He is nine, almost ten when Charlotte, his social worker, steps onto his school bus and calls out his full proper name.
She is pretty with long brown hair that reminds him of his momma and makes him want to protect her even as a singsong chorus of his name rings out around them. Both Charlotte and the bus driver try to shame the singers with a look but it's useless.
He knows what is happening, knows that he is being pulled from another home and even knows why, as much as he has tried not to think about it. The irony lay in that he will receive the most help when he has finally stopped asking for it.
Charlotte reaches back to hold his hand and his muscles twitch in her direction before he catches himself and runs one step ahead of her instead.
She drives a Toyota pickup which for some reason raises Vin's esteem of her. "We're going to spend some time at Haven House," she says, while yanking on a passenger side door that sticks, "until we can find you another home." She is always good about saying "we" even though Vin knows he will be the only one staying. He climbs into the cab without pointing out that Haven House is his home.
Unable to suppress it, he spares her a smile as she pulls out of the parking lot. While there is something well scrubbed, even upper class about her, she handles the stick shift as if she has learned how to drive on the family tractor.
Vin's first crush.
He moves his battered suitcase between his feet and stifles the urge to open it up and rifle through the well worn clothes to find the only things that are truly his. He has fought for them over the years - from older kids who found their power in trying to take the only picture he has of his momma and even from foster parents who believed he had no use for a nautical spy glass or a harmonica he blew tunelessly into. Each struggle makes them more invaluable, and in turn, more of a secret.
Like most institutions Haven House changes very little no matter how much time he has spent away from it. At one point it had been a mission that had provided shelter for wagon trains heading west and also for the Kiowa and the Comanche who were being driven out of the Panhandle. By the time Vin had found shelter there it had been stripped of most of its historical charm in favor of picnic tables cemented into the ground and wrought iron bars covering all of the windows and doorways. An old church bell that is still rung on Sundays is one of the few things left unchanged.
Vin leads Charlotte to a glass enclosed counter where she can check him in and ducks his head when she smiles nervously at him. The woman behind the counter steps through a buzzing doorway and hands Charlotte sheets and a blanket and a plastic bag with a toothbrush and soap. He will be in dorm five. The familiarity of the routine lends him confidence and a bit of swagger. He knows where everything is without following the painted lines that race on the linoleum floor. There is no need to show him to the cafeteria or to the paved over playground. He knows the yellow lines will take him to each and every fire exit. Dorm five is down a long hallway and on the right side.
He's assigned to the bottom half of a bunk bed near the doorway. This suits him fine as the light from the hallway can be very reassuring in the middle of the night. A scuffed up trunk at the foot of the bed is numbered in an effort to make ownership clearer. Wanting to give Charlotte an example of his calm expertise he opens the chest and deposits his clothes into it knowing that he will have to hide his belongings in a better place than under his jeans. He looks up at her and tries to convey with his hip shot stance that he knows the drill. There is no need for reassurances that this won't last long or that the people here are really great. He knows what the people are like. He is one of them.
He reaches for the bedding but she holds on to it and then sets it down on the bed herself. She takes a deep breath and holds it long enough to impress him. A flustered Charlotte is a beautiful thing.
"Vin...I need you to come with me before you settle in."
Her kind and pained tone lights a fear in him that will make him sweat to remember it. He shivers through the familiar sensation of his skin shrinking over muscle and bone. He breathes in small sips of air while his heart pounds for more. Something is happening and he knows that he will have little or nothing to say about it.
He follows Charlotte. Follows her out into the hallway, past one dorm after another until the red line on the floor ends at the infirmary door. He takes a deeper breath and starts to relax. He has been through this, too. Someone in a lab coat will check him for lice and call it a physical. It will be over in minutes.
Instead, they are greeted with a reassuring smile from a woman who identifies herself as Dr. Lydia. She waits until Vin climbs up on the examining table and is more or less eye level with her and then in a warm unhurried voice explains that she is from the children's hospital and will be performing a physical on him at the request of the county. While Vin appreciates her assuming he will understand, in reality, the chain of command means very little to him. She asks Charlotte to take a seat nearby and then pulls a curtain around the three of them.
"Vin, I'm going to tell you what I'm doing before each step. If you become uncomfortable I want you to say so, OK?"
Vin nods. His heart pounds.
Years later he would overhear how the body, with its only concern being to maintain the status quo, goes through a complex chain of events when it is wounded. Adrenaline enables fight or flight. Sweat cools skin overheated by a racing heart. Pupils dilate in order to see what's in the shadows. Clotting factors are released into the bloodstream to staunch bullet wounds or, in a great show of democracy, a skinned knee. There is little or no conscious will involved. On that long afternoon Vin is nothing but his dumb body. He cannot tell the difference between Dr. Lydia's cool, soft hands and the ones that have gone before. As gentle and cautious as she is the examination is just another invasion.
He is passive and quiet under her attention while his imagination takes over. He rides a black horse and thunders across the desert. Dr. Lydia documents old yellow bruises and more recent darker ones while Vin is a sharpshooter and an outlaw wanted for a murder he didn't commit. He is strong and a loner - a man on the verge of becoming a myth.
Charlotte stands and places her hand where Vin can reach for it and finally he does. From that moment on he will be unable to accept comfort without the accompanying burn of vulnerability and near panic.
Early that summer Charlotte waits for Vin while he slowly packs his suitcase to leave for another home. She waits again as he makes his way to her truck and climbs inside. He has finished out the school year at Haven House by staying alert even as he kept his head down and followed the lines that seemed to mark off his days. As tiring as it could sometimes be it was also familiar and reassuring in that there was very little left to lose once he settled in. As it disappears from the rearview mirror he comforts himself with the thought that he will be back - all he has to do is wait.
Charlotte rolls down the windows and lets the warm air blow through the cab. Her hair flies up and back as Vin closes his eyes and rests his cheek on the door, taking the wind full on as if he is on a galloping horse.
The crunch and ping of gravel under the truck makes him open his eyes as they make their way down a long driveway. At the end of it a modest size house shimmers in the heat. To the right and further back is a corral with horses pulling hay loose from a bale. Vin looks at Charlotte's profile to orient himself from his powerful imagination.
An older woman stands on the porch that runs across the entire length of the house. Charlotte comes to a dusty stop and calls out hello as they get out of the truck. The woman greets them with a wave. Under the shade of the porch she pronounces her name clearly and tells Vin that he can call her Nettie. From the start she is blunt and un-patronizing and treats both Vin and Charlotte with the same direct regard. Despite his caution, he likes her immediately.
After serving iced tea and banana bread she shoos Charlotte on her way.
"We'll get to know each other just fine," she states and helps Charlotte close her door.
Giving Vin a look that seems to mean she expects him to follow her she shows him to his room. It is nearly empty with only a single twin sized bed and a large dresser instead of the usual stack of bunk beds and trunks.
"I'll let you fill in all the corners, all right?"
Vin nods absently as he stares out the window at the horses just beyond.
"Vin," she says and waits until she has at least half of his attention, "unpack and I'll introduce you," she points out the window, "to your distraction."
"All right, then. I'll be in the kitchen."
When she leaves he shoves his suitcase under the bed and then sits on the edge for what he believes is a sufficient amount time before searching out the kitchen.
He walks back down a long hallway and this time notices that several pictures of a small dark haired boy and a smiling baby girl are displayed. He has been in homes before where every awkward school picture of every fostered child is displayed to emphasize their good deeds. Vin wants none of it. He goes into the kitchen ready to be difficult and determined to be left off of the wall.
Nettie turns and briefly takes in his stance and then goes back to cutting carrots into large pieces. "You wake up under sour apple tree, Vin?" she asks.
The question puzzles him into politeness. "No, ma'am."
"Are you sure? Because you look sour."
He shifts his weight to one leg. "I woke up at Haven House," he informs her, trying to get some of his own back.
"Well, that explains it."
He shifts again and decides it is best not to argue with her.
Trying to apologize by being helpful he holds a small bowl while she fills it with the carrots.
He ventures to use her name, "Yes, Nettie," and gets a small smile for the effort.
"Very well. Let's go."
Eager, he walks ahead of her, breaking into a run at odd steps and then slowing down with some amount of discipline. Nettie lets the back door slam behind her and the sound seems to act as a cue as four horses trot to the railing. Vin feels as well as hears the soft thud of their hooves. He would learn that they are quarter horses, small and sturdy, but on that day they tower over him like minor deities. His smile becomes harder to suppress, the force it takes starts to make him shake.
Nettie assesses him kindly and reaches for the bowl. "Here, I'll take that..." she offers and notices how Vin's hands stick to it, "and you can give George a carrot. Just hold your hand flat and he'll take it."
Vin does as he is instructed and feels the soft brown muzzle brush against his palm and then hears the loud crunch of a carrot being chewed. His laugh is full of oh's and the sound of it surprises him as much as it seems to please Nettie. She holds the bowl out and he takes another piece and holds it out to a black horse. "What's his name?"
"That's John. This is Paul and the one coming up to you is Ringo."
He memorizes their names and mimics Nettie when she pats their powerful necks.
"Have you been around horses before?" she asks.
"At the Fair one time."
"Hmmm. Well, if you like, I'm sure my husband would be glad of your help."
Vin's enthusiasm wanes at the mention of her husband and it was only then that he realizes that he had been harboring the hope that there would be no one else to contend with. He rallies back when Nettie hands him the bowl and asks him to finish up while she starts supper.
Vin reaches out for each horse as they take measure of him and comes to the conclusion that if Nettie and her husband have brought him here to tend to them then he has received the better end of the deal. He wanders further back to a small barn and finds several hiding places before he hears Nettie calling for him. He runs towards the house, remembers the bowl and then runs into the kitchen hugging it to his chest.
Nettie asks him to wash his hands and informs him that since he will be staying he should learn where things are kept. "Setting the table will teach you where the dishes are." It's less than he had expected to be asked to do and so he finds his way around the small kitchen, opening cupboards and drawers and setting out heavy stoneware, glasses and wide forks. The smell of roast beef makes his mouth water. He watches Nettie mix butter and cream into mashed potatoes. "Did the banana bread spoil your appetite?"
"Good. What's your favorite dish?"
He thinks of Haven House with its barely warm food and decides not to choose from there. At one of the homes he stayed at the older kids would sometimes cook when their foster parents went out at night.
"I like macaroni and cheese with hot dogs."
She stops stirring for a moment and then continues. "I know someone else who likes that."
A car horn beeps twice and Nettie smiles at the sound. "There's my fool."
The back door creaks open and then closes more quietly under her husband's hand. He is tall and solid and unassuming in the way that truly striking people are. When he sets his slouch hat on a hook by the door he reveals long hair that is more gray than black and yet his face is smooth and calm and belies his age. Wearing flannel and denim, he looks like an advertisement for working class grace.
Nettie offers her cheek for a sound kiss and then he turns towards Vin who has kept the table between them. "Is this the boy who's gong to dust for us from now on?"
"Stop it, Ko-Je," Nettie scolds, "he doesn't know you can't tell a joke." She winks at Vin which does little to reassure him. "Vin, this is my husband, Ko-Je - Ko-Je, this is Vin."
Ko-Je steps around the table and offers his hand. Vin hesitates for a moment before grasping his wrist. Ko-Je follows his lead.
"Vin likes macaroni and cheese with hot dogs," Nettie continues their introduction.
Ko-Je lets his hand slip down and then clasps Vin's hand in both of his. "Ah, the food of my people."
His calloused hands are strong but Vin is unable to detect any force behind his hold. A slight tug and he is able to pull free and tuck his hands into his pockets. Ko-Je takes him in for a long moment and then steps back to the other side of the table.
As the days pass Vin finds the routine of his new home and adapts to it. He wakes up with the sun and passes Nettie and Ko-Je in the kitchen on the way out to the barn. Wanting to call the horses out into the corral he swings the door shut with more force than is needed leaving Ko-Je to groan into his coffee cup.
The air is cool on his face and on some mornings the shadow of the moon lingers in the sky. The quartet of horses learn the sound of his whistle and to his delight push him around with their muzzles as he loosens a bale of hay.
He takes on more work than is asked of him, enjoying how it makes him stronger and gets him dirty. Ko-Je was indeed joking about dusting as Nettie appears to run her own house. She encourages Vin to search out the boys his age that live down the road but he prefers his own company and that of the horses. Darting around corners he wins gunfights with his sharp shooting skills. Rough men, almost all of them disreputable, depend on him. He is a loner in a group of loners.
And yet when Nettie calls him for supper, he runs.
While his bed is not much bigger than the one at Haven House he sleeps on the edge for familiarities sake. The only thing he adds to his room is a sturdy wooden chair that he pushes under the doorknob at night.
"Not exactly what I had in mind," Nettie tells him, concerned, but she allows it.
Both Nettie and Ko-Je give him the space he seems to need to feel safe and relaxed although Ko-Je's nature pushes for more.
Aside from the half-forgotten time with his mother Vin has never been the only child and so even their tempered attention of him can lead him to hide. Despite being able to fit into small spaces they seem to know where he is at all times. Nettie is especially astute. One day she steps into the barn and calls out to the shadows, "What flavor of ice cream do you want?" Vin hesitates for his pride before crawling out to reveal that he has developed a taste for black cherry.
A kind of courtship begins to unfold.
Near the end of summer Nettie corners Vin and measures him for school clothes. He stoically submits and then bolts out the door before she can change her mind and tow him to Tascosa's newest mall.
By the middle of the afternoon the heat of the day has worn him out and he heads back inside for a drink. Ko-Je is in the kitchen getting a beer and a bag of chips from the pantry. He has Vin drink some water before he gives him a soda and then as if he has reconsidered his original plan he invites Vin to watch a game with an old man.
"C'mon," he says over his shoulder and Vin finally follows.
Ko-Je sits in the middle of the sofa and watches Vin take a chair at an angle from the TV. "You can see from there?" he asks.
Vin turns his head almost parallel to his shoulder and nods. Basketball. Ko-Je settles back with a sigh.
Vin watches the players run back and forth over the court with very little understanding of their goal. He holds his soda, forgotten, and keeps his eyes on the screen. At some point one player jams the ball down into the net making the crowd erupt. Ko-Je whoops and holds up his fists. The sudden noise makes Vin jump.
Ko-Je's notices. "Vin, you look like you're counting backwards waiting for a bomb to go off. Come over here and relax before you break your neck." He pats the ample amount of space on the sofa beside him.
Vin has been waiting, but no more. He knows now the price of the home he stays in, the food he eats, the clothes Nettie is buying for him - even the hard work he enjoys. None of it is surprising only that it took so long to come about.
Slowly he gets up and sets his soda on the coffee table. Kneeling between Ko-Je's legs he unbuttons his jeans, has the zipper down and is reaching inside of his shorts before Ko-Je leans forward and grabs him by the arms. Ko-Je looks furious, ready to shake him apart. He visibly gathers himself, raggedly catching his breath before he releases Vin and zips and buttons himself back up in quick, sharp movements. Vin is stunned and confused. He lowers his head and waits for Ko-Je to show him what he wants. No instructions or reprimands come. Instead Ko-Je kneels in front of him and places his still shaking hands on Vin's shoulders.
"Vin, if you wanted to pray you should have just said so."
Vin opens his mouth to correct him but no words find sound.
"That's all right," Ko-Je soothes. "I'll pray." And so he does. Singing softly over Vin's head he prays for his healing in an old language that Vin cannot understand but feels nonetheless. Ko-Je's voice is sweet and flawed and so powerful that an astonishing thing happens: A treaty is formed with his oldest fear.
Slowly, as if he is not sure he can do such a thing, Vin reaches around Ko-Je's waist as far as his arms will go and closes his eyes. It isn't until Ko-Je stops singing that he opens them to see Nettie sitting on an ottoman with department store bags all around her. Her eyes are red as she stifles clearing her throat. He wants to ask what has caused her upset but is too tired to follow it through.
Ko-Je reaches under Vin's arms and leans down to drape them around his neck. With a small grunt he stands and pats Vin soundly on the back as Vin rests his cheek on the top of his shoulder.
Nettie stands and goes to them and kisses both Ko-Je and Vin. She gathers up the forgotten bags and then follows Ko-Je as he takes Vin to his room. With great care he lowers Vin onto his bed. Tugging and pulling he removes the hand-me-down clothes that Vin will never wear again. Taking the folded quilt at the foot of the bed he covers Vin and then sits on the edge and cups Vin's face in his hand. Vin opens his eyes to find Ko-Je looking back at him, calm and steady. He sees Ko-Je for the good man that he is and the realization lands like a blow to his chest.
Seeming to sense this, Ko-Je pulls Vin onto his side and pats him again on the back. The soft thud of his hand slows Vin's heart with its steady pace and lengthens his breath.
Silently Nettie empties his dresser drawers onto the floor turning his life before into nothing more than a pile of denim and threadbare cotton.
Vin is ten and nearly too big to be carried to bed so early and yet he closes his eyes and sleeps, untroubled.
Vin and Chanu's friendship begins with two fights. Not unusual for twelve-year-old boys if Nettie and Ko-Je's calm response is any indicator.
Chanu steps off of the bus from Albuquerque and immediately sizes up Vin and dismisses him. The assessment does not go unnoticed and earns Chanu Vin's own disregard. Their silent war lasts all of one afternoon when one of them crowds the other, the other shoves back and then wild, frustrated punches split Chanu's lip, blacken Vin's cheekbone and send them inside for juice and band-aids.
Nettie watches them march through her kitchen, grim and humble and then follows Ko-Je's lead as he goes back to his paper after glancing their way.
Vin finds the first aid kit under the bathroom sink while Chanu rinses his mouth and prods his swollen lower lip. They attend to their own wounds, looking at each other only briefly in the bathroom mirror.
Later, without a word spoken they sit at Nettie's supper table and establish a truce when Chanu passes Vin the salad bowl.
The following summer when Chanu visits his uncle again he brings more bags than a short stay warrants. Nettie rearranges the last guest bedroom until it is as empty as Vin's used to be. Chanu settles in. Come fall they ride the same bus to school and share Jr. High classes from a polite distance, always keeping at least two chairs between them. At home Ko-Je splits their chores, and their rewards, not allowing either his nephew or Vin any authority over the other.
As disciplined as they are to their indifference there are times when they forget themselves and offer more than shallow acceptance. Chanu can be blunt and sarcastic leaving Vin biting his lip trying not to smile. Chanu's appreciation is harder to track as it has more to do with gratitude. His uncle and aunt are dear to him even as he keeps himself out of their reach, too old and too proud at thirteen to accept even their spare affection. This makes Vin's gestures towards them all the more meaningful especially when it becomes apparent that it does not come naturally.
Vin's fealty is not something Chanu would measure again after the second fight, this one with Eli Joe.
Eli Joe is smaller than most bullies but lacks none of the bored, empty-eyed meanness his kind usually possess. His prejudices run deep and wide and are devoted to a hair-trigger temper. It was only a matter of time before his many deficiencies would meet, clash and tangle with Chanu.
Vin sees most of the fight from a distance but what happens is hard to misunderstand. Chanu, chin out, mouth running with something that obviously stumps Eli Joe ends up in a cloud of dust as Eli Joe knocks him to the ground. On his feet right away, Chanu, true to form, gives as good as he gets. Vin might have let them go at it if the fight, dirty as it is, remained between the two of them. When Marshall Yates, one of Eli Joe's flunkies joins in by restraining Chanu while Eli Joe pummels him, Vin comes running and knocks both Yates and Chanu to the ground. Eli Joe kicks Vin's lower back, knocking the wind out of him and causing a numb, warm kind of pain. Still gasping for air he pulls Chanu away from Yates and then throws himself at Eli Joe with blind fury and does not stop until Eli Joe rolls into a ball on the ground. Staggering over to Chanu who is getting to his feet with some difficulty, Vin would find out later that Eli Joe had recovered enough to wave off Yates and using Vin's doubled over posture as momentum grabbed Vin by the hair and ran him head first into one of the few trees on the school grounds. There is the dull thunk that seems to sound off inside of his head and no small amount of confusion and then his legs give out on him and he crumples to the ground. He hears a long angry yell as he tries to focus on the clouds in the sky. Other kids gather around him and block his view until Chanu pushes through them. Standing over Vin, wavering, he spits and then bares his bloody teeth.
"Hey, white-boy," Chanu pants, "I can fight my own battles."
Vin takes a moment to try and focus on him, gives up and asks, "You sure about that?" and then passes out. He does not see Chanu fall to his knees beside him and cry out for help.
He comes to right away but is unable to stay awake for long. The sight of Chanu snarling at anyone who comes near only adds to his confusion. His entire body aches. His arms and legs move in fits and starts with one of his hands completely immobilized by Chanu who holds it tightly between both of his. Vin tries to pull his hand free but when that doesn't work he squeezes Chanu's hand to get his attention. It works.
"Stop yelling," Vin groans. "My head. It's killing me."
Chanu simply takes a deep breath and starts to yell at Vin. "Tatanka!" he roars, which Vin thinks means buffalo. Or bull. Probably bull if Chanu's temper is to be considered.
Vin gives up trying to focus and imagines instead a black horse with white paint on its face. Beautiful and strong. He closes his eyes to see it more clearly.
"Tatanka," Chanu yells again, more plaintive this time.
Beautiful and strong and as sure footed as a mountain goat. Still wild and ill-tempered, he's sure of it as Chanu slaps his cheek trying to keep him from slipping away again. It's useless. The horse will wait for only so long.
At the hospital he is only slightly more lucid. Enough to tell them his name and the date each and every time they ask and enough for them to send him home after hours of observation. Despite the itch of stitches that run along his hairline it's his back that troubles him more. Settling into a dull ache it slips and grabs him without warning making him whoop for air.
Nettie and Ko-Je gather up both Vin and Chanu with their usual calm proficiency although Ko-Je looks as though he is simmering his temper. Vin sits quietly in the back seat of Nettie's Volvo while Chanu wiggles a loose tooth with his tongue.
Ko-Je pulls up close to the porch and leaves the car idling while everyone else piles out.
"Go on inside, boys," Nettie says and then goes to talk to Ko-Je through the car window.
Both Vin and Chanu wait on the porch as Nettie speaks quietly to her husband. Ko-Je looks straight ahead and finally shakes his head. Nettie sighs as if knowing her words will do no good and settles for kissing Ko-Je's temple in resignation. She watches him drive off and then turns her attention back to Vin and Chanu.
"Where's Ko-Je going?" Chanu asks.
"I'm pretty sure I told you both to go inside," Nettie answers and knowing that there will be no further information from her Chanu holds open the screen door while Vin lets them inside.
Vin soaks in the tub while Chanu showers and then they stand in the humid bathroom and compare bruises and scrapes.
"That asshole got you good," Chanu says as he takes in the bruise on Vin's lower back.
"I think I broke his nose - or maybe you did," Vin adds, trying to remember the chain of events.
"I would've done a whole lot more but you white-boys got a thing about knocking me into the dirt."
"Yeah - you're welcome," Vin counters and opens the bathroom door to a whoosh of cool air and leaves for his room.
Ko-Je returns home after dark to a supper of pancakes and scrambled eggs. Nettie keeps Vin and Chanu busy in the kitchen while Ko-Je changes his clothes. Vin is sure that Ko-Je's shirt pocket is torn and his jeans look dustier than usual.
Ko-Je joins them at the kitchen table and breaks the silence when he forks two truly blue blueberry pancakes onto his plate. "Nettie I think these boys broke into your kitchen again."
"What can I do?" she asks, deadpan, "Someone showed them how to turn on the griddle and it wasn't me."
Vin passes Ko-Je the syrup, unable to hide his smile at Nettie and Ko-Je's mock sternness. The smile fades when he sees the scrapes on Ko-Je's knuckles not unlike the ones that he and Chanu sport. Ko-Je follows his eyes and then uses his fork again to point at Vin's plate.
"Eat your supper, Vin."
It takes a moment for Vin to comply. He realizes that he has assumed the reason Ko-Je never raised his hand to them was because he couldn't. That it was not in his nature or his power to use force. Seeing for himself that Ko-Je is capable of throwing his fists but would only use his humor on them refashions him yet one more time in Vin's esteem.
As if fatigue were a defense against his own emotions Vin yawns widely and blinks and eats until Ko-Je stands over him ready to carry him again. With quick, jerky movements Vin lifts his head out the palm of his hand and sets the fork he had been loosely holding down on his plate with a clang. Half awake, dizzy, he stands and waves Ko-Je off. Another arm wraps around his shoulders and steadies him.
"I got him," Chanu says and then slowly begins to turn Vin out of the kitchen. As unsteady as he is Vin digs in his heels and turns around.
Ko-Je and Nettie are clearing the table, plates in their hands but they pause to watch Vin.
"Thank you," he says, although he can't say for exactly what. "Thank you."
"Go on to bed now," Nettie replies, voice gentle. "We'll wake you up every couple of hours to make sure you're all right."
"I can do that," Chanu volunteers. "Really."
"All right, then," Nettie acquiesces, somewhat surprised. "Take my alarm clock."
"Nah, I don't need it. I got what you call an inner clock." Chanu nods while Nettie and Ko-Je exchange a look.
"Call us if you need to," Ko-Je instructs. "It'll be a long night."
"Will do," Chanu assures them then puts his arm around Vin again and leads him to his room.
"Hey, man" Vin mumbles in the hallway, trying to shrug off Chanu's hold but the effort makes him stumble.
"See?" Chanu teases him. "See how you are?"
Chanu releases Vin only to let him crawl into bed and watches him shift around trying to find a comfortable way to rest. Leaning forward, his hands on his knees, he asks, "OK, what's your name? What's the date?"
"Fuck you," Vin replies, biting back a laugh.
Chanu frowns. "No, that's not right. Maybe I should call for help."
"Maybe you should," Vin shoots back, trying to threaten him with a look but all Chanu does is smile.
"See you in a couple, Tatanka."
Vin makes a grunting sound and then is asleep. Chanu watches him for a moment and then pads out leaving Vin's normally closed door ajar.
True to his word Chanu returns two hours later, sleep addled, with a pillow and a blanket. Shaking Vin's shoulder gently he mumbles, "Scoot over."
Vin wakes up frowning but moves back with some effort and no small amount of discomfort.
Seeing this Chanu places his pillow behind Vin's back. "Here," he says, suddenly alert and careful. "Lean against this." Unusually compliant, Vin does as he's told and then sighs in relief. "Better?" Vin nods. "You'll probably be able to tell when it's gonna rain - shit like that."
Vin decides it's best not to say anything even as Chanu climbs onto his bed, cocoons himself in his blanket and helps himself to half of Vin's pillow. Finally still, he looks at Vin and asks seriously, "What's your name? What's the date?" Vin moves his hand from under the covers and gives Chanu the finger.
"That's my boy," Chanu says and closes his eyes.
"Did-" Vin begins, "Did you see Ko-Je's hands?"
Chanu opens his eyes. "Yeah. He must have kicked some ass."
"Yeah. But not ours."
"Why would he do that?"
Vin shrugs, unwilling to say more. Chanu watches him and even in the dim light it's enough to make Vin squirm.
"Relax. I'll wake you up soon enough."
His inner clock accurate, Chanu wakes Vin again by tugging on his chin.
"Vin Tanner. June 5th," Vin says, trying to beat Chanu to the punch.
Chanu nods. "Way to end the school year, man," and goes back to sleep.
The long Summer provides an overheated environment for their friendship to grow. There is a wordless economy to it that Vin holds in high regard. Without discussion their chores become a common list of things to do. Feed horses, muck the stalls, take out the trash. Watch each others' back.
He finds Chanu surprisingly easy to be around when his temper is not directed at him. His sarcasm always has a ring of truth to it. Loyal too, ready to use that very same humor to disarm anyone who crosses him or Vin.
As easy as it can be with him, Chanu also taxes Vin, calling on his time and energy as well as his patience. Even more so than Ko-Je Chanu's nature pushes for more, always more, as if any reaction he might elicit isn't real until it's fueled by exasperation. Even Ko-Je has met his limit with Chanu, raising his voice before he throws his hands out in a pleading gesture towards Nettie and lets her take over.
Back at school they share more classes and their grades improve. Vin struggles with reading but retains facts easily and so Chanu reads out loud while Vin dictates carefully worded papers.
Chanu sits on Vin's bed hunched over a poem Vin wrote for English class and then looks up at Vin silently.
"What?" Vin asks, grabbing the paper away and looking for glaring errors, misplaced letters and finding none. "What?" he asks again, more agitated.
Chanu grins at him. "Nothing. It's good. You should keep writing."
Vin looks at his poem again and then Chanu trying to figure out which one is getting something past him.
Not helping matters any Chanu tousles Vin's growing hair. "Goodnight, Walt Whitman," he says and then slips off of the bed.
"Hey," Vin calls out to him as he leaves, "try shutting the door this time."
"Sure. No problem." But as always Chanu leaves the door open just enough to let the sounds from the rest of the house drift in.
In all matters, Vin disciplines himself to take half of what he wants and to expect even less. It's a practice that staves off disappointment, although not entirely. There are parts of himself that will be damned if they are not heard and dealt with. He feels them most strongly when he is distracted or tired. With his usual defenses low he acts on impulses that would otherwise be kept in check.
Chanu sits cross-legged on the foot of Vin's bed, his back against the wall. "I tried calling Claire," he says, folding his homework into a paper crane.
Vin shuts down the computer that Nettie and Ko-Je dug into their reserves to buy. Somehow typing is easier than writing and while mistakes are still made they are easier to catch and correct. "Yeah?" Vin asks, rubbing his eyes.
"Yeah. Got her dad. Said she was out with her youth group from church. I don't think he's going to give her the message that I called."
Chanu snorts. "He doesn't approve."
Vin props his chin in his hand and watches Chanu turn something as mundane as a history report into art. Making the last fold Chanu flies the crane around while making hawk noises. Vin grins. "What's not to approve?"
Chanu tosses the crane at Vin who catches it after it hits him square in the chest. He studies it for a moment, too proud to ask how it's done and decides to backwards engineer it later.
They are seventeen.
Setting the crane on his desk he crawls up on the bed some distance from Chanu. His back aches from sitting too long and he wants to stretch out but not if it will cause Chanu to leave. "She likes you," Vin assures and then tips sideways letting his head rest on Chanu's leg. When he stretches his own legs out his back pops.
"Oh, man," Chanu laughs, "I heard that. You OK?"
Vin nods and is almost ready to sit up when Chanu's hand lands in his hair. Chanu scratches lazily down to his scalp and then pulls a wavy lock to its full length. "You make a pretty good Indian."
Vin snorts and runs his own hand through his hair. "Thanks." He rolls onto his back to get more comfortable and Chanu sets his hand in Vin's hair again as if he has all the time in the world to search for a needle in a haystack. When Vin looks up he sees that Chanu is looking off into some private distance. Without thought Vin reaches up to tug on his chin, bring him back to the here and now, tease him for leaving in the first place but instead, his fingertips run along his chin, reach further up to a smooth cheek and linger there. Only slightly startled, Chanu grins down at him, amused. Vin is unsure what his eyes reveal but he watches Chanu's grin fade to be replaced with something close to concern. The hand in his hair becomes still and then tries to soothe. Chanu takes a breath to say something but a knock on the door reveals Nettie. Vin snatches his hand away and sits up so fast that Chanu's hand momentarily catches in his hair.
Nettie takes a moment to puzzle out the sparks of tension. Vin's back is to her, so embarrassed he appears to be mad while Chanu is quiet and still.
Vin slips off the bed and turns on the computer with no real purpose in mind.
"Chanu," Nettie says, "you have a phone call."
Vin can feel Chanu looking at him and wills the computer to boot up faster.
"Chanu, don't keep her waiting."
"Yes, ma'am," Chanu says but he seems pained to go.
Finally Vin accesses a pinball game and begins losing, the machine honking back at him.
Nettie passes Chanu and comes up beside Vin who is struggling to keep his focus only on the game.
"Did you finish your homework?" she asks, voice gentle, as she tucks his hair behind his ear only somewhat successfully.
"Hmmm, I'm getting the ma'am treatment tonight." Vin seems unable to reply. She runs the back of her fingers down his cheek and then swats his shoulder with the same hand. "Ko-Je is going to finish off that apple pie if you don't stop him."
Vin forces a smile but is still unable to look at her. She touches his shoulder again, gentle again, and then leaves his room the same way Chanu has taught her, with the door ajar.
Vin lets the game come to a stop except for the cheerful tones in the background and gulps for air.
An apology comes to mind, but for what, escapes him.
Something has come to the surface, a small bubble filled with smoke, obscuring any detail. Vin senses that it contains something he will have to learn about himself, on his own and awkwardly. It's a part of him, the same way his blue eyes are or his stubbornness although not as obvious.
Ko-Je pushes Vin's door open with the toe of his shoe. Vin smiles at the pie tin in his hand and makes room for it on the desk. Ko-Je hands him a fork and then takes a bite with his own. Vin follows his lead and for a while all they share is the sweet cinnamon taste of apple pie.
"Looks like Chanu has himself a girlfriend," Ko-Je says, seemingly more interested in the pie.
Vin nods. "Claire Mosely. He's liked her for a long time. Since Christmas."
"That long, huh?"
"Yeah. They drew each others names when our home room had a gift exchange."
"What a coincidence. Sounds like someone was paid off."
Vin takes another bite, unwilling to reveal that Chanu gave him nothing but a smile and a slap on the back in exchange for Claire's name.
"He probably won't have much time for us for a while," Ko-Je points out in that same distracted way.
"Doesn't mean he won't be there for us."
Vin looks up, startled, only to find Ko-Je intent on the pie. "I know," he says hoping to head off any further comment.
Ko-Je spares him a look. "Last bite's yours."
Vin takes it but despite how good it tastes he finds it hard to swallow.
Ko-Je watches him for a moment and then gathers up the bare pie tin and forks. "Did you do your homework?"
"Good. Don't stay up too late." Ko-Je stands up. "School tomorrow."
"Yeah." Vin waits for Ko-Je to leave even while he composes and tosses out ways to ask him to stay.
"Goodnight, Vin," Ko-Je says after a moment and then bends and kisses his forehead as if it is a nightly gesture.
"Goodnight," Vin mumbles, stunned. He turns off the computer again and finds that he is suddenly tired, yawning and blinking. He strips down to his boxers and crawls into bed which turns out to be the one thing that brings him wide awake. He rolls onto his stomach and brings the covers just over his head despite it being a warm May night.
From under the blankets and through the open door Vin can still hear the familiar sounds of the house settling down for the night. The TV is turned off and the resulting silence seems to cue the crickets outside. Down the hall Chanu deepens his voice for the phone. "Yeah. No really." The pipes in the wall rattle as the bathroom sink is turned on. Ko-Je calls out to Nettie when he is unable to find the new tube of toothpaste. Vin's heart pounds in his ears despite how still he is.
Vin isn't sure how much time has gone by when Chanu eases open his door. "Hey Vin, you really asleep?" he asks quietly just in case Vin is.
Vin puts his body through the odd task of feigning deep sleep, muscles instantly relaxed, body limp while his skin registers the heat under the bedding, the soft feel of it and even the fact that Chanu is coming closer.
Chanu sits on the edge and carefully pulls the covers back from Vin's face. "You're gonna smother...," Chanu mumbles to himself, sounding very much like Nettie. He pushes Vin's hair away from his face and then sets his hand to the same lazy search as before at the crown of Vin's head. Vin gives up the ruse and opens his eyes but doesn't look at Chanu.
"You mad at me?" Chanu asks.
"No," Vin says and knows it's the truth.
"Because if you are I want to make it right."
"I'm not mad, Chanu," Vin reassures and then tells a half lie. "Just tired."
"OK," Chanu says after some time. "OK...I'll wake you up tomorrow."
Vin snorts thinking of some of the less subtle ways Chanu has done just that.
Chanu grips Vin's hair in his fist almost hard enough to hurt and then leaves. "Goodnight, possum," he says from the doorway.
Vin waits for a while then gets up scratching his head and goes to the door, always left open a few inches and closes it with a soft snick. The sounds from the rest of the house are silenced.
Weeks later, on Vin's eighteenth birthday he joins the Army. The first thing they do is cut his hair.