By Joy K
Chris glanced in the rearview mirror, checking on his son. Vin sat staring out the window, avoiding eye contact. He could tell that Vin was struggling to maintain control and was more frightened than he would ever admit.
And rightly so. Chris was scared as well. They had no idea what was wrong with JD, and with the way JD was screaming in pain, it looked very serious.
Chris sent a silent prayer skyward not only for the boy, but for Buck. Buck could be an intimidating presence when it came to law enforcement, or when you threatened a member of his "family," but when it came to the boys, Buck's gentle nature was prevalent. The man had a big heart that could be easily crushed should something happen to JD... or Vin.
Steering the truck into a parking space, Chris put it in park and shut off the engine. He looked over the seat as he unfastened his seatbelt.
"Are you all right?" he asked softly.
Vin looked up with frightened eyes. He wanted desperately to be strong and tough, like Chris, and say that he was fine, but he wasn't and it was too hard to pretend. Vin shook his head, just a single shake.
Chris climbed out of the truck, circled the black vehicle and opened Vin's door. Quickly assisting with the buckle, Chris lifted the slight boy and carried him through the emergency entrance.
"What's wrong with him?"
"Mr. Wilmington, please stand back," said a nurse. "We'll let you know as soon as we know."
"Buck!" JD screamed with renewed sobs. He was terrified and his head hurt. He wanted Buck to make it all better.
Buck closed his eyes at the cry trying to control himself. If he wasn't careful, they would force him to leave the room and JD would be alone.
He couldn't even hold JD's hand to comfort him. They had his tiny body restrained on a papoose board, the material cocooning him and preventing arms and legs from flailing and interfering with the exam and treatment.
"They're hurting JD!" Vin declared, hearing the screams of his friend. He pulled free from Chris' grasp and ran toward the anguished cries.
"Vin!" Chris hurried after the little rescuer.
Vin actually made it through the doors of the exam room before Chris caught him.
"JD!" Vin called as Chris grabbed him around the waist and pulled him back.
JD cried louder in response to his best friend's voice. Vin would help him.
"Get them out of here!" ordered the doctor.
"Sir, you have to leave," the nurse said firmly. There would be no arguing.
Chris nodded as he pulled back.
"You can wait in Chairs," she added, indicating the waiting room.
"They're hurting him! They gots him all tied up." Vin protested as he struggled against Chris' grip. As if to prove his point, JD let out another scream.
"Out!" ordered the nurse.
"Come on, Vin," Chris said gently, wrapping his arms tightly around Vin's flailing fists. "They aren't hurting him. The doctors are helping JD. He's wrapped up to keep him safe. Come on." The last words were a choked whisper. Leaving the room was the last thing Chris wanted to do. He nodded his support to Buck and pulled Vin away.
"No! JD! He needs me!" wailed Vin as the doors swung closed.
"Vin!" JD cried, desperately.
"It's okay, Little Bit," Buck soothed with a calm voice, despite his inner turmoil. The words thrown around were ominous. Seizure. Head Trauma. Stroke. He blinked back the tears. Not JD. This couldn't be happening.
"It's all right, John," said the Doctor. "Take some deep breaths."
"He goes by 'JD'," said Buck blankly.
The doctor nodded to him. "That's it, JD. Nice and slow."
The oxygen mask on the dirty face delivered enough air to lessen the panicked breathing. As JD calmed, the doctor continued his examination.
"JD?" The doctor waited until the hazel eyes focused on him. "Can you tell me where it hurts?"
JD blinked. Everything was scary, but the doctor had friendly eyes. He nodded. He could tell him.
The doctor smiled at the response. Kids were so literal. The little guy had answered his question, even though he had wanted the child to actually tell him where it hurt, not just agree that he could tell.
"Where does it hurt?" the doctor clarified.
"No! No! No!" JD cried and he squirmed anxiously as the pain flared again. "Make it stop!"
"Where JD?" asked the doctor, trying to get him calm and focused again.
Buck turned his ashen face away, unable to bear the sight of his son in pain and knowing there was nothing he could do. His heart was breaking.
After a few shuddering sobs, JD was finally able to give them direction.
"My ear hurts," he whined. "Make it stop."
The doctor reached for the light to examine JD's ears.
"Which one, JD? Is it this one?" he asked, touching JD's right cheek since the boy was restrained and couldn't show them with his hands.
"Uh-huh," said JD softly.
Buck was now watching every movement of the doctor. He didn't miss the doctor relaxing slightly as he examined the ear.
"Well, we have a little problem here, but we can fix that right up," he assured, patting JD's shoulder through the papoose wrapping. "Rachel, we need irrigation," he told the nurse.
"What is it?" asked Buck. His voice was no longer demanding, just a father needing to help his child.
The doctor smiled. "Foreign object in the ear," he informed. He didn't think either one of them could handle the idea that a live beetle had found his way into JD's ear, so he settled for "foreign object". No wonder the kid was panicked. The small brown beetle was barely the size of a pea, but combined with a tiny ear canal and furiously flapping little wings, the noise in the inner ear itself would cause panic, let alone the pressure of the beetle burrowing deeper.
"JD, we are going to put some water in your ear and wash it really good. You're going to get a little wet."
"Is it dirty?" asked JD seriously. "Dirt never hurt 'fore."
"Let's just get it cleaned out," said the doctor with a smile.
Chris felt the fight go out of Vin, and it worried him. Vin had struggled and yelled all the way to the waiting room, but then he just went limp. And silent. No tears. Nothing.
He hated restraining Vin, hated wrapping his arms around him and pinning his arms down, knowing how much it frightened the seven year old to be confined. But it was the only way to handle him at that moment in time. Now with the fight gone, Chris relaxed his hold hoping that the freedom would help.
Vin's arms reflexively clamped over Chris' arms pulling them back tight to his chest subconsciously needing the security that his foster father gave, despite the confinement.
Chris tightened his grip, offering Vin the refuge he couldn't ask for, or perhaps didn't recognize that he needed. He knew that Vin took very seriously his responsibility to safeguard JD and he had been unable to protect his little brother. No one had bestowed that responsibility on him. He had simply taken it upon himself when he found a shoeless JD crying after his Mama had died. Vin's dogged defense of the five-year-old gave all of them a glimpse of the character of the man he would grow to be.
More than anything Chris wanted to reassure Vin that JD would be fine, but he didn't know that to be true and he had made a commitment to always be truthful with Vin. Especially in health and hospital matters. People had lied to Vin when his mother was dying, and that coupled with the harsh reality of life on the streets had taught Vin not to trust. But he and Vin had connected and Vin's ability to trust was slowly being restored, piece-by-piece. Chris would not shatter that fledgling trust by telling him JD would be fine when it was entirely possible that JD wasn't. Instead he offered an embrace, a stronghold, a safe place for Vin to rest, a reprieve from the harsh realities of life.
And for now, it was enough. Vin sighed and leaned his head back against Chris' chest while they waited for news.
Chris noticed for the first time how tightly Vin's fists were clenched. He loosened one arm just enough to brush his hand over Vin's fist.
Vin turned his head, looking into Chris' eyes. Then he opened a fist revealing a handful of jacks. He had gripped them so tightly that he had little indentations in his palm from the points of the jacks. He opened the other hand, revealing JD's ball.
Chris cupped his hand beneath Vin's small hands. Vin had rescued JD's ball and jacks but his own paddleball was nowhere in sight.
"Can I hold those for you, Cowboy?"
Vin nodded and carefully dropped the ball and jacks into Chris' hand. Chris closed his hand, shifting slightly before depositing the toys into his pocket. Then he reached around Vin again restoring the tight grasp that the boy was clinging to. Using his thumb he gently massaged the palm of Vin's hand, caressing away the indentations left by the jacks.
Vin flexed his hands a few times and then closed his hand around the comforting thumb that stroked his palm. He settled back into Chris' safe embrace.
"I'm all wet, Buck," declared JD.
"You sure are," Buck chuckled as he caressed JD's hair. "How's that ear feeling now?"
"It's all better." JD smiled at the doctor. "Can I have my arms back now?"
The doctor smiled and nodded as he unfastened the restraints on the papoose board.
Sensing his freedom, JD immediately sat up and held out his arms to Buck. Buck looked to the doctor, who nodded permission. Buck gratefully swept his boy into his arms.
"What getted in my ear?" asked JD.
"Do you want to see?" the doctor questioned. He could tell the boy was genuinely inquisitive and it seemed that he wouldn't be disturbed to see the beetle.
JD nodded enthusiastically.
"Well, let me show you."
The doctor showed JD the small, now deceased beetle. Buck cringed at the thought of a bug in his ear. The doctor explained to JD how things like this happen frequently to kids and that the beetle simply flew in because JD happened to be in his way at the time. He told JD that this particular species didn't have a "reverse" gene, so the critter didn't know how to back up so he kept flapping his wings and going forward trying to get out. And that was what JD was hearing and feeling.
JD looked at the lifeless bug clinically. "So is he dreaming with angels now?"
Buck smiled sadly when the doctor looked to him for an explanation.
"Well JD, I don't know if bugs go to dream with angels, but yes, it is in bug heaven now."
"He was a nice beetle," said JD. "He played cowboys and Indians and dinosaurs with us."
Buck grinned. It was far from likely that the beetle the boys found when they were playing in the dirt was the same beetle that now floated in the irrigation tray, but JD didn't need to know that.
"Are we done now?" JD asked the doctor. "We's supposed to see the far-works."
"The fireworks?" confirmed the doctor. "Well, then we had better send you on your way. Rachel, I think this brave guy needs a reward."
"Certainly, Doctor," said Rachel, retrieving a box from the cabinet and holding it up for JD.
"Oh boy! Suckers!" JD chirped happily.
"Just one, Little Bit," chided Buck softly.
"He should be fine, Mr. Wilmington," said the Doctor. "We used a little antiseptic in there. If he has any problems at all, take him to his doctor."
Buck nodded his thanks.
"What about Vin?" asked JD.
"Is he your friend who tried to come in?" The doctor confirmed.
JD nodded. "He's my bwother. Can he have a sucker too?"
While the doctor didn't like that Vin had barged into his exam room, he could see that it was important to JD that Vin have a sucker too.
"Well JD, I think your brother is pretty brave too. He came in here trying to help you." The doctor nodded, "Go ahead and take one for him."
"Thank you," JD said with a sweet smile. He picked a purple sucker for Vin. "Time for fireworks, Buck."
"Life is always fireworks with you, Little Bit."
JD ignored Buck's comment as he struggled to get his sucker free from the plastic wrap.
Vin sat up suddenly, turning his head towards the examine room.
Chris followed his line of sight, seeing nothing but the normal movement in the hallway. Moments later the door opened revealing a smiling Buck carrying a very content JD. Chris rested his chin on the top of Vin's head with a relieved smile. It still amazed him when Vin seemed to hear or see things before the rest of them.
"Hey, Vin!" chirped JD. "I getted you a sucker."
Vin grinned and pulled himself free from Chris' grasp as Buck stood JD on the floor. Vin hugged JD tightly. No words were spoken, but none were necessary. He had been unable to protect JD, but Buck and Chris and the doctors had taken care of him.
When Vin let go, JD handed him the purple sucker.
"I getted a beetle in my ear."
"Really?" asked Vin.
"Yep," confirmed JD. "The doctor said he just flied in there and couldn't get out cuz beetles don't knows how to go backwards. And he was flappin' his wings and crawlin' and it hurted and then the doctor wrapped me up like an Indian baby and I couldn't scratch my nose and then the splashed water on my ear and getted me all wet and washed the beetle right out. The beetle is in beetle heaven now cuz Buck says beetles don't go to dream with angels they go to beetle heaven. Is your sucker good? I getted you purple cuz you like purple."
JD looked around. Buck was laughing. Chris was laughing. Vin was grinning from ear to ear.
Chris reached down and hugged JD. "Glad you're all right, JD."
JD grinned and squeezed Chris hard.
"Can we see the far-works now?" JD plopped his sucker in his mouth and reached for Buck's hand.
Vin put his sucker in his mouth, took JD's other hand in his left, and held out his right hand to Chris.
Chris took his hand and the family made their way to the waiting vehicle.
Despite his bravery and scientific examination of the beetle earlier, JD spent most of the evening on Buck's lap. He was not eager to have another encounter with a beetle. He was content to be held, and Buck was more than happy to oblige him.
Vin stuck close by JD, never letting the younger boy out of his sight. The little sentry stayed on duty, guarding his little brother until JD dozed off. It was hard to keep his eyes open, the rigors of the day finally taking their toll.
Worn out from the ordeal of the emergency, neither boy managed to stay awake until the fireworks started. JD was snoring softly, slung over Buck's shoulder. Vin was sprawled across Chris' lap as only a child who felt safe could do.
At the first boom, both boys woke with a start.
"Look," said Chris, before either boy could become frightened by the noise.
Vin gasped. The sky was bright with color.
Another boom. Another burst of color.
"Is this far-works?" asked JD.
"It sure is, Little Bit," replied Buck, tickling the amazed boy with his mustache as they snuggled.
Vin turned and scrambled onto his knees.
"I can feel 'em right here," he said placing his hand on Chris' chest.
"Me too," said Chris with a smile at Vin's excitement and wonder.
At the sound of another set firing off, Vin turned around, sitting on Chris' leg.
"Yay!" squealed JD, bouncing on Buck's lap.
Thirty minutes later the display was over. The family packed up their blanket and backpacks and joined the crowd in moving towards the cars. The only drawback of going to see the fireworks was the major traffic jam when the event concluded. It would be at least an hour before they made it home.
JD and Vin were asleep in their booster seats before the truck exited the parking lot.
Chris smiled as he glanced over at Buck. His friend had joined the boys in slumber before the truck reached the highway. Chris couldn't blame him. The "excitement" earlier had taken its toll on all of them.
"I'm not carrying you into the house," Chris mumbled as he turned onto the main highway.
With everyone finally settled in, for the night, Chris finally climbed in bed at 2:30 am, looking forward to sleeping late on Saturday. Just as he dozed off, he was awakened by a cry from the boys' room.
He crawled out of bed with a groan, knowing that Buck was probably 'dead to the world' after the stressful day. He walked down the hall, stopping at the doorway where surprisingly, Buck was standing looking in at the boys.
Buck shook his head indicating that they weren't needed, and then he nodded toward the room inviting Chris to look.
Chris took in the scene and almost regretted the intrusion. Vin was sitting on JD's bunk gently rubbing his little brother's back. He was softly singing tunelessly. Chris' chest tightened and his eyes misted as he realized Vin was singing a lullaby to JD, one that he must have learned from his mother. In all the weeks the boys had been a part of the family, in all the times Vin had comforted JD, Chris had never heard him sing a lullaby. Perhaps he had sung, and Chris had missed it, but Chris knew it was more likely that the threat of losing JD had shaken Vin deep enough that he was pulling on the thing that had comforted him - his mother's lullaby.
Chris rubbed the back of his hand under an eye, straining to hear the soft words.
Rocking Horse Cowboy, Time to go to bed
Rocking Horse Cowboy, Rest your weary head
You've been rid'n hard all day
Time for you to hit the hay
Some rustlers gave you trouble When you were rid'n herd
But your six guns drove them all out of sight
So get on your pony, Drive the strays back to the herd
And bed down your pinto for the night
Rockin horse cowboy, Ride to slumberland
Dream a dream, cowboy, Of the Rio Grande
You've been ridin hard all day
Time for you to hit the hay
When he finished the song, Vin crawled under the covers next to JD and snuggled up, his hand continuing to stroke JD's back until slumberland claimed him as well.
Two men swallowed hard, neither daring to look at the other for a few moments, knowing that if they did they wouldn't be able to keep the tears at bay.
Buck broke the silence, grabbing the back of Chris' neck.
"We are the luckiest men in the world to have been blessed with those two," he whispered.
Chris nodded in agreement. He tilted his head towards their bedrooms. "Time for slumberland, Pard'."
"And that's what we did on 'Dependence day. The End. How'd I do, Vin? Did you like it?"
"Ya done real good, JD. I think you telled everything."
"Wait 'til uncle Ezra reads this. He'll be 'sprized."
"Boys? What are you doing in there?"
"Hurry JD, turn it off. Don't let him see. It'll spoil the s'prise."
Next: Midnight Snack...
In The Good Ol' Summertime (Index)
The REAL "Star Spangled Banner":
Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
(Composed by Francis Scott Key, "In Defense of Fort McHenry", September 20, 1814. Congress proclaimed it the U.S. National Anthem in 1931)