The telephone rang just after ten pm on Christmas Eve.
Josiah was in his sweats.
"Loungewear," Buck had mocked with an eye-roll of sartorial despair, just before disappearing out of the door in answer to Chris leaning on the horn.
Whatever, Josiah thought. Although the garment was washed up and baggy, once teamed with a small Bourbon on the rocks, it rendered him mellow. And mellow at ten pm on Christmas Eve was wondrous indeed.
He picked up the telephone receiver in one hand, held the glass of Bourbon close with the other. Close enough to inhale the fumes.
"I know we said it wasn't a go," babbled a voice. Leila Beverley from Social Services didn't even bother to greet him. She recognized his voice and was off.
Tired and stressed and babbling in his ear.
"When we spoke last... we said it wasn't a go. I mean, I know we'd had that meeting and we told you how it wasn't cut and dried this end... you know, parental issues unresolved, disruption to your set-up... all that. But guess what?" Josiah wouldn't guess what so she plowed on. "The team working on the little guy's case did a review this afternoon. Listen, Josiah, you know they do their best out at the home, but Mr. Mitchell's talked to the team leader and he asked me to call you to see if... do you think you... just for a few days over the holidays?"
Josiah savored a taste of Bourbon on his tongue and then laid the glass down. He smiled generously at the telephone receiver in his hand, even though he was faintly resentful at having the mellow babbled out of him.
"You want me to take the kid."
A second or two of surprised silence. Then a rallying breath. "Well, the team thought that..."
"Don't tell me." Josiah rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "The team thought that being in the home was no place for an eight year-old at Christmas."
"And they didn't think it would sure help to keep numbers down for operational reasons."
"Hey," he said. "I understand, I really do. I understand that there's no better time for a kid to be in a real family situation than at Christmas-time. But I also understand that this boy, from what you told me, from what I saw in the file is - um, how do you guys describe it? Not very well socialized. In other words, he'd be overwhelmed being parachuted in here with no warning. And you say yourself that it's only for a couple of days. Give him a short, sharp vacation, then whip him back into the system, that the idea?"
"Oh come on, surely a few days is better than none at all?"
"These kids need consistency, Leila. You know that."
Josiah didn't think he could bear the to-ing and fro-ing of the combined decision-making of Social Services and the San Angelo "holding" home again. It had been more than his heart could take when they'd thought Vin was about to be removed from them after only two months, back to the maelstrom of family breakdown. Never mind how hard it was on the boy. Josiah couldn't recall the crushed look of betrayal without feeling a chill right through to his marrow.
Leila Beverley didn't know any of that, of course, although Josiah would have hoped she might have the imagination to guess.
"So it's not ideal but for God's sake, you were beating a path to our door to get this kid placed with you not so long ago! Now we're giving you the chance."
"But this makes no difference to my application or your decision on his longer-term future, right?"
"Well, I... it's not my place to comment. But that's not the point. And anyhow, believe me, after a few days you may be desperate to get rid of him. Between you and me, Josiah, this one's not exactly cute as a button."
There was a heavy silence. Leila was a good woman, Josiah told himself. She worked hard, tirelessly, on behalf of her department. It wasn't her fault she wasn't at the sharp end, didn't ever really get to engage with the children. Probably she was so stressed and under pressure right now that her professionalism had just fallen off her like needles from a Christmas tree.
"It only matters how it affects the kid." Josiah was calm.
"You're saying no?"
Josiah picked at a split fingernail with his thumb. "It's ten at night on Christmas Eve, Leila."
"So you could sign off on him by eleven thirty, have the kid tucked up in bed by one."
Josiah did some of his rapid thinking on the bounce. Vin's description of his Christmas in San Angelo two years ago was more than enough to make him want to get the kid over here as soon as possible. There'd be gifts and food there, of course, but doled out by a skeleton staff who might not even be known to the youngsters in care. Temporary workers doing the holiday shifts. There would be warmth and safety, yes. But nothing personal. Christmas decorations or no, the walls of San Angelo would still be that cold gray-green color they slapped on everything. The halls would still echo with institutional hollowness. The pack leaders would still get first dibs on the TV and games room.
No time to prep the younger kids. He'd need to enlist Buck and Chris, supposing they came home in time from their roistering. For a second, Josiah was distracted by wondering where the heck they'd gotten to and what they were doing. He was well aware he often didn't know. They'd have to help him do a small redistribution job.
Oh my Lord, the boys weren't going to believe what they were about to get for Christmas.
JD was giving Santa one last chance. If the guy didn't come up trumps tomorrow morning... Inwardly, Josiah groaned. He couldn't redistribute Woody or the coveted water pistol. The trumpet? And something from Vin's haul. The kaleidoscope? The baseball mitt?
"Josiah? Yes or no? We need to have an answer from you now. Shift's going off duty and we have to get this kid processed."
"Ezra," Josiah said in a quiet, reasonable tone that did not quite mask his sudden anger. "The kid's name is Ezra. And please, Leila. Drop the factory-speak. He's not a pack of cheese."
There came the sound of Leila taking a few deep breaths. Josiah tried to remember that she needed to get out of the office, go home to her family.
"Yes," he said.
"Stamp the file. Check the box. I'll be there."
A loud breath of relief. "Thank you, Josiah. You're... you're..."
"I certainly am. Goodnight, and Merry Christmas."
He put down the phone and the glass of Bourbon. When he came out of the study he stood in the doorway of the living room for a while, looking at the back of Nathan's head.
"Favor?" he said eventually.
Nathan shifted on the couch. "Sure."
"Move out of your bed for a night or two? I'll put a mattress in the study."
"Sure." Nathan tossed the remote from one hand to the other. Then he turned off the TV and gave Josiah his full attention, raising his brows in silent question.
"I just got a call from Leila Beverley. You remember her?"
Nathan paused to think for a second and then shrugged. When responding to domestic situations, the teenager was either very engaged or seemed totally uninterested. Both reactions, Josiah had learned (the hard way), often meant the same thing. Nathan was always interested. But Jesus the hormones did a number on his communication skills at times. This barely-there movement of the shoulders possibly meant that he did, indeed, recall Leila. A negative would most probably have been indicated by the same thing.
"OK, so the damn kid who upset JD... he's coming to stay for a few days."
Nathan dropped his jaw in pantomime incredulity. Then his eyes lit up. Yeah. Josiah supposed that the possibility for chaos would interest a fourteen year-old.
"Like tonight. I'm leaving right now to drive to San Angelo. Can you hold the fort until I get back, or the guys do? If you want to go to bed, I could get Nettie to come in. She said she'd sit anytime we needed."
"Go to bed?" Nathan echoed. He laughed out loud. "No way! You think I'm going to miss any of this?"
"It might all get a little crazy."
"Are you kidding? It's going to be wild!" Nathan looked over at the clock on the mantel. "Hadn't you better git?"
"Yeah. I'll call Chris on the way, let 'em know what's going down. And Nate?"
"Sure." Another shrug. "I'll change the sheets, get the mattress down." He scratched his head. "And if uh... if the kids wake up? What do I say?"
Josiah goggled at him.
Say? What do you say?
He took a leaf out of Vin's book.
"Damn, Nathan. If the kids wake up, tell it to 'em straight."
Nathan grinned. "That Santa's been unavoidably delayed, right?"
Honesty was a tricky sonofabitch when there was a whopping great untruth buried in the middle of it.
Josiah waved his hands around, the car keys jangling. He was aiming for the front door when Nathan called him back.
Nathan swept the backs of his hands towards the floor in a long, drawing-down motion that Josiah followed for a second or two with incomprehension.
"What?" he said again.
"You may want to wear something else. It's cold out."
Josiah looked down at himself.
"What are you?" he asked. "My doctor?"
And Nathan laughed.
Josiah stopped to pick up coffee just before leaving town and called Chris. It was one of those frustrating calls that left him wondering just where the heck his oldest boy was, and, more to the point, what was going on all around him. Chris claimed to only be fifteen minutes away if he was needed. Josiah had to presume he was with one of those girls, maybe. The very little Josiah knew about the wild-eyed one - Ella? - was that her parents always seemed to be out and that hers was usually the party house.
"Buck with you?" he found himself yelling down the phone.
Seemed he was.
There was a whole speech to be made about drunk-driving and oh my god were there drugs at this damn party-house but it was too hard with the background noise and his anxiety to get out to San Angelo as soon as he could and get home again.
"You did what?" he heard Chris say when he'd explained, as briefly as he could, what was going down.
"Get home soon, guys. Need ya help."
He thought Chris agreed but then the call dropped out.
Josiah poured the rest of the coffee down his throat and set a course for the freeway into the mountains.
It was a familiar route.
And the look and smell of the place was all too familiar as well. A solid fifties house with modern additions and an official-looking reception area, from the outside the San Angelo home looked like the headquarters of some quirky company struggling to keep up with twenty-first century business practices and consumer tastes.
Shut down for the holidays, it seemed.
Josiah leaned on the security button at the front entrance and it was some time before the Deputy Director himself came jogging down the hallway to let him in. As he was ushered to the administrative area of the building, Josiah wondered where all the staff were. The lights were dim in the public areas and the whole place was suspiciously quiet.
"Hey, Christmas Eve," Deputy Director Mitchell told him. "They're all doing their Santa shtick with the kids."
Josiah didn't take his coat off when he sat down in Mitchell's office. It looked like the man was just about ready to leave. His computer was quiet, the keys were dangling in the cabinet locks and there was a bulging briefcase and some shopping bags standing on the desk.
"The Board are so going to come down on this," Mitchell said, scooping up a pile of paper and a file.
"But they're taking off for the holiday, right? Not back in the office until after New Year's." Josiah smiled pleasantly.
"Yeah, I guess. By the time they get wind of it the kid'll be back here. They'll never know any different unless they want to sit down and read case files for fun."
There was so much wrong with the man's statement that Josiah felt very tired all of a sudden. He reached for the pen that was being held out to him. One of the advantages of being so well known around here was that he could practically run through the official procedures with his eyes closed.
Mitchell oversaw the signatures. They both glanced at the clock. A quarter before midnight.
"He's probably down the hall by now... you know, in that room by the main door. Good luck, Mr. Sanchez, and thank you. We'll see you Monday. Call us if there's any problems - you have Leila's cellphone number, right? And mine?"
Josiah tapped his pocket to show that he did. Then he left Mitchell collecting his things for the holiday.
It was dim out in the corridor. At the far end to his left were a pair of double doors that he knew led to the living areas. Although it was a good deal brighter and more home-like down there, the place was still a disconcerting mix of school, hospital and prison.
Josiah glanced down at the pages in his hand.
His sister Hannah had always said this place was like a Post Office. Somewhere you came to collect items that were in transit, or to drop them off for transportation elsewhere. She always coped, though, with whatever was delivered. Tried not to fall in love with it too fast and too hard.
Of course, this whole fostering thing had been Hannah's idea in the first place and she'd always stressed its temporary nature. As far as she was concerned, they provided a sturdy bridge and a safe haven. She thanked the Lord someone did, although thought her brother would do well not to get carried away and turn them into long-term parents. Losing her three years' in hadn't helped Buck for a while. But Buck, supposing he wasn't even now behaving badly while overloaded on cheap beer or high on something illegal, was regarded as a success story in this place. Thanks to repeated long-term placements with Josiah he'd avoided juvie and was one major reason Josiah had carried on coming back and being welcomed with open arms by the authorities.
And now here he was again. San Angelo's premier pre-adoption foster father. Hannah would wag the pragmatic finger of doom at him, but Josiah had recently decided to break the mold. The boys didn't know it yet, but he planned to go the extra mile with Nathan, Vin and JD just as soon as he knew what the hell the University was planning for his future employment.
Josiah folded the papers and put them into his inside pocket.
Case no. NM35529, Ezra P. Standish, was waiting in the little side office by the reception area when Josiah came down the corridor. Approaching the door brought back instant memories of collecting Vin that first time. Only on that warm Spring evening, Vin had been padding about the windowless room like a cub in captivity.
This youngster had nothing of the feral about him. He looked more like a miniature CEO, wearing a shirt and tie for crying out loud and standing right inside the doorway, moving restlessly from one foot to the other. The sight of him in profile, ramrod-backed and clutching a bag, made Josiah realize, if he hadn't before, that he was taking on something different again this time.
"Hey Ezra," he said, pushing open the door.
The child looked round and lowered his bag to the floor. He didn't say anything at first, just studied Josiah intently as he came in.
"I'm Josiah and I'm real pleased to meet you." Josiah smiled, while inwardly shaking his head. Hell, why was it that these kids always had eyes that just about slayed you? Nathan's rich and dark and bottomless, Vin's like rainy skies. And now those belonging to case no. NM35529, green as a tropical rock-pool and probably hiding just as many unexpected stings. "You about set? This all your stuff?"
"Ah don't see the necessity," Ezra said in a choked voice.
"The necessity for what, son?" Josiah asked, reaching for the bag.
"To leave." Ezra's hand shot out and grabbed the handle of the bag instantly, pulling it away and into his chest. "I should stay heah."
Josiah knew all about this. Ezra had been boasting from day one, according to Vin, that his mother would be arriving at any second to sue the county child protection unit thousands of dollars for abducting him in the first place. In reality, her current whereabouts was still unknown and there was a warrant for her arrest on charges of high-level fraud. No petty thief, she. And of course the child abandonment was a whole other story.
"I guess it feels kind of strange," Josiah conceded. He could already tell, just from the look on the boy's face, his very bearing, that he was quick and clever and wouldn't be talked down to. "You have a coat?"
"Not mine." Ezra indicated a garment hanging on the coat-hooks on the back of the door. It was a standard issue hand-me-down.
"We'll take it anyhow. If you don't like it we can find you something else, but it's kinda cold for just a shirt."
The boy looked down at himself as if insulted. He had a defensive air all of a sudden and made no move to take the coat. Josiah snagged it from the hook, draped it over his arm with a smile.
Damn. How could Leila claim he wasn't cute as a button? Pale of face and delicate of feature, Ezra was neat from the top of his shining head to the toes of his rather classy-looking loafers. His hair was short, sharp and immaculate save for two persistently floppy bangs that kept dipping over his eyes... those arresting bright-colored eyes.
There was a brisk and icy wind blowing as they walked across the car lot. Josiah draped the coat round Ezra's shoulders without saying anything and was not resisted. The child climbed into the seat indicated in the SUV, fastened his own safety-belt and put his feet on top of his bag.
Young Mr. Self-sufficient. Josiah grinned at him in the rearview mirror. He didn't receive a grin in return but at least the look wasn't hostile.
Ezra was quite talkative on the ride home. To begin with, anyhow. Once the interior warmed up and his teeth had stopped chattering, he passed informed comment about the car, the route they took, the weather forecast on the radio and, more than once, about how he hoped it would be all right to leave at any time once his mother showed. When Josiah explained about the household he was coming into, he listened politely but didn't ask questions. By the time they were pulling up on to the driveway and Josiah saw, with relief, that Chris's beat-up Ford was already there, the boy was quiet again.
He climbed out of the SUV without needing or expecting assistance, and stood looking cold and weary, the bag clasped in his arms.
Josiah rounded the vehicle, wanting to lay an encouraging hand on Ezra's back because this was a big moment. His instincts on these matters told him to keep his distance, however. The suddenness of the arrival meant he'd had no chance to prep the boys about keeping their pushing, shoving and hugging to themselves with the visitor and he suddenly felt a creeping anxiety.
"Nathan, Vin and JD are in bed - asleep I hope. I'm guessing the older two - that's Chris and Buck - they'll be waiting up for us. And I'm hoping that Santa hasn't been yet."
Ezra turned his head. The eyes that rested on Josiah's face for a few seconds were full of condescension but he said nothing. He surveyed the house with a mixture of fear and bravado. Josiah had seen the look before - at least four times. There was a little touch of resignation in there as well. This kid knew it wasn't a placement. He knew he was just a visitor and that he might not be a very welcome one.
But dear Lord, the front he put up.
"It's very considerate of you, Mr. Sanchez, especially at this time of the year."
Josiah was taken aback at the 'Mr. Sanchez,' never mind the grown-up tone in which it was delivered. Very few people ever called him that, and he'd presumed this boy, like most other children his age, would prefer informality.
Something told him that young Mr. Standish was going to confound them at every turn.
"Welcome to our home," he said, and sounded a tad doubtful even to himself.
It was warm inside the house. There was the sound of voices coming from somewhere. Josiah dumped the unwelcome coat on a pile of others, shrugged out of his own and hung the keys. Then he led the way up the corridor towards the kitchen, feeling the tension mounting in Ezra at every step nearer the sound of other people.
"We'll just say a quick howdy," Josiah said smoothly. "Then you'll want to get to bed. We don't stand much on ceremony here, so you can sleep as long as you want." As they reached the kitchen door he announced their approach with a soft, "Hey, boys, come say hi to Ezra."
Josiah could almost hear the rapid thumping of Ezra's heart, feel him inwardly cringing, although he showed not a flicker of fear on his face.
Damn. Christmas Day, and he had a terrified little stranger in the house.
He suddenly felt more out of his depth than he had been expecting. Introductions were part and parcel of their lives, but you could never quite bank on how it would go. Sometimes when you hoped for recognition and empathy all you got was collision.
Half an hour later his head hit the pillow.
JD was burrowed into his quilt across the room, dead to the world.
It had been a whirlwind last thirty minutes - biting back the desire to find out what the hell eldest had been up to, organizing a swift redistribution of presents, herding boys to bed and feeling honor-bound in the interests of sleep and good sense to refuse Buck's suggestion of a festive nightcap.
Ezra had said not a word more after greeting Nathan and Buck in the kitchen with a politeness that made them gape at one another. He'd seemed offended by their reaction, spent a suspiciously quiet five minutes or more in the bathroom (doing what Josiah had no idea) then cast a wary look up at the occupant of the top bunk before climbing obediently into the bottom one as indicated. When Josiah had whispered goodnight as he backed out, there'd been silence.
In the darkness of his own room Josiah had listened to the familiar, snuffly sound of JD's breathing. He'd registered the comforting backdrop of quiet in the house, the occasional dull clunk of the hot water pipes and the distant sound of traffic. Then finally he'd let his eyes fall shut, hoping for a few hours before...
It was JD's voice, but not coming from his little bed at the other side of the room.
Two sets of feet were thumping down the hall towards him.
Not even sure how long he'd been asleep, except that it felt like about two minutes, Josiah forced his eyelids apart and pushed to his elbows before the door barreled open.
"'Siah, there's a... there's a..."
"BOY in Nathan's bed!" shrieked JD. "There's a BOY!"
"It's him!" Vin's voice was louder than it almost ever was, and thick with disbelief. "It's Ezra."
"He's in the bunk and he's asleep!"
"Really?" Josiah questioned mildly. "Well, not for very long I don't suppose."
"Why?" Vin said. "Why's he here?"
"No!" JD was adamant, shaking his head as he landed on all fours on the end of Josiah's bed so it bounced. "No way can he stay! There's no room and that's Nathan's bed!"
"And a very Merry Christmas to you too, boys." Josiah flopped back on to his pillow.
"Awwww." Vin's voice had gone soft again. "Awww, Josiah."
"Merry Christmas!" JD bounced on his hands and knees. "Yay! Merry Christmas! Can we...? 'siah, can we...?"
The sound of a door opening and closing came from further along the hall. Then Nathan appeared, one hand on the back of his neck, yawning.
"Hey," he said sleepily. "Did Santa come?"
JD's launch off the bed nearly sent Josiah into the headboard.
"No, but someone did!" Vin's face split in a grin and he charged out of the room after JD and Nathan. Josiah rolled from his bed and wandered along to peer in at the bunk. Ezra lay on his back with his eyes tightly closed, the covers pulled up to his chin. No way was he asleep.
"Mornin', Ezra." Josiah pushed off the door jamb and exited again. "Merry Christmas. Come on down to breakfast when you're ready, son."
He banged on Buck and Chris's door on the way to the bathroom. And heard nothing from inside.
The two of them had arrived home while Josiah was out at San Angelo. Chris had been already crashed in bed, his black jeans pooled inside-out on the floor, while Buck and Nathan padded about the kitchen in bare feet making unwieldy, carb-heavy sandwiches and talking about something they stopped talking about soon as Josiah came in. Buck's clothes, like Chris's, smelled of beer and smoke.
"Don't do this to me, boys," Josiah had said but it was his only comment.
Buck had looked guilty, the sandwich already halfway to his mouth.
The remains of it was still sitting on the counter-top and Josiah flicked it into the trash before reaching for the jug of coffee. He'd gotten as far as lining up milk, Cheerios and four bowls before he heard sounds that told him Ezra had just walked into the middle of Christmas morning and that it was possibly more than he could handle.
Sure enough, while JD and Vin had interrupted their frantic paper-ripping to yell his name as if he might have forgotten it, and were now jumping around him like friendly dogs, Ezra stood stranded inside the doorway. Still sleepy, like he hadn't caught up to full wakefulness yet, he wasn't being given any time to put up any of his fronts. It looked to be almost painful.
Josiah suddenly felt like a heel for subjecting him to any of this.
He sidled around Ezra, advanced into the room and dumped the cereal bowls in the swamp of gift-wrapping. JD and Vin reached for theirs at once, then Nathan kindly indicated the third one at Ezra who didn't move.
"Sit down," Josiah invited.
The boy looked to the sofa where Chris was sprawled, then at one of the armchairs. To get to it he would have to cross the room, step over the mess, weave a way through the others. Unwillingly he took a pace or two forward and knelt down where he was with his arms crossed.
"Ezra here's come to stay for a few days." Buck, hair on end, hoodie inside-out and bare-legged, decided to do the explanations. Vin didn't take his eyes off Ezra for the moment but seemed to accept it. JD looked puzzled but he was more interested in acquisition and cereal for the time being, and then he suddenly seemed to notice the third lumpy stocking lying on the floor where he and Vin had deposited it without thinking when homing in on their own. Buck caught his eye.
"Here," JD said, pushing the stocking towards Ezra with one foot. "He did come."
Even for you was the implication. He didn't wait to see what Ezra would do with it, just went back to dismantling his own.
"They're not mine."
The stocking was pushed away again. JD looked up again, eyes openly bugging.
"Well I think they are." Josiah smiled encouragingly. He wasn't going to labor the Santa point. "Got your name on."
Luckily Ezra's reaction to that was cut short by JD's sudden whoop of sheer joy at the water pistol. Josiah had looked long and hard for one that fell somewhere between functional and not-too-realistic. He wasn't sure he'd succeeded on the latter - even now it was all too easy to imagine the kids' double-handed grip on the damn thing as they hunkered it against their shoulders on the way into some unpleasantly bloody cop shoot-out. But then he couldn't help a slight feeling of satisfaction when JD tucked it into the waistband of his pajamas like he was wearing it as a sidearm.
"Go on then." Vin nudged the unexpected guest with his bare toes, mouth full of breakfast. Ezra flinched at the contact, gave Vin a dead-eye stare. But he pulled the first package he could see from the top of the stocking and began to pick at the tape.
"Just rip it!" Buck was incredulous at the reluctance and Josiah held up a hand to warn him to take it easy.
Vin had backed off at the first sign of aggression and gone back to his own surprises.
Ezra pulled away the sparkly wrapping with bad grace, extracted the contents and stared at it. A toy helicopter in a box. He put it aside without examining it at all and remained unmoved by the coloring books which followed. Then he pulled out a pile of small Haribos packets and another package. Carefully, almost as if he was trying to be deliberately annoying, now he'd found something that worked, he delicately picked off the tape while Buck and JD seethed with impatience in the background. When he'd pulled away the paper he was left looking at an Easy Catch glove and ball which he turned over and over in his hands a few times. It was hard to tell if he was speechless, absolutely appalled or something else entirely. His eyes darted over to Vin lying on his back on the carpet twiddling a kaleidoscope with a map of the world on it. Then he looked glumly back to the gifts in front of him.
Josiah felt a sigh filling his chest. The boy didn't want to be sitting here in his pajamas in the middle of a pile of paper, that was evident. He didn't want to eat Cheerios cross-legged on the floor or stuff his cheeks full of sugary confection. Josiah wasn't quite sure what he did want to be doing, but it sure wasn't any of this.
"Do you not play?" Nathan was quiet but curious.
"I shouldn't take it."
"It's a gift from Santa." JD was suitably pointed. "He brought it for you."
"He did not bring it for me," Ezra responded at once. "There is no such person."
Vin sat up. "You don't know."
"I do too know." Ezra eyed the kaleidoscope again. "And if you were to ask Mr. Sanchez here for the absolute truth then I bet he would tell you there is no such person." His eyes sparked. "I'd bet you that!" and his finger shot out and pointed at the cylinder in Vin's hands.
"You ain't given me my planets book back yet."
"I won it."
Ezra paused for a millisecond. "You can't hardly read it anyhow."
"Hey," Josiah interrupted at once. "We're not laying any bets or playing any truth or dares today. If you don't want the gifts, Ezra, nobody will force you to take them."
Ezra looked around and then once more at the mitt and the helicopter, the pile of candy and the coloring books. He crossed his legs and rose to his feet in an oddly dignified fashion. "I'm going to get dressed." Then he tossed a casual look over at JD who had his sad eyes on. "You can have it all," he said magnanimously. "It's for you anyhow and I don't care."
"Ungrateful little son-of-a-gun, ain't he?" Buck said cheerfully to break the silence that followed Ezra's exit.
"Luckily..." Josiah fished a couple of cereal bowls from the sea of gift wrappings before the milk was splattered around the room following the sugar-rush calculated to follow the imminent consumption of Haribos. "Christmas isn't all about gifts. Let's get dressed and get moving - there's a surprise waiting for us at Nettie's."
"Why doesn't he want the gifts?"
Josiah screwed up his face, hoping his expression didn't gave away to JD that he was playing for time. "Um..."
"Might be that he's rude and bad-mannered." That was Nathan's suggestion. He was draped over the revolving chair as usual and his words came out round a long lace of violent orange candy. "Else he's embarrassed or something."
"He just don't know how. Don't know what to do with 'em." Vin had taken a long time to gain the confidence to give his opinion about anything, but he had an arrow-straight shrewdness the others were learning to listen to.
"He don't look poor." JD was dismissive, edging ever closer to the abandoned glove.
"Might not be about poor." It was the first thing Chris had said so far this morning and Josiah glanced over. The eldest's voice was thick and croaky and he'd done nothing but mainline coffee.
Hangover. Definitely a damn hangover.
"He's smart." Buck said nothing more than that but Josiah knew what he meant by it. Ezra had worked out right away that the stocking and its contents had been destined for the other two younger ones, and that his sudden arrival had caused them to be shared. He'd already been in bed by the time Josiah, Buck and Nathan had scurried around making Santa a beacon of scrupulous parity, but he'd worked it out for himself.
Josiah wondered now at the wisdom of his decision. Was it for Ezra, so he wouldn't feel left out? For JD and Vin, to keep up the pretense that Santa was indeed magical beyond belief? Or for himself, so he'd feel good about his own fairness?
The presents awaiting them under Nettie Wells's tree were all modest, specially chosen for the boys according to their particular hopes. Josiah had been plotting to add something for Ezra at some stage - some fiendishly-complex construction kit or jigsaw still sitting on the top shelf of the basement maybe. But now he wasn't sure. There were often times - he knew it well - when unexpected kindnesses backfired.
"Somebody said something about getting dressed." He was brisk. "Wasn't that me?"
"Is this Ezra's then?" JD held up the helicopter, a gleam in his eye.
Vin tucked the kaleidoscope in the pocket of his scruffy robe. "Santa brought it for him, JD." He grinned knowingly at Josiah.
"But Ezra said-"
"Let him think on it," Buck advised. "And go get your little ass dressed. Or I might hafta tickle you."
As Josiah carried the bowls out to the kitchen he could hear the dangerous crashing sounds of Buck pursuing JD up the corridor. There was a lot of laughter. That on-the-edge ebb and flow that meant somebody would bang something soon. A shin, maybe. Or a head.
And talking of heads.
"Now then," he said, wandering back into the living room. Only Chris was still there, slumped in the sofa with his mug of coffee and an outsize in headaches by the looks of it. "How much did you have last night?"
Chris looked up and groaned. "Can we do this tomorrow?"
Josiah scratched his head. "Depends how much you had."
"Too much, all right? Too much." Chris dropped his head back. "I'm sorry."
"Your Dad call?"
"Hell." Chris looked up again at once, almost impressed. "How'd you know that?"
"A wild guess."
It was the shark under the waterline and Josiah had learned to keep it in plain sight.
Stressful and unwelcome contacts could happen at any time, but never more so than at Christmas. And it looked like the first one was already in. Now Josiah would need to be ready for Vin expecting a call that wouldn't come, for Buck being pissed if anyone from his past had the goddamn balls to even try, and for Nathan, who had nobody else, trying to be sympathetic while feeling like crap about it.
If the calls came, Josiah would just have to cope. It was a family day, after all.
"Did you drive?"
"Uh-huh. You coming to Nettie's?"
Chris lifted his head again, puzzled for a moment at apparently having a choice. "Of course."
"Well, good. Go get dressed why don't you. And, uh, son?"
Chris looked at him blearily. "Mmm?"
"Drink a butt-load of water and go take an Alka Seltzer, okay?"
Josiah extended an arm to help lever him upright.
Chris was still dragging by the time they were leaving the last of their neighbor's houses behind and walking the half mile towards open country where Nettie Wells lived. Hannah Sanchez' great confidante was fond of the boys (so long as they cleaned up their own mess) and wouldn't countenance a Christmas without welcoming them into her house, but it was no secret she thought Josiah a blamed fool for opening himself up so often to disappointment and heartbreak. She and Hannah had always had the same mindset about things.
"Hannah always said two at a time was plenty," she'd remind him.
"But then there was Nathan," Josiah would point out. "And then there was Vin. And then..." He'd give a little shrug, understanding the point Nettie was making, and wishing he could explain the odd feeling that scratched his consciousness from time to time. The feeling that suggested there was an inevitability about all of this. It wasn't as if there were no other kids needing homes, he knew that. It was just these particular kids. These boys who by rights shouldn't get along with one another at all, and indeed, often didn't.
Still, Josiah didn't want people around who gave him an easy ride. And Nettie certainly never did.
"Miz Wells can be kinda scary but don't take no notice." That was Vin's advice to Ezra on the walk. Ezra just heaved his shoulders as if not sure why he'd be interested anyhow.
Nettie's house smelled of cinnamon and spice. It was full of old things and Josiah hoped his new charge might like it. The others loved to ramble around the place, play with the dogs, sprawl in front of the massive cathode-ray TV set, and visit the two elderly and much-cherished horses that lived in a field at the end of the backyard. Nettie's was their private playground and Josiah watched Nathan explaining to Ezra that they were welcome there any time they liked. The concept seemed alien. The boy gave the older woman a very circumspect examination when he was introduced. He clearly wasn't accustomed to dogs and he just shook his head blankly when invited to come and feed the horses. There was a weary pinch to his face, as if he was living under constant strain.
It was a bitterly cold day, threatening bad weather, and before long they were all back indoors on the promise of hot chocolate.
Chris was the only one who didn't seem to like that idea and was already scouring the kitchen for something else.
"Uh-uh, no more coffee." This was an edict as much as Josiah ever uttered edicts. "Or your head'll blow off. Just gotta suck it up, son. You'll be out the other side by four o'clock."
As soon as they were out of their coats, Vin and JD wandered off to fall on the ancient toys lining the shelves of Nettie's main room. The rest followed, drawn by the fine, fragrant Christmas tree standing solidly by the window and the welcoming heat of a log fire.
Ezra, who seemed overcome by being in yet another new house when he hadn't gotten used to the first one yet, stood around near the door looking twitchy. Josiah hated the idea that the child was reluctant to stray far from exits and that he checked the room out so untrustingly. Not even the lure of playthings seemed to tempt him. He didn't seem interested in the flimsy pop-up town or the rusty metal construction bits the other two were unloading from the shelves. Instead he stayed where he was, chewing a fingernail. There was a restless energy about the boy that Josiah thought bore watching.
Sure enough, before long Ezra made a move. It was a stealthy one, preceded by a another swift glance around the room. He backed a little way along the wall at the side of the door. A yard or so along at knee-level stood a low table stacked with games and puzzles. On top of a wooden chess board lay a battered open box. Inside, as well as a pile of notepaper covered in scribbles, was a couple of decks of cards - one red and one blue. They were old and well-worn, had belonged to Nettie's late husband. Poker cards, over which money had been played and much liquor drunk. They didn't usually attract the kids the same way Uno or Crazy Eights did, but Ezra's hand reached - and it was not out of curiosity. To Josiah it seemed covert and full of determination. The boy's fingers, careful and delicate, curled around the blue deck.
Josiah, knowing he was the only one who'd noticed, cleared his throat.
"You like the look of the playing cards, Ezra?"
The hand was snatched away instantly and the box dropped to the floor as if it was red hot. Everyone looked round.
"I had some." Ezra's voice was forthright and his cheeks burned with some sudden, intense emotion which did not seem to be shame. "They were taken off me on the train. I had some and they were mine."
"Somebody stole them from you?" That was Chris from his seat right by the fire, sounding faintly outraged.
"My money. My things."
"Why were you on a train?" That seemed more interesting to Vin. "Where was you goin'?"
"St. Louis, Missouri."
Josiah cringed. But he wasn't going to allow an open dissection of the reasons Ezra Standish had been found huddled in a damp corner of a men's room in a railroad station cafeteria - over a thousand miles from his apparent destination. Not right now. That mess was for him and Ezra alone, but probably only if he managed to get the boy placed with them for longer. And Josiah already knew, with surprising intensity, that was his goal. Even though Ezra, just like JD, Vin and even Nathan, was going to be subject to situations and forces far out of Josiah's right to control.
"I have something to show you. A surprise." Nettie Wells garnered their attention immediately. "Upstairs in the box-room. But..." She left a hanging pause, to make sure they were listening. "Don't make too much noise goin' up."
"What is it?"
"Duh." Buck cuffed JD lightly. "That's why it's called a surprise."
Josiah didn't miss the covetous look Ezra gave the playing-cards before he realized he was still being observed.
The whole group of them trailed out of the room, along to the stairs and up to the top of Nettie Wells' house. She put a finger to her lips before opening the door at the end of the corridor.
It was kind of stuffy in the small room. Amongst the trunks and other packing cases piled against the walls there was a large cardboard box on the floor next to two feeding bowls on a sheet of newspaper.
"Oh my God!" said Buck loudly. "Kittens!"
"Shush," Vin hissed at once, whacking him with the back of his arm. "Don't scare 'em and don't let the dogs in."
Buck gave him an eyebrow but clearly paid heed because he suddenly reached for JD who'd made a move forwards.
"Ow!" JD complained as Buck grabbed him around his middle, dropping to his haunches to hold him in place.
"Shush!" Vin repeated in exasperation.
"You didn't tell us!" Nathan sounded a trifle miffed. "I woulda liked to have seen it."
"Ewwwww!" JD bounced in Buck's hold. "You are so gross!"
"It was kind of touch and go," Nettie admitted. "Had to help with that little one on the end."
"Kittens, for crap's sake..."
Chris groaned and rubbed his forehead. It was very warm in Nettie's box-room and Josiah nudged him.
"Go." He was mildly chiding. "Don't need you throwing up in the nursery."
Chris backed out of the room, narrowly avoiding running down Ezra who was hovering in the doorway as usual.
"So take a look." Chris jerked his head. "Go on over and look at 'em."
"I don't know."
"They ain't gonna bite you." His words dripped with scorn and Ezra bristled at it.
The two of them, the eight year-old and the eighteen year-old, tangled such a look that Josiah nearly laughed out loud. He felt Nettie Wells prod him in the back.
"Personality clash?" she wondered quietly.
"Won't have time to find out." Josiah was both matter-of-fact and regretful.
While Chris stumped off to retrieve his spot by the fire, or maybe a decent signal for his cellphone, Ezra took a few more steps into the room.
"Move up, boys." Josiah still didn't go as far as physically guiding him but he made a small herding motion. "Ezra wants to see too."
Nathan, also in a crouch, shuffled up so Ezra could squeeze in next to Vin and JD. The three younger boys stood staring down at the box full of old towel, nursing cat and wriggling fur-balls. Josiah liked the look of them in a row - shaggy-haired Vin in a comfortable slouch, JD jiggling against Buck in excitement and Ezra upright and proper, brow knitted.
"We're gonna take one, right?" Nathan asked. "Or maybe two?"
Josiah exchanged another look with Nettie. "Maybe," he said. "Possibly. When they're older. Can't take 'em from their mama yet."
"Why?" JD stopped jigging and relaxed back against Buck, settling himself on the bent, denim-clad knee. "We'd take care of 'em."
"It'd be cruel." Vin looked to Nathan who nodded at him. "Their mamas look after 'em best."
"She's just sleeping." Ezra didn't sound impressed.
"That mother is resting, young man." Nettie was borderline severe. "She has to be there to give 'em milk and care all day and all night. Takes a lot of energy. Needs to take it easy when she can because I can tell you, mothering newborns is a full-time job."
Ezra made an impatient noise, as if the woman had no idea what she was talking about. He was about to speak again when Josiah cut him off.
"Didn't you say something about hot chocolate?"
He most definitely didn't want a full-scale Good Mother discussion. Vin could unravel within minutes over something like that, and Ezra's whole posture told him the boy had a belly full of sharp thoughts they maybe didn't need to hear right now.
Nettie took the cue. "I also said something about a nip of brandy to keep the cold out. Only maybe not in the vicinity of Chris, state the boy's in."
"What state's Chris in?" Although distracted from the maternal skills of the cat nothing passed JD by.
Buck rose to his feet, sliding JD forward and off his knee. "Never you mind, squirt."
"He drank too much." Ezra was matter-of-fact, as if it was a condition he was familiar with.
"Do you know everything?" Vin's tone was quiet as ever, but sizzling with challenge. "An' even if you do, d'ya hafta always say it?"
"Another personality clash?" Nettie mused quietly as, between them, she and Josiah ushered them out of the room and shut the door.
"Heck." Josiah was rueful. "Reckon Ezra could have that clash with just about anyone." He grinned. "Prickly customer. But you know what? I think it might be good for my boys. I think they need a little something to make 'em scratch their heads once in a while."
"And young mister Ezra?" She looked after him, following the others downstairs at a uncertain distance.
"He needs them to rock him off his perch, Nettie." Josiah made a meaningful face at her. "Or we're never going to know what he's sitting on."
"Could be a hard fall."
"They know how to catch."
Nettie shook her head. "Good luck with that."
They stayed a couple of hours at Nettie's. A brief exchange of views out of earshot of the boys had resulted in no present being added to the pile under the tree, since, as Nettie herself openly explained to Ezra, she just hadn't expected him. Instead, she offered the playing cards on loan while he was at Josiah's.
"Just don't get 'em sticky or fold 'em in half."
Ezra looked at her with an expression bordering on dislike but he got a thank you out of his mouth somehow.
He didn't say a word on the walk back and as soon as they'd returned to Josiah's, he sat himself down on the edge of the sofa and took the cards out to lay them on the coffee table.
"What're we gonna play?" JD demanded, plumping himself down at the other side.
"I'm not playing with you."
"Well that's mean." JD was unlikely to slink off without a fight and now Vin had come to stand behind him.
"I don't need to play with you, I don't want to play with you and I'm not ever going to play with you."
Ezra was as cold and careless as you like and Josiah felt the first real crackle of trouble coming. It wasn't just that JD would get mad at the unfriendliness and the terms in which it was couched. It was that the others would almost certainly weigh in on his behalf. And Josiah didn't quite manage to get there in time.
JD's face went dark and he snatched at the cards out of pique. Immediately Ezra launched himself over the coffee table like a striking snake, hitting JD hard in the chest and spilling him backwards into Vin. The three of them crashed to the carpet, the cards spraying in all directions. And straight off, while JD rolled away with his hands over his head squalling, Ezra and Vin began to fight. It was proper fighting too - fists and feet flying everywhere. The contact was strong and full of fury. Vin's hair was yanked and Ezra got a knee in the belly. A flailing leg hit JD in the face and he roared.
It wasn't even just the cards either. There was the injustice of a missing space book in there somewhere. Comments made at school, perhaps, and the de-bunking of Santa. The whole unexpected and unsettling arrival, to be honest. And now a bona fide reason to lose it.
You don't treat one of us like that.
Of course Vin would fight.
And wound-up, alone and not knowing how to be... of course Ezra would fight too.
Josiah would infinitely have preferred it to be himself, Buck or Nathan to be the one separating two scrapping eight year-olds. Instead it was Chris, never one to pull his own punches. He grabbed hold of Ezra by the back of his collar, roughly enough to show he meant business, and yanked him away with a shake and a growled, "Fuck's sake, you little-" while Nathan tackled Vin round the waist before he could throw himself at his hobbled opponent and Buck scrambled to scoop up JD.
"Sure wish you'd never come!"
Vin was going to need to get that feeling off his chest sometime. Josiah had been pretty sure it would come, and he could hardly blame him.
"And you're sure mistaking I could care less," Ezra responded, mimicking his voice with mocking emphasis.
Chris reacted by dragging Ezra from the room and there was the sound of a struggle continuing out in the hallway.
Josiah made haste to get to them. Chris had Ezra cornered at the end of the corridor. He was not the only minor in the house from a violent background, and certainly not the only one who acted according to long experience sometimes. But he'd always been the one who'd found it hardest to control and right now he was feeling lousy. Ezra clearly recognized that, too. Despite the aggressive stance he'd adopted, fists balled and chin up, his white face showed he knew this lean and wiry youth could hurt him badly if he wanted. If pushed.
"He's smaller than you and he just wanted to play." Chris jabbed Ezra hard in the collarbone with his forefinger. "That's not how you treat little kids."
Ezra looked down at the finger. "And is this how?" he drawled.
"I got this one." It was time for Josiah to be sharp. "Need you to settle down, go help out with the others."
Chris didn't react at first. He was still poised over Ezra like an avenger, the finger pressed hard into his shoulder. From what Josiah knew, Chris had been slapped around the head enough by older relatives doling out life lessons to think it normal. He'd never been violent against the younger ones in this house, far as Josiah knew.
But what goes around comes around.
It was what his less helpful advisers always said.
"Chris." A few more seconds, and Josiah was going to have to remove the finger himself, get into a tussle that could go either way. "I said I got this one."
"Damn," Chris said, and jerked his hand away. He stared at Ezra as if seeing him for the first time. Then he looked at Josiah.
"The others?" Josiah encouraged quietly.
Chris rubbed his eyes with one hand, let out a long breath. Muttering something to himself that didn't sound very polite, he slunk away. When he'd watched him out of sight, ruefully supposing a post-Christmas showdown was heading his way, Josiah leaned back on the wall opposite Ezra.
"I guess you don't have to play with anyone if you don't want to," he said. "But you do have to be nice about it."
"Or what? You'll send me back to the home?"
"Only for fighting. Do that again and you'll be in the car so fast your head'll spin. But then again, maybe that's what you want?"
"Let me alone," Ezra said through his teeth. "Just let me alone."
"All right, I will. Just until dinnertime mind, which is going to be pretty damn special I have to tell you. And if nobody takes a swing at anybody else between now and then we can do movies and fun stuff after." He folded his arms. "I'm guessing you can play cards all right, Ezra. Maybe you could teach us all a game?"
Josiah laughed. "Matchsticks if you're lucky." He frowned. The boy looked shaky, as if he was going to be sick. "You get beat up going three rounds with Vin Tanner?"
Ezra shook his head tightly.
"Chris hurt you?"
"Well good. So are you coming back in there or you want to find something else to do for a while?"
Josiah waited for a suggestion.
"I need a computer." Ezra tugged at his cuffs. "Please."
"There may be..." A pause. "There may be a message for me."
"Okay." Josiah took a breath. "That how your mother contacts you?"
"Well I guess you'd better take a look. Computer's in the study. Just don't mess up Nathan's bed or interfere with his stuff. Need any help? JD's pretty sharp around a keyboard."
He didn't have to spell it out to the boy. Ezra knew what was expected of him. It was just a question of whether he'd play ball.
"If I have a problem I'll ask him."
"You do that. Computer isn't the fastest in the world, but JD really does know what he's doing."
"I'm sure he does."
Josiah could tell that Ezra was bursting to be alone. That he'd had more than enough for the moment. And that was okay.
"Want Vin to bring you some juice?"
Ezra came back at him right away. "You have any Coke?"
"Oh don't tell me... you're a caffeine-head. Why does that not surprise me? I'll see what I can do."
Josiah stifled his instinct to ruffle the boy's hair. It wasn't the right time and he wasn't sure when it ever would be. Ezra set off for the stairs, moving quickly as if he thought he might be apprehended again at any moment.
Things had quieted down in the other room. Buck and Nathan were in there sorting through today's haul with the youngest two, although Chris seemed to have disappeared. The sound of his low voice in the kitchen told Josiah he was on his cellphone. To one of those girls, he hoped, rather than anyone else.
"I need two helpers." He used the strategic tone that meant telling rather than asking. "It could be fun. I'm not making any promises here, but there will be sharp knives." He raised his brows at JD. "So maybe not you guys and Ezra, huh?"
A faint, watery grin appeared on JD's blotchy face but Vin remained stony.
Buck and Nathan helped with the cooking and they got a good mood going out there. Nathan liked cutting things up and Buck liked to snack. Josiah sent Vin and JD up to the study after about half an hour, with chips and soda. He listened out for a continuation of hostilities but there didn't seem to be any. As the house filled with the smell of cooking food and Buck launched one of his party mixes on an unsuspecting world, spirits improved exponentially.
Ezra ate well, almost as well as JD and Vin. Some delicate truce was in operation between the three of them for the time being. There was a round of jokes once the food was out the way, and after listening for a while without once cracking a smile, Ezra contributed some long-winded, rather questionable gag that needed funny voices and that made Buck honk with laughter. They introduced him to Monopoly, one of many games that seemed to have passed his childhood by, and although seeming at first to find it a waste of time, he bankrupted them all with a ruthless and consummate ease that Josiah thought might be disturbing if he cared to dwell on it. The winning moment of the game was the first and only time the whole three days that Ezra smiled like he really meant it.
And damn, what a smile.
He didn't say a word about whether there'd been a message from his mother. Josiah wasn't sure if he hoped there had or there hadn't.
When he finally went in to say goodnight at some late hour that would undoubtedly make everyone cranky next day, Vin was lying with the kaleidoscope aimed at the ceiling like it was a telescope, and Ezra was sitting on the bottom bunk playing solitaire with the red-backed cards. There was a silence reigning that was not exactly companionable, but did seem mutually agreed.
It would be foolhardy to expect more of them, Josiah knew. For the moment, anyhow.
"Hope you had a good Christmas, Ezra," he said as he flipped out the light.
In the dark, Vin sat up as if waiting for the answer.
It was a long time coming. Josiah could almost hear the wheels turning and he half dreaded what he might hear.
"I guess," Ezra conceded in the end. Something about his voice told Josiah he'd thought this answer out carefully. The kind of answer that might not be scrupulously honest but at least wouldn't offend anyone who might thump him. Vin lay down, huffed a little.
But Josiah was not too discontent. It wasn't much, but at least it was better than the alternative.
It snowed overnight.
That meant Josiah pretty much didn't need to think of any entertainment for the next day. He cooked again, quite happy on his own this time, while Buck charged around outside in the small yard with the three youngest. Nathan lay on the floor in front of the Playstation and Chris went out for a few hours and then came back and did a lot of texting.
There was romance in the air.
Josiah could smell it, and he thought it smelled like trouble.
The fresh air worked wonders. There was a brief incident where Ezra got snow shoved into his mouth and seemed about to begin another fight, and then Nathan abruptly came over all bored and left in the middle of a game which made JD cry, but apart from that nobody stole anything from anybody else and they all came to the table on something of a high.
Josiah didn't count a single one of his chickens.
There was pasta and salad and blueberry cheesecake. The blueberries were still frozen and JD knocked over a whole jug of milk which was the kind of thing that tended to fray Josiah's nerves, but there were still seven of them sitting together by the end. They were surrounded by emptied plates and all the bits and pieces the boys always brought to the table with them - Nathan's ipod, JD's models and Trot the horse.
Nobody could agree which movie to watch of course, which probably meant they wouldn't watch one. Nathan and Buck squabbled
and then crashed cars on the Playstation. As was normal, Vin went off to be alone in the bunk for a spell, so Josiah let Ezra search the computer again, even though he had a feeling he wasn't going to find what he was looking for. Which left him entertaining JD.
Just for a short while, there was an indefinable balance in the house, as sweet and true as any Josiah had ever felt. It really didn't happen so very often and he knew it certainly wouldn't last. JD was curled warmly into his side, one hand resting on the open pages of Cars and Trucks and Things that Go.
"Ladybug has a fire in her car," Josiah read, grinning to feel JD's squirm of excitement at the familiar words. "And the firemen have come to put it out. Can you guess who called them?"
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
"Be right back," Josiah whispered, sliding out from under the child and propping a cushion in his place.
His bare feet felt cold on the tiles as he padded over and picked up the cordless handset.
He was mentally running through a list of who he didn't want it to be.
"Evening, Josiah. It's Leila here. From San Angelo."
"Hey, how's it been going with you guys?"
"It has been going fine. More than fine."
"Great. Well, listen. I got kinda good news and bad news."
Josiah pushed the kitchen door slightly shut with his foot.
"Go ahead." His mouth felt dry all of a sudden, the moment of balance gone.
"Well the good news is we'll be taking Ezra off your hands first thing tomorrow. Like, really first thing. There'll be a car to pick him up at seven."
"Right." Josiah squeezed shut his eyes. "And the bad news?"
"Well, we located the kid's mother. Finally. She's been living under a false name in St. Louis."
"And this is bad news why? Ezra's been desperate to hear from her. She all right?"
"All right? Not so much. She's been arrested and charged with... a bunch of things. Now she's facing eighteen months or more inside and as you know, it won't be her first stretch. Her lawyers and child protection want Ezra in care nearby, although it's likely he'll be removed a few weeks' down the line. "
Josiah's stomach turned over. "Removed to where?"
"We don't know yet. And Josiah? We get to tell him, right? We have the psychologist and someone from St. Louis Child Protection coming to travel back with him. They're the ones who get to tell him all this. Not you."
Josiah felt sick. He rubbed a hand over his face. "All in Ezra's best interests, right?"
Leila didn't sound as stressed as she had on Christmas Eve, but she sounded a little impatient. "Naturally."
"Naturally. So, seven o'clock, right?"
"On the dot, Josiah. Glad things have gone good. We'll be in touch soon about the meeting you asked for with the adoption team."
"That's great. Good."
"Bye for now then."
He put down the phone and stood staring into the dark by the fridge for a few seconds. Then the door pushed open and someone turned on the light.
"What is it?" Nathan demanded. Buck and Chris were right behind him.
Josiah was pretty good at schooling anger and anxiety off his face, but he guessed he'd failed this time. Buck was frowning and Chris had his hands on his hips. They didn't like sudden phone-calls anymore than he did.
"I'll tell you later."
"Maybe. He's being picked up real early in the morning. They need him back at San Angelo."
"Shit," Chris said and didn't even bother to correct himself.
Josiah did a little double-take with them.
"Hold on a moment. This is that 'damn kid'. You boys telling me you think we've got something going here?"
Buck clapped his hands on the back of Chris's shoulders and shook him. "You kidding? He's a riot!"
"So, this wasn't a really crap decision that's ruined Christmas?"
"Well it hasn't ruined Christmas," Chris said with a smirk.
Ten minutes later, putting JD to bed, Josiah could hear the sound of muffled laughter coming from the bunks.
And damn, but that made things harder.
"Does it have to be so early?" was Ezra's first question when Josiah came in to tell him the news, and then straight away, "Is my mother back?"
"Yes it does have to be so early I'm afraid. And they'll tell you all about everything at San Angelo."
Vin heaved a great sigh from the top bunk.
"Oh well," Ezra said.
When his alarm went off at 6.30 next morning, a familiar sadness settled in Josiah's stomach. He heard JD turn over bad-temperedly across the room. It was all quiet everywhere else, and he crept along to Nathan and Vin's room, pushed open the door and bent down next to the bunks. Best to just get on with it now the hour was here.
Vin was a curled lump up top and Ezra had clearly gotten hot and pushed off the quilt. He looked like he'd worried his way through the night. Reaching out, Josiah jostled the nearest arm gently.
His heart creased a little when he saw Ezra struggling his way to awareness.
"Time to go."
He was expecting a cross response, but when Ezra blinked open his eyes and looked straight at him, Josiah could have punched the wall.
"It'll be right," he said quickly, a sucking dread in his gut. The eyes were wide and full of panic. Ezra didn't know he was showing everything in this moment, every little desperate fear about where he belonged and what was going to happen to him. "You'll be back."
Maybe it was wrong to plant hope when there were so many mountains to climb, but Josiah knew without a shadow of a doubt that Ezra needed to hear it.
"I think I'm going to live with my mother."
The boy's voice was hoarse, his brow furrowed in doubt. He seemed to want that, or at least the idea of that. Had probably been thinking about it all night long. But Josiah knew it had never been successful in the past and that one day it might be a lot worse than just unsuccessful.
"Sure. I hope you are, son." He kept his voice even. The child didn't want to go back to San Angelo, or any other facility - it was written all over his face. Only he didn't know how to say it, and even if he had, Josiah couldn't help him with it anyway. "But see... if things go wrong again or you get into difficulties, end up on some train going who knows where or just need help out of a fix... you call me. Understand? It doesn't matter what time it is. Wherever you are, I'll come get you."
Above them, Vin sat bolt upright and said into the dark, "What's goin' on?"
"Ezra has to leave now, remember?" Josiah whispered as he stood. "You don't have to get up."
But squeaky footsteps came wandering into the kitchen while Ezra was half-heartedly chewing on a piece of toast. There was movement elsewhere in the house, too. Vin wore sneakers and had his coat on over his pajamas. He grinned when he saw Ezra was perched on the corner of the counter-top.
"Here, you c'n have this, ta keep." He reached into the coat and plucked out the kaleidoscope.
Vin shrugged. "Fer nothin'."
Ezra shrugged back. "I'll bring your space book. To school."
He put the last of the toast down on the counter-top and then cast about for something to wipe his buttery fingers on. Vin looked momentarily puzzled, like he couldn't understand why Ezra wouldn't use his sleeve. He dug in his pocket for a piece of sad-looking tissue and handed it over along with the kaleidoscope.
"I like it," Ezra said, tucking the cylinder into his breast pocket like it was a wad of notes.
Josiah had the feeling that this was a significant conversation. That, at some stage, Vin and Ezra had stumbled upon a wavelength they could share from time to time. He wondered how and when he was going to explain to Vin that Ezra wouldn't be at school anymore.
The car from San Angelo drew up outside the house at seven on the dot. Ezra had the hated coat under one arm and Chris walked ahead with his bag hoisted over one shoulder, opened the Toyota trunk and threw it in. He seemed pissed. Ezra held out his hand to shake and Vin gave him a friendly poke in the chest instead. Nathan was up too, and dressed, and then Buck came out the door with JD on his shoulders and they all walked down the driveway.
Ezra took one quick look back at the house and then at Josiah.
For a second or two he tried to formulate some appropriate words. "Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Sanchez," he murmured eventually.
"Thank you, Ezra."
"Maybe..." He fiddled nervously with the knot of his tie. "Maybe see you again."
Josiah decided the boy was holding on to self-control by his fingernails and, as he had done at every single farewell in the past, he would do his darnedest to make it as easy as possible for him.
"I do hope so, son."
He curled a hand over one shoulder and then stepped back. It was the first contact he'd made in three days and so much less than he would have liked. The stunned look he received just from that brief touch made him want to hug the boy.
But Ezra seemed to need to get away as quick as he could. He turned swiftly and walked down to the car, head high. His poise and confidence would have looked convincing to nearly anyone. Chris was holding the door open for him and said a few words as Ezra climbed in. Ezra said a few words right back, frowning mightily. Then he fumbled in his pocket and slapped something in Chris's outstretched palm. It was Nettie's deck of blue-backed playing-cards. Josiah swore something very close to a grin broke out on Chris's face before he banged shut the Toyota door. At any rate, he didn't seem quite so pissed when he came back up the driveway.
There'd been a meeting of minds there too, maybe.
The car moved away from the curb.
"He don't wanna go, do he?" Josiah felt Vin butting him with his head - always a sign of emotional turmoil.
Josiah patted his back consolingly, and lovingly, too, for he knew how much the boy had wanted the kaleidoscope. "Not for anything."
On Buck's shoulders JD morosely tugged at the bare branches of the cherry-tree overhead.
"I'm going to re-apply for him to be placed with us, boys." Belligerence bled into Josiah's tone. "They can come do a damn home check visit anytime they like."
"And if they turn us down?"
Josiah felt a small swell of pride.
Good God, he loved these boys so much.
"Not going to take no for an answer this time." He frowned at the end of the street where the Toyota had just turned the corner and disappeared from sight. "Think we may have to fight for it though."
"Hell." Chris was to the point. "We c'n do that."
Josiah looked over at the least instinctively sunny-natured member of the household, standing there tossing the deck of cards from one hand to another. And then at the other four.
"You know?" he said, laying a hand on the warm comfort of Vin's head as he steered them back towards the front door. "I damn well think we can."