For forty-five minutes the little red rental sat in the parking lot. Amanda Barber remained frozen in the driver’s seat. She stared through the windshield at the brick building in front of her. The car’s engine was off, the keys still hanging in the ignition. It wouldn’t take much for her to reach out, turn them, and go back the way she had come.
She read the sign on the building one more time as if reading it would put off the inevitable. HOWELL’S ADULT DAY CARE.
It was getting dark; she couldn’t sit there anymore. She had promised her stepmother’s attorney that she would stick around for a couple weeks. Just a couple of weeks. Fourteen days. Half a month.
She had to stop being a wimp.
Okay, no more hesitation. She grabbed the keys and tossed them into her purse. She had to get this over with. She left the car and went into the building before she could change her mind.
As the door closed behind her with a click that sounded deafening to her own ears, Amanda glanced around. A few older people sat knitting, reading, and talking in small groups. A television droned in the background. A very elderly gentleman sat in a wheelchair in front of a large picture window, his head bobbing as he dozed off.
A woman, just a few years older than her, looked up and spotted Amanda. A frown creasing her forehead, the woman straightened from helping the young man who was sitting at a card table. Amanda wasn’t quite sure what the young man needed help doing. It looked as though he’d been drawing. The woman leaned over and said something in his ear before approaching Amanda.
“Can I help you?”
“I guess so.”
A puzzled look crossed the woman’s face when Amanda didn’t continue.
The woman prodded, “Do you need information? Or a tour of our facility?”
The woman squinted in confusion and tilted her head with an unspoken question. As she opened her mouth, Amanda interrupted her. “I’m here for Gregory Barber.”
She must have said it loud enough, as the young man at the table lifted his head from his project and turned toward them. He laughed loudly and brushed away the hair that fell into his eyes with the back of his bent wrist.
An O formed on the woman’s lips. “You must be Amanda.”
Amanda frowned. Of course the woman knew who she was. She bet all of Manning Grove had been waiting for her to show up.
“Yes, I’m here to pick up Greg.”
Amanda bit her lip as the young man rose from the table with a crooked smile. Next thing she knew he was running toward her, his arms flailing in the air. Amanda automatically stepped back. She really wanted to turn and run, but the young man’s arms wrapped around her, squeezing her until she couldn’t breathe.
The woman grabbed his arms, trying to peel him off. “Greg! Greg! Let her go.”
Greg rocked Amanda back and forth, pressing his head into her chest, squeezing her even tighter. She groaned in pain.
“Donna, is this ’Manda? Is this ’Manda?” His booming voice vibrated against her chest.
“Greg, you are going to squeeze her to death.”
Greg reluctantly let her go and stepped back, the crooked smile on his face even larger. A bit of spit sprayed out of his mouth as he yelled, “My sister ’Manda!”
“Yes, Greg, your sister is here to pick you up.” Donna turned to Amanda. “As you can guess by now, I’m Donna. I manage this facility.” Concern crossed her face. “You look pale. Do you want to sit down?”
Amanda shook her head. “No.” She took a deep breath, rubbing her ribs, checking for damage. She pulled down her skirt and adjusted the sweater that was askew under her jacket. “No, I’m okay.”
“Are you taking Greg back to his mother’s house?”
“Have you ever dealt with a special needs person before?”
Amanda looked at Greg, who stared back at her with the biggest grin on his face. “No.” Greg couldn’t stand still; he was fidgeting about and mumbling to himself.
Donna frowned. “Oh boy.”
Amanda didn’t want to hear that. Oh boy. What did that mean? She knew that she would be in over her head. But “Oh boy”?
“Uh, is he ready to go?”
Donna looked at Greg. “Yes. He’s very excited to meet his sister, as you can see.” She returned her attention to Amanda and lifted her eyebrows. “This is for the first time, right?”
Amanda nodded. She didn’t know whether to be ashamed or afraid. Shame was quickly clouding her feeling of fear. She had no doubt that Donna knew the answer to that question before she had even asked it. Amanda was sure that the whole town knew the truth.
Donna grabbed her arm, pity in her eyes. “Look. I’ll give you my card. If you have any problems or questions, call me. Greg’s a good kid; he’s easy to work with, easy to please.”
Amanda looked at the person in question. He was no kid. Her half-brother was twenty-two years old. Twenty-two.
Old enough to drink, vote, join the army.
An adult that only acted like a child.
“Thanks. I might take you up on that offer.”
Donna smiled for the first time. “I’m sure you will. Here is a brochure on my facility and my card. Greg comes here three days a week. A bus will pick him up before eight a.m. on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, except for holidays. A bus will drop him off after six p.m.”
Amanda’s head was spinning. “Okay.”
“Greg, are you ready to go now?”
“Yep. Yep. Yep. I’m ready to go.” Greg hopped on one foot, then the other, in his excitement. “We’s going now!” He ran up to Amanda again and held out his twisted hand.
Amanda reached out and grabbed it. His huge grin was irresistible. She gave him a weak smile back. “Ready, Bud?”
Amanda looked at her brother. He might be only a half-brother, but he was still blood. He was family. Amanda relaxed her stiff muscles a bit and gave his hand a squeeze. “You are, Bud. You are going to be my new best bud.”
“Oh! Oh! Donna, I’m Bud! I’m a Bud!” Greg started to pull her toward the door.
“Oh wait, Ms. Barber!” Amanda’s head turned toward Donna as she was being tugged out through the entranceway. “Don’t forget Chaos.”
“What?” She grabbed the doorjamb to keep Greg from dragging her out the door and bouncing her over the pavement in his enthusiasm.
“Chaos,” she repeated as if that clarified everything.
Donna went to the back door and held it open. A black-and-white border collie bounded through the door and circled them, barking, just as out of control as Greg.
* * * *
Keys jingled and hinges squeaked as Amanda opened the front door of her new home.
New temporary home, she reminded herself.
Due to the long flight followed by the boring, long drive to this in-the-middle-of-nowhere town, she was exhausted. She needed to get a good night’s sleep so she could think clearly in the morning.
She glanced at her watch. Seven.
Neither Greg nor she had had dinner yet, and here she was, thinking about going to bed. Like an old maid. In Miami the nightlife hadn’t even begun yet.
Chaos brushed past her. The dog probably needed to be fed too.
“Greg, do you know how to feed Chaos?”
When there was no answer, Amanda turned to look at him. He was still standing near the car. He had been suspiciously calm and quiet as they drove into the neighborhood and up to the house. The excited “boy” was gone.
“Is Mama in there?”
Even in the dark and him being so far away from her, the sadness and confusion was clearly recognizable on his face. But his question made the hairs on the back of her neck rise.
“No, Greg, your mama is gone. Come on. I need to make you some dinner.”
“Mama makes good food.”
Amanda sighed. She didn’t want to deal with this. He wasn’t her responsibility. She had never even met her brother before today. She knew he existed, but they’d lived in different worlds. Her world had never included her father, her stepmother, or her half-brother. Amanda’s mother Anne had made sure of that.
“Hey, Bud, I might not be the best cook. In fact, I’m probably one of the worst. But I can sure make a bowl of soup and a mean grilled cheese sandwich.”
His new nickname seemed to perk him up a bit. He reluctantly followed behind her into the house.
Amanda ran her hand along the wall, since the house was pitch-dark, looking for a light switch. Her fingers located one, and she flipped the lights on. The house was cute. And small. Everything seemed to have a place, and it was really neat. And despite the fact that her stepmother Dolores had died over a week ago, the house seemed relatively clean.
The living room to her right was comfortable looking with a big, soft couch and a few beautifully carved, old, but heavy wood tables. Antiques, probably. Most of the decorations on the wall were framed photos. She would look closer at them later. After she got some sleep.
One thing Amanda quickly noticed was that there was nothing delicate. No pottery or glass or even small knickknacks. Amanda could imagine why when she heard a crash. She rushed back toward the rear of the house.
The large kitchen was modern with all updated stainless steel appliances and gorgeous granite countertops. A copper pot rack hung over an island, which was surrounded by dark wooden stools.
And in the center of that beautiful kitchen was Greg with a sheepish look on his face. “Sorry.”
He had dropped Chaos’s metal bowl, but the dog didn’t care. As fast as he could eat, the dog vacuumed up every last kibble wherever they had rolled.
“It’s okay, Bud. Now let’s find something for you to eat.”
After a few minutes of searching cabinets, she put together a quick dinner for Greg, and as he ate, she explored the house some more. Even though the house was small, like she first thought, it was comfy. It was a two story with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
The kitchen had to be one of the biggest rooms in the house. The backyard was long and narrow, adequately fenced for the dog. The part Amanda loved the most was the sunroom that appeared to have been recently added to the deck in the back.
Amanda returned to the kitchen to check on Greg. Maybe she shouldn’t have left him for so long. Or at least should have given him a napkin. As she helped him wipe the tomato soup off his clothes, she quizzed him, trying to find out what he could do and not do.
Around ten p.m., after Greg watched, according to him, one of his “favorite” programs, she went up with him to his room.
“I see you’re a NASCAR fan, Greg.”
“Love NASCAR. Love racing! I’m gonna be a race car driver.”
“Let me guess. Tony Stewart is your favorite driver.”
Greg squealed excitedly. “How’d you know?”
Amanda looked around the bedroom, which was full of the number-fourteen posters, model cars, and memorabilia. She pulled down the Stewart bedspread. Hmm, how did she know?
“Can you take it from here? Can you get ready for bed?”
“Okay, night, Greg.”
“Can I get a hug?”
“You bet, Bud.” His hug wasn’t so bone crushing this time. “Night, Buddy. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Amanda headed back downstairs. She went directly to the white envelope that the lawyer had given her, where she had left it on the kitchen counter earlier. She grabbed it and went into the sunroom. She sank with a tired groan into the plush love seat and ripped it open. Chaos ran in and jumped up, curling next to her. Amanda smoothed a hand down his silky back.
She unfolded the letter and began to read.
I know we never met, and I regret that. Nothing can change that now. First thing I want you to know is that your father loved you, no matter what you thought. He made a good life for us, and for that I’m grateful. I loved him very much.
I know that this must be a big shock for you, meeting your brother for the first time. Gregory is a good boy. I hope you’ll see that for yourself.
It’s been tough for Greg after your father died from that heart attack two years ago. Not to mention me. I know it’s going to be even tougher for Greg after I go. Greg has no idea that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I don’t think he’d understand it anyway.
If you’re reading this, then Greg has lost both of his parents. I hope you find it in your heart to help him and love him. I know he’s only your half-brother, but he’s still your brother. You’re all he has.
Please look deep within yourself to open your heart to him. It’s not an easy job. Gregory can take care of himself somewhat, but he needs a lot of guidance. I was trying to get him to be more independent, but he will never be able to live on his own. He really needs you. I don’t want him to end up in a home, alone.
The house is yours now, along with a trust that your father and I had set up in which you will receive monthly income to help take care of Gregory. It should be enough that if you stay in Manning Grove, you should be able to not work and be there for Greg when he needs you. If you take him back to Miami (I hope you won’t), it probably won’t last long at all.
This is a great town and the people are friendly and they know Gregory. I know this might not convince you, but I don’t think Gregory would be happy in a big city.
I’m babbling now.
Amanda read through a “grocery list” of what tasks Greg could do on his own and what he needed help with. Amanda crushed the letter in her hand and threw it across the room. It bounced off a lamp and landed in the middle of the floor.
Chaos leaped off the chair and retrieved the “ball” before ceremoniously dropping it back in her lap. She glared at him and the crumpled, damp letter, trying not to scream. Struggling not to cry.
She didn’t want to do this. She couldn’t do this. This woman had no right to ask her. She never asked for a brother. Never cared that she was an only child. Her mother had spoiled her. Not because she loved Amanda, but because she wanted to control her and, when necessary, keep Amanda out of her hair.
Chaos nudged her hand, waiting for her to throw the “ball” again.
Staring at the black-and-white dog, she realized that she was expected to be responsible. Her—Amanda Barber! She who had never even owned a pet. Not even a hamster. Now she was actually responsible for another human being. It was too much.
She’d let Greg down.
Her head dropped into her hands, and she lost it. Sobs racked her body until her stomach ached, her nose was stuffy and swollen, and her eyes puffy. She sniffled loudly. Chaos sat at her feet, ears perked, and tilted his head up at her with a silent inquiry.
She was scared.
Not even her mother could—or would—help.
The thought strengthened her. She didn’t need her mother. Her mother was angry with her. She had said that Amanda would never be able to do it. That she was incapable.
Amanda would show her. She would be better than her mother. Greg was her blood. Her family. She would be caring, warm, and loving.
At least she could try.
Chaos, tired of waiting, jumped back up beside her. Amanda’s hand stroked his head. She was determined to prove her mother wrong.