If Amber thought going to church was difficult the Sunday before, that was nothing compared to the way she felt this week. It seemed like everyone at church was looking at her, like they all knew what she had done. Amber tried to avoid running into Mrs. Snow, but it seemed that Mrs. Snow went out of her way to say hi to Amber. “I hope you enjoyed the luncheon yesterday,” Mrs. Snow said, as if nothing was wrong. “You left so quickly we didn’t have a chance to talk when it was over. Hopefully, we’ll see you back at the senior center again. We always need good volunteers.”
Amber spent the afternoon in her room. By that time, her parents knew the whole story. Mrs. Snow didn’t want to get Amber into trouble, but Mary persisted until she finally had no choice but to tell what had happened.
“You can’t hide up here forever,” Mary said. “It’s a beautiful afternoon. We’re all going for a bike ride. Why don’t you come with us?”
“I’m not hiding out,” Amber said. “I’ve grounded myself. I’m paying my dues for my don’ts.”
“That’s not what you’re doing,” Mary insisted. “You know the right thing to do. You have to go back to the senior center as a volunteer. That’s how you can pay your dues for your don’ts. Pray about it. Have faith that God will show you what to do.”
“You’re lucky,” Amber said to her little plant as she picked it up from the windowsill. “You can’t make any mistakes. I wish I could sit in a pot of dirt all day. Then I wouldn’t make a mess out of everything I try to do.”
“If you sat in a pot of dirt all day, you might not make any mistakes,” John said as he came into his daughter’s room, “but you wouldn’t accomplish anything either.”
“All I accomplished was hurting other people,” Amber said sadly. “I wish I’d never gone to the senior center.”
“Don’t say that,” John frowned. “You’ve done lots of good things for seniors, and you have a chance to do lots more.”
“No,” Amber insisted. “I’m just like the son in the Bible who wasted his inheritance. I’ve wasted my chance to help seniors.”
“I think you missed the point of that story,” John said.
“No, I didn’t,” Amber assured him.
“His father forgave him,” John reminded her.
“But he didn’t get his inheritance back,” Amber said.
“Do you remember what happened when his father saw him coming?” John asked.
“He ran to him. The son asked his father to make him a servant because he didn’t deserve to be his son.”
“But the father didn’t do that, did he?” John continued. “Instead, he put a robe and a ring on his son. He ordered a feast in his honor because his son was lost and now he had been found.”
“He forgave him.” Amber remembered. “He forgave him and made him his son again even after he made so many mistakes. I guess he thought his son had suffered enough.”
“Forgiveness is a gift that’s freely given,” John explained, “not because someone has earned forgiveness. It is given out of love. Christ suffered for us when he died on the cross. That’s why we don’t have to suffer for our sins. All we have to do is go to him and ask for forgiveness. Do you know what mercy is?”
“Not exactly,” Amber admitted.
“God shows us mercy when he forgives us. God’s mercy is what we need the most when we deserve it the least. We follow Christ’s example when we show mercy to those who have hurt us. Do you understand?”
“I think I understand,” Amber said thoughtfully. “God forgives us because he loves us, and we forgive each other because we love each other.”
“But there is another part to the story that you have to remember,” John told her. “After he was forgiven, what did the son do?”
“I guess he wore the robe and ring to the feast,” Amber offered.
“That’s right.” John smiled. “He accepted his father’s gifts. But in order to do that, he had to accept his father’s forgiveness. What if he had said, ‘I can’t take your gifts because I don’t deserve them’?”
“He would have hurt his father’s feelings, I guess,” Amber said thoughtfully.
“That’s right,” John agreed. “His father gave him a chance to start over and be his son again. Your friends at the senior center have offered you the same chance to start over. All you have to do is accept their forgiveness and forgive yourself. Do you think you can do that?”
“I still feel like I don’t deserve it.”
“Think about what I said.” John put his hand on her shoulder. “Then when you’re ready, I know you’ll make the right choice.”
By Wednesday afternoon, Amber still hadn’t decided what she was going to do, when Betty Jenkins came to visit.
“I brought you some chocolate chip cookies,” Betty said as she took a seat in Amber’s living room. “It’s sort of a bribe.”
“A bribe for what?” Amber was curious.
“Well,” Betty continued, “this Saturday is the last shuffleboard match of the season. I’m up against Clarisse again, and I don’t think I have a chance without my cheering section. I’m really hoping you’ll be there.”
“I’m not a volunteer there anymore.”
“I’m just asking you to come as a spectator,” Betty said hopefully. “It would mean a lot to me.”
“I might . . .” Amber took a bite of her cookie. “There might be one thing you could do to get me to come.”
“What’s that?” Betty asked.
“You said you were trying to bribe me. Tell me the secret ingredient in your cookies and I’ll come.” Amber smiled shyly.
“I don’t know.” Betty sounded doubtful. “Can you keep a secret?”
“I’m really good at keeping secrets,” Amber assured her.
“You did keep the secret about your career report, didn’t you?”
“Yes, if you tell me the secret ingredient, wild horses couldn’t drag it out of me,” Amber promised.
Betty leaned over and whispered something in Amber’s ear.
“Honest?” Amber sounded amazed. “That’s what it is? I would never have guessed that.”
“See you on Saturday,” Betty said on her way out the door.
Laura and Melissa were busy setting up the yellow and black disks when Amber arrived. They waved to her as she walked over to the sidelines. Logan and Chris were setting out folding chairs for the spectators.
“Hi,” Chris said hesitantly. “Glad you could make it.”
“Me too.” Amber smiled. “I didn’t want to let Betty down.”
“Here.” Logan pointed to the chair he had just unfolded. “You can have this seat.”
Clarisse, in her hot-pink stretch pants, was warming up by swinging her arms in a circle. Betty was using the time before the match began to have a chat with Gus. It looked like he was talking to her as a coach. Soon, Walt was blowing the whistle for the start of the match. Betty won the toss. She elected to take the black disks, which meant that Clarisse would have the yellow and go first. Clarisse’s first disk landed on the line, which meant no points. Betty sent her first disk down to the scoring area, but it too fell short of landing in a space. By the first end, Clarisse had fifteen points and Betty had seventeen. Amber began to feel nervous watching the ladies walk to other end of the court. At the end of the second round, Clarisse was ahead, thirty-three to thirty-two.
“Don’t worry,” Gus said. “Betty is holding the hammer.”
“What does that mean?” Amber looked confused.
“It means she has the advantage,” Gus explained. “Letting Clarisse go first was a good strategy. Betty’s a smart cookie.”
After two more rounds, the score was sixty-six to fifty-eight, with Clarisse still in the lead. A collective gasp went through the crowd as Clarisse scored seven points with her first disk, bringing her score to seventy-three. She was now only two points away from winning the match. Amber wanted to cheer when Betty’s first disk landed in the 10 spot. Now she had a chance to win. But Amber’s hopes were soon dashed when Clarisse scored eight more points.
“The game isn’t over yet,” Gus assured her. “Betty still has a chance.”
“She does?” Amber asked with surprise. “But Clarisse has more than seventy-five points.”
“But Betty’s holding the hammer.” Gus smiled.
“Oh, yeah,” Amber said, still not sure what that meant.
With her next disk, Betty knocked Clarisse out of the 8 spot and clear off the board. Amber managed to stop herself just before screaming out loud. Clarisse was noticeably shaken as she took her next shot. It barely made it to the “dead” line, scoring no points. Then Betty moved in for the kill. All she needed was seven points for the win.
Amber ran to Betty’s side and gave her a hug. “You did it!” Amber shouted. “You won!”
Clarisse shook Betty’s hand and congratulated her on the victory. Betty was beaming with pride as she thanked Clarisse for a great match.
While Laura and Melissa were putting away the equipment, Amber sat on the bench outside the door to the senior center.
“I was really happy to see you here today,” Gus said as he sat down beside her. “Betty was worried you wouldn’t come.”
“Did she tell you she bribed me?” Amber said with a laugh.
“Oh, yeah, well, she drives a pretty hard bargain. You’re very important to her,” Gus added. “I hope you know that.”
“I do,” Amber assured him. “She’s important to me too. That’s the real reason I’m here.”
“She’s not the only one who likes having you around,” Gus went on. “I hope you’re coming back as a volunteer.”
“I’m thinking about it,” Amber said. “I probably will.”
“Walt and Mrs. Snow will be happy to hear that.”
“You know”—Gus became more serious—I never had a daughter or a granddaughter, but if I did, I’d want her to be just like you.”
“Really?” Amber sounded doubtful. “Laura’s a lot smarter than I am, and Melissa is way prettier. Besides, I mess up a lot.”
“My wife, Barbara, would have loved you,” Gus said. “In some ways, you remind me of her.”
“Do I look like her? When she was younger, I mean?”
“Not too much,” Gus explained. “She had white hair when she passed away, but when she was young, she had dark-blond hair. She called it ‘dirty blond.’ She was really short too. No, you don’t look too much like her, except for your eyes. She had the same warm, deep brown eyes you have. Sometimes there was a little mischief in them just like I’ve seen in yours. Definitely, it’s your eyes that remind me of her.”
“You must really miss her,” Amber sighed.
“I miss her every day.” Gus looked away thoughtfully. “Someday I’ll be with her again. But until then, I’m glad I have friends like you to spend time with.”
“I’m glad I have friends like you too.” Amber looked up at Gus.
“You know,” Gus went on, “there’s someone who’s missing today.”
“You mean Spike.” Amber looked down at her hands.
“That’s just who I mean. He must be feeling pretty bad not to show up here for the shuffleboard finals. You may be the only one who knows just how bad he feels.”
“Maybe I should go over to his house and talk to him,” Amber offered.
“That sounds like a great idea.” Gus patted her on the shoulder as he got up from the bench.
Amber knew where Spike lived even though she had never been to his house before. She was surprised at how neat his home looked. A white picket fence surrounded the freshly mowed lawn. Flowers spewed out of planters under the windows and from pots on the front porch. Spike’s oldest sister, Jennifer, answered the door when Amber rang the bell. She wore a long gray sweatshirt over black leggings.
“I . . . I’m here to see Spike, I mean Mike,” Amber stammered.
“Come in,” Jennifer said. “I’ll take you to him.”
The inside of the house was equally as neat. Jennifer led Amber down a hallway lined with family portraits. In the kitchen, Monica, Spike’s other sister, was doing homework at the kitchen table. She was still dressed in her softball uniform. Amber recognized the math spread out in front of her. It was algebra, like she had seen Kyle doing. Then she remembered that Monica was also a freshman.
“Michael’s in the backyard, playing with the dog,” Jennifer said as she slid the patio door open.
Amber found Spike dragging a tattered stuffed toy tied to a string. The toy was being chased by a pure-white miniature Siberian husky.
“What a beautiful dog,” Amber said. “What’s her name?”
“This is Tigger,” Spike told her. “She’s really Jennifer’s pet, but she lets me play with her. She can do some tricks. Want to see?”
“Sure,” Amber said.
Tigger followed Spike’s commands as he told her to sit, beg, and play dead.
“Kyle’s trying to teach Domino some tricks,” Amber said with a laugh. “Unfortunately, he’s an ADHD dog.”
“That’s funny.” Spike laughed too. “Jennifer took Tigger to a special doggy school. That’s why she can do so many tricks.”
“I don’t think Domino would do very well in school.” Amber laughed again. “He would probably flunk out.”
“I’ve seen Domino. He’s a nice dog.”
“Thanks.” Amber smiled. “I think so too. You know, everybody missed you at the shuffleboard match today. Betty beat Clarisse. It was pretty exciting.”
“I don’t think anyone wanted me there.” Spike looked away. “Especially not the Happy Helpers.”
“That’s not true,” Amber said emphatically. “Besides, we’re all working together now. We’re all one group.”
“You’re one of the Handy Guys?” Spike sounded surprised.
“We’re not calling ourselves the Handy Guys,” Amber informed him.
“Chris and Logan are now Happy Helpers?” Spike guessed again.
“No, we compromised. We took the handy from your name and the helpers from our name. Now we’re the Handy Helpers. It works for everybody.”
“You know I’m the one who got you girls in trouble, don’t you? Chris and Logan had nothing to do with it. I hid the spoons and spread the rocks all over the walkway. I even messed up the copy room with the papers you shredded.”
“We were pretty sure it was you all the time,” Amber admitted. “Why did you do that?”
“I was afraid that you would take over.”
“What made you think that? You guys were there first. Anyway there’s plenty of work for all of us.”
“You said it yourself, the day you put up your poster. You said you could do anything we could do, but you could do it better.”
“That was just a joke,” Amber assured him. “We didn’t really mean it. Why would you think we were serious?”
“I have two older sisters,” Spike explained. “They’re always telling me how girls can do things better than guys. Why wouldn’t I think you were serious?”
“I guess I can see your point,” Amber said thoughtfully “But there are lots of jobs that need to be done and lots of things you guys can do better than we can. I think it makes sense to work together. Don’t you?”
“It does make sense,” Spike agreed. “Too many people get hurt the other way.”
“Too many innocent people,” Amber added.
“I’m really sorry.” Spike looked up at Amber.
“I’m sorry too. I’m the one who cut holes in the bags of shredding and threw the muddy water on the van you washed. We both did things we shouldn’t have, and we’re both sorry. But now we have a chance to start over and work together. That’s why I came to see you. I’m hoping you’ll join us. We really need you.”
“Chris and Logan told me the same thing. They aren’t mad or anything, but I don’t deserve a second chance.”
“That’s what I thought.” Amber tried to smile. “Then my dad explained to me about forgiving yourself. He said that forgiveness is a gift that is freely given, not because we deserve it. But to accept forgiveness, we have to forgive ourselves first. Otherwise, we are rejecting the gift of forgiveness. Does that make sense?”
“I think so,” Spike said thoughtfully. “You mean that if I don’t forgive myself, I can’t accept forgiveness from other people, like Walt and Mrs. Snow.”
“That’s what I mean,” Amber said. “By offering us a second chance, they’re offering us a gift. We shouldn’t say no, because forgiveness is the nicest gift that anyone can give.”
Spike and Amber went back into his house. He walked her to the front door.
“See you later, alligator,” Amber said as she went out the door.
“After a while, crocodile,” Spike answered back.
The Handy Helpers book series is available at Amazon