By Beth ©
Foster Brothers AU (Seven)
Notes: This is probably the only story I will ever right that was inspired by a dream. I do dream, but most of the time they deal with things that Freud would have a hay day with…Rod Stewart on Oprah talking about and showing off his two belly buttons (never been a Rod Stewart fan?)…and me having a sword fight with Cher in my grandmother’s living room with swords that were shaped like fish (yeah, I’m still confused about that one) At any rate, I’ve got a couple follow up stories that I’m thinking about writing, but we’ll have to see. Hope you enjoy it and I would love to hear what you think.
Special Thanks to Yolande and Anna for your valuable eyes and time!!
Please send comments and suggestions to email@example.com
Tia Murner sat with the seven boys with their heads bowed around the large kitchen table. They ranged in ages from five to fourteen, all had come to live with the Crawfords over a period of six years, and all were foster children.
At first, Berry Crawford hadn’t been a bad individual to live with, until the death of his wife. For political reasons, he was able to maintain his foster care status due to his exquisite record and impeccable reputation. He’d never been a violent man, but when he started drinking after Maggie’s death his temper flared to volatile elevations. The boys had learned quickly to be quiet at night, stay out of the way, and where to hide. Tia had tried her best to protect them, but she too knew the feeling of being pushed to the ground or into a wall. Nothing helped. Berry liked to come home after work, start his drinking, watch a few hours of Lifetime television, his wife’s favorite channel, shed a few tears and then start yelling, throwing punches, and slamming doors. All eight of the children had met the solid end of Berry’s fist. He was a smart drunk, never hitting the children in the face…never getting caught for his behavior.
Tia watched her brothers, the young boys she’d grown attached to. She’d arrived with Ezra, having come from the same foster home, and he was her baby brother—at least that’s how she saw him. At seven he was small for his age, but he was smarter than most. He’d clung onto Tia and never let her go…she’d been the one constant in his life.
She was the comfort zone, and not just for Ezra, but the rest of them as well.
Chris poked at his food; the twelve year old seemed preoccupied, as his foster family tried their best to eat undercooked scrambled eggs and unbuttered toast. Food in the house was minimal, and none of them had the money to purchase any. Berry either forgot to eat, or he didn’t care about it—either way, Tia and the boys were the ones going without.
They could hear in the next room, Berry’s wailing—he was angry at the world for taking his wife. He wanted her back above all else. Maggie had admired those boys…all seven of them, and thought of Tia as her own daughter. Though Berry didn’t want to keep them around—finding them too much to bear at times, the money coming in each month from the state was a nice bonus…but that was all. The only thing he wanted to do was hurt someone as bad as he’d been hurt…
“Did we do somethin’ wrong again, Buck?” JD asked, looking at his older brother.
“Just be quiet, kid,” Buck scolded, not wanting to scare the five-year-old, but unwilling to see him any danger.
“Eat your dinner, JD,” Josiah said, looking toward the swinging kitchen door. As the oldest boy he felt it was his responsibility to protect those around him, but at times, Berry’s anger left no room for argument. At thirteen, Josiah was tall for his age—five ten and a hundred and forty pounds—but he was still awkward—still trying to find himself within his body.
“I think we should call the police,” Nathan voiced, watching the door intently; afraid of what was going to happen when it opened.
“He’s the police commissioner, Nathan!” Chris snapped, keeping his voice to a minimum.
“Chris,” Tia retorted, “he just mentioned it was all.”
“They’ll take us away,” Vin whispered, “put us in different homes again.” Though he was only six, he’d lived in the foster care system longer than most and he understood how it worked.
“Vin’s right,” Buck said softly, looking around the tables. “We need to stay together.”
“They’ll take us away anyway,” Ezra said softly, refusing to eat what was in front of him. He looked up when Tia pushed his plate closer toward him.
Chris looked at the seven-year-old, feeling his disappointment. Chris reached up and rubbed his sore arm…the arm that had connected with the leg of a nightstand when Berry had gone after Ezra the night before.
For reasons none of the boys understood, Crawford had started beating the young ones. Vin had been the week before, missing a school day because he could hardly move. JD had suffered as well, having missed a whole week of pre-school because Berry had called saying the boy had the flu—the school believed him. Ezra was next, everyone knew it, and the older boys were trying their best to protect him, even going so far as putting themselves in harms way. Josiah’s ribs were still black and blue, even Nathan had been shoved into the hallway wall, cracking the drywall from floor to ceiling.
Nobody was safe in the home any longer—but no matter how fearful they were from Crawford, they feared what would happen to them more if they left.
Everyone jumped when the door to the kitchen swung open.
Tia grasped Ezra’s arm and pulled him from his seat…she knew.
Everyone looked at Crawford’s red eyes, his puffy cheeks, and the tears that continued to stream down his face. “How dare you?” he gasped through choked sobs. He looked at each one of the boys…searching for the weakest link, searching for the one his wife had come to adore most—at least through his eyes. The smell of alcohol seemed to pour from his body—as though he’d been drenched in it.
He reached out and violently grabbed the back of Ezra’s collar and pulled him from Tia’s grasp.
“Leave him alone!” Tia snapped, getting to her feet and falling over a chair as she reached for the boy.
Josiah reached down and helped her to her feet as Berry drug Ezra from the room. The boy screamed out and swung at the giant’s hand, kicking at his legs and trying to free himself. Berry continued his path through the living room, dragging the struggling child behind him.
Ezra was just too small to do anything about it.
Buck and Nathan grabbed Vin and JD to hide them.
“Go with the others,” Josiah ordered Tia, before following Chris out of the kitchen.
Chris, without thinking about anything other than protecting one of his own, grabbed a rifle out of the hall closet and pointed it at Berry as he started up the stairs, Ezra grasping the handrails and pulling with all his strength to stop him.
Josiah stopped, stunned by Chris’ actions.
“Let ‘im go!” Chris yelled, trying to keep the weapon steady. Still a boy, the thought of taking a man’s life caused fear to run from the tips of his fingers to the end of his toes.
Berry looked at Chris, seeing the rifle, but wishing for more. “Shoot!” he yelled, challenging the youngster, jerking Ezra in the process. “Shoot! If you’ve got it in you?!”.
Chris tightened his finger around the trigger, his heart racing, pounding violently in his chest, he could hear his blood pumping in his ears. He looked at Ezra, seeing tears streaming down his cheeks while pointlessly trying to free himself from Crawford’s grasp.
Not understanding the danger he was putting everyone in, Chris pulled the trigger.
Berry laughed, and shook his head. “Next time—make sure it’s loaded!” he yelled, dragging Ezra up the stairs.
Chris threw the weapon to the floor and looked at Josiah shamefully.
They heard the door to Berry’s office slam shut and the slight click of the lock echoed in their ears…a sound more haunting than any they’d ever heard before.
“Let’s get everyone together, as soon as we can we’ll get Ezra and get out of here.” Josiah looked hard at Chris. “He’ll kill us if we try and stop him,” he reasoned, having tried it before and failed.
Chris knew and nodded before asking, “Where’re we gonna go?” Wishing he was smarter, bigger, faster…better.
“Anywhere but here,” Josiah replied firmly. He turned suddenly and headed back into the kitchen and quickly escorted the others toward the bedroom he shared with Chris and Nathan.
Ezra fought with all his strength, even going as far as biting Crawford’s hand, which only made him madder. The boy swung out; trying his hardest to get free…he didn’t want to end up like JD or Vin—or the others. They’d all been beat by Berry before…all except him. He’d been hit, but not beat. He didn’t want to end up bloody, weak, and useless.
But he would.
And he knew it.
Berry grabbed Ezra’s left arm below the wrist and flung him like a rag doll into his office. The boy landed harshly against the wall beneath the window. Ezra cried out when he felt his shoulder violently pop, the sound echoed in his ears and he grasped his arm tightly trying to ward off the pain.
It didn’t help.
Berry slammed the door behind him and looked at the boy, before reaching for his port of brandy and pouring himself a glass. “She liked you, you know?” he asked, snorting in disbelief. He was gone, ranting about things that never existed. “She was perfect, beautiful…kind…” He looked at Ezra and snickered. “I’m not…I’m nothing like her…without her…” He watched the child try and push himself into the corner of the room, trying to hide. “Don’t mock me!” he yelled, seeing something that wasn’t there.
Ezra cowered, fear embracing his soul. Tears streamed down his cheeks like rain down a windowpane. His chin quivered and shook, his eyes looked at Berry in misunderstanding. What had he done to deserve this? Why did Berry hate him so? “I’ll be good,” he pleaded softly, trying to correct whatever he’d done wrong, not understanding that he hadn’t done anything wrong. “I promise I’ll be good.”
“You’ll never be good,” Berry replied, finishing off his brandy. He looked out the window, watching as a bird tended to her nest—so peaceful, so caring—so unlike himself. Out of anger, confusion, and bitterness he grabbed the wire fly swatter and reached violently for the boy.
Chris grabbed his backpack and threw his books onto his bed. He ordered the others to do the same. Josiah was rolling blankets as tight as he could, trying to avoid listening to the cries coming from the other room. Tia grabbed her inhaler and took a deep breath, trying to control her asthma. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked out the window, trying not to worry—trying not to think the worst in regards to Ezra.
“What’d we do wrong?” JD pleaded, not understanding, sitting on the edge of the bed. He looked up when Tia gently started rubbing his back.
“Nothin’, kid,” Buck responded, shoving some socks into his and JD’s bags.
“How come he’s so mad, Buck?” JD questioned again, holding on tightly to his old ratty bear, Blue.
Tia stood up and moved toward the door, taking a chance she peaked out and noticed the hall lights were still on. Berry was still in his office with Ezra.
Buck knelt down in front of his brother and quickly slipped on his shoes. “You have to promise me to be real good, JD—real good. Don’t make any noise, and you have to do everythin’ me and the others say…okay?” He looked hard at the kid, hoping for a positive response.
JD nodded, and quickly slipped his jacket on. “What ‘bout Ezra?”
“We’ll get ‘im and go, okay?” Buck responded. “You gonna hang onto Blue, or do you want to put ‘im in your bag?”
“I’ll hold ‘im.”
Buck looked up and met Chris’ green eyes.
“Josiah, can you pack a bag for Ezra?” Chris asked, turning his attention to those around him. Everyone was scared, and their eyes did the pleading.
“I already did,” Tia said, shoving her hands into her back pockets and leaning against the wall.
“So what do we do?” Vin asked, sitting on the floor next to his backpack. He wanted so much to be strong, like Chris and Josiah, but he was scared…terrified.
“Wait until Crawford falls asleep—then we’ll get Ezra and get the hell outta here.” Chris sighed, and sat on the edge of the bed. “We got plenty of blankets?”
“Seven—two of ‘em are goose down,” Nathan answered, biting his nails as he looked out the window—wishing he had one more.
“Everyone got their coats?” Chris questioned, trying to fill the time.
“We’re ready, Chris,” Buck sighed, sitting next to JD, wrapping a loving arm around his shoulders.
“Where’re we gonna go?” Vin asked, wiping his own tears from his eyes before anyone could see.
“We’ll be okay…just know that we’ll be okay,” Chris tried to sound positive, even as the sky roared with thunder and droplets of rain slowly started to hit the window.
It was an hour before they heard the faint echo of Crawford’s alcohol-induced-snores come from his office. Chris turned and looked at his brothers. “Get downstairs and wait for me by the door—don’t go out until I get there,” he said firmly.
“I should go,” Tia said softly, “Berry won’t hurt me.”
Chris shook his head. He may be two years younger, but he wasn’t about to send a girl into the heart of the lion’s den. “You go with the others.”
“We’ll be there,” Josiah replied, grasping Vin’s hand as he carefully and quietly headed out the door. The others followed him, stepping on their tiptoes, holding their packs with tightly fisted hands.
“Be careful,” Tia said softly, before grabbing her and Ezra’s backpacks.
Chris gathered his courage and headed toward the office door. His heart raced and he could feel every single whisper of air on his skin. Crawford was a son-of-a-bitch, but when he was drunk he was a monster. Chris touched the doorknob, feeling the cold of it, and slowly he opened the door, surprised to have found it unlocked. A cold breeze hit his skin and he saw the open window, allowing spring’s cool wind to enter. He looked and saw Berry asleep on his small sofa, his right hand hanging over the side, and his feet kicked up on the armrest, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water.
“Ezra?” Chris whispered, trying not to make anymore noise than he had to. He looked around the room, searching in every corner for the youngster, but he found no sign of him. Chris stopped suddenly and turned toward the closet.
He opened the door and found Ezra sitting on the floor, his eyes red with tears streaming down his cheeks. He tried desperately to keep his sobs at a low pitch. He’d carefully braced his left arm against his chest with his right hand and tentatively looked up at Chris, fearing it was Berry. Without warning he looked down, ashamed for crying, for showing his emotions…for showing his weakness.
“Hey,” Chris whispered, kneeling down. “You okay?” he asked softly, knowing he wasn’t.
Ezra nodded, and harshly wiped the tears from his face.
Chris reached out to grasp Ezra’s arm, but the boy whimpered and pushed himself away. “I’m sorry, Ezra, but we’ve got to go,” he pleaded, reaching out again.
Ezra pushed him away and snapped, “I can do it on my own.” He waited until Chris backed away from the door before slowly creeping out of the closet, still holding his arm firmly in his grasp. He looked up at Chris and then his eyes focused on the man standing behind him. Every cell in the child’s body started to shake.
Chris turned, and saw the source of Ezra’s fear.
Berry Crawford stood like the monster he was, in front of the door leading to freedom. He looked past the two kids standing before him, and toward the opened window. He stood like a statue, like a man content with life, someone who didn’t have a care in the world. Slowly, he turned his eyes toward the boys and smiled. “You should be in bed,” he said softly, and then turned and left the room without saying another word or uttering a sound. Chris followed him for a moment, watching him as he entered his bedroom.
“Is he gone?” Ezra asked, trying to be strong.
“Yeah,” Chris answered, motioning for the youngster to follow him.
Ezra complied and slowly followed Chris out of the room.
Tia and the others waited at the end of the stairs, waiting for instructions, guidance, and hope. Nathan gently squeezed Vin’s hand as they watched Chris and Ezra walk down the stairs. JD stood next to Buck, grasping his hand. They were all scared, unsure about what lay ahead, and fearful of the chance they were all taking.
JD looked up at his older brothers and Tia, trusting in them to keep him safe. He clasped Buck’s hand tighter and hugged his stuffed bear.
“Ready?” Chris asked, keeping a close eye on Ezra as he reached up and grasped Tia’s hand.
“You feelin’ okay?” Josiah asked, looking toward the youngster, noticing he was holding his left arm tightly.
Ezra simply nodded…he just wanted to leave. Tia gently threw a coat over Ezra’s shoulders and zipped up the front, after forcing only his good arm through the sleeve. She slipped on her own and quickly made sure Vin and JD were also ready to face the chill outside.
Chris took one last look around before opening the door to the world. Now, he was responsible for more than just his homework or his chores…now, he was responsible for his family.
They walked down the streets of Four Corners, hiding from oncoming cars and avoiding anyone they saw. A cold wind had picked up, making their adventure more miserable, that added with the rain caused all three of the youngest to hide within their coats. Ezra quietly shed tears down his cheeks, doing his best in keeping quiet. His back was on fire and his shoulder felt as though it had been ripped from his body. He’d clasped hold of Tia’s hand and unintentionally squeezed it hard, refusing to let go…searching for any source of comfort.
They had thought about hiding in the old fort at the park, but the wooden structure was too heavy to try and break into…and all the doors had been chained and locked shut.
Buck had resorted to carrying JD, and the youngster had fallen asleep with his head resting on Buck’s shoulder. Finally being free from Berry had hit everyone hard. Their bodies only relayed their desire to sleep, to heal, and to be free. Vin still walked valiantly beside Nathan, but he’d started tripping over his feet, and now walked with his head bowed.
“Can we stop...please?” Ezra finally choked, catching his sob in mid-sentence. He pulled on Tia’s hand and stopped. Tears ran freely down his reddened cheeks, and his chin quivered almost violently.
Without thought or urging, Tia carefully lifted him up onto her right hip, positioning her right arm under his rear. Ezra cried during the transaction, but eventually grasped hold of Tia’s jacket and carefully adjusting his wounded arm. She whispered in his ear, but the tears continued to fall.
Exhaustion, pain, and fear had taken its toll.
“Let’s just get out of the rain, there’s got to be someplace we can stay,” Nathan sighed, squatting down so Vin could ride piggyback style. Nathan stood as soon as the six-year-old was ready.
“The homeless shelter might take us in for the night,” Josiah said, carefully taking JD from Buck’s embrace.
“They’ll have to report us,” Tia said softly, thanking the Lord that Ezra was small for his age, and she was strong.
JD opened his eyes and rubbed them with the palms of his hands. He leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Josiah’s neck and rested his head on his shoulder.
“What about that old abandoned building—the one where all the homeless people stay?” Buck asked, feeling the rain drench his coat.
“It ain’t safe there,” Nathan argued.
“It’s better than stayin’ out here,” Chris agreed. He didn’t wait for the others to follow him; he started toward the building on the other side of town.
Josiah shook his head, but without a better suggestion, he followed. The boys needed some rest, to be dry, and someplace they might feel safe…at least for a little while. Buck soon followed with Nathan right behind him. They needed to stay away from adults, anyone who might try and tear them apart, take them away from each other.
They would never let that happen.
The building smelt foully of waste, mildew, dust, and sweat. Windows had been broken out and glass now rested in scattered piles around the floors. Garbage had been shoved into crevasses in the walls. Homeless men and women slept in ambiguous positions against walls and in small rooms, some spoke to themselves about things only they understood, other watched in paranoia as the boys searched for an empty place to call home…at least for now.
“I’m scared, Buck,” JD said, looking in fear at the transients. He rubbed his eyes and grasped a little tighter onto Blue after having been transferred from Josiah’s embrace a short while before.
“It’s okay,” Buck tried to reassure…but failed to ease his own uncertainties.
Tia’s grip on Ezra became unsteady as her muscles shook and quivered. She refused to let him down. He hadn’t stopped crying, though he never uttered a sound.
Vin watched those around him, wishing they’d decided to stay someplace else…anyplace else. The homeless watching them seemed unpredictable, as though they might do something to scare them—something to terrify them. He tightened his grip on Nathan’s shirt, refusing to let go.
“Here,” Chris said, almost excitedly. He kicked a piece of sheetrock out of the way and moved slowly into the empty room. The glass to the windows was gone, allowing the cold wind to enter. Cans rested like clutter in the corners of the room, accompanied with boxes and plastic bags. He grabbed the sheetrock and placed it in one of the window frames, trying to block some of the wind and then waited for the others to enter.
Blankets were laid out against the far wall, making beds for each of them. Nathan had pushed the beds close together, not wanting anyone to be left alone. When Tia finally put Ezra down, everyone noticed that he hadn’t stopped crying and the hold on his arm hadn’t let up.
Tia knelt down in front of Ezra and carefully removed his coat. She smiled warmly, trying to ease his discomfort. She wasn’t a doctor, but she knew he needed one. She took a deep breath and wheezed, quickly reaching for her bag and asthma medication.
“You all right?” Nathan asked out of concern. He watched her as she puffed on her inhaler and nodded. “You hurtin’ real bad?” he asked Ezra softly.
Ezra just nodded, focusing his attention on Tia and her condition. He was young, but he’d known her for a long time and knew what she had to do when she felt an asthma attack coming on. He turned a little and gasped when he felt his back tighten and arm shift.
“Maybe it’s broke?” Buck asked, sitting with JD on one of the blankets.
Chris threw his brother an angry glare; he didn’t want to scare Ezra anymore than he was. Chris gently pulled the boy’s shirt up, just trying to get a better look at his shoulder.
Josiah sighed, using his flashlight to see better. “Chris…?” he gasped, “Take a look at his back.”
“Oh, Ezra,” Tia wheezed, “You should have said somethin’.” She reached up and touched his brow, and then took another puff from her inhaler. She gently ran her hand over his face and shook her head.
What were they going to do?
Chris moved around, offering as much comfort as he could to the boy. He cringed when he saw the red welts, open gashes, and ugly bruises. He pulled the shirt down. “Let’s just get some sleep tonight—in the morning I’ll head out and see if I can find some help.”
“They’ll separate us,” Buck acknowledged.
Tia gently pulled Ezra’s coat over his shoulders and helped him as he carefully slipped his good arm through the sleeve. He watched as she zipped up the coat and asked, “You goin’ to be warm enough?”
Ezra nodded, feeling ashamed for his showing of emotion, but he hurt, he was scared, and he was tired.
“Try and get some sleep,” Chris said softly, helping the boy get seated on the blankets.
Chris sighed, and looked at those around him. JD had lain down and was now sleeping soundly, Vin wasn’t far behind, though he tried to be strong and stay awake, his drooping eyes gave him away. Buck dozed as well, watching his younger brothers…unwilling to see them hurt. Ezra remained seated, unable to lie on his back, Tia rested next to him, allowing him to rest against her. Nathan assessed what they didn’t have: food, water, medical supplies for Ezra’s back and arm, clothing, and adequate blankets to keep them all warm in case the weather became colder. Josiah had taken up a spot near the window and was looking out.
They were not prepared for this.
“What are we going to do?” Josiah asked, knowing they were in trouble.
“We’ll be alright,” Tia said confidently. “It’ll work out…it just has to.”
“Tomorrow,” Chris paused, running a hand through his blonde hair. “I’ll go to Mrs. Potter’s store and see if she’ll let me earn some money…and maybe you should contact Nurse Wells.”
“The school nurse?” Josiah asked, in shock.
Chris nodded, looking at Ezra. “Don’t tell her where we’re at…just ask her if she knows someone who can help—someone that can keep us together. The rest of you can stay here, and don’t let nobody take you…” he looked at Tia, “…we’ll get him some help,” he tried to reassure.
She smiled tightly and nodded, though she wasn’t quite sure if she believed him. “As bad as Berry was…I’ve been to worse homes.” She gently brushed Ezra’s bangs away from his forehead. “Something good is goin’ to come of this.”
Chris entered the small store and looked around. Colorful bags and cans sat idly on the shelves, and the smell of the deli hit his senses like a hammer on his big toe. He looked around, searching for Mrs. Potter. It was relatively slow, only a few patrons moved around the store, lazily tossing items into their carts.
Chris shoved his hands into his pockets and headed toward Gloria when he saw her. She smiled as she finished bagging a few groceries for a customer. She winked when she saw him, and waved him over.
“Chris…I’m surprised to see you here… Where’s Berry?” she asked, swiping at her brown hair, trying to keep her bangs out of her eyes.
He bit at his bottom lip, unsure of how to answer. Chris looked at her, hoping and praying she’d help him. “I’d like to earn some money,” he said quickly.
Gloria furrowed her brow and looked at the boy. “How old are you, Chris?”
“Twelve—I’m a real good worker, Mrs. Potter an’ I really need the money. I could work every weekend.”
“Well now, this is the thing…I can’t hire you because of your age.” She saw him sigh in disappointment, and she watched his eyes dance in search of another idea. “You in some kind of trouble?”
“No, ma’am,” came the quick response.
Gloria nodded: “Tell you what…if what you need money for is in this store, you go find it, set it up on the counter and then we’ll work on an exchange.”
Chris looked at her, and reluctantly nodded. He turned and headed straight for the pharmacy. Bottles, boxes, and bags rested on the counters. Everything looked the same, and yet everything looked different. It took him a while to decide what to get, large bandages, tape…a couple different types of creams for injuries…he wanted to ask about them, find out which was better, but he didn’t want to chance it. He looked at the items in his hands, wishing he could get more, but feeling as though he couldn’t afford it.
Gloria looked up from her paperwork and sighed when Chris laid out his purchases. “Anti-bacterial cream, Neosporin, ace bandages, Band-Aids…?” she looked at the boy. “Josiah get into a fight again at school?”
Chris shook his head and answered: “Yes, ma’am.”
Gloria knew he was lying, but she didn’t push the subject. “In the storage room is a bunch of boxes that need to be flattened, you do that, and I figure it’ll pay for what you’ve got here.”
“Okay,” Chris responded, heading for the back room.
Gloria looked at the items and shook her head. Without thought or hesitation she separated what Chris would actually need, and the items he’d purchased twice. She’d pick a few other things out for him, some snacks, a few other medical supplies, and perhaps a little bit of money.
Nettie wasn’t expecting one of her school’s students to come knocking on her door on a Saturday. Josiah had been in her office many times after getting into fights with other boys…usually over his little brothers. She smiled, looking at the boy…all the while wondering what was going on in his life that would bring him here on such a cool day.
“Are you lost, Josiah?”
“No, Ma’am…I was wonderin’…” he sighed, turning his head to look down the road…searching for the right words. “I need some help.”
Nettie’s questioning look turned to concern and she showed him into her home. “Take a seat,” she ordered, motioning toward the couch. She seated herself in the adjacent chair and waited patiently for him to start. When he didn’t, she asked softly, “Where’re your brothers?”
Josiah clenched his jaw and bowed his head. “I can’t tell you.” He looked up and met her eyes. “Crawford’s been drinkin’ pretty bad the past few months…ever since Maggie died—”
“He’s been beatin’ you and the others?” She’d seen this before…too many times before. She didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see the signs…the little things: the way a child would change their posture, hide their feelings, avert their eyes during conversation.
Reluctantly, Josiah nodded.
“Where are they, Josiah?”
Josiah shook his head: “I won’t tell you…not unless we have a place to go…all of us—together, someplace we can stay permanently.” He watched her sigh…concern lining her features. “We won’t be no trouble, Nettie…” he pleaded, “Buck, Nate, Chris, and I are real good workers—Tia’s real good with cooking when there’s food and she’s—”
“I have no doubt about that, Josiah—but it isn’t that easy.”
Josiah sighed and rubbed his face in frustration. “We don’t have anyplace else to go.”
“Where are they, Josiah?” Nettie pleaded.
“They’ll tear us apart, Nettie,” Josiah said softly, “I can’t let you do that.”
She leaned back in her seat and looked at the wall behind him. “If I make a few phone calls and see what I can do…will you tell me where they are?”
“No, Ma’am,” he said firmly, “not until we have a home to go to—all eight of us.”
Nettie didn’t need to ask again, she knew Josiah was serious. Slowly, she got to her feet and moved toward the phone…hoping that the one person she knew that might be able to help…would.
Gloria looked at the clock above her station and sighed, Chris had been gone for almost four hours. Granted there were a lot of boxes in the back room, but there weren’t that many. She wiped her hands on her apron and told Marci, the cashier, that she was going into the back.
She knocked on the wall before entering the storage room, and gasped when she entered. All the boxes had been flattened and organized according to size. The shelves had been cleaned, the floor swept, and the product boxes had been loaded onto the cart.
Chris turned suddenly and wiped his forehead, drawing dirt in streaks across his pale face. “I tried to get to the top shelves—”
“Good heavens,” Gloria stopped his statement, covering her mouth with her hand. “I didn’t expect…”
Chris wiped his dirty hands on his pants and looked around the room, hoping he hadn’t done anything wrong. “I just wanted to make sure I could pay for what I needed.”
Gloria smiled: “You’ve paid for it and more.” She pulled him forward with her hand and escorted him out of the storage room. “Go into the bathroom and clean up and then you can come pick up your groceries.”
Chris nodded and quickly took off. Gloria watched him go and immediately headed for the deli. She knew the boys were in trouble, and she knew they needed help. She’d lived too hard a life not to know, she also knew that the time wasn’t right to ask about it…she didn’t want to scare him away.
Chris stepped out of the bathroom, cleaned up and ready to get back to the others. He watched as Gloria finished bagging up some items and he slowly made his way to her.
“Okay,” she said with authority. “I’ve bagged you all up two roasted chickens, some potato salad, a few corn dogs, some bottled water, and some medical supplies—enough to take care of Josiah.” She looked at him, making sure he could carry the three bags.
“I can’t take all this,” Chris said, feeling his stomach rumble.
Gloria shook her head. “You can and you will,” she handed him the items. “Now scoot, I’ve got customers comin’.” She watched him go. His long determined strides told her he was in a hurry. She’d find out more when he came back—or she’d call her friend…Nettie would know what to do. She sighed when a customer started placing their purchases onto the counter top. “And how are you today, Mrs. Timpson?”
Nettie returned to her seat and looked carefully at Josiah. “My good friend, Evie Travis, is married to State Supreme Court Justice, Orin Travis,” she paused, wanting to make sure he was listening, “Evie lost her son a few years ago and since then she’s wanted to take in foster children—”
“Why hasn’t she?”
“She never felt the time was right.”
“You can’t push somethin’ like this on people, Josiah…it takes time.” She tried to reason, but deep inside she knew it was difficult for the boy to understand.
Josiah nodded and stood up. “We don’t want to go where we ain’t wanted, Nettie, that’s not what I asked for, and it’s not what we need.”
“Right now, Evie and Orin are your best chances.” She stood up and followed him toward the door. “They’ll come through, Josiah, and they’re good people. Evie’s a school teacher and Orin…Orin’s, Orin.” She smiled tightly. “They’ll want respect, hard work, honesty, and an effort on all your parts. Seven boys and a girl is a lot to take on all at once.”
“All we want is a safe place to go, Nettie.”
She nodded in understanding. “I could get in trouble lettin’ you walk out of here.”
“The others need me,” he sighed, knowing what could happen.
“I know—how will I find you…? After Evie calls me?”
“I’ll be at the park under the old oak tree tomorrow at
“With the others?”
“No, Ma’am—not until I know for sure.”
“Okay, Josiah, I’ll be there, one way or another.”
Chris entered the abandoned housing with his arms full of food. He was thankful that most of the transients had already disappeared for the day, but they would be coming back as soon as night fell. He was surprised to see Buck sitting on one of the makeshift beds with Ezra’s head resting on his left thigh.
“How is he?” Chris asked, setting the bags on the floor and stepping closer to the two.
“Finally went to sleep a little while ago,” Buck shrugged, gently brushing Ezra’s hair back away from his brow. “I think he’s got a fever, Chris.”
“He does,” Tia said softly, still arranging the beds for the night.
Chris sighed and nodded, looking concerned at Ezra’s sleeping form. He turned to the left and saw JD and Vin building a makeshift wall out of paper and string with Nathan who’d jumped up and was now going through the bags of groceries.
“How’d you get all this?” Nathan asked, pulling out the bandages and ointments with the intent of treating Ezra’s back and arm.
“Gloria let me work for ‘em, that’s why I’m so late.” He reached out and touched Ezra’s forehead and frowned…maybe they should just get him to a hospital and take the risk of getting separated. He looked up when Josiah entered, trying to look as though he had good news.
“He been asleep long?” Josiah asked.
“Just a bit,” Buck answered, refusing to move, afraid he might wake him.
Chris stood up and looked at the others. “Let’s eat what we’ve got…otherwise someone might come in and take it once they get wind of it.”
Nathan grabbed the medical supplies, wishing he knew more about what he needed to do. His only training had been the first aid class he’d taken in fifth grade…and that had been a year ago. “Let’s wake him, Buck…maybe get him to eat somethin’ while I bandage his cuts and stuff.”
“Hell, Nate, he just got to sleep.”
Tia knelt down behind Ezra’s shoulders and gently shook him. She didn’t want Buck to have to do it. “You go eat,” she said toward her younger brother. “Nathan and I’ll take care of him.”
Ezra slowly sat up and caught his breath in his throat as his pain and exhaustion hit him. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the paper plate of food that Chris had put in front of him. He curled his nose and his stomach turned and as a result he turned away from it. He leaned into Tia, seeking comfort and warmth, he could hear her say something to him, but nothing made sense, not until the chill of the air hit his back when someone pulled his shirt up.
“It’s all right,” Tia reassured, wrapping an arm around Ezra’s good shoulder and neck. She felt him grasp the front of her shirt as Nathan cleaned the wounds on his back.
“It hurts,” Ezra pleaded, just wanting to be left alone.
Tia buried her cheek on the top of his head, wanting only to take him away from all this…wanting to help the same way he’d helped her so long ago.
“I know, Ez,” Nathan apologized, trying to be as easy as he could.
“Eat,” Chris ordered, sitting down on the blankets. “How much of that stuff should you use, Nathan?”
“I don’t know,” came the sharp reply. “I’m just doin’ the best I can.”
“He’s doin’ just fine,” Tia responded softly. “Just fine.” She could still see her former foster father, old man Peterson, creep through the shadows of her room at night. The way he’d looked at her, the things he’d make her do. Instinctively, she tightened her hold on Ezra, wanting so much to protect him from the pain he was in. Peterson hadn’t protected her…he’d used her, and then left her at children’s services—kicked her out for something newer, better…younger. Tia had been smart though, she told on Peterson, and now the old man is spending time in prison…someplace where they should all go.
At the time, Ezra had been with child services only a short while, but she saw him there, him and his false pretext of confidence. ‘My mother’s coming back’, ‘she just had to leave me for a couple of days’…Tia knew Maude wouldn’t be back for her son…so, she did the only thing she could. She pushed her way into his life and became his best friend…his only friend, until they met the other six, and the Crawfords.
“I’m meeting Nettie Wells tomorrow at the park…she’s going to let me know if the people she contacted would be willing to take all of us.”
“You think they will?” JD asked, before biting down on a chicken leg.
“Eat, Vin,” Chris ordered. “It might be a while before we do again.”
Vin nodded, but watched as Ezra continued to whimper against Tia’s chest.
“I’m done,” Nathan said relieved, pulling Ezra’s shirt down. His fever was higher, and his loss of emotional control had everyone worried.
“What about his shoulder?” Chris asked, moving closer.
Nathan looked at the ace bandages in his hand, unsure of how to use them on that part of the body. “Mr. Samons said that a bandage like this could do more harm than good if not used right.” He scratched his head in frustration. “His arm’s already swollen and he don’t want me messin’ with it at all.”
Tia adjusted her position and carefully pulled Ezra into her chest and pulled a blanket up over his shoulders. She locked eyes with Chris and a subtle nod of understanding passed between them. No matter what Nettie’s news was tomorrow, they’d take Ezra to the hospital.
Josiah stood up when he saw Nettie’s little black Ford pull into a parking place. A dark green Suburban pulled in beside it, and two individuals got out, an older woman, looking to be in her early thirties, and a man in his forties. Nettie got out of her vehicle and spoke with them a moment before walking toward him.
“Josiah,” she smiled warmly. “How is everything?” she asked concerned.
“Depends,” he answered honestly.
“The Travis’ would like to meet you.” She smiled tightly, wanting everything to go well. She reached out and took his hand and walked him toward the Suburban, knowing he was afraid and unsure.
Josiah pulled her to a stop and shook his head. “Are they willing to take us in, Mrs. Wells…all of us?”
“Yes,” she answered honestly, “but they’d like to meet and talk with you first. Orin’s already arranged everything with the state…so the rest is up to you.”
Reluctantly, he nodded and followed her. He smiled and reached out to shake Orin’s hand and was surprised to see the kindness in his eyes. A sturdy man, not large, but stout, and about Josiah’s height, he lovingly looked to his wife and placed his hand in the small of her back as she stepped forward to introduce herself to the boy.
“Josiah…?” she asked softly, reaching out to grasp his hand. When she noticed him nod, she smiled. “I’m Evie.” She grasped his hand a little tighter. “Are you and your brothers and sister ready to come home with us?”
There was an excitement in her voice Josiah hadn’t expected. “Really?” he asked out of uncertainty. “All of us—together?”
“Yes,” it was almost a question of permission. “All of you.”
Josiah sighed and started walking away from them. “Ezra’s real sick and JD and Vin are catching cold…”
“Josiah!” Nettie called to his retreating form. When he stopped and turned she pointed toward the vehicles. “We’ll drive you.”
Chris heard Josiah’s frantic calls and immediately he moved everyone to the far corner of the room, unsure of what was happening. Buck clasped JD’s hand and pushed himself in front of Tia who was holding onto Ezra as tightly as she could without hurting him, and Vin grasped hold of Nathan’s jacket and stood behind the older boy. Chris stood in front of them all, anticipating Josiah’s burst through the door, but waiting for the social workers and the police.
Josiah rushed into the room and sighed. “We’ve got a good place to go,” he gasped, with a smile on his face. He stood off to the side so Nettie, Orin, and Evie could enter the room, looking uncertain about their surroundings.
“Good Lord,” Evie sighed, looking at the dirty faces in front of her.
Chris stood protectively over his brothers and sister, seeing the woman’s perfect hair and makeup, her expensive jewelry and clothing, and her high heeled shoes. A stark contrast to the environment she currently found herself in. Her husband wasn’t any better, only he stood confident in his shoes as he looked at each of them.
Nettie moved forward and gently touched Ezra’s flushed face as he rested his head against Tia’s hip. “What happened?” she asked, her nursing instincts taking over.
“His arm’s real bad off, an’ Crawford laid into his back with a wire hanger or somethin’,” Buck answered, keeping a firm hold on JD.
“Let’s get them to the hospital,” Evie said firmly, she reached out and took Vin and JD’s hands with a soft touch. Both boys reached up for her, knowing for some reason that she’d help.
“Take them to Dr. Kenrick,” Nettie said, having worked with the man. “He’s real good with kids.”
“We ain’t goin’ unless we know we’re stayin’ together,” Chris said sharply.
“You’ll all be together,” Orin replied. “Let’s just get all you boys to the doctor so he can check you over.”
Josiah, Chris, and Nathan reached for their few belongings while Vin and JD walked hand in hand with Evie. Tia continued to carry Ezra, unwilling to move him any more than she had to. Buck followed, trying to act hopeful.
“Dr. Kenrick’s a good doctor, he treated all my boys and he’s Casey’s doctor as well.”
“Thank you, Nettie,” Orin said, watching his wife, her face—her eyes.
“I’ve got to pick up Casey from her ballet lessons, call me if you need anything.”
Orin nodded and then quickly jogged toward the Suburban so he could get the seats ready. All the children were a mess, wearing clothing that was stained, dirty, and covered in grease. Their hair clumped to their heads, and dirt was smeared across their faces. Tia’s hair was fraying from her long braid, and her natural red hair seemed darker due to the grime. JD and Vin both had stuffed up noses, and they looked to have been using the sleeves of their shirts and coats as handkerchiefs. Ezra was the only one with a wet head, due to his fever, and the boy had a glazed look in his eyes, as though he hadn’t slept in days.
Evie helped JD and Vin into the back seat of the vehicle and watched as Nathan and Josiah slipped in the center one. Buck paused, unsure of how to help Tia with Ezra. As soon as she moved to set her younger brother down Ezra cried out and tears started to stream down his cheeks. Exhaustion and pain had taken over any and all control he’d had.
Tia continued to soothe him, offering the only comfort she could at the moment. Her arms were sore, overused, and tired—she herself was exhausted. She looked up and saw sympathy in Buck’s eyes, and she smiled despite the situation.
“I’m sorry, Ez,” Buck apologized, frustrated with himself—with the situation.
Evie moved to the back of the Suburban and pulled out an emergency blanket and wrapped it tightly around Ezra’s shoulders. She smiled and gently wiped the tears from his face. Without warning she kicked off her high-heeled shoes and pulled him up into her arms, careful of his shoulder and back, and then she took a seat beside Josiah, Nathan, and Buck.
Orin grinned and reached down to retrieve his wife’s shoes. “Take the passenger seat with Chris, Tia,” he ordered, before moving to the other side to slip onto the driver’s seat.
Dr. Kenrick entered the waiting room when he heard there were seven boys and a young girl with the Travis’ that needed medical attention. His rosy cheeks and gapped front teeth only accentuated his cartoonish characteristics. “Well, well, well,” he chuckled, looking at the dirty faces. He reached up and gently touched the cheek of the boy in Evie’s arms. He furrowed his brow. Not to worry the others, he made his eyes widen and he grinned with elasticity. “Seems we’ve got a football team in here…so who’s the coach?”
Orin cleared his throat and smiled: “That would be me.”
“Well then, coach, looks like your team could use some new uniforms,” Kenrick winked and motioned for his nurses to get some beds ready. “Let’s get you boys in the back and have a look at you.” He slapped his hands together as though it were an experiment.
Orin nodded to his wife, letting her know he’d take care of the paperwork and get the boys something clean to wear.
With the doctor’s help, Evie got Ezra positioned on one of the beds. He rubbed his eyes tiredly as the blanket was pulled from his form. He looked around, trying to focus his eyes and understand what was happening. He could see the blue curtain hanging next to the bed, the bottles and bandages decorating the wall behind him. Buck and Chris stood close to Evie while Josiah and Nathan watched Vin and JD. Tia stood beside him, her hand wrapped tightly around his.
“So…” Larry Kenrick smiled, looking at the youngster on the bed, “…what seems to be the trouble?” He carefully placed a band thermometer over Ezra’s brow. The black strip stuck to him and he jumped, Larry pulled his hand back and gently let him know nothing he did was going to hurt him. Larry locked eyes with Evie for a moment before continuing with his exam.
“His arm’s hurt,” Buck spoke up, “and his back’s real bad too.”
The doctor’s eyes got large as though in shock. “How did you do that?” He looked at Ezra. “You spoke and didn’t even move your lips.”
Evie smiled and placed a comforting hand on Buck’s shoulder as she waited for the doctor to finish his business. She noted how quiet all the boys were, the concern they showed for each other—like a family.
Larry furrowed his brow when he saw the thermometer reading, but he smiled so he wouldn’t worry the children around him. Carefully he pulled down Ezra’s shirt and prodded his shoulder, testing how tender it was. The wounds on the boys back were healing, except for a couple of the worst ones. He checked Ezra’s breathing, pulse, and heart with his stethoscope and sighed in relief when he didn’t hear anything abnormal, but it was evident…he’d been abused, and it was a safe bet that this hadn’t been the first time. Larry shook his head in dismay. He looked up at Evie and smiled. “I’m going to have one of my nurses take our guest to have some x-rays done on his shoulder—”
“Not alone,” Chris snapped, standing up straighter.
The doctor nodded, unwilling to cause any problems. “You can go, but you have to wait outside the room while the x-ray is being taken,” he said, looking hard at the young blonde.
Chris clenched his jaw, but nodded in agreement.
Tia nodded, she trusted Chris as much as herself.
Larry turned momentarily and retrieved a small jar from a locked cabinet. He then poured a small amount of fluid into a paper cup and handed it to Ezra. “Take that, it will help with the pain.” He looked hard at the boy. “Can you swallow it?” His voice was soft, and unthreatening, but something inside the small boy told him not to trust the man.
Ezra looked toward Chris for approval before drinking the thick pink substance.
“Normally I give shots, but considering what you’ve been through I figured this would be easier.” He smiled warmly, taking the now empty paper cup. “This,” he motioned to his nurse who wore a Scooby Doo smock, “is Nurse Nancy…she’ll take you down the hall to have your x-rays done.” Larry carefully helped the boy lay back on the gurney and he watched as Chris walked next to it, his hand held tightly by Ezra’s. “Who’s next?” Doctor Kenrick asked, slapping his hand down on the next portable bed.
Evie finished wiping Vin’s face free of dirt. He smiled shyly, trying to hide his eyes from her knowing gaze. He liked her, the way she spoke, so soft and generous, even her touch was light, as though she would never try and hurt him. He looked up when her husband entered the room with a few bags. He smiled at the children and rested the items at the foot of Ezra’s bed while he slept peacefully for the first time in days. Tia sat beside him, like a sister or a mother whose whole world was wrapped up in blankets and a bandage.
“How are they?” Orin asked, slipping his coat off.
Evie sighed and brushed Vin’s cheek before turning to face her husband. “Dr. Kenrick said he’d be in to let us know—they just brought Ezra in a few minutes ago…dislocated shoulder.” She looked at the blue brace that supported his arm to his chest.
Orin winced and looked at the boy. “I bought some clothing. I wasn’t sure what would fit so I purchased some pajamas in all sizes, I thought they could at least sleep comfortably until we could go shopping tomorrow.” He looked around the room. “Where’re the others?”
“I sent the older boys down to get a shower…Dr. Kenrick was kind enough to allow them.”
JD crept around the edge of the bed and made his way onto Evie’s lap while Vin remained seated beside her. Orin smiled at his wife’s reaction as he dug through the bags.
“Dr. Kenrick,” Evie said softly, brushing JD’s bangs away from his eyes after the doctor entered the room.
Larry smiled and moved to the bed and quickly took his patient’s temperature. When he finished he pulled the blanket up higher over Ezra’s shoulders before turning his attention to his foster parents.
“How’re Tia and the boys?” Orin asked, wanting to get to the point.
Larry moved to the wall and crossed his arms over his chest and spoke softly. “All eight are underweight,” he looked at his clipboard with the results, “most significantly, Chris, Ezra, and Vin. JD’s anemic which could simply be a vitamin E deficiency due to his lack of nourishment the past few months… Buck has a slight upper respiratory infection that I’d like to keep an eye on, just to make sure it isn’t anything more severe, and Nathan has a faint heart murmur—which I’ve discovered through social services; he’s had all his life. He’s also got some bruises on his back and shoulders—he wouldn’t tell me what happened but from the looks of the other boys…I’d say they’ve all been beat. Josiah’s in good shape, just under nourished like the others.” He sighed and looked toward Tia who refused to leave Ezra’s side.
Evie stood up and gently patted JD’s shoulder. “Dr. Kenrick and I’ll be right back.” She motioned for Orin to follow them and they stepped out of the room into the hall. “What’s going on?” she asked, feeling as thought there was more to his examinations.
“I obtained all the boys medical records, as well as Tia’s—you’ll receive a copy as soon as you’ve finished filling out the forms. Tia has a severe case of asthma—I want to keep her on her mast cell stabilizer for now, and when she gets a little older I’d like to put her on a corticosteroid. She’ll be on medication the rest of her life.” He paused and looked at the couple. “However…” he sighed and looked through the glass window into the room. “Tia was sexually abused by her former foster father.”
Evie nodded: she hadn’t been expecting these children to come without problems. “Is there anything else?” She reached out and grasped Orin’s hand.
Larry shook his head: “I just wanted you to know. There’s a lot of information in their files…all except Ezra’s. They’re all scarred, and I don’t want it to come as a surprise for you when you realize how bad off a few of them are.” He looked hard at the couple. “Don’t expect cookies and ice cream.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of cards. “This is my home number and office number, and the other card is for a social worker who’s wonderful with children. You’ve already been assigned one, but ask for her—she’s great and she’ll help you with whatever you need.”
“Thank you, doctor,” Orin said softly, taking the business cards.
Larry folded his hands together with the clipboard in his grasp. “From what Nathan tells me, they’d been living on eggs and bread the past couple of months.”
Orin curled his nose and lips and watched as his wife shook her head in disbelief. They knew it had been bad, they just didn’t know how bad.
“I had to stitch three of the lacerations on Ezra’s back—fourteen stitches in all. They’ll need to come out in ten days. I’ll be sending you home with a prescription for some antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and some pain relievers. His shoulder was dislocated, but Dr. Manny was able to manipulate it back into place without surgery. However, Ezra will need to keep the brace on for three weeks, just long enough to allow those tendons and muscles to heal properly. He’s been sedated and should sleep for the next few hours. I’d like to take another look at it in a couple of days to insure the reduction of edema—”
“Are they going to be alright?” Evie asked, looking through the window toward the children.
Larry smiled: “In time. Go ahead and schedule the appointments for the boys with the secretary up front.” He pulled a few sheets of paper from his clipboard and handed them to Orin. “Those are the prescriptions—if you have any questions you can call either myself or Dr. Twall—the other pediatrician.”
“How soon can we take them home?” Evie questioned, glancing over at Ezra’s sleeping form.
“Couple hours,” Larry replied. “I’d like for Ezra to wake before you do—just so I can see how he’s doing.”
Evie nodded and smiled when she saw the rest of the boys walk slowly down the hospital corridor dressed in their dirty clothing. Gently she brushed some stray hairs out of her face and smiled as the four boys started entering the room. “You all right?” she asked, still unsure of her place within their group.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Josiah replied, sticking his finger in his ear to scratch it.
“How’s Ezra?” Buck asked, moving into the room, toward the edge of the bed. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘im sleep so good.” He smiled, and looked up at Orin and Evie as they followed behind him.
Evie smiled tightly, not understanding what that statement meant but she was unwilling to push the subject. “You all hungry?” She watched six heads nod in unison and she chuckled. “Josiah?” she asked, “Would you mind going with me to the cafeteria?”
Josiah nodded and quickly followed her out of the room, leaving the others behind.
“You boys go ahead and change into these pajamas,” Orin said, holding the items up, trying to visually size them to each of the children. “
“They’re pajamas?” Chris said, furrowing his brow.
“They’re clean,” Orin replied with a chuckle. “Just change into them for tonight and tomorrow we’ll go get you some more clothes.”
Nathan and Buck nodded and looked down the hall toward the bathrooms. Chris motioned for Vin and JD to go with them and quickly they disappeared out of the room.
Orin handed Tia a pair of pajamas, unsure of how to act to the latest news.
“He told ya didn’t he?” Tia said softly, wiping Ezra’s brow with her hand.
“Told me what?”
“What Peterson did to me.” She turned and looked up at him. Her eyes were hard, accusatory, and scarred.
Orin took a deep breath and took a seat. He nodded, unwilling to lie to her. “I know you were abused.” He spoke soft, and with understanding.
Tia returned her attention back to Ezra. “I always locked my door at night, so it weren’t like I wanted him to—” she sucked in a deep breath, “—he just…did things.”
Orin swallowed the lump in his throat. He’d heard all of this before, not about Tia, but about many little girls, and young women who were raped, abused, and misused. The stories made him sick, despite hearing about it, seeing it, and ruling over cases regarding it.
“Peterson an’ his wife took in foster kids…usually girls—he liked girls, but Ezra came to live with us just before we left there. Peterson hated him…I think it was cuz he was a boy.” She shrugged and readjusted her grip on Ezra’s hand. “His ma left ‘im ya know—she was supposed to come back for him, but she never did. The people that took me and the other girls from Peterson took him too…said he couldn’t stay there.”
“You seem pretty close to him.”
Tia nodded and chuckled: “He used to do things that would make Peterson so mad his face would turn red.” She shrugged again. “Ezra’s got a mouth on him—even for bein’ so young.”
Orin leaned back, understanding more of their relationship. “He help you and the other girls?”
Tia nodded: “He got us all door stops for our rooms…he slept in my room most nights—when Peterson didn’t lock him in the closet. Peterson didn’t touch none of us when Ezra was around.” She shrugged, not understanding why, just that he didn’t.
“Evie and I won’t separate any of you.”
Tia turned and looked hard at him, hearing his words, but fearing the lie. “You promise?”
“As my word as a judge, I promise.”
Tia nodded and turned back to Ezra.
Vin reentered the room with the others following behind him. He reached out and pulled on Orin’s shirt, causing the older man to turn his attention toward him.
“What is it, Vin?” Orin asked.
Vin stood up on his tiptoes and whispered in Orin’s ear, “They’re all the same color.” He stepped back and pulled at the light blue pajama leg.
Orin chuckled and nodded: “I’ll get you some different ones tomorrow.” He patted the boy’s shoulder and turned to gather up the dirty clothing that had been set on the chair next to him.
JD pushed a chair up against the bed Ezra was sleeping in and crawled up into it. He stood up on the seat and leaned over the side of the bed railing and looked at the older boy. Tia braced her arm around his waist to steady him. “Hey, Ezra, you’re awake,” he smiled and continued, “Evie’s gone to get us some food and Mr. Travis gived us some new PJs—they all look alike though and Vin doesn’t like that—Josiah, Chris, Buck, and Nathan all got to go down and take showers—Doctor Kenrick said they could—Evie says the rest of us can take baths when we get to her house—I don’t like baths—remember when Buck threw Blue into the sink an’ washed him—Tia’s got new clothes too, but she ain’t changed yet.” He looked up when Orin placed a strong hand on his shoulder.
Buck and Chris moved in beside the bed, both wearing smiles of equal strength. “How’re you doin’?” Buck asked, gently placing his hand on Ezra’s shoulder.
Young Standish reached up and lazily rubbed his eyes while lying on his right side. He felt better, and his shoulder didn’t hurt like it had. He watched as Orin Travis lowered the bed railing, and allowed the other boys to slip up beside him. Tia remained seated beside the bed.
“What’s goin’ to happen to Crawford?” Chris asked in a soft yet determined tone.
Orin sat in the chair next to Tia and the bed. “He’s being charged with child abuse, child endangerment—”
“He goin’ to jail?” Buck asked, sitting cross-legged on the end of the bed.
Orin sighed, good question, he thought to himself. “That would depend on how good the prosecuting attorney is,” he answered honestly.
“He can’t never get us again can he?” Vin asked, raising his voice for the first time.
“No,” Orin replied. “He’ll never be able to hurt you or any child again.”
“Here,” Evie said, handing Josiah another sandwich to place on his tray. “All of you seem pretty close…” she’d intended for it to be a question, but it didn’t come out as such.
Josiah nodded and followed Evie who was filling her tray with food as well. “Chris was the first one the Crawfords took in—I came a few months later—”
“How old were you?”
“I was seven…Chris was six. Nathan came a year after that, then Buck—Chris and Buck got real close real fast—Buck was only…five at the time…Nate and him are the same age.”
“What about the others?”
“JD came next—he was just one at the time…he got real close to Maggie—”
“Yes, ma’am… Vin came a year after that and then Ezra and Tia came together—Ezra was with us for a few months—somethin’ about his ma coming back to get him—I guess she never showed…he came back a couple months after that.”
“What do you mean…? Ezra’s mother was coming back for him?”
Josiah nodded: “Him and Tia were staying with the Petersons, and Ezra’s mother was Peterson’s cousin—something like that anyway. She dumped Ezra off for a while and went away and she ain’t been back since. He and Tia are real close, she’s like his sister—only she ain’t. Anyway, Maude—that’s Ezra’s mother, she was supposed to meet with the social worker to get Ezra back and she never showed up…so the social worker kept him for a couple of weeks trying to find Maude and when he couldn’t find her, Maggie agreed to take him back in. ”
Evie nodded in understanding, resting her tray on the counter and motioned for Josiah to do the same. She then pulled out the right amount of cash to pay the teller before making her way out of the cafeteria. “You didn’t explain how come you’re all so close?” she asked, heading toward the elevator.
“Maggie was a real nice lady, and she was always good to us—all of us. Berry wasn’t home much, but when he was she and him always went out together to do things. Tia and me are the oldest, she’s fourteen and I’m thirteen—but people think I’m older because I’m so big. Then Chris—he’s twelve. Buck and Nate are both eleven. Ezra’s seven, Vin’s six, and JD’s the youngest. Tia, Chris, and I started babysitting the younger ones—guess we just took over their care when Maggie wasn’t around…she got real sick before she died.” He shrugged and followed her out of the elevator when it stopped on their floor. “After she died, Berry got real mean—started beating on us—just crazy sometimes…we all learned to watch out for each other.”
“Like brothers and a sister?”
Josiah nodded: “Yes, Ma’am.”
Evie stopped and smiled at him. “Call me Evie, Josiah…I don’t bite, and neither does my husband.”
Josiah smiled and followed her into the room.