A Rocky Start–Chapter One

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Amber kicked at a rock and watched as it rolled from the sidewalk onto the street. “Grounded,” she said under her breath. She had been looking forward to this day all week. It was an early-release day at school, and it was Friday. Amber and her friends had a fun-filled afternoon planned, but now it was all ruined.

“Grounded,” she said again and kicked another rock. Not even really grounded; not the way her friends were grounded. They just lost their television privileges or had to live without video games for a few days. Her mom took grounding seriously. She called it “Paying your dues for your don’ts.” What that meant was mistakes came with consequences.

This time her mistake had been forgetting to finish emptying the trash. She had taken the bag out like she was supposed to and tied it with a twist tie. Then she had gotten distracted by the music she heard on the TV and went into the family room to watch her favorite commercial. By the time it was over, she forgot about the trash. After she left for school, her ten-month-old black Lab, Domino, found the trash bag. He dragged it out through the open sliding glass door and spread trash all over the backyard. Before she left for work, Amber’s mom made sure Domino was outside and started to lock the sliding door. That’s when she noticed the backyard looked like a blizzard had hit. First she saw white, and then when she realized it was trash, she saw red!

All dressed up in a skirt and heels, Amber’s mom had to go outside and collect the trash that was stuck in every bush and lawn chair in their backyard. When she was finished, her makeup was running and her hair was hanging in her face. Since she was already late for work as an insurance agent, she didn’t have time to change her clothes. By the time Amber’s mom got home from work, she was calmed down, but she’d had plenty of time to figure out the most appropriate way for Amber to pay her “dues.” Today she would be pulling the weeds in the backyard, and tomorrow morning, she would be working in the front yard.

“Excuse me, little girl.” Amber looked up to see who was calling. Then she noticed a woman with white hair, leaning on a cane in front of the house she was just passing. “Excuse me,” the woman said again, and Amber realized she was talking to her.

“Do you need some help?” Amber called back to the woman.

“Yes, I do,” the woman explained. “I’m trying to get my newspaper out of the bushes, but I can’t bend down far enough. Would you mind getting it for me?”

“I’d be happy to.” Amber started across the lawn toward the woman.

As Amber handed her the newspaper, the woman introduced herself. “I’m Betty Jenkins. I’ve seen you walk by here before. Do you live on this block?”

“I live on Sycamore Street. It’s just one street over. My name is Amber Snyder.”

“Nice to meet you, Amber, and thanks so much for your help.”

“Nice to meet you too.” Amber smiled and walked back to the sidewalk.

When Amber got home, she found a note from her mom and a peanut butter sandwich. The note said:

Have a snack. There are gloves and trash bags on the counter. See you at four.  Love Mom.

Amber poured herself a glass of milk and sat down at the kitchen table to eat her peanut butter sandwich. She thought about turning on the TV but decided not to. It was watching TV that had gotten her in trouble in the first place. Amber put her dirty dishes in the dishwasher and went upstairs to change into some old clothes. Ten minutes later, she was grabbing the gloves and bags and heading for the back door.

As Amber started to go outside, Domino put his clumsy paws on the sliding glass door. His nails clicked against the glass as he tried to stand on his two hind legs. “Get down,” Amber yelled at him. “I can’t open the door.” Domino licked her hands as she walked outside, his tail wagging a friendly hello.

The Snyder backyard was a sort of memorial to the family’s unfinished dreams. A pile of rocks in one corner was all that remained of her father’s attempt to build a fountain. Two years ago, he had come home with his pickup truck full of decorative rocks that were on sale at the Discount Mart where he is the manager. His plan was to dig a hole and put in a basin to receive the water as it tumbled down the rocks of the fountain. The pump he planned to install would pump the water back up so it could tumble down again. He had carefully drawn plans for the project, but unfortunately, he never seemed to have gotten around to finishing it.

In another corner were the remains of a garden her mother had planted last fall. Grasshoppers were unusually plentiful that year. The giant insects seemed to be everywhere, chomping down anything that was green. Her mother soon gave up in despair and stopped watering the leafless skeletons, which were all that was left of her broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach. Amber pretended to be disappointed, but secretly, she was happy to have the grasshoppers eat her share of the gross-tasting spinach.

In the middle of the yard was a fire pit her brother, Kyle, dug last summer so he and his friends could roast marshmallows. He had used some of their father’s fountain rocks to build a ring, but now the rocks were pretty much spread around in the yard. Domino had been responsible for some of the backyard mess as well. He had displaced many of the rocks with his nose or paws in his efforts to catch a crafty lizard, not to mention the many digging projects he had started around the yard.

On one side of the yard, near the patio, was Amber’s splash pool, which had been drained and leaned against a wall. Wind must have blown it down, and rainwater had collected in the bottom. She hadn’t used it as a pool for the past two summers. Mostly, she and Kyle used it to hold “specimens” they captured from the pond in the park at the end of their street.

By the time Amber began pulling weeds, it was almost three o’clock. That meant an hour of weed pulling before her mother came home. She started with the little weeds, thinking that they would be easier, but Amber soon realized that the bag wasn’t filling up very fast. Switching to the bigger weeds meant a little more pulling, but the results were more dramatic. Maybe if she did a good job today, her mom would let her off tomorrow. It wasn’t too likely, but she could always hope.

“Well, if it isn’t the wacky weed whacker.” Amber didn’t even have to look up to know it was her brother, Kyle.

“No baseball practice today?” she asked, still not looking up from the weeds.

Kyle plopped down in a plastic chair on the patio. He took out his phone and started texting as he talked to Amber. “Yeah, we had practice. This was early release, remember? Oh, I forgot you were let out of school early so you could do your community-service weed pulling.” Kyle laughed.

Amber figured that most little sisters weren’t crazy about having a big brother, but having a big brother like Kyle was the pits. Being older, Kyle got to do anything he wanted, which of course he rubbed in. What made it worse was that Kyle was good at everything. He always got perfect grades in school without even studying. He was the catcher and the best hitter on the freshman baseball team. Besides that, he played the guitar in a band with his friends. Now that he had baseball practice every day, he wasn’t doing much with his band, but when baseball season ended, Amber knew he would once again be spending his evenings in his friend Spencer’s garage.

Amber was lucky to get average grades in school. She tried, but because of her attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which everyone calls ADHD, she had a hard time paying attention in class. Kyle teased her about everything, but mostly about the ADHD. He said that it stands for “Amber’s dramas happen daily.” It was true that Amber made a lot of mistakes and forgot to do things, like the time she was getting a Popsicle out of the freezer. To reach the Popsicles, she had to take out a pound of hamburger, which she forgot to put back in the freezer. By the time her mom found it, the meat was defrosted and had to be thrown away. The cost of the meat was deducted from her allowance the next week. “Everyone makes mistakes,” her mom told her. “And we all have to learn from our mistakes. Unfortunately, there are also consequences. Those are the dues we pay for our don’ts.” The doctor gave Amber medication that helped with the ADHD, but it still seemed like she forgot to finish things more than she should.

Kyle played with Domino for a while, throwing a ball, which Domino ran after and returned. Then he and Domino went in the house. A few minutes later, Amber heard the television. She could tell that Kyle was watching a baseball game.

The Handy Helpers book series is available at Amazon

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