Recurring Story: Eight

The story her father had given her that morning niggled at the back of Wil’s mind, though she didn’t know why. She thought it must be because he hardly gave into requests lately. Rob still worked swing shifts at jobs so he could be home for Cynthia’s treatments and doctor visits. With everything going on, he hardly felt up to talking or even smiling.

Wil held the happy feelings of memory in a small area of her mind as she glided through dissipating fog toward the sprawling school building. Happy, chattering groups of teenagers passed her. Silent, dark forms of seriously solemn schoolmates stalked by. Average young adults found others and nervously discussed upcoming assignments. They were all pulled inexorably to the doors and swallowed in.

Sometimes, Wil felt school was a prison. She rarely enjoyed attending. She was not one of a pair in a couple of silent types, or even an average sort to worry over tests. Wil was also definitely not chatty among a group of other trend-setting bubble heads.

As she watched groups of her peers like a momentary anthropologist, however, she admittedly felt envy. Wil hadn’t met and made any friends since moving to this school shortly after her birthday in September. She was old enough and experienced enough by now to tune out ridiculous encouragement by school counselors and teachers -but, they were correct in that even one friend would make school exponentially more tolerable.

Exponentially… Wil’s mind lingered over the word. She realized she’d been drifting the wrong direction and corrected herself to head instead toward her locker. She was going to be late for math.

Taking her mittens off so she could open her locker, Wil set her things on the ground and spun the combination on the lock. It sprung open, and she was surprised to see a folded paper sitting in the bottom among the dust.

Wil stealthily looked around, but only caught the eye of a few clueless chatterers in groups with other vacuous participants. Clearly, no one standing near had any idea about her, her locker, or its contents.

Always up for variety and adventure, Wil reached in and unfolded the page. It had a serrated edge and blue lines to tell where it had been extracted from. Half expecting there to be nothing on it, since careless people put garbage everywhere, Wil was surprised to see writing across the middle.

Unfortunately, the writing was not done in letters customary for American English, nor in their usual order. Her excitement increased a bit more; this was a code!

“It probably reads ‘Your an idiot,'” thought Wil, “With misspellings included. Or, it’s not really meant for me.”

Still, she burned with a curiosity to solve and read the cryptic message. It had been in her locker. Hopefully, this message really was for her. Hopefully, it would be some sort of clue to a mystery of great import. She would decipher these symbols and save the…

The school bell echoed deeply through the halls, stirring standing bodies to slowly walking ensembles.

Wil put her backpack and other books inside, and shut the door. Pocketing her secret, she smiled. Math class would be a lot more interesting today.

Recurring Story: Seven

Wil left for school with her father, as usual. They’d left Jakob staring moodily into his cereal, as usual. The car had needed some coaxing and choice words under Rob’s breath, as usual. The morning was dark and mysteriously misty, however, which was refreshingly unusual.

The world outside their dirty car windows was nearly invisible. They traveled through familiar streets and landmarks, unfamiliar and quieted.

Perhaps made bold by the awe she felt traveling through floating land-clouds, Wil looked over at her father and asked, “Dad, can you tell me about when you and Mom met again?”

The brief disturbance her words made in the air was filled again with the sounds of car tires slushing over winter road debris as she hoped he heard and thought about her request. Rob sighed, as usual, but then began talking.

“Well, I had just started working at the factory and had a swing shift.” He cleared his throat a bit, to clear the cobwebs of disuse.

“I had a short break, so I thought to go get some food. It was late at night, and the only nearby place that was open was a truck stop.” He paused a bit, getting his memory going.

His eyes focused distantly past roads, traffic, and fog; to see instead the neon signs of an unfamiliar, dirty truck stop late at night in August. The night had been quiet; he had been anxious over his new job and mounting life responsibilities.

To Wil, though he knew she liked details, he was only able to elaborate with, “I was tired and didn’t know anyone there. The neon sign was broken on the building, so I wasn’t sure it had a restaurant.” He smiled a bit.

Wil caught the smile, and that he had felt some hopeless humor that night. Always impulsive, she asked, “And she was working there?”

Rob looked over at Wil briefly, quieting her questions and fidgeting with a pointed look. He didn’t like talking for a long time. He certainly didn’t like interruptions.

“I went through the doors that were under this broken sign, and saw that it was a restaurant. And there,” he paused, knowing this was Wil’s favorite part, “There stood the ugliest and scariest person I’d ever seen.”

Rob smiled at Wil’s giggles. It reminded him of her reactions when he would relay this story to her at bedtimes, so many years ago.

“You couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman,” Wil prompted.

Rob cleared his throat pointedly, then continued, “I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. It nearly scared me out of the restaurant.”

He smiled again, and said, “Then, I saw the only other worker at the restaurant. She was mopping the floors.” This was his favorite part. “She looked up at me and our eyes met. I think we smiled. She had blonde hair and I thought she was beautiful.”

Wil sighed with satisfaction. Sometimes, Rob envied her ability to express whatever she felt.

“I think I ordered something from the counter. I must have. I do remember that I decided I’d have to talk to her.” He paused, as they paused at a traffic light. “So, that’s why I went back so many times to eat at such a scary place.”

They had reached Wil’s school. Rob eased the car near the curb and waited. She grabbed her backpack, then leaned over to kiss her father quickly.

“Thank you, Dad.” She said. Before he could reproach her, she opened the door and skipped away.

He watched Wil dancing into the fog with her scarf waving goodbye behind her. He tasted bittersweet memory: she reminded him so much of her mother.

Recurring Story: Six

As usual, Wil dreamed that night. She usually had vivid, exciting dreams of superhuman abilities and daring escapes. Lately, though, she’d had recurring visions of walking through a dark place trying to find something she desperately wanted.

This night, Wil had on a romantically glorious, long, dark cloak with a hood. She could see herself and see from herself, peering through a dark and misty fog twisting between trees in a fantastical woodland. Her elegant, pale hands drifted from the cloak to part branches and leaves as she wandered.

As her mind drifted closer to wakefulness, she strove one last time to see whatever tantalizing object it was that was her goal.

Instead, she was jolted to consciousness by the abrupt aural slap of her morning alarm. Quickly, Wil turned it off and sat up. She stretched, then searched around for her favorite clothes to get dressed: dark jeans, dark purple hooded shirt, black scarf, long black coat. She pulled on her favorite striped socks, and then the boots with a faulty sole. Last, she pulled her dark hair back from her face in a messy ponytail.

Tiptoeing and sometimes squeaking down the hallway to her parent’s room, she saw through his open door that Jakob had fallen asleep in his clothes -again, with his homework as bedcovers -again. He was snoring slightly.

Wil gently pushed her way into her parents’ room and knelt by the bed to awaken her mother. Quietly, without bothering her father, she nudged Cynthia’s shoulder.

“Mom, it’s time for our walk,” She whispered near Cynthia’s ear. Her soft breath slightly disturbed her mother’s fine hair. Wil saw it glint faintly in the ambient light of the parking lot through the nearby window blinds.

Cynthia stretched slightly and opened her eyes a small slit. She stretched more, then curled into a protective ball as she was struck by a coughing fit. To her side, Rob rolled over in his sleep to lay a protective arm around her body.

The fit subsided, and Wil’s mother carefully set Rob’s arm aside and sat up. She smiled a pleasant smile. She allowed Wil to help her into her boots and stood up to don her coat. They left the bedroom to the soft “Eee” of Wil’s left shoe, and walked down the hall and out the apartment door in similar fashion.

Outside, a light fog muted the world. Their footfalls were dull and echoes came back hushed. Wil intentionally breathed into the mist and was happy at the white cloud she made.

“How beautiful,” Cynthia whispered, then hunched over to cough again.

After she recovered, they started on their morning walk around the complex. The familiar, dull blocks were relieved somewhat in features by eerie fog.

Wil referred to it as a promenade; her mother as a walkabout. When she had first been recommended to exercise daily, Cynthia encouraged Wil’s input to make the routine less monotonous. Wil found no delight in pretending herself elsewhere whenever she had time with her mother, however. She felt an increasing need to savor every real moment with her mother they had.

Sometime during the second circuit, as she ducked under a naked tree branch, Wil was struck with the realization that this exercise mirrored her dream of the night. Mentally awakened by this thought, she looked around to see if there was some clue or object of interest to help answer the lingering, questioning feelings she’d had.

Her only reward was the usual tall, dull blocks of buildings, the gray sidewalk twisting between them, the dark and ugly trees, and the dirty parking lots. Wil felt frustrated. Patience was low on her list of character traits.

Wil and her mother completed a third cycle and returned to the apartment. They went inside, and over to the couch. Wil helped her mother off with her boots, then covered her legs with Cynthia’s favorite soft blanket.

Before letting Wil go back to her room to get ready for school, Cynthia held her arm and said, “Tell me where you go when you get back tonight.” She smiled with genuine love, and Wil returned it with her own.

Recurring Story: Five

Wil watched the murmured conversation between her parents out of the corner of her eye, as she put her father’s beer and her mother’s special milk into the fridge. She noted her mother’s happy, tired smile as he dredged up some anecdote from work. A shadow of happiness reflected in his eyes at her responses.

Wil smiled sadly herself, and stooped to get a pan from the cupboard. As she straightened, she saw Jakob briefly pause in pulling textbooks and papers from his backpack and look toward the couch. He, too, was touched by a glimpse of memory and looked almost kind.

Cynthia coughed, and worry creased itself at the edges of everyone’s short serenity. Wil heard her father rumble a question, putting his hand on her mother’s arm. She nodded, and laid back on the couch. “Thank you, Rob.” She said tiredly.

Wil’s father looked over at Wil to ensure she was getting dinner started, then he straightened and clunked in his heavy work boots to the fridge. He extracted a can, opened it, and took a short gulp as he stood in the open door. Wil saw him sadly shake his head at the nearly bare interior, then close the door.

She studied her father as she opened the soup and poured it into the pan. She had always admired how hard-working he was, despite having a slight build. He also rarely showed anger, though life was serving him so many stressful responsibilities.

She sighed. It was difficult work being a professor of archeology, saving ancient relics from greedy collectors. Wil could hear his boots echoing -not across a kitchen floor, but around the spacious, musty interior of an abandoned temple.

He moves stealthily through cobwebs and shadows. He nearly steps on a trap -but, no! Rob Winters recognizes those carvings just in time and turns quickly away from harm.

He draws closer and closer to the treasure chamber, slits of sunlight panning across this careful explorer and his determined path. He turns a corner and-

*Kuh-huh* *khuh* *khuh!* Wil’s mother’s cough brought Wil’s mind unwillingly back to her apartment kitchen. Just as well, because she had been standing at the counter with the soup can still suspended (now empty) over the pan.

Luckily, Wil’s father and step-brother hadn’t noticed. She slid the soup onto the stove and turned the burner to medium. After tossing the empty can onto the counter, Wil realized her mother was watching her.

“Yes, Mom?” She asked.

Cynthia smiled at Wil and crooked a finger to bring her closer. Wil happily skipped over to her mother’s side, her boot squeaking at every other step. She plunked down on the floor and looked up in anticipation at her mother’s loving face. Cynthia smiled at Wil’s exuberance, one of the few who did.

“I just wanted to hear what adventures you had at the grocery store, Wil.” She encouraged.

Wil looked around carefully, but Jakob was lost in a mathematics problem and her father had gone down the hall. All clear. She cleared her throat.

“Well: the snow danced like crystals and my breath like a cloud.” Wil tried to speak slowly but, as usual, forgot in the excitement of retelling her adventures. “The castle gates opened at my arrival,” she continued, “and I took a curious vehicle to transport my goods in. I wore my regal sash of black with my magic imp boots. My trumpeters lined my way to The Hallway of Doors..”

Recurring Story: Four

After such an exciting escape, the quiet ride through night seemed overly calm. As usual, the driver was too tired from his workday to start any conversations. That, and Wil knew he found talking to her and her step-brother exhausting.

Wil tended to talk too much, about things the adults in her life called “nonsense.” Jakob, her step-brother, tended to talk too little. Wil looked at his shadow in the front seat, briefly illuminated pale by passing headlights. She mused, as she usually did, that he looked like a vampire trying to hide from daylight in his bulky winter coat.

When Jakob or her father talked, they both had time for necessary communications only. That, and comments about her deficiencies. Jakob didn’t even spend as much time teasing as he’d done most of her childhood. Now he just sneered and called her by variants of her name he thought she wouldn’t like. She caught his stare in the rear view mirror, and quickly pretended to be watching out the windows.

Much to her disappointment, they reached home without incident. The car swung under the community carport of their apartment complex and Wil’s father turned the engine off.

He took the beer from Jakob and grunted, “Thanks.” Jakob shrugged.

They’re moving into not talking at all, Wil thought.

They left the car, locked their doors before closing them, and headed toward Building 4. Jakob and Wil’s father trudged through the light snowfall, slumped against the cold.

Wil tried some “evasive maneuvers” (a term she’d heard in a war movie recently); avoiding detection from potential grocery store kidnappers, and derisive step-brothers alike. She tried especially to step on her toes so her boot wouldn’t squeak. The grocery sack made swishing sounds, and its contents gave muted clunks; as she shuffled, dipped, and paused to look around.

Before she could be certain they were safe, however, the men had reached their apartment door and turned back to wait for her. It was no good avoiding detection with them staring right at her, impatiently.

As Wil caught up to them at the porch, her father bent somewhat to unlock the door. She heard Jakob comment, “Yeah, she was talking to the cans of soup when I went back to find her.”

Pretending she didn’t care, despite her usual blush when anyone pointed out her actions, Wil followed them in.

The apartment was dark, save for the furniture and walls dancing in the flashing glow from the television. Wil walked quietly past the living room to the adjoining kitchen to put her groceries away. Her father followed, carefully setting the beer on the counter.

Then he went over to the couch, to the woman resting there, and whispered her name. “Cynthia. We’re home.”

Recurring Story: Three

Lanky held the beer since Wil was, after all, still a child (Wil would argue that she was on the cusp of womanhood). The case was clutched to his midsection as he and Wil hurried past the checkout area and to the exit.

Wil remembered her grand entrance as they neared the automatic doors. The whoosh of their opening blew an exciting blast of icy wind against her as she exited, leaving the warm air swirling closed behind her. Had it been so long ago?

Now, the night was tense and dim. Her fate was unknown and they would have to hurry.

She followed her stepbrother’s large footprints through dirty slush, across icy patches, and through packed snowdrifts toward their getaway vehicle. Tiny crystals of snow glittered slowly through the dark, glinting in the high area lights and low car beams.

The diamondlike precipitation failed to distract Wil from her mission. Ice and snow dragged at her, but she pushed on. The grocery sack with their rations swung erratically in her mittened fist and her scarf waved behind her. Who knew when her enemies would notice the decoy she’d left in her cell? She had to keep up with her devoted brother, her rescuer, and get to their car.

There! She saw the familiar outline of the nondescript vehicle, puffing exhaust impatiently into the frigid night air. A man sat hunched and drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. This silent, tired-eyed driver would take them to her contact for the price of one case of beer -the case her only sibling had secured before freeing her.

Her stepbrother reached the car first, opened the passenger door, then lurched in. Wil turned to check behind her as she jogged. Surely those shadows in the store windows were their pursuers! Quick! -She reached the car and fumbled a bit to lift the handle.

“C’mon, Mina!” The gruff driver encouraged. She told herself his tone was edged with concern and not annoyance.

One last glance toward the store, and she carefully swung her bag and herself into the backseat.

The driver had asked her brother something before she got in. Wil heard his response, “No, no trouble.” They were going to be safe now.

Sleep Tight, Continued

I can only blame my grandfather. “You like antiques,” he’d told me, smiling. He didn’t smile often, so that should have clued me in. He also loved a bargain; to the point of renting the discounted room, that smelled of everything used, if the motel clerk knocked the price down so low that most people would smell a rat. Literally.

“You need somewhere to live for a while,” he’d added. “I won’t even charge you rent till you get back on your feet.” Being my own grandfather, most people would see this as generosity. In my present, stressful circumstances, I think I convinced myself of this as well.

“You like antiques,” I mimicked, as I re-tied the kerchief around my sweating hairline. I checked it in the hallway mirror, which returned a distorted, musty outline of my strained features. I heard Sam yelling outside, but he was calling his brothers to play in the mud pile. It was better than the potentially-poisonous foliage.

I sighed. I would clean the bathroom first.

The bedrooms had made my skin crawl. Well, they’d made it feel like something was crawling on my skin. My hesitant inspection of the bathroom, safely conducted from the doorway, had the added sensation of my stomach reacting. I never could handle mold. That was one reason why I would sleep in the car over the discounted motel room option. Grandpa would say I’d get used to it, but I didn’t. The mold would grow in my mind the way it was surely growing inside the walls, entering the air sacs of my children’s lungs and poisoning them for life.

I not only smelled mold, I could see it. Someone, somewhere along the line (probably another victim of a well-meaning patriarchal relative) had installed more modern plumbing in this room and the kitchen. By the looks of things; that person had cleared the space needed for improvements, installed them, then left them victim to whatever time wished for decades. I assumed that was the reason for the water damage.

Browning spots, circled darkly then fading to the middle, were splashed around the crumbling plaster walls. The floor looked sound, at least. It was filthy like the rest of the house, but whole. There were probably creatures holing up under the sink cabinets, but we weren’t going to fall through to the basement.

I didn’t see the bathtub until I was brave enough to stick my head in farther. It sat very solidly against the door-wall, and the sight of it was the first time I considered a word like haunted. Then, of course, I told myself I was too old to feed my phobias and I’d watched too many scary movies about bathtubs (two, to be precise).

Whenever I saw a free-standing antique tub, I couldn’t help but hyperventilate a little. My mind would detach just slightly from the concrete world at hand and, instead, see hands groping the air above the too-deep water as a murderer shoved a helpless body down into the porcelain depths where no human had strength to prise the ancient stopper from the drain.

Laughing and yelling, the sounds of play, the sunlight bravely glancing in through bubbled glass, all helped to bring me back to the crusted, spotted ground on which the tub sat. “Just a tub,” I told myself. I kept telling myself.

This mantra sustained me through sweeping, dusting, bleaching, and scrubbing. It barely hummed when I first turned on the water, though. “It’s just rust,” I added, for good measure. I impatiently watched the dark liquid splash around the bathtub I’d just sanitized. “Just a tub. It’s just rust.” I told my mind to stop seeing what the water really resembled, even as I couldn’t help but glance over my shoulder or around the room.

Maybe it would have helped me to know they didn’t like the bathroom, either.

Sleep Tight

I never would have slept in that bed, normally. In fact, why stop at the bed? The house, alone, was a bad idea: dilapidated, creaking, practically condemned. Faded, peeling, nondescript paint hung tenaciously from the wood slats and window frames. Fresh air hung tenaciously from without, occasionally sneaking in through assorted gaps.

Mostly it was the vermin that made me nervous. I looked around the dusty, filthy floor and was certain I heard scuttling everywhere. Pieced sunlight streaming through the boards across the window played across the litter at my feet and rested on the bed I was meant to sleep in: an antique metalwork frame straining to hold its own lumpy mattress. Its own lumpy, dusty, filthy mattress.

Good thing we brought our own blankets. Too bad I didn’t bring my own house, or bed.

The boys’ room wasn’t much better, in terms of cleanliness. Peering carefully through the door, my hands twitched as I imagined crawly things attaching to my hair. I slapped and scratched at sudden, suspicious itches on my body and scalp.

The boys were going to have to play outside¬†till I could fumigate this place. For a few days. Hopefully they wouldn’t fall in the old well, land in the winding creek, or swim¬†through possible poison ivy in the tired old forest that clothed most of the hill on which the house rested.

I should have realized that insects, mice, cobwebs, repair, and dirt were not the biggest problems.

When the warm, friendly sun penetrated most of the house, I saw only that the physical problems were significant.

Looking at the spots on the bedframe and its mattress, I’d told myself that sleeping would be uncomfortable, if not impossible. I’d slept in a basement in my childhood, in a much newer house, and refused to lay under the covers for fear of night things crawling up my legs. Memories of this had crossed my mind briefly as I’d studied my sleeping arrangements.

Still, I hadn’t actually felt the nighttime. I hadn’t experienced cocooning my tired body carefully in the middle of the old mattress, nor staring up at the dark ceiling. I didn’t watch imagined movement wherever my imperfect vision blurred at the edges of clarity.

Most importantly, I had never considered who else still lived there. Well, more precisely, who else lingered. I’m certain they were no longer alive.

Recurring Story: Two

She happened upon the shelves of baked grains before Preserved Provisions. The bread was packaged simply in plastic, among many neighbor loaves similarly smothered. “How odd for the baker not to have fresh wares,” Wil mused.

She selected for volume and price over quality, gently setting the loaf inside her wheeled carriage. She had been hasty on past excursions, paying for mishandling the cheap bread with a ruined, crumbled mass upon opening the bag at home.

Acquiring the soup was similarly perplexing. There were so many cans, lined and misaligned, in so many wrappings. Why is it all tinned? Why is a portion large enough for human consumption contained only within these over-large ‘Family Size’ tins?

Her wordless queries were left unanswered as she was distracted by the approach of a lanky, slouching youth of the male persuasion.

“Oh, dear,” Wil sighed.

“Hey Helm,” Lanky addressed Wil jeeringly. “Dad said you’d meet me at Checkout ten minutes ago. Let’s go!” He slumped his shoulders around inside his baggy coat to make it sit more comfortably on his bony frame.

Regaining some of her composure, Wil lifted her chin and deigned to retort, “I need no escort, and was preparing to return just now.”

He snorted, then gave her a sarcastic smile. “Dad actually said:” Here he dropped his tone a bit and continued, gruffly, “Tell Mina to stop skipping around the store, playing games, so you can buy the beer and we can go home!

Wil flushed a bit, but knew a true lady of her situation would never allow emotions to show.

“I play no ‘games,’ and am prepared to pay as we speak. It is you who is delaying.” Wil told him.

“Yeah, whatever. Gimme the cart and let’s go.” He took the handle of her carriage brusquely, then set off at a pace intentionally faster than one she could match comfortably.

The cart wheel with its lopsided cycle caused a more erratic course at this speed, and Wil’s scarf came loose as she jogged a bit to keep up. It waved the length of her arm, and her boot squeaked audibly. Lanky’s coat edged up his arms and shoulders.

They reached the store registers quickly; Wil feeling disheveled and irritated. Her kingdom of lights glowing in shining floors, doors of possibilities, and subservient patrons still waited to serve with breathless anticipation.

“Paper or plastic?” A bored teenager asked her.

Recurring Story: A Grand Entrance

parking lot

ONE

The pavement sparkled moon white under store lights as the frigid evening air heightened reflections and sounds.

Her warm breath danced crystals in front of her face, and Wil decided that the ethereal effect was acceptable for admittance of someone of her social status. Wrapping her fraying scarf ’round with a flourish, she marched regally toward the busy front doors.

Patrons parted and bowed, and the very doors opened of their own accord to admit this grand sight. She was right to have condescended this evening and mixed among the rabble thus.

Wil deigned herself use of a wheeled carriage for transporting common goods, then turned and continued her stately tread down shining paths of fluorescent shelving. She heard the fanfare and stepped in time to their herald.

“I must retrieve a sacred flask of ale for my poor father,” Wil thought, referring to a few scrawled words on a scrap of paper. She held it importantly between her two mittened hands like a parchment roll. Milk, bread, and can of soup were also listed. Wil cocked her head and looked at the hanging signs above her.

“Excuse me, sir,” she enquired of a clerk stocking a nearby shelf. “Where might one find ale?”

The clerk, a young male of questionable heritage and understanding, seemed confused by Wil’s request.

“Your liquor, sir. Spirits; ale.” She sighed. “Beer!” She said impatiently.

“Oh.” Clerk drew the word out, almost sounding like she were the one not understanding the situation. “Aisle 10, in the fridges.” He turned back to lining up blue macaroni boxes.

Wil covered for her lapse in patience with a small sniff and she turned away haughtily. “Some commoners!” She thought to herself. “Give someone a job and he thinks above his station.”

Her careful promenade soon took her to Aisle 10, the Hallway of Doors. She watched herself stretch and break in each door as her reflection wheeled past. Behind each: a story, a mystery, a possibility.

Here, she found her father’s ale. There, she found her mother’s dairy flagon. The mirrors shut with slap-slaps as she hefted the cool containers into the basket.

Wil raised her chin slightly as she turned her carriage and headed toward another hallway in this mystical kingdom: Aisle 5, Preserved Provisions.

The wheels circled lopsidedly over some foreign object adhered to the front left wheel, and her boots spoke a soft squeak at each step. Still, Wil walked majestically on, her old scarf swaying slightly with each step toward her noble conquest.