"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
JD could hardly wait. He tugged on his boots and pulled on his coat, hurrying to get in line for the field trip. His class was going to the pumpkin patch today. JD had never been to a pumpkin patch. He couldn't figure out why anyone would want to go see something covering a hole in a pumpkin until Buck told him that it wasn't that kind of patch. This kind of patch was a place where things grow. He had seen pumpkins at the grocery store, but had never seen where they actually grow. And today they were going to ride the bus to the pumpkin patch and pick out their very own pumpkins for Halloween.
The only thing that would have made it more perfect was if Vin could come with him. They were supposed to go on a hayride and pet the animals and have all kinds of fun, but Vin didn't get to go. He had a special meeting with Doctor Will today. Buck said that Vin had been having a hard time and Doctor Lowery would help him feel better. It was too bad Vin had to miss the pumpkin patch though. It would have been a lot more fun with him.
JD climbed into the bus seat next to Jenny Gilbert and David Martin. He didn't mind setting next to a girl because Jenny wasn't like most girls. Jenny liked dirt.
JD stepped off the bus, clinging to his pumpkin. It was the best pumpkin in the whole world. His teacher had cautioned not to pick one that was too big, but JD wanted the biggest one he could carry. As he started up the driveway to the ranch house, he was beginning to realize just how heavy pumpkins could be. Good thing they had a built in handle. JD grasped the pumpkin by the stem as he slung his backpack strap over his arm. He shifted the pumpkin so he could use both hands to carry it as he trotted up the driveway, his backpack dangling dangerously in front of his short legs. He stumbled over the backpack twice before running up the steps to the front door.
His hands occupied with the pumpkin, JD used the next best thing. "I'm home!" he yelled. "I said, I'm home!"
Chris opened the front door and chuckled at the site of the five year old carrying the huge pumpkin. JD walked in and carefully lifted his pumpkin onto the dining room table. "Where's Vin?"
"Well, he was taking a nap."
"Can't he play with me?" asked JD as he slipped the backpack off his arm and let it drop to the floor.
Chris nodded. "Later. He had a long day. First you put your things away. Quietly."
JD picked up his backpack.
"And JD, don't bother Vin if he's not awake."
"Okay," said JD with a sigh. He wanted to show Vin his pumpkin and tell him all the wonderful things about the pumpkin patch. JD trotted to the bedroom and tiptoed in. He peered up at Vin's bunk, but couldn't see if his friend was awake. He dropped his backpack on the floor with a thud. He looked at Vin's bed again. Nothing. He scooted the chair across the floor making the legs squeak against the hardwood floor. JD looked up at the bed. Vin was peering down at him.
"You awake, Vin?" asked JD.
Vin rolled his eyes and sat up. He pushed the blankets to the foot of the bed and climbed down the ladder.
"Come see my pun'kin. It's orange and round and... has a stem, just like you told me."
Vin followed JD down the hall to the dining room, yawning as he walked. Chris smiled at the boys, knowing JD had intentionally awakened Vin. Vin didn't seem too bothered by it, he even laughed when JD showed him the pumpkin. A big improvement over Vin's mood earlier in the day. Maybe the visit with Doctor Lowery had accomplished more than Chris thought.
"When Buck gets home, I'll show him my pun'kin. Isn't it great?"
Vin nodded. It was a good pumpkin. JD had made a good choice. But as he listened to JD go on and on about the pumpkin, his anger began to grow. He should have been able to go to the pumpkin patch too, but he had to go to the dumb meeting with Doctor Will just because he was getting mad all the time.
"Can I watch a video?" Vin asked Chris.
"Yeah! Shrek!" yelled JD excitedly.
"No," said Vin. "I asked first. I get to pick."
"Boys," warned Chris.
"But I like Shrek!" mumbled JD.
Vin looked at JD, then at Chris. Chris nodded to him, giving him the go ahead to watch a video. Vin walked over to the shelf and picked up Monsters, Inc., looked at the cover and put it back. He picked up another tape and put it in the VCR.
When the tape came on, Chris frowned. Vin had picked Shrek, giving in to JD's demand. JD wasn't being selfish; he simply loved the activity and music in Shrek. Vin liked the movie too, but clearly the older boy was not happy about his choice. He plopped himself on the couch and folded his arms across his chest, staring at the TV. Chris let it go for now chalking it up to an emotional session with Doctor Lowery. He hoped Vin would relax as the evening wore on.
Vin scuffed his feet all the way up the driveway. What a stupid pumpkin. Last night all he heard all evening was how wonderful JD's pumpkin was. It was the perfect color, the perfect shape, and the perfect size. Even Chris said it was a great pumpkin. Vin peeked at the pumpkin he had tucked inside his jacket. It was still half green and ugly.
His teacher had picked out extra pumpkins for the students who missed the field trip yesterday, but somehow when all the pumpkins were given out, Vin had ended up with the ugliest pumpkin. Some kid had thought it was great when he picked it out yesterday, and then changed his mind and took one of the pumpkins the teacher picked for Vin and the two other classmates who missed the pumpkin patch trip. Vin pulled his jacket tight over the pumpkin, certain that JD would laugh if he saw it.
JD ran inside the house, announcing to Mrs. Potter that they were home, while Vin sat down on the front porch. Vin unzipped his coat and sat the half green, half orange pumpkin on the porch beside him with a sigh. It still looked the same. He turned the tall, lopsided object, trying to find the good side, but there just wasn't one. The teacher said it had 'character.' The bus driver said it was 'interesting.' But Vin knew the truth. It was just plain ugly.
And next to JD's perfect pumpkin, it would look even worse.
"Vin?" called Mrs. Potter from the kitchen. "Come inside and have your snack."
"Coming," answered Vin. He picked up his ugly pumpkin and trudged into the house, steeling himself to face the laughter.
"An' I wanna make a real scary face!" JD exclaimed to Mrs. Potter as Vin entered the kitchen.
"Are you sure you don't want a happy jack-o-lantern?" Mrs. Potter asked, pouring milk into a cup for Vin.
Vin stared at the milk. It was pink milk. He didn't like pink milk. JD liked pink milk. At least he had 'Oreo' cookies, but what good were Oreo's without chocolate milk? You couldn't dunk them in pink milk. Yuck.
Vin reached across the table to the plate of Oreo's, taking two from the plate. When he moved his arm back, he accidentally bumped the glass of milk, knocking it over.
"Oh, Vin!" said Mrs. Potter, grabbing a towel and mopping the mess before it spilled to the floor, "You know better."
Vin dropped his cookies and bolted from the room.
"He didn't mean to!" cried JD, defending his friend. JD climbed down from his chair, ready to run because he had just talked back to an adult.
Gloria Potter wanted to cry. These two waifs were so easily hurt by normal, every day occurrences. Obviously both boys expected harsh punishment for a simple accident, and that expectation broke her heart. She didn't intend to criticize Vin, she was simply expressing her dismay at the spillage and both boys took it as condemnation.
"Oh honey, I know Vin didn't mean to spill the milk. It was an accident." She dropped the wet towel into the sink, then walked over and kissed JD on the top of the head. "You eat your snack. I'll see to Vin."
Gloria walked down the hall to the boys' room, to assure Vin that he was not in trouble. A few minutes later, they returned to the kitchen and Vin's toy cat had joined them for snack. It seemed that a little extra security was needed by the seven year old. Vin placed his cat carefully in his lap as Mrs. Potter poured him a fresh glass of milk...pink milk. Vin rolled his eyes and waited for Mrs. Potter to pass the plate of cookies to him before taking any. When she turned her back and started washing dishes, JD climbed down and switched his empty milk glass with Vin's full one, then climbed back in his chair with a grin as he drank his milk.
Vin frowned. He and JD had willingly done the milk switcheroo many times, but today it made him mad. JD always got his favorites. After all, he was only five. He was little . And he had the pumpkin everyone loved.
When snacks were finished, the pumpkin carving began. JD wanted to have his jack-o-lantern ready to scare Buck when he came home, so Mrs. Potter helped the boys with the project while dinner cooked in the oven.
The boys watched as Mrs. Potter slit open a large garbage bag and laid it over the kitchen table. She handed them newspapers and they spread them over the top of the garbage bags.
"All right boys, bring in your pumpkins," said Gloria.
JD eagerly ran to get his pumpkin, while Vin reluctantly trudged behind.
JD placed his pumpkin on the table with great pride. "Isn't it a nice pun'kin, Mrs. Potter?" he asked. "Buck says it's the bestest pun'kin ever!"
"It's a fine pumpkin," agreed Mrs. Potter. She looked at Vin's pumpkin with a patronizing smile. She knew that Vin didn't get to choose his pumpkin, and must feel like he was stuck with it. "And I like yours as well, Vin. It has character."
Ack! There was that word again. Mrs. Potter hated his pumpkin too. It just wasn't fair that he had to go to the dumb ol' doctor's office and miss picking his own pumpkin. Stuff like this always happened. And he was a big boy so he just had to deal with it.
"What's wrong with your pun'kin, Vin?" asked JD.
"There ain't nothin' wrong with my pun'kin!" defended Vin.
"It' ain't orange," informed JD.
"Yes, it is! It's orange right here." Vin pointed to the orange side of the pumpkin.
"But it ain't round. It's tall and tippy."
"I LIKE MY PUN'KIN!" shouted Vin.
"Boys," said Mrs. Potter, trying to defuse the argument, "Why don't we start with JD's pumpkin? You both can help." She hated to say it, but Vin's pumpkin was probably a lost cause for carving. It was too tall and skinny to be able to carve nicely, and there certainly wasn't a 'best' side to carve a face on, but they could try. Perhaps a call to Mr. Larabee would help. He could bring home a rescue pumpkin.
"Yay!" shouted JD. "Me first."
Mrs. Potter took the big kitchen knife and poked it into the top of the pumpkin, carefully cutting a circle and lifting off the stem and top of the pumpkin. She showed the boys how to dig out the seeds and they began to clean the slimy mess from the pumpkin, dropping the seeds onto the newspaper... and threatening to slime each other.
JD was about ready to burst, he was so happy. He had done something right. He had listened to Vin and to his teacher very carefully when they had told him what to look for in a good pumpkin. It was orange and round and big. And it would make a very scary jack-o-lantern.
Vin was getting angrier by the minute. All the hurts of the past few weeks seemed to creep in to fuel the fire.
"Stop it, JD!" he growled as JD wiggled orange slimy fingers in front of his face.
JD laughed, blissfully unaware of the volcano bubbling beside him.
Mrs. Potter rolled up the newspaper with the pumpkin innards and placed them in the trash. "All right, JD. Now where do you want the face?"
JD turned the pumpkin as Vin watched. "Right here. This is the perfect side."
Perfect smerfect. JD always was cute. JD always laughed and was the fun one to play with. Buck always played tickle and wrestle with JD, but Chris didn't play with him and neither did Buck. He was seven. He was older. He was supposed to know better.
Mrs. Potter gave JD a felt tipped pen and let him scrawl the face on the pumpkin while Vin watched.
"That's a dumb face," Vin grumbled.
"It is not! It's scary!" said JD.
JD pushed Vin. "It is not!"
"Boys, stop it right now!" said Mrs. Potter. "Vin, stop teasing JD. The face is just fine. Buck will love that you did it yourself." She picked up the smaller knife for carving the face. "You can't be bumping around while we're working with the knife."
"See?" said JD, reemphasizing his point with Vin. It wasn't a dumb face and Buck would love it.
JD always gets his way. Vin kicked the table leg, jostling the table as Mrs. Potter guided JD's hand making the cut in the pumpkin.
"Vin Tanner!" scolded Mrs. Potter.
Vin plopped in the chair getting madder by the minute. Now Mrs. Potter was mad at him and he didn't even mean to kick the table. He just swung his foot and it hit the table. Dumb JD and his stupid pumpkin.
Vin looked up as Mrs. Potter continued helping JD carve. His pumpkin was staring him right in the face. His lopsided, half green, ugly pumpkin. It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair.
"Look, Vin. Look!" exclaimed JD proudly as they finished carving the face.
The phone rang, sending Mrs. Potter to the living room to pick it up, and leaving two boys in the kitchen with the perfect pumpkin and the ugliest pumpkin.
JD stood at the kitchen counter, trying to pick the best candle for his pumpkin, wavering between the white one and the yellow one.
Vin looked at the offensive pumpkin. For no reason he could define at that moment, he began to pull on the plastic garbage bag on the table. As he pulled, JD's pumpkin inched closer to the edge. With very little effort the pumpkin was now teetering on the corner of the table. It tipped and fell to the floor with a satisfying splat.
JD turned towards the noise with a candle in each hand. There was his very special pumpkin, on the floor, half smashed. JD let out a heartbroken wail, dropping both candles and falling to his knees by the pumpkin.
The moment of satisfaction was shattered like the pumpkin, when Vin realized what he had done. He knelt down next to his friend and patted him on the shoulder. "It's okay, JD. We'll fix it."
But JD just cried harder.
"Hold on, Mr. Larabee," said Mrs. Potter, hurrying back to the kitchen with the cordless phone.
Chris waited, listening to the anguished howl of JD in the background. He couldn't tell if JD was hurt or some other perceived tragedy had befallen the five year old. It sounded real enough.
"Oh dear," said Gloria into the phone. "I need to go. JD's pumpkin has fallen off the table and broken."
"Okay," said Chris, not knowing what else to say. "We'll be home at six."
Chris hung up the phone with a sigh. JD would be heart broken. He really prized that pumpkin. Chris left his office, walking to Buck's desk in the bullpen.
"What's up?" asked Buck, looking up from his computer.
"That was Gloria on the phone."
Chris' somber tone drew Josiah, Nathan and Ezra's attention as well.
"It seems that Vin got stuck with an ugly pumpkin, and after the big deal we made about JD's pumpkin last night, well..." Chris paused, trying to phrase carefully. "It seems that JD's pumpkin fell off the table."
Buck groaned, then swore. "JD's going to be crushed."
Chris nodded. "And I have to figure out what to do with Vin."
"It's tough to discipline a child who thinks that getting knocked around is normal," said Josiah.
"Tell me about it," agreed Chris. "Vin is harder on himself than any discipline I can dream up."
Nathan nodded in agreement. Ezra sat at his desk considering the entire situation. They had all heard about the perfect pumpkin that JD had found. They had also heard how excited Vin was about Halloween and how Vin's enthusiasm about the pumpkin patch had snagged JD and the younger boy couldn't be stopped. They had heard how Vin's special appointment with his therapist coincided with the pumpkin patch trip and Vin's utter disappointment over it. There was far more going on here than simple pumpkin envy. Ezra decided he would make a special stop on the way home, and just happen to drop by the Larabee - Wilmington ranch.
It was almost seven-thirty when Ezra parked his car out front of the ranch house. Seeing Josiah and Nathan's vehicles, it was obvious that they had come up with the same idea. He walked up to the front porch with a pumpkin in each arm. It wouldn't do to just replace JD's pumpkin. Vin needed a nice one too. Ezra maneuvered the pumpkins so he could ring the doorbell.
JD swung open the door. "More pun'kins!" he yelled with delight.
"And hello to you to, Master Dunne," said Ezra.
"Hi, Unca Ezra. Look at all our pun'kins!" JD ushered Ezra to the dining room table, adorned with ten pumpkins. He added his two to the collection.
"This is my pun'kin," said JD, taking Ezra by the hand and leading him to the end of the table where a very dented, cracked jack-o-lantern glared at him. "It got broke."
"I'm sorry. It still looks magnificent," said Ezra.
"Vin used glue," said JD. "See?" JD pointed to the globs of dried Elmer's Glue where Vin had attempted to fix the broken teeth.
Ezra looked at the pseudo-pumpkin next to JD's. So this was the ugly pumpkin. An apt description. It had not been carved, the tragedy with JD's pumpkin ending the carving activities.
"Come on," said JD, tugging on Ezra's hand, "We're having apple cider and cookies." Ezra followed JD to the kitchen, joining the others.
"Well, it seems we all had the same idea," said Ezra.
Buck laughed. "Next time we should check with each other. We've got pumpkins coming out our ears!"
JD laughed. "You don't got no pun'kin in your ear, Buck."
Buck tickled him. "No, but it looks like you got dirt in yours."
Ezra smiled. It looked like the JD tragedy was overcome, but Vin was absent from the room. "Where's Master Tanner?" he asked Chris as Buck continued the tickling.
"He banished himself to his room," said Chris quietly.
"May I speak with him?" Ezra asked.
Chris shrugged. "You can try. He's not saying much." Chris stood and walked with Ezra to the bedroom, leaving the merriment in the kitchen.
Vin was sitting in a corner, twirling his cat in a circle by its paws. Seeing Chris and Ezra enter, he pulled his cat close to his chest, subconsciously protecting it.
Ezra sat on JD's Bunk, bumping his head against Vin's upper bunk. He winced and rubbed his head, not missing Vin's small grin.
"Low bridge," warned Chris as he sat on one of the kiddie chairs at the boys' play table.
"So I noticed," said Ezra. "It's been that kind of day. Did you ever have one of those days, Vin, where everything went wrong?"
"I remember one particular day, let's see, I believe I was about eight. I had a remote controlled airplane and loved to fly it with the other boys. It wasn't perfect, in fact it had some scratches and dents, but it was fun to fly."
Chris gave a slight nod, encouraging Ezra to try whatever he was thinking to get Vin to open up.
"I hate to admit it, but I loved the attention it brought. Everyone liked me because everyone liked my airplane. One day my friend Jimmy Tucker got a gift from his father, a brand new piper remote controlled airplane." Ezra glanced at Vin. The seven year old wasn't watching him, but he was quiet and hopefully listening.
"Jimmy was so proud of that airplane. He showed it to everyone. And soon, everyone was following him around and playing with his airplane and no one cared about mine anymore. So, do you know what I did?"
Vin shook his head. Ezra smiled to himself. Vin was indeed listening.
"I broke his airplane."
Ezra nodded. "I waited until he wasn't looking and I broke it."
"What happened?" Vin asked.
Ezra hesitated briefly. This was the part of the story where Vin didn't need to know the exact truth. He didn't think that Vin would handle it well if he heard that two days later he was sent to live with a different family. Vin didn't need anything to make him more insecure about his home.
"Jimmy was very angry and very hurt. And I was very angry with myself. Jimmy was my friend. How could I break something that was so special to him?"
"'Cause he was getting all the 'ttention," said Vin.
Ezra nodded. "I felt horrible. I wanted the attention, but not at the expense of my friend, and once I had broken the airplane, there was no going back. I couldn't change the fact that I had broken something special, and the plane would never be the same again."
Vin nodded sadly. He sure knew that.
"I even tried to give Jimmy my airplane."
"That didn't work," said Vin shaking his head. He had tried to give JD his pumpkin.
"No, but Jimmy knew that I was truly sorry."
"Did he let you be his friend again?" asked Vin.
Chris saw the wistful expression on Ezra's face. For all the pretense and hiding his emotions, Ezra was an open book right now, because Vin needed an open book.
"Eventually, Vin," said Ezra. "I'm afraid there is a price to pay for our actions."
"Oh," said Vin sadly. When Ezra said no more, Vin looked up. "I didn't mean to break it. I mean, I meant to... but..." Vin growled in exasperation. He had such a hard time making the words come out right.
"You meant to break it, but you didn't mean to hurt JD," suggested Ezra.
"Yes, but I didn't mean to mean it." Vin rubbed his eyes brushing away the tears that were starting. "Sometimes I just get so mad and I don't know why."
Both men sat quietly as the seven year old struggled to put his thoughts into words.
"Sometimes I just want to be only," said Vin.
Chris was startled. As close as JD and Vin were, it never occurred to him that Vin would want to be an only child.
"You don't want JD around?" he confirmed.
"NO!" Vin almost shouted. "I want JD. Don't take him away," he added anxiously.
"All right. It's all right," assured Chris. "No one is taking away JD. But you said you want to be only."
Chris looked at Ezra. The southerner shrugged. He didn't know what Vin meant either.
"I'm big. I'm seven," said Vin.
Chris nodded in agreement.
"JD's little. He's only five."
"I want to be only sometimes too," said Vin. He clenched his fists in frustration. He could tell that Chris still didn't understand.
"I'm a big boy. I'm seven. I know better. JD's little. He doesn't have to know so much or do it right. He's only five." Vin looked at Chris with sad eyes. "Can't I be only too?"
Chris' heart clinched as he finally understood what Vin was trying to say. Vin was so grown up, so responsible. He had managed to keep himself and JD alive living on the streets. He had seen far too much evil for a seven year old. And he was asking permission to be only seven.
"Come here," Chris said, fighting back tears. He opened his arms.
Vin threw himself into Chris' arms and Chris held him tightly. "You can be 'only' anytime you need to Vin. You don't have to be a grown up anymore. Buck and I will take care of you and JD."
"As will I," said Ezra.
Chris nodded his thanks to the undercover agent.
"Vin, look at all our pun'kins!" said JD as the trio joined them in the dining room.
Vin's mouth dropped open. There were twelve pumpkins on the table.
"Well, don't just stand there," said Buck. "We've got pumpkin's to carve."
Vin walked around the table to claim his ugly pumpkin.
"No, Vin," said Chris. "I want you to choose another pumpkin. This pumpkin has a very special job."
"What?" asked Vin.
"We're going to give it to Mrs. Potter and she's going to make it into pumpkin pie."
Vin grinned. "With whip cream?"
Vin held up his pumpkin. "This is a great pumpkin!"
"Yeah!" agreed JD. "Okay. Get the garbage bags and papers."
For the rest of the evening five men carved numerous pumpkins under the direction of two little boys. Even Ezra got his hands inside a pumpkin with a little encouragement from Vin.
As Ezra, Josiah and Nathan, prepared to leave for home, five men and two boys stood in the front yard watching their labors glowing on the front porch. JD's patched pumpkin had the center position, flanked by pumpkins carved by Vin and Ezra. The pumpkin envy crisis had turned into a great evening of family, with each of the men joining the boys in being only a child, if just for a brief time.
Chris doused the candles in the jack-o-lanterns as Buck helped the boys get ready for bed. Tomorrow was a big day and he knew his 'family' would be back to assist with the trick or treating and perhaps, if Mrs. Potter had time to bake, they would feast on delicious pie made from the ugliest pumpkin in the world.