'Why on EARTH did I agree to this?' Sterling asked himself as he finished off the bottle of Scotch he had started three days ago, 'These kids are murder!'
"STAY ON THE COUCH!" He yelled when he saw that Eliot and Parker were more or less on the floor in front of the TV. Only their feet were on the couch. They were obviously trying to weasel their way out of his stipulation that they stay on the couch until he said otherwise.
"We ARE Uncle Jim!" Parker yelled back.
"Yeah man, see, our feet are still on it!" Eliot commented.
Of course Alec did not say anything, since he was engrossed in his computer as usual. That kid was way too quiet for Sterling’s peace of mind. Who knew what was happening inside that brain of his? Eliot and Parker were far easier to read, even thought they were smart-alecks. In fact all three of them were smart-alecks, maybe it was something in the water seeing as Sophie had the same tendency sometimes.
'How on earth did I let Nate and Sophie con me into watching their three kids for a week?' Sterling mused as he went in search of another bottle he was sure that Nate had lying around somewhere. It would not really be Nate’s home without a couple of bottles of Scotch being hidden in various places. His friend was, after all, a burgeoning alcoholic, even though he had it under control these days
‘I need to call for back-up’ he thought to himself.
Thursday - One week earlier
“Hello?” Sterling picked up the phone after seven rings; he did not like to answer the phone and figured that anyone who gave up after five rings did not really need to get a hold of him.
“Jim? Nate here, you are on a conference call with Sophie,” came the voice of his best friend.
“Why?” Sterling asked.
“’Cause we need to ask you a favour darling,” replied Nate’s British wife. And what was up with his best friend, a born and bred Bostonian, hooking up with a British chick? Were not good old American girls good enough for him? He liked Sophie, she was classy and he appreciated that, but the thought still bothered him from time to time. He had been sure that Nate and Maggie Collins would end up together by the way they were acting in college.
“That is never a good start to a conversation,” he replied.
“This is Jim you are talking to, honey, he needs the cold hard facts.” His best friend knew him well.
“So what are they?” he asked somewhat testily. If they did not get to the point soon, he would hang up on them. Doing them favors never led to anything good after all.
“Sophie’s godfather died two days ago and we need to go to Lincolnshire for the funeral.”
“Oh no! I am not doing it. Not on your life!” he knew what they were asking of him, even before they voiced the thought and he would not do it, not for all the gold in China and India combined.
“But darling, they cannot miss this week of school. Parker has gymnastics regionals, Eliot has the Karate championships and Alec … well, I am not sure what he has, but it sounded vitally important. We will only be gone for a week and Tara said that you could call her in case of an emergency. She cannot be there as she has some big thing at the office, but she said she’d be back-up.” What was it about British English that made it sound like she was the queen and demanded that everyone do as she asked? And was not Tara clever to state that she had something important at work so she could not possibly help them. After all everyone knew that he did not have the same luxury. Not that he was unemployed; he was just…not employed at the moment.
“I will bring you back a bottle of Glenfiddich; I know you love the stuff.” Nate knew all of his buttons, which was the bad thing about best friends.
“It better be two bottles of the good stuff, no >Famous Grouse or Scottish Leader” Wait, what was he doing?
“Two bottles of Glenfiddich then, I knew we could count on you.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck! He had just agreed to babysit the spawn of hell for a whole week! Not that Sophie and Nate were hellish, Nate had, after all, been his best friend since freshman year of college. It’s just that when those three kids got together, sanity seemed to fly out the window in a Lear jet.
“You have reached Tara Cole’s trusty sidekick. I am sorry Jim, but I cannot come to the phone right now, I am completely swamped at work. Leave me a message and I will get back to you as soon as possible.”
Fuck it. Tara would so be on her own the next time Nate and Sophie needed a babysitter. Sterling was going to be on the other side of the earth when that happened. He was so not going to be tricked again into watching over the demon spawn for any length of time. Not even for one night. And if he was going to be tricked into watching them again, Nate would have to pay him in something else than two bottles of Glenfiddich, something more at least.
“Jim, thank god you are here. Check-in closes in 40 minutes and with the traffic, I am doubtful if we will make it. Sophie! Jim’s here!” Nate yelled into the house. “OK, Eliot’s championships is on Friday, Parker’s regionals are on Saturday, Alec’s thing…I do not know when it is but he will tell you, they have tomorrow off school as it is President’s day, but the rest of the week is normal. Eliot has practice on Tuesday and Thursday right after school and Parker has practice on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Alec has violin lessons on Wednesday and Friday. All the times are on the schedule on the fridge as well as all the numbers in England if something comes up. Sophie! We need to leave now!” With that, Nate almost ran out the door.
Sterling walked into the house, almost ready to meet his fate. Sophie and the kids were in the living room and it appeared she was laying down the rules.
“Eliot, Parker, did you hear what I said?” She asked. The kids nodded. “You are to behave and listen to your uncle Jim. His word is law while we are away. Your father and I will be back on Sunday. Ah, Jim,” she said when she noticed him, “I am sure that Nate told you the rough schedule on his way out the door, but I wrote everything down in detail so you have something more substantial than Nate’s hurried explanations and the schedule on the fridge.” She handed him an envelope. “As I said earlier, Tara is available as a back-up, but she’s incredibly busy at work. The new play premieres Friday week, so they are knee deep in rehearsals, fittings and whatnot. Anyway, I am sure you will be OK. The kids have promised to be on their best behaviour and they know what happens if they do not.”
Suddenly you could hear a loud beeping noise from outside. Nate was obviously getting anxious.
“Alright darlings, give me a hug.”
The kids hugged their mother and there was a chorus of ‘Goodbye mom’ all around. As soon as she was out the door and the car had left the driveway the insanity started.
Sterling finally found the bottle. It was hidden in the laundry room. He settled in Nate’s chair by the window with the bottle and a tumbler. He could keep an eye on the couch and the TV from where he sat and made it his business to give Eliot and Parker the evil eye if they dared to move an inch off the couch.
How could three teenagers be so much trouble? Cause they were, all three of them. Even Alec. He was the one who you had to be extra wary around since he looked so innocent, buried deep in his computer. But still waters run deep and all that. He was the reason Sterling had barely slept since he arrived. Every time Sterling had turned off the light in the guestroom and climbed into bed, it magically turned back on again. Sterling was sure that Alec had somehow hacked into the light controls and also had a video camera set up in the guestroom.
Sterling marveled at the way the Ford family had come together. Ten years ago Nate and Sophie had announced that they were fostering a kid from a troubled home and Eliot, then six years old, had come to stay. Six months after he had moved in, his mother died and Nate and Sophie decided on adopting him. Then, seven months later, Alec’s grandmother, who was Sophie and Nate’s neighbor, had died, leaving the kid with no family. He moved in and adoption proceedings were started straight away. Alec and Eliot got on well as there was only one year difference in their ages.
Nate worked for an insurance agency and Sophie worked for a non-profit charity. They had fostered a number of kids before Eliot was put in their home and were known as a good and stable family with Child Protective Services. So, when the case of a three year old girl came to the notice of CPS only two months after Alec moved in, there was only one family they thought of. The girl had been abandoned at a McDonalds; when the staff were locking up for the night one of them had noticed her sitting quietly in the play area talking to a stuffed animal. When she had been asked what her name was, she could only answer “Pakkeh’”. No one knew if that was her first or last name.
When Sophie heard the story she had begged Nate to adopt the girl, after all they had two boys and she really longed for a little girl. Alec and Eliot immediately bonded with Parker and took their status as big brothers seriously, teaching her everything they knew and protecting her from bullies at the playgrounds.
These terrors were now sixteen, fifteen and thirteen and currently the bane of Sterling’s life. Eliot and Parker had the traditional brother-sister relationship, with screaming and fighting included in between times where they ganged upon their unsuspecting enemy. These days that enemy was Sterling. Eliot and Alec were best friends, even though each of them had sometimes difficulty in understanding the other’s hobbies and interests. Eliot was all about martial arts and working out, while Alec was the ultimate geek who never went anywhere without his gadgets. Alec and Parker had a much softer relationship than she did with her other brother, she could sit for hours listening to Alec rambling on and on about some TV show or movie and frequently participated in his TV marathons.
They were a solid team though, when they stuck together as Sterling had found out for himself these past five days, thankfully though they had been in school for a lot of the time, that and their various practices. If they had not, Sterling was sure that he would be guilty of a heinous crime by now and that Nate and Sophie were really lucky that he had not acted on any of his myriad thoughts of locking the kids up, tying them down or going out to buy tracking devices for the three of them and then removing every gadget from Alec’s vicinity.
Tomorrow was Eliot’s championship thing and Sterling did not have to do anything about it as the school provided transport to and from the place and Eliot would be getting a ride home from the school with one of the kids on his team. Alec had violin practice so he would not go to the championships and Parker was too focused on practicing for her regionals to want to go. That meant he had only two kids hanging around from four to nine and that was excellent. It would even be better if Parker would spend the afternoon at a friend’s place, then it would only be Alec and he was actually a good kid when he was on his own, he spent all his time then playing some game on the computer.
This was hell. It was a national holiday and he had been woken up way too early by a herd of elephants running down the stairs. He had thought that the brats would sleep in since they did not have school, but oh no, kids in this household apparently did not know the meaning of relaxing. Soon after the elephants had made it downstairs, there were noises from the kitchen; doors slamming, cutlery being haphazardly tossed around and crockery was being set down way too forcefully in Sterling’s opinion. After about ten minutes, he had finally decided to check on things. When he had walked into the kitchen, he had been thrilled that Sophie had written that the kids would pick up after themselves; it had looked like a war zone.
It had not gotten better after that. It was like the kids took the “no school” thing seriously and were hell bent on making his life miserable.
After breakfast it seemed like they all had made a collective decision to practice their hobbies at the same time, so he had been relegated to Alec tuning his violin, and making it sound as horrible as possible; Eliot doing Karate moves, and making those god awful sounds that apparently needed to accompany each move; and Parker practicing her gymnastics moves and dance routines all over the place with the music at maximum. Sterling had come up with the excuse that he had to go to the store to escape the noise.
And now he was here, about to step into the fray once more. He had been standing on the porch for some time and he hadn’t heard any noises from inside, so he thought that maybe the kids had settled down and it would be OK to go inside.
When he pushed open the door and stepped into the hallway, he knew why there hadn’t been any noise and he also knew that it was a bad idea to leave the kids alone and unattended.
“KIDS!” he yelled, soaking wet from the bucket of water that had been standing on top of the half opened door. “GET YOUR ASSES DOWN HERE RIGHT AWAY!”
The herd of elephants proceeded to tramp down the stairs, accompanied by giggles.
“Yes Uncle Jim?” Eliot asked since the other two seemed incapable of speech, “you seem to have been caught in a flash shower. Is it raining outside?” The devil child was smirking.
“The one who is responsible for this better get their ass in gear and clean this up or none of you will see the light of day until you go to school tomorrow.” With that, Sterling walked away.
As soon as he was out of sight, the united front broke up.
“I told you he’d be mad!” Parker accused her oldest brother.
“Do you think he would have followed through on that threat?” Alec wondered.
“I am not gonna find out. Parker, get the mop and Alec, put the bucket away.” Eliot had heard enough from his father not to risk Uncle Jim’s temper.
After they had cleaned up, they sat down on the couch and turned on the TV, not that any of them were actually watching the thing.
“OK, so I guess anything where he gets soaked is out of the question.” Eliot was not happy with this, since those kinds of pranks were always funny.
“What could we do then?” Parker asked.
“There a lot of pranks out there, I am sure we will find something.” Alec was positive. They all wished that Aunt Tara was the one taking care of them this week, because Uncle Jim could be real scary. Tara would also have been more lenient towards them and not such a stickler for the rules mom and dad had set them.
After drying off, Sterling tried to call Tara, but her phone was busy. What on earth was he going to do with these kids for the rest of the day, not to mention the rest of the week?
Sterling looked over to the couch and saw that Parker had fallen asleep; Alec had put his computer away and seemed to be dosing. Only Eliot was awake.
“Come on,” he said as he stood up, “help me get these two to bed.”
Sterling picked Parker up and Eliot dragged his brother to his feet. Together they walked up the stairs and helped the younger kids go to bed.
“Go brush your teeth or whatever it is you do.” Sterling told Eliot.
“Can I stay up for a bit?” Eliot asked uncertainly.
“Sure, just don’t stay up too late. You have school and the championships tomorrow.”
“Thanks Uncle Jim. I am sorry we’ve been so annoying for you this week.” Eliot hugged him and went into his bedroom.
After making sure all the lights were off on the second floor and that Alec and Parker were comfortable, Sterling went back downstairs to the Scotch he left there.
As he sat there, alone in the dark, he thought about the kids and the hug Eliot had given him. Those kids were not really bad. They just acted up like he guessed teenagers were wont to do.
He remembered when Eliot joined the family. Nate and Sophie had talked about having kids and even tried things, but they were not successful. There was a dark period after that where Nate drank too much and Sophie, well, Sophie sort of went off the deep end. Sterling did not really know what happened with her, since he had spent a lot of time with Nate back then, but it involved shopping and baking. Man, was she an excellent baker or what?
Finally the two of them got talking and decided to become foster parents. They fostered kids for couple of weeks at a time, but never more than one kid at once. Some months after they started fostering, this militant little kid had moved in. Sterling liked him from the first time they met. Here was a kid who did not trust people, a kid straight after Sterling’s own heart; people were fickle and you never knew where you had them. The kid was monosyllabic for a couple of weeks but Nate and Sophie did not let that deter them. Nate played soccer with him and Sophie almost mothered him to death. It was exactly what the kid needed; he had been neglected by his mom and who knew if he ever had a father. He drank in the attention like a flower that had not been watered for a long time and slowly he started blooming and opening up like that flower.
Sterling liked visiting the Fords back then. He especially liked Eliot’s quick wit and sarcasm. Though it was sort of depressing that a six year old kid was this good at coming up with sarcastic comments. He even took the kid out sometimes; to the pier, the park or just on a drive. Not a lot was said on these trips, but that was OK with both of them. They did not have the need to fill the silences with words. That was why Sterling sometimes preferred the company of the kid to Nate’s.
When Eliot’s mom died, he went off the rails in what everyone would come to realize as a typical Eliot fashion. He totally stopped talking to anyone. Did not say a word at home or at school and was often found in the big oak tree in the backyard or practicing some kind of fighting styles with a tree branch or a mop. That was when Nate and Sophie signed him up for his first martial arts class; Kendo. The kid had so many feelings to let out. Sterling suspected that most of it was anger towards his mother, something that the kid felt guilty of feeling. The Kendo really helped the kid, and was the beginning of Eliot’s obsession with all things martial arts.
Sterling was very happy that this day was a school day and that both Parker and Eliot had practices today. That meant that it was only Alec who was at home. He had come home after school and gone straight to his room. After a while, Sterling heard him practicing his violin for some time, but there had been complete silence from his room for almost an hour. Either the kid was doing homework, sleeping or doing something “vitally important” on the computer. Sterling had been told, in not so gentle terms, that whenever Alec’s door was closed and no sounds came from the room, that those who bothered him would face his wrath. Not that Sterling particularly believed in Alec’s wrath, but the kid was a computer genius, so you never knew what might happen.
In fact, Sterling had once been the victim of Alec’s computer pranks. He didn’t remember what he had done to the kid, but the result was endless spam posts in his e-mail inbox, various catalogues showing up in his mail, and a steady stream of weird take-outs every Friday for six weeks. He was not planning on being on the receiving end of that again. Even though the kid looked like a pacifist, he could be just as bad as his siblings.
Sterling was glad that the house was this quiet. Yesterday had been horrible. After the kids had had lunch they had proceeded to make as much noise as humanly possible. Parker and Eliot argued about every little thing and when they finally stopped, Alec got Parker to watch a TV marathon with him. Since Eliot had also been in the living room practicing one of his martial arts, one that had a lot of sounds, the other kids insisted that they had to have the TV volume on maximum; otherwise they would not hear what all the aliens were saying.
After Sterling had made Eliot go practice in the basement, where they had a perfectly good exercise room, and turned down the volume of the TV, Alec and Parker had decided that they were done with watching TV and decided upon some convoluted game of chase throughout the house. They even dragged Eliot into it. After Sterling had put a stop to that, it was a game of who could jump from various steps on the stairs. Sterling was sure that Parker had cheated, since gymnastics were her thing. Then it was a computer game on the living room TV. Sterling had no idea what that game was, but it seemed like a space blasting race game with accompanying noises.
They hadn’t quieted down until after he sent them all to their respective bedrooms right after dinner. And now it was just him and Alec in the house, and the kid was upstairs being wonderfully silent. Sterling did not care what he was doing, as long as he did not make a peep.
Sterling was dosing on the couch when the elephants got back home from their practices. He did not open his eyes, just yelled at them to go do their homework and not make a sound until it was time for dinner. Remarkably, they did as he said and soon the quiet settled over the house and Sterling fell asleep after hall, he had not slept a lot last night.
After some time one could hear the kids on the stairs. They did not dare to make a sound, cause Uncle Jim had been hopping mad last night and they knew it had been because of the noise they had made.
“Can you hear him?” Parker asked Eliot who had taken point.
“Yeah, he’s snoring!” Eliot almost cackled.
“Awesome!” Alec exclaimed, “Go get the feather Parker, and you get the cream Eliot!”
“Woo Hoo!” Parker tried to keep her voice down, they surely did not want Uncle Jim to wake up before they had done their part. They had agreed not to do a lot of pranks every day, better to keep him relaxed and unawares of what they had planned. She especially looked forward to what they had in mind for Thursday; it was the only other day that Alec did not have practice and could therefore set everything up. Then she and Eliot would come home, innocent as newborn bunnies and Uncle Jim could not accuse them of anything.
When they reconvened in the living room, Alec grabbed the feather from his sister and Eliot squirted whipped cream into his uncle’s open palm. This was going to be fun.
The kids entertained themselves for a good amount of time, or until Sterling’s face was completely covered in whipped cream. Then they tiptoed out of the living room and went upstairs to laugh freely and wait for the inevitable eruption.
They didn’t have to wait long. It was almost dinner time and Sterling had set his internal clock to wake up at a certain time.
“What the? KIDS!!!” He roared when he saw how they had passed their time. “GET YOUR ASSES DOWN HERE!” He yelled and went into the guest room to get a towel.
The kids walked downstairs in a single file, Parker was already feeling some remorse.
“Yes Uncle Jim?” She asked; insecurity evident in her voice. Surely he was not gonna make them clean this up? They thought of this so they would not have to clean it up.
“You three are in DEEP trouble!” He said as he wiped his face clean of the cream. “You are all going straight to your bedrooms after dinner, no TV tonight!”
None of the kids looked happy with this result, but they did not dare to voice their objections. They would have to think of new pranks that did not involve any type of clean-up.
Sterling thought about Alec. That quiet kid, who was a total menace and, if he used his brain in a productive manner instead of thinking up pranks, would most possibly become a genius in his chosen field. Sterling had no doubt that Alec was the brains behind all the pranks that had been going on since he arrived in the Ford household. The thing was that Alec hadn’t always been such a prankster.
Shortly after Eliot’s mother’s death, he started hanging out with the kid next door. That kid, Alec, lived with his grandmother and was a typical wimpy kid. Sterling hoped that his friendship with Eliot would help him man up a bit, but that did not happen. Instead the boys spent most days in the old oak tree doing god knows what a wannabe nerd and a martial arts fanatic find to do. Sterling always thought that their friendship was a strange one.
Alec was a skinny kid and spent most of his time indoors with a comic book or watching TV when his nana allowed it. Sterling thought that at least his friendship with Eliot brought him out into the fresh air, but Alec still did not seem to like the sunlight that much. He stayed in the shade and did not participate in Eliot’s mock fights. Instead he donned the role of an official cheerleader, and followed Eliot wherever he went.
Sterling suspected that Alec had been bullied at school since Eliot came often home after school with a busted lip or a black eye. Sterling was sure that Eliot had taken on the bullies to protect his friend, even though they were not in the same grade. He did not talk about how he got his injuries at home and the times when he came home after obviously having been in a fight became more infrequent until they stopped altogether. Sterling was sure that the fact that Eliot had started Aikido practices had something to do with that.
Alec opened up under Eliot’s watchful eye and started talking more. You would not really say that he was very talkative, but he fit with Eliot and his silences. The two of them spent almost all their waking moments together and frequently had sleepovers. It got to be such a common thing that Eliot started calling Alec’s grandmother ‘Nana’, just as Alec did. She was the perfect grandmother for both boys, baking them cookies and allowing them to play cowboy and Indian all over her house and yard.
When Nana died, both of the boys were devastated. They had lost a part of their lives and for Eliot it was especially hard since he had recently lost his mother. Alec did not have any family of his own, so Nate and Sophie had decided to adopt him. They were sure that that was what Alec’s grandmother would have wanted.
The boys were ecstatic when they heard the news. Now they could do everything together and did not need permission anymore for sleepovers or anything. Now it would be natural for Nate to take both of them on his random fishing and camping trips and they would not have to think about curfews and sneaking out when they were supposed to be in bed. No, now they would share a bedroom and be together all the time. That was when they started thinking of pranks, Sterling was fairly certain of that.
What Nate had failed to mention when he had run out of the house, was that Parker had dance practice on Wednesdays and Fridays. Sterling had not found that out until he had read Sophie’s letter and looked at the schedule on the fridge. This meant that he was home alone until six o’clock, something that he was going to enjoy to the fullest.
It was nice having the house to himself. No kids running around or pulling pranks on him. Just him and the blessed silence. He tried calling Tara once more, he had tried calling her at least once a day since he got here, but the phone was busy or out of range or whatever. He was sure that she was just screening her calls and did not want to babysit the spawn of evil any more than he did.
He spent this down time sitting in what was quickly becoming his favorite chair in the living room. From this chair he could see the most important parts of the downstairs as well as the bottom of the stairs. When the kids were home, this was the prime location for keeping order in the house. Nate had received this chair from his family when he turned fifty. It was a chair for the master of the house and these days that person was Sterling.
He could not really believe that three teenagers were so much trouble. He would have thought that Eliot, what with being the oldest, would control his younger siblings and show some initiative in following rules. Well, Sterling could not deny that Eliot showed initiative, he just showed it in the wrong way. Maybe he wanted to appear cool to Alec and Parker and so he joined in on all the annoying pranks Alec thought of.
Even though Sterling sometimes felt like he was just a glorified housekeeper and driver, he was sincerely glad that Nate and Sophie had decided to follow the British rules when it came to giving the kids their driving license. That meant, that even though Eliot was sixteen and therefore eligible to drive in California, he would not receive his license until he turned seventeen, as that was the legal driving age in England. Sterling heartily approved of this rule that the Fords had imposed on their kids. Now he would not have to worry about Eliot being out joyriding at random hours of the day. The boy protested this rule, but since his parents were firm, he followed it and knew that if he broke it his license would be postponed until he was eighteen or nineteen even. Sterling just wished that more parents set rules like these; then the roads might be safer.
Sterling sat there, in his favorite chair, and relished in the silence. He wondered what he could do to pass the time until the hellions got back home. Then he remembered the book that he had pulled out yesterday and went in search for it. He found it on the dining room table. He wondered briefly why it was there as the room was not used unless there were big dinner parties or on special occasions like birthdays and holidays, but did not think much of it. After all he had to walk through there on his way to the laundry room and god knew that he had been there far too often since he got here.
After some time of reading, his nose started to itch. He didn’t stop reading but soon he started sneezing. The sneezing only seemed to get worse by each page he turned so he decided to put it down for a while and instead starting the dinner preparations. Sophie had given him a list of recipes the kids liked and where to find them in her cookbook. He had every night except Friday and Saturday covered, but he figured that if the kids behaved they would order in those nights. Or, he could just repeat one or two of the recipes he had covered in the week. As he started rifling through the cookbook, the itching in his nose started again, and when he made it onto the page he needed, he had started sneezing again.
Could it be that he was getting a cold?
He did not think about it again, but started the preparation, despite sneezing every other minute. When dinner was in the oven, he went back to his book. Shortly thereafter the kids came home. Alec and Parker approached their uncle somewhat hesitantly, while Eliot went straight upstairs.
“Uncle Jim?” Parker asked hesitantly.
“Yes Parker, Alec,” Sterling answered.
“We bought you a paper,” Alec said and pulled a newspaper from behind him.
“Thank you. Now go upstairs and get started on your homework, dinner will be ready in half an hour.”
The kids ran upstairs and Sterling put away his book to read the newspaper. He had barely opened the paper when he had a terrible sneezing fit and it only got worse with every page he turned. He was obviously getting a cold so he went in search of some tissues. On the way back from the pantry where the boxes of tissues were kept – he had not brought any handkerchiefs with him when he came over; he stopped to check on dinner. When he opened the cookbook to the recipe he started sneezing again. This was turning out to be a vicious cold.
When he had satisfied himself that everything was going well, he returned to the living room. He was not a great chef, not like Sophie or Tara, but if he had recipes to follow, he did OK. He opened his paper and promptly started sneezing. He had put a box of tissues on the table next to his book, but when he reached over to grab one, he accidentally bumped the book so it fell to the floor. He had left it upside down; open on the page he was last reading. When he bent to pick up the book, he noticed some granules on the table where the book had been lying. He picked some of them up with his finger and sniffed and immediately started sneezing once more.
He was not sure if this was what he thought so he went into the kitchen and checked the cookbook and sure enough, the same granules were spread all over the book and fell onto the counter when he shook it. Next he tried the paper, but nothing fell out. Why was he sneezing from the paper if there was nothing in it? He decided not to call the kids down to punish them for this. After all, it was sort of genius. Especially with the paper. He looked closely at the paper and saw that it had been wet somewhere on every page and never in the same spot. Alec must have invented a sneezing spray then, in addition to the powder.
He decided to get back at them, instead of punishing them, after all, it did not seem like his punishments the past couple of days had had any effect on the kids. He decided to serve the ketchup in little individual bowls instead of the bottle and mixed pepper into the ketchup that was supposed to be for the kids. Then he called them down for dinner.
It did not take long for Alec to give up on the ketchup and soon after that, Eliot stopped dipping his chicken in it. Only Parker kept on going and actually finished her portion of the ketchup. When she asked for more, Sterling did not have the heart to give her anything but normal ketchup.
“Why are you not finishing your ketchup boys?” he asked.
“Ummm…I don’t really like it anymore,” Eliot said.
“There is something wrong with this stuff,” Alec said.
“Why do you say that? Parker liked it.” Sterling suppressed a chuckle.
“Well, then there is something wrong with her taste buds!” Alec exclaimed.
“This one is normal ketchup,” Parker said and pointed to her refilled bowl.
“What?!” Alec and Eliot said in unison.
“Yup, the first one was weird, but this is normal. Taste it!” She offered her brothers the bowl.
“Why was the other one so weird Uncle Jim?” The boys asked when they had tried Parker’s ketchup.
“Was it weird? I did not notice since I am getting a cold.” Sterling said and pulled up a tissue and made a show of sneezing into it.
All three kids looked ashamed then and understood that their uncle had found out what they did.
“I guess you know the routine now. To your bedrooms after you have cleaned up after dinner.”
“Will you not let us stay up and watch TV tonight?”
“Yes, PLEASE!” came a chorus from his siblings.
“We promise never to do this again!” Parker continued.
“Yes, we do!” Alec chimed in.
“Why do you want to watch TV?” Sterling asked.
“It is Wednesday. Survivor is on!” Eliot replied.
“Alright, but you do not move off the couch while it is on and go straight to your bedrooms afterwards.
“Yes, Uncle Jim!” they chorused.
Sterling poured himself another glass and then put the bottle away. He had drank almost a whole bottle of Scotch since he got here. He was almost getting as bad as Nate had been, back before he and Sophie started fostering. That time had gone to hell in a hand basket very quickly. Nate had been drinking almost every night back then. Thankfully he realized where he was going and things got back on an even keel. Nate had not gone stone cold sober, but had slowly minimized the drinking until he had been able to have a glass of Scotch every other weekend without feeling the urge to finish the bottle.
But then again, everything had changed when Parker joined the family. Everyone had fallen in love with the little girl when they met her and heard her sad story. The boys had decided almost immediately that she was theirs to protect and did everything possible to get her to laugh. After the doctors had looked her over, they had found out that she was almost four years old, instead of the previously thought three.
After Nate and Sophie got the green light on the adoption, they decided to celebrate Parker’s birthday on the day that the adoption became final, since no one really knew when her actual birthday was. Her situation was so different from both Eliot’s and Alec’s.
Sterling remembered a conversation with Nate, Sophie and the boys, who were then almost seven and eight years old, where they were talking about names. Since Parker had only given people that one name, Nate and Sophie had decided that that must be her first name and then, when the adoption had become final, her last name was Ford. However, the boys, when they had joined the family, they had added Ford onto the end of their name. So Eliot was Eliot Spencer Ford and Alec was Alec Hardison Ford. They had felt it was unfair that they got to have two last names each when Parker only got one and decided then and there that they would only use the initial of their original last name.
When Parker grew up she had once asked why the boys had a middle name of sorts and when she heard the reason, she decided that she wanted one for herself too. However, she could not decide on which letter to choose, so she went through the alphabet regularly and changed her initial every couple of weeks. This had been going on for four or five years and she did not seem to have reached a conclusion. Sterling admired her for her tenacity. She was a wiry little girl who did not hesitate at all when things did not go her way.
She was fearless. Growing up with two older brothers who acted like her personal bodyguards might have helped a lot in that, but she had been fearless when she had been found in that McDonalds playground.
She was a princess. But not one of your regular helpless princesses. She was so open and carefree that one could not help but like her when one got to know her. Sterling had been guilty of giving her whatever she wanted when she was smaller and even watched over the kids when Nate and Sophie had decided to move out of their place and into a bigger house.
The move was necessary for two reasons. One, was that they were now a family of five in a house that was really meant for three and, two, getting Alec away from his grandmother’s old place would only help him getting back on track and not spending a lot of time grieving over what had been.
Those days had been much more pleasant than the last couple of days. Back then the kids had been kids and enjoyed different sort of entertainment than they did these days.
However, all this reminiscing had reminded Sterling that these were good kids and that he really enjoyed their company. Just take last night and the end of today as an example. Eliot even hugged Sterling today, and all of them had ceased each prank after he had reprimanded them.
He was going mad, he was sure of it. All day Sterling had heard these noises. There was a cat around who kept of meowing and somewhere was a door that needed oiling. Thing was he did not know if it was a normal door or a cupboard door. A couple of times he was sure that the water for his tea was boiling over. But every time he ran into the kitchen, the kettle had barely been boiling.
When Eliot and Parker got home from their practices, he had asked them if they heard any of the noises, but they did not hear anything. The noises were not constant, but he had been hearing them intermittently throughout the day. It had all stated around lunch and continued even after Alec had gotten home. He had not heard anything either.
Sterling had gone out to the garage to find an oilcan to fix that creaky door shortly before Alec got home, but when he got back inside with the oilcan, he had not heard the door again. Instead of returning the can to the garage, Sterling had stored the can in the laundry room, just in case he heard the door again.
When Eliot and Parker had gotten home, there was another sound that joined the list of strange noises. Somewhere around the house was an open window.
Sterling had not caught on that this was an elaborate prank until dinnertime when the cat, the open window and the boiling water all went off at the same time. The kids had gone off as well, laughing like hyenas when they saw their uncle’s face. He had made them the same deal as the night before. They got to stay up and watch TV if they promised to stay on the couch.
Thursday nights were apparently comedy nights on TV and the kids watched almost all the shows. Those that they did not catch live, they caught on delayed broadcast. Thankfully Nate and Sophie had all the necessary gadgets and such, no doubt thanks to their resident technical genius, so the kids did not miss a single minute…that is until Parker fell asleep.
Despite the rough starts they had so far this week, he liked the kids and their spunk. The sneezing powder and the noises were inspired. He could just imagine Alec’s future if he turned his imagination to something more constructive. Parker was extremely graceful in all her moves, no doubt because of all her dancing and gymnastics lessons. It was truly a thing of beauty seeing her move.
Eliot had always been Sterling’s favorite and looking back over this week that had not changed a bit. Even though all of them had participated in the pranks, Sterling felt that Eliot had slowly been seeing reason as the week went on. The hug earlier that night spoke volumes about how he felt.
Sterling decided then and there to be more relaxed around the kids. Maybe they felt his annoyance over having to take care of them and reacted like they did to show him that they felt the same way. After all, nobody wanted to be around people who did not like them. Even though they had played pranks on him, he had not been as mad yesterday and today as he had been in the beginning of the week. He actually sort of admired them for their imagination, since the sneezing spray and the noises had been something new, not the oldest tricks in the book, like the first pranks had been.
He went to bed, satisfied with his new discovery and actually slept through the night, since the lights in his room stayed off when he turned them off
While the kids were at school Sterling thought about the revelation he had had the night before. If the kids really regretted all the pranks they had played, maybe he should really rethink his attitude. He had planned on not going to either Eliot’s championships or Parker’s regionals, but maybe he should show them that he was not as horrible as he had acted this past week and that, despite their annoying behavior this week, he still loved them. He thought that if he showed up it might actually shock them based on how their relationship had been since he got here.
A little after lunch he received a phone call informing him that Parker’s dance practice had been cancelled which only served to reinforce his idea of taking the younger kids to see Eliot compete. Alec and Parker would be done at about the same time even though he had a violin practice, since Fridays at the high school were short days. The drive to the championships location would take about thirty minutes with heavy traffic, which he did not really expect since it was still the middle of the day. That meant that they could be there just about when the whole thing started. Sterling was sure that if he let her, Parker would want to stop at a store that sold stationery so she could buy something to make a sign for her big brother and he found that he was not totally opposed to that idea.
When the kids saw their uncle waiting for them in the parking lot, they were surprised, but did not really think much about it. When he told them that they were going to go see Eliot compete and if they wanted to stop anywhere first, now that shocked them since uncle Jim had not shown any desire so far for doing things like that. In fact he had loudly exclaimed that he would “not go anywhere with you brats”. But they decided to accept their good fortune and try and enjoy this change in their uncle. After all, they had wanted to go see Eliot beat all of the little punks who thought they knew anything about Karate and martial arts, and had come up with an elaborate plan to do so. Thankfully, this change in their uncle made everything easier.
Sterling was right in thinking that Parker would want to make a sign for Eliot, but when she stood in front of the glitter tubs for what seemed like five minutes he had visions of his car on the receiving end of what would undoubtedly become a massive glitter bomb, he steered her towards the glitter glue pens instead. He found out that all the dance and gymnastics practices had given her an agility to produce a work of art while riding in a car that took sharp turns and had to stop at every single red light. That just reinforced his new found image of her that she was not quite the hellion he had initially thought. Alec was busy on his phone, but told his uncle of any and all shortcuts he could take to make it to their destination quicker. He was not all that bad either.
They got to the gym just as the contestants were being announced and grabbed seats in the middle of the stands. Eliot had not entered, so when he did, Parker and Alec yelled like crazy and Sterling even gave a couple of shouts. Eliot looked into the stands and was obviously surprised to see his grumpy uncle there with the kids cheering him on, but he smiled and nodded towards them before closing his eyes and getting into the competition mood.
Eliot’s first matches were relatively easy for him, his opponents had not been training in various martial arts since they were kids and soon he found himself in the elite eight. He was mostly matched against other juniors, but when it came to the final fights, he was matched more and more against seniors. Sterling was impressed by his ability and focus; he knew that he could never have accomplished that himself when he was in high school.
In the end, the third place was Eliot’s and the teenager seemed happy. He mentioned to his uncle and younger siblings that he was after all only a junior and there would still be next year. Sterling had decided to treat the kids to pizza at their favorite restaurant and talked to the coach to let him know that Eliot would not be riding on the bus back to the school. The kids did not know what to do about the sudden one hundred and eighty degree turn their cranky uncle seemed to have taken, but decided just to enjoy it while it lasted and decided on keeping the pranks to an absolute minimum until he started reverting back to his old self.
Sterling’s changed attitude lasted through dinner and he even sat down to watch TV with the kids after they got home. They even watched CSI:NY because their uncle was a fan of Gary Sinise, even though they had stopped watching any of the CSI shows after Grissom had left Las Vegas (well apart from the times they wanted to laugh at Horatio Caine and his sunglasses). When the kids went to bed, Sterling relaxed in his favorite chair with a glass of Scotch. He was almost done with this bottle, but he figured that he had earned it and Nate would just have to live with it. Sterling felt accomplished and at peace with how the day had gone. Tomorrow was Parker’s regionals and also the last day before Nate and Sophie got back from England. He would have to think about doing something special with the brats before he left.
The day started early for Sterling and the kids since Parker had to be at the school at eight. The competition did not start until nine, but the girls had to be corralled into the bus and then there was the drive to the sports hall where the regionals were being hosted. Sterling and the boys had settled into seats in the middle of the stands when Parker’s team ran into the gym. Sterling would not have believed it after hearing Parker and Alec cheering the day before, but the boys were even louder in cheering for their little sister, even Sterling himself yelled a bit more than he had done at the Karate championships.
The only instrument that Parker did not compete on was the uneven bars. She had tried them out once, but decided that the other three were more useful and fit better to her dancing. In fact, she used a lot of elements from her dancing in the floor exercises which got her higher scores than the other girls on her team. The balance beam was her weakest spot, but she was in the top seven of her team on that instrument. The vault went better and she was in the top ten over all, and in the top three of her team. But her best performance was the floor and she even won second place. Sterling thought that Eliot and Alec would break the stands with all the jumping they did when it was clear that they would be riding back home with a silver medalist.
When everything was over and Parker joined them, Sterling could see that something was bothering her. He sent the boys out to the car and decided to talk to his niece to find out what was wrong.
“Why are you so down Parker?” He asked.
“I failed Uncle Jim.” Her voice was dejected.
“Why do you say that? You got a silver medal and your team was in the top ten of all the teams.”
“But I could have done so much better on the balance beam! And my take-off on the vault was horrible, I took too many steps!”
“Parker, look at me,” he knelt down in front of her, “you are only thirteen and have a lot of time to practice and many regionals to attend and show everyone what you are made of. You did wonderfully today and you should be proud of your accomplishments.”
“You think so Uncle Jim?”
“Yes, I know that I am proud of being your uncle.”
“OK. Thanks Uncle Jim.” She hugged him and then ran out to the car where the boys were waiting.
Sterling stood there for a second wondering where that parenting advice had come from. He had felt bad that she was so down and wanted to cheer her up, and then this had happened. Sterling shrugged it off and joined the kids at the car. He had something special planned for the rest of the day and hopefully the kids liked the surprise.
When they figured out that their uncle was not driving straight home like they had imagined he would, Parker and Alec started asking him where they were going. Eliot, knowing that Sterling’s fuse was a short one, told them to stop bugging their uncle or he would most probably decide to go back home if they kept it up. Sterling looked sideways at his oldest nephew with something akin to admiration in his eyes. The boy was really stepping up and showing what he was made of.
When they were about ten minutes from their destination, Sterling almost lost his hearing from the noise all the kids made when they realized that they were going to the Santa Monica Pier. He gave himself a mental pat on the back for realizing that they would enjoy the experience. He had considered Disney or Universal, but figured that you would need a much wider time frame than they had. The Pier had activities to fulfill the needs of the adrenaline junkies which were his niece and nephews as well as pandering to their joy of playing arcades. They even enjoyed the carousel and the aquarium. It was a good ending to a week that had started off the wrong foot, but hopefully the rocky start was in the past now and would stay there dead and buried never to be mentioned again, unless as a funny anecdote.
On the ride back home, Parker confided that she really wanted to learn how to base jump and skydive. She had had a lot of fun on the Pacific Plunge and said that she would like to experience the weightlessness again in a different environment. Alec, buried somewhere under a pile of plushy toys, revealed that all the games were stacked against the player, but he had figured out how to work around it, and that he was glad that Eliot was his brother, cause he himself didn’t have the arm strength needed for some of the games. Eliot just smiled at his siblings and thanked his uncle for a good day.
When they went to bed, after watching Saturday Night Live and Dr. Who which had been recorded, Sterling made them promise not to tell their parents all that had happened over the week. The kids were more than willing to comply and also wanted to play a little trick on their parents.
Just before he went to bed, Sterling’s phone rang.
“Are you still alive Jim?” were the first words uttered; no hello or anything.
“Tara,” Sterling’s voice was full of disdain, “nice to hear from you.”
“Sorry Jim, but I have been swamped at work. Do you need any help?” He did not hear a lot of remorse in her voice.
“It is kind of late to be asking that, since Nate and Sophie come home tomorrow.”
“The kids are not bound and gagged in their rooms are they?”
“No. They are asleep now and no, I do not need your help. Next time try to call earlier than the night before the babysitting job is over.”
“I owe you one, Jim,” she said and finally there was a note of remorse in her voice.
“Yes you do. If you don’t mind, I am going to bed now. It has been a difficult week. Goodnight Tara.”
“’Night Jim.” Sterling hung up and cursed her for being this predictable; waiting until the last possible minute to offer help. She would get a taste of her own medicine some time.
Sterling was ready to leave by the time Nate and Sophie got back from the airport. He had said his goodbyes to the kids earlier and put his case in the car. When Nate and Sophie arrived, he only waited long enough to receive his bottles of Glenfiddich, said a perfunctory goodbye to the kids and got out of there like a bat out of hell. After all, he had an image to uphold, he did not want his friends to figure out that he was on good terms with the “demon spawn of hell”. Nate and Sophie were not surprised at his hasty exit; after all, Sterling was a curmudgeon and everyone knew that.
When Sterling got to his house, he took a minute or two to enjoy the silence. Then it became too much so he turned the radio to Eliot’s favorite country station, sat down in his own “master of the house” chair and thought of the kids and the week he had had.
Maybe, with his changed attitude, he would be a more active participant in their lives from now on. He was actually proud of the kids and looked forward to seeing them grow up to be highly esteemed members of society. Alec’s future in the technological industry was bright, who knew, he might be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
Parker had the world at her feet. That girl could do whatever she wanted to. Sterling was even thinking about giving her a certificate for a skydiving course when she turned sixteen. Until then he would gladly pay for any of the off-beat sports she seemed interested in.
Eliot was something else. Here was a kid who had his head screwed on right and had been like that ever since Sterling had first met him. He stood up for the less fortunate and did not like it if they were unfairly treated. Sterling envisioned him high up in the human rights sector of society. Someone who everyone would look up to in the future.
All in all, he thought that Nate and Sophie did a great job in raising these kids, and he would not want to have them any other way.