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Changing Lanes
A local author writes of life’s bumps in the road
By Kathleen Long

Kathleen Long High-Res

 

 

Cherry Hill’s Kathleen Long has a long list of romance novels under her belt; her 14th hits book stores in August. Until then, cozy up to her latest quirky tale “Changing Lanes,” and fall in love with a frazzled heroine who watches her perfect life fall apart only to discover what really makes life perfect. Long has selected this excerpt for SJ readers.

 

 

 

Mrs. O’Malley’s frown gave way to a smile, the skin around her eyes softening, her entire countenance shifting to one of warmth. “He’s a good boy, my Mick.”

I climbed from the cab and slowly walked to where she stood. “Yes, he is.”

“Did you know he’s going to be an architect?” she asked.

I nodded, reaching out my hand. She’d grown frailer since I’d seen her last. I thought back fondly to the days when she’d climbed the ladder to the tree house to bring Mick and me freshly baked cookies or tall, cool glasses of milk. She’d had a smile that could brighten even the darkest corners of a room, and her fiery auburn hair had been the envy of every woman in Paris.

She’d gone to high school with my mother, graduating just a few years ahead, but as I took in the set of her shoulders and the paleness of her skin, Detta O’Malley seemed a decade older than I knew her to be.

I slipped out of my sweater and draped it around her shoulders. When I took her arm in mine, my heart caught at the feel of her bony elbow beneath my fingertips.

She turned to study me, her faded blue gaze searching my face. “Do I know you?”

“Abby Halladay, Mrs. O’Malley. Madeline and Buddy’s girl.” I steadied her as I turned her toward the cab. “Mick’s friend.”

“He’s a good boy, my Mick.” She walked beside me now, more easily led than I would have imagined. “Did you know he’s going to be an architect?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, as sadness bubbled up inside me. So this was why Mick had come home. After years of staying as far away from Paris as he could, he’d come back to take care of his mother. And though I suppose that should have surprised me on some level, it didn’t.

At the core of who he was, one thing had always held true about Mick. He had a heart of gold, even if he did his best to hide it.

I helped Mrs. O’Malley settle into the passenger seat and fastened her lap belt. She held the plant and its crinkled tendrils out of the way.

“Should I put the plant in the back?” I asked.

Detta shook her head fiercely. “She needs me.”

I searched the plant for a sign of life but found none.

“How could someone throw her out?” Mrs. O’Malley asked. “It’s not her time.”

“No, ma’am.”

I didn’t know what to do or say, but I thought of all the kindnesses Mrs. O’Malley had shown me through the years. Her caring presence had once been a constant in my world. I wasn’t surprised she wanted to save this seemingly unsalvageable plant. Not surprised at all.

I climbed back into the driver’s seat, anchored my own seat belt, turned on the wipers, and pulled the ancient gearshift into drive.

I glanced at Mrs. O’Malley and frowned. She tugged and pulled at the seat belt strap, her features twisted with frustration. “Would you like to hear some music?” I asked.

My father, never one to be far from his tunes, had outfitted the classic Checker with a modern CD deck. I waited for Mrs. O’Malley’s nod before I pushed the power button.

“Let’s see what we’ve got,” I said, as I pushed Play.

The Mamas and the Papas sang loud and clear, filling the air inside the Beast with their amazing harmonies. Beside me, Mrs. O’Malley shifted in her seat, loosening her grip on the dead plant.

She began to sing, her voice and words spot-on with the music, matching the CD word for word and tone for tone. Her voice rang out, crystal clear and bright.

A sudden rush of memories hit me, grabbing hold of my emotions and holding tight. Summer nights with the windows open, hearing Mrs. O’Malley singing from the kitchen next door as she finished dinner. Spring mornings, watching her plant fresh annuals, softly singing all the while. 

Dream a little dream of me.

Detta O’Malley loved music. Her features came to life as she sat in Dad’s cab. Her eyes widened and she smiled as if the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders. I realized how glad I was I’d been able to offer her a ride.

My only regret was that we reached our destination before the end of the song. Maybe next time I’d drive until her voice ran dry.

She smiled – a smile that stole my breath with its palpable joy. “I knew the words,” she said on an exhaled breath.

As I helped her out of the car, Mick appeared at the front door. He pressed his cell phone to his ear and spoke rapidly, keeping his voice low. “She’s here now. Sorry to have bothered you.”

He pressed a kiss to his mother’s cheek, then looked at me, the question hanging between us, unspoken.

“I saw your mom walking in the rain after I left the Clipper meeting.” I held his mother’s elbow as she climbed the bottom step, afraid she might stumble. “Isn’t that right, Mrs. O’Malley?”

Detta nodded. “I knew the words.”

Mick’s eyebrows lifted.

“To a song in the car,” I answered.

His curiosity morphed to surprise; then he smiled, a luminous grin full of gratitude.

“Thank you,” he said. “She loves to sing.” He reached for the plant I held. “I’ll take that.”

I shook my head. “I’ve got it.”

But Mick had already anchored his fingers on the edge of the tired and unwanted pot. “Thanks for bringing her home.”

I’d been dismissed, and even though it had been years, I understood Mick perfectly. His family had always kept to themselves. Why should this moment be any different?

“My pleasure.” I took a backward step. “I’d better get Bessie back to my dad before he sends out a search party. Great to see you, Mrs. O’Malley. See you later, Mick.”

The light I’d glimpsed so briefly had already faded from Detta O’Malley’s eyes. She looked at me without emotion. “Do you know my Mick?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Sadness filled me at the realization she’d probably also forgotten how the music had brought her back to life. “He’s a good boy.”

I had Bessie parked under her tent a few minutes later, but I couldn’t bring myself to go inside my parents’ house to face my new, not-so-planned life. Instead I turned on Dad’s CD and listened to the song Detta O’Malley had just sung.

She might not be able to remember the beautiful sound of her voice, but I could. I hoped I’d never forget the joy on her face and the power of what she’d said.

I knew the words.

But for Mrs. O’Malley, the words and music were already gone.

Suddenly my house, my job, and my engagement were merely obstacles to be overcome. I could fix my problems, but Mrs. O’Malley’s life had been forever altered. Her fading memory was slowly erasing the person she’d once been.

My life had merely taken a detour – one I could handle.

As I sat inside the Beast – windows shut to the world, music blaring – I realized two things.

Driving Bessie wasn’t half bad, and listening to Mrs. O’Malley sing was the most magical thing I’d witnessed in a long, long time.

July 2013
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