AU: Dark Travels
Genre: Kidfic; Vin and JD are children, Ezra is a teen, the rest are adults
AU Synopsis: Patterned after the series Supernatural. The Seven, along with some of the other characters from Magnificent Seven, are hunters in a battle against demons, ghosts, and anything evil that might go bump in the night.
For AU information, go here: http://www.freewebs.com/laramees_lair/darktravels.htm
Story Synopsis: Vin's ability to communicate and even interact with the dead is put to the test thanks to a teddy bear JD finds at the local Goodwill. Chris and Vin do their best to help the toy's owner find the way home.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Renegade, Farad, Jeanne and Marnie for making this story a lot better than it could have been! Any residual mistakes, typos or gaffs are mine.
Chris Larabee looked up from the ancient text he was reading at the sound of the front door banging open. "Hey, I thought we'd talked about - "
The blond dropped the book, heedless of its value, and leapt to his feet. In three long strides he was in the foyer, finding his son and adopted nephew standing there. In actuality, JD was standing, while Vin sagged against his friend. The older boy was pale, his fine features pinched with pain.
Lifting the stricken child into his arms, he instructed, "JD, go get Raine and tell her what happened; I'm going to take Vin to my room." Not waiting for a response, he hurried to the staircase and up the stairs. On the second floor he hurried to his room, shouldering the door open. His son had yet to make a sound, which worried him to no end.
Laying Vin on his bed, he paused just a second to lightly brush his fingers through sweat-soaked hair, eliciting a soft moan. Even that slight touch was bringing him pain. "Hang on, buddy, I'll be right back."
Hurrying into the bathroom, he quickly wet a cloth, and then another when he heard the youngster begin to move about on the bed. Grabbing up the wastebasket on his way back into his room, he was just in time. Dropping the cloths on the bed, he lifted Vin slightly, guiding him until he was over the receptacle. As he did, the boy began to vomit. Chris cringed in sympathy as Vin was sick for several, long moments. Finally there was nothing for him to dispel, and they struggled through dry heaves for several more moments.
When Vin finally settled, his thin body limp and soaked in cold sweat, Larabee shifted him, pulling him onto his lap. Then he carefully began to bathe the matter from the colorless face, all the time whispering reassuring words to him. Even though the child didn't respond, he could feel him begin to relax. "There, that's better. Raine will be up here in a minute and bring you something to help you feel better. Then we'll get you cleaned up properly and settled into bed. It'll be better then."
"Chris?" Raine Jackson called softly as she entered the room. She needed no explanation, having seen what toll one of his "spells" took on the boy. As quietly as she could, she came into the room, carrying a steaming and fragrant mug filled with a mixture of herbs and roots they had found helped Vin recover from one of these painful incidents. While Chris held him, she knelt on the floor and slowly fed Vin the heated liquid. The first taste elicited a frown, but after that the boy took the drink without argument.
When the mug was emptied, Chris smiled his thanks and carried the boy back into the bathroom. Striping him down, the concerned father bathed the still insensate child, drying him with a large, thick towel.
"Here, Uncle Chris," JD whispered, handing over a pair of pajamas.
"Thanks, Kiddo." Larabee took the soft clothing and, feeling as if he were dressing a rag doll, got them onto the slender form before the boy began to shiver. That done, he lifted Vin once more into his arms and carried him back through the bathroom. Favoring Raine with a grateful smile when he saw that she had cleaned up in the bedroom, he moved out into the hall and up the stairs toward the boys' room. JD had gone ahead, leaving the door open, and pulling back the blankets on Vin's bed. Another grateful smile and Chris settled his son into the bed, covering him to the chin with the thick quilt. JD brought over a second blanket, and Chris added that to the bed as well. Reaching under Vin's pillow, he withdrew the ragged, blue teddy bear the boy kept there, and snuggled it against the narrow chest. Vin sighed, clasped the toy, and curled up onto his side.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, the worried father gently stroked the dark hair; glad to see that it no longer brought pain. As he did, he turned to the younger boy. "What happened, Ferret?" He watched as the younger boy took a deep breath, his brow furrowing as he made certain that he remembered everything. Even the smallest thing could prove to be important.
"We stopped by the Goodwill on the way home. Vin had five dollars and he wanted to see if he could find any more Transformers. We were in the toy section, and we saw this teddy bear. It sort of looked like Bobo, only it was tan. I picked it up and tossed it to him. I'm sorry, I was teasing him."
Stroking a hand through the thick, black hair, Chris said, "It's okay, son, you were playing, not being mean. What happened next?"
"Vin grabbed it, and he started to toss it back and well, he got one of those looks on his face. I got him outta there quick as I could and brought him home."
"Did he say anything?" When JD only shook his head, he took a deep breath and nodded. "That's okay; we'll see what he says when he wakes up. You did great, Kiddo, really great. Do you think you could find the bear again?"
Pulling out his wallet, Chris took out a few bills and said, "Ezra should be home by now. If he is, ask him to drive you back there and get the bear, all right? If he's not, ask Raine. I guess we've got a job here."
"Okay, I'll be back real quick."
"Good, now scoot." He playfully smacked the child across the seat as JD started toward the stairs.
A short time later, Chris heard footsteps and turned to see JD enter the attic room, Ezra right behind him. The younger boy was clutching a small bag tightly in both hands. Pitching his voice softly, the little brunet said, "I got it, Unk."
Larabee smiled, "Good boy. He's still sleeping, so let's keep it downstairs for now, all right?"
"Sure." JD smiled and turned, trotting back down the stairs.
Ezra continued toward the bed, a frown on his face. "What's wrong with him, Mr. Larabee?"
"Did JD tell you anything?"
"He rattled off something to the effect that Vin had one of his spells and we had to go to the Goodwill to collect a teddy bear. I asked him a few questions, but to be honest, I'm not certain I understood much of the answer."
Smiling, Chris pointed to the desk chair and said, "Why don't you bring that over and sit down. I'll try and explain it a little better."
Nodding, Ezra did as he was asked and settled in near the bed. His expression became worried when he saw just how pale Vin was. The usually tan boy had the complexion of an invalid, his features pinched with pain. "Is he I mean " he stammered.
"He'll be fine. Okay, I know you've had quite the education these last few weeks; I hope that this doesn't put you on overload. You see, Vin has a very special well, gift doesn't seem quite right, but I'm not certain what else to call it. He has the ability to sense things."
"What sort of things?"
Knowing that beating around the bush wouldn't satisfy their young apprentice, Chris was straightforward. "Typically it's something that's unresolved lost in time, so to speak. Things that have left their mark. I'm not certain how to explain it any more clearly. Well, perhaps an example.
"When Vin was four, we were staying in a hotel in Maine. He began talking about his friend, Betsy. He kept saying that she was sad, because she couldn't find her favorite broach. He pronounced it 'boaush', it wasn't exactly in his vocabulary yet. That should have been my first clue, but I just thought at first that he was talking about something he'd seen on TV. He talked about it incessantly, to the point that I was at the end of my patience.
"One evening we were in the hotel restaurant when, out of the blue, he began talking as if this Betsy was right there with us. Believe me, I've seen a lot in the last decade, but that sent shivers down my spine. He was sitting there, looking for the world as if he was conversing with someone. Then, he started crying, saying that his head hurt. I started to take him out of there; everyone was looking at us, when he screamed. He was crying, asking Betsy to let go of him. And then I saw them red marks, the size and shapes of a young woman's fingers, on his arm.
"Just then the owner and his wife came over, asking what was wrong. I started to explain, when Vin got quiet. He stared at the woman, and frowned. In an angry voice he told her to give Betsy back her broach. I thought the woman was going to faint.
"Well, to make a long story short, it eventually came out that Betsy was the woman's sister. She had died late in her teens, and was buried in the family cemetery. Betsy was supposed to be buried with an antique broach that had been handed down through their family. Her sister was jealous, angry that the family heirloom was going to be buried. After everyone else had left the wake, she had snuck back in and stolen the broach off her sister's body.
"Betsy had been trying to get someone to hear her all those years, but no one had."
"Until Vin," Ezra said in a shocked voice.
"Yes. See, Vin's sensitive to the other side for lack of a better term. He can sense an unhappy spirit."
"So, the toy "
Shrugging, Chris said, "I'm not sure what the significance is. We'll just have to wait and see."
Ezra took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He felt as if his head was spinning; something that was becoming far too common since he'd moved into the old, rambling house. It was times like this that made him wonder if life wouldn't have been happier if he'd never divined the truth about the supernatural. If he were still traveling with his mother, he would no doubt be staying in some expensive hotel, living in the lap of a luxury earned by bilking widows and other grieving people. That had been a lucrative life, filled with nothing but the supernatural they themselves manufactured.
But that life had been one built of lies, manipulation and thievery. At least the life he was living now was real. Even if it did scare him silly most of the time.
Neither Chris nor Vin made it down to supper. Josiah set aside a plate for Larabee and had some soup simmering on the stove for Vin. The rest of them ate at the dining room table, their mood subdued. Even JD found it difficult to do more than pick at his food and sigh; concern clear on his young face. From time to time he would look at the door, as if expecting his friend to walk through it.
"Ferret, you need to eat. You know these things take time, and Chris is him. Vin will be fine by tomorrow or the day after."
"I know, Da, it's just I feel bad for what I did."
"What is it you think you did, little one?" Josiah asked quietly.
"I'm the one that picked up the bear. I'm the one that threw it at him -"
"Threw it? Thought you said you tossed it to him," Ezra broke in.
"Tossed, threw, it doesn't make any difference."
"It most certainly does, my friend. Tossing it says you were playing. Threw says you were being mean to him. So, tossed or threw?"
Rolling his eyes at Ezra's question, JD huffed. Then, thinking, he finally answered, "okay, I tossed it to him."
"So, you were just playing then." Buck verified.
"Yeah. I mean, I didn't mean to make him have one of his spells. I just well, it reminded me of Bobo, so I told him the other one could be Bobo's girlfriend."
"Son, it's not your fault." Josiah pointed out. "You were playing; how could you know that the toy would have something attached to it?"
"I guess I couldn't have."
"Well," Raine began, a twinkle in her dark eyes, "unless the tag said, 'part of set, toy and former owner'."
JD giggled. "No, it just said one dollar and twenty-five cents."
"Yep, definitely not enough to charge for a spirit." Buck said.
The table shared a soft chuckle, and then went back to eating.
Chris smiled as a pair of sleepy, blue eyes opened, staring up at him. "Hey, Cowboy, how're you feeling?"
"T'red," Vin mumbled in a sleepy voice.
"Your head hurt?"
Used to the brief answers, Larabee produced a tablet and a glass of Pedialyte, both found to help the child recover after an experience like the one he had just been through. When the boy lay back on the pillow he said, "Josiah has some soup ready for you if you're hungry."
Chris noted the look on his son's face at the mention of food and didn't press. "That's fine. Can I do anything to help you feel better?"
Instead of answering, Vin asked, "How long I been asleep?"
"About six hours. I've already left a message at the school that you'll be out tomorrow and possibly Friday."
The boy sighed. "S'possed to go on a field trip Friday. Indy Zoo."
Reaching out to ruffle the long, dark locks, Chris said softly, "You know you can't push this. But if you feel better tomorrow afternoon I'll call your teacher. I'll go along on the trip, just to make certain things go okay. Okay?"
Vin smiled, "I'd like that." Then his mouth opened wide and he loosed a jaw cracking yawn.
Smiling back, Chris said, "I'd enjoy that, too. Meantime, go on back to sleep. I'll be here."
Vin was torn. The fact that his father would be nearby was comforting. At the same time, he felt slightly embarrassed that he needed that comfort. "You should go to bed."
Leaning forward, propping his elbows on his knees, Chris said to his son, "I'm fine, and I don't feel sleepy at all. You on the other hand, need to get more rest, Okay?"
Nodding, eyes closing against his will, Vin murmured, "'Kay," as he once more slipped off to sleep.
The worried father's expression was a mixture of anxiety and love. He hated it that his son had to go through this even once, but it seemed as if, the older Vin got, the more often it happened. The visions took both an emotional and physical toll on the ten-year-old, and sometimes he wasn't himself for a week or even longer. Reaching out and straightening the covers over the slender form, Chris whispered, "Sweet dreams, little man."
It was just around noon when Vin came downstairs the next day, tagging along behind his father. Chris was heavy-eyed, his hair rough from hours of running his fingers through it and his lower face stubbled with a day's growth. Vin's eyes were at half-mast, the flesh around it bruised from long hours of pain and his fine features were pinched and pale. When his father stopped at the counter to pour a cup of coffee, he simply leaned against him and closed his eyes.
"Hey, buddy, you sure you shouldn't be in bed still? I can bring you something to eat."
"Nope," Vin mumbled. "'M fine."
Reaching down to stroke the silky locks, Chris said gently, "No you're not. Go sit down and I'll fix you something. Think you can eat some soup now?"
Shaking his head as he stumbled to the table, Vin managed, "Oatmeal."
Grinning, Chris said, "Okay."
While the little boy slouched in a chair, crossing his arms on the table and resting his head on them; his father prepared a bowl of instant oatmeal, loading it with butter and brown sugar.
Larabee sat down across from Vin a few minutes later, setting the bowl down beside the dosing child. "Hey, Cowboy, wake up and eat while it's warm. You know you hate when it get sticky."
Rousing, Vin did as he was told, slowly hefting spoonfuls of the hot cereal and eating slowly. From time to time his eyes drifted shut and he would simply sit there, one hand wrapped around the spoon. Then he would twitch, his eyes would open, and he would begin eating again.
After almost half an hour of silence; Chris looked over the paper he was reading and frowned when he heard Vin muttering something. "What?"
"I wanna go t'morrow."
A tear dropped from one, glittering, blue eye. "Dad, please. I wanna go. It's gonna be fun."
"But it's not going to be a lot of fun if you're feeling bad. Vin, listen - "
"No, Dad! I wanna go. You said you'd go with me, so if somethin' happens I'll be safe. But I wanna go!"
Looking into the soulful eyes, Chris saw just how important it was to his son. And he recognized something else. It wasn't often that the child had been able to lead a truly normal life. There were so many things that had been taken from him by visions, migraines, and the crazy life they led. Ten-year-olds shouldn't be familiar with Latin phrases meant to send a demon back to Hell. They shouldn't know more about ghosts than the latest computer game. Vin was begging for a chance to just be a child and, even more, he was asking his father to accompany him for a day of fun, something they too rarely got the chance to do. Taking a deep breath, he said, "Tell you what. If you stay in bed and rest today, I'll call Ms. Markham and talk to her about going with you. As long as that's okay, then we'll go. How's that sound?"
Grinning broadly, the little boy said, "Sounds good. Thanks, Dad."
Vin spent the afternoon in bed, listening to music on his CD player. Unlike most children his age, Vin enjoyed listening to jazz and tended in general toward instrumental music, a taste picked up from his father. Chris came to check on him every half hour or so, typically finding the child curled up on his side, one hand loosely closed around the ratty, old, teddy bear. Bobo had been with Vin since birth; Adam had chosen it in the toy store, declaring that this would be exactly right for his new baby brother. Now, it was the only physical reminder he had of his older brother.
At dinner the little boy joined the others, managing to eat most of his meal. He sat quietly, letting the usual dinnertime chatter wash over him. From time to time he would add a word or two to the conversation but, for the most part, he simply listened.
Beside him, Chris monitored the child, making certain that he wasn't overdoing things in an effort to prove that he was well enough for the next day's activity. While the little boy was still peaked, he managed to get through dinner without any mishap.
As dinner was concluding, Vin suddenly got a strange look on his face. "Where's the bear?"
"Who, Bobo?" JD asked, scrubbing a napkin across his mouth.
"No. Annie's bear."
Above the child's head, Chris shared a concerned look with the other adults. They had all seen this often enough to know what was going on. Someone, something was trying to make contact with their world through the ten-year-old.
"Who's Annie?" Chris asked.
"It's her bear," Vin stated in that quiet, somewhat wistful voice they were all familiar with. Not even JD challenged his statement.
"Josiah?" Ezra whispered, concern filling his face. He was the single person in the room for whom this was a new experience. He received nothing in answer other than a quick shake of the silver-haired man's head. Obviously frustrated by the older man's silence, Standish simply observed the scene being played out before him.
"Where is Annie, Vin?"
"She's I she's crying. Dad! We've gotta help her!" He all but flew into his father's arms, sobbing against the man's shoulder.
Larabee hugged the little boy tight, fiercely trying to protect him, even though he knew it was impossible. Vin was in a place that no one could touch; alone and frightened. "Sh, it's okay, Cowboy. You're safe." He rocked slightly as he continued to try and give the child comfort.
"JD, can you go get the bear?" Buck asked. He smiled as his son nodded and moved quickly from the room. In less than a minute he was back, clutching the stuffed toy in his hands.
Chris held out his hand, nodding his thanks and offering a tight smile. When the younger boy deposited the bear in his hand, he said softly, "Vin, we've got Annie's bear. It's right here. Do you want to hold it?"
"A-Annie wants it."
"I know, buddy, but we don't know how to give it to her."
It was several long, silent moments before Vin straightened slightly. Peering into his father's face, he said, "The zoo. Dad, we can take it to her tomorrow at the zoo."
"Are you certain?"
"Yeah. She's going to be at the zoo tomorrow." With that announcement the little boy nestled his head against his father's shoulder and sighed. "It'll be okay then."
Chris steered with one hand, while the other arm rested along the open window. He had decided to drive his truck to the field trip. Not because he didn't want to be in the midst of a bus of very excited children. If something happened, he has a way of getting his son away and back home where he could be cared for. The teacher was thankful that he was willing to do this, as she had expressed a great deal of concern about Vin going on a day long trip so soon after one of his "spells". And his son got to go on the field trip. Whether they figured out what was happening with the teddy bear or not, the outing would do the little boy good.
Music drifted softly from the stereo, and he smiled at the faces of the children watching him from the back seats of the bus in front of him. His concentration was mostly on Vin; he watched the boy smiling out at him, from time to time turning to speak to one friend or another.
He was proud of the fact that his child was making friends. Finally. He was naturally quiet, typically going unnoticed in a crowd. Unlike JD, who had fit in almost immediately, and had at least twelve "best friends" by the end of their first week in school. Vin didn't have that many friends even now, but those he did have were close. And they were accepting of his 'strangeness'. If he started to have a headache, they quickly got someone to help him rather than making fun of him when he cried or otherwise got upset that seemed to them to be over nothing. They had even jumped to his defense a couple of times when other children made from him. In a short lifetime of living like a vagabond much of the time, settling in and having a place to call home had done wonders for the boy. And that - if he believed in such things - was a miracle.
Chris' thoughts continued to roam freely, thinking back over the months and years since he had took on this life as a hunter, during the course of the drive from Four Corners to Indianapolis and the zoo. As he paid for parking, he pushed those thoughts aside, bringing himself back to the present and preparing himself for a day of hiking around the large park. He and Vin would be partnered up, just as the other parents accompanying the class would be partnered up with their children. The other children would be kept together with the teacher and her assistant.
The children disembarked from the bus, Chris waiting for Vin. When his son came down the stairs, he could already detect the early signs of a headache. Although Vin could hide it from others, the child couldn't keep it from the man who had raised him alone since the age of six months. He wasn't even certain that Vin himself was aware of it yet. As his son came up beside him, he continued to take inventory. "You okay?"
"Dad," Vin said in a child's long suffering tone. "I'm fine. Let's go, okay?"
Setting aside his concerns, he replied, "Okay." He took Vin's hand and they moved into the line of children and adults. While they stood in line, he dug a bottle out of Vin's backpack and shook out a tablet. Pulling out a bottle of water as well, he handed his son the tablet and opened the bottle. With a look of resignation, the Vin took the medication.
As they entered the zoo a short time later, they gathered with the rest of the group in the center of the broad entry area, near the fountain. Ms. Markham gave the group instructions and the agenda for the trip. She made certain that all of the children understood what they were to do if, by some fluke, they were separated from their parent, teacher or group.
"Okay, any questions?" Helen Markham scanned the group, looking for a raised hand. She licked dry lips when she saw the hand that did rise, signifying a question. "Yes, Sherman?"
A few of the children giggled, then quickly shushed when the adults around them gave them a stern look. Sherman was actually a fairly smart child, but loved to pretend to be dumb so the others would laugh at his antics. "Ms. Markham do we have to hold hands all the time?"
"You are to remain with your buddy unless you're with your parent." Sherman's parents never volunteered for field trips. They were even absent at parent - teacher conferences most of the time.
"But, what if I have to pee?" His comment got the response he wanted. All of the children and even a couple of the adults chuckled at his words.
"Well, Sherman, what do you think?" Helen crossed her arms and gave the little boy a hard look.
"Well, then I don't wanna have to hold no girl's hand!" Again the laughter caused him to puff up with pride at his antics.
"Then, how about you come up here and hold my hand, Sherman? I'm not a girl, after all. I'm your teacher."
The little boy's head dropped and his shoulders slumped. With exaggerated movements, he scuffed over and took hold of the woman's hand.
"Now, then, are there any other questions?" The teacher waited a full thirty seconds, watching the class and parents. "Okay, then, who can tell me where we're going first?"
"OCEANS!" The children sang out, smiling at the prospect of seeing the creatures in the large building.
"That's right, so, let's stay together, and let's go!'
The group moved out, Chris and Vin bringing up the rear. They were soon heading into the building where they would see penguins; fish from all over the world, touch small dog sharks, and any variety of things, all of it situated in a building that had been designed to make you feel as if you were under the water as well.
They stood at the floor to ceiling windows with the rest of the group, watching seals cavorting and dancing through the water. Chris watched them with one eye and Vin with the other. Although he was smiling, the little boy's expression was that squint-eyed one that spoke loudly of a growing headache. Making certain that no one noticed he rested a hand against his son's forehead. He felt, more than heard, Vin's sigh.
"Dad," the child said in a tone of protest.
"I know, but I don't want a repeat of the other day."
"I'm okay. It's just a little headache." Despite his words, Vin rubbed his temple.
"You tell me when it gets worse." It was his way of backing off.
"Yep. Oh! Look at that!" The ten-year-old yelped as the largest seal slid along the glass.
With a chuckle, Chris said, "Yeah, that's pretty cool."
They watched the seals for a few minutes more, and then moved on. Next up was the large, shallow tank that was home to several dog sharks. They were small, the biggest one several feet long. They moved gracefully through the water, sliding along the side and close enough that the children and adults could touch them.
"Now, what's the rule?" Ms. Markham asked.
"Touch the shark on the side. Use only two fingers. Don't splash the water," was the out of sync group response.
To Chris, it sounded like a smaller version of the sound of a crowd at a touchdown. The teacher smiled and nodded.
"Right. Okay, now, everyone pick a spot, don't crowd, and no arguing. We've only got a few minutes before we have to move so more people can pet them."
Kneeling beside his son, Chris enjoyed the look of pure joy that shoved the pain aside. Vin leaned over the tank, waiting patiently for one of the sharks to come by. A few moments later one of the aquatic creatures moved close and Vin was able to run two fingers along its side. If anything the little boy's expression was even brighter.
"Yeah? What did it feel like?"
"Uh well sort'a like if you got a b'loon wet."
"Why don't you touch one, Dad?"
Chris grinned. He wasn't about to tell his son that he had seen more than enough sharks during his career as a SeAL. While watching Vin's joy in exploring the creatures, he wasn't enamored with being up close to them himself. But then, knowing that Vin was anxious to share this experience with him, Chris simply moved closer to the tank, and waited for the next shark to come by. When it did, he carefully moved his fingers along it's side.
"What did if feel like?" Vin asked with a giggle.
Smiling back at him, Larabee said, "You're right, Cowboy, like a wet balloon."
"Okay, class, it's time to move on. We need to be ready to go into the dolphin exhibit shortly." With a mixture of regret and excitement, the group moved on.
They entered the Dolphin Experience early, in order to get good seats together. Chris made certain that he and Vin were on the aisle, just in case. Even after an hour the medication didn't seem to have done more than take the edge off the pain for the ten-year-old. He let the teacher know that he might have to leave soon with Vin, if the headache continued. With a look of sympathy she nodded before she was forced to turn her attention back to Sherman, who was trying to kick the child in front of him.
The show began; young men and woman in wetsuits and sporting microphones began chatting amiably with the audience. Meanwhile the beautiful mammals danced and raced around the large pool.
Five minutes into the show, Chris felt Vin leaning against him. Concerned, he stroked the little boy's head and felt the tell-tale sign of clammy flesh. Without a word he scooped up both his son and his backpack. Vin lay limply against his shoulder, the pack bouncing softly against his hip as he all but ran down the stairs. The staff member at the door started to speak but, with a second look at father and son, she quickly held the door open for them.
Once outside the building, Chris slowed and looked for the nearest bench. Finding one unoccupied, he sat down and shifted Vin in his lap. "Hey, buddy, look at me."
Vin squinted an eye open part way, grunting with pain. "She's close by, Dad."
"Do you know where?" He was concerned for the owner of the bear, who could be a lost soul, but he was far more concerned for his son. These experiences were few and far between, but each one seemed to leave a mark on his son's psyche. He was worried that, at some point, it might prove to be too much for the little boy.
"No, not wait." Vin managed a smile and sat up. With a hesitant wave, he said, "There, Dad."
Chris looked where his child was pointing. He saw a family group; mother, father and two children. A closer look told him that there was a third child on the way. Looking back at Vin he asked, "With that family there?"
Nodding, Vin said, "That's her family. C'mon, Dad." He slid off Chris' lap, slipped his backpack over a shoulder, and started toward the family. Determination had shrugged off pain now, Vin was on a mission.
"Son, wait." He started after the determined little boy. They moved to a point near the family, but not too close. He watched Vin, waiting for a clue to see what was next. His son stood there, as if he was simply taking in the sights. From time to time he glanced to the side. Sometimes he smiled, other times he simply watched. Slipping his backpack off his shoulder, he drew the little bear out of the main compartment. Slipping the pack back on his shoulder, he began to fiddle with the bear.
The family began to move, and Vin moved along behind them, Chris bringing up the rear. From time to time they stopped, the couple not seeming to notice their shadows. It wasn't that unusual for groups of people to move together from exhibit to exhibit, due to the way the zoo was set up.
They moved into the Forests area, which was relatively quiet this time of day, and on a weekday. Chris figured that the family before them must be on vacation. He was so busy watching to see what they were doing, visually assessing the environment around them, that he nearly missed Vin stepping quietly up to the family. With a whispered curse, he moved forward, quickly.
"Hi," the slender child said to the mother of the family group.
"Hi," she replied. She was average height, blonde and, other than her expanding belly, slender. "Are you enjoying the zoo?"
"Yes, ma'am. We come here every summer; today we're on a special trip with my class. Do you come here often?"
There was something in the woman's face, and a slight tremble in her voice as she said, "We haven't been here for many years."
"Oh. So, you don't live here?"
Her expression forced now, the woman said, "No, we've been living elsewhere."
Chris noticed the other adult, apparently the woman's husband, giving him a pointed look. He simply smiled and looked back at Vin. "Sorry, my son gets a little chatty from time to time."
"That's okay," the woman assured them. "We're just a little tired. We only arrived in town the day before yesterday " Her gaze suddenly widened, as she caught sight of the thing in Vin's hand.
When she didn't seem interested in completing her sentence, Chris said, "I can understand, I travel a lot for my job. It can wear on a person."
"Ma'am?" Vin regained the woman's attention. He held the tan bear out and said, "Did one of your kids lose this?"
The woman gasped, her hand going to her mouth as her knees buckled. Quickly her husband was at her side; holding her up. He frowned, his face growing crimson with anger. In a low voice he growled, "Where did you get that?"
"Cowboy," Chris placed a hand on his little boy's shoulder, pulling Vin toward him. He watched as one of the children in the family group, a boy maybe a year older than Vin, stepped closer to them.
"That that looks like it is! That's Wally!" He reached out and snatched the bear from Vin's grasp. Turning back toward his parents, he said, "It's Wally! Look, see! That little place on his foot, where Annie tried to give him a haircut."
"Please! Stop!" The child's mother was nearly hysterical.
"I asked you where you got that!!" The boy's father said in a stern voice. "You stole it, didn't you?!"
Holding his hands up, Vin said, "No, sir, I was bringing it back to you."
Realizing that the situation was getting farther and farther out of control, Chris pointed to a little rock and tree surrounded alcove nearby, with a bench situated in the back. Even though it was near the center of the zoo, it had been designed to give people privacy. At the moment, happily, it was empty. "Look, I'm sorry, I know this is all a shock, but if you'll let me explain. Let's go over there, and - "
"How did you know where to find us? Are you following us?"
"What? No, look if you'd just calm down and listen to my son -" Chris started.
"I want you and your little thief to get out of here, now! Don't make me call the police, you son of a - "
"Mitch! Please, I need to sit down."
The man led his wife to the alcove and situated her on the bench. Their younger child, a little girl of about two, riding in a stroller, was sleeping and oblivious to the entire situation. The child who recognized the bear, Andrew, moved to sit beside his mother, shocked when she refused to take the bear. In the meantime, Mitch, the children's father, stood between his family and the two interlopers, arms crossed over his chest and a stern look on his face. "Like I said, get out of here."
"No, Mitch, please. They I want to know please, calm down, I want to know what what they know." It was a long moment before her husband moved, his posture still rigid, reluctantly allowing the father and son to pass.
Vin came to stand beside the woman, who looked down at him with tear washed eyes. His own eyes were moist, as he felt her pain. "I'm sorry, Ma'am, I didn't mean to make you sad or scared. I I just wanted to bring you the bear. Bring bring Annie's bear back."
"Sweetheart, Annie Annie isn't here. She passed away four years ago."
"I know." When he saw the puzzlement in her face, the little boy offered, "I know it sounds weird, okay? See, well, I can sort of see people. People who've died, but they're sad or angry 'cause of something that happened. I can't explain it real good, if 'Siah was here, he could make you understand it."
"I doubt that," Mitch spit out angrily.
"Stop!" His wife replied sharply.
"For God Sake, 'Lyssa, you can't be serious! I mean, do you really think this kid could be a ghost whisperer or something? It's a con, it has to be! They probably stole the box out of the truck --"
"And what? How would we know about your daughter's death? My son is trying to tell you something. Now, believe him or not, you are going to let him have his say." Chris didn't raise his voice or even make a threatening gesture, but he quickly silenced the man. He watched as Mitch considered his words, his complexion paling as the words sank in.
Turning his attention back to 'Lyssa, Vin started again. "I know it sounds weird, Ma'am, but it's true. Annie she's real sad 'cause her bear got lost. She just wants to make sure it gets back to you. She knows it's real important for you to have it. She says she doesn't want you to be sad no more."
Wiping the tears away with one hand, while she unconsciously cradled her pregnant stomach with the other, the woman began to speak. "It is very important to me, sweetheart. Annie she was our oldest daughter. When she was four, she got really, really sick. It didn't matter what the doctors tried, it didn't help for very long, and she just got sicker.
"Finally well, there wasn't anything more they could do to help her. So, we brought her home and took care of her ourselves. Wally, that bear, he had always been her favorite toy. She'd had it since she was born." She chuckled softly, "Andrew's right. She did try to give Wally a haircut one time, when she was quite little. When when she got very sick and we we knew she was going to to pass away she wouldn't let Wally leave her side.
"The night before she passed she gave me Wally to hold. Sh-she told me that as long as I had Wally with me, I wouldn't miss her so badly. I I didn't believe it, of course but well, Wally did help me not to miss her so much.
"About eight months after Annie uh " she hesitated, taking a few seconds to marshal her emotions. "Mitch was relocated for his job. We've lived in Evansville since then. Then, last week, we moved back home. The moving company brought all of our stuff to town and put it all in the house. At least that's what we thought."
"The best we can figure," Mitch added from where he stood, still protectively, near his family but less threatening now, "They left a box on the curb. Wally was in it. We don't have any idea what happened after that."
"Well, somehow the bear ended up at the Goodwill. That's where Vin found it," Chris explained.
"My wife's been more and more upset since we discovered that the toy was missing. The other stuff well, it's nothing we can't live without, but Wally well, 'Lyssa's been awfully upset ever since. I was beginning to worry " He stopped, suddenly frowning as he realized what he was doing. "Look, anyway, thank you for the bear, but - "
"Mitch, it's all right." Turning toward Vin, she asked, "You said that Annie let you know about the bear?"
"Do you can you see her now?"
Turning his gaze slightly, the little boy beheld the figure of the little girl, standing as close as she could to her mother. "Yes, ma'am."
"How is she okay?"
Smiling, Vin said, "She's okay. She's smiling. Happy 'cause you're okay. She was real worried 'bout you and the baby?" The little boy had been oblivious to Annie's mother's condition.
'Lyssa relaxed visibly. "We're all right. Do you I can you tell her ?"
"She knows, Ma'am."
"Oh that's good." Annie's mother looked as if she had fallen through the rabbit hole and was suddenly conversing with creatures from another plane of existence.
Smiling knowingly, Chris said, "I'm sorry, I know that it's a lot to take in."
"I still don't believe this," Mitch grumbled, still in denial.
"Mitch." 'Lyssa's tone was pleading now.
"I understand, believe me. Look, you don't have to believe any of this, okay? My son just needed to return the toy to its rightful owner, that's done, so we'll - "
"Pop-a-tart." Vin said suddenly.
"What?" Annie's father said in a shocked voice.
"Annie keeps saying that, sir. Pop-a-tart."
"That means something to you," Chris said as he watched the other man's reaction. It was obvious that that term meant something to him.
"That's what Annie always called Dad," Andrew announced. "She called him that ever since she could talk."
"Whoa!" Now Mitch looked ready to fold up. Chris stepped in and quickly led him to the bench where 'Lyssa sat. Sitting the man down, he made certain he wasn't going to just fall off the bench and then stepped back.
'Lyssa was quietly crying, hugging the little bear to her and rocking. Between his parents, Andrew stared at the other boy. "So, you can see Annie?"
"Yeah," Vin responded matter-of-factly.
"Cool. My sister's a ghost!" Then, realizing what he said, Andrew glanced at his parents. Relief bloomed briefly on his young face when neither parent seemed to hear him.
Larabee shook his head at how accepting the other boy was of this strange gift of his son's. Then, turning toward the couple, he said, "Look, I know this is going to be a lot to take in. If you want us to take off, we will."
"No I want to know more." 'Lyssa protested. Turning back toward Vin she asked, "Is she is she going back to heaven now?"
Vin frowned as he watched Annie's reaction. She literally backed up and looked frightened. "No she she hasn't been in heaven. She's been right near you ever since ever since she died."
"What? Oh, no, baby " the woman turned her gaze to where the boy was looking. To her shock and amazement she could see the shimmering figure of her oldest child, standing there in her favorite nightgown. Shifting so that she could take it all in, she said, "Baby girl, no. Annie, you shouldn't stay here."
"Mama I don't wanna leave you " The little girl's voice sounded far away and her image shimmered. "I want to stay here."
"But, sweetheart, you you should move on go where you're supposed to."
"'Lyssa, don't " Mitch, too, could see the form of his deceased daughter. "She's here, with us."
"No, not really," Chris supplied. "She's between caught between Earth and well, whatever lies beyond."
"But, if she stays with us-"
"She'll grow more and more angry. We've seen it, experienced it even. When a spirit doesn't move on, he or she becomes more and more unhappy. Never able to take part in anything they witness, helpless to intervene alone, no matter how close they stay to those that still live."
Reaching out a hand as if to touch her child, 'Lyssa said, "No, baby. You need to go on."
"But I'll miss you, Mama," the tiny specter protested.
"I'll miss you, too, lambie, but I don't want you to be unhappy."
"But I'm not!"
"Not now, Annie, but you will be. You need to move on find where you're supposed to be."
"I'm scared, Mama!"
"I know, baby. But I'll always be with you, right here " she pointed toward the place where her living child's heart had been. 'Lyssa looked uncertain that she hadn't lost her mind, but those fierce, maternal instincts kicked in, and she was content to go with them. "I'll never really leave you, baby-girl."
"I love you, Mama."
"I love you, too, Annie."
The little spirit reached out a hand, spreading her fingers as she hovered over her mother's stomach. As she did, she smiled again, her expression growing even wider as light began to encase her. As the others watched, Annie disappeared into that radiance. She left behind her three astonished family members, a sleeping little sister, and two strangers who had brought her a chance at peace.
Taking in the shell-shocked expressions of the little girl's family, Chris said softly, "it's going to take some time to absorb it all. But, when you have questions, or just need to talk to someone who knows what happened today, give me a call." He handed over card, with the name 'Chris Gillespie' and phone number on it. It was common practice among hunters not to give out their real name. The number was real, but went to a cell. When 'Lyssa took the card, he nodded, took Vin's hand, and left the family to mull over what they had seen.
A few yards away from the alcove, Vin slowed down, staggered, and nearly fell. Chris swiftly scooped him up and started toward the exit. Fortunately they were relatively close, so they only had to skirt a few puzzled expressions and offers of help. Less than ten minutes later, they were at the truck. Vin was starting to stir now, so he settled his son in the passenger seat, buckling him in and offering a smile and a light brush across the dark locks before he closed the door. Rounding the vehicle, he climbed in behind the wheel and started the engine.
Turning toward the still tired looking little boy, Chris said, "Sorry? Why, Cowboy?"
"I messed up the field trip."
With a sympathetic smile, he replied, "There'll be other field trips, son. What you did was much more important. Thanks to you, Annie's moved on and her family has peace of mind."
"Yeah, I guess." Vin smiled, then settled back in the seat, planting a pair of dark sunglasses on his face, to block the bright light.
Beside him, Chris smiled as the boy began to relax, for the first time in days. Then his expression sobered. No one could figure out why Vin had the so called 'gift' to see the deceased in torment. He wasn't certain they would ever truly know what it was all about. He just prayed that they could keep it from destroying his son.
Chris smiled as he came out into the back yard. Moving past the vegetable garden, he came to the area built for the strange, thrown together family. The others were already there, Josiah busily grilling burgers and hot dogs at the barbeque they had built. Nearby, Nathan and Raine were laying out the rest of the spread at the double picnic table. Buck was with the two boys and Ezra, playing a game of horseshoes.
Depositing the bowls of food he had brought from the kitchen, he stepped over to where he had left the ice cream maker earlier. He was in charge of making the dessert. Sitting down, he began working the machine, the mindless activity leaving him plenty of time to let his mind wander. He watched as Vin leapt on Buck's back, while JD was chasing Ezra in an attempt to get the ball away.
Vin screeched and giggled as Buck grabbed him and pulled him over his shoulder. The slender boy flailed, trying hard to get away, but to no avail. Buck had him trapped, and there was nothing he could do.
"Daaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaaaaad!" the ten-year-old squealed.
"Sorry, Cowboy, I've got ice cream to make."
"Daaaaaaaaaaad, PLEASE!" Another squeal as Buck threatened to drop him, but then shifted his hold so that he had the little boy under the arms. With a growl he began to spin them both in a circle. "DAAAAAAD!!"
"Sorry, busy right now!"
"I'll help you, Vin!" JD shouted, running toward them both.
"Oh no! Two against one!" Buck shouted, getting Vin in another hold, letting him dangle as he held him around the waist. With the boy tucked against his side, he began running across the yard.
"I'll help you, Buck!" Ezra called out as he ran toward JD, coming close, only to stumble as the smaller boy made a quick turn to the left. Recovering, he shot forward as quickly as he could.
Chris watched the antics of the quartet. Shaking his head, he said to Josiah, "I'm never certain just how many boys we have around here."
With a deep chuckle, the older man said, "Well, as long as the smallest two out there stay boys for a while, I'll be happy."
Nodding as he watched the antics Larabee smiled as he watched Vin squeal and giggle like a normal child. Heaving a sigh, he prayed to whoever was listening that Josiah's words came true.
Next - No Place Like Home by JoyK