By: Angela B
Disclaimer: Not mine and never will be
Note: Thanks to NT for her great betaing and exceedingly expansive patience
Note: Thanks to my parents, who taught me how to modify, remodel or build a home from the ground up (whether I wanted to or not J). Their wisdom helped me through this story. P.S. I am basing the computer program that JD used on the one my dad uses.
Note: I simplified the project details for easier reading.
Explanation: A dolly is an object on wheels that helps one move items from one place to another.
I used these websites to gain information on the Colorado Foster Care System:
Follows Dirt and Worms for Dessert
(Moved to Blackraptor January 2010)
The house was taking shape slowly, but steadily, thanks to the fact that, not only were the men from Team Seven working on it, but members of other teams and agencies had helped in the beginning as well. As with any project, there had been a few hiccups along the way. Buck recalled the first major one. It had occurred before the first nail had even been purchased.
Buck and JD had been sitting at the table in the dining/living room in Chris’ house, going over the expenses one more time before Buck went to the bank the next morning to borrow the money. Chris was in the living room part, watching TV. Buck tallied the needed supplies and the estimation of the costs for the last time. Finally looking up, Buck said, “Well, if I borrow an even ten thousand, I think that should be a good safety net.”
“Ten thousand?” JD exclaimed softly. “Buck, I told you the program estimated it at five thousand. Why borrow extra for no reason?”
JD, being a by-the-book person, had, at the beginning, been concerned about building the addition themselves. Buck had explained that it was perfectly legal, as long as he had a building permit and, at the end of the build, he had a licensed inspector check if everything met with codes.
Buck laid down his pencil and looked at his young, inexperienced friend. “JD, the program spewed out an estimation of how much it should cost based on an nationwide overall average. Some things are going to cost more, just like some things will be cheaper. Second, you never borrow exactly that much amount of money. You always add an extra couple of thousands for surprises. Plus, the time of year you build also plays a part in your costs. And if I was having someone else build it for me then I would have to double, or triple that amount.”
“Why?” JD asked in honest confusion.
“Because,” Buck started, “You can count on labor being double what your supplies cost, if not more,” he explained.
“Oh,” JD said quietly. There were times when he really hated being the youngest of the group of men. It seemed he was also making ‘greenhorn’ assumptions.
“Hey, you learn by doing. No one expects you to know everything. It’s only through life and experiences that you learn,” Buck said with a smile.
JD smiled back, relieved at Buck’s acceptance of his not-so-vast knowledge in this area.
Buck looked at his list one more time. It was finally dawning on him, the realization that, for the first time ever, he would have an actual home of his own. As Buck ran through the list, he couldn’t get rid of the feeling that he was missing something. It finally dawned on him what it was. Looking up at JD, he asked with a puzzled look, “JD, where is the list for the roofing supplies?”
“What? It’s right there in your hand,” JD answered, getting up and walking around the table to lean over Buck’s shoulder and look over the list.
“I don’t see it,” Buck stated emphatically.
“Shoot!” JD exclaimed, slapping his forehead. “I know I put the items into the program,” he said defensively.
“Well, they’re not here,” Buck said a little testily. This would mean the expense would increase by another couple of thousand dollars, if he went with the cheapest supplies. He hadn’t even borrowed and already he was being met with one of those ‘surprises’. Looking up at his friend, he said sternly, “You forgot to add them in.”
“Well, you accepted the list,” JD shot back, his ire growing. “So, you made the mistake with me,” he said hotly, paraphrasing his favorite line from Driving Miss Daisy when she told her chauffer he had missed a turn and he had stated, “Well, you took it with me.”
Buck couldn’t argue that point. He turned back in his chair and looked at the numbers. He quietly scratched out the ten thousand and wrote ‘twelve thousand’. He tried not to sigh too heavily. JD had been right; he had accepted the list and hadn’t caught it either until just now.
JD didn’t have to hear the sigh. Quietly, he said, “I’m really sorry, Buck.”
Looking back up at his friend, who had spent many an evening trying to help him plan the house, he smiled. “Not your fault. I’m an adult and this is my house. I should have caught it earlier. It’s just going to be one of those little surprises,” he said with a forced smile.
JD smiled back. It was going to be a costly mistake and he really felt sorry for his friend. “Let’s get Chris in here. Maybe with fresh eyes, he might catch some more mistakes neither of us has caught and maybe avoid any more surprises,” JD suggested.
“Sounds like a smart idea,” Buck said.
Chris was called in and, between the three men, they went from the top of the house to the bottom, and found that, other than the roofing, nothing else had been left out.
The next step had been to go borrow the money, something that scared Buck a lot, but he hadn’t let on. Chris had offered to pick Ezra up at daycare when he got Vin, knowing that Buck hated asking him. To Buck, Chris was doing a lot for him by just letting him and Ezra live with him and Vin until the house was built. So, Chris had volunteered and Buck had gratefully accepted the offer. He hated leaving Ezra at the center longer than necessary.
Buck had let Ezra off at school and, for the hundredth time, it seemed to the five-year-old, reminded him that Chris would be taking him home if he weren’t out of his meeting at the bank in time. Ezra nodded for the hundredth time, pushed the truck door shut and walked into school. Since he had eaten at home, Ezra went immediately to the selected ‘gathering’ room for the week and waited for Vin, whom he knew had left right behind them that morning.
He had been going to the school for a little more than a week, but he’d adapted to the routine quickly. Adapting, at least outwardly, was like breathing. Having a mother like he did, required him to adapt to new things quickly. After the bell rang, he went to his classroom and got out his box, ready to do whatever work the teacher handed out. Throughout the day, he would remember that Buck was going to the bank to borrow money for the new house and he would begin to worry. He was afraid the bank would turn his guardian down and then they would have no place to live. The repercussions were magnified to the little boy. Without a home, Buck might turn Ezra back to the children’s home, or else the social worker, Mr. Davis, would come get him. It didn’t matter how many times Mr. Buck told him he was staying, Ezra had heard too many empty promises before to bet on this being the one time it was real.
As normal, Ezra sat off to himself during recess. Mrs. Cate, his teacher, had opted to let the child integrate himself at his own pace. She had a small insight into the child’s background and felt it was best not to force any relations onto the child. She knew that, over time, Ezra would adjust to his classmates and feel more comfortable in their company.
After school, Ezra met Vin at his class door and the two boys walked out to the stopping place where the van would pick them up.
Martha Potter looked up from her book and smiled. The little boy that belonged to Mr. Wilmington was walking close to Vin as always. She smiled as she thought about how independent Ezra tried to pretend he was, but he always stayed close to Vin, like he was afraid of being left behind.
As the pair walked up to her and her brother, Matthew, both greeted the duo. “Hey, Vin. Hey, Ezra,” they said together.
“Hey, guys,” Vin greeted back. Setting his backpack on the ground, he easily caught the football that Matthew tossed him. Glancing to make sure that Ezra was safely out of the way, he tossed the ball back.
Ezra shyly slid onto the ground by the third-grade girl. Martha pretended to make room for the small boy by leaning outward and then, once he was seated, she leaned close to him. This had become a routine of sorts. Matthew and Vin would play while waiting for their respective rides, and Ezra would sit by Martha while she read from her latest book. Since, she was a fast reader, there was a new book every day. Ezra would become enraptured in the story and subconsciously lean onto the girl as she read. Martha didn’t mind. She liked being looked up to and having to someone to read to.
Ezra watched the young girl read to him. In the background were the laughter of the two other boys; this was his second favorite time at school. The first being quiet time in the classroom at the end of the day. Every student had to lie down, though not necessarily go to sleep. During that time, those awake were allowed to read books. Ezra enjoyed the quietness of class. So often, their loudness bothered him and hurt his ears.
At 3:45, on schedule, the white van had pulled into the circular drive and stopped. Ezra had learned that first day that he and Vin, being the last to be picked up, would always sit in the back. Climbing in, he put his backpack in front of him and scooted to the last row, where two other boys sat, too. Getting next to the window, he obligingly let Vin buckle him in and waited for the van to take him to the daycare. It was getting closer to time to go home and closer to time to see if Mr. Buck had gotten his loan.
It was 3:00 and Buck was in the bathroom, addressing himself in the mirror. This meeting was one of the most important meetings of his life, aside from meeting with the social worker. He ignored the opening of the door as JD walked in.
The young agent watched as his older friend fiddled with his tie. The jittery fingers were a dead give-away to the man’s intense nervousness. JD finally cleared his throat and said, “It’s going to be fine, Buck. I already told you, you should have no trouble getting the loan. Your credit is great. You have a steady income and you are over thirty-five. The loan is a shoe-in.”
Buck took a deep breath. “I know. I just…” he paused, before turning to the younger man. “I have to get this loan, JD. I have to.”
“And you will,” JD said with a reassuring smile.
Buck took another deep breath and smiled back. “Okay, here I go,” he said, looking into the mirror one last time. “Now, remind Chris that if I’m not back, he is picking Ezra up and he has to be at the center at five-o’clock sharp. I’ve never left Ezra later than that.”
JD buried a smile. He had no intention of doing anything of the like. He knew, for certain, that Buck had reminded Chris no less than ten times that day. In fact, he was pretty sure Chris was using every ounce of restraint not to yell at Buck over this very thing. Instead, JD replied, “Chris will be there on time, you know that.” He tried to sound very reassuring without laughing.
“Yeah,” Buck relented. “I know. Just make sure,” Buck said before leaving the bathroom.
“I will,” JD said placating.
The other men watched Buck stride for the elevator as Chris stepped out of his office. He had hidden behind the door so he wouldn’t have to be reminded of what his job this afternoon was again. Smirking at JD, the blond asked, “Any last instructions?”
JD burst out laughing, “Nothing you want to hear.” Chris smiled and walked back into his office. He had two hours of work to do before leaving.
It was almost 4:50 and there was still too many older kids for them to adjourn to the ‘big room’ at the daycare, so Ezra contented himself with the paint center in the ‘Big Kid’s room’. After more than two weeks of attending the after-school program, the teacher had finally persuaded the five-year-old that, by donning a smock, which was just a used man’s shirt turned backwards, he would be safe in using the paints. Ezra was still slow and methodical when dipping his brush. Vin had disappeared to the outside to play with his friends.
Chris smiled at the secretary as he walked through the front door. He was ten minutes early, but figured Ezra might be feeling anxious and decided the precious extra minutes would alleviate that time worrying. The blond stepped into the doorway of the large room. Smiling at the teacher, he turned in the direction she pointed and caught site of Ezra. Knowing where Vin would be, Chris walked over the brown-haired boy and squatted down. He waited a couple of seconds for Ezra to recognize his presence.
Ezra felt the man first and then confirmed it by looking over to his side. Carefully laying down his paintbrush, he turned back to the blond. “Mr. Buck still gone?” he asked, his green eyes shining with the worry he couldn’t voice.
“Yep. Sometimes, people don’t get in a hurry. Especially if you are,” Chris said with a laugh referring to the people at the bank.
Silence reigned as Chris watched Ezra turn back to his painting and meticulously clean his brush and then replaced the paints to their rightful place. Ezra returned to his chair and silently turned his back to the blond. Chris obligingly unbuttoned the smock. After helping Ezra out of it, Chris placed the shirt over the chair. Looking at the picture, Chris, having learned through therapy with Vin on how to discuss feelings, lightly wrapped his arm around Ezra’s waist and said, “I like your picture. It’s very pretty. Would you tell me about it?” He was certain it was a house, but other than that, Chris was a little lost on the five-year-old’s artwork.
Ezra would never be able to articulate it, but right then he felt very safe with the blond. “It’s a picture of the house Mr. Buck and ya’ll are going to build,” he answered. “This is the little garden Mr. Buck said we could plant come spring,” Ezra instructed, pointing to a green blob with different colors mixed in. “And this is the smoke from the chimney when we have a fire in the fireplace when it gets cold,” he continued, pointing to a black streak of paint going up the paper. “And this is a barn that he says we will build someday. It will be Lady’s home,” he finished, referring to Buck’s horse.
“Ahhh,” Chris commented, noting that while Ezra never referred to it as a home, the child was thinking of terms of the future. “Well, I like it!” Chris exclaimed firmly with a smile. “Let’s take it home and show Buck. He’ll love it.”
Chris immediately felt the shift in Ezra’s mood. Hanging his head, Ezra whispered, “Maybe we shouldn’t.”
Chris pulled the stiff child a little closer. “Why not?” he asked in a soft tone.
Ezra turned his worried-filled green eyes toward Chris. “It might make him sad if he didn’t get the money ‘cause then he doesn’t get the house,” Ezra quietly explained.
Chris wondered several things in that one moment. One of them was at the child’s ability to care about others when it had become so obvious that no one had cared about him. Breaking into an affirming smile, Chris patted Ezra’s waist. “If it’s taking him this long, it’s a sure bet he going to get the money,” Chris said. “And even if he didn’t, you and him are still going to get that shack built into a home. I guarantee it,” Chris said with conviction. Buck would get that home built if the blond had to borrow the money himself, and Chris was pretty sure the others would do the same. “Now, come on, you get your stuff together while I get Vin,” Chris said as he rose, his knees popping as they straightened, causing a smile to sneak out on Ezra’s face. Chris smiled back and went to find his son.
Chris was in the midst of starting supper with the help of his two assistants. Neither Chris nor Buck felt the kids were too young to help in the kitchen and it was a way to spend time with the boys. Vin got the plates and glasses out of the cupboard and set them on the counter, and then Ezra took them and set the table. After that, Ezra got the necessary items out of the refrigerator while Vin tore the lettuce for the salad.
Vin was the first one to hear Buck’s truck pulling into the yard. “Uncle Buck’s home,” he announced.
Ezra wanted so badly to be like Vin when the older boy greeted Chris by running and jumping into loving arms that were sure to catch him every time, but Ezra had learned the painful truth that no one was ever that glad to see him. Instead, he paused and gave Chris a worried look.
Chris noted the look and flashed the child a smile and a wink. He buried the frown that he felt inwardly. It concerned him, as well as the other adults, that Ezra worried about adult problems that most children never even gave a second thought to.
Buck walked through the kitchen door, carrying a grocery sack and waited for a greeting. What he saw was a silent message from Chris and the almost imperceptible nod towards Ezra. Turning his attention to his son, Buck read the apprehensive look in the all-too- knowing eyes. Buck suppressed his sigh and, instead, turned up his enthusiasm. Setting the sack down, he grabbed Ezra up in his arms and he twirled him around. A smile spread over the small child’s face as Buck let out a whoop. When Buck came full circle, he asked with a large smile, “Guess what?”
Ezra had felt the tension leave his small shoulders as soon as Buck had smiled at him. “You were given the money?” Hope colored his voice.
Bouncing the boy up in his arms, Buck said happily, “Yep, sure did, and you know what?”
“What?” Ezra, caught up in Buck’s joy, asked his smile widening.
“That means we can start buying the materials this weekend,” Buck said.
Vin, who had been patiently waiting on the sidelines, spoke up. “That’s great, Uncle Buck.”
Before Ezra came, Vin would have been out the door and down the steps to greet his Uncle at the truck. Now, he figured that was Ezra’s place, even if the five-year-old never did. If Vin hadn’t understood first hand what it was like to feel uncertain about greeting guardians, he would have thought that Ezra didn’t care whether Buck came home at all, but Vin did know and he knew it definitely mattered to the younger kid. It would just take Ezra time, like it had him.
Buck turned to his nephew, shifting Ezra to one arm, and pulled Vin into a hug. “Yep, thought so myself. Thought maybe we should celebrate a little, so I stopped and picked up some ice cream.”
Vin let out a whoop of his own. “Yeah!” Vin shouted, then quieted when he saw Ezra wince.
Chris shook his head and turned back to the stove. It never took much for Buck to find a reason to celebrate. Buck put Ezra down and headed out of the kitchen to change clothes. Calling back over his shoulder as he went, “Hey, Vin, put the ice cream in the freezer so we don’t have to drink it.”
Supper that night was a joyous and light affair.
That Friday, five men and two boys had met in town at the Home Depot and did some fundamental shopping. Buck had made out a list of needed supplies to get them going. Top priority had been lumber for the outside frame: nails, hammers, chalkline and a plumb line were some of the necessities. Once these items had been purchased, the five men loaded the materials into two horse trailers.
Word had gotten out at the federal building that Team Seven was getting together that weekend to begin building the outside frames. By nine o’ clock Saturday morning, the yard and long driveway were filled with vehicles. In the end, they’d had something akin to an old fashion barn raising. The men were broken into three teams, one team for each wall, and then they got to work. Some of the wives had come along as well, having long ago accepted that being married to a law enforcer meant being married to the job and the people their spouses worked with. The children, including Vin and Ezra, were directed to play in an area that kept them out of the way of the working men. By that Sunday evening, the three wooden frames had been built and attached and to the existing frame using the old fashion hammer and nail method. Then nailed the ground boards to the cement. That night, the jovial surveillance agent thanked each officer as they departed, each one promised to return the next weekend to help frame the roof.
Within two weekends, the outline of the house was up. Not much work was afforded during the week. Once Buck got home, there was time for supper and then to be with his son, and the evening was gone. Buck didn’t like the thought of putting Ezra to bed and going off to work on the house, either. By the third Friday, Buck had made another list of supplies that would carry them through for a good amount of time.
Meeting up at the store again, it didn’t take the two boys long to become disinterested in the adult’s conversations. Vin and Ezra had moved to one of the numerous stacks of sheetrock and sat down, watching their fathers and uncles discuss the pros and cons of two types of blackboard that would be put over the outside frame, before the sawmill slats were put up. Buck, Chris and Josiah were the ones with the most building experience, but JD and Nathan, labeling themselves as helpers, had showed up because, after all, this was a family project.
Ezra glanced over at Vin and could see the other boy was just as bored as he was, for which Ezra was very grateful. He had been worried it might have been just him and that disturbed him. He wanted to be just like the other boy. Vin looked back and shrugged. He couldn’t see the difference between the two materials and wondered why it was causing such a discussion. He wanted to yell, “Pick one already and let’s move on.” He didn’t. He knew better. He stayed where he was and kept silent. Ezra was in one of his no-speaking moods. Vin stared a little longer at his cousin. He had always believed he had been treated with the worst human indignity, but the more time he spent with Ezra, the more he believed that the smaller child had suffered even worse. Vin wasn’t sure, but he did know that the kid thought twice about every single move he made, no matter where he was or what he was doing. An idea suddenly dawned on Vin and, sliding down onto the floor, he turned to Ezra and said, “Be right back.”
Ezra nodded and watched Vin walk up to his father and wait patiently to be acknowledged. Ezra smiled. He was glad that his so-called cousin as Mr. Buck referred to him as, had proper manners. The little boy disliked witnessing uncontrollable children. It made him uneasy. In his mind, they were undisciplined and uncontrollable, and uncontrollable people, no matter what age they were, scared him. Ezra watched as Chris stopped talking, looked down at Vin and then spoke, then handed him a pen, Josiah did likewise. Coming back with two pens, Vin handed Ezra one and then climbed back up on the sheetrock. Once settled, he began to doodle. Ezra watched for a few moments, glanced over to where Buck and the others stood, and then hesitantly followed suit, copying Vin’s drawings.
After coming to a decision about the blackboard, the men began stacking it onto the flat dolly. When they were finished, they turned to gather the occupied boys and move on. Muffled chuckles, that became outright gales of laughter, erupted when the five men took in the scattered pictures on the sheetrock.
“Vin,” Chris said, drawing out the name “What are you doing?” he asked, half-amused and half-upset.
“Drawing,” Vin answered factually. Looking up at his dad, he got the feeling his dad was not happy with him. “I asked you for a pen, and you and Josiah gave me them,” he finished defensively, an old habit from when he first came to live with Chris.
“I guess we’d better pay closer attention next time, “ Josiah laughed, easing the tension. The psychologist, as well as the others, knew the little boy got defensive when he thought he was going to be 'unjustly’ punished. It was how he had survived his six-month ordeal living in the previous foster home.
Ezra, who had sensed endangerment, had lain down the pen, and subconsciously begun drawing up into a ball. Feeling a warm hand on his back, he stopped the process, and looked up with hesitation into kind twinkling blue eyes. Slowly, he uncurled and begun to relax again. He was always surprised at Buck’s easy acceptance of him and his kindness.
“Well, we’re going to have to buy sheetrock later on anyway. I guess we’ll just have to buy one this week.” Buck said nonchalantly. It hurt him every time Ezra showed fear of reprisal. Buck took it personally.
“Looks like it,” Chris said, smiling, relaxing his features to show no harm had been done.
Vin and Ezra hopped down, and Buck and Nathan loaded the ‘canvas’. JD leaned over his two nephews and said, “I liked the drawings.” Both boys blessed him with smiles, one a little shyer than the other.
The rest of the shopping excursion had been just as boring for the two young boys.
After loading all the items into the two horse trailers, the caravan headed out of town. Upon arrival at Chris’, a quick lunch of sandwiches and salad was eaten and then the builders moved on to the unfinished house. Since it was only the five men working now, the improvements would go much slower.
Chris had hauled his air compressor to the new place, and he and Buck hooked up the nail gun. On the other side of the house, Josiah and Nathan had to put the blackboard up the slower way, with screwdrivers. The battery operated tools, while heavy duty and better than the hand screwdrivers, still took a lot of time and muscles. JD was cutting the boards that needed it and keeping the guys supplied with nails. Chris figured, by the time this project was over, he’d have most of his shop moved over. Vin and Ezra played in the dirt off to the side, still in sight of the men. Ezra was slowly learning to relax around the seven-year-old and felt less pressured to act like a gentlemen at all times like his mother had drilled into him. It no longer bothered him to crawl around in the dirt and make vrooming sounds when pushing his cars, or create voices for his action figures, though it usually took several glances around to make sure nobody could witness his regression. When one of the men approached, Ezra would stop his ‘childish’ behavior and sit quietly until they left. The grownups had quickly learned to be unobtrusive and listen and watch from afar.
Saturday night everyone was beat when they said their goodbyes. They unanimously decided they wouldn’t meet the next day until eleven. That night, Buck wearily washed Ezra’s hair in the tub, paying close enough attention not to get soap in the youngster’s eyes. Neither spoke. Buck thought about all the events that had led him to this moment. If just one moment had not taken place, Ezra wouldn’t be sitting here and he would still be leading his dreary life, shuffling from one date to the next.
Ezra had been doing some thinking of his own. After being taken out of the tub and wrapped in a warm towel, the little boy studied the tired face before him, with its light wrinkles creeping around the red-rimmed eyes, and wondered what made Buck so different from anyone else he’d ever known. Ezra felt the towel gently rubbed across his back and jerked slightly from the touch like always. The scars that had been there had faded almost completely, but the scars left on the inside were indelibly imprinted into his memory, never to be forgotten. Ezra watched the reddened blue eyes widen and then constrict for an instant before being forced into false shining. This, too, had become a pattern and Ezra knew if he took his gaze off the blue eyes, he would see Buck smiling at him. Ezra didn’t want to take his stare off the eyes. Those bright blue eyes gave him peace, security, and it made his tummy feel funny in a good way. Those eyes gave him peaceful nights of sleep and made the long days at school bearable. When nightmares approached, or when the day seemed unduly long, he would just conjure up those eyes in his mind and suddenly everything was okay again. He was really beginning to like being with Buck. Ezra let out a deep sigh as he felt Buck lift him up into his arms, having realized that Buck had already dressed him in his pajamas without his notice. He wanted so much to rest his head on those firm shoulders, but didn’t dare to be so bold.
Buck walked into his room and, with Ezra still in his arms, laid down on his bed. Relaxing onto the bed, Buck was glad that he had taken his shower before giving Ezra his bath; he didn’t think he had the reserves to do it later after putting Ezra to bed. He had been quiet while bathing Ezra, relishing the feel of the still baby-soft skin and knowing that the little boy belonged to him. It was a completely different feeling being a dad than being an uncle, and Buck heart was blossoming in that role. When he had taken his son out of the tub and set him on the counter to dry off, those little green eyes, that seemed to pierce right through his mind and heart, had latched onto his and stared without blinking. He’d wanted to ask Ezra what he’d been thinking, but hadn’t wanted to break the spell that encompassed the two of them. When he’d dried the small, bony back, Ezra had jerked like always and he’d felt the same urge to strike out and kill whoever had hurt this beautiful, harmless child in such a manner. Then, he had forced himself to relax and Ezra had, too. He looked down at the child that had fallen asleep already and wondered how he had come to be blessed with such a treasure. Smiling, Buck eased further down into the bed, losing the battle to keep his eyes opened any longer.
The next morning was an almost lazy Sunday morning. Buck had slept in a little later than a normal workday, but crawled out of bed sooner than he would have liked to, leaving Ezra to sleep. He dressed and headed to the barn to help Chris with the chores. Walking into the darker barn, he found Chris already at work. Silently, Buck fell into doing his own part. Some time later, Vin stepped though the open doors. Buck, looking up, called out a greeting. “Mornin’ Vin.”
“Good mornin’, Uncle Buck,” Vin answered, trying to hide his disappointment at not finding his dad alone. On the weekends, it had always been just him and his dad doing the chores, two men keeping the ranch going. Now, more times than not, he found Buck doing his share. Vin knew that Buck was only doing it to pull his share around the house, his dad had told him so, but this was his time. His job. His time with his dad.
Buck caught the note of sadness and cast Chris a look before excusing himself. “Well, since the cavalry has arrived, I think I’ll go to the house,” he said, ruffling the seven-year-old’s hair as he exited.
Vin walked up to his dad and returned the hug he received. Looking down at his son, Chris asked, “Something wrong?”
Vin looked up at his dad, taking in the strength and the tenderness that made up the man he loved so much, and shook his head negatively.
Chris just looked at his son expectantly. Vin sighed. It was impossible to lie to his dad. Chris motioned for his son to sit down on a bale of hay. Once seated, Chris asked, “So, what’s the matter?”
Vin shrugged. It would sound stupid and selfish. Chris gave up waiting and guessed, “You tired of Uncle Buck and Ezra living with us?”
Vin looked at his dad with a sad face. “Kinda,” he said softly. I mean…” he rushed on, “I don’t mind them living here and I don’t mind sharing my room with Ezra, ‘cause he’s really no trouble. He’s quiet most of the time and he keeps his side of the room clean and all. And I don’t mind playing with him, though he doesn’t seem very good at it. It’s just…” Vin stalled out on the right words.
“They’re here all the time?” Chris finished.
“Yeah,” Vin said quietly.
The two sat in silence for a minute before Chris said, “We’re working as fast as we can on the house. It’s just going to take a while.”
“I know, Dad,” Vin answered honestly.
Chris looked down at his son. “How about some night this week, can’t promise when,” he added, “We go out to eat? Just the two of us?” the blond asked.
“Really?” Vin asked. “A guys’ night, just the two of us?” The excitement showed in his blue eyes.
“Yep, a guys’ night with just the two of us,” Chris answered with a shake of his head and a smile.
“Yea!” Vin hollered, already anticipating the rare treat. Unlike a lot the kids in his class, eating out was the exception not the rule.
Sunday afternoon went smoothly. Both teams had found a rhythm and enjoyed being outdoors and being together. By sundown, two of the three walls were completed. Buck figured he would find some time to come down an hour or so a night during the week and get the end wall finished up.
Monday morning came way too early for the five men and two little boys. Though, they hadn’t done much more than play go-fers, Vin and Ezra’d had long days of playing and helping. Buck sat at his desk, looking at the transcripts that had been deciphered from the tapings he took Friday, on the case he was now working on. Staring at the sheet of words, his mind was elsewhere. He had been thinking about some things ever since the barn incident the day before. Slowly, he rose from his chair and headed to his boss’ office. Tapping on the door as he walked through it, he waited for Chris to look up. “Got a minute?” Buck asked, once acknowledged.
“Sure,” Chris said, glad to have a distraction from the mind-boggling reading he had to do.
Once Buck was settled in the chair, Chris appraised his friend more closely. Something was wrong, that much he could tell.
After an extended period of silence, Chris asked, “What’s wrong?” feeling like he was asking that question too much lately.
Buck took a deep breath and let it out in a huff. “Been thinking,” he said slowly.
When Buck failed to elaborate any further, Chris began to worry. This was not typical behavior from his friend. Chris realized the last couple of weeks had been harrowing for his friend. It had seemed, since gaining custody of Ezra, if it hadn’t been one thing, it had been another, and then when Ezra had been sent to the doctor for possible F.A.S., it had taken a big toll on Buck. Chris templed his fingers, and asked, “About?”
Buck looked up from studying his hands. “This living arrangement. Been thinking maybe me and Ezra have been too much for you and Vin,” Buck said.
“You mean for Vin?” Chris asked. If he knew anything, it was that Buck put others before himself at all costs. When they had been in the midst of their first operation as a team, JD had broken cover to take down one of the henchmen. His gun had jammed and the young rookie was left out in the open. Buck had barreled his way in front of the young agent just in time to catch the knife the criminal had thrown, right in the center of his chest. That was just the type of man Buck was, generous to a fault.
Buck nodded slowly. “Been thinking maybe Ezra and I need to move out. Give ya back yer place,” he said softly. It would mean needing extra cash, but if it made his nephew happy, then he would spend the money.
“No,” Chris said simply.
Buck looked at him. “But, Chris…” he began.
“Look, me and Vin talked it over yesterday and we’re just going to be spending more time together. In fact, sometime this week, we are going out to eat. Have a guys’ night out, as Vin called it,” the blond said with a smile. “Besides, he’d feel awful guilty if you moved out. We’ll work it out, don’t worry, but in the meantime you and Ezra are staying put. Now get back to work. I need your analysis of those tapes by the end of the day.” And with that, the conversation had been concluded.
Buck spent the rest of the day doing his work and thinking how he could spend more time with Ezra and still work on the house, when an idea, so simple he wondered how come he didn’t think of it before, hit him.
JD had watched his desk partner intermittently during the day and had worried about him that morning when Buck seemed to stare at his work. After coming out of Chris’ office, the big man hadn’t seemed much better. The young agent wished he knew how to talk to his partner and friend, but so often he felt inadequate. He didn’t have the experience, or the years of knowledge that everyone else in the office seemed to possess. JD felt like he could only sit by and wait until Buck decided he wanted to talk to someone about whatever was bothering him. Halfway through the afternoon though, Buck’s mood suddenly changed.
As the two men were walking to the parking garage, JD gathered up the courage to tread where he wasn’t sure he belonged. “Everything okay, Buck?”
Buck turned to his young friend with a smile. “Yep, everything’s fine,” he answered.
“Oh,” JD said, not sure how to proceed. “Well, I was just wondering. You seemed like you had a lot on your mind this morning.”
“Yeah, well,” Buck haltered, “I was trying to figure out how to give Chris and Vin more space, spend time with Ezra and work on the house, but I got it figured out now. So everything is good,” Buck finished.
“Glad to hear it,” JD said with a smile.
After picking Ezra up from the center, the two headed straight for the ranch. With clear instructions from Buck to go change into his ‘work’ clothes, Ezra stripped and changed in record time, beating Vin, who was changing his own clothes. Meanwhile, Buck had made two roast beef sandwiches and emptied a can of peaches into a Tupperware container. Putting in some chips and bottles of water, Buck went to change his own clothes.
Ezra waited in the kitchen and watched out the window as Chris and Vin led their horses out of the pasture and rode off on a horseride before supper. As he watched, he wished he were more like Vin.
Buck came in a short time later and the two set off to the house, taking the back road. Once there, a table was created from a slab of blackboard laid across two sawhorses, and two upturned logs made their dining arrangement. Once settled, the two ate in companionable silence. Swallowing a bite, Buck, allowing guilt to flood him for not putting Ezra first lately. He looked across the makeshift table and asked, “So, what did you do today?”
Ezra, not really thinking Buck would be that interested in his boring day, copped out. “Nothing,” he replied.
Buck gasped in mock surprise. “Nothing! Nothing! The horrors of being made to do nothing! Oh, you poor thing!” Buck said, with the back of his hand to his forehead, swooning from side to side. “Oh, oh, my poor, poor child. They made him do nothing all day,” Buck carried on.
Ezra broke out into soft giggles, which made Buck’s heart soar. “Yes, they did,” Ezra replied
“Whew!” Buck teased. Turning semi-serious, he asked, “So, what really went on at school?”
Ezra concentrated, rethinking the question. Starting slowly, he said, “Aaron, he sits at table four, didn’t listen to Miss Cate when we were making our clown faces today and he glued the eyes on the wrong side of the plate.” Ezra paused to ensure that this was what Buck wanted to hear. Getting a nod from Buck, he continued. “And then he started crying because Elizabeth, she sits at table two with me, told Aaron, that’s what he got for not listening to the teacher. So, she got in trouble for interfering in teacher’s matters and Aaron got another plate and a warning. Then at lunch, Jeremy…”
Buck sat through the whole saga that had taken place in the land of five-year-olds. He was ecstatic to learn that Ezra had actually got out of his playground spot and intermingled with the other children, even if all he did was go down the slide. Getting the little boy to participate in any activity during recess was an uphill battle. It seemed that small strides were being made.
After the meal was finished, Buck told the young boy he needed his help getting the blackboard up on the frame. Buck made Ezra put on the safety goggles, which were way too big for him and protection for his ears. The two of them carried one of the ten-by-fours over to the frame, with Buck doing most of the carrying, and, with a little maneuvering, placed it against the bottom edge of the frame. With Ezra holding it, using all of his little strength and Buck’s one hand centered on the board, Buck was able to secure it using the air nailer.
They managed to get three boards up before Buck deemed it quitting time. It didn’t take long for Ezra to fall asleep that night. Buck was conflicted about tiring out the youngster so, but he wanted to get that part of the house done and he needed to spend time alone with Ezra, too. The other positive thing that came out tiring Ezra out so much was that it made Ezra sleep more soundly, negating the nightmares that plagued the little boy often.
Vin was enjoying the solitary ride with his dad. Since coming to live with Chris, his life had done a one-eighty and, while he could still remember his torturous six months with his former foster parents, it didn’t plague his every waking hour, like it used to. He knew he was safe now, free to think and act like a child and, while he may suffer consequences for poor choices, he would never suffer pain.
When Vin had first arrived, he’d been afraid of every movement of Chris and the others, every sound, everything. The first time Chris opened his closet door to show him where to hang his clothes, he’d jumped away in fear. Chris had stared at him, making him really nervous, and then had left the room. When Chris returned, he had a hammer and screwdriver. Within the hour, every closet door in the house had been removed and stored out in the shop. Now, two years later, all the closet doors had been hung back up and Vin was no longer afraid of them. Food had been another issue he had dealt with through therapy and Chris’ constant reinforcement. Whenever Chris had put food in front of him, he had wrapped one arm protectively around his plate, scooted it as close to him as possible, and then eaten as quickly as possible before it could be taken away, shoving the food into his mouth by heaps so big that at times he nearly choked. Now, he knew he could eat normally because Chris, and the others, would let him have as much as he wanted. Sometimes, when the day didn’t go right, it would seem as if he couldn’t eat enough, then Chris would step in and stop him from eating, only to prevent a night of retching.
Vin looked around at the land that stretched before him and over to the man riding beside him. He had decided a long time ago that his momma must have talked God into letting them be together. It only made sense to the young boy. Vin smiled when Chris looked over at him. “It sure is a good view, isn’t it?” Vin asked, referring to the land around them.
“Sure is,” Chris replied, gazing at the boy he loved.
Tuesday night went pretty much like the previous night with each father enjoying the time he spent with his son alone.
Wednesday, Chris decided it would be a good night to keep the promise he made to Vin and go out to eat. Figuring his son would pick a fast food place with a playground, the father prepared himself for a dining experience filled with yelling, laughing children. He didn’t mind the happiness of the children, he’d just preferred to break down the door of a known gunrunner and arrest everyone in sight instead of submitting himself to the nerve-wracking sounds. He was a just man who enjoyed more peaceful settings, but if Vin chose such a place, so be it. Walking through the door of the center, he could see Vin chasing, in a fast walk, two other boys. “Hey, kid,” Chris called, “Ready to go?”
Vin stopped in his tracks and looked over the wall to see his dad standing there. “Yep,” he answered, as he went to gather his stuff.
Getting in the truck, Chris checked his rearview mirror. “Buckled?” he asked as always.
“Yep,” Vin said, pulling on his seatbelt for show.
Pulling out of the driveway, Chris said, “Figured we’d go out tonight like promised. So, where to?”
Vin’s eyes lit up in pleasant surprise and then squinted in concentration. Finally, he said, "The Cattle Baron.”
Chris was surprised by the answer. “You sure?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Vin answered solemnly. He had chosen the restaurant for two reasons. The first being, because he wanted to do it for his dad. In his heart, Vin knew the fast food places he usually chose were not his dad’s ideal eating place, but he always went anyways. The second reason was because, when he went to the adult restaurant it always made him feel very grownup and he liked that.
After ordering their food, Chris noticed Vin had a concerned look on his face. Chris took his time drinking from his ice tea. Setting the large glass down, he wiped his mouth and looked at his son. “You look mighty serious there. Anything you want to share?” he asked.
Vin sat there for a minute and then said slowly, “ I worry about Ezra.” Vin stopped and shook his head.. “Well, not worry, but…” Vin stammered for the right feeling.
Chris tried to help. “Concerned, Bothered, Troubled…” he threw out some suggestions.
Vin twitched his lips. “I guess it’s concerned.”
“What are you concerned about?” Chris asked, wondering if something had happened at school. He knew that, unless it was big enough for the school to call about it, the five-year-old would never tell.
Vin knew he could talk about anything because Chris had told him repeatedly he could and, in the past, he had. “When I came to live with you, I was afraid of you,” Vin started freely. This was a subject that had been talked about many times in the past. “But I wasn’t afraid of everyone,” Vin said, expanding his arms, trying to emphasize what he meant.
Chris, flinching on the inside, nodded in understanding. In the beginning, Vin hadn’t been afraid of the world in general, just of him and the guys, about how they would treat him. It had taken a long time to learn not to internalize it when the boy shied from him, or cowed when he thought he was doing something wrong. The memory that stuck out in Chris’ mind the most was one day, a couple of weeks after Vin’s arrival at the ranch. The then five-year-old, was cutting loose out in the yard, running and screaming like a typical little boy. Chris had stepped out on the porch enjoying the sight. He had stepped off the porch and was going to suggest they go ride. When he called out Vin’s name, the child all but had seizure right there in front of him. Vin’s face turned pale, he started shaking and, even though he was still standing, the boy seemed to manage the appearance of curling up into a ball. Chris forcibly controlled each step, knowing that if he ran at the child, like his heart demanded, it would only scare Vin further. Instead, he had steeled his nerves, reminded himself of the conditions in which Vin was found, and then calmly walked over to Vin and lifted him up into his arms. Pretending not to have noticed the fear, while walking to the barn, he casually began the conversation he would have had if Vin hadn’t displayed the reaction. “Ready to go riding?” he had asked. Instantly the small face came up to meet his and blue eyes widen in shock that turned to full-on happiness. That hadn’t been the only incident, but it was one that Chris would never forget.
Vin looked at his glass as if it held the words he was looking for. Finally, he let out a long breath. “Ezra though…he’s afraid of everyone and everything. And I mean everything,” Vin repeated for emphasis. “Sometimes…sometimes he reminds me of a robot. Doing what he has been programmed to do, or doing what he thinks is the right thing to do. And he won’t do anything when someone is around without being told it’s okay to do it first. Then, sometimes, he still won’t do it. It’s like he thinks you’re trying to trick him into doing the wrong thing. Like convincing him he could go down the slide at recess. It’s taken almost three weeks to convince him that Buck wouldn’t care if he played on the slide,” Vin said, looking at his dad for understanding. “You know?” he asked, hoping his dad did.
Yeah, I know,” Chris said, reaffirming what Vin had said and comparing the two boys. Vin didn’t see it, but there were a lot of similarities between the two. “It’s going to take time. Just like building the house, we have to build a new environment for Ezra. You understand?” Chris asked solemnly, remembering how Buck had given him the same speech when Chris was working so hard at gaining Vin’s trust. People who saw them now thought the two had had an easy adjustment to each other, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. It had been an uphill battle to get where they were now.
“You mean, make if okay for Ezra to be happy?” Vin asked.
Chris laughed at the simple way Vin had put it. “Yes, exactly. You are exactly right,” Chris praised. Vin beamed. Like magic timing, the food arrived at that moment and they enjoyed their meals together.
Buck picked Ezra up from the center and, once the small boy was buckled, they headed for the ranch.
“You know what I was thinking?” asked Buck as he looked quickly over to his passenger.
Ezra quit staring out the side window and looked over to see the blue eyes staring back. Shaking his head, Ezra waited nervously for what Buck was going to say.
“Since Chris and Vin are eating out tonight, I thought we’d eat at the ranch and then take Lady out for a ride. She hasn’t been for a good walk in a while now. How’s that sound?” Buck asked, daring to look quickly over at the little boy and then back to the road. He had already told Ezra that the other pair was eating out while they were walking out to the truck.
Ezra’s face was beaming. Buck didn’t need any words to tell him that Ezra liked the idea. “Yes, sir! That sounds fine to me,” the little boy replied, barely retaining the sense to use his manners.
Once home, Ezra changed his clothes in record time. He loved Lady, whether he was just petting her or getting to ride on her.
“Done,” the five-year-old announced, standing in Buck’s bedroom doorway.
The father, himself, had barely got his shoes and shirt off. Laughing, Buck said, "Guess I’d better hurry up then.”
Ezra didn’t leave. He just stood there, barely restraining himself from bouncing up and down. The agent looked at the little boy and said, “ Why don’t we ride first, then come back and have supper?”
“Okay,” Ezra agreed quickly, the smile blossoming further on his face.
Feeling like a prisoner being watched through the glass in an interrogation room, Buck finally said, “Why don’t you go on out to the barn and talk to Lady while I finish?”
Ezra left the doorway and Buck was sure he heard running feet by the time Ezra hit the living room. Calling out a warning, Buck shouted, “Stay away from the other horses!” Buck knew Ezra would never get near the other horses, partly because the child was afraid of them, but it didn’t do any harm to remind the child.
“Yes, sir!” was his only reply as the kitchen door creaked shut. Ezra was in a hurry, but not enough to lose common sense and let the door slam shut.
Buck finished dressing, grabbed a couple granola bars and two bottles of water, and headed for the barn. On arrival, he found Ezra standing on a slat in the gate talking to the white horse in a very low, serious tone as his small hand repetitively combed the broad forehead.
In no time, the duo was mounted and headed out for their favorite spot, The Plateau. The Plateau was about two miles from the ranch and overlooked a deep chasm cut through the mountains by millions of years of erosion, now covered in grass, brush and trees. It was a great place to go for solitude and to think. Buck had dubbed this place as his the first time he had seen it, and had used it many times over the years. Buck dismounted, then reached up and grabbed Ezra, swinging him down to the ground. The pair walked towards the edge. Sitting down in their special spot, Buck took a deep breath of refreshing cool mountain air, cleansing his worries. For right now, in this moment, everything was all right with his world.
Ezra sat, looking out across the ravine. The deep green of the bush and trees waved brightly in the breeze, like they were dancing for him. Without taking his eyes off the scenery, he asked, “Tomorrow night is your class night, right?” He already knew the answer, but he needed consistency in his life and therefore needed confirmation in things he knew about his routine.
Buck nodded. “Yep,” hesitating a moment before adding, “JD asked to pick you up and you two spend time together. I’ll come get you after I get out,” Buck stated.
“JD?” Ezra asked in puzzlement. He always came home with Chris and Vin on Thursdays and none of the others had ever offered otherwise.
Buck flinched when it occurred to him he had blindsided Ezra with a break in their routine. “He’s been begging all week,” Buck explained simply, exaggerating the truth just a little. “I thought, if you didn’t mind, I’d consent just to get some peace,” he said with a slightly forced smile. Turning serious, he said, “If you don’t want to though,it is perfectly okay to say no thanks. No harm. No foul. JD will understand.”
Ezra thought about for a minute and then said, “No, it’ll be fine.” He did like the young agent. “What time will you come get me?” the little boy asked. He was always asleep in bed by the time Buck got home.
“Around nine,” Buck answered truthfully.
Ezra nodded, taking in information, and the two went back to being quiet, taking in the beauty in front of them.
Though Buck had persuaded the director of the children’s home to let him take Ezra that day he’d shown up and found Ezra sitting off to himself, which had shaved weeks, even months, off the process of gaining foster care of Ezra, he still had to follow the rest of the procedures, just like any other first-time, potential foster parent. That had meant filling out the application to become a foster parent. The next step he should have gone through was a home-study guide, which since he’d already gained custody of Ezra, meant that most of the interrogation he would have gone through in the privacy of his apartment had taken place when he’d had his meeting with Ezra’s case worker, Mr. Davis. The rest, the caseworker was putting off until the house was completed. Buck knew the only reason he had been shown such leniency was because A.D. Travis had gone to bat for him
The classes, though, were something he couldn’t, and frankly didn’t want to, put off. He remembered when Chris had gone through the weeks of training so he could keep Vin. Even though he’d been a parent once, it hadn’t mattered. If one wanted to be a foster parent, they went through the seminars. Period.
Buck didn’t enjoy sitting for the long periods of time, but he learned a lot; one being how to contact other foster parents, learn from them and gain support from them. He was also being taught the legal process, tangled as it was. A part of this lesson was on how to prepare Ezra and help him deal with the parental visitations that would most probably take place.
Buck was taught about the needs Ezra had, or would have. He would also learn how to be a support to Ezra and help him through the process of healing, whether that meant counseling or just talking. He was also given ideas on how to get through those upcoming rocky moments when the honeymoon ended, and Buck wasn’t lying to himself, he knew that time would come, providing he still had Ezra. There was a lot to learn to deal with and cope with a foster child. It wasn’t like being handed a newborn and going off into the sunset for a happy ending. There could be a happy ending, but it was going to be a rocky journey getting there. At times Buck felt utterly overwhelmed by it all, but then he would go home and look down at the sleeping little angel and he knew he would do it, because Ezra needed him to.
Buck looked down at the little boy next to him, looking serene, and knew it was all worth it. Ezra chose that moment to look up at him, eyes shining brightly and blessed Buck with a true smile that made his dimples deepen. The father smiled back and thought, ‘Oh, yeah! It was all worth it!’
Buck would have stayed until the sun set, but with the time change it would have been too late. So, the father and son headed back to the ranch and fixed supper of chili and crackers with purple jell-o for dessert. The two were lazing in front of the TV, watching Disney, when Chris and Vin came home. After getting his bath, Vin came back and crawled up into Chris’ lap. The short time that was left before bedtime was relaxed and pleasant.
The next night, Buck left work and headed for the government building that housed the Child Protective Service, stopping at Arby’s for supper on the way. He had been going to classes for three weeks and had met some really nice people. Some, like him, were single and wanting to be parents, most were couples, some with their own biological children and some not. He took his seat and pulled out his tablet and pen. There was so much more to being a foster parent than receiving a kid and paying daddy. Tonight, they were going over how to deal with parental visitations. The topic struck a nerve. He knew Ezra would have to see Maude soon. The courts only banned visitation rights if it was determined it was detrimental to the child, and Ezra didn’t fit that category. Not unless his mother had seriously hurt Ezra, which without Ezra’s statement, they couldn’t prove Maude had caused the scars on his back. Buck was not looking forward to that hearing and subsequent ruling. He didn’t know how Ezra was going to handle seeing his mother, but Buck swore to himself, he would make it as painless as possible. Buck settled in for a hopefully enlightening lecture
JD was excited to be spending some time with Ezra. He had loved Vin from the beginning and felt no less love towards the new nephew. Walking into the center, he made himself calm down. He had gained enough insight to know that his eagerness of life sometimes scared the child. Walking up to the gate, he spotted Ezra sitting against the far wall watching expectantly. When Ezra didn’t rise from his spot, JD realized the boy was waiting for him to make the first move. “Hey, Ezra, you ready to go?”
Seeing the slow way Ezra rose from his place after nodding, JD suddenly wasn’t so sure about taking the boy alone. Flashes of Ezra being scared of him, having an awful time, and crying, which admittedly he’d only seen the child do once, jumped to mind. Then he spotted Vin walk up to Ezra and whisper in his ear. Ezra nodded and walked a little more confidently towards him with Vin right beside him. The two boys stopped before the gate and, for the first time, it occurred to JD just how much the two boys eerily looked alike. Both had the almost same hair coloring, dimples that deepened with they smiled, and their eyes, though different color, seem to speak for them. JD shifted gears in his mind when he realized both of them were staring at him. Grinning at the taller boy, JD said, “Hey, Vin. Saw your dad right before I left. He was just finishing up some paperwork. He should be here in no time.”
“Okay,” Vin said with a smile. He knew his dad was usually the last to leave. He also knew his dad had a very important job. He was very proud of his dad.
JD opened the gate and Ezra walked through. Walking towards the exit, both, man and child, were beginning to be apprehensive about the evening. JD unlocked the doors to his Jeep Wrangler and let Ezra climb into the back and into his booster seat that Buck had placed in there. Once the little boy was settled into his car seat, JD strapped him in, pulling twice on the straps to convince himself Ezra was secure. Climbing behind the wheel, JD started off, for better or for worse, to spend time with his nephew. JD had been thinking of all the things he and Vin had done together and knew the older child loved Mr. Gattis’ and hoped Ezra would be the same. JD drove cautiously through town, knowing if he ever got into an accident, it would probably be with Ezra in the car. Sometimes, his luck just ran like that and he took every precaution to avoid it. Parking in a vacated spot, JD hopped out and ran around to the other side to let Ezra out. Gingerly, he took the small hand in his, relieved when Ezra didn’t pull away. Stepping inside the large pizza joint, Ezra subconsciously stepped closer to JD. The agent squeezed the smaller hand and took a step forward as protector.
After placing the order, JD led Ezra to the arcade room. Ezra squeezed the hand tighter. The younger man squeezed back. For a fraction of a second, JD rethought his decision in coming here, but quickly decided the best way to teach Ezra how to be a kid was to treat him like one and this was a kid’s paradise. Stopping in front of a skeet ball game, JD put in his money and waited for the balls to drop down the narrow shoot. Picking up the ball, the adult aimed, and then tossed the ball toward the highest hole. It was a little difficult since Ezra was still clutching his other hand. Ezra stood at JD’s side glancing about at the blinking lights and pinging noises, each one beckoning gamesters to them. The little boy caught sight of a young boy with his mother throwing basketballs. Hit or miss, the child seemed to be enjoying himself. Ezra was startled when JD’s voice broke into his trance.
“Excuse me?” Ezra asked, looking up at JD, worried. Some people didn’t like having to repeat themselves.
JD saw the worry in the green eyes staring up at him. His heart fluttered for a moment at the pain it caused. To JD, children shouldn’t have to be afraid of anything, much less all the time. It was just wrong. Smiling, he squatted down to Ezra’s height. “I asked if you wanted to give it a try?”
Ezra looked sadly at the man before him. “I don’t have any money,” he said.
JD forced himself to act normal. “Well, you don’t need any. You’re my nephew; it’s my job to spoil you. So you wanna give it a shot?”
“I haven’t ever played before. I might miss,” Ezra stated.
“So?” JD said, shrugging his shoulders.
“You would lose your money,” Ezra explained further, eyeing the ball wantonly.
“That’s alright. I knew I could lose it when I started to play,” JD stated firmly, keeping eye contact with the five-year-old, something he’d learn to do with Vin when he needed reassurance. “It isn’t about the money, it’s about having fun,” the uncle said. “C’mon, give it a try,” he urged, putting the ball into the small hands. JD stood back up and stepped to the side.
Ezra eyed the holes, wound his arm back, prayed hard and slung the ball. The round object went flying to the top, hit the backboard and flew back at the duo. Only JD’s quick reflexes kept any damage from being done. Ezra had reflectively dodged the loose cannonball and was greatly relieved when JD had caught the ball. His relief turned to fear when he wondered what kind of reprisal awaited him for such errant behavior. Moving to stand behind the youngster, JD ignored the fearful look and placed the ball into the small hands and said, “Let’s try again.”
This time, with JD guiding his wrist, Ezra made the ball land in the ten-point hole. With excitement filling his eyes and voice, Ezra turned to JD and exclaimed, “I did it!”
“You sure did!” JD said encouragingly. The duo continued to play until their number was called to pick up their pizza. Sitting down, JD placed a slice of pizza on a plate and handed it to Ezra. Careful not to get it on his clothes, the small boy ate gingerly. To JD’s way of thinking, the boy ate way too cautiously, but he held his tongue. Like Buck had said, “It would take little steps.”
After finishing their meal, JD took Ezra to the showcase to pick out a prize. The pixie child looked at the man in confusion. “But it was your money,” he said adamantly, when JD had told him to chose something.
“But you threw the balls and got the most tickets, so you pick. Besides, I never can make up my mind,” JD countered.
Ezra conceded and turned back to the window and stared at the group of items the tickets could purchase. After selecting the item, a kaleidoscope, JD and Ezra headed out to his apartment. The young agent was glad that the small boy had relaxed with him and seemed to be having a good time. After parking his Wrangler, JD helped Ezra out. Looking down at Ezra, he asked, “What do you want to do? Go to the park or go upstairs and play video games?”
Ezra felt panic rising inside of him. He hated making decisions when it involved other people. “I don’t care. What would you like to do?” Ezra asked, trying to turn it back on JD.
JD shook his head with a smile. If he had learned anything from being around his newfound brothers, it was tenacity. “Nope. You’re my guest and you get to choose.”
Ezra thought about and dismissed the park; he wasn’t in a swing mood. “I like your video games when we used to live here,” Ezra said tentatively.
“Video games it is then,” JD said, taking the small hand in his. The young agent knew there really wasn’t any need to hold the boy’s hand, he just liked the physical contact and he figured Ezra did, too.
Buck threw away his styrofoam coffee cup on his way out of the meeting. It had been one of the more depressing classes he’d been to. He knew from working as a law enforcer that there were some really skewed laws on the books, but in family court, it seemed that they took the prize for it. Tonight’s lecture just proved his belief. He couldn’t believe how many natural parents received custody of their children for reasons that the pound would consider to dangerous to let a pet go back to its owners. He could rationalize first time offenders for white-collar misdemeanors, like bad check writing, but repeat criminals, or parents with known drug problems that wouldn’t clean up their act? Buck couldn’t get his mind wrapped around such allowances. He understood parental rights to a point, but he wondered about the children’s rights. The courts might talk a good game, but he’d been around too long to believe the judges didn’t really put the child’s needs before the parents. Climbing into his red ’57 Chevy, he worried about the time when he would have to take Ezra to see Maude in the women’s correction jail. That day was coming and Buck planned on being positive about it for the boy’s sake.
By the time Buck got to JD’s door, he had forced himself into a better mood. JD opened the door before he could knock and shushed him. Buck walked into the living room and smiled. There on the couch, Ezra had reclined back into the soft sofa’s cushion still holding the game controller loosely in his relaxed hands, asleep. Keeping his gaze on his son, Buck asked, “You guys have a good time?”
JD knew what Buck was really asking. “A little nervous at first, but we went to Mr. Gattis’ and he played skeetball.” Buck turned to JD and raised an eyebrow. JD smiled. “He won enough tickets for a kaleidoscope,” the younger man said, handing Buck the toy. “Then we came here and played Pac Man. He seemed to have really liked it.”
Buck smiled gratefully. Taking the controls from Ezra’s hands, he carefully picked up the limp body. Smoothing down the rumpled shirt, Buck bid JD a goodnight and headed out. Driving through the dark streets, Buck turned to gaze quickly at the little boy, illuminated intermittently by the streetlights. Whatever it took to make the child’s, who had stolen his heart, life easier, he would do.
Friday night finally arrived. It meant the same to every man and child; relief for two days. They all met up at the diner that had become their new hangout. The five enjoyed just sitting back leisurely and talking. Vin and Ezra were playing hosts to the customers that were regulars. Usually they did pretty well in the tip area, too. Both, Buck and Chris, separately had fixed a designated place to put their change at the end of the night. It became apparent quite quickly that Ezra hoarded his money, while Vin liked to spend portions of his.
Josiah laughed as Ezra carefully carried one glass of water at a time to an older couple that patronized the place quite often. The look of concentration on the youngster’s face was priceless, just like the smile he wore when he immediately came to Buck showing off the fifty cents he’d just earned. Tomorrow and Sunday they would put up the decking on the roof to get it ready for shingles and, little by little, they would build a home and a future for two souls who needed both.