"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
Acknowledgements: Thanx to JK Poffenberger, who created the Little Britches A/U in The Train West for generously allowing us to play with her babies, and to Barbretta Hayden, who set up the ATF Little Britches scenario in her stories Dreaming of Angels and If Wishes Were Horses (co-written by Pat Merritt). The characters of Dr. Two Eagles and Dr. Lowery are borrowed from Barbretta, and certain events from her stories are also referenced. I borrowed a little bit of Ezra's background from Joy's wonderful Tuesday's Child: Lessons of Grace, too. And, although events vaguely similar to those depicted in Gray's story The Phenom had already been included in this fic at the time that story was posted, it should be noted that she was officially the first to present the idea of Vin as a child prodigy.
It was probably no small coincidence that the regional ATF personnel management seminar was being held in Albuquerque during the week of the city's annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta - it was exactly the type of 'boondoggle' anyone and everyone who worked for the government got away with at any opportunity. Chris and Buck were not thrilled at the prospect of a week of day-long conferences on such thrilling topics as personnel resource administration and cultural sensitivity awareness, but the Balloon Fiesta was something to see. For nine days straight, the sky over the city was dotted with hundreds of balloons in all shapes and sizes from around the world.
They had decided to take advantage of the fact they had hotel rooms - which were at a premium during the Fiesta - paid for at government expense, and have the boys miss a couple of days of school to join them for the closing week-end. Ezra had managed to contact a friend of his mother's who was an avid balloonist to see if he would be there, and upon finding out that he would be, had arranged a surprise tethered balloon ride for the two little boys and Chris and Buck as well.
Then, everything had gone down the tubes two days before Vin and JD were to fly out to join their foster fathers, when JD had developed an ear infection. Mrs. Potter was staying with the two boys, and had called Nathan, who promptly picked him up and took him to his pediatrician. Luckily, Dr. Two Eagles was familiar with the boys' situation, so Buck's absence didn't require a lengthy explanation. He had determined that JD was not seriously ill, but had made it clear that for him to fly would be ill-advised. The pressurized air inside a plane would undoubtedly cause the little boy extreme pain, and might even possibly force the infection deeper into his ear, which could cause serious complications.
Nathan had enlisted Ezra as moral support when he broke the news to the five-year-old that there would be no Balloon Fiesta this year, at least not for him.
Unexpectedly, Vin took the news almost as hard as JD did.
"You can still go, Vin," Ezra had told him. "It's a short flight. You'll be there in less than an hour."
Vin nodded, but remained solemn. "Won't be as fun by m'self."
"It's not fair!" JD had burst into tears. Normally, the dark-haired youngster wasn't easily upset, but this was a bitter disappointment, added to the fact he wasn't feeling well.
Vin bit his lower lip thoughtfully as he appeared to ponder his options. He looked up at Ezra with a pained expression in his eyes. "Do I have to go?" Ezra knew Vin wanted him to say yes to give him an out without feeling guilty about leaving JD behind.
But Ezra also knew that Vin would not be comfortable with the decision being made for him. He was only seven, but he was way beyond his years when it came to thinking for himself. He'd had to learn that out of necessity. "No, Vin, not if you don't want to," Ezra answered.
Vin put his arm around JD. "It's okay, JD, I won't go either."
An adult might have appreciated Vin's sacrifice, but JD just continued to cry. "I wanna go!"
Nathan looked at Ezra. "It's only about 450 miles to Albuquerque "
Ezra put his hands up. "I know what you're thinking, Mr. Jackson, and you can hold that thought, thank you kindly."
JD, who never missed much of anything, abruptly stopped crying and looked up at the two men. "What thought?"
Nathan's eyes continued to drill into Ezra. "I'd do it myself, but Josiah volunteered me for Habitat for Humanity this week-end."
Now, they had Vin's attention, too. "Do what?" the older boy asked.
"Might not be another chance like this one," Nathan observed, still staring at Ezra.
"Aw, hel heck," Ezra groaned, then looked down at the two small faces staring up at him. The faces of two small boys who had known more hardship and pain than any child deserved. He sighed and squatted down to eye level. "We could drive to Albuquerque, if you boys want to," Ezra said, secretly holding on to a thin thread of hope that the two youngsters would find that idea as unappealing as he did.
"In the Jag?!" Vin's face lit up.
JD wasn't sure what was special about a Jag, but Vin's enthusiasm was contagious. "Me too!"
"I take it that means yes," Ezra said.
His despair of just moments before completely forgotten, JD began to run around shouting "Balloons! Balloons! Balloons!" His enthusiasm was contagious and Vin promptly joined him.
Ezra felt a migraine coming on. "You owe me," he told Nathan "big time."
Mrs. Potter had packed a suitcase with extra clothing and pajamas for both boys. She had placed JD's medication in a plastic bag and set it in a small beer cooler with some ice, advising Ezra that it had to be kept at refrigerator temperature, and giving him a list of the times JD was to take it. Ezra set the alarm on his watch to make sure JD didn't miss a dose. No one would accuse him of being a neglectful caretaker.
There were some boxes of fruit juice in the cooler as well, and Mrs. Potter handed him a bag of fresh oatmeal cookies, explaining that Vin especially liked them. She had a propensity for trying to overfeed the boys, both of whom were small for their age. Dr. Two Eagles theorized that JD's short stature was hereditary - his mother had been a very petite woman. But he suspected Vin's growth had been affected by poor nutrition. Mrs. Potter had made it a personal mission to make up for the boy's years of neglect.
Each boy had backpack stocked with small toys, books and games for the long ride. Vin carried the stuffed cat Chris had taken him in the hospital two days after they had found him close to death in the abandoned warehouse he and JD had called home. It was too big to fit into the backpack, and there was not a lot of room in the Jag.
"I think it would be best if Mr. Cat stayed behind this time," Ezra told the youngster.
Vin looked up at him with big blue eyes, obviously unwilling to believe what he had just heard.
"Vin needs it to sleep with," JD said matter-of-factly.
"Aren't you a bit old for that?" Ezra said, before he realized that Vin would take the comment as harsh criticism. Vin was a bright, well-behaved little boy, but he was also desperate for approval from the men he looked up to, and Ezra immediately wished he could take the remark back.
"Buck says you're never too old to sleep with something soft and sweet in your arms," JD said.
Mrs. Potter coughed louder than was necessary.
Ezra nodded at Vin and smiled, not exactly approving of Buck, but happy for the reprieve. "I stand corrected . Shall we depart, gentlemen?"
"I get to sit in the front!" JD shouted.
"I wanna sit in the front," Vin said. It was not exactly a whine - Vin never whined, about anything. But it was uncomfortably close.
"Me!" JD insisted.
Vin looked to Ezra for mediation. Ezra had vowed that he would not tolerate juvenile behavior Children, he was certain, behaved in the manner that was expected of them. All one had to do to maintain control was to raise the level of one's expectations.
"The front seat is off-limits," he patiently explained. The back seat of the Jag was small and cramped for an adult, but there was ample room for two very small boys.
Much to Ezra's satisfaction, they gave him no argument. Both boys climbed into the back seat while he put the large suitcase in the trunk with his own bag. There was no room for the cooler, so he set that on the front seat with his jacket and Mrs. Potter's cookies, which he had no intention of letting the boys eat in his car.
"How much longer until we're there, Mr. Ezra?" JD asked when they had been on the road only long enough to have escaped the congested traffic of the Denver metro area.
Ezra looked at his watch. It was 8:30 am, and he estimated that even with a couple of rest stops along the way, they should arrive in Albuquerque some time around 4 pm.
"I'm afraid it will be awhile, so you gentlemen had best relax and enjoy the ride."
"Do you have a CD player?" JD said, fishing through his backpack, and without waiting for an answer shoved an irredescent disc in Ezra's face. "Can we play this?"
Ezra took the CD - since it was dangerously obstructing his vision - and then realized JD was standing up.
"Put your seat belt on, JD," he said, slipping the CD into the slot.
"It was soring my neck and choking me!" JD complained.
Ezra had no idea what the child was talking about. "Put it on, JD. No argument."
Vin laughed. "He's too little without his baby seat."
"Shut up, Vin!" JD said indignantly.
Ezra remembered the booster seat in Buck's car. Unfortunately, neither he nor Mrs. Potter had thought of it before they were 30 minutes from home. He spotted a McDonald's up ahead, and decided to pull into the parking lot to see what could be done to rectify the situation. In the meantime, his CD player had erupted in a cacophony of some unholy rap music. Certainly Buck and Chris didn't allow the boys to listen to this!
"Are we gonna eat already?" JD asked hopefully as the Jag rolled to a stop under the golden arches.
"No," Ezra answered, turning the volume on the CD down a few notches. "I am going to check your seat belt."
He got out of the driver's seat and pulled the seat back forward so he had access to JD. There on the seat belt, plain as day, was the warning 'Not to be used by passengers under 45 inches tall.' JD easily fell five or six inches short of the mark.
Ezra eyed the McDonald's. He didn't frequent the establishment - ever - but he knew it was a "family" restaurant, and certainly they had those plastic booster chairs for their younger customers. Obviously, they didn't sell them, but if Ezra knew anything, it was that a business establishment would part with anything if the price was right.
With a sigh, Ezra herded his two charges into the McDonald's. Two orders of hashbrowns and hot cocoa, and a discussion with the manager later, they exited with the plastic booster seat which probably cost the restaurant less than 1/10th of what they had sold it to him for.
He set the seat in the back of the car and then pulled some wipes from the glove compartment, intending to clean off each boy's greasy, sticky fingers before allowing them back into contact with the Jag's suede upholstery. Unfortunately, in the three seconds it took him to retrieve them, JD had planted a chubby little hand print on the back of the driver's seat and Vin was about to do the same to the passenger side. He sighed and handed each boy a wipe as he examined the damage. Not too bad. A little suede upholstery cleaner would probably do the trick.
He looked at his watch. The stop had cost them 25 minutes, but, they would probably be able to make it up .
The CD had been playing incessantly for 20 minutes before Ezra realized that not only was the music annoyingly repetitive, it was, in fact, the same song - if it could be called that - over and over again. The lyrics were completely unintelligible, except for the chorus, which both of the boys knew by heart and sang along with boisterous enthusiasm.
After hearing the question "Who let the dogs out?" go unanswered for the two hundredth time, Ezra ejected the CD.
The boys kept singing for a few seconds before they realized the music had stopped.
"Hey " JD complained.
Ezra examined the CD, mindful to keep his eyes on the road at the same time. It wasn't a professional CD and it was labeled in a child's scrawl 'JD's speshial CD'.
"Where did you get this?" he asked.
"JD made it with the computer," Vin said proudly. "It only has one song on it a bunch of times."
"So I heard," Ezra said, distantly wondering how a five-year-old could possibly have figured out how to do that. The therapist the boys had been seeing, Dr. Lowery, had suspected that JD might be unusually bright. His taste in music, however, left much to be desired. "Would you gentlemen mind if we listened to something else?"
"Uh-uh," Vin answered, emptying out half of his backpack. We have a CD player, anyway." He held up an object Ezra couldn't quite make out from his viewpoint in the rearview mirror. "It has a spit-ler so we can both listen."
"It's a splitter, Vin," JD laughed.
"That's what I said!" Vin replied defensively.
"You said 'spit-ler'."
"No I didn't."
"Yes you did."
"No, I didn't!"
Ezra detected a slight rise in pitch to Vin's voice. JD's insistence on pointing out his mistake was truly upsetting him, and Ezra wasn't sure how to ameliorate the situation.
Amazingly, JD suddenly seemed to sense that he was pushing the limit and abruptly changed the subject.
"How much longer 'til we get there, Mr. Ezra?"
Despite the fact that he could no longer hear what his two passengers were listening to, jubilant shouts of "Who let the dogs out?" continued to periodically erupt from the back seat, and it didn't take long for Ezra to give up trying to actually listen to any form of civilized music.
JD, now riding high in his McDonald's booster seat, was punctuating each chorus with a series of hearty kicks to Ezra's lower back. Even though there was a cushioned seat back between them, the blows from the little feet were powerful enough that Ezra wondered if the child was wearing concrete blocks on his feet.
"JD, don't kick the back of my seat, please." Ezra figured the direct approach was best tried first with children.
"WHO LET THE DOGS OUT!!!"
<kick> <kick> <kick>
Of course, that assumed they could hear you talking to them .
"WHO LET THE DOGS OUT!!!"
<kick> <kick> <kick>
"JD!! STOP KICKING THE SEAT." Sometimes, it was necessary to raise one's voice, just to assert one's authority.
"WHO LET THE DOGS OUT!!!"
<kick> <kick> <kick>
Ezra pulled the car over.
"Why did we stop?" JD asked, as Vin clicked off the CD player.
Ezra got out and pulled the seat back. No concrete blocks, but both boys were wearing a rather sturdy pair of boots. The back of his seat was peppered with little half-moon scuff marks.
"Why don't we all take off our shoes so we'll be more comfortable?" he managed a smile.
"Yeah we'll let our toes breathe!" Vin said, eagerly pulling off his boots. JD, seeing that this idea was apparently okay with Vin, began to struggle to get his own boots off. Ezra leaned in to help him at the same time JD's forceful tugging succeeded, and before he could react, a tiny boot came flying out of the car and hit him in the mouth.
He jerked backwards reflexively and hit his head on the door jamb.
"Godda ahem Ouch." He tasted blood in his mouth and reached for his handkerchief and dabbed at his lip. It came away with a few drops of blood, but nothing he couldn't survive. He leaned back towards JD to get his other boot off.
The little boy's hands flew up in front of his face as if to ward off a blow. "I'm sorry, Mr. Ezra!" JD began to wail. "I won't do it again! I promise!"
Vin was frozen in place, his eyes riveted on the bloody handkerchief.
Ezra was baffled. Did they really think he was going to punish JD for that insignificant mishap? Good Lord, what had been done to those two little souls?
He gently pulled JD's hands down. "JD, it's okay. It was an accident. Nobody's going to hit you."
"It's bleeding," JD cried.
"No No really, it already stopped, see?" Ezra dabbed the handkerchief again, and there was much less blood this time.
"Sorry," JD sniffed. So did Vin, for God only knew what reason.
Ezra tried frantically to think of a distraction. He remembered Mrs. Potter's cookies. "I tell you what let's all have a one of those fine cookies Mrs. Potter made for us. How does that sound?"
JD instantly reverted to his ebullient self at this evidence that he was truly forgiven. Ezra leaned over the seat and fumbled for the zip lock bag full of cookies.
"Can we have two?" JD asked.
"Certainly," Ezra replied, thankful that the crisis had apparently passed. Both boys had smiles on their faces as he climbed back into the driver's seat and pulled back onto I-25, oblivious to the small tan boot left behind on the shoulder of the road.
"How much longer 'til we're there, Mr. Ezra?" Vin asked.
Ezra looked at his watch. He figured they could still make it to Albuquerque by 5:00, but that was almost 6 hours away. "It will be awhile yet, I'm afraid."
"I'm hungry," JD said.
Ezra didnt see how on earth that was possible, but he said, "We'll stop for some lunch in Pueblo." The last sign he had passed indicated that community was a mere 20 miles away.
"I need the baffroom," JD said five minutes later.
"Just a few more minutes, JD, and we'll stop."
Five minutes later, JD was fidgeting in his seat. "I need the baffroom," he said again.
It was only 7 miles to Pueblo. Surely the child could hold it that long.
"Now!" JD pleaded.
"JD, there is no bathroom." Ezra indicated the vast expanse of wide open Western space that surrounded them.
JD was bouncing up and down in the seat, a look of desperation on his face.
"He's gonna pee his pants," Vin stated calmly.
In the time it took the thought of the consequence of that particular calamity befalling his suede upholstery to form in his mind, Ezra had pulled the car over to the side of the road and an instant later had the door open and was lifting JD out of the car.
As soon as he set him down, the little boy unzipped his jeans and sighed with relief.
Vin had crawled out of the car, too. "Do you need to go?" Ezra asked him.
Vin shook his head and then was immediately distracted by something in the distance. The boy had remarkable eyesight - Dr. Two Eagles had said his vision was an amazing 20/10 in both eyes - and Ezra wasn't sure what he was looking at.
Vin pointed a skinny finger. "JD! Look!"
JD was still finishing up his business, but strained to see what Vin was pointing at. "What Vin?"
"Over there! A torkus!"
Ezra frowned. He had no idea what on earth a torkus might be and was fairly certain he didn't want to find out.
JD apparently knew what to look for, though, and as soon as he had his pants zipped back up, both boys were off in the direction Vin had pointed.
Little puffs of red dust were kicked up in their wake, and Ezra remembered that neither of them was wearing shoes. "Vin! JD! Come back here!" The boys continued in the direction they were headed. "Get back here, right now!"
They were not yet so far away that they didn't hear him. They were simply ignoring him in favor of something more interesting than he was. "BOYS!! Awww hell "
He sprinted after them. JD was lifting what appeared to be a rock as he caught up to them. Vin attempted to grab it out of his hand.
"It's mine! I saw it first!" the older boy insisted.
JD deftly maneuvered the object out of Vin's reach and clutched it protectively to his chest. "Can we keep it?" he asked Ezra expectantly.
"I saw it first," Vin repeated with a forlorn sigh.
Ezra smiled indulgently. Obviously, the youngsters had mistaken a common rock for turquoise, and while the thought charmed him, he just wanted the little rockhounds back in the car. "You can keep it, but don't fight over it. When we get home, we'll find someone who can saw it in half."
Both boys looked at him, mysteriously horrified by the suggestion. JD's bottom lip began to quiver. "You can have it, Vin. I don't want half a torkus!"
Vin took the 'torkus' and tucked it under one arm. He glanced suspiciously at Ezra as the boys marched back to the car, their formerly white socks now red with Colorado dust. Ezra did not want them getting into the Jag that way, but he also didn't want to spend any more time at the side of the road. When they stopped for lunch in Pueblo, he'd get clean socks from their suitcase and then find a gas station with a vacuum and the Jag's berber carpet would be no worse for a few minutes wear.
The boys wanted to go to McDonald's again, but Ezra was disinclined to subject his charges to greasy burgers and fries. He knew of an excellent restaurant in Pueblo and decided that was where they would have lunch. He was the adult. It was his call.
He ordered the boys to stay in the car while he found clean socks for them. Mrs. Potter had put at least a dozen pair in the suitcase. They were all those peculiar heel-less "tube" socks, and apparently all the same size, so Ezra wasn't sure how to determine which were Vin's and which were JD's or if it even mattered. He shrugged and grabbed two pair at random.
"I can't find my other shoe," JD announced. He had somehow managed to get down on all fours on the Jag's very narrow rear floor, trying to look under the front seat.
"I'm sure it must be here somewhere," Ezra assured him. He had Vin stand next to the car and placed JD in the front seat as he began searching for the missing piece of footwear. He moved the booster seat, and the boys' backpacks and noted that the seat was sprinkled with cookie crumbs. There was a raisin mashed into JD's side, which he lifted distastefully with his thumbnail. He pushed everything forward so he could check to see if the small boot had wedged itself into the fold of the seat. Vin's cat toppled headfirst onto the floor, and Vin resentfully reached into the car and grabbed it protectively. Ezra looked under the front seats, but even with the lack of good light, he could see that all that was there was the rock the boys had found earlier.
JD sat happily in the front seat, making 'car' sounds and pretending to drive the Jag as it dawned on Ezra that the last time he'd seen the missing shoe, it had hit him in the face. The only explanation left was that it had fallen out of the car.
"JD, I think we lost your shoe," he said calmly.
As if a switch had been thrown, JD abruptly stopped his driving game and let forth a pitiful wail.
Ezra had no idea why he was so upset over a shoe, but he moved quickly to comfort the boy. He lifted him up and held him. "It's okay," he soothed, "We'll find a shoe store and get you some new ones."
JD continued to cry. "I want my mama!"
Ezra was in no way prepared for that, but suddenly, he made the connection. When JD's mother had been found dead in her car, all they had found to indicate JD had been with her was a child's car seat and a pair of tiny sneakers. The last time JD had lost his shoes, he'd lost his mother.
"JD . Sssshhhh " Ezra rubbed the little boy's back. He didn't know what to say to comfort him, so he simply held him close. "It's okay, son. It's okay."
"Here JD," Vin held his cat up. "You can hold my cat."
JD took the stuffed animal and buried his face in its fur. After a few minutes, he had calmed down enough that Ezra decided to take them into the restaurant. He would have to carry JD since he had no shoes, but something all of the men had noticed about both boys was that they seemed to enjoy being held. He supposed that the sense of security it offered was something that had been heretofore lacking in their young lives. That made Ezra sad, somehow, and when he shifted JD's weight to one arm and held out his free hand to Vin, who took it readily, it made him dare to hope that maybe he'd make a small impact on the two little ones that had changed them all.
The hostess showed them to a table and brought a booster seat for JD and three menus, smiling at the two boys as she handed them theirs. It was an indulgent gesture, since Ezra was fairly certain no one expected the such little boys to be able to read a menu. JD opened his and began to study it carefully. Vin kept his closed, running a distracted finger along the red string binding the plastic coated sheets together.
To Ezra's surprise, JD pointed an item out to Vin and announced "Hey Vin, they have nachos!"
Vin's interest perked up.
"They cost three hundred and fifty five dollars," he pointed to the price.
Vin frowned. "That's kind of a lot, JD."
Ezra laughed softly. "That's three dollars and fifty-five cents, JD," he explained, and then pointed out the meaning of the decimal point. JD, he knew, would retain that little piece of information. The child was a quick study and voraciously inquisitive.
"That's an appetizer," he explained. "You can't eat that for lunch."
"Why not?" JD said, disappointed.
Frankly, the only reason Ezra could think of was 'because I say so' and how many times had he hated hearing that as a kid? "Well, I suppose if you really want them, it will be okay." According to the menu, they were 'deluxe' nachos, with meat, beans, lettuce and tomato as well as cheese and peppers. That was a reasonably balanced repast.
"What do you want, Vin?"
Vin opened his menu. There were no pictures, so he closed it again and hung his head.
"I don't know what they got," he shrugged.
Before Ezra could assure him that he didn't expect him to read the menu, JD began to rattle off the various dishes listed on it, and their prices.
Ezra found himself faced with another touchy situation. JD had been a few days too young for kindergarten that year, but after tests had determined that he could not only read, but did so as well as the average 4th grader, they'd gone ahead and let him start school. The problem was that as far as could be determined, Vin had never been to school, and added to that disadvantage, Dr. Lowery suspected he had a reading disability. So, even though he was two years older than JD, he, too, had been placed in kindergarten. Chris had gone a few rounds with the school administration, but it came down to kindergarten or a special education class - and a choice between which was the lesser of two evils as far as Vin's self-esteem was concerned. Mary Travis had suggested a Montessori program where Vin could learn at his own pace, but, there was a waiting list, and so Vin found himself in the same grade with JD, still struggling with the rudiments of the alphabet while JD was at the head of the class.
Ezra didn't want to discourage JD, but he could see Vin withdrawing into his little shell of self-doubt.
He closed his own menu and pretended to listen intently to JD's recitation. To his relief, Vin relaxed a bit and did the same.
"Well, I believe I heard something I wanted How about you Vin?"
Vin nodded. "I want a hamburger and French fries."
Ezra sighed inwardly. He had hoped to avoid the mundane, but at that moment, he was happy that Vin wasn't sulking. When the waitress returned, he ordered for both boys and a Caesar salad for himself.
"Do you want the nachos without jalapenos?" the waitress asked.
"Yes, I think "
"No! I want them!" JD said.
"They're hot," the waitress cautioned.
"I don't care."
"JD ." Ezra began. The boys were not picky eaters, but he wasn't sure JD had ever actually eaten jalapenos.
"I want 'em," JD insisted.
Ezra gave the waitress and imploring looking and shrugged.
The service was quick and they soon had their food. The boys had wanted Cokes, but Ezra had exercised some discipline and insisted they have milk. He questioned the wisdom of the two large tumblers, filled to the brim, that were set in front of the two little boys, and asked the waitress to bring some smaller, empty glasses.
Before she could return, JD dived into his nachos. There was no immediate response when he wrapped his tender little lips around a mouthful of hot peppers, but the delayed reaction would have been comical had Ezra not known how truly unpleasant the sensation could be.
JD surprised him by calmly reaching for his milk and taking a few quick swallows. "Hot!" he laughed, fanning the imaginary flames on his tongue.
Ezra would have preferred that he keep both of his hands on the dangerously large glass of milk and was about to suggest this when JD attempted to put the tumbler back on the table. Luckily, Ezra saw him misjudge the height and when the glass toppled forward, he was able to jump out of the way of the cascade of milk that came flowing across the tabletop in his direction, drowning Vin's French fries in the process.
"JD! You're so stupid!" Vin snapped.
"Vin . Let's have none of that talk," Ezra said, grabbing a fistfull of napkins. "It was an accident."
"Yeah," JD looked at Vin. "An askident."
The waitress hurried over and helped Ezra clean up the mess before she left to bring Vin more French fries and JD another glass of milk. The rest of the meal was uneventful, beyond the fact that Ezra was amazed to discover that little JD actually did seem to like jalapenos. But when they got up to leave, Ezra realized that when JD had spilled the milk, a substantial quantity of it had saturated the front of his clothing, and there was a small puddle of it in the booster seat where he'd been sitting. Not only did it have to be sticky and uncomfortable, there was no way Ezra was going to let him get in the car that way.
"You boys stay right here," he told them. "I'll go out to the car and get some more clothes for JD." He looked around, making sure there were no suspicious individuals anywhere about before leaving the children, although he suspected that Vin, at least, was too street-wise to cooperate should a stranger approach them.
Opening the suitcase, he again found himself trying to figure out what clothing belonged to which boy. All of the clothes appeared to be the same size. Surely Mrs. Potter hadn't forgotten to pack clothes for one of them .
Then he noticed that some of the jeans were generously hemmed at the bottom while others were the normal length. That problem solved, he sorted through the shirts until he found two that were alike - miniature Colorado Rockies jerseys. Mrs. Potter had conveniently marked them with the respective owner's initials. He was about to close the trunk when he realized JD would need clean underpants, too. He fished out a pair of tiny briefs with cartoon characters on them and then located the box of plastic trash bags he kept in the trunk so he'd have somewhere to put JD's wet clothes.
Returning the restaurant, he panicked when he didn't see the boys at the table where he'd left them, but an instant later, they came running to meet him. They both had their hands in their pockets, and self-satisfied looks on their faces that instinct told Ezra he should probably question, but he was in a hurry to get back on the road again, so he didn't.
When Vin saw that JD was wearing his Colorado Rockies shirt, he insisted on putting his on, too. Ezra indulged him, and after both boys were changed, he got directions to the nearest shoe store and they were on their way.
"Payless" was the name of the shoe store, and Ezra tried not to be rankled at the improper grammatical implications. They had hundreds of pairs of shoes grouped by size and apparently, it was self-service.
"I don't suppose you know what size you wear?" he asked JD.
Ezra guessed that JD's feet were maybe 2 or 3 sizes smaller than Vin's, so he sat Vin down, removed one of his shoes, and checked inside for a size. He frowned when he saw a "1" - he was pretty sure they didn't use negative numbers.
Seeing his dilemma, a woman with three small children in tow explained, "They go from double zero to thirteen, then start all over again, until you get to 4 for the girls, then they go into women's sizes and up to 5 in the boys before they go to men's sizes."
This was way too much information. He lifted JD's foot and pointed to it. "I want it to fit this foot."
"How old is he?"
"Try a ten."
Ezra thanked the woman and went off in search of the size 10's which proved to be a perfect fit, except JD didn't like any of them.
He rubbed his temples. He definitely felt a head ache coming on as he tried to convince JD to pick a pair - any pair.
Finally, JD decided he could live with a pair of purple cross-trainers with silver trim.
Ezra was about to compliment him on his excellent choice when Vin piped up, "Those look like girl shoes."
JD quickly put the shoes back on the shelf.
"This is boring," Vin sighed.
Ezra ran a hand through his hair, trying not to look as exasperated as he felt.
"There's a Wal-Mart a few blocks from here," the mother of three suggested when she saw his predicament.
Wal-Mart! What had his life come to? "How do I get there?"
45 minutes later, they were in the checkout line at the massive retail outlet. JD had found a pair of black leather hiking boots and as he marched happily to the front of the store in them, Ezra noticed they were leaving black scuff marks on the linoleum. How lovely.
Ezra picked a "no candy" check out, only to discover that a variety of other enticements were on convenient display. JD spotted a rack of small books with such enlightening topics as "Truly Amazing Ghost Stories," "Real Life Crime," and "Eat Cake and Loose Weight." Luckily, he was too short to reach them, but that didn't stop him from trying, first climbing on the lower shelf and then trying to hop up onto the moving merchandise conveyer. Vin had found some small pen lights and was making sure each one worked as the customer in line behind them looked on disapprovingly.
"You shouldn't be playing with those if you aren't going to buy them," she snapped at Vin.
Vin instantly backed away from the display as if it were hot, and Ezra instinctively put a protective arm on his shoulder. The bitch had scared the little boy, for no good reason.
"Madam, I would thank you to mind your own business," he told the woman. Then he said to Vin, "Pick the one you want."
Hesitantly, Vin selected a blue pen-light.
"I get something, too!" JD said.
Ezra scanned the display of little books and found one titled "True Animal Stories" and handed it to JD.
"Would you like to keep the box?" the cashier asked, noting that the shoes were already on JD's feet.
"No.. that's okay "
"We should keep it, Mr. Ezra." JD tugged at his arm. "We can put the torkus in it."
Ezra had to agree that not having a dusty chunk of rock on the floor of his car appealed to him, so he handed JD the box, paid for the merchandise and gratefully led them out of the store.
He checked his map and his watch while the boys settled themselves into the back seat. It was already 1:00 pm and they were still five hours from Albuquerque, he realized with a sigh. He'd have to call Chris and Buck and let them know they'd be arriving a couple of hours later than planned.
Vin and JD were still fidgeting in the backseat, trying to get settled among the clutter that seemed to be multiplying. They chattered among themselves as they carefully packed the torkus in the box, padding it with the socks they'd removed earlier. Ezra found their imagination charming, and hoped the boys wouldn't be too disappointed to discover that their precious gemstone was just a chunk of ordinary rock.
"Can we put this up here?" Vin asked, holding up the shoe box and indicating the front seat. Ezra scooted the stuff already on the seat over towards the door, and made room for the box.
Finally, they were ready to hit the road again. As he pulled the Jag out of the Wal-Mart parking lot, JD asked, "How much longer 'til we get there?"
JD had opened his book as soon as they were on the road and had begun to read, not quietly to himself, but loud enough to entertain his fellow passengers. It helped that the little book was obviously written for those of only minimal education, but, that considered, JD really was an able reader, stumbling only occasionally over some of the larger words.
From his rear-view-mirror vantage point, Ezra could see that Vin seemed torn between his interest in the stories JD was reading and his resentment of the younger boy's abilities. He played morosely with his penlight, moving the beam along the contours of the car's interior, illuminating the inside of the unused ash trays, and sticking it in his mouth to see if it would make his cheeks glow.
Slowly, he edged the beam over to JD's book, then moved it up JD's chest and face until he had it focused directly in JD's eyes. JD batted at the light beam as though it were an annoying insect. "Stop it, Vin. I can't read."
Vin moved the light away, but only for a few seconds. As soon as JD began to read again, he shined the light in the younger boy's eyes. "Vin, quit it!" JD said, squeezing his eyes shut.
Vin turned the flashlight off, but as soon as JD resumed the story, it came on again, this time on the "high" setting.
"Vin, I said stop it!!"
This time, Vin left the light on.
"Mr. Ezra!!! Vin's brighting my eyes out!" JD complained.
Ezra glanced in the rearview mirror. "Vin, don't do that. You could hurt JD's eyes." That probably wasn't true, but appealing to Vin's protective instincts towards JD worked. He turned the light off. "Find something else to play with," Ezra told him, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice. They were children. He must be patient.
Vin fished a small wooden box out of his backpack. Ezra recognized it as a game that Vin's teacher had observed he enjoyed at school, so Chris had bought him his own. There were two compartments, one side with paper cards having red, green, blue and yellow shapes arranged in various designs, and the other containing red, green, blue and yellow tiles corresponding to the shapes, the idea being to recreate the design using the tiles. It appeared simple enough, but Vin had difficulty orienting shapes and sizes, and so he found it challenging and still seemed to have fun with it.
He only fingered the tiles, however. His attention was focused - or more appropriately, riveted - on JD.
Ezra glanced over his shoulder and noticed that the boy's wide blue eyes were staring, unblinking, at the younger boy. After a few seconds, JD noticed it, too.
"Stop it, Vin!" he huffed.
"I ain't doin' nothin'," Vin stated, which was, basically, true, but he didn't avert his gaze.
JD's little feet angrily kicked the back of Ezra's seat a couple of times. "Stop looking at me!"
"It's a free country," Vin mimicked one of Larabee's favorite phrases. "I can look wherever I want."
JD slammed his book into his lap. "Mr. Ezra, Vin's LOOKING at me!"
"Vin," Ezra sighed. "Keep your eyes on your side of the car, okay?"
"Yeah," JD scoffed. "You stay on YOUR side. This is MY side."
JD resumed reading. Vin calmly, but deliberately, set his game on the seat between himself and JD and then nudged it over so that it was bumping JD's car seat.
"Mr. Ezra! Vin's on my side!!! Make him quit it!"
"Vin, please!" Ezra said, trying not to raise his voice.
Vin quickly pulled his game back, but returned his wide-eyed gaze to JD.
"He's LOOKING at me again!" JD whined.
Then, Ezra saw one of the game tiles fly into the air and land on JD's side of the seat. Vin quickly grabbed it and edged it back carefully so that just barely touched the imaginary boundary of JD's personal space. Then, he flipped another one.
JD's chubby little hand balled into a fist and he punched Vin hard on the shoulder. "QUIT IT!"
Ezra pulled the car over. He was not going to suffer this inane bickering. He pulled a roll of duct tape from the glove compartment and notched the end so it would tear lengthwise. Stepping out of the vehicle so he could reach the back seat, he ripped off a length of the tape and slapped it dead center, dividing the seat into two areas. Yes, it would leave residue. He didn't give a damn. He shoved Vin's belongings over to his side of the line and did the same with JD's. "That's your side. This is his side. Okay? You don't even look past this line!" He indicated the tape.
Vin, realizing he might have overstepped his bounds with Ezra, nodded agreeably.
"His side is bigger than mine!" JD complained.
"No, it's not, and I don't want to hear any more about it!"
Ezra got back in the car and slammed the door harder than was necessary.
As he put the car in gear, JD asked timidly, "Are you mad Mr. Ezra?"
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