'How can this be happening?' thought the southerner as he raced the Jag toward his condo. Guilt raced through his mind. He should have been there. He had been so wrapped up in work with Vin's undercover assignment that he hadn't been able to get away for his bi-weekly visits. And now he may never have the chance to see her again. 'I called,' he thought. 'Yeah, right. That will make up for missing visits.' Ezra cursed himself as he made the turn in to the parking lot.
Uncharacteristically running to his house, the southerner continued to beat on himself. She was only a couple hours away and he couldn't find time in his busy life to see her. He unlocked the door and hurried to the bedroom, hauling the plush leather suitcase out of the closet. Seeing the beat up green Samsonite case behind it, he discarded the fancy suitcase without hesitation for the much older, highly used case. He didn't know why he kept it but, as he packed, a small smile came to his face as he remembered the first time he met Grace Harper.
Ezra sat in the taxicab outside the small house. The yard was well maintained, its flower garden was awash with vibrant colors. The sullen boy with his head pressed against the car window could care less. He didn't want to be here. She had promised. His mother promised he could come and live with her, but here he was at some small suburb in South Carolina, outside the home of a total stranger. It was Aunt somebody, but he didn't care. His mother hadn't even come with him. She simply forced him into the cab at the airport, not even waiting until the cab took off before heading back in to make her connecting flight to somewhere he wasnt.
Ezra knew his mother was upset about the tantrum he had thrown at the airport. He had wailed and made a fuss, so much so that his mother had to physically force him into the cab. He saw the extra money she gave the cab driver. The young boy had watched out the back window looking for her long after the airport was out of sight. He hadn't thrown the tantrum just to be bad. He wanted his mother to listen. She promised she would take him with her and then as they landed in this ratty town, she told him he would be staying with. Who was it? Aunt Grace or something. His mother didn't understand that he just wanted to be with her. He didn't want to be here at another stranger's home, and he was going to do everything in his power to make this visit short-lived. He would be a living nightmare and get himself tossed out. Then his mother would have to take him with her.
Grace looked out the window at the Checker Cab. The driver removed a green Samsonite suitcase from the trunk and set it on the sidewalk. He opened the back door, but no one got out of the car. Grace quickly headed out the door towards the car to greet her great-nephew.
The cab driver dragged Ezra out of the car by his arm. "Get out, ya little brat!" he growled, shaking Ezra for good measure. He wasn't paid well enough to transport insolent little rich kids.
"Unhand that boy!" Grace ordered.
Ezra looked at the woman, surprised that she was standing up for him. She was old. He had assumed she would be his mother's age since she was his aunt, but this woman was really old. Well at least maybe at this place there wouldn't be any kids to push him around. "I said, take your hands off of my nephew," Grace demanded.
Something about her commanded respect despite her petite size. Ezra was relieved as the man released his grip and muttered, "He's all yours. I wish you luck." before climbing back into the car and taking off down the street. The boy looked at his aunt, no longer certain that his plan to be thrown out would work with this woman.
Grace offered the boy her hand as she introduced herself. "Ezra? I am your mother's aunt. My name is Grace Harper." After reluctantly shaking hands, Ezra snatched his back and stuffed it inside his pants pocket.
Now he knew why she was so old. She was his mother's aunt, not his. In reality, she was just forty-five years old but to a boy of seven that was ancient. Ezra eyed her suspiciously wondering what she would gain from keeping him.
"You can call me Aunt Grace," she smiled. "Come along, now, I have lunch ready for you. You must be hungry." She turned toward the house, stopping after a few steps when she realized Ezra wasn't following. She let out a small sigh. The battle lines were already being drawn. She had known this would be difficult. A little boy shuffled from home to home without much discipline, if any, was going to be a handful. She knew he would be full of anger and fear, and she was prepared to deal with it.
"Ezra, pick up your suitcase and come inside."
"No," said Ezra obstinately. "I don't want to."
"Well, then leave it there. It's your responsibility. I'm not going to carry it. Someone will come along and take it and then you won't have to worry about it anymore." She could see that Ezra wasn't going to budge. "Lunch is on the table," she said as she turned and went inside the house.
Several hours later, she looked out the window for perhaps the twentieth time. The boy was still sitting on the green suitcase, swinging his feet, and biding his time. Grace smiled. Little Ezra was a stubborn child. That could be turned to his advantage with the right guidance. She stood firm on her decision to have Ezra carry his suitcase and to make him choose to come inside, but her compassion for the hurting child made her want to run out to the street and throw her arms around him and hold him. At least he had stayed put and not run off in his anger. She had seen Ezra stare longingly down the street, and she knew that he was hoping his mother would come and rescue him from this stranger. She watched as a deck of cards flew effortlessly through his fingers, even at his young age. She had agreed to take in Ezra because she hoped to counteract some of his mother's influence and give the seven-year-old a stable home. Grace sighed, and then busied herself making dinner, intentionally opening the kitchen windows so the aroma of the cooking meal would drift his way.
Ezra's stomach growled. The food smelled good. He hadn't eaten since breakfast and that was a sweet roll and orange juice on the airplane with his mother. His mother. Ezra sighed. He knew she wasn't coming. He knew sitting out here on the sidewalk wasn't accomplishing anything. Besides, he was hungry, he was getting cold, and worst of all, it was getting dark. Aunt Grace had turned on the front porch light. It looked a lot more inviting than the darkening shadows around him. Ezra stood up. He had made up his mind. He would do battle tomorrow. When it wasn't dark. When he had a full stomach.
Grabbing the handle of the suitcase that was nearly as big as he was, Ezra used both hands to drag it up the sidewalk and onto the porch, dropping it with a thud. Just as he reached for the doorbell, the door swung open and Aunt Grace pushed open the screen door.
"You don't have to ring the bell, Sweetie, this is your home." She reached down and joined her hand with his on the suitcase handle. "Let's take this to your room." Together, Grace and Ezra lugged the awkward bag to his new room.
Grace turned on the light and Ezra saw the place that was to be his until Grace grew tired of him or his mother came to get him. It was a small room, but then again, the entire house wasn't that big. There was a twin size bed in the corner covered by a handmade patchwork quilt. There was an old pine dresser to store his things, and a bookcase filled with books. A toy box sat at the foot of the bed, empty. The walls were barren and the room decorated simply.
"I didn't know what you would like," Grace explained. "Tomorrow we can go and pick out a few toys and perhaps some pictures?"
Ezra looked up at Grace, wondering what her angle was. He was expecting to be punished for his insolence with the suitcase, but she hadn't said a word about that. She acted as if she really wanted him to be here.
"I'm not supposed to be a bother," he said quietly.
"Oh, Sweetie, you aren't a bother. I've been looking forward to having you stay here. Let's get you some dinner, and then we'll put your things away." She lifted the suitcase up on the bed and moved towards the door, stopping only when she realized the boy wasnt following her.
"My name is Ezra," the seven-year-old stated firmly. "Ezra P. Standish."
"Yes, Sweetie, I know that your name is Ezra," replied Grace. She walked back towards the little boy and she laid her hand on his shoulder before steering him down the hall towards the kitchen.
Ezra shrugged away from the touch. "My name is Ezra," he repeated, "not Sweetie."
Grace smiled at his statement but didnt say a word. As they made their way down the hallway, she pointed out each of the rooms so that Ezra could get a feel for his new home. At the end, she stopped and nodded toward the bathroom. "Wash up for dinner, Ezra. Then come and join me in the kitchen."
Grabbing his leather coat and keys, Ezra quickly shut off the living room light and left the condo, making sure the alarm was set. With his suitcase packed, Ezra hurried back to the Jaguar and hit the road. It was just under a two-hour drive. He had considered flying, but the next flight out wouldn't be for nearly ninety minutes, and it would end up taking more time to get there if he flew. He hurried to the interstate, cursing Denver traffic and wondering why he hadn't insisted on moving Aunt Grace closer. He smiled. He knew why. Auntie Grace was an independent woman and she had insisted on the tiny place on the far outskirts of Colorado Springs.
He winced slightly as pain shot through his pinkie as he merged into the southbound traffic. He wiggled his finger on the steering wheel. He could move it fine. It was just bothersome. Settling into the drive, long-forgotten memories began to push their way into the forefront of his mind.
Ezra and Grace had that first weekend to become acquainted, testing each other out. Ezra pushed each and every boundary she set, making Grace wonder if she was up to the challenge. Seeing something special behind the angry exterior, she pressed on, refusing to give up one extra inch. When she had taken Ezra to the store to get him a couple toys and something to dress up his room, the child had no idea what to ask for. It was clear that he was not accustomed to gifts and he seemed hesitant to ask. She watched him walk up and down the toy aisle, occasionally stealing a glance at her, probably trying to measure how much she had to spend. She smiled indulgently as she watched him pass by the Secret Agent Spy kit four times. He eyed it longingly, picked it up, turned it over then placed it carefully back on the shelf before he moved on to something else. He wanted that kit but he wouldn't admit it. He finally settled on a magic set that was sitting next to the spy kit on the shelf.
"Are you sure this is what you want?" asked Grace looking at the magic set. Ezra nodded but couldnt keep his eyes from flicking back to the spy kit. "All right, Ezra. I'll make the purchase. Why don't you go use the restroom before we leave? It's over there, by the shopping carts." Ezra quietly handed the magic set to Grace and nodded before he headed off while Grace made her way back down the toy aisle before she made her purchase.
When they arrived home, Grace made Ezra eat lunch and do the dishes before he could open his toys. He was anxious to get started. His heart was set on the Secret Agent Spy Kit, but it had cost more than the magic set. From the looks of Aunt Grace's home, she didn't have much money so he had chosen the magic set instead. Consoling himself, he admitted that he really wanted to learn to do the magic tricks. He sat down at the kitchen table, waiting for Aunt Grace to bring over the package from the store.
Grace laid the sack on the table in front of him. "You did a very nice job on the dishes, Ezra." She nodded to the bag. "Go ahead. Let's see what's in that kit."
Ezra eagerly opened the sack and, without looking inside, pulled out the box. He looked up in surprise to find Grace watching him quietly. "The Secret Agent Spy Kit!" Ezra ran his hands over the box admiringly. "But..."
"I knew you really wanted this one," said Grace.
"Oh, I did!" he admitted.
Grace smiled, happy to see the excitement in Ezra's eyes. "Go on. Look in the bag again, Sweetie."
In his excitement over his new treasure, Ezra hadnt even noticed that she had called him Sweetie as he laid the box on the table and looked in the bag. "Oh, Aunt Grace!" he exclaimed as he pulled out the magic set. Ezra examined the two kits side-by-side, confused by his aunt's generosity. Clearing his throat, Ezra peeked up at her through his long eyelashes. He couldn't figure out what possible angle she was playing. Why in the world was she being so nice to him? Knowing he should be a gentleman, he smiled shyly. "Thank you for the kits, Aunt Grace. I promise, I won't make a mess." Without waiting for a response, Ezra scooped up the magic set and the spy kit and dashed off to his bedroom.
Grace let Ezra play away the afternoon and after dinner she started what would become their daily routine. She had Ezra pick out one of the many books from his shelf and they began to read it together. At first Ezra was resistant and wouldn't even look at the book, but there was something about the way Aunt Grace read. Soon, he was engrossed in the story, peering over her shoulder at the pictures as she rocked in the rocker, not even realizing he had been drawn in, until the story was over. Grace smiled at the consternation on his face as he discovered he had let down his defenses.
"Perhaps tomorrow, you'll read too?" she asked. Ezra didn't respond, still dismayed that he had lost himself in the story. "Or perhaps you can show me a trick from your magic set?" Grace smiled. She could almost see the gears turning in that little mind of his. He didn't trust her, but she knew that would come with time. She handed the book to Ezra and stretched as she got out of the rocker. "Let's get you to bed, Ezra. You have a big day tomorrow."
'Yes,' thought Ezra sarcastically, 'a real big day in another brand new school with kids I don't know.' He sighed and trudged toward the bedroom watching his feet as he walked.
Monday morning came far too soon for a sleepy seven-year-old. Most kids were up at the crack of dawn, running and playing, waking with the day. Ezra, however, was a night owl, never quite ready for the sun to rise. Grace gently but firmly shooed him out of bed and into the bath. Ezra moved with slow automatic movements, not forcing himself to apply too much thought to anything. Eventually, beds were made, breakfast was finished, the dishes were done, and they were ready to go. Ezra looked at the clock and saw that it was only seven o'clock. Remembering that his school didn't start until nine, he complained about the early hour and frowned as Grace explained that he had to go to work with her until time for school. On the way to her job, Ezra found out that his Aunt Grace was an English teacher at the high school that was just across the street from Ezra's new school.
As Ezra assumed, his first day of school at George Washington Elementary was not a good one. He was starting in the middle of the school year so he had to work to catch up in class. The kids had already formed their friendship groups, and a newcomer wasn't exactly welcome. It didn't help that Ezra was dressed in a white shirt and black slacks. Aunt Grace had tried to get him to wear something a little less dressy but he had stubbornly refused. Looking around the schoolyard, watching all the other kids playing in their jeans and shorts, he realized now that he should have listened.
On top of all that, Ezra barely cleared forty-five inches tall, on the low side for his age group and he had to have a run in with Darryl Peterson who was a full ten inches taller than he was. Peterson had been held back a year and was an eight-year-old in Ezra's second grade class. Darryl Peterson used his size to his advantage, intimidating smaller kids into giving him their lunch money or doing his biding. Ezra didn't like being told what to do so, when he refused to give up his lunch money, he earned himself a bloody nose and a trip to the principal's office on his very first day. When she had heard about the altercation, Aunt Grace had scolded him for fighting and talked to him about finding a better way to handle his differences.
Ezra pulled into the parking lot of the tiny assisted living facility and sat in the car for a few moments, trying to prepare himself for what he was going to have to face. He and Grace had picked out this place together right after his transfer to Denver had been announced. It was moderately priced but very well run. In fact, it was owned by the same parent company as the facility where she had resided near Gloverville, South Carolina, just outside Augusta, Georgia. When he had sent her pictures of the various facilities to choose from, the beautiful flower garden had sealed the deal for Grace. She had always loved gardening and, while she couldnt do it anymore herself, she still appreciated a lovely garden. She had always said that a well-tended flowerbed said more about a place than any glossy brochure ever could. He wiped his moist palms on his pants legs and slid out of the car before hurrying into the building. Looking at his watch, he shook his head when he saw that it had been almost three hours since the phone call.
Ezra walked the long corridor in trepidation. He didn't understand why he felt so uneasy, so fearful. He had done everything he could do to repay her kindness to him. Her home had been a safe haven several times in his tumultuous youth. He owed her for more than just his physical care. She had been instrumental in helping him see that there were other paths to choose besides the one his mother had chosen for him. That was why Ezra brought her to the care facility in Colorado Springs when he was uprooted from Atlanta to become a part of Team 7. A Standish was never "beholden" to anyone. It was to his advantage to have others owing him. So, if he was just paying off his debt to his great-aunt, why was he so apprehensive as he approached her room?
Ezra walked the familiar passageway trying to sort out what he was feeling. He had walked this hallway many times in the past couple of years yet somehow he felt he had not walked them enough. His bi-weekly visits had sometimes been interrupted by a case, or by a trip with the team. Ezra now regretted the time lost that he should have spent here. He knocked lightly on Grace's apartment door. Hearing no response, he took his key and unlocked the door. Opening the door, Ezra paled when he saw that her bed was empty. 'No. Oh God, no. I'm too late.'
"Mr. Standish?" The petite nurse had seen Ezra enter the building and head toward Grace's apartment. She had tried to catch him, but he was moving on autopilot, oblivious to anything except getting to Grace's room.
Ezra turned anxiously towards the voice. "Miss Jefferson?" He left his question unvoiced, but she understood.
"Grace was moved earlier this afternoon. She's in the Critical Care Unit. Let me show you."
Ezra followed numbly. Silently, he cursed the day Chris Larabee came to Atlanta and yanked him away from the FBI to join his ATF team. He cursed the day that Vin Tanner made him start to feel a part of things in Denver. The day he had begun to feel concern for others. Hell, it was so much easier not to care. Ezra stopped as the young blonde nurse paused at a doorway. That was it. He cared about someone other than himself. That was why he was so afraid when the nursing home staff had called and told him to come quickly. He cared.
He hissed in a short breath as he saw his beautiful Great-Aunt Grace, now so fragile and frail lying in the sterile hospital bed, an oxygen tank feeding precious air to her through the nasal canula. There was an IV dripping the various medicines into her arm while another tube delivered her nutrition.
"It's okay, Mr. Standish. You can go in." Nurse Jefferson encouraged. "Go ahead. Talk to her."
Ezra moved hesitantly to the bed. With a slightly trembling hand, he gently brushed back the silver hair from her cool forehead, and then took hold of her left hand in his unsteady one. "Auntie Grace?" His words stuck in his dry throat. "I'm here."
Green eyes slowly opened and met their likeness in Ezra's worried gaze. A smile graced the aged face. Seeing the fear in her great-nephew's eyes, she slowly moved her right hand, resting it atop his and patting gently. She reassuringly whispered, "I'm all right, Sweetie."
Tears welled up in Ezra's eyes. How could she say that? She was dying. How could she be reassuring him when it was he that ought to be comforting her? His mind darted through the hundreds of times she had reassured him in his few sporadic years with her.
"Remembering old times?" she asked. Ezra met her loving gaze and nodded, afraid to speak. Afraid his voice would fail his carefully constructed wall of indifference. "We did have some good ones, didn't we?" She patted his hand again. "Remember when you made me dinner for Mother's Day?" She watched Ezra blush. "It was the thought that counted, Sweetie, although, I must admit, I never did acquire a taste for cinnamon mashed potatoes."
"I thought it was pepper," Ezra chuckled wryly. "I simply procured the wrong container." The vision of shaking cinnamon into the potatoes instead of pepper filled his mind. He had been devastated at the mistake but Aunt Grace had graciously eaten the foul tasting concoction simply to show her appreciation of his efforts.
Grace smiled and Ezra felt his heart grow lighter, but somehow more anguished at the same time. The memories were sweet, but the realization that he was losing her for good this time knifed at his soul.
"You never knew how much those cinnamon potatoes meant to this old woman," Grace said lovingly. "I always wanted a baby of my own, but it just wasn't meant to be. Then, one day, God gave me a hurt and angry little boy to love and care for through some tumultuous times. It gladdened my heart to watch that boy began to grow and change. Imagine my happiness when, one day he made me cinnamon potatoes for Mother's Day."
Ezra swallowed hard. "I must have been hell on you."
Grace chuckled softly. "Sometimes." She nodded. "Sometimes you were more than a handful." She rubbed his hand. "Like the time you got expelled for running that homework scheme on campus. Or when you conned Danny into beating up the boy who was picking on you."
"It wasn't a scheme, it was a creative way to earn money," Ezra protested indignantly. "And I didn't con Danny. He was well paid for his efforts. I tutored him in math for the rest of the year."
"Well, if you ask me, that bully got what he deserved, picking' on my Sweetie like that. But that doesn't make what you did right."
After a disastrous start, Ezra soon found a better way to handle his problems rather than fighting. Instinctively, he knew that Aunt Grace wouldnt be thrilled so he kept his plan to himself. A few short weeks later, for some mysterious reason, bully Darryl Peterson started getting "A's" on his homework and stopped picking on a certain southern seven-year-old. Word quickly got around and, to his delight, Ezra discovered he could make a tidy profit simply by doing homework for the other kids. He was a smart kid and was soon pocketing money from fourth and fifth grade students as well as his peers.
Grace had noticed that it took Ezra an extraordinary amount of time to do his homework but he refused her help. She was trying to let him settle into a routine without pushing him too much so she decided to wait and see if he would come to her. If not, she would wait for his parent - teacher conference to discuss the heavy workload with his teachers.
It was almost three months into his stay with Grace Harper when his homework scheme was discovered. Ezra sat on a plastic chair outside the principal's office swinging his feet that didn't have a prayer of reaching the floor. He knew he was in big trouble. They had called Aunt Grace at school and she was coming. Ezra didn't feel bad about doing the homework, but he deeply regretted the loss of his income. He had hoped that somehow, if he earned enough money, his mother would see he was useful and take him with her. Ezra sighed. His mother wasn't coming but Aunt Grace was on her way. He wondered briefly what she would consider just punishment. Maybe this would be the thing that pushed her over the edge and made her send him away. That had been his goal when he was so abruptly dumped here. The problem was, he was no longer certain that he wanted to leave. Aunt Grace was pretty nice even though she didn't have much. This was an okay place to be and now he had screwed it up. He was going to be dumped somewhere else and who knew how bad it would be.
"Good morning, Mrs. Harper." The secretary's greeting made Ezra flinch. Aunt Grace was here. He had caused her to have to leave school during the middle of the day. Yes, she was going to hate him. Ezra's shoulders slumped a little lower.
He kept his head down as the principal called him in, not wanting to see the anger and disappointment on Aunt Grace's face. The principal told him to sit in the chair next to Jimmy Wilson. He heard Jimmy whisper, "You're dead" as he sat down. He shook his head. He already knew that. Whatever the principal had in store, Aunt Grace would reinforce at home and life would be hell at school facing all the other kids who were now in trouble.
Ezra barely heard the words that were being spoken until Jimmy's father began to speak. He accused Ezra of being the instigator. That his Jimmy would have never come up with this on his own. Ezra squirmed in his chair. This man was trying to make it sound as if it was totally Ezra's fault his son had done something wrong.
"Excuse me, Mr. Johnson," said Aunt Grace. "I would like to make a comment."
"Certainly, Mrs. Harper," agreed the principal.
Ezra looked up as Aunt Grace laid her hand on his shoulder. He couldn't decide what her expression meant. She was angry, but there was something he couldn't figure out as well.
"Mr. Wilson? How tall is your son?" asked Grace with a piercing stare.
"About five feet, I guess. Why?" answered Wilson.
"And how old is he?" Grace continued without answering his question.
"Twelve. What's this got to do with anything?"
"Would you mind telling me how a seven-year-old boy who is three-foot-nine inches tall intimidated a boy who is more than a foot taller and five years older than him into doing anything?" Grace waited as silence settled in the room before continuing. "Certainly Ezra did wrong, but your son would not be here if he did not choose to cheat. Your son is as much at fault in this mess as Ezra is."
Ezra flinched as Aunt Grace gently squeezed his shoulder. She was defending him! His mind reeled in confusion. He would never be able to figure out her angle. Ezra was too preoccupied to hear what punishment the principal passed down, but he figured it must have been suspension as Aunt Grace told him to come with her. She had defended him! No one had ever stood up for him when he was in trouble. He felt a shiver run through his body, fearing it was just the quiet before the storm and he would be beaten when they got home. He wondered briefly if she would use a belt like Uncle Joe or her fist like Uncle Jonathan. The rest of the meeting passed in a haze and he found himself glumly following Aunt Grace across the street to her car.
Her silence was deafening, making the ride home very uncomfortable. Ezra wished she would just yell at him and get it over with. He had no idea that Grace was well aware that he was uncomfortable with her silence, or that she was remaining silent in order to regain her composure and to prepare to handle his discipline without anger. All he knew was that he was in big trouble.
When they arrived at the tiny house, Ezra dreaded going inside, fearful of what would happen. Aunt Grace turned off the engine and sat in the car for a moment before she finally spoke to the boy who was huddled in the corner of the passenger seat next to her. "Ezra, I want you to go to your room and stay there until we are ready to deal with this."
"Yes, ma'am," he whispered. Ezra took his books and went straight to his room. He assumed with as angry as Aunt Grace must be, that she was calling his mother to come get him. As much as he wanted to see his mother, it somehow hurt to think that Aunt Grace was going to throw him out. He felt safe here. He was almost convinced that she really wanted him here, and now he had blown it.
Ezra knelt down beside his bed and reached underneath and dragged out his battered green suitcase. He placed it on the throw carpet near the tiny closet and opened it. With a sigh, he moved to the dresser and began taking his clothes out of the drawer and packing them in the suitcase. He didn't have many clothes, but it seemed to take forever to pack. He looked at the magic set and the spy kit, desperate to pack them but, in the end, he left them where they were. He didn't deserve them now. Aunt Grace would probably find some neighbor kid to give them to. He longingly ran his hand across them before turning away to finish his packing. All too soon he was placing his last shirt inside and snapping the locks closed. He sat on it remembering the day he had come here, angry, scared and lonely, relishing the memory of how Aunt Grace had been more than decent to him despite his horrible attitude.
Ezra tried to be tough. He tried not to show his feelings, but he was only seven. Tears of fear and sadness began to fall down his cheeks. He trudged over to the bed, climbed up on it and laid down, burying his face and his shameful tears in the pillow.
Grace found him an hour later, curled up on the bed, still crying in his sleep. Her heart went out to him. How could he be so naughty one minute and so innocent and needy the next? Grace looked at the packed suitcase and sighed when she realized that he had thought she was going to send him away. She had hoped that some time alone would make him think about what he had done, but she hadnt planned on him reacting this way. She sat on the side of the bed and brushed her hand soothingly across the sleeping boy's forehead frowning when the troubled boy pulled away from the gentle touch.
"Ezra? Sweetie, its time to wake up. It's time for dinner." She shook his shoulder gently. Ezra woke slowly, disoriented from his midday nap. When Grace moved her hand again, he literally jerked away from it.
"Sweetie! I'm not going to hurt you. What is going through that little mind of yours?" Grace watched as Ezra slowly gained his bearings. She saw the remorse cross the child's face as he thought about the trouble he was in.
"Ezra, we need to talk about what happened today."
Ezra sat up and straightened his wrinkled shirt. "I'm sorry, Aunt Grace."
"I know you are, but I want to know what you are sorry for," she replied.
His forehead wrinkled as he thought about what Grace had just said. When he couldnt come up with an answer he felt was good enough, he tried to use some misdirection to cover his confusion. "Did you call my mother?" he asked as he picked at a wrinkle in the knee of his pants.
"Do you want me to?" asked Grace.
Ezra looked at Aunt Grace's face, trying to see what kind of game she was playing with him. He shook his head, almost imperceptibly, not even aware he had done it. He didn't want her to call his mother. He was just getting used to this place and didn't want to move again. If he were to be completely honest with himself, he would say that he liked living with Aunt Grace.
"Ezra, do you know what you did wrong?" Grace asked patiently.
That was just it. Ezra wasn't entirely certain what he had done wrong. He was paid for doing kids' homework. He helped them get better grades in school. What was wrong with that? "I'm mixed up," he confessed softly.
"Why?" asked Grace.
"I helped them get better grades in school. I earned money doing it. That's not bad."
Grace smiled inwardly at the confusion. Maybe Ezra didn't know what he had done wrong. "Helping someone to improve in their class work is noble, Ezra. Doing the work for them, however, is cheating. They may get better grades, but they don't learn anything so you are actually hurting them and their classmates as well. If the teacher grades on a curve and the person you do the homework for is getting good grades, that isn't fair to the other students." She looked at the bowed head and slumping shoulders. "Now, do you really understand why what you did was wrong?"
She saw the slight nod. "What do you think your punishment should be?" Grace continued. Ezra shrugged. He didn't know why she was asking. He was positive that he was either going to be beaten or sent away.
"Well, let's figure it out together. You are suspended from school for three days but you can't stay here alone. So, you will have to come with me to work and make up the school work you are going to miss." Grace lifted his chin and turned his face toward her to be sure she had his full attention.
Ezra nodded cautiously, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"You will also need to apologize to the teachers and the students involved."
"And then, you will return all of the money you took."
Ezra's eyes widened and he pulled out of her light hold. "No!"
"Yes, you will."
Ezra pulled the wallet out of his pocket and slipped it behind his back as he shook his head quickly. "No. I can't."
"Why not, Ezra?" Grace pursued, genuinely puzzled at his response.
"I need it," Ezra explained simply. "It's mine. I earned it."
Sensing there was more to this issue than the money itself, Grace prodded a little further. "Why do you need it, Ezra? Dont I buy the all things we need? You dont need to earn money to live here."
"NO!" Ezra gripped the wallet tightly. "Its mine. I can't give it back. I wont! You cant make me!"
"Ezra Standish, why can't you give the money back?" chided Grace.
"I need it ... " he whispered in a broken voice, "for Mother." His head hung low again, but his grip on the wallet was still tight.
"Your mother doesn't need your money, Ezra."
Tears began to roll down the boy's face. He cringed inwardly at his uncharacteristic display of emotion but he couldn't hold them back. Grace knew this was not one of Ezra's attempts at manipulation. These tears were real. This insecurity was real. She barely was able to suppress her dismay when she heard the sobbing boys next confession.
"But if I have money, she might need me. She will want to keep me with her."
She wasnt certain that Ezra had intended to say those words aloud but that was her undoing. Grace pulled the resistant boy into a hug, holding him tightly, eventually feeling him relax into the embrace as she rocked him gently on the bed, trying to soothe him.
As the tears subsided, Grace felt the warm leather wallet being pressed into her hand. "No, Ezra. I want you to return the money."
"How? You're sending me away," he asked as his green eyes begged her to let him stay.
"Oh, Sweetie. I'm not sending you away. Everyone makes mistakes. You just need to own up to yours. What you did was wrong, and you will be punished, but I'm not sending you away." She kissed him on top of the head. Ezra pulled away and scrunched up his nose in displeasure at the display of affection. "I would never willingly send you away. This is your home, Ezra."
Grace had laid out the discipline and over the next three days Ezra wrote the required letters of apology to each person who was affected by his little homework ring as he sat in the back corner of her classroom. As he completed his penance and homework, he learned something else about Aunt Grace. She didn't have an angle. She didn't have an ulterior motive. She was real and she wanted him.
Now, when it was time to read together before bed at night, Ezra picked out the book and sat down on the sofa and waited for Grace to finish her evening chores. Grace would smile as Ezra began to read aloud. She had been pleased to discover that he was a very good reader. Invariably, she would move from her rocker and sit beside him to help with the harder words. Three days after the homework debacle, Ezra the Magnificent treated her to the first of many magic shows. She clapped enthusiastically when he swept into the family room, dressed in a white shirt and black pants. A cape made from the faded floral apron that she had been missing for two months completed his ensemble.
Grace smiled as she remembered her own private magic shows with Ezra the Magnificent. "There were times, Sweetie, that you were the best thing anyone could ask for." Ezra dropped his head, slightly embarrassed even now at her praise.
The silence lasted a moment too long and Ezra looked up at Grace in fear of what the stillness meant. "Auntie Grace!" he cried when he saw that her eyes were closed. There was no response from the fragile form in the sterile hospital bed.
Ezra flinched as he felt a warm hand on his coat sleeve.
"Mr. Standish? We need to let Grace rest now."
The southerners eyes darted to the gray haired doctor who had come up beside him. "Can't you do something?" he pleaded in a hushed voice.
"Let's go to my office," said the doctor with a kind smile. Ezra followed him, glancing back, trying to hold on to his Aunt Grace, willing her to stay alive.
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