‹ Prequel: Infinite

Summer Boy

Shallow Water

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Ronnie complained, turning toward me. He had Sascha laying facedown across his arm. Sascha’s little legs were bouncing against Ronnie’s stomach as he followed me around the hotel room, complaining about the plan for the day.

I sighed and ignored him, trying to get Sascha’s stroller set up and locked into place. Arch was laying on the couch watching TV, dead to the world for the last hour or so. He was still in his PJs, and Ronnie was not eager to help out and get him ready for the day.

“Put the baby in here,” I told Ronnie, motioning for him to pass Sascha down to me so I could see how well he fit into the stroller. We had never used it before because we hadn’t had a reason, but today were taking our two boys to SeaQuest, which was basically an animal discovery center. On top of Sascha and Arch, I’d offered to take Ronnie’s nephews since Ant was working.

Ronnie had straight refused the minute I offered, cutting me off as I told Anthony we would take his four boys as well. Ronnie was obnoxious, directly telling his brother that we would take the rest of the Radke’s with us, citing multiple reasons why, beginning with it was expensive and ending with his kids were horrible in public.

I shook my head at Ronnie’s drama and declined Ant’s offer to pay for his boys, knowing that Devin, Nolan, Tanner, and Reeve were always well-behaved whenever I saw them.

“Atticus,” Ronnie said, trying his argument again, “how the hell are we going to handle six boys at an interactive museum? There are stingrays, sharks! These boys aren’t going to come home with all their limbs intact, I guarantee it.”

I rolled my eyes and buckled Sascha into the carseat. It was one of the lighter kind where he mostly just laid in the car-seat shaped bed and stared up at us. He wasn’t old enough to really be interested in the exhibits, but the stimulation was exactly what Ronnie wanted for Sascha.

“You’re the one who joked that you wanted six kids,” I replied pointedly, meeting his dark gaze with one of my own. “Consider this practice. If you can’t keep them from getting eaten by sharks, then maybe you shouldn’t have anymore kids, Ron.”

He didn’t like his own words used against him. “These aren’t my kids, Att,” he said with an emphasis. “These are untamed Radke boys. Wild, dangerous. You have no idea.”

“It will be fine,” I stressed as I hopped up and handed Sascha back to Ronnie. “Please go get Sasch ready for the day and pack his bag.” I stepped around the stroller and moved over to the couch where Arch was still busy ignoring us in favor of squeezing in some TV time this weekend.

Ronnie sighed childishly as he turned around to do what I asked. I knelt down in front of Arch and forced his attention to me. “Five more minutes,” I said, knowing it was easier to pull him away if he had a warning, “then it’s time to get dressed and brush your teeth. We’re going to pick the boys up for SeaQuest.”

Arch nodded idly, his eyes slipping back to the TV already. He was watching some generic cartoon I’d never seen before, but he seemed to enjoy it, and I was grateful for a moment to get myself ready while Ronnie handled Sascha. The two of them were in the big bedroom when I passed through. Ronnie didn’t say another word about not going with all the boys, and I didn’t give him a chance to as I grabbed my clothes and slipped into the bathroom.

I flipped my straightener on, got dressed, washed my face, brushed my teeth, and set Arch’s toothbrush out on the counter. When I passed through the bedroom again, Sascha’s diaper bag was packed and sitting on the bed, and the two of them were gone from the room.

“Arch,” I called as I stepped out into the living room, bringing the diaper bag with me so I could tuck it into the space under the shoulder. “Time to get ready.”

I was surprised to see Ronnie and Sascha both dressed already. “Do you think I should feed him before we go?” I asked as I passed by to pull Arch from the couch.

Ronnie glanced down at his son and nodded. “Wouldn’t hurt,” he answered with a shrug.

Arch marched like a zombie halfway across the living room, his attention stuck to the TV until Ronnie reached out and shut it off. Arch then kicked back into real life, and I watched the excitement of the day settle over him. He practically skipped to the master bathroom, grinning up at me.

“Tanner, Nolan, Reeve, and Devin are coming with us?” he asked, somehow just registering what I said to him minutes earlier. “How are we all going to fit in Ronnie’s car?”

I handed him his toothbrush and moved the straightener out of his reach. He had grown so much that he no longer needed a footstool to reach the sink, and seeing him in this new environment really highlighted that. He stuffed his toothbrush into his mouth as I began straightening my hair beside him.

“It’ll be a tight squeeze,” I said easily, “but we’ll fit. Nolan, Tanner, and Devin don’t need carseats anymore, so we don’t have to worry about smushing you all in together. You and Sascha are going to sit in your normal spots and we’re going to stick Reeve’s booster seat in the back. Tanner’s skinny; he’ll fit between you and your brother.”

Arch pinned me with an amused look and continued scrubbing those teeth. When he finished, I helped him wash his face and tame those curls, then sent him into his temporary bedroom to get dressed. After helping me pick out clothes for school during this last year, Arch was plenty capable of putting together a good outfit. Usually he picked out the main items and I came through and cleaned it up. On a casual day like this, though, he didn’t need any help picking out a t’shirt and shorts. Especially since we’d packed a limited amount of clothes.

He came back when he was done and sat on the counter while I finished my hair and make up. When I was almost done with my makeup, Arch’s blue eyes darted toward the bedroom and then back to me. “Your phone is ringing,” he said with wide blue eyes.

I grinned and nudged him. “Go get it,” I encouraged, watching him hop off the counter and race into the bedroom in his sock-clad feet. He came running back and stopped short in front of me, making sure he didn’t clash into me with the straightener in my hand. “Thanks, baby,” I said quietly as he slid his finger to answer the call for me.

“You’re welcome,” he whispered back adorably, and watched with bright eyes as I lifted the phone to my ear.

“Hey, Ant, what’s up?” I answered, not at all surprised that Ronnie’s brother had called me instead of him.

“Hey, Atticus,” he greeted upbeat. “I’m just wrangling all the boys into appropriate apparel, and I wanted to double-check the times with you. I won’t be off until about five, but Amanda will be home like 3:30. What time are you guys heaving back to LA?”

“Uh, we haven’t talked about it, but I can check.” I frowned and set the straightener down. With my hand on his shoulder, I turned Arch around so that we could both shuffle out of the bathroom and to the bedroom. “Ron,” I called, catching his attention.

He was seated on the couch with Sascha in his lap. He dropped his head against the back of the couch and looked back at me with his eyebrows raised.

“What time are we going home?” I asked. “You brother wants to know.”

Ronnie frowned and got up with Sascha balanced like a football in his arms. “What the hell is he calling you for, and not me?” he asked, coming over to try to grab the phone from my hand.

Ant laughed on the line. “Tell him he’s too fucking moody to deal with,” he laughed as I stepped away from Ronnie.

“You hear that?” I said to the singer, laughing as well.

Arch frowned and stepped closer, complaining that he hadn’t heard anything and wanted to know. I could tell that Ronnie heard though, because his expression darkened and he swiped out for the phone one more time.

“You tell Ant that he’s a bitch,” Ronnie retorted, talking loud enough that his brother would definitely here. “Going behind my back to my girl so he doesn’t have to deal with me.” When he couldn’t get the phone from me, he sighed and turned away, mumbling curses under his breath.

“Ronnie Radke!” I reprimanded. “The boys are right here. Watch your mouth and give me an answer for your brother.”

Ronnie pinned me with a look, breathing through his nose like a bull. “I don’t know,” he said. “What time will Amanda be home from picking Sab up?”

“3:30,” I answered expectantly.

“Then 3:30,” I guess,” Ron answered with a shrug. “Unless pops gets home from his meeting before then, and we’re sick of the little tyrants, but 3:30 works for us, doesn’t it? If we leave here by 4:30, we’ll be home before nine.”

“All right,” I answered Ron, and turned back toward the bathroom. “You get all that, Ant? We’ll keep ‘em until Amanda’s home with Sabrina.”

“Sounds good, Atti. Thanks,” Ant responded succinctly. “The boys are super excited and pretty hyper right now, so if they’re too much today, you let me know and they’ll hear from me, okay?”

I couldn’t help but smile. Anthony sounded like the stereotypical older brother. It was a relationship that I wasn’t used to, being the oldest in my sibling set. “They’ll be great, Ant,” I replied. “We’re going to feed the baby, and we’ll be out the door in like twenty-minutes if everything goes smooth.”

Ant had to leave before we got there, but he promised to scare the boys straight with warnings of getting their things taken away if they caused any trouble throughout the day. Amanda was there when we arrived, and she had four very excited Radke boys completely read to go.

Ronnie drove straight to his brother’s house on the other side of town. It was a little neighborhood, just a little more upscale than Russ’s. The house was a one-story ranch-style home further away from the strip. It had four bedrooms, two bathrooms, hardwood floors, and was really adorable. The boys’ art work hung all over the house, and I could see the personalities of each of them in their home. The door opened to their living room, where the boys were hastily shoving their feet into shoes like their uncle and I might leave without them if they weren’t quick enough.

Reeve was the first to get his velcro tennis shoes tightened on his feet. He bounded to my side with big smile on his face. “Are we going to the zoo, Aunt Atti?”

I smiled too and brushed my palm over his hair. “SeaQuest,” I answered, hugging him to my side. “It’s like an interactive museum with animals. Kind of like a zoo.”

Reeve nodded excitedly and took my hand. “Do you want to see my room?”

I laughed and nodded, knowing we could spare a couple minutes. The rest of the boys jumped on the bandwagon, and the four of them led me down the hallway to their rooms while Amanda looked on. In the four years that I’d known Ronnie, I’d never actually been to his brother’s house. We usually met in the middle at Russ’s for holidays.

The boys were split two and two into the bedrooms so that Sabrina, Amanda’s oldest child, could have her own bedroom when she was home. Just recently she’d begun spending some weekends at her biological father’s. The first bedroom belonged to Reeve and Tanner, the two youngest at seven and eight. The rooms were pretty small in this ranch-style house, but they made good use of the space. There were bunkbeds in each of the boys’ rooms and a jack-and-jill bathroom connecting the two.

“Wow,” I said excitedly, “which bed is yours, Reeve?”

He ran over and jumped on the bottom bunk just as Amanda came in and shooed him off the bed with his shoes on. She had her hair tied up in a bun on top of her head and looked beyond grateful that the boys were going to be out of the house for the day. Russell was their typical babysitter, but that was mostly during the week when both Amanda and AJ were working.

“Lets go, lets go,” Amanda said, motioning the rest of the boys out of the room. “You’re leaving Uncle Ronnie and the boys waiting in the car for you, and we’ve still get to get Reeve’s booster in there.”

Devin rolled his eyes at his mom and darted past, dragging his littlest brother back down the hall toward the living room. I took Tanner’s hand and Nolan came out with us, leading the way out of the house and down the driveway. Ronnie slid out of the Cadillac and stared his nephews down.

“Listen here,” he said, arms crossed over his shoulder. He had the back door pulled open already, and I could see Sascha and Arch both strapped into their seats, trapped. Arch pushed himself up as much he could to see, but he was buckled in pretty tight. “No food in the car, no kicking the back of the seats, no arguing, no hitting, and if anyone makes the baby cry, you’re walking home, got me?”

The boys grinned and nodded, crossing their fingers over their hearts as Ronnie directed them to do, and then he loaded Devin, Nolan, and Tanner into the car. He stuck the two older boys into the way back on either side and installed Reeve’s booster in between them. Then, like I’d guessed this morning, Ronnie stuffed Tanner in between Sascha and Arch’s carseats.

“Have fun and be good,” Amanda said as her goodbye, leaning into the car to make eye-contact with each of her kids. “Uncle Ronnie and Aunt Atti will drop you off when I get back home with Sabby, okay? Enjoy yourself.”

We headed off to SeaQuest with an excited car full of boys. The noise level wasn’t unbearable, but it was definitely more than ever before. When we got there, Ronnie parked and we quickly realized we’d have to set sound ground rules. The aquarium was built inside the Boulevard Mall, meaning that it wasn’t impossible that the boys would be able to leave the aquarium when they were exploring. It also meant that the mall itself was packed with people, making it busier than the aquarium itself was.

We unloaded the boys and got Sascha situated in his stroller. The rest of the boys clustered around the stroller, Arch especially, and they giggled adorably and shuffled each other away around the stroller. Arch stood straight on from Sascha, peering down at his brother. He frowned in annoyance at the other boys as he stood guard over the baby, making sure none of them bumped the stroller too much.

“All right, boys,” I started, calling their attention to me. They straightened up immediately and turned to look at me. I clasped my hands together and looked out at all of them. “When we go in, no one can run off on their own. You’ll be able to run around, but don’t leave the room we’re in, and stay with each other, okay?”

Ronnie echoed my words and with positive affirmations from all of them, we headed inside the mall like a hoard. Ronnie hung back at my side as the boys walked ahead of us, orbiting around the stroller. They were all antsy, practically skipping down the tiled paths. They weren’t allowed to stray too far from us, so they’d dart ahead to peer into stores and around corners and then hurry back like we wound them back in. Ronnie eyed them reproachfully whenever they got too far away, and one look at their uncle had them running back to our sides.

They all hurried right up to the entrance of SeaQuest when we found it, and they parted around Ronnie as he stepped up to lead them all inside. The tiled mall floor changed to a plush aquamarine carpet as we stepped into the aquarium, and the walls were painted in similar colors, with ceiling-high murals of marine life. There was a small pond to the right and a receptionist to the left. The children darted over to the pond immediately and dipped their hands into the water like the other children. Leaving the strolled at Ronnie’s side, I peaked over to the pound, relieved to find the boys touching sand and water plants rather than fish or other animals.

Coming back to Ronnie and Sascha, I smiled politely at the receptionist behind the front desk. He was a slim man with closely cropped brown hair and a pile of iPads stacked neatly next to the computer on his desk. He smiled back and stood up.

“Welcome to SeaQuest,” he said immediately, glancing from Ronnie, to me, and the children behind us. “Are we first-time or returning visitors?”

“All first-time,” I answered, lightly moving Sascha’s stroller back and forth as he began to mew. The receptionist welcomed us to the aquarium, explained the interactive activities to the boys, and then asked Ronnie and I to fill out waivers for the children.

“It’s merely a precaution,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. “There are live animals, so you are required to fill out wavers for the kids, if you are their parents of legal guardians. Otherwise their guardians can submit the form through our online portal.” He looked between us expectantly.

Ronnie answered for us. “They’re ours,” he said nonchalantly, reaching for one of the two iPads that sat on the desk’s high counter. I grabbed the other one, and we split up signing the boys in. With the same last name and looks as Ronnie, it wasn’t difficult passing them off as our children. Sascha was the missing link between the Radkes and me. He was already growing into their features, but he was a solid mix of Ronnie and I, mashing the Radke facial features with his hair and a darker shade of Arch’s blue eyes.

Once we’d signed everyone in and hastily scribbled names on stick-on name-tags, Ronnie and I followed Arch, Tanner, Devin, Reeve, and Nolan into the depths of the interactive aquarium, where they ran wild for a full sixty minutes as we looked on. They raced from exhibit to exhibit, calling each other over and leading each other by the arm to their cool new discoveries. I watched Arch, younger than the youngest Radke by two years, keep up with them like a pro. He was a little ringleader, excited to be the center of attention and show everyone his discoveries. Watching him, I felt this sort of pride at how far he’d come since he came home to live with me almost two years ago. When we picked him up from the hospital the night that his foster parents gave him up, we never intended for it to be permanent. I never thought he would adjust so well to the crazy life that Ronnie and I shared.

I used to picture my own slew of dark-haired, dark-eyed Radke children. Little beacons of the life that Ronnie and I were going to make together. And now, two years later, nothing was as I pictured it, but it was still good. Watching Arch and Sascha, my sons, with Ronnie’s nephews was like looking through into another version of our life together. We were balancing somewhere between the life we thought we’d have and the life we’d ended up with, and they were remarkably similar.

Sascha began fussing as he woke up, still strapped into the stroller. It was about time for him to fed, but it was something that we’d never dealt with in public. Ronnie knew it too and curiously met my gaze as he lifted Sascha’s little weight into his arms. The boys were spread out throughout the room, eagerly waiting for one of the animal demonstrations to begin.

“You’ll be good here with everyone?” I asked Ronnie, stepping closer to take Sascha from him. The baby let out a loud cry as he was jostled from Ronnie’s hold to mine. I noticed that most of our kids glanced over at the sound of his cry, but quickly turned back to their explorations.

“Yeah,” Ron said with a shrug. “I’ve got ‘em under control.” He laid Sascha in my arms and then kneeled down next the little netted basket hanging underneath the stroller. The kids had gathered up all the free things they could find from the exhibit - pamphlets and crafts mostly - and they toppled to the carpeted floor when Ronnie yanked Sascha’s diaper bag out. With a sigh, he handed the bag up to me and began tossing the items back into the basket. “We’ll be here when you get back,” he concluded.

I slung the bag over my shoulder, and Sascha and I headed to find a bathroom where I could feed him in private. It wasn’t the most ideal situation. In fact I really disliked the idea of feeding my son near the toilets, but the car was parked farther away, and that was more of a hassle. Sascha’s fussiness was already beginning to get louder.

I slipped into the bathroom off the main room and waited in a quick line for the diaper-changing stall to open up. I unlatched the hard plastic shelf, let it fall down, and tossed Sascha’s bag onto it before situating him appropriately in my arms, hoping that this would be a quick experience.

On the way out, I awkwardly balanced Sascha as I washed my hands, and another woman politely held the door open for me, holding her own, much older, daughter in her arms. I thanked her and headed off to find Ronnie and the others. With a sigh, I noted that they were no longer in the room I left them, so I followed the sound of coordinated cheering into the sting-ray room. Rows and rows of children sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the sting-ray tank. Even from the back, I could see the gray animals gliding through the water beyond the glass, their tails swishing out behind them. It was also easy to spot the group of kids I’d come here with.

Devin, Nolan, Tanner, and Arch were lined up in sequence right along the glass of the tank. All of the kids’ attentions were zeroed in on the aquarium employee, who was in the middle of a riveting tale about sting-rays and safety. The parents lined the room, some sitting, but most standing against the back wall as they walked their own kids. I scanned the line and found Ronnie almost in the exact middle, standing just behind the last row of children. Reeve was in his arms, his dark head on his uncle’s shoulder as Ronnie leaned back against the wall. From this angle, I couldn’t see Reeve’s face, but I paused at the sight of Ronnie and his nephew.

Reeve was the youngest of Simian’s sons and still had his round cheeks and facial features. He was dark-haired and olive skinned like the rest of them, but softer somehow than his mob of older brothers. There with Ronnie, Reeve looked so similar to the way I imagined Sascha in a few years, curled up in his daddy’s arms with both of their attentions fixed on something in front of them. I paused at the edge of the line of children and just watched them for a moment, seeing Ronnie down the line with our son as well.

Finally, Ronnie noticed me and mistook my pause for hesitation due to all the kids I’d have to step over and maneuver around to get to him. Stepping out from the line of adults along the back wall, he switched the eight year old to his other arm and reached out to take my hand to balance me with Sascha as I made my way to them. Crowding in next to the stroller, I bent down in the narrow space and laid Sascha back down before dropping the diaper bag into the stroller basket. Reeve’s dark eyes were on me now, although he still faced the show, and I smiled and reached out to lightly trace his cheek and slid my fingers through his hair. He turned his attention back to the show, and I did the same, knowing Ronnie’s eyes snagged on me instead. His hand brushed mine before he switched Reeve to his other arm, putting the boy between us.

Reeve clomped through the crowd when they got to the part where they could actually reach in and touch the sting-rays. He hurried over to his brothers and Arch, and Ronnie and I watched fondly as they funneled through the line. Arch giggled as he ran his fingers over the sting-ray’s back, and I moved closer nervously, leaving Sascha with Ronnie as I went to supervise the rest of the children.

I grimaced as Arch and the boys reached in simultaneously toward the animals. I heard Ronnie laugh from behind me. When I glanced back to glare at his laughter, he was downright giggling at my nervousness. He had Sascha out of the stroller and in his arms.

“Ronnie, do I have to remind you of Steve Irwin!?” I called out to him, defending my nerves as I stood over Arch like a helicopter parent. The blonde child was practically climbing into the tank to get closer, and the others were laughing obnoxiously at Arch’s antics. I grabbed his forearm and pulled him back, shooting Ronnie a knowing look.

The singer began making his way through the crowd with the baby, shaking his head at me and at the boys. I turned back and moved down the line from Arch to Nolan, watching over all their shoulders to make sure they didn’t do anything to irritate the live animals. Devin helped monitor his brothers, like always, but I watched that older sibling responsibility slip away as he took joy in the aquarium. I found all the boys smiling, even as they stepped back out of the way to let other children through to the tank.

Ron kneeled down at the edge between Arch and Reeve and held Sascha up, even though the child wasn’t really only enough to understand or participate. I stepped back then and snapped a couple pictures of them all from behind. The kids crowded Ronnie, talking excitedly over each other to get his attention. Arch, always wanting the majority of Ronnie’s love, practically climbed into the man’s lap, helping cradle his little brother.

Seeing the three of them so close, it was easy to remember the years when it was just Ronnie, Arch, and I. It hadn’t been long since things had changed, but it felt like it. With Chance in our lives, with Sascha, life was so much different than those early months when Arch first came into our lives. Arch had lived for Ronnie’s attention, had adored the man more than anyone else. Arch had a mother before me, but he couldn’t remember his father, and Ronnie had stepped into that role. We had both been hesitant, unsure if we could support a child the way we lived, but I chose Arch and Ronnie supported us in ways I never asked him to. He not only helped with the financial side of having a child fall into our life, but he lavished Arch with affection the likes of which Arch had never known before. Ronnie had been good to him, to us both, and he still was, even with Sascha, even without a relationship between us.

After the sting-ray show, we managed to funnel the kids out of the aquarium and back to the hotel for a swim. Amanda and Ant had packed their swim trunks in case we needed to kill more time before dropping them back home, so we headed back to the hotel and led all six boys back up to the room for lunch. Arch explained room service to the others as we rose up in the elevator.

“Uncle Ron!” Nolan cheered as he followed Arch and his brother’s into the suite. “Can I get whatever I want from room service?”

Ronnie sighed obviously and playfully pushed the boys out of his way. He walked into the kitchen area of the suite - I followed behind with the stroller - and plucked the room service menu from the drawer next to the stove. “Each of you get one item,” he said, passing the menu to Devin, who could read the best out of all of them, “then we head to the pool.” He weaved around them, lifting Arch away with a flourish and tossing him down on the couch.

Arch giggled and shoved himself back up onto his feet. He raced over and rejoined the Radkes as they looked over the menu. Ronnie flashed a grin at me and waved around me into the bedroom, already pulling off his button-up t’shirt in search of something more pool appropriate. He continued into the ensuite bathroom, taking a change of clothes with him.

I moved Sascha to the pack and play and returned to the boys to help them decide on lunch. Unlike Ronnie, I didn’t think leaving them to their own devices was such a great idea. “Alright, little boys,” I said, grinning at the oldest, who shot me a look at the name. “No desserts as lunches and no sugary breakfast foods.”

Tanner, the most stoic of the boys, frowned and marched over to the couch where he threw himself down onto the white cushions and crossed his arms over his chest in a pout. The others look to him for only a moment before turning back to scour the menu.

“Atti, what can I get?” Arch asked, bounding to my side. He took my hand in both of his and pulled me over to Devin, Nolan, Reeve, and the menu. I playfully yanked it out of Devin’s hands and began reading the children’s section out loud, moving to sit down beside Tanner and rouse him from his sour mood.

“Chicken fingers and mashed potatoes and gravy with coleslaw or baked beans,” I started, watching the thoughts flash flew through their expressions. “Mac & cheese with friends or coleslaw and baked beans, cheese or pepperoni pizza with fries, PB&J sandwich with baby carrots, spaghetti and meatballs, grilled cheese and fries…” I trailed off when it seemed like each of the boys had claimed an item for themselves. Nolan and Devin heatedly discussed what was better, spaghetti or grilled cheese, and Nolan apparently won the argument with the thought that they could have grilled cheese at any time at home.

Tanner took a little more coaxing since he had heart set on blueberry pancakes, but I brought him around by explaining that the kitchen didn’t even offer breakfast during this time of the day. He eventually settled on something else when I promised that he could help me call in the orders.

“Nol, go see what your uncle wants,” I directed, nodding back toward the bedroom where Ronnie had yet to emerge from. Nolan and Arch took off without another word as Tanner and I moved to the kitchen counter where the room phone was placed. He clambered up onto one of the stools, shoving his brothers away as they tried to weasel their way into the conversation. I lifted Reeve up onto the chair on my other side and Devin leaned in from the other side of the counter. Nolan came back with Ronnie’s order, chasing Arch into the room.

“He wants a-“

“Aunt Atti asked me to do it!” Nolan shouted over Arch, cutting the younger boy off. Arch quieted as I also shushed him, giving a look that reminded him to let the others help. “Uncle Ron said he wants a cheese burger with no onions,” Nolan finished, climbing up onto one of the stools.

I nodded, recognizing Ronnie’s typical burger order. I motioned for Arch to come around and picked up the room phone. “Press six,” I told Tanner, letting him do the honors. He excitedly clicked the button and we balanced the phone between us so he could hear as well.

Together we relayed the family’s orders and Tanner excitedly hung up, explaining to the others that the food would be up in thirty minutes. He slid down off the chair and ran back to the living room and the others followed. They were like a little pack of wolves and stuck to each other like glue.

With a frown, I realized that Ronnie still wasn’t back from the room. I checked on Sascha and then rounded back to the bedroom, throwing the door open. I stopped immediately, my eyes landing on Ronnie laying face down in bed over the covers with his swim trunks on.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest. “Did you suddenly forget that there are six children out there? Including our three month old, six year old son, and four nephews.”

Ronnie rolled over and looked at me, smiling despite my tone. “Oh wow, yeah,” he said, confusion flashing across his face. “I have sons? Nephews? I had no idea!”

I rolled my eyes and motioned for him to knock it off. “Ron, get your ass up and get out there. Your little boy is in the play pen and he wants his daddy to check his diaper while mommy hunts down a swimsuit.”

Ron grinned and rolled out of bed, leaving wrinkled sheets behind as he slid past me and shut the door behind him, giving me a moment where I wasn’t consumed by six little boys. I adored every moment of the morning with the Radke boys, Arch included. I loved seeing them all bonding and being able to actually get to know each other’s personalities. Raising Arch and Sascha in LA while Ronnie’s family remained in Vegas, I knew the kids wouldn’t be able to grow up with each other like we would’ve liked.

Ronnie used to talk about raising our children in Las Vegas, close to his father and brother and the childhood that made him who he was, but I never considered the option, never considered taking my children away from the opportunities of Los Angeles or my family. It was a selfish decision; I was used to the ease of life in LA, but Ronnie never brought it up again, not even when Sascha was born. Now, with Arch and the adoption process, I couldn’t leave Los Angeles even if I wanted to. Arch was still a ward of Los Angeles county, and until his guardianship officially transferred to me, we couldn’t take him out of LA for more than a few days at a time.

I headed back out to the living room and the craziness of this family just in time for the food to arrive, and I grinned and shoved the boys back as the cart wheeled into the room. “It’s all mine!” I shouted, pushing them back as they charged at me, laughing and trying to make it to the food.

Ronnie, with the baby in one arm, tipped the hotel employee and made a wide arc around the cart, giving me enough room to fend off the boys and covet the food for myself. I grinned at him, overrun by children, and finally gave in, letting them dive toward the food.

“Alright, alright,” I gave in, lightly motioning them back so that I could sort out the plates. “Get up in your chairs and we’ll get this figured out.” They scampered up into the stools along the high counter top and waited eagerly for their lunches. Ronnie grabbed glasses from the cupboard and set one in front of each child as I did the same with their plates.

Ronnie and I ate standing up at the other side of the island, and then we helped all the kids get changed into appropriate pool attire, gave them the rules speech, and anxiously headed down to the first floor of the hotel with our little group of overly-excited boys.

“Who can’t swim?” I asked as I opened the door and funneled them into the pool room. It was mostly empty, which was good for Ronnie and I because we’d have an easier time keeping an eye on them.

Three hands shot into the air at my question: Reeve, Arch, and Tanner, and I sighed nervously, eye-balling Ronnie because it was his brother who hadn’t taught his kids to swim.

Ronnie gave me the same look and eagerly stepped past into the pool room, holding the baby in one arm and the carseat in the other. “I’ve got it, Att,” he said, offering me a smile. “We’ll have these kids swimming in no time.”

“Mhm,” I murmured, turning my attention to the boys. They gathered around a table and threw down their t’shirts and towels. We’d let them walk down barefoot, and they were adorably excited. I pumped the brakes before they could hop into the water. “You three aren’t allowed to pass this line,” I said, skipping back to the edge of the pool where a dark black line ran the bottom of the pool where it passed three feet.

They instantly complained, sighed and dropping their heads back in sequence.

I gave them a serious look and tapped my foot against that same paint line. “Do not,” I repeated darkly, “pass this line if Ronnie or I don’t have hands on you. Do you understand?”

The older two boys grinned and turned away, heading to where Ronnie was situating the baby in his seat so that he could hop in the pool with the other boys. With Sascha comfortable in his seat, Ronnie pulled his own shirt off and ducked back with Nolan and Devin to the edge of the deep end. In sync, they jumped in together, showing off to the younger boys.

I started reprimanding Ronnie before he even popped out of the water. He wasn’t making the black paint line decision any easier on the younger ones, and that made me look like the bad guy. “Shallow end, now,” I demanded, pointing for Ronnie to take the older boys and get over there so they would all be on even ground.

The younger ones took off toward the steps leading into the shallow end, and I moved to check on Sascha. We tried to keep him out of the carseat as much as possible, but sometimes it was impossible to hold onto him twenty-four seven. He ended up sleeping in the stroller or detachable carseat more often than he slept in our arms, simply because it wasn’t convenient to navigate with Sascha in our arms.

I settled into one of the pool chairs and laid Sascha on my chest so that he could doze against the backdrop of a pool filled with family. I watched Ronnie dive in and out of the water, his hair slicked back and his arms constantly filled with children. He took turns lifting them up and throwing them back into the water, eliciting giggles from them that kept me smiling. Even when he managed to sneak away into the deep end, Nolan and Devin were excited by the chase, and Ronnie dived under to swim away, taunting them as he slipped back into the shallow end so that Reeve, Arch, and Tanner might have a chance to catch him too.
♠ ♠ ♠
Grew up believing love was a grudge
And home was a place where you lived with your guard up
People keep saying memories fade
Mine are all drunk and they just keep calling

Well I hear the gun go off
Crowd go wild
You're still here
Mile after mile

Oh, the past is a long distance runner
And I'm falling further and further behind
Yeah, the past is a long distance runner
Going round in my mind.
- Matt Nathanson, Sings His Sad Heart.