For those of you who dont know, Im a foster parent and have seen events like the one described here, first hand. Sometimes it helps to paint my feelings on things across the guys. This is the first in a series of vignettes featuring each of the guys. Feedback is most certainly welcome!
Vin Tanner stood watching the printer as it spit out the pages of the report he had just finished. The office was pretty quiet with everyone working on paperwork before the weekend. Chris was still sporting a sling from the bad sprain he had gotten when he dove out of the line of fire during the bust earlier in the week. It was a good bust, the team leaders elbow being the only injury.
Out in the main part of the bullpen, he could hear Josiah talking to someone. Leaning back around the partition that separated the printer from the rest of the room, he saw Nettie Wells laughing over something the profiler had said. He quickly picked up his report and started for his desk.
Dont try to pretend you didnt see me, Vin. Come over here and let me have a look at you! the diminutive woman called to the sharpshooter. Nettie had a fondness for the young man with the piercing blue eyes and shoulder length hair.
Vin blushed slightly as he accepted a hug. So what brings you all the way up here?
Actually, I wanted to ask all of you for a favor, she answered.
You know wed do anything for you Mrs. Wells, Josiah announced.
Im going to hold you to that. You know about the adoption fair at the park tomorrow? No? Well, a couple of times a year, Family Services brings all the children in foster care who are available for adoption together and brings in prospective adoptive families to meet them, she explained.
Sounds like a dog show, Vin growled.
Nettie reached out and gave his arm a gentle squeeze. Weve actually had pretty good luck with this in the past, several children have been placed in pre-adoptive homes.
What can we do to help? Josiah asked, partly out of curiosity and partly to divert Vins attention.
I need volunteers to help with games and food and to facilitate mingling between the children and the adults. Several of my volunteers have backed out at the last minute and left me in the lurch.
I cant speak for the others, but Ill be there. What time tomorrow? Vin said.
We start setting up at nine in the morning. The kids start arriving around ten and the adults around eleven. That way, the kids can loosen up and play a few games together before they have to Netties voice drifted off as she searched for a phrase that wouldnt upset Tanner.
Start selling themselves? the Texan offered with just a hint of acid in his voice.
Ill be there, Josiah inserted, Can I bring anything?
Lawn chairs if you have them. I really appreciate this. If you would pass the invitation along to the others, Ill just be on my way. Nettie tossed an apologetic glance at Vin before leaving the office.
The next morning, all of the team showed up at the park. With his arm in a sling, Chris was relegated to the registration table, handing out name tags. Josiah and Nathan volunteered to handle the big grill that would be arriving in an hour or so. In the mean time, they helped set up the games. The rest of the team was busy setting up the games and arguing, good naturedly, about who was going to be doing what when the kids arrived. Nettie broke up the argument and sent them to their designated games.
It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day as the first van loads of children arrived. Vins heart ached at the sight of so many children without a family to call their own. Some of the kids already had that hardened look about them of too many dashed hopes. The caseworkers began directing the children to the registration table where they received a tee shirt with their name and a file number on it.
When Chris questioned the shirts, he was told that it allowed the adults to observe a child and review their profile without actually interacting with them until they were sure they wanted to meet the child. The whole process left a bitter taste in the blond mans mouth. He was beginning to understand why Vin was bristled up like a porcupine this morning.
Peals of childish laughter soon had the team in a better mood. Buck and JD were playing with a group of younger kids, trying to keep a large balloon from touching the ground. Vin had organized a game of touch football among the older boys. Ezra was entertaining anyone who cared to watch with some sleight of hand magic tricks. He was pulling foil covered chocolate coins from the ears of any child who cared to have him look into their ear.
The adults began to arrive. They were given nametags so that the children didnt feel so vulnerable having their names displayed so prominently. Several of the couples joined the games while others simply stood and watched. A few of the couples went directly to the table where the childrens profiles were kept in binders.
Nathan watched the kids play while Josiah tended to the grill. He was troubled by what he saw. The younger children were surrounded by a large number of smiling adults. While the older children were still playing games with the volunteers, they were trying not to notice that they were being pretty much ignored. Here and there, he saw groups of children with the same number on their shirts. These were sibling groups, a worker explained, many of them were split up in different homes because they could not find a home for them together.
The big, red balloon landed on the grass and popped loudly, startling the girl who had been trying to get it. All an once, she burst into tears. Buck was the closest volunteer and he hurried to kneel at her side.
Hey now, whats this? Weve got plenty of balloons left. No need to be upset about it, he soothed. The girl buried her face in his shoulder and cried harder. Several of the female workers were closing on him and he waived them off as he came to his feet with the girl in his arms. He carried her to a shady spot under a tree and set her on her feet. Digging his handkerchief out of his pocket, he dried her face and allowed her to blow her nose.
Okay? He cocked his head so he could look into her down turned face. She nodded as she continued to draw trembling breaths. Buck read her name on her shirt. Shanika? Can you tell me whats wrong?
Now they wont want me, she whispered.
Who? Who wouldnt want a pretty little thing like you? He cupped her chin and tipped her head up so he could see her eyes. The child was tall and thin, with a short haircut and large, beautiful, dark eyes, her skin was a creamy chocolate color.
Those people. They dont want older kids anyway, but if youre pretty and do good in school, they might take you anyway, she explained.
Oh, sweetheart! You are a beautiful little girl! Im sure that the right family for you will come along and snap you right up! He assured her. Inside his chest, his heart was breaking for the flicker of hope he saw rise up and then promptly die.
This is my third fair, she said softly as the tears started again. Buck gathered her to his chest and rocked her slightly. After several minutes, he realized that she was completely limp on his shoulder.
An older woman approached him, smiling. She didnt sleep much last night. She had her heart set on getting picked this year, the woman whispered.
Why is this year so special? Buck couldnt imagine what difference it made. The girl needed a family and it broke his heart to hear the answer.
She turns ten this fall. Children ten and over have a harder time getting permanent homes. People prefer younger children. She had two younger siblings who were adopted into different homes, neither wanted an older child.
My God! Poor little thing! No wonder shes so wound up. Buck clutched the girl a little tighter as he worked to swallow the lump in his throat.
They have some cots over under the trees near the information table. Why dont you take her over there and put her down. Maybe shell sleep for a while and shell feel better when she wakes up, the woman suggested.
Josiah watched a couple at the information table. The woman had been leafing through the book for several minutes before she found what she was looking for. She sighed as she ran her finger down the page. Finally, she turned to her husband and shook her head. They walked away from the table and into the crowd. Curiosity got the better of him and he slipped away from the grill to see what the woman had been reading. He glanced at the page.
A picture of three, smiling, happy children filled the top half of the page. Below the picture, the childrens ages and first names. Nothing terrible there, so he read down the page. The highlighted words leapt off the page. Birth mother hospitalized repeatedly for manic episodes. His eyes automatically returned to the faces in the picture. The children were being rejected because their mother had a mental illness. Letting his head drop, he raged at the universe that they werent even being given a chance!
The movement of the small, dark haired boy had Chris captivated. He was catching bubbles being blown by an older child with longish medium brown hair. Nettie happened to catch the direction of his gaze and smiled.
I see you noticed them too, she said, breaking the spell.
Whats their story? Chris asked.
Do you really want to know? The older woman carefully gauged her words.
Yeah, tell me. If nothing else, she had piqued his interest.
The older boy is HIV positive. The younger one is his cousin. They were found living in a warehouse after the older boys mother died in a shelter. Were trying to find them a permanent place where they can remain together. Theyre very bonded to each other.
Chris tossed a hard, hazel stare at the woman.
You said you wanted to know, she defended before walking away.
Ezra noticed the little, blonde girl on the edge of the crowd. She had been there for a while, just watching. He had tried several times to draw her forward so he could give her a piece of candy but she wouldnt allow him to touch her. During a break, he caught one of the workers and asked about the girl.
Thats Wendy. Shes been in care a while. The state took her away from her mother after the boyfriend prostituted the girl out to some of his friends in exchange for some crack. Dont waste your time, she wont let a man touch her. The foster mom says that she cant even be in the same room with her foster dad. Shes a real special needs child.
The southerner stared at the forlorn child. He pulled one of the foil wrapped chocolates from his pocket and caught a little girl who was walking past. Excuse me, would you do me a favor?
The girl smiled brightly, revealing a mouthful of teeth in desperate need of adequate dental care.
Would you give this to the little girl over there? She hasnt gotten any candy yet. He placed a second piece of candy in the childs other hand when she nodded.
Ezra watched as the girl ran to Wendy and gave her the chocolate. The girl pointed to him when Wendy asked who gave her the candy. He caught a glimpse of her eyes before she turned and ran to bury her face in the lap of a woman sitting nearby.
Vin put up a beautiful spiral and watched as several of the boys ran to get under it. He noticed a boy, smaller than the others, as he tried to hold his place on the grass. The ball was coming right to him and he knew it. The kid looked to be of Mexican and African American descent. One of the bigger boys elbowed the smaller youth in the head and stepped under the ball as it landed sweetly in his outstretched arms.
Good catch but I think the other kid had it, the sharpshooter called as he trotted down the field. He held out his hand and drew the boy to his feet. Whats your name? he asked the diminutive receiver.
Jose, came the soft reply. The boy didnt raise his eyes to the man who still held him by the arm.
Good to meetcha, Jose. Im Vin. Howd ya know that ball was gonna land right here? the Texan asked as he rested his hand on the wary childs shoulder.
I could just see it. My older brother used to throw the ball for me, Jose whispered.
There was no missing the melancholy, wistful tone in the boys voice. Vin steered his charge into the shade and sat down. Leaning back against the trunk, he studied the kid. Jose seemed to draw in on himself as he remained standing.
Sit down. Lets talk. Tell me about your brother, Vin suggested.
The boy lowered himself to the grass tentatively, remaining just out of reach of the man. His eyes scanned the area, seeking any threat. It was easy to see that the kid did not trust anyone.
My brother Diego was killed by a gang, the boy revealed.
But before he was killed, you two played football? Vin wanted to direct the boy to pleasant memories, not dwell on the pain and ugliness he had no doubt witnessed.
Yeah, he wanted to be the next Kurt Warner, a small smile lit Joses lips as he remembered. He could throw the ball just like you. He could drop it in a trash can from 30 or 40 yards. He wanted to play professional football. The coach at school told him to stay in school and keep his grades up and he might make it.
And was he doing that? Vin decided to coax the story out.
Yeah, he was making good grades. He helped me with my homework, too. Then the Tocadors decided that they wanted him.
Vin winced, he knew that gang from Purgatory. They were a vicious, tenacious gang that vandalized buildings and robbed old people. He had never been able to talk a kid out of that gang once they were accepted. Before he could say anything else, a whistle sounded and Josiahs booming voice announced that food was being served.
As the members of Team 7 gathered at one table, they were joined by several children. Jose had followed Vin through the line and it just seemed natural for the boy to sit with him. Jacob and Justin, the cousins the team leader had been watching, were seated on either side of Chris. Ezra was seated on the end of the bench holding his breath as the little blonde inched closer to the table. Without making eye contact with Wendy, the southerner scooted closer to JD to make room for the child. She put her plate as close to the edge of the table as possible and perched on the very edge of the bench. Nathan saw the smile beaming from the undercover agents face as he switched his fork to the other hand so as not to startle the girl.
When Wendys plate was empty, she slipped off the bench and gathered up her trash. Pausing for only an instant, she briefly studied Ezras face before turning and walking away. Before he could process his next thought, a female hand ghosted across his shoulder. He found himself looking up at a woman he didnt know. Her eyes were bright with tears as she smiled.
That is the closest she has come willingly to a man since she came into care, the woman informed him. I dont know how you did it.
Kids flock to him like the Pied Piper, Maam. Its like they cant help themselves, Vin drawled.
After lunch, there were more games. The team split up again to supervise the various activities. Nathan noticed a rugged looking older boy sitting on a trashcan in the shade. The look in the dark eyes was guarded. He was watching several older couples as they made small talk with some of the other kids. One of the male caseworkers happened to be sitting near and Jackson leaned over to ask about the young man.
Oh, thats Lucas. Hes been in care for a while. Lives in a group home now, no one else will take him. Basically, were just holding him until hes old enough for prison, the man answered callously.
What does that mean? Nathan asked as his hackles rose.
Kids no good. All he does is get into fights and skip school. Its too bad, really, because he has three younger siblings in an adoptive placement. We tried putting him there but he couldnt get along with the father and they asked that he be moved, the worker explained.
So his siblings will be adopted and he will just stay in care until what?
Until he ages out. When he turns 18, the state will release him and hell be on his own. They have him in classes right now to try to teach him how to manage his finances, write a check and such. Its called the Choices program. From what I hear, he isnt doing well in that program either. I figure hell land in jail about six months after the state releases him from care.
With a tightness in his jaw, Nathan got up and walked away from the man who had just casually written off a young life. It galled him to think that they held out so little hope to the children they were supposed to be helping.
The sun was high overhead and JD was hot. He had been playing with a group of younger children and was just about wiped out. Stumbling into the shade, he noticed a woman sitting with her back against the tree trunk. Next to the woman was an infant carrier. He dropped to the cool grass and inched around the canopy on the carrier to peek at the baby. His eyes widened in surprise, the baby was so tiny!
How old is it? He whispered, disbelief dripping from every syllable.
Hes just two weeks old. His name is Alex, the woman answered softly.
Hes so tiny! JD declared as he stared at the impossibly small fingernails on the tiny, trembling fist that lay on top of the light blanket.
His mother was abusing crack while she was pregnant, thats why hes so small. He weighed just under four pounds at birth.
Awe and wonder filled the young agent as he stared at the baby. He and Casey had talked about babies and he knew that she would never do anything to endanger the health of a child she carried. The questions rolled out of his mouth before he could stop them.
How could someone do something like that? Didnt she care that she was hurting the baby?
Addicts dont think that far ahead. This is her second child. Her first is over there playing by the bubble machine, Anthony. Fortunately, he seems to have escaped the worst of the damage that he could have. Their mother is in a treatment center trying to get her life together so she can get them back.
How could they give them back after what she did? Its like she tried to kill him! The outrage in his voice caused the baby to stir and his little face scrunched up as he began to scream as if in terrible pain. JDs eyes widened in horror as he looked at the woman.
Its all right. His little system is all mixed up. He screams like that about everything from baths to having his diaper changed. Hell settle down in a minute, the woman assured him.
Arent you going to pick him up? He couldnt believe that she continued to stare at the child as he screamed as if in agony.
No. Touching him will only prolong the screaming. If he gets over stimulated, hell start throwing up on top of everything. Just watch, youll see.
After several minutes, the babys cries diminished and he settled down. JD absently rubbed the rigid muscles of his own stomach as he listened to Alex cry. His first, best instinct had been to gather the baby up and cuddle him as he had seen women do. To leave the baby screaming in the seat without offering anything to comfort him seemed cruel. When the baby gave a tiny sigh, Dunne smiled.
The small body resting across his chest sighed and Chris smoothed a hand over his back gently. Justin had become tired after the sack races and wandered onto the quilt where the ATF agent was reclined against a cooler. Almost instinctively, the boy with the shoulder length hair trusted the blond man with hazel eyes. Although he started out leaning against the cooler next to his new friend, the boy soon succumbed to the sandman and leaned into Chriss ribs. Seeing that the kid seemed starved for physical contact, Larabee coaxed him into a comfortable position against his chest. As he stared into the boys fair features, he wondered at the fate that made the child HIV positive. He wondered if the boy had any future at all. Jacob ran to the edge of the quilt to check on his cousin before dashing off to the next game.
From where he stood, Josiah could see all of them. Chris, seated in the shade with a child draped across his body. Nathan, deeply engrossed in a conversation with an older boy seated on a trashcan. Ezra, still dazzling the children and pulling candy out of thin air. The medic noticed that Wendy now sat quite close to the southerner and was handing him the props as he called for them. Buck, not surprisingly, was surrounded by a bevy of beautiful women. In his arms, however, a baby lay contentedly sleeping. JD was also holding a baby, sitting next to an older woman, the two were deep in conversation. He had to scan the park a little to spot Vin. The Texan was throwing the football to the little boy who had been following him around since lunch.
The profiler couldnt help the smile that stretched his lips. Any one of these men could and had killed men. And yet, here they were, spending an entire day frolicking with the discarded and largely unwanted children of Denver. Josiah found himself wishing that his teammates could spend more time delving into this caring side of their psyches. He was pulled from his reverie by a small hand tapping him on the knee. Looking down, he found a little boy holding a kite and string.
Would you help me with this mister? Please?
Scooping the child into his arms and setting him on his shoulder, Josiah laughed. I would be thrilled to help you with that, my friend.
The sun was just dipping into the tree line when the picnic ended. Some of the children were still running and squealing in the open, grassy field. The adults were carefully scouring the park, picking up trash. Sports equipment was returned to its owner, along with lawn chairs and baking dishes. The bone weary members of Team 7 collapsed at one of the picnic tables as Nettie handed each a cold soda.
I want to thank you all for today. Even if they dont get their permanent families out of this, at least they had a good time. Sometimes good memories are all these kids have, she said as she fondly squeezed Vins shoulders.
The Fair #2: The Mentor
Now, before anyone tells me that this story wasnt about the guys, let me just say that this is the groundwork for a series of vignettes featuring each of the guys.