Wilhelmina Winters, Seventy-Nine

Wil didn’t notice her interesting ensemble, and her mother was too kind to draw attention to it. Wil might have requested the information, had she known that a certain occupant of Building Five was spying more discreetly than even W could manage.

She and her mother suspected nothing. They walked their familiar, echoing path past the winter-dead trees and morning-shadowed playground. They spoke less than usual; they thought a lot more. Her mother had two coughing fits but insisted she felt fine enough to continue. Wil sighed deeply more than twice but insisted she felt fine enough to continue as well.

They walked the cold and empty route in a quiet unease; each with thoughts far from the areas she walked through or the person she walked with.

“All right, Wil…” her mother said once they were back at home. Her intended speech, however, was interrupted by yet more coughing. Wil closed the door, then walked her gasping mother to the couch. She held up the medicine bottle, the water cup, and then the nebulizer in turn. Cynthia shook her head at each but the last. Wil found and measured out the correct medication, attached the air hose, and offered its mouthpiece. She anxiously watched her mother inhale the vapor at a gasp in the coughing; cough; inhale; breathe out. Wil sighed, as she always did, in relief.

Her mother cleared her throat in the careful manner she’d used all weekend. “Now, Wil,” she said in a quieter voice, “Are you going to tell me more about your secret clues, or about Reagan, or…” She fixed Wil with a knowing look. “About why the playground outside makes you sigh?”

Wil looked up, shock plainly written all over her face.

“Or,” her mother said kindly, “Maybe you want to talk more about the letter from Gwen?”

Wil opened her mouth, changed her mind, and closed it. Her face changed expression to one of scrunched thoughtfulness as she considered what to say. She opened her mouth to try again.

“Mina!” her father said in surprise. He stood in the doorway to the hall, coat in hand and socks on feet. “We need to go!”

Wil hurried a glance to the microwave clock. They were late! “Oh! Sorry, Dad! Umm..” She searched around herself for what she might need to grab, as her thoughts searched around her head for what she might need to remember. Her mind grasped an idea before her hands did. “My bag! I’ll got get my bag from my room! Then we can go!”

She rose in a rush and made to dart around her father; who, for some reason, blocked her path. Wil looked up at him in confusion. A smile played at the edges of his mouth.

“Min- Wil,” he said. “Maybe pick some different pants first?”

Her gaze traveled back to her own person. “Gah!” she exclaimed, and again made to rush to her bedroom. This time her father did not stop her. In fact, she heard what sounded suspiciously like a chuckle just before entering her room.

 

Continued from Seventy-Eight.
Keep reading to Eighty.

Wilhelmina Winters, Sixty-Eight

Wil’s tenacious grip on the slide bar slipped, as did her treadless boots on the platform. With all the grace of a surprised, screeching sloth, she tripped, fell, and slid the length of the metal slide. She landed quite solidly on the frosted wood chips and closed her eyes against the cold night sky. Perhaps, if she squeezed her lids tightly enough, Eric and the world would go away. A portal into another world might open beneath her, or a wizard would appear and –

From a distance, she thought she heard running feet. “God; are you okay?” Eric said from quite close, his concern a tad more evident in his tone than his amusement.

Wil cracked one eye open, then the other. He stood over her. What she could see of his features seemed to resolve into an anxious curiosity. His mouth appeared to twitch at the corners, but she couldn’t be sure in the dim lighting of the apartment complex.

That lighting was never luminous, and tended to turn off at important times. Her mother had said the owners were conserving energy; her father said they wanted to conserve money.

As if on cue, the lamp overhead blinked off. Wil, Eric, and the playground were plunged into darkness. Wil attempted an evasive rolling maneuver to rise, and succeeded in smacking her head against the bottom of the slide. The slide reverberated in the chill, empty air like a gong.

Shit, Wil! What -” Eric began, but broke off at the sound of Wil laughing.

She laughed and laughed. Then she cried. She laughed and cried and didn’t know why. Sitting up, she stopped at the shadowy sight of Eric standing nearby. Did he need something? She attempted to stand, and made it upright with minimal wavering. Bits of dirt and pieces of wood clung to her scarf and backside; she brushed at herself accordingly.

Eric was still there when she finished, within the reach of her arm. She’d never realized how tall he was. “What do you want?” she demanded.

He stepped back. “I, er…” His face moved in the dark, seeking an answer from his feet, the playground, and the sky. Finally settling on his gloved hands, he mumbled, “Nothing, I guess.” She watched his shoulders lift as he sighed. He shuffled his feet.

“Wellllll….” Wil couldn’t think of anything to say. She didn’t even know Eric; she just rode in his car because his mom had a vehicle everyone could fit in. None of them liked Mrs. Crandall, either; but, Wil realized, that didn’t necessarily mean Eric was anything like her.

The light a few yards down the sidewalk turned on. Her eyes flicked to it, distracted, then back to Eric. She was able to make out more of Eric’s face. He was staring down at her, and he no longer looked amused. In fact, his expression reminded Wil of someone’s she’d seen recently. She felt a light, fluttering feeling somewhere near her stomach.

“Um,” Eric raised a gloved hand and coughed a bit into it. “So -are you okay, Wil?”

She couldn’t seem to pull her eyes away from his gaze. She nodded.

“Good.” He did the cough again. “Erm. Great.”

“Miiiinaaa!” came an echoing call from down the walkways. The voice sounded like her father’s, not to mention his use of her second-most detested name.

Wil blinked, the spell broken. “I need to go.”

Eric took a turn nodding. Then he smiled a small, shy, simple smile. He looked nice in a smile, even in the semi-dark. Wil smiled in return, then pivoted and ran to her father’s voice and to their building.

Her scarf fluttered behind her, waving goodbye in the night.

 

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

Wilhelmina Winters, Sixty-Seven

“Mina!”

Dr. Winters paused mid-rush, a sound catching her attention. Perhaps someone was paging her? She grasped at her lapel and realized she’d left her radio back in the office. “Just a moment, Tanaka,” she told the eager but often nervous undergraduate. She left him and walked a few paces back. Turning, she added, “I’ll meet you at the lab.”

A few paces more, and the brilliant woman had another thought. She pivoted and walked backwards. “Which lab is it again?”

Thomas Tanaka still stood where they’d parted. He morphed a rising bemusement into a thoughtful twist of his mouth. “A-23, Doctor Winters.”

“Mina!”

She glanced ’round the reflective, night-darkened hallway.

“Wil?”

Wil opened her eyes to see her sweet mother’s face peering over the front seat at her. Wil blinked and realized her father’s face also pointed her way. Her mother’s smiled; his sighed and was tired.

“I was awake,” Wil said. She felt stiff as she sat up and looked around the car. “Where’s Jakob?”

Cynthia coughed slightly. “He went inside already, honey. Said he had homework.”

For a reason Wil couldn’t quite recall, she thought to doubt Jakob’s claims. Some encounter at the hospital brushed against her memory. “Reagan,” she remembered.

“What?”

“Jakob’s going to message Reagan,” Wil said, tact and discretion always far from her first impulses.

Her mother choked on a laugh, which set her to coughing. Rob moved over and held his wife from an awkward front seat angle.

“I’m so sorry!” Wil agonized, but was rewarded with a pained expression from her father’s quick glance. Wil’s face crumpled. She pushed at the car door and stumbled out into the eerie mists of winter twilight. Recovering, she ran.

The world was a barren, cold, and heartless place. Mankind had learned to fight against itself and avoid all semblance of connections; embracing only empty, selfish pursuits. Nina Win knew this, yet also knew that there was no other world for her. She walked on, her army regulation boots stomping so loudly against the frigid cement walkways that they sounded from the many desolate buildings nearby.

A twisting, bulky shape rose before her. A playground. Why not? the ex-Marine thought. She clumped over abandoned, frost-crusted wood pieces and up a slippery plastic play slide. There at the top she viewed the crumbling housing complex. Families had lived here once, she knew. Children had played where she stood; happy children. Had the physical equipment she gripped in her creaking gloves not been present, Nina would never have believed those facts.

So intent was she upon her gloomy musings that she failed to remember her training to be vigilant. A dark movement shifted just under her left arm and began moving toward her. Despite rigid protocol to the contrary, she almost screamed.

The darkness resolved to a human shape. He stopped just beneath her vigil.

“Hi,” said Eric Crandall, the shy boy from apartment 5-3.

 

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

Wilhelmina Winters, Forty-Nine

Wil was last to reach the minivan. She slid open the side door and climbed over seats to sit in the back row.

Besides an encouraging smile after a brief glance up from her phone, Reagan pretended she and Wil did not know each other any more than they had before Wil was listed as “talented.” Wil knew the group wanted anonymity, but that didn’t prevent a sudden, small, hard lump of self-consciousness from forming in her stomach as Reagan acted obliviously.

They moved out toward home. Wil watched the gray, February landscape of commercial suburbia flash past the minivan windows. Why do they pretend they aren’t friends, except at lunch yesterday and today? She wondered to herself. Surely, the secrecy didn’t matter if everyone in the school saw them all eating together.

With that in mind, she pulled a notebook from her backpack.

Next, she withdrew half of a pencil. She tried to write, but found the tip was broken. Sighing, she dropped that pencil back in the backpack and rifled around some more. After withdrawing the same broken tool twice more, she remembered her pen was inside the folder from History class and took that out instead.

She glanced at the other passengers, and even Mrs. Crandall. Vic was engrossed in their English reading assignment; Reagan and Jorge interacted with their screens; and Mrs. Crandall was eating chips from a crinkling bag, reading a celebrity gossip article on her phone, and occasionally looking out of the windshield. Eric was looking steadfastly forward, though Wil thought she’d seen him move a few moments before she’d looked up.

With waning ink, Wil scrawled a hasty message. Then, keeping her eyes on the back of Eric’s head, she dropped the note discreetly into Reagan’s lap.

Reagan casually dropped her hand down to cover the note. After a minute, she looked at her midsection and read it quickly from a carefully-cupped hand. Wil heard Reagan sigh. Reagan rotated her head a bit to stretch her neck, then grabbed a pen from her pocket and wrote something under the original message. Looking around the car and out the window nonchalantly; she yawned, stretched her hands to her shoulders, and dropped the note back on Wil.

Impatiently, Wil picked up the note and read it. Under her own, “Why all the secrets if we eat lunch together?” Reagan had scrawled what looked like, “Speciel meetings for you.”

Wil sat in her seat, blank-faced and blinking. She didn’t even notice Eric glance back at her quickly. She barely saw another wad of paper -this one purple- drop over Reagan’s shoulder and onto Wil’s boots.

Copying Reagan’s subtlety, Wil stretched down to pick up the paper, then smoothed it out quietly across her legs. Reagan’s handwriting spelled out, “Sorry. I was supost to tell you details. Sorry.”

The minivan screeched the turn into their complex, forcing everyone to one side as their bodies stretched at their seatbelts. It bumped gratefully into a parking stall and Mrs. Crandall remembered to put it into Park before turning off the engine and getting out.

Eric, Vic, Jorge, and Mrs. Crandall exited. In the brief few seconds they were inside together, Reagan looked right at Wil and said, “I have a paper to give you, but I lost it. Stephen is supposed to sneak it to you Monday. It will explain everything.”

Reagan grabbed her things and got out. Following suit, Wil took her backpack and lurched outside. Again, she thought she saw movement; but Reagan and Jorge were almost to their street corner, Vic had almost reached her building, Mrs. Crandall was absently staring at her phone with her mouth open, and all she could see of Eric was his curling red-blonde hairs on the back of his head. He was looking elsewhere again.

Wil shook her head and walked to building four.

Eric turned to watch the retreating figure of Wil and her black scarf blowing behind. She and it disappeared around the nearest building. Sighing, he turned back to the car to retrieve his bag. His eye caught something else moving, but through the open door of the minivan. Moving forward, he saw two notes -one purple- lying on the floor of the car. The slight wind caught at their edges, gesturing to him.

 

Continued from Forty-Eight.
Keep reading to Fifty.

Wilhelmina Winters: Forty-Two

A coyote cry echoed from a-ways West, far from the sleepy town.

Jakob Jawchaw stood silent and dusty, his black arm holding the creaking weathered door open. He looked expectantly at his partner, the notorious Miss Mina, impatience crossing his stern, solid features.

Miss Mina missed the look, or chose to. Deadly as her reputation warned, she never sought disagreement. Disagreement came to her, she would say.

The dusty desert air swirled tumbleweeds down the wooden sidewalks, the soiled kerchief knotted at Jawchaw’s throat, and Mina’s lace hem round her ankles. It tugged at her matching parasol, but she tightened her gloved grip on its bamboo handle.

The outfit came straight from New York City -or, so the merchant claimed- and made Mina itch and fidget something terrible. She wasn’t accustomed to looking so uppity and womanlike. True, she still had her trusty six-shooter strapped to her hip -but, she’d had to strap it under her skirt. There was no quick draw where finery was concerned.

Fighting the urge to hoist the cumbersome ruffles to her knees to step more lightly, Mina closed her parasol and stepped past her partner into the store.

The noise of the open, dirt-blown land snapped off as Jawchaw snapped the door shut. Specks of sand and store dust floated sparsely in the tepid, still, inside quiet of Midtown General Store. The manager barely glanced up from his well-worn newspaper: the Times from last month, mailed to Midtown just last week.

Jawchaw and Mina looked around, making a point to glance over the town notices tacked to the wall. They were pleased to see their faces missing from among the sketches of wanted outlaws. They could conduct their business like regular folk, ‘stead of jumping at every noise and itching to pull a gun on every shadow.

Jawchaw moseyed over to the counter. Mina walked the way she’d seen the ladies do; though she stumbled a fair bit more, on account of being out of practice wearing heeled boots. She took so long reaching the front that Jawchaw was already peeling bills from his pocket to pay for their supplies.

The air inside moved slightly; the rush of desert was heard. Someone had opened the door. Attempting a calm reaction, the two outlaws looked to see who had done it.

It was Cowpoke Crandall and her son, Eric. Mina turned quickly back around, hoping their disguises were worth wearing. Crandall would never be drawn on a wanted poster; she was infamous for sticking her snub nose into every person’s business -crook or not. She’d raise a warning for sure.

Jawchaw saw the danger at once. He collected their vittles and slunk quietly behind a display of tools to clean house. Mina tripped on those darn heels, but made it to a stand of ladies’ hats and scarves.

Crandall either hadn’t seen them, or hadn’t thought to bother with them. She waddled to the counter, her homespun dress swaying as she moved.

Jawchaw and Mina saw their chance, and took it. They snuck to the door, keeping low behind bins and shelves and suchlike. Mina pushed her way out into freedom, glancing back for just a moment as they left.

She couldn’t be certain, but her sharpshooter eyes told her that Eric had seen them leave. In fact, Mina couldn’t shake the premonition that he’d had his eyes on her for quite some time.

 

Continued from Forty-One.
Keep reading to Forty-Two (Again).