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.

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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.

Recurring Story: Twenty

She stood, solemnly and silently. Shadows of sun clouds shrouded her views from the wall-length windows as her concerns shrouded her mind. Wilhelmina Winters, of City Hospital, sighed deeply.

She lifted the small note in her hand and glanced at its surface without seeing the writing upon it. She sighed again, the movement causing a rustling of ruffles in the satin of her dress. She adjusted her black lace scarf and subconsciously admired the affect in her muted reflection.

“Whatever shall I do?” She whispered in her slight drawl. She touched fingers with the dark glass girl.

Although distracted most terribly, Ms. Winters was pleased with the way her reflection was part her and partly the elements beyond her: gray clouds, interrupted light, and troubled winds.

A slight sound behind caused her to turn toward it. A loose curl graced her high-boned cheek at the turn, though the remaining strands stayed restrained and refined atop her head. A man in black too large for his frame had shifted upon the chaise, and his whispering cloak had alerted her.

Neither he nor his silent companion opened his darkling eyes, so Ms. Winters turned back to herself. This was not the change she anxiously anticipated. She felt the disappointment acutely as the girl opposite gave her an empathetic look of impatient sadness.

Without seeming to change composure nor expression, the older of her companions addressed her, “Come away from the window and sit down, Mina. It won’t make waiting any faster.”

Ms. Winters touched her friend a final goodbye, then slowly stepped in slithering satin to her father. Heaving an adolescent expression of restlessness, she acquiesced to his request and sat.

She tried, most dutifully, to divert herself with the room, the note, and her relative’s resting faces. Having an instinctively restless nature, however, she failed. This was her usual want, despite many tutors’ efforts to patiently instruct her away from it.

She looked round the room, furnishings, and windows for some sign of release and found none. She looked to her hand and what it held.

Drawing on some remaining curiosity, Ms. Winters again applied herself to the paper. She forced her natural mind away from waiting, and worked her hands to apply print to parchment. She would soon know precisely what her secret paramour meant to express.

She wrote dutifully as she toyed with her hair curl, as unruly as her natural spirit. She finished copying all of the letters, and prepared to separate them into meaning.

Her quick ears pricked in recognition of footfalls the instant before the door near them was opened. She and the men accompanying her sat up quickly to look toward the sound.

A nurse stood there, smiling at their expressions and the good news she would deliver.

Recurring Story: Nineteen

Wil and Jakob knew where to check in at the hospital, and what area they’d find Cynthia. This was getting to be old news for them, but Wil didn’t mind. A dark question poked the back of her mind as they walked the familiar halls and she thought about this comfort in familiarity: where would they walk instead, if they were given new news?

Rob was surprised to see Wil gently crying as she and Jakob entered the small waiting area to join him. He’d given Jakob positive results. Suspicious of him not passing on this information, Rob looked at Jakob’s face accusingly. All he saw was his stepson absentmindedly staring at the nurses’ station. Clearly Jakob was not aware of Mina’s distress.

Wil caught the look, however, and messily wiped her wet facial areas on her sleeves. She sniffed loudly to help clear things up there.

“Mina,” Rob began in a lecturing tone. Then, he stopped and continued more tenderly, “How about you go blow your nose in that bathroom?” He gestured down the hall from them, at a sign reading RESTROOMS.

“When you’re done, we can talk about seeing your mom.” He gave her his best encouraging smile: a look of tired, worried love; framed by a five o’clock shadow.

After Wil humored her father’s request, she and Jakob gathered near him to hear the latest on her mother’s condition. Jakob perched on the arm of a chair and Wil sat on the floor at her father’s feet, as Rob gathered his thoughts -and desire to discuss them.

“Your mom had been coughing, as usual, this morning and felt short of breath.” Rob rubbed a cheek nervously. “She texted me, worrying about whether she could get up. I called our neighbor, Lynette, who came over and found Cynthia gasping.

“Always one to panic, Lynette rushed her here to the hospital and demanded action.” Rob smiled a bit beneath worried eyes.

Jakob rolled his eyes and Wil couldn’t help a small giggle. Although her father hardly ever described situations to her satisfaction, Wil was perfectly able to picture their paranoid neighbor yelling at hospital staff.

“The doctors were able to get her started on an antibiotic and stabilized her breathing,” Rob finished. “They think she’d just started a small cold. Now, I’m just waiting for them to say whether we can see her.”

His audience nodded understanding. Jakob’s focus slowly turned to the young medical attendants again; but Wil, of course, anxiously fidgeted at the thought of waiting.

Her father smiled to himself, and again felt the pang he had this morning -the fond recognition of similarity to another woman he loved. His resolve was weakening. He hoped Cynthia would be strong enough for a serious talk later.

Recurring Story: Eighteen

Jakob reached the stop just as the bus did, though the unusual exertion made him barely able to wave a hand to the driver. Luckily, another apartment tenant was getting off. Wil was able to catch up as her step-brother was paying. They were both puffing slightly.

“I guess it’s worth tuition to ride the public bus at a discount,” Jakob muttered sarcastically to Wil as they climbed aboard. Wil also got a student discount, although junior high school fees were much lower.

Wil felt too on edge from too many surprises in too little time. She merely nodded absentmindedly and followed him to a pair of seats. The driver lurched back into the light afternoon traffic and they lurched into the row they’d just reached.

“See?” Jakob joked again, to Wil, “Worth every penny to ride in style.” He looked at her to get validation for his wit. He instead saw worry and distraction.

“Sorry, Meanie,” he said. The twist on the name her father used for her caught Wil’s attention. She looked at Jakob, finally focused on him and this moment.

“I forgot to fill you in, because I was worried you’d get home too late for us to catch the bus.” He smiled at her to reassure the anxious look she bore.

They rocked slightly in the rhythm of the bus’ movement, as wintry sunlight wanly shone and shadowed them in turn. Their breathing returned to normal, though Wil’s heart rate continued its rapid pace at his news. She waited for him to continue.

“I was in class, and got a text from Cynthia,” Jakob began. “She said she was at the hospital and to let Dad know.” He leaned back against the seat and his large coat made a puffing, rustling sound. “I just got a text from Rob that she’s stable but still at the hospital. He wanted us to meet him there.”

Wil let her breath out, realizing she’d been holding it while staring at Jakob’s face. It was times like these that she felt the difference between them. Perhaps his use of her parents’ first names exacerbated the discomfort, but Wil also liked to blame any oddity in Jakob’s characteristics on their lack of mutual parents.

He was really her cousin, adopted by her mother when he was a young boy. The story she’d heard was that his mother felt too overwhelmed by a second unexpected pregnancy and knew Cynthia really wanted a child.

Jakob’s real mother, Wil’s aunt, had then been able to move away and pursue a career in performance. Wil’s father, Rob, always accented the word “performance” in an odd way when he spoke about it, but Wil didn’t understand why.

“Well,” Wil finally returned -but that seemed all she was able to get out.

Jakob laughed. “The great chatterbox silenced!” He looked at her almost fondly, and Wil realized his friendly jokes were from relief. Jakob had been just as worried as she’d been. He’d also thought today was Goodbye.

Recurring Story: Seventeen

“Mina! Thank heavens!” Mrs. Crandall exclaimed when Wil approached and opened the sliding door. “Your mom’s at the hospital. Lynette took her this morning and I only just got the text.”

Wil was too worried by this sudden announcement to think of tactlessly correcting her neighbor. She knew that her mother would have texted Mrs. Crandall immediately, so she suspected that her lazy neighbor had been lost, as usual, in the wastes of sleeping in and perusing social media.

“Are you taking me to the hospital?” Wil asked, instead. She ignored the sullen disapproval of the car’s other occupants -at least, the ones paying attention to something non-electronic.

In this case, that was Mrs. Crandall’s son, Eric, and their mutual neighbor, Vic. Reagan and Jorge, who lived near their apartment complex, continued finger-swiping their phones as their eyes and ear buds attended the screens.

“I’m afraid I can’t, Mina,” Mrs. Crandall said, making an effort to sound apologetic. She spoke as she eased the old minivan away from the curb, glancing at Wil as she didn’t actually check her blind spot.

Another driver honked, but the effort was wasted on one so immune to courteous driving practices like turn signals or proper traffic queuing.

“I’ve got to get back home,” Mrs. Crandall continued. “I mean, I’ve got to get you all home. I think Jakob’s planning on taking you.”

Wil bit her tongue as she buckled up in the moving vehicle. If she could have gotten home faster without this self-centered neighbor, she would have spoken her mind and walked. Retorts like, “lazy,” “selfish,” and “you know that we don’t have a car…” swirled in her thoughts and quite near to her voice box.

Even if they had an extra car, Jakob wouldn’t be home yet. Plus, he didn’t have driving capabilities. He’d passed the test, of course, but they had all decided that he and Wil couldn’t be added to the insurance yet. So, Jakob had nobly avoided all extra costs and not gotten his license.

Wil gripped at her knees. She hated forced inactivity. She needed to get to her mother as soon as possible, but faced too many barriers. She closed her eyes and tried the deep breathing exercises Cynthia had learned when her troubles starting becoming unbearable again.

Wil’s heart rate and anxiety only increased. She realized the exercises reminded her of the whole problem, and certainly did not calm her or take her mind off her mom.

Luckily, Mrs. Crandall was also a fast driver. They were home in minutes, though seconds felt forever for Wil.

Wil, Reagan, Vic, and Jorge clambered out the sliding door once they pulled into an empty stall. They all headed to their living spaces, Wil in a definite lead. She headed around a building, past a naked tree stuck in the dead, empty soil, then pulled out her key at door 2 of Building 4.

As she scratched a bit at the lock to insert her key, the door was pulled open to reveal Jakob. His harried look was replaced by one of relief, even though Wil’s short scream of surprise also surprised him.

“Let’s go, Wil!” He said earnestly. He grabbed her arm and turned her back toward the way she’d just come. Her backpack swung an erratic arc as she spun, nearly costing Wil her balance. She was so surprised at his intent manner and use of her preferred name, that she stumbled outside again before her mind caught up.

Jakob pulled the door closed and checked the lock. Then, he said, “Hurry!” He ran, hastily following his own advice.

Jakob was heading to the bus stop. She realized this finally, just as she recognized the sound of the bus approaching. This would be a close race!

Galvanized to action, Wil sprang after her step-brother.

Recurring Story: Sixteen

Despite finishing her simple assignment in a reasonable amount of time, Wil was not able to progress much through her coded note.

She looked for repeated symbols, but there were few. She tried an obvious opening address like her first message, but could not see one. Also, the different lines, dots, and half-squares were bunched together in orders that made word spacing too difficult to find. If written in plain English, themessagewouldappearalltogether.

Wil grunted an exasperated sound, then quickly blushed and sunk farther behind her monitor at the curious looks she received in return. She had burned through the small fuel curiosity and novelty had provided. In frustration, she crumpled the paper into her pocket.

The final bell sound played, and the class awoke to chatter, smiles, and the hustle and rustle of materials gathered and chairs returned.

The teenage mass rolled toward the door, then down the halls to other waves of young persons. They all moved toward lockers or toward friends, to eddy in conversations of tide pool depths.

Wil retrieved her backpack and school things without the bother of popularity at all, eyeing the empty chatterers a tad enviously as she usually did. She turned to shut the locker door after putting everything into her pack. Then, Wil jumped and gave a small shout of surprise.

There was another paper in the dust of the locker floor, though she was certain it had not been there when she first withdrew the contents. As usual, it was a torn piece of notepaper. Wil reached in and picked it up.

The writings on this paper matched the printed examples of the lines and line-dots code of her computer work: two X’s and two box grids, each with and without dots, were drawn …with letters! Someone had just dropped her the key to the code!

Wil looked round suspiciously, but her chance had clearly fled. She kicked at the thin carpet floor in frustration. “Zut alors!” She exclaimed, borrowing one of Mrs. T.’s expressions.

“Well,” she thought, “At least now I can crack the dumb thing. Maybe the person’s name is on this one.” She doubted it.

Hefting her backpack onto her shoulders, Wil hurried down the hall and outside. She headed to the usual carpool pickup area.

She saw her neighbor whom she rode with, but the middle-aged woman wasn’t sitting in her usual hunched position over her phone as the engine idled. True, she still hadn’t left the driver’s seat. But, Mrs. Crandall was actively and agitatedly looking at and around departing bodies of students for Wil.
This was never a good sign. Wil increased her pace as worry slowly creased her face.

Recurring Story: Fifteen

Keyboarding, Internet, and You! Wil read at the top of the whiteboard. It was the upbeat subtitle of a series of life skills classes in the Preparing All Students for the Future course. Besides improving morale with bright, plastic colors; her school also sought to show it gave all attendees necessary skills like cooking, computers, woodworking, and sewing.

Wil was currently sitting in KIY! (or KillYou, as the teenagers called it), barely feeling the lecture to be necessary or engaging. Like most of her generation, computers did not intimidate her in the least. Also like most, she thought keyboarding an archaic practice reserved for those too dumb to use the auto-fill and spell-checker. KillYou earned its nickname because the class killed you with boredom.

Preparing herself for a brain nap, Wil slid around in her seat behind her computer. She nearly slid right out again when she looked down to see what was printed on the handout the teacher’s aide had just given each person. The page was titled Cyphers and Codes, with a cheesy cartoon Sherlock Holmes peering through his magnifying glass at said title. Below the title, however, were several examples of codes -including one using lines and dots!

Wil tried to calm her pulse and breathing, then looked around. She was certain she’d see her note-writer. The coincidence was too strong.

No one looked remotely suspicious, however, nor interested in anything in general. This was their last class, was always boring, and the teacher, Mrs. Camp, was difficult to see and hear.

In fact, Mrs. C. was currently lecturing. She was quite short and petite, and quite soft-spoken. She wore her eyeglasses on a chain round her neck, on her face, or set upon her graying hair. She’d just stood up to outline the assignment, though that was hard to tell since the top of her head could just be seen over the top of Wil’s monitor.

Wil realized that she’d missed most of the instructions, in her surprise and subsequent peering round at everyone. Fortunately, Mrs. C. was aware of her height deficiencies and usually wrote their assignment on the paper or the white board up front.

Their riveting task would be to recreate this paper on the computer, using their word processing program and the images already saved in Cyphers and Codes on the shared drive D:/.

Many in the class, Wil included, let out various noises of disinterest as they slowly logged into their student accounts. They wearily copied the text and inserted pictures.

Wil still felt on high alert, so she took a few minutes of moving through automatic gestures to finally realize she knew how to decipher her note now. The lines were part of an X or a box, and corresponded to writing the alphabet in X or box shapes, some with and some without dots. Then, a code writer wrote the shape the letter was in for the code.

Wil also realized that her mysterious person (or, persons!) could have attended this computer class the day before, with the A Schedule session. Then, the person would have learned about codes and started writing her secret messages.

These thoughts were comforting, as she worked to finish the mundane assignment and looked forward to starting on her note. She was so intent now, though, that she didn’t even notice the sneaky, sly look of appraisal from a quiet pair of eyes two seats over and one row back.