By: Angela B
Disclaimer: Not mine and never will be
Note:::: Thanks to NT for betaing this for me
Budget books in front of him, the blond was sitting behind the same big oak desk his father had sat behind when he growing up. Each time Chris sat in the big leather chair, memories of watching his father in the chair flooded his mind and created an ache deep in his heart. Bobby had been a rock in his young tumultuous life, always there to keep him steering a steady course. Running his hand over the varnished top, Chris smiled as thoughts of his father settled in around him. Sighing deeply, he turned his attention back to the books laid out before him. Since taking over the operation of the ranch with his brothers, he often wondered how his father had kept such a positive outlook, much less afforded seven boys. Chris had hoped to return to the academy and finish his degree, but it looked like that plan was going to put on hold for a little while longer. Running his hand through his hair, he thought, ‘Maybe one of these days.’
The blond was still trying to see where they could cut corners when he heard the youngest running through the house excitedly calling his name.
“In here,” Chris called out. He burst out into a short laugh as the smallest of the family came careening around the corner and came close to not making the turn into the doorway. Straightening up, he put on his grownup face, as he said, “JD, no running in the house.”
JD slid to a stop at the desk and managed to skip walk around to his side. “I know, but you got a letter,” JD said happily. “It’s from Grandpa Hank,” he added informatively as he reverently handed the envelope over to his brother.
Taking the letter gingerly, Chris smiled at his brother. “Thanks,” he said. “Now, go get you a snack and then get your homework done,” he said, swatting JD on the rear as the little brother moved off.
“Ok,” JD agreed. He was dying to know what Chris’ grandpa had sent. He could feel the bulge through the envelope, but there were some things that were private, like ‘before boxes’ and Chris’ letters from his real grandfather.
The boys had Bobby’s parents as grandparents, but they lived in Wisconsin and were fairly elderly. They had come to Bobby and Janis’ funeral and offered to do what they could to help them. There had been no question that they wouldn’t able to take the younger boys and as such had thrown their full support behind Josiah taking on the responsibility. They called regularly and offered what support they could.
As far Janis’ family, her mother had died when she was fourteen and there had been very little contact with her father over the years. He had come to the funeral and had left immediately afterwards. They had yet to hear from him.
Hank Connelly, though, was Chris’ maternal grandfather. He was now eighty-four, but at the time of Chris’ family’s death, he had been seventy. Chris had been placed with Hank for a couple of months before the courts decided that Chris would be better off in a regular family. The grandfather had reluctantly agreed. Being seventy and trying to raise a nine-year-old was taxing on a good day. Chris had always thought, in a small way, that his grandfather had relinquished him so easily was because his grandfather blamed him for the death of Chris’ birth parents.
His grandfather now lived in an assistance living center and Chris could tell there were times when he wasn’t all there, mentally. At Christmas, Hank would send a small box with little trinkets for each boy. The presents never amounted to much, but since the man was using the precious little money he did have on them, Bobby and Janis had impressed on them that it was the thought that counted. This year, no box had arrived and Chris hadn’t questioned Hank as to why when he had talked to him last.
Chris used his father’s letter opener to slice open the envelope. Taking out the one sheet, he opened it carefully, feeling an object taped inside. Chris looked down at the one page letter with three lines on it, but it was the small gold pocket watch that held his attention. Carefully, he un-taped it and picked up the watch, running his fingers over the engraved train engine. Slowly, he pushed the latch that opened the case, snapping the lid open. Inside, on the right, was the watch face, but it was the left side that he stared at. Inside the small frame was a picture of his mother and father. Chris felt the tears building and fought to blink them back. It was useless, as they ran steadily down his cheeks. He had forgotten how pretty his mother had been. The fire had destroyed pretty much everything, including all the pictures. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there staring at the small picture, just remembering.
Buck stood at the doorway, hesitant to interrupt his brother. He knew whatever Hank had sent Chris, it was taking him back to the past. With a final sympathetic breath, he knocked on the doorframe. “Supper’s ready,” he said quietly.
Chris could only nod. Swallowing hard, he pushed down his emotions. “Have a phone call to make. You guys go ahead without me,” Chris rasped out, never looking up.
“Sure thing,” Buck said, walking away. He stopped and stepped back into the doorway. “You know where to find me,” he said quietly. Seeing the blond head nod jerkily, Buck closed the door and walked away.
Chris wiped his eyes, picked up the phone and dialed the number.
“Hello,” came a shaky voice on the other end.
“Hey, grandpa,” Chris greeted. He loved his grandfather, but never particularly felt close to him after the deaths of his own parents. Hindsight let him realize that his grandfather couldn’t care for him back then, but back then it had felt differently.
“Chris!” Hank exclaimed happily. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” Chris answered, slowly getting his emotions back under control.
“How are the others?” Hank asked. He sorely missed his only grandson. He had taken the death of his only child hard. After the courts took Chris away, he had gone downhill. It was only the infrequent calls that made him feel alive.
“They’re good,” Chris said, preparing to give a rundown on each one. “Josiah is still the counselor at the school. Buck is good. Going strong and positive as always. Nathan is doing well in school and playing basketball. He’s really good. Vin is improving in school and is coping better. JD…well he’s still hyper. He’s adjusting, too. Not as clingy, ” Chris paused as he came to the last brother. “And Ezra is…well, Ezra. Still keeps everything inside, so we don’t know how he’s really doing.”
Hank was silent for a second before he quietly said, “Sounds like someone else I know.”
Chris knew Hank was referring to him and didn’t like it, but he couldn’t argue the point either. While Chris was still trying to think of a comeback, Hank beat him to it. “Do you really expect him to open up to you if you won’t do the same?”
Chris held his silence for a minute before letting out his breath. “Yeah, I’ve been getting that point hit home a lot lately,” he said, recalling his conversation with his oldest brother not too long ago.
Silence filled the air before Chris could gather his courage and state, “Got your letter today.” He waited a second before asking, “Why now? Are you sick?” feeling anxious about the sudden gift.
Hank knew what the boy was asking and calmed his nerves. “Just old, boy. You know that. It took me a long time before I could let her go, son. Thought it was time you had it,” Hank choked out. Hank paused. “I never blamed you, boy,” he whispered firmly.
Silence once again filled the air. When it became clear that neither man had anything more to say, Chris swallowed hard and forced himself to speak normally. “Thanks, Grandpa. For Everything.”
“You’re welcome, Chris,” Hank responded. “I always loved you,” he choked out, before softly hanging up.
Chris kept the phone to ear listening to the dial tone. “Love you, too, Grandpa,” he said softly before hanging up.
The next day was a scheduled holiday for the kids. Sitting around the table, looking at his brothers, Chirs spoke up. “Going to the outer fence line today. Ezra, you’re going with me,” he said firmly.
The other brothers looked at the blond for a minute before taking his statement as an order. Ezra’s neck popped when he turned around to look at Chris. In Ezra’s opinion, Chris had just lost his mind. Vin was Chris’ riding partner. Chris just stared back at him with those hard-set green eyes and Ezra knew there was no arguing. He hung his head and finished eating his breakfast. He figured he must have done something wrong to get Chris’ undivided attention. Ezra sighed, his life never seemed to go very smoothly
Half an hour later, the two brothers were riding out of the yard. Chris had grabbed the first-aide kit, a blanket and put in some granola bars(,) just in case of an emergency. Bobby had always stressed the importance of being prepared for the unplanned when riding out away from the house. His motto had been, ‘You never know what’s going to happen.’ They rode in silence. Ezra was more confused than mad about the reason for being out here with Chris. He, in fact, enjoyed riding, and Chris was a pretty decent partner, talkative enough to make it interesting, and not so chatty it gave him a headache. Today though, Chris was being quieter than normal and Ezra was still trying to figure out what he’d done so wrong that Chris needed to have a private conversation with him.
On the other hand, Chris had found himself stuck. He had lain in bed the night before, planning this trip. He thought he would get Ezra out here by himself, open up some dialogue, even thought of the topics they could talk about. Now that they were out here, Chris’ mind had gone blank and he couldn’t think of one thing to say. So, for most of the morning , neither had spoken. This was not going at all like he had planned.
Another hour passed and it seemed like the point had became to not talk. Chris looked up at the sky again. The white fluffy clouds had become darker and more threatening. He was about to tell Ezra it was time to turn around and head for home when the first drops of rain could be felt. He heard Ezra mutter a “Oh joy,” and momentarily, he considered keeping the kid out in the rain, but common sense kicked in and instead he said, “Come on, we’ll find shelter.”
Chris led the way to one of the many caves that dotted the mountainside that edged the backside of their land. “Take this stuff inside and I’ll tend to the horses,” he ordered, unpacking the blanket and unsaddling his horse.
Ezra nodded and then said quietly as he walked away, “Regaldo doesn’t care for storms.”
Chris watched his brother struggle to carry his saddle and the saddle blanket inside the cave before gently lowering his forehead against his horse. “And neither do you,” Chris hissed, remembering how his brother reacted to storms and wondering how stupid he could be for not remembering.
For reasons Ezra couldn’t understand, Chris was able to be around fires, but never could start one. For this reason, the younger one gathered up stray pieces of dead wood scattered outside the entrance and carried them inside. Setting them up like Bobby had showed him, Ezra soon had a small fire going.
Chris walked in a short time later, drenched, and paused at
the going fire, a small grin lighting his face. Ezra wasn’t half as
incompetent as he tried to make himself look when it came to the outdoors. Chris
set down his saddle. He stooped
down and opened his saddlebags, took out two tin cups and a small metal coffee
pot. Pouring water from his canteen, he said, “We’ll have some hot chocolate
in no time.”
Ezra didn’t speak, but just nodded. True to his word Chris had them a cup of hot chocolate within a few minutes. Staring down at his cup, Ezra gathered his courage and asked, “What did I do wrong?”
Chris stared at his brother. “What do mean?” the blond asked, his face belying the confusion he felt.
“Why did you ask me to come today?” Ezra asked, irritated that Chris was making him plead for an explanation.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Chris answered, taking a sip of his cocoa.
“Then, why have me come?” Ezra asked, never taking his eyes off his brother.
Chris was silent for a minute before reaching into his jeans pocket and pulling out the small pocket watch he had received the day before. “Figured it was about time we got to know each other,” Chris answered.
Ezra stared at his brother, dumbstruck. With agitation in his voice, Ezra smarted off, “We do know each other.” He couldn’t believe he had ridden all over creation, got caught in the rain and now was, more than likely, going to be spending the night in a cave because Chris suddenly needed to ‘get to know’ him.
“No, we don’t,” Chris said quietly. “Not truly.” He fingered the gold object in his fingers, trying to remember every little detail he could about his first family.
He knew, whatever he hazard to guess that was going on in Ezra’s head, the kid would just denounce it or deflect it as being trivial. His grandfather had made a point, to get Ezra to open up, he would have to do the same.
Taking a drink of his hot chocolate, he looked at the gold watch in his fingers one more time and began speaking. “Grandpa Hank sent me this yesterday,” he began. “I never had any pictures of them. I began forgetting their faces a long time ago,” he spoke quietly, the pain of such imagined betrayal showing through.
Ezra held his tongue, scared. He wasn’t sure where this was headed, but he knew someone would be better equipped to handle such a conversation with his older brother. Anyone, but him.
“I was away at camp when the fire happened. I was so furious with myself, God… everyone. I was filled with hate. After that, I went to live with Hank at first, but the courts decided it wasn’t the best thing, so I was sent back to Children’s Home. I wasn’t there long before Bobby and Janis showed up,” Chris rushed out. Stopping, he ran his fingers through his hair. “I often wondered what possessed them to keep me. I would have sent me back, but they didn’t. They just hung in there,” he said, his voice breaking.
“Buck had been here only three months. He threw himself into being my friend. Became a downright pain.” Chris laughed at the memory. “There were times when I absolutely hated his guts. He seemed to have dealt so well with his own mother’s death and had apparently gotten on with his life. I couldn’t stand it,” Chris spoke with a sad remembrance. “Until one night Bobby took me in his study and explained that the reason Buck seemed so settled was because he had shoved all his pain aside and refocused all his energy on me and, as long as I needed him to be my friend, or enemy, depending on the hour,” snorting with a laugh, “he didn’t have to deal with his own grief.” Chris stopped talking for a long time.
“One day he was being his seemingly normal, jovial self and I couldn’t take it anymore. I called his mother something I shouldn’t have,” Chris said, shame coloring his voice and his face. “For the first time since I had arrived, Buck lost it. He began screaming how his mother was saint, and then he did something I never thought he’d do. He started crying.” Chris paused for a minute. “I realized at that moment that it was my turn to help him.”
Silence reigned for a long time as Ezra digested this new information. As long as he’d been in the family, he had never heard much about Chris’ family or how he came to be living here instead of with his grandfather. There were many things he wanted to ask, to talk about it, but the words wouldn’t come. The old walls and sense of properness prevented it.
Chris seemed to sense Ezra’s inward debate. Moving over to his saddlebags, he removed an object that Ezra immediately recognized and became even more on edge. He and the blond were alike in some ways, keeping their boxes to themselves was one. To Ezra’s knowledge, Chris had never shared his box with anyone, not even Buck. Chris sat down with his box. Opening the lid reverently, he glided his fingertips over the edge of the lid as he stared down into its contents. “The fire inspector didn’t find much left. Everything was pretty much scorched, but he did find these,” the blond spoke, forgetting everything around him and traveling back into time.
The first objects he took out were a hairbrush and comb. The brush was large and wide, the kind used a long time ago. It was opaque with a large piece of blue glass set in the back, engraved with a design. The comb was long with wide teeth.
“These belonged to my grandmother on my mom’s side,” Chris said losing himself in the memories the objects bought back.
His mother had been the only child of Hank and Katherine Connally. Grandma Katherine had passed away when Chris was five. He could vaguely remember standing outside in the cold, surrounded by people he didn’t know, and watching his father wrap his arm around his mother in an attempt to comfort her. Shortly after that, his mother began using the set to brush out her long blond hair. Chris remembered how he would love to run his small fingers through the silky-feeling tresses. Chris always knew he had the best mother in the world.
Chris could recall sitting out on the lawn in the backyard, watching is mother hang out the laundry on the old clothesline. The way she would bury her face in the sun-dried sheets and then beckon him to come whiff the clean smell in the clothing. Taking the clothes down, he would help fold the towels and match the socks. Chris recalled the way the light breeze would blow her hair in her face, and the way she would struggle to keep her hair pulled back and to fold clothes at the same time. Chris flashed onto the times they would go grocery shopping. The way she would walk excruciatingly slow, to his way of thinking, up and down the aisles, seemingly looking at every single item. He would become so impatient, wanting to hurry up and get to the goody aisle. Sometimes, he thought she purposely dragged out the affair, seeing how long he could hold onto his patience. Then they would finally arrive at that wonderful aisle and she would stand off to the side and let him go up and down it until he finally settled on one perfect snack food. Those were simple snippets of his life, but they were the ones he could most clearly see and cherish.
Ezra sat in silence, letting his brother have his memories. He wondered what it was like to be able to hold an item and feel whatever Chris was feeling, to have that kind of peaceful look on his face. Ezra stared into the fire and thought about the irony. The thing that was keeping them warm in the cave was what took away Chris’ heart. He wondered how one could have so much strength to, not only survive such a tragedy, but also start living again. Not to mention caring about others.
Chris rose out of his memories and looked at his brother. Ezra was sitting there, staring into the fire with such a forlorn, lost look on his face, Chris wondered if he was bringing up feelings for Ezra that shouldn’t be touched yet. The blond pondered whether he should continue or not when Ezra turned his head in his direction and gave him a sad smile. Chris decided he had started this, he might as well go through with it.
Chris could hear the rain increase and heard the thunder drawing closer. Darting his eyes over to his younger brother, he noticed Ezra had hunkered closer to the fire. The oldest knew he needed to find a way of offering support without being to overt about it. Taking the next object out, he held the box respectfully. Motioning for Ezra to scoot over next to him. When Ezra had moved closer, Chris uncupped his hands to show the small box with a medal pinned to the thin cushion. “Dad got this purple heart fighting in the Gulf War,” Chris whispered, choking on the words.
Having a dad in the military had meant moving around a lot, but Chris had loved it. Seeing new things and learning about his country had been wonderful to the him. His dad had instilled a deep sense of pride for his country into his son. Every time they would move to a new place, his dad had taught him some of the history of that state. When he was eight, his dad had been shipped to Saudi Arabia. Before leaving, his dad had gotten a map out and showed him where he was being sent and had, in simplistic terms, explained why. His father had told him that some people who were against the decision of their president for sending soldiers over there, but not to let this worry him. Everyone had a right to their expressions and only Chris could make himself feel ashamed or proud of him. Chris remembered seeing his dad in his full fatigues and looking really sharp. Chris had been so proud of his dad, standing there in the parade line with all those other soldiers. It had been lonely without his dad, but Chris had been determined to be his dad’s best little soldier so his dad would be proud of him when he returned. He had helped his mother all he could and had played with his little sister, Molly
When his dad had returned, they’d had a big party. Chris had been allowed to stay up late and as he recalled he couldn’t get enough of being around his dad. When everyone had left, and it was only the four of them, his dad had tucked Molly into bed and then sat down on the couch. His mom had snuggled up against his dad. Chris had been on sitting on the floor, thinking he was too big to sit on his daddy’s lap, but wanting to anyway. His dad had looked at him and patted his knee. In an instant, Chris was in his dad’s lap with one strong arm wrapped around him. That had been the best night he could ever remember. Two months later, he would be at summer camp when the counselor would come get him from breakfast and tell him that his family was dead. They had died in a house fire. He would never understand how his dad, who’d had a plan for all occasions, had let the batteries in the smoke alarm go unchecked. The only thing that had kept him from completely falling over the edge into insanity was knowing they had died from the smoke inhalation and not burning to death. Which to his nine-year-old mind was a slightly better way of dying because the people had said that meant they didn’t suffer.
To this day, Chris could never explain why he found the fire suspicious. It was one of the reasons he wanted to become a cop. One day, he wanted to investigate his family’s death. One day he would know why they died.
Chris took a deep breath. When he’d first decided to share his box with Ezra, he had imagined it to be heartbreakingly hard. Instead, he was finding a release of sorts. His grandpa had been right so many years ago when he had told him by sharing his load it would only become lighter.
Taking out the last item, Chris held his breath. The small stuffed purple bear had smelled so badly of smoke for a long time. Janis had taken the bear and put it in a bag with something, he didn’t know what, and kept it for a couple of days. A large amount of the smell had evaporated; time in a pine box had taken care of the rest. “Molly’s,” he quietly explained, unnecessarily.
His mother was fond of telling a story that embarrassed the heck out of young Chris. When she’d told him that, when she went to the hospital, she might come back with a little girl, five-year-old Chris had said to his mother, “Don’t worry mommy, there will plenty of babies to chose from. I’m sure there will still be some boys left.” His mother had laughed many times over that. Chris would always put that put-upon face on and whine, “Moootheeer.”
It had worked out in the end. When his parents had bought Molly home, he found her acceptable and let his mother keep the little girl. As she got older, she’d had the same long blond hair as their mother and the same sweet spirit. When she was scared, or about to get in trouble with their mother, she would come running and hide behind him for protection. Molly had been four the last time he had seen her. When he’d gotten ready to go to camp, she had clung to his legs and begged, “Bubby, don’t leave me.” Bubby had been her own nickname for him. He had gotten mad when his mom had first started referring to him as Bubba, stating irately that he was not a Bubba. Molly had come up with her own name for him, Bubby. He had pretended to be resigned to the nickname, while privately he had liked it. It was just their private name. He was her Bubby and she was his Molly McPolly.
Chris held the bear and fought back the tears that threatened to spill. Regaining his composure, he carefully laid the items back into the box. Picking up the pocket watch, Chris held onto it with a new ability of coping. Looking over at his brother, he recalled a conversation he’d had with Josiah. They had been discussing their brothers and how each was doing and Josiah had seemed pretty down. Chris, in an effort, to lift his brother’s spirits, had offered what support he could. “We’re doing okay. Even Ezra is adjusting all right. He’s taking everything that has happened to him, including JD breaking his arm, in stride and has gotten past it,” he’d said.
The only reply Josiah had given was, “Maybe.”
The answer had thrown the blond. “Maybe? What do you mean maybe?” he had asked suspiciously.
Josiah had looked at him sadly and said, “I don’t think he’s so much adjusting as much as he is accepting what he thinks is the truth.”
Chris had asked, “And that would be?” dreading the question.
“He feels he has nowhere to turn. He feels he has no choice but to accept what is doled out,” Josiah had said quietly.
Chris sat reflecting on the conversation with Josiah and the one with his grandfather the day before. Looking at Ezra staring into the fire, Chris quietly put his arm around his brother. “Everyone needs help, whether they know it or not, or whether they want to admit it. That’s the thing about families, no matter how bad you feel, how much you think you screw up, at the end of the day, they still love ya,” he said speaking from the heart. Giving into a little laugh, he added, “May not be happy with ya, but they love ya.”
Ezra remained mute, wondering if he dared to believe what Chris said. Maybe, one day he would have the same ability as Chris to open up to the others.
The two continued to sit in the silence, waiting out the storm. Chris had no bubbly fantasy that all would be fixed. This wasn’t a sitcom, this was real life and real life was never that easy.