Lucas parked his pickup in the garage, then carried a jumble of bags, filled with carry-out, into the house. A little tricky, since his chihuahua, Hercules, recognized the bag from Power’s burgers and kept running around his feet, yapping. Lucas dropped everything on the dining room table—burgers, Coney dogs, and wings—and stooped to pet him. Then he went to open the back door to let him run in the fenced yard.
A squirrel scurried up the Norwegian maple, its leaves turning yellow, and chattered at the dog. Hercules ignored him, running to the end of the yard to bark at the black Lab in the yard behind them. Hercules had Big Dog syndrome. He thought he could win a fight against dogs five times his size. And he barked at everyone and everything.
Lucas got teased about a big man like him owning a little dog like Hercules, but the dog was Lucas’s mother’s fault. She’d picked up Hercules from the pound, as a puppy, three months before she moved out and filed for divorce from Dad. The people in her apartment building complained about how much the dog barked, so she’d talked Lucas into taking him. Houses were sprawled out in his subdivision, so people took Hercules in their stride. And Lucas had gotten attached to the noisy fur ball.
While Hercules took care of business, Lucas tossed paper plates and napkins close to the bags of food. This wasn’t the night for gourmet, not that he could cook that anyway. When his sister had called and asked to have everyone meet at his house at six, he’d agreed. Not a problem for him. As an electrician, he could pretty much make his own hours.
He had more jobs lined up than usual this month. Willow Creek had a population of over two hundred thousand. Someone always needed something wired or fixed. His brothers were as busy as he was, but they’d promised to be there, too. Dylan, a plumber, said he’d be cutting it close, but he’d make it. And Toby, a house painter, said he’d have to come in his work clothes, but to buy him three burgers and two Coneys. They were all protective of their little sister, Dulcey, and her two kids. If she needed something, they’d be there for her. Her husband was overseas in the military, and she was raising the two kids on her own.
Hercules had stopped barking and was digging in the fallen leaves near the base of the tree, happy tossing them in the air, so Lucas slid into the bedroom to change his shirt. It was long-sleeved, but the temperatures were dipping and the weather man predicted frost tonight. Lucas pulled a baggy lightweight sweater over his jeans and heard the first car pull into the driveway. He went to open the front door and his mom stalked up the porch steps. Hercules ran in circles and jumped on the fence, he was so happy to see her. Mom ignored him. Her expression could scare away small children.
“Dulcey said your father’s coming, too.” Mom went straight to the dining room table and pulled out a chair. “What’s this all about?”
“I don’t know. Dulcey called and asked everyone to come here. It has to be something big. I’ve fiddled with it in my mind all day.”
Lucas let Hercules in the house and bent to pick him up since his mother kept brushing him away when he put his paws on her legs for attention. He scratched Hercules behind his ears and tried to distract him.
Another vehicle swung into the drive, then another. Lucas glanced out the front window. His Cape Cod, country-style house had lots of windows. Sunshine bathed every room. Both of his brothers climbed out of their pickups, gave a quick knock at the door, and came to join them.
Toby, the shortest of the brothers, only five-ten, went straight to the dining room and dug a burger out of the bag. “I’m starving.” His hair was the same dark, coffee-color as Dulcey’s.
“Can’t you wait till everyone sits to eat?” their mother snapped.
Dylan, the tallest at six-four, went to wrap her in a hug. “You know Toby’s always hungry, and look at him. He never gains an ounce.”
“None of you do.” Their mom glanced up and down Dylan’s lanky build, then glared at Lucas’s solid muscles. She’d had to fight weight her entire life and didn’t appreciate people who could eat and not worry about it.
She frowned at Lucas’s black stubble and shook her head. “You did shave this morning, didn’t you?”
“You know I did, or else it would be longer.” He went to pat her on the head. That always annoyed her, and she shot him a look. He chuckled.
Before Mom could get cranked up, Dulcey’s white Chevy pulled in the drive. Dad’s Cadillac slid in behind her. Mom walked to the far chair at the table and sat down. Dad would sit at the opposite end, as far away from her as possible.
Lucas shook his head. His parents had always fought, but it still surprised him when they got divorced two years after Dulcey had grown up and moved out. Absence had not lessened their hostilities, but stoked them.
Dulcey and Dad walked in together and everyone grabbed what they wanted to drink, then took a place around the table. They dug into the food with gusto. Lucas had bought a plain burger with no grilled onions for Hercules, and he tore the meat into smaller places and put it on a paper plate in the kitchen. The meal didn’t take long. It took even less time for Lucas to grab everything off the table and throw it away.
Everyone turned to Dulcey. She looked especially tired tonight. Her husband, Garrett, was overseas in the military, and she was raising their two kids—Jordy, six, and Beth, four—solo until he came home. Even tired, Lucas thought she was as cute as she could be with a heart-shaped face, huge hazel eyes, and a crooked mouth—always up at one corner like she was about to smile.
She pinched her lips together, gathered her courage, and filled them in. “Garrett’s dad called, and he’s been diagnosed with cancer, a kind that moves fast. He doesn’t have much longer. He was so wonderful to Garrett and me when we lived with him for a year after we got married, that I want to go to Arizona, so that he has somebody there with him. I don’t want him to be alone.”
They all understood. Garrett’s mother had overdosed when he was eight. Earl never remarried, raising him as a single dad. It would be hard to find a better one.
Dulcey cleared her throat. “The thing is, I don’t think Earl can deal with two little kids now, and I don’t want the kids to watch him decline, then die. Jordy loves first grade, and I don’t want to yank him out of his school. I was hoping you guys, all working together, could watch the kids till I get back.”
Mom stared. “How many weeks will it take?”
“Maybe three months.”
“Are you serious?” Dad laughed. “Sorry, kid, that’s asking too much.”
Dulcey went on. “A neighbor has a daughter Beth’s age. They’re in the same nursery class and play together almost every day while Jordy’s at school. She said if someone dropped them at her house in the morning, she’d get them both to school, pick up Beth at eleven-thirty, and keep her at her house until someone came and picked up Beth, and then picked up Jordy at his school.”
Lucas, Dylan, and Toby looked at each other. They all nodded.
“We can do that. We’ll take turns,” Lucas said.
Mom straightened her shoulders. “I raised you kids. I like coming home from work to a quiet house, but I’d take Saturdays. It’s nice seeing my grandkids once a week.” She raised an eyebrow at Dad.
He shook his head. “No way.”
“Of course.” Mom sent Dad a dirty look. “Your time is always more important than anyone else’s.”
How often had Lucas heard that argument? He sometimes wondered if his parents had ever wanted children. Both of them felt burdened when they had to spend time with them. If Lucas ever married, he’d never argue from sunup to sundown like his parents did.
He shrugged. “That leaves six days we need to cover. Two for each of us. Will that work? I’ll take the days no one wants.”
Dylan said, “I’ll take Monday and Tuesdays.”
Toby said, “I’ll do Wednesday and Thursdays.”
Lucas thought about his Friday nights. He didn’t go out that much anyway, just meeting buddies at bars for supper. He could do that on Saturdays, but he couldn’t stay out late. He knew his mom. She’d deliver them early on Sunday mornings. “I’ll do Fridays and Sundays.”
Dulcey broke into a relieved smile. “You guys are the best! I’ll probably fly out on the weekend. Thanks. Really. I know this is asking a lot.”
They’d survive. And Garrett’s father deserved to have some TLC for his last days.
Everyone left soon after that. Lucas went to the living room and plopped on the sofa with Hercules sprawled next to him. What had he gotten himself into? What did you do with kids in the evenings and for an entire day? He’d ask some of his friends who’d already started families. And he’d muddle through it.