After the two men were seated in the office, Ezra and Graces doctor, Doctor Roesen, discussed what limited options were available. There were really only two options and the doctor pointed them out to the distraught man as gently as possible. She could remain at the nursing home and continue to receive the good care she was already getting, knowing that she was where she had chosen to be or Grace could be transferred to a hospital where the professionals there may be able to prolong her life but only for a few hours, perhaps one or two days longer. Regardless to what option they chose, the end result would be the same. Death was inevitable.
Ezra swallowed hard, hearing the words but not truly grasping them. This couldn't be happening. How many times had his mother come back and ripped him away from Grace's loving, albeit humble home? Aunt Grace had always said, "Yes," when his mother had needed a place to dump him and no one else wanted to take him. Even though he was snatched away from Grace, he had been able to find her again, to re-establish contact, to reconnect. No more. This was one time he would not be able to sweet talk, con or weasel his own way with the powers that be. Ezra focused on trying to breathe, trying to contain the emotions that were threatening to destroy his now flimsy facade.
After a few quiet moments, Ezra cleared his throat and looked the doctor directly in the eye. "She should stay here," he said flatly. "This is her home. She doesn't want heroic measures, and she shouldn't be with strangers."
The doctor nodded, understanding. "She has a living will?"
Ezra nodded reluctantly as the gravity of the situation truly began to sink in. "Do not resuscitate," he said softly, but everything within him screamed, 'No! I'll do anything to keep her here. He shook his head slowly. He couldn't do that. He had promised Grace that he would follow her wishes. Ezra took a deep breath and sighed. "Is there anything I can do to," closing his eyes, Ezra pressed on despite what his heart was begging, "Is there anything we can do to make it easier for her?"
Doctor Roesen watched the struggling young man before him. This scene was far too familiar to an old codger like himself. It was obvious that the southerner had never dealt with the impending loss of a loved one. He watched the hands squeezing the arms of the chair so tightly that the knuckles were white. It was as if the young man were holding himself in the seat so that he would not run as far as he could away from the unchangeable facts.
"Mr. Standish, we will do everything medically possible to keep her comfortable. Grace is such a lovely woman. I know how much it means to her that you are here. You've already made it easier for her by coming. Just spend the remaining time you both have together. Do what you have been doing. That will be the one medicine we can not provide that will make this easier for her. Easier for you both."
Ezra nodded, then allowed his gaze to travel to the window. It was pitch black outside and he couldnt see a thing except the images that were running through his mind.
"Mr. Standish, I know this is very difficult for you but, have you thought the arrangements that are going to be needed?"
Again, the normally unflappable undercover agent nodded, unable to trust his voice to work without breaking.
"We have some people here who can help you," offered the doctor.
"No," Ezra shook his head. "Aunt Grace and I took care of the necessary arrangements well over a year ago." Ezra rubbed his hands tiredly over his face, suddenly feeling exhausted after his long day and long drive. "Can I stay with her?"
Doctor Roesen nodded before offering Ezra the use of his couch for a nap. Ezra agreed with the caveat that someone would wake him if he were needed. The southerner slipped off his shoes and laid down only to slip into a restless slumber tossing and turning as his mind was filled with long-forgotten dreams.
After the homework scam was busted, Ezra had managed to stay clear of the older boys for the first couple of days back at school. He knew that Jimmy Wilson and his best friend, Buddy Taylor, were looking to pay him back for getting them into trouble over the homework. Grace had noticed the reluctance to go to school, the tummy-aches, the coughs, anything he could think of to stay home, but Grace didn't buy into it. She figured he might be having some trouble, so she had warned his teacher and the principal.
It was late Friday when she had just finished classes for the day that trouble struck. She had the windows open to allow the late spring breeze to bring its fresh scent into the room. She checked the clock and saw that Ezra would be out of detention soon. He was serving the final part of his punishment in detention, helping other students with their homework ... for free. Grace had just finished putting away her books in her briefcase when she heard the bloodcurdling scream break the calm afternoon. While she had never heard Ezra scream before, she instinctively knew it was her boy. She hurried to the window in time to see two big boys running from the playground, leaving behind a smaller boy lying on the ground, crying. The bright red sweater vest confirmed her fears and she grabbed her bags before she ran out the door as fast as she could.
Ezra hadn't seen them coming. He had been heading across the playground to the crosswalk to go meet Aunt Grace when Jimmy and Buddy caught him off guard. Jimmy twisted Ezra's arm roughly behind his back and held him as Buddy got in a couple of hard punches to his stomach and face. Jimmy then shoved Ezra against the jungle gym, causing one of the steel bars to catch him in the wrong place. The two tormentors froze when they heard a sickening crack and Ezra began screaming in pain. Snapping out of their shock, Jimmy and Buddy hightailed it away from the scene of their crime.
Ezra fell to the ground, unable to focus on anything but the horrible pain in his shoulder and arm. He tried to be brave, but it hurt so badly, he couldn't help but scream and cry. When Aunt Grace's soft voice finally broke through his terror, Ezra began to focus on her voice. His heart-wrenching screams stopped and the crying became sobs and groans.
Grace knelt down beside the child, held his uninjured hand in her left hand and gently stroked Ezra's forehead with her right, trying to calm the terrified child. She kept her voice low and soothing, never showing Ezra what she was feeling inside. She could see that Ezra was in shock, but Grace could tell he was responding to her presence.
He was almost quiet by the time the ambulance arrived, then the terror started again. All he could focus on then were the strangers that were poking at him, making his arm hurt even worse. They eventually let Grace ride with Ezra just to keep him calm.
When they reached the emergency room, the harried staff thrust a pile of papers at her to fill out for Ezra. Her heart seized as Ezra begged her not to leave him alone, beginning to cry even louder as the door between them closed. Because the doctors couldnt even see him until the documents were completed, Grace forced herself to focus on the job at hand. Grace filled out the paperwork as quickly as she could. Maude had granted temporary guardianship of Ezra to Grace when she had arranged for him to stay with her so that she could legally approve medical procedures for him. To her dismay, she realized all to soon that she had no past medical history for the boy. She fumed a little as she tried to telephone Maude for the answers she needed. By the time she returned the phone to its hook, she was totally disgusted with her niece. Maude had clearly been annoyed with the timing of the phone call and didn't seem concerned at all to hear that her son was in the hospital emergency room. After begrudgingly answering the necessary questions, she simply requested that Grace leave word for her when she found out how serious the injury was and abruptly terminated the connection. Grace finished the paperwork and, after being told she couldnt go back to where Ezra was, she impatiently sat in a chair in the waiting room.
A few doors down the hall from the waiting room, Ezra's heart was thudding loudly in his chest. He had finally stopped wailing and curled up tightly on his side, trying not to move his injured arm. Based on his past experience, he knew that there was no point to crying since there was no one to hear him. He was completely alone once again. Icy fear gripped Ezra as memories of his previous hospital stay flooded his mind. It wasn't even a year ago when he had sassed his Uncle Jonathan for the last time.
Ezra unconsciously flinched at the memory of his uncle's alcohol laden breath smothering him as he beat him with his meaty fists. The next thing he knew was that he had woken up in a strange place, totally alone. He hadnt known where he was or what had happened. He only knew that everything hurt. A lady had come into the room and told him she was a nurse and that she was going to help him, but everything she did seemed to make him hurt more. A doctor came in and wanted to know his name and his parent's names. Ezra was very careful not to mention Uncle Jonathan. He never wanted to go back there. He told him his mother's name and where she was in France. He spent the next six days alone, not really understanding what was wrong with him or what the nurses were doing. What was even more frightening to him was the realization that his mother immediately didn't come and she probably wasnt going to be coming to save him. He was afraid she would never come for him. Uncle Jonathan hadn't come to the hospital, not that Ezra wanted him to be there. All the scared little boy knew was that everyone abandoned him. Eventually, a distant cousin came and signed him out of the hospital and he once again found himself at the mercy of strangers.
Now it was Aunt Grace's turn. She was going to abandon him too. Maybe his mother really wouldn't come this time. Maybe he'd be alone forever in this scary place where they hurt you under the guise of making you better. As the thoughts snowballed, Ezra worked himself into true terror by the time the next adult entered the room. When the doctor walked in, the petrified boy began screaming before the physician even touched him. Self-preservation kicked into high gear. There was no way he was staying here. Ezra struggled against everything the doctor tried to do, pushing his hand away with his uninjured arm, trying to squirm away from him. Ezra's struggling only intensified his pain. The doctor, fed up with the fighting and concerned for Ezra's welfare, finally asked one of the nurses to get the boy's parent.
Grace was welcomed into the room and told to move to the side of the bed opposite the doctor so that he could check Ezra's injured arm and shoulder. She bent low, her lips almost brushing the boys ear, and began to talk low and soothingly, but it had no effect on Ezra. He didn't even seem to be aware she was with him. Seeing that the doctor was losing his patience, she was forced to try another way to breach his fear. "Ezra!" she said harshly. His eyes snapped to her. "You're going to be all right. You need to lie still and let the doctor take care of you."
"I don't want to stay here!" Ezra protested, but then his voice softened and he grabbed her hand tightly in his. "Don't leave me alone."
"I'm not going to leave you, Ezra," said Grace. "The doctor needs to do this so that he can help make your arm feel better."
"He's going to hurt me," declared the seven-year-old. "It always hurts when they fix something."
Grace was surprised by the comment but didnt let the others see that. The innocent remark indicated that Ezra had been in the hospital previously and it didn't sound like a pleasant experience. "Ezra, just relax. It will be all right. I won't leave you. You have my word."
Ezra looked at Aunt Grace, not believing her. His past experience in seven short years told him she would leave him too but she was here now. Maybe she really would stay with him and take him home with her afterwards. Ezra quieted, but his fear was still obvious. His suspicious green eyes tracked every movement the doctor made. Despite all his efforts, he cried out in pain when the movements required to check the extent of injury to his shoulder ran through his small frame. He clenched his jaws and the tears streaked down his pale cheeks when he caught sight of the needle as it was injected into his thin arm. All too soon he was feeling drowsy and, even though he struggled to, he found that he was no longer able to focus his thoughts.
As soon as Ezra surrendered to the painkillers, the doctor moved to reduce the dislocated shoulder as gently as possible. The x-rays showed a supracondylar fracture of the humerus. At Graces puzzled look, he explained that was a fracture located high in the upper arm. Because there was no displacement, Ezra would only need to be in a sling for three weeks. A cast would not be necessary.
About a half an hour later, Grace was loading a groggy Ezra into a taxi outside the hospital. Upon seeing the cab, Ezra was certain that they were headed for the airport. Aunt Grace had lied to him and was sending him away. He tried hard to stay awake but his head lulled back against the seat. The next thing he knew, Aunt Grace was gently lowering him into his own bed at home. Ezra smiled as Aunt Grace kissed him on the forehead and arranged his pillow one more time as he drifted to sleep.
Ezra awoke the next morning to sunlight streaming through the window, and when he was able to focus through the fog of the medication, he knew it was late. He winced at the sudden pain that shot through his shoulder as he sat up in bed. Ezra struggled, trying to untangle the blankets from around his legs with one hand but, because he was still disoriented from the painkillers, he wasn't successful. The seven-year-old sat defeated with his hair standing up on end in clumps and sighed miserably. If he couldn't even get out of bed, how was he going to make it to the bathroom? After a few tense moments, he decided that desperate boys do desperate things.
"Aunt Grace?" he called urgently. She appeared momentarily at his door, smiling at the sight in front of her.
"Good morning, sleepy-head."
"Good morning," said Ezra hurriedly. It was hard to remember manners when one was desperate. "Aunt Grace? I need..." He couldn't finish the question. It was far too embarrassing for a young southern gentleman to admit his predicament. Somehow Aunt Grace knew what was needed and she quickly untangled the blankets and helped him out of bed.
"Do you want to try to walk?" she asked. Ezra nodded and Grace steadied him as he walked precariously down the short hallway. Seeing Ezra sway dizzily at the bathroom door, Grace knew he needed more help than he would ever admit so she went about helping the mortified seven-year-old matter-of-factly.
As they headed back to his room, Ezra blinked back tears of embarrassment. "I'm sorry to be so much trouble," he mumbled.
"You hush now, Sweetie. We do what needs to be done. You'll be able to take care of yourself soon." The ducked head told her that Ezra didn't believe her. She helped him back into bed and adjusted the pillows to protect his arm. "Rest now, Sweetie. I'll bring you some toast and juice."
"What about school?" asked Ezra.
"Oh Sweetie, you can't go to school for a few days. You need to have time to heal. We don't want to bump that arm around too much and make it worse."
No, Ezra certainly didn't want to do that. "But what about your school?"
"You are such a worrier, Ezra," she laughed. "I took a personal leave day. Mrs. Fergusen will come and sit with you tomorrow."
"NO!" cried Ezra. "Can't I go with you to your class? I'd be very quiet," he pleaded. "I could lay on the floor in the back of the room. I wouldnt be a bother. I promise."
Grace smiled lovingly at the distraught boy. She was certain that Ezra was embarrassed at the thought of needing help from Mrs. Fergusen, but she also sensed that he was afraid that she would leave him.
"Ezra, you dont need to worry. The medication you take here at home is not as strong as the shot the hospital gave you." She smiled as Ezra's tear-filled green eyes fixed to her face. "We'll figure out a way for you to take care of your own needs so you won't have to ask Mrs. Fergusen for help." The instant relief on her great-nephew's face made Grace quietly chuckle.
"Let me get you something to eat, and then we'll go on a safari. How does that sound?" Ezra nodded. A book safari would be just the thing to get his mind off of his arm.
Grace spent a great deal of the morning reading to Ezra about life in Africa. Ezra delighted in the stories of Elsa the lioness. It was one of many reading adventures that he experienced during his stay with Aunt Grace.
By the start of the next week, Ezra was back in school. He had refused to tell who had hurt him, and somehow he managed to avoid Jimmy and Buddy for the remaining month of school.
It was nearly seven in the morning when Ezra woke with a stiff neck. It took him a few moments to figure out where he was and what exactly was happening. Remembering pieces of his dream, he closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths to calm himself. He was no longer a terrified seven-year-old boy who was frightened that his Aunt Grace would leave him. He was a grown man who had to face the most difficult experience of his entire life. Ezra rubbed his weary eyes. Aunt Grace was leaving him, but it certainly wasn't her choice. Ezra sighed, still trying to accept the fact that his Auntie Grace was dying.
He heard a soft knock on the door. "Mr. Standish?" asked the doctor.
"Yes?" asked Ezra anxiously, his heart fluttering with fear.
The doctor opened the door and immediately saw the young man's distress. "Grace is all right." He smiled gently as the tension dropped from the southerner's body. "She's still sleeping. I thought perhaps you would like to go freshen up and get something to eat before you see her."
Ezra nodded. "I'll go to Grace's apartment, if that is all right? I'll be back shortly."
The doctor nodded as Ezra vacated his office. He sighed, knowing that the young man had nothing but sorrow to come.
Ezra hurried back to Grace's apartment in the assisted living facility and showered. When he was dressed in a fresh set of clothes, he sat on the edge of the bed, turned on his cell phone and dialed Josiah's direct extension.
"Sanchez." Ezra breathed in the soothing sound of Josiah's rumbling voice.
"Mr. Sanchez," he said softly.
"Ezra! Are you all right?" Josiahs exuberant greeting caught the attention of the other men in the office. When it looked like they all were going to speak at once, he held up a hand to hold them off. "Chris said you took emergency leave. What's wrong?"
Ezra impatiently listened, waiting for Josiah to pause for a breath. While it was not a well-known fact, he had discovered that Josiah could babble as much as JD sometimes. "I'm fine, Josiah. I just wanted to be certain that you would call on Vin. He's been..." Ezra paused, unsure how to explain.
Josiah lowered his voice as he finished Ezras thought. "He's been leaning on you and you don't want to leave him hanging?"
Ezra grimaced. That was not exactly how he would have put it but Josiahs assumption was technically accurate. "He's starting to be willing to use his crutches, to lean on his friends. I don't want him to feel as if I have pulled the crutch out from under him."
"Dont worry, Ezra. I'll watch out for Vin," he assured the southerner. "Now, is there anything we can do for you?" asked Josiah.
"Nothing. This is something I need to handle myself." Ezra glanced at his watch and saw that it was almost 8:45. Visiting hours began at 9:00 am and he needed to get back to Grace. He didnt want to lose any more precious time with her. "I have to go Josiah. I'll check in later." Ezra quickly clicked off the cell phone.
Josiah hung up the phone and sighed. Ezra was shutting them out. He was obviously struggling with something but, like Vin, he refused to take the help that was right in front of him. Well, he may not be able to do anything about Ezra Standish right now, but Vin Tanner was another matter entirely.
"Where is he?" asked Vin, having overheard the entire conversation from his perch on the corner of Josiahs desk. "Is Ez all right?"
"He didn't say where he was and he claims he's fine," reported Josiah.
"When will he be back?" asked JD. All of them were a little unnerved by Ezra's sudden departure. In his early days with Team 7 it would have not surprised them if he just up and left without word, but in the past couple of years Ezra had become part of their unique family. He had left word that he needed leave, something he would never have done before. He had made an effort to reach Chris but ended up having to go to Travis when the team leader was unreachable. None of them could imagine what it was that made Ezra drop everything and run. Vin had told them how upset Ezra appeared after the mysterious phone call. They had all debated the possibilities but, when a suggestion came up that it might have to do with a family member, they had all agreed that it couldnt be something like that since Maude had just been in town earlier that week. As far as they knew, his mother was his only living relative so none of the men had any idea as to what sort of personal problem Ezra had to leave town to deal with.
"Are you sure it isnt something to do with his mother?" asked JD. The youngest member of Team 7 absently rubbed his hand over his heart, remembering the tragic loss of his own mother not that long ago. "Maybe she got in an accident or something."
Josiah smiled to himself when Vin stepped forward to comfort his 'little brother'. "Nah, JD. It's not Maude. Ez would have said something if it was." Vin elbowed JD in the arm playfully and JD grinned as his moment of sadness passed. Josiah watched the youngest two of the team as they returned to their desks. Each time Vin stepped outside of his troubles to help one of them, he took another step toward healing.
It hadnt gone unnoticed that Chris, Buck and Nathan had all remained quiet during the exchange. Buck and Nathan both returned to their desks caught up in their curiosity of where the southerner had gone while Chris stared thoughtfully out the window.
After listening to Buck and Nathan continue to try and figure out the mystery, JDs own curiosity kicked into high gear. Going over everything that was at his immediate disposal, he snapped his fingers suddenly, drawing a curious look from Buck. "Maybe I could try and track the call?" suggested JD excitedly.
Buck stared at the young agent, giving the suggestion careful consideration. "Yeah! That aint a bad idea, Kid."
"No," snapped Chris. "JD, you need to drop this. Now!" His tone of voice spoke for itself, leaving no room for questions. "Whatever's going on is personal. It's his business. If he wants us to know, he'll tell us."
Buck snorted at the thought that Ezra would tell them anything, but choked back the muffled laugh when Chris glared at him. "I'm serious, Buck."
Buck nodded in agreement. Chris was right. It had taken Ezra forever to trust them with the parts of his life that he had shared, and they didn't need to be screwing that up by prying into his private life. Granted, Ezra had never opened up too much but he did sometimes share bits and pieces of his true self. Those precious bits and pieces had begun to sculpt out the image of the man they now knew. A man who was now a world apart from the cold-hearted, selfish and seemingly egotistical man who had nearly gotten JD killed on their first case.
"How did he sound to you, Josiah?" asked Nathan, his EMT instincts were always in high gear, watching out for his teammates.
Josiah thought for a moment and, although Nathan had asked the question, he looked over at Vin as he gave his reply. "He sounded very tired and very much alone."
Vin winced slightly as Josiahs words bounced around in his mind. He suddenly got up from his desk, bumping his chair against the wall and moved quickly down the hall.
"What?" asked JD, looking at the others as he tried to figure out what had just happened. When it looked as if no one was going to check on the sharpshooter, he got up to start to follow Vin.
"No, JD. Let me," said Josiah rising from his chair. He walked down the hall to the conference room where Vin was pouring a cup of coffee with shaking hands.
"Something bothering you, brother?" asked Josiah.
"He tells me I gotta trust my friends. I gotta talk to y'all." Vin stirred in the sugar vigorously. "Then, there he goes and does just the opposite. So he's been lying to me all this time."
"Vin," chided Josiah. "Don't go there. I happen to know a long-haired Texan who pushed a southerner to trust his friends, and to talk to them. That same Texan is standing here in front of me, struggling with his own words now."
Vin dropped wearily into a chair at the conference table. He knew Josiah was right. Setting his coffee aside, he crossed his arms, laying them on the table and slid forward resting his head on his folded arms. He was so tired of this. So tired of feeling lost. So tired of feeling ashamed. So tired of trying to do it all on his own.
Josiah closed the door and sat down in a nearby chair waiting. He had almost given up when Vin began to speak again. The Texan drew himself back from the table and rested his elbows on his knees, cradling his chin in his hands.
"You know, Josiah, I feel like running as far away from here as I can get." The Texan drawl was so soft that Josiah leaned closer to hear what Vin was saying. "It'd be so much easier to go somewhere where nobody knows me and just start over."
"No it wouldn't, Vin," answered Josiah softly.
Vin turned his face toward him, shooting Josiah a challenging look. Josiah accepted the What do you know about it? challenge from his teammate.
"Wherever you run, Vin, your problems will follow. Your problems aren't because you have six friends here to back you. Your problems aren't even because you were forced into a role on the streets that brought up old memories."
"I know," said Vin softly. "Hell, Josiah. How do you trust?"
Josiah smiled gently. He'd been there before too, caught in the abyss of fear of taking that first step. "You have to take the step Vin, without knowing where your foot will land, but believing that we'll be here to catch you and hold you up." Josiah waited for Vin to look at him. "You need to talk about whatever it is that you are bottling up inside of you."
Vin began shaking his head. "I can't, Josiah. You wouldnt understand."
"Try me. I've seen the streets from both sides, Vin. It would take an awful lot to surprise me."
Vin smiled at the statement. It was true. Josiah had probably seen more tragedy than all of them between traveling with his missionary father and serving in Vietnam. If he was ever going to get his head on straight again, Vin knew that he would have to take action. He would have to do something. Taking a deep breath, he stuck his toe out testing that ledge in his mind. "Well, Josiah, you see, it was like this "
Ezra sat at Aunt Grace's bedside reading to her. The fragile woman lay with her eyes closed, listening to the beautiful sound of her nephew's voice, remembering the many times they had read together. Times that the two of them would take their private trips through the gift of words, letting the stories carry them out of their family room to far away exotic places. Images of later years came to mind when her Sweetie began to pose more challenging questions as they read that led to many fun debates. She remembered a young boy with a beautiful singing voice who was terribly shy about using it, and how that had all changed one summer day.
It was soon after the dreadful incident involving those two bullies and summer had finally come bringing with it all sorts of new opportunities. Grace was teaching summer school and Ezra found that he preferred attending her classes to staying home with Mrs. Fergusen. She was a nice lady but Aunt Grace was much more interesting. He was astounded to find out through her class lectures that she had been to a lot of places in her younger days. Not all of her safaris had been experienced through books alone.
Ezra delighted in hearing the many exciting stories she shared with her students as she tried to bring a bit of life to their textbooks. He also relished the challenge of trying to do some of the sophomore English assignments. He started turning in his own papers along with the older students who thought it was cute. His work wasn't up to their level, but he was always pushing himself. They had gotten used to his quiet presence in the back of the classroom and, eventually, adopted him as their class mascot.
When he wasn't in class, Ezra would run various errands for Grace and the other teachers who were working to earn a bit of pocket money. During these small trips, he became friends with the pretty music teacher at the end of the hall. They had met when, one day he had been headed down the hallway and found himself drawn to the music that was floating out of the large room. He lurked in the doorway, enjoying the lively tunes Mrs. Benson was practicing. When she caught sight of him, she invited him in. He watched her play the piano while humming along with the notes, bringing the music to life. By the end of the six weeks of summer school, she had taught Ezra enough so that he could play a few simple pieces on his own. Grace would slip down the hall and stand outside the room to catch an impromptu concert in the late afternoons. She could see Ezra sitting at the piano, seriously studying his finger positions while he sang some songs with Mrs. Benson.
Aunt Grace always sang a lot at home as she worked, but Ezra had never joined in. One evening, as they stood at the sink, Grace began to hum as she washed the dishes, handing them to Ezra to dry. Without really thinking about it, Ezra picked up the tune she had been humming and began to sing the words aloud. When he noticed that Aunt Grace had stopped humming, Ezra froze and just stared at her when he realized she was watching him. The young boy blushed with embarrassment at being caught in the act.
"Don't stop, Ezra. You have a beautiful voice." She turned back to the sink and picked up another dirty dish and began singing where he had left off. Pretty soon Ezra was singing right along with her. With her loving words, another tradition had started.
The summer passed too quickly, and school was rapidly approaching for the now eight-year-old. A conference between Grace, Ezra's teacher, and the school principal brought about Ezra taking a placement test. It was decided that it would be best for Ezra to skip third grade and to be placed in fourth grade to provide more of a challenge to the bright child. He could easily have skipped to the fifth grade, but they felt that socially, it would be too difficult.
Ezra settled into the school year fairly easily and, due to the advancement, he was once again the smallest kid in his class. Surprising himself, he had actually made a couple of new friends and was doing well socially in class. At Aunt Grace's prompting, he joined the school choir and was soon preparing for a solo in the upcoming school concert with Mrs. Bensons help.
It was a crisp November afternoon when Mrs. Benson drove Ezra home after rehearsal. As they turned the corner, Ezra felt a sudden surge of excitement and fear when he spotted a taxi parked in front of Aunt Grace's house. Ezra quickly bid his singing coach good-bye and grabbed his books before hurrying up the sidewalk. They rarely got any visitors at the small house and the only person Ezra knew that would use a taxi in this small town was his mother. Trying to get to the front door as fast as possible without running, the young boy mentally crossed his fingers, hoping that it was his mother who had come for a visit. Hoping that maybe she would be able to stay with Aunt Grace and him for a couple of days.
When he pushed open the door, he stopped suddenly when he caught sight of the two women sitting stiffly in the family room. The atmosphere was so thick with tension, it felt as if you could cut it with a knife.
"Ezra, darling!" drawled Maude sweetly.
"Mother?" Ezra glanced from his mother's smiling countenance to Aunt Grace's teary eyes. "What is wrong?"
"Is that any way to greet your mother? Come here and give me a kiss," she directed, pointing to her cheek. Ezra followed his mother's instruction, but his eyes kept straying to Aunt Grace who was trying valiantly to hide her tears from the boy who had stolen her heart.
"What's wrong?" Ezra asked again.
"Why, nothing, darling. Hurry Ezra, we have to pack your things," said Maude, avoiding the question.
"Pack my things?" protested Ezra. "Why?"
"Ezra," scolded Maude. "We are wasting time. We have a plane to catch."
Ezra stopped in surprise. "I'm going with you?"
"Of course, darling," said Maude sweetly, patting the boys stiff shoulder.
Ezra took a step back from his mother with a look of horror on his face. "But I can't! The concert is next week. I have a solo!"
Maude grabbed the protesting boy's hand and pulled him towards the small bedroom. "There will be other concerts, Ezra. Darling, we really must hurry."
"Please Maude, just let him stay until the semester break," Grace pleaded. "He's doing so well in school."
"We already discussed that," said Maude. "I am his mother and I know what is best for my son. He will do just as well in France."
"France?" asked Ezra, not believing that his mother was actually taking him with her after all this time.
"Wherever is your luggage?" Maude demanded, looking around the small room. She pulled open the top drawer of the dresser and pulled out a stack of shirts while Ezra reluctantly pulled the green Samsonite suitcase from under the bed. He put it up on the bed but didnt open it.
He stood next to the bed with his arms folded, not making one move to help his mother with the packing. "I don't want to go."
"How can you say such a thing? You'll be with me, darling. It's what you have been begging for in all your letters," Maude coaxed as she began flinging his clothes into the suitcase. Realizing that this was going to happen regardless to what he wanted, Ezra grabbed his magic set and his spy kit and brought them over to the suitcase. When he laid them carefully in the case, Maude picked them up and examined them with a frown. "We really don't have room for these. I'll get you some wonderful new toys once we get to Paris," she said as she set the kits on the edge of the bed. As Maude latched the suitcase and lifted it, the magic set and the spy kit were inadvertently knocked off the bed.
Ezra watched in stunned disbelief as his meticulously organized kits scattered on the floor. The small boy ran to pick his precious treasures up to bring with him but managed to grab only his secret decoder ring before Maude grabbed his arm and began to pull the struggling boy down the hall. "Mother, please," cried Ezra. "They're mine."
"Ezra," Maude huffed, "don't dally. I told you, I will get you new toys in France. Now say thank you to Grace and let's go. The meter is running and you know how much I dislike wasting money."
Ezra pulled away from his mothers grip, ran to Aunt Grace and threw his arms around her. As he struggled to fight back the tears, he whispered, "Tell Mrs. Benson that I'm sorry."
"Hush now, Sweetie. She'll understand. You be good now. Be sure to write to me and Ill write to you too." Ezra nodded and squeezed his eyes shut just as a lone tear fell down his face. Grace kissed him on his head before she stuffed Ezra's favorite book in his pocket. "Dont forget that this will always be your home, Ezra. You will always have a place here."
"I love you, Sweetie," Aunt Grace called as Ezra was pulled by his arm to the waiting taxi, looking back at Aunt Grace the whole time.
Maude grimaced at the endearment. Aunt Grace had called her Sweetie when she was a small girl. Suddenly she knew what Ezra was feeling. He had attached himself to Grace much like she had done when she was a child. But this was no time for sentimentality. Jean Pierre was waiting for her return. She had finally found someone who wanted a son. Maude pushed Ezra into the back of the cab before climbing in after him. She briefly waved a final good-bye to the brokenhearted woman on the porch. "Thanks for everything, Aunt Grace," said Maude.
Tears streamed down his face as Ezra twisted in the seat to look out the back window. The last image he caught of his Auntie Grace was of her standing on the sidewalk, peering down the street at them as the cab sped away. "I love you too, Auntie Grace," Ezra sobbed.
Now that they were out of the tiny house, Maude took the time to really look at her son. While she had enjoyed her time away, she had missed him terribly. He had grown so much in just one year and she was pleased with the young boy who sat beside her. Pleased with everything but the tears. Maude sighed, remembering how her own childhood tears had been used against her. She would not have that happen to her boy. Pulling her handkerchief from her purse, she wiped the tears of her heartbroken child. "Ezra, you mustn't cry in public." She handed the boy the moist handkerchief and leaned over to smooth his hair from his brow. Lowering his voice so that the driver didn't hear her, she added, "You can't let people see your weaknesses. They will only use them against you."
Ezra turned his face to the side window, looking out at the passing scenery. He didn't want to hear it. He didn't want to be brave. He didn't want to hide the evidence of his hurt that was trickling down his face. He was missing his concert. His favorite toys were left behind, scattered all over the floor. And Aunt Grace. She had made him feel so safe. His heart hurt and he didn't care who knew. Ezra chanced one more glance behind them, but the tiny house was no longer in sight. He turned forward, settling into the seat, gulping back his tears as his mother gently squeezed his hand. "Remember darling, appearances are everything."
When he came to the end of the chapter, Ezra stopped reading and pulled his linen handkerchief from his pocket. He swallowed the huge lump in his throat and fought for a breath as he gently wiped Auntie Grace's tears with his handkerchief. She opened her eyes and smiled at him.
"Are you in pain?" he gasped out.
"No, Sweetie. I was just remembering how you used to sing to me." She turned her face toward him. "I would really love it if you would sing to me. Will you?"
Without hesitation or any thought of embarrassment, Ezra began to sing the melody they had sung at the kitchen sink many years ago. The only thoughts that were in his head were of trying to give any comfort he could to Grace in her final hours. He held Grace's hand and watched the smile on her face as it slowly relaxed into the peacefulness of sleep. He didnt let himself relax until he saw her chest rise and fall at its irregular tempo, assuring himself that she was only asleep. He settled back in his chair thinking about all the wonderful times he had singing with Grace and those thoughts brought even more memories out of hiding. He thought about Mrs. Benson, and then remembered how devastated he had been to be ripped away from Grace's home before that first solo. He had been glad that he could be with his mother, but he had so wanted to stay in South Carolina with his Auntie Grace. His time abroad had been an unwanted adventure in the beginning but, looking back now, he could see just how many wonderful things he had gotten to experience.
When they had first arrived at what was to be his new home, Ezra didn't like anything about France. It was a very strange country. He couldn't understand a thing that people were saying. His newest stepfather, Jean Pierre LaCroix, insisted that Ezra only speak French in his household. He was put in a French private school, totally immersed in the French-speaking world. Because of the language barrier, Ezra fell behind quickly. He had been doing so well at his old school and now he was nearly failing. Ezra spent many hours at the kitchen table struggling with his homework. He could have done the homework in his room, but he had found one friendly face in the entire house, the maid, Marie. She helped him with his homework and, in exchange he helped her improve her English.
His mother and stepfather were constantly traveling as Jean Pierre pursued his many business endeavors, leaving Ezra alone with only his books for company in a strange house. One dark afternoon soon after he had arrived at his new home, Ezra was feeling particularly lonely. Although there were many expensive toys lining the shelves in his bedroom suite, his mother hadn't remembered her promise to replace the magic set and the spy kit. He never said a word to her about her promise since he knew that any replacement wouldn't be the same. Any new kit would never have the same meaning anyway. Those toys were special because they were from Aunt Grace. To try and lift his spirits, he read a few chapters from the book Aunt Grace had slipped into his pocket, Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped". He smiled sarcastically, thinking that somehow it seemed appropriate. As he thought of Grace, he realized it was Sunday afternoon. At Grace Harper's home, Sunday afternoon was letter time. Ezra found some stationery and headed for the kitchen.
As he sat down at the table and began to write his letter, he remembered writing letters to his mother from Aunt Grace's kitchen table. He hoped that Aunt Grace was a better letter writer than his mother was. Ezra was so excited when he opened that first letter that he got from his mother. He had ripped into the envelope eagerly only to find a copy of his own letter enclosed with all of his spelling mistakes marked and grammatical errors underlined in red. There had been no personal note at all. He would never forget the anguish he felt deep in his heart as he thought that she cared enough only to point out his shortcomings. Her later letters, when they did come were newsy, telling him of her travels, but the painful memory of that first letter hung forever in the back of his mind.
Marie had been busy with the lunch dishes when he had first come down to the kitchen but when she finished, she went over to the table to see what Ezra was so engrossed with. Glancing over his shoulder, she saw that he was writing something in English.
"What are you doing?" she asked. "Is this homework?"
Ezra struggled with his wording, but managed to answer her correctly in French, explaining that he was writing a letter.
"But it is in English," Marie said worriedly. "Your father will not be pleased."
"I can't write it in French," Ezra protested.
"But you are doing well with your studies," Marie countered, trying to instill some confidence in the young American.
"But, I don't know if Aunt Grace can read French." He signed his name with a flourish, carefully folded the letter and put it in an envelope. After he printed Graces name on the outside, he laid the letter on the table and began to look around the kitchen. "Marie, do you have a..." Ezra paused unable to think of the French word for candle. He finally gave up and drew a picture.
Marie quietly supplied the proper French word for candle and waited for the boy to repeat it. Once he said it to her satisfaction, she found a candle for him, wondering what the boy had in mind. She watched as he struck a match, lit the candle and began to drip wax in a puddle on the flap of the envelope. Then he took off his ring and pressed it into the wax, sealing the envelope like Aunt Grace had showed him they had done in the olden days. As he went through each step of the process, Ezra tried to explain to Marie what he as doing, but wasn't sure if he told her he was sealing the envelope or flying to the moon.
When the wax had hardened, he showed Marie the impression of a lightning bolt he had made with his secret agent decoder ring. She smiled, watching him slide the envelope into a heavier airmail envelope, which was already addressed, to a Miss Grace Harper. The printing was large, but very neat considering Ezra's age. Marie took the letter and promised to mail it on her way home that evening.
By the end of March, Ezra had caught up with his classmates and was fairly fluent in French. During the next two years he traveled with his mother and Jean Pierre living for short periods in Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. It was in that country where Ezra was put in a boarding school located in the heart of Berlin as Maude and Jean Pierre took off on their own once again.
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