Castle Roland

Shifting Sands

by Jack Scribe, of Honored Memory


Chapter 17

Posted: N/A

One cold slice of Giovanni's Supreme sat deserted and unwanted in the delivery box. 'The Gamble Boys', as Spike had jokingly tagged Jack and Cray, and the 'son-in-law' sat around the dining room table finishing their beers and Diet Coke. Jack was impressed that his son honored the one-beer rule because he was driving. They had left Jack's truck at the house and Cray drove them to the condo.

On the way over, Jack had recalled a rock song by Thin Lizzy he used to love as a kid, way back in the 70's. The Boys Are Back In Town was one of those goofy songs he'd mimic in front of his bedroom mirror while dancing around in his Hanes briefs.

Guess who just got back today?
Them wild-eyed boys that had been away
haven't changed, haven't much to say
but man, I still think them cats are crazy.

The boys are back in town
the boys are back in town…

Good memories that now seemed relevant.

There was no doubt in his mind that Spike and Cray were deeply in love with each other. One would finish the other's thought in their conversation and it appeared to Jack they were clued in to sharing the responsibilities of playing hosts. In a few instances, Jack observed Cray deferring to Spike; it seemed that Spike balanced the role of partner with the occasional seasoning of a more mature outlook. Jack marveled at the way Cray had successfully navigated through the earlier stormy waters against such daunting odds. 'The duckling has definitely turned into a swan.'

The past hour had been spent with both men sharing the significant parts of their recent lives. Again, Mario Cirillo's name came up. Not only had he provided Cray with a safe haven until Drew and Bob entered the picture, but Spike had worked for the man during his undergraduate years. 'Whatever the job, it has allowed this guy to live a good life,' Jack thought while glancing around the well-appointed condo. 'And what his former partner gave him when they split up is way beyond generous.' He supposed he'd hear more about Lou on another occasion: the Gallian name was vaguely familiar to Jack for some reason he couldn't pinpoint. But Spike was emphatic that his 'ex' was very much out of the picture and back in New York.

'Enough of thinking like a nosy, curious father. I'm just happy to be back in the picture.' Jack felt his son was in good hands and would trust Spike until there was a cause for concern. 'I just hope Cray feels the same way when he meets Phil.'

"I remember Cray mentioning that you have a younger brother who'll also be starting college at UNLV this fall," Jack said.

"Henry. But my little brother is now taller than me by a couple inches and I can't pick on him anymore. He and Cray are the same age…in fact they know each other." Spike winked at Cray and added, "So it's a plus that we're all good friends. He'll be moving from L.A. in a couple of weeks and will take the second bedroom."

"He's a cool guy and was really happy when Spike and I got together," Cray added with a smile. "I'm sure, once Henry gets a handle on his classes and study schedule, he'll be checking out boyfriend material." He reached over to Spike and grabbed his hand. "But this Jensen's all mine."

"If Henry's anything like you, Spike, he'll knock 'em dead," Jack replied. 'With Henry moving into the condo,' he thought, 'it makes perfect sense for Cray to stay at home for a while.'

"I've got a deal with the 'rents and Henry. In exchange for a free place to live, my bro is shooting for a three point GPA. If that happens, I'll conveniently get lost on a weekend night when he wants to entertain." Spike shrugged, grinned at Cray and added, "I've played Cupid before."

Cray's face got red as he rolled his eyes.

"But my bro is on his own this time. Running the new club at the hotel is gonna be a ball buster and it'll keep me away a lot…so Henry will have this place by himself for studying and…whatever."

"Plus, Bob and Drew have no problem if Spike stays over at the house. Having two gay foster dads, not that much older than me, has had its merits. And now that you're part of my life again, it doesn't get much better." Cray smiled as a few tears trickled out of his ducts. He wiped his eyes and said, "Sorry, guys."

"Don't get me started," Jack replied. His lips quivered for a moment. "Listen, I've got to get Phil involved with this reunion. Spike, I hope you won't feel slighted if I only invite Cray over for the first meeting with my guy. Would that be a problem?"

"Naw, I'm fine with that." It was Spike's turn to take Cray's hand. "That okay with you?"

"Probably the best idea. I wanna get to know who stole my dad's heart and Phil's probably curious about me." Cray paused for a few seconds. "There's still a lot to talk over."

"I was thinking about having you over for dinner on Wednesday," Jack suggested. "Phil's still on vacation and he's an excellent cook."

"Great," Cray said. "That way we can make it early. I've got the morning shift the next day."

"Here's another idea to consider." Spike got up from the table and picked up the pizza box. "We're looking after a friend's 14-year-old brother this weekend. Our friend Spence will be out of town and we promised to be available just in case and entertain the kid. They only moved to Vegas a couple of months ago and young Kevin doesn't know that many people. Why don't we plan some sort of pool party and burger cookout at your house, Cray, on Sunday afternoon? The kid could invite a few of his friends, Bob and Drew will be around, and you can bring Phil?"

"That would be fun," Cray said. "Burgers, dogs…and all the fixin's…we're not talking about major bucks."

"And I'll volunteer Phil's chef talents, with me as his trusty kitchen assistant," Jack replied. "We could bring slaw and a potato salad." A casual party was the best opportunity Jack could imagine to get involved in a family event, and he loved it. "Maybe the dessert, too."

"Sweet." Cray joined Spike in the clean up by bussing the table. "I'm sure that Drew and Bob won't mind handling the beverages…beer and soft drinks. When I see them tonight, I'll lay it out for them. One suggestion; we probably shouldn't call the party before six. That'll give the sun a chance to go down…even though it'll still be kinda hot."

"I'll call Henry and invite him to drive over for the party," Spike said. "This way he can bring a carload of his clothes and the final move in a couple of weeks won't be such a pain."

"I think we've got ourselves a party." Cray carried the bottles and plates to the kitchen and added, "You'll like Henry. He's the handsome version of the Jensen clan."

Spike looked at Jack. "Excuse my French, Mr. Gamble." He turned to the kitchen window and loudly said with a chuckle, "Fuck you, sonny."

A shade of red crept over Cray's grinning face and Jack was sure that additional bawdy expletives would have been volleyed if he weren't present. Even if they'd never been apart, there were certain things that even a father and son didn't joke about in front of each other.

The excitement had worn out the Gamble boys. While Spike cleaned up, designated driver Cray drove back home with his dad. After Jack left, Cray sat in his parked car for a good ten minutes and relived the evening. It was just a little after 9:00 p.m. and he wanted to compose himself before joining Drew and Bob - he didn't want to come off as a babbling 'nervous Nellie.' The reunion had taken its toll, in a good sense, by drastically changing Cray's emotional fa├žade he'd so carefully erected and modified over the past several years to deal with his late childhood drama.

His mother had never taken the time to notice the way Cray had slowly changed when Jack had bolted, and Gene, the step-dad, was only interested in the boy's physical development. Cray reacted to the odd home environment by shoving his personal life into dark corners of his mind.

To survive, he'd relied on his quest to learn and cautiously grow in the outside world - scholarship without being obvious, friendship without being clingy, and athleticism without being 'jockstrap' - at arms length. People in the outside world judged him to be a smart, mature young man and that was fine with Cray. He also knew that having done okay in the looks department helped in his dealings with strangers and friends.

That fateful evening, when Gene drunkenly made a move to ratchet up the intensity of his sexual aggressiveness, and Cray rebelliously ran away after defending himself, created a minuscule fissure in the teen's armor. And the series of new people in his life - Mario's 'family', his foster dads, high school mates, first-boyfriend Michael, and Spike times two - further eroded his defenses. Drew and Bob slowly re-built a trusting home life that included unqualified love, intellectual challenge, security and daily interaction with positive male role models.

'What a trip,' Cray thought as he got out of his car, 'these last two years have been. And now…Jack is back.' He paused for a moment and mulled over that he was more comfortable thinking of his dad as Jack. In fact, he recalled calling his dad by name during the return drive home. 'Maybe it's because this is the way I think of Drew and Bob. Must be the case.'

"I'm home." Cray closed the front door and noticed a light coming from Drew and Bob's bedroom.

"We're up…come on in," Bob replied in a loud voice.

He removed his sneakers and socks and left them at the entry. From the open bedroom doorway, he noticed Drew at the desk in front of his MacBook and Bob sprawled on the bed with an open novel turned face down. Both were clad in the preferred 'uniform of the day' when in the privacy of their home - underwear: boxers for Drew and black briefs for Bob. Once Cray had felt comfortable and trusting around his foster dads, two years earlier, he usually wore the same thing.

"I guess I'm not interrupting anything?"

"Trust me," Drew replied as he closed the laptop lid, "the door would be closed if you were." He swiveled around in his chair and smiled. "We were anxiously waiting for a full report."

Bob patted the bed and said, "Sit down with me."

Cray walked over to Drew. They tapped knuckles and Cray then settled onto the bed, crossing his legs. With Bob, he reached over for a hug. He took a deep breath and said, "It was huge…ya know. And I guess it's no surprise to you guys that I freaked last night for nothing." It was uncustomary for him to struggle for the best way to adequately express his feelings. "I hope that doesn't sound too goofy."

"Not at all," Drew replied. "We were pretty impressed with your dad and hoped the meeting would be positive."

"I mean, it was odd to see this guy who I only remembered from when he was …about the same age as you guys are, now. And to top it off, once he got inside and we mellowed out a little, I noticed that we were wearing the same kind and color of polo…and khakis."

"Falls under 'great minds', et cetera." Bob put his hand on Cray's knee and patted it.

"I don't know about 'great', but it was pretty neat." Cray leaned back on the upholstered headboard, threaded his fingers and rested them on his stomach. "When I think about the wicked witch of Provo and what she did…to Jack and me…it just makes my friggin' blood boil. I also feel like calling someone in the police department."

"Cray, if you ever want to press charges, Utah gives you four years after you've hit 18 to report molestation," Drew replied. "If you decide that…Bob and I would support you in the action."

"But our advice is to get all your ducks lined up first." Bob looked at Drew for a moment and added, "This is a discussion we wanted to have with you sometime later this year. It's just that everything in all of our lives has gotten kinda topsy-turvy."

"I understand." Cray frowned for a moment as he considered what had gone down over the past couple of months.

"There's plenty of time to hash everything out." Drew looked at Bob. "But I know for a fact that Edith and Gene have been living in fear that someone might visit them again…if you get my drift."

"So, maybe they've been punished enough? I get it." Cray frowned, nodded to himself, and continued, "Okay, back to what happened." He flipped on a smile and proceeded with the reunion, starting with meeting Jack at the front door. With measured words and a positive tone, he described the event and his emotions. When the verbal scene moved to Spike's condo, Cray became more animated and related the more humorous aspects of their pizza dinner.

When Cray ended the tale with Jack driving off in his truck, Drew said, "The Gamble boys…I like it."

"Yeah, Spike nailed it," Cray said with a snicker. "But I also discovered something else tonight. I've now got my real dad back and I'm outta my gourd with happiness…even if I am an adult. But I still look to you two as my dads, the guys who helped get me through the past two years. I wouldn't have survived by myself."

"I'm sure if we hadn't come into the picture, you would…"

"Oh, come on, Drew," Cray said with an intense inflection, "I'm the luckiest dude on the planet."

"Okay, I admit the stars were lined up." Drew got up and sat on the corner of the bed.

"What I'm saying is that it's too early to figure out exactly where Jack fits in the picture…only that he fits…big time. You understand?"

"You know we do." Bob nodded at Drew and added, "This is your home as long as you want it. Period. Even if you decide to move in with Spike, your room will always be available if you need it."

"Unless we find another waif who's adrift," Drew said with a laugh. "Seriously, your support group has just grown…with Jack being the major player. We're all relatively young so, unless told otherwise, you're stuck with all of us."

"Hardly stuck." Cray took the hands of both men and squeezed hard.

Drew squeezed back. "Let's talk practicalities. Your college fund should handle expenses not covered by the scholarship and you've got a job at the hotel for as long as you want it. Plus, that Ford clunker of yours should hold up for the next couple of years. I think it boils down to you finding the comfort zone where all of us - including Jack's other half - fit in."

"Point is, we all agree that you're right to take baby steps," Bob said. "Jack probably feels awkward…no matter how well tonight went. Although his disappearance was probably the only thing that made sense at the time, he's going to carry around that guilt for a quite a while."

"The other thing is…even though he's my dad; it seems more natural to call him Jack. Like I usually refer to you two by your name. What's that all about?"

"Look at it this way. When we first met, it was very natural to call me Drew. Same thing with Bob. Could be that the adult Cray wants all the adult father figures to be on equal footing? Ergo, it's more natural to call us all by name. I suggest you discuss this with Jack…so he knows how you feel."

Bob raised his eyebrows and mugged a 'how-about-that' look.

"I guess…yeah, you're right. I'll run this by him on Wednesday. We're getting together over at Jack and Phil's place so I can meet the missus." Cray wiggled his eyebrows and said, "Ha, ha…just kidding. I'm sure since my dad went gaga over the guy, Phil must be a winner."

Drew smiled and shook his head.

"Sounds like we're going to have a monster Thanksgiving dinner to plan this year." Bob chuckled and winked. "At some point, we'd like to meet Phil…if that's okay."

"Absolutely…and I've gotta plan" Cray discussed the Sunday pool party idea and asked if they had any concerns or problems with the plan.

"Of course, it's alright," Drew replied. "But keep track of the receipts and we'll take care of the expenses. It can't be that much money, but you guys need to watch your budget. There are plenty of supplies - disposable plates, cups, and napkins - under the grill counter that you don't need to buy. How many people are you thinking of inviting?"

"Kevin's got a few friends from summer school." Cray counted three fingers down on his palm. He continued the process by naming the obvious, "Spike, his brother, Henry - he'll probably be in town for the weekend - Jack, Phil and you guys. Then I thought my best buds from school - Tim and Benny - plus their girlfriends would give us a little gal power. Maybe Ms. Grace and her friend?"

"That'd work," Bob said. "But I suggest you keep the headcount to under 20."

"Oh, crap." Cray snapped his fingers and said, "Mario and Mr. Ed have gotta be here…big time."

Drew nodded and asked, "How about Michael Turner? He was a big part of your life."

"I don't know; there's been a lot of drama between us. Blowing me off and what he pulled at the graduation party is still pretty fresh in my mind." Cray scrunched his face for a moment. 'I'm probably being a shit about things. With Spike in my life, maybe it's time to get over it.'

"It's your call," Drew said. "Think about inviting Michael and his dad. If Michael accepts, I'm sure he wouldn't want to drag his new boyfriend over here. Plus, I know Bud would like to meet Jack, and we work with the guy."

"And we like Bud as a friend," Bob added. "But…no pressure…"

"Ouch, my arm." Cray smiled and made a face. "Actually, Michael and I have talked a couple of times. He called to congratulate me about being…you know, with Spike. He said he's doing okay with that Randy guy." He grinned widely and added, "That's Randy the boyfriend, not randy…"

"Got it," Drew sputtered through his laugh. "Sounds like the party is growing…and that's fine."

"Awesome. I'm going to call Michael right now…and, you know, if he wants to bring Randy, what the eff." Cray decided it was peace pipe time. 'Plus he should be one of the first to know about Jack.' He untangled his legs, got off the bed and looked at his two very special friends. "Thanks, again…I really mean it…thanks for everything."

"Back atchu, Cray," Bob said. "We both are proud of what you've accomplished. And now with Jack re-entering the picture, your support team has just gotten bigger."

It became one of those quick touchy-feely moments that Cray enjoyed in the privacy of their home. He leaned over and quickly traded kisses with both men - nothing clingy or emotionally over-wrought - and gave them a thumbs-up sign when he broke away. "Team. I like that."

"Later." Bob watched Cray leave the bedroom and close the door, and then motioned with his head for Drew to sit closer to him. He put his book on the nightstand, fluffed the pillows and leaned back. "Jeez, talk about a Kodak moment. Our boy, and I say that in the broadest sense, took a big step tonight into that big adult world out there. I thought it was very telling about 'things to come'…Cray handled Jack's reappearance in a pretty mature manner. Not that I'm surprised."

"And the way he was able to put Michael and that whole episode into a drawer someplace."

"Speaking of drawers." Bob lifted up his butt and took off his briefs. "Not that I'm blatantly suggesting anything…daddy." He kicked them to the floor and thought, 'Or maybe it's my turn to…'

"Top? Man, you're such a studly multitasker," Drew replied as he pulled down his boxers. He lay back, sank into the pillows and put his hand on Bob's thigh. "Back to matters at hand…and I don't mean mine wrapped around your dick. You think there's anything more we need to do for Cray?"

"Other than a safety net?" Bob took the lead for what he had in mind, reached over and cupped Drew's balls. "Jack's a solid citizen and has his son's best interests at heart. Cray's mentally juggling all of us to fit the pieces into an expanded family unit and I think it's super the way he's figured everything out. We're at a point where we'll do what we do best…listen and advise."

"And he'll get a clearer picture of this next phase when he meets Phil. You know Jack will be seeking approval, and vice versa." Drew reached down beyond Bob's groping fingers and added, "I'm also getting a clearer picture of what our next phase is…like right now."

"Next phase with modifications. I'm going to crank up the shower so we can take care of a little grooming. Your balls feel a little bristle-ish."

"I've got a five o'clock shadow down there?" Drew asked.

"More like a big o'dick shadow…dear. And I could probably use some shaving, too. A little clean-up is just what we need." Bob was developing a game plan in his mind, and oral stimulation everywhere was part of the program.

"Get crackin', mister," Drew gutterly growled. "The train is leaving the station and you'd better hustle if you wanna catch the caboose."

"Ohhh, I like your thinking." Bob released his grip, got out of bed and started toward the bathroom. 'I'm definitely going to catch his caboose tonight.'

Cray assumed it was a toss-up as to which person was more nervous - Phil Perez or him. And Jack resembled an expectant father, anxiously standing in the background when Phil answered the door on Wednesday evening. Cray assumed that Jack's partner would be some variation of a middle-aged man with thinning, graying hair - like some of his former teachers. What he hadn't expected was to be greeted by a compact, complete stud.

Phil's short black hair framed sparkling brown eyes, dark lashes and a warm smile. The tailored designer tee showed off a taut, chiseled torso, and the white tennis shorts bunched just right in the front. Cray couldn't help but imagine this guy and his dad together doing the dirty. 'But best to clean up my imagination,' he thought, smiling back, 'or I'll throw some wood.'

The initial greeting was limited to friendly handshakes and an exchange of 'hi's' with each other's name. Phil's firm grip was just enough to separate correctness from intimidation. Even though the man's height only brought Phil's head up to the tip of Cray's nose, there was everything to suggest that Phil could be scrappy if the situation was warranted. Cray stepped through the doorway and the open arms of Jack prompted Cray to do the obvious. He naturally glided into a warm embrace with his dad, accepted a friendly peck on the cheek and responded in kind…but on the lips. The Gamble men faced each other eye to eye.

"Wow, Mr. Perez, I can't believe your house is only five minutes away from mine." Cray turned and naturally put his hand on the small of Jack's back. He had noticed they were again both wearing a variation of the same clothing: cargo shorts and loose-fitting tees. When they'd spoken on the phone the previous day, it was decided that everyone would be casual and dress appropriately for the hot weather.

"Being that close is really something. Who'd have thought?" Phil motioned everyone to move outside. "I've got a misting system on the overhang that'll keep things cooler. I'm told you're allowed one beer?"

"Them's the rules…and I'll have whatever you guys are drinking…if it's beer."

"Bud's the house brand," Jack replied.

As Jack and Cray walked forward, Phil slid open the door leading to the patio. "By the way, Cray, school's out and so are last names - Phil will do just fine."

"Works for me." Cray watched Phil walk to the kitchen and turned to his dad. "Speaking of names, would you mind if I called you Jack? It just seems like, as adults, the natural thing to do." He had decided to get this out of the way at the earliest opportunity. "You're my dad and I love ya…but I'd feel more comfortable addressing you that way."

"As long as the love's there, Jack is fine with me. As a matter of fact, I used to call my folks by their first names around the house when I was growing up. Later, I chalked it off as being a 60's thing…so, I'm fine with recycling a family tradition." He shook his head and added, "It's a shame they passed away when you were a very little kid. You would have loved them."

"I only remember her parents," Cray replied. "And that's all I'm goin' to say…let alone honoring her by saying her first name." He took Jack's hand and held it for a moment. "Sorry, 'bout that." He raised his eyebrows, brought his thumb and forefinger to his lips, and did a 'zip' motion.

"Got it. End of subject."

Just then, Phil returned with three bottles of Budweiser. Each took a bottle and they went out to the patio. Cray was impressed that the mist seemed to keep the area at least 15 degrees cooler. 'But it must be a bitch when one of those Vegas winds comes roaring through.'

They sat down and Phil proceeded to proudly tell Cray about his Spanish heritage, mixed with a little Mexican and Apache blood, and growing up in New Mexico. "From my earliest memories, our family always identified with the Spanish lineage. Even today, around most of the state and especially Santa Fe, you're either considered Spanish, Native American or gringo. Gringo meaning all white and non-white people. Confusing, huh?"

"Yeah. African Americans and Asians all lumped in together with white dudes?" Cray asked with a raised eyebrow. "Kind of a reverse discrimination, isn't it?"

"In a very broad sense, that's it…in a state of mind. The Indians in the Pueblos only tolerate the rest of us. But the Caucasians and old line Spanish run the state." Phil took a sip of beer and continued, "The sad thing is that the school dropout rate is atrocious. After I graduated from UNM, I taught for a year in Albuquerque. But knowing about two-thirds your class was just spinning wheels before dropping out became too demoralizing. I moved over here 15 years ago and never looked back."

"While you two talk, I'm going to start the steaks and corn on the grill," Jack said, standing up. "The coals should be just right. Medium rare okay for you, Cray?"

"Right on the spot, again." After Jack left the table, Cray looked at Phil and into his piercing eyes. "It's funny - strange funny, not ha-ha funny - that Jack and I are tuned in to each other after all these years. I guess I shouldn't be surprised…it's just something else to get used to." Whatever nervousness he'd originally felt had dissipated. 'Ole Phil's a stud and smart.' He noticed that Phil seemed to be at ease, too. "By the way, I noticed the way you and my dad interact with each other. That's neat."

"Thanks, Cray. And I don't have to tell you how thrilled Jack is about all that's happened. And meeting the younger version of the guy I love and noting the similarities…astound me. I hope you don't mind me pointing out the obvious?"

Cray smiled and nodded. "My dad seems to have dominated the gene pool and I'm proud to bear the results."

"I should let you know that Jack has shared with me some of the crap you went through after he was forced to leave Provo. You don't need to say anything more about it."

"Yeah, well that's behind me. The cool thing is that I got to Vegas and met so many incredible people." Cray took a long pull from his bottle and sat back. While Jack went about preparing the dinner, Cray related the early experiences - not straying from the PG version he'd told Jack two days earlier - and focused on his foster home life and the final two years of high school.

"As you're aware, I'm a good friend with your former school advisor. Mary Grace speaks very highly of you."

"She's one of my favorites, and to think we're sitting here because of her eagle eye recognizing Jack."

"Amazing…but it was meant to be," Phil replied. "And I know you were 'out' at Green Valley."

"Almost from the beginning. I flipped over a classmate and it seemed easier for us to be honest rather than trying to hide something that was so obvious. I fell in with a great group of guys at school and the rest, as they say, is history. It's not like Michael and I would paw each other…we just kept everything very cool. I suppose it didn't hurt that we studied the martial arts and were pretty handy defending ourselves. Those who didn't like us thought twice before screwing around." Cray decided not to explain the whole episode with his stolen bike and the Strollo connection. 'Some things are best left unsaid.' He looked over at Jack for a moment and watched him put on the steaks. "Drew and Bob never hid their relationship and people seemed to respect that."

"I occasionally read something in the Review-Journal concerning Drew Reichardt and business over on the Strip. He's a busy man."

"Especially with this recession," Cray replied. "But the hotel's keeping sorta busy and I have a part-time job over there as a server. I plan to continue working on weekends when I start UNLV in a couple of weeks, so I'll have some 'jing' to spend. My boyfriend, Spike, also works at the Barcelona, but his salary got downsized with everything going on. We pretty much keep the expenses down to a minimum."

"And I'll be meeting him at the pool party you've invited us to?"

"Yep," Cray replied with a sly grin. "A son-in-law for you to get to know." After clearing the party idea with Drew and Bob a few days earlier, he'd immediately called Jack.

"I hope I'm up to the challenge."

"What'd that movie review guy used to say on TV - a 'two-thumbs up'?" Cray flipped up his thumbs and nodded for emphasis. "I know I speak for Spike when I say that we both look forward to getting to know you better."

Phil had been studying the lanky lad before him and admired what he saw. Not the physical attractiveness - like the father, that was a given… in spades. He was picking up the depth of this younger Gamble's inner strength. 'No doubt Jack's fathering in the first 10 years of Cray's life helped this guy handle all the shit that followed.' But Phil was also aware that beneath the mental protective shield - the engaging one-on-one friendliness, positive attitude, confident maturity, and intellectual curiosity - still lurked a kid who was leery of strangers until he was convinced that no harm to him was forthcoming. 'And once Cray trusts someone, they become a part of that shield. Another similarity between father and son.'

During their brief time together, Phil knew he was also being judged. Each particle of dialogue was analyzed, computed and filed for future reference. Once Cray had offered the indirect compliment and approval concerning Phil and Jack's love for each other, it was obvious that Phil would be joining the group of people who provided Cray the security he craved. 'Those thumbs up are the clincher.'

"You stay and relax," Phil said, standing up. "I'm going to help Jack get dinner pulled together."

"Something I do very well. I've got a server shift coming up in less than 12 hours."

Phil stopped by the grill and watched the steaks cooking for the final couple of minutes. "Yum, looks good." He patted Jack's butt and said, "That's a cool kid over there and it appears I've passed inspection…at least for the moment."

"I had no doubt, Hon. Like what happened to me a few nights ago. Once Cray makes up his mind, it's easy sledding." Jack winked as he tested the steaks with his tongs. "That's something I remember from when he was going through the 'terrible twos'. He's just refined the process."

"Whatever the case, I know we'll all be good friends." Phil stepped back and added, "The pool party this Sunday sounds like the next step in getting the Good Housekeeping seal of approval."

"Good Housekeeping? Man, that does date you, old timer."

"Fuck you, Gamble," Phil replied in a low voice. "I'm getting the salads."

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