Empty Kingdom

By LaraMee

Hi computer, it's me, JD. Vin ain't here right now. He's real sad about this week and he said that he doesn't want to talk bout it. So he asked Chris if he could not talk and Chris said it was okay but if he wants to talk bout it later he can. I hope he stops feeling bad soon because I don't like it when he feels sad. He won't hardly play with me now because he feels sad bout what happened. I told him not to feel sad no more because Chris and Da explained it to me. They said that because Vin was my boss for a long time he got used to telling me what to do. He did a really good job because he took good care of me after my Mama went to sleep with the angels till Chris and Buck founded us. He's my very best friend and he's also like my big brother and I love him a lot. Sometimes I think he's even more special than Chris and Buck. Oh, I shouldn't say that because I love Da and Chris a whole lot, too.

But that ain't about this week. So Chris and Da said that because Vin got used to being my boss it's hard for him to not be my boss no more. He can still be my boss sometimes but he doesn't have to be my boss all the time. Lots of times he can just be my friend and we can have fun together. That's what Da and Chris said. They said Vin can stop worrying about being my boss all the time. They said he can let them take care of grown up stuff and he can just worry bout being a little boy. Vin said he understands but he still acts real sad and when I try to talk to him he won't say nothing but he wants to think. He doesn't tell me what he's thinking about though.

Uncle Josiah came over and told us a story called the Empty Kingdom. It was about a King who loved the peoples who lived around his castle a whole bunch. He tried to protect them and he made lots of rules. When anybody else tried to say what to do he got angry. Nobody else could make any rules and the King spent all day and all night riding around his Kingdom making sure that everybody followed his rules and was safe. The peoples got tired of the King always telling them what to do though and they didn't think he was fun no more. They started sneaking out and moving to other Kingdoms. The King was missing out on doing fun things and he was worried all the time about the peoples and then he saw that lots of the peoples were gone. Pretty soon there wasn't any peoples left in his Kingdom and he was all alone. And then he was sad. He couldn't be the King no more and he couldn't make rules because there wasn't any peoples to make rules for. And he had been so busy making all those rules that he forgot how to do anything else and have fun. So he was sitting in his big old castle all alone and sad.


Hi Da.

Are you ready to go?

Almost. I just have to say good-bye to the computer.

???? Okay Little Bit.

I don't know why Da laughs sometimes. He's silly that way. Anyway I've got to go computer. Da and me are going into town and Vin's going to stay here with Chris tonight. And then Chris and Vin are going into town tomorrow and me and Da are going to stay home. Maybe I'll talk to you more when I come back.

Chris woke with the feeling that someone was watching him. He squinted open his eyes to find that he was right. A pair of large, dark eyes peered at him over the side of his bed, lit by the faint hallway light. In a sleep rough voice he said, "JD? What's wrong?"

"Vin waked me up," the little boy said, his voice slightly annoyed.

"How'd he wake you up, buddy?" Larabee rolled to his side and rose onto an elbow. He scrubbed the sleep from his face, absently noting that it was 3:20 am.

"He's makin' weird noises an' talkin' in his sleep."

"Okay, let's get you back to bed and I'll see if I can't quiet him down." He pulled himself out of bed and padded from the room and down the hall behind the little brunet.

Entering the boys' room he heard a toilet flush and Vin entered from the bathroom. The older child stopped just past the threshold, looking from JD to Chris with a frown.

"You okay, Cowboy?" Larabee asked.

"Yeah, I just had t' go to th' bathroom. What's th' matter?"

"You waked me up," JD supplied, his tone still annoyed. He climbed back into his bed and curled up beneath the covers.

"JD said you were making funny noises in your sleep and woke him up. I just thought I'd check to make sure you're okay and not having bad dreams again."

"No… I'm okay," Vin shrugged as he climbed the ladder and crawled into bed.

"Okay, well I'm gonna go back to bed then," Chris smoothed the blankets over his foster son and delivered a soft kiss to the curl graced forehead. He bent below the upper bunk and smoothed the blankets over the smaller boy next, leaving a warm kiss on his little forehead as well.

Straightening, he moved to the door then paused, looking at the two children in his care. Sighing, he said softly, "Night guys, I'll see you in a few hours."

The tall blond moved away, not seeing a little head poke over the edge of the top bunk.

"Dang it JD, y' shouldn't 'a woke Chris up!" Vin hissed in an angry whisper. His only answer was a soft snore from below.

Sunday morning dawned to gray skies and heavy clouds, the threat of snow in the frigid air. Chris was in the barn cleaning stalls and taking care of the horses. Buck was working in the house, seeing to those chores that would leave them with most of the afternoon free. The boys were cleaning their room, which seemed to be a never-ending chore. JD had tried his best to get out of this chore by explaining - as only he could - that he really needed to be the one to take care of Milagro. Larabee had calmly countered with the fact that their new horse needed to get used to him, leaving the five-year-old scuffing toward the bedroom with a dejected slump of little shoulders.

Wilmington was retrieving a kettle to warm soup in when a loud yell startled him. Jumping up too quickly, he cracked his head on an open upper cabinet. With a growled response that would put at least five dollars in the swear jar, he headed for the boys' room. He could hear the argument before he entered the door where the children stood, standing toe to toe, fists clenched and faces crimson.

"Whoa there guys!" He barked the command loud enough to stop their actions and get both boys' attention. "Now, let's settle down okay? Both of you take a deep breath and count to ten for me."

The little boys did as instructed, the angry flush retreating from JD's features before it left Vin's. The fact that the older of the two children hadn't recoiled from him wasn't lost on the tall brunet. He wasn't certain that he liked the replacement emotion any better, however. Not singling the seven-year-old out, he had both boys repeat the process twice more before he said, "Now, are the two of you calmed down enough to tell me what happened?"

Two high pitched voices immediately began to recount what had happened from their individual perspectives. Their voices blended together in a wild medley, leaving Wilmington to call for silence once more.

"Okay, Vin you go first," he decided. He knew that the older boy would be more succinct.

Flashing a triumphant look at the younger child, Vin began. "We was cleanin' up th' toy box an' JD wasn't doin' it right. I told 'im how he's s'posed t' do it an' he said he didn't have to an' then he got angry an' tried t' close th' top on my fingers!"

"Nuh-uh! I did not!" JD cried out.

"Wait a minute, Little Bit, you'll get your turn." Looking back at the older boy he said, "Did he catch your fingers?"

"Nope 'cause I moved real quick." It was clear that he was still angry.

"Okay, good, anything else?" Receiving a negative headshake he turned to the smaller boy. "Now it's your turn, JD."

Taking a deep breath that didn't bode well for a short story, little Dunne launched in. "He's been bossy all mornin'. He thinks he's gotta tell me what t' do all th' time an' he thinks he's right all th' time. He won't let me put my toys like I wanna put 'em and he taked 'em all outta th' toy box an' said they had t' go all th' same way all th' time. He said they can only go one way an' they don't neither but he just keeps sayin' they do. An' before that he was mad an' said I ain't s'posed to wake Chris up at night no more and that ain't right neither!"

"JD!" Vin blurted out through gritted teeth, then immediately flushed and looked down at the floor.

"Well you did!" The little brunet retorted. Looking up at his foster father, he repeated, "Well, he did!"

"Vin, can you tell me what's going on?"

"Nothin'," the seven year old responded gruffly.

Waiting a full minute for the child to recant only to receive the silent treatment, the brunet said, "Did you tell JD there was only one way to put the toys away? Did you tell him that he couldn't wake up Chris?"

The room remained filled with silence. Deciding that the boy's unwillingness to respond was his way of avoiding discipline, Buck continued. "Okay, I'll tell you what. JD, you finish up in here. Vin, you're going to go clean the mud room."

"But - "

"Da - "

Raising a hand for silence, the big man said, "no arguments. Let's go."

Vin walked ahead of Buck down the hall. The mud room was almost always a mess, the repository for dirty shoes, boots and other articles of clothing. It would take him a lot longer to clean the mud room than it would the bedroom.

Wilmington escorted the little boy to the door. "You know where everything is. You clean off the boots and shoes then put them on the shelf. Chris should be in directly so you can take care of his boots, too. Then you need to sweep the floor, got it?"

Anger still hovering in the corners of the big blue eyes Vin nodded shortly before stomping into the room. Behind him, Buck shook his head and ran his fingers over his mustache. The quicker Chris came in from the barn, the better.

Chris stamped his feet before entering the house through the mud room. He was surprised to find the little blond there, running a heavy brush over a mud-caked boot. The boy's rough actions spoke eloquently of his disposition.

"Vin?" Larabee called across the room.

"Yeah?" The voice was brusque, but trembled slightly.

"What's going on, Cowboy?"

"Me an' JD got in a fight. Buck made me come out here."

"Ah, I see," Chris frowned, wondering what the little boy wasn't telling him. Pulling off his coat, he hung it up before removing his boots. With a twinge of guilt he sat them with the others waiting for the boy's attention. With a gentle pat on a thin shoulder, Larabee stepped through the open door into the main part of the house. Locating his friend in the den, he said, "So what happened?"

Heaving a deep sigh, Wilmington said, "To be honest, I'm not real sure." Quickly he recounted what had happened, explaining his rationale for sending Vin from the room. "I just figured they could use a little time away from each other. And you know we'd have had a bigger mess if JD 'cleaned' the mud room."

With a smile Larabee nodded. "It won't hurt for Vin to see that the world won't come to an end if the toy box isn't set up just so."

"This from the man who arranges his closet in shades of black," Buck quipped.

"You know what I'm saying," Chris said, not responding to the man's slight.

"Yeah, I do, and you're right I'm sure. But it may just add fuel to whatever fire's burnin' in that child," Buck replied softly. Both men had been concerned with the seven-year-old's behavior over the last few weeks. Sobering even further his continued insecurities over his parenting skills made an appearance. "If you think what I did was wrong, or if I over-reacted - "

Chris cut him off with a shake of his head. "No, you did fine. After he calms down a little maybe we can get more out of him."

"Spoken like a true ATF agent," the bigger man replied with a wink. The other man's response was muttered under his breath, but Wilmington watched him add a five to the swear jar. At this rate they'd be finding something new to spend it on pretty quickly.

The rest of the day passed slowly, the air filled with tension far too often. Twice more the boys argued, ending with time outs and other disciplines. JD responded with tears and whining while Vin's reaction consisted of silent, angry glares.

By the time the two children were tucked into bed, the two agents felt as if they had been through a war. Chris padded into the den where Buck was sprawled on the couch, half-heartedly flipping through the channels on the television. Without a word he handed his friend an open beer, saluted him with his own bottle, and settled into his recliner.

"I don't think I can handle too many more days like this," Wilmington said in a dejected tone.

Shaking his head, Larabee said, "me either."

"You get anything out of junior?" The bigger man asked, referring to the after dinner talk the two blonds had had.

With another shake of his head, Chris said, "no. All he'd say was that JD keeps getting on his nerves." Then, arching an eyebrow, he added, "He also said he has the right to… and I quote… 'spress my 'pinion'."

"Three guesses where he picked that up. Maybe 'Uncle Ezra' ought to take them for a couple of weeks… see how he enjoys having those 'pinions 'spressed."

Chuckling, the blond said, "he'd probably volunteer to go back 'under covers' in three days." Then sobering he said, "I think I'm gonna call Nettie… see if she's got a few minutes to talk tomorrow."

Dark blue eyes widening, Wilmington said, "Nettie? Chris you're not - "

Cutting off his friend quickly, Larabee said, "No, of course not. I just want to see if she can give me some input on all this. She's dealt with kids like Vin for years and I'm sure she's seen it all. Maybe she'll know what to do."

The next morning Chris Larabee sat waiting impatiently in the little waiting area of the office of family and children. He had called as soon as the office was open, and Nettie Wells had offered to squeeze him in between appointments. She had gotten caught up in an emergency however, and was running late.

His keen eyes scanned the room, taking everything in without seeming to stare. There was a young woman sitting across the room, obviously pregnant, with a toddler on either side of her. They all looked tired and undernourished the three of them dressed in worn but clean clothes.

In a corner an older woman who sat rigidly on a chair, arms folded tightly across her chest. He could see the hard glint in her eyes even from where he sat. A baby carrier was sitting on the floor beside her, a tiny infant fidgeting inside it. The baby's squirming caused the yellow blanket covering it to slip from its legs and it began to fuss. She didn't even look down at it.

Just then the door that separated the reception area from the inner offices opened. A young girl that he gauged to be about fourteen came out, followed closely by Nettie Wells and another woman. They moved toward the older woman, who stood at their approach. The girl bent down and retrieved the now crying baby, then straightened and faced the older woman. The exchange that followed was quiet, but he could hear the angry tones. He heard the teenager refer to the older woman as 'Grandma', just before she began to cry. The woman responded angrily, then turned and marched from the room without a backward glance.

Putting her hand on the girl's shoulder, Nettie spoke to her. Nodding the young woman shift the infant, picked up the carrier, and followed the third woman from the room. Chris felt a lump in his throat as he saw the tears rolling down the girl's forlorn face.

After the others disappeared through the door, Mrs. Wells came to where the blond sat. He rose as she approached, taking her hand. "Thanks for working me in today, Nettie. Looks like you've got your hands full."

Managing a worn smile, the social worker said, "They always are. You sounded pretty concerned when you called. Let's go into my office and talk."

With a nod, the tall blond followed after the diminutive but imposing woman. They entered the maze that was hidden behind the closed outer door, moving down the corridor toward her office. The muffled sounds of voices, telephones and other office sounds drifted past them as they walked. Reaching the door that proclaimed 'N. Wells' etched in the frosted glass, they entered.

He had never met the boy's caseworker in her office before, and Chris scanned the room curiously. Three walls were lined with bookshelves and filing cabinets. The shelves were crammed full of books and journals, the filing cabinets displaying stuffed animals and pictures across their tops.

Along the forth wall sat an old desk of yellow wood, weathered and scarred, a hold over from the seventies. An upholstered desk chair sat in front of it while two metal folding chairs with worn padding sat lined up beside it. Above the desk was a large bulletin board, or at least Larabee assumed that was there. Papers were tacked there in a chaotic hodge-podge that hid whatever was behind it.

He smiled when he recognized the artwork covering two of the papers. Both JD and Vin had made the woman pictures one day during a visit. Vin had drawn one of him and JD, with Peso in the pups scattered around them. JD's picture was of the four of them, as well as their adopted uncles.

Near the crayon creations was a candid of the two boys flanking Nettie, all three of them smiling into the camera.

Seating herself at the desk, Mrs. Wells motioned for him to sit as well. "So, tell me what's going on."

Taking a deep breath, the blond said, "You know some of it already."

"The black eye and the problem over the TV show?"


"What else?"

Shrugging, Chris said, "Lot's of little things, really. I don't know, maybe I'm making too much of it."

Smiling the older woman said, "I know you as someone who sees things pretty clearly, Chris. Tell me what's on your mind."

Larabee told her about the things that had been going on during the past few weeks, including the flashes of anger, the problems at the bowling alley and the dream of Chris' death. Finishing a short time later he said, "I just don't know what's going on with him."

With an understanding and compassionate expression, Nettie said, "the honeymoon's over."

"Excuse me?"

"When you and Buck went through the training classes did they cover the honeymoon period?"

Brows furrowed as he thought back, he finally shook his head and said, "not that I recall."

Heaving a sigh the social worker said, "Unfortunately some of the instructors are so intent on putting a 'positive spin' on things, they gloss over or minimize the negative aspects of foster parenting.

"A lot of children go through what we refer to as a honeymoon period. They're on their best behavior, working hard to make the foster parents 'fall in love' with them. It's sort of like going through a probationary period at a new job. You want to impress the boss with your ability to get the job done better than anyone else.

"However, they can only sustain that sort of behavior for so long. Then the 'real' child begins to surface."

"Do you mean… is it going to get worse?"

Shrugging, Wells said, "I couldn't tell you, son. It may very well get worse." When he groaned and slumped back in the chair, she said, "thinking of bolting?"

Shooting a glare at the social worker Chris said, "Thought you knew me better than that. I don't give up easy… and I sure as hell don't intend to give up on my son."

Smiling at his reference to his son, Nettie said, "That's good. Okay, the good new is that he's testing limits and asserting himself because he's no longer so fearful of being abandoned. The bad news is he's lashing out because he's scared."

"So what is he afraid of?"

"I don't know that, either. Look, the bottom line is, even positive life experiences are traumatic. Being taken in by you has probably been the best thing that could ever happen to that child. But that doesn't mean that he can automatically settle in. He's still feeling his way around. From what we know, he has no memory of what we would call a 'normal' life and some part of him is bound to rebel. Change is scary, even if it's good for you."

"But why is this all happening now? We've had the boys for months."

"Some kids just have a longer honeymoon period than others. Vin had to be the adult for months Chris, he had to be in charge. He had to develop very strong self control. Now he's learning that he can let go a little… rely on you, Buck and the others."

"And so the control has slipped."

"Yes. And as hard as it is for you to deal with, it's ten times more difficult for him. He's extremely mature and self-reliant but underneath it all he's a fragile, vulnerable seven-year-old."

"So what do we do?"

"Be patient… be firm. Reassure him, but keep him accountable for his actions. Right now he's a very confused little boy. He's come to realize that he's safe, so he's moving on to the next step."

"Which is?"

"Figuring out his role. He doesn't have to be the survivor he once was. Now he needs to figure out who he can be."

"So what… do I sit him down and talk to him? Do we make some plans… some guidelines?"

With a soft chuckle Nettie said, "No son, it's not that simple. You can't map this out like one of your ATF operations."

In an exasperated tone the blond said, "Then what can I do?"

"Like I said, be firm and hold him accountable. Reassure and support him however you can. Look and listen. Watch for signs that will help you help him. Use those investigative skills of yours. He doesn't know what's going on. All he knows is he's uncomfortable and scared. You - all of the adults around him - need to help him. Call on me whenever you need me. Call Doctor Lowery. That's what we're here for."

Staring into her kind eyes, Chris said, "We will."

With a broad smile the social worker said, "I know you will, son, I know you'll do the best by that boy. Look, I know it's going to be rough going for a while but I also know this. You, Buck, and those other galoots adore that child. It may be painful, but you'll see him through it."

An uncharacteristic blush spread across the tall man's face at her praise. Glancing down he cleared his throat and said, "We'll do our best."

Reaching out and patting his hand, Nettie said, "Believe it or not, Chris, you're doing a wonderful job. I've been in this business for… well, for a long time. I've seen very few foster parents who come close to the dedication that you and Buck have shown." As his blush deepened she squeezed his hand. In a soft voice she said, "It's going to be okay, you'll see."

Vin stood looking out the big window, where he could see the mountains. He could hear the other students talking behind him, but he ignored them. He was angry. Everyone had been getting on his nerves all morning. Especially JD.

"Hey Vin!"

He turned, seeing his younger friend standing there. He frowned at the big, dumb grin JD was wearing. In a grouchy voice he said, "What?"

"Can you come help me? I wanna work on my special project." He was making a Valentines Day card for Joey.

"Not right now. I'm busy."

"You're not busy, you're just standin' there."

"I said I'm busy! Leave me alone."

"But Viiiiiii - iiiiiiin!" The little brunet used his best 'sad' voice and offered up the big eyes.

"I said leave me alone!" Vin yelled.

Mrs. Roquette came over to see what was going on. "Is there a problem, boys?"

"JD's buggin' me," Vin groused.

"I just asked him to help me with my special project," JD argued.

Looking from one child to the other, Carolyn could see the tension building. "All right, I'll tell you what. JD, you go on over to the art table and I'll come help you in a minute."

"Okay," the smaller boy said dutifully. He trotted off toward the arts and crafts area.

Behind him, Vin shot the younger boy an angry look. JD kept doing things like that. He hardly ever listened to him any more, but he sure did do what the grown ups told him.


The seven-year-old's head shot up when he realized he was being spoken to. His teacher saw the expression on his face and grew concerned. "Vin what's the matter? Can you tell me?"

"Nothin'," he said shortly. "Nothin's wrong."

Mrs. Roquette watched him for a few more seconds. She had worked with the little boy long enough to know that he wouldn't say anything until he was ready. Still she needed to try. "Your face is pretty angry looking for nothing to be wrong."

Without even realizing it, Vin's 'empty face' slid into place. "Nothin's wrong, JD's just been getting' on my nerves lately."

She knew there was more to it than that but decided not to press things yet. "Okay. I'll tell you what then. You go find something to do and I'll go help JD."

"Yes ma'am." Sullenly the boy scuffed across the room. He wandered aimlessly for a few moments but, seeing his teacher watching him, he grabbed a work folder and a pencil. Taking it to a table, he sat down with a sigh, pulling out a worksheet at random. He sighed. Reading. It just had to be reading.

The worksheet was filled with sentences. Each one included an empty space where a word needed to be added. At the bottom of the sheet was a list of simple homonyms. The object was to decide which word belonged in each sentence. The work was something he needed help with, his reading difficulties keeping him from deciphering the appropriate choices. He decided that he wasn't going to ask for help, though. He didn't need it. He could do this on his own.

Gripping the pencil tightly the little boy began. He read the first line then re-read it again. His eyes trailed to the bottom of the sheet and he laboriously read each word, lips moving as he sounded them out. He re-read the sentence, inserting each of the choices. None of them seemed right. He tried again. This time none of them seemed wrong. Frustrated, he pushed the end of his pencil into the paper and through it to the table. He heard and felt the lead break and growled under his breath. Stupid pencil.

Getting up, he scuffed toward the corner of the room where the pencil sharpener hung on the wall. As he passed the table where Elizabeth was working on a computer he accidentally kicked the leg of her chair. The little girl yelped in frustration as the action caused her to hit the wrong button. The learning game she had been using disappeared from the screen, half an hour of work going with it.

"Vin, look what you made me do!" Elizabeth protested.

"I didn't do nothin'!" The little boy yelled defensively.

"What happened?" Mr. Biedler asked from the other side of the computer area.

"Vin kicked my chair and now everything's disappeared!"

"I didn't kick her chair!"

"Vin, you did too I seen you," JD said quietly from the nearby table. The look he received from his surrogate big brother made him duck his head and huddle down in the chair.

"Perhaps it was an accident?" The male teacher suggested.

"I didn't do it!" Vin felt angry tears stinging his eyes and felt his face growing hot. Throwing the pencil to the floor he did the only thing he could think of. He ran.

Shooting a look at his co-worker, Biedler sprinted after him, close enough to keep an eye on the child but far enough away that he didn't frighten him. Like Carolyn Roquette, he had worked with Vin long enough to know how skittish he could be.

Vin ran to the cafeteria, which had become his safe haven within the school. Entering the big room he frowned when, instead of Miss Lottie, he saw Mrs. Jeanne. The older woman, who filled in for the regular lunch lady from time to time, looked up as he entered.

"It's not lunch time yet, honey," she said with a smile.

"Where's Miss Lottie?" Vin asked, his voice wavering.

"She's not here today dear. Can I help you?"

He felt like he wanted to be sick and took a deep breath. A few tears rolled down his face, and he scrubbed angrily at his eyes.

"Sweetie, what's wrong?" Mrs. Jeanne asked, alarmed at the tiny boy's reaction. She started toward him, but he gave her a frightened look and backed out the door. She started to go after him, but saw one of the teachers in the hallway. He waved before turning to follow the little boy.

In the hallway again, Vin tried to decide where to go next. He didn't even notice Mr. Beidler walking just a few yards behind him. Finally he just dropped to the floor, leaning back against the wall. He drew his knees up and propped his chin on them, wrapping his arms around his legs. A minute later he heard someone sit down beside him.

"You seem to be having a bad day," Mr. Beidler said softly.

Vin shrugged.

"Wanna talk about it?"

He shook his head.

"Would you like to go talk to Kathi?" He asked, referring to the school counselor.

Vin shook his head again.

Beidler waited a few minutes, then said, "I can't leave you out here, buddy, and I can't stay out here any longer. Can we go back into the classroom?"

The little boy heaved a deep sigh then dropped his legs so that he was sitting cross-legged. He scrubbed the palms of his hands over his face roughly then sniffed loudly. With another sigh he nodded.

The two of them gained their feet and walked back toward the classroom. The teacher walked slowly, keeping pace with the distraught child. Once inside the room, he watched Vin move back toward the glass wall that looked out on the mountains. Turning toward his teaching partner, he shrugged and shook his head.

Chris sighed and leaned back in his chair, still holding the phone in his hand. He had just finished talking to one of the boys' teachers. It looked like Buck might have been right, if a little premature. Whatever was bothering Vin seemed to be coming to a head.

"Problem boss?"

Looking up, the blond saw Buck Wilmington watching him from the doorway. Motioning his friend inside, he said softly, "that was the school."

Heaving a deep sigh, the big man dropped into the chair across from the blond. "What happened?"

Quickly Chris filled him in, finishing with, "looks like you were right. We might be in for some rough times."

"So what do we do?"

Shrugging Larabee said, "Just what Nettie said. We look and we listen and try to figure out what he needs."

Taking a deep breath and blowing out hard through his mouth the mustached agent said, "why is it I get the feeling that this is gonna be a long week?"

Gloria Potter watched the two little boys ahead of her. She had picked them up after school, bringing them directly home. Vin was withdrawn and JD seemed upset, neither child offering much in the way of conversation on the trip home. Chris had given her a call earlier in the day to let her know that the older boy was having trouble, so she wasn't totally unprepared for what she found. She just wished she knew what to do to make things better.

They entered the house, both boys depositing their coats and boots in the mudroom then carrying their backpacks with them as they went to change into play clothes. When they entered the kitchen a few minutes later she had their snacks sitting on the table. The two boys climbed up onto chairs and ate in near silence.

"So, how was school?" She wasn't certain she wanted to ask, but it was the question she put to them every day.

"Fine," Vin said hurriedly, shooting a look across the table.

JD dropped his gaze to the table, pushing his cheese crackers and grapes around with a finger. "Fine," he agreed softly.

"Anything special happen?"

"No." The older boy answered in a clipped tone.

"How about you, JD?"

Not looking up, the five-year-old said, "No ma'am. Can I be excused?"

"Aren't you hungry?"

Shrugging the little brunet said, "Not really. Can I go let the dogs out?"


He slipped from the chair and hurried out of the room.

Turning to the older boy she said, "What about you, Vin? Not hungry either?"

The little blond didn't look up, simply shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head. Not asking to be excused, he slipped from his chair and padded from the kitchen.

Gloria watched the quiet little boy leave, shaking her head. She knew she should scold him for leaving the table without being excused. But one look at the slumped shoulders and dejected stance told her that something was weighing heavily on the child.