Wilhelmina Winters, One Hundred Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Wil did not look back.

 

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

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Wilhelmina Winters, One Hundred One

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

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

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

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

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

“Wil,” Mrs. Crandall echoed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Wilhelmina Winters, 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).

Wilhelmina Winters: Thirty-Six

The minivan arrived home to its oil-stained parking stall, despite the daily effort its owner made to prevent that. Various teenagers piled out gratefully. Wil stood for a minute after exiting, distractedly watching her neighbor’s backside following the rest of Mrs. Crandall’s ample body.

Reagan waved a bit at Wil, then headed to the street corner after Jorge. They lived in a townhouse cluster a block away. The movement thankfully broke Wil’s concentration, and she turned and rushed to her own building.

“Mom?!” She asked anxiously, the instant she pushed into their apartment after unlocking it. She shut the door, locked it, dropped her backpack, and headed to the couch.

“Hi, Wil,” her mother said sleepily. She looked up at Wil. Her mouth spoke the simple greeting; but Cynthia’s blue eyes spoke of love, happiness, long-suffering, and exhaustion. Wil remembered that her mother was often tired after not sleeping at the hospital.

Cynthia stretched carefully, yawning. The IV tube was drawn across the couch and back as it trailed behind her stretching arm. “I’m sorry, Wil.” Her eyes now added apologetic to their lexicon. “I kept my appointment for CPT today. It may have been a bit too much.”

“It’s okay, Mom.” Wil sat down by the couch on her knees and looked happily into her mother’s drained face. “I just wanted to see you, but I can let you rest.”

Cynthia yawned again, and coughed a bit. “No, Sweetheart. I’ve been waiting all day to hear you tell me about your day.” She smiled.

Wil waited an entire moment before eagerly bursting. “Yesterday, I got a secret note!”

Her mother’s eyebrows rose and she gasped in excitement. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, this brought on a coughing fit. Wil bit her lip and watched her mother with concern till it subsided.

“How neat,” Cynthia said faintly. She cleared her throat gently and said, more strongly, “What kind of note? From who?”

Trying not to startle her mother again, Wil told her about finding and solving each note. She excitedly described being a spy and a fighter pilot, but left off the part about falling asleep in class.

“And then, there was no one at the library. But, I was looking around, and a boy walked up and gave me this last note. He said his name was Derek.” She pulled the crumpled paper from her pocket and held it within her mother’s gaze.

Although Wil’s exuberance made her a hard-to-follow story-teller, Cynthia was a very appreciative audience. She loved Wil completely, and encouraged imaginative details.

“Do you want to show me the final message, or figure it out on your own?” She asked.

“Oh.” Wil said. She thought about it, then smiled. “I think it’s okay for you to help me,” she acquiesced.

She spread it on her legs to get the wrinkles out. Then, she brought over the nearby TV stand and laid the page out so they could both look at it.

Cynthia leaned over the note, her face next to Wil’s, mirroring her anxious curiosity.

 

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

Wilhelmina Winters: Thirty-Five

Wil walked slowly, her soft brown hair framing a small, pensive face. Her dark eyes, so full of the depth of life, scanned the crowd. Her slim yet graceful body moved ever forward as her peers stared in awe.

Boys watched and wanted from the corners of their eyes, as girls shot looks of envy. That purple cloak was stunning. Those boots were the height of fashion. The scarf was an expensive weave of black on black. The young woman who wore them was so naturally beautiful.

Although she tried to ignore them, Wil was conscious of the attention. Anyone would have to be. She pretended she wasn’t, however. She needed to reach her ride, and couldn’t afford distractions.

“I purchased these flowers for you,” spoke a timid young man with black, wavy hair. He offered them in a shaking hand. Wil brushed them aside, dusting petals to the floor.

A confident boy with blond hair and smoldering eyes tried to block her path. “Let’s catch a movie tonight, Wil.” He was sure to be accepted, but she dodged around his Letterman-jacketed arm.

“You’re coming to my birthday, right?” The Class President begged Wil. She approached with an anxious, artificially white smile; and left with a spoiled frown.

They sought her like hypnotized moths to a tempting flame. But, Wil’s heart-shaped face turned only one way. Her deep glance rested on only one person. Her body was drawn to only one other body.

He would be waiting, she knew, with more than flowers. He would take her somewhere better than a theater. He didn’t have birthday parties filled with fake people.

Wil whispered his name. “Derek.”

She reached the doors to outside, and pushed through them. A disappointed trail of admirers was behind her and the afternoon was before her. The shy sun illuminated her path to the idling minivan at the curb.

Even her neighbors stared as she approached, every other distraction forgotten in Wil’s presence. They shifted to give her the best seat as Wil ducked and entered the vehicle.

“How are you today, Wil?” Mrs. Crandall attempted. Wil didn’t respond, but no one expected she would.

Mrs. Crandall faced forward, appeared to watch surrounding traffic, and pulled into the familiar queue of cars heading home.

Reagan, pulling an earbud from her right ear, turned to Wil and whispered, “So, you’re part of our group now, right?”

Wil didn’t hear at first, as she slid in her seat at the sudden movement of Mrs. Crandall braking and honking.

She realized Reagan had spoken to her, and brilliantly responded, “Huh?”

“Our group,” Reagan persisted. “You got the notes. Derek said you’d find out about it after school today.” She looked at Wil’s face and raised her eyebrows expectantly.

“Oh,” Wil replied. “Um. Yeah.”

“So,” Reagan said, “Welcome.” She sat back, pushing her ear bud back in place and looking at her phone again. She had been reading it since first climbing in the van.

Wil blinked in the reality of the small cabin around her, and realized she ought to actually read what Derek had given her.

 

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

Wilhelmina Winters: 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.

 

Continued from Sixteen.
Keep reading to Eighteen.

Wilhelmina Winters: 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.

 

Continued from Fifteen.
Keep reading to Seventeen.