I wasn't going to write a Valentine's Day story, because Valentine's Day isn't really a Dutch thing, but then something happened that I just had to work into a story. It's from the heart and it's dedicated to my youngest daughter. Why, I have put at the end of the story.
"Wow, what's this?"
Vin, Buck and Chris looked up from where they were doing chores in the barn when they heard JD call out. The four of them had met at Chris' ranch for a day of spectacular barn cleaning, long overdue. Josiah had wanted to come, but had already promised to help at the shelter he put so many hours of his free time in. Nathan had been dragged along by Rain to see her family for once instead of the teammates he already spent the whole week with and Ezra... well, Ezra had given a very elaborate, longwinded excuse they all knew meant he'd rather be caught dead than mucking out a barn.
So that left Chris with three volunteers; Vin, always trustworthy in chores like this and a good man to have around for it, Buck, who could do a fair bit of work in between his jokes, and JD, eager to help in any way he could. They had been putting a dent in the garbage that somehow had found its way into all the nooks and corners. And Chris and Vin were now working on some of the tack before it went back into the cleaned out tack room, while Buck and JD had started with the dark and filled up back of the barn. There where the light could hardly reach and most of the junk had accumulated.
JD had been almost buried in the pile, while Buck was carrying the next load of trash out to the horse trailer, demoted to do junk transportation that day. The kid had come up for breath with something in his hands, something he stared at in wonder.
"Wow, what's this?"
While they all looked to the back of the barn, Chris and Vin not stopping with rubbing oil in the tack and Buck half turned, in his arms that box full of items no one had ever needed, the young man came trotting from the shadows with something in his hands.
"Look, it's a wooden truck!"
Immediately Buck turned further around, his eyes on Chris.
Chris was standing up slowly, suddenly looking pale, the tack slipping from his hands. When the cleaned leather fell on the sandy barn floor, Vin looked up in mild consternation.
He was putting his own tack down at the same moment Buck let go of the box and was on his way. He was there right after JD, who held up the wooden truck in triumph.
Too late to stop the young man though.
"Look, Chris! It's broken and repaired, but very clumsy. A real shame, 'cause it must've been beautiful once. Don't think it'll be salvageable now, will it?"
Chris' hand shot forward so fast JD was completely surprised when it snatched the wooden toy out of his hands. Then Larabee stalked off, holding the truck firmly to his breast.
"Chris?" Vin asked, running after his friend.
"What... what was that all about?" JD stammered, a surprised look on his face. "Buck? Is Chris mad?"
Buck sighed and put an arm around JD's shoulders, squeezing lightly. "Nah, he ain't mad, JD. Just struggling with his memories. He'll be alright."
"Memories? Oh... OH! I didn't think... a toy.... It was Adam's, wasn't it?"
"Not exactly, kid, not exactly. Come on, let's go back to the house and take a break. Get something to drink."
Talk to that hardheaded fool.
Chris hadn't gone inside. He was sitting on the floor of his deck, his back against the wall of his house, knees up, the wooden truck resting in his lap, one hand tight around it. Vin was lounging beside him, not saying anything, just being there. While JD fled inside the kitchen after one look at the pinched face of his boss, Buck ambled over to the duo. He sat down in front of Chris, long legs folded Indian style. He didn't say anything, just waited.
Chris didn't look up, all he did was stare at what he was holding in his lap.
+ + + + + + +
He was back in the attic of years before, filled up with all kinds of treasures... and junk. Lots of junk he and Sarah hadn't been able to throw out and had stashed here instead, things they now thought were silly to have kept all this time. They needed space for other stuff they just couldn't bring themselves to throw away, like Adam's too small clothes and the last of the baby toys Sarah had finally admitted Adam was no longer interested in. Chris was busy filling a bag with the things that had to go when he saw it. The old, wooden truck his grandfather had carved for him so many years ago, when he was smaller than Adam was now. It had been his favorite toy of all time, no matter what else he'd ever gotten. Long after he'd stopped playing with it, it still sat on his bed. Where other kids had teddy bears, he had his wooden truck.
He'd never been one for teddy bears, but he loved this truck. His grandfather had repaired it time and again, repainted it when necessary. He always asked if Chris wanted the colors changed and Chris had always demanded it to be exactly as it had been before. Then his grandfather had died and the repairs had stopped.
It was a sorry sight now, all busted up, two wheels lose beside it in the small box it was in, the wood cracked, the top broken open, the paint peeled off. With a sigh he touched it, giving it a small caress with one finger before picking it up, intent on throwing it away.
"Papa, wha's that?" Adam's voice floated from behind him. His almost-six-year-old had tried to help and was having great fun running around the usually forbidden attic. Now he threw himself on his kneeling father's back, two small arms around Chris' neck, warm breath in one ear.
"It looks like a truck, but it's all broke!"
"Yes, it is all broken. That's because it's old, very old. My grandfather made it for me and this was my favorite toy."
"Like my Pony?" Adam asked, indicating his stuffed horse that went everywhere with him and was currently lying on a big crate in a corner of the attic.
"Yeah, like your Pony." Chris moved the box with the truck to the bag of throwaways. Adam gasped and the tiny arms tightened around his neck.
"Oh, you can't throw it away then! You can't!"
"We really need to clean this mess up, Adam. And it's not like it can be repaired." No, whatever repairs he would make, the car was too damaged to do it in a way it would be a worthy toy again. A shame really, because it would have been something special to have Adam play with it in turn.
"Papa, it's a truck! And your favorite toy!"
"I know, but there comes a time you have to throw things out that can't be used anymore. It's alright Adam, really." With a firm gesture he threw the box with truck in the garbage bag. Then he grabbed for Adam and a tickling war ensued in the attic, Sarah soon involved as well. They ended in a heap on the floor, all tangled arms and legs, breathless and happy, when he heard the phone and cursing ran off to see if he could get it in time.
That had been three weeks before Valentine's Day.
+ + + + + + +
Chris looked up at Buck, not caring about the tears in his eyes.
"He took it out when I went down," he said softly. "Took it out of the garbage bag. Because he didn't want me to loose it."
Buck nodded, immediately understanding what Chris was talking about. He knew the whole story. He had been there partially. And it still made him choke up. Vin didn't say anything, hardly moved, just was there for Chris like he was so often. Buck appreciated it, but his attention was on Chris.
"Best Valentine gift you ever got," he said softly. And Chris crumbled.
+ + + + + + +
They had been shopping together on the Saturday before Valentine's Day, he and Adam. Adam had been delighted when he saw all the Valentine candy and had insisted they'd buy a chocolate heart for Sarah. Chris had picked out the beautiful card to go with it, something he always did himself. He had also bought a bright red heart shaped lollipop for his candy-loving son. He'd tried to hide it, but Adam had spotted it anyway, his eyes dancing. His son hadn't tried to buy anything for Chris, but Chris hadn't even thought about that at the time. Valentine's Day had always been for buying Sarah things and for the past couple of years, of course, he had to give the other love of his life, his beautiful son, something as well.
On Valentine's Day he was working late, again. They were trying to find evidence on a brutal killing and it had kept him at the police precinct for much longer hours than he liked. The phone rang when it was almost 6.30 p.m. It hadn't been work related; it had been a worried little boy asking if he would please be home soon, before it was Adam's bedtime. Because it was Valentine's Day.
"God damn it," he swore when he put the receiver down.
Buck raised one eyebrow and stared at him. "What's eating you, Larabee? Not like you're late for a fancy date on this night of all nights for love! You know you have Sarah waiting when you come home. Let's finish these damn reports."
"That wasn't Sarah, Buck. It was Adam, asking me if I'd please be home before he had to go to bed, because it's Valentine's Day."
They looked at each other and then Chris started shutting down his computer. "Screw the reports," he mumbled, belligerent. "My son wants me home, I'm going home."
"Don't sweat it, I've got it covered."
He looked up and sighed, feeling guilty. "I know you have a hot date, pard...."
"She ain't Adam."
Enough said. Chris was on his way five minutes later.
At home he was met with a squealing and laughing Adam who practically ran him over when he stepped through the door.
"Papa, papa! This is sooo gonna be the bestest Valentine ever! It is! It is!"
He grinned, sweeping his son up in his arms and making his way to the kitchen where he expected his wife to be, dealing with the dinner aftermath.
A plate was waiting for him. A brightly wrapped gift was standing beside it. He stared at it.
"Who's that for?"
"For you, dad! For you!"
"In that case I'd better get my presents as well! Can you wait for that, buddy?" He tickled his son before setting him down.
"'Course we can," Adam giggled. "Hurry!"
He was back with the candy, hastily giving Adam the chocolate heart his son had picked out for Sarah. He grinned at his wife, who had been waiting by the sink, amusement on her beautiful face. "Hey, gorgeous, how about a Valentine kiss?"
"Those are the best," she whispered, sliding into his arms. Soon they had Adam scooped up between them, grinning at them both while they shared a deep kiss.
Until their son started wriggling too much and they laughingly broke up.
Chris gave his presents first. The beautiful card he had picked up Saturday with Adam, the roses he had managed to get somewhere in between duties today, the lollipop for Adam and a lovely card he had picked up as an extra for his son, while shopping for the flowers. Sarah had heart shaped soaps for them both and Adam solemnly gave Sarah the chocolate heart. Then he ran happily to the table. He picked up the parcel laying there, beaming while he handed it over to Chris.
Chris smiled back and took it gingerly, wondering what it was. Had Adam made something? Had he been shopping with Sarah to get him something? It was only this year his son had become more alert as to how Valentine's Day worked.
What was inside left him speechless. His wooden toy truck. With a new piece of wood crudely nailed over the cracked and damaged top. The two loose wooden wheels nailed back as well, with one nail still sticking half out. Tape held the door together and a piece of string replaced one of the hinges. Paint made it all bright again.
"Remember cleaning the attic? He took it out of the garbage bag when you were downstairs," Sarah whispered in his ear. "He's been working on it every time you weren't here. I had to keep an eye out for you, so you wouldn't see it."
"Papa? You like it?"
With a gasp he kneeled down and grabbed his son in a big hug, holding onto the truck at the same time. He tried not to cry, but he couldn't help himself.
"I like it very, very much, Adam," he managed to choke out. "I like it a lot. It's the best gift I've ever had. Ever!"
Adam's small arms sneaked around him, hugging him back.
"Love you, papa."
"I love you too, son. Thank you. Thank you very much for this."
The truck had been given a place of honor, tape and all. He had been the one to tuck in Adam that night, talking, reading Adam's favorite book, singing Adam's favorite good night song. After that he and Sarah had had their own special Valentine's Day evening, right there where he could see his repaired truck.
'Told you it's the best Valentine ever!' Adam had whispered, tucked away in bed, eyes already wanting to close.
Yes, the best Valentine ever, with the most precious gift he'd ever had. Right after Sarah and Adam themselves.
A couple of weeks later, they were dead.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris? Chris, talk to me!"
Buck put a hand on his friend's knee, only to have it brushed off. Chris stood up with one fast and fluent move, still holding on to the wooden truck in his hands, all come undone again in the years it had been laying in the back of the barn.
Vin was up only two seconds after. Buck followed more slowly, cursing under his breath. He didn't like the stony face under the blond hair.
"Chris?" he asked again. "You alright?"
A swift, penetrating gaze asking him if he'd suddenly become stupid was thrown in his direction and then Chris stalked away to disappear through the kitchen door. Buck heard JD's voice, but no answer. A moment later the kid came out, looking a bit scared.
"What's wrong with Chris? Is it 'cause of the toy? Man, I should have thought first, instead of... of.... Man!"
"Don't go there, JD. It's alright."
"Is it, Buck?" Vin asked beside him, softly. "Is it really? What's it all about?"
Buck sighed and shook his head. "That truck was Chris' as a child. It was old and worn, but Adam decided to fix it for him, that's why it looks so... odd. He gave it to Chris for Valentine's Day."
"Best Valentine gift ever," Vin murmured. "Damn. That's gotta be tough."
"Yeah. So let's give him some space."
They made lunch, ate in silence and then Vin and JD went back to the barn, determined to finish the chores. For Chris. They didn't know what else to do.
Buck did. He went to Chris' bedroom, not bothering to knock. It was as he had thought. Chris was sitting in Sarah's rocking chair, staring at the beautiful mountain peaks behind his property, the wooden toy again in his lap. He went to stand beside the blond, admiring the view Sarah had loved so much. The bed was situated in such a way the first thing she could do every morning was gaze outside. Chris had once confided in him she could lay there for half an hour, sometimes even longer, just drinking in the view.
He didn't say anything, knew better than to say anything. He simply was there, waiting, in case Chris needed someone around, needed to say something.
It took almost half an hour before Chris finally whispered, "I threw it away, Buck. The most precious gift I've ever been given, I threw it away. After the funeral I... I was putting their things in boxes, I needed them out of sight and then I... when I had it in my hands I so desperately needed to be with Pony for a while and I took it with me."
Buck didn't know what to say. 'It doesn't matter'? 'It's alright'? 'Things will get better in time?' Everything was so inadequate when it came to a loss like this.
So they were silent again.
Finally Chris said softly, "It still hurts to... to see things from them, to remember them. But that doesn't matter anymore, 'cause its better than not remembering them at all. I know that now."
Buck looked down at his friend and saw Chris gazing up at him. The green eyes glittered with unshed tears.
"This truck wasn't the best gift ever, Buck. They were, Sarah and Adam."
"Yeah." Chris went back to staring outside and Buck did the same. But not before he had put a hand on his friend's shoulder. Offering his silent support.
I wrote this, because on Valentine's Day this is what happened to me: my youngest daughter, then 10, phoned me at work to ask if I would please be home on time for the exchange of Valentine's gifts. When I came home, she had this parcel for me, within it my cuddly dog, a grey poodle, all repaired. The last time I saw this favorite toy of mine was when I was cleaning up our attic with her and had found it, head almost off, full of holes through which you saw the straw filling, and most of the hair gone. She had taken it out of the garbage bag when I went downstairs for something and had repaired it. She can sew a little, but she also used a lot of tape, working on it whenever I wasn't around. She is the sweetest girl, with a big, loving heart. Valentine's Day isn't a Dutch thing at all, although the shops sure try to sell it, but it immediately appealed to her, because it's a festival having to do with showing love.