TG Universes & Series:
A man was unjustly accused of domestic abuse to the point that he's divorced from his wife, and legally restrained from visiting his daughter. When a friend takes him to BB on a lark, to try to cheer him up, he gets an idea, and then works a deal with Grandmother to be able to visit his daughter occasionally.
As usual, thanks to a very helpful crew editing and adding polish. I won't name names, for fear they get swelled heads and become insufferable, but I AM grateful.
This story is copyright by the author. It is protected by licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Joel Martinelli looked at the line of women entering the park, and he felt nervous. "Don't you think it's a little weird that there aren't many guys coming here?" he asked his friend Walt. "You'd think that a water park like this would have a ton of guys."
Walt just grinned. "Better odds for us," he answered, with great confidence and a sense of expectation. Walt _looked_ like an operator, a guy who knew he was attractive to women, and who used women for what he needed. He was a marked contrast with Joel, who, while moderately attractive for a mid-thirties man, exuded lack of self-confidence and uncertainty about his actions.
"I don't know," Joel answered uneasily. "And why are most of the women going in without tickets?"
"Would you knock off being so suspicious?" Walt chided him. "They probably have season passes or something! Be glad —the ticket line is short."
Joel sighed and shook his head again. "I don't see how this is going to help."
Walt turned and grasped Joel's shoulders. "Look, dude," he said firmly, "you've got to get over it. The bitch won."
Joel frowned. "I wish you wouldn't call her that."
"You tell me what I should call a woman who stole your heart, then stomped on it, filed for divorce, and has made sure you don't even have visitation with your daughter?"
Joel winced at the bluntness of Walt's words. What he said was true — to a point. "She didn't have anything to do with the court order," he said, a little defensive of his ex. He still loved her — some, even if she so blatantly despised him. Even as he denied it, he knew, in his heart, that there was some truth in Walt's words.
"So who _did_ file the abuse charges?" Walt demanded. "The tooth fairy?" He shook his head. "Dude, the sooner you get it through your mind that she screwed you, the sooner you can start living again."
Joel opened his mouth to protest, but there were no words. Walt was probably right. He didn't know where the charges had come from. Memories — mostly unpleasant ones — flooded his brain.
He'd been so in love with Susan, and he thought she loved him. Their married life had started so well. They'd settled into an apartment, and then moved to a nicer place when Susan got pregnant. Their daughter, Heather, brought joy to the couple, and especially to Joel — he adored daddy's little girl. Perhaps, he adored her too much. As Heather grew, he found that he and Susan were fighting over her rules and discipline. Susan was far less tolerant of 'bending the rules' than Joel was. The arguments started.
Joel soon realized that one of the sources of the arguments was Susan's sister, Danielle. Danielle had always seemed a little miffed that her younger sister got married first, and she'd always been a flirt with Joel, even after they'd gotten married. What Joel never dared tell Susan was that Danielle had propositioned him — multiple times, and quite blatantly. He'd realized that Danielle was extremely jealous. Perhaps because Danielle felt rebuffed in her attempts to seduce Joel, it seemed that she began to egg on the arguments and disputes between Joel and Susan. She certainly didn't help.
And then the bottom dropped out. Heather fell while she was trying to do a silly stunt on her bike. She broke her arm, and had a number of scrapes and cuts. Very soon thereafter, three social workers from Child Services had paid them a visit — with a police escort. Joel hadn't been alarmed, until the social workers began to question him and Susan about other incidents. They hadn't seemed to accept that children got bumps and scrapes, especially when they were active in their outdoor play, like Heather was. They'd insisted on talking to Heather alone, and when the girl had returned, she looked terrified. While the one worker interviewed Heather, the other two had grilled him and Susan about abuse — physical, emotional, and even sexual abuse. Joel had gotten quite irritated at the implications. Surprisingly, though, Susan hadn't.
The next day, the social workers were back again, with the police, and they dropped the hammer. A formal complaint had been filed, and since Child Services had rated it as 'imminent threat of physical or sexual harm' to Heather, they gave Joel two bad choices — either he moved out immediately, or they would take Heather for her protection. They had a court order to that effect, plus the police to back up their threat. To Joel's surprise, Susan had taken Child Services' side, and demanded that Joel leave.
From there, it was downhill. Susan accused him of mistreating their daughter. She then accused him of trying to seduce his sister. Joel slowly understood that Susan's sister Danielle was probably influencing Susan against him. While the investigation lumbered on, Joel had no visitation with his daughter, and Susan was distant and cold toward him. Two months after the ordeal started, Susan filed for divorce.
Unable to fight the forces against him, Joel gave up. He didn't contest the divorce, and with the investigation by Child Services underway, he got no visitation rights, while she got full legal custody _and_ an injunction against even being near Heather. Eventually, after he was exonerated, it became clear to him that Danielle had been behind some of the accusations against him. Still, Susan wouldn't budge, and the process of going through the courts to rescind the order of no visitation was slow. At times, Joel wondered if his case hadn't gotten lost in the maze of the court system. Child Services wasn't willing to admit that they'd been wrong, and Joel still had no idea of what they'd bullied Heather into saying during their 'interviews'. It had been over three years of battle since Child Services dropped their case against him, with no end in sight, while his daughter was growing up without him.
Joel sighed. "It was probably my sister-in-law," he admitted sadly to Walt.
"She's a hot little thing, isn't she?" Walt said with a leering grin.
"She's an evil bitch," Joel countered fiercely. "This is all her fault, because she was jealous of her little sister. I bet she's still poisoning Susan against me, and Heather, too."
"Dude, you _have_ to get over her."
"Could _you_ get over your baby girl? Could you just forget about her, about the joy of watching her grow?" Joel asked. After a moment of stunned silence, he sighed. "I didn't think so."
"Okay, you've gotten hurt pretty bad by this whole thing. But can you at least try to have fun today? If you don't worry about it for one day, will the world end?"
Joel started to reply, but he caught himself as he considered Walt's words. "I guess I can try."
A couple of minutes later, the two men were at the ticket window. "How can I help you?" an old woman asked from behind the glass. She smiled pleasantly, like she was someone's loveable grandmother, but there was something mildly unsettling in how she stared at Joel, as if she was reading his heart and soul.
"Um," Joel answered uneasily, "we'd like a couple of tickets."
The old woman smiled. "This is a private, membership-only park," she explained, "and we don't sell general-admission tickets, but we do have a limited number of daily passes. You're in luck — we have a few left today." She quoted a price for the two passes.
Joel's eyes widened. The price was a bit steep. Walt, however, was busy watching the girls and women coming to the park, and at the moment, didn't care about a few dollars. "We'll take them," he said eagerly.
After money had exchanged hands, the woman slid two passes under the glass. "Please shower after you change. It's health department rules." She smiled. "And Joel…," she continued.
"Yes?" Joel didn't remember them using their names in front of her.
"I think you'll find the day very rewarding in ways that you hadn't expected."
Walt smiled pleasantly. "Thanks."
The two walked into the men’s locker room. Joel was surprised at how small it was, but then he remembered how few men he'd seen in the ticket line. As they changed, Joel felt a little envious of Walt. Because of his alimony and child support payments, Joel worked as much overtime as he could get, and he didn't have the time that Walt had to spend at the gym. He wasn't as fit; he didn't have Walt's six-pack abs, or his well-defined pecs and arms, but he wasn't a couch-potato, either. Unless he was diligent, though, Joel could see himself getting 'swivel-chair spread' as he spent more and more time in the office, sitting at his computer.
Remembering the old woman's admonition about showering, Joel stepped into the shower and turned on the water. He'd expected a cold burst of water, and was pleasantly surprised at how warm and soothing the water was. He closed his eyes and let the soothing spray massage his muscles, seeming to wipe away his cares and concerns. He didn't see the faint pink coloration of the mist.
As he reached to turn off the shower, Joel felt disoriented. The shower handle seemed a bit higher, and his arm seemed — smaller? He closed his eyes, waited a second, and re-opened them. There was no doubt — the entire shower seemed bigger. He reached up again, this time to look at his arms. They were definitely smaller — smaller, and finer, without much musculature at all. His hands, which should have been cut up from his first job as a mechanic while he was paying his way through college, were smaller, finer, and devoid of any scars. Pink fingernail polish decorated his nails.
Joel glanced down, and a tiny, girlish scream came from his lips. His swim suit had changed into a girl's bikini bottom, and the telltale bulge of his manhood was gone. His legs were, like his arms, smaller and weaker.
He heard a scream from across the locker room, and, fearful of having Walt discover what had happened to him, he stuck his head out past the shower curtain.
Walt was changing, in a manner even more dramatic than Joel's change. Where Joel looked like a little girl, Walt was becoming every inch a woman, and in ways that Walt had always admired. As Joel watched, Walt's hair cascaded down his shoulders even as it turned lighter, to a honey blonde. His chest was swelling; well-defined pecs rounded and bulged forward, even as his body shrank. Joel watched, transfixed, as Walt's swim suit flowed like liquid cloth, until it was a very tiny bikini bottom covering a flat crotch. Walt was staring down at his changing body, and he screamed again. It was a very feminine sound.
Walt looked up sharply when he heard a door opening. He stared toward the exit, wide-eyed. Involuntarily, one arm reached up to cover the large orbs on his chest, while the other dropped in front of his tiny bikini. His entire body seemed to recoil from the mere thought of someone else seeing him.
The old woman from the ticket booth came in. Joel stared at her, wide-eyed, his head still peeking out from the shower. "Please," she said in a friendly voice, extending a bikini top toward Walt, "put this on. I don't permit topless sunbathing in my park."
Walt stood in shock, staring at her with doe-eyed disbelief. The old woman sighed, rolling her eyes, and then chanted something in a foreign and poetic-sounding tongue. The change in Walt was immediate. The fear vanished instantly.
"Please put this on," the old woman repeated.
"Oh, thanks," Walt said happily. "I wondered where I'd dropped that!" Without any prompting, he took the bikini top and expertly tied it on. He frowned. "Where's Jodi?" Walt looked around, and only then did he noticed Joel's head poking out from the shower curtain. "There you are!" he said, sounding unhappy. "Come on, cuz," Walt said insistently, acting as though he knew who Joel was — as a girl. "Unless you want to spend your whole day taking a shower!"
The old woman smiled toward Joel, then looked at Walt. "Wanda," she said, "since your cousin Jodi is going to spend the day at the swim academy, why don't you run along? I think she has a few questions for me."
Walt — Wanda after the magic, apparently, shrugged. "Okay. Why don't we meet for lunch at noon at ...?" She wrinkled her nose.
"The Tiki Hut in the Tropical Paradise section is a favorite spot for dining," the old woman interjected. "But noon is the busiest time. Unless you're really hungry, I'd suggest waiting until twelve-thirty or one."
"Okay," Wanda said. "One o'clock at the Tiki Hut." She frowned. "You _will_ be there, won't you?"
Joel's eyes widened, and he tried to answer, but no words would come from his mouth. "She'll be there," the old woman said with a smile. "Now, why don't you run along and have fun, and I'll get Jodi signed up for the morning swimming class."
"K," Wanda said, before she turned and walked happily out of the locker room and into the park.
As soon as the door closed, the old woman turned to Joel. "Here," she said, as she held out a piece of cloth in her hand, "please put on your top."
"How ... why ...?" Joel stammered. He'd seen what the old woman had done to Walt, how she'd made him think that he'd always been Wanda. He felt a shudder run down his spine, wondering if she would do the same to him. Fearing such a fate, he took the top, and then, to his utter amazement, tied it on like he'd been doing it all his life.
"Okay, now that that's out of the way," the old woman said with a smile, "why don't you come out and sit down, and I'll tell you what's going on." She sat down on a bench that ran the length of the lockers.
Having nothing else to do, Joel crept from the shower and sat next to the old woman. "What's going on? Why are we girls?"
"My water park is a private refuge for women, a place where they can come to get away from leering eyes — like your friend Walt. The only way to do that, though, is for my magic to turn men and boys into women and girls when they come in."
"Magic," Joel said to himself. "That's ...."
"Impossible?" the old woman asked with a grin. "How do you explain this?"
Joel glanced down at himself, at the flatness in his swim suit bottom and his skinny arms. When he leaned forward, longer hair danced in his peripheral vision, letting him know that the change was complete, top to bottom. "Why ... did Walt turn into a woman, but I'm a ... little girl?" His voice was tiny and soft, higher in pitch. A little girl's voice.
"Let's just say that my magic has a way of helping things work out," the old woman said enigmatically. "For example, your friend Walt, after he changes back tonight, won't remember any of the changes. He'll have vague memories of spending a fun day at a water park, but he won't be able to remember details. But you will."
"I will? Why?"
"We can control whether a person remembers what the park did, or not. For some customers, it's okay for them to forget about the park, as long as they remember having a fun day. For other customers, though, it's important to remember. We let those customers remember."
"What's so special about me? And why am I a little girl?" Joel asked.
"Tell me, what's the one thing you want most of all?" the old woman asked.
"Um, I don't know," Joel answered, hesitantly. "To ... not be so unhappy?"
"To spend time with your daughter, who you miss so much, right?"
Joel's eyes widened as he realized that she knew all about him. "Yeah," he answered softly. "I .... It was so unfair!" Tears started to seep from his eyes, as he thought of the pain of over three years without seeing his little girl.
"I arranged it so you _can_ spend time with her, and without violating the court order," the old woman said. "Her mother, your ex, signed her up for swimming lessons every Saturday morning. By happy coincidence, you're in the same class this morning."
"Coincidence, my ass!" Joel said sharply. His eyes widened as he realized that he'd cursed with his little-girl voice. It sounded so ... funny, and so wrong.
The old woman laughed. "Well, it really wasn't a coincidence," she explained, amused.
"So ... what do I do?"
"Go out to the Junior Lifeguard Academy and have fun. Enjoy your day. Spend time with Heather." As Joel stood, she said one more thing. "By the way, tell me your name."
"Jodi," he answered automatically. His eyes widened, and he clamped his hands over his mouth. He hadn't meant to say Jodi, but Joel. "My name is Jodi," he said again, slowly and deliberately, and again, he was stunned. "Why can't I say my name?"
"It's part of the magic. For example, you knew how to tie on your top. You can't say your old male name, but you'll automatically say 'Jodi'. It's part of the magic to help keep you from making mistakes. And your change is what we call a local change."
Jodi frowned. "What's that mean?" she asked.
"It means that we didn't change all of reality. Outside of this park, no-one knows of a little girl named Jodi. No-one has forgotten about Joel. If we had done a reality change, then no-one would remember Joel, and reality would have been completely changed."
Jodi was stunned at the implied power of the old woman and her park. Things could have been much worse for her than just changing into a girl.
The old woman acknowledged what she'd thought. "Now run along. Class starts in fifteen minutes, and the instructors don't like their students being late."
The group of pre-teen girls sat around the terrace surrounding the pool, waiting for the instructor — a pretty blonde named Liz — to finish taking roll. She divided the group up into five smaller groups. Jodi didn't believe it was a coincidence that she was in the same group as Heather. The third member of their group was a little girl named Sarah. Sarah was extremely shy, as was Jodi, which left Heather as the talkative and energetic one.
Jodi gazed at Heather, trying not to look obvious, but having a hard time. Three years had changed her. She'd grown so much, he thought, and her dark brown hair was no longer the long ponytail he'd last seen on her, but now she had a cute pixie cut. She was at that gangly age — between cute little girl and teen-ager turning into a woman. Slender like her mom, she had promise of being a beautiful young lady someday. Jodi felt choked up thinking about how much he'd missed while he'd been battling the courts and Child Services. Those years were gone, and nothing could ever replace them.
"Okay, girls," Liz interrupted, "I've changed your groups again, so I want you to take a couple of minutes to introduce yourselves."
Heather started. "I'm Heather," she said enthusiastically. "My mommy wants me to be on the swim team when I'm in high school."
Sarah was next. "I'm Sarah," was all she said.
Jodi knew that she had to force her self-consciousness away, so she could interact with Heather. "Tell us more," she prompted.
"Um," Sarah stammered, uneasily, "my Dad signed me up for lessons. He said that everyone needs to know how to swim."
Jodi saw a flicker of sadness on Heather's features. "I'm Jodi," she said in turn. "I like to play in the pool, so I had my cousin bring me to swim lessons." She stopped talking abruptly when she saw a girl do a complicated dive off the high platform. "Oooh," she cooed, "I want to learn how to do that!"
Liz had noticed the distraction, and heard Jodi's comment. "Not so fast," she laughed. "You've got to get through the advanced swimmer class, and then Coach Lisa's basic diving class before you can even think of diving off the platform." She smiled at the girls. "That might give some of you a goal — to practice hard enough to be in a diving class before the end of the summer."
Jodi quickly realized that Liz was a taskmaster, and while Joel had been okay at swimming, Jodi wasn't — mostly because of the reduced muscle mass and lack of coordination. She felt embarrassed on her first try at doing a simple crawl, but the other girls — especially Heather — were encouraging, and since they weren't much better, Jodi didn't feel quite so bad. During the hour-and-a-half long lesson, she didn't have much time to talk with Heather, except for during a short break.
After the lesson was done, some of the other girls raced off to various rides. Heather, though, held back, uncertain about what to do. Jodi stayed nearby, waiting for the other girls to leave. When all but a couple were gone, Jodi walked gingerly to where Heather was sitting, and sat down in the adjacent lounge chair. "Aren't you going to go to the slides?" Jodi asked.
Heather shook her head. "Nah. I don't know about you, but I'm tired from lessons."
Jodi was reminded of how her muscles ached. "Yeah, me, too. Why don't we sit here and rest a bit, and then maybe we can go to the rides?"
Heather nodded. "That would be nice, but I think my mom is going to pick me up before lunch. I've got to get some new clothes, because I just grew a bunch."
"Mom likes shopping with me, but she's always busy. She doesn't always have time. And she's always telling me that we can't afford the clothes that I want."
"Is it just you and your mom?" Jodi tried to venture into uncertain territory.
"Yeah," Heather said sadly. "Ever since my dad ...." She wiped at a tear. "Aunt Danielle said that he wasn't very nice, and he left me and my mom, and I haven't seen him since. I don't think he loves me," she blubbered, tears beginning to trickle down her cheeks.
"I'm sorry," Jodi said, fighting back her own tears. "What happened?"
Heather shook her head. "I don't know. One day, some social workers came, and they talked to us, and then they came back the next day, and daddy left."
Jodi was dying to ask more, but she could sense that Heather was very upset by the conversation. It was a dark set of memories for her, and Jodi didn't want to cause her more heartache. "How about if we go on the raft rides? We won't have to swim or anything."
"Yeah, but we'll have to walk up the hills," Heather protested. "And I'm sore."
"Come on! You'll forget about your tired legs when we're riding the rafts down the slides!"
Begrudgingly, Heather said yes to Jodi's requests. After the second ride down Pele's Race, Heather had forgotten about her tired muscles. "Let's do the big tube ride — the Wild Luau ride!" she cried with excitement, as they picked their mats off the bottom of Pele's Race.
While walking up the side of the volcano to the raft ride, Jodi noticed that Heather seemed to be tense, like she was holding something inside. "You're kind of quiet all of a sudden," she said.
Heather looked up, startled out of whatever private world she was in. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just ... I miss my dad." She wiped at her tears again. "I wish mom and dad would get back together, but I don't think they ever will."
"Why not? Maybe your dad still loves your mom," Jodi suggested.
Heather shook her head sadly. "It's my fault, too," she cried. "If I hadn't kept hurting myself on my bike, the social people wouldn't have ever come to make Daddy go away! And they were trying to make me say bad things about him, too!"
Jodi saw, in that instant, both the pain in Heather's heart, and how much she was blaming herself for the separation and divorce. "What does your mom say?"
"Sometimes," Heather said with a sigh, "I think she misses him. Other times, she says a lot of bad things about him. And Aunt Danielle always says mean things about Daddy."
Heather's words confirmed what Jodi had suspected — Danielle _had_ been behind a lot of the troubles, and was still injecting her venom against Joel. She'd probably even been behind the anonymous tips of child abuse. She _had_ been extremely jealous of Susan and Joel. Would she have been wicked enough to force them apart, just because he wouldn't accede to her demand for an affair? Jodi knew it was time to talk about fun things, lest she overwhelm Heather, or make her suspicious. She would have more time, as they played, to tease out more information.
More time came at lunch; Heather's mom had called, saying that she wasn't going to be able to go shopping until two-thirty, so Heather should stay at the park. Grandmother brought the news to Heather as the two girls were pulling their raft off the bottom of the Wild Luau raft ride. Jodi was about to suggest that Heather join her for lunch, but she remembered that she was supposed to meet Wanda for lunch.
Grandmother had that figured out. "I've already let Wanda know that you're playing with a new friend, and that you'll get lunch."
"Okay," Jodi said, but a thought popped into her mind. "But I don't have any ...."
Before Jodi could complete her sentence, Grandmother produced two papers. "Complimentary lunch in River Landings," she said with a smile.
Jodi took the coupons. She knew she'd have to ask Grandmother about them later; she strongly suspected that the cost of the 'complimentary lunches' had been included in the price of her day pass. "Thanks," she said cheerfully. She turned to Heather. "Want lunch now?"
Heather quickly and enthusiastically agreed. As the two sat eating their cheeseburgers and fries, Jodi was surprised to find that Heather was directing the conversation toward boys. What was more, Jodi found that she could contribute, as if she had memories and feelings of being a pre-teen girl like Heather. It was spooky.
Jodi and Heather walked together toward the entrance plaza. Grandmother had sent word that Heather's mom was there to pick her up, and Heather had insisted that Jodi walk with her.
As the two girls approached the entrance, Jodi felt butterflies in her stomach. She thought she saw Susan waiting outside the gate. She missed a step and stumbled; if Heather hadn't been holding her hand, Jodi would have fallen.
"Sorry," Jodi muttered, her eyes still on Susan. "I guess I tripped on something."
"Probably your own clumsy feet!" Heather giggled. "There's Mom," she cried gleefully. "Come on. I want you to meet her!" She tugged eagerly at Jodi's hand, pulling her across the entrance plaza.
Even though the old woman had assured her otherwise, Jodi _knew_ that Susan was going to recognize her. She knew that she was going to get in trouble for violating the court order. With great trepidation, she let Heather pull her toward the entrance gates, to where Susan was waiting.
"Hi, Mom!" Heather called enthusiastically as she approached the gate.
Susan smiled. "Hi, honey." She looked over Jodi, who gulped nervously. "Who's your friend?"
"This is Jodi. She was in swim class with me, and afterwards, we had fun playing," Heather babbled excitedly. "Can she come over sometime?"
Susan's eyes were as wide as Jodi's. She held out her hand toward Jodi, who nervously took it. "I'm pleased to meet you, Jodi," she said pleasantly.
"I'm pleased to meet you, too, ma'am," Jodi replied politely. Jodi looked up at Susan, and realized how much she seemed to have aged in the preceding three years. She had a few gray hairs, but more visible were 'worry lines' on her forehead, and a lack of spark in her eyes. She looked tired, even though she was still pretty. In fact, Jodi told herself, most people would have noticed Susan's fatigue.
Susan laughed lightly. "Ma'am?" she asked. "I don't feel old enough to be called ma'am!"
"My ... er ... Mom always told me to be polite," Jodi stammered, searching for an excuse so Susan wouldn't suspect anything.
Susan smiled at her excuse. "Well, I think it's a good example for my daughter, don't you, Heather?" she asked, looking at her daughter.
Heather pouted. "Now look what you've done!" she said to Jodi. "Now Mom is going to make me say sir and ma'am to everyone!" she feigned a complaint.
"Don't blame me!" Jodi giggled. "It's my mom's fault!"
Heather grinned. "Okay, I'll forgive you — if you promise to come to swimming lessons next week."
Jodi was startled. Heather _wanted_ her to come next week, too! And Susan didn't suspect a thing. "Um, I'll try," she said uncertainly.
Heather wrapped her in a big hug. "Okay. I'll see you next week?" she asked eagerly.
"Okay." Jodi let Heather scamper into the locker room to change, and Jodi turned back toward the park.
"Oh, Jodi," Susan called after her.
Jodi's heart felt like it stopped. Why was Susan calling after her? She slowly turned around, fighting to keep fear from her face and voice. "Yes, ma'am?" she asked.
Susan noticed how nervous Jodi was. "Don't worry," she reassured the nervous girl. "I just wanted to say 'thank you' for playing with Heather today. She's sometimes a little shy — especially since ...."
"She told me her daddy left," Jodi said tentatively. "I guess that makes her hurt inside."
Susan nodded, and wiped at a tear which had suddenly appeared. "It's not fair to her," she said. "But I'm glad she's found a new friend." She extended her hand again, and when Jodi took it, Susan pulled her into a hug. "Thank you. I like to see her smile."
Jodi walked back into the park, feeling stunned. It felt unreal — Heather and she had spent the day playing and having fun, and then Susan was cordial, even grateful, that Jodi had spent the time with her daughter.
"It wasn't quite what you expected," the old woman's voice came from Jodi's side. She turned, and saw the old woman sitting on a bench. She gestured for Jodi to sit beside her. "And you were wondering why you were turned into a little girl, weren't you?"
Jodi hung her head. "I guess you were right," she admitted to the old woman.
"Did you have fun?"
Jodi nodded. "I haven't spent a day like that with Heather in over three years."
"You know she wants you to come back next weekend, right? Are you going to?"
Jodi thought for perhaps a second. "If it's the only way I can spend time with her, then yes, I'll be here."
The old woman smiled. "Good."
A sudden, alarming thought occurred to Jodi. "How ... how do I change back? Won't it be kind of ... weird?"
The old woman smiled. "You turn back into Joel at midnight tonight. And Wanda will turn back to Walt."
"But ... where? Won't it be awkward?"
"You'll wake up from sleeping on Walt's couch, after a night of partying with him. At least, that's how he'll remember it."
"And next weekend? What if I have to come alone?"
The old woman smiled. "We'll work something out for you." She started to stand, but turned back to Jodi. "And please call me 'Grandmother'. Everyone else does, and I'd prefer to not be thought of as 'that old woman'!" Her eyes twinkled with mirth as she walked away.
Joel swiped his card and hurried into the locker room. He thought he'd seen a car that looked like Danielle's, and the last thing he wanted was to have to face his bitch of a sister-in-law. It would be even _more_ awkward if she saw him, and brought it up with Susan — or the police. Inside, he sat for a moment to calm his nerves, and then he changed and took his shower. This time, he had brought his own swimsuit, so he didn't need to have Grandmother give him a top or explain the rules to him again.
Jodi strode uneasily from the locker room, glancing about her as she headed towards the Junior Lifeguard Academy — and swimming lessons. She hadn't spotted Heather yet, but she was certain that she'd be there. She had pushed Jodi to promise, and Susan had indicated that she was okay with the idea. The wild-card was Danielle.
Jodi sat down on the edge of the pool, her legs dangling in the water. Other girls were slowly gathering, but Jodi wasn't really paying attention. She wondered how she was going to deal with Danielle, and how Danielle would deal with her. She was still wondering when she noticed someone sitting down beside her.
"Hi," Heather said pleasantly, giving Jodi a quick hug. "I'm glad you made it."
Jodi returned the hug, an awkward task since the two were sitting side-by-side. "Did your mom drop you off again today?" she asked, trying to make it sound like an innocent question.
Heather shook her head. "No. My Aunt Danielle brought me." She glanced around, and then continued in a whisper. "She's really in a pissy mood today. All I heard all the way over was her cursing at my dad!"
"That's gotta suck," Jodi said with a frown.
"I don't know why, but she _always_ says bad things about him when I'm around."
She didn't have time to say more, because Liz started the class. As they were practicing, Jodi glanced to the side and saw Danielle sitting by the pool in a lounge chair, working on a tan and sipping on her beverage. Jodi knew that Danielle's drink was probably alcoholic, even this early in the day.
Once the lesson was over, Heather and Jodi crawled from the pool and patted themselves dry with towels. "Let's go to the wave pool!" Heather suggested.
Jodi grinned. The wave pool was a lot of fun. "Sounds good to me." The two turned to leave.
"Where do you think you're going, Heather?" Danielle called impatiently from the poolside. "You're not going to just run off without telling me where you're going, are you?"
"Um," Heather answered uneasily, "we were going to go to the wave pool for a bit."
Danielle sat up abruptly, her legs on either side of the lounge chair in a most unladylike fashion. She pulled her sunglasses down a bit so she could peer over them. "I don't think that's the kind of place for a girl who isn't even a swimmer yet," she said, managing to sound quite condescending. Whether that was her intent or not, her tone of voice made Heather cringe visibly.
"Um," Heather stammered, "it's like a beach. We can wade out to knee-deep and let the waves rush around us without having to swim, so we'll be safe."
"And they have a lot of lifeguards," Jodi volunteered. She saw Danielle turn toward her, giving her a withering stare. As Joel, she'd seen that stare before. She didn't cower, but held her chin up high, as if daring Danielle to try to intimidate her.
Danielle was the one who backed down. "I suppose it's okay," she said, pulling her sunglasses back up. "If it's any kind of a park, they should have lounge chairs over there, too, and probably a refreshment stand." She pulled herself to her feet. "You two can walk over with me, so you don't get lost."
Heather and Jodi were a few steps ahead of Danielle. "More like, she'll follow us so _she_ doesn't get lost!" Heather whispered. "She's already a little looped."
Jodi tried not to smile. Joel knew very well that Danielle drank too much and was prone to misbehave when drunk. Then Jodi had a bad thought. "How's she going to drive you home if she's drunk?"
Heather shrugged. "I don't know. Since Mom's working today, and ...." It was obvious she was thinking of her missing dad. "I don't have a lot of choice." She tried to smile. "Besides, she's not a bad driver."
Jodi felt an inward rage. Danielle had not only sabotaged Joel's relationship with Susan, but she was now endangering his daughter. "Let's think about something fun, okay?" Jodi said, trying to get Heather's mind off her dad, whom she obviously missed a lot. While it was touching to know that Heather still missed Joel, and that Susan's and Danielle's poison against him hadn't worked, she wanted to focus on having fun with Heather.
With the two girls practically skipping happily, leading the way, the trio walked over to the Tropical Waves pool. Almost immediately, Danielle found a lounge chair to sit on, and, after making herself comfortable, sipped her drink. Heather and Jodi splashed out into the wave pool.
Jodi loved the wave pool. With the palm trees surrounding the pool, and a sandy beach at the shallow end, it had all the atmosphere of a lush tropical beach. It was enough like the tropical island where Joel and Susan had honeymooned, all those years ago, that it made Jodi think of better times. But now, it was special because it was symbolic of a tie to Heather that seemed impossible only a week ago.
The two girls raced out into an oncoming wave, and were swept from their feet. Giggling, they struggled to regain their footing, and then they came up out of the wave, splashing each other and giggling. And as soon as the next wave came in, they did the same thing again.
After playing that game for a few minutes, Jodi grabbed Heather's hand, and tugged her out of the water. The two raced to the pile of small wave boards, and each grabbed one. With the boards, they struggled to stay upright through the next wave as they waded out into the pool. Finally, after much effort and laughter, they were far enough that they could catch the next incoming wave and body-surf. As the wave rolled in, Jodi turned toward the shore, and pulled herself onto the tiny foam board. She managed to time the jump well, and she rode the wave for several seconds.
With a shout of glee, Jodi turned to see Heather, likewise, riding the wave, a grin firmly planted on her face. She was having a lot of fun. Come to think of it, Jodi thought to herself, she was having a lot of fun, too.
Since they'd been in swimming lessons for most of the morning, it wasn't long until it was lunch time. Heather and Jodi waded out of the wave pool. "Let's go get something at the Tiki Hut," Jodi suggested. "One of the lifeguards said that they've got great burgers!"
"I don't know," Heather said cautiously, casting a wary eye toward Aunt Danielle. "I have to ask her."
Jodi felt her hopes fade. Aunt Danielle was known to be cheap with others, but lavish for herself. She was very self-centered, and would probably make Heather have a very skimpy meal. Jodi fished in the inside pocket and pulled out a small plastic bag. Inside, as expected, were certificates for two lunches, a little 'bonus' that Grandmother had added to her ticket — and the price — just for such an eventuality — just like last week. For a moment, Jodi wondered if Grandmother had known. Then she chided herself — of course Grandmother knew. She silently thanked the old woman for her advance planning as she pulled out the coupons. "I've got two coupons for meals," she said hopefully. "We can eat together, and your aunt won't have to worry about the price!"
Heather's eyes widened. "You'd share ... your meal tickets with me?" she asked, incredulous.
Jodi grinned. "What else are friends for? Besides, it's not like I could eat two meals myself!" she added.
Danielle looked warily at Jodi, and then she nodded. "I guess that's okay," she said.
Jodi knew what was going through her mind. She was grateful that she didn't have to spend money on Heather's lunch. That would let her pocket a few extra dollars, or give her a couple extra drinks. "May we run over?" Jodi asked Danielle politely.
Danielle nodded, and the two girls took off running toward the Tiki Hut. By the time Danielle arrived, the girls had placed their orders and had staked out a table. They were lucky; someone left just when they were looking. Otherwise, they wouldn't have found a seat. The Tiki Hut was a busy dining venue.
As Danielle sat down, she looked around the dining establishment. "This looks like a popular place," she observed. "You were lucky to get a table, I'd guess."
"Are you going to get something?" Jodi asked innocently. "The ordering counter is over there." She pointed at the other end of the dining hall, to the counter area.
When she came back, Danielle made a show of putting away her phone. Jodi raised her eyebrows at Danielle's move. "I was hoping to give you a surprise," she said to Heather, sounding sympathetically sad. "Your Dad said he was going to try to meet you for lunch."
Jodi's eyes narrowed, and she clenched her jaw. She'd expected something like this from Danielle, but not so blatant.
"I thought ... the judge ...." Heather started, uncertain, and fighting to contain her emotions.
Danielle was playing it like a pro. "Your dad was getting permission to spend time with you again," she said in a sugary-sweet voice and feigning sympathy. "But I guess he's just too busy. I tried to call him, but he wasn't answering."
Jodi's eyes burned with fury as she saw the tears in the corners of Heather's eyes. "But ...." Heather stammered, wiping at her tears. "He ... mom didn't tell me!" she cried.
Danielle put her hand on Heather's arm. "Your mom didn't want to get your hopes up, sweetie," she purred. "We know that your dad isn't very reliable, and we didn't think we should tell you if he wasn't going to show up." She shook her head, acting to the end. "But this is really low — promising that he'd be here, and then skipping out. I'm so sorry."
"He ... got permission, and didn't come?" Heather cried more.
Danielle shook her head. "He's just a worthless, self-centered son-of-a-bitch," she cussed. Then she realized what she'd said, and that Jodi was with them. "Sorry," Danielle apologized to Jodi. "I didn't mean ...." She shook her head as if contrite.
Heather wasn't much fun for the rest of lunch.
Jodi had to wait until she and Heather were away from Danielle before she dared open her mouth. Even then, she had to be very, very careful. "Your Aunt Danielle is a liar," she said with a frown.
Heather looked at her, startled. "Why ... why do you think she's lying? She's always been ... good to me and Mom!"
Jodi knew she had to play this carefully. "Mom says that I'm like a human lie detector," she said with a feigned shrug. "I've just always been able to tell. I watch people's eyes, and their nostrils, and the corners of their mouths. It's just obvious to me."
"Why ... why would Aunt Danielle lie to me?" Heather asked, now thoroughly confused. On the one hand, she got a very disappointing story from her Aunt, who was family. On the other hand, her new friend was telling her that Aunt Danielle was lying, and that her dad probably hadn't stood her up.
"I don't know," Jodi lied. "Did she always get along with your dad?"
Heather thought for a moment. "No, I guess not. Not since ...."
"Since what?" Jodi pried.
"Since ... she said that daddy tried to have an affair with her."
Jodi knew it was time to play the cards very carefully. If she said something wrong, Heather wouldn't believe her, and she'd lose a friend — and contact with Heather. "How does your Aunt Danielle act when she's around men?" she asked, trying to sound innocent.
Heather thought again, and then her eyes narrowed. "She's ... kind of a slut," she finally said.
"So maybe _she_ started it? And maybe she got mad at your dad when he wouldn't have a fling with her?"
Heather's eyes opened wide as she considered the possibility. "So, if she's lying, then ... Daddy isn't scum, like Aunt Danielle says? And like she's always telling Mom?"
Jodi was dying to tell Heather the truth, but she knew she couldn't. "Maybe she's lying to your mom, too." She frowned, another act for effect. "What was she saying about a judge?"
Heather sighed. "After the social worker people came, Daddy had to go to a judge, and the judge told Daddy that he couldn't ever visit me again."
"I bet that your Daddy really does love you and miss you," Jodi said, holding Heather's hand to comfort her, "but if the judge said he couldn't visit, then he can't. And if he loves you, he's probably as sad as you are."
Heather's eyes lit up with hope. "Do you really think so?" she asked.
"Yup," Jodi answered with conviction.
"How come you're so smart about people and families and stuff?" Heather asked, suddenly smiling as she seemed to accept what Jodi had told her.
Jodi shrugged. "Mom says it's like my lie-detecting thing. I guess I'm good at figuring out how people think. She says that I should be a psychologist someday because I'm so good!" she joked.
"Let's go to the tube slides," Heather changed the subject. Her mood had brightened considerably. Jodi nodded enthusiastically, grateful for the opportunity to bring a smile to Heather's face, and perhaps undo a little of the poisoning that Danielle had been trying to do.
With a quick hug, Heather said goodbye to Jodi, asking once more if she was going to be at swim lessons the following Saturday. She was pleased that Jodi agreed, and with a wave, she walked with Danielle into the women's locker room.
Jodi sighed. "Now what am I going to do?" she asked herself. In an hour, the park was closing, and she was stuck as a little girl with no ride home. On top of that, she was fuming inside at Danielle's blatant lies to Heather about her dad, and that she was more than a bit tipsy and was responsible for getting Heather home.
"Don't worry," a voice said from behind him.
Jodi spun at the sudden sound, and relaxed when she recognized the dark-haired girl who ran the park with Grandmother.
"I'm Anya, by the way," the girl introduced herself. "And we'll take care of you. You can hang out with Natty until midnight, and then, after you change back, you can walk over to get your car and go home."
"Oh. Who's Natty?"
"Natalya," Anya answered. "She's Jenny's cousin, and she lives with Jenny and Melinda next door."
"Jenny, the pretty redhead who keeps the park running?" Jodi asked. She and Heather had met Jenny earlier that day when Jenny was working on a broken ride.
"Yes." Anya smiled. "And don't worry about Danielle driving home drunk. She won't get out of the parking lot."
Jodi frowned. "I ... don't understand."
"I have a friend on the police force, and she received an anonymous tip that there was an inebriated driver in a silver, 2004 Honda." Jodi's eyes opened in surprise at Anya's news. "Grandmother and I decided that a DUI would help discredit Danielle, and maybe help you regain some trust from your ex." She grinned. "Besides, I really don't like drunk drivers." Her expression clouded. "I've seen too much tragedy from them."
"Oh," Jodi said, her eyes wide in surprise. "You guys are pretty thorough, aren't you?"
Anya smiled warmly. "It's our job to take care of our customers." She took Jodi's hand and guided her to a table in the entrance plaza, where the two sat down.
Presently, Heather and Danielle walked across the parking lot to Danielle's car. The car lurched unevenly across the parking lot, and pulled out onto the main road. It didn't get more than fifty or sixty yards before a police cruiser turned on its lights and pursued Danielle.
Jodi smiled to herself. She could imagine the colorful phrases coming from Danielle's mouth about this point. And she could imagine the fury that Susan was going to feel when she had to interrupt her activities and go pick up Heather and Danielle. A little friction between the sisters might help Joel's case later. Maybe.
The tension increased palpably as soon as she entered. Susan walked stiffly across the restaurant, her expression carefully neutral. She sat down across the table from Joel. "How are you?" she asked in a cautious voice.
Joel shrugged. "Could be better, could be worse." He still felt some flutter in his heart when he saw Susan, but he knew that the feeling wasn't mutual.
"What do you want?" she asked bluntly.
"Still getting straight to the point?" he asked sadly. "No time to visit, to see how we're each doing?" He shook his head. "I wanted you to know that I'm still pressing to regain my visitation rights, and I intend to try to get joint custody. I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't fight me on that."
"Why shouldn't I fight?" Susan said coldly. "You didn't prove yourself much of a father — or a husband."
"I did nothing," Joel defended himself, forcing his voice to remain calm and level, "except to try to be a good father to my daughter."
"Well, your idea of being a good father was a lot different from mine," Susan answered.
"It's too bad we couldn't work out our differences," Joel said wistfully.
"Maybe we didn't try hard enough," Susan agreed. For a moment, she sounded like she regretted their separation and divorce.
"We both wanted the same thing for Heather," Joel noted. "But we didn't agree on _what_ was best, and I think you forgot that I was only trying to take care of my little girl."
"That's not what Child Services said," Susan countered sharply, her tone suddenly icy.
"And all of their bogus charges were thrown out," Joel rebutted immediately. "I did nothing wrong."
"Oh yeah?" Susan asked. "How about trying to sleep with my sister? Was that 'nothing wrong'?"
Joel sighed. "Maybe you can't see that your sister came between us," he said.
"Yeah, when you were trying to seduce her!"
"I never tried to seduce her. She was the one who was coming on to me. She was the aggressor, and then she got mad when I wouldn't give in to her advances."
"You're just trying to turn the tables here, to blame Danielle for your sins!"
"She said I tried to hit on her once. The reality is that she tried to hit on me dozens of times." Joel shook his head sadly. "Some of her advances were ... pretty explicit."
Susan seemed startled by Joel's news. "If that's true," she said hesitantly, "why didn't you tell me?"
Joel sighed. "I guess I should have, but I didn't want to come between you and her. The two of you are very close, and I didn't want to ruin that. I figured if I ignored her, it'd all just go away."
"I'm not sure that I believe you," Susan said, again wary of his words.
Joel looked at his glass of water. "Is there anything that you or Heather need?"
"I know you're busy with work and Heather's activities. If I can get at least visitation back, I'll help any way I can."
Susan nodded. Her expression was guarded, but her eyes showed her suspicion at Joel's story. "That's up to the judge."
Jodi glanced around; the swimming lesson was about to start, but Heather wasn't there. She started to panic; the whole reason for her Saturday change was to spend time with Heather. It would be painful to have wasted a day. Then Jodi had a positive thought — Anya wouldn't have let her buy the pass if Heather wasn't going to come. She relaxed a bit, thankful at how Anya and Grandmother were watching out for her.
"Hi," a whispered voice said behind her, startling her. Heather slipped to the side of the pool, dipping her legs into the water.
"You were almost late," Jodi teased. "We were going to start without you."
"Excuse me," Liz, the instructor, interrupted. "I'm speaking here, unless _you'd_ like to teach today!"
Jodi blushed. "Sorry," she apologized quickly. She glanced at Heather.
"We'll talk after the lesson," Heather whispered.
The rest of the lesson time was spent in the water, under Liz's sharp eye, so the girls didn't have much time to talk. Only when the instruction period was over did Heather talk to Jodi again.
"I was afraid you weren't going to make it," Jodi said as the two toweled off.
Heather smiled. "So was I. After last week, mom wasn't sure she could get me here!"
"Oh? What happened last week?" Jodi asked. She knew darned well what had happened, but if she didn't ask, Heather might be suspicious.
"When we left the park, Aunt Danielle got stopped and got a ticket for driving under the influence," Heather giggled. "Mom was _so_ pissed!"
"She got a ticket on the way home?"
Heather grinned. "No, right outside the park. And Mom had to take off from work to come to the police station to pick me up!"
"So how'd you get here today?"
"Mom took a morning break to drop me off." Her expression fell. "I think Mom's going to make me drop out of lessons," she said.
"Why?" Jodi asked, startled.
"Because she can't take off work to get me here every week," Heather said sadly. The two girls started walking toward the volcano, with its tube rides and slides.
Jodi felt like she'd been punched in the gut. She was getting to spend time with Heather, and she was having a lot of fun. Now, Danielle was interfering again — this time by being an untrustworthy driver. If she couldn't bring Heather, then Jodi wouldn't have any chance to play with her friend.
As the two walked, Jodi saw Anya coming down the path from the top of the volcano. "Hi, girls," she said pleasantly as she neared them. "Did you have a good swimming lesson today?"
"Miss Liz is a tough teacher," Heather said in mock complaint.
"But she's fair, and we're learning a lot," Jodi added.
"Good," Anya said. "Actually, I was looking for you, Heather," she said, giving Jodi a sly wink. "I talked to your mom for a few minutes when she dropped you off, and she said that you have a problem with transportation to and from the park."
Heather nodded glumly. "Yeah."
"I told your mom that one of our lifeguards lives near you, and she could bring you to the park and drop you off at home if you'd like."
"That would be super!" Heather exclaimed excitedly. "If she'll let me," she added.
"She said that would be fine. Before you leave today, stop by the office, and I'll introduce you and get you the information you need to ride with Kiki." She turned and walked off, leaving two excited girls in her wake.
"You said that your mom and aunt had an argument?" Jodi poked for more information.
Heather giggled. "I've never seen Mom so mad at Aunt Danielle. They were really yelling. Mom called Danielle an irresponsible slut and asked if she was trying to kill me by driving drunk."
"That's not all," Heather said in a hushed voice. She glanced around to see if anyone else was listening. "Mom asked Aunt Danielle if she'd been the one trying to have an affair with my dad."
"She asked _what_?" Jodi was truly astonished. Susan had listened, after all.
"Mom accused her of breaking up their marriage, and lying to her about it."
"What happened then?" Jodi asked. Her curiosity was killing her. She struggled to not sound elated at the news.
"Aunt Danielle started screaming and swearing, and called Dad a lot of bad names," Heather said softly. "It was a pretty bad fight. Mom told Aunt Danielle to leave and not come back."
"Wow!" Jodi mouthed softly. "Are you okay?"
Heather scowled. "If what Mom said is true, then Aunt Danielle is a bitch, and I don't want to see her ever again, because she's responsible for my Daddy leaving!" The venom in her voice was unmistakable.
Jodi frowned as she approached the office. Heather had just left with Kiki, and Anya had told Jodi that Grandmother needed to talk to her. For some reason, she felt a bit of fear, like something bad was about to happen.
Jodi pushed open the door hesitantly and peeked in. "Anya said you wanted to see me?" she squeaked, while her eyes adjusted to the inside light after a day in the bright sun.
"Yes," Grandmother said cheerfully. "Please come in." She stood and walked around her desk to give Jodi a hug. "I hope you've had a good day today."
Jodi shrugged as she glanced around. They weren't alone in the office. A very attractive businesswoman, judging by her hair and suit, sat in the 'casual' part of the office. It was hard to tell if the woman was thirty or fifty.
Grandmother gestured for Jodi to sit in a chair. "Jodi, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine, Ronnie Harris."
Jodi's eyes widened. Everyone knew Ronnie Harris. She was the biggest developer in the area, and possibly in the state. "Um," she stammered, "pleased to meet you."
Ronnie smiled warmly. "Oh, don't be nervous. I don't bite! Much," she teased.
Grandmother eased herself into another chair. "Jodi, I was telling Ronnie about your little problem with Heather."
Jodi's eyes widened even more, if that were possible. "Um, I ... um ...."
Ronnie's eyes twinkled. "Don't worry," she said with a pleasant smile. "I know how 'magical' this place can be, Mister Martinelli."
Ronnie and Grandmother were obviously getting a kick out of watching Jodi's reaction. "Um, I'm not ..., er, that is, ...." Jodi gave up trying to explain the impossible.
Ronnie put her hand on Jodi's. "It's okay. It's kind of sweet how dedicated you are to your daughter. Not every father would be willing to spend a day playing with her — as her young friend."
"Then you know that ... the courts ...." Jodi said softly.
Ronnie nodded. "Since I was here working on a business deal, Grandmother thought that maybe I could give you a little advice for dealing with the courts."
"That would be ... helpful," Jodi said cautiously.
"From what I've heard, and based on my experience, it sounds like your case file is stuck somewhere in some assistant DA's office somewhere. I'm guessing that after the last election, one of the staff left or resigned, and either the spot hasn't been filled, or the replacement just shoved the files to one side while he or she gets to know the ropes," Ronnie explained easily.
"So why hasn't my lawyer kept things moving?" Jodi asked.
"Maybe because you've got a bad lawyer," Ronnie suggested. "Grandmother told me who's representing you." She shook her head, her lips pressed firmly together in an expression of distaste. "He's good for simple cases, like traffic tickets, but on this case, he's too close to the DA's office. They're golfing buddies."
"And while he's on retainer, he's making money without having to do a lot. He just files another motion with the court, who puts it on hold like the rest of them, knowing your files are at the DA's office, and you stay stuck in legal limbo."
Jodi nodded sadly. "So what do I do?"
Ronnie handed Jodi a card. "This is a friend of mine. Angela Beal. She's a bulldog of an attorney, and if anyone can get your case moving again, it's her. Give her a call — on Monday morning. Tell her I sent you."
Joel grinned triumphantly as the judge left the courtroom. As soon as it was possible, he turned toward Grandmother, his arms raised in triumph, and a huge grin on his face. "Thank you," he said enthusiastically.
Grandmother smiled, then pointed. Joel let his gaze follow where she was pointing, and his jaw dropped. He saw Heather, standing beside Susan, a hesitant look on her face. Joel turned, and squatted down, opening his arms toward her.
Heather looked nervously at him, then glanced up at her mother. Susan merely nodded, and at that simple gesture, Heather turned and bolted across the courtroom into Joel's arms. Embracing her like he never had before, he swept her off her feet. Tears were streaming down his cheeks as he hugged his daughter for the first time in over three years.
Heather saw his tears. "Are you okay, Daddy?" she asked nervously.
"Oh, yes, baby girl," Joel said enthusiastically, unable to keep his voice from choking with emotion. "Yes, I'm okay. I'm better than okay, now that I can hug you!"
"I ... missed you," Heather whispered softly.
"And I missed you, baby," Joel cried. "I missed you so much."
Standing to one side, Susan watched, a sad expression on her face. She wasn't sure how to handle this turn of events. She was startled when an old woman stepped beside her and cleared her throat. "It's all for Heather, you know," the old woman said simply.
"Um," Susan started to say something, but she didn't know what to say. "I ... I guess so," she said. Tears were forming in the corners of her eyes.
"You haven't lost her, you know," the old woman said. "You're always her mommy, and always will be. She loves you."
Susan bit her lip, trying to hide her angst. "But ...."
The old woman shook her head. "But nothing. She needs a father. Every child has more than enough love for two parents. Just because Joel can spend time with her doesn't mean that you're less important to her. It only means that she has her father back."
"How ... how do you know what Heather needs?" Susan asked. "Who are you? And what gives you the right to interfere with how I raise _my_ daughter?"
"Because I've been alive far longer than you have, and I've learned a few things in my life," the woman said with an enigmatic smile.
Joel gave Heather one more hug. "I promise I'll take you out to dinner Tuesday, unless your mom has other plans." He glanced at Susan expectantly. She shook her head. "Tuesday, then. You get to pick where we go."
"Okay," Heather said. Her eyes were starting to get teary.
Joel noticed. He wiped at her cheek. "What's wrong, baby girl?" he asked.
"I ... I wish you didn't have to go," Heather said, sniffling as she tried to fight her tears.
"Well, I have to."
"I wish we could all be a family again," Heather cried.
Joel held her tight, letting her cry on his shoulder. "So do I, honey," he said softly. "So do I." He shook his head. "But it's not that simple."
"Why not?" Heather asked in her childish innocence.
Joel gulped. "Your mom and I ... we had a lot of fights. We hurt each other's feelings a lot." He shook his head. "We weren't trying to, but it happened. Before we could get back together, we'd have to learn to not be hurt, and to forgive each other." He sighed. "Sometimes, the hurt is so bad that people can't ever do that."
"Do you still love Mommy?" Heather asked.
Joel glanced at Susan, before he looked back to Heather. "Yes, honey, I do. But she still hurt me, and I hurt her, and I'm not sure she can forgive me."
"I've been praying every night that you can come back to live with us," Heather said. "That we can all be a family again."
"I can't make any promises," Joel said honestly. "I don't know what's going to happen." He gave Heather one more hug. "Now, you need to get in your mom's car so you can go home." He opened the door so she could crawl in.
Susan got out of the car and walked around to ensure that Heather was properly buckled in. She shut the door, and paused, looking at Joel. "Congratulations, I guess," she said in a voice carefully devoid of emotion.
"I didn't win," Joel said, surprising her. "Heather won. She got her Daddy back."
"I ... I guess you're right," Susan said. "Well," she continued, straightening herself and pushing back her emotions, "I suppose we can alternate Saturdays, so you have time to spend with her."
Joel smiled. "Actually, I'd prefer Sundays. From what she told me, she has swimming lessons on Saturdays, and that would make for a hectic day for her."
Susan nodded. "I suppose so." She turned to leave, but stopped and glanced over her shoulder. She opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out. She tried again, and still could say nothing. Finally, she said, "I assume you'll be in touch so we can schedule your visitation times?"
Joel nodded. "Maybe some time, we can all go have dinner."
Susan seemed startled by his suggestion. "Maybe," she said hesitantly. She was clearly not enamored with the idea.
"Bye," Joel said simply as Susan circled the car and climbed in. He turned, and waved happily at Heather, who was smiling broadly at him. He stood, waving and watching, as the car drove off. It was too similar to what had happened once before, but that had been at the start of his forced separation from his daughter. Now, he knew that he could see her any time their schedules would permit.
"I take it you'll be spending Saturdays at swimming lessons with Heather?" Grandmother said from beside Joel. Her appearance startled him.
"What?" he asked. "Oh, yeah. I guess I will."
Grandmother laughed. "I knew there was a reason you chose Sundays instead of Saturdays."
Joel smiled. "I can't fool you, can I?"
"You know that you can't keep doing that. It will eventually lead to problems. What if Heather tells her friend Jodi something that she wouldn't tell a parent? That would put you in a very awkward position. What if she invites you to a sleepover?" She shook her head. "It can only get messy if you keep up being Jodi."
Joel nodded sadly. "Yeah, I suppose you're right. But for now, at least, I can have another weekend or two with her as a friend. I _did_ lose a lot of time together, you know."
"I know. Just be careful." The old woman smiled. "Let's go get an ice cream. My treat."
Joel nodded, a happy smile still on his face. "That sounds like a fun idea."
"What about your marriage?" Grandmother asked as they drove to the ice cream shop.
"What about it?"
Grandmother smiled. "You still love her. Even after all you've been through, after she hurt you in the court and with the divorce, you still love her, don't you?"
Joel knew better than to argue. "Yes," he said simply. "Yes, I do." He sighed. "But I hurt Susan too badly before we had Heather, and she hurt me pretty badly after," he continued, "and Danielle really screwed things up for me."
"I think that maybe Susan found out what kind of person Danielle really is," Grandmother reassured Joel. "Their argument, and that little tantrum she had in court when your lawyer confronted her about _her_ being the one pushing for an affair, and interfering with Heather, really opened Susan's eyes. Maybe she can see that Danielle was lying about a lot of things."
"Do you want to renew your marriage with her?" Grandmother asked.
Joel shrugged. "I suppose so," he answered. "I suppose you're going to tell me what my future holds?"
Grandmother laughed. "Do you want me to tell you what your future holds?"
Joel thought for a moment. "No," he said. "I don't think so." He chuckled. "If we get back together...."
"It'll take a lot of work on both of your parts, and you're not sure that either of you are willing to risk getting hurt again, is that it?"
Joel nodded. "Yeah. That sums it up pretty well." He shrugged. "There were a lot of things that we ... didn't agree on, even before we had Heather. There is a lot of pain to get past. "Maybe we will, maybe we won't. We'll just have to see what happens."
"In the meantime, you got a very big part of your life back. You got your daughter."
"Yes, I did," Joel confirmed, smiling broadly. "Yes, I did."
Grandmother patted him on the shoulder. "Congratulations." Despite her burning curiosity, she refrained from looking at Joel's future. She could have easily told him what the future held, but he didn't want to know, and it wasn't her place to force such knowledge on him. She knew that she couldn't, not without being asked. If she knew the future possibilities, there was always a chance that, subconsciously, she might affect the magic in a way that steered Joel toward what _she_ thought was best. She couldn't do that. Still, she couldn't help but wonder if Joel and Susan _would_ reunite. He _did_ still love her — quite a lot.
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