By: Angela B
Disclaimer: No way are they mine
Note#1: Thanks to the tireless effort by NT who makes my stories presentable.
Note#2 SPECIAL THANKS: to my dad…who reached into cyber space and saved my story from going into the dark void.
Note#3 Thanks to Twy: for trying to help me regain use of my computer when it ate my story.
Note #4 Follows: Operation: School, but can stand alone.
(Moved to Blackraptor January 2010)
Chris and Buck were still on the porch discussing all the improvements they would have to do to the shack. Both men were flowing with ideas, their excitement growing as they shared ideas, when the other teammates began pulling into the yard. Vin got up and ran to the first vehicle, stopping a safe distance away until the motor had been turned off and the tall profiler stepped out. Then the seven-year-old lunged at his oldest uncle. Ezra had followed Vin more sedately to where they stopped, but instead of moving forward to greet the men, he stayed put. After hugging Vin and setting him back down on the ground, Josiah walked over to the five-year-old, squatted down and stuck out his hand.
“Hello, Ezra,” he said warmly. He would never force the child into a hug.
“Hello, Mr. Sanchez, sir,” Ezra responded formally.
So it went with the other two men. After the hellos, the two boys went back to playing while the men gathered on the porch. Buck was too excited about the prospect of starting on the new home to hold back any longer and began explaining about Chris’ generous offer and their subsequent ideas. Each friend took the news with mixed feelings.
JD felt a sting and a small loss at the idea of Buck moving away, even if were just moving out to the country. The older agent had had been the one to fight Chris for him a place on the team. Buck had also let him move in with him in the beginning until an apartment down the hallway had opened up. The fun-loving friend had always been right there and the young agent felt a little lost that he wasn’t in Buck’s plans. But, as he watched Buck talk, he realized a few things. The big brother really wanted this move and JD would never dream of being so selfish as to deny or stand in the way of Buck’s happiness. A second thing occurred to the young agent: lately he and Casey has been spending more time together. It had been quite a while since he and Buck has really spent time together like they used to. JD found himself getting caught up in his big brother’s plans and had a few of his own.
Nathan was leery of the idea. Glancing over at Josiah, he could tell the profiler was having the same thoughts.
Nathan was happy for Buck. He hoped things would work out and that Buck could settle down with Ezra – that everything would be perfect. However, as he observed the ladies’ man, he feared Buck was just being his normal, outgoing, positive self. Nathan was afraid Buck wasn’t seeing the red flags. If this plan failed, not only would Buck be hurt, but that little five-year-old might be terribly damaged as well. Nathan continued his gaze at Josiah, and they shared a sad countenance.
Josiah barely kept himself from rolling his eyes. Why did he always have to be the bearer of bad news, the one who had to bring up the hard topics? The profiler prepared himself mentally and plunged forward.
“You haven’t told Ezra, have you?” he asked hesitantly.
Buck, who had still been talking non-stop of his plans, stopped in mid-sentence and stared suspiciously at the big man. He had heard the sadness, but also a warning in Josiah’s voice. “No,” Buck said cautiously and slowly.
“Let’s hold off on it for a bit,” Josiah said carefully. This was like defusing a bomb; the slightest miscalculated word and the whole thing could blow up.
Why?” Buck asked, now fully wary of Josiah’s conversation.
Josiah heaved a breath. “Buck, I know you want what’s best for Ezra,” Josiah began.
“But,” Buck said slowly, interrupting as he became more irritated.
“You only have temporary custody of him,” Josiah explained. “It would be best to discuss this matter with Ezra’s social worker first and get it okayed before making the announcement, just in case you find out later you can’t move him.”
Taking another breath, Josiah continued. “Then there is the matter of getting Ezra transferred. I just think it would be best if everything got squared away first before you got too involved in moving plans and before you tell Ezra, just in case things don’t work out. He doesn’t need any more disappointments,” Josiah finished. He was so relieved that Buck had actually sat and heard him out instead of taking off his head.
Silence descended around the five men like a heavy weight. Josiah, looking at Buck’s crestfallen face, felt like he had just burst a child’s dreams. Guilt descended down on him. The profiler hated being the bad guy. Soft laughter drew their attention to the middle of the yard where Vin was laughing as the old dog, Hank, lavished wet attention all over little Ezra’s face. At each lick of the impossibly long and wet tongue, Ezra’s face screwed up in a disgusted twist of horror. At the same time, Ezra was smiling in silent laughter as he watched Vin’s face get slapped steadily by a wagging tail. Hank was oblivious to Vin’s swatting hands. The scene broke the spell that had fallen over the team of friends and the rest of the afternoon was spent like every other Sunday.
The next morning, Buck drove Ezra to school. The ride had been very quiet. Buck had assured Ezra that he would have a talk with his teacher and that the environment would get better. The father parked the truck and walked the boy into the cafeteria were all students congregated until 7:45, whereupon they would then be excused to go sit outside their classroom door until the 8:00 bell rang. After saying their brief goodbyes, Buck continued on to the office, determined that one way or another, a meeting of the minds would take place.
Seeing the tall agent enter her office, the secretary smirked inwardly, wondering briefly how much Mr. Shrot would give her if she told the father he wasn’t in. Monday morning was certainly starting off with a bang. Stepping up to the desk, Buck announced seriously, “I’m here to see Mr. Shrot and Mrs. Stevens.”
The secretary smiled, nodded and picked up the phone to buzz the principal. “Mr. Wilmington is here to see you,” she said in a professional voice.
Inside his office, the principal quietly cursed. He thought the weekend would have given the foster parent time to cool off and be rational. Apparently, that wasn’t the case. Stepping out of his office, he extended his hand towards the big agent and said, “Please, Mr. Wilmington, won’t you come in?”
“I also want Mrs. Stevens in on this,” Buck said, as he walked into the room.
The principal plastered on his business smile and said, “Mrs. Stevens is getting ready for her class.”
Buck stood where he had stopped and waited patiently. Sensing that they would not get the matter resolved in fifteen minutes, Mr. Shrot stepped back out into the outer office and spoke to the secretary. “Will you please get Blanca to cover Mrs. Stevens class, so she might join us?” the principal asked.
With a brief nod, the secretary picked up her phone and paged the assistant. She almost felt sorry the teacher, but not quite. A couple of minutes later, Mrs. Stevens walked into the outer room and the secretary nodded for her to go in to the inner office. The secretary couldn’t help but notice the perturbed look on the teacher’s face and hoped Mrs. Steven’s replaced it with a more happier face before she met Mr. Wilmington.
The older teacher had walked to the principal’s office very unhappy. This parent was causing a disruption in her schedule and she hated disruptions.. Getting the okay from the secretary and walking up to the closed door, she stopped, put on her game-face and opened the door with a cheery smile.
“Mr. Wilmington. How nice to see you,” she said cordially.
Buck had been with the federal agency for over twelve years; he could spot a lie a mile away and this teacher was lying badly. Taking the offered hand, he responded, “Mrs. Stevens.”
Mr. Shrot motioned for the teacher to sit down, then preceded to fill in the teacher with Buck’s concerns.
Five minutes into the agent’s list of issues, Mrs. Stevens held up her hand to stop the man. “Mr. Wilmington, I can appreciate that you want to do the best for Ezra, but I assure you, given time, he will adjust to our schedule and incorporate himself into the classroom,” she said passively.
“Mrs. Stevens,” Buck started, “I will be the first to admit that I may not be experienced in parenting, but I do know that a child shouldn’t dread going to school.”
The agent’s mind flashed on the soft little face that had appeared in the kitchen just that morning. The five-year-old didn’t have to say what he was thinking, it written on his face. The normally bright green eyes were dulled and the smirky grin he usually got in the mornings was nowhere to be seen at all. The ride to school had been so quiet that if Buck hadn’t known better, he could have sworn they were on their way to a funeral instead of school. When he told Ezra, he was going to speak to his teacher; the little boy looked alarmed and told him there was no need for it, he was fine.
Buck had simply ruffled his soft brown hair and replied, “I want better than fine.”
Buck was bought out of his musings by the teacher’s voice.
Mrs. Stevens fought the urge to put this arrogant person with his my-child-deserves-everything-I give-him attitude in place by telling him if he told the kid to straighten up, they wouldn’t be having a problem. In reality, she said, “Ezra is a child who is going to have difficulties adjusting due to his many emotional problems and it would best suit him if we just set the rules and expected him to follow through. Giving him restrictions and guidelines will help.”
Buck could tell the woman’s sympathy was a fraud and while her thoughts may have merit, he doubted she said them with deep sincerity. “I don’t want Ezra being labeled. He’s only five and, granted, has had a hard life, but I will not have him labeled emotionally challenged, or whatever the blazes you call it. If that’s your best solution I suggest we keep trying,” Buck said rather heatedly. He knew what it was like to be labeled. He knew once the label was affixed after a student’s name, they carried it with them throughout the rest of his school years. He wouldn’t allow that to happen to a five-year-old who had potential.
Mr. Schrot could see the father before him was becoming agitated and excused the teacher in hopes of resolving the matter between them.
An hour later, Buck walked out of the classroom with a little less weight sitting on his shoulders. It had been agreed that Ezra be moved to a kindergarten class on the condition that if he started struggling with the rigors of keeping up with the schedule or began having troubles interacting with the other students, he would be moved back to Pre-K, but placed in the other classroom. He had met the new teacher. She was much a young woman, who seemed to be vibrant and happy to have Ezra in her room. She had welcomed the little boy very warmly. Buck had been relieved to see such a difference in teachers. Buck could tell Ezra was a little apprehensive about the sudden disruption, but he was hoping the little boy would adjust given time. Ezra would still have morning circle time and, from what Buck understood, that particular thirty minutes in the morning would continue up to second grade, but at least there was no naptime to contend with now. Buck left feeling much better. Now he had to visit Social Services.
Buck sat nervously in the waiting area of the Department of Children and Family Services; otherwise known as DCF. The large seating arrangement left something to be desired with its white walls and ten rows of hard plastic chairs, without enough room between each row to adequately stretch one’s legs out. Buck shifted his weight and uncrossed his legs, only to re-cross them in the opposite direction. He looked around at the people in front of him; some of the grownups had children with them, while others sat alone. He began amusing himself by guessing what each one was here for and whether they were the legal parents of said child or not.
His thoughts were disrupted by a familiar female voice next to him. “Mr. Wilmington?” the woman asked questioningly as she sat down.
Buck turned in surprise and a smile broke out on his face, as he greeted the woman. “Mrs. Potter,” he said warmly. “How are you?”
Mrs. Potter and her deceased husband had run the small convenience store/gas station located near the cut-off to Chris’ ranch. Mrs. Potter now ran it by herself. A rich landowner’s nephew, Lucas James, who thought it’d be a kick to rob the place, had shot and killed the man when Mr. Potter fought back. Buck and Chris had taken it personally and arrested the boy. Since he was seventeen, he had been tried as an adult and was now serving the maximum time in prison.
“I’m fine,” the woman said and then asked curiously, “Here to file a complaint against a parent or something?”
Buck leaned back in his chair and his smile deepened. “No, ma’am. Found me a boy that had been abandoned. Have temporary custody right now,” he explained. Pausing a minute before saying quietly, “ Hoping to make it permanent or at least more permanent than it is now.”
Mrs. Potter smiled. She had no problem seeing the tall agent doing that and, in her eyes, he would be a fine daddy. The man had the biggest heart next to her beloved’s.
Buck suddenly became intrigued at the woman’s appearance in the place. “What brings you here?” he asked. Sitting up straighter, he looked at the woman with worry. “You’re not having trouble, are you?”
The woman shook her head no, knowing the agent was asking if she was about to lose her own children. She had no doubt, if that was the case, the big man would go to bat for her as much as possible. After the shooting, Buck had taken a great interest in her two children, Matthew, 9 and Martha, 8. He was always stopping by for gas on his way to or from Chris’ and always took time to talk to the kids. Now that she thought about it, she realized she hadn’t seen him for the last couple of weeks.
“No,” she said. Mr. James keeps giving me a hard time about paying his monthly allowance.”
Buck sighed in deference to the woman’s plight. After her husband’s death, Stewart James had been sued because, since the boy was under 18, he was legally responsible for his nephew’s actions. He now had to pay a stipend each month for the Potter children until they turned twenty-one. Since the rancher was giving the woman a hard time, she had to go through DCF, who would appoint her an attorney and make sure the man paid his debt.
“Sorry,” Buck said softly, the tone inflecting more than the simple word.
Mrs. Potter could only nod. There wasn’t anything that could be said about it to make it any better.
After a long period of waiting, Buck was finally called. The man he followed was reed-thin, tall and had thick red hair, not what Buck was expecting as a social worker. The man arrived at the destined cubicle and waved Buck in. After the agent entered the doorless partitioned section, the man turned to him and extended his hand. “I’m Mr. Davis. I will be Ezra’s caseworker,” he said informatively, but sincerely.
Buck took the hand and shook it firmly. “Buck Wilmington. Please to meet you.”
Although most people only saw the laid back and jovial side of Buck Wilmington, there was another dimension to the agent, the serious one, and right now Buck was all business. He watched as Mr. Davis smiled grimly, setting off the alarms in Buck. He knew bad news when he saw it coming. Buck watched the caseworker draw in a deep breath as Buck steeled himself for what was to come.
“Mr. Wilmington, I have gone over Ezra’s file and, while Mr. Knight might have made you the boy’s temporary custodian, Ezra’s case has now been turned over to DCF. I am sorry to say that I don’t think that being in your care for long term foster care is the best thing for him,” the social worker said.
Buck felt physically sick, worse than when he had gone to the children’s home and had tried to leave without that little boy. When he signed all those papers in the director’s office, he knew it was supposed to be temporary. While he knew it had only been three weeks ago, in his heart it seemed a lifetime. He had told himself over and over not to get so attached to the boy, but he couldn’t help it. It had just seemed so right.
Looking at the caseworker, he said, “Look, if it’s about him wondering off and getting lost, I had a long talk with him and he knows not to do that again. I even went to his school this morning and got a different teacher for him so he doesn’t dread going to school,” Buck spilled out.
Keeping the momentum going while he had the man’s attention Buck kept going, a small part of his brain registering that he was talking faster than JD usually did. “I was actually coming to see you this morning about getting permission to move him out of town. My friend, Chris Larabee, he’s also my boss, has lots of land outside of Denver and has offered a shack for us to live. Of course, we can’t live in a shack, I realize, but my friends are willing to help fix it up real nice, and there is a school out that way where I think Ezra will do better. At least Chris says Vin is doing pretty good there, so I see no reason it can’t benefit Ezra, too,” Buck rattled on. Suddenly noticing Mr. Davis’ hand up in the air, he cringed, fearing that he had gone on too much.
The first good sign was the genuine smile the other man had on his face. “First of all, Mr. Wilmington, Ezra getting lost was a concern, but you being an ATF agent and being able to call in so much reinforcements was actually a mark on your side. Being a cop,” Davis stopped when he saw Buck grimace at that word. “An agent,” he corrected, “You were able to begin the process of finding the boy faster than a normal parent, who would have panicked,” he said.
Buck interrupted. “Oh, believe me, I panicked when I found him gone. Scared a good deal of my life out of me,” he said slightly embarrassed at admitting to being scared.
The other man seemed to understand. “Children can do that, even when they aren’t trying,” he said warmly.
“As far as the meeting with the teacher, I am aware of that problem and your…”,Davis paused for a moment, “let’s say ‘tenacity’,” he added, smiling, “to solve it.”
Blushing, Buck asked, “You do?” Wondering if he had over stepped his boundaries as a foster parent.
“Oh, yes. Mr. Schrot called me right after you left and filled me in,” Mr. Davis informed Buck.
“So, does that give me a mark in the ‘for’ or ‘against’ column?” Buck asked straight on.
“Actually, it shows you have compassion and that you pay attention to Ezra’s surroundings and are in tune with what makes him happy and what doesn’t,” Davis explained. “But, we need to decide what is in the best interest of Ezra,” he stated firmly.
“Best interest?” Buck asked incredulously, sitting further upright.
“We must assess Ezra’s needs and put his welfare first,” Mr. Davis said calmly. He didn’t think this parent would relinquish his foster son without a fight and he really wanted to see how far this man was willing to go for the little boy. So far, it looked like the man had what it would take to help this little boy.
“Let me tell you what Ezra needs,” Buck said, getting wound up for the fight of his life. “First off, that boy needs to know someone is going to be there twenty-four/ seven. I’m not talking about just having someone in the house with him; I’m talking about someone who will watch his moods. Now granted, I’m real new at this, but I haven’t worked surveillance for twelve years without learning a thing or two about reading people. This kid isn’t going to just stand up and say, ‘Hey, I need,’ or ‘I want’. Nope, the person he gets placed with is going to have to be a mind reader,” Buck said as he inhaled and continued. “As far as him needing a mother, well, personally, I don’t think he’d trust a woman right now. The only woman that’s been a mother to him left him alone. The trust factor just isn’t going to be there,” he said. Mr. Davis sat back and became quietly amused at the agent’s ranting.
“Second, he needs to be taught how to be a kid,” Buck said, stopping to catch his breath. "Well, I can do that. You just ask any of my colleagues,” Buck said with a smile, before continuing.
“If it’s an educated person you’re looking for, then that’s me, too. I know that most people who don’t know me see when they look at me. They see me having fun and think I’m some dumb agent who don’t know my right from my left. But, let me tell you something, I’ve got a four-year degree in Communications AND Electrical Engineering. I, also, continually take classes to keep updated in the newest electronics. I have been an agent for twelve years. I have a good income and a pretty good savings that would help if Ezra were to need counseling over the years. Most importantly, though, I have patience and I love that boy. Those two things are going to be needed, a lot, with Ezra because, while the rest of the world may see him as just a little boy, he has seen too much and learned too many things to be a simple little five-year-old. You can place him in a home with a white picket fence that has a mother and a father, but that isn’t going to majically erase all his problems and we both know it,” Buck finished and sat back. He may have blown it for him and the kid, but he had given it his best shot.
Mr. Davis sat back and quietly studied the man before him and saw devotion and determination. “There will be obstacles,” he said in a challenging tone, looking less stern.
Buck relaxed and scooted back into his chair. Smiling, he said, “Mr. Davis, I’m good at overcoming obstacles and I love a good challenge.”
Mr. Davis laughed and said, “Yes, I believe you do and I think you just landed you a doozy of a one.”
Buck’s smile blossomed even further. “That mean I get to keep the kid?,” he asked.
“Yes, Mr. Wilmington, that means you get to keep the kid,” Mr. Davis assured the man before him. Leaning forward, the caseworker said, “You know, when you walked in here, I was ready to tell you that we would pick up Ezra this afternoon, but I have to tell you, Mr. Wilmington, you are a mighty good at persuading people to see the other side.”
Buck found himself blushing again. “Thank you,” he said. “Now about moving?” he asked, moving on to his next quest.
Mr. Davis laughed. “I will have to check it out, but I don’t see why not. We have had many dealings with Mr. Larabee over the past two years and I know him to be of good character. If you are moving out on his land, I have no doubt that he will help you provide the best place of living for Ezra.”
Buck nodded, he hadn’t thought of the fact that Davis would know Chris when he bought up his friend’s name. “We’ll make sure everything meets code,” Buck said reassuringly.
Mr. Davis nodded. “There are some issues we need to discuss and get resolved,” he said, his voice indicating the seriousness of the matter.
Buck straightened up again and listened carefully.
“A initial counseling session needs to be scheduled,” Davis said. “Let’s think of it as a pre-emptive move against future problems.”
Buck nodded in agreement. He loved the kid and knew from watching Chris deal with Vin that problems didn’t automatically surface. Sometimes it could take a while before the serious ones started showing. “Okay,” he answered.
“Another thing is that while Ezra’s mother, Maude, may be incarcerated, she still has some privileges until otherwise deemed by a judge,” Davis said carefully.
Buck sucked in his breath. He hadn’t even entered Maude into the equation. “Can she keep me from having Ezra?” he asked with fear. He could see how the woman might not want the man who arrested her raising her son.
“No,” the caseworker said. “While in custody and, since there are no other relatives or friends that she has suggested for her son to stay with, she has no say over the placement DCF puts her son,” he explained. “She does, however, have the right to be in communications with him,” Mr. Davis said, stopping to allow Buck to adjust to this information.
“Now, this would include letters, phone calls, and, if she wishes and the warden and the judge agree, she can ask for visitations rights to her son. This, of course, would normally take place around Ezra’s education, but seeing how he is only in kindergarten, it won’t do him much harm in missing half days,” Mr. Davis explained, as Buck tried to absorb this new information.
“If, in the event you are unavailable to take Ezra on a scheduled meet,” he said, “Providing she gets visits, ” he stopped for emphasis, “then a staff member from this office will take Ezra in your place,” Davis said. Having finally come to an end, he waited for Buck to digest it all and get his mind wrapped around the news.
“Okay,” the agent finally said. Then looking hesitantly, he asked, “What if Ezra doesn’t want to see his mother?”
Becoming suspicious suddenly, Mr. Davis asked, “Are you going to have a problem with this?”
Buck looked angry for a moment before replying. “Yes, but my feelings are irrelevant. I’m asking what if Ezra has no desires to see his mother. He hasn’t even mentioned her once since coming to live with me,” he explained.
Mr. Davis nodded in understanding. “If Ezra shows to have emotional or physical repercussions from the visits, then he will be referred to a child psychologists who is trained in these matters and he will do an assessment. If it shows that the visits are overly upsetting or too much for Ezra, then we will call them off,” Davis explained. “As I said, the interest of the child comes first,” he emphasized. “Sadly, I can’t say that was how it’s always been. Used to be the rights of the parents came first, no matter how damaging it was to the child,” Davis said sadly. Suddenly smiling, he said, “I’m glad to report we are finally getting our heads out of the sand,” he said with a weak smile.
“Me, too,” Buck said. “So, when will I know?” he asked.
“I will correspond with the women’s facilities and see, first of all, how receptive Maude is to having contact with her son. We don’t want Ezra trying to contact her, even by letter, only to be rejected. I will get back to you and tell you what we have set up,” he explained.
Buck nodded and then stood, noting that the meeting had come to a close. Extending his hand, he said, “Mr. Davis, it was nice to meet you and I guess we’ll be talking soon,” he said.
Mr. Davis also stood and took the hand and said with a smile, “Oh yes, and often.”
Buck laughed a little and turned to leave. As he walked out into the lobby the feeling of a great weight was lifted off his shoulders. He would get to keep Ezra at least for a little longer. They were given permission to start building a new life and, all in all, it had been a productive morning. He hesitated a moment, deliberating whether to wait and see if Mrs. Potter’s was going to be all right. After a few seconds, he came to the conclusion that he would have no idea how long he would have to wait. He decided he would let Chris know of the problem and then Chris could stop on his way home and check on the woman.
Skipping down the steps with a light spring to his step, he pulled out his cell phone. Since everything seemed to be going his way, he decided he might as well see what all would be involved in getting Ezra transferred to the new school. Pushing in the coded number, he waited for his boss to pick up on the other end.
To say the blond leader was in a foul mood was putting it mildly. Between playing Monday morning catch-up and worrying about his best friend’s situation, Chris was a bear with a sore tooth. The men sitting outside the office were equally worried about Buck and the newest member of their family. Along with having to deal with their worries, they also had to contend with keeping as many people away from their boss as possible, which wasn’t too hard once the word got out that Chris Larabee was not in an approachable mood.
Near noon, they heard the phone in the inner office ring, followed by dead silence, then a small shout. It took a moment for the men to decipher whether it was strangled irritated shout or not. A moment later Chris walked out of his office with a deep grin on his face. “We get to keep him for a while longer,” he informed the rest.
Three louder versions of the earlier shout could be heard throughout the floor offices. There would be reason to celebrate tonight. Chris went on to expand on why Buck was missing. “Caseworker says there will be requirements. Buck didn’t go into them on the phone, but he didn’t sound over anxious about them. He said the caseworker had okayed his move, so he’s going to the new school and seeing about the requirements for transferring Ezra out there,” he said.
“Seems our prayers were heard, brothers,” Josiah said with a large smile. It may have only been three weeks, but Ezra Standish had wormed his way into all of their hearts.
“Can’t wait ‘til I tell Rain. She’s secretly hoping to baby sit in the future,” Nathan said. No one was fooled by his attempt at trying to be removed from the situation. The guys knew Nathan liked being around the little guy as much as the rest of them.
“Way cool!” JD exclaimed. “Another little nephew,” he said enthusiastically.
“Are you going to meet Buck at the school, Chris?” Josiah asked expectantly.
“No,” Chris replies. “I asked him if he wanted me to, but he said he had to learn how to do it on his own,” the blond finished, the pride in his friend showing through.
The men nodded and got back to work. It was doubtful that Buck would be in today at all.
Buck pulled into the parking lot of the school. The whole building and its surrounding area screamed ‘new’. The brick building almost shined in the sunlight; the playground equipment was painted vibrant colors and looked inviting even to grown men. Buck shook his head at the stray thought and headed inside.
Stepping inside the glassed off office, he waited for the secretary to finish typing whatever notes she was completing. When the woman finished, she looked up and greeted him.
“Sorry I kept you waiting. I appreciate your patience,” she said warmly.
Buck had studied her during his wait. As an agent, it came second nature; as a lover of women, it came first. He’d immediately noticed the gold band on her right hand. She looked to be a woman in her fifties. Her hair was short, but styled nicely and highlighted by a few silver hairs. The small wrinkles around her eyes and mouth suggested she laughed a lot. Her clothes said classy, but not chic. Her long nails were natural, not artificial. The desk and surrounding area was very clean and organized; this woman knew where everything was and Buck would bet his last dollar knew every student personally.
“No problem,” Buck answered, his face lighting up as the woman put him at ease.
“Can I help you?” she finally asked when it seemed the man had stalled.
Buck took a deep breath and said, “I would like to talk to the principal about having my son transferred here.”
“I can help you with that,” the secretary offered.
“I would like to talk the principal first,” Buck replied.
“Okay, just one moment,” she replied.
Ringing the inner office, the secretary spoke briefly before hanging up. A short time later, a woman came out of an adjoining office.
Mrs. Jordan greeted the tall man. She took note of his pressed navy-blue slacks, white shirt, blue tie and blue suit coat. His mustache was neatly trimmed, as was his dark wavy hair, combed back from his ruggedly handsome face. Mrs. Jordan placed him as a businessman.
Stepping forward, she shook the man’s hand as she introduced herself. “I’m Mrs. Jordan. How can I help you?”
Taking the smaller hand in his, Buck automatically adjusted his grip as he spoke. “I’m Buck Wilmington. I would like to enroll my son here, but first I thought I’d talk with you a moment.”
The average-sized woman, with blondish-brown hair and had an air of authority about her, nodded her head once sharply and lead the way into her office. “Please come in,” the woman said, as she gestured for Buck to follow her.
After the two were seated, Mrs. Jordan asked. “Now then, what can I do for you, Mr. Wilmington?”
Buck shifted a moment. This was as important to him as any of his earlier meetings. He felt the pressure to persuade the principal to allow Ezra to be enrolled before they actually had permanent residence in this district. Swallowing once, he began.
“I’m a federal agent with the ATF. About three weeks ago, we found a child alone. Abandoned.” He paused for a moment before he said, “I won’t go into details.” Seeing the woman nod, he continued, “ I became his foster father. Ezra is five, but he has the wisdom of an old man sometimes.” Shrugging, he lowered his voice in admission, “Though, I don’t think he feels secure enough to really show how much he knows.”
Looking up at the woman, his smile returned,. “But I’m betting he’s a real smart little boy.”
Buck stopped and leaned forward. Resting his elbows on his knees, he templed his fingers. “But,” he continued, “I don’t care for the school he has to attend. There are too many children in the classes. I’ve had three meetings with the principal, two of which included the teacher. I have the distinct feeling they are too overrun to be able to give Ezra the attention and support he needs. I was able to get Ezra moved to another classroom this morning, but I’m not sure that’s going to solve any problems,” he finished softly.
Taking a deep breath, he finished his spiel “I’ve talked to his caseworker and he’s okayed the move if I can get Ezra enrolled here. I want Ezra in a school where he will be helped and educated,” he said.
The principal had sat through the father’s speech and could easily see the passion Buck had for his son. It was clearly written in his eyes and in the way he spoke about the child. “Mr. Wilmington, I sympathize with your desires to do what is best, but even if I wanted to, the school zoning laws are quite specific. You must live in the area for Ezra to attend school here,” she said kindly.
“We will be,” Buck said. Then in a softer tone said, “Eventually.”
Looking at he woman with pleading eyes, he explained. “ See, Chris, my friend and boss, has a place on his ranch that he’s letting me have. Only thing is, it needs fixing up, which is going to take a little while. But, in the meantime, he’s offered to let me and Ezra stay with him and Vin,” Buck said hurrying the last part.
Mrs. Jordan paled slightly. She pursed her lips for a moment before she quietly asked, “Chris? As in Chris Larabee.”
Buck almost laughed. His poor friend did have a way of leaving an impression on people. Smiling widely, he said, “Yep, that would be him.” Then in joking tone, he asked, “Hope that doesn’t work against me?”
“Well,” Mrs. Jordan said. She paused to choose her next words carefully. “He is a very…involved parent.”
Buck actually laughed out loud this time. “Yeah, ol’ Chris is kinda tenacious sometimes. Especially when it effects his family,” the agent said knowingly.
Mrs. Jordan’s limp smile blossomed back to full as she said, “Yes, he does care about Vin. I will give him that.”
“That he does, ma’am,” Buck said, and then added, “ That’s why I thought this school would be good for Ezra. Chris is always talking about how good it is here and how much everyone works with him to help Vin. I want the same thing for Ezra.” Buck would have said more, but didn’t want to seem like he was piling it on.
“And you will be living with Mr. Larabee until the house is finished?” she asked. Her mind began processing all the ugly scenes that could occur if she turned down the blond man’s friend. Getting a nod in reply, she templed her fingers together and asked, “When would Ezra be starting?”
Buck thought about it for a minute before saying, “ I have another week on my apartment lease and it will probably take that long to get moved out to the ranch.” Looking up, he said suggestively, “But I could start driving Ezra out here before then.”
The proincipal took in the suggestion. It wouldn’t be the first time a child had started school before the parents actually got moved. “Next Monday, then,” she said with a broad smile.
Buck smile grew large before nodding in agreement. “Next Monday,” he said cheerfully.
She stood and gathered all the necessary papers Buck would have fill out. The genial man took the stack, silently shaking his head, while thinking, ‘Definitely worse than the government.’ As he strolled out the door, he came to the conclusion that picking up Ezra a little early would be a great way to cap off the day.
Buck pulled into the school parking lot and watched a group of children playing out on the playground. Looking at his watch, he figured Ezra had already eaten and might be out there on the grounds. Knowing the rules stated he had to check in with the office first, he went inside. He noticed the secretary’s doomed look at seeing him walk through the door and definitely hated it. He wasn’t that bad and, if the school didn’t want parents involved in their children’s education, they were in the wrong business. A smile broadened on his face as he thought that he and Ezra would only have to endure this for four more days. He walked into the office and announced, “I need to pick up Ezra. He has an appointment.” He just didn’t say what kind of appointment.
The secretary looked mildly relieved and nodded her head. “I’ll have to go get him. He’s at recess right now.”
Buck nodded in understanding and gave her a warm smile. He knew it wasn’t the secretary’s fault for his feelings or his dealings with the teacher and principal.
The secretary smiled back for a moment before nodding her head at some thought and said, “I’ll be right back with him.”
Buck sat down on the hard chairs outside the office and waited. A few minutes later he watched as a little brown hair boy, pulling his backpack, walked down the hallway warily towards him. Even from a distance, Buck could tell the Ezra was ‘on guard’ against some unknown fate.
“Hey, Buddy!” Buck exclaimed as he took the backpack from the small hand, trying to hide the laugh he got from Ezra’s expression at being called buddy. “Forgot all about your appointment this morning.” Talking loud enough for the secretary and the principal, who had stepped out of his inner office, to hear. Turning his back to them, he gave Ezra a large grin and a wink. Taking the small hand in his, he led the child outside.
Once outside, Ezra could no longer contain his fear or his curiosity. “What may I ask is going on?”
Looking down at Ezra, with his wide green eyes, Buck smiled. “Thought we’d play hooky the rest of the day and go have some fun.”
“Hooky?” Ezra asked puzzled. “Won’t that receive a punishment of some kind from Mr. Larabee?” he asked.
Buck sighed inwardly and wondered how much punishment Ezra had received of his own to be so critical. “Nah. He knew I had things to do today and it’s too late to go in and get anything accomplished now, so we might as well enjoy the rest of the day,” Buck said, as he buckled Ezra into his safety seat.
They had struck a silent bargain about the booster seat. When being picked up at school, Ezra could avoid getting mocked by the other kids by not climbing into booster seat right there. Even though it was heavily suggested, very few parents put their child in such restraints. Once Buck pulled out of the parking lot and turned onto a side street, then Ezra would get in his chair and buckle up. Now, though, since there were no other kids around, Ezra climbed straightway into his chair.
Buck went to the other side and climbed in. “Let’s go home and change into some comfortable clothes and then we can decide what to do next. Okay?”
Ezra simply said, “That would be all right by me.”
After getting home and changing clothes, Ezra walked into the kitchen to find Buck making sandwiches and putting things into two blue Wal-Mart sacks. Ezra stood there for a moment watching before moving into the kitchen and silently stepping up next to Buck. The big agent looked down at Ezra with his big blue eyes. Like every other time Buck looked at him like that, Ezra felt a safe feeling he’d never known before come over him.
“Thought I’d pack a lunch for us since I haven’t had lunch and I doubt you ate much of yours at school. We could go around to the back to the park and have a picnic. How’s that?” Buck stated as he finished putting a couple of sodas into a small travel ice chest.
Ezra didn’t know what else to say, so he simply nodded. Buck handed him the small ice chest while he gathered two bags and out the door they went.
At the park, they settled under one of the trees. Buck began unloading the bags. Ezra looked around, expecting to see some of the other men that Buck worked with. He’d never seen so much food packed for just two people, especially since he didn’t eat that much.
Buck watched as the little boy kept looking over his shoulder and finally asked, “What’s wrong, Ezra?”
Ezra whipped his head back to look at Buck and replied, “Nothing, Mr. Buck.”
“Then why do you keep looking over there?” the dad asked.
Blushing deeply, Ezra chewed on his lip for a minute before saying, “I was just wondering which of those men were joining us for lunch.”
“No one is coming, kiddo. It’s just us,” Buck said and then asked, “Why did you think someone was coming?”
Ezra really began sucking on his bottom lip in worry before quietly saying, “There was so much food, and I just assumed you had invited one of the others to come keep you company.”
Buck let out a booming laugh and then stalled for a moment not knowing how to respond, before finally doing what he’d been doing since becoming this kid’s guardian: be honest. “Ezra, you’re the only company I want for the day. As far as the food, well…I’m a growing boy,” he said with another laugh while rubbing his pouched out stomach.
Ezra got the same feeling he always felt when Buck laughed. He fought to keep back his own smile before finally letting it escape. Somehow, Buck’s words always made him feel better, almost important, like he was someone worth being around. It made his toes tingle.
Buck waited and watched while Ezra had discerned whether or not he believed him. Buck had kept from sighing. It was like this a lot for him: saying something straight from the heart and then Ezra deciding whether or not to believe him. Before Ezra came along, no one had ever challenged his honesty, now it seemed to be debated regularly by Ezra. He wondered how many times the kid had been lied to and figured it would be easier to count how many times someone had been honest with the kid.
After the two finished, Ezra helped the guardian pack away their belongings and throw the trash away. Since it was mid-day, the park was completely empty. Buck looked around and wished he had thought to stop at JD’s and get the sand toys. The agent laughed out loud at the memory of when JD brought Ezra and Vin took the park and they bought home a bucket of frogs. He’d thought they never would catch all the little amphibians. It was the first and last thing Ezra had done to prove there was a little boy inside that miniature body. It also showed how big Ezra’s heart was, not wanting to separate the families. Looking about the park, he said, “Why don’t we go swing?”
Ezra gave him a bewildered look that was quickly replaced by a blank look. He nodded non-committedly. The youngster hadn’t quite got rid of that ache in his stomach that said something was wrong. As the two sat down on the swings, Ezra couldn’t muffle a giggle as Buck grunted to get his big frame into the small rubber swings. Buck looked with mocked indignation. “What’s so funny?”
Ezra startled for a moment and stilled. He hadn’t meant to laugh out loud, but the scene as kind of funny. “Nothing, Mr. Buck,” Ezra answered quickly.
Cocking an eyebrow and really putting on a show so that Ezra would catch on that he was playing around, Buck huffed. “These delicate little swings just weren’t made for a well built agent,” he said with an air of grandness.
Ezra let a smile slip out. “Probably not what they had in mind when they built them,” he offered. At this Buck really laughed.
Ezra concentrated on pumping his legs back and forth and tried to ignore the glances Buck was giving.
Buck rocked back and forth in the swing using his feet to keep even with Ezra, trying to gather up some nerves. He hadn’t realized how much power the little boy had over him until today. He hoped that Ezra wanted to move just as much as he did. Finally, Buck asked, “How was school today? And I want the truth,” he quickly added.
Ezra was silent for a minute before answering. “It was all right.”
Buck noticed the simple answer and knew he was going to have to ask questions to get the answers he wanted. The agent compared the little boy to some of the criminals he’d interrogated over the years and figured Ezra would put some of them to shame.
“You like the teacher?” Buck prodded.
“Her enthusiasm is nice to be around,” Ezra replied.
“You meet any kids you…liked,” Buck asked, trying to find the right word.
“There was one or two that was quite nice and smart,” Ezra responded.
Buck figured that was about as close as Ezra was going to get to saying they were acceptable in his world.
“Have fun at recess?” Buck said hopefully.
Ezra merely shrugged.
Buck stood up and stepped behind Ezra’s swing, noting the boy immediately tensed his small shoulders. Buck grabbed onto the chains and gently pushed and pulled the swing back and forth. “I’ve been thinking about some things a lot lately and I was wondering if I could ask your opinion,” Buck said, keeping his voice without emotion.
Ezra sat very still in worry and shock. He wondered what the agent was thinking about, but at the same time, he couldn’t fathom anyone ever asking him for his opinion. He had always been told how it was going to be and to follow directions like a ‘good little boy’. Ezra waited for Buck to talk, anticipation and anxiety growing steadily in the pit of his stomach.
“For starters, I was thinking about us moving out of the apartment. Chris and me talked it over and he’s got a small house we could have. If you like the idea, you and me would move out to the country,” Buck said in a rushed voice. “Now mind you,” he hurried on, “it wouldn’t be anything splendid and we’d have to live with Chris and Vin for a while until the house was remodeled. But it would be ours and there would be plenty of room to get out and run around.”
Ezra sat stunned. Buck was considering to a new home. Buck wanted to move WITH him and Buck had actually asked his opinion about it. Ezra knew there was no way he would say no. He could tell this was what Buck wanted. Ezra swallowed a few times and said politely as possible,. “If you wish to relocate, then I think you should, Mr. Buck.”
Buck let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. He let go of the swing, stepped around in front of it and knelt down in front of Ezra. Holding on to the sides of the swing for balance, he looked Ezra in the eyes. “It means going to a new school. I’m sorry about that, but I think this one is better anyways. Vin goes to it, so you’ll know at least one person there It’ll be a fresh start for both of us,” Buck said, trying to keep his voice level and honest.
Ezra remained motionless. Moving. New School. Adjustments…again. It was nothing new to him, except this time, someone was making the transition with him. Now they were to moving to a house…a home, Buck had called it. He liked that thought-- having a home with Buck. Except for Maude, he had never made transitions with the same people. The sudden thought of Maude brought his hopes crashing down like spinning plates off the poles. He had tried very hard not to think of his mother; it only made him sad.
Buck got up and stepped behind the swing, giving Ezra the room to think over everything that he’d been told. Buck knew it was a lot for the child to take in all at once. He noticed Ezra had slowly started swinging his legs back and forth and Buck obliged with a gentle push.
Realization had dawned on the little boy with a hard punch to his heart. If it costs too much, the man shouldn’t do it. After all, he wouldn’t be around for very long. Maude would eventually show up and then the nice man would be stuck with a home he probably didn’t really want in the first place. Ezra finally broke his silence. “Is it going to cost you a lot of money?” he inquired hesitantly.
Buck rolled his eyes. This kid’s mother must have had a one-track mind, the agent thought. Unfortunately, he figured, she passed it on down to her son. “Nope. In fact it will probably save me money in the long run. What I put into rent will pay the house payment and, in a few years, I’ll have it paid off. I’ll save all that money I would have been throwing away for my apartment. Plus, this way I’ll wind up owning the place,” Buck said honestly.
“If this is what you really want, because you know Maude will be coming to get me soon,” Ezra said with a touch of hurt in his voice. The director had told him that his ‘mommy’ had been caught with some bad people and had been sent to jail. It hadn’t been the first time Maude had been arrested, but Ezra hadn’t told the director that bit of information. Ezra had no doubt that Maude would get out and then come find him.
Buck almost fell over in shock when Ezra mentioned in his mother. The big agent quickly gathered himself together and wondered how to proceed on such shaky ground. Cautiously, he said, “Ezra, your mom is in jail and is going to have to stay there for a while.”
Buck had already learned that the woman’s bond had been denied because she was considered a flight risk. Buck continued, “She has to stay there until they have what is called a grand jury.” Buck stopped and decided how to best explain that part of the system. “A grand jury is when the lawyers all get together before a judge and give him their evidence. The judge will then decide if your mother should stand trial for doing something wrong. If he decides yes, then she will have to stay in jail until her trial.” Buck decided to stop it there. No use explaining about the trial until they got to that point, because sometimes that part could take up to a year or more.
Ezra sat there, patiently listening, and then said, “Mother will simple explain to the judge that she was misled by her fiancée and was just an innocent bystander. Just like before. Then the judge will let her go and she will come and get me and we will move on.” The last sentence was said softly and a tad sadly. Ezra wasn’t sure how he felt about his mother coming back and taking him away from Buck.
“Before?” Buck asked, puzzled, the word leaping out before he could think. Buck knew he would have to tell Chris about this and follow up on the lead. Clearing his throat and steadying himself, he leveled his voice and said, “So, you’ll live with me until then.” Hoping he sounded as sure and confident as he was trying to be.
“Oh,” was all Ezra said. He hadn’t expected that response.
The two remained silent for a little while. Ezra finally said in a low voice, “I think if this is what you would like to do then it would be most acceptable with me.”
“Alright then, it’s settled,” Buck said with a rush of relief as he gave a little extra hard push on the swing chains.
Having already set the table for supper, Ezra went into the living room to play while Buck finished cooking. Stepping out of the kitchen, Buck walked quietly into the living room to see what Ezra was so focused on. There on the floor, made of Legos, was a red house, complete with windows and a door. Buck could hear Ezra talking to himself as he worked on the large green plate of Lego meant to be the yard. “Maybe we will have flowers in the yard and it will be a real home,” Ezra whispered.
Buck nodded to himself. If Ezra wanted flowers then the two of them would plant them. And make it a real home.
Clapping his hands together to make Ezra aware he was in the vicinity, Buck called out, “Supper!”
Ezra left his Legos and jumped up and walked over to where Buck was standing. The father took Ezra’s hand and led him to the table. In a couple of months, they would be eating supper in their new home.
Next: Midnight Thoughts