By Beth ©
Foster Brothers AU (Seven)
Please send comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
The house was huge, as seven sets of eyes landed on the old style features. A wraparound porch stood out like a beacon, having been painted white. The home was surrounded by plants and trees that gently touched the skyline. Three levels…the home was three levels with gabbles on the top floor, three to be exact. JD smiled and grasped Evie’s hand as she helped him from the Suburban. Berry’s home was big, but this…this was gigantic. Orin opened all the doors and carefully lifted Ezra out of the seat, the boy had fallen asleep as soon as the engine had started and had yet to awaken.
“Take him upstairs,” Evie said softly, knowing all the boys were tired.
Tia followed him, unwilling to see Ezra out of her sight just yet.
Orin nodded and smiled as he carefully unlocked the front door, and then with his burden in his arms he headed up the stairs. The home smelt of warm spices, and everything had its own place. The dark green carpets and hardwood floors accentuated the home’s elegance. Even the furniture was perfectly placed, covered in pillows and throws. Pictures and paintings hung on the wall, all at the same level. A baby grand piano rested in the corner, the top covered in a lace cloth and framed pictures. The fireplace was beautiful with a stone mantel and Evie escorted all the boys into the living room; their mouths agape, and their eyes bulging.
“Where’s Ezra?” Chris asked, taking a seat on the couch, pulling Vin down with him.
“Orin took him upstairs to put him to bed…Tia’s with him,” Evie answered softly. She watched as JD looked inside the glass hutch with all the wonderful items. “I’ll go upstairs and fix you boys up some beds…there’s five bedrooms all of you can share. Orin and I ordered some beds yesterday—they should be here by tomorrow.” She moved to a closet and started pulling out blankets and pillows.
“We can sleep on the floor,” Josiah offered.
“You will not,” Evie corrected. “I’ll go upstairs and fix up some rooms, the rest of you decide who’ll share bedrooms with whom.” Before anyone could object, she headed up the stairs to the bedrooms.
Chris looked at his foster brothers. He didn’t mind the idea of sharing rooms, they had at the Crawfords…except Josiah, he had one all his own. “What do you want to do?”
“One of us should stay with the younger ones,” Josiah said.
“Ain’t younger,” Vin snapped.
“I could stay with Ezra and JD,” Buck offered. “Chris, you could stay with Vin—since he seems to tolerate your moods.” He chuckled, trying to make light of the situation.
“Since Josiah and me do more readin’ than the rest of you,” Nathan shrugged, “we could room together.”
Chris nodded, the situation having come to an end. “Okay. Tia can have her own room.”
“Berry ain’t gonna come an’ get us is he?” Vin asked, voicing his fear for the first time.
“No,” Josiah responded. “Evie says we’re staying here.”
“At least until you all graduate,” Orin comments, stepping off the last step. “Come on…let’s get you to bed.” He stood off to the side as the six boys made their way up the stairs.
Orin slipped in beside his wife as she sat on the steps of the stairs looking out their large living room window. “You all right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she responded softly. She leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder. “I’ll take the boys to town tomorrow and get them some decent clothing. I think Vin outgrew his shoes three months ago… I’m not going to put them back into school—not for the remainder of this year. I thought I could home school them, find out what grade they should enter this fall… JD’ll be fine, it’s the others I’m worried about.” She sat up straight and rubbed her cheek.
“What about your job?”
Evie shrugged: “This is more important,” she sighed and ran a hand over her face, “I’ll call Rayanne in the morning, see if she can find a long term sub—it’s only for two months, shouldn’t be a problem.”
Orin nodded in agreement and gently rubbed his wife’s shoulder. “What about you?”
“I’ve got seven young men and a daughter that need a mother,” she turned and looked at him. “And I’m ready to be one.”
Nettie joined Evie at the large table in the food court of the mall they were shopping in. Tia and the boys sat together at an adjoining table, enjoying their sandwiches, fries, and milkshakes. It wasn’t busy, most people just enjoying their day off or warmth of a spring day. Even the indoor plants seemed to thrive under the rays of the sun as they came in through the windows.
“Sorry I’m late,” Nettie said softly, resting her napkin on the table next to her try of food. “Dr. Mitchels didn’t show up until a little while ago—you know he’s gettin’ married?” she asked, taking a quick look at the children.
“I knew he was seeing someone,” Evie responded, taking a pull from her soda. “I’m just glad you could join me…I hadn’t realized how hard it was going to be shopping for eight children.” She smiled, looking at the bags of items she’d purchased.
Nettie chuckled softly. “I can’t say that I understand, but I can image how difficult it’s been. Have you gone down to the salvyshops…looked around for some used clothes—be a lot cheaper.”
Evie shrugged and shook her head. “I think Tia and those boys have been limited to used clothes, worn out tennis shoes, and old underwear.” She sighed and took a deep breath. “Orin and I can afford it, and besides the state pays for most of it.”
“They’re lucky to have you,” Nettie said, smiling as Buck reached down without having to be asked to grab JD’s stuffed bear. “So who do you have left to buy for?”
Evie laughed: “The only things I’ve purchased are bed sheets, blankets, pillows, and some shoes.”
“Oh good heavens, girl…what have you been doing?”
Evie shook her head. “Did you know that Ezra can’t decide what his favorite color is: blue, red, violet, or green. Vin can’t decide on anything—think he’s too afraid to ask. JD wants everything, as long as it has The Smurfs are on it. Buck just likes to look at the girls clothing section—more so the girls than what they’re wearing. Chris is too busy trying to get everyone to decide on something. Nathan just wants to read, Josiah’s overly compliant, and Tia’s too concerned about all of them.”
Nettie laughed: “All that in one morning?”
Evie joined in her laughter and looked at her best friend. “I’m so glad you came—I need some help so desperately.”
“Well, for starters…why don’t we bag the brand names and go to Kmart.”
“Will they have everything…I mean selection wise?”
“That an’ more,” Nettie replied. “They’re boys, Evie, an’ they’re goin’ to tear more holes in jeans, stain more tee shirts, grow out of shoes, and poke their toes through more socks than you’re going to care to count…and Tai, well, she’s goin’ to be wearin’ her clothes out right along with them.”
Evie laughed: “I suppose you’re right.”
Evie pushed JD in one cart while Nettie followed in another, and Josiah followed in the last. Vin and Ezra sat in the same cart with Josiah pushing. They seemed content looking at colorful books while using some of the clothing Evie was going to purchase as padding. Chris, Buck, and Nathan walked beside them, wishing they were someplace else, but at the same time thankful for where they were. Tia tried her best to keep them all together, unwilling to lose one. People looked in awe and laughter as the troops went by. Their carts slowly being filled with clothing, tennis shoes, towels, school items, personal items: toothbrushes, combs, underwear…and of course, a few toys.
Evie ran a hand tiredly over her brow and looked at the three carts. I should have bought stock in Kmart, she thought, shaking her head. “What about sweats…?” She looked at the boys, “Would you like sweats for playing outside or roughhousing?”
Buck pressed his lips together and shook his head…Josiah and Chris did the same.
Nettie cleared her throat: “Maybe when they get older…more mature.” She tried to sound dignified, but she wasn’t quite sure if she was pulling it off. She looked at the older boys and watched them nod in agreement.
Evie shook her head, not quite understanding. “When they get older…?” Suddenly her eyes got large and she smiled before changing the subject. “Well then, I think we’re done.”
Buck reached out and slapped Chris’ shoulder. “You could have said somethin’ like, ‘we hate sweats…or…they’re uncool.”
“You could have too,” Chris bit back.
“Why do we have to wait ‘till we get older?” Vin asked, grabbing the edge of the cart. He looked up at Josiah who was unwilling to say anything. “What’s wrong with sweats?”
“You’ll know once you reach puberty,” Buck answered none-too-gracefully.
Orin stood back and watched as seven young men and one young woman entered the house with arms full of bags. He chuckled softly to himself, knowing Evie would have a fit if she saw him laughing at the situation. When she stepped into the room she sighed, dropping her bags at her feet.
“What’s for dinner?” she asked, looking him in the eye.
“Take out,” Orin replied with a smile. He reached over and kissed her cheek gently. “Is there anymore?”
“Plenty,” she replied, picking her bags back up and heading into the living room where she intended to sort them.
JD had taken a place on the antique rocking chair, Blue held tightly in his grasp. He was tired, looking as though he’d been run ragged. The others waited patiently for their orders…what they should do next. Evie set her bags next to the sofa and smiled. “Go wash up…Orin’s got dinner warming up in the oven.” She smiled as they quickly made their way upstairs, just thankful to be done shopping. “You okay, Josiah?” she asked, noticing the older boy was slower in moving.
Josiah nodded and grasped the stair railing. “Thank you for everything.”
Evie smiled and gently squeezed his shoulder. “Go upstairs and get cleaned up.”
JD rushed out of the room he was going to be sharing with Buck and Ezra with a smile on his face that reached from one ear to the next. “We got bunk beds, Buck,” he said happily, watching as Ezra dried his hands on the towel next to the bathroom sink, careful of the blue brace still strapped to his arm and chest.
“So where’re you sleepin’?” Buck asked, turning off the faucet.
“I get the top one,” came the bold response. He turned quickly and rushed back to his room.
“Let’s go,” Chris ordered, trying not to let the situation get to him. The beds were nice…the new clothes, blankets, pillows…games…they were all nice, but that’s not what they needed at the moment. Those were just the little things.
Vin, JD, and Nathan trotted down the stairs first, while the others followed at a slower pace…still trying to absorb all that had happened.
It was difficult at first, trying to feel at home in a new place, with new people. Tia had quickly, like always, become the part of the mother hen. She put Band-Aids on cuts and scratches, kissed them to make it better—something Evie wanted to do…but she wasn’t sure how. Ezra on many nights, left his bed only to go to Tia’s room and sleep with her—from protection, fear, or perhaps both, nobody complained—perhaps it was something he did out of necessity.
Without having to be told, toys were put away when it was time for bed, even beds were made early in the morning. Evie had watched Buck help the young boys with theirs, their arms just to short to reach the corners. They always sat at the table to eat, and they never asked for seconds. Evie quickly learned, however, to fill their plates full with food at first—giving them plenty to eat so they wouldn’t want to ask for more.
The boys took care of each other, and Tia took care of all of them.
Orin rested his briefcase on the kitchen table and took a much-needed seat. He watched as his wife looked over some books and papers. The house was quiet, and he figured the boys had already gone to bed. “What’s the matter?” he asked softly.
Evie sighed and leaned back in her seat. She looked hard at her husband and smiled tightly. “I’m afraid…” she admitted sadly.
Evie shrugged her shoulders and averted her eyes toward the window. “I don’t think we’re going to be enough for Tia and the boys—”
“It’s been less than two weeks, Evie—”
“I’m not giving up on them or us, Orin.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I cleaned Vin and Chris’ room today…” she shook her head, “…Vin’s been hiding glasses of water under his bed.”
Orin chuckled: “I was wondering where all of our glasses were at.”
“He’s hiding water, Orin, he’s hiding it because he’s afraid he won’t have it when he needs it—who wouldn’t allow a child to have water?” She sighed in disgust. “Chris won’t tell me why Vin does it—just that he always has. JD gets terrified when he’s left alone—by anyone. He needs to be with Tia or one of the older boys and if he’s with me he’s got to know where the others are. Ezra doesn’t like to be touched,” she looked hard at her husband, “He cowers when I reach for him—when anyone reaches for him—even Tia. Chris is angry—not just anyone—the whole world. Buck doesn’t care—about anything, other than the Playboy magazines he found in an old box in his room.” She raised an eyebrow and looked at her husband.
“Those are classics now.”
Evie rolled her eyes and continued, “Nathan’s locked himself in his books—hiding from reality and Josiah is carrying the guilt of the world on his shoulders—he say’s sorry for everything. And Tia…her whole world are those boys—when it should be Sheena Easton or Bruce Springsteen.”
“They’re troubled kids, Evie—they’re going to have problems.”
“Not like this.” She ran a hand over her face and pulled out the files she’d managed to acquire through child services. “I asked Beverly—our new social worker—”
“I know who she is,” Orin interrupted.
“I wanted to know each of their histories.” She pushed the files in front of her husband. She watched as he opened them and read briefly through.
“As bad as these are,” he sighed, “I’ve seen worse.”
“I’m sure you have,” Evie responded softly, but continued, “After Chris’ parents died he was placed with his aunt and uncle and then pulled from their home because they were beating him—both, were beating him. Buck watched his mother get preyed upon by men—until one killed her—he found her. Nathan’s father abandoned him after his mother committed suicide… Vin…Vin was sexually abused by his aunt, Orin…”
“The others…?” Orin pushed.
“JD was just a baby when his mother died, he really doesn’t remember her…but I guess he took Maggie Crawfords’ death pretty hard. Josiah was placed in the Crawfords’ household right after the death of his parents—and Ezra…I don’t have anything on him. And we already know Tia’s past.” She sighed and rubbed her head.
“What else?” Orin asked, he knew his wife well enough to know that she had an idea and wanted to tell him about it.
“I spoke with Ian Simpson, he used to run a boys ranch before he retired.” Evie sighed and took a deep breath. “I want to get them involved in horses, I think it might be good for them. I found Ezra reading this book,” she smiled as she handed it over ‘Working with Horses’, “I can’t keep Chris out of the horse magazines and he’s always watching the rodeos on TV…Vin too. I think it’s something that all the boys can enjoy and it will give me something more I can share with them.”
“Sounds like a good idea… What do you have planned?”
“Sunset Ranch is willing to give all the children riding lessons…it was the only place I could find that would be willing to teach the younger ones. I figured if they rode for a couple of months, maybe we could get some horses of our own. I’ve checked into the local 4-H clubs and it sounds promising.”
Orin nodded, thinking about what she was saying. “There’s a prison in Arizona that rehabilitates inmates with wild horses—from what I understand about it,” he nodded in understanding, “it’s definitely worth trying.”
“They’re not prisoners,” Evie said with a smile.
“No,” Orin agreed, “but if a horse at their age can keep them on the right track—give them that extra sense of independence and humanity—then run with it.” He stood up and walked to his wife, bending over he gently placed a kiss on her cheek. “You don’t ever have to ask me for permission…”
“It’s going to be an expense, Orin.”
“No,” Orin stood up straight, “it’s an investment.” He stretched his back and headed for the stairs. “You coming?”
Evie smiled and nodded: “I’ll be right up.”
Rain hit the windows with a brutal force, and the wind forced the trees to bend and yield to its power. The storm continued to rage and each of the seven boys had taken up residence on the sofa, just waiting to see which tree would fall first.
Tia remained on the floor putting a puzzle together.
“Who’s going with me?” Evie asked, stepping out of the kitchen.
Eight faces looked at hers.
Evie smiled: “Buck, you and Chris need to come with me so we can get you some cowboy boots. Nathan, you need some better jeans, and Josiah—” she grinned, “—we need to get you some of those books you’ve been wanting to read.” She reached into the closet and grabbed her raincoat and a couple of the older boys’.
“Would it be okay if I stayed?” Tia asked, working diligently on her puzzle…she was almost finished.
“Don’t see why not,” Evie replied. She looked at the three youngest. “Who’s coming and who’s staying?”
Ezra watched as JD and Vin jumped up so they could go as well. No doubt for any other reason than to jump in a few mud puddles. Ezra wanted to go as well, but he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Tia alone. He watched as the others put their raincoats on and slipped on their rubber galoshes. He couldn’t help but smile because they looked so funny. Chris sent him a look of warning and Ezra quickly lost his smug stare.
The door opened and a burst of cold wind entered the home as seven individuals walked out with their heads bowed.
“We’ll be back in a couple of hours. If you need anything, call Orin, his number’s on the refrigerator.” She smiled and quickly shut the door before sprinting toward the suburban. Now she was regretting not having built a garage that was attached to the house.
Ezra watched from the window as the suburban backed out of the driveway.
“You could have gone too,” Tia said softly, putting another piece of the puzzle into place.
Ezra shrugged and slipped back onto the sofa seat. He watched her for a moment, trying to size her up—trying to see if she was in the right state of mind to answer a few of his questions. “Do you like it here?”
Tia nodded: “Don’t you?”
Ezra nodded, but asked, “Do you think Maude will come back for me?”
Tia looked up from her puzzle, his green eyes searching for her honestly, not her comfort. “I don’t know… Do you want her to?”
Ezra visibly winced and then shrugged his shoulders as though he didn’t care if she did or didn’t. He slipped from the sofa and headed into the kitchen.
Tia watched him go, knowing he was too afraid to answer the question, knowing he wanted his mother to come back for him, but he was too afraid to admit it. “Get me a soda too,” she yelled, putting another piece of the puzzle together.
Ezra turned and looked at her, then bit his bottom lip. He opened the refrigerator door and grabbed two cans of cola…then vigorously shook one. Carefully, he walked back into the living room and handed her his soda first—so she would open it for him. When she handed it back to him he took a sip and handed Tia’s to her. “It goes there,” he said softly, watching as the piece Tia had in her hand slipped into the opened spot on the puzzle.
She looked at him and rolled her eyes, know it all, she sighed, thinking to herself. She grabbed the can of soda and opened it, only to scream out when it exploded, shooting foam all over herself, shirt, and table. “YOU’RE IN SO MUCH TROUBLE!!!” she yelled, getting to her feet.
Ezra’s eyes grew three times their normal size and he quickly dashed for the stairs. Tia followed him, soda dripping from her hair, face, and shirt. She held her arms away from her body and headed up the stairs right behind him.
Ezra quickly slipped under his bed, trying to keep from laughing as Tia entered his room and stopped in the doorway.
“You are so cleaning up the mess downstairs,” she paused and started to giggle. She shook her head and sighed, taking a deep breath. “If I pay you…will you do that to Chris?” She laughed harder now, seeing the look on Chris’ face when his can of soda exploded in his face.
“It’d have to be a lot,” Ezra replied, remaining under his bed, he wasn’t stupid.
Tia chuckled: “Come on, we have to clean up that mess downstairs before Evie and Orin get home.”
Ezra remained where he was.
“I’m serious,” she said sternly, “I ain’t cleanin’ it by myself.”
“You promise not to dump water on my head?”
“Yes,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“You promise not to rub food in my face?”
“You promise not to put shaving cream on my face when I sleep?”
“Ezra!” Tia snapped. “I promise I won’t get back at you for shaking my soda!”
Ezra bit his bottom lip and slowly slipped out from beneath his bed. He looked at Tia and he couldn’t help but laugh. Her hair was matted, her shirt spotted, and her arms shiny and sticky.
“You are goin’ to help me clean up that mess.” There was a seriousness in her tone that wouldn’t be challenged and Ezra nodded as a result.
Carefully, the youngster moved passed her only to be grabbed and hugged tightly. Watchful of his injured arm, Tia smeared the still moist soda all over his face, hair, and shirt, causing him to squirm within her grasp. She pulled away from him with a smile on her face.
“Feel better?” he asked, curling his upper lip.
“Much,” she replied, heading to the bathroom.
Ezra followed her, squirming in his now dirtied clothes. He watched as Tia pulled a couple towels out of the closet and hand him one, then she turned on the water in the sink.
“You will have to do that to Chris—get him to lighten up a little.” She wiped her face down.
“He’d kill me,” Ezra replied, stepping up onto the lid of the toilet so he could reach the soap.
“Not if you hid from him,” Tia reassured. She smiled and wet a washcloth for him before handing it to him. Without warning, she grabbed him, and made him sit on the edge of the countertop, where she proceeded to wipe the sticky soda from his face.
“I don’t think Chris likes me,” Ezra said softly, patiently sitting while she moved to comb his damp hair.
Tia chuckled: “He likes you fine—you just need to learn to like him.”
“I do,” Ezra argued.
Tia cocked an eyebrow and looked hard at him.
He sighed under her scrutiny. “He’s bossy.”
“So am I.”
“Not like he is—he even orders Josiah around.”
Tia shook her head and helped Ezra slip out of his shirt. “Go change—and then go start cleaning up the mess downstairs.”
“That an order?”
Ezra jumped from his spot and rushed from the room. Leaving Tia alone shaking her head. She watched him carefully slip into another shirt, moving so he wouldn’t injure his arm any further, and then like a bolt of lightening he rushed downstairs. She gathered up the dirty towels and tossed them into the laundry bin, knocking over a bottle of hairspray in the process. The cap bounced off and the aerosol nozzle broke when it hit the edge of the door.
Tia coughed when she got sprayed in the face.
Ezra grabbed the washrag from the edge of the sink and headed to the living room. Two soda cans rested on the edge of the coffee table, one hardly touched and the other half empty. Cola had dripped onto the carpet, tabletop, and all over the puzzle Tia had been working so hard on. Several of the pieces were now swollen with moisture: she’d never fit them now.
Carefully, Ezra wiped the sticky cola from the table, floor, and as much of the puzzle as he could. He made several trips to the kitchen to rinse out the washrag. He knew he’d get into trouble. Evie’s carpet was stained now, though he could hardly see where it had spilled, it was enough to get him banned from the house…he was sure of it. Thankfully, the coffee table wood hadn’t been damaged, and the cola easily came off. The puzzle however, was a lost cause…he’d have to save his money when he got some and buy a new one to replace it.
He looked up when Tia started down the stairs. She was coughing with her hand over her mouth.
“You okay, Tia?” Ezra asked. He stopped wiping off the table.
She nodded and headed for the kitchen. She grabbed her inhaler off the counter and took a puff, but she couldn’t seem to clear her airways.
Ezra dropped the rag and rushed up the stairs to the bathroom, thinking the inhaler she was using was empty. He opened the top drawer and tossed everything out until he found it next to the new box of toothpaste—in plain sight. He grabbed the item and rushed down the stairs.
He found Tia sitting on the kitchen floor, gasping for breath. Ezra gently grasped her shoulder and showed her the medication. She shook her head, wanting to let him know it wasn’t working. He held up the inhaler anyway and forced her to take some.
She wheezed out, her mouth agape, trying to draw breath. “I…I…can’t…” she shook her head, “…breathe,” she gasped.
Ezra jumped up and grabbed the phone then quickly dialed 911. He couldn’t see her past the kitchen island and the phone cord wouldn’t reach. “I need help,” he all but yelled, “my sister can’t breathe—she’s got asthma—and she’s havin’ an attack—her medicine won’t work—and I don’t know what to do—” The operator asked for an address and Ezra shook his head. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. “I don’t know it.” He looked around and found some letters on the counter next to the phone and quickly read off the address. “What do I do?” he asked, believing they wouldn’t get here in time. “Tia!” he called. “Tia!” He dropped the phone and rushed to her side.
She was lying on the floor, gasping in short panted breaths. Her lips were turning blue, and her face had gone ghostly pale.
Ezra fell to her side, tears falling from his eyes and cheeks. “Don’t die, Tia,” he pleaded, grasping her hand. “Please don’t die,” he continued to cry.
Tia’s eyes stopped watering, and she turned them toward the ceiling, and took two short gasps of air before stopping. Time stood still, and Ezra watched, helplessly as her head lolled slightly to her right—away from him.
“Tia…?” He pushed her gently on her shoulder. “Tia…?” He looked around the room, searching for someone that just might be there.
With his heart in his throat, tears flooding his eyes, and his chin quivering beyond control, Ezra brushed Tia’s hair from her face with his hand. Careful that he didn’t hurt her, he pulled back and remained beside her. It was strange, watching death consume a soul—watching as someone took their last breath—leaving—but not leaving. He memorized the way she looked, and blamed himself for it: the pale, ghostly tint of her skin, the lack of luster in her eyes, the stillness of her body. He sat beside her, unwilling to move, not knowing what to do.
It seemed to take forever for the ambulance to come. The two men rushed into the house and quickly found her. They pushed Ezra out of the way and quickly went to work: tearing her shirt open, taking her pulse, checking her breathing…
It was all pointless…
She was already gone…
The front door swung open and Evie rushed into the house, forgetting about the shopping bags she’d dropped in the rain. The boys followed her in, not knowing what to do. Their simple day out shopping was over—and they’d hoped they’d gotten home early…
One paramedic stood up and moved off to the side with Evie, explaining what had happened. She watched helplessly as Tia was lifted onto a gurney and pushed from the room. Covered. She then looked at the boys, seeing tears, long faces, and confusion. She reached out and embraced them, wanting only to comfort.
“Where’s Ezra?” Josiah asked softly, wiping his eyes. There had to be something someone could do.
Evie turned and started searching for the young seven-year-old. Chris and the others started searching closets, bedrooms, bathrooms, and under beds. Vin and JD followed, unsure about everything. They tried to be strong, but their tears had minds of their own. Evie picked up the phone to call Orin and paused, when she noticed the cabinet under the sink. She put the phone down and knelt in front of the door before slowly opening it.
“Oh, Ezra,” she gasped, choking back her tears.
He tucked his leg against his chest, as tight as he could with his arms wrapped around him. He continued to sob, burying his face in his knees. When Evie reached for him, he pulled back, not wanting to be touched, bothered, or spoken to.
“Please come out,” she pleaded.
“Evie…?” Chris said softly, touching her shoulder.
“Stay with him,” she said, getting to her feet. “I need to call Orin.”
Chris nodded and took a seat in front of the cabinet. He tried to be strong, but his eyes were just as red as anyone’s. He smiled tightly and looked toward the young boy hiding behind himself and the sink pipes. He looked cramped in the small area, but Evie’s lack of clutter aided in his endeavor.
“It ain’t your fault you know,” Chris said softly, knowing why Ezra was hiding, but wishing he could say something to make it better. But he couldn’t, and he knew it.
Orin entered his home to find his wife cradling JD. Vin sat next to her, his head leaning against her shoulder. Nathan and Josiah sat on the bottom step of the stairs, unsure of what to say, and too afraid to say anything. Buck and Chris both sat in front of the kitchen cabinet, trying to talk Ezra out.
They weren’t having any luck.
Orin looked at Evie. He wasn’t sure why, but when he met her eyes, she fell apart. Orin moved forward, thankful that Josiah and Nathan were quick to take charge of JD and Vin. He wrapped his arms around his wife, and tried to comfort her spill of tears. “I’ve already taken care of everything,” he said softly, holding her tight. He pulled back and looked at her. “I spoke with the doctor, he said it would have only been a matter of time before her asthma became too much to bear—anything could have triggered it.”
Evie nodded, it didn’t make in any easier to deal with. “We can’t get Ezra out from under the kitchen sink,” she sobbed.
Orin nodded, only keeping his hold on her. “He’ll come out when he’s ready,” he said confidently. “Don’t push him.”
“I should have made them come with me.”
“Evie,” Orin said with authority, “it wouldn’t have mattered.” He placed his hands on either side of her face. “It’s not your fault… Tia had weak lungs.”
Evie’s chin quivered and reluctantly she nodded in understanding. “What do we do?”
“We take care of the boys—and Tia.” His eyes pleaded with her. “I’ll take care of you.”
“You know I do,” he replied, pulling her into a hug.
Chris sat in front of the cabinet, trying to wait Ezra out. Evie had sent the others to bed, and now she waited next to him, hoping that the seven-year-old would venture out. They’d talked for over four hours and still he refused to budge.
Evie reached out and touched Chris’ arm. “Go upstairs and get some sleep,” she said softly. “I’ll stay with him.”
Chris sighed and reluctantly nodded. He took one last look into the dark cavern and caught a peek of Ezra’s blue tennis shoes. He stood up and slowly headed toward his room, wishing things had been different.
Evie grabbed a blanket and wrapped up in it. She wasn’t about to leave Ezra alone. Every time she reached toward the cabinet he’d try and force himself further inside, despite being as far in as humanly possible. She’d set a plate with a half of turkey sandwich just within the door, in hopes that he’d try and eat something. He never did.
Orin had left to take care of Tia…arrange for a burial, and a small funeral. The social worker had already been notified and a doctor’s report would be on her desk the first thing in the morning. Everything was fine as far as keeping the boys…it was just a matter of helping them get over Tia’s death.
It hadn’t been expected.
But then, how many deaths really are? For a child of fourteen to take her last breath before her life even had a chance to begin caused Evie’s stomach to turn…so much like her Steven—so much like her own son. Taken at an age far too young.
“I won’t leave you, Ezra,” Evie said softly.
Evie continued to sit on the floor, watching…
The house was quiet, much too quiet. Orin had taken care of the boys, making sure they were fed. Nobody really said anything, either too afraid to, or not wanting to cause anyone anymore pain. Evie had traded places with Josiah, Buck, and Chris on several occasions, taking enough time to stretch her legs, have some coffee, and refresh herself…but she always came back and retook up her position on the floor.
The funeral had been arranged, and Orin had done everything he could to make sure everything would happen as planned. He’d taken the boys shopping for some proper attire—nobody wanted to go—but they did.
Six boys—young boys—wearing black suits and ties…
It wouldn’t look natural…even on the day of the funeral.
For the most part, the boys stayed in the living room…putting puzzles together, reading, and looking at magazines. Nobody complained about being board, being hungry, or lacking anything. They just remained quiet, waiting for the next step.
Evie leaned back against the island and watched as Ezra slowly moved his legs—movements that he made several times already, but he hadn’t made an effort to come out. She’d listened to him cry, whimper, and mourn the loss of his friend—his sister, but he’d refused all care.
Slowly, a blue tennis shoe appeared, followed by another, and Ezra made his way out of the cabinet. Dirt smeared his cheeks, and dark circles hugged his eyes. Tear tracks lined his face and his pants were wet.
Evie pressed her lips together, trying to be strong…but she couldn’t. She held her arms out to him and he welcomed the comfort. Humiliated for peeing himself, exhausted, hungry, and confused about everything, he allowed Evie to pick him up and carry him up the stairs. He looked forward to a warm bath, and an even more comfortable bed.
Orin placed his hand on Chris’ shoulder and motioned for the boys to help him in the kitchen.
Ezra sat in the bathtub, allowing the warm water to soak his skin. Evie sat next to him on the tub’s edge, dumping water on his head, washing out the baby shampoo. When he was finished, she wrapped a large towel around him and then took him to his room where she helped him dress into some comfortable, clean, pajamas.
“You want to talk about it?” she asked softly, running a comb through his short hair. His normal dark umber color seemed almost black while wet, and his once brilliant green eyes were dull and tired.
Ezra shook his head and crawled into bed. He buried himself beneath the pile of blankets after turning his face toward the wall. He wanted to be left alone.
Evie sighed, knowing he’d come around when he was ready. Gently, she reached out and squeezed his shoulder before leaving the room. She turned off the lights and shut the door only part way, allowing the light from the hall to enter.
She made her way downstairs to find Orin and the boys sitting at the kitchen table, contemplating the food that was before them. She took a seat, reaching out to brush Vin’s bangs away from his eyes and she smiled tightly.
“Is Ezra gonna be okay?” JD asked, sitting between Buck and Orin.
Evie nodded and dished herself and Vin out some potatoes. “Yes,” she answered confidently, “he’s going to be fine—just like the rest of us.” She looked up and met Orin’s eyes. He smiled and nodded before helping JD with his plate of food.
“Is Ezra goin’ with us tomorrow?” Vin asked, poking at his food with his fork. He looked up, searching for answers—understanding. He didn’t want to go to the funeral…not because of Tia, but because it was such a haunting place…all those souls buried beneath the hard ground—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers…sisters.
“Depends on how he feels,” Orin answered, passing the basket of rolls to Josiah. “Eat up—don’t want anyone getting sick.”
JD peaked over the side of his bed and looked down at Buck who looked up at him. The room was dark except for the distant light from the bathroom. They could hear Ezra crying in the bed adjacent to the bunk beds they were sharing. He was covered head to foot in blankets, hiding from the world.
“We should get Evie,” JD whispered, trying to move between the guardrails of the top bunk.
Buck sighed, he didn’t want to bother her. He stood up when he realized JD wasn’t going to stop trying to maneuver his way out of his bunk bed. “What are you doin’?”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” JD complained, moving toward the ladder when Buck removed the top railing to the bunk bed.
“Hurry back and don’t make any noise,” Buck warned, helping JD down the ladder. Buck turned and moved toward the bed Ezra was sleeping on and gently reached out for a shoulder. Not knowing if the boy was crying in his sleep or if he was awake and trying to vanish from his nightmare. Buck just sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his hand along Ezra’s shoulder, offering the only comfort he could at the moment.
Evie sighed and reached up to turn on the light next to her bed. She smiled and looked at JD who stood like a statue in the doorway to her and Orin’s room. With Blue grasped tightly in his right hand, his left sock missing, and his hair sticking up in spots, he moved slowly toward her bed.
“You okay, JD?” she asked softly, reaching out for his hand with her own.
JD nodded and leaned against the side of her bed. “Ezra’s cryin’,” he said softly, not wanting to make any more noise than he had to.
Evie reached up and brushed his cheek with the back of her hand before tossing the blankets back. She grabbed JD’s hand and silently led him from her room. She pushed the boys’ bedroom door open and found Buck sitting on the edge of Ezra’s bed, trying to comfort him, but it didn’t seem to be helping.
“JD,” Buck scolded, without raising his voice. “You weren’t supposed to wake her.”
“It’s all right, Buck…I’m glad he did.” She helped JD back up into his bed and carefully positioned the bar to keep him from rolling out of his bunk. “Get to sleep, I’ll take care of it,” she whispered, tucking his blankets in.
JD nodded, looking back at her. He tucked Blue up close to his chest and smiled contently. He knew she would take care of it.
Buck crawled back into bed without being told to. “We shouldn’t have bothered ya,” he said softly.
Evie shook her head and tucked him in. “Go to sleep,” she ordered softly.
Buck watched as she moved toward Ezra’s bed.
She carefully pulled the blankets back and rubbed his shoulder. She sighed and shook her head speaking softly, “He’s still sleeping.” Her heart clenched, knowing what it was like to take a death so hard that it was inescapable…even during sleep. She pulled him up into her arms, never waking him, and slowly carried him out of the room.
“Is he gonna be like that forever?” JD asked, once again peaking over the side of the bed.
“No,” Buck answered confidently. At least he hoped not.
Orin came down the stairs at the crack of dawn and watched his wife with eyes only a husband would know. She sat in her rocking chair, fast asleep, sitting guard over Ezra who slept peacefully on the sofa. Orin smiled and quickly headed into the kitchen to put on some coffee.
The sun started peaking out through the clouds…it was going to be a nice day. Orin watched from the window and thought about the day ahead—what was about to take place…the burial of a young woman—a sister, friend, and in some cases, a mother. He took a deep breath, remembering a day a few years ago when he’d buried his own son.
Nothing cut deeper than the death of a family member. No pain was worse, more terrified, or apprehensive than the death of a child—particularly his own. Tia was different—but in a way she was the same. For the boys, her death would be seen as a sister who died too soon. For himself and Evie, it was the retouching of a painful past.
Orin grabbed two cups out of the cupboard and carefully poured coffee into them. He turned and smiled when he saw Evie watching him from her chair. She let the blanket she’d been wrapped in fall from her shoulders.
“Everything all right?” he asked softly, handing his wife her cup of coffee.
“He finally got to sleep about two hours ago,” she sighed. “He’d been crying in his sleep.”
Orin nodded and reached down to give his wife a kiss. “I’ll get the boys ready for the funeral—you stay home with Ezra…both of you need to get some sleep.”
Reluctantly, she agreed. “I don’t think he’d be ready for today anyway.” She reached out and wiped a few stray hairs away from Ezra’s forehead.
Orin agreed, and took a seat on the stuffed chair adjacent to his wife. “The boys seemed to be hiding their feelings—as far as Tia’s death is concerned.”
“Too much, too soon,” Evie said softly. “They’ve barely had time enough to feel at home here—and then to suddenly lose their sister…”
Orin watched, as Ezra rolled over to face the back of the sofa. He never woke. “I can’t think of anyone better to help them through it.”
Evie smiled tightly, on one hand, she wanted to be the mother, and yet on the other, she didn’t want them in so much distress. No doubt it would be easier to place a band-aid on a cut, an ace bandage on a sprained wrist—but this?
This was different.
“I’m going to go get the paper,” Orin sighed, getting up from his seat—sounding like an old man.
Evie chuckled softly… “Are you going to survive six boys?”
“Today—I will… Tomorrow…maybe not.”
The boys sat in the ice cream parlor, licking away at their choice of 31 flavors. It seemed strange, enjoying the taste of strawberry, chocolate, bubblegum, and mint—wearing black suits, ties, and little white shirts. Their faces were long, eyes red, but for the first time in four days they saw the light of something better.
It had been hard saying goodbye. It had been hard, watching Tia’s casket—knowing she was in there. Orin had said she was sleeping, she was peaceful, and nobody was ever going to harm her again.
That made the boys happy.
But they still missed her.
They had to believe she would be with them the rest of their lives…in her own way. She’d forever be telling JD to wash behind his ears, helping Vin with his alphabet, teasing Ezra, speaking equally with Josiah, encouraging Nathan to be more than he believed he could be, helping Buck with the ‘lines’ he’d use in the future—when he met his perfect woman, and finally, Chris—helping him realize he was more than anyone believed of him.
JD looked up and smiled at Orin as he wiped his tie free of the chocolate ice cream that dripped from the kid’s cone. He licked his finger free and continued with his treat. His face was covered with dark brown smudges that had dried before he could even try and finish. A pale ring circled his mouth…just the length of his tongue.
Vin didn’t look much different, except it was pink that smeared his cheeks, chin, and upper lip. He seemed to get distracted a lot, looking at everything around him rather than his ice cream cone. As a result his fingers and hands were covered with sticky strawberry ice cream.
“Are you goin’ to send us away?” The question came out of nowhere, and Chris wouldn’t let it go unanswered. It was in his eyes.
Orin looked confused at the young man and shook his head. “Why would I send you away?”
Buck, JD, and Vin stopped eating their ice cream.
Chris bit his bottom lip, trying not to lose his nerve. He shrugged his shoulders and focused his attention on the napkin dispenser on the tabletop. He had to protect his family.
“Did Tia get sick a lot?” Orin asked, wanting to keep the questions basic and easy to understand.
JD nodded, and then continued to work on his ice cream cone.
“She went to the hospital a couple of times—but that was during school,” Josiah supplied, “never at home.”
Orin nodded. “I’m not going to send any of you away…ever. Your home now is with Evie and I.”
“For how long?” Chris asked again, needing answers.
“For as long as you want it to be.”
“Can we go visit Tia whenever we want?” Vin asked, before licking cream off his fingers.
“Yes,” Orin agreed. He had a son buried there as well—and he’d never keep the boys away from her.
Six heads turned quickly and looked out the large glass windows as a young woman rode by riding her appaloosa gelding. She seemed content riding bareback off the side of the road, not far from an irrigation ditch.
Orin smiled, he loved small towns.
The boys smiled…they loved horses.
“Let’s get home…we’ve got a lot of things to get done.”
Seven well-behaved boys would be hard enough to handle, but seven excited boys was almost impossible. Evie tried her best, never raising her voice, never exhibiting exhaustion or disbelief, but her head felt as though it would explode. She had to smile though; this was the first time since Tia’s death that they had acted…like boys.
Chris busied himself with horse facts and the best breeds. Ezra steadily disagreed with him. JD was determined to ride a white horse with a black mane and tail. Vin had plastered himself against the window of the suburban looking excitedly for the horses they would be riding. Nathan read from his horse book, trying to inform every one of what to do and not to do around the animals. Josiah did his best to keep everyone satisfied, just wanting them to work hard and not get in anyone’s way. And Buck had decided he was going to find a faster horse than Chris’.
Evie kept her hands on the steering wheel. The smell of French fries, cheeseburgers, and chocolate shakes filled the interior of the Suburban. She could only chuckle when she thought of all the greasy finger prints that would end up all over the windows, door panels, and upholstery…at least Orin agreed about the investment.
When the ranch came into view a silence suddenly floated through the vehicle like a heavy fog and all sets of eyes looked forward and out the windows. They watched the new babies run, buck, and kick in the pastures. Horses ranged from every breed and every color to every size imaginable. As they approached the barn, seatbelts were unfastened.
“Stay in the tuck until I come get you,” Evie said with more strength in her voice. She waited until she received nods of understanding from all seven before she got out of the Suburban and headed toward the riding instructor who was waiting outside the barn door.
“Think we’ll get to pick our own horse?” JD asked, wanting so much to open the truck door.
“Don’t care s’long as we can ride,” Vin replied. His eyes twinkled as he watched a small band of pintos gallop up to the water trough in the far pasture.
“How many horses you think they got here?” Nathan asked, more of himself than anyone.
“Millions,” JD replied happily. He watched as Evie made her way back to the truck and he opened the door before she reached it.
“JD,” she scolded, and smiled when his eyes got large and he quickly reached out to shut the door.
“She said you have to wait,” Ezra snapped, knowing they’d never get to ride now.
“I didn’t mean it,” JD quickly apologized.
Evie smiled and shook her head when she opened the passenger side door. “Let’s go,” she said, standing back, expecting a barrage of boys to trample her. When nobody moved she furrowed her brow in question.
“We ain’t in trouble?” Buck asked.
“No,” Evie replied, motioning with her hand for them to exit the Suburban. “Vin, JD, and Ezra…hold hands with one of the older boys…and don’t do anything without asking Mrs. Millen.” She watched as the boys quickly filed out.
Chris reached out and took Vin’s hand and watched as Josiah and Buck grabbed Ezra’s and JD’s. The smell of horses filled their senses and each of them felt the anticipation rise up from their shoes and hit their chest like a bomb. Buck had to keep a tight grip on JD’s hand, he wanted so badly to rush the fence and pet one of the beasts.
They entered the barn to find eight horses saddled and bridled. They stood patient, swatting their tails, and cocking their hind legs.
“Boys, this is Mrs. Sylvia Millen.”
The women smiled and looked at all seven trying to size them up. She ran her fingers through her short graying black hair. Her face had been weathered by years on the ranch, most of them spent on the back of a horse. She looked at their feet, making sure they all had on boots and immediately started telling them about horses, the real side, not information learned from books. The boys looked right at her, learning all they could, wanting so much to remember every word.
The horses were not prizewinning show animals, instead they were older, more docile, and suitable for beginners. The boys didn’t see their breed or color; they only saw a horse they wanted to ride…a four-legged friend of sorts. None of them stood over fifteen hands.
Once the boys were saddled they hung onto the saddle horns and their horse’s manes, trying so hard to be brave. Ezra watched as Evie grasped Sylvia’s hand and started shaking when the horse she would be learning on moved slightly. She took a deep breath, gathering her strength, wanting more to learn with the boys than allow a childhood fear to control her actions; she mounted the chestnut mare…shaking all the while.
“Okay,” Evie smiled.
Ezra averted his eyes when she looked at him, but something deep inside had sparked.
“Let’s get to work,” Sylvia directed.
Evie sat on the sofa with her feet kicked up on the coffee table. A wet rag lay across her eyes and a bottle of aspirin rested next to a glass of water on the end table. Eight pairs of cowboy boots lay on the floor next to the door and a well-used bootjack was now hidden beneath one of the dining room chairs.
Orin had to hold back a chuckle when he saw her; looking more tired than the day their son had been born.
“Not one word,” Evie said, never moving from her comfortable position.
“I heard you rode?”
“I’ve never been so terrified in my life,” she said, sitting up, catching the washcloth as if fell from her eyes. “Sylvia kept telling the boys and I, ‘horses can sense fear’—well of course they can, I kept telling myself…the whole time I was thinking that this huge animal I’m sitting on only has a piece of broken metal in its mouth and if it wanted to, it could buck me off and trample me.”
Orin sat down next to his wife, chuckling to himself. “But you rode,” he said with a smile.
Evie looked at him and nodded: “Yeah,” she said softly, “I rode.”
“How’d the boys like it?”
Evie chuckled and without warning she grabbed a notebook
she’d been working in. “All seven of them have decided they’re going to grow up
to be professional cowboys and each of them are going to compete against the
other—because each is better than the other.” She laughed and continued,
“Buck’s going to buy the fastest horse in the whole
Evie laughed and shook her head: “He’s going to buy stock in them all of them and be the best at their own game.”
Orin laughed and leaned back against the sofa. “That one’s got a mind on him.”
Evie agreed and leaned back against her husband’s shoulder. “I went and bought him some 4th grade reading materials—I think he was bored with his classes at the school here in town…I think that’s why he wasn’t doing very well. Vin’s having troubles with his letters and numbers.” She sighed and placed her hand on Orin’s chest. “I’m going to take him in next week and have him checked for dyslexia. He’s young and if we catch it now…”
“Sounds like you’ve got it all under control.”
“For now,” Evie replied softly. “I do for now.”
“How are they handling Tia’s death…it’s been two weeks?” He wished he could be home more—not just for Evie but the boys as well.
“It’s slow, and they have their moments—but for the most part they’re dealing with it.”
“Even Ezra?” Orin asked, knowing he’d have the hardest time with it.
Evie looked up at her husband and smiled tightly, before patting his cheek with her hand. “He’ll never get over it—but he will learn to handle it.”
Evie sighed and turned to sit back on the sofa, her feet still kicked up on the coffee table. “After Steven passed…I was sure I’d never be able to function again—not like I used to.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll be fine.” She reached out and squeezed his hand.
The End…for now…