside for them so that wasn't a problem. As far as John knew Claire hadn't ever touched the money she'd gotten from Dan or her dad. She'd gone from living with her mother to living here so she hadn't needed to.

They certainly hadn't lacked for anything. John's dad would probably tell him that his kids were incredibly spoiled. John would take that criticism and deal with it. He would be right, he supposed. They weren't the type of parents that gave them everything they wanted or asked for, but the things they had were nice. If there was a sport or activity someone wanted to do it got done. John and Claire both agreed that busy kids stayed out of trouble and to this point that adage was holding true. Not a juvenile delinquent in the bunch.

They did nice things, though, over the years. They'd taken vacations, gone places, John never in a million years would have thought he'd go. He'd deny it if anyone asked, but his favorite had been Florence. He wasn't an art connoisseur or anything, but holy shit had the city amazed and impressed him. Greece and France had been pretty impressive, too, from that standpoint. He never realized how fascinating architecture was, but as with everything else to do with Claire she opened his eyes to a whole new interest by bringing him places with buildings and creations dating back to before Christ was born.

Frank wasn't an athlete. He was more like his mother, creative. He preferred music and acting in school plays to sports. Piano lessons were his thing, and he was pretty good, too. Recently he'd taken up the trumpet, too. John wasn't too sure how he felt about that yet, but imagined with time he'd get better and it'd be fun to listen to him. He was also in the choir at school. Claire was concerned he'd get teased, but John maintained she couldn't force him to like baseball or something.

Christopher and Marci both seemed interested in a little bit of everything. Chris liked his sports, but he took piano lessons, too.

Where Claire wasn't excited for August and Bill moving halfway across the country, Frank was looking forward to it. He'd finally get his own room since he and Chris shared one once Marci came. John wasn't sure why Chris and Marci couldn't share one, but Claire had insisted it wasn't right. So, Frank would finally have his own space and he wasn't shy about telling Bill he couldn't wait for him to leave.

"All right, let's go find everyone else," John said, confident Chris' tie was knotted correctly and straight.

"Mom and Marci are going to take forever."

"They won't because your mom doesn't want to be late."

"Marci will find a way to make her late. Girls always take longer."

John chuckled softly.

"I can't argue with you there, but trust me this is one time your mom won't want to be late."

"Fine," he said. "Are Bill and Maggie going to get married?"

"What?" John asked.

"Justin told me that Maggie is Bill's girlfriend."

"Oh yeah, she is, but that doesn't mean they're going to get married. At least not anytime soon, I hope."

Maggie, Peg as she was known when she was younger, was one of a couple of people that Bill kept up with from Shermer. She and Tommy were the ones he saw regularly anymore. She'd turned out okay John was pleased to say. They'd gone to one another's proms this year. She was going to another university out in LA, so John guessed that influenced Bill's decision in which scholarship he'd chosen to accept.

"You go on down and see what Frank and Justin are doing," John said to Chris.

"Okay," he said with a slight frown. He did it, though. John leaned against the doorframe that led to their bathroom, watching Claire as she worked on Marci's hair.

"What?" she asked, watching him in the mirror.

"Nothing."

"It is not nothing. I recognize that look."

"What look is that?"

"The look that says you wish we could have another one."

"Oh, I do, but I promised you what we had by the time we were thirty-five would be what we had."

"We should count our blessings that we've had healthy ones."

"I do.

"I guess I should count my blessings that you still look at me like that after five kids."

He chuckled a bit at that. "I hope you always feel blessed about that because I don't plan on looking at you any differently."

"That is good to know," she said.

"See, Marci, I told you Mommy would fix you up."

The culprit responsible for her missing hair ribbon was on the floor in the bathroom at Marci's feet. John snorted a bit at that and the look the dog gave him, as if he knew exactly what he had done and why John wasn't looking forward to cleaning up after him in the yard tomorrow.

"I know." She started to walk away. "Ralphie," she called.

"No," John said. "No playing with the dog."

"Daddy!"

"No, you will not play with him until we get back home and you can change."

"But Daddy." That lower lip was trembling again and John knew he'd give in. He always did, and she seemed to know it, too. He was such a sucker. It was the hair, it had to be because there was no one else but her mother he reacted this way to.

"Help me out here will you?" he asked Claire.

"Daddy's right, honey. You need to stay looking pretty and you always seem to get dirty when you play with Ralph."

The lip wasn't trembling quite as much now. She knew when her mom said no it was final. Daddy was the wishy-washy one.

"Go on downstairs then, okay. We'll be right down."

She ran out of the bathroom. Ralph followed, but she seemed content for now with him following her. Who knew if she'd listen and not play with him when she got downstairs?

"You look nice," he said.

"Thank you. You do, too."

"Feels weird."

"Yeah?"

"It does."

"Bill has really been worried you think it means something he's going to school out in LA."

"Nah, not worried about it. I hope he gets to spend time with Dan's parents. He deserves that, so do they."

He knew Bill was worried. They'd talked about it a couple of times when Bill was going through the application process. He and Bill actually had a pretty outstanding relationship. It was cemented in things like mutual trust and secrets kept. They both knew things about Dan that they never wanted Claire to find out. Bill had revealed over the years he'd been witness to more than one of Dan's indiscretions. He suspected telling John about the kiss he'd seen years ago was a test to see if he'd tell Claire, realizing he hadn't and really could tell John anything he'd told him about other things. It wasn't until Bill got older, like a year ago, that John ever told Bill how he felt about his dad. It was tough on Bill, though, knowing these things and trying to pass on stories and information to Justin and Frank. He'd managed, though. There were a couple of videotapes of Dan in plays he'd been in that Frank watched more than once in a sitting. Curiosity John supposed and understood, seeing the man's face but knowing nothing about him. So, when Bill had chosen UCLA and as a result being close to Dan's parents they'd talked about it. John had no problem with him wanting to spend time with his grandparents. They had every right to see him and Bill deserved to see them as much as he wanted to. The kids got rather short changed when it came to grandparents with Claire's dad being gone and John's parents being out of the picture.

"I'm glad you think so."

"So," he said, taking her into his arms.

"Yes?"

"When we get home later do I get to put that look you say you saw in my eyes to use?"

"Right away? We're going to have people over!" They were having a party. God only knew how many people would show up between Bill's friends and their friends it was hard to say. Tomorrow they were leaving for a trip to Arizona and the Grand Canyon. Maggie was coming with. John wasn't sure what it said about her parents that she was allowed to come with them on a week-long trip.

"Soon."

"I think I can manage soon."

"That's all I ask for."

"Have I ever said no?"

"Put like that."

John leaned in and kissed her. He still couldn't get enough of her. He loved everything about her from the person she was when they first met to who she was now. She'd gone back to school and despite the kids got her degree and had a great job. Between the two of them they did pretty well. She'd encouraged him to go into business with Greg when he wanted to expand his company outside of the Chicago area. His friend had needed some capital and John was in a position to give it to him. He'd more than earned back what he'd put in and he and Greg were still friends to boot. He'd gotten lucky, he knew, but he was really more of a silent partner. He knew nothing about running a business.

"Ugh," Frank said from behind them. "We're never going to get there on time now."

"What?" Bill said. "Oh," he said.

"What is it?" Marci asked.

"Nothing," Bill said. "Mom and Dad are kissing again."

~The End~