Authors: Nancy Frederick
A Change of Heart
In Association with White Wolf Press, LLC
Copyright 2011 Nancy Frederick
"Don't stop at the Quick Mart now hon, please.
The parade is going to start any minute and I promised we'd be there early.
Maggie will have plenty to drink at her house."
Annabeth Welner laid her hand gently on her husband's knee, feeling it tense beneath her fingers.
"I promised to take pictures of the parade."
R.J. glowered at her, "Since when did Maggie ever have beer?
I drunk all of her lousy iced tea and lemonade I'm gonna.
I want my beer. We got time, so relax, will you."
Cursing at a roadblock, R.J. swerved the van around the barrier and into the parking lot of the Quick Mart.
Annabeth regarded her husband, reached to smooth his hair, felt him flinch once again and watched as he exited the van and walked toward the store.
He was a man not yet fifty, smaller than five-feet-eight-inches tall, his arms and legs rather scrawny although he appeared overweight because of the beer belly that resembled a basketball somehow swallowed in tact and protruding above his belt.
His hair rose wildly from his scalp, and now and then he scratched at his head, a nervous gesture which compounded the problem.
What was it about him today?
He had that look he sometimes got when he'd taken a shortcut he shouldn't have, when something he'd carelessly set in motion was bound toward disaster.
In his eyes was desperation, discontent in the extreme.
Could all this be because they were once again going to Maggie's?
R.J. had made no secret of his dislike of her old friend over the years, but he wasn't usually so bad tempered, and Annabeth wondered why.
Could R.J. be unwell?
Annabeth glanced at the dashboard clock, which kept perfect time.
It was a small town and an even smaller parade.
The whole event took just minutes.
She shook her head; there was the whistle.
It had begun already.
Annabeth craned her neck, first watching the corner to see the parade begin and then mentally calculating how long it would take to reach Maggie's house and whether they could beat it by taking a short cut.
Then she glanced into the store, where her husband lingered, two six packs on the counter in front of him, and a smile on his face.
Behind the counter stood a young woman who was about the age of their older daughter, Laurel, and Annabeth could see her smiling as well.
R.J. touched the girl on the shoulder, something that struck Annabeth as rather odd.
He was always flirting, though.
He loved women and needed attention and enjoyed turning on the charm for a stranger.
It was harmless and Annabeth couldn't remember ever being jealous.
She glanced at the clock again and wished R.J. would speed it up.
At this moment, Maggie was no doubt sitting on the green glider on her front porch, complaining about the heat and pressing a half-emptied iced tea glass to her cheek.
Her husband Hugh, placating as always, would by now have started fiddling with the camera so that he could get a shot of their granddaughter Lindsey when she paraded by with the other karate students.
And Maggie was probably saying something like, "Oh Hugh, wait for Annabeth, she's artistic."
This was ridiculous.
What was R.J. doing?
She exited the van and walked toward the store, and only then did he emerge.
By the time we park, the parade will be over."
Three floats and a bunch of Shriners in kiddie cars isn't no big deal.
Bad enough you have to haul a ton of food over to her house for every party."
"What's the matter with you R.J.?
Are you all right?"
"I just wanna get this over with, okay?"
R.J. parked the van and carried only a crockpot filled with homemade baked beans, which he balanced on top of the beer, leaving her to struggle with large containers of fruit, potato and pasta salads, several bags of breads, and a basket of cookies.
Hugh, a lawyer and the perfect Southern gentleman, leapt up to help Annabeth as Maggie growled,
You missed the parade and Hugh had to take the pictures.
And he's half blind, so who knows if they turned out at all.
My granddaughter is in the parade for the first time and we maybe don't have a shot of it."
Oblivious to her husband's scowl, Maggie clucked her tongue, then narrowed her glance at R.J., "And I see you brought your own drinks.
Thank goodness for the miracle of beer."
R.J. looked down at Maggie, who hadn't bothered to rise from the glider.
"You're lookin' a bit heavier, Mags.
Been gainin' weight lately?" Annabeth cringed as Maggie's mouth dropped open.
Once more Maggie glared at R.J. then said, "You look a bit fatter yourself, or did you swallow a whole watermelon?"
"Stop it you two.
It's too hot for all this nonsense."
Annabeth interrupted before anything worse could be said.
Holding up the basket, she continued, "Who wants a cookie?"
"Who has time to sit around eating cookies," complained Maggie, snatching the basket from Annabeth and digging in it.
"No Chocolate chips?"
Locating one, she put it in her mouth then walked into the house, indicating that Annabeth should follow.
"How's the car collection," Hugh asked R.J., who brightened at the change of subject and trailed after Hugh to the back yard where the smoker was already cooking chicken and ribs.
"No other wife would let her husband keep all those cars at the side of the house.
What's he got--a dozen or more now?"
Maggie clucked her tongue then began smearing icing on a large sheet cake while Annabeth silently set out some of the food.
It was pointless to discuss R.J.'s cars with Maggie; they'd done it too many times before.
Collecting those cars made him feel young, and even if he never did manage to restore them as he boasted he would each time he hauled home a new one, they made him happy, so what was the harm?
The backyard had begun to fill with assorted friends and family members, and the two women went outside to join them. Annabeth, spotting her father and stepmother Ginger talking to Hugh, walked over and reached up to kiss Will Copeland's cheek, which he carelessly accepted without a break in the conversation.
"Um, Dad?" said Annabeth.
When Will held up one finger indicating he was concentrating on Hugh's comments, Annabeth turned to check on the food.
"Oh, Annabeth," said Ginger, "I need some hems done this week."
Annabeth answered without even pausing to think about her own obligations, "Sure, okay."
They stood mingling, talking, eating, until the little bell fastened to the side gate began to ring.
It was her daughter Sally with Maggie's son Jackson.
"Did you start without us?" asked Sally.
Annabeth smiled as she observed them; they made a nice couple.
He was tall with freckles and sandy hair, and his demeanor was slow and constant.
Sally was soft and sweet, a girly girl, emotional and sensitive, kind of like Annabeth herself, although she was slight and small boned, delicate looking, with dark hair and eyes.
"I wanna talk to you two," said R.J., always a bit too loud.
Annabeth wrapped her arm tightly around Sally's shoulder and she wondered
how many beers had R.J. drunk so far.
She hoped he wouldn't say anything he shouldn't.
"Yes, sir?" asked Jackson politely.
"You been livin' with my daughter for how long now?"
Jackson's eyes widened as Sally blushed and said, "Daddy!"
"And you know I was against it."
Annabeth reached her hand toward her husband's arm.
She had been against Sally moving out of the house as well, but they were old enough and maybe Sally would go to college eventually.
"R.J.," she said, hoping to sidetrack him.
"And now you just keep on livin' together, don't you.
"Daddy!" exclaimed Sally, blushing even more deeply.
"Well, we're going to get married eventually," said Jackson.
R.J. nodded his head vigorously, "About time."
Raising his voice, he spoke to the group, "Did y'all hear that?
We got an engagement!
This boy is finally gonna marry my little girl!
We'll have a wedding by next month!"
Observing Sally's shocked face and Jackson's look of astonishment, Annabeth interceded, "Not so fast!
They're way too young to marry and next month is obviously out of the question."
Jackson leaned toward Sally, whispered something in her ear that Annabeth couldn't hear, then he said, "Okay, sure, how about September then?"
It was hot outside, so it was natural that Sally's face would appear a bit damp from the heat, but Annabeth was certain her daughter perspired because she was unready to make this huge commitment, this monumental decision.
She was a baby still, just a girl, too young, way too young, and not ready.
"No," insisted Annabeth, "They're too young."
"It's okay Mom, really," whispered Sally.
"You'll get married on Valentine's Day," decided Maggie.
Thinking that would allow them plenty of time for postponements if necessary, Annabeth offered no further protests.
Later, as she and R.J. drove home, she spoke up.
"What were you thinking, bullying those kids like that?"
"I wasn't bullyin' nobody."
You just can't do things like that.
Remember the bike?"
He looked at her, narrowed his eyes and remained silent.
Sally had been three when R.J. decided she should be able to ride a bike that was too big for her.
He pushed and pushed and eventually she did ride the bike, but the moment he stood back and left her to do it on her own, Sally toppled and bloodied her knee.
"She wouldn't get back on a bike until she was six, remember?"
"Oh, for God's sake, she's not three."
"Kids have to do things when they're ready, not when we think they should.
Not that I think Sally and Jackson need to rush into anything.
"Why should she be on my back all my life?
He should marry her."
"On your back?
What's wrong with you, R.J.?"
How many beers had he drunk?
"Yeah well, he'll live with her for a while, get sick of her and kick her out.
Then I'll have to take care of her."
Annabeth shook her head.
"What a thing to say about your daughter!
Jackson loves Sally, you know that.
He always has.
Since eighth grade.
And Sally works at the bank, earns her own living.
She's not some property that needs taking care of!"
There was a sense of raw desperation in R.J.'s eyes as he glanced at her.
He looked like an animal right after it had been trapped in a cage.
"I know, you're right, I'm sorry, I know."
He parked the van in front of their home and wearily exited it, lumbering up the few steps to the front porch, where he dropped down heavily into a rocker.