The next thing he was aware of was what sounded like flapping wings. He opened his eyes and looked around only to find that he wasn't in his bedroom. Somehow, he was at the warehouse where he and JD used to live.
There was moonlight filtering through the slats of the crates and he could see shadows of what appeared to be a lot of large bird wings flapping back and forth; he could hear them cawing and scratching their claws against the wood. The noise kept getting louder and louder, like more and more birds were landing on the crates, but he was unable to see anything but their shadows. He wanted to call out for help, but he was afraid the birds would hear him and find him.
He didn't know why he was there, or how he had gotten there. All he knew is that he wanted, "Chris!" If Chris were there, he would make the birds go away. He wouldn't let anything get Vin. "Chris!" Please, come and find me! Then he heard Chris' voice in his ear, whispering to him, telling him that he was safe and everything was going to be okay. The noise from birds began fading away and finally, Vin relaxed, knowing that as long as his dad was there, nothing could get him.
Chris remained at the side of the bed, rubbing Vin's back, stroking his hair and whispering reassurances until the boy finally settled down. Once he was sure that Vin was asleep, he straightened the blankets and pulled them up, tucking them around the thin shoulders. "No more bad dreams," he whispered, and reluctantly went back to his own room. He was pretty sure that Vin hadn't even woken.
Thursday morning, it was JD's turn to sleep too late. Vin had already eaten his bowl of Frosted Cheerios and packed his lunch by the time the younger boy rolled out of bed. Buck lifted a bleary-eyed JD into his chair and poured him a bowl of cereal. JD put his elbow on the table and rested his chin, looking like he was going to fall back to sleep.
"Elbows off the table, Pard," Buck reminded, ruffling the boy's dark hair.
"Want me to pack your lunch, JD?" Vin asked him, in a much better mood than he'd been in the previous morning.
JD just nodded, listlessly lifting a spoonful of cereal to his mouth then chewing it slowly.
Ezra rode to town with them again, so he could unpack more stuff at his new house. He'd taken out all the old carpet, saying that he liked the wood underneath. When Vin had first seen the wood floor, he hadn't thought it looked too good. Uncle Ezra always liked nice, fancy things, so Vin couldn't understand why he'd want floors that looked old and beat up. But the next time they'd gone over, he'd been surprised to see that the wood looked all new and shiny. Then Uncle Ezra had said he was gonna get carpets to put under the furniture, which made Vin wonder why he hadn't just kept the other carpets in the first place. Sometimes it seemed like grown ups just liked to make extra work.
It made him sad to think that as soon as Uncle Ezra's stuff got unpacked and his new house got ready he would go and live there. Vin liked having his uncle stay at the ranch, with them. As far as he was concerned, Uncle Ezra could live with them forever and ever. But, maybe they could bring the big turtle from his backyard over and put it in their yard.
They made it to school on time, but as soon as they'd hung their coats and backpacks and put their lunches away, Vin noticed that the class seemed almost empty. Mr. B wasn't even there.
Vin got his favorite book and sat down at one of the tables by the window. JD got a book, too, and sat down across from Vin, but he didn't open the book, he just laid his head down on the desk and closed his eyes.
The room was so quiet; Vin thought it was kinda spooky, until Freddy Chaney stood up real fast, knocking his chair over. Startled by the loud noise, Vin looked up just in time to catch Freddy barfing all over the Lego fort that he and Eli Joe were making. It was gross but kind of cool, Vin thought. The barf had spewed out of Freddy's mouth like a big ol' geyser and then he clamped his hand over his mouth, but that didn't make him stop barfing, it just made the barf spurt out in different directions.
As soon as Freddy stopped barfin' Eli Joe got up and tried to run for the restroom, but he didn't make it. He ended up barfing all over the middle of the floor and Vin was pretty sure he'd heard him crying. He didn't have much time to think on that because the next thing he knew JD was standing up, too. His face was white and he was crying, and he had barf all down the front of him. Vin started to get up to help the younger boy, but Mrs. R told him to go sit back down at his desk and she took JD by the arm and led him and the other boys out of the room.
It was kind of cool that Eli Joe and Freddy had barfed in front of the whole class, only he kind of wished more people would have been there to see it. The downside was that the whole room was starting to smell really bad. In fact, the smell was starting to make him feel a little nauseous. No way was he going to barf, though. A few minutes later when the teacher came back and told them that school would be dismissing early because so many people were sick, he forgot all about the smell.
Mrs. Potter picked them up from school. She gave JD a little bucket to hold onto incase he needed it, which was a good thing since he barfed twice on the way home. JD went to bed as soon as they got inside the house and he got his clothes changed. Mrs. Potter was looking a little sick, in Vin's opinion, but she did ask if Vin wanted lunch. He wasn't the slightest bit hungry then, so she told him he could go outside and play, but to let her know if, in a while, he changed his mind about lunch.
It wasn't much fun playing by himself at home. He went out to the tree house and pretended he was Robin Hood of Sherlock Forest. Cat was Little John and Ringo and Elvis were his Married Men. Mrs. Potter didn't know it but she was Maid Mary Ann and it was his job to guard her in case the evil prince came to kidnap her. He wondered if ya could kidnap a growed up person, or if maybe there was another word for kidnapping growed-ups. He'd have to remember to ask one of his dads or Uncle Ezra, later.
It wasn't until later in the afternoon that Vin remembered the curse that Freddy had put on the school. Maybe that was why everyone got sick? But it didn't make sense that Freddy and Eli Joe would get sick from their own curse. And since he had told Chris about the curse, why hadn't he got sick, too? Then again, he was pretty sure his whole week had been cursed, so maybe his curse was a different curse than the school curse. Of course, that still didn't explain why Freddy and Eli Joe were sick, unless they accidentally cursed themselves. Vin smiled at that. He figured those two were probably dumb enough to do something like that. Well, maybe he had been cursed, but at least he hadn't been affected by the barf curse, which was a good thing, so maybe that meant he wasn't cursed, after all, or maybe it meant his curse was over? If there even was a curse, and he still hadn't made up his mind about that. Boy, curses were confusing.
Chris and Buck got home early. Much to Vin's dismay, Ezra had stayed at his new house. Chris had explained to him that since Ezra was still healing, it might be easier for him to catch whatever was making JD sick. Vin thought Ezra would have been okay, since he wasn't cursed because he didn't go to their school.
The doctor's instructions were to keep trying to give JD the pedia stuff -- Vin thought tasted like warm dog slobber -- and if he got worse, or didn't stop barfing by morning to bring him in. Buck put JD in his bed, and stayed close by him for most of the evening. Chris made soup and grilled cheese sandwiches and Buck did come out for a few minutes to eat. He didn't look too hungry though, so Vin figured JD was still barfing a lot.
That night when Chris tucked him into bed, Vin asked, "Will JD be able to go to school tomorrow?"
"The teachers and most of the students are sick, so they're not going to have school tomorrow."
"Really?" Vin couldn't help sounding happy.
"Yep." Chris reached out to lay his palm on Vin's forehead. "How are you feeling, Cowboy?"
"I feel fine." Vin yawned and his eyelids started to droop. "We was s'posed to go to the punkin farm tomorrow."
"Well, don't worry about that. I can't promise we'll make it to the pumpkin farm, but I can promise that you'll have nice big pumpkin to carve, okay?"
"Okay." That was good enough for him, although he thought the pumpkin farm had sounded kinda fun. They had hayrides and a haunted barn. "JD, too?"
"Of course, JD, too." Chris kissed him on the forehead then tucked the covers under his chin. "You gonna be okay by yourself in here?"
Vin nodded, yawning again and giving Cat a squeeze. He sure was thankful Cat was no longer in the bag, even if Mrs. Potter had tricked him. She'd told him the only way Cat could get out of the bag early was if Vin let her wash and dry it to make sure all the bugs were gone. The thought of his beloved stuffed animal drowning in soapy water, then tumbling around and around in the hot dryer always made him feel sad, but this once he'd agreed to allow the torture. He was pretty sure Cat was okay with it, too.
"Okay, sleep tight then. Buck's going to stay home with you boys, tomorrow."
"Okay, 'night Dad."
Buck woke up feeling as if he'd only gotten about 15 minutes of sleep the night before. He glanced over at JD, relieved to see the boy finally seemed to be resting comfortably. A glance at the alarm clock told him that it had been almost two hours since JD had last thrown up. That was a hopeful sign. As carefully as he could, he rolled out of the bed then gently touched the back of his fingers to JD's pale forehead. The boy still felt warm, but the fever seemed to be diminishing.
Bleary-eyed, he made his way to the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face then headed for the kitchen to get some much-needed coffee.
Chris was standing at the counter, ready for work. "Rough night?" he asked, handing him a coffee cup.
Buck made an affirmative noise, unable to find the energy to form words quite yet.
"Mornin' Buck!" Vin greeted cheerily.
Slowly, he pulled out a chair and sat next to Vin, who, he noted, was looking too chipper and full of little boy energy.
"Mmmmm . . .." Buck made a growling noise, but gave the boy a wink and a grin after a sip of coffee.
"Well, since you're up and at 'em, I guess I'll be on my way." Chris rinsed out his cup and set it in the sink. "See you later, Cowboy." He ruffled Vin's hair then headed for the door, pausing before he left. "All the important numbers are on the fridge. Call me at work if you need anything and remember, Buck, no girls in the house."
"Yeah, yeah. Vamanos," Buck grumbled, then took another long drink of coffee and closed his eyes. He listened as Vin got up and put his bowl in the sink then came back to the table. After a couple minutes of feeling as if he was being watched, he managed to peel his eyelids open and found a pair of bright blue eyes staring at him with concern.
"Are ya sick?" Vin asked, leaning over the table so his tiny hand could reach Buck's forehead.
Buck smiled, in spite of his grumpy mood. "I'm fine, Junior. I'm just a little tired. Didn't get much sleep last night."
Vin nodded, but kept staring worriedly at him.
Finally, with a chuckle, Buck pushed himself out of the chair. "Why don't we go watch TV for a little bit?" Hopefully, he'd be able to rest for a while, although he doubted Vin would sit too long in front of the TV. He stretched his tired body out on the sofa, pushed a pillow under his head and handed the remote to Vin. "I think I'm gonna try to catch a short nap. Wake me if you need anything, okay?"
Vin nodded, thinking that Buck looked real tired. He turned on the TV and began surfing through the channels trying to find something interesting. The Wiggles were on and he thought that was the stupidest show in the whole world. He watched Animal Planet and the History channel for a little while, but that got boring, too. He didn't want to sit and watch TV all day, so he turned the television off and went to the window. "Buck? Can I go outside?"
"Maybe later," Buck mumbled, not opening his eyes.
"But, I'm bored."
"Why don't you get a book or do your puzzle or something quiet-like?"
Vin kept looking out the window for a few minutes, then went to stand by the sofa. "I'm hungry."
"You just ate breakfast," Buck replied, opening one eye.
Vin scowled. This day wasn't turning out as fun as he'd hoped it would. "I'm still hungry."
"Well then," Buck scrunched down further into the cushions and closed his eyes again, "go ahead and make yourself a peanut butter sandwich."
Vin went into the kitchen and pulled the step stool up to the counter. He got two slices of bread then opened the cupboard and got the peanut butter down. He couldn't help but notice the two big bags of candy that were stored up in the cupboard. It was supposed to be for their school's Halloween party but it didn't look like they were going to have one now that everyone was sick. Climbing up onto the counter, he reached for one of the bags and took it down, hoping it might be open, but it wasn't. With a sigh, he stuffed it back onto the second shelf and climbed back down to get the grape jam.
Once his sandwich was made, and everything was put away, he wondered if it would be okay to get a glass of juice, too. He went to ask Buck, but the man was snoring loudly, so he decided not to wake him up. It was probably okay, he figured, and carefully pulled the plastic container of apple juice from the fridge. The jug of apple juice was full, so it was pretty heavy, but he managed to get it up onto the counter. When he climbed back up the step stool to get a cup, he eyed the bags of candy again and wondered if anyone would notice if he opened one of them. He could just say he wanted to count them, maybe? No, that probably wouldn't work. Reluctantly, he closed the cupboard door, thinking it was better if he couldn't see the candy.
He tried to be very careful when he poured the juice. It would have been easier to get a juice box, but they were supposed to save those for lunches. He needed both hands to hold the jug so he was unable to hold the cup steady while he poured the juice. Right away the cup tipped over and started rolling toward the edge of the counter, as juice continued to pour out. Without thinking, he reached with one hand to grab for the cup and lost his grip on the juice container. The container landed on its side on the counter and began spilling out, splashing onto the floor. He quickly tipped it back up, but by then there wasn't much juice left. "Aw, hell!" he muttered, then slapped a hand over his mouth and listened carefully to make sure Buck was still sleeping. When he heard the steady snoring, he let out a breath of relief then quietly placed the nearly empty container into the sink and hurried for their bathroom to get some towels. Why did bad stuff like this always happen to him?
It took a while, but eventually he got everything wiped up. Then he stuffed the towels into the hamper, hoping they'd be dry by laundry time. His sandwich had gotten soaked with juice, so he had to throw it away. He was still hungry though, and Buck still hadn't woken up, so he climbed back up to the counter to see what else was up in the cupboard. There was the candy, of course, which he stared at for a long time, wondering if anyone would notice if he took just one itty bitty little piece?
Several times he reached out for the bag, only to draw his hand back as his guilty conscience made itself known. Finally, he forced his hand to grab the bag - after convincing himself that he wasn't necessarily going to eat the candy, he was just going to take the bag to his room where he'd be better able to think about whether it was a good idea to eat the candy, or not.
Once in his room, he decided it wouldn't hurt to count the little bars, just incase he might still need them for the party, even though he was almost positive there wasn't going to be a party. It took another moment of convincing himself before he got up the nerve to open the bag. It was harder than he thought it would be to get the bag open. He used all his strength and finally the plastic ripped at the seam, spilling the candy bars out onto JD's bed.
The moment the bag burst open the tantalizing scent of chocolate filled the air, distracting him from his efforts to count the pieces. There was a whole lot of candy bars, he thought. Nobody would know if he ate just one, so he tore the wrapper off one and stuffed the whole thing into his mouth. After the first one, amazingly he felt less instead of more guilty, so it was even easier to eat the second one, and the third was no problem at all.
Some little voice in his head told him he shouldn't eat all the candy, he should save some and hide them away for later. But then again, he thought, maybe it would be better to get rid of the evidence and be done with it. If the whole bag of candy disappeared Chris might think he'd only bought one bag, or he might think he misplaced a bag? Vin doubted that Chris would ever suspect he had eaten it, and probably would never even ask him about it. And if, by chance, Chris did find out that Vin had eaten the whole bag, well, maybe he'd think it was a good thing that Vin hadn't stashed them away? Yeah, right, he snorted to himself and popped another bar in his mouth.
Buck wasn't sure how long he'd slept. The house was quiet as he rolled off the couch, stretching until his spine crackled. He checked on JD, thankful when he found the boy still sleeping soundly in his bed, with no throw-up anywhere to be found. When he opened the boys' bedroom door, he expected to find Vin reading, or doing some other quiet activity, so he was surprised to find the boy sleeping on the bottom bunk.
He checked the time, feeling slightly guilty for sleeping so long then went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. He was totally unaware that anything out of the ordinary had occurred until he felt the bottom of his feet sticking to the floor. Then he saw the almost empty apple juice container in the sink and remembered that Vin had said he was hungry. "Great," he muttered to himself. "Just what I need."
He poured himself a cup of coffee, thankful that the pot had been left on. Then he pulled a bucket out from under the sink and filled it with water and cleaner, trying to decide whether or not to have Vin clean the mess. He went back down the hall to check the boys' hamper and sure enough there were sopping wet towels stuffed inside. Sitting down on the bottom bunk, he gave Vin a gentle shake. "Junior? You feeling okay?" he asked when the blue eyes blinked open.
Vin nodded that he was, although Buck thought he looked a little green around the gills. When he placed his hand on the boy's forehead he didn't feel warm. "Why don't you come on out then, Pard," he said, standing and gesturing for Vin to follow him. "I got a mop and a bucket with your name on 'em."
When they got to the kitchen Buck pointed at the shiny, sticky floor. "I think you need to do a little better job cleaning up this mess."
"I didn't mean to spill it."
"I know that."
"But, I cleaned it up already."
"With bath towels?"
"You need to use a little soap and water too, Junior. Next time," he winked, not wanting Vin to think he was angry, "wake me up."
Vin groaned, the prospect of cleaning the whole floor seeming a bit overwhelming to him. His tummy was rolling and his throat felt tickly. He was trying very hard not to throw up. He was pretty sure he wasn't sick like JD, since he'd felt fine until eating all the chocolate bars. He glanced up at the cupboard and realized he'd left the door open, or maybe Buck had opened it? There seemed to be a gaping, empty space where the bag of candy had once been and just looking at the second bag of chocolate made his stomach churn.
As he reached for the mop handle, waves of guilt and nausea began to wash over him. He tried to ignore the churning of his stomach as he wrung the mop out and began swiping it over the stickiness. The mop felt so heavy he wanted to cry. Sweat broke out on his forehead, dripping down his temples and the sides of his face. He swiped at his eyes, trying to fight back the tears and the mop slipped from his hand. As he bent to pick up the mop, his stomach revolted and he felt the contents surging up into the back of his throat. Before he could make a run for the bathroom, he was heaving the contents of his stomach all over the kitchen floor.
He felt big hands on his forehead and chest and was thankful for the comfort; he hated throwing up, but he always felt a little less miserable just knowing someone was there to help him. "You done?" Buck murmured in his ear after he was sure he'd thrown up everything in his stomach, and then some. He closed his eyes and nodded, feeling completely drained. He tried not to cry, he knew it was all his fault and he wasn't a baby, but he was unable to stop himself.
Buck didn't say anything else, he just picked him up and carried him to his bedroom and sat him down on JD's bed. His face was wiped, his shirt replaced with a clean one and then he was settled back against the pillows and tucked under the blankets but he'd already drifted to sleep.
Returning to the kitchen, Buck had to fight his own rebellious stomach as he began cleaning up the mess on the floor. He might have laughed if he hadn't been feeling so nauseous himself at the moment. If he never again had to look at another puddle of puke he'd be a happy man, but with two little boys around he was pretty sure that was only wishful thinking.
Once the mess was cleaned and everything put away, he couldn't help but chuckle. Darn kid. It was obvious what had caused Vin's bout of nausea, although he couldn't find the evidence anywhere. Maybe Vin had eaten the wrappers, too? That thought made him chuckle again. He had half a mind to go in and scold the boy, even though he wasn't feeling well. He decided to wait and let Chris handle it, mostly out of fear that Vin might barf again. He didn't think he could handle that.
He started a fresh pot of coffee; he needed something in his stomach, but he wasn't even going to think about food yet. At the moment he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to eat again.
Some time later Vin felt the bed dip and a hand brush across his forehead. With a yawn, he cracked his eyelids open, slightly alarmed when he realized it was dark out and it was Chris, not Buck, sitting on the edge of the bed. When he remembered the events of the day, he felt guilty all over again, and only hoped that Chris hadn't worried too much about him.
"How you feeling, Cowboy?"
"Okay." His tummy felt much better, although maybe it was a little empty. It growled in agreement and he blinked up at Chris, suddenly suspicious to find his dad smirking at him.
"So, did you eat the whole bag?"
Uh oh. He'd fallen asleep without thinking up a good plan incase he was found out. Not that he could ever lie to Chris. He'd been hoping that Chris wouldn't suspect him or confront him, but now that he'd barfed chocolate all over the kitchen it probably wasn't too hard to figure out where that chocolate had come from. "I'm sorry, Chris." He really was sorry; he wished he'd never seen those bags of candy. "I just . . . I didn't mean to eat 'em all." That was the truth, mostly.
"So, it was an accident?" Chris raised an eyebrow.
"No, but . . . I's just fixin' to count 'em, and maybe eat one or two, but then . . .." Vin couldn't really explain what had come over him. It was like his mind and body had been taken over by some uncontrollable force.
"Vin, you know those were supposed to be for your Halloween party at school."
Vin scrunched his nose, his forehead wrinkling with remorse and uncertainty. "Well, I's kinda thinkin' there ain't gonna be a party. Since school was closed and all."
One side of Chris' mouth quirked upwards. "Well, there's one thing wrong with that plan . . .."
"Your teacher said the party's going to be on Monday." Chris waited in amusement.
"Monday? But, I didn't think we's gonna have school for a long time." Vin's mouth twisted in disappointment. Great, now what was he gonna do? Maybe that curse hadn't been over, after all.
"Sorry, Partner. There's going to be school Monday morning, and Mrs. Roquette said Monday afternoon you'll get to have the party you were supposed to have today."
Vin heaved a sigh, looking even more depressed. "Chris?" He looked up at his dad, eyebrows drawn together. "Do you think everyone got sick 'cause of the voodoo curse?"
"Voodoo curse?" Chris' mouth twitched, but he tried to keep a straight face.
Vin nodded, his expression grim and completely serious. "'Member? I told ya Freddy had a real, genuine voodoo doll."
Chris recalled the conversation they'd had a couple days ago. The idea of voodoo dolls and curses seemed so ridiculous to him, but he could see how the boy might be wondering about the possibility of such things, especially after what had happened yesterday. "Vin, there are no such things as curses. Usually when someone thinks they're cursed it's only because they've had a bad day. Sometimes people get it into their minds that they're cursed or having bad luck, and they make the bad things happen without even realizing they're doing it themselves."
"But Freddy said he put a curse on the school and nobody even knew about it except me and you."
"Yeah, well, trust me, that was just a coincidence. The real reason everyone got sick was because they all ate the same bad food."
Vin tilted his head. "What bad food?"
"Apparently there was some bad sausage served for lunch yesterday. You didn't eat any of that sausage, did you?"
Vin shook his head and grimaced remembering the sausage and the soggy French toast stuff. He wouldn't have eaten any of it even if he hadn't fallen into the garbage and spilled his food all over. Maybe falling into the garbage wasn't such a bad thing after all, although he wasn't in a hurry to do it again. Suddenly, he looked up at his dad with a puzzled frown. "How come the school gave everyone bad food?" Vin thought that was kind of mean of them. He wondered if Miss Lottie was going to be in trouble.
"Well, they didn't do it on purpose. They didn't know it was bad." There was really no proof that the sausage was bad, but it was the most likely suspect. Those who'd eaten it were sick, and those who didn't were fine. He was certainly going to make sure the boys never forgot their lunches again. "You want to know something else?"
"Freddy got sicker than everyone. Apparently he ate more than his share of the sausage and he ended up in the hospital."
"Freddy always makes kids give him their food."
"Well, maybe this will teach him a lesson?" Chris said, shaking his head. He'd have to mention this information to the teachers so they could keep a closer eye on the boy during lunch period.
"Is he gonna be okay?" Vin asked quietly. It was no secret that Vin didn't get along with Freddy, but he didn't want anything bad to happen to him. Well, not anything too bad.
"Yeah, he had to spend the night. He was dehydrated, so they probably gave him an IV. I'm sure he'll be going home tomorrow sometime."
Vin knew that IV's hurt, but not too much. He figured getting poked with a big needle was pretty fair punishment for Freddy. He wasn't going to be too judgmental over his swiping food or eating too much, since at the moment, he was feeling guilty for doing practically the same thing.
Studying the skinny little waif beside him, Chris couldn't help but shake his head in amazement and say, "I can't believe you ate a whole bag of chocolate bars."
Vin blushed and looked down at his lap. "I'm sorry."
"I know you are, but incase it slipped your mind, you know you're supposed to ask a grown up before you have candy or gum, or any snacks."
"I know, but Buck was sleepin'."
Chris nodded, looking at the boy seriously. "Do you think he would have okayed you eating any of that candy if he'd been awake?"
"No," Vin admitted, looking up at him with remorse-filled eyes. "I really am sorry, Chris. If I could go back, I'd never do it again. Honest."
"I believe you, but still . . . I think since you've already had your fill of chocolate, and since JD is sick, we're going to skip trick or treating this year." They'd been planning to take the boys trick-or-treating to their uncles' and friends' houses and then to the mall for a while, but after discussing it this afternoon, they decided against it this year. They still planned to make sure the boys had a fun time, though. Nobody wanted them to miss out on more of their childhood than they already had.
"Okay," Vin agreed. Then, looking solemnly at Chris, he vowed, "I won't never eat chocolate, ever again."
Chris combed his fingers through the boy's sleep tangled curls and pulled him into a hug. "I won't hold you to that, Cowboy. Speaking of eating," he said, letting the boy sit back on the bed. "You feel like you could eat something? I brought home some chicken and noodles from the deli."
Vin's stomach growled in reply. It was feeling pretty empty.
"I'll take that as a yes." Chris stood up and held out a hand for Vin.
"Chris?" Vin took his hand, but remained seated. "You ain't mad at me?"
Kneeling down, Chris cupped his son's smooth cheek. "No, I'm not mad at you. I can't imagine there's anything that could make me mad at you. I might be disappointed from time to time, you might do things that I wish you wouldn't have, but, you know what?"
Chris smiled at him and Vin wondered at how one smile from Chris could make all the bad things in the world seem far away. "You're just a kid, Pal, if you didn't make mistakes every now and then, you wouldn't really need a dad around too much, would ya?"
Vin took a moment to think that over. Chris always meant what he said. But still, there was this little voice in Vin's head that questioned whether there might be something Chris hadn't thought of that would make him be mad at Vin, or worse, make him change his mind about wanting Vin? It made him feel a little panicky and he wrapped his arms around Chris' neck. "I'll always need you, Dad."
"So, Junior," Buck said when Chris and Vin came out of the bedroom. "You feel up to having a Milky Way bar for supper? Or maybe two or three?"
"Buck . . .." Chris said in a warning voice.
Vin got a tingly feeling in the back of his throat at the thought of the rich, fluffy filling in the candy bars. He shook his head no and glared weakly at Buck.
"You sure?" Buck grinned down at him. "There's a whole 'nuther bag left."
Vin was used to Buck's teasing him and usually he could give it back as good as he got it, but at the moment he just wished the man would stop. He rubbed his tummy, his eyebrows drawing together. "Bu-u-uck."
"If he you know whats again, you're cleaning it up," Chris admonished as he spooned chicken noodles onto Vin's plate.
"Okay, okay. I'm sorry." Buck held up his hands in surrender then ruffled Vin's hair. "I think I'm gonna see if JD can handle a little toast," he said, then went over to the counter, placed some bread in the toaster and poured some 7-Up into a plastic sippee cup.
The aroma of the chicken and noodles made Vin forget all about the queasiness in his stomach. He reached for the pepper and started liberally dousing it over his meal. Chicken and noodles tasted best with lots of pepper.
Both boys woke up bright and early Saturday morning, like they usually did. Chris could hear the television even though it was obvious the boys had the volume turned low. He could never figure out why they complained about having to get up early on school days, but on the weekends they got up that early all by themselves.
He lay in bed for a while half awake, letting thoughts from the previous week run through his mind. He needed to give Ezra a call. They had been planning to help him get settled into his new place over the weekend. Even though he'd stayed there the past two nights, Chris thought he might still be able to use some extra help. He was doing pretty well, but he tired easily and although he usually wouldn't admit it, he was often in pain, especially after a therapy session. He wasn't fully recovered, even though he tried to act like he was. He decided he better call Ezra early, before the stubborn fool started trying to move furniture around - if he hadn't done that already.
Tomorrow was Halloween, which meant sometime today they'd be carving the pumpkins. He and Buck also had a surprise in store for the boys. They planned to borrow the neighbor's tractor and hay wagon and take the boys, and whoever else wanted to go, on a hayride the following afternoon. Then they were planning to have a bonfire and roast hot dogs and marshmallows. He doubted that JD's stomach would be ready for that, but he was pretty sure he'd have a good time, anyway.
Finally, he pushed the covers away and got out of bed. Before he could get started on anything he needed coffee. On his way to the kitchen, he glanced into the living room to find their two boys curled up beneath a blanket, on opposite ends of the sofa. Vin was intent on a cartoon, and it looked to him like JD had fallen back to sleep. He started the coffee machine and turned around to find a pair of big blue eyes looking up at him with excitement. "We gonna carve the punkins now?"
Chris tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn. "How 'bout we wait for a little while. It's still pretty early."
"Did you eat breakfast yet?"
"Not yet," Vin replied, then tilted his head in question. "Dad? Is JD still sick?"
"Maybe a little," Chris answered, pouring himself a cup of coffee while the machine was still brewing. "He'll probably be pretty tired for a couple days. Why?"
"Well, I's just worried 'cause he fell back to sleep already and he just waked up." Vin's forehead wrinkled in a frown. "And he gots spots on his face."
"Spots?" Chris said, slightly alarmed. Maybe this was worse than they'd thought. He brushed a hand through Vin's soft curls and headed for the living room to check on the younger boy.
Buck was sitting in Vin's spot, looking half asleep, staring blankly at the TV screen. When Chris got close enough to get a good look at JD, he realized what the spots in question were from. "Those are broken blood vessels," he whispered to Vin as he gently brushed the thick bangs from JD's forehead. "Sometimes people get them from throwing up a lot. They'll go away after a while. Don't worry, he'll be okay."
Buck smiled at Chris then winked at Vin. "Yeah, Chris here knows all about broken blood vessels and throwin' up."
Chris glared at Buck, but Vin didn't understand what Buck had meant. "I've been sick a time or two," Chris explained.
Vin climbed back onto the couch, sliding his bare feet back underneath the blanket. "Do we still get to wear our costumes tomorrow?"
"I don't see why not," Chris answered. "We wouldn't want to disappoint," he gave Buck a wry look, "The King."
"Yes, sirree," Buck winked at Vin. "The King will be ready to party."
"Party?" Vin's face lit up.
"Oops, never mind. Hey, is the coffee done?"
Chris rolled his eyes. "Yes, the coffee is done."
"What party?" Vin wanted to know.
"We gonna have a party?" A new voice joined in, so Chris gave up on trying to keep the surprise any longer.
"Yeah, JD we get to wear our costumes and everything."
"Yay! I get to be Scooby-Dooby-Doo!"
Vin smiled then tilted his head to look more closely at JD. "Ya don't sound sick anymore, JD."
"I feel better," JD said brightly, as he sat up on the couch. "Da? Are you gonna wear a costume, too?"
"Course I am."
"He's gonna be a king," Vin told the younger boy.
"The King, Son. The King."
"What are you gonna be Chris?"
"Uh, well, I don't . . .." He backed toward the kitchen.
"Ol' Chris," Buck glanced from Chris to the boys, "thinks he's too cool to wear a costume, boys."
"Aw, Chriiiis, you gots to wear a costume, too!"
"I think that's my cue to go start breakfast," Chris said, with no intention of discussing the subject any further.
It was late Sunday afternoon when Josiah pulled into Chris' driveway. He could see that Nathan and Raine were already there and a picnic table had been set up near the fire pit. Before he could even turn off the ignition two small boys were dashing toward the vehicle. He glanced to the man in the passenger seat and was warmed to see the fond smile on his face as he took in the sight of the boys. The younger boy was wearing a fuzzy costume that he knew was supposed to be Scooby Doo. The other boy was dressed in camouflage like a soldier, and he had smudge marks painted on his cheeks and forehead.
"Are you sure you're up for this?" Josiah asked his passenger, with one eyebrow raised.
"Of course. I'm fine."
"That's what you said yesterday," Josiah reminded the younger man. Yesterday afternoon, the team had gone to Ezra's, intending to help him get settled in, only to find most everything already taken care of. They weren't sure how much lifting or moving Ezra had taken on himself, but by the time they'd arrived he'd been hurting. Nathan had made him take his pain meds and sent him to bed, and Josiah had spent the night on the couch just to keep an eye on him. "Let me know if you get too tired or anything. Okay?"
"Oh, for the love of-" Ezra took a deep breath then turned a patronizing smile on his friend. "I vow to let you know immediately if my condition should happen to deteriorate, alright?"
Josiah gave him a toothy grin. "Alright. It's pretty nippy outside, are you going to be warm enough?"
"Good Lord." Ezra sighed dramatically. He'd never admit it, but he was more than grateful for these men and their concern. How had he ever thought he could do without them? "Look, Mother," he said with as much petulance as he could, "I'm wearing my thermal jacket."
"Okay," Josiah said with a chuckle. "Don't forget to button up. Maybe you should put your hood up, too."
Ezra cast a deadly glare at the smirking profiler, then opened his car door.
"Uncle Ezra!" Vin squealed the moment the passenger door of the Suburban opened.
"Hello, Vin," Ezra leaned down as much as he could to give the boy a hug. His leg was still stiff and sore, especially after the strain he'd put on it, yesterday.
"Hi, Unca Ezra!" JD appeared beside Vin, holding his arms out for a hug, too.
"What have we here?" Ezra grinned then turned to wink at Vin. "I had no idea you boys got another dog. And however did you teach it to talk?"
"Unca Ezra!" JD tugged plaintively on his sleeve.
"Where ever is young Master Dunne?"
"Unca Ezra!" JD pushed the floppy head of the costume off his face, looking a little worried. "This is me!"
Ezra pretended to inspect the boy closer then feigned surprise. "Why, it is!"
"You feelin' okay, Unca Ezra?" JD asked, worriedly.
Vin snickered, then nudged his little brother. "He's just teasin' you, JD."
"Now, you boys take it easy on ol' Ez," Buck cautioned them. "He ain't up to a hundred percent yet."
"Nonsense, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra scoffed. "I'm perfectly-" His words halted when he got a good look at the big man. Buck was dressed in a tight, white polyester suit. His hair was slicked back and he wore a pair of tacky, white bejeweled sunglasses. The suit was trimmed garishly with a multitude of metal studs and glittery rhinestones. The wide collar was opened to reveal an assortment of gaudy chains. "What on Earth . . .?"
"Buck's a king." Vin supplied, matter-of-factly. Beside him, JD nodded in agreement.
"Not a King, The King." He straightened the collar then posed, grinning. "What d'ya think?"
Ezra squinted. "I think I'm blind."
"Flashy, huh? You like my shades?"
"Unca Ezra, look," JD pointed toward the tractor and wagon that set alongside the driveway. "You're gonna come on the hayride with us, ain't ya?"
"Hayride?" Josiah watched in amusement as Ezra made a big production of discounting the idea of a hayride. The man had been warned in advance of the hayride and had no apprehension about it then. "You want me to sit in hay?"
Two heads bobbed enthusiastically.
Ezra studied the wagon with a feigned look of distaste. "A true gentleman would never debase himself by traveling in such a primitive manner-"
"So, that means yes?" Vin's eyes twinkled with humor, causing Buck and Josiah to laugh.
"If I didn't know better, Mr. Tanner," he gently tapped Vin's leg with his cane, "I might think you'd just insulted me."
Chris, Nathan and Raine strolled over to them. Nathan and Raine were not in costume, but he thought perhaps Chris was supposed to be a cowboy. Of course, the man wasn't too far from being a cowboy on any given day, so Ezra couldn't be sure. He was wearing a cowboy hat, boots with spurs that jingled, and the colorful serape Josiah had given him. Leave it to Chris Larabee to wear a costume that wasn't necessarily a costume at all.
"It's good to see you." Raine stepped up close and gave Ezra a big hug then kissed his cheek.
"Well," Ezra said with a grin, "perhaps I should go away more often?"
"That ain't even funny." Buck patted Ezra on the shoulder with a little extra force and began guiding the smaller man toward the waiting wagon. "Let's get going. The sooner we get on the road, the sooner we'll get back and then we can make the bonfire."
The two boys following behind them, cheered, "Yay!"
"And we got us some hallo-weenies to roast, too." Buck told him as he and Josiah helped Ezra into the back of the wagon.
"Hallo-weenies?" Ezra said with a pained expression.
"And marshmallows!" Vin added as Buck scooped both boys up and into the wagon. They cuddled up on either side of Ezra, and Nathan and Raine cuddled up on the opposite side of the wagon.
Josiah was about to get in, too, when he noticed Vin watching Chris climb up into the tractor seat. Suddenly, the boy sat forward, seeming uncertain of what to do. It wasn't hard to tell that Vin was torn between riding up with Chris or riding in the back with everyone else.
"Chris, why don't you let me drive," offered Josiah.
Chris turned around, raising an eyebrow. "You ever driven one of these?"
Josiah winked at Vin who had turned and was studying him closely. "A time or two," he said, watching as Vin's face lit up with gratitude.
"Okay, if you're sure." Chris got the tractor started then climbed down, allowing Josiah to sit behind the wheel. When he got into the wagon, he saw that Vin had scooted closer to Ezra and was patting a small, empty space on his other side. Chris would manage to squeeze in, somehow.
Next up - Moments with Vin and JD (an interlude)
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