Vin was having a good day. That morning, he had finished all of his Math work and had done it all right and he even got most of his spelling words, right, too. Well, he got half of them right, but that was real good for him.
The morning went by real fast, and now it was time for recess. Recess was Vin's favorite part of the day. Sometimes he played with other kids, but, sometimes he liked to be by himself. Dr. Wills had asked him why, and Vin had tried to explain that it wasn't because he didn't like the other kids, or because he thought they didn't like him, even though some of them didn't, but he didn't like them, either... It was just that sometimes, he liked to be by himself. It made him feel all quiet and peaceful inside.
After making sure that Freddie Chaney wasn't anywhere near JD, Vin decided to go check out the little space between the cafeteria and the main classroom building. They left the garbage there for the garbage men, and sometimes, there were cool bugs under the garbage cans. He kinda wanted to find a big, scary bug, so he could go put it in Freddie's face and make him scream like a girl. Freddie had spilled glue on JD's Geography work that morning. He said it was an accident but then he looked at Eli Joe Chavez and smiled in a snotty way that told Vin he did it on purpose. Vin didn't like Eli Joe, either.
Both Freddie and Eli Joe were off in a corner of the playground trying to start a fire with a piece of glass. They were too stupid to know you needed a special glass for that, and Vin wasn't going to tell them.
As he rounded the corner into the little alley, he was surprised to see the three big garbage cans that were usually there were gone. Even when they were empty of garbage, they were always still there.
He could hear the custodian, Mr. Tobias, whistling in the area behind the kitchen. The children were not supposed to go there, and a small metal gate was in his path. Vin could have easily climbed over it, but, he didn't. He just stayed and watched Mr. Tobias. He didn't say anything, because Mr. Tobias was wearing headphones and wouldn't hear him, anyway. Mr. Tobias liked to listen to music while he worked, but he said the music he liked wasn't 'propriate for little kids. Vin didn't know what that meant. He liked all kinds of music.
Mr. Tobias had the trash cans, and Vin saw that he was painting them! It looked like he was having fun, and Vin was intrigued by how he gently passed the can of paint across the surface of a can and immediately the fine mist of paint turned the rusty, dirty surface to a smooth, even color.
Vin watched, fascinated, until Mrs. Roquette rang the bell that meant he had to go back inside.
+ + + + + + +
The rest of Vin's morning was good, too. He got to play dress up and make up a story and he dressed up in the Robin Hood costume, but instead of Robin Hood, he pretended he was the guy with long hair in Lord of the Rings. He was cool because he got to shoot a bow and he never missed. He killed twenty-eight orcs, which were really just balls of paper from the recycling bin, until Mr. Beidler told him maybe he should make up a story where nothing got killed.
Vin sighed. Grown-ups were just no fun sometimes, but, it was time for lunch, anyway.
Miz Lottie gave him an extra big apple and two paper cups of peanut butter instead of one. Vin loved peanut butter apples.
After lunch, he went back to the alley to see if Mr. Tobias was still painting the garbage cans.
He wasn't - they were all done, and they sure did look pretty and clean. There was a green one, a red one and a blue one, and their lids were painted yellow. Vin lightly touched the clean, smooth surfaces, amazed that the paint was dry. The trash cans looked like new.
He figured all the bugs had been scared away when the cans were moved, but he decided to look anyway and had worked his way behind the first can when he saw them.... sitting in a neat row - green, red, yellow and blue. Four cans of spray paint.
Vin wondered if Mr. Tobias had meant to throw them away, but when he picked one up, he discovered it still had paint in it. He shook it the way he had seen Mr. Tobias do. He tried to get the lid off, but, it wouldn't come off. It just twisted around and around.
Then Vin remembered seeing Mr. Tobias pop the lids off with a screwdriver.
Vin didn't have a screw driver, though. He looked around to see if there was anything else that would work.
There, beyond the alley gate, he saw it. An old, rusted spoon. He wasn't supposed to go through the gate, and he didn't, but he was able to snake his thin arm through the slats and stretch reeeeaaaaallly hard until his fingertips were able to pull the spoon close enough for him to grab it.
Once he had the spoon, it was easy to pop the can of paint open.
Delighted with his success, Vin studied the can carefully and could see the little hole where the paint came out. He turned it away from him and then tentatively pressed down on the little white button the way he had seen Mr. Tobias do.
A pretty stream of yellow paint evaporated into the air.
Wow, that was totally cool!
Vin opened all of the paint cans. He wanted to see all of the colors. Yeah, that would rock!
"Whatcha got there, Vinnnneeeeeeeeeeeeeeee," a mocking voice asked.
Vin looked up crossly at Eli Joe and Freddie. "Go away."
Vin took a step foward, brandishing the spray can like a weapon. "Go away or I'll spray you with poison gas and your eyeballs will fall out!" Just to show he meant business, he pushed down on the button.
This time, the spray didn't evaporate. It left a drippy yellow spot on Eli Joe's jacket.
Eli Joe looked at it and using both hands, he shoved Vin backwards, hard, into the garbage cans, causing one of them to fall over.
"BOYS! GET OVER HERE!" Mr. Beidler yelled.
The three of them obeyed, albeit it reluctantly. As soon as they were at Mr. Beidler's feet, Eli Joe pointed at Vin. "He started it! He..."
"I don't want to hear it, Eli Joe," Mr. Beidler said. "The rule is 'no fighting'. If someone bothers you, you walk away and come and tell me or Mrs. Roquette, understand?"
"But..." Freddie began.
Mr. Beidler raised his hand to silence him. "Enough! Now, the three of you go find something to do that doesn't involve hitting each other, okay?"
"Freddie, do I need to call your mother?"
Freddie ducked his head. Eli Joe stood stubbornly with his arms folded across his chest.
Vin did not miss the fact that Mr. Beidler hadn't yelled at *him*. Yup, it was a good day.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was sitting on the floor listening to Mrs. Roquette read them a story. Vin had wanted her to read "The Very Hungry Thing" because that book made him laugh, but instead she was reading a book called "Stella Luna" that sounded like a girl's book but when she started reading, it turned out to be about a baby bat who gets lost from his mama and falls into a birds nest and grows up thinking she's a bird. It was kinda silly, but, kinda nice, too, because the bird mama loved the little bat like she was her own baby even though she wasn't. Sorta like Chris and Buck loved him and JD.
Vin felt a sharp pain in his back as Freddie's knee impacted with his rib cage.
"Oh, sorry," Freddie apologized. "I was just gonna sit down and listen to the story."
He dropped to his knees, his left one landing directly on Vin's fingers.
"OW!" Vin howled and pushed him away.
"Boys!" Mrs. Roquette scolded.
Freddie immediately sat perfectly still. Vin did too, but he wanted to sock Freddie in the eyeball.
Luckily, it was time for afternoon recess, so he didn't have to sit by "Old Stinky" for very long.
Once they were outside, Vin ignored Freddie, even though his hand still smarted from having his fingers squished.
He went back to the alley and found the paint cans. He shook each one. Red, yellow, blue, green. There sure was a lot of paint there....
Vin stood back - as far as he could in the narrow alley - to admire his handiwork, and was disappointed to see long, drippy tendrils spreading downward from poorly shaped letters.
The bright yellow paint stood out vividly against the dark red bricks, and Vin had to admit to himself that the desired effect had not been achieved.
It looked ugly.
It was rude.
And, like a slap on the head, it suddenly occurred to him that it was exactly the kind of thing that would get him in Big Trouble.
He dropped the paint can and then ran as fast as he could to the boy's bathroom. He pulled out as many paper towels as he could hold and then put them under the faucet to get them wet. Leaving a dripping trail behind him, he hurried back to the alley and began to scrub vigorously at the words painted on the wall.
Nothing happened. The paint hadn't dried yet, but the paper towels only stuck to it, or smeared the drippy parts and made them bigger.
Vin thought some words that would have had him putting money in the swear jar at home. Then he got an idea. The bricks were red, so *maybe* he could cover the yellow with the red paint.
In his haste, he forgot to shake the red paint can. He pushed and pushed on the little button, but nothing came out, at first. Then, suddenly, a burst of bright red spattered against the wall, followed quickly by a second and a third.
Not only did it not match the bricks, it began dripping down the wall and mixing with the yellow paint so there were soon streaks of red, yellow *and* orange. There were two big spotches that looked like blood covering part of Freddie's name and two of his words, so now it said:
Vin thought that was kinda funny, but now he was kinda scared, too. He looked around to see if anyone was looking, and spotted Mrs. Roquette "counting heads." That's what she did when she was checking to make sure everyone was there. Vin shoved the paper towels into the garbage and ran back to the boy's bathroom so Mrs. Roquette would think he had been there the whole time.
+ + + + + + +
Dr. Will had told Vin he didn't need to do the "empty face" anymore, but Vin didn't know what else he could do. If he told anyone about the paint on the wall, maybe he'd get kicked out of school and have to go back to the other school where they made him be in kindergarten with the babies even though he was seven. That made him sad and want to cry, so, he did the empty face and pretended not to care.
+ + + + + + +
Mrs. Potter watched Vin automatically dunk his Oreo in his milk and eat it without seeming to realize he was doing it. He didn't seem sick or upset, but he was distracted by something. She would have asked him if something was wrong, but she knew that seldom did any good with Vin. He would either shrug (which meant yes) or tell her no (which could mean either yes or no).
"How was school today?" she asked him.
"It was fun!" JD piped in. "'cept Freddie spilled glue on my geography paper."
Gloria noticed a subtle change in Vin's posture. Maybe that was it. He was very protective of the younger boy.
"So then what happened?" she asked.
"Nothin'," JD shrugged. "I just did it over."
Vin looked up at her, but then, as if he hadn't even been listening to the conversation, he asked, "Unca 'siah knows how to fix things, right?"
Mr. Potter didn't sense any particular anxiety in the question.
"Well, he does a lot of work with tools," she answered. "So yes, I would think he does."
Vin wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt. "Can I call him?"
Mrs. Potter knew the men didn't mind the boys calling them at work. They never made nuisances of themselves. And she was sure Josiah would be thrilled that little Vin was calling him for advice. But, she cautioned him, "Just remember that your uncles are busy, so don't keep him on the phone too long."
Vin punched in the speed-dial number for Josiah's cell phone. He found the deep, resonant voice at the other end of the line somehow reassuring.
"Unca 'siah?" he asked tentatively.
"How does paint come off?"
"You know, like, if you're painting and it gets on you, how does it come off?"
"Well, Vin, that depends on what kind of paint it is, and what you want to get it off of."
"Oh." Vin was disappointed by that vague answer.
"Did you get paint on your clothes?" Josiah asked. "Because if you did, you'd best tell Mr. Potter so she can try to get it out."
"No," Vin sighed. "I was jus' wonderin'.... you know... in case I ever need to get paint offa somethin'."
"Well, if you tell me what the problem is, I might be able to explain it a little better."
Vin sighed again. "No, I was jus' wonderin', that's all."
"Okay, son. But if you think of any more questions, I'll be here."
"'kay Unca 'siah. Bye."
Vin hung up the phone. He was still kinda worried about painting the wall, but he'd been thinking about it, and no one saw him do it. No one knew it was him. So if he didn't say anything, they would just think someone came in the night and painted the school.
Yeah, he would be okay. No one would know.
By the next morning, Vin had forgotten all about the paint, until he and JD got off the bus and were walking into the school. JD spotted Joey and ran on ahead, so he didn't see Mr. Beidler and Mrs. Roquette standing in the alley looking at what he'd done.
"dee boot fah zee..." Mr. Beidler said slowly. "What is that, German?"
Mrs. Roquette shrugged. "Boot-fah-zee sounds like an African word."
"Die, boot-fah-zee? What does that mean? You don't think it's some kind of threat, do you? Maybe we should call the police..."
Vin's felt the blood drain from his face. *empty face* he thought. He hurried to the classroom and sat down. *empty face* *empty face*
But, nothing happened. Mrs. Roquette and Mr. Beidler came into the classroom and everyone stood up to say the Pledge of Leginz and then school started just like it always did. No one said anything about the paint.
+ + + + + + +
When morning recess came, Vin slowly worked his way to the alley, trying not to look like he was interested in anything there. He wasn't even sure why he wanted to see the painted wall again. It scared him to look at it now, but his feet just kept taking him that way.
What he found there surprised him. There was Mrs. Roquette with Eli Joe and Eli Joe's dad. Mr. Chavez's voice was soft, but angry.
"So, someone spraypaints the wall and the first person you look at is the Mexican kid, right?"
Mrs. Roquette held up her hands. "Mr. Chavez, I assure you that is not the case. Your son has paint on his jacket."
Vin swallowed hard as she pointed to the yellow spot Vin had put on Eli Joe's sleeve.
Eli Joe stood there with his arms folded, like he didn't care if anyone was mad at him. He probably didn't. In fact, Vin kinda thought Eli Joe *liked* it when people thought he was bad.
"How did that happen?" Mrs. Roquette asked Eli Joe about the paint spot.
Vin froze. But to his amazement, Eli Joe shrugged and said, "I dunno."
Mr. Chavez pointed at the wall. "Did you do this?"
Eli Joe looked up at him. "So what if I did?"
He got cuffed on the back of the head for that.
"Mr. Chavez, please... " Mrs. Roquette said. "There are other ways to handle this."
"He didn't do it," Mr. Chavez said bluntly. "I don't know why he wants us to think he did, but he didn't...." He pointed at the wall. "My kid knows how to make and S and he can spell 'butt face'."
"b-u-t-t-f-a-c-e" Eli Joe obliged.
"Butt-face?" Mrs. Roquette frowned and looked at the word as if she were seeing it for the first time.
Vin didn't wait around to hear any more.
He went back inside the class room and took out his math book and started doing one of the exercise papers. He didn't want to play outside any more. He had painted on the wall, *and* he had spelled the stupid words wrong. Now they were going to *know* it was him.
But, still, nothing happened. When Mr. Roquette came back inside and saw him working on his math, she praised him for being so 'dilgent," whatever that meant. Then, everyone else came in from recess and still, no one said anything about the paint.
The four other agents could tell by the way Chris was raking his fingers through his hair as he talked on the phone that something was wrong, and they were sure of it when he came into the bullpen and announced that the boys' school had called for an emergency parent conference.
"Is Vin okay?" Buck asked apprehensively.
Chris shook his head. "There was some vandalism at the school. They think Vin might be involved."
The others acknowledged him somewhat sadly. They had all thought they were making progress with the boys, drawing them away from behavior that was acceptable on the street, but not in the world in which they wanted them to live.
"Want me to go with you?" Buck asked.
"No... no... I'll handle it."
+ + + + + + +
"Our concern is the violent imagery," Mrs. Roquette explained. They had already shown Chris the "artwork" that both teachers suspected was Vin's. "The word 'die' and the splatters of blood-red paint could indicate that Vin may be having some dark thoughts about something."
"Are you sure it was him?"
"Well, there is no way to be certain without asking him, which I don't think is a good idea, but he is the only student who makes his S backwards, and we all are aware of his difficulties with spelling."
"Also, there were some problems yesterday with a couple of the boys. Not exactly fighting, but agressive behavior that required intervention. And..." he handed Chris a piece of paper with a crude drawing Vin to illustrate a sotry "...he drew this...."
Chris held back a smile despite the seriousness of the situation. Vin had drawn himself with pointed ears, weilding a bow. Some sort of creature (really a scribbled blob) had an arrow in its eye. "Lord of the Rings," he said softly. "Vin loves that movie."
Mr. Beidler smiled. "Most of the kids do. But, all things considered, we thought it might be unwise to ignore what might be a cry for help."
Chris had to agree. "What should we do?"
"Well, I think a visit with his therapist might be in order. Don't confront him - he may not be ready to address his feelings. Dr. Lowery should be the one to steer him in that direction."
Chris nodded, in a way greatful that the responsibility for discussing this with Vin had fallen elsewhere. He was disturbed by what he had seen. Who did Vin wish dead? A classmate? Himself? Either possibility was frightening.
"I'll call and get him an appointment as quickly as possible," he assured Mr. Beidler.
+ + + + + + +