By: Angela B
Disclaimer: Not mine and never will be
Note: Thanks to NT for going through this twice and making this readable. Any mistakes you find are mine and not hers.
Note: As a teacher of elementary grades, I can attest that the activities in this following story as the truth. No matter how outrageous some of it seems.
NOTE: The tooty-ta song is sung like an add-on song…after each chorus they sing the previous steps and add on the next step…At the end it is quite a sight.
Follows Friends, Frogs and Facts
(Moved to Blackraptor January 2010)
Buck blew out his breath. He would not hyperventilate. He could do this. He had been a cop for almost ten years and an ATF agent for six. He had been in situations where the criminals outnumbered him five-to-one. This should be a piece of cake. Buck took another deep breath to settle himself. He could deliver one five-year-old boy to school without having a nervous breakdown. He could, so he kept telling himself.
He had risen early and prepared a nutritional breakfast for Ezra and himself. The new dad heard his son approaching the kitchen and turned to meet him. Coming through the doorway came Little Mr. GQ. Buck had learned after the first day, that the boy was quite proficient in dressing himself, except for tying shoelaces, but eventually that, too, had been mastered. Ezra had gotten out his good clothes that the Social Services had gathered up when they had taken the boy away. He was dressed in the same pressed tan slacks, blue, long-sleeved, oxford shirt and brown loafers that he had been wearing the day Buck had taken him from the Children’s Home. His hair had been perfectly parted on the side and slicked back into style by gel. Stopping near the refrigerator, Ezra leaned against it, crossing his ankles and stuffing his hands into his pockets. In this position it looked just like he was a model posing for a picture.
Buck heaved out a silent sigh as he moved toward Ezra. Squatting down to the small boy’s height, the normal gregarious man gazed into the serious green eyes staring back at him. “I thought we decided these clothes were for special occasions?” Buck asked gently.
“I believe one’s first day of school is marked as a special occasion,” Ezra replied, a little afraid he had done the wrong thing in both the clothes and the answer.
Putting his hands on each small hip. “It certainly is at that,” he said with a tension-easing smile. “But I bet you won’t want to them dirty, so you won’t play at recess, either,” Buck said, having learned through observation that Ezra didn’t play like normal kids. In fact, Ezra didn’t behave like a normal child in general. Whether it was from fear or he had been taught little boys just didn’t do such things was still a guess to the guardian. Ezra was still getting accustomed to playing in the day-to-day clothes that Buck had purchased him earlier.
“I am not going to the academy of education to play. I am going there to learn,” Ezra said seriously.
Buck shook his head once and then gave his son a wink and a nod. He was learning that with Ezra it was the tiny steps that counted right now. Getting Ezra adjusted to going to school and the idea he would be waiting for the boy at the end of the day was more important than what clothes Ezra wore. They would work on that later. Buck stood and led the child over to the table where bowls of oatmeal, toast and orange juice awaited them. Looking at Ezra with a smile, he said, “You’ll be the best dressed pre-k student there. You’ll have all those little girls chasing you in no time.” Buck laughed at the wry face the little boy made at the comment.
Walking out of their apartment, they ran into JD coming out of his. “Hey!” the young man exclaimed. Bending down to Ezra’s level, he said excitedly, “So, Ez, today’s the big day?”
Buck shot his friend a warning glare. He would kill JD if he made the morning any harder than it already was. JD caught the look and was startled by it for a minute before a smile crept slowly into place. Buck had finally found another person to transfer all those paternal feelings onto. Another thought crossed his mind that made him almost grimace. He had always been on the receiving end of Buck’s protection and had watched how the bigger man had treated others when he felt JD was in trouble. Now he would be on the receiving of the hostility if Buck thought harm was going to come to his boy. JD decided to tread very lightly and never wind up on the wrong end of Buck’s wrath.
Looking back down at the boy, JD said, hoping for a safe topic, “You look really snazzy, Ez.”
“Thank you, Mr. Dunne,” Ezra said softly. The team was still being referred to by their last names. They didn’t mind; it would take a long time for Ezra to accept them but, they would get there eventually, just like they had with Vin.
Stopping himself from patting Ezra on the head, something they all knew he hated, JD said, “You have a good time today and I’ll see ya tonight, okay?”
“That sounds nice. Perhaps…” Ezra paused for a minute, looking up at his guardian for approval before completing his statement. “Perhaps, we might could play a game?”
JD beamed. It was the first time Ezra had taken the initiative to interact with him. Usually someone else suggested an activity and Ezra would go along with it. “Cool! I’ll see ya tonight,” JD said excitedly.
Buck hadn’t known exactly what Ezra was going to say but knew the boy wanted to invite JD to do something with him. He was glad Ezra was slowly uncoiling from his world and letting them in, even if it was for something as simple as a game. “See ya in a little while,” Buck said as the two men headed towards their respective vehicles.
“See ya.” JD waved. He and Buck used to carpool to work a few times a week and would probably get back to the routine, but Buck had wanted to take Ezra to school alone this week and JD easily understood. With all the unknown trauma the little boy must have buried within himself, it made perfect sense for Buck to not want anyone around these first couple of days.
Buck pulled into the parking lot and killed the engine. After going around to the other side of the truck, he lifted Ezra down to the ground, took the small hand in his, and headed for the office indoors. Halfway there, it occurred to Buck how willing Ezra was to let the man hold his hand. Ezra didn’t like physical contact on the whole; the only exception was at night when he and Buck went through their routine of sitting and listening to their song and Ezra falling asleep on the agent. The team was learning that Ezra was a very independent child, forced to be by circumstances that shouldn’t have been.
Buck walked the small boy to the office and met with the principal. He handed him the stack of papers he had had to take home and fill out. He had been amazed at the amount of signatures that had been required. They even had a form about the Zero Tolerance program the school had implemented. Both he and Ezra had to sign it, stating that they understood and agreed that bullying, narcotics, etc was not allowed and that the punishments had been written out for them to understand and they agreed to adhere to the rules and consequent punishment.
Ever since the school shootings had begun a few years back, schools were really cracking down on bullying, although Buck didn’t see that as being a big thing in the lower grades, and while the program worked for the elementary, he knew for a fact that it didn’t work so well in the upper grades no matter how hard the adults tried. Kids were still dealing drugs on school grounds and kids were still being bullied to the point of needing to extract revenge. Buck sighed, it didn’t say much for young one’s lives, when they thought they needed to take weapons to school to protect themselves. Turning his attention back to the present, he turned back to his son. Letting go of Ezra’s hand, he knelt down and said, “Okay, I’ll be right out there in the circle driveway, where I showed you, when the bell rings.”
Buck wanted to hug the child, to reassure them both that they would make it through this day, but didn’t risk it. Ezra was trying very hard to act every bit a grownup and Buck wouldn’t spoil it for him. There would be plenty of hug time tonight though, Buck mentally promised both of them. Ezra nodded solemnly and put on his most convincing face. He wouldn’t let anyone know just how scared he really was. Looking into the deep blue eyes before him, he knew one person did know and wasn’t ashamed of him at all for the small weakness.
Buck, still watching those green eyes, continued, “Your teacher, Mrs. Stevens, has my number and has agreed that anytime you need to contact me, for any reason whatsoever, all you have to do is tell her and she’ll let you use the classroom phone.”
Buck received his answer in the form of a very quiet, “Yes sir,”
Buck wanted nothing more than to pick Ezra up and walk out the door. He fought the pulling power and rose to his feet. Looking at the principal, he gave the man one of his sterner looks. “If there’s any problems I want to be notified immediately.” He noticed Ezra’s small tongue begin to dart out, but was withdrawn immediately. Ezra was fighting not to show how nervous he was and Buck would back him by pretending not to notice.
Mr. Shrot spoke a polite, “Yes, Mr. Wilmington, of course.”
The principal mentally shook his head, parents made leaving their children harder than it should be. Mr. Shrot briefly relived the day before. A tall man had walked into the office and informed them he wished to enroll his son. He had sat down with him, the vice-principal and the teacher-to-be and gave a brief outline of the abandoned child’s situation. He had emphasized how important it was that Ezra be made to feel secure. Buck had especially stressed how he wanted Ezra to be able to contact him whenever the child wished. Mr. Shrot had restrained himself from rolling his eyes at that suggestion and had noted the teacher was also mentally fighting the urge of her own. The broad agent had explained how he was still building on the infrastructure of trust with the child and it was important to the agent that Ezra realized he could be counted on no matter what the situation. After thirty minutes of the agent’s demands to know his foster son would be reassured and provided a safe environment without too many demands on him in the beginning, Mr. Shrot had thought Mrs. Stevens, the teacher, was going to tell the agent she had other things to do than pacify one child, but the teacher hadn’t and Mr. Shrot had been relieved.
Buck looked back down at Ezra. “Okay then,” Buck said, stalling. “I’ll see ya at 3:30,” he said with a forced smile.
Ezra figured if he didn’t say something the big man would never leave and though a big part of him didn’t want Buck to leave him, he knew it was necessary. That confused him because Maude never seemed to mind leaving him and he had always accepted her departures as a way of life. “Okay, I shall await your arrival at the predestined porch.” Wishing the man would hurry up and leave before he lost his control, Ezra said, “Bye.”
Buck patted the small shoulder one more time, turned and walked out he door. Once inside the truck, Buck had to wait until he calmed his frayed nerves before he could start the engine. He knew without a doubt this would be one of the longest days of his life. Starting the truck, he pulled out of the parking lot and headed for work. He sure hoped Chris had a lot to occupy his mind today or he’d never make it.
Ezra followed the principal into Mrs. Stevens’s room. Straightening his clothes and thrusting his shoulders back, he walked into the lion’s den with his head held up and vowed not to run screaming to the parking lot. He hadn’t told Buck that he had once been sent to private school for a couple of months until the school found out he was four and not a dwarfed six-year-old like Maude had told them. He hadn’t liked it there anyway. All the kids had been much older and bigger than him and the nights had been terrifying. It had seemed to him that most of the older students had gone out of their way in telling horror stories just to scare him. Some of the older girls had taken to ‘mothering’ him and that hadn’t been so bad until some of the older students, that really were six, began tormenting him for it. Ezra pushed away those thoughts as Mrs. Stevens bought him to the center of the classroom and introduced him to the class.
Greeting the teacher, Ezra hid his humiliation at being placed in this class. He should have been in kindergarten at the very most. Buck had said there had been a problem locating his birth certificate and though, Buck never said it, Ezra had gathered that Maude had not been compliant in providing one or telling Social Services where they could locate a duplicate. Buck had apologized to him for having to be placed into pre-k. He would have to just be patient until some kind of test was given him that would show just what placement would be most beneficial to him. Ezra had accepted the placement with indifference; there wasn’t much he could do about it anyway. The apology Buck had given him had been easily accepted. Buck, he was learning, was feeling his way through this maze, called school, too. It amazed and slightly unnerved him that Buck seemingly cared about him and was trying his best to make it right for him.
After a quick introduction, Mrs. Stevens showed him to a round table that was already occupied by two girls and a boy. Sitting down in the empty chair, Ezra held onto his backpack tightly. Mrs. Stevens bought him a packet of papers with the month printed plainly on the cover sheet. “Ezra, why don’t you put your stuff over here in this locker. Juan won’t mind sharing with you. Then you can work on your journal. We do one page a day. You draw a picture about the topic of the day and then write a couple of sentences telling about your picture,” the woman explained.
Mrs. Stevens was a fifty-six year old woman, who had been teaching for thirty years. She was married and had three grown children and most importantly she was five months away from retirement. She was tired of her job and couldn’t wait for that school bell to ring for the last time before she could walk out and never look back. Schools were quite different today than when she had first begun teaching. Back then, the kids were far more respectful and more mature than even the parents of today. The parents of yesteryear were more involved in their child’s lives. Today, even the ‘older’ parents were so childlike and lenient beyond capacity in their behavior that the children seemed to be the ones in charge instead of the parent. Discussing a child’s problem was like weaving one’s way through a treacherous maze. More so than not, the parent sounded just like their child when they would whine, “It’s not Johnny’s fault.” Today’s child held no responsibility for their actions because it could easily be blamed on something else.
Of course, Mrs. Stevens would be the first to admit that NOT every child and parent was like that, but a vast majority of them were, enough to tip the scales and make teaching no longer enjoyable. After thirty years, it had become the ultimate survival game. She had been called into a meeting late yesterday evening with the principal, the vice-principal and a parent of a new student she was getting. Right off the bat, the man start explaining his ‘son’ had issues with trust and security. She had wanted to snap that the child needed to be in a school for emotional challenged children if he was so bad, but had held her tongue. She saw Buck as just another parent making excuses for his child in advance. The “Not My Child” Syndrome.
For some reason she had began resenting Ezra before he even appeared in her class. Whether it was the foster father’s attitude, that implied she should give the child special attention, which was most difficult with twenty other four-and-five-year-olds in the classroom. Or if the child seemed like he was going to be another burden. He would be one more added to the already too many students she had to deal with on an individual basis. It wasn’t as if she didn’t have enough things to do; between the constant paperwork on children who needed extra monitoring, thinking up new things to do and not repeating the same lessons she had been teaching for thirty years, attend meetings, inservices, special committee meetings and packing up thirty years of stowed materials, she had a lot to do. Plainly put, she was tired and ready to quit. All she had wanted was a downhill slide into May and then retire. Now, looking down on the brown-haired little boy with such a bland expression except for the pleasant smile gracing his face she hoped he wasn’t as needy as she got the impression from his foster father.
Ezra nodded and mumbled a quiet, “Yes, Ma’am,” to her directions. Staring at her cautiously. Something about her set off warnings to be wary of her.
He didn’t want to let the backpack out of his sight. Buck had taken him to the store and purchased it especially for him, along with the pencil box and all its contents. Observing that all the other students had similar boxes at their place, Ezra removed his box from his pack, placed it at his area of the table, stowed the bag, and walked back to his chair and began working on his picture. The topic had been put on the board and it read, ‘My family does this on the weekends….’ The class had already discussed the topic, so Mrs. Stevens, quietly, albeit reluctantly, came over to the new student and knelt down beside him. In a hushed voice, she read the sentence for him. Ezra turned to the teacher studying the older woman. Deep lines had grooved themselves into her face. He could read a certain sadness, perhaps tiredness in her heavy lidded eyes. The once black hair now had hints of white and the smile that she probably had when she was younger was no longer wide and cheerful, but forced and droopy. She didn’t want to be here anymore than he did. His attention was bought back to the forefront when he realized she was still speaking to him. She was actually explaining what the topic meant, like he was some dumb idiot. The color in cheeks rose as the humility of the situation occurred to him. The other students at his table had quit working and were now centering their attention on him. Ezra bit down on his tongue in an effort not to tell her that not only did he understand the nature of the topic, but also he could read the sentence by himself. He held he tongue and forced himself to stay in a relax posture so the teacher would not notice his irritation. He knew Mr. Buck would not approve if he were rude to his teacher. He did what the only option was available; draw up into himself and shut out the world without showing the outward signs.
After Mrs. Stevens rose up and walked off, Ezra looked down at the blank piece of paper and heaved an inward sigh. He didn’t really have a family, he just had Buck and he had only been with him for two weekends. Ezra chewed on his lip and thought. Maude never occurred to him, though it wouldn’t have helped if he had.
Sensibility told him if he wrote about the things his mother had him doing some weekends, or any other day for that matter when he was allowed to stay with her, it would get him in a lot of trouble. He didn’t know why, but he had the feeling Mrs. Stevens wouldn’t like knowing that Maude had him scamming older men or leaving him alone. Ezra finally settled on the previous two Sunday’s when Buck had taken him out to Chris’ It wouldn’t really be a lie since Buck said that’s what the guys did it most of the weekends anyway. Maybe, if he got to stay with Buck then he would be going to Chris’ most weekends, too. Ezra sighed to himself at the next problem he had, writing his letters wasn’t much of a problem, but he couldn’t draw worth a flip. After peering around the table he noticed that the other students sitting at his table couldn’t draw or write at all, just scribble. Feeling better about it, Ezra picked up one of new crayons and, carefully holding it, began to illustrate the blank part of the page to use for his picture.
Mrs. Steven watched Ezra draw a pool of water and then five large stick figures and two small stick figures. The teacher while impressed at the child’s drawing ability was simply amazed at his writing skills. She was puzzled though, she was sure that the boy had had no other family than his mother and she knew the new foster parent was single. Curiosity getting the better of her, she stepped forward and bent down to eye level. She watched as the little boy carefully and diligently spelled out words to tell about his weekend. She was in awe at how well the supposedly five-year-old boy could write complete sentences. All but one other child and she could only draw certain letters, besides this new student just scribbled, thinking they were writing their thoughts. They would start learning how to write words next year, right now just having the children experience writing was what teachers wanted to enforce. Mrs. Stevens read Ezra’s sentences; ‘Mr. Buck took me to Mr. Larabe ranch. I played with Vin. We ate lunch. Then we rode horces to the lake. It was a plesant day.
Mrs. Stevens couldn’t help but be awestruck at the little boy’s writing skills. Suspicion began growing, “How did such a young child learn to write?” She couldn’t decide whether to be abundantly pleased that maybe this child would not require the attention Mr. Wilmington had asserted he would, or be suspicious that such a genius child wound up in her class. Perhaps, some of the parents had heard rumors that she showed partiality to some of the smarter students. Plastering on a forced smile she began lavishing extra attention on Ezra, like she did all new students. Mrs. Stevens knelt down and began discussing, Ezra’s picture.
“Can you tell me about your picture?” she asked.
Ezra froze. Wasn’t it obvious, he worried? He had drawn a circle and colored it blue. His stick people, though it wasn’t great by all means, he believed was a fair representation of people. Couldn’t she tell they were in water, swimming? He looked down at his sentences and mentally read each one. Yes, right there he had clearly written they had gone to the lake. Ezra mentally spelled ‘lake’ in his head and was certain that was the correct spelling. He looked up into the still-waiting teacher’s face. She obliviously was expecting a reply. “We’re swimming in the lake on Mr. Larabee’s ranch,” he said.
“And who is Mr. Larabee?” Mrs. Stevens asked, trying to pull more information out of the subdued little boy, part of it being her job and part of it curiosity. She wanted to know more about this well-dressed little boy. He was definitely not dressed in Wal-Mart type clothes and she was dying to know more about Ezra than Mr. Wilmington had offered.
Ezra looked around his table to find that once again he was center of their attention. Not allowing his shoulders to slump or show any emotion, he replied, “Mr. Buck’s friend.”
“Do you and Mr. Buck live with Mr. Larabee?” Mrs. Stevens asked, wondering if she had missed something in yesterday’s meeting.
“No,” Ezra replied hesitantly, not liking the question being asked for some reason. “Him and Mr. Buck have been friends for a long time,” Ezra felt a further explanation was needed.
“Oh. So, is he a cop, too?” she asked in a very sugary voice that made Ezra want to cringe.
“No,” Ezra said evenly. “He’s a federal agent. They all are,” Ezra explained, pointing to his picture. “Except Vin. He’s Mr. Larabee’s son.” Cringing for that last remark, knowing full well it hadn’t needed to be said.
“Ohhh. So you went to his house and swam?” Mrs. Stevens asked. Ezra simply nodded, hoping she would get the hint, he was tired of this conversation and wanted her to move away. She was entirely too close. He was beginning to find it difficult to breathe, let alone concentrate on what was going on.
“Well, did you have fun?” she inquired. Another nod. Ezra was getting an uneasy feeling with this woman’s questions. Mr. Larabee and the others hadn’t interrogated him this much and that was part of their job.
“Well, I’ll let you finish making your picture,” she said as she rose to her feet. “Maybe a little grass and a sky would help. You could draw the horses, even,” she said, thinking she was giving the boy more ideas to add to his picture.
Ezra heard the suggestions as derogatory remarks. She was telling him that his picture wasn’t good enough as it was and needed to be improved. He slowly nodded his head. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied softly. He was here less than an hour and already he was messing up. He was going to have to try harder to please this teacher so Mr. Buck would know he was a good boy and worth keeping.
Patting the little boy on the back, she frowned at his attempt to duck away from her touch. Smiling softly, she stood and walked away to her desk. Fifteen minutes later, she was standing and said, “Okay, children, put away your journals and come to circle time.”
Ezra followed the little girl that sat to his right, who apparently had taken it upon herself to be his friend and guide. Ezra mentally shrugged. He didn’t need a friend, a guide maybe, but just until he got the routine down. Walking up to the designated area, Ezra noticed each child had its name taped to the carpet. After looking at each name carefully to see if his name had been added, he only felt a small sting at the fact his name was missing. Having no assigned placement, he moved to sit in the back row where he could observe better. Ezra sat down and then slowly inched backwards until he was slightly sitting outside of the back row. Mrs. Stevens watched out of the corner of her eye and allowed this maneuver. She sighed as she realized she had not marked him a spot, and made a mental note she had better get the child’s name down on the floor before ‘daddy dearest’ made an unsuspected visit and began asking questions. She had been in a hurry yesterday after the meeting to go home and had forgotten all about putting the child’s nametag on the floor and the locker. She was glad the child wasn’t knowledgeable enough to know she had simply forgotten. Looking over the child sitting cross-legged with his hands in his lap like the other children should have been, she smiled and said, “Sorry, Ezra, I ran out of name tags. I’ll have it down in the morning, okay?”
Ezra easily read the lie in the woman’s face and voice, but only responded with a wide smile and a, “Yes, ma’am. That’s okay.” He was going to say more, but felt it prudent to play it down for the moment.
After the pledge and discussing what day it was and then learning the correct date. The appointed ‘helper’ for the day went through the number chart, with the other students counting with him. Next, the teacher put on a CD and Ezra sat back and watched as the children sang songs about the colors and the alphabet. Ezra was completely confused as to how most of these children didn’t know their numbers or how a calendar worked. There were two or three exceptions, but the rest of the students were lost. Ezra quietly mouthed the words. He was getting quite discerned by the lack of knowledge these fellow students were demonstrating. He could only hope he was given whatever test Buck said they were going to give him and soon. Maybe, then he would be placed with children of his level of intelligence. Next, the children stood and seemed to get into a readied position. Ezra stood, but kept up his observance of the classroom. The next song came on and the children did the Macarena to a ‘say-the-name-the month’ song. Ezra, all but putting his head in his hands, stared as the children shifted, twisted and sang loudly to the song repeatedly. He was in some kind of torture room. What in the world was that teacher thinking having these kids do their little song to such a…a...grownup dance. Ezra sighed deeply. This was going to be worse than the time Maude dressed him as a little girl for a con of hers when he was three. After the song ended the children plopped back down on the carpet. Ezra looked at the clock and sighed. He had been here less than an hour, this day was going to be longer than he had expected.
Then the teacher smiled as she changed CD’s. The children seemed to anticipate what was coming, as the group as a whole stood again and began getting excited, dancing around and jumping up and down with large smiles and clapping. Ezra stood and stepped back further. He didn’t like the unexpected and especially in a strange environment. He wished he could gather the courage to ask for the use of the phone, maybe he should call and make sure Mr. Buck made it to work uninjured. The streets seemed awful busy this morning, but he didn’t ask. He wouldn’t be seen as weak and needy. He could survive eight hours. He only had two more hours until lunch and then the day would be almost half over. Ezra sighed and tried to distance himself mentally from this place, but the next song came on and he gasped. As he watched the students act out the dance, Ezra was beginning to feel faint. There was no way he would participate in such a deeming manner. He could only hope the teacher didn’t demand he join in. Ezra glanced back at the phone and wished very hard for Buck to receive his mental telepathic message.
A tooty-ta…A tooty-ta
A tooty-ta…A tooty –ta
…BOTTOMS UP kids are now bent over)
Ezra was appalled to say the least at the sight of all these students making fools of themselves. The little girl that had appointed herself guide had moved over where Ezra was standing in sheer shock and tried to encourage him to participate. Ezra looked at the other student and saw only the need to be helpful and encouraging and bit back the retort playing on his tongue. Instead, he pulled out his ‘shy little boy’ routine. The girl smiled warmly at him and informed him he could join tomorrow. The words hit with a force as he came to realize this was going to be an everyday occurrence. Following that song there were others, not quite so horrible, but just as loud and active. Ezra stepped further back from the group. He didn’t believe he was going to survive such a daily ordeal. The movement part of the group time finally ended and the students started back to their assigned seats. Moving back to his, Ezra was passed by another boy, who was slightly robust and looked to be more of a first grader than a pre-k. The black haired boy stopped by Ezra’s chair and said, “Hey, you’re kinda short aren’t you?”
Ezra stared at the boy before replying, “Your observation skills astound me.” Ezra watched the boy with astute eyes and sighed when he realized his sarcasm was lost on the other boy. Ezra looked around the room woefully at the immaturity and lack of intelligence that surrounded him.
Buck walked into the large office area and was greeted by his teammates. “So, Ezra was okay when you left him?” Josiah asked. As a psychologist he knew how traumatic such simple events could be for some children, as well as the parents, especially children like Ezra. It had been difficult for Vin and had taken him several weeks to adjust to the new routine.
Buck nodded his head and sat down. “I think he did better than me,” he replied, turning on his computer.
Chris watched through the glass window in his office as his friend entered the office and noted the slumped shoulders and forced happiness. It was time for some pressure release. Picking up his phone, he hit Buck’s extension number. Hearing Buck’s voice, he said, “Come in here, would you?”
Buck hung up his phone and strode to the blond’s office, shutting the door behind him. Chris gestured toward the chair and watched his friend all but slump into it. Chris shook his head; he remembered the same despairing feeling when he and Sarah took Adam to school his first day and then again two years ago when he took Vin for his first day. “I have a stack of work for you,” Chris said simply, knowing lots of work was the only way to get through this first day.
Buck looked up, slightly relieved. “You think he’ll be okay? I mean, he just came to live with me just a week ago and now I’m shipping him off to school. What if they lose him or he runs away and tries to come find me…or,” Buck rattled on. Chris fought the grin trying to escape as he watched his fiend run his hand through his hair and begin to pace the room. He, too, had thought of all the worst-case scenarios when he enrolled Vin into school. That first week had been miserable for the whole team. That old saying ‘If momma isn’t happy, nobody’s happy’ applied quite well to the team leader and his staff as well.
“He’ll be okay, I promise,” Chris said reassuringly. “Remember Vin’s first day at school? I nearly drove you all nuts and I certainly drove the principal nuts calling her every fifteen minutes,” Chris recounted.
Buck smiled and nodded. “Yeah, if you can get through it without storming the school, I can,” he said with a smile.
Chris nodded and handed his friend a stack of paperwork. Buck took it and went back to his desk. Picking up the phone, he dialed Josiah’s extension. After the profiler picked up, Chris said, “You’re on.” Chris watched through the glass as Josiah nodded.
Mrs. Stevens called attention to a chart at the front of the room. After explaining that each table would go to an assigned part of the room, a small boy came up beside him. “You’ll be in my group. Just stick with me and I’ll explain how centers work,” the other boy said. Ezra nodded gratefully. Pushing in his chair, he followed the other boy to an area with lots of books and pillows. The other boy sat down next to two girls. “By the way, I’m Paul. We do centers every morning and sometimes in the afternoon. We get fifteen minutes in each center and then when the timer goes off, we move to the next center,” Paul explained. Ezra let some of the tension out of his shoulders; now that he knew what to expect, he felt much better.
While Ezra maneuvered, with the help of his second ‘guide’ through the centers, Mrs. Stevens surreptitiously observed her new student. The child seemed above intelligent for his age. She sighed wearily. That was going to bring her problems. She knew from past experiences that children of higher intelligence than the rest of the class became bored quickly and this always led to them to making trouble. She could just imagine what this rich kid could think up and try to get away with. The ATF agent had not disclosed why the child was in the foster care system, but she would bet anything this child’s mother was some kind of wealthy corporate-type person who got caught doing some kind of white-collar crime. No doubt the child had been given everything to him on a silver platter and had no concept of what getting into trouble meant. The agent had only mentioned a mother so Mrs. Stevens assumed there was no father figure around, another reason why the mother probably spoiled the child relentlessly. The old teacher sighed heavily, she had trouble on her hands and she didn’t want him in her classroom.
The morning passed quickly, and Ezra was surprised to hear the teacher telling them to clean up their area and get ready for lunch. He had enjoyed the reading and writing centers best and the play kitchen and play dough centers the least, the kitchen was too boring and the play dough was too messy. Ezra stood in line with the other boys and took his turn washing his hands at the room’s little sink. Getting in line, he wondered about paying for his lunch. Buck had assured him that it was already paid for, but he wondered if the lunch lady would remember. The thought that the lunch lady might forget and not let him eat began worrying him. By the time his class made it to the cafeteria, Ezra’s stomach was in knots. Hesitantly, he took hold of a tray and moved down the line. He hoped the lady wouldn’t embarrass him by making him give his tray back in front of all the other kids. Finally getting up to the lunch lady, Ezra smiled and hid the frown and worries that threatened to show. “Hey sweetie, you new here?” she asked pleasantly.
“Yes, Ma’am. My name is Ezra Standish,” he replied and then as another thought flashed into his mind, he hurried on to explain, “But I live with one Mr. Buck Wilmington. He said he had purchased my meals here already.” By now fear was tingeing his high-pitched voice. The lunch lady ran down her lists of names and nodded her head. “You’re all set, sweetie. The whole month has been paid,” she said, then noticing the little one trying to hide his concern, she added in a low whisper for his ears only, “Even if your dad forgets to pay, you will still be able to eat, sugar. We just send home a reminder. Okay?”
Nodding in relief, Ezra said, “Yes, Ma’am and thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Ezra. Have a good day,” she said. After the child moved on, the lady sadly shook her head at the thought of one more child afraid of having food taken away from him.
Ezra sat down at the table and looked at his tray. The boy across from him had been so excited that they were having Frito Pie. Ezra looked at his meal, which consisted of a handful of Fritos covered by some brown gravy with meat in it. In a small plastic container was a little cheese and in another container were a couple of spoonfuls of peaches. Just looking at the stuff made Ezra’s stomach queasy. He looked around and noticed the other children were eating theirs with no second thoughts. He turned to the two boys on his left and heard their untimely remarks, only adding to his nausea.
“Cow brains,” the boy right next to Ezra stated as he stabbed at a Frito, piled with the ‘chili’.
“Snot,” the other boy answered back, as he picked up a Frito oozing with cheese.
“Doggy…” the boy never got to finish his statement. One of the teacher’s aides doing lunch duty walked up about that time and put a halt to the boy’s fun with just one look.
Looking over at Ezra picking at his food, she said cheerfully, “Eat up. It’s a long time until you go home.” The simple truth sent a quiver through the young boy.
Ezra’s shoulders slumped as he picked up his fork and began eating. Mr. Buck made better stuff than this, he thought wearily. Looking at his watch that had been one of the few personal items he had left the motel room with and still had, he noticed he had four hours to go. He hoped the afternoon went as fast as the morning.
After lunch, the students were lined up and led out onto the playground. The children from the two pre-k classes plus all three-kindergarten classes stormed the large playground like troops on a three-day leave. Ezra stood off to the side and cringed at the loud sounds of children running and screaming. A sudden flashback to the time he spent at the Children’s Home flooded his memory. The little boy looked expectantly at the doors hoping for a miracle to come walking through the school doors in the form of one tall, black-haired, smiling agent. The apparition failed to materialize and Ezra slowly turned his attention back to the playground.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched his teacher approach. “Ezra, this is the only recess time we have, so you need to go play,” Mrs. Stevens said sweetly but sternly.
“I appreciate the suggestion, ma’am, but I prefer to abstain from such activity,” Ezra said. He didn’t want to play and, more than that, he didn’t want to get his clothes dirty.
“Why don’t you go over to the slide? It’s pretty fun and the kids will let you take a turn,” the teacher suggested, her patience running thin. This, too, was her time for relaxation and time to talk to the other teachers and have adult conversation. Spending it trying to get the new kid to go play was using up her time. She tried to keep a smile on her face but the agitation was leaking through like a sieve.
Ezra could read the determination and agitation in the adult and gave a quick smile and nod before moving off toward the slide. Walking behind the large wooden structure that housed two slides and some other climbing structures, Ezra sat down on one of the 12” PCV pipes implanted into the ground to outline the main play area and was also used for students to walk on, to practice and improve a child’s coordination. Ezra sat and watched his watch. The running of the children and their insistent screaming and yelling seemed to grow in decibels by leaps and bounds. Ezra went back to watching his watch when a voice interrupted his focus.
“Excuse us,” a redheaded boy remarked again. Ezra looked up and saw that a line of about five kids were walking the pipe.
Ezra graciously, if not tiredly, stood and moved off to find a more recluse area. Spotting a small bush along the fence line, Ezra moved to sit next to it. He was distressed at having to sit in the dirt, but the positive seemed to outweigh the negative. He was away from the epicenter of running children intent on screaming their lungs out and he had a better view of the entire playground. He tried not to think of the dust and dirt his pants were collecting. Instead, he focused on his schoolmates. He had never been around children as a whole before, except for that boarding school fiasco. He had the occasional cousin when Maude dropped him at some relative’s house when she wanted to be free of him for a while and then there were the stepsiblings he had acquired when Maude had married that oil tycoon, who turned out to be an oil-well digger instead. Ezra chuckled at the memory. Maude had absolutely had had a cow when she learned that the man was posing as his boss when she had met him. Apparently, the man did it quite often for the free gimmies he received. When Maude found out that the man expected her to become a housewife and mother to his four children, she had her and Ezra packed in record time and shimmying out a bathroom window. Pity, Ezra thought, he would have liked to have known what it would be like to be part of a family with brothers and sisters. Ezra watched the children continue to run and looked back at his watch. He noticed the teachers kept them out longer than their appointed thirty minutes and while the other kids surely didn’t mind the extra time, it made the day drag for the lonely little boy.
The three agents in the outer office were ready to call it a day and it was only half over. Buck was driving them insane. If he wasn’t looking at the clock, he was asking one of them, “How do you think he’s doing?” No matter how often they tried to reassure the man that Ezra was probably doing fine and enjoying his day with other children, Buck worried on his mustache. This was worse than any stakeout he’d ever had to endure.
The guys had constantly reassured the worried father that not only the school, but Ezra as well, had all his numbers if he was needed and the fact that no call came was a good sign.
After what seemed an eternity, the teachers finally lined up their classes. It was now time for the classes to go to P.E., Music, or Computers. Each day they rotated through two of them. Today Ezra found himself going to the gym first for P.E. Ezra sighed, just what he didn’t want, more exercise. At least it was indoors and seemed to be more organized. The kids broke into pairs and tossed a beanbag to each. Once again, the boy named Paul came to his rescue and offered to be his partner. After ten minutes they put the beanbags up and were allowed to get jump ropes. Ezra thought his heart was going to stop. He had never in his life held a jump rope much less knew how to operate one. He morosely accepted his and went to stand as far away from the teacher as possible, wishing he could simply disappear.
Mrs. Binder accepted this and let the child be for a while before easing her way over to Ezra. “Looks harder than it is,” she said softly. Taking the rope from Ezra, she took his small hands and looped the ends several times, therefore shortening the long rope to a manageable length. “Just practice jumping one foot at a time. Most of the kids are still learning, too. They’ve only had jump ropes twice before, so you’re not that far behind,” she said.
Ezra couldn’t help but smile back into the crinkled smile being flashed his way. Mrs. Binder had been a P.E. teacher for fifteen years and knew how to deal with new students. “Just take your time and watch the others for awhile,” she suggested before moving off to assist another student.
Ezra watched the other students and was surprised that none of the others could jump rope either. Unwinding a little, he threw the rope over his head and carefully stepped over it before repeating the process. Another ten minutes and he was being asked to line up so they could go to Computers. Ezra was beginning to think they spent half the day in line. Holding his hands behind his back, he walked rod-iron straight down the hall to the next room.
He was surprised when he arrived at the room and the teacher stuck a sticker on his shirt. Seeing the puzzled and startled look in the bright green eyes, Mrs. Stanton said, “This is for students who walk down the hall perfectly and you did an excellent job. Thank you.”
Ezra looked down at the sticker and wondered about the residue it would leave on his shirt and wondered if it would come off. He hoped Buck wouldn’t get mad. Maybe if he could explain he didn’t mean for the teacher to stick the rocket shaped sticker on his shirt, he wouldn’t get into too much trouble. He could handle being in a little trouble, that would be nothing new. Ezra made his way to a vacant computer and waited for instructions.
Computers was something he actually semi-enjoyed. Though the game he was forced to play was teaching him his letters, something he already knew. One of his uncles, he couldn’t remember which one, had let him play on an old computer of his. Ezra had become quite proficient at suffering the web. Searching out the teacher, he located her on the other side of the room. Smiling he clicked his mouse a couple of times and got on the Internet. He was having a good time playing a game he had found on a website when he lived at his uncle’s, when the boy next to him looked over and saw what he was doing. The child immediately felt it was his duty to point out Ezra’s ‘naughtiness’ to the teacher.
Mrs. McAllister came over to see what the hollering was about and noticed Ezra clicking madly at his mouse. By the time she got around to the child he was back on the correct typing game.
“But, Ezra was on the Internet. I saw him,” the child whined, making both the teacher and Ezra cringe.
“Well, he’s not. He’s typing his letters just like you should be doing,” Mrs. McAllister said patiently. She hated when pre-k came to her class. They tattled to no-end. She figured half of them would make good snitches for the CIA.
Ezra waited for the teacher to move off before turning to the snitch beside him and giving him a hard glare. This bought on a whiny, “Mrs. McAllister, Ezra’s looking at me.” Ezra noticed the teacher pretended not to hear the sniffling child.
It wasn’t long before the class was being told to “x” out, therefore closing out the screen and line back up. As he walked out of the classroom, his eyes fell on the room phone. Sighing, he fought the urge to stop and reach out to touch it. Seeing the phone only reminded him how much he wanted Mr. Buck. Walking along the hall, he thought how strange this new feeling was to him. Maude had been in and out of his life since he could remember and he had never once thought about picking up the phone and calling her. He had been with the good-natured agent for a little more than a week and just being separated this one day seemed to be an eternity to him.
Paul watched the little boy in front of him. The way the green eyes honed in on the phone and knew what the new boy was thinking. He, too, had wanted to call his mom his first couple of days but, it had gotten better over time. He reached out and patted the back in front of him and felt the flinch. Ezra looked back at the boy behind him and found the boy smiling at him. Ezra smiled back and turned back around.
After they walked back into their classroom, Ezra looked at his watch and found he only had two hours to go until the end of the day. Mrs. Stevens retrieved a bucket of small square cubic blocks from her desk. Passing ten out to each child she announced it was math time. For the next fifteen minutes, the teacher spent time counting by one’s. Ezra was bored out of his mind. They were finally permitted to work on the paper in front of them as a group. He didn’t understand how these children could not know how to count. He had learned how to count money a long time ago. Maude had insisted on that. Ezra sped through the easy problems of adding one more to the number listed. He didn’t notice the teacher standing behind him until it was to late.
“Ezra, we don’t get ahead of the class. We work the page together,” The teacher said rather sharply, her patience almost completely gone. The sudden and stern voice startled Ezra and it was all he could do to refrain from jumping out of his seat.
Looking up into the strict face, Ezra cowardly replied, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Don’t do it again,” Mrs. Stevens retorted, before going back to her spot and finishing the paper.
Ezra sat perfectly still with his hands folded in his lap looking down at his paper, but not really seeing it. He couldn’t do anything right, he thought. Nothing was going as expected. Buck had told him, he would have fun and learn all kinds of new stuff. He hadn’t learned a single new thing. He wondered if Buck had been told lies. Maybe they had misinformed his guardian about the instructional materials Ezra was to be taught. It wasn’t right to lie to Buck. Buck wasn’t the kind of person who lied to people and he expected the same kind of honesty. Thinking more and more about his foster parent, the need to talk to Buck grew desperately. Just to hear the man’s deep rumbling voice was all he needed to make it to the end of the day. Maybe he could make up a lie and persuade Mrs. Stevens to allow him to use the phone. Getting out of his chair, he quietly walked up to busy teacher and waited to be acknowledged. Mrs. Stevens turned to find the still well groomed little boy at her side. “Yes, Ezra, what can I do for you?” she said.
“I hate to bother you, ma’am, but I just remembered something of great importance that I must inform Mr. Buck about, regarding my afternoon plans,” Ezra said politely.
Mrs. Stevens knew what the boy wanted; he wanted to call his dad. She was stuck in a quandary. On one hand, the man had been adamant about Ezra contacting him any time he wished. On the other hand, she didn’t want to start something that could easily get out of control and, besides, she had over twenty students who would also like to call their parents. She knew the kid was going to be trouble. Well, she wasn’t going to start something she would later regret. Smiling down at the little boy, she decided she would just stall the little boy for the time being. “Well, not right now. Now it’s naptime. After I get the others down and asleep, then we’ll see what can be done.”
Ezra was horrified. Naptime. No one had mentioned having to take a nap. Buck said they rested in the afternoon; he had made it sound like it would be quiet work time. Ezra began wondering if Buck had intentionally misled him, but quickly quashed that thought. He may have only been with Buck a week, but it was long enough to know the man wouldn’t keep something this big from him. Reluctantly he nodded to the teacher at what he perceived was a deal. Looking around the room, he watched as the students got their mats, long towel, or blankets and whatever else the child used for their naptime out of their lockers and went to pre-assigned place and laid down. The lights were turned off, the blinds closed and Ezra noticed the teacher turned down the heater so the room would cool down. Ezra didn’t have anything to lie on or cover up with it. He dreaded knowing he was going to eventually get cold, not to mention he was going to have to lay on the floor. As Ezra laid there, he noticed Mrs. Stevens had turned on the CD player and the music coming out was soft and semi-soothing. Ezra kept watch on the big clock and on the students around him and noted as each one drifted off to sleep. He waited patiently for Mrs. Stevens to signal him that he could use the phone. Watching her stay busy for a while and then retreat behind her computer, he realized she must have forgotten about him or thought he had fallen asleep. Carefully and very quietly, he made his way over to her desk. “Mrs. Stevens, “ he whispered, “I would still be grateful if I could please be allowed to use the phone.”
Mrs. Steven kept the anger out of her voice, barely. “Ezra, you can’t use the phone now. The other children are asleep and you’ll wake them up. Now go lay down and close your eyes and rest.”
Ezra pushed down the hurt that began to rise up in him as he realized he had been conned. Mrs. Stevens had never had the intention of letting him use the phone. Ezra breathed down his disappointment in himself for being so gullible and turned and walked over to his spot and laid down.
The time dragged by slowly. Sometime later, one of the little girls lying next to him woke up. She turned to him and whispered, “You think it’s almost time to go home?”
Ezra looked at his watch. “We have exactly forty-one minutes until our time of release from this place.”
The girl stared at him in wonder. Finally, she whispered, “You really know how to tell time?”
“Of course,” he said and then realized he was sounding stuck up and altered his affect. “I was taught by my mother early on.”
The little girl nodded in acceptance and turned back to stare at the ceiling waiting for rest time’ to be over.At last the teacher rose from her chair and walked over and turned on the lights, announced it was time to get up and get their backpacks ready to go home. First, the bell rang for the bus students. After their departure, the rest of the students lined up and walked to the door that led out onto the porch that sat by the curved driveway where parents where lined up to pick up their children. After the second bell rang Ezra’s class was let outside, he sat down dutifully, after dusting off a spot, on the concrete slab where the rest of his class was told to sit and wait for their parent. Ezra watched as child after child left and was beginning to worry when, to his relief, a red truck came into sight.
Buck had left at three; sure he would get there plenty early and be the first one in line. He had waited for this moment all day. There was nothing he wanted to do than make sure his boy was all right. He nearly had a stroke when he pulled up to the driveway. There were no less than eight cars already in place. “Good grief,” he muttered. “What time do these parents get here?” he asked himself. Killing the engine he turned the battery on so he could play the radio and waited for the release bell to ring.
Hopping up, he barely contained the urge to run to the escape vehicle. Mrs. Stevens opened the door and Ezra clamored in, bypassed his carseat and chose the middle seat next to Buck. Buck didn’t say anything and snapped the restraint into place before driving off.“How did it go?” Buck asked casually, noticing the boy looked exactly like he had when Buck had left him this morning. Stopping at the end of the driveway, Buck pulled over and waited for Ezra to unbuckle and climb into his booster seat and hook the restraining straps. Buck understood about appearances to that degree and knew the little boy didn’t want to appear to be a baby by having to ride in what would be seen as a baby seat.
“Fine,” Ezra answered simply. The short answer gave Buck the willies. For some reason, when Ezra gave short answers, he had the feeling there was so much more that Ezra wasn’t saying.
“Good,” Buck said as he reached over and lightly patted the little knee.After a moment Buck said, “Sorry, to do this to ya, Ezra, but we gotta go back to the office. I have some paperwork I really have to finish.” The dad explained, hating not being able to take the boy straight home. “I promise though, as soon as I’m done, we’ll head straight home, okay?” he stated.
Ezra looked up at the man and smiled the slightest true smile. The first one he had shown all day. “That’s fine, Mr. Buck. I am quite flexible concerning the whereabouts I travail with you,” Ezra said.
Buck worked out the complex sentence before breaking out into a full-blown smile. The boy essentially had said he was all right as long as he was with the agent. Buck had considered taking him on to the daycare center the government ran for its employees, but had decided one major change was enough for the day and had cleared it with Chris to bring Ezra to the office. Chris had more than understood and given his consent. There were still days when Chris went to the daycare and waited for the van that picked Vin at school, got the boy, and bought him to the office.
Pulling into the garage and parking, Buck climbed out and walked around and helped Ezra out. The agent noticed Ezra had yet to release his death-grip on his backpack. Buck didn’t have Josiah’s learning or his degree, but even he could figure out Ezra was feeling insecure and needed to hold onto something concrete that was his. Slightly tapping Ezra’s shoulder, he flexed his hand open, an invitation for Ezra to accept or decline. Ezra took the big hand and let out a soft sigh when he felt the fingers secure his hand.
Walking into the office, Ezra received a round of hellos. Buck stopped beside of Josiah’s desk and bent down. “Hey, Josiah, I got to run down to the file room. You mind if Ezra hangs out with you for a little while?” Buck asked.
Josiah didn’t miss the hidden message in those blue eyes. Something had happened at school and Ezra needed an ear to bend. Scooting back from his desk, the big man held out his hands. “Not a problem whatsoever. I’ll be glad for a little conversation.”
Ezra walked expectantly into the open hands and felt himself being lifted up onto the man’s lap. The little boy didn’t understand these men or their need to hold, touch or simply be with him. It rattled his world; he had grown up not needing anyone because no one needed him and now it seemed he had five men wanting him. Ezra sat stiffly on the lap, but if Josiah noticed, he gave no indication.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can, Okay?” Buck said, saying it more for the benefit of Ezra than Josiah.
Ezra nodded and watched the man walk back to the bank of elevators. Feeling Josiah’s big hands rub soft circles on his back, he relaxed a little into the massage. It always amazed him how these big, hard-looking, tough men could soften their features and touch with such gentleness.
“So, you want to tell me about your day?” Josiah asked quietly.
Turning to look in the smoky gray eyes, Ezra felt safe. Not quite as safe as when he looked into Buck’s, but close. Lowering his head, he thought for a minute, enjoying the soft circles being rubbed on his tightened muscles. Looking back up, he said, “It was the most humiliating experience in my life.”
Josiah tried not to let the worry and tension that suddenly flared to life inside him, show. The other two agents who were eavesdropping stilled their movements. Josiah took a breath and asked the inevitable, “What happened, Ez?”
Ezra looked Josiah right in the eye and began describing the horrifying situation he had witnessed during morning circle time. Josiah fought off the laugh as he pictured in his mind how it would be from Ezra’s point of view to witness twenty little boys and girls twirling around with eyes shut and tongues sticking out singing that song. Ezra finished by stating firmly, “I will absolutely refuse to participate in such demeaning behavior.”
“Is that all, Ezra?” Josiah said after the boy finishing speaking, feeling like that wasn’t the whole problem.
“We were expected to take a nap!” Ezra said, his indignity showing.
“A nap?” Josiah repeated. “That doesn’t sound so bad. I know I wouldn’t mind be able to take a nap during the day.”
The disgust was evident on Ezra face that he didn’t share that sentiment. Josiah decided to move the conversation along. “What else?” he asked.
Stalling for a moment, Ezra thought about the other things that had bothered him, that he thought was worth sharing, without being too informative about how much he hated school. “They don’t know how to tell time, either,” Ezra said slightly irritably. Looking hard into Josiah’s face, he asked, “How do they know how long they’ve been alone if they don’t know how to tell time?”
Josiah sucked in his breath at this question. He studied the little boy before him, wondering just how often he had been abandoned and for how long. “I don’t have an answer for that, Ezra.” He knew Ezra expected nothing less than the truth.
Deciding to take on the role of the counselor, Josiah asked in a challenging voice, “I bet you can’t remember the longest amount of time you were by yourself?” Not sure how long he was expecting, but hoping it wasn’t days.
Ezra huffed up, “I do too. Thirty-two hours and forty-seven minutes.” Ezra stared at Josiah, not sure what to expect.
Josiah softened his face and replied, “That’s a long time.”
Ezra simply nodded. It had been a long span of time. He remembered putting himself to bed and expecting to see Maude when he woke. She hadn’t been there, so he had fixed himself some cereal and dressed himself. For lunch he used the can opener and microwave and fixed himself some corn and spinach. It was late that night, he was reading when she finally returned. Then she announced she was going to bed and didn’t wish to be bothered. Ezra had been disappointed she hadn’t wanted to talk to him, but was relieved knowing at least she was in the building.
“Josiah, they don’t know how to use a calendar either,” Ezra said sadly, like it was a big travesty.
Josiah held his breath, he knew something else was headed his way and he wanted to be better prepared than the last time.
“How do they count the days until their mother comes back, if they can’t use a calendar?” Ezra voice began dipping and becoming sadder.
Josiah was stuck. He didn’t want Ezra to become depressed and yet he wanted Ezra to talk about what was bothering him. “Ezra,” Josiah started, pausing until Ezra was looking at him. “Not all mommies go away. So not all children have to rely on a calendar.” Hoping Buck would understand if he explored this a little further, he asked, “Did you have to use a calendar a lot?”
Ezra stilled. Nibbling on his lower lip, he was stuck. Did he tell the truth, which was what Josiah expected or did he lie, which was what Maude had taught him to do. Josiah didn’t press, instead he continued rubbing the bony spine and let Ezra make up his mind. After a long moment of silence, Ezra nodded his head.
“Do you know how long you mother was gone the last time, you used a calendar?” Josiah asked cautiously.
Ezra looked into the eyes that held no judgment or recrimination. “Two months.” he answered. “I stayed with my Uncle Frank,” he clarified when he saw Josiah’s worried countenance, not wanting the man to think he was alone during that time. “He was alright,” Ezra added with a shrug, giving Josiah the impression that there was more to the story.
“I missed her,” Ezra added softly
“I bet,” Josiah said. He decided he best get on a safer and happier topic.
“So, did you like recess?” Josiah asked in a cheerful tone.
Ezra shot him a disgusted look. “They expected me to play!” he said indignantly.
Josiah roared out a laugh and gave the boy a quick hug before releasing him. That seemed to have given an entrance to other topics of what he had done during the day and lightened the mood considerably.
A few minutes later Buck came back and Ezra hopped off the lap he was occupying. Buck sat down at his own desk and Ezra moved to stand beside him.
JD got out of his chair and walked over to the two. “How about a soda?” he asked Ezra.
Ezra pondered the action for a moment and after getting an affirmation from Buck, shyly accepted the offer. People buying him things because they wanted to was such a foreign thing to him he couldn’t get used to it.
JD walked along the short-legged child into the lounge and hoped he could keep Ezra entertained long enough for Josiah to discuss the new piece of knowledge with Buck. He hoped Buck wouldn’t take Josiah’s discussion the wrong way. Buck, and in a way all of them, needed to gather as much information as they could in order to help Ezra. They were still helping Vin recover form his emotional scarring. It looked like Ezra hadn’t escaped without quite a few of his own.
Buck knew in a heartbeat that something had happened while he was gone and had barely contained himself until Ezra was out of earshot. Once the boy was gone, he pounced on Josiah. “What happened?” he asked anxiously.
Josiah recounted his conversation with Ezra, watching as Buck sank into his chair. The man looked like someone had just let all the air out of him. Josiah leaned forward in his chair. “Buck, we all suspected that he had been left alone before,” the profiler said quietly. “You said yourself, how proficient he was at taking care of himself. He didn’t get that way by being left just once for a couple of hours,” Josiah finished.
Buck nodded his head. “Yeah, but it’s one thing to suspect and hope it’s not true, and another to find out the reality of the situation,” he said sadly.
Buck hurried to finish his paperwork. The sooner he got out of here, the sooner he could be alone with Ezra and spend some time with him. He decided not to broach any subject Ezra wasn’t willing to bring up first. He didn’t want Ezra to think that his confidential talk with Josiah had been breached.
An hour later, the two were on their way home. After entering the apartment, Buck set his briefcase on the couch and threw his coat and tie, he had taken off before even leaving the parking garage, onto the back of the couch. Ezra headed straight for his room to change clothes. Buck, heading for his own room, yelled down the hall, “You want to go out back to the playground for awhile?”
There was dead silence for a long time, until the little five-year-old appeared in the agent’s room, pulling his shirt down “You wish to adjourn to the playground?” he asked. His voice lacking emotion to the point it sounded rather sad.
Buck stopped tying his tennis shoes and looked at the disheartened little boy standing in his doorway. “Just a thought. We don’t have to, if you want to do something else,” Buck said.
Licking his lips, Ezra asked softly, “Could we stay here?”
“Sure!” Buck said with a flourish as he walked across the room. For reasons Ezra couldn’t explain, he automatically held his arms out to his side.
Buck couldn’t help but let his smile grow wider as he picked him up and carried him into the kitchen. Except for the time Buck carried the little boy from that motel room and then again when he took Ezra away from the Children’s Home the boy had yet to encircle his arms around the carrier. Buck didn’t care, at least the boy no longer stiffened when he was picked up. Sitting Ezra on the counter, Buck started to ask him what he wanted for supper when he caught a glimpse of what he thought was sadness in the green eyes. Before he could question it though, it was gone, replaced by the standard blankness. Buck knew without a doubt he would never get used to the blank face Ezra hid behind. It was too much of a reminder that Ezra had suffered something awful enough that taught him that he could never show emotion.
Clapping his hands, Buck turned to open the cabinet doors. “All right, what will it be?” he asked brightly.
Ezra hesitated. He hated having his opinion asked; what if it was wrong? Buck had explained that opinions were never wrong, but Ezra knew better than that. They could be wrong and they could get you into a lot of trouble. Ezra looked over at Buck who was watching him with interest. Finally Ezra said, “I enjoyed your casserole we had the other night,”
“Great! Casserole it is,” Buck exclaimed as he began digging out the necessary items.
Just as he began the mixing, the doorbell rang. Ezra waited for Buck to lower him to the ground and then the two set off to answer the door. It was JD.
After everyone helped to fix supper, eat and then clean up, Ezra and JD spent the next hour playing a racing video game while Buck sat back and watched. To Buck, watching his son was better than actually playing. He got to do more observing that way. The more Ezra relaxed, the more the true little boy shone through. The way his eyes would get larger and brighter when he made a correct move. The way the tip of his tongue would edge out the side of his mouth trying to control his coordination. When in deep concentration, he would bite his lower lip. The way Ezra would cheer for JD to win. How quickly he could hide his disappointment in himself when he made an error and lost his turn. Buck was learning almost as much about Ezra by being a third party as when he was one-on-one with him.
After giving Ezra his bath that night, Buck tucked his son into bed and sat down on the edge. Running his hand through the baby-fine hair, they listened as the music from the CD floated softly into the room. It was peaceful, just the two of them. Ezra closed his eyes and let the soothing rhythm of his Buck’s hand run through his hair, erasing the memories of the day.
Seeing Ezra was asleep, Buck eased off the bed and planted a feather-soft kiss on the little temple. Every day, it seemed more and more right that the two of them should be together. He would fight tooth and nail to keep the little tyke with him. Slipping out of the room, he left the door opened and moved into the living room. Sitting wearily down in his recliner, he felt the tension of the day flow out of his system. It had been a hard day on both of them, no doubt, but hopefully it would only get better.
If Buck had hoped it would only get better as the week went by, he had hoped wrong. Instead, it seemed each day bought some new disaster to Ezra’s life. Yet, he left it all at school. Josiah had tried to get him to tell about his day each afternoon, but Ezra would only gloss over it. Giving a brief but boring account of how he spent his day.
On Tuesday, Buck had made sure to gather two long towels for Ezra’s naptime, one to lie on and one to cover with until he could go to town and find a cushioned mat.That afternoon, instead of math, Ezra learned to his utmost horror that the high school football players came over twice a week to mentor the pre-k and kindergarten kids. They either played educational games or read. Ezra had about as much in common with these boys as he did with eggplant to his way of thinking. He saw the juniors and seniors as large, over-friendly, puffed-up egomaniacs. He wisely kept this thinking to himself but hated ever minute he had to spend with the one he had been teamed up with. Brian thought teaching math included telling all about his record as a tight-end. Ezra finally pulled out a deck of cards he kept concealed in his pants pocket and asked the boy if he wanted to play a math game of a different kind. After looking around to make sure no one was watching, the two got down to some serious playing. The senior walked away empty pocketed and humiliated. He, however, was intelligent enough not to tell anyone he got cleaned out in poker for by a five-year-old. Ezra continued to get the feeling that Mrs. Stevens disliked him, but he couldn’t figure out what he had done to deserve it. The harder he tried at something, the easier she became exasperated with him.
On Wednesday it rained, so they stayed in for recess and the teacher put in the movie; The Little Mermaid. Ezra couldn’t see any educational benefit to watching the movie except maybe how to ‘lift’ other people’s belongings. He thought it was kind of sad that she didn’t know how to off load such merchandise; the poor girl could have made a fortune. He did however understand how someone, who could ask for anything in the world, would ask to be able to be with someone they loved. Even if that person didn’t love them for whom they truly were. He thought the ending was kind of sappy. There was no such things as happy endings; just survival.
The movie had been turned off and the kids got out their nap things. Much to Ezra distress, he actually fell asleep during that period. He blamed it on the boredom of having to endure watching the movie, but it was more likely due to the lack of sleep he had gotten the night before due to the stressful dreams he had. In the dream, he was in the classroom alone with Mrs. Stevens. She kept ordering him to follow simple instructions, but no matter how fast or how well he carried them out, he still found himself staring into a very angry face. She never yelled, she would just cross her arms and look disappointingly at him and ask, “Why would a nice man like Mr. Wilmington want you for a son?” Ezra woke just as tired as he had been when he had laid down.
On Thursday, Ezra was getting pretty weary of pretending to be the charming young boy he had began playing the first day of school. He knew he had to; nothing less than perfection was expected from Maude Standish’s son, but he was getting tired of defending himself, nicely, from those who thought they knew better. If it wasn’t the boys trying to get him into trouble by cutting out crowns to wear on their heads instead of what they were really suppose to be doing, it was the girls playing mommy to him. If it weren’t the kids, it was the teacher insisting he participate in ‘circle’ time. She constantly was telling him he was part of the class and as a classmate he was expected to do everything the others did. Mrs. Stevens had fallen into the bad habit of chastising him and telling him he wasn’t special, he was just like everyone else.He hated those stupid songs and he would never humiliate himself by wiggling and scrunching up his body doing those stupid little dances. He had been taught to behave like a gentleman at all times and performing like a circus animal to those songs were far from being gentlemanly. He knew his alphabet and his colors and he didn’t want to play Five-Little-Monkeys-Swinging-In-A-Tree.
It didn’t matter that he could write better than the other students, either. Instead of praise for his writing his teacher had taken to pointing out his spelling errors and telling him how to correct them. Math was boring, so he had taken out a book to read while Mrs. Stevens explained to the rest of the class about circles and squares. He had done it quietly so as not to disturb the rest of the class. Instead, Mrs., Stevens had stalked over him and yanked the book out of his hands and demanded, “What do you think your doing?”
Ezra had ducked at the angry attention, but righted himself immediately and then preceded, to his irritation to stammer, “I… I was reading while you taught.”
“Is that your choice?” she demanded in a rising voice. “Did I ask you to read?”
“No ma’am,” Ezra answered quietly, wanting to do nothing more than sink into the ground.
“Did you ask if you could read? Or did you just assume you were better than the rest of us and therefore could do whatever you wanted to?” Mrs. Stevens voice had taken on a razor thin edge to it.
Ezra had heard that type of voice before; it usually was preceded by some damage being done to his person. Ezra tried not to tremble as he replied. “No, ma’am. I’m very sorry.”
“You should be. You made me quit in the middle of my class and waste time because you choose to do the wrong thing. For that, you can mover your clip,” Mrs. Stevens said heatedly, pointing with her finger to chart that sat in the far corner.
Ezra moved slowly from his seat to the chair. He tried not to let his head hang down, but it drooped on his own accord, just like his shoulders. He didn’t want to think of what Buck would say when he saw the folder tonight and he had already received a blued face and he had only been in school three days.
The chart consisted of four smiley faces that were lined up horizontal on a large piece of chart paper. For every wrong choice a student made, the child would move his clip, which was a clothespin with their name on it, down the chart. The first face was green and the smiley face showed a wide grin. The second was blue and it was barley smiling. The third was yellow and had a straight line for a mouth and the last was red and contained a frown. The children had folders that held pages that reported on their day. Each page held four days worth of reports. They didn’t take them home on Fridays. The pages were divided horizontally into four parts. On each line were the same corresponding faces. This let the parent know what kind of day the child had. The parent signed off each day, so the teacher would know the parent saw the folder.
There was only one thing that was consistent every day; he wanted to call Buck and have him emancipate him from this place quickly, but he never gathered the courage to ask again.
Every afternoon, though, Buck was there to get him. His red truck shining like a beckon at the end of an overwhelming dark abyss. After being picked up, Buck would take him to the office. Vin had been allowed to come up and keep him company a couple of times. Next week, Ezra would start going to the daycare with Vin for its after school program.
The day Ezra got a blue face, much to Ezra’s amazement and bewilderment.
All Buck had said was, “Tough day?”Ezra had nodded and prepared himself to explain, but Buck moved on to something else and dropped the subject.
Friday was the worst. It was after lunch when disaster struck. The students had been given a ‘fun’ coloring packet to work on. Ezra had carefully retrieved his crayons from his box and laid them out in their special order. The girl across from him had been coloring her picture when she realized she didn’t have the right hue of purple. Spotting Ezra’s perfectly new colors splayed next to him, she smiled her best smile and asked, “Ezra, can I borrow your purple.”
Ezra wavered on what to do. Buck had bought these for him to use but, then again, Buck was the kind of man that gave what he could to help those who needed it. Ezra hesitatingly reached for his purple and handed it to the girl. A few moments later he heard a dreaded, “Uh oh.”
Looking up, Ezra first internal feeling was anger and then fear. The little girl had broken his crayon. Handing the crayon back, the little girl said, “They must not be very good to break so easily.”
Ezra took his crayon back and held the pieces in his hands staring at them. Holding the ends in each hand, he tried to force the ends to meld back together. After several failed attempts, Ezra slowly placed all his crayons back into the box and put the box into his big box. He didn’t want to color anymore. What was he going to tell Buck? The man had spent money on these just for him. Ezra wasn’t sure what to do. Tattling was out of the question, though he had observed it being done on many occasions. He had also noticed Mrs. Stevens seemed to have a pat answer, “Is it any of your business and is someone hurt?”
Mrs. Stevens hated tattling and realistically Ezra knew there was nothing the teacher could do about it. He felt sick. He quietly laid his head down on his desk and wished fervently he was somewhere else and didn’t have so much to lose this time. Surely, Buck would not appreciate his disregard for his personal items. Buck had seemed so proud of the school supplies he had bought him. There had been a time when he was four when he remembered he had distinctly broke a vase of Maude’s. She had yelled and criticized him for what seemed forever. She had shipped him off to a relative's the next day and was gone for what he remembered was a very long time. Ezra felt his heart sinking with each beat. By the time it was time to go home, Ezra was dragging. To make matters worst, Buck was going to be late.
The agent had phoned the school ten minutes before the bus bell had rang and had been patched through to the teacher’s room. Buck had been adamant about talking to Ezra himself and explaining his delay. Ezra had listened quietly as his guardian had explained how a bust had gone down later than expected and how Buck was just now getting to leave. Buck repeatedly promised to be there within thirty minutes. Ezra accepted the information, dishearten. His day was completely ruined.
After all the town kids had been picked up, the rest of the students were ushered to the front of the building where late parents went to pick up their kids. Ezra, an older student and Paul, from his class, obviously siblings, were the last ones left and had been permitted to wait outside the doors with a teacher’s aide to watch them. A short time later, a red pickup pulled up and Buck got out.
The tall agent eyed Ezra squatting down on his heels by the door with his head down and couldn’t fathom why Ezra wasn’t coming out to meet him. Getting up closer, Buck had the inborn instinct that something was wrong. Squatting down and gently lifting the small brown head up, Buck looked into the green eyes. Ezra looked tired. It went against type of what a kid should look like on a Friday afternoon. Buck stood up, wanting to take Ezra up in his arms as he went, but refrained, knowing Ezra wouldn’t like the public display of affection. The muscled agent felt like he had just lifted the weight of the world up off the ground. Putting his hand on the small slumped shoulder to guide the child out to truck, Buck had to wonder what was wrong
The older student, a fourth grader, stepped forward stopping Buck’s procession, and said, “I think he’s had a bad week.”
Buck, snaking his hand between Ezra and his backpack, patted the small back. “Is that true, Ez?” he asked quietly.
No response. The boy continued, “My brother, Paul, says he…” nodding towards Ezra, “Doesn’t play at recess and he doesn’t like participating in group time.”
None of these surprised Buck. He knew Ezra didn’t like getting dirty and he knew from Josiah’s comments earlier in the week that Ezra didn’t like ‘movement time’.Bending down to eye-level, Buck said, “You know if it had gotten bad, you could have called me, Pard?” Ezra just kept his gaze locked onto the ground and concentrated on disappearing inside of himself. The humiliation of it all was too much.
“He asked earlier in the week, but Mrs. Stevens didn’t let him. After that, he knew not to ask again,” the younger boy put in helpfully.
This had the father’s attention instantly. Calming his emotions before speaking to the child, he asked, “Ezra wanted to call me and the teacher wouldn’t let him?”
“Yep,” the boy said, nodding his head.
“Wait, what do you mean, he knew better than to ask again,” Buck said fighting to keep his anger from showing. Subconsciously knowing he would get more out of this child than he would if he asked Ezra.
“Mrs. Stevens didn’t like to be bothered,” Paul said, shrugging his shoulders matter-of-factly.
Buck took in what the little boy had told him and wondered what else Ezra had left out of his commentary about the day-to-day events. “Thanks for telling me,” Buck said.
Standing there, he was torn between going into the school and ripping some heads, and taking Ezra home. Buck decided it would be best to get the matter settled now. First, if he didn’t he would just let his frustration build over the weekend and second, he wanted to show Ezra he was serious about taking care of the boy and any problems that arose involving him.
Looking down at the little boy staring at the ground, he gently tugged on the small hand to get Ezra’s attention. Giving the small boy a wink and a smile to reassure him, he wasn’t upset with him, Buck gently pulled on the small hand and led the boy back inside.
Sitting down a chair outside the main office, Buck gathered the little boy between his knees, his arms encompassing the small waist. “I’m sorry I didn’t know you were having such a rough time of it,” he said softly.
Ezra almost went bug-eyed at the apology. Quickly gathering himself up, Ezra tried to place his expressionless face into position, but didn’t entirely succeed. Looking deep into the blue eyes before him, he couldn’t help but wonder for the millionth time why this man wanted him around. Waving the apology off, Ezra said, “Nothing to apologize for. Paul seems to have expanded on some details. Really, it was nothing as bad as he led you to believe.”
“Still want to talk to the teacher for a minute,” Buck said as he stood and led them inside the office.
Mr. Shrot did his best not shirk back from the sight of the tall agent. He wanted to get out of here, not confront and pacify and angry parent on a Friday afternoon. “Mr. Wilmington,” the principal said, forcing himself into his role. “What can I do for you?”
“I want to talk to you and Ezra’s teacher,” Buck said. Though his tone might have been even, both the principal and Ezra could hear the heat in his few words.
Mr. Shrot let out a sigh. “I’m sorry, Mr. Wilmington, but Mrs. Stevens has already left for the day. The teachers are allowed to leave right after the students on Fridays,” the principal explained. He hoped the man would opt to come back Monday after he had had a chance to cool off and maybe forget about whatever the problem was.
His hopes were dashed firmly when Buck said, “Then I guess we’ll talk.”
Mr. Shrot nodded his head and motioned for Buck to walk into his office. Bending down to Ezra, he said, “I want you to go sit in that chair and wait for me, okay?” Seeing uncertainty flash in the bright green eyes, Buck hurried to reaffirm that everything was going to be all right. “It’s okay, pard. We’re just going to have a talk about procedures.”
The two men walked into the inner office and stayed for about fifteen minutes. Ezra listened intently, but never heard anything coming from the office. Buck wasn’t like Mr. Larabee, when the blond man was upset, you didn’t have to guess why; everyone on the floor could hear him. Buck soon walked back out and turned to the man. “Then I’ll see ya’ll Monday morning,” Buck said, more as an affirmation than a suggestion. Walking over to Ezra, Buck took hold of Ezra’s hand and led them outside. Buck made his way to the driver’s side, opened the door and set Ezra down on the seat. Ezra scooted over to the middle and buckled his seatbelt. Buck climbed in, fastened his and then pulled out of the parking lot. Buck didn’t mind Ezra not getting into the booster seat. He needed Ezra as close to him, as he expected Ezra needed it.
On the way home, Buck reflected on the silent little boy beside him. The first few days after Ezra had come to live with him, the little boy didn’t speak much but, before starting school, Ezra had began talking more. It had surprised the agent just how extensive a vocabulary the little boy had. As he thought about it, Ezra had been less talkative every day this week. He chastised himself for not realizing the fact earlier. Needing to get a smile out of the little boy, Buck perked up and said cheerfully, “Why don’t we go to Inez’s tonight and see the guys? I bet Vin and Chris will be there.”
Ezra looked up at the agent and forced a smile onto his face. “If that’s what you would like to do, that’s fine with me,” he said, not keeping the flatness out of his voice.
Buck glanced quickly down at the little boy and saw in the green eyes that wasn’t what Ezra really wanted. Buck looked back up to his driving. “Or we could just go home and have a guy’s night,” he stated.
“That would be most acceptable,” Ezra said. He really didn’t think he could enjoy a night with his ‘uncles’ and keep up his façade.
Stepping inside the house, Ezra made a beeline for his bedroom. He had messed things up big time. Not only would Buck learn he was irresponsible and a troublemaker, but now he knew he was a coward. How could that boy have told Buck that he wanted to call him? How humiliating! Now Buck knew he was a complete wimp, unable to care for himself for just a few hours. Buck was counting on him to be independent. How did that kid even know he had asked? Ezra carefully removed his clothes and hung his pants up after taking a sweep at them to remove unseen dirt. They were good for another wearing before needing to be cleaned. His shirt went in the hamper. As Ezra stood there staring at his clothes, he let his eyes wonder over the room Buck and the others had transformed it into a bedroom just for him. There were shelves with toys, games, puzzles and books; all at his level. His bed had new linens that he, himself, had been allowed to pick out. Shame and sadness swept through him He was suppose to be better than this. Maude would never approve of his behavior. Engaging in self-depreciating activates; interacting with others not of his standard, although he never really understood what his ‘standard’ was, he was pretty sure those kids at school weren’t it; being used by other people and allowing them to manipulate his belongings from him; and finally the simple act of needing someone else. Maude said gentlemen made it in the world on their own and didn’t require anyone to make it for them. He was a complete failure.
Looking back at his closet, he spied his small suitcase and dragged it out of the closet. Fingering the clothes that Buck bought him, he knew he had no right to them anymore. Packing only his old clothes, Ezra slipped the clothes he had just taken off back on. Bending down to slip his loafers back on, he spied his tennis shoes and heaved a sorrowful sigh; Buck had been so excited when he had mastered tying his own shoelaces. Running his fingers over the toes of the white shoes, Ezra stood back up and took hold of his suitcase. He realized it would be too heavy for him to carry. Setting it back down, he stared at it in contemplation. Buck would not think much of a person who ran from their problems. “Time,” he thought. “I just need to time to think.”
Walking out of his room, he listened intently for sounds of Buck. He picked up the deep voice coming from the kitchen, the words sounding angry. Ezra, nodded subconsciously to himself, he was doing the right thing. Quietly, Ezra slipped into the living room and opened the front door. Stepping out, he kept the doorknob turned tightly, keeping the latch rigged up inside the door. Pulling the door quietly, he let the knob turn slowly until he heard the soft click that told him the door was secure. The five-year-old tiptoed down the cement hallway until he came to JD’s apartment. Holding his breath, he ducked low so his shadow wouldn’t be seen out the window in case the agent was home. The fact that no lights shone through the closed curtains meant very little to the escaping child. Finally arriving at the top of the stairs, Ezra ran down the steps and ran around the corner of the building, straight to the playground. It was largely empty due to the fact it was Friday night and most families were gone for the night. Ezra made his way over to swings and gingerly sat and began slightly swinging back and forth
Buck was in his own world. Anger was his main emotion. Anger at the school for not doing what he asked, anger at the teacher for disobeying a direct plea, anger at the principal who tried to sweep each problem away as if it meant nothing, angry at himself for not noticing something was wrong, anger at whatever thing or person that had taught such a young child to be so afraid of speaking up for himself. Buck continued to stir the hot cocoa until some finally splashed onto his hand and jerked him out of his reverie. Realizing he had been standing there for some time, he wondered what was taking Ezra so long. Walking to the back of the apartment, he called out, “Hey, Ez! I made us some hot chocolate. Come on.”
Not getting a response, he walked into the child's room talking. “Hey, boy, what…” He stopped dead in his tracks at the doorway. Seeing the suitcase in the middle of the floor set off alarm bells galore. Racing through the apartment, Buck began yelling, “Ezra! Ezra, where are you?”
It took less then two minutes to cover the apartment. Buck’s heart was racing as the older student’s words kept racing through his head, “I think he’s had a bad week.”
Running through the living room, he jerked the door opened and began running for the stairs. ‘God, please let me find him’ ran through his mind over and over as he repeatedly called out for his son. Hitting the bottom step, Buck’s mind ran a million scenarios at once. His feet took the action of running him toward the play area in the back of the complex. Rounding the corner, Buck stopped and began frantically searching for a small huddle. His boy was gone. Buck began rocking backing and forth unconsciously. He had barely survived Adam’s death and that was only because Chris had needed him, too. He couldn’t lose another child and especially not one that was his. Yanking his phone out, he blindly pushed in the number that he needed.
The saloon was loud and filled to the brim with off-duty federal officers. Chris had secured the regular table and was now sitting back watching his son and JD participate in a riveting game of darts. Normally, minors weren’t allowed in the bar, but Vin was the exception. Nathan and Josiah had wandered off to talk to counterparts in their fields. Chris was thinking it was proving to be a good night when his cell phone rang.
Taking it out and flipping it opened he answered, “Yeah?” in an unusually cheerful tone.
Sitting up straight as the news from the person on the other line shot out his despair. He nodded his head as he began shrugging into jacket. “Hold on, Buck. I’m on my way with reinforcements.”
Hanging up, Chris stood and gave a very loud shrilled whistle that bought the whole house to an immediate silence. “Buck’s kid is missing,” he announced as he headed for the door, grabbing Vin as he went. He didn’t have to look back to see if he was being followed, he knew it. As much departmental fighting may go on, having one’s kid go missing outweighed everything.
Chris arrived at the complex to find Buck pacing back and forth. Behind him were no less than twenty vehicles, all with their own blue lights flashing in their windshields or rooftops. Running up to Buck, Chris could read the fear and thoughts in those blue eyes. Grabbing his friend’s biceps, he said forcefully, “We’ll find him, Buck. I swear.” Buck blindly nodded.
Chris swept his eyes to find his men already surrounding him. “JD, take Vin and go to Buck’s apartment. We’ll set up the command center there. Josiah, start plotting out perimeters and doling out sections. Nathan, call the K-9 unit, get someone out here now.” Commander Larabee was in full mode.
Turning back to Buck, he began questioning the last person to see the boy. “Think, Buck. I know you’ve only had him a short time, but is there any specific place he’s mentioned? Any place he seemed especially interested in?”
Buck looked into the steady green eyes of his long-time friend. Ezra had only lived with him two weeks. Most of the previous week, Buck had spent making the apartment homier and just spending time with Ezra, whom seemed so tight-lipped when it came to the topic of himself. Shaking his head slowly, Buck’s voice trembled when he spoke, “No, Chris. Nothing comes to mind.”
Chris could tell his friend was coming apart. He would too if in that position. Chris corrected himself, he had come apart when Adam had died and Buck had stood by his side and held all the pieces that made up Chris Larabee and slowly put the pieces back together for him, until he was almost the man he was before the fire. Vin’s arrival had put the final piece back in place but, if it hadn’t been for Buck, there would have been nothing for Vin to complete to begin with. Chris gripped his friend’s shoulders a little tighter and stared as hard he could into Buck’s eyes, his pledge given and accepted. He gave Buck one last shake and said, “Let’s go find him.
Ezra was scared. Sure, he had been on his own lots of times, but not out on the street when it was dark. He had been sitting on the swings contemplating on what to d when he had spied a small brown dog limping in the far corner of the playground. He had slipped from the swing and had tried to approach the dog that was more of a big puppy. The dog had shied away from the small boy and Ezra had followed willingly. He needed to make sure the poor thing was not badly hurt. The puppy had finally stopped and allowed itself to be petted a couple of times before moving off. Ezra followed without thought. After several blocks, the dog turned into an alley, which made Ezra pause. The five-year-old wasn’t about to follow the dog into the creepy alley. Looking around, he had found himself in unfamiliar territory. The streetlights were on, but there wasn’t enough light to chase away the bad thoughts that started sneaking up on the little five-year-old. The streets seemed to be devoid of people, giving it a surreal feeling and making it eerily creepy.
Ezra found a deep doorway and hunkered down against the side wall. He was scared of being scared. The other times he had been alone, there had at least been people around. Drawing his knees up to his chest, he encircled his legs with his arms and tried to calm his racing heart. He kept telling himself he would be all right if he just thought for a minute. He could a call a cab, but first, he had to know where he was, and second, the driver would surely ask questions about why a boy his age was out by himself. He couldn’t very well say, “Cause there was a hurt puppy.” That sounded too immature and stupid. It never occurred to him to call Buck. He had been raised to fix his own problems and getting lost had been of his own doing, not Buck’s. The small child sat huddled in the doorway for a long time before he could gather his courage and begin thinking his way out of the mess he had gotten himself into. ‘No wonder mother didn’t want me,’ he thought to himself.
First was to figure out where he was. Unfurling himself, he inched himself upright and stepped back onto the sidewalk. A street sign, he needed to find a corner with a street sign, he told himself. That’s what people looked for when they were lost. At least that’s what happened on TV. Looking both ways, he began walking again, constantly looking around and listening intently for the boogieman to jump out and grab him. After what seemed a very long time, but really wasn’t, Ezra happened upon a small run-down bar located on a corner. Tilting his head way back, he tried to read the dim sign hanging over the stoplight. He was concentrating so hard on figuring out the name; he didn’t hear the man walk up behind him.
Ezra jumped at the hand clamping down on his shoulder. Whirling around, he found himself looking up to the biggest mountain of a man he had ever seen. He was even bigger than Josiah. Ezra gulped and tried to edge his way out of the grip. It only tightened.
Billy Ray Cummins had come to his local hangout for a couple of drinks. After his usual two, he paid his tab and walked out the door. He was surprised to find a little-bitty boy standing on the corner. Stopping, Billy Ray had looked around for an adult the child belonged to. Not seeing one, Billy Ray became very worried. The father of two children himself, the father began imaging the worst scenario on how a well-dressed child wound up in the depot district. Seeing he was scaring the child, Billy Ray bent down on one knee and said calmly, “It’s all right, son. Let’s get you inside where it’s warmer, okay?”
Lifting up the mute child, Billy Ray headed back into the bar. Ezra couldn’t get his brain to work. He had left thinking he had been doing the right thing, but here in this moment being carried by this mammoth stranger, he wanted nothing more than Buck. Finally he stammered, “I’m quite fine, sir. I am merely waiting for my father to join me and accompany me home.”
Billy Ray stared at the child in his arms and then threw back his head and laughed. “Well, ain’t you something? Your father, huh? Well, how about you wait with me? It’s kind of dangerous for a kid to be out by himself,” he said.
Ezra couldn’t help but like the deep baritone voice that flowed from the man. It was dark and rich and made him feel incredibly safe. “Uh…” Ezra paused. “My father might wonder where I have departed to if he doesn’t see me out there,” he said, trying to figure a way out of the newest mess he had found himself.
“I’ll tell you what, kid. We’ll sit here by the window and that way we can keep an eye out for him,” Billy Ray stated as he sat Ezra down in an empty chair and sat down next to him. Paternal instincts told him there was no father coming. Somehow, this kid had wound up being very far from home and needed looking after.
“You know, if one of my kids disappeared, I would go out of my mind with worry,” the big man said as he waved for a waitress.
“You would?” Ezra asked with a puzzled look on his face. “Don’t they know how to take care of themselves when you go away?” he asked innocently.
“Well, in small ways, but not on the streets. My kids’ safety is my responsibility. It’s up to me to keep them safe, not them,” the father said, wondering what kind of life the kid had led and wondering if the parents even knew their kid was missing.
“That sounds like Buck,” Ezra said sadly.
“Who’s Buck?” Billy Ray said as he passed the kid a soda.
Ezra looked up at the forty-year-old man and liked the kind eyes looking back at him. “Buck is…Buck,” Ezra explained. Seeing the raised eyebrow, for some reason he couldn’t explain, he felt compelled to, and did, tell just who Buck was, every sordid thing about his week at school, the good and the bad, and finally how he came to be standing on the street corner. “...So you see, I was very irresponsible and I behaved in a most improper manner. People don’t like needy children,” Ezra finished.
Billy Ray sat there for a long time taking in everything he had been told. He was also betting that being an ATF’s kid, foster or not, there was manhunt going on for this innocent little boy. “Can I trust you to stay right here while I go take care of business?” the man said, eyes darting to the restroom area.
Ezra nodded his head. “Yes, sir,” he answered truthfully. He really wasn’t looking forward to going back out into the dark empty streets alone just yet.
Buck was pacing the length of his living room. Vin had disappeared to a corner, out of the way of all the activity. JD watched his friend from the corner of his eye, as he continued to monitor everyone’s position using his computer, marking segments that had been searched and assigning new ones.
Not being able to take it anymore, JD stood up and blocked his friend’s path. “They’ll find him, Buck. Ezra is the most capable five-year-old I’ve ever met. He’ll be fine.”
Buck looked back at his younger friend and said flatly, “He’s still only five and there is a lot of things that can happen to him.”
JD, not willing to give-up so easily, replied with earnest, “He’s smart, Buck. He’ll be okay.”
Buck relinquished for no other reason than to get the well-meaning kid out of his face. He knew Ezra was smart, capable, independent and quick thinking, but what most people saw was a grown-up midget. They didn’t see a five-year-old boy, a boy, who had nightmares and was insecure in every aspect of his life, especially concerning his place in Buck’s life. A kid, he was willing to bet, that despite everything else had never been alone on the streets. Buck ran is his hands through his mussed hair and resumed his pacing.
Ten minutes had passed since Billy Ray had returned from the bathroom and the quietly placed phone call. The duo was in the midst of playing a game of poker, using peanuts, when a black truck came roaring up to the front to the building; honking his horn and a blue light twirling in the windshield. Ezra jumped when he recognized what was happening and just whom that vehicle belonged to. Trying to escape, his progress was hampered by a hand around his waist. “From a daddy’s point-of-view, give the man a chance,” the big man said. “He deserves at least that much, doesn’t he?” Billy Ray questioned.
Ezra didn’t have time to reply as Chris, Buck and Nathan came barging into the small bar. It took all of three seconds for Buck to locate his boy. Running over to where Ezra stood, he scooped the boy up and squeezed him tightly, much to the outward displayed dismay and inwardly secret delight of Ezra.
Chris stepped up to Billy Ray and looked him up and down before sticking out his hand. “Thanks,” he said with a relieved smile.
Billy Ray shrugged. “I got two kids of my own. I would rip the town apart looking for them if they ever disappeared,” he explained.
Buck regained enough of his senses to pump the savior’s hand several time, promising to do anything in return. After a cursory glance to make sure Ezra was physically okay, Buck turned to leave. Chris started to follow, but stopped, feeling a restraining hand on his arm. Turning back to the big man who had found and returned their missing family member, Chris paused to hear what the man had to say.
“Kid’s got a lot bottled up and he really hates that school he’s going to,” Billy Ray filled-in. Chris bobbed his head in thanks for the information. At least now Buck had a starting place as to how this all came about. As Chris stepped to the door, Billy Ray called out, “Oh and try to explain to the kid, that crayons are more easily replaced than kids.”
Chris nodded again and headed out to the truck pondering the cryptic message.
Chris pulled the black truck back into the parking lot. Ezra stared at the numerous official and unofficial vehicles sitting in the lot with the rotating lights on. Buck felt Ezra tense up and push himself further into the strong arms holding him. “It’s okay, Ez. They just want to make sure you’re home safe.”
As a law enforcer, Buck understood why the guys had stuck around until Ezra had been bought home. Day after day, they saw the uglier side of life, found missing children who hadn’t been as lucky as Ezra had been tonight. They needed to see this success as much as Buck had. It was rare when something this good turned out and the fellow officers who had hunted for this boy on their time off needed to see the harvested results.
Buck slid out of the truck and grabbed Ezra up in arms. He noticed the news media had been cordoned off and placed a good distance away. “Just hold on, pal. I’ll get you through this as quickly as possible,” Buck whispered.
With Josiah, Nathan and Chris leading and making a pathway for them, Buck and Ezra passed by the well-wishers as speedily as possible. Several men had tears in their eyes, Ezra noticed as he passed by them. Others tried to pat him on the back or the leg, telling him how glad they were he was back and okay. Ezra was completely confused and frightened by all this. Why were these strangers glad to see him back? Why were they crying?
The four men finally reached the stairwell. Chris and Josiah halted and stood at the base while Nathan and Buck continued their way up with Ezra. Chris would take the responsibility to thank all the men and women who had come out to help search for Ezra. He knew that’s not what they expected, but it’s what they deserved. Looking around at the people, he realized there were times when he was really grateful to be associated with such good people. In-house fighting occurred, it was a matter-of-fact, but when the chips were down, there were no better people Chris Larabee wanted at his back than these people who were family of a different kind.
Buck and Ezra were finally alone. The father had yet to release his hold on his son. Ever since getting the call that Ezra was in some pub in the rundown part of town, Buck’s heart had been racing. He thought Chris would never get there. For the first time, everything seemed to have moved in slow motion. He realized sadly, that he hadn’t even asked the guy’s name, which had taken care of his son. He smacked himself mentally for that oversight; hopefully one of the others had gotten a name so he could go back and properly thank the man and buy him a drink.
After arriving back at the apartment, Vin had quietly, but playfully, slugged the young boy on the arm and told him he was glad the ‘kid’ was all right. JD had almost forcefully yanked the boy out of his arms so he could give the kid a hug. It didn’t matter that Ezra hated physical contact; this was an exception to the rule. Nathan had motioned with his head that he wanted Ezra in the back room. Buck had haltingly obliged. Nathan had done a more intense scrutiny of Ezra and asked him questions about his time out there in the dark. It was important that they find out if something bad had happened to the child, though by the looks of things they were fairly certain it hadn’t. Buck had always been sickened by that part of his job, but now as a father it struck him even harder. Nathan quickly decided that Ezra had been badly frightened, but unharmed by the ordeal.
Coming back into the living room, they had found Josiah and Chris standing there. Josiah had given the child a hug while still safely tucked in secured arms. Giving Buck a sound slap on the arm, he whispered, “You call if either of you need me.” Buck had nodded his thanks.
Chris had asked Vin to head out the door with the profiler, who quickly said his goodbyes. Turning back to his friend, the two of them stared at each other for a long time. Ezra’s eyes had drifted shut, right after mumbling his goodbye to Josiah and Vin. Chris finally broke the silence. “We didn’t lose this one, Pard.” Buck swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded. Stepping forward, Chris grabbed Buck in a quick hug. Releasing the man, the blond gently ran his hand over the soft brown hair of the sleeping child. Looking back up at Buck, he quietly said, “Call.” As a father, Chris would understand certain things that a well-meaning friend couldn’t.
Buck nodded his head. Before Chris could walk out the door, he found his voice. “Thanks,” he said. Chris ducked his head once and walked out the door. With one simple word so many things had been said.
Buck put Ezra in his bed. Tonight, he needed to keep an eye on his slumbering son. Buck turned on the radio and almost laughed. Of all the songs being played, at that moment the one being played was the one that Buck had chosen as his lullaby for Ezra.
When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case
I could offer you a warm embrace
To make you feel my love…
Buck had been glad it was a Saturday. It had given him all day to spend with Ezra and discuss all that had gone wrong. He had known that he couldn’t interrogate the small child, but would have to lead it out of the child. He had started after breakfast. Taking Ezra by the hand, he had led the child into the living room. Seeing Ezra’s resigned look that he was once more about to be held, Buck had forced himself to sit next to the child instead.
He had slowly wrangled some of the ‘less’ important issues that had bothered the child during the week; the silly songs, the sharing of space at the table, the noise on the playground. That one had slipped out and Buck knew he wasn’t supposed to know how much the noise really bothered the young child. He made a mental reminder to bring up that topic with Nathan and see if that was something he should be concerned with or if it was just an ‘Ezra’ thing that he would grow out of with time. Little by little, Buck was forming a mental image of how bad Ezra had perceived school to be.
They had taken breaks along the day; gone out for lunch, stopped at a museum that Ezra had casually pointed out. Buck had then learned that the little boy liked western art. Of course, the small boy had known about other art that was more widely known, but they stayed the longest looking at the pictures of horses, cowboys in all sorts of situations and weather and stations. Ezra had seemed particularly taken with one that had several men hunkered around a campfire, with snow falling around them.
Buck had sat down on a bench in the area and was content to just watch Ezra study the different paintings. Ezra had finally come back to where Buck was and sat down next to him, placing one arm on the strong thigh. Buck leaned over and asked, “You see that picture there?” He was pointing to a picture where a calf was hidden in some bramble weeds and a cowboy desperately looking for the missing calf.
Ezra nodded. “That was me last night,” Buck confessed. “I was worried awful about you.” Pausing, Buck looked down at Ezra, who was staring straight ahead. Using the tips of his fingers, Buck pulled Ezra chin around until he was looking into those green eyes that told everything or nothing. “There is never going to be anything and I mean anything that you think of that can ever be so bad that you can’t tell me. You can come to me with any problem and I’ll be there to help you work it out. I promised you that first day that we were in this together, you and I, and I meant it.” Stopping to catch his breath, Buck went on, “There will never be anything that happens that will ever make me stop loving you. Now, I know that might be a big concept for you to understand, but I mean it. I will always be here, just like that cowboy. You will always be the most important thing to me and if you ever disappear again, I will come looking for you. Just like I did last night.”
Ezra swallowed hard. Nobody had made that kind of pledge to him before, ever.Even Maude had never made that kind of promise. Sure she had told him she would be back ever time she left him, but even at his young age he had learned quickly her promises weren’t any good. Looking at Buck, it was different. Those blue eyes were hard with his promise, but soft at the same time. He was very confused. Looking down at his tennis shoes, he wiggled his toes inside and smiled. Maude had never gotten excited over him dressing himself, either.
Looking back up to those blue eyes, he stammered, “I…I …I let a girl borrow a crayon and …she broke it,” Ezra confessed, his last few words so low that Buck mostly read his lips to hear the words.
Buck wanted to throttle, yell, hug and kiss Ezra all at the same time.All of that anxiety and fear last night over a dumb crayon? Of course rationally he knew the crayon wasn’t the crux of the matter, just the pinnacle. Taking a deep breath, Buck slowly counted to five in his head, not wanting to keep the child waiting. “Ezra, I know how important your belongings are to you and I am pleased that you treasure the items I bought for you, but never ever think any item is more important to me than you,” Buck said, hoping he was saying the right things. “Just about everything in life is replaceable except you. You are not replaceable and that’s that. Okay?”
Ezra watched Buck’s expression as he was speaking and understood perfectly. Buck didn’t care about the broken crayon, he cared about him. Ezra let out a slow smile. “Yes, sir,” he replied. Seeing Buck’s arched eyebrow, Ezra’s grin grew wider. “All right, Mr. Buck.”
Epilogue (of sorts)
Buck and Chris sat on the porch watching Vin and Ezra play quietly in the sand, making roads for their cars. Buck was still amazed at how Vin could manage to get the little boy down in the dirt, but figured to leave it alone. Buck and Ezra had come out to the ranch before the rest came. Ezra seemed to enjoy the peace and quiet out here better when it was just he and Vin playing and he wanted to talk to Chris alone.
“So, how he’s doing?” Chris asked quietly.
“A few nightmares, but no more than usual. I think he’s okay on the whole,” Buck answered. He licked his lips and began the conversation he had been playing over and over in his head for the last couple of days.
“I’m really disappointed with that school, Chris. I know that teacher has a lot to do with twenty-some-odd students. I know she can’t be seen as playing favorites, but I explicitly told them I wanted Ezra to be able to call me anytime. I can’t get him to trust me if he doesn’t think I won’t do anything when people I trust him with don’t follow through with my orders.”
Chris held his tongue and waited for the man beside him to finish. He knew exactly how Buck felt. He had the same quandaries with Vin.Getting an emotionally troubled child to trust was a hard road to travel and other people getting in the way doesn’t help.
Suddenly Buck turned to Chris and asked, “Did you have a problem with the school when you enrolled Vin?”
“Nope. We came to an understanding. Vin could call me anytime. So could the teacher if there was a problem,” Chris said, keeping his eyes on the two small boys. He watched as his old dog, Sparks, got up from his spot under the tree and moved over to the boys. Ezra immediately put his arms around the dogs neck and gave it a gently squeeze. The old dog laid down and Ezra contented himself to petting the canine
Buck laughed. “Understanding or intimidation?” Buck asked with a smile.
Chris shrugged. “Perhaps a little of both. Point is I never had any trouble. I talked to his teacher a lot too. Shared problems and brainstormed on solutions. Teachers at his school are pretty good at being involved with their students and doing their best to improve any bad situation,” Chris explained.
Buck nodded. Chris had been lucky there. The school Vin was going to was new in the growing area. There were fewer students in the district and so the student-teacher ratio was relatively low still. Where Buck was currently living, the school district was busting at the seams and new schools were always being built, but not fast enough. Student-teacher ratios were high, teachers were stressed and over-worked and it was a never-ending battle for funding. Buck understood that, but he wanted what was best for Ezra and the school he was being forced to attend wasn’t it.
Chris knew what Buck was thinking, but also knew that unless Buck lived in the district, Ezra couldn’t attend the school. Chris hesitated a moment at a new thought. Thinking it over quickly with leadership skills he had honed, Chris came to a quick decision. “You know, I got that hunting shack up the road a bit. It’s nothing more than a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom right now, but with a few handy friends and a few weekends it could be made into a right suitable place for a father and son.”
Buck turned on Chris and stared. That old shack had been labeled the ‘doghouse’ when Chris had been married to Sarah. It was where Chris had gone to when they got into fights and he needed space to think and cool off. The place hadn’t been used since her and Adam’s death. Buck thought the proposal over. It would be nice living out here away from the city and its dangers. Ezra would have Vin to play with on occasion and when they worked late and Mrs. Wells had to stay with Vin, Ezra would have a place to stay too that was close to home. On the other hand, that would mean moving from his apartment that he had been living in for the last six years. No more having JD living right down the hall, but then again JD and Casey had been seeing more and more of each other and Buck rarely saw him on the weeknights anyway and they all came here on the weekends. Yep, this could work out.
Chris watched the wheels in Buck’s brain turning. Saw his acceptance long before he heard the word, but waited anyway. Smiling Buck said, "Yeah, I think me and Ezra would like it out here. Closer to the horses, too.”
The two men laughed. If they had learned one thing about the spunky five-year-old, it was he had an affinity for animals. The matter settled, both men leaned back in their chairs and contented themselves with watching their sons play. Quietly Buck said, “Think I’ll take the day off tomorrow and go see about enrolling Ezra in that school. Maybe, we can come to understanding, ourselves.”
Chris just smiled. He reckoned Buck would have no problems convincing the female principal of his needs for Ezra. Buck didn’t need intimidation, he had something better; charisma.