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.