Wilhelmina Winters, One Hundred Four

Mom, Wil thought. Mom mom mom mom mom mom! The whisper of thought grew in volume within her mind till it could not stay inside. “Mom!” she burst out; just once. Jakob sunk to the floor beside her. Wil grabbed at the air, then herself. She hugged her own, small, helpless self and rocked, rocked, rocked.

A coat rustled somewhere outside the reality of Wil’s thoughts; Jakob began rubbing her back. Words eluded him and only the impulse to comfort Wil came through.

Another sound, of boots, clunked beyond Wil’s awareness. Rob sat heavily to her other side. He, too, could not speak. Not yet. He sat beside his family and before the bed on which his life’s love reclined, yet his mind roved farther than even Wil’s. If she’d been able to pull back to watch his grief-worn face, Wil would not have recognized her father.

Despite this, all three turned at a careful knock and entry. A man in white coat and white-reflecting glasses with white-serious face pushed the cloth curtain to the side. Stopped. “I’m sorry if this is a bad time,” he said, blinking white-blue eyes. He cast around for a second then sat on the floor as well. He did so nearest to Rob, setting a clinical clipboard to the side.

Three drawn faces stared at this intruder, curious; in similar stages of shock and sadness. “I’m the hospital’s grief counselor,” the man said. “Dr. White.”

Wil’s large, dark eyes watched Dr. White’s face. His expression conveyed professional concern mixed with deep understanding. She could almost hear his low voice telling other stories, other lives, other rooms with only the shell of a loved one left behind. “Where is she?” Wil asked.

The question was an odd one. Had Wil not been part of the dramatic play in progress -had, instead, been safely watching from the audience- she might have furrowed her brow in confusion. Might have remarked, “What does the girl mean, Mom?”

But her mother was no longer there. Cynthia could not answer Wil.

Dr. White folded his hands. “I don’t know what you know -” his eyes flicked to the clipboard. “-Wilhelmina.”

“Wil,” she interrupted.

A slight smile glimpsed the counselor’s lips. “Wil,” he amended. “It turns out that your mother caught an influenza at some point.” He met Wil’s gaze, kindly. “She left us some time this morning.”

Tears began streaming down Wil’s face.

“We don’t know where our loved ones go for sure,” Dr. White continued. “What I do know, Wil, is that they never leave us for good.” He touched at his heart. His own pale-blue eyes grew moist. “I said, ‘Goodbye’ to my Beatrice just last year, but have also felt her each day since.”

The four sat in a companionable silence. Wil and her family, inexplicably, felt a flutter of comfort; and knew it came from the one they loved.

 

Continued from One Hundred Three.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Wilhelmina Winters, One Hundred Three

Wil and Jakob entered the emergency waiting area. No moody lighting, windows, or friendly Nurse Bea awaited them. Jakob walked to the reception desk, Wil attached to his side.

“Jakob and Wil Winters, here to see -” He choked. Wil turned to him, some feeling stalking past her dark eyes.

“Winters? Winters…” The nurse read over the computer monitor before her. Bits of display reflected from her thick lenses. “Oh! That’s -” She, too, swallowed the end of her sentence. She looked up at the somber faces before her, the overhead lights dancing from her glasses. “You two go right in,” she said, her tone an attempt at gentle. “Exam Room 5.”

Jakob shifted left. As they reached the door, a somber *click* granted them entry. Past a closed Room 1, open and empty Room 2, and closed Room 3; Jakob tread in even, heavy paces. Wil stumbled along. They nearly collided with a man in a white coat exiting Room 4 -“Sorry.” “Sorry.”- before reaching Room 5.

Jakob paused; Wil realized she could hear someone talking. Not just talking -Rob, her father, seemed engaged in a heated conversation. She’d heard his voice at that volume and tone only a few times in her life. She and her brother exchanged a nonverbal agreement and both leaned toward the closed door.

“I said, ‘This is a bad time!'” After a slight pause, he tried to continue, “I know you have every right to- But that’s not- I know, but- Couldn’t you wait till next month or next week even, if you had any sort of heart…” Rob’s last words came out in a sob.

Wil’s wide eyes flicked up to Jakob’s but his were intent on the wood door before them.

“Fine,” Rob said. He sounded flat, weary. “Fine. Just fine. We’re at The County Hospital. In the emergency room.” They heard their father’s heavy boots stomping, stopping; then a *scree* of chair on polished floor.

Jakob met Wil’s eyes; he nodded to her, knocked, turned the handle, and pushed open the door. Before them hung the odious blue-and-beige curtain. Jakob held Wil. “It’s us, Dad,” he said, standing; not shifting the temporary barrier.

Another chair screech sounded, followed by solid footsteps. The curtain to their left clinked to the side to reveal a haggard, unshaven ghost of the man Wil knew as her father. She thought he looked barely alive; gasped as a thought struck her.

“Mom?”

Rob jumped at the question and blinked down at his daughter. “Wil, I need to tell you something-” he began.

Wil came to life so suddenly that neither brother nor father anticipated her actions. She pulled away from Jakob’s arm and wrenched the curtain aside. There, before her, lay her mother. No -Wil instantly felt the difference. This was not-her-mother. This beautiful, sleeping form that resembled the beautiful, sleeping Cynthia was empty. The room was empty.

Wil’s legs collapsed beneath her, and no chair nor person caught her this time.

 

Continued from One Hundred Two.
Keep reading to One Hundred Four.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Wilhelmina Winters, One Hundred Two

Wil sat, silent, within the careening minivan. She felt detached, a deep well within her own body. Mrs. Crandall could have been driving under the speed limit for once and Wil would not have noticed.

Mrs. Crandall did not attempt conversation, though she did forego her usual phone-browsing and snack-eating. Some part of Wil saw her driver’s eyes flit to the rearview mirror now and then to ensure Wil still sat where she’d first settled. Some other part saw familiar landmarks flash past the moving car. They’d be to their destination soon.

They stopped at a light, screeching. Mrs. Crandall drummed at the steering wheel. With a lurch, she started again. Stop, drum, lurch. Stop, drum, sharp turn; slow, slow -Wil saw they were at the hospital. They stopped again, idling, at the curb before the Emergency Room doors.

Wil’s arms removed her seat belt. Her hands lifted and shifted her weight across the seats to the door. One hand tugged at the door handle and her body stiffened against the cold, cold air that rushed in.

“Wil,” Mrs. Crandall began. Wil turned back, her face impassive. Her wild hair blew in and around dark, hopeless eyes. “Wil, I -”

“Wil,” another voice said. Wil moved against the swirl of hair and wind to face this new voice. She saw Jakob, yet didn’t see him. What was Jakob doing here, calling her by name? He held out a hand and helped her from the minivan. Reaching forward, he closed the door.

“Let’s go, Wil,” he said. He put his arm around his stepsister and cousin. Together, they walked through the automatic doors.

If Wil had looked back, she would have seen her neighbor still idling. She would have found that unusual; might have wondered what gave their ever-racing neighbor reason to pause.

But Wil did not look back.

 

Continued from One Hundred One.
Keep reading to One Hundred Three.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Wilhelmina Winters, One Hundred One

Mrs. Bird flapped up from her desk the instant Wil entered the office. “Oh, Wil!” she said, in a tone Wil had never heard from the woman before. “Oh, Wil!”

This, more than the sight of their rumpled neighbor, Mrs. Crandall, stopped Wil mid-step. Mrs. Crandall rose more slowly than Mrs. Bird, having never moved quickly for anything inedible in her life.

Both women, Wil realized, appeared concerned. No -sad. Wil sat. Fortune saw that a chair caught her, a coincidence that rarely occurred in her life. “W-what?” she croaked. “What’s wrong?”

Mrs. Bird came around the tall wall of her desk. Mrs. Crandall came around herself. The two filled the narrow office before Wil, though not in equal measure.

“Wil,” Mrs. Bird said. Wil looked up in rising panic. Not only had the stingy secretary never addressed her by her first name, Wil could not remember seeing Mrs. Bird without her desk besides the time they’d needed first aid last week. Not only had the stingy secretary never been so close, Wil could not remember Mrs. Bird’s tone and manner expressing anything besides irritation.

“Wil,” Mrs. Crandall echoed.

“We -” Mrs. Bird stopped, straightened. Wil watched her collect herself. “Mrs. Crandall just checked you out for the day.” In a brisk manner, the secretary turned to the woman beside her. Her usual disdain returned in a scowl of brow and purse of lips. Mrs. Crandall took no notice; she seemed preoccupied with the task of thinking. Mrs. Bird gave up. “She’s taking you to the hospital to see your mother.”

Wil started out of her reverie. What little color her face held left as she met the businesslike stare of the office administrator. Her mouth opened, but no words came.

The cold, blue, heavily painted eyes softened. The rest of Mrs. Bird’s face followed suit. “I’m sorry, Wil.” An arm twitched in a phantom impulse to provide comfort. “You’d -” she cleared her throat and tried again, “You’d better go.”

As neither girl nor dumpy woman moved, Mrs. Bird raised her voice. “I said, ‘You’re excused to go.'” She resisted the urge to push at them.

Mrs. Crandall shook her head somewhat. “Oh; right. Let’s go, Whale -erm, Wil.” She ambled over to the slight girl and helped Wil stand. Together, they left the office and headed down the stairs and common area to the outside door.

Mrs. Bird watched their progress out the office and school windows. After the old, idling minivan pulled away from the red-painted curb, she returned to the paperwork before her. A single, wet tear slid down a single, dry cheek and dropped to the page.

 

Continued from One Hundred.
Keep reading to One Hundred Two.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Wilhelmina Winters, One Hundred

Mrs. Riles surveyed her unwilling pupils. Each one engaged in a personal style of avoiding attention: itching an imagined irritant, reading over his paper, or feigning interest in the unadorned walls. Eeny, meeny, miny, “Ms. Winters.”

Wil looked up; by every appearance surprised to be sitting in a classroom, let alone addressed by name. The reaction, in turn, unsettled her teacher enough to soften her tone. “Would you please read your composition, Ms. Winters?”

“Oh!” Wil scrabbled around her desk before successfully retrieving the small pile of papers sitting on top. Stumbling out of the seat and legs, she clumped up to the front of the room and turned to face her peers. She read over the top page, not seeing it; glanced back up at the sea of teenagers. One yawned. Most settled into positions of boredom. Reagan, two rows back and next to the wall, made an expectant gesture to continue whilst smiling her trademark smirk.

Wil smiled in return and resumed her task. The typed symbols resolved to readable English letters. “Harriet Tubman, Moses of America.”

*MRS. RILES!* the ancient loudspeaker on the wall crackled. Their school secretary, Mrs. Bird, never formed her requests as a question.

Mrs. R. did not hide her irritation. “Yes?”

*SEND WILHELMINA WINTERS TO THE OFFICE TO CHECK OUT.*

In case anyone thought to defy the blaring wall speaker, Mrs. Bird added *NOW!* She crackled off with a high screech.

Wil, her class, and the teacher winced; then took turns looking from one to the other to the other in surprise. “Well,” Mrs. R. finally concluded, “Get your -oh.” She saw that Wil had nothing waiting at her desk. “Erm -hand in your report, Ms. Winters, and we’ll continue this another time.”

Wil stood, uncertain.

“Wil?” Wil met her teacher’s eyes, and felt calmed by their focus. Mrs. R.’s features resolved to an unusually kind expression. “Wil, come here.” Clunking in her heavy boots and bumping the odd desk, Wil went to her teacher. “May I have your report, please?” Her hands obeyed. “Thank you.”

“Now,” Mrs. R. said, “I think you’d better go to the office. We’ll see you in two days.”

Wil nodded; found her voice. “Okay.” She made it to the door before thinking to add, “Thank you, Mrs. Riles.”

Her teacher, in answer, waved her on. She was already focused on selecting her next victim. Wil didn’t know what lay in store for her at the office, but felt a distinct relief at being rescued from her own oral report.

 

Continued from Ninety-Nine.
Keep reading to One Hundred One.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Wilhelmina Winters, Ninety-Nine

“Martin Luther King, Jr.,” read the boy at the head of the room. Although class had been in session for ten minutes; his audience yawned, fidgeted, dozed, or daydreamed.

Equally glassy-eyed, Wil blinked. Her eyes fixed on the white board behind the boy –Lucas? Most of her thoughts were miles away.

Lucas took the top paper of the pile he gripped and stuffed it, crinkling, to the back. He sighed and continued in a monotone, “Martin Luther King, Jr., original name Michael King, Jr., born January 15, 1929, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.—died April 4, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee…”

Wil’s head drooped. She longed for her book, nestled back home in her covers without her. She frowned in thought. No, she wished to be with her book in her bed.

“…Baptist minister and social activist who led the civil rights movement in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968…”

In the pause he took to breathe, Mrs. Riles piped up. In unison, she and Lucas recited, “His leadership was fundamental to that movement’s success in ending the legal segregation of African Americans in the South and other parts of the United States…”

Their impromptu act awakened a few students. A few tittered, realizing what Mrs. R. was doing. The laughter, more than his teacher’s synchronized recital, caused Lucas to stop and look up. Mrs. R.’s expression when he did so caused him to swallow. Hard.

“Mr. Hampton.”

“Miss -Mrs. Riles?” he stuttered. His peers watched, now alert.

His interrogator and their mutual instructor appeared amused, like a python enjoying a joke. “Would you like to tell me how I was able to read your report, word-for-word, from my phone?”

The snake’s victim shook his head and dropped his eyes to his pages; which, in turn, he dropped to rest against his legs. One sneakered foot brushed the other, and back.

“I think you’d better sit down. We can talk some more about this after class.”

Lucas nodded and shuffled back to his seat.

“Right,” Mrs. R. said in a brighter tone. “So… who’s next?”

 

Continued from Ninety-Eight.
Keep reading to One Hundred.

All text about Martin Luther King, jr. obviously and intentionally swiped from The Encyclopedia Britannica.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Wilhelmina Winters, Ninety-Eight

Wil and her father hadn’t time nor thought for conversation. The old Winters sedan sped along at a rate Wil worried over, given its age. Not until a few blocks from school did she realize the tire wasn’t flat anymore.

“You fixed the car!” she exclaimed.

Rob grunted. Wil remembered that her father preferred one task at a time. He also preferred that task to never be talking. Still, she wanted to cheer him up some. “Good work,” she ventured, stealing a peripheral glance. His profile softened and the half-mouth she could see almost smiled.

They rode the final street in their former silence. Wil’s school loomed out of the morning grey. Rob tore toward its curb and parked next to an old patch of slush. Besides a few straggling teenagers arriving in similar fashion to Wil’s; the muddy, uphill patch of dead grass to the doors was empty.

“‘Bye, Dad!” She stole a kiss on her father’s cheek, caught her pullover on her seatbelt, and forgot to pull the door latch to open it. She was too busy extricating herself from belt and car to see her father’s quick, swallowed smile.

The door slammed behind her as he answered, “‘Bye, Mina.” She raced up the slippery lawn. Rob watched in tired bemusement before pulling away; he needed to get to work.

Not until Wil entered the school itself and made for her locker did she notice she’d forgotten her bag. Doing a quick about-face, she thanked whatever Being lived above that Mr. Saltz hardly cared if anyone even showed up to his class. English would be the only difficulty; they needed to bring their novel to read aloud.

“It’s not like half the class can read anyway…” she muttered. She stomped down the hall, preoccupied. Her left boot wheezed a soft *Eeeee* as she walked. Upstairs, left, straight she walked. Maybe Miss Riles will loan me a book. Formulating a future conversation in her mind, she turned and walked into the Math classroom.

And straight into her teacher. “Oh!” Mr. S. said, surprised.

Wil stopped dead. All eyes were on her and all the faces showed equal surprise to the teacher’s, but not for long. A snicker started somewhere and it soon spread to the rest of her peers.

Mr. S. appeared at a loss. He’d been interrupted mid-lecture by a student, and the other students seemed diverted. Wil took advantage of his distraction and made for the nearest empty spot. She sat and faced forward; every inch an attentive, responsible pupil.

Their teacher cleared his throat. He glanced back at his notes on the white board; unfortunately, he hadn’t written anything there yet. “Hmmm,” he said. His eyes fell on his packet on the desk. “Ah! Exponents!”

The lecture resumed; allowing the rest of the class to return to their usual, inattentive behaviors. Wil hoped she could manage the remainder of the day without drawing attention to herself. Given her experience, she doubted it.

 

Continued from Ninety-Seven.
Keep reading to Ninety-Nine.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Wilhelmina Winters, Ninety-Seven

*Clunk* *Clunk* *Clunk*

Woolykind Wil lifted from her cozy sleeping hole, confusion and pieces of her surroundings clinging to her.

*Clunk* *Clunk* “Mina?” *Clunk* “Wilhelmina? Are you awake? You locked the door.”

Wil shook the detritus and dreams from her consciousness. Her present world caught up to her through a thick fog. There’d been fog in her dream. Then the truck stop. Toward the end this time; just before the loud noise outside, just before she’d returned to her bedroom, she’d sensed someone calling to her.

Someone from the shadows.

“Mina!”

“What?!”

Her father paused. She could barely catch his next words. “…Um, it’s time to go.” She could picture him standing outside in the hall, rubbing his face in confusion. “You slept in.”

Wil blinked and looked at her clock. It supported her father’s claim. “Ack!” Galvanized to action; she leapt from bed, stumbled over to the light switch, and illuminated her cluttered bedroom. There, pants! There, pullover!

She opened the door to find her father still standing, still rubbing. Though his usual manner evidenced little sleep, he had the gaunt appearance of a man barely alive. The specter spoke, “Cynth- your mo- erm..”

Wil felt pity. “Don’t worry, Dad. Cynthia is my mom.”

Rob blinked and focused on his daughter’s face, his coloring but not its shape. His eyes but not his shape. A curling mane of dark hair that never could have come from him. “Thank you.”

They both smiled, and it didn’t matter whose it was.

“Your mother said to make sure you showered, but …” he glanced at his phone. “Maybe at least do deodorant.”

Daa-aad!

Rob had the grace to look sheepish. “I’ll meet you at the door in five.” He hadn’t the time to turn before Wil slammed back into her room, his steps solid but not loud enough to block the hasty, flustered noises of preparation coming from behind his daughter’s door.

 

Continued from Ninety-Six.
Keep reading to Ninety-Eight.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Wilhelmina Winters, Ninety-Six

Wil left the table after a requisite number of tuna casserole bites, hungry and self-pitying. The dark, narrow hallway seemed even more constricting; the dim bathroom bulb even dimmer; the tasteless toothpaste more tasteful for the lingering tuna remains. “Ugh!” she spat, swirled, spat again. She scowled a deeper expression at the girl in the glass, but her reflection matched and even exceeded her gloom.

A distinct *Ku-huh* *Kuh-huh* from the kitchen paused the glaring session. Wil and her shadow listened, a bridge of concern across their united brow, as Cynthia had her coughing session. “They’re happening much more,” Wil and Mirror-Wil whispered. They frowned and their deep, dark eyes spoke helplessness.

Wil exited the bathroom. Parent shadows crossed the hall on their way to the couch and sounds of scrambling soon led to the ever-present breathing machine. Wil stood, caught by fear, till her mother’s deep-throat coughs were tamed by the nebulizer’s magic.

She heard another sound: a chair scraped from the table and careless steps to the sink. Knowing that meant the immediate appearance of Jakob, she squeaked and scampered to the safety of her room and shut the door. After locking the knob, she threw herself atop the messy bed. Clothes, blankets, homework, and an open book or two caught her flying form and held her in their comforting familiarity. “There, there,” her favorite pullover soothed. “We understand,” the nearest novel assured her.

Wil hiccuped a few times but managed not to soil her bedthings with tears. She kicked a shoe free and pulled the second from a bent-leg position. Taking careful aim, tongue in teeth, eyes squinted tight; she threw the sneaker at her push-button wall switch. With a *clunk* the light went off. The shoe dropped.

Woolykind Wil, most respected member of the flying squirrel chapter of The Treetop Dwellers, sniffed and snuffled round her nest. She felt each treasured material with pride, moving things this way and that to arrange them just-so.

It had been a busy day in the forest and Wooly felt tired. She’d gathered food for her group. They’d been a tad ungrateful, to be sure, but she’d done her best. After all, flying was more her forte than food collection ever was.

Burrowing into the most comfortable heap of warm leaves, twigs, and discarded scraps around her; she sighed. Tomorrow would be better. Maybe there’d even be acorns. She fell asleep dreaming of better things.

 

Continued from Ninety-Five.
Keep reading to Ninety-Seven.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Wilhelmina Winters, Ninety-Five

Dinner at the Winters passed with less conversation than usual. Wil stirred her food in a small circle on her plate and tried not to look at the charred remains in the middle of their table. She had a more difficult time ignoring the smell.

Jakob had yet to comment. He didn’t need to; his loud crunch-chewing and various dramatic expressions of distaste sent a clear message.

“Thank you for making dinner, Wil,” Cynthia said into the silence. She smiled a hopeful, loving smile at her squirming daughter. Wil pictured her mother trying to think of what to say for the last five minutes. Or, she thought, Cynthia might have needed that time to be able to speak after consuming the more edible parts of the casserole.

Wil groaned and lay on her arms to the side of her plate. “I’m sorry; okay!” she said in a muffled voice.

She heard her father clear his throat. Cynthia must have nudged him. “It’s my fault, Mina.” *Cuh-hem* “I said I would come back to make dinner but didn’t.”

No, he didn’t. He’d attended to the car, a much more important task. Anyway, Indiana Winters hadn’t required assistance. She’d required a clean source of water. She’d required a stable campfire. She’d required tools for opening the tins of fish. Where she’d missed the offered assistance of the older, coughing man had been in operating the questionable baking device she’d uncovered. Winters should have heeded her past experience with relics of its sort. Instead, to her and her party’s tastebuds’ chagrin, she’d overestimated both time and temperature.

“You gotta eat it too, Mins,” Jakob offered after a hard swallow. He eyed her as he took a long drink of milk. He wasn’t the only one; both of their parents’ attentions also moved to their daughter.

Sighing with the effort, Wil extracted an arm from beneath her head and scrabbled for her fork. From the level of her plate, she bent her arm and wrist at an awkward angle to sample a small bite. She shuddered. Swallowed. She saw Jakob smirk, her father rub at his face, and her mother half-smile.

A tear wandered down Wil’s face, unnoticed and uncared for by her family. It was a tear of embarassment and of regret; but, most of all, it was a tear for the double injustice of eating not only burned food but eating seafood.

 

Continued from Ninety-Four.
Keep reading to Ninety-Six.

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens