tagRomanceThe Heart of a Woman

The Heart of a Woman

byholliday1960©

The Heart of a Woman

"Dad, it's me. We're at the hospital," James stated cryptically.

"Annie?" Mr. Reed inquired. He heard his son utter a strangled grunt in response. "I'm on my way, son," Mr. Reed replied before gently replacing the receiver in its cradle. The call was not entirely unexpected. There had been so many in the past that each time the phone rang, he flinched, always expecting the worst. He pulled on his coat and reached for a chain of dangling keys.

The bitter cold assaulted his senses as he grudgingly trudged to his truck. A thin layer of ice cracked and broke away as he gave the door a stubborn yank and climbed inside. Small drifts of fresh snow crunched under his spinning tires. He murmured a curse under his breath as the worn vehicle struggled to gain traction on the icy pavement. The old truck shuddered violently as he shifted gears and made his way haltingly up the hill.

His attention was divided between his battle with the elements and his concern for Annie's well-being. James would not have called if it weren't serious. With Annie, it was almost always serious.

A few minutes later, Mr. Reed paused at the emergency room entrance. He stamped his feet and flapped the ice crystals from his coat before stepping inside. He closed the distance to the elevator, a route he knew by heart. He sighed heavily as he felt the machine lifting him upwards towards the cardiac intensive care ward on the sixth floor.

He passed two nurses in the corridor whose faces looked familiar and they both gave him a weak smile of recognition. He nodded sharply in response and made a gesture to tip his hat slightly. In the waiting room ahead, he could see his son, James, seated with his face buried against his palms. He crouched and sank heavily into the chair next to him, placing one hand on his son's shoulder for moral support.

"How's Annie?" he asked gently.

James shook his head in despair and glanced at his watch. "I don't know. They aren't saying, Dad. We've been here six hours," James said with his face twisted into a deep frown of concern.

"You should've called me sooner," his father chided gently.

"I was hoping they'd just take a look at her and send her home, Dad," James replied staring bleakly at the polished tile floor. "The doctor came out one time and poked his head in just to say there's some kind of complications. He didn't say what. That's when I called you," James explained looking dejected as he peered down the hallway for any sign of activity outside his wife's room.

Patrick Reed patted his son's back with a wide palm. "Maybe they'll know something soon, son. It takes time with all those tests," he said with feigned reassurance.

James nodded silently in response. Both men settled back in their chairs and stared blankly at the muted television screen on the wall. They were both in their own worlds, each lost in thought as they waited. The hospital surroundings felt cold and sterile, void of emotion. They turned to their own memories as a distraction.

**********

Patrick Reed recalled the first time he had met Annie. James was ten at the time, and Annie was a mere seven. Patrick had offered to take James ice skating and the offer for his son to have a friend tag along resulted in big surprise when James asked to take the little girl from down the street.

Patrick Reed knew about the girl named Annie, but he had never met her, or her parents. He had been called to the school by the principal a week earlier about 'an incident' in which James had been involved. The principal, Mr. Murphy, had explained in a hushed tone that bringing him in for a discussion was merely a formality.

The incident, it turned out, occurred when James defended a new student from an attack by an older group of boys who were verbally accosting the little girl in question. When one of the boys shoved her down on the playground, James came to the rescue. Mr. Reed was not surprised by his son's actions. He had raised the boy to not only stand his ground on his own behalf, but to have compassion for the weaker and less fortunate.

James staunchly lived up to his father's expectations, and Mr. Murphy issued only a firm scolding as punishment. A week later, James was still sporting a dark bruise on his cheek from the altercation when his father suggested the ice-skating expedition.

"Can I take Annie?" James asked with enthusiasm.

"Annie?" Mr. Reed asked with carefully masked surprise. "Isn't that the little girl from down the street?" James nodded. "Well, we don't know her parents, son. I'm not sure they would approve," Patrick pointed out with some misgivings.

"Well, we could go meet them," James offered tentatively. "They might say yes, if you asked them, Dad," James suggested.

"Mr. Murphy told me that Annie has some physical problems, James. Did you know that?" Patrick fished vaguely.

James nodded in earnest. "She had something called 'room-matic fever'."

Patrick smiled slightly. "You mean rheumatic fever," he corrected gently. "She also has diabetes, son. Both of those things are pretty serious. It makes Annie one very sick little girl. Her parents aren't likely to let her out of their sight for very long. I imagine they would be too worried to let her go skating for the afternoon. Why don't you ask your friend William to go instead," he suggested.

"Dad, I don't want to take Billy. I want to take Annie," James stubbornly insisted. "Annie never gets to go anywhere with the other kids. She told me so. And, no one wants to play with her because they think they might catch something from her. Please, Dad?" James pleaded.

Patrick smiled and tousled his son's hair affectionately. "Alright, son. It can't hurt to ask, I suppose."

A short while later, father and son crunched their way up the snow-crusted walkway of the McPherson residence. Patrick banged his fist against the wooden frame of a screened front porch. Soon, a woman peered out from behind a set of white cotton curtains that covered the glass panes of the main door. She fumbled with several locks before the door cracked open.

"Yes? Can I help you?" she asked still standing behind the protection of the wooden door. She looked a bit haggard, more tired than old, as she peeped suspiciously at them through the narrow crack.

Patrick gave her a wide smile and tipped his hat. "Mrs. McPherson?" he inquired. The woman gave a stiff nod and tilted her head with cautious interest. "I'm Patrick Reed, and this is my son, James. He's a friend of your girl, Annie," he said gesturing to the boy at his side. "We're your neighbors from up the street," he explained, casting a glance in the direction of his own home.

Mrs. McPherson opened the door a bit wider and awkwardly smoothed back her hair. "Yes, Mr. Reed. How can I help you?" she asked again.

Patrick removed his hat and held it against his belly. He cleared his throat nervously. "Well, James here wanted to introduce ourselves and ask a favor of you at the same time," he said sheepishly. The woman's eyes narrowed at the admission. Patrick hurried on with his explanation. "I was going to take the boy skating today. I told him he could choose a friend to take with him, and he asked me if I thought it would be alright to take Annie with us."

The woman glanced nervously behind her before stepping outside onto the porch and pulling the door shut behind her. She unlatched the screen door and offered them the meager shelter the porch provided.

"Mr. Reed, I appreciate your invitation, but Annie can't go," she said stiffly as she smoothed the wrinkles from the apron she wore. She lifted her chin defiantly and stared.

"I told James you might not approve," Patrick said with a sigh of resignation. "I understand your little girl isn't well, but James insisted that we ask anyway," he shrugged.

"You know about my Annie?" Mrs. McPherson snapped waspishly. Patrick nodded and let his gaze fall away. She studied James for a moment, her features pinched with uneasy stress.

"You must be the boy who took up for her last week," she said stepping closer and putting her fingers under James' chin. She tilted his face upwards and visually examined the bruise on his cheek. "Why did you defend her?" she asked sharply.

James met her gaze evenly. "They pushed her down, Ma'am," he replied. "They shouldn't have done that."

Mrs. McPherson nodded sharply in agreement. "Annie told you she's sick?" she asked.

James nodded. "Yes, Ma'am. After I helped her up. I didn't know it until then."

"It doesn't worry you? You aren't afraid you might catch her disease?" she asked suspiciously. James shook his head adamantly in response. "Why do you want Annie to go skating with you?" she demanded.

James blushed bright red at the directness of the question. He began to stammer. "I...I like her. Annie's real smart and she's fun to be around," he offered. "She's kinda pretty, too, Ma'am," he murmured under his breath.

Mrs. McPherson relaxed her stance for the first time. She let out a long breath and softened her gaze on the boy. "Annie's only seven, James. She's too young to be receiving gentleman callers," she pointed out softly. "Your father should have known better," she said casting an admonishing glance at Mr. Reed. "Or, your mother," she added as an afterthought.

"I don't have a mother," James said softly. "She died when I was a little kid. Dad only agreed to come ask you because I wanted Annie to go with us. He tried to tell me you wouldn't let her," he said defensively.

The woman nodded in mild understanding. She disguised her amusement at the boy's reference to no longer being a little kid.

"I'm sorry about your mother, James," she said with a compassionate glance at Mr. Reed. "I lost Annie's father only last year," she said sounding wistful and weary. "Annie is all I have left now. We do the best we can," she said. "I appreciate you standing up for her, James. I hope it didn't get you into much trouble," she said sincerely.

Mr. Reed offered a discreet shake of his head to negate the suggestion. Mrs. McPherson looked satisfied with his response.

The door behind her suddenly flung open and Annie appeared with a rush. She tugged at her mother's skirts. "Momma! Oh, please, Momma! Can I go skating with James?" she pleaded with excitement. Mrs. McPherson shook her head sadly at the bright-eyed child.

"I'm afraid not, Annie. It's too cold out and you might get sick again," she said gently stroking the little girl's dark tresses. Annie's dark eyes filled with impending tears of disappointment. "Maybe some other time," Mrs. McPherson said with a rather insincere edge of hope.

"It's too strenuous on her heart, Mr. Reed," she offered lamely. "Annie has to be careful not to over-do any physical activity."

"But, Momma, I'm not sick now. I feel fine. Please?" the child pleaded again with desperation.

Mr. Reed looked down at the frail looking child. As his son had suggested, she was a pretty little thing. She had doe-like eyes and a thick mass of dark hair that framed her cheeks with loose curls. She was pale and slight, most likely from being indoors all the time, but what she lacked in physical fitness, she made up for with a bold spirit.

He knelt down in front of Mrs. McPherson and her angelic-looking daughter. "You must be Annie," he said holding out one hand for the child to shake. "I'm James' dad." Annie smiled shyly and took his hand, pumping it up and down in greeting. He gave her a grin in return.

"Mrs. McPherson," Patrick began choosing his words carefully as he rose to his feet again. "What if we were to promise only a very short outing today, say maybe two hours? Would that make a difference?" he asked tentatively. Mrs. McPherson's lips tightened at the suggestion.

"The time it takes to drive over to the lake and then putting on skates would only give the kids about a half an hour on the ice," he suggested slyly. "We'd bring Annie straight back here," he assured her. "She seems to have her heart set on it, and my James would be so disappointed," he said with a sad little shake of his head.

Annie began hopping up and down as she pulled at her mother's skirts again. Mr. Reed chuckled aloud at her antics.

"When we get back, James and I could take you two ladies out to dinner," he offered, smiling down fondly at Annie.

"I'm cooking a roast for dinner, Mr. Reed," Mrs. McPherson said sharply with dismay. Annie's bottom lip began to quiver with disappointment.

James suddenly peeled off his coat and wrapped it around Annie's shoulders. "You're going to get sick, Annie. You shouldn't have come out without your coat," he admonished, gently tucking the coat around the little girl.

Mrs. McPherson's expression softened. "Annie, give James his coat and go back inside," she ordered.

"But, Momma!" Annie began to whine.

"Now, do as you're told, Annie. You better be quick if you want to go skating with James," she interrupted. "Won't you both come inside and warm up, Mr. Reed?" she asked gesturing to the door. "It will take Annie a moment to change." Annie shrieked with delight.

Patrick Reed broke into a satisfied grin. He gave James' hair another tousle as he scraped his feet on the welcome mat outside the door. "Wipe your feet, son," he cautioned as he followed the Widow McPherson inside.

Their first meeting began a long and close friendship with the widow and her daughter. That friendship had spanned more than two decades now, and they had ridden out some tough times together over the years. They had shared some magical moments as well. Patrick Reed thought about the highs and lows, still waiting for word from the doctor on Annie's condition.

James took Annie to her first high school prom when she was only about fifteen. Patrick had never seen a prettier young lady despite the second-hand gown she wore. Annie was far from being a child of privilege. She never once complained that her clothes weren't new. She wore them with pride and the grace of a princess.

He recalled the two separate occasions when the kids had graduated high school. First James, and then, four years later, Annie. Annie had fallen behind in school due to her illness. She graduated a year later than she could have, but she made that walk up on stage just the same. He had been sitting right beside Mrs. McPherson when Annie received her diploma and no one clapped harder than he did.

Mrs. McPherson passed away not long after Annie's graduation. He sat at her beside and held her hand during her final moments. The widow's death came as a shock to everyone. She looked old and starved lying on her death-bed. Her body wasted away from an aggressive cancer.

She opened her eyes once and turned her head to look at him. "Mr. Reed," she whispered weakly. Her lips almost curved into a rare smile.

"I'm here, Virginia," he reassured her, patting her hand for comfort.

"Where is James?" she asked.

"The kids are out on the front porch," he said. "James thought Annie could use a little break. Did you need something?" he asked quietly.

The widow's eyes were closed, but she wasn't sleeping. She shook her head slightly. "Tell James to take care of my Annie," she instructed with more energy than she looked as if she possessed.

"You know he will, Virginia. He loves that girl more than anything on earth," Patrick answered.

Mrs. McPherson smiled slightly. "You make sure Annie wears my gown now, you hear? It was my mother's and her mother's before her. It's in my old hope chest," she said softly. "You give my Annie away, Mr. Reed. You're the closest thing to a father she's had since Mr. McPherson died." A tear slowly escaped and trailed down her cheek.

"Annie is like my own daughter, Virginia. James and I will see to it she's taken care of. You can bank on that," he replied. Patrick saw the woman grimace with pain. She gave his hand a firm squeeze.

"Annie," she whispered softly and her grip relaxed. Mrs. McPherson was gone in one long breath.

Mr. Reed placed her hand on the bed beside her lifeless body and rose slowly. He closed the bedroom door silently and made his way to the front porch. He could hear James and Annie laughing as he wearily stepped outside. The laughter stopped short.

He took a deep breath and spoke. "James, you take Annie on home now. I'm going to stay here a while and see to Mrs. McPherson. I'll be along soon," he said quietly.

That was when Annie officially became a member of their family. With James away most of the time at college, Annie became Patrick Reed's constant companion and closest friend. He devoted his time to caring for her. She and James would not marry until James finished college, so for nearly a year, Mr. Reed and Annie became inseparable.

Annie wanted to be an artist, and she had the natural talent to accomplish that goal, but there wasn't money for art school. Mrs. McPherson's life insurance barely paid off the mortgage on the old house where Annie grew up. It wasn't enough for college, much less a private art school.

Sometimes, Patrick didn't know how they had managed it, but when James was home on the weekends, he worked to repair the old place. He even turned one room into a private studio for Annie's use for her painting. James' engineering degree came in handy for remodeling the old house; one room at a time, one small step at a time. It took him two years, but he got it done.

In the meantime, Patrick would drive Annie out to the lake a couple of times a week so she could sketch the scenery there. The years were passing fast, and Patrick Reed wasn't getting any younger. Their trips to the lake gave an old man time to reflect a lot on the past, and the future. Annie and James' future.

Annie had undergone two heart surgeries. One when she was only sixteen. It kept her down for a while, but she bounced back eventually. The second one came after Mrs. McPherson passed. The lake trips were his way of easing Annie's recovery. He teased her about having all new plumbing when they replaced the second heart valve. Annie took it all in stride, and she laughed at his teasing, except when she struggled to make it back up the hill to the old truck.

James and Annie married. He would never forget how beautiful Annie looked as a bride dressed in her mother's old white gown. Patrick paid to have it altered and cleaned so it fit Annie's slender frame a bit better than it did when she first tried it on.

He walked her down the aisle of St. Mary's Lutheran Church to where James stood waiting patiently at the alter. When the priest asked, "Who gives this woman..." Mr. Reed responded with "Her mother and I." It brought tears to Annie's eyes, and she was breathless when he handed her over to his son.

There weren't many guests at the ceremony, just a few close associates and a sprinkling of church members who came as witnesses, and perhaps for a small slice of wedding cake afterwards. Patrick smiled as he recalled how James had to remove the little trinket ring Annie had worn all through her high school years in order to replace it with the solid gold wedding band.

The promise ring had come from a box of Cracker Jack candy and James had purchased nearly two cases of the snacks to find one ring to give Annie. He couldn't afford a real ring at the time. He was busy saving up from a part-time job for his college tuition. Annie didn't mind the toy ring. When James slipped it on her finger, you would have thought it was the Hope diamond from the look on Annie's face. She had that same look when James replaced it with the wedding band. Such was Annie; a delightful wonder in all ways.

Patrick Reed cleared his throat and clasped his hands together in front of him. He glanced at his son and wondered what James was thinking at that very moment.

**********

James Reed slipped his hand inside his coat pocket. He felt the long slender box he had been carrying around for days. Inside it was a present for Annie. He had been waiting all week to give it to his wife. It was a Valentine's gift, custom made.

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byholliday1960© 9 comments/ 10694 views/ 17 favorites

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