Jacqueline's Heart
By: Gabriella Balcom

"Mama, this is for Nina," Jacqueline said, holding out her red velvet dress.

"But that's yours, Honey," her mother protested. "You love it. Grandma made it for you—for your birthday a few months ago—not for your sister."

"I know, but Nina's wanted a pretty dress for a long time, and she deserves something nice. You're great at sewing, and you can make that smaller so it'll fit her. I got to wear it to my birthday party. And to church a few times, too."

Lines appeared between Mama's eyebrows as she frowned. But then her face brightened and she smiled. "You're so sweet and generous with Nina."

"She's my little sister. I love her."

"So do I. And I love you, too." Mama hugged her tightly. "You're my angel."

"Daddy says the same thing." Twelve-year-old Jacqueline smiled, secure in the knowledge they loved her. She could imagine Nina's face when she unwrapped the dress, and her contentment grew. Her sister would be so happy.

Outside, Jacqueline saw Daddy doing something under the hood of their car. He frowned, rubbing his forehead. Worries began to crowd her mind, and her happiness faded. Everything had been different since the trouble at his job. According to her parents, he hadn't been fired, but he couldn't return to work until the investigation was over. He wasn't earning money in the meantime, either. Mama had worked more since then.

Last week, during her visit, Grandma collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital. Jacqueline's parents assured her it wasn't serious, but she worried anyway. If the problem was small, why hadn't Grandma been released?

***

Molly washed the last dish and glanced out the kitchen window as she set it in the rack to dry. She saw Jacqueline walk by, heading in the direction of their backyard, and smiled. Molly knew God had always been with her. He'd intervened in her life, and blessed her with the sweetest children. Jacqueline in particular was a true blessing. Tenderhearted and generous, she always thought of others and wanted to help everyone.

Eyes growing misty, Molly whispered a quiet prayer, thanking God yet again for the many blessings He'd given her and her family. She also asked Him to protect them and help with everything they faced, especially their money situation.

She heard the front door open and quickly wiped her eyes. Her husband's footsteps sounded and she turned to face him. Her chest tightened, though, when she saw what looked like grease on his fingers. "Doug, is something wrong with the car?"

"No. The battery terminals were loose, so I tightened them. It was time for an oil change, too."

She frowned. "I didn't plan for that in the budget, and we don't have twenty-something dollars to spare. Can we delay the oil change?"

"No need. I already put in new oil. Changed the filter, too."

"How'd you pay for them?" Molly read the telltale shadows under his eyes, and tried to lighten the mood. "Do you have a secret money tree I don't know about?"

"I wish." He snorted but smiled. "I must've gotten extras sometime and forgotten about them. They were just sitting on a shelf in the shed."

"You're sure they were new?"

"Yep. Completely. They were unopened and still in the bag they'd come in."

"That's good news."

"We needed some."

"Have you heard anything about your job applications?"

"I called two places. At the first, some man said he'd filled the open position. The other was a woman who said she was didn't need anyone right now. She was just gathering applications in case she needed someone later on."

Molly nodded, but tried to hide the disappointment she felt.

The "To Be Paid" part of their budget was longer than the "Coming In" part. Thinking at that, her stomach lurched. Their electric bill was past due, but they'd had to choose between paying it and the other utilities or their car payment, and she needed the car to get back and forth to her job. Although she worked fifty hours a week now, she wondered if she could get more.

"I've put applications in everywhere, including several in Jodden and Habrey," Doug said. "No one's hiring."

"Jodden and Habrey are farther than we'd agreed on. If you got a job in either city, we'd have a hard time getting both of us to work."

"You think I don't know that?" he demanded sharply. But then his shoulders sagged and he sighed. "I'm sorry, Honey. Please forgive me. I didn't mean to bite your head off. I'm just…"

"Worried."

"Yeah. The bills have piled up, and there's no way we can pay them all. We can't even pay most of them. Last year was one problem after another, too—the engine on the car going out, the refrigerator breaking down, discovering we had termites. I hurt my shoulder when the shelving at work collapsed on me—that's back when I still had a job—and your sister didn't pay back the money she borrowed from us. I mean, it wasn't much but we could use it now."

Molly felt vomit rise in her throat but swallowed hard, forcing it down. "I know things have been hard. But I can say one good thing—I made our car payment by phone awhile ago."

"It was covered by the skin of our teeth and by robbing Peter to pay Paul. But if we don't pay our rent, too, we'll be kicked out."

"I'll call Randy during my break at work, and see if he'll give us another week—till I get my next paycheck."

"He's a great landlord, but one of these days he may not be so understanding." Doug pulled an envelope from his back pocket. "I checked the mail. Here's the new electric bill that came in, but we haven't paid the last one. The temperature's fine now, but you know how the weather is. We may get frost tomorrow and need to turn the heat on."

"Good old Texas." She managed a faint smile.

He sighed. "I still can't believe I'm on unpaid leave. After eight years of working there, I would've thought George would trust me and take my word."

"He said the fire changed how he had to handle things. But I believed him when he said he thought you were innocent."

"I did, too, but his belief won't pay the bills."

"At least cameras were set up in the warehouse."

"Yeah, but sometimes the power goes off and nothing gets recorded. The company uses the same tapes again and again, and those tapes are circulated over three locations. Even if that night was caught on tape, it could've been recorded over. It's been weeks since the fire, and if they haven't found it by now—"

"Let's hope it was recorded and that they find it."

"I'm kinda hoped-out, Hon. The more time passes, the less likely it is I'll be exonerated. Personally, I think Ace started the fire. Maybe not on purpose, but I bet he smoked inside and flipped his cigarette without paying attention to where it landed. If so, it could've easily started a blaze. He's been caught smoking in the warehouse before even though it's against the rules. And everyone has watched me do what we're supposed to do—going outside again and again to smoke. But if he was to blame, he sure didn't admit it."

"Is that the same guy you said pried open a snack machine and stole stuff?"

"Yeah. Well, no one saw him do it, but he had tons of snacks for days after that even though he'd said he was penniless. The guy's a total jerk and I've never liked him. He's always talking about drinking, partying, complaining he's got no money, and bragging about women he's dumped. And here we are, unable to pay our bills. I can't stand feeling helpless and not doing my part, while you're doing more and more every time I turn around. How do you think I feel knowing I don't have two quarters to rub together? I can't even afford little things for our kids, and Christmas isn't far away."

Hearing the bitterness in his voice, Molly felt powerless, too. "It not you alone who can't afford things. We can't afford them. But we have great kids and they understand. Yeah, Christmas is a few weeks away, but it's not supposed to be about candy and gifts anyway. We just have to hold on and do our best." Snuggling up to him, she added, "Doug, I love you and believe in you."

"I know, Mol-babe." He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head.

She relaxed against him, and felt like everything would be all right. "Things will work out."

"I hope so."

***

Below the open kitchen window, Jacqueline bit her lip to keep from crying, and crept away so her parents wouldn't know she'd been listening. They'd been so sad lately and she longed to make everything all right. She wished she was old enough to work like Mama did.

"What can I do?" she wondered. "How can I help?" Then an idea came to her.

Her body drooped an hour later, and she considered giving up and going home. But, she tried to have hope and knocked on what felt like the fiftieth door. When an elderly woman opened it, she smiled. "Hello. I'm Jacqueline," she said. "I live a few houses down. Do you have anything I could do for you to earn money?"

"I live with my daughter and her family, and they take care of most…" The woman stopped. "Actually, there might be something you could help me with. Can you write neatly?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Call me Sarah. Follow me."

Soon Jacqueline was busy writing letters to Sarah's grandkids while she dictated.

After leaving the woman's house, Jacqueline smiled, counted what she'd earned, and went to another place. But forty-five minutes later, she heard her father yelling her name in the distance, and headed for home.

"Where in the world have you been?" he demanded after she ran into their yard. "I called you a bunch of times. You didn't hear me?"

"No. I was weeding Mrs. Fuller's garden."

His eyebrows shot up. "Who's Mrs. Fuller?"

"She lives down the street."

"Uh-huh. How far down the street?"

"A block."

"What?" Pinning her with his eyes, Daddy crossed his arms and his voice rose. "You can't just wander off like that. We've told you before. There are bad people in the world who hurt kids. If anything happened to you, I'd just…" His voice broke.

"I'm sorry, Daddy." Jacqueline hugged him around the waist, and he held her tightly. "I forgot. I just—wanted to earn some money."

He raked his hair with his fingers. "You had good intentions, and I'm sorry I got mad. But next time, say something if you want to leave our yard and I'll go with you, okay?"

eight days later

Jacqueline nibbled her bottom lip as she went through her money. She had $27.12 left out of the $43.72 she'd earned after buying flour, sugar, eggs, food coloring, kool-aid, posterboard, and a few other things at the store.

"Will you help me make cookies?" she asked Mama once she went into the living room.

"I can't, honey," her mother replied. "I'm running late for work. But your father can."

"Me?" Daddy's face was blank. "Cookies?"

"They're easy." Mama said. Grabbing a cookbook, she flipped through pages, stopped on one, and then laid the book face-down on a couch. "Just follow the directions." After kissing her husband and tousling Jacqueline and Nina's hair, she rushed out the door.

Jacqueline went into the kitchen, and looked expectantly at her father. Nina joined her. He studied their faces, then slowly picked up the cookbook and joined them.

"These are delicious," he commented an hour and a half later. Then he grabbed another blue cookie and gave Nina one. They'd baked a few batches of sugar cookies, but Jacqueline had added drops of food coloring to make sets of blue, green, red, and purple.

"Don't eat any more, okay?" she told him. "They're to sell."

"Sell?" She explained about wanting to earn money, after which he carried a small table out to their front yard, and helped her arrange the cookies, a pitcher of Koolaid, and paper cups and plates. She wrote "Cookies and Drinks For Sale" in big letters on a poster board. Nina added "YUMMY," drawing smiley-faces on it here and there.

At first, only a neighbor or two walked over, handing over quarters for a cookie and small cup of drink. But then a church bus drove by, stopped, and backed up. Sarah stepped out, followed by a dozen or so people. First hugging Jacqueline, then Nina, she shook Daddy's hand. Then she and her church group pulled out money.

One woman ordered two dozen red cookies from Jacqueline to be picked up the next day, and the bus driver had her wrap several blue ones in a paper towel for him to take home to his kids.

"These are great cookies," an older man named George commented. "Too bad you don't have gift baskets for sale, too." "Do you need one?" Jacqueline asked. To do one for him, she'd need more things from the store.

"I need four. They're for my grandkids who live out of town. Three boys, one girl, all under six years old. Their parents are bringing them for a visit in a few days. My wife usually handles the preparations, but she's been sick."

"You could just pick up ready-made baskets at a store," Daddy suggested.

George shook his head. "I don't like going to stores. Too many people. That makes me nervous."

"What kinda stuff would you want in the baskets?" Jacqueline asked.

George's eyes lit up. "So you think you can fix them for me? I'd like to get them in two days if possible—early's always better than last minute, I think."

"Yes, sir. I can have them done in two days."

"Good." George rifled through his wallet and pulled out bills. "How does twenty-five dollars for each basket sound?"

two days later

"Fantastic!" George exclaimed, eyes shining as he looked over the completed baskets. "The kids'll love them." Jacqueline had placed glitter-covered tissue paper in large but inexpensive straw baskets. She'd added books, toys, sets of stickers, and stuffed animals she'd purchased at a dollar store. In addition, she'd put in candy bars, small bags of chips, an orange and apple, and bags of cookies she'd baked. A balloon was tied to each handle.

"You did a great job!" George handed her an extra twenty-dollar bill. "These are exactly what I wanted. I'll look you up next year, too."

"What are you saving for, Sweetie?" Daddy asked, his eyebrows raised. "Something special you've been wanting?"

"Just stuff," she replied, offering him a left-over cookie.

Christmas morning

Loud yells woke Doug and Molly. They hurried into the living room, and found Nina there, bouncing up and down.

"It's the most beautiful dress I've ever seen!" Nina squealed, holding the altered red velvet dress against her body. "I've never had anything so pretty. And I have a bunch of other presents, too. This is the best Christmas ever. Santa left stockings and gifts for all of us, and Jacqueline made me a basket. She did some for you and Daddy, too." She grabbed hers, pulling one item out after another, then dashed toward a gift.

Her parents glanced at each other.

"I didn't put anything else out," Molly whispered to Doug. "Just the dress for Nina and a book for her. And a pair of used but pretty nice shoes for Jacqueline, and a puzzle for her."

"You asked me to put apples and oranges in the stockings, and I did," he murmured in her ear. "And I added popcorn and snacks from the tins the neighbors gave us. That was all I did, but we both know who did this."

She nodded, eyes damp. "Yes, we do."

They turned when Jacqueline walked into the room, yawning and rubbing her eyes.

"I should've known why you wanted money," Daddy murmured, tousling her hair and laying a kiss on her head. "You were being as sweet and unselfish as always."

"You're our angel," Mama added, her eyes swimming with tears. "Thank you for making this day special for us."

The following evening, the phone rang and Daddy got to it before Jacqueline could. "Hello?" he said. After listening for a couple minutes, he dropped his cup of coffee. The ceramic mug shattered, shards and liquid going everywhere.

"Really?" he asked the person he was talking to, ignoring his family's stares.

Once he'd hung up, he released a tremulous breath. "The investigation's over. They went through the tapes several times, and finally found the right one. The fire was Ace's fault."

He hugged his wife and children tightly. His voice broke as he added, "I return to work tomorrow."

Jacqueline watched her parents hugging, and saw the happiness and relief on their faces. She had a good, warm feeling inside, and knew everything would be all right.

The End

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