DISCLAIMER: In my dreams, my daydreams, my wild and crazy moments they're mine all mine, but then reality sets in and steals them away again and all of the imaginary money, too.
CATEGORY: Halloweenish Ficlette (ATF)
MAIN CHARACTER(S): Vin mostly. Surprised?
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Parts of this particular tale might sound very familiar. I've heard this legend told many times and in many different ways. Special thanks to my beta Sherri for her tireless help and patience with the punctuation impaired.
The night was shrouded in a thick grey mist that seemed to have a life of its own as it moved over the countryside, swallowing everything in its path. This night's fog was thicker than Vin ever remembered seeing it. He watched in uneasy amazement as the road he was traveling, already a bit hard to see on such a dark and cloudy night, practically disappeared before him as the dense fog rolled in. It was like something from one of those horror movies Buck and JD had insisted they watch the night before. One minute it was clear and the next the deepening mist had crept in like a thief in the night, stealing the road and everything that existed more than a foot in front of the jeep's headlights.
After celebrating the upcoming holiday of Halloween with a night of food and horror movies the previous evening it had been unanimously decided to continue the weekend get together out at Chris's ranch. Even though the others would have already arrived, Vin was determined to get there before JD and Buck managed to eat all of the pizza and breadsticks.
It had been a long day, starting at four a.m. when Vin had rolled out of bed to make it to the gun range for some early morning practice before anyone else showed up.
Vin knew the guy who ran the range pretty well, having known him from his days as a bounty hunter and he even helped out with some of the training classes now and then. As a bonus, Vin had a key to the place to come and go when needed. Many a night and early morning Vin had spent some extra time there before the team had an operation going down. Partly for the practice but mostly just to make sure he was totally prepared to watch the backs of the men he considered more than just his colleagues.
After that he had hurried back to his apartment building where he had played a few games of basketball with the neighborhood kids and then spent the rest of the morning trying to fix his neighbor's bathroom sink. The families in his building lived the best they could but money was sometimes more than tight and it wasn't always easy to get things fixed on a timely basis in the low rent neighborhoods of Purgatorio. Just talking someone into coming out to look at it was nearly impossible. And Mrs. Rojos had just one tiny bathroom and four kids. So Vin had done what he could to repair the damage temporarily so that it was at least usable until he could have a firm word with the building manager about getting something done.
Sometime that morning he remembered swallowing some toast whole. He could never eat when he first got up and then later he hadn't really felt much like it. For a brief moment he had even considered that the combination of jalapeno laden nachos, Josiah's extra hot chili, an entire bag of pork rinds, a fourth of a chocolate chip cheesecake, and half a bag of candy corn, all of which he had consumed the evening before, might have been a contributing factor to his nauseated state. But that thought had never gained true consideration.
His Saturday afternoon had been just as packed. He had promised to help out with a little carnival at the local youth center in Purgatorio. Halloween was just a few days away and it was a way for the kids of the rundown neighborhoods to celebrate safely. Though it had been a lot of fun, Vin decided that if one more little goblin tugged on his leg and screamed 'Trick or Treat' he was going to lose it. All the preparation and then the cleaning up had taken more time than the event itself.
Already nearly half an hour late for the team's gathering out at the ranch he groaned out loud as his progress was slowed even more by the fog that had rolled in.
Team Seven had been together for nearly five months and the weekend gatherings had grown more frequent. Whether it was a night at the saloon, a Friday or Saturday night of baseball or movies or a Sunday afternoon of football, the time spent together had only helped to strengthen the growing bond between the seven unlikely men.
Yet still there were the times when Vin held back. Still a little unsure of himself and his place in this new life he was building, it was like waiting for the other shoe to drop. His life had been a series of letdowns and disappointments. So much so that his motto had unknowingly become 'don't get attached and you can't lose it'. That went for possessions as well as people.
In the past this hadn't been too difficult a task to manage. Leading a nearly nomadic life as a child when the choice hadn't been his own and up into his adulthood when it just became the normal flow of his life. From the military where he was always on the move to his years of bounty hunting when he went wherever the bounties led him he never spent very long in any one place. But now he had spent nearly a year in the same place, the same city, and the same apartment. It was a record and it had him jumpier than a bullfrog on a hot skillet.
From the moment Vin had locked eyes with Chris Larabee, his boss and newfound close friend, he had sensed a change. Like a shift in the breeze that's blowing against your face on a summer day. And even though he had yet to truly discern just what the change meant, so far it felt damn good. Never before, at least not since he was a very small child, had Vin felt such a sense of belonging. It was like he had found his niche in the world. He loved his job, he loved the guys he worked with, and more than that, he loved the way he felt about his new life.
And that was what was scaring the hell out of him. He loved, therefore he would lose. It was just the way of things. So, little by little, Vin had begun pulling back. Declining a night at the saloon or staying during lunch to work on a report instead of going out to eat with one or more of the guys. And then there was the horse sale that Chris had asked him to go to with him. When the team leader had mentioned it a month before Vin had been more than willing to go. His excitement at the prospect of checking out some fine horse flesh paled in comparison to the idea that Chris actually valued his opinion and companionship. It was so easy to be around Chris. The older man didn't expect a lot of talk or flash and they almost seemed to know what each other was thinking without a word being said. It was just natural. But Vin had made up an excuse just a few days before as to why he couldn't go.
So on this dark and foggy night Vin could feel his fears and worries assaulting him full force. Just like the fog seemed to enclose him in its silent grasp the thoughts in his head were closing in like walls. He had to get out and get away before something came along to ruin what he had. Before the others woke up and realized that he was just some stupid, throwaway, Texas hick. Before he lost the job he loved, the friends that made him feel like he belonged, and the best friend that made him feel like he was worth a damn.
Swallowing down the bile that rose in his throat, Vin pulled over. Looking out the side window, all he could see was more fog and the bare outline of his own reflection in the harsh dashboard lights. He pressed his fingertips into his eyes in a fruitless attempt to ward off the headache that was growing behind them. Reaching over to his worn leather jacket on the passenger seat he pulled his cell phone out of the pocket. It would be so easy to just call up the guys and tell them he wasn't feeling good. Truth was he didn't feel good and all he wanted to do was go back home and sleep for a week. Being with the guys would only remind him of all he had to lose. The laughter, the jokes, the easy camaraderie. Pressing the power button he watched the tiny face of the phone light up for a split second before it beeped at him and shut back down.
'Damnit, I know I recharged that stupid thing just last night and it's been shut off all day.'
Vin had learned the hard way about keeping the phone charged and with him at all times when Chris had practically taken his head off the morning he had shown up three hours late for work because of a flat tire on the expressway. His phone had been dead and he had walked into the team's office with no idea of the wrath he was about the face or of the manhunt that had been going on. After surviving the initial anger of the red faced storm cloud that formerly had been known as Chris Larabee and listening to hours of reprimands from the others, Vin had had a chance to review the questioning, ordering, and irate nature of his friends for what it truly was. And the revelation was shocking. They cared what happened to him. There had been far too few people in his life that had and the fact that these men did had staggered him.
Okay, now he had to make it to Chris's ranch. The last thing he needed was for them to get worried about him and Larabee to go off on a rant about deaf, irresponsible sharpshooters. Sighing out loud he glanced down at the clock on the radio that only worked half of the time. This happened not to be one of them. Before he could check his own watch he glanced up out the windshield, only to find his heart in his throat as a startled hiss escaped his lips.
There, in the headlights, stood a young woman with long auburn hair, who was wearing a light blue gingham dress.
'What the hell?' Vin thought as his racing heart pounded inside his head.
A light, knowing smile graced the woman's lips as she moved around to the side of the jeep. Vin swallowed hard and moved his visibly shaking hand to roll down the window.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you." The warm smile the young woman gave him helped to ease his initial fright. She looked to be about his age and something about her reminded him of someone, though he couldn't recall who. Her dark brown eyes held a kindness that seemed to radiate from her like a beacon of light.
"Evenin', Ma'am." Vin put on his best manners, an award winning smile, and his natural charm. The lady lifted her left hand to grip the side of the door frame and Vin noticed the wedding band. Oh well, better luck next time.
"You look a little lost." Her voice held a note of amusement and her grin caused her eyes to crinkle up in mirth.
"Well, actually, ma'am, I was headed to the Larabee ranch and this fog here has pretty much got me all turned 'round. Ain't one for usually gettin' lost." Vin admitted sheepishly.
His tracking skills were well renowned and to be lost was a totally foreign feeling, not to mention irresistible fodder for the group of practical jokers awaiting him at the ranch. He had been out to Chris's a number of times, but tonight the fog had gotten him about as disoriented as a blind man in a strange room and he figured that somewhere he had made a wrong turn.
"Well, you're in luck. I happen to know that this little back road goes right near there and if you don't mind giving a girl a lift home, I'll head you in the right direction." Her voice held an almost melodic tone and he felt drawn to it.
Vin found himself lost in her smile and dark sparkling eyes. "That'd be right nice of ya, ma'am."
"Elizabeth, please. Ma'am makes me sound like my mother."
Vin grinned. "I'm Vin. Just hop on in."
The beautiful lady walked back around the front of the truck. Vin had lost sight of her in the fog when she suddenly appeared at the passenger door again, causing his heart to quicken.
With a sheepish smile she got in. "Sorry. You certainly are jumpy tonight, aren't you?"
Vin quickly raked the seat clean, throwing his papers and jacket in the back. "Blame it on Buck and his horror movies."
"That certainly sounds like Buck." Her remark caught Vin a bit off guard.
"You know Buck?"
"Oh, I've lived around here for years. Know just about everyone within a few miles and some of their friends, too."
Vin noticed the file folders and trash on the floor and quickly moved them out of the way. "Sorry 'bout the mess."
"That's quite all right. I've got a little boy of my own so I'm used to messy." She gave him that same knowing smile and he felt himself relax again.
"Just start back down this road and I'll show you where to turn."
Pulling back onto the road Vin eased along the dirt path, following her every instruction of where to turn. It was a pretty roundabout drive but he also figured it to be a nice one, had it been daylight. It seemed like this route would take him right through the heart of the countryside in this area.
As they traveled they also talked. Vin didn't even take the time to wonder at the ease at which he seemed to talk with Elizabeth. She spoke of her son and her husband. Just the way she talked about them bespoke of her love and devotion. Her genuine love of life was evident in her voice and the way she looked at things with gentle nature. Vin found himself quite envious of her and her ease with the world around her.
Vin even found himself sharing a bit of his own life and the newly found friendships. The words seemed to flow from him with unconscionable ease. Time became irrelevant as they traveled along the foggy path, deep in conversation.
Then Elizabeth's voice took on a strange tone as she spoke.
"Like this fog, sometimes the road of life gets hazy and you can't see around the corner to what lies ahead. It can be scary sometimes." Vin agreed as her words echoed his own thoughts of earlier that evening. "What you always have to remember is that life's just like that. Sometimes you win and other times you lose, big. But the main thing to keep sight of is that the good is worth the bad. You have to live each day as if it were your last and treasure every moment, every friendship, and every opportunity at happiness. None of us know how long we have or when it'll all be snatched away in the blink of an eye."
The deep sadness that had crept into her voice made Vin realize that she spoke from experience. Having kept silent during her last words he felt the need to say something.
"Guess we've both seen our share of twists and... Ahhhh!" Vin yelled and pulled the steering wheel hard to the right as a vehicle and a person suddenly appeared in the jeep's headlights. Slamming on the brakes he was glad the fog had kept his speed down. Feeling his heart once again racing, he began to wish he'd just stayed home for the night. But then again he wouldn't have met Elizabeth. Vin turned to make sure she was alright and felt his heart stop completely.
The seat was empty.
A sound knock on his window and a loud bellowing voice restarted his heart at a racing pace.
"Where the hell have you been, boy? Larabee's in there about to blow a gasket, Nathan's sorting his first aid supplies for the fifth time, and JD's wanting to call in search and rescue."
Vin recognized the voice before he even turned to see Buck glaring at him through the side window.
"Me and the kid were just getting ready to start searching the road for your hunk of junk, broke down or worse. Did you forget to charge that cell phone again?!"
Vin watched the big man's lips moving, heard the words, but nothing seemed to be penetrating the all encompassing numbness that had overtaken his body. For the first time he noticed the icy fog that came out as he breathed and the temperature within the jeep became apparent. It was freezing. Every appendage was numb from the cold. Why hadn't he turned the heater on or was it just not working again?
Slowly rolling down the window and trying to work a bit of moisture back into his mouth he tried to find his voice. "Got lost," he croaked out.
"Lost? Lost?! Damnit, Vin, you've been here who knows how many times, I thought you could find a toothpick in a hay field with your hands behind your back and a blindfold."
Buck seemed totally oblivious to Vin's shaky state as he let his own worry spill out in words and volume. "And just how in the hell did you end up on the back trail into this place. You know how many drop offs there are? You could have ended up in the creek and we wouldn't even have known where to look."
Vin just stared at the ladies' man as he continued ranting on.
Another voice joined in the fray but at a distance.
"Hey guys, Vin's here." JD's yell would have likely disturbed the neighbors, had there actually been any close by.
Within moments Vin was surrounded by faces with a myriad of emotions going from anger to concern. But all showed a hint of relief at the arrival of their friend, apparently safe and sound.
Vin found himself being drug out of the jeep and into the house. And that's when he realized that somehow he had pulled right up to the ranch without even knowing it.
After suffering Nathan's examination, claiming numerous times that he was 'fine', and practically guzzling the hot coffee that was thrust into his hands he finally seemed to come to his senses.
"Where'd she go?"
"The lady I's..." Vin stopped, swallowing hard, knowing that to say anymore would mean a trip to the hospital for a head CT. Elizabeth was gone and none of the others had seen her; that much he was sure of. Maybe he did need his head examined, because surely he was losing his mind.
Looking around at the faces staring at him his eyes locked with the deep green ones of his best friend and with a glance made his discomfort known. With just a quick jerk of his head, Chris cleared the room, each of the other guys making some excuse to become scarce.
Sitting down beside Vin, Chris took another quick look at his friend. His mind had been working overtime since Vin hadn't arrived within thirty minutes of his estimated time of arrival. And after nearly two hours without a word he had been about to lose control. Without even trying, a certain Texas sharpshooter had found a way inside the carefully constructed walls Chris had built around his heart. After the loss of his wife and son three years ago he had mentally shut down his emotions, hoping that if he didn't feel he wouldn't suffer that type of painful loss ever again. And yet somehow he found himself a part of this strange group of men, once again giving a damn about the world, other people, and about life itself.
Vin looked like five miles of bad road. Chris had started to notice a change over the last few weeks. Though Vin's work had been as stellar as always, the time he spent with the others and him in particular had started dwindling. If it had been him doing it, it wouldn't have surprised him quite as much. Truth be told, the closeness this group was developing had been a little hard to adjust to for a number of them. Men used to living on their own and looking out for number one suddenly found themselves a part of a group and the friendships developing still had a ways to go in the full trust department. Just from the little he knew of Vin's past it was evident that the sharpshooter had suffered his own losses. He had been a lone wolf and used to looking out for himself for too long to change overnight and Chris suspected the young Texan was pulling back in a sense of self-preservation.
The paleness of Vin's skin was better and he didn't seem to be shivering quite as bad as he had been when he arrived. Though, with Vin's look, Chris had sensed that his friend needed some space from the good intentions of the hovering others.
"What happened?" It seemed like a simple enough question to Chris, but he didn't miss the jerk of startled blue eyes that quickly turned their gaze away from him as fast as they had appeared.
"Foggy. Got lost."
Chris waited a couple of beats to see if there would be any more information forthcoming and sighed in exasperation when the silence remained. Something had happened, that much he knew as well as he knew his own name, but unless Vin wanted to talk about it there was no point in pushing the issue.
Vin didn't know what else to say. 'I picked up some lady that helped me find my way here and then disappeared right out of the passenger seat of the jeep.' Yeah, that would have gone over really well. Nathan would have him in the emergency room faster than he could say 'longhorn steer'.
Getting up, he mumbled a need to heed nature's call and shuffled toward the bathroom. Spending an inordinate amount of time in the little room washing his face and hands he worked to get his thoughts together before once again facing the concerned stares of his friends. Making a conscious choice Vin decided to just try and forget about the mystery woman and the strange trip in the fog, chalking it up to bad horror movies, a long stressful day, and an upset stomach.
As he drifted back toward the den he was very relieved to find everyone seemingly engrossed in the college football game that was on. All were back to their usual bantering and bickering and that helped to ease some of his tension. Sharing a quick look with the blond in the recliner Vin nodded his thanks, knowing Chris had a hand in the back to normal status.
The rest of the evening passed without incident, with each of the men settling into the easy camaraderie that was slowly becoming team seven's trademark. Needing another drink Vin wandered toward the kitchen, promising to return with a few things for the others.
As he passed by the entrance to the little used living room a photo on the far wall caught his eye. Even in the darkness he could make out the outline of the young couple that graced the framed picture. Moving further into the room he realized that he had seen that photo before but not really paid that much attention to it or the needlework below. It was like a marriage certificate that had been carefully stitched with delicate flowers and ribbons decorating the corners with the words, dates, and names sewn with loving care. With just a once over he moved his gaze up to the photo above and immediately recognized a younger version of his boss and best friend. The smile the blond wore seemed to beam from every pore as his arm lay draped around the shoulders of the beautiful woman at his side.
Vin dropped the empty glass in his hand. The thick glass tumbler bounced off the thick carpeting and rolled away unnoticed. With a trembling that seemed to radiate from deep inside he found himself staring at the very vision he had picked up on a dark foggy back road. The same light blue dress and auburn hair. And the same warm smile and laughing dark eyes. Glancing back down at the names on the needlework he read:
Christopher Michael Larabee and Sarah Elizabeth Connolly.
The room spun and the air chilled as her last words echoed in his mind.
'You have to live each day as if it were your last and treasure every moment, every friendship, and every opportunity at happiness. None of us know how long we have or when it'll all be snatched away in the blink of an eye.'
Muffled voices hovered overhead as the light seemed to grow brighter around him.
"Damnit, didn't somebody make sure he ate something when he got here?"
"I thought he did. Never seen Junior turn down pizza."
"Should I prepare transport to the closest medical facility?"
"I'll go get some juice or something."
"Would you all just be quiet and let me check him out!"
The last voice was full of irritation and the closest to him in proximity. Noticing the tightness on his left arm he knew Nathan was in full grouchy medic mode. God, he hated having his blood pressure checked.
Vin blinked against the light and worked to focus on what had happened.
"Just take it easy, Vin. How are you feeling? Did you hit your head?" Nathan's numerous questions rolled through his head like a brass marching band.
"Headache." Vin moaned, reaching up for his head as daggers seemed to spear his skull.
Vin recognized Chris's voice and the tone. Not wanting his friend to worry he tried to sit up but was immediately assaulted by numerous hands holding him down.
"Whoa there, stud."
"Just lie still, brother."
"Don't even think about it. You just lay right there for another few minutes." Nathan was well aware of Vin's penchant for getting so wrapped up in what he was doing that he forgot to eat. The slim sharpshooter could eat any of them under the table and had a metabolism that could burn it almost as fast as he could shove it down his face. How anyone with that type of appetite could forget to eat was beyond him, but he had seen it too many times before and how he as the team's medic had missed the signs this time he wasn't sure. And it made him angry with himself.
"His blood pressure's a little low. Probably hasn't eaten much today, if at all. And 'I forgot' or 'I's busy' just ain't gonna cut it this time."
"I'm okay." Vin mumbled but had enough sense in his still rattled brain to forgo his pat answer of 'fine'.
"Sure you are and that's why we found you passed out on the living room floor."
Living room. Photo. Needlework. The vision of Sarah Elizabeth Connolly Larabee's smiling visage drifted in his mind. Swallowing hard Vin stared up, seeking out the man he had seen happily standing beside her. Chris's worry showed plain in the lines across his furrowed brow and the intense green glare that seemed to beg for answers of reassurance.
Another head blocked his view and Vin blinked, bringing Nathan into focus.
"Have you eaten today?"
"Yeah, some toast this morning some time. Stomach was a little rocky this afternoon so I stayed away from all the candy we's handin' out to the youngins'." Not liking the fact that he had once again caused his friends to worry he apologized. "Sorry. Been a busy day. Didn't feel that bad and then all of a sudden..."
"Don't worry about it, just get something to eat, take a couple of ibuprofen for that headache, and then get some rest." Nathan knew Vin hated being fussed over and since the color had finally begun to return to the younger man's face he decided to cut him some slack for now.
"You can use the guest room tonight." It was more of an order from his leader than an offer from his best friend but filled with the same note of worry.
"Thanks, cowboy." Chris cringed at the familiar nickname but couldn't help the slight smile it brought to his lips.
A little over an hour later Vin had eaten and the others had slowly taken their leave with the promise of yet another Sunday afternoon of football and mayhem on tap the next day. The mentally and physically exhausted sharpshooter had easily given in to the 'offer' of a bed with little protest, only causing his friends to worry more. But they were sure in the knowledge that Chris would look after their young teammate.
It had been a very long and strange day. As Vin slowly made his way toward the guest bedroom he stopped and turned to look back down the hall. Blue eyes met green in an almost instinctual move. Chris had stopped just outside his own bedroom door and turned back to look at his guest, not a bit surprised to see Vin doing the very same thing. A slight smile tugged at his lips at the knowing look that passed between them.
Though no words were said, the messages were clear. If Vin needed anything, anything, all he had to do was holler. And Vin was more grateful for the bed and the concern than he could express.
Before Vin could turn and step through the bedroom door the vision of a beautiful lady in the fog and her haunting words poured through him once again.
Their eyes met again in the near darkness, the message this time uncertain.
"You know that horse sale next weekend?" Vin shifted from one foot to the other then plunged ahead. "Iffen yer still goin' and yer offer still stands think I'd like to tag along."
A genuine smile lit up Chris's face and Vin was reminded of the photo again.
"Always good to have an extra set of eyes along to size up the stock. It's about 75 miles down the road so why don't you come on out Friday night and we'll make a weekend of it."
"Sounds good, cowboy." Vin spoke with true anticipation as he added silently. 'Real good.'
Both men slept well that night as a renewed sense of well being dwelled in the shadows and a beautiful auburn haired vision smiled warmly down upon them.