Stirring his cold scrambled eggs around on his plate, Austin Sparks frowned. They were dry. Again. In disgust he pushed them to the side of his plate and looked across the table to where his dad sat buried behind a newspaper. He assumed his dad hadn’t even noticed the dry eggs, the half burnt bacon, or the sour orange juice.
“Austin,” a young voice whispered.
Glancing to his left, Austin raised questioning eyebrows as his younger sisters. They were twins and he didn’t know which had said his name.
“Do we have to eat our eggs?” Addy asked.
Wordlessly he shook his head. If he couldn’t stomach them, he doubted his younger siblings could. Well, except for Drew. The ten-year-old had cleaned his plate and was busy licking the butter knife. “Did you want more eggs, Drew?” he asked.
“Nope. Can I be excused?”
Mr. Sparks didn’t move, and after waiting a moment, Austin nodded. “Take care of your dishes.”
The twins took Drew’s permission for their own and scooted back their chairs quickly, no doubt eager to get out into the warm summer sunshine away from the gloomy kitchen.
The kitchen hadn’t always been gloomy, Austin recalled, standing up and carrying his own dishes to the sink. When Mom was still alive the whole house was bright and happy. After dumping the cold eggs into the garbage disposal, Austin ran it before turning the water to hot and filling up the sink in preparation for washing the dishes. Everyone took turns washing the dishes, and Saturday mornings was Austin’s turn.
The sound of the children outside on the swings brought back memories of the hours Austin had spent outside on those swings with his mom pushing him. For the first seven years of his life it had just been his mom, his dad, and him. Then Drew came along, followed two years later by the twins. A smile crossed Austin’s face as he recalled the commotion the arrival of Adeline and Avonlea had caused.
Dropping the glass he had just picked up, Austin turned slowly. “What?”
Still at the table, Mr. Sparks folded the newspaper slowly and laid it on the table. “To the ranch.”
“Dad, you hate that ranch.” Sudsy water dripped from Austin’s hands onto the tile floor, but he took no notice of it.
His father shrugged. “It’s better than nothing. And we can’t stay here.” Pain filled the man’s eyes and spread across his face as he looked about the room. His wife’s death six months before had left him with little will to go on.
Turning back to the sink, Austin mechanically washed the rest of the dishes and rinsed them before he said, “When are we leaving?”
“Dad!” This time Austin grabbed the back of a chair, spun it around and straddled it backwards preparing for an argument. “You can’t expect us to just pack up our whole lives in a few days and move states away. It’s going to take longer than that. Not to mention going through Mom’s stuff that’s in the attic.” The pain in his father’s eyes deepened, but Austin ignored it. “Why do we have to move so suddenly? What about your job?”
“I was let go yesterday. And,” he shifted in his chair, “the house sold.”
Mr. Sparks nodded, rubbing a hand over his rough chin. He hadn’t shaved that morning. “Your aunt Mimmie is coming on Monday. She’ll help. Grandpa said the old trailer on his land has been updated, or something. We’ll stay there. At least until I can find a better place.” He looked up at his son, pleading in his eyes. “You’ve got to help me, Austin; I just can’t do it here any more. The memories . . .” He shook his head and looked away. “It’s too much.”
Austin didn’t reply. Since cancer had claimed the life of his mom, he had watched as his dad had withdrawn more and more into himself, grieving for the love of his life and seeming to forget the four children she had left him. He also seemed to forget or to ignore the healing God offered him, or so it seemed to his son. Drawing a long breath, Austin nodded. “Okay, Dad, but it’s not going to be easy.”
“I know. But Austin, I can’t keep going here. I’ve tried. I didn’t know what to do. I’ve prayed, and when your grandpa offered us the trailer, I felt it might be a step in the right direction, especially since work–” He cleared his throat. “Then I got a call from the realtor saying there’d been an offer on the house. A better offer than I had hoped for. Papers were signed yesterday.
Letting out a frustrated sigh, Austin gripped the back of the chair. “But why didn’t you tell us this sooner? Drew’s going to be upset when he has to leave his baseball team.”
“I thought he liked the ranch?” Mr. Sparks looked unsure.
“He does. Or at least last year he did. But that was later, after the baseball season ended.”
“I didn’t realize he’d started playing already this year.” Defeat filled Mr. Sparks’ voice and, resting his elbows on the table, he buried his face in his hands.
Silence filled the kitchen.
Fighting the frustration that rose inside him, Austin let out a sigh. “Dad, it’s going to be okay. We’ll survive the move. It’ll just take some getting used to. And you know the four of us kids love the ranch. South Dakota may be states away from Arkansas, but it’s still in the land of the free and the home of the brave. And Dad,” Austin paused until his dad lifted his head, “God will still be with us.”
Swallowing hard, Mr. Sparks nodded. “Thanks, son.”
“I’ve got to finish cleaning up.” And Austin rose, shoved the chair back under the table and returned to the sink for the dishcloth to wipe off the table. His life had been completely turned upside down once again. He didn’t know how his younger siblings would react to the news of their move, nor how his dad would enjoy working on the family ranch again.
“Lord,” he prayed, “we really need Your help. I don’t know what these next few days are going to be like, but I don’t think it’ll be easy.”
The hesitant way his dad spoke his name alerted Austin that there was more news. He looked over his shoulder. “Yeah?”
“Would you tell the kids?”
“Don’t you think you should?”
Mr. Sparks let out his breath sharply. “I guess I should.” Then with shoulders stooped and hands shoved in his pockets, he headed outside to the backyard.
“Ugh!” Austin groaned, rinsing the dishcloth and bracing himself for an outdoor explosion. Dad had never been very tactful when it came to announcements; it had always been Mom who paved the way and got everyone excited about whatever was going to happen. But Mom was gone.
Loud voices suddenly filled the peaceful quiet of the morning. Drew’s high treble was easy to make out. “What? I can’t go now; I got baseball!”
The excited voices of the twins filled the yard as Austin watched his younger brother race toward the house. He couldn’t tell if the girls were eager to go or upset, for he couldn’t see their faces from the window.
The screen door slammed behind him and Austin turned. “Drew–”
The boy rushed through the kitchen without a word and on to the bedroom the brothers shared. A few moments later he reappeared with his bag of baseball gear over his shoulder, a cap on his head, and a scowl on his face.
“Where are you going?” Austin asked.
“I got practice,” was the short answer before Drew stormed from the house and down the sidewalk in the direction of the park where his team practiced.
“Yeah, you have practice,” Austin muttered, glancing at the clock, “in about an hour.” For a moment he debated whether to follow his brother or let him have some time to cool off first.
The screen door slammed again and two pitiful faces appeared before him.
“Austin,” Addy began, “Dad says we have to move to the ranch.”
“But we don’t want to go,” LeaLea protested. “We won’t have any friends there.”
“Oh, come on, girls,” Austin said, sitting down and motioning them over. “You both love the ranch. And think of all the horse rides you’ll get to take. All your friends here are going to be jealous. And don’t forget we’ll get to see Grandma and Grandpa, and all our aunts and uncles and cousins. Did Dad say that Aunt Mimmie was coming next week?”
The sad faces brightened a little at the mention of everyone’s favorite aunt. But they fell again when Addy remarked, “Dad says we’re going to stay in that old trailer. I’m not going to like that. Come on, LeaLea, let’s go see if Hannah can play.”
Hannah was their next door neighbor, and the three girls had a play date nearly every Saturday morning at nine o’clock. Nodding at LeaLea’s questioning glance, Austin followed his sisters to the front door and watched until they were let into the neighbor’s house. Then he turned and looked about him.
The living room walls were hung with framed photos of past years, books filled the shelves, and the end table held a stack of Taste of Home magazines. They were old, for Mom hadn’t had time to renew another subscription before– Blinking, Austin turned away. He wasn’t in a mood to face all the memories this small house held. With a shake of his head he headed outside to find his dad.
Mr. Sparks sat on one of the outdoor chairs and stared vacantly before him. Austin paused a moment. “Hey, Dad,” he said at last, approaching the table and resting a foot on the seat of the other chair.
Mr. Sparks looked up.
“When did you say Aunt Mimmie was coming?”
Austin nodded. That was probably good as he figured it was going to take them a long time to get everything packed up. Only they didn’t have a long time. “When do we have to be out of the house?”
“The end of next week.”
That’s what Austin thought he had heard before. So they had seven days to pack everything they owned up, and head north. “I’m going to go to the park to make sure Drew has company until everyone arrives, okay? The girls are next door.”
When his father nodded, Austin turned to leave, but at the gate his dad’s voice stopped him.
“Austin, I’m sorry. I should have told you all this before. I should have insisted on more time to pack up. I should have–”
“It’s okay, Dad,” Austin broke in. “We’ll get through these next crazy days. We can be glad so much stuff is already packed up from showing the house.”
Slowly Mr. Sparks nodded. “I don’t know how to pack up a house, Austin. That’s why Mimmie is coming.”
“It’ll work out. I’ve got to go now.” His dad nodded, and Austin left the yard and broke into a jog, his mind whirling with shock waves from his dad’s bombshell. Packing. Moving. Aunt Mimmie coming. That at least was good. Aunt Mimmie was Dad’s youngest sister. Her real name was Colleen, but she looked so much like her oldest sister, Rachel, that Rachel had nicknamed her Minnie-Me when introducing her to others. When Colleen was old enough to talk, she called herself Mimmie in her attempts to say Minnie-Me, thinking that was her name. The nickname stuck, and close friends and family seemed to forget her real name.
Mimmie was single and often came down to visit her brother and his family. When Mrs. Sparks had been diagnosed with cancer, Mimmie had come down and spent nearly a month with the family. They had only seen her twice since the funeral.
Arriving at the park, Austin paused to glance around while he caught his breath. He had run faster than usual. The park was almost empty, and he quickly spotted Drew on the swings.
Striding over, Austin sat down on the swing beside his younger brother and set it in motion. Neither one said a word for several minutes. Then Austin, slowing his swing, looked over at Drew. “Are you okay, Buddy?”
Drew didn’t answer but pumped higher.
“We can ask Aunt Mimmie if she knows of any ball teams nearby.”
At that, Drew stopped pumping. “It won’t be the same.”
“I’m mad at Dad.”
“Because he didn’t tell us sooner?” questioned Austin.
“No, because we have to move at all. I don’t mind vacations up at the ranch, but who wants to live in that old trailer? I like where we live now.”
“I do too.”
“Then can’t you get Dad to change his mind?” Drew let his feet drag until he stopped, then twisted in the swing until he was facing Austin. “Can’t we just move to a different house or something? Do we have to leave this town?”
Austin wasn’t sure what to say. His brother was hurting and wanted answers, but he didn’t know if he had any that would help. “Listen, Buddy, you know that Dad hasn’t been the same since Mom died. Everything around here reminds him of her, and it hurts. He told me he had been praying about what to do and then Grandpa called and told him we could stay in the trailer. He said it had been updated.”
Austin shrugged. “I don’t know. But I do know that Dad needs a change. Perhaps after he’s been back at the ranch for a couple months, he’ll be back to his old self and we’ll find a better place to live and–”
“There is no better place than right here,” Drew said stubbornly. He looked around. “Some of the guys are here. I’m going to go practice.” He jumped off the swing as he spoke and picked up his bag.
Giving a long sigh, Austin closed his eyes and let his shoulders drop. He wasn’t sure if Drew would put up a fuss later about leaving or if he’d decide to take things in stride. He thought the girls would be okay once Aunt Mimmie was there. As for him, his feelings were mixed. He loved Grandpa’s ranch and the freedom of the wide rangelands, not to mention his love of a certain horse. But on the other hand, the Sparks family had lived in that house since before Drew was born. Austin didn’t really remember any other home. They had friends, and a church, but the thing that hurt the worst was Mom’s grave.
Giving himself a shake, Austin stood up and sauntered over toward the baseball diamond where Drew and a few of his pals were tossing the ball. If he had known Dad was even thinking of leaving . . . But no, that wasn’t fair, Dad hadn’t even known what he was thinking.
“Help us, Father,” Austin prayed again. “We’re a mess right now, and I don’t see how it’s all going to come together.”