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I pulled up the gravel drive past the building that once housed all that I hated in the world. Then again, my reason for coming back to this area held just as much horror and dreadfulness to tide someone over for a lifetime.
My old home stood just as it always did, hanging flower pots and all, but I knew that the so-called parents I grew up with would be long gone from there. Why Willow ever stayed around these parts was beyond my comprehension, but none of that mattered enough to me just then to ponder over it excessively.
I drove around the bend a bit farther to Willow’s small little cottage and, popping the door open, I stepped out of my truck to make my way up to the front porch. Doc Barry greeted me even before my hand reached out to the screen door.
“Come on in, Sam,” he said, gesturing me inside, “she’s been waiting for you.”
“How is she doing?” I asked, pulling my light jacket off and hanging it on the rack just inside the main hallway as he closed the door behind me.
He turned to me, a furrow playing between his brows. “She’s been drifting in out for the past couple days. I have her medicated right now, so she’s not in any significant amount of pain, but…” he ran a wrinkled hand through his hair, “she’s lost most of the control over the right side of her body and she’s getting weaker by the hour,” he touched my upper arm and slowly shook his head, “I’m not sure how much time she has left, Sam. I’m relieved you’re here now while she’s still awake.”
“Wh-where is she?” I asked quietly.
“The far room,” he said, “come with me, I’ll take you to her. Mind you, Sam, she’s not how she used to be. It might be a shock for you to see.”
“I know,” I patted his hand, “I’ll be ok, Doc. If I don’t remember later, thank you for being here with her for as long as have been. I know how much it means to her.”
He nodded and turned away.
We walked in silence past the old living room, kitchen, and bedrooms. Each space held memory upon memory of happiness silhouetted over them. I recalled friends unexpectedly popping up to the window, begging me to come outside. I even remembered the time when I became so infatuated with Doc Barry’s boy, Teddy, that I naively baked him the ugliest cake known to mankind for a Valentine’s present.
Above every, single one of those, though, came the times when my parents fought back over at my house and it pushed me away from them. It became impulse for me to go just a little ways past my back yard to this small cottage-like building that housed the most wonderful woman I’d ever known. Through the protectiveness she held over me, she became more of a mother figure than mine could ever dream of being. She was my dear Willow. My heart sank to rest in my stomach as chills weaved their way through my extremities in my nervousness.
We went around the corner in the far end of the house that led to the old guest room. Willow’s creative flare took a liking to it a couple years back and she turned it into a bedroom of mosaic floral patterns that looked like a cut scene from the Wizard of Oz.
Doc Barry opened the door. “Knock, knock,” he chimed while tapping on the frame.
I peeked my head inside before entering. The lighting seemed suddenly dim compared to the outer rooms, and I noticed that the curtains pulled tight against their tassels. A dainty old oil lamp stood on the nightstand, faintly illuminating Willow tucked deep inside her quilt, her limbs boney through the layers of fabric. Even from the doorway, I saw a twinkle return to her sunken eyes beneath her thin, feathery hair when I came into her view. I understood exactly what Doc meant at that moment. The whole right side of her body simply hung from her, confirming what Doc said: she didn’t have long.
“I brought you a visitor, Willow,” Doc Barry announced, sounding chipper out of the blue compared to his former bleak tone. He walked to the corner by the window and lifted a chair over to Willow’s bedside, inviting me to sit down. As I took my seat, he leaned over to place a hand on Willow’s forehead, then down to her gently press his fingers to her wrist to check her pulse in a methodical manner.
“How you feeling there, Willow?” I spoke gently down to her.
She reached her hand over to me and I took it in mine. A shadow of her old smile crept onto the side of her face that she managed to control.
“Good now, dear,” she cooed at me, “I missed you something fierce, you know.”
Willow’s words flowed in and out of each other until they meshed into one slur. I strained my ears to pick out the different sounds, attaining the main gist of what she said.
“I’ll leave you two ladies be, but I’ll come back in to check on you later,” Doc said, chaffing Willow’s arm gently, “so rest those beautiful eyes of yours soon, you hear?” he winked at her, making her smile a little wider.
Doc put a hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, “If you need me, I’ll be right outside.”
I nodded, turning back to Willow as Doc left us alone in the dark, chilly room.
“He’s been so kind to me the past couple days,” Willow noted in a muffled voice.
“Yes, he has. I thanked him for you, but I have a feeling he kind of likes hanging around here. I always did.”
“You were a trouble-maker when you were little,” she giggled.
“I was not!” I stated, and then rolled my eyes playfully, “my friends just made me seem that way.”
She and I laughed for second at that and after a pause that seemed to have her thinking, she looked up at me. “Have you talked much to anyone lately? Like any of the other children you used to hang around with or that visited here?”
“Well,” I thought, “I heard from Bridgette Klein not too long ago. Her and Teddy Barry finally got hitched about a year ago, I think. She’s due to have their first little baby in a couple months, I hear.”
“Bless my soul, I never pinned those two to actually make it through.”
“That’s horrible, Willow! I thought they got along alright…every now and then.”
“Too right,” Willow choked out a laugh and began a violent coughing fit. I stood partly, not quite sure how to help.
“Do you want some water, Willow?” I gestured towards her cup by the head post. She grunted, nodding faintly in agreement.
Taking the cool glass in hand, I tilted Willow’s head up to take a sip. After a few small and sloppy gulps, I laid her back down to rest on the pillow, and I took my seat again with a sigh.
“Thank you,” she mumbled, “now I have one more question for you, girl.”
I smirked at her, taking her hand. “And what might that be?”
“What’s happened to Peter? I haven’t heard you speak of him in a long time.”
The thudding in my chest halted for a brief moment at his name. As hard as I tried not to think of him, the pain still managed to surface a little and rise in a pink flush to my cheeks.
“Oh, Willow,” I said, waving my empty hand at her dismissively, “you know I haven’t talked to him in years. Not since before he was shipped off to Italy in the war anyway.”
I felt my throat tense up a bit, knowing fully well she caught onto my tone in an instant. She may have been ill, but she never let my hidden emotions slip her by.
“Now see here, missy,” her grumble barely decipherable to me, “I never understood exactly what went on with you two, but the past is past and you should let it be that. There ain’t nothing that can be done by moping about wrongs that don’t mean nothing anymore. I know you,” she tightened her grasp on me in a limp squeeze.
“And I know him,” she continued, “and there ain’t nothing in this world that could possibly be important enough to keep you both apart.”
Spittle dripped from the corner of her mouth to the edge of her chin which she feebly tried to lap it back into her mouth, making a noise of embarrassment. I turned about and picked up a small cloth I found on the nightstand and dabbed at her lips, wiping away the mess.
“Sam,” she called my attention back to her, “I want you promise me something.”
I nodded to her, bringing the soiled cloth to my lap.
“I want you forget what happened back then, and let yourself be happy now. You love him,” she smiled at me, “I know you do. You’ve had your eye on him since you were little. Don’t deny yourself that happiness, my girl. It doesn’t come very often in life.”
I found myself saying a helpless ‘yes’ to her, not sure if circumstances permitted me to actually keep the promise.
Soon after her little rant, Willow tired but before she fell asleep she asked me stay with her and be there when she woke up again, both of which I agreed to. So there I sat, watching her slumber as the hours passed, and my thoughts drifted to that of Peter.
Growing up, he and I hardly separated from each other. There were few children in town, so many of us simply paired off with the one we felt suited us best. Lucky for Peter and I, we just happened to adore each other. Him with his boyish freedom and flirtations and me with my womanly shyness and reserve; both complete opposites, but that never seemed to hinder us. It gave us something to add to the other, something that they lacked and we could provide.
All of those easy, joyous feelings changed, though, when the war started. I became so afraid of losing him what with the first peace time draft calling every able-bodied young man out battle in some far off country or city I barely knew the name of. He scarcely contained himself, though, excited at the chance to defend his country just like every other young man out there. He waited and waited for his draft to come, but by the time it came the war was already half over. He wanted so badly to go, and didn’t understand why I wanted him to stay.
Thinking back on all the emotions we left lying out untouched left me breathless, and I put my hand to my breast, pushing gently at my chest to move the unwanted sensation aside. Disobedient tears tangled in my eyelashes from all the events that had taken place lately, it all piled much too high for me, crushing me beneath. Should I try to keep my promise to Willow? Trudging up old feelings about Peter right now in no way made my tensions about her condition lessen, though. She needed me and I already spent too many years tying those old wounds up to heal.
I looked down at Willow sleeping quietly. She was a strong person, but it seemed that the world finally weighed on her a little too heavily. She lost almost half her weight in the past two months or so during the beginning of her illness, and now the right side of her body hung in an unresponsive fashion while the other side remained hollow and still. What had life done to my sweet, kind Willow? It seemed as if something slowly drained her of every drop of being she still held onto.
Just then, Willow’s eyes fluttered as she faded back in, helplessly looking about the room. “Sam?” her panicked voice called.
“Yes, Willow. I’m here.” I reached over and took her withered hand in mine, soothing her.
Her dark chocolate eyes glinted in the faint light and a half smile twitched in the corner of her mouth. “Will you sing to sleep again, sugar?”
I exhaled a laugh, unshed tears clawing down my throat as I swallowed.
“Sure thing, Willow. Anything you want to hear?”
She thought for a minute. “What was that one song you used to sing when you were a little girl? Some Irish tune of sorts, I think,” she slurred, squinting her eyes to look more than two decades back in time. I knew exactly what song she meant, my grandfather had taught it to me before he passed away. He liked to take me in his lap and sing it to me on his visits. Why her memory took her there, I didn’t know.
Willow looked up at me almost worry-stricken at my small pause of thinking.
“I remember that one,” I patted her hand as softly as I dared, “you just close your eyes and rest, ok?”
The good side of her face smiled a little and she settled her head deeper in her pillow, her eyes gently closing. I pulled the covers a little higher over her and smoothed the hair from her forehead. Her skin felt chilled under my fingers.
I wiped my hands across my tear streaked cheeks and took in a deep breath, closing my eyes.
May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
May the rain fall soft among your fields and until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
A soft whisper was my voice in the near emptiness. I knew deep in my heart that when I opened my eyes Willow would be gone.
I kept them shut.