Wilhelmina Winters, Seventy-Four

“That’s okay, Wil,” a scruffy voice said from the hallway. “I’ll get the breakfast.” Wil turned and saw her father, but did not believe she had. Her father was never up so early on a Sunday, never so vocal, and never used her favorite variation of her given name.

“Rob?” Cynthia asked, her tone indicating a similar disbelief. She immediately began coughing and the man who looked and sounded like Rob crossed over to the couch to comfort her.

“You all right, Dad?” Jakob said, talking over their mother. He stood from a paused action of pouring cereal into a bowl.

Wil felt tears form; she blinked at them. “What is going on?” she cried. First, her father was calling her Wil and now Jakob was calling Rob Dad. If the hospital nurse had walked in and announced she, Nurse Bea, was Jakob’s real mother, Wil would not have been surprised.

Cynthia laughed through her coughing, which exacerbated the condition. “Get some water, please, Wil,” Rob instructed.

Wil complied, wiping at her sleeve and sniffling as she went. She filled a large, plastic cup Jakob handed her without comment, and walked to the living room unsteadily.

“Sorry to worry you, Wil,” her father said, once her mother was drinking the water. He sighed. “I’ve been awake for a while. I -” He ran a hand over the stubble of his unshaven face; over his right cheek. “I didn’t sleep much all night. Or the ones before.” Another pause. “I’ve been thinking about things.”

Besides the time she had asked him about whether she could kiss a boy in first grade, and the few moments she was able to get him to tell her favorite story, Wil had never heard such a long, voluntary explanation from her father.

The noise of the utensils drawer opening behind them made her jump. She turned back and watched Jakob open and close the refrigerator next, tread across the floor with milk and bowl, scrape a kitchen chair out, sit heavily upon it, then set his bowl down and pour milk into it. He began stirring his cereal with a *clink* *clink* of spoon against bowl. “Well?” he said, taking a mouthful of Wheaties. After swallowing, his next word was spoken more clearly, “Thinking?”

Wil faced her father again. Rob rose and moved to the nearby armchair. Frowning, he stood and pushed the armchair closer to Cynthia on the couch. He sat again, his face cleared, then he frowned again and rose once more. He looked at the two women he loved most in life and smiled. “I forgot the breakfast.”

Her mother wiped at a few lingering tears from her coughing fit and smiled in return. “That’s okay, Rob.” She and Wil watched him until he moved past the couch. While Rob moved around the kitchen, Cynthia swallowed heavily and drank more from the water. “While he’s getting that, Wil,” she directed at her daughter, “Would you please get my medications?”

Wil nodded, stood, and headed down the short hallway to her parents’ room. She stopped in the doorway and scanned the space for her mother’s bag. Since the last time Wil had been in the room, even more clothing and paperwork had joined the mess across the floor. Her father was the sort to keep things in their place, always looking faint at the sight of Wil’s bedroom compared to his own. Wil viewed the lumpy piles. Perhaps the world really was turning upside-down.

“Wil?” her mother called from the living room. Wil tried to focus. The bag. I need the bag. Searching for it by color would help, she knew. Red, she thought. Red, red, red -ah! She finally located it shoved between her mother’s side of the bed and the nightstand.

“Wil?” called her father’s voice, again using her preferred name. “Need help?”

“Only always,” she heard Jakob respond.

“Jakob!” (her mother.)

Wil stepped back through the detritus of the floor like a ballerina. After reaching the door, she felt safe enough to call back, “No, I got it. I’m coming.” She cradled the medium-sized bag that housed her mother’s small infirmary, and walked down the hall to her waiting family.

 

Continued from Seventy-Three.
Keep reading to Seventy-Five.

Wilhelmina Winters, Seventy-Three

“You’re grouchy,” Wil said, ever tactful.

Jakob grunted in response and shuffled over to the gurgling and clunking coffee maker. He stared at it, perhaps encouraging it to succeed with positive thoughts. Wil suspected he was trying to focus and knew the barely-functioning machine would aid that process.

“When’d ya start it?” he growled. He turned a scraggy, bloodshot face to squint at Wil.

“She’s only just,” Cynthia called from the couch. She cleared her throat and swallowed with a deliberate, slow motion. “Why don’t you have some food first, in case it doesn’t pull through this morning?”

Jakob rewarded his mother’s tease with a sigh, with a slight side lift of his mouth. Keeping his eye on Wil, he said, “Depends on if I can eat the food.”

“Uh!” Wil put a hand on her hip. “I’ll have you know that these eggs are perfect!” Just in case, Wil glanced down to check that she’d remembered to turn off the stove beneath their pan.

“Ha!” He turned to stare at the coffee maker again.

Wil decided to not let him off so easily. “Who was it who burned a few grilled cheese sandwiches Friday night? Hmmm?”

Jakob ignored the gibe.

Who will we have to get a smoke alarm for now, Jakob?”

He continued staring, continued to keep his back to Wil.

She edged closer. “You can’t say anything about my cooking anymore, Mister!” Close enough to poke his arm, she did so. “Mister…. Mister Reagan-lover!” More quickly than Wil thought possible with his sluggish actions of earlier, her brother grabbed at her and pulled her into a gentle but firm headlock. “Gah!” she squealed. “Lemme out, Jake!”

“Jakob…,” their mother warned from the couch.

“Don’t worry, Ma, I’m just giving my dear, old, nosy sister a hug.” He squeezed a bit tighter and leaned down to Wil’s ear. “Aren’t I, Minnie?”

“Ugh!” Wil slapped at his arm and side without much effect. “Go brush your teeth!”

Jakob laughed. “Noogie first!” His right hand knuckles dug into the top of her head before his left arm released her at last. “Think I’ll have some cereal; maybe brush later.”

Wil rubbed at the sore spot atop her head as he clunked around the cupboard getting a bowl. “Brothers!”

“If you two are finished bonding,” Cynthia said, “Would you mind bringing me some of those excellent scrambled eggs with a bit of ham and some toast?”

Wil turned to her mother and caught her favorite smile. “Of course, Mom.”

 

Continued from Seventy-Two.
Keep reading to Seventy-Four.

Wilhelmina Winters, Seventy-Two

The whole of Saturday and early Sunday morning passed without event, much to Wil’s disappointment. She even managed to alter Sunday’s morning walk with her mother to pass the small playground and the side of Building 5 twice, but they never saw anyone. She knew they walked earlier in the morning than most were awake, but a sliver of hope was all Wil ever needed to assume a sunrise’s worth of chance.

If her mother suspected anything, Cynthia was, as always, respectful enough to keep things to herself. That, or she knew Wil could never keep a secret for long.

“Well,” Cynthia said, after she and Wil had returned home and recovered somewhat on the couch, “That was a nice walk. Thank you, Wil.”

Wil turned to look at her mother from her reclined position. She hadn’t really noticed much of the walk and hoped there hadn’t been some landmark her mother wanted to discuss.

Cynthia cleared her throat, look worried, then smiled at Wil. “Why don’t you get started on breakfast for us, and you can tell me about how things are going?”

“Okay,” Wil agreed, still confused. She rose and walked the few steps to their eating area, her mind on what to talk about. There was the book she had been reading for school, of course; the secret group -oh! She could tell mom about the group; and then Eric, but even she wasn’t sure what there was to tell about Eric…

“Wil,” her mother said, bringing Wil back to reality to see she’d left the fridge door standing open with her in it.

“Sorry,” Wil said, and finished removing the eggs, milk, and bread from the cold interior before closing it. She set the breakfast items on the counter and began the everyday ritual of summoning coffee from their antiquated, secondhand machine. “I. wish. Dad. had. started. this,” she muttered as she prised the used filter from the top and attempted to scrape old coffee from the carafe.

Cynthia laughed, then stopped as she began coughing. “He’ll appreciate waking to it already tamed,” she said, once she caught her breath.

The coughing fit had not lasted long, but it gave Wil enough time to successfully start the coffee maker and get going on scrambled eggs. She and her mother kept the conversation to breakfast preparations, else Wil get lost in another area of the kitchen.

“You like them with salt and pepper, right?” Wil asked.

“Right.”

“How about Dad and Jakob?”

Her mother laughed a bit. “They like food.” She paused, “Though maybe not burned.”

“Ha. ha,” Wil pretended to laugh. She hadn’t burned their meal for nearly a week, although it was true that scrambled eggs had been the last thing she’d overcooked. “That reminds me,” she said, over her shoulder. “I need to tell Jakob I’m not the only one we need a smoke alarm for now.”

Cynthia smiled. “True. But he’s awfully grouchy in the mornings. You might not want to push your luck.”

“Who’s grouchy?” a grumbling voice asked. Jakob stood in his boxers and and t-shirt in the doorway, blinking around.

 

Continued from Seventy-One.
Keep reading to Seventy-Three.

Lost Receipt

Oh no, he thought.

Those jalapeños. Why had he eaten those jalapeños? Why had he eaten all those jalapeños in the jar?

Oooh, no, he thought.

That girl. Why had he talked to that girl? Why had he talked to that hot girl in front of Gary, who then convinced him that consuming a jar of peppers would impress her?

Oh! no! he thought. Oh, no no no!

This lane. Why had he moved into this lane of traffic? Why had he moved into this far lane of traffic when he clearly needed access to the nearest public toilet?

Oh no no no no no no no! was all he could think-

-as he forced his way through blowing horns and into the nearest Tesco lot. He vacated his car, located the public facilities, and placated his internal turmoil.

Oh no, he realized, upon exiting the toilet.

Breakfast. Why hadn’t he eaten breakfast? Why hadn’t he eaten a healthy breakfast when he’d clearly dined poorly the night before?

A few minutes later, an innocent shopper found his discarded receipt. “Müller rice and a loose banana, eh? Hmmm….”

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There ya go, Stephen. Can’t say I never did nothin’ for nobody…