By: Angela B
Disclaimer: Not mine and never will be
Note: Thanks to Heather F for her input and suggestions and to NT for betaing this for me.
Ezra listened from his doorway as his brothers trooped outside, headed for a day of fun and leisure at the lake that rested on their property. It had taken a little finagling to convince Josiah to let him stay home, and though Ezra was unsure why, since Buck loved going to the small lake as much as the young boys did, the older brother had also chosen to stay home, claiming to be behind on some projects around the farm. The fourteen-year-old suspected the older brother did it so Josiah would let Ezra stay home which made him fume. He had been taking care of himself for years.
Ezra stepped back into his room and softly closed the door. The teen waited a few more minutes to see if Buck would make an appearance. When the older brother didn’t, Ezra moved across the room to his closet and stepped into the small walk-in. On each side of the closet hung clothes, with a stack of plastic drawers on each end for sweaters, sweats, etc. Ezra couldn’t contain the sigh of relief he felt to be roomed with Nathan, who was also a neat person, instead of one of the younger boys. Going to the back of the closet, Ezra dug into his secret place and lifted out the lightweight wooden box. Gripping it by one end, Ezra let it dangle by his side as he made his way back into the main room. Closing the closet door, Ezra looked around the room, unsure what to do next. Opening the window, Ezra scooted out onto the familiar limb and climbed up onto the peaked roof, using one hand. Sitting down with his feet flat against the shingles, Ezra laid the box down in front of him and spied the thing with a mixture of emotions. Out here, on the roof, he was alone to think and remember.
Alone. That was a key word in his life. He admitted that when he was young, he had never been left ‘alone’ in the physical sense. Maude had better sense than to leave him truly alone, though she might as well have, considering some of the places she had dumped him. Ezra closed his eyes and brought forth the image that had been imprinted in his mind the longest. He could still remember the first time he was really aware of being left behind. He had been five. Maude had driven up to a house and parked the car. She had gotten out and walked around to his door. She helped him out and had taken his suitcase in hand. Ezra could remember walking up the sidewalk made of large stones. Everything was neat, tidy and well cared for.
The house, he remembered clearly, was a one-story brick home with large bay windows looking out towards the street. Maude had knocked on the dark wood door, using the brass knocker fixed in the middle. The door had opened and an older woman appeared. She was old to Ezra’s way of thinking, at least forty. She and Maude had talked a bit and then he was introduced to his Aunt Jane.
Maude had bent down and instructed him to be a good boy while she was gone. That was when it struck him that he was really being left behind. Tears had sprung to his eyes, as he had clung to her waist and begged to be taken along, but Maude had simply pushed him back away from her and reprimanded him for acting like a baby. She had turned and walked briskly back to the car and drove away. He had fought the hands that had held him while Maude left. After finally freeing himself, he had run down the sidewalk and out into the street after the fading car, pleading, “Please, Mommy! Mommy!” through streaming tears for her to come back and get him. He had finally given up the chase when the car disappeared from sight. Standing there in the middle of the street, his heart had broken that day. His aunt had come down the street and collected him up into her arms and carried him back to the house.
Life with his aunt and uncle had been miserable for those two weeks. Not because they were mean, or callous, unlike future caregivers, but because he had missed his mother so much. It had always been the two of them and then suddenly he was on his own, a feeling he would sadly come to know all too well. After two weeks, Maude had returned and Ezra had quickly forgiven her for leaving him behind; after all, she had returned to get him.
In the years to follow, he had been left many times and with each departure of his mother, his heart had broke less and less, until finally, when the last time she had left him, he had waved goodbye and walked into the house without ever looking back.
Ezra stared down at the hated box for what it symbolized. The other boys used theirs for what it was intended, to save their special mementoes from their past in and to keep the memories alive. Ezra wanted nothing more than to forget his past.
Ezra’s mind drifted back to the past. After being retrieved from Aunt Jane and Uncle Al’s house, Maude had claimed they were going to do something very special, just the two of them. Ezra remembered being so excited. Then, Maude had told him, they were going to play a game of make-believe. Ezra had become further excited. Ezra had played a four-year-old named Scotty. Ezra had not liked the idea of playing what he considered a “little boy”, but his mother had promised him an extra special treat if he did, so he had.
Ezra couldn’t remember all the specifics. He remembered there had been an older man, which he presumed had to be a hundred years old, and he remembered Maude packing them up in the middle of the night and leaving. Ezra also remembered getting taken to a park where he was allowed to ride a merry-go-round all he wanted. He had ridden his noble brown steed, with its flowing black mane and tail, for what seemed forever. Every time he went around, he searched out his mother to make sure she was still standing in the same spot. He had waved at her and she had smiled and waved back.
After he finished, Maude had taken his hand and started back to the hotel they were staying in. He could remember her words to him that day as clear as if she had said them this morning. “I was so proud of you and your acting, Ezra. I wasn’t sure you could do it, but you proved Mommy wrong. You’re such a good boy.”
Ezra had beamed with pride. He’d asked, “Does this mean you’ll never leave me again?”
Maude had replied, “If you’re a good boy, sweetie. If you’re a good boy.”
At that moment, Ezra vowed to be the best child ever so he would never be left again.
Ezra let out a dry chuckle at the memory. It was a childish vow. He would never be good enough to keep. Not for any length of time, anyways. It was one of the many lessons his mother had taught him. Ezra pushed the box away from him. He didn’t know why he had gotten the stupid thing out to begin with. Lately it seemed that all the boys had been sharing their boxes. This wasn’t out of the ordinary for some, like Buck and JD, but even Chris had shared his and with him no less. That moment had rocked Ezra to the core when Chris retrieved his box from his saddlebags and talked about his past. Ezra had been so overwhelmed by the trust and meaning of it all that he had slipped up and mentioned missing his mother, something he had promised never to tell. Chris had taken the confession in stride and even tried to make seem like it was okay to miss her. Ezra still hated himself for that weakness. Not just that he had mentioned his mother, but for the very fact that he still let the woman get to him, after all the promises he had made to himself that he wouldn’t care about her anymore.
Ezra let his memory take him away from the fresh wounds of the present to the old familiar wounds of the past. These he could deal with because he had carried them around for so long.
Maude had come up with two more “games” in the following months. She had presented Ezra with his small, easy role and then helped him practice before putting on the “show”. Then came the awful day when she had announced that he would be staying with Cousin Alice while she went away. Ezra had immediately protested, reminding her of her promise and asking pitifully if he hadn’t done his part the way she had wanted him to. She had just explained that promises only lasted a little while, some longer than others, but never forever.
This time, though he cried, Ezra had restrained himself from chasing after his mother. The one good thing that came out of being “stowed”, as Ezra came to call the times he was left behind, with Cousin Alice was getting enrolled in school. While he enjoyed being with other children, he really developed a love for books. Books could take him anywhere and show him different ways of life he hadn’t known existed. His favorite type of books had been the ones that were built around a family, with a mommy and a daddy, and where daddy played ball in the yard with the boy.
Cousin Alice had been pretty nice, if not a little oblivious to him. When Maude finally showed up, Ezra couldn’t wait to share his newfound interest with his mother. Maude had smiled graciously upon her son and then taught him another lesson he’d never forget. “Ezra,” she began. “You never have to be smarter than the other person. You just have to make them believe you are smarter.”
Maude had let him stay with her for a couple of months after that. They had played some ‘games’, none that specifically stood out in his memory. Over the years all the ‘games’ ran together. Maude had six scenarios she played changing them up to fit the need. Ezra learned quickly that the fastest way to get “stowed” was to complain, or mess up on the “game’. The first time he had done so stuck with him to this day.
Maude had instructed him to play a child with a lisp and reading difficulties. Everything had gone well until the stool pigeon caught him reading out loud. Ezra had thought he’d hidden himself well in the shrubbery out in the garden. He had been so involved in the story, he hadn’t heard the man approach. The strong hand had yanked him up by the arm, dragged him into the house and thrown Ezra halfway across the room to Maude’s feet. That had been the first time his shoulder had been dislocated, but not the last.
Maude had scrambled to get them out of the house before things got more violent. The visit to the hospital had almost been as bad. Maude had been angry with him, of that there had been no doubt. She had told the doctor that it had been a bully at school, but when the doctor has pressed her about the adult size bruise on his arm, she had changed her story and said it was her boyfriend. She had then proclaimed that as soon as Ezra was capable of traveling, they were leaving town.
Maude had kept her word. Four days out of the hospital after having surgery, Ezra had been taken straight from the hospital to a great-aunt’s. The woman had never been married, nor had she had any children. Ezra quickly learned the woman had no tolerance for children and she sure didn’t have any sympathy. Ezra was expected to make his bed, keep his room clean and help around the house. It didn’t seem to matter that he only had one good arm. He’d stayed with that great-aunt for ten months. To seven-year-old Ezra, it was eternity. The only highlight was, once again, being able to attend school.The rest of the time was sheer agony for the little boy.
Maude eventually came back and Ezra swore he would never foul up again. Once in the car, Maude had only said, “I hope not, Honey. Mommy was not happy.” Ezra had understood the underlying message and promised himself, he would be the person she wanted him to be, straight through-and-through.
His life became a series of predictable, unknown variables. He would stay with Maude for an undetermined amount of time and then be dropped off somewhere with relatives for any amount of time, from two days to several months.
The relatives were also an unknown variable. Some were kind, some were indifferent and then there were the few like a certain Uncle and Aunt that had become the object of numerous nightmares. His uncle had been a terror. He abused his wife and Ezra with the same dispassionate indifference. One was as good as the other. Then came the fateful night where Ezra had been sure his uncle had killed his aunt. The young boy had crawled under the master bed with a phone and, for the first time, called the police. His uncle had come after him, trying to reach under the bed to grab him and Ezra was sure that he was also going to be killed before help arrived. It had taken a long time for the policeman, after their arrival, to convince him that it was safe to crawl out. For the first time in a long time, he had clung to an adult and sought protection.
He had been placed in a foster center until Maude had arrived. It didn’t surprise Ezra when she regained custody without a blink of an eye. Maude usually got what she wanted. The only bright side to the whole incident in Ezra’s eyes was that Maude kept him close for a longer period of time than normal and, instead of leaving him with relatives, she began leaving him on his own.
Along the way, school had lost its appeal to Ezra. He had long quit reading stories of perfect families, believing them to be fictional and unbelievable. Instead, he turned to books with dysfunctional children, or kids with difficulties. He related better to these characters and could understand their situation. He learned to cope with each new school setting, like he had learned to cope with everything else in life.
Then came the fateful day when police showed up the door. Maude had left town for a while and had left twelve-year-old Ezra home alone. Ezra had become accustom to taking complete care of himself by then. The police were looking for Maude. One of her ex-boyfriends she had jacked for a couple of thousand dollars hadn’t been as forgiving as she had counted on. Ezra had got in some pretty good licks trying to take off and wound up in juvenile detention for his efforts. He had carried the persona of someone who didn’t care, but on the inside he had been terrified.
He had been placed in a room with nine other boys, all older than him. It had been a new kind of nightmare for him. Being bullied, having nightmares about going to bathroom alone, and not knowing when or if Maude was going to come get him. In the end, she had forfeited him. Even when they held the hearing to have her parental rights taken away, she hadn’t shown up to fight. That had been the day Ezra gave up feeling anything at all.
He was in juvie for four months before he was told that a couple has ‘graciously’ accepted him as a foster kid. He had been wary and on guard from the time the couple drove up. Only people looking for a scapegoat or a slave would want a kid from juvie. Bobby and Janice had come, been polite and walked him out the door. He arrived at the ranch empty of emotions. He had led too much of a tumultuous life for too long and it had taken its toll on the young boy.
Ezra remembered his arrival to the ranch. There had been a tall, dark-haired, older boy about twenty working outside and a big, colored teenager beside him. They had both greeted him warmly, but Ezra had kept his shields up. He was ready for anything those two might have in mind for him. It had taken almost two years before Ezra began to stop being so suspicious of the family and looking for a motive behind everything they did.
Chris, a straight-shooter, had been tough on him. He told things the way the were. That was what had drawn him to Chris. The blond was exactly who he portrayed himself to be. He had gotten close to Nathan, also, because the then fifteen-year-old was the only other child living in the house. The two of them had spent many hours hanging out, or rather, Nathan hanging out and Ezra being dragged along. Nathan had accepted the way he was from the start. The teenager didn’t seem to expect anything more than what Ezra was and that was something new to the young kid. Here, there were no games to play, no roles to be acted out. He could just be himself. The problem was, Ezra had long forgotten who he truly was.
Ezra sat on the roof and stared out at the mountains seeing nothing. He was getting soul weary and felt a hundred years old remembering his life.
Buck had spent the better part of the day cleaning up odd jobs around the barn. When Ezra had stated he had wanted to stay home, Buck knew Chris and Josiah wouldn’t let Ezra do it alone, so he had stayed home, too. He felt he owed Ezra that much. Lately, he had found himself lacking as an older brother to Ezra. This was his way of making it up to the kid. After walking up the staircase, he came to Ezra’s door and knocked lightly. When he didn’t get a response, he pushed the door open slowly and peeked in. Not seeing Ezra anywhere, he opened the door fully and saw the window open. Sighing, he wished his brother didn’t have the affinity for heights.
Leaning out the window, Buck called out, “ Ezra, you up there?”
“Yeah,” Ezra responded after a moment of silence. The despair heard in the one word answer made Buck cringe.
Buck wriggled his body out the window onto the tree branch, Buck managed to grab the roofline and hoist himself up. Looking for his little brother from his spot in the tree, Buck sighed at seeing the dejected form. Climbing the sharp incline, he lowered himself down next to his brother. Looking at his brother from the corner of his eye, he spotted the familiar wooden box they all had. Buck could only imagine what sorts of things Ezra had accumulated over the years and what kinds of memories they held. Buck’s heart bled at seeing the pain etched in his brother’s face.
Sitting there in silence, Buck remembered the first time Bobby and Janice introduced him and Nathan to Ezra. Ezra had kept to his manners, but even Buck could tell the boy was used up, by the look in the child’s eye. Those wary, searching green eyes reminded Buck of a beaten dog that had once wandered onto their place. No matter how hard they had tried, neither he, nor Nathan, had been able to get near it. Bobby had offered encouragement not to give up. They fed the starved creature and watched from afar as the poor thing wolfed down the food in three bites. Buck and Nathan had taken to feeding the dog three times a day. Over a long period of time, the dog began letting them get closer and closer until finally one day, the dog grew brave enough to stretch his neck out far enough for Buck to scratch him behind the ears. After that the dog grew a little braver and a less afraid of them. Now the dog was one of the most devoted pets they had. Buck had looked Ezra over and figured the kid was going to be the same as that dog, except that it would take more than just a month and some good food to get close to the kid.
The social worker had told them Ezra was emotionally detached and was passive-aggressive. She had been right, but Janice and Bobby had dismissed the labels, believing that if you labeled a child, that child had tendency to live up to those labels. Ezra had kept a tight lip on anything that pertained to his life before coming to the ranch. Every time advances were made to get close to the child, they had been rebuffed by caustic remarks. They were never made to anger a person, only to make them back off. Ezra had met his match with this family. None of them had the tendency to back off.
It had been strange, but explainable in a weird sense that it had been Chris and Nathan who had broken through the shell. Chris knew about anger and keeping people away so he wouldn’t get hurt. Chris was also the most private person in the family.
Nathan, on the other hand, confused Buck as to how the then fifteen-year-old had wormed his way under Ezra’s guard. The two always seemed to going at each other, but as it went on, Buck realized that Ezra needed that barbing back and forth as a way of communication, and Nathan seemed to accept Ezra for who he was.
More often than not, it was their poor mom that took the brunt of Ezra’s polite, but passive-aggressive behavior. Ezra had held Janice to a higher level of expectancy than Bobby, expecting her to fail every test. Buck had always been amazed at his mom’s unending patience, and no matter how high Ezra set the bar, she always passed. It was that sheer determination and consistency that had finally began winning Ezra over. After almost three years, Ezra had quit challenging Bobby and Janice so much. The kid had even begun calling Bobby, ‘Dad.’ Then the accident had occurred and three years of hard work practically all went down the drain. Buck figured the only reason they hadn’t lost all the ground made was because Josiah had gone to court and gained custody of the boys. Proving to Ezra that they still cared and wanted him.
Knowing how sadness could swallow a person up, Buck decided it was time to get Ezra to go in and get his mind off his past. “Come on,” he said gently, slapping the leg beside him.
Ezra didn’t argue. He didn’t have the strength. Rising to a standing position with ease, he picked up his box one-handed and walked down the steep incline to the tree and lowered himself into the room. Buck followed with less surety, paying more attention to where his feet landed than why Ezra was able to dangle the box.
Standing there in the room that he shared with Nathan, anger suddenly filled the fourteen-year-old. Why couldn’t he have been born into this family? Why couldn’t Maude have let him go earlier? Why couldn’t he be smart like Josiah, brave like Chris, loyal like Buck, talented like Nathan, perfect like Vin, or loving like JD? The last thought burned a hole clear through him. Why couldn’t Maude have loved him like Janice had? What was so wrong with him that his own mother couldn’t stand to be around him more than a few months at a time?
Buck stood to the side and watched the storm build in his brother. The dilated eyes and set jaw were a dead give-away to what his brother was feeling.All he could was wait and be there in the end.
Ezra’s breathing increased as the emotions assaulted him. Lifting the box up, he flung it across the room with everything he had. Trying to purge his emotions with the force.
Buck watched the box sail across the room, saw the dent in the plaster the impact caused and followed the box with his eyes to the floor. Expecting items to go flying about the room, he was unprepared for what did come out.
Nothing. There was nothing in the box. After hitting the floor with a solid thud, the lid popped open, revealing nothing inside. Buck’s first thought was that perhaps Ezra didn’t use the box to keep his treasure in it. Then he recalled how when Ezra stepped out the car that first day, he carried nothing with him. At the time, Buck had just thought the kid had left it all in the car. Now it became clear, that all Ezra arrived with were the clothes he wore. Buck wanted to hurt someone in the worst way all of a sudden, but his attention was quickly taken by Ezra’s outburst.
“I hate them! I hate them!” Ezra cursed, staring wildly at the box. “Why? Why?” he screamed out. Sobbing now, as his legs seemed to buckle and he crumpled to the ground, Ezra drew his legs up tight to his chest. “They promised. They said Maude was wrong. That promises WERE forever.”
Sliding into a full meltdown, Ezra was overtaken by all the grief and pain he had kept locked away throughout his childhood. Burying his head in his arms, the sobs wracked his thin body. “They promised that it would be okay. That I’d never be alone again and would have a home forever.” The broken words were muffled by the boy’s hitching breath. “They said they would never leave me. But they did. Just like Mother. I hate her!” The last was all but a choked whisper.
It had taken a second for Buck to figure out whom Ezra was yelling about, but as the words tumbled out, he was able to put the pieces together. Sitting down next to his crumpled brother, Buck enfolded the youngster into his arms and held him. Wanting nothing more than to shield Ezra from the tormenting pain. He didn’t try to shush Ezra. He had always thought that that was the dumbest thing a person could do. If someone you loved needed to cry, then let them cry. He also thought telling them it was okay, when it was obviously not, was the second dumbest thing to do with a grieving person. He never understood either practice.
The two sat there for an indeterminable time. The shadows cast by the setting sun onto the walls in the darkening room went unnoticed. Buck felt the weight of his little brother grow heavier and knew that the boy had succumbed to sleep. It was the first time the saying ‘cried themselves to sleep’ made sense to him. Lowering Ezra to the floor, where they sat, Buck stood and gathered the comforter from the bottom bunk and placed it gently over the slumbering Ezra. Standing there, staring down at Ezra, Buck wasn’t sure what they were going to do for Ezra. Wiping a hand over his mouth, the twenty-three-year-old began realizing just how hurt and screwed up the majority of them were. Doubt and concern filled him as he began to worry just how they were going to survive without their parents.
He, Josiah and Chris may have been, what people considered, grown, but they could still use their parents’ guidance and love. Turning, Buck spotted the empty wooden box. Walking over to it, he picked it up and held it in his hands. Nothing. Exactly what Ezra felt like he had in this world. Laying the box on Ezra’s bed, knowing Nathan wouldn’t let anyone touch it, Buck took one last glance at his brother before walking out the door.
Buck was in the living room, staring blankly at the T.V., not noticing what was on when the others came in. Josiah’s voiced boomed as he ordered Vin and JD upstairs to wash. The two boys started up the stairs noisily.
“Hey!” Buck barked out after them, catching their attention immediately.
Standing, Buck ordered gruffly, “Ezra’s asleep, so be quiet.”
“Okay,” Vin and JD said compliantly and turned to continue up the steps.
“I mean it!” Buck said harshly. “You wake him up and you’ll each do his chores for a week,” he threatened.
Vin and JD gave Chris and Josiah a nervous look before heading upstairs. It was very unorthodox for Buck to lose his cool.
Nathan, Chris and Josiah were quiet for a minute, concerned with Buck’s demeanor. “Does Ezra have a migraine?” Nathan asked worriedly.
Picking up Nathan’s thinking, Josiah asked, “Did you give him one of his pills?” He knew how much Ezra detested taking the medicine, no matter how helpful it was.
Buck whirled on Josiah with heat in his eyes. “No, I prefer watching him suffer,” he snapped snidely. “And for your information, he doesn’t have a migraine,” he said angrily before stalking off to the kitchen.
Josiah gave Chris the you-deal-better-with-him-than-I-do look and headed upstairs with Nathan to check on Ezra themselves.
Chris walked into the kitchen hesitantly. It was well known that Buck had a nasty temper when he reached his boiling point. Before he could say anything, Buck, sensed Chris’ entrance. “It can’t be solved by talking about it,” he said tiredly, but still with some heat.
Chris stood there for a minute. He could read his brother easily and from what he was getting, it had been a rough day. “If you think so,” Chris began passively, walking up next to Buck. “But it might help to share the load,” he said softly.
Buck blew out a heavy breath and in the next minute was telling all, from when he found Ezra, to his own memories, to the very end. By the time he’d finished, Josiah had come back down and had stepped into the kitchen, catching the most important part of the conversation. Supper that night was eaten quietly. Vin and JD picking up on the somber vibes of their brothers.
The next morning Ezra woke and, after orienting himself, immediately grew embarrassed at the remembrance of the previous day’s outburst. Standing, Ezra looked around and noted that Nathan was still asleep. Gathering his comforter, he looked on the floor for his box. Not seeing it, he walked over to the bed to dump his covering on his bed and found his box sitting on top of his pillow.Picking it up to put it away, he heard a soft rattle from inside. Sitting down on the edge of his bed, he cautiously opened the lid. Lifting out the small piece of paper laying on top of the four-by-six picture, he read the inscription, “Promises ARE forever”.
Laying the note aside, Ezra lifted out the picture. It was a picture of the entire family. It had been taken the day Vin and JD’s adoption had become legal. Bobby had made them all arrange themselves on the steps leading up to the porch, with Bobby and Janice standing in the back on the top row. Ezra remembered thinking the timer on the camera would never go off. Someone, Ezra assumed Nathan by the handwriting, had written across the bottom of the picture ‘Walker Family’.
For some reason, he was compelled to turn it over and there was a poem written on the backside.
One by one we walked through the door; each with a load of woes
One by one we settled in; mom and dad calming our raging lives and making them flow
One by one we took our slot; like a puzzle being pieced together
One by one we made this family; a home we all shall have forever
Ezra wiped his arm across his sniffling nose. Staring at the picture, he thought he might just start collecting a past that he’d happily look back on one day.
7 B Ranch Index