Skinwalkers, I

Nathan’s watch beeped a warning chirp of impending tardiness; a friendly, authoritative sound. Frowning, he glanced down at its innocent display. He smoothed errant arm wrinkles near the expensive band, and returned to his mirror-task.

Cool, panicked eyes of blue looked out from a handsome, even-tempered face. He tried a confident smile, opening a seam near his cheekbone. Hastily, he brought large, artificially-fattened fingers to press at the sides of his neck.

Confidence was always a difficult one for Nathan to master.

He closed the worried eyes, gripped the stuck-down edge of countertop in both hands, and began his meditative-breathing exercises.

*Thumpety, thumpety, thumpet, thumpe, thump, thump, thump* slowed his heart’s percussion-nervous beat.

“I am the boss,” he whispered to the Formica. It dully echoed the end of his words.

Nathan cleared his throat. “I. am. the. boss,” he spoke aloud.

He opened his eyes again, telling himself they now looked self-assured. “I am the boss!” He loudly told them, the chipped sink, the splotched mirror, and himself.

“You sure are!” Came the muted reply from his wall-neighbor.

“Thanks, Franks,” he called, sarcastically.

“No prob, Boss!” Franks yelled back drunkenly. “Now, go to work and let us lazy asses sleep!”

Nathan took a breath in through his nostrils, and out slowly through his lips. Realizing a tingling feeling in his actual fingers, he released the countertop. He yanked convulsively at the top bathroom drawer; revealing toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, eyedrops, and sundry hairs and paint chips. He withdrew the bottle of drops, dusted it, removed its stopper.

Carefully tilting his head back against its facial folds, he inserted a single drop into each twitching orb.

Immediately, a burning pain filled his ocular sensors. He tried not to wince nor rub at his eyes; resisted crying or yelling. Franks was trying to sleep off a hangover, after all.

Almost as soon as it had begun, the pain receded. That, or Nathan had acclimated. He was never quite sure. He glanced, again, in the mirror. A hazy reflection stared back at him with very solid, somewhat red-rimmed eyes.

Nathan tried to smile. Perfect.

 

Recurring Story: Thirty

Wil contemplatively chewed on what may have been a carrot.  She was happily absorbed in the remainder of her crossword, and ate without tasting her least favorite meal the school provided: meatloaf with mashed potatoes.

CENTRAL connected with FLOWER and left space for AB and BOTTLE. Lower down, however, SEED wasn’t working with HAND. She hadn’t heard whatever quote was listed for that clue. As such, Wil would have just skipped those few blank squares and moved on. Unfortunately, the beginning letter was important.

After reading over the paper in the locker room before Gym class before lunch, Wil had noticed that some squares had a darker outline. She guessed they formed key letters of a puzzle that would give her a message once she had them all.

She absentmindedly scooped up some instant potatoes, and tried to think as she slurped them off her spoon. “One in the hand is worth two in the what?” She said quietly.

The barely glinting sunlight outside the tinted doors shone randomly on the courtyard beyond. She watched its dance and remembered stepping around the silent area just yesterday. Wil cut off a piece of soggy meat, placed it in her mouth, chewed a bit, and swallowed.

Slowly, she repeated, “One in the hand is worth two in the …?”

“Bush,” an old woman’s voice near her finished.

Startled out of her reverie, Wil looked to the speaker. To her left hunched one of the lunch ladies who patrolled the cafeteria. The woman’s face looked just like the pre-packaged croissants they served sometimes, if one added two beady eyes and gray curls under a hair net to the top.

“Oh,” Wil stammered. “Uh, thank you.”

The creases turned upward as the older woman’s small eyes lit up slightly. “Oh, you’re welcome, dear.” Lunchlady Croissant turned thick-soled off-white sneakers around, and went back to her usual duty of glaring at irresponsible teenagers. Wil heard bits of something about kids these days and old sayings.

Remembering her task at hand, she turned back to her paper. “B-U-S-H,” She intoned as she wrote. Her key letter was B.

Excitedly, she penciled in more and more answers. The contents of her lunch tray diminished as the spaces filled with letters and Wil’s stomach filled with substance. She washed the bad taste down with milk and viewed the results happily.

Capitals boldly filled every black square, interlocking and completing chains and paths of words. The crossword was finished; at least, she was fairly certain it was.

She scanned the chart in traditional Arabic writing fashion of left to right and wrote the key letters at the bottom of the page: T, M, E, E, Y, B, R, R, L, I, A, B, Y, R, E, F, A, T, S, C, H, O, O, L.

The bell and the recognition of yet another puzzle punctured Wil’s spirits like a small cut near the base of a latex balloon. She stuffed the paper and her pencil into her binder, and gathered her lunch things together.

She carried her tray over to the washing area, where she once again saw the helpful worker. “Thanks, dear,” Lunchlady said, and Wil was more certain of a smile this time.

Smiling a rare, truly pleasant response, Wil went back to collect her things from the table.

Recurring Story: Twenty-Eight

Wilhelmina Winters, of Classroom 4, Central Junior High School, was first to say she was hardly unique; who would think that? She was least likely to be part of something unusual or secret, since her peers ignored her and others with sense.

Wil was a student at the school, which attempted to educate young teens. She was a small, slight youth with regular proportions, but rather large hazel eyes. Her father was not a tall man, but his eyes matched his only daughter’s and his build gave others a steady, dependable impression. They shared their family with Wil’s step-brother, Jakob, and mother, Cynthia -whom many thought the kindest woman around.

Wil and her family had the basic necessities, but they also had Goodbye, a time that stalked and shadowed their every move and interaction with others. They had other secrets too; what family doesn’t? Wil’s father’s second-greatest fear was that someone from the past might appear and take away the life he’d scrabbled together over the last fourteen years.

When Wil arrived at school that chill, nondescript day, she’d only had three scraps of paper to tell her that today might be different. Wil tried now to look inconspicuous as she kicked at the ugly carpet carefully under her desk. Dr. L. gestured and lectured as usual, while his class feigned attention.

No one seemed to see the fragment Wil was moving with her foot.

Halfway through the hour, Dr. L. put down his covalent bond model, picked up a stack of worksheets, and attempted to walk around the first row of desks without bumping into them but did, as he was distracted by his attempts to simultaneously pass out their assignment.

“Whoops!” Annoying Carl Hurn said to his neighbors, as they guffawed appreciatively.

When Wil turned an icy look at the immature group, she saw the first odd thing since the lunch area yesterday -another teenager in her class watching her closely. Wil was busy channeling irritation toward Carl and didn’t register the attention -then, her cheeks flushed and she tried to slyly look again. There were rows of disinterested, distracted youths looking bored or passing papers to each other but no one facing her way. Maybe she imagined it? Wil was obviously too tired to function normally. She rubbed at her eyes and yawned. A random student in another area caught her infectious action and stifled his own yawn. She scanned faces again as her own turn to hand papers down the row came. Everyone appeared normal -no, Carl was abnormal; he hadn’t even noticed his rudeness nor her reproach. Wil tried to rid herself of the itchy feeling of being watched. She picked up her chemistry assignment, most of her focus on trying to extract the answers from a brain that had failed to absorb the morning’s lecture.

At the end of class and between periods, science was forgotten and replaced by thoughts of a new secret note. As she wandered with the masses down the hall, Wil was absorbed in reading its contents. The message was a puzzle again. Wil was getting tired of these games -a straightforward attempt at meeting would be better. She guessed the sender found this method preferable. She scanned the paper and recognized its pattern to be a crossword of sorts. There were clues at the bottom. Wil was relieved to read that she knew some of the answers; why, everyone knew the popular song that clue took a line of lyrics from! It had played on the radio yesterday at carpool! Maybe the type of unique this person meant did not refer to seeking really intelligent persons -yes, he or she didn’t want geniuses. Feeling hopefully adequate, Wil looked forward to filling in the spaces as she headed to her next class.

Recurring Story: Twenty-Seven

Wil stared dumbly forward, in the general direction of Dr. Lombard. She’d assumed a position and expression at the start of class that she hoped conveyed interest but excused her from any participation.

Fortunately, Dr. L. was near-sighted both optically and scientifically: he wore thick eyeglasses and became engrossed in his own lectures about chemistry.

A small part of Wil’s consciousness was entertained by the agitated way Dr. L. excitedly gestured as he taught. However, the pleasant numbing effect of too little sleep distracted her ability to listen and retain her teacher’s information.

She yawned, for the seventh time, and blinked slowly. She was tempted to doze off, but Dr. L. was known to target sleepers. He may have been a science fanatic, but he noticed when heads drooped to desks. He had painted a napper’s ear with correctional fluid in Wil’s first month at this school.

She shifted slightly in her seat and thought about the note she’d filled in the night before. Being in school around her peers drew her attention to it and away from the Winters’ bigger concerns. Besides, she could do nothing about her mother here, and would have to address the message and its sender before returning home.

After spacing the letters sensibly, Wil had read, “unique individuals only wil join us if ready further instruction next day.” She thought the writer used unusual words and no punctuation (nor spacing) to increase difficulty and mystery.

She allowed herself to feel some anxiety. Trepidation just might get her through class with her ears unscathed.

“I wonder what the ‘further instruction’ might be, and how I will get it,” she thought to herself idly. She also wondered why anyone was bothering with her, and a small part suspected ridicule.

If someone were truly sincere, surely that person could just walk up and talk to Wil. Since no one had voluntarily approached her, Wil had no idea who was behind this.

She changed position again, pulling her feet out from under the desk in front of her and setting them directly under her small desk.

She expected to set her sneaker-shod toes on the ground. Instead of the muffled thunk of plastic to carpet, Wil heard a crinkling sound.

Glancing at her teacher to make sure he hadn’t heard, Wil snuck a peak under her chair. Dr. L. was writing on the whiteboard intently, and another torn notepaper was waiting for Wil beneath her seat.

Recurring Story: Twenty-Six

Rob steadied himself on the door frame, and Wil stopped screaming. She saw now that the head belonged to her father. He stepped into her room very cautiously.

“Sorry, Mina,” he said quietly. “I thought you would already be awake because I heard your alarm go off.”

Wil’s heart rate slowed considerably. She took a few breaths and wiped her hands down her blanket top as a calming stretch.

“It’s okay, Dad,” she replied. She looked up at him, and saw shadows of concern on his dark-muddled features. She smiled feebly. “Sorry I screamed.”

“Well,” Rob began, rubbing the back of his neck. “Well,” he repeated, looking around at nothing.

“Are you going to go get Mom?” Wil prompted.

Rob met what he could see of her eyes and gave her a sleepy morning half-smile. “Yes,” he answered. “I need to go now so I can get to work on time.”

He started back out Wil’s bedroom door, then stopped and turned around. “I need you to get ready, so I can drop you off at school,” he remembered. “I can take you when I bring your mother back here.”

“Okay, Dad,” Wil said. She watched the dim form of his head give a nod, then head out. “Thanks, Dad!” She whispered loudly to his retreating back.

Left alone in her needly nest, Wyl snuggled back to assess the situation. She could afford a small nap while her father got ready. He always checked on her one last time.

Unfortunately, Wil’s grand plans were dashed as she heard three departing sounds: the clink of her father’s keys as they were picked up off the counter, the clump of boots across the kitchen floor, and the final solid closing of their front door.

Wil groaned. She stretched resignedly. She pushed her bedcovers to the side. Then, she slumped to the floor to examine her mass of discarded clothes through groggy eyes. She smelled them. They seemed okay. Perhaps she’d better try a different shirt, in case she met the secret note-writer at school.

Groaning again, Wil picked up her pants. She slumped over to her dresser and fumbled through the drawers for the rest of her ensemble. Carrying her clump under her arm, she headed to the bathroom to finish getting ready for a new day.

Recurring Story: Twenty-Five

Beep! Beep! Beep!

The annoying, repetitive sound surprised Wil moments after she remembered closing her eyes. She stared in confusion at the completely dark ceiling for a few seconds, then memory caught up to consciousness. She rolled over quickly and tried to turn the noise off.

In the darkness of room and stupor of near-sleep, however, Wil succeeded in knocking the alarm clock to the ground. It landed on her clothes from last night, beeping insistently. Wil scrambled out of twisted covers, clunked to her floor, and succeeded in picking up and silencing her clock.

Twists of dark hair obscured most of the strange woodland creature’s face. She stood still and alert, clutching at the angry bird that had shattered the silence, and peering furtively around her. Her tiny, pointed ears pricked delicately as her barely translucent wings flicked slightly in agitation.

She’d been keeping watch over the forest all night from within Evergreen. Now, this thoughtless worm-eater had potentially ruined everything. She looked down, finally, at the struggling, indignant avian face held in her slight embrace.

“Hush!” Wyl whispered, and glared at her captive in return. Once certain the bird had gotten the message enough to keep quiet, she released her grip.

He immediately stepped backward, fluttered his wings, turned a last look at Wyl, then took off to the trees. Wyl’s hair swept away from her features as she lifted her face to watch him find a safe perch. She couldn’t be sure, but she felt her feathered friend was still shooting her spiteful glances.

Wyl sighed a soft sigh only sprites could hear. It was always the young fools who took rumors like, “The Early Bird Catches the Worm” seriously -especially when darkness meant danger to their world.

Night mists wafted randomly over the lush forest floor. The plants swayed and shushed against each other. Wil sensed mystery and darkness. She flitted to a clover stem, wetting her tiny bare feet in dew. Immediately after, she flew to a dandelion head, then a low tree branch. Within seconds, Wyl had soundlessly scouted the stretch below her original perch.

Satisfied but ever wary, she decided all was well. Leaf to leaf to tendril to branch to needles, Wyl flicked her way back to Evergreen. Folding her wings comfortably together, she settled back to watch and rest.

“Mina!” A dark head whispered loudly as it poked suddenly into her vision.

Wil screamed, surprising her father more than he had startled her.

Recurring Story: Twenty-Four

Barely perceptible shadows performed an agitated dance across the dark ceiling of Wil’s bedroom. They were the faint shades of spindly winter trees beyond her window, beyond her curtains. They danced in time to her father’s snores in the room down the hall, and were led by the gathering storm.

A part of Wil’s consciousness was transfixed by the black on dark gray above her, as she lay on her back on her bed. Her right hand toyed distractedly with the decoded note she had filled out in the hospital waiting room. Her hair lay around her head in dark tangles. Her skinny legs and bare feet stuck out of the old oversized T-shirt she had donned hours before.

Wil had tried, really she had. How can I sleep when asked to sleep on a question like that? She wondered to herself. Really, though, they all knew the answer. They just wanted more time.

“I didn’t even get to tell her about my secret notes!” Wil said angrily to the dark room.

She rolled over again, crying again. That was why her father was snoring, she realized, as her breathing became congested. She sighed a shuddering sound.

They had decided Cynthia would spend the night at the hospital, monitored by her doctor and the ever-cheerful Nurse Bea (On Call till 3!). Rob would bring her home tomorrow, and life would have to go on as it normally did in the Winters family.

Wil wondered how many other families lived each day like they did: a countdown. They even had a name for the end of that count. Jakob had proposed they call it Death Day, but Cynthia had insisted on Goodbye. Wil had thought it beautiful, and felt no need to suggest an alternative.

“Countdown to Goodbye,” Wil told herself. As poetic as it sounded, acceptance became increasingly difficult as the real possibility drew ever closer.

“Goodbye,” Wil told the darkness, the shadows, and herself. She could do it.

She reached over and set her crumpled paper on the dresser next to the bed. She would tell her mother all about it tomorrow. She snuggled deep under her old comforter and deep into other thoughts.

The wind outside relentlessly pulled and pushed at tree limbs. Despite its best efforts, only the dim outlines of their dance could be seen within. And, soon there was no one to watch as Wil finally drifted to sleep.

Recurring Story: Twenty-Four

To everyone’s surprise, Rob spoke first.

“Jakob. Mina,” Their father began. “Your mom and I love you very much. So, we want to make sure you know everything going on.”

Wil’s mother looked gratefully at her husband, then bestowed each of her children with a tender look of sad love. Jakob and Wil sat on the edge of the cushion, and attended their parents dutifully.

Rob looked a bit lost for words to continue with. He didn’t like long speeches, especially when they were wanted from himself. He looked to his wife, and found courage and inspiration in her trusting blue eyes. He cleared his throat.

“We’ve known about this condition from early on, but not as early as they should have.” He explained. “Your mom would have done better if they’d found it even earlier,” Rob glanced at his audience, who all nodded understanding.

Wil tried very hard to sit still, despite the torture of time it took her father to produce words, and the fact that he was repeating what they already knew. Fidgeting when he was talking made him take even longer.

Rob nodded, himself, then continued, “We’ve been fortunate to have your mom live this long, with what we can pay for.”

He rubbed the back of his neck, and looked at the floor.

“It’s been hard to pick what to pay for, because we know what will happen.” Rob swallowed, then said quietly, “In the end.”

“But, Mom always says we will all die,” Wil blurted out. “So, we should live for as long as we can.”

Wil’s father and stepbrother began to hush Wil, when Cynthia held up a hand. The IV tube dangled from it, down her arm. “Not quite, Wil,” she corrected gently. She pushed herself into a slightly more comfortable position, and sighed carefully.

“I said,” Wil’s mother continued softly, “We all die, so we should live the days that we can.” She looked fondly at them again. “The question of whether the cost is worth each new idea or treatment has always been there.”

Jakob glanced at his step-father before impetuously asking, “So, do they know how much longer you have left?”

Cynthia closed her eyes as Rob exclaimed, “Jakob!” and turned to fix his stepson an angry, disapproving look. Wil was glad that he had asked the question instead of her, although she equally longed for and dreaded an honest answer.

Jakob crossed his arms in a typical, defiant fashion, and waited. Rob rubbed a hand in irritation over the right side of his own face, then through his thinning blond hair. Wil had seen her father do this many times when he tried to talk with her.

“It’s okay, Rob.” Cynthia said quietly, and opened eyes of resigned sorrowing. She breathed her oxygen and room air deeply and slowly in, then out. “Just tell them.”

Rob set his jaw, then softened when he realized he needed to get this speech over with to stop the necessity of talking.

“There’s a new drug out, but we would have to borrow to afford it.” He looked to the swirling desert sea print on the wall for distraction. “And, we’d only buy about five more years if all goes well.”

Wil and Jakob both thought about this news and what it would mean. They knew what the family would have to pick, but would feel like callous traitors for it.

Recurring Story: Twenty-Two

The soft repetitions of aseptic care-giving were not the only sounds Wil remembered from visiting her mother whenever Cynthia was admitted. During daytime hours; these halls also echoed with a strange, dull drum that penetrated through doors, walls, and room furnishings.

They had not been attendants to this odd percussion performance for a few months, since Wil’s parents had decided to have an in-home aide perform the physiotherapy. Only now, walking behind their cheerful escort, did Wil realize how accustomed she was to the sound by its absence.

It was therefore a very silent approach they made to their mother’s door, next to a beige-sage plaque with her room number etched in Arabic numerals and Braille dots. Wil shifted coats and backpack to her right arm and she ran her left fingertips over both versions of Room 241.

Nurse Perpetually Happy knocked gently at the door, then opened after Rob gruffed, “Come in.”

The door swung into a hanging curtain, made of pale green and tan squares, that shifted into the room from the movement. The metal rings holding it to the ceiling rail clinked gently, then more audibly together as the nurse pushed the curtain to the side.

Jakob entered just behind her, with Wil anxiously at his heels.

Rob sat in a plastic and metal guest chair. He held Cynthia’s right hand, nearest to his position. He read his children’s faces -especially Wil’s- to prevent any sudden outbursts that might alarm Cynthia.

Wil’s eyes sought her mother first, and she was relieved to see her mother sitting in the propped-up hospital bed. Cynthia smiled at her children from under the oxygen tube in her nose. Her blanket was a blue-green color, and the print of a painting above the bed depicted neutral tans waving among sea swirls.

Wil returned the smile, and carefully followed her step-brother around the bed to sit on the green guest couch.

Wil’s father cleared his throat. “Mom was just asking where you were when the nurse here said there’d been a misunderstanding.”

The nurse laughed, and corrected, “I right startled you, I think! Popping my head in here and saying I was sorry and I’d get your kids pronto!” She had spoken through smiles, but still seemed to grin more broadly at the memory.

“I’ll just leave y’all to it now. Holler for Nurse Bea (that’s me!) from the call button if you need anything!” She tucked Cynthia’s blankets around her, straightened a few table items, then gave them a cheery wave as she pulled the curtain back across and exited. They all heard the door click closed.

The Winters family, left alone, looked around at one another. They didn’t know what to say first, or who should say it.

Recurring Story: Twenty-One

Rob went first, of course, to talk to Cynthia. He’d teasingly dropped his coat on the groggily-stretching Jakob and followed the nurse through her door, right after she’d said they could come through now.

“I guess we’re taking turns?” Jakob questioned Wil. She shrugged, matching his expression in terms of confusion, though not in bleariness.

They both knew Rob was always one to move first and speak long after spoken to. Wil wondered sometimes if she were adopted, like Jakob, until the infrequent moments her father met her eyes. It was then she saw her own elliptical hazels, shrouded by bushy blond brows instead of her finer dark ones.

Jakob yawned, then stopped in surprise when the nurse opened the door again.

“You may all come back,” She smiled. “The assistant heard ‘children,’ and automatically assumed you were younger.”

The Winters young adults gathered up coats and backpack (and decoded note) and stood. They came forward past the couches and chairs.

“I’m sorry,” Nurse continued pleasantly. She talked as they walked down the hall together. “She’s new here, and a bit uptight. Y’all know how important it is to keep things clean, so we’re not letting children 12 and under back here.” Wil wondered if this woman ever changed expression. Perhaps at night.

She also wondered how Nurse could talk and grin at the same time; a perplexing enough study that Wil walked into the sink of the washing area. Jakob snickered, then shrugged out of his imitation-down coat and pushed his sleeves back.

Wil tried to pull her scarf and coat off with an air of casual elegance, ignoring him and her subsequent blushing.

Nurse, of course, beamed at them both.

They cleaned hands meticulously, then went farther down the hall to Cynthia’s room. The smell of sterility and oxygen permeated the air. The sounds of soft-walking and whispering combined with an occasional chart-paper flutter and muted machine beep.

No matter how often she attended, Wil would always hate the hospital symphony.