by Sivan Shemesh

Disclaimer: They are not mine, except the OC.
Thanks: Thanks to Helen for beta-reading and advice.
Author's Note: Josiah is 21, Chris and Buck are 19, Nathan is 18, Vin is 10, JD is 8, Ezra is 6. Vin & JD attend one school, Ezra another.

Back to: Burden

Their words haunted him.

"He doesn't fit in here. He's clumsy and awkward..."

"He's not like the other boys. We have to watch him every minute, constantly tell him what to do and how to do it."

"And he starts crying at the least little thing,"

Ezra let the tears slide freely down his cheeks, filled with the despair he had felt ever since his mother had left; a feeling that had grown with every foster family that rejected him. When Josiah had asked the judge to take him in, he had felt such hope that this time would be different. Instead everything was just the same.

The boy hoped he would never be found. His newest 'Family' didn't want him around and he didn't know how to fit in with them anyway.


The phone been ringing and ringing, until Josiah picked it up and answered the call.

"What do you mean 'he's missing'? I drove him into the school, I saw him enter..." Josiah snapped at the phone, unable to believe the words he was hearing.

Buck came into the room as he heard his brother's upset tone.

"He was in the first class, and then disappeared after telling the teacher that he wasn't feeling well. We found his school bag, but we haven't seen another sign of your brother. We're still searching."

"My brothers and I will be right there. There is no way a child of six could vanish like that!" Josiah told the Principal.

Alerted by Josiah's increasingly strident voice, the rest of the family entered the room, expressions of concern on their faces.

"I'll wait out front for you," the other man agreed, disconnecting the call.

When Josiah hung up the phone, he stared at his brothers and simply said, "That was Mr. Enrick, from Ezra's school. He said that Ezra was not in school all day. He's missing."

"What do you mean missing? You drove him to school this morning, how could he be missing?" Chris asked, voice growing more agitated with every word, revealing his concern for his little brother.

"I don't know!" He paused, thinking back on Ezra's behavior that morning. "You know, I'm afraid he might have heard us talking about him. Remember what you all said about him not fitting in here?"

Guilty looks filled every face. "You think he's run away," Buck said quietly. "Because he thinks we don't want him any more."

"I'm afraid so."

"Did you really say all that?" Vin asked, staring at his big brothers in disbelief.

"I'm afraid we did. Now I believe that we're seeing the result of our thoughtless action, and we need to find him," Josiah said gravely, receiving no argument from the others. "A six year old boy should not be out in the world all alone."

"How do we find him? We have no idea where he could be!" Nathan exclaimed.

"The Principal told me that Ezra was there for his first class but that he told the teacher he didn't feel well. He left his class but he never made it to the nurse's office. Mr. Enrick is waiting for us at the school. We'll start searching from there," Josiah told them as he grabbed his coat and headed toward the door.

"He might not have left school," JD suggested. "He might still feel safe there even if he doesn't want to come home."

Vin nodded. "Before I settled in here, when I was scared I used to hide in an old tree house, just 'cause I knew it real well. Ezra's been at that school a long time so he probably feels safer there than anyplace else."

"Might be..." Josiah replied thoughtfully. "We can only hope that's the case."

Once they arrived at the school, the Principal took them to his office.

They sat down, tension radiating from each of them as the Principal began to express his concern.

"I know from the interview Judge Orin Travis conducted with myself and several of my teachers a few weeks ago, that Ezra hasn't been with your family for very long," Mr. Enrick said. Getting only silent nods in response, he asked, "Did Judge Travis make it clear that Ezra would need to be driven to and from school every day?"

"He did mention it once, before the boy was put into our care," Josiah replied, not knowing where this was leading.

"Then why was he left here alone for hours after school let out yesterday?" the Principal asked, receiving only silence as the brothers cast accusing glances at one another. "I gave him a ride home myself when it became clear that no one would be picking him up."

Seeing the guilt on their faces, his tone softened. "Exactly how long has Ezra been in your care?"

"Less than a month and he's only restarted school this week," Chris told him.

"And during this time, have you let the boy know that he fits into your family, not let him to be the outsider, tried not to leave him alone?" Enrick asked with concern.

Seeing how the brothers looked at each other, the Principal reminded them, "You know this is not the first time that Ezra has run away."

Their expressions of shock brought a sigh to Enrick's lips. "You didn't know, did you? No one told you?"

"No," Josiah breathed, rubbing his fingertips over his forehead as he sighed, "My God."

He continued, "There have been several previous foster families."

"We did know that," Chris interrupted quickly. "We were told that he had trouble fitting in. That he had emotional problems. We've seen that for ourselves."

Enrick raised an eyebrow at the defensive words and Chris fell silent again.

"He didn't fit in because no one, as far as I understand, has taken the time to make sure that he would. His mother came and went at her own convenience his entire life, so Ezra has never been able to settle in properly anywhere. As a result he's quiet, standoffish and easily upset by signs of disapproval from adults."

"Adults like us," Buck muttered, face flushing as he recalled the morning's conversation and Josiah's assertion that their new baby brother might have heard it all. "Damn."

"With Ezra's history, I really hoped that you would be different from the other families he's been with. Ezra needs love and care like any other child, and after we find him, it will be up to you to prove that you can provide that for him. You need to prove to Ezra that he's not a burden to you and won't be left behind the minute he does something wrong. The boy is smart and sensitive and I am afraid that too many people have left him feeling that he was nothing more than an inconvenience."

Vin and JD exchanged glances, clearly ashamed of their earlier behavior toward the younger boy.

Seeing this, Josiah stared at Buck, Chris and Nathan with hope in his eyes; hoping to see a change in their attitudes as well. "Maybe we could all use a second chance," he told them. "What do you say, guys? Should we let Ezra stay and become part of a real family?"

The two younger boys nodded at once, each remembering when he had been the newest member of the family and how much it had meant to know that he was wanted and loved. The three older ones hesitated, but Buck and Chris finally nodded too.

"But that means that we'll still be paying off the debt for this school. We barely have enough money as it is," Nathan said, still not quite convinced.

"So this is about money?" Mr. Enrick said, the coldness in his tone bringing looks of surprise to their faces.

Nathan protested, "I just meant that it's going to be hard to support seven of us without the added burden of a fancy school."

Shaking his head, the Principal held up an apologetic hand. "Forgive me. Let me explain exactly what money means to that boy, and why I feel such concern over him."

They nodded, waiting for him continue.

"The first day his mother, Maude, brought the boy to school, Ezra seemed unusually lost and distant. He'd hardly move unless she told him to, just stood there staring at her like a little soldier waiting for his next order.

"A pattern developed. She would drop him off at school and Ezra would simply wait when the classes finished for the day, watching as other children were greeted by warm, welcoming, affectionate parents. His own mother was always late, every day, and when she did show up she was impatient and abrupt. Then one day, she never came for him at all.

"I found Ezra outside in the play yard, looking at the sky above him, as lost as I've ever seen any human soul. I asked him why was he still in school and not with his mother and you know what he said? He told me that his mother must have found some way to make money and that's why she hadn't come. He was perfectly serious, telling me she preferred the money to him and that she 'probably forgot' about him. He also told me that the school was not the first place where she'd left him behind, but that he liked it here because it was safe and nobody ever yelled at him or beat him or locked him up here. I don't mind telling you that it made my blood run cold to hear how calm he was in saying those things, as if he thought that was how every child must be treated."

Josiah sighed heavily as he mumbled, "And we all but repeated history."

Chris, angry at himself and even angrier with the people who had hurt Ezra before, snapped, "We've got to find him."

"And after you find him, you do what?" the Principal asked.

"We'll let him feel how family really should be," Josiah replied.

"That you should." The voice came from behind them and the brothers turned, finding themselves facing Judge Travis.

Buck turned to the Principal and asked accusingly, "Why did you call him?"

The Principal smiled ruefully. "With the boy's history, I felt that the Judge should be made aware of the situation."

At the word 'history', Chris became angry again. Turning to the judge he demanded, "Why didn't you tell us? Why didn't anyone tell us Ezra's history before now? How were we supposed to treat him better than those other families if we didn't even know there was a problem?"

Travis frowned. "The social worker was supposed to have filled you in completely."

"She didn't," Nathan said flatly. "We didn't even know he'd had prior instances of running away."

The judge sighed. "Damn it, this should never have happened. I'll have to look into this case and find out where the break in communication happened. But meanwhile, our first priority is to find the boy."

"You said that he used to stay in school when no one came for him," Josiah said, turning back to the Principal. "Do you have any sort of idea where he would hide if he's still here?"

Enrick pondered the matter for several moments and then rose and led the six brothers and the Judge into the hallway. Leading them to Ezra's classroom, he moved to Ezra's seat, which held his school pack and open notebook, still undisturbed. "Let's start from here."

Buck took a step forward, and stared at the notebook, amazed at the style, having never seen such perfect handwriting from a six-year old boy.

"Amazing isn't it?" the Principal asked. "He has a very ordered mind for one so young."

The brothers nodded in agreement.

Gathering Ezra's possessions, the search party moved back into the hallway. When the Principal stopped at a storage closet, they all realized that they could hear the sounds of soft sobbing and a child's voice from behind the door.

Josiah and Chris leaned close, pressing their ears to the door in order to make out the words.

"They hate me... Why does everyone hate me? Why can't I be good enough for anybody to love?"

Josiah noticed his brother wince as another broken-hearted sob reached them. He saw a tear leak from the corner of Chris's left eye, and had to wipe away a few of his own.

The Principal pulled out a key chain, searching for the right key. Then, with a, click, the door was opened wide.

Josiah saw the boy first, huddled in the corner, both hands lifted to protect his head, as he mumbled, "Please don't hurt me... I'm sorry I ran away! I won't do it again..."

With a heavy heart Josiah hurried toward the boy, gathering him into his arms and rocking the small body back and forth, his own tears falling faster. "Nobody is going to hurt you, Ezra, I promise. Nobody hurts my baby brother."

"You really scared us, kid," Buck said, running a hand over Ezra's disheveled curls. "We were afraid something bad might've happened."

Ezra sniffled heavily, wiping his nose on the back of one hand as he repeated, "Bad?"

"Real bad," Chris said gently. "Like maybe you didn't want to see us any more and had run so far away that we'd never see you again."

He looked confused but so hopeful that it wrenched their hearts. "You'd feel bad about that?"

"I would," JD piped up, grinning at Ezra and giving him a very soft punch on one arm. "You're the only little brother I've got."

"Sorry we made you feel bad this morning, about breakfast and all," Vin said, making a face. "That was kind of mean. I'm glad you're okay."

Ezra offered him a shy smile. "Thanks."

"Sorry I forgot to pick you up yesterday, too," Nathan confessed unexpectedly, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "I thought it was Buck's turn, honest. I didn't mean to scare you."

His astonishment clearing away the last of his tears, Ezra said, "You're sorry?"

Nathan frowned. "Well, sure. Why wouldn't I be?"

Ezra had no answer but it was obvious in the way he ducked his head against Josiah's broad shoulder and refused to look at anyone that he was overwhelmed by the simple apology. The brothers grimaced, realizing that he must have never heard a word of apology from any adult before.

Judge Travis and Mr. Enrick watched the scene, observing quietly as one after another, the family made certain to reassure the boy that he was safe and wanted. They exchanged a nod. This situation would require careful monitoring before they knew if they had made the right choice for the boy. Did Ezra finally have a real family?

TBC ... in "Second Chances"

Family Index On to: Second Chances

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