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-One

“And then,” Wil said, grinning at the memory, “Reagan asked if we were going to be like the Girl Scouts. I thought Derek would correct her -Stephen definitely would- but Derek said that yes, it was like the Girl Scouts.”

Wil looked at her single audience member, propped up on the couch. Her mother smiled a tired smile in reply.

“So, then he said we need to make a list of things we want to help with.” Wil paused long enough to drink from her mother’s glass of water nearby. She didn’t seem to realize she did so, and its owner’s smile only grew more fond. “But then the bell rang and I had to go to Mr. G.’s class. With Art.”

Cynthia’s brow furrowed. “You have art with Mr. G.?”

Wil saw the confusion. “No, Mom. Art is a boy in the lunch group.” She remembered something. “We’re going to work on a project together for class. With another boy named Calvin.”

“Ah.” Her mother settled into the cushions and lay her head back. She closed her eyes. “That sounds fun.” Wil watched the beautiful woman she loved breathe in and out. She listened as well, frowning at how the sound had a continual bass tone to it. Wil suddenly hated everyone who breathed without rattling; without obstruction.

She looked around the room for distraction. A ray of late sunset reached from their small window and fractured through the glass of water. “Oh!” Cynthia opened her eyes at the startled noise. “Mom! I ..I drank your… I’m sorry!”

Her mother snorted a quiet laugh, but the action still brought on a coughing fit. In panic, Wil jumped up, ran the glass to the sink, dumped its contents and rinsed it, then refilled. Sloshing a path on her way, she returned and handed the water to her mother.

“Thanks,” Cynthia managed. She sipped; swallowed; kept coughing.

Wil knew what to do. She rushed to the breathing machine they kept behind the couch. After setting it up, she watched her mother inhale its life-giving breath and exhale in stifled coughs.

They’d just about gotten things under control when the door opened and in walked Rob and Jakob. Rob took in the room, his daughter, his wife, and the nebulizer. He set his keys on their hook and went directly to the couch.

Pulling the mask from her mouth, Cynthia said, “Hello, Rob. And how was your day today?”

 

Continued from Ninety.
Keep reading to Ninety-Two.

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, Fifty-Nine

A few minutes later, the Winters sat together in Cynthia’s neutral-toned hospital room. This one had a different print hanging on the wall over the bed, a nice one of a girl with two braids standing among a garden of flowers. Its life and color stood out against the stark sage-beige theme that otherwise permeated the chilly room, and drew Wil’s interest at once.

Cynthia sat resting where she had for their last visit, and many before that for her entire life: propped up in the bed with IV and oxygen tubes dripping life into a body that seemed to repel it. Wil looked down from the picture of springtime to the face of her favorite person. Her mother’s misty blonde hair reminded Wil of a halo, even against the ugly bedspread of green sheets and paper pillows. Wil began to cry.

“Oh, Wil,” her mother began, opening clear blue eyes of concern. “It’s all right.” Wil cried harder, knowing otherwise. Rob and Jakob shifted uncomfortably; trying to find distraction in the tan walls, off-white window shade, or interlocking squares of cream and blue-green printed uniformly across the door curtain.

Cynthia offered her left arm to Wil, and Wil hurried to it. She tried to hug her mother gently, to not weep so deeply. Self-control seemed futile. They had talked about death, given it a name, and said it was coming. The moment she’d seen her mother laying there and thought of angels, Wil felt how very close Death actually walked. His form stood near enough that his cold shadow made her shiver; his voice whispered from the corners of their lives of imminent loss and despair.

“That’s enough, Wil,” Rob said sternly. He came around the bed and pulled Wil gently but firmly from Cynthia’s arm. Wil collapsed on him, instead. His rough face melted from surprise to a quiet pleasure. He shied from emotion, overwhelmed at his daughter’s level of expression; receiving it only when caught off-guard as Wil had done.

“I..” Wil choked, “I’m trying.” She lifted her wet face from her father’s chest, sniffed loudly, and breathed raggedly. “I just … it’s so… I didn’t want to actually lose Mom!” Wil concluded in a slight wail, and dropped her face back onto Rob. He patted her back, a bit awkwardly, trying to ignore Jakob’s sigh.

Turning to give him a reprimanding look, Rob was surprised to see that his stepson was sighing because there were tears streaming down his cheeks as well. He hadn’t seen Jakob cry in public for a decade. Rob adopted Jakob after the baby years, and often thought the boy just didn’t cry. He looked over at Cynthia, and was not surprised to see her smiling his favorite, sweet smile through her own tears.

Despite the oxygen, Cynthia began another coughing fit. Three sad faces -two stained with tears- immediately lifted to look at her. She raised a hand of reassurance as she coughed, and they relaxed slightly.

Incessant beeping began from behind the bed. Wil realized that her mother was on monitoring equipment, and that the erratic oxygen levels induced by coughing had set it off.

Cynthia finished in a few seconds that lasted forever. The machine quieted. In the absence of noise, Wil heard thumping from a neighboring room or two receiving treatment, then picked out approaching footsteps. The door opened and Nurse Bea rushed in, clinking the door curtain to the side. She looked nearly as out of breath as Wil’s mother, though much more cheery.

“Ah,” Nurse Bea breathed in relief, “I see it’s stopped now.” She looked around at the somber assembly, and her expression became more bittersweet. “Don’t y’all worry for now.” She met Rob’s and Cynthia’s eyes. “The doctor will be in in a few minutes. She’s just finishin’ up on down the hall. I’ll leave you to it till then and you just holler if that ole machine acts up in the meantime.”

Leaving them with a parting smile and wave, she slid the separator back, left the room, and quietly pulled the door closed behind her.

 

Continued from Fifty-Eight.
Keep reading to Sixty.

Wilhelmina Winters: Fifty-Five

“Mina, bring the bag,” Rob ordered. Wil scrambled to her feet and took off down the hall. He looked down at Cynthia, who nodded at him as cheerfully as she could manage. She was trying to suppress another round of coughing, fairly successfully. Rob nodded in return, ending the sort of conversation only those who have lived and loved together for so long can have.

Wil returned with Cynthia’s hospital bag. Rob gripped her shoulder in gratitude, and looked into her eyes. They were wide and full of emotion. “I’m going to get my things. Will you please text Jakob?” Unlike Cynthia, Wil always needed more instruction than a nod and a smile. Rob pressed his cell phone into her hand, and flew down the hall faster than Wil ever saw him move.

She stared down at the screen of her father’s phone. The scratched surface dimly reflected her dark outline. “Wil,” Cynthia whispered. Wil’s eyes shifted to her mother’s, though her focus was obviously elsewhere. She blinked, and slowly returned to the living room, the couch, the drawn face before her.

She needed to text her step-brother. They needed to go to the hospital.

Rob returned, just as Wil finished. She looked up at her father, and he sighed at the distraught confusion on his daughter’s face. He itched to run his hand along his jaw, but both were occupied with his things. Instead, his right hand jangled the ring of keys it held.

“Get your things, Mina,” Rob said. He cleared his throat. “Your book, maybe.” He thought to mention the letter, but decided against it. Wil took another hurried trip from the room, and Rob quickly stooped and retrieved the envelope and papers from where Wil had cast them to the floor.

When Wil returned, clutching her paperback novel and father’s phone, she found Cynthia alone. Her mother was still seated, shuffling her feet awkwardly into her shoes. Wil quickly dropped what she was holding and kneeled to help slide her mother’s heels into the simple gray loafers.

The apartment door blew open. The cold dark of winter afternoon framed Rob’s hunched, unkempt frame before he came through and slammed it back closed behind him. He came quickly to the couch.

“Get your things, Mina,” he said again. As Wil sat back out of the way, he reached forward to unhook the IV bag. Holding it upright in one hand, he leaned the opposite shoulder down to his wife to help her stand.

Cynthia laughed -a mistake, as usual. She coughed and coughed, her body’s jerking motions transferring to Rob’s stocky frame. The apartment fell eerily quiet in the small pause after she finished.

She looked up at Rob. She smiled, an expression that widened slightly at his mirrored response. “I was going to say, ‘I don’t need help to stand up,'” she said, nearly laughing again.

Rob nodded, then helped her to fully stand. He still held her bag. He looked back to his daughter, and Wil hurriedly grabbed the discarded book and cell phone. She looked around the floor, wondering at what else she was missing.

“Let’s go,” Rob said determinedly. They headed out of the apartment, into the great empty echoes of the encroaching storm.

 

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

Wilhelmina Winters, Fifty-Four

All was silent in the small basement apartment, save for Wil’s weeping. Soon, however, the old furnace chugged to life and sent warmed air through its arterial vents. The worn, mostly cream-colored refrigerator began to hum along. Cynthia’s machine beeped periodically from behind the couch. They sang backup to Wil’s lonely dirge.

Time moved forward, dragging everyone along whether they willed it or not.

Cynthia waited. Rob sighed, wishing himself somewhere without confrontation or conversation. Then, he turned to look at the two most important women in his life. Wil had her face pressed into Cynthia’s shoulder, sobbing intently. His wife met his eye and smiled at him, sweetly through her tears. He smiled in return. He could never resist.

Cynthia looked down at the mass of brown curls resting just under her chin. “Wil,” she said gently. Wil continued to cry, determined to stay miserable forever.

Wil of Winterfell would never feel happiness again. Everything in the world was dreary, lonesome, and wrong.

Misty rain fell steadily around and upon her forlorn figure, huddled beneath the dark and dripping willow tree.

She glanced up to search, once again, for what she had lost. All that met her teary gaze was a sea of gray stones, black grass, and dark paths. No one at the graveyard was living except her, and she no longer wished to be.

Deep brown hair that once curled tantalizingly round a noble face now hung limply at each side of a pale, drawn visage. Hazel eyes shone wide and wet from matted lashes. A large, dirty overcoat barely warmed her frail, sickly frame. Health and vitality had been beaten away by pain. She had been beautiful once, before the rains.

Now, she could never hope again.

Cynthia began coughing. Wil automatically pulled away, to give her space to recover. She and her father watched Cynthia gasp and heave around each hacking breath. As frequent as this show had been, it never failed to alarm Wil. She slid to the floor, waiting for its end.

Cynthia finally stopped, then looked up at Wil, then Rob. She smiled weakly, and breathed a few times in and out. Another coughing fit began.

Wil suppressed her internal panic. Cynthia sometimes had multiple episodes. It would pass. She looked up at her father, and found more than her eyes mirrored in his face. He was also worried. They both watched Cynthia again

And again.

Finally, in a drained and shaking voice, Cynthia said, “I’m sorry, Wil, Rob. I think we need to go back to the hospital.”

 

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

It Could Always Be Worse

She lay on the bed, pregnant and bored. She wasn’t to move, the doctor had said. “Let’s see how things go with complete bedrest,” he’d told her.

“Easy for him to say,” she grumbled, shifting. He was walking around. He had a job, his health, and the fact that he’d never be pregnant in his life. It’s not like she’d asked for this time around to be high-risk.

“It could always be worse,” her husband said, kissing her before going to work. He tousled the hair of their first child on the way out, oblivious to their son’s fully wet diaper and hunger whines. “Try making a list of what you’re grateful for,” he added, then popped out the door to work.

Her mother came in. “Oh, Sammy, you need a change,” she told her grandson. Scooping him up; she, too, headed out the door. “I’ll bring you breakfast in half an hour, dear,” she called back to her pregnantly-prone daughter.

Thinking hard, the bedrested woman pulled out her notebook. Maybe she did need a better attitude. It wasn’t like having a poor one helped her situation at all. “I’ll list all the reasons why it’s good I’m home, and not in a hospital,” she decided.

She began with, “1. Able to see my son every day.” By the time toast and eggs arrived, she’d gotten to, “15. No nurses waking me up all night long for tests.”

That night, her placenta previa worsened. She was checked into the hospital, to stay until her due date: five weeks hence, at the earliest.


“I can’t get to work,” he coughed into the phone. He sounded like Darth Vader with asthma.

“We-e-e-ell, I’m sorry you’re sick, but I need you there,” was the reply. His boss sounded cheerful, well-rested. “You see, I’m off tonight, and we’re short-staffed if you don’t make it.” He heard swallowing; a satisfied exhale.

Shifting the cell phone to his less-congested ear, he eyed the bottle of cold medicine he’d been able to pick up a half hour ago. It recommended against operating heavy machinery. It suggested he might be dizzy while taking it. He wished it had a warning about trying to function at all.

“Look,” he croaked out, “I have a fever and can’t breathe. I just started this medication and it recommends against driving.” He coughed to the side, then thought to cough closer to the receiver. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”

He closed his eyes, silently praying. Today would not be a good one to trek around the canyons, citing law-breaking hikers. The temperature was dropping by the minute.

“It could always be worse,” his sergeant said cheerfully. He heard a fireplace crackling in the background; saw his boss rest two slippered feet near the flames.

His boss terminated the call. Rising slowly, groaning, he pulled on his uniform.

It could always be worse, he thought the next morning, in the doctor’s office. “Looks like pneumonia,” the Physician’s Assistant told him, wearing his commiserating smile.


The morning had gone badly, even for her. Her boyfriend didn’t believe in bad luck; told her she was too superstitious. She’d noticed that those who scoffed, like him, didn’t have the sorts of days she usually did.

That day, the alarm had not gone off. Rolling out of bed too late to shower, she had grabbed at it. She’d intended to give it a scolding, to restrict its late-night beeping privileges. The casing came apart in her hands. It beeped a dying beep, leaving behind a broken body, and leaking battery acid.

She quickly dropped it into the garbage and ran to wash in the bathroom sink. “At least I have water,” she told herself. It ran, trickled, stopped. Frozen pipes, again.

“Good thing I didn’t try to shower,” she mumbled, running to dress. She spritzed a few extra squirts of body spray, to be safe, and left her apartment in a rush.

“I’d better text the landlord,” she said. Walking to the front door; she checked her purse, her pockets, her hand.

No phone. She sighed.

“Well, I’ve got my house keys, at least,” she told the closing door. It locked as she descended the front stairs.

“I think I have my keys,” she added, searching her purse as she walked. She dug in this corner and that, pushing empty lotion bottles and old receipts round and round.

She was so preoccupied, she didn’t see the barriers. She did see the open manhole, just before falling in.

“Whoa, lady! Are you all right?” A man asked her, down the hole. She looked up to his dark outline, from the filthy tunnel floor. She thought he was one of the construction workers, but she couldn’t be sure. She’d left her glasses home, as well.

“I think I’ve broken my leg,” she called painfully in reply, not moving it. Fortunately, she’d had enough life experience to diagnose most of her medical issues.

“Well, it could always be worse,” he called.

She looked around the dim sewer. “How?!” She yelled back, incredulously.

A pause. “Well,” he said, less confidently. “If you’d fallen in tomorrow, none of us would have been here to help you.”

The faint echoes of an approaching ambulance came down to her. She had to admit, he was right.