|Building Amanda's Future Series:Route 66 By Mildred Colvin|
With her finger, she traced the words engraved in the stone. Jeffrey Allen Wilson. Beloved Son and Husband. We miss you. Such impersonal words to convey the love and loss she could never regain.
She lifted her face toward the blue sky. â€œOh Jeff, I do miss you even though our life together seems more like a dream with each passing year.â€
She closed her eyes for a moment. â€œI finished college. Thatâ€™s the good news. The bad news is Iâ€™ll be teaching in Litchfield, so I have to move home to Illinois.â€
A sigh escaped as she settled back against her heels. â€œIâ€™ll be staying with Mom and Dad.â€
She brought her gaze back to Jeffreyâ€™s name. â€œAt least itâ€™s only temporary, until I get my own place. Anyway, I couldnâ€™t leave California without saying good-bye.â€
She shifted her position, moving closer to a small grave beside her husbandâ€™s and placed a bouquet of babyâ€™s breath in the vase set in front of the marble slab. Tears blurred her vision as she read the engraving. Charity Faith Wilson. Godâ€™s love brought you into our lives for such a short time.
A sob escaped before Amanda could hold it back. She held a tissue to her eyes then covered her trembling lips. Five years since she held her tiny daughter. The hurt was no longer fresh and constant as it had once been, but leaving Charityâ€™s grave would be hard.
â€œMy precious baby, I miss you so much. I love you, Charity. I always will.â€
Amanda stood and looked from one stone to another. She and Jeffrey had married much too quickly and for all the wrong reasons. Still, sheâ€™d grown to love him and would miss him for the rest of her life. Sometimes little Charity seemed a distant memory brought real by the empty ache in her arms. An ache that would never ease because her arms would never hold another child of her own.
â€œGood-bye, Jeffrey. Good-bye, Charity,â€ she whispered before turning on her heel and making her way across the cemetery to her car. Time to go home.
She turned the ignition key and let the engine warm while she took one last look at the stones sitting side by side across the cemetery. In her imagination she sensed Jeffrey and Charity urging her to get on with her life.
A sigh escaped. Why Litchfield? Sometimes it was so hard to know if the turning points in life were God ordained or only a cruel twist of life. She put the gearshift in drive and rolled out of the cemetery.
She approached Santa Monica Boulevard and impulsively turned on her right blinker to go west. She hadnâ€™t been to the beach for a long time and today was for good-byes. The street stopped at Ocean Avenue with a beautiful view of the beach and palm trees standing so tall and regal with the blue of the ocean and sky stretching beyond as if without end. She drove down to the beach and parked, then walked through the sand remembering the times she and Jeff had played with Charity here.
Charity had loved to sift her fingers through the sand. Memories that had soothed her before now hurt because sheâ€™d leave them all behind in the morning. She had picture albums to remember the good times, but for today the loss overwhelmed her. She went to her car and drove back the way sheâ€™d come.
The light changed to red as she approached the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Blvd. As she waited for the light, the thought occurred to her. She was sitting at the end of Historic Route 66, a special road that stretched from Chicago to where she now sat in California. Tessa Donovan, in Amarillo, lived near the midpoint, and Sarah Nichols lived in Chicago where the road began. While connected by their friendship, the three of them were also connected by the Mother Road. So, if she drove home, this is where sheâ€™d start her journey, and she could stop and visit with each along the way.
The idea was tempting, even though she didnâ€™t intend to go as far as Chicago. Yet if she did, she could say she had traveled Route 66 from one end to the other. Of course, sheâ€™d be on the road for several days even with the faster interstate freeways that now covered so much of the original highway. The thought of driving across the country on freeways sent a shudder, especially strong after her visit to the cemetery, down Amandaâ€™s backbone.
With trembling fingers, she turned on the radio and welcomed the soft music that flowed from the speakers, relaxing her. She drove home for the last night in her apartment. Everything she owned had already been sold or given away, including the car she now drove. Tomorrow, Jeffâ€™s parents would take her to the airport where sheâ€™d catch a flight to Illinois.
After disembarking at the Springfield, Illinois, airport, Amanda rented a car for the last leg of her journey. As she merged onto Interstate 55 going south out of Springfield, she saw a road sign announcing Historic Route 66. She smiled. California didnâ€™t seem so far away now. On a whim, she picked up her cell phone and punched in a familiar number.
When Tessa answered, Amanda said, â€œHey, guess where I am.â€
â€œYes, but I mean more specific. Iâ€™m on your favorite road just south of Springfield.â€
â€œOh, Route 66. Be careful. You can meet some very strange people on that road.â€ She giggled, and a male voice rumbled in the background.
â€œWho was that? Blake?â€ Amanda smiled at the obvious happiness in her friendâ€™s voice.
Tessa laughed. â€œYes, my dear husband is objecting to being called strange. He wonâ€™t listen when I tell him, if the shoe fits â€¦â€
Amanda laughed with her and ignored the tiny poke of envy in her heart. While she drove ever closer home, she and Tessa talked and laughed until Tessa had to go. Amanda hung up with a smile. After their short conversation, she felt more relaxed about her move. Her next call was to her parents. They should be home from work by now.
â€œHi. Iâ€™m about home, Mom.â€
â€œAmanda, we couldâ€™ve met you at the airport. Or Karen could have.â€
In so many words, she couldâ€™ve let them know her arrival time. She laughed, â€œMaybe thatâ€™s why I didnâ€™t tell you. I wanted to rent a car, anyway. Itâ€™s fine, Mom. Iâ€™ll be there in a few minutes. Okay?â€
After they hung up, she tossed her cell phone in the other seat and turned the radio on in time to catch a weather report. Most of central Illinois was under a tornado watch until six oâ€™clock that evening. Music replaced the urgent message as if the announcement was of no importance. Amanda leaned forward to look up. A blanket of dark gray clouds she hadnâ€™t noticed before now covered the sky.
The clock on the carâ€™s dash said five-thirty. Thankfully, the tornado watch would be over in half an hour, about the time she reached home. Surely nothing would happen. The sky didnâ€™t look bad to her. To further ease her mind, the clouds above thinned and a patch of blue appeared, sending sunshine streaking across the land.
By the time she entered Litchfieldâ€™s city limits. the blue sky dominated the expanse above with only scattered puffs of dark clouds as a reminder of what could have been.
Amanda stopped in the drive of the rambling old house where sheâ€™d grown up. The two-story white frame home had been built a hundred years ago. The swing hanging at the end of the wide, welcoming front porch creaked as a breeze pushed it. Thank you, Lord, for a place to call home. A happy place.
She sat a moment before releasing her seat belt. She had much to thank God for. Love of family ranked at the top.
She stepped from the car into sunshine.
â€œIâ€™m so glad you made it safely.â€ Mom met her at the front door. â€œDid you know weâ€™re under a tornado watch?â€
Amanda returned her motherâ€™s hug. â€œYes, but I think itâ€™s blown over now.â€
â€œDo you need help unloading?â€ Dad asked.
â€œNo.â€ Amanda gave him a quick hug and lifted her small bag. â€œHereâ€™s what I need for the night. I can get the rest tomorrow.â€
â€œThat will work. Come on in and tell us what youâ€™ve been up to.â€ Dad ushered them into the living room.
Amanda told about her uneventful flight and said, â€œI rented a car rather than bother Karen. Iâ€™m sure sheâ€™s at work or was when we landed.â€
â€œProbably.â€ Mom shrugged. â€œI couldâ€™ve taken off work to pick you up, but maybe itâ€™s best this way. How long will you keep the car?â€
â€œNot long. Iâ€™d like to buy my own.â€
â€œUntil then, you might as well borrow mine and save the rental fee. Dadâ€™s been taking me to work here lately, anyway.â€ Mom stood. â€œI need to check on supper. Why donâ€™t you come with me?â€
Dad glanced toward the door. â€œIf you ladies will excuse me, Iâ€™ve got a baseball game Iâ€™d like to watch.â€
Amanda smiled at them and shook her head. â€œDonâ€™t start babysitting me. What Iâ€™d really like to do, unless you need help, is check out my room before supper.â€
â€œIf youâ€™re sure.â€
Mom headed toward the kitchen and Dad went to the family room and the TV.
With her overnight bag dropped on the floor of her old room upstairs, Amanda sank to the bed and fell back with her arms outstretched. The muffled sound of the sports announcer on TV in the family room directly below her rose to her room. Dad was watching a baseball game. She laughed and shook her head. Some things never changed. He always watched the sportâ€™s channel before supper.
The muted sound of the phone ringing brought Amanda from her bed and down the stairs. She followed her motherâ€™s voice to the kitchen.
â€œHi, Karen. Yes, she got home a few minutes ago. No, there were a few storm clouds, but they cleared off.â€
Amanda got a drink of water from the refrigerator. She sipped her drink while listening to her motherâ€™s side of the conversation with her older sister. Her fingers tightened on the glass when her motherâ€™s eyes widened and a sharp gasp left her lips.
â€œWhat is it?â€ Amanda asked.
Mom shook her head. â€œWere there any injuries?â€ She listened a moment and then closed her eyes. â€œLord, help them.â€
â€œMom?â€ Amanda set her glass on the counter, as her mother hung the receiver back on the hook. â€œWhatâ€™s happened?â€
Dad stepped out of the family room. â€œWhatâ€™s going on? Who was that on the phone?â€
â€œKaren. She said Lakeland was hit by a tornado. They donâ€™t know the extent of damage yet or how many are injured. But that isnâ€™t all of it. A second tornado was sighted, and itâ€™s also headed straight for Lakeland.â€
â€œHow can that be?â€ Amanda looked out the window at the calm sunshine. Lakeland was fifteen miles away. It didnâ€™t seem possible that the sky above Litchfield held only a few dark clouds that appeared to be moving away while tornadoes battered the neighboring town.
Dad held his hand out gesturing for them. â€œLetâ€™s go in the family room where we can pray. We donâ€™t know how bad it is, but God knows.â€
Amanda knelt with her parents on the carpet in front of the sofa. She bowed her head and listened to her fatherâ€™s strong voice petition the Lord to protect their neighbors in Lakeland. She added her pleas as tears of concern and sympathy fell.
Before they finished praying, the phone rang again. Amanda continued to pray while her mother answered. A few minutes later she came back into the room and sank into the easy chair beside the sofa with her head bowed.
â€œThat was Karen again. She says the tornado has passed and most of downtown Lakeland is leveled. Itâ€™s on the local station if you want to listen.â€
Dad pulled himself to his feet and crossed the room to the radio. They listened to the damage report of their neighboring town. Five minutes later he turned the radio off.
The small town of less than two thousand in population had been hit hard. Most of the business district located on the north side of town was gone. Several homes were destroyed. Outlying farms had been leveled. Both tornadoes followed a similar path, the second taking what the first left. At least two lives had been lost, but the radio announcer said the number could rise as reports continued to come in.
Amanda sat with her parents in stunned silence. To think only moments ago her greatest concern was moving back home with her parents for a few months. Her problems seemed so childish now. At least she had a roof over her head.
Chad Randall turned away from Lakeland Cemetery. The short drive into town didnâ€™t take long. He slowed his truck at the city limits to creep down the only cleared main street in the north side of Lakeland. If the heavy traffic was any indication, every thrill-seeker in central Illinois was creeping along in front of him. Anger toward the insensitive curiosity of man tore through his heart. Why didnâ€™t they stay at home and let these people grieve in private?
Trees looked as if a giant wood shredder had chewed on the top branches, leaving bare, torn trunks in its wake. Foundations held floors of clutter with no walls. Broken glass and bricks covered the ground everywhere he looked.
At the intersection he turned south, leaving the devastation behind. As he drove past untouched buildings and houses, he marveled at the power of the wind. Marveled and cursed it for taking his little sister.
He turned into the parking lot of the state and county offices and stopped near the building. He stepped out of his truck, locked it, and went inside. The receptionist took him to a small private room that held a desk with two chairs facing it. He sat in one to wait for the social worker. When she entered the room, he rose.
â€œHello, Iâ€™m Mrs. Carter. Mr. Randall?â€
He nodded. â€œChad Randall.â€
â€œThank you for coming today. Iâ€™ve been working with your nieceâ€™s case and will help you anyway I can.â€
He shook her hand and sat back down as she took the chair behind the desk.
â€œMr. Randall, first I want to tell you how sorry I am for your loss.â€
He fought the anger and pain that rose to the surface every time he thought of his sister and, rude though it might be, he could not acknowledge her sympathy.
â€œYour niece is being cared for in a local foster home.â€
â€œThatâ€™s why Iâ€™m here.â€ He didnâ€™t care to hear her planned speech. â€œMy sister and brother-in-law wanted me to take her if anything happened to them. Iâ€™m all she has now. If youâ€™ll tell me where she is, Iâ€™m prepared to get her.â€
Mrs. Carter held up a hand. â€œMr. Randall, Iâ€™m sure you will gain custody of your niece in time. Before we discuss that, Iâ€™d like to ask you some questions.â€
Chadâ€™s stomach clenched as he stared at the woman. Why did the government always have to make everything so difficult? â€œWhat do you need to know? Character references?â€
Mrs. Carter smiled. â€œIâ€™m not accusing you of being an unfit uncle, but I would like to know where you intend to live. I understand you are Karlaâ€™s closest living relation?â€
Chad nodded. â€œYes, my father died while I was in elementary school. My mother passed away a couple of years ago. Steve was raised in foster care. I donâ€™t know what happened to his parents. Iâ€™m not sure he ever knew his biological father.â€
â€œI see.â€ Mrs. Carter glanced at the folder in front of her and made a notation. She met his gaze again. â€œThe other day on the phone you mentioned you would be staying on your sisterâ€™s farm so you could rebuild. Have you seen the property yet?â€
â€œNo, I got here as soon as I could. I came straight here after the funeral.â€
â€œI can sympathize that your concern is with your niece, but rest assured, sheâ€™s in good hands. The family sheâ€™s with has two teen-age girls who love babies.â€ Mrs. Carter laughed. â€œShe has the equivalent of three mothers fussing over her.â€
â€œMaâ€™am, with all due respect, they arenâ€™t her family. She doesnâ€™t know them.â€
Mrs. Carter nodded. â€œYes, that was true at first, but sheâ€™s been there three days, since the night of the storm. Small children adapt quickly. Will you be staying at the farm?â€
Chad nodded. She had a point. He didnâ€™t even know if heâ€™d have shelter other than his truck. â€œWhat do I have to do to get custody of Karla?â€
â€œSince you will likely need a lawyer for probate, may I suggest that you begin proceedings with an attorney to obtain legal guardianship after youâ€™ve had some time to see what youâ€™re up against with the house? Go out and look things over. If you need help cleaning up and rebuilding, go to the courthouse and get on the list. I understand volunteers are being assigned work locations.â€ She looked down at the file again. â€œYou teach at a high school in the northern part of the state, is that correct?â€
â€œYes, in Rockford.â€
â€œI assume you have a home there?â€
â€œAn apartment. I live alone. There hasnâ€™t been need for a house, but if thatâ€™s what it takes, Iâ€™ll buy a house. I intend to raise Karla just as Jessica and Steve wanted.â€ She needed to understand. â€œSteve might have been raised in foster homes, but he didnâ€™t let his background keep him down. As an attorney, he saw the need to provide for his family. Iâ€™ll check with the firm. Iâ€™m sure he made provisions for Karla.â€
Mrs. Carter smiled. â€œIt sounds as if Steven Jones was one of the rare successes that come out of the foster care system. I always love to hear of those.â€
â€œHe was a good man.â€ Chad felt his throat tighten and didnâ€™t say more.
â€œIâ€™m sure he was.â€ Mrs. Carter stood and so did Chad. â€œWeâ€™ll get this all ironed out, but for now, why donâ€™t you take a look at the farm?â€
â€œIn the meantime, may I see Karla?â€
â€œAbsolutely. Let me call the Warners and set up a visit. Check back with me in the morning. We should know something then.â€
Chad bit his tongue to keep from saying what he thought of the delay. He wanted to see Jessicaâ€™s baby now. Rather, he wanted to take Karla home with him. His grief had been so intense heâ€™d barely thought of his niece beyond his need to get to her.
He again shook hands with the social worker and left. He drove back to the center of the destruction and stopped at the four-way stop. This time he turned to the rightâ€”the opposite direction from the way heâ€™d come into townâ€”and drove four miles into the country before turning on the gravel road that led to what was left of his sisterâ€™s home.
He stopped near the house. For a few minutes he sat in silence and stared out the windshield. The house still stood. So many houses in town had been leveled to the floors with no loss of life. Heâ€™d been told that Jessica and Steve had not died in the house. The neighbor who found them assumed that after the first storm passed, Steve went out to take a look at the damage to the barn. Jessica heard on the radio that another tornado was headed toward them and ran out to tell him to take cover. Before they reached shelter, the second tornado hit and flying debris from the barn killed both of them. The house didnâ€™t appear to have been touched.
He stepped from the truck and took a quick look around. The barn was little more than a pile of rubble. He walked around the house. Several windows had been shattered. In the backyard, he stopped and stared. A large maple tree leaned against the house with one branch buried in the roof.
Inside he found that not one room would be suitable to shelter a child. He might as well do what the social worker said and get on the list for help. Jessica wouldnâ€™t want her baby with strangers. Steve wouldnâ€™t want his daughter raised in foster care. The sooner he had help, the sooner he could make a home for Karla.
The day after the storms, Pastor Walt Mattson stood before his Wednesday evening congregation with a special plea for help. â€œFolks in Lakeland have been hit hard. Four people lost their lives in two tornadoes that ripped through the town. Many are without homes while others begin the seemingly impossible task of cleaning up and rebuilding. Weâ€™ve prayed for them, but we canâ€™t stop there. Until you see the destruction a tornado leaves, you canâ€™t imagine what these people face.â€
He motioned to the ushers in back. â€œGentlemen, if you will start the sign-up sheets circulating, Iâ€™ll explain a practical, hands-on way we can help.â€
Amanda sat with her parents and listened. â€œChurches and civic organizations are asked to provide volunteer workers to help the citizens of Lakeland and the surrounding area rebuild. Of course they need carpenters and plumbers, but their immediate need is workers who can pick up brush and bricks or wood pieces. I canâ€™t begin to list the debris scattered everywhere. If youâ€™re an able-bodied man or woman and have any free time, please consider donating a few hours to this worthy project. Iâ€™m hoping to take a crew of at least five or six from our church this Saturday. Weâ€™ll be assigned an area and will likely work together.â€
Amanda took the sign-up sheet and wrote her name on the list. She understood the hollowness of loss. Her heart ached in sympathy. Their homes gone or damaged within moments. Others had lost even more through death.
Saturday morning, Amanda drove her rental car to Lakeland in a caravan of two other vehicles. Linda Maddox rode in the front with her while an older couple sat in the backseat. Lindaâ€™s daughter Sarah was Amandaâ€™s best friend from high school, and Linda had always been a second mother to her.
As they neared Lakeland, signs of damage came into view, but nothing seemed especially devastating until they turned off the highway and drove into the populated area just past the city limits sign.
â€œOh, will you look at that?â€ The woman in the backseat said.
Amanda shuddered at the destruction on either side of the road as she followed the pastorâ€™s dark blue sedan. Thankfully the street had been cleared, but she didnâ€™t need much imagination to see that piles of bricks, shards of glass, and pieces of buildings on either side had, only days ago, covered the pavement where they now drove.
Some houses suffered roof damage, while many more littered the area up to the edge of the street. On one corner, a floor without walls held nothing except a bathtub and toilet. From her car, Amanda saw a roll of toilet paper sitting between the fixtures even as Linda gasped.
â€œIâ€™ve heard of tornadoes doing things like that, but Iâ€™ve never seen it before. How could the wind totally remove an entire house, yet leave something as light as a roll of paper sitting on the floor?â€
Amanda shook her head. â€œI donâ€™t know. Iâ€™m amazed there werenâ€™t more deaths here. Only four people died and a few injuries were reported, yet weâ€™ve already driven past at least a dozen totally destroyed houses.â€
A group of people worked by the side of the street, sorting through the mess as they loaded pickup trucks with trash to be hauled away. Amanda itched to stop the car and help. There was so much to do and so few working. How would the town ever be cleaned up?
A brief stop at the county courthouse gave them an assigned location. After driving a few miles into the country, they turned onto a gravel road for a short distance before stopping at a house that appeared to be untouched.
Amanda shared a look and a shrug with Linda as they got out of the car. She closed the driverâ€™s door and stood for a moment taking in the peaceful scene. The one-story ranch-style house looked well taken care of. A couple of wooden slat chairs sat on the inviting front porch with a small matching table between them as if waiting for company. The soft green of the house blended harmoniously with the manicured lawn. A flagstone walk curved from the driveway to the front steps.
To the left, several feet back from the house, a cement floor, collapsed walls, and rubble marked the place where a barn once stood. The wind had been selective in its destruction. There, the ground held evidence of its fury.
â€œGood morning.â€ Pastor Mattsonâ€™s greeting brought Amandaâ€™s attention to the others now gathered in a group near the house. â€œIâ€™m Walt Mattson, pastor of Community Church in Litchfield. This is John Sinclair, Rick Harrison, and Ron Kimbel.â€
He continued calling off names, but Amanda stopped listening as her gaze focused on the man who moved among the helpers shaking hands and smiling as the workers were introduced.
Her heart skipped a beat before pounding furiously when she recognized who they would be working for. What had it been? Thirteen years? Fifteen? No, she couldnâ€™t fool herself into believing she didnâ€™t remember. Fourteen years and seven months ago her heart had been broken by the very man who now stood across the yard watching her.
â€œAnd Amanda Wilson, who is still leaning against her car. Come on, Amanda, and join us. This young man is Chad Randall. He will be showing us what needs to be done.â€
Amanda pushed away from the car and circled the group to stand beside Linda, as far from Chad as she could get. Her heart thundered in her ears until she couldnâ€™t hear what he or the pastor said. She sought the calming effect of nature in the peaceful scene of several cows grazing across the fence. Taking several deep breaths, she questioned what was happening. Lord, why of all the places needing help, did You send us here?What was Chad doing here, anyway? Heâ€™d married and moved away. Of course, so had she, but that was different. He should have stayed away.
â€œWeâ€™ll be glad to help you any way we can.â€ Pastor Mattsonâ€™s voice again penetrated Amandaâ€™s befuddled brain. He turned to the women in the group. â€œLadies, as you can see, the yard there by the barn has enough broken limbs and lumber to keep us all busy. Chad says a large tree in the backyard fell against the house during the storm. Heâ€™s been unable to remove it without help. For today, would you mind working in the yard, picking up useable lumber and firewood while we men concentrate on removing the tree?â€
Elva Harrison gasped and covered her mouth before saying, â€œOh my, did the tree do a lot of damage?â€
Chad sent the hint of a smile toward the older woman. â€œNot as much as it couldâ€™ve. A branch broke through the peak of the roof, but didnâ€™t touch the attic floor.â€
His gaze shifted to Amanda as if speaking to her. â€œMy nieceâ€™s bedroom is directly under the trunk of the tree. If I have anything to be thankful for in all of this, itâ€™s that the tree stopped when it did. She was in her bed when it fell.â€
Amanda couldnâ€™t tear her gaze from his. In that moment, time became irrelevant as their past fell away and her heart ached with his pain. At the mention of his niece, she understood his loss. Heâ€™d had only one sibling. Jessica. Had she married her high school sweetheart? Were they the man and woman who had died here? Jessica and Steven. Jessica with her laughing blue eyes and dark brown hair so like Chadâ€™s. At one time she and Amanda expected to be sisters. The work project became personal as she shared Chadâ€™s grief.
A soft smile touched his lips before he looked away, breaking contact with her.
The men began moving toward the backyard. Amanda nodded at a truck in the driveway. â€œI see a wheelbarrow sticking up in the back of Brother Kimbelâ€™s truck. Iâ€™ll get my gloves from my car; then Iâ€™ll lift it out. Did you all bring gloves?â€
The two older ladies, Mable Kimbel and Elva Harrison, wore long-sleeve shirts tucked into their blue jeans. They each had on wide-brimmed hats to cover their gray hair and shade their faces. Mable wiggled her gloved hands and smiled. â€œIâ€™m ahead of you, Amanda.â€
Elva nodded. â€œYes, you two girls get your gloves and letâ€™s get to work.â€
Linda, who was the same age as Amandaâ€™s mother, whispered as she and Amanda hurried to the car. â€œBeing with those two sweet ladies makes me feel young again.â€
Amanda laughed. â€œI know, but I have a feeling weâ€™ll be putting out some effort to keep up with them.â€
She heard a chain saw revving on the other side of the house. â€œI didnâ€™t know anyone brought a saw.â€
â€œI donâ€™t think they did. It was probably already here.â€ Linda pulled her gloves on and headed toward the barn.
Amanda hurried to catch up. A cold chill chased up her back as she thought of Chad trying to cut through a large tree by himself. He could have been hurt. She shouldnâ€™t care. But she wouldnâ€™t want anyone hurt, not even Chad.
Elva and Mable had already started dragging broken tree branches into a pile by the barbed wire fence separating the yard from the pasture. While they did that, Amanda and Linda made piles of useable lumber near the cement floor that had been the barn. Most were useless for anything other than firewood and those pieces went into the wheelbarrow to deposit across the yard.
â€œI wonder how far away pieces of this barn are scattered?â€ Amanda asked.
Linda stretched her back as she looked across the now peaceful countryside with grazing cattle and a cloudless blue sky. â€œProbably not so far, but on the other hand, part of it could have gone for miles before falling back to the ground. Itâ€™s hard to tell, isnâ€™t it?â€
â€œYeah, sort of like some of the mistakes we make in life.â€ Amanda watched Chad walk around the end of the house. â€œMistakes cause damage. Sometimes far reaching, sometimes not so far.â€
Linda followed her line of vision. â€œChad Randall. Heâ€™s grown into a fine-looking man. Is he one of those mistakes youâ€™re talking about?â€
Amanda turned her back to Chad, covered her face with her hands then peeked through her fingers at Linda. â€œYou remember.â€
Linda laughed. â€œOf course I remember.â€ She held her finger and thumb together without touching. â€œYou and Chad were this close to getting married. Next thing I knew, you vamoosed to California and the wedding was off. Before your exit dust settled, youâ€™d married someone else. Sarah never did tell me the particulars. Did she know?â€
Amanda shook her head. â€œNo.â€
She tossed more wood on the wheelbarrow, working frantically for several minutes. Linda worked alongside her without pressing the issue. Finally she stopped.
â€œAll right. Keep your secrets. I wasnâ€™t asking, anyway.â€ She put her hands on her hips, breathing hard. â€œLetâ€™s not try to finish the entire yard in the next ten minutes, okay? Maybe you can keep up with our elderly friends, but I canâ€™t.â€
Amanda straightened with a broken length of wood in her hand. â€œIâ€™m sorry, Linda. Itâ€™s just seeing him again. I mean I didnâ€™t know he was anywhere within a hundred miles of here and there he stood looking â€¦ â€ She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them a tear hovered on her lashes and she brushed it away. She whispered the one word. â€œVulnerable. He looks so sad and I want to cry for him.â€ She gave a short, harsh laugh. â€œHe broke my heart and I feel sorry for him.â€
Lindaâ€™s voice was soft, sympathetic. â€œCan you do this?â€
â€œWork for Chad?â€ Amanda nodded. â€œSure, Iâ€™ll keep my distance, and weâ€™ll get along fine.â€
Linda lifted her eyebrows. â€œDidnâ€™t the pastor say we are sent to help clear the destruction, but maybe for another purpose, too? Maybe Chad has a need that our church can reach. Maybe you need to reach out and let God heal all these old hurts. Maybe thatâ€™s why youâ€™re here at this exact moment.â€
Amanda tossed the broken lumber at the wheelbarrow. â€œMaybe so. Looks like this is full.â€
Linda grabbed the wheelbarrow, pushed it to the pile of firewood, and dumped it. Amanda was glad she didnâ€™t press the issue. She was a special lady. Part friend and part mother. As her best friendâ€™s mother, sheâ€™d done her share over the years of making sure both Amanda and Sarah behaved. Sheâ€™d always been ready with a word of advice or encouragement when they needed it. Amanda might pretend to brush her insight and wisdom aside, but she knew she would be thinking about their conversation later when she was alone.
They worked hard through the morning to the tune of the chain saw and the menâ€™s voices calling to each other. With the sun straight overhead, Elva and Mable joined them. â€œWeâ€™ve decided someone needs to tell the men itâ€™s time to eat.â€
â€œAmanda, why donâ€™t you do that while we set out the ice chests? Ask if thereâ€™s a table we can use.â€ Linda turned away with the other two ladies and headed toward the driveway where the vehicles were parked.
Amanda watched them, her hands on her hips, and muttered, â€œThanks to you, too. Surely you arenâ€™t trying to push me toward Chad just so I can forgive him and forget some long-ago hurt I scarcely remember anyway.â€
She did an about-face and started toward the house with a shrug. Sheâ€™d show Linda. She wouldnâ€™t remember the night Chad hurt her. With more self-restraint than she knew she had, she forced her mind from the vivid details slithering at the edge of her memory and concentrated on finding her pastor.
The house sat at an angle facing the driveway. She reached the end of the house and stopped short of slamming into Chad as he barreled around the corner.
He caught her by the shoulders then jerked his hands back as if burned. â€œIâ€™m sorry.â€ He blinked and shook his head. â€œMandy?â€
His pet name for her, a name she allowed no one else to use, sounded natural coming from him.
She didnâ€™t speak. He stepped back. â€œIâ€™m sorry, Amanda. I want you to know how thankful I am for your help. You and the group from your church. Weâ€™ve made good progress. Weâ€™ll have the tree cut up into firewood for the fireplace before the dayâ€™s over.â€
â€œOh, is it down already?â€ She stepped to the side and looked past the corner of the house so he couldnâ€™t see into her eyes. He might read something that wasnâ€™t there. A fog enveloped her brain. Her heart set up a rapid beat.
Beyond a good-sized deck, which covered the closest half of the house, men still worked. Sawdust littered the ground near a huge log that held several large branches. Leaves and broken sticks covered the area and a large pile of brush leaned against the back fence.
â€œYes, it is.â€
â€œWhat is?â€ Had she asked a question?
â€œThe tree. Itâ€™s down.â€ His voice dropped to almost a whisper. â€œYou look wonderful, Mandy.â€
She swung toward him and searched his face without responding. She froze, memorizing every change, every detail sheâ€™d only dreamed of for fourteen years. She should be angry with him. She shouldnâ€™t stand this close to him or even speak to him. But she found no hurt, no bitterness, and no anger in her heart.
Only a response she didnâ€™t want. A response to his presence she couldnâ€™t afford. That and curiosity.
Where was his wife? Did he have children?
A thousand questions begged for release, but she asked only one. â€œWe need a table for lunch if thatâ€™s possible? Weâ€™ve already started getting food out and need a place to put it.â€
He nodded toward the deck. â€œThereâ€™s a table with benches. We can eat out here. Iâ€™ll pass the word.â€ With that he turned away.
She leaned against the end of the house. As she waited, her heart slowed to a normal beat. A fluffy white cloud drifted past, and she concentrated on it. Like a silly schoolgirl, she let an encounter with her past get way out of proportion. So she once loved Chad. That was long ago. Sheâ€™d married a wonderful man, and theyâ€™d had far too short a life together. Jeffrey. Why did his blond hair darken and his face become Chadâ€™s when she tried to bring him to mind? She closed her eyes and gave her head a quick shake to rid it of the troubling thoughts then pushed away from the house.
She went back to the front yard. Maybe Linda was right. Maybe she shouldnâ€™t stay, but she couldnâ€™t leave without creating a scene. After today she wouldnâ€™t come back.
When she reached the front only Linda waited. Amanda forced a smile. â€œSo whereâ€™s the food?â€
Linda smiled as if she knew something. â€œThey took the ice chests through the house to a deck in back. Letâ€™s see what this house looks like. I must admit, Iâ€™ve been curious all morning.â€
They stepped into the living room. Other than quilts folded on the sofa, the room appeared clean and neat. Amanda assumed Chad slept there the night before. A wide arched doorway opened into the dining room on the back of the house. As they stepped through the arch, they saw where Chad had been trying to clean. Cardboard covered the windows in both the dining room and the kitchen so the rooms were dark and gloomy. She wondered what he wanted them to do, but didnâ€™t pursue the thought as the men picked that moment to come inside for more chairs.
After they set out the food, Pastor Mattson prayed and silence fell while everyone helped themselves to sandwiches, potato salad, casseroles, chips, and an assortment of soft drinks kept cold in ice.
With their hunger satisfied, the men began chatting. Amanda paid only enough attention to their conversation to know they were talking about the tree that had been wedged against the house. Rather than listen, she watched Chad join in and laugh with the other men. His smile sent her pulse racing and that annoyed her. She crossed her arms and turned her back toward them. She didnâ€™t need the complication. She could ask to be assigned to another location. Or maybe she should start looking for a summer job.
â€œSeems odd the barn was destroyed and the house almost untouched.â€ Lindaâ€™s voice penetrated her musings.
She nodded. â€œYes, but tornadoes do strange things. I donâ€™t imagine any two are alike.â€
â€œI heard there were two that night. I wonder if both touched down here.â€
â€œYes, they did.â€ Chad leaned against the railing near them.
Amandaâ€™s traitorous heart leapt.
He looked out to where the barn once stood. â€œThe first one damaged the barn. The neighbor said it looked like Steve went out to check the damage. He thought maybe Jess heard about the second tornado on the radio and ran out to tell him. They didnâ€™t make it back to the house before it hit.â€
His voice cracked on the last word and a muscle twitched in his jaw. Amanda brushed at tears pooled in her eyes and swallowed trying to stop any others. She was afraid to speak.
â€œKarla. Is that your niece?â€ Linda asked.
â€œWhere is she now?â€
Again his jaw clenched. â€œIn foster care. The state swooped in and took her, giving me visiting privileges. Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s so important to get this place fixed. When I get it cleaned up and safe, I can bring her home.â€
â€œI know youâ€™re looking forward to that.â€ Linda smiled. â€œHow old is she?â€
Amandaâ€™s breath caught in her throat. Charity was ten months old when she died.
Chad watched Amanda while he talked to Linda. Heâ€™d always been able to read her expressions, but now he wasnâ€™t sure. Pain and grief twisted her features when his sisterâ€™s name was mentioned. Jessica and Mandy had been close. As close as sisters.
Mandy moved and her dark blonde hair flashed bright and beautiful in the sunlight. He used to tease her saying she just missed having red hair but got the temper to match. Her hair still held red highlights that only showed up in the sun. Had her temperament mellowed in the last several years? He didnâ€™t know her anymore.
When he mentioned Karlaâ€™s age, Mandyâ€™s face paled and she closed her eyes for a moment. Sheâ€™d been married. Heâ€™d heard her husband died a few years ago in a traffic accident. Had there been a child? If so, where was the child today? He didnâ€™t know but wanted to find out. In fact, he wanted to find out all about her. What sheâ€™d been doing. Why she was back home. She was a long way from California, so there must be a reason, unless she was here for a visit.
â€œYou ready to go back to work?â€ John, a likeable man in his early forties, joined Chad at the railing. â€œLooks like weâ€™ve been given the job of climbing on the roof. The old codgers figure itâ€™s too dangerous for them to get more than six feet off the ground.â€
Chad grinned. â€œSure, but has anyone figured out what weâ€™ll do up there? We need something to cover the hole. Plastic sheeting would be good, but there probably isnâ€™t any available within a hundred miles of here.â€
John shook his head. â€œOh ye of little faith.â€ He pointed to the men who were just now leaving the table. â€œDo you see those two old guys with the pastor? Oneâ€™s a retired carpenter. The otherâ€™s a plumber, almost retired. What one doesnâ€™t have, the other does. They brought plastic, just in case. Come on, letâ€™s get it up before it rains.â€
â€œGood idea.â€ Chad sent one last smile toward Amanda before he followed John and the other men.
Linda called after him, â€œHey, Chad, weâ€™ve got a lot of leftovers. Do you care if we put it all in your refrigerator?â€
He stopped and shrugged. â€œThatâ€™s fine, but I donâ€™t have electricity, so if you leave it too long, you may not find any when you return.â€
Her laughter rang out. â€œIn that case weâ€™ll leave the ice, too. And one of the chests. Please do eat it up.â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry, I will.â€ He waved over his shoulder. â€œAnd thanks.â€
Chad and John worked together well and soon had the sheeting in place. As they nailed the last board over the edge to hold it down, Chad stood and looked over the peak of the roof toward the barn. Amanda had a full wheelbarrow halfway to the firewood pile. If he could get away from the men, heâ€™d take that job from her.
On the ground, he approached the pastor as they walked around the house. â€œWeâ€™ve got the tree out now and Iâ€™m more grateful than I can express for everything thatâ€™s been done. Everyone has worked hard all morning. Iâ€™m not trying to run you off, but I donâ€™t want to wear anyone out, either.â€
Pastor Mattson smiled and rubbed the back of his neck with his handkerchief. â€œI was thinking about calling it quits for the day. We donâ€™t pull trees out of roofs every day, you know. Iâ€™d like to make another workday this coming week if we can. I think all of us except John and Rick are free about anytime. Why donâ€™t you name a day, except Wednesday, and weâ€™ll make plans to be here?â€
â€œWould Tuesday morning work for you?â€ Setting a time made Chad feel like a beggar, and he hated that. He needed help, though, for Karla. If he worked alone, she would remain in foster care all summer, and that made begging worthwhile.
â€œSounds fine to me.â€ The pastor looked at the other men for confirmation.
By then the women had gathered around, and they all nodded their heads too. All but Amanda. Chad tried to catch her gaze, but she looked everywhere except at him. His heart sank. She wouldnâ€™t be back. She hadnâ€™t known heâ€™d be here.
As the group broke up with promises to return, Chad thanked them for their work, while he watched Amanda walk to her car. He had to catch her. He might never get the opportunity again. He started toward her when he felt a hand on his arm.
Linda Maddox held him with a stern gaze. â€œSheâ€™s been hurt enough.â€
He watched Amanda open the car door. He looked back at Linda. â€œI heard her husband died.â€
She nodded. â€œYes, along with her baby. But that isnâ€™t all of it.â€
â€œAre you talking about us? When we broke up?â€ Chad didnâ€™t understand. It was a long time ago. Yet seeing the girl heâ€™d loved so much had erased the years. More than anything he wanted to tell her how sorry he was. He wanted to apologize because he hadnâ€™t been able to back then.
Linda looked away without saying anything for a moment. Finally she turned back to him. â€œIf you talk to her, be careful. Coming here, learning of Jessicaâ€™s death, seeing you again, itâ€™s all opened her emotions, leaving them raw. Sheâ€™s just started getting her life together after losing so much. She doesnâ€™t need any more pain.â€
â€œI understand about pain and loss.â€ He looked around the farm and wished for his sister. But sheâ€™d never come back. Sheâ€™d gone home to be with the Lord she loved so much. He had to move on, and Amanda needed to, also. Maybe he could help her. If only he could get close enough to talk to her.
He let his gaze settle on Linda. â€œI wonâ€™t bother her now, but will you give her a message for me? Will you tell her I need to apologize? Iâ€™d like to give her the opportunity to forgive me. Until I have her forgiveness, I doubt Iâ€™ll ever be able to forgive myself.â€
Linda searched his face as if looking for the truth. She nodded and turned away. â€œIâ€™ll tell her.â€
As soon as Linda got in the car and closed the door, Amanda turned the key and the engine started. Chad stood where Linda had left him, watching while they backed out of the driveway.
â€œWell,â€ Linda let out a rush of air. â€œIâ€™m glad the Kimbels decided to ride back with the Harrisons.â€
Amanda watched Chad. â€œWhy did you stop him?â€
Linda turned toward Amanda. â€œTo keep him from stopping you.â€
Amanda glanced at Sarahâ€™s mom and laughed. â€œSarah always complained you were an over-protective mother. You know, I think sheâ€™s right.â€
With a quick wave of her hand, Linda brushed the accusation away. â€œOh what does she know? Sheâ€™ll find out soon enough motherhood isnâ€™t all that easy.â€
Amanda thought of her friend whoâ€™d been going through the lovely morning sickness stage of pregnancy and giggled. â€œSheâ€™s probably getting a good idea of that already. To hear her talk, sheâ€™s been sleeping in the bathtub to make upchucking easier when she first wakes up. When I told her I only had light nausea with my pregnancy, I thought she was coming through the phone to California so she could choke me.â€
Linda chuckled. â€œShe was never sick with Trey. Funny how each pregnancy is different.â€
Amanda nodded. Sheâ€™d had one baby, and sheâ€™d never have another. That thought brought her back to Chad. What had he wanted to talk to her about? True, at the moment sheâ€™d wanted to get away from him, but now she wondered. Had he only wanted to thank her for helping? Probably.
â€œHe gave me a message for you.â€ Lindaâ€™s comment brought a rush of air to her lungs.
In a tight voice, she asked, â€œWhat did he say?â€
â€œHe said he wanted to apologize for your past. Then he said something Iâ€™m still trying to figure out. He said until you forgive him, he wonâ€™t be able to forgive himself.â€
Amandaâ€™s grip tightened on the steering wheel. She stopped at the highway, shrugged, and forced a smile. â€œIâ€™m surprised he realizes he was in the wrong.â€
â€œEvidently, he does.â€ Linda looked out the side window as Amanda moved the car forward. â€œClear to the right. Oh Iâ€™m sorry. I always do that for David.â€
â€œThatâ€™s fine.â€ Amanda kept a smile on her face. â€œI never object to another pair of eyes.â€
She pulled out on the highway behind the pastorâ€™s car. Rick Harrisonâ€™s truck followed them.
The next day Amanda sat in church listening to the report Pastor Mattson gave of their day spent on Chadâ€™s farm.
â€œThe Word of God says we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. If our homes had been damaged, our once manicured lawns strewn with trash, broken limbs, and parts of our barn, wouldnâ€™t we welcome our neighborâ€™s help? Removing a large tree from the roof of a house is impossible for one man alone. Yesterday, with the expertise of our men, and by working together, we turned that monumental task into a congenial time of hard work mixed with fellowship. The women also did a tremendous job of cleaning up the yard.â€
He seemed to be looking at her when he said, â€œWeâ€™ve agreed to return Tuesday. Thereâ€™s much work to be done before Mr. Randall can bring his orphaned niece home. The little girl, less than a year old, is in foster care now and he desperately wants her with him. He feels she needs to be with family, and I sensed in talking to him, he needs her just as much, as sheâ€™s all the family he has left.â€
All the family he has left. The words rang in Amandaâ€™s ears until she could hear nothing else. Chad had no family? No wife? No children? But he was married. What happened in his life that she knew nothing about? Her parents had never told her anything other than a passing mention that Chad and Jessicaâ€™s mother passed away. That was a couple of years ago. She searched her memory and could think of no other mention of Chad. Did her mom know anything else?
She stole a peek at her mother who seemed to be listening with nothing other than interest in her expression. What about Linda? Amanda turned slightly to look across the church where Linda and David Maddox sat. Linda caught her gaze and smiled before turning her attention back to the pastor.
All the family he has left. The congregation stood as the liturgist read the scripture selection taken from Luke 10. Amanda followed in her Bible, while he read the story of the Good Samaritan. She couldnâ€™t stay focused on Pastor Mattsonâ€™s sermon, as his earlier statement wouldnâ€™t leave her alone. If Chad had no family other than his niece â€¦ No, she wouldnâ€™t entertain such thoughts. Sheâ€™d almost married Chad once, but heâ€™d proved his love was fleeting. He might be attracted to her. She couldnâ€™t deny her attraction for him, but thatâ€™s all it was. Some strange chemical reaction that had already been and would again be the cause of disaster if she allowed it to. And she wouldnâ€™t. Her life was starting to come together after five years of uncertainty. She had to forget Chad and the best way was to stay away from him.
At the end of the service, Amanda followed her parents to the door where the pastor shook hands. He held hers with both of his and gave her a wide smile. â€œAmanda, I want you to know how thankful we are to have you back here with us.â€
â€œThank you, Pastor.â€
He released her hand. â€œI donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve ever worked as hard as I did yesterday, but I wouldnâ€™t have missed it. I know you understand, and I imagine youâ€™re looking forward to Tuesday as much as I am.â€
â€œYes.â€ Not because sheâ€™d be on Chadâ€™s farm. She couldnâ€™t do that, but she did look forward to each new day.
He nodded as if sheâ€™d agreed. â€œItâ€™ll be worth it all to get that baby back with her uncle, wonâ€™t it? Sheâ€™s lost her mom and dad. Just doesnâ€™t seem right for her to be kept from a loving uncle, too.â€
Each sentence the pastor uttered became a tiny prod, poking and urging her to admit she cared about Chad, that sheâ€™d be there Tuesday to help. Her heart went out to the baby sheâ€™d never met. What if her baby had lived and sheâ€™d died along with Jeff? Sheâ€™d have wanted Karen or Brad to take her and raise her as their own. A baby belonged with family who would love and want her as much as Chad seemed to. Even single, Chad would be a good father to his niece. Amanda believed that.
After a noisy dinner with her brotherâ€™s family in attendance, Amanda washed the dishes. Brad came into the kitchen for another slice of their motherâ€™s chocolate cake. He took a plate and fork from the dish drainer.
â€œHey, I just washed that.â€ She was wasting her breath but tried anyway.
He grinned and cut a big slice of cake. â€œGood, youâ€™ll know how to do it again when Iâ€™m done. They say practice makes perfect.â€
â€œIâ€™m not going to stand here and wash dishes all afternoon so you can stuff your face.â€ She grabbed another plate and fork and cut her own slice. â€œInstead, Iâ€™ll join you. How come your two hooligans arenâ€™t in here grabbing more cake, too?â€
â€œOh, Dadâ€™s got them looking through his stamp collection. Theyâ€™re about as quiet as Iâ€™ve ever seen them, so I took advantage of it.â€ He grinned. â€œMom and Esther went upstairs to look at some fabric for a quilt or something, so they canâ€™t say anything if I eat up the cake.â€
Amanda laughed. â€œYou wonâ€™t eat it all. Together we wonâ€™t even eat it all. Itâ€™s too rich. When Mom makes chocolate cake, she makes it really chocolate.â€
â€œYeah, so howâ€™s life treating you now?â€ Bradâ€™s question caught her by surprise.
â€œFine. Iâ€™m looking forward to my first teaching job.â€ She sighed. â€œI do need a summer job, though. Iâ€™d like to get a place of my own. Living here makes me feel seventeen again.â€
He grinned. â€œThat doesnâ€™t sound so bad.â€
She smiled until he opened his mouth again. â€œI heard youâ€™ve been helping clean up Chad Randallâ€™s place after those tornadoes.â€
â€œI went yesterday, but I didnâ€™t know who owned the farm until I was already there.â€
A gleam she couldnâ€™t decipher entered his eyes. â€œSo I heard heâ€™s single now. You are too.â€
She stuck her fork in her half-eaten cake and glared at her brother. â€œThatâ€™s exactly right, and I plan to stay that way. Iâ€™m not sure what youâ€™re getting at, but I have no plans of going within ten miles of Chad Randall again if I can help it. So take your matchmaking someplace else.â€
As if he hadnâ€™t heard her outburst, he asked, â€œDid you even stop to consider, he mightâ€™ve been innocent all those years ago?â€
â€œInnocent? Ha!â€ The anger and hurt rushed through her as if sheâ€™d just that moment found Chad and Susan together. â€œI saw him andâ€”oh forget it.â€ She stood and set her plate to the side. â€œThereâ€™s no point in discussing this. Itâ€™s past and needs to stay there right along with Chad Randall. I wonâ€™t be helping Tuesday. Thatâ€™s all there is to it.â€
Before her brother could say something else she didnâ€™t want to hear, she walked from the room and ran upstairs. Voices came from her motherâ€™s sewing room. She slipped past the open door and breathed easier when neither her mother nor her sister-in-law called out to her. They both loved to sew and probably had their heads together over a stack of material. Tiptoeing the rest of the way, she went into her room and closed the door.
She sprawled across her bed facedown and rested her head on her bent arm. The temper sheâ€™d displayed toward her brother had already ebbed away. She hadnâ€™t been angry with Brad. Her anger was caused by her conflicting emotions. Feelings stirred by seeing Chad after so many years.
He looked good. His dark hair was still thick and wavy. His face as strong and handsome as ever, only the added creases in the corners of his eyes when he smiled made him even more appealing. She sighed. Heâ€™d been so alive and wonderful when he spoke to her and smiled as if she meant something to him. But she didnâ€™t. Oh, maybe a little, but not enough. Never enough.
She jumped from the bed and pulled her cell phone from her purse then plopped back down and found her sisterâ€™s name in contacts. While the phone rang, she lay back and stared at the ceiling.
â€œKaren, are you coming to Mom and Dadâ€™s this evening?â€
â€œOf course. I havenâ€™t seen my little sister since she moved home. Howâ€™s that going, by the way?â€
Amanda suppressed a sigh. â€œFine, but Iâ€™d like to get my own place ASAP. That isnâ€™t why I called, though. I need to return a rental car. If youâ€™re coming here anyway, could you meet me at the Springfield airport and let me ride back home with you?â€
â€œSure, thatâ€™s not a problem. What time?â€
* * *