Despite themselves, the knock on the door made both of them jump. Chris looked a silent question at Buck, who nodded that he was ready. Chris unconsciously straightened his shoulders as he moved toward the door.
The man in the suit stood on the other side, next to Hendricks and a second man, also in plainclothes but clearly a cop. Chris stepped back, holding the door open a little.
"Larabee, these men need to talk to you for a minute." Hendricks entered the room, followed by the others. "You, too, Buck." He motioned toward the men behind him. "This is Lieutenant Robbins, and this is Detective Francks."
Chris faced the other men, meeting their gaze. He held out his hand to the lieutenant. "Pleased to meet you, sir. You're the ones looking for Vin and Ezra."
The lieutenant studied him. "That's right, son. And for John Dunne. You boys happen to know anything about that?"
Chris shook his head slowly. "Only what we've heard around the grounds. You all learn anything yet?"
Robbins tilted his head, and gave a small shake. "Not much. You mind letting me ask the questions?"
Chris nodded. "Okay."
The lieutenant pulled out the desk chair, settling himself in it. He motioned toward the bed. "Go on, son, have a seat."
Chris moved toward the bed, keeping his eyes on the older man. Robbins turned toward Hendricks. "How about leaving us alone for a few minutes?"
Hendricks shook his head. "They're both still under 18. You can speak with them, but I'm staying in the room."
The lieutenant nodded and turned back to Chris. "You're Chris Larabee?" When Chris nodded, Robbins turned to Buck, who had stood when the men entered, but had remained by the side of his bed. "And you're Buck Wilmington?" Buck nodded. "Sit down, son, I just want to talk to you both for a bit."
Buck sat on the bed. "What do you want to know?"
"Well" Robbins leaned back in the chair. "Mr. Hendricks here says that you two are pretty close to two of the boys who disappeared."
"That's right." Chris's voice was calm. "Vin and Ezra."
"What about the younger one? John?"
"He likes to be called J.D.," Buck corrected. Robbins turned to look at him. "J.D. just got here a couple of weeks ago. He's been following Vin around. We didn't get to know him too well."
"Did Vin or Ezra say anything about leaving?"
Buck shook his head.
Robbins raised his eyebrows. "Surprising, isn't it?"
"Why's that, sir?"
The lieutenant raised a hand slightly. "Well, son, seeing how tight you all are and all."
Buck shrugged his shoulders. "Look, we looked out for them some because they liked to hang out around us. They didn't tell us all their junior high secrets."
"They're both runners." Chris's voice was flat. Robbins turned to look at him.
"Vin took off from six or seven places before this one, and Ezra used to split all the time when his mother first dumped him here."
Robbins turned to Hendricks. "That right?"
Hendricks nodded. "They both have a history of running, but they'd seemed to have settled in here, for the most part."
"For the most part?" Robbins' repetition of his words had a slight mocking edge.
"They've both had several altercations with a couple of the other residents, and neither has the best attendance record at the school."
"Might have been good for you to mention that." The police lieutenant's voice was dry. He let his gaze wash over the room, and then motioned toward the boxes sitting on both Buck and Chris's beds. "What are those for?"
Buck shrugged. "Packing."
Robbins gave him a look. "I can see that, son. Why are you packing?"
Robbins turned to look at the boy who had answered. "You're going to college?" When Chris nodded, he asked, "Where at?"
"University of Chicago."
"Larabee got a full scholarship," Hendricks put in.
Robbins raised his eyebrows. "Is that right?"
Chris nodded slowly. "Yes, sir, it is."
"You going to college, too?" Robbins turned toward Buck.
Buck shook his head disgustedly. "Nahtwelve years is enough for me. I'm going along with Chris, gonna get a job or something."
"College education's not something to sneeze at, son," the man remarked mildly.
Buck shrugged. "Thought I might try the police academy, instead."
Robbins gave a little snort. "You trying to play me, son?"
Buck shook his head, meeting the police lieutenant's eyes. "Nope."
Robbins eyed him for a moment, and then nodded, standing.
The lieutenant turned toward Chris. "Yeah?"
"WellVin was upset that I was heading to college. He got angry when I told him he couldn't come with me." Chris looked down for a moment, before meeting the lieutenant's eyes again. "I just didn't want some kid following me around anymore." He took a deep breath. "I think this may all be my fault."
Robbins shook his head. "Some kids just run, son. They always show up." He turned toward the door, motioning toward the detective, who had been leaning against the wall, to follow him. He turned just before leaving the room. "Listen, I'm sorry to have to do this, but a couple of my guys are going to have a look through your things. It shouldn't take too long, but they'll have to empty those boxes."
Chris and Buck looked at each other, then back at the men. "Whatever you need to do, I guess," Chris said quietly.
"Good. They'll be by in a few minutes."
Robbins paused with his hand on the door. "Yeah?"
"I hope you find them, sir."
Robbins nodded. "They'll turn up." He walked out, closing the door behind him.
Buck let out a sigh as the door closed, but quietly, and slumped back onto his bed. Chris lowered his head into his hands. Neither of them moved until the knock came, letting them know the second round was getting started.
+ + + + + + +
Robbins flipped his notebook closed. "All right. We'll take this back to the station now."
Hendricks ran his fingers through his hair. "What happens from here?"
Robbins shrugged. "We check out known hideouts, stick their pictures up, probably alert the media. Usually hard to get too much press on runaways, but they may give us space since Dunne is so young. We'll call you when we have something."
"And until then--what should I do?"
Robbins shrugged again. "Wait. If you think of anything you haven't told us, give me a call." He turned and entered the open passenger door of the police car, slamming it shut behind him. The window rolled down, and Robbins leaned out. "I'm going to need their medical records. You can fax them to me at the station."
"Their medical records? What do you need thoseOh." He dropped his eyes from the gaze of the police lieutenant. "I'll get those to you."
The window closed as the police car pulled out into the circular driveway. Hendricks watched it grow smaller as it wound down the drive and into the trees. "Guess I'll just wait here, then." He sighed, and turned to enter the building.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra sat with the side door of the van open, focused on the stack of papers in front of him. "Josiah?" he called out.
Josiah looked up from the tent he was disassembling. "Yeah?"
Ezra climbed out of the van, carrying the papers with him. "These." He handed the stack to Josiah.
Josiah looked at the top paper and then back at Ezra, raising an eyebrow. "Did you ask me if you could go through my things?"
"It had my name on it."
"Yeah, but these were in my bag, Ez."
Ezra shrugged. "Sorry. I was bored."
"You wouldn't be bored if you helped out a little more." Josiah turned back to the tent, handing the papers to Ezra. "Put these back where you found them, and don't get them dirty."
"But what are they?"
"They're your records." Josiah finished pulling the poles out of the tent sides, and began to gather the fabric.
"Medical, school, placement, whatever the Home had." Josiah looked over his shoulder. "Come help me fold this after you put that away."
Ezra returned the stack of papers to the large brown envelope on the van seat, and placed it back in Josiah's bag. He returned to where Josiah was standing, and reached down to pick up the opposite side of the fabric. "How'd you get my records?"
"Nate took'em all from the front office last week."
Josiah lifted an eyebrow. "Don't you think they might come in handy when we try to enroll you guys in school next year?"
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Is it really necessary for us to continue in that inane pursuit?"
"Yeah." Josiah's tone was flat. "It's really necessary." He pulled the rest of the tent fabric into a pile. "Go get started on the other tentI want to get going soon."
"I don't know how to take down a tent," Ezra objected.
Josiah exhaled. "Look, kid, you've watched me do it two mornings in a row. I think you can probably figure it out."
Josiah stood. "Ezra, if you want to sleep in them, you can help get them up and down."
"Who said I wanted to sleep in them?" Ezra muttered, but under his breath. Josiah heard him anyway, and gave him a look.
"I can do it," Vin offered, walking over.
Josiah shook his head. "No, Vin. I need you to finish cleaning up the campsite. If Ezra can find his way around my bag, he can handle the tent." He turned to look at the frowning Southerner. "Right, Ez?" His question was pointed, and after a moment's hesitation Ezra nodded and turned toward the tent. Vin shrugged and returned to the campfire, where he had been carefully collecting and dispersing the ashes.
Within an hour the campsite was packed and cleaned, and the five were in the van.
"So where are we headed today?" Nathan asked, pulling the map out of the glove compartment.
"Wilderness area, about fifty miles away. There's a few spots where you can camp. Follow 587 west a ways, you'll spot it."
Nathan nodded, and folded the map over, holding it up to study. He examined it for a few moments, and then smiled. "Yeah, I see where you mean. We staying there just one night again?"
"Well, we'll move camp, but we're going to stay in that general area until Tuesday."
"What's Tuesday?" J.D. asked.
Josiah looked at him in the rearview mirror. "That's when we go get Chris and Buck."
"Oh." J.D. fidgeted in the booster seat. "Can we go to McDonalds?"
"No, J.D. We have plenty of food with us."
J.D. drove a small car along the window pane. "We could just get something to drink."
"No, J.D. We can't spend the money, right, Josiah?" Vin spoke up from the back, where he was sprawled across the bench seat, flipping the pages of a comic book.
"It's not the money," Ezra objected. "Josiah doesn't want anyone to see us, right?"
"You're both right."
"Ezra, get your feet off my chair." Nathan swatted at Ezra's feet, which were perched on his armrest.
Ezra grudgingly complied. "Why do you always get to ride in front, anyway?"
"I don't always get to ride in front, Chris does."
"You rode in front every time we've been in the van, past couple of days," Vin commented.
"Maybe we could go to the drive-thru," J.D. suggested.
Josiah shook his head. "No, J.D."
Nathan turned to look at Ezra. "Chris always gets the front, and if he doesn't, Buck gets it. Neither of'em are here, so I get it."
Ezra lifted his foot onto Nathan's armrest again. "I don't see why you should get it."
Nathan pushed his foot off. "You want to try to take it away from me?"
"In a minute, no one's sitting in front," Josiah said.
"I could sit in front," J.D. offered.
"You could put my dumb seat there."
Josiah suppressed a snort. This was a major concession for J.D., who had argued about the booster seat every time they'd been in the van over the last two days. "Sorry, J.D., the seat can't go in the front."
"If I sat in front, I could have two windows."
Josiah looked upward for a moment. "Vin, how about if you help J.D. see how many different kinds of license plates you can spot."
"But I'm reading my comic book." Vin looked up and caught Josiah's eye in the rear view mirror. He followed Josiah's gaze toward J.D. and sighed. "Oh, all right." Vin slid across the back seat so that he was sitting behind J.D. "C'mon, J.D., I betcha we can find a bunch before we get there."
"If I had two windows, I could find more license plates," J.D. murmured, but turned to look out the window. Ezra pulled a pack of cards out of his back pocket, and began to shuffle them.
The van was silent for less than a minute before J.D. announced that he had to use the bathroom. "Why didn't you go before we left, dummy?" Vin asked, leaning back in his seat.
"I didn't have to go then, and I'm not dumb." J.D. twisted in his seat to poke his tongue out at Vin.
"Okay, you're not dumb." Vin crossed his eyes at J.D. "You're just funny-looking."
J.D. stuck his thumbs in his ears and wiggled his fingers, making a face at Vin. Vin laughed and stuck his own fingers in his mouth, stretching it out, and made a face back at J.D.
J.D.'s laugh turned into a little whimper. "Ooh, Josiah, I've got to go now."
"All right, J.D., there's a rest stop a mile away. I can't pull off on the side here, there are too many cars."
"How far's a mile?" J.D. asked, squirming around a little in his seat.
"Not very far at all, J.D. You count to twenty real slow, and by the time you're done we'll be there."
"Oooone," J.D. began, as slowly as he could tolerate. "Twooooooo, threeee, fouur--"
"That's too fast," Vin objected. "Do four again."
J.D. gave a long-suffering sigh. "Fouuuuuuuuuurrr," he said slowly. "Fiiiiiiiiiiiive."
"Siiiiiiiiiiix." Vin joined in with J.D. "Seeeee-vennnnnn."
Ezra didn't look up from the cards he was shuffling, but joined in on eight. Nathan was in by eleven, and Josiah came in on thirteen. Josiah pushed the gas, just a little, and just as they all hit seventeen in unison, he pulled the van into the nearly deserted small parking area on the side of the highway. J.D. was out of his seat before the van was pulled to a complete stop, climbing over Ezra to get to the door. He was under strict orders not to touch his seatbelt while the van was moving, but Josiah decided to let it slide, given the circumstances.
Josiah shut off the ignition. "J.D., wait for me."
"Hurry up," J.D. urged, yanking on the side door and sliding through as soon as it opened. Ezra followed after him quickly and grabbed the fabric covering his shoulder, holding onto him until Josiah could make it around the van.
Josiah took J.D.'s hand. "Thanks, Ez, I got it."
"Hurry!" J.D. pulled at Josiah. Josiah turned to follow him, then paused, fumbling at his pockets.
"Hey, Nate, get me a paper from the machine." He tossed Nathan two quarters.
"All right, J.D., I'm coming." Josiah turned and led J.D.quicklytoward the small building housing the bathrooms. Ezra and Vin followed Nathan over to the vending machines. Nathan went to buy the paper, and Ezra and Vin approached the snack area.
"You got any money?" Vin asked, looking appraisingly at the display case.
Ezra eyed Vin thoughtfully, and then gave a little shrug. "Maybe."
"Oh, c'mon, Ez, I'd give you money if I had it."
"Yes, but since you never have any, that's a moot point." Ezra walked over to the vending machine, assessing the food. "They've got some good stuff, don't they?"
Vin nodded, locked in on a package of chocolate-covered twinkies. He tore his gaze away. "C'mon, just let me borrow a dollar, Ez."
Ezra shook his head. "A bad deal for me. By the time you have any money, the value of the dollar will have gone down." He looked over at the vending machine, and then back at Vin. "I'll trade you for it."
Vin sighed. "What do you want?"
"Well" Ezra gave a little smile. "You do any work Josiah wants me to do for the rest of today, and we'll call it even."
Vin snorted and shrugged. "I already do most of it, anyway." He stuck out his hand. "Deal."
Ezra grinned and extracted a dollar from his pocket, slapping it into Vin's hand and shaking it, the dollar between them. Vin closed his fingers over the bill and turned toward the machine just as Nathan walked up.
"What are you guys doing?" he asked, looking at them suspiciously.
"Nothing," they replied in unison.
Nathan folded his arms. "What were you shaking hands for?"
"None of your business," Ezra said, pushing Vin away from the vending machine and buying himself a bag of gummi bears.
Vin tore open the wrapping on the twinkies. "Yeah, none'a your business." He pulled one out and took a bite. "You want some twinkie?" he offered around a mouthful, holding the package out. Nathan eyed it with distaste.
"No, thanks, Vin. You know what's in that stuff?"
Vin shook his head. "Don't care, either," he added, grinning.
Nathan turned away. "C'mon, Josiah'll be waiting." They walked back toward the parking area, where Josiah and a much-relieved looking J.D. were just approaching the van.
"Coolcandycan I have some?" J.D. asked, running up to Ezra.
Ezra handed him the bag. "Only a few."
Josiah caught up and intercepted the bag, lifting it out of J.D.'s reach. "Gummi bears?" he asked, rasing an eyebrow at Ezra.
"That's not fair," J.D. protested, jumping up and trying to reach the bag.
Josiah planted his hand on J.D.'s head and held him down, still looking at Ezra. "Little early for gummi bears, don't you think?"
Ezra shrugged. "I was hungry."
"Then you should eat what I make you."
"Vin got twinkies."
"What?" Vin's voice was defensive, and he held his hand behind his back.
Josiah sighed. "Let me have them, Vin." Vin reluctantly handed him the package with the last twinkie. "You guys can have them back after lunch."
"What do I get after lunch?" J.D. asked, still eying the gummi bears.
"A stomach ache, if you eat from that pot of Josiah's," Ezra said, walking over to the van and sliding open the door.
Josiah scowled after him. "Thanks, Ez, you're being a big help." He turned to J.D. "Come on, you can pick something out for after lunch, too. You want anything, Nate?" Nathan shook his head. "Hey, you get me my paper?"
"Thanks." Josiah took the paper and looked at it. "Hey, Ezra."
Josiah pulled a dollar bill out of his wallet. "Take J.D. over to get something from the vending machine. I want to have a quick look at this."
"I think Vin wants to do it," Ezra said from inside the open van, making no move to shift from the seat.
"What? Ohyeah, Josiah, I'll do it," Vin said, walking over.
Josiah tilted his head, looking from one to the other. "What was that all about?"
Vin plucked the dollar bill out of Josiah's fingers. "Nothing. C'mon, J.D." He gave J.D.'s shoulder a little push.
"Only let him get one thing, Vin," Josiah called after him. Vin held up a hand to indicate he'd heard, but didn't turn around. Josiah turned to Ezra. "Why's Vin doing things for you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Ezra said blandly, reaching forward into the passenger seat and picking up the map.
"Hrmphh." Josiah took the newspaper around to the driver's seat and sat down, spreading the newspaper in his lap. He pulled out the front section and spread it over the steering wheel, slowly flipping pages and then discarding it, pulling out the next section. He flipped open one page and then stopped, re-folding the newspaper and examining it.
"It in there?" Nathan asked quietly, watching him.
Josiah turned and gave a small nod. "Yeah." He turned back to the newspaper. "Local section, third page."
Nathan was silent for a moment as Josiah read. "Guess it's good it's not in the front section, huh?"
Ezra wasn't really paying attention, so he was slow to register what Nathan and Josiah were talking about. "What's not in the front section?" They didn't answer for a moment. "Josiah?"
"Ohsorry, Ez. The story made it into the papers."
"What story?" Vin asked, climbing into the van. He tossed a bag of M & M's at Josiah. "Here, these are J.D.'s."
"There's lots of M & M's in one little bag," J.D. informed the others, climbing in after Vin.
"What story, Josiah?" Vin repeated, sliding the van door shut.
"Ez, make sure J.D. is buckled in right." Josiah handed the paper to Nathan and turned the ignition key, pulling the van out and back onto the highway. "The story about you guys running away is in the paper."
"I'm in the paper?" Vin asked, his voice sounding a little awed. Ezra turned around and pushed him.
"That's not good, stupid."
"Shut up, Ez!" Vin said, pushing him back. "Are our pictures in it?"
"Cut it out, guys," Josiah warned, not turning around. "Yeah, they are, but not that big."
"What's it say?"
Nathan looked at Josiah, who nodded. Nathan held up the newspaper and cleared his throat a little, reading. "'The Department of Child and Family Services reported yesterday that three children in the protective custody of the state disappeared from the Forrest Home for Children, and are believed to be runaways. Missing are Ezra Standish, 13, Vincent Tanner, 11, and John Dunne, 7, who disappeared from the grounds sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning. According to sources within the Forrest Home, although the two older boys have a history of running away, young Dunne has resided at the Home for only two weeks, since the death of his mother from cancer '" Nathan's voice trailed off at the end of the sentence, and he turned to look at J.D.
"Cancer's when you have lots of little germs inside of you, eating the good germs up," J.D. told them, making his fingers into little mouths and snapping them open and shut. "But not the kind of germs you get when someone sneezes on you, because even if Mama sneezed on me I couldn't get her germs inside me." He picked up his car again and drove it up the window. "Mama said the germs didn't hurt, but I don't think she was telling the truth."
Vin looked at J.D. for a moment, and then back at Nathan. "What else does it say, Nate?" he asked quietly.
Nathan looked at Josiah again, who gave him another small nod. Nathan skimmed over the personal details, picking up again at, "'There are no signs of foul play, and authorities report that they have no reason to suspect the involvement of other individuals. Preliminary investigations also indicate no signs of mistreatment within the Home. Lieutenant Michael Robbins of the district police states, 'While we are certainly concerned, given the boys' age, we believe they left of their own accord. I'm hoping they'll come back the same way.' The police department urges anyone with information to contact them '" Nathan looked up. "Etcetera. They have your descriptions, and information on how to get in touch with the police."
Vin and Ezra exchanged glances. "What do you think, Josiah?" Vin asked, leaning forward over the seat in front of him.
"Well" Josiah looked into his rearview mirror. "I think it's pretty good, everything considered. Story's in the local section, and they don't think anyone else is involved. That means Chris and Buck are okay."
"Of course they're okay!" Vin said hotly.
"You're right, Vin," Josiah said soothingly. "I just meant that the police don't suspect them of anything." He sighed. "Now we've just gotta hope our luck holds out."
+ + + + + + +
Jim Branson turned the dial on his portable set and leaned back in his chair, feet up on the porch railing. Lady and Gracie were fed, brushed, and stabled for the night, the setting sun was sending purple fire across the field, Pat Sajak and Vanna White were about to do their thing, and the drops of moisture on the bottle meant his beer had reached exactly the right temperature for optimal consumption. This was his favorite time of day.
The set flickered with the station's theme music, and a news update began. Uninterested, Branson reached forward to click back to the baseball game for a minute, when his eye was caught by the images being flashed on the screen, one at a time. He turned the volume dial a bit, remaining perched forward in his chair.
'All three boys were discovered missing from the Forrest Home on Saturday morning, and were last seen on Friday night. The police urge anyone with information regarding these children or their whereabouts to contact them at '
Branson clicked the dial. The baseball game was in the eighth inning. "Guess you girls are gonna be missing out on some carrots," he mumbled over his shoulder toward the barn, before settling back in his chair.
+ + + + + + +
"Babe, you coming to bed?"
Hal Johnson kept his eyes on the television, but called out a response. "Just a minute, hon. I want to catch this." He was examining the pictures on the screen's background, and didn't hear his wife enter until her arms were draped around his neck.
"Do you know those boys, Hal?"
He nodded. "The two older ones."
His wife came around the chair, settling herself on the armrest. He wrapped an arm around her and she leaned into him, watching the news report with him. She waited until the newscaster had moved to the next topic before asking, "Not students, were they? Surely they're too young for the high school."
"No, not students. I didn't even know them, really." He turned off the show and laid the remote on the table, turning to face his wife. "They came around the school every now and then, looking for a couple of the students. That Larabee kid was one of them."
She gave him a thoughtful glance. "That's the boy you've spoken of." He nodded. "He graduated this year, didn't he?"
Johnson smiled. "Yeah, going to college on a full scholarship."
"He was friends with these boys?"
"I don't know, really. They all lived at that Home. Truth to tell, few times I saw these boys show up, looked like Larabee was giving them a real mouthful. They were only there a few times, only reason I really noticed them was"
"Because you noticed just about everything about the Larabee boy," his wife finished for him.
Johnson gave a wry smile. "I have to admit, I'm going to miss that kid."
His wife's eyes smiled at him. "You're a good teacher, Hal Johnson."
Johnson leaned back from his wife, examining her, before leaning in and giving her a quick kiss. "Come on. Let's go to bed."
She winked at him and rose, pulling him up off the chair. "That's the best offer I've had all day."
+ + + + + + +
Madge Franklin had been working in the church rummage store for going on fourteen years now, and she liked to think that she ran a tight ship. So when a booster seat turned up missing, an envelope filled with cash taped in its place on the shelf, she was furious. Not for the loss; the money in the envelope more than covered the asking price. No, she was livid that someone had dared to do something in her store without her express consent.
"Hey Gina, you know anything about"
"Shhh, just a minute," the woman at the front admonished, turning up the volume on the small set on the counter.
Madge felt her ire growing. Gina Maples was a ninny, always talking a person's ears off about some useless thing or other, but she was a reliable volunteer, and Madge usually tried to tolerate her. But shushing her was completely unacceptable. "Gina, when I ask whether you know anything"
"Shhhh!" Gina turned and gave her an exasperated look. "Come watch this."
Madge reluctantly approached the set. The acerbic words she had been stifling faded away as she listened to the reporter and examined the pictures on the screen.
"Those are those kids always hanging around Josiah, aren't they?" Gina asked, watching her.
Madge nodded. "Older ones, anyway. Haven't seen the little one before, don't think."
The announcer shifted to a new topic, and Gina shut off the set. "Josiah's a good boy. Haven't seen him in here recentlywonder where he's been."
Madge moved distractedly toward a clothes rack, re-arranging hangors. "He's gone, left early last week. Heard he got into some college, out west somewhere."
"Well, good for him," Gina said heartily, resting her elbows on the counter. Madge resisted the urge to smack them off. "Wonder if he's heard about these kids, where he is. Mighty fond of those kids, he was. Be a shame if something happened to them."
"Sure would," Madge agreed, moving to the next rack.
"What did you need to ask me, Madge?"
"When I told you to shush, what was it you were asking about?"
"Oh" Madge felt for the envelope in her pocket. The pictures flashed across the screen danced in front of her eyes. She blinked quickly. "Nothing important, Gina. Just wondering if you knew where I put that box of pots and pans."
Gina gave her a pitying glance. "Madge, dear, you really must learn to keep track of these things. Kitchen goods are right over here."
Madge gritted her teeth and followed as Gina rose, still prattling, and led her toward the back corner of the storage room. Her feelings of ire were only slightly mollified by the fact that Gina led her in the opposite direction from where Madge knew well and good the pots and pans were always stored.
+ + + + + + +
The five boys arrived at the wilderness area shortly before lunch, and hiked the short distance from the parking area to the campsite. When they got there, Josiah divided up the tasks and began to set up the tents with Nathan. They had just gotten the first one up when Josiah noticed Ezra sprawled across a sleeping bag, playing a game of Solitaire.
Ezra looked up when a shadow fell across his cards. "I thought I told you to take J.D. and find some branches," Josiah said, standing over him.
Ezra shrugged one shoulder. "Vin wanted to go."
"I told Vin to get our gear unpacked." Josiah eyed the bags still lying on the ground, and Ezra followed his gaze.
"Yeah, he's going to do that when he returns." Ezra looked back at his cards, moving one card up to a top pile.
Josiah crouched down and placed his hand across the cards. "And what are you doing, trouble?"
Ezra looked at him innocently. "Playing cards?" Josiah's look told him he wasn't buying Ezra's. Ezra widened his eyes just a little bit more. "Vin wanted to go."
Josiah removed his hand and sat on the ground. "Ezra, why does Vin suddenly want to do all of your work?"
Ezra shrugged. "Perhaps he is proving his usefulness to our family unit. Best not to interfere with his productivity, don't you think?" Josiah gave him the same look as before, and Ezra looked down. "I don't know," he mumbled. "Maybe he just feels like it."
"Well," Josiah's look was steady. "I kind of feel like seeing you do some work, so how about if you unpack the bags?"
"But that's Vin's job!"
"But Vin's not here, is he?"
"But we had a deal" Ezra cut himself off. Josiah smiled.
"What kind of deal, Ez?"
"Nothing," Ezra mumbled, picking up the stack of cards. Josiah took them from him and laid them back on the sleeping bag.
"Looks like the deal's off, kid. Better get movingit's almost lunchtime."
"Great," Ezra muttered, standing and moving toward the bags.
Vin smiled when he and J.D. returned to find Ezra, a disgruntled expression on his face, yanking items out of the bags.
"Whatcha doing, Ez?" he asked, trying unsuccessfully to hide his enjoyment of the other boy's task. He dropped his branches on the ground and perched down next to them.
Ezra looked up and then down again, without answering, and retrieved some cooking utensils from Josiah's bag. He was about to drop them on the ground when Josiah said, without turning around, "Slam one more thing down, Ezra, and you're gonna be sorry." Ezra gave Josiah's back a dirty look, but lowered the utensils more gently to the ground.
"You owe me a dollar, Vin," Ezra muttered under his breath. Vin shook his head.
"Don't, either. Not my fault Josiah's making you work."
Ezra scowled at Vin. J.D. crouched next to Ezra, ignoring the look on his face, and carefully lowered his branches. "I got lots of good branches, Ez, see?" He grabbed one branch and brandished it in the older boy's face. "They're brown and crunchy, cause green ones make smoke, and I got all the big ones, see?"
Ezra grabbed at the branch before it could poke him in the eyes. "Impressive, J.D." J.D. smiled at him, then took the branch back and brought it over to show Josiah, who knelt by the side of a tent fastening a rope.
"Look, Josiah," he said, draping himself over the back of his oldest new brother. Josiah took the stick out of J.D.'s hand, examining it, and then stood with J.D. still clutching onto his back.
"J.D., I think this is the finest branch I've ever seen," Josiah said solemnly, and then wrapped an arm around the boy on his back and twirled in a circle. J.D. jumped up and down on his back.
Josiah twirled, protesting that he couldn't go any faster. J.D. egged him on, ignoring Josiah's protests, until Josiah finally crumpled dramatically to the ground, rolling over so J.D. landed sitting up. J.D. bounced once or twice more, tentatively, and then rolled off Josiah, reaching up and placing his hands on Josiah's face. "Did you get worn out?"
Josiah opened one eye slowly, and then reached out suddenly and grabbed the little boy, lifting him over his head into the air and grinning at him. "Not so worn out I can't take you you, squirt." He dropped J.D. onto his stomach and began to tickle him. J.D. began to shriek for Vin and Ezra. Ezra hesitated, but Vin promptly ran up and tackled Josiah from behind. Josiah reached an arm back and pulled Vin forward, tickling each of them with one hand. Ezra resisted for just a few moments more, but the combined pleas of Vin and J.D. decided him and he joined in the fray, grabbing Josiah around the neck and pulling at his arms. Finding himself outnumbered, Josiah yelled for Nathan, who tried to peel the younger boys off of Josiah one by one, but found that each time he turned to the next one, the one lying on the ground re-launched himself at Josiah. Nathan finally gave up and tackled the whole pile, bringing them all down into a laughing, squirming mountain of flesh.
J.D. climbed out on top, sitting on the assorted limbs of the others. "Is it time for lunch yet?"
Josiah sat up, scattering a few of the smaller boys. "You guys hungry?"
He was answered by a chorus of "Yes!" 's in assorted voices.
"Well then, guess it's time for lunch."
+ + + + + + +
When he and Buck had finished sorting their belongings, Chris had examined the results. The combined total of their almost eighteen years apiece of existence fit neatly into five boxes, two duffel bags, and a pair of backpacks. Didn't seem like much to show for the years Chris felt like he had lived. Then again, he thought it wasn't bad that he had enough that he cared to hold onto to fill a duffel bag to the seams. And the other things he was holding onto you couldn't pack up. Chris had labeled each of the boxes carefully with a phony post office box in Chicago, Illinois, and waited out the time.
Buck had been filled with a nervous energy for the past three days, and had coped the way he usually did, by finding every last possible way he could to grate on Chris's nerves. Chris supposed that wasn't really Buck's intent, but it all came out the same in the end.
Between Buck amplified and the tense atmosphere at the Home, Chris didn't think he was going to make it until Tuesday without having to kill someone, but somehow Tuesday came. Chris had learned that days of the week were reliable like that, if you waited it out, and this week wasn't really all that different from any other.
On Tuesday morning, Buck was the first one up, an event Chris couldn't quite remember ever having happened before. He could feel Buck's gaze on him before he opened his eyes. Without lifting his head from the pillow, he mumbled, "Stop staring at me."
"How the hell do you do that?" Buck's voice demanded angrily, and Chris grinned and opened his eyes. Buck sat in the desk chair, arms folded.
"Years of practice, bro."
Buck frowned at him, and Chris was sure he was trying to figure out if there was an insult in there somewhere. His relief that Chris was finally awake seemed to overcome any potential offense, though, and he began without further preamble. "Am I glad you're awake! I've been sitting here for hours, bro. How can you sleep so late on a day like this!?"
Chris sighed and sat up. Buck was already exuding the energy of a lapdog worrying a bone, and it wasn't even breakfast-time yet. "Buck, it's 7:30 in the morning. I'm not exactly Rip Van Winkle here."
"But it's Tuesday!"
Chris swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood, walking toward the bathroom. He tapped Buck's head as he walked by. "Chill, bro. Freaking out's not going to make the morning go any faster." He closed the door after him, not turning to take in what he was sure would be an outraged expression on the face of the boy behind him.
+ + + + + + +
"Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday," J.D. sang, skipping around the tent. His voice rose lustily in cadence with his internal melody line. "Tu-ues-day is when we go-o on the ro-oad and pick u-up Chris and Bu-uck." Josiah worked around him, having learned over the past few days that spent energy was a good thing when J.D. was about to be trapped in the van for any length of time.
"How far we gotta go, anyway?" Vin asked, looking up from the sleeping bags he was rolling.
"Just over a hundred miles west of here, Vin," Josiah replied, trying to reach around J.D. to pull up a tent stake. J.D. began to skip around Josiah, repeating his song.
"Why are we going so far?" Ezra asked, from where he sat on a cooler.
"Because that's where they're going to take the train to." Josiah managed to get around J.D. and pulled out the stake, tossing it onto a small pile and turning to survey everyone's progress. "Ezra, why aren't you packing our things?" he demanded, frowning at the lounging boy and taking a step toward him. Ezra hastily stood and began to pull the cooler toward the van.
"I was just taking a break," he said defensively.
"Josiah, how far's a hundred miles?" J.D. asked, pausing in his song and his circling.
Josiah made use of J.D.'s intermission and quickly pulled out a few tent stakes, tossing them on top of the others. "We'll get there right around lunchtime, J.D."
J.D. picked up a tent stake, wiping it clean on his jeans and returning it to the pile. "Can we go to McDonalds for lunch?" He picked up another stake.
"No, J.D." The words were beginning to feel like a mantra to Josiah.
J.D. wiped the second stake on his jeans and looked at it thoughtfully. "We could go to the drive-thru."
Josiah shook his head. "No, J.D." He tossed another stake onto the pile, barely missing J.D., and took in the clean stake in the grimy hand and the dirty jeans. "J.D.," he suggested, his voice a little strained, "how about if you see how quickly you can run to that tree and back, ten times. I bet you'd be really fast."
J.D. tilted his head, looking at the tree Josiah was pointing to, on the far side of the clearing. "I am real fast," he agreed, thinking about it.
"Betcha can't do it in three minutes," Ezra challenged, walking over and giving Josiah a little grin. Josiah winked at him before turning to J.D. and nodding his head apologetically.
"Ez is probably right, kid. No way you can make it to that tree and back, ten times, in less than three minutes."
"Can, too!" J.D. said hotly, glaring at them both.
Nathan looked up from where he was working on the second tent. "I don't know, J.D.," he said thoughtfully, examining the tree. "That tree's a long way off. I don't know if you can even make it ten whole times."
J.D. crossed his arms. "I can so, even more if I want to."
Vin sat on a rolled up sleeping bag, and grinned at the others. "I bet J.D. could make it over there fifteen times, if he wanted, couldn't you, J.D.?"
J.D. nodded, gratified at Vin's support. Josiah looked doubtful, and then sighed dramatically. "All right, J.D., if you really think you can. I'll time you, starting NOW!" J.D. took off like a bolt, running for the tree, and the others smiled at each other before returning to their tasks. By the time J.D. finished his fifteenth lap, trudging rather than running, they had finished most of the clean-up and were ready to load up the van.
+ + + + + + +
One of the staff members gave them a lift to the train station in his truck, stopping at the post office along the way so that Buck and Chris could ship their boxes ahead of them. He helped them carry the boxes inside, then returned to the truckwhich was double-parked out frontto wait for them. As soon as he left, the boys took the labels they had carefully written the night before and placed them over the addresses already on the boxes, re-directing the contents to the church rummage store.
The drive to the train station from the post office was a short one. Buck and Chris would have been fine with making it in silence, but the staff member driving them seemed to feel compelled toward conversation, so they forced themselves to speak enthusiastically about their plans. At the station, they shook hands with the staffer, and promised to keep in touch with the Home.
Their train was an express, and the ride took just over an hour, long enough for Buck to work himself into a full-blown glad over their seamless departure from the Forrest. Chris just let it wash over him. Even though he knew they weren't through with this yetnot by a long shothe also knew they were riding as high as they could have been, and damned if it didn't feel good.
They saw the white van just outside of the train station, pulled into the loading area. Chris opened the passenger side door and gave the occupant a pointed look, jerking his thumb toward the rear of the van. Nathan reluctantly abdicated his seat and shifted toward the middle seat, pushing Ezra from his position next to where Buck was now sitting and jerking his own thumb toward the back. Ezra scowled at him, but climbed over the back of the seat and wedged himself between J.D.'s booster seat and the inside window, since Vin had already taken the outside. Everyone spoke over each other as Josiah pulled out of the station and onto the side road that led to the highway.
Buck's voice rose over the din. "So what's with the baby seat?" he asked Josiah, motioning behind him. Josiah groaned as J.D. let out an outraged noise.
"Buck," Josiah said, biting out his words, "I have spent three days convincing him that is not what it is. Now you get to deal with it."
"Huh?" Buck asked, confused, as J.D. shouted, "I told you, Josiah!" Vin and Ezra leaned away from J.D., holding their ears. J.D. spoke earnestly to Buck, who had turned to face him.
"I told him it was just for babies, and he said I had to sit in it anyway, and I told him I was too big, and he said I was not, and you tell him it's a baby seat!" J.D. finished in an offended squeak.
Vin elbowed J.D. "Quit gripin' about the stupid seat, already, J.D."
J.D. turned and stuck his tongue out at Vin. "You quit bossing me around!"
"Why don't both of you shut up?" Ezra suggested cheerfully. Nathan turned around.
"Why do you always have to get involved in everything, Ezra?"
Ezra scowled at him. "You can just be quiet, too, Nathan."
"You want to try and make me?"
The voices rose over each other again, and Buck turned around slowly, raising an eyebrow at Josiah.
"Did I mention how glad I was to see you guys?" Josiah said mildly, not turning from the front window as he steered the van onto the highway ramp.
Chris gave him a half smile. "Miss us, did you?"
Josiah looked over at him and tilted his head. "Still sure you want to do this?"
Chris nodded. "Pretty damn."
"You?" Josiah turned to Buck, who took another look at the back of the van before shrugging a shoulder and nodding.
"Yeah, why not?"
Josiah smiled, turning back to the front. "All right, then."
They grinned at each other, the road flying by outside the van, their brothers safe inside of it, closer every minute to home.