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The pictures flashed through my mind as I threw my belongings into a suitcase. I wiped the tears away from my eyes with the back of my hand.
“Wilhelmina,” my husband said from the other side of the locked door. “Open the door or I’ll have to break it down.”
I ignored him and zipped the suitcase up before flinging the door open.
“Where are you going?” he asked me when he grabbed my arm, still wrapped up in the bedsheets.
“Away from you,” I sneered, yanking my arm away. “I’m taking the Mercedes.”
“Willy, we can fix this-.”
“You know we can’t, Henry. You can’t change who you are.”
My husband stared at me stunned. I used this momentary distraction to make my way into the garage. Out of the ten cars that sat there, I picked the Mercedes and threw my suitcase in the back, not caring if it ruined the leather.
“Will-,” he followed me into the garage.
“Good bye, Henry,” I said, pressing the open button for the garage. I turned the key and reversed in one easy motion. I drove out of the estate towards the one person I could truly trust.
I knocked on the door of the house, hugging my body close as the rain fell. My hair was plastered to my face and my clothes to my body.
“Willa?” my best friend, Ben, from college seemed surprised to see me as he wore a wife beater splattered with paint and a pair of boxers. “What are you doing here?”
“Can I stay the night?” I asked, nearly in tears.
“Of course,” he ushered me in. “Let me get you a towel.” He hurried away and returned with a big, beach towel.
“Thanks,” I said as I tried to rub the moisture from my hair.
“Do you need dry clothes?”
“That would be nice.”
Ben left again. I took this opportunity to look around. There was a decent sized kitchen, a sporadically painted dining table in the dining room; a decent sized couch, which I was sitting on, and a small TV in the living room.
“Did you walk here?”
“No. I drove,” I explained. “It’s dangerous to drive when you’re upset,” I said absentmindedly. I surveyed the canvases littered the floor and walls, leaning against furniture, leaning against each other. A large one hung on the wall in the living room.
“You kept it,” I stated when he came back with an old t shirt and an old pair of boxers. I recognized the painting from college. I was naked with my arm around my chest, but you couldn’t see my face, as it was obscured by my hair and slightly turned away. I remembered when he painted it. We were sophomores in college.
“It was the best picture I had ever painted,” he shrugged, making his way into the kitchen. “I wasn’t going to let it get away.”
I pulled off my shirt-Ben had seen me naked before-and pulled on the one he let me borrow before doing the same with my jeans.
“This feels nice, wearing warm clothes,” I said.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked, handing me a hot chocolate.
I looked away. “Our parents made us get married, to combine the businesses,” I explained. “We hadn’t been intimate since our wedding night, so I came home early from work today to rectify that. I walked in on him...”
“He cheated on you?”
“That’s not the worst,” I whispered. “It was with his male assistant.”
“Oh, baby,” he embraced me to his body. I cried into his shoulder.
“We’ve been married for half a year,” I cried. “And he didn’t even tell me! I’m married to someone who can’t love me! I should have listened to you, Ben.”
“You tried to do the right thing, sweetie. You wanted to please your parents. It’s not your fault.”
“The signs were all there. He refused to sleep with me, for goodness sakes. And all those business trips...They make so much more sense, now.”
“You can stay here as long as you want, Willa,” Ben promised me. “You look exhausted. You should sleep.”
“Please don’t leave me. I don’t think I can bear to be alone,” I begged. He nodded and bent down to pick me up. He carried me to his room and laid me on his bed. “Do you have any alcohol?”
“I have some vodka.”
I looked up at him expectantly. He left the room and returned with a bottle of Gray Goose and two glass cups.
“Sorry I don’t own any wineglasses...”
“I honestly don’t care what I drink it out of as long as it does what it’s suppose to do.”
He poured both cups with enough vodka for a shot.
“To lying husbands,” I toasted him before throwing the vodka back. It burned as it went down my throat. Ben did the same. He filled up the cups again.
“To women who deserve more,” he bumped his glass against mine before downing it. I followed suit. Half a bottle later, we were both very drunk, for lack of a better description.
“To pink monkeys,” I slurred. I fell sideways into Ben after I downed the shot. “You’re handsome, Ben.”
“You are too, Willa.”
“Silly Ben, I’m not handsome, I’m pretty,” my voice went high on ‘pretty’.
“You are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met,” he leaned back against me.
Suddenly, as if guided by an inner demon of some sort, I lurched forwards and kissed him firmly. Or, at least, I tried. Our teeth bumped together almost painfully, and I clutched my front teeth in pain.
“Wilhelmina, did you try to kiss me?” Ben asked, suddenly almost sober.
“I did, my dear sir,” I retorted, and leaned forward to kiss him again, this time forgoing the teeth clashing. We kissed long and hard before he pulled away.
“Are you sure-.”
“I am going by instinctuating, here. Is that a word? Instinctuating?”
His eyebrows screwed up deep in thought. He looked so cute that I went on my knees and laid small kisses on his neck, running my hands down his chest. I straddled him and moved his hands to my breasts. Most likely because of all the alcohol we had consumed, Ben kissed me back and rested his hand on my small waist, pulling me closer to his body.
“We really shouldn’t be doing this,” I murmured against his neck.
“Do you really want to stop?” he asked, breathless.
“Never,” I replied, sealing my lips on top of his. His hands clumsily pulled at my shirt and we broke apart to pull it over my head. Said hands, then, buried themselves into my wet hair and stroked my scalp. I yanked his shirt up impatiently. He pushed me down, onto my back. I moaned when I felt his hands rub my breasts gently. I opened my eyes at the same moment that Ben did his. I saw something burning in those brown eyes even in my drunken state. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I had never seen it directed at me before.
I let myself go in Ben’s arms.
I woke up with a roaring headache with a leg falling off the bed. I groaned in annoyance, the memories of the night before fuzzy. Opening my eyes, I realized that I wasn’t in my bed at home. The memories of the night before filled my head. My eyes filled with tears as I remembered seeing Henry and his assistant in our bed. I realized that despite my hesitance in marrying someone I had only met twice before, I had forced myself to love him these four months of marriage.
“Morning,” Ben strode into the room only wearing boxers, carrying a plate of pancakes. I sat up suddenly, shocked.
“We did,” he winked at me, standing in front of the bed. I looked down and realized my state of undress. I pulled the comforter up in front of my chest and narrowed my eyes at him.
“I cheated on Henry.”
“He cheated on you.” I inhaled sharply and squeezed my eyes shut.
“Don’t remind me,” I replied. I felt the bed move as Ben sat down beside me.
“I made pancakes.”
I ignored him.
“They have chocolate chips,” I felt him nudge my shoulder. I opened my eyes and looked over at Ben. “Show me that beautiful smile,” he urged. I forced a smile. “Say ‘ah’.” I opened my mouth for him to place a syrup saturated piece of chocolate chip pancake on my tongue. A little of the syrup dripped down my chin. I laughed as I tried to stop it from falling on the blankets. Ben laughed with me as he dabbed the bit of syrup that had fallen onto the bedspread I clutched to my chest.
“Is this your mom’s recipe?” I asked around the mouthful of pancake.
“Of course,” he smirked at me. “I figured you needed it.”
“I can’t believe I did this. I’m still married.”
“Do you regret last night?”
“I should, but I can’t,” I admitted. “Remember when I went to your house the night before my wedding? I asked you if I should go through with this wedding. Remember what you said?”
“Do what your heart says is right,” he recalled, reaching forward and pushing a lock of my messy, dark hair away from my face.
“I didn’t listen to you,” I admitted. “I did as my father told me to. I always do as he tells me to, Ben. I don’t know who I am anymore. I wish everything was as simple as college was, don’t you?”
“That was five years ago, Willa,” he fed me another bite. “It does seem long ago. A simpler time. I remember when we met.”
I laughed, the memory still fresh in my mind. “When we were freshmen.”
Hugging my bag tightly to my chest, I walked into the art classroom, staring at the floor. The old art teacher was staring intently at a painting near the middle of the classroom. I cleared my throat. He looked up.
“Can I help you?” he asked, moving his glasses to rest on his messy, paint-flecked white hair.
“I’m the new model,” I explained. “My friend, Jenna, had the job, but she got sick and asked me to come in her place. I believed she called?”
“Ah, yes,” the old man grinned. “You must be Wilhelmina. I’m Freddie Johnson. Call me Freddie.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Freddie. Please call me Will.”
“Okay, Willy,” Freddie motioned to the doors at the back of the room. “The outfit we want you to model is in the back,” he instructed me as he led me towards the doors. He ushered me into the room before I had a chance to correct my name.
I grabbed the black bag that hung on a hook and picked a stall. I peered into the bag and pulled out a yellow sundress. I pulled it on after taking off my jeans and blouse. After I was dressed, I walked out into the painting room, where two other students had arrived and were talking to Freddie.
“Willy!” Freddie called out. I looked up from a painting I was observing into the brown eyes of a very handsome man. There was a blonde woman standing next to him. “I want to introduce you to my star pupil, Benjamin Knox. Ben, this is Wilhelmina Brown.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Willy,” he held out his hand to shake, brown eyes sparkling. His grin was infectious, and I smiled back at him. I shook his hand firmly. He ran his other hand through his paint flecked brown hair.
“You, too,” I smiled at him. He didn’t let go of my hand right away.
“What about me?” the blonde said loudly.
“And this is Sarina Ayers,” Freddie rolled his eyes at her. “Rina, be nice.”
“Hello, Rina,” I held out my hand towards her. She shook it, ignoring Benjamin Knox’s sniggering.
“Hello, Willy. Are you replacing Jenna?” she asked bluntly.
“Just until she gets better.”
“Does she have that flu that’s going around?”
“I’m not sure. I’m thinking about taking her to the nurse.”
As we talked, the classroom began to fill up. Benjamin snagged a seat not too close, but not too far.
“So, what are you here for?” he asked me as he set up his canvas.
“I’m still trying to decide between Business and Art History. You?”
“I’m an art major.”
The Beatles began to play on the boom box. Freddie came up to me and began to direct me on how to stand. One calf bent back. My left hand curled around the right side of my waist. Leaning sort of back. Head turned to the side. Back to Ben.
“May I?” he asked, holding out a hand towards me. I nodded. Freddie reached up and pushed my hair away from my shoulder and tilted my head more to the side so that my chin was parallel to my shoulder. I stood like this for nearly an hour before Freddie called for a break. Using chalk, he marked where my hand was on the dress and where my legs were positioned on the stand. I was grateful for this break because my neck was killing me and I had an itch where my hair tickled my arm.
“You okay?” Ben asked me as I rubbed my neck.
“Just a little pain in my neck, that’s all.”
“Do you really go by ‘Willy’?”
“Actually, it’s Will. For some reason, he thought I said ‘Willy’ when I introduced myself.”
“Will,” Ben frowned. “Can I call you Willa? It suits you better.” I blushed.
“You nicknamed me Willa,” I remembered, smiling at the memory. “What happened to that painting?”
“My mom has it hung up in her house,” Ben explained.
“What time is it?”
“Um, around ten, I think.”
“Dang it!” I flew out of bed. “Where are my clothes?”
“In the dryer. What is it, Willa?”
“I have to pick my parents up at the airport. Their flight lands in ten minutes,” I called out from his laundry room/pantry.
“Do you want me to drive you?”
“That would be the best. They were supposed to stay at mine and Henry’s home, but now that I left...”
“We can find them a hotel.”
“They will be so disappointed in me.” I frowned, yanking my shirt over my head.
“I’m sure that all they want is for you to be happy,” I felt his arms circle me from behind. I turned around in his arms and rested my head against his chest.
“Are we continuing what we had in college?” I asked him.
“I hope so,” his grip around me tightened. “I don’t want to loose you again.”
“I’m sorry I did this to you,” I whispered, a tear making its way down my cheek.
“We went to one school dance together, Willa.”
“But there was always something. You kissed me when you painted that picture of me.”
“We’re going to be late on picking up your parents.” I reluctantly let go of him and we walked outside to his big, old SUV. “I can’t wait to see your parent’s faces when they realize that they’ll have to ride in ol’ Bertha.”
I laughed, sliding into the passenger seat, the time he painted me flashing in my mind, all the while, calling the W Hotel to make a reservation for my parents.
“Benny!” Rina called out. “Willy!” She hopped over a book bag and knocked over an empty table in her haste to get to us. After Freddie started calling me Willy, everyone had except for Ben, who insisted on Willa.
“Hey, Rina,” I smiled at my friend. Three years had passed since we had first met, and graduation was looming around the corner. The two of us were busy planning a vacation next weekend to the beach when Rina came running towards us, breathless.
“Leah broke her leg.”
“What?” Ben’s eyes widened in astonishment.
“The model Freddie assigned you to?” Willa asked, turning to Ben
“Yes, dammit,” he pressed his hand to his head in aggravation. “The exhibition’s next week. I can’t find an adequate model and paint her nude by then!”
“I’ll do it,” I found myself saying. Ben stared at me.
“She models all the time for Freddie’s classes,” Rina nodded.
“There’s a difference between modeling with your clothes on than off,” Ben explained.
“You know I would do it if I could,” Rina rolled her eyes. “But my Grandmother’s sick. I have to take care of her this weekend.”
“I won’t do it if you don’t want me to, Willa.”
“I’ll do it as long you don’t paint my face. I can’t risk my father knowing.”
“Thank you so much, Willa. I owe you one!”
“Yes, you do.”
I arrived at the art studio at the same moment that Ben did. He led me silently to a private studio, a small, but airy room with big, tinted windows and a pile of blankets next to a pedastal.
“They won’t be able to see from outside,” Ben explained. I smiled gratefully at him. “There’s a changing room over there if you want to...change?”
“More like undress,” I teased to break the tension. He laughed softly as I made my way into the small changing room. I pulled off all my clothes and just pulled on a pale blue kimono style robe. Reviewing all the tips that Rina gave me, I stepped out, glad that I had taken up running four times a week at the gym last year. The blankets were arranged carefully on the pedestal.
“How do you want me to stand?” I asked.
“Just...do whatever feels natural.”
I slid off the kimono, my cheeks turning red as Ben’s eyes appraised my body with his artist eyes. Those brown eyes started at my bare feet, going up my toned legs, my flat stomach, my small breasts. They finally ended on my red face.
“You’re beautiful, Wilhelmina,” he stated. I looked away, cheeks going impossibly redder. He always knew the right things to say. I hugged my legs tightly to my chest on the pedestal. He sat down at his canvas and frowned. “You’re tense, Willa. Relax.”
“You’re not the one naked,” I stated.
He stood up and walked over to me. “May I?” he asked. I nodded, understanding what he was asking. Ben placed a hand on my forearm and pulled it away from my legs gently. He kept eye contact with me as he positioned my legs in such a way and my arms in such a way that my breasts were pushed out, and my knees were bent in ninety degree angles and my feet were flat on the ground. He tilted my head back and draped my hair over my face in such a way that it didn’t look awkward.
“Willa,” he whispered. My chest rose and fell faster. Our lips were so close. I moved my hands from where he placed them and pulled his face to mine. He kissed me passionately, his hands traveling to my waist and lower back, holding me to him at the same time my hands reached for him. It felt wonderful, his strong, slim hands pulling me flat to his body, his tongue sliding against mine. Then, just as suddenly as the kiss started, it ended. I remembered myself and pulled away.
“I’m engaged,” I said quickly.
“What?” he frowned in confusion.
“It happened years ago, when I was ten. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“My parents and this other family made this agreement to combine their businesses with my marriage to the other family’s son.” Tears made their way down my cheeks.
“What? I thought agreements like that only happened in the olden days.”
“I have to marry this man, Benny. My parents have done so much for me, it’s the only way for me to repay them.”
“Do you love him?”
“I’ve never even met him.”
“What do we do now?”
“I don’t know,” I bit my lip. “Pretend what just happened never happened? Finish painting me?”
His eyes surveyed me. “Promise me you won’t move.”
“I promise,” I watched him as he hurried towards his canvas and started to stencil me in on his canvas. He grabbed his camera once he was done and snapped a picture. Ben’s two hours finished up, and before we knew it, I ran into the changing room and pulled on the red dress I had arrived in. When I came out of the room, he was cleaning up his paintbrushes. He stood in front of me when I made to see the painting.
“I don’t want you to see it until it’s done,” Ben stated. I nodded.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“Willa,” he smiled slightly at me and enveloped me in one of his bear hugs. “It’s going to be okay. When will you marry him?”
“Once I finish school. And I’ve gotten into graduate school, so another four years.”
“We’ll stay best friends,” he promised me. “Only best friends.”
“Okay,” I whispered.
“I’m still sorry that I kissed you,” I glanced over at Ben. His eyes didn’t leave the road. “I knew that I was engaged, yet I still-.”
“I kissed you, too,” he interrupted me. “If you hadn’t kissed me, I would have kissed you.”
I looked down and smiled. Ben reached over and squeezed my hand tightly.
“Should we let your parents know about us?”
“Not yet. I’m going to tell them I left Henry, that’s shock enough for today. And I don’t want them to think that I left him for you. Daddy doesn’t like you already. You’re not the kind of man that he approves of,” I agreed.
“Remember the first time we met?”
“That’s unforgettable, Ben.”
“Wilhelmina!” a black haired, middle aged woman called out. Despite her age (forties), she still retained her beauty and her eyes still sparkled. She wore a pretty, white dress and her large, Chanel glasses rested on her perfectly curled hair. Her lips were darkened red and her make up was made so perfectly that it brought out her natural beauty instead of creating it.
“Mama?” I turned away from my conversation with Jenna Flowers, my roommate whom everyone called “Flowers” because she had such a flowery personality, in surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“Is that any way to greet your mother?” she asked, hugging me tightly to herself.
“I’m sorry,” I said automatically. I hugged her back, eyes searching for the large, imposing figure of my father. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, love,” my mother pulled back and smiled at me. “Your father and I wanted to surprise you for your birthday. Flowers!” she said happily when she saw my roommate. She left me and hugged the tall, statuesque brunette.
“Hi, Zora,” Flowers said politely. “How was your flight?”
“It was good, dearie,” my mother, Zora, said, patting Flowers’ shoulder lightly. “Now, where is that husband of mine?”
Suddenly, loud cursing filled the air.
We looked up. While my mother was just above five feet, my father was six feet two with black, curly hair that was combed neatly and a broad chest and shoulders. He was handsome, but not overly so, and was in his mid fifties. His usually impeccable Armani suit, which showed that he went directly from work onto the plane, was splattered with paint. His face had good features, but right now, that slightly crooked nose was flaring with anger and those usually good natured blue eyes were narrowed.
“Daddy,” I called out, flying towards him. His face instantly transformed into something softer. I ran into his arms, ignoring the wet paint, and he flung me around.
“Willow,” he grinned, setting me down. “How are you, baby?”
“I’m fine, Daddy,” I told him.
“You got paint on her,” Zora complained, frowning at her husband. Sure enough, my blue dress was splattered with pink and yellow paint.
“It’s fine. I was planning on changing anyway,” I shrugged.
“It was that idiot boy that ran into me’s fault,” my father held up his hands in defense. “Must be an Art Major,” he said the last two words in disgust.
“Daddy,” I said sternly. “There’s nothing wrong with being an Art major. My two best friends are Art Majors!”
“Fine. I need to change. I can’t take you out to dinner with paint all over my suit.”
“I have to take a raincheck on dinner tonight. My friend’s having an exhibition with his art today and Flowers and I promised we would go.”
“But it’s your birthday!”
“You can come with us and then we can have dinner.”
“Alright,” my father said sourly. My mother nudged him, rolling her eyes.
My father’s chauffeur dropped my parents, Flowers, and I at the art exhibition. The place was pretty crowded. I had changed into a skirt and top and was looking everywhere for Sarina and Ben.
“Fish!” Flowers called out over the heads of all the people. The tall, gangly red head looked over at us and grinned widely. He excused himself from the people he was talking to and made his way over to us. He had forgone his normal v-neck shirt and jeans to wear a long sleeved, smart looking button down and black slacks to cover the native American-looking phoenix tattoo on his arm.
“Hey,” he briefly squeezed both me and Flowers.
“Fish, these are my parents. Mama, Daddy, this is Connor Norman, but everyone calls him Fish.” They shook hands.
“Connor Norman? Do you happen to be related to Jessica Norman?” my father asked.
“Yes, sir. She’s my Aunt.”
“Willy!” Freddie appeared next to me and patted my shoulder. “I have to thank you and Flowers for getting this all together.”
“You did this?” my mom asked, shocked.
My cheeks coloured. “Flowers helped.”
“Don’t be modest, Willy. She managed to convince the college board to have our exhibition at this place. And Willy, you have no manners.” His eyes twinkled in mirth.
“What did I do?”
“You didn’t introduce me to this fine, male specimen,” he wiggled his eyebrows. My mother, Flowers, and I all laughed at my father’s shocked expression.
“This is my dad, Freddie. And this is my mother. Mama, Daddy, this is Freddie Johnson. He’s in charge of the Art Department.”
“Hello, Mrs. Beautiful,” he turned the charm onto my mother. She took it with ease, placing her hand in his so that he could kiss it.
“Hey, gorgeous,” Ben murmured in my ear. His fingers tickled my waist, causing me to turn around and laugh.
“Benny, stop,” I giggled. “Mom, Dad, this is Benjamin, my bestest friend here.”
I looked at my parents and was shocked to see my father’s angry face.
“You’re the one that spilled paint all over my suit!” he said angrily. “And then just ran away.”
Ben looked confused for a minute. “Have we met?”
“You spilled paint on me! Today!”
“Oh! I’m sorry about that! I needed to make some last minute touches to one of my paintings. Our friend, Sarina, was yelling at me because I was late. I’m really sorry about that.”
“That is no excuse-.”
“Dad, it was an accident,” I looked at him sternly. “Why are you freaking out over this? It was just some paint!”
“Love, why don’t we see that gorgeous painting over there,” my mother interceded, pulling her husband away.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Ben rubbed my arm soothingly. I breathed in deeply. “You all have to see my paintings.”
Ben led us to a section that had the name “Benjamin Knox” written in black letters. The way the studio was designed was so that the name of the artist was written above the paintings on the wall. Ben covered my eyes with his hands before I could see his art.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I have a surprise for you,” he stated, leading me over to the wall. I heard Flowers gasp.
“Is that?” she asked.
“It’s supposed to be a secret,” Ben said quietly so that we were the only ones that heard him. He removed his hands from my eyes. The portrait of my naked body hung in front of me. I pressed a hand to my mouth.
“It’s beautiful, Benny,” I whispered. My fingers hovered a few inches from the swirling colours of the canvas before dropping it to my side. My eyes flickered to the rest of the canvases. A sparkling eye. Part of a smile. My smiling face on top of my bikini clad body, partially covered with a towel. A camera.
I looked at Benny and opened my mouth, but my mother beat me to the punch.
“Is that you, Poppy?” she asked, pointing to the bikini painting.
“Yeah,” I nodded, not loosing eye contact with Ben, who was smiling softly at the painting. “I model for Freddie’s classes sometimes.”
“These are beautiful, Ben,” my Mom stated. “The intimacy of the paintings are inspiring. How much for the eye?”
“Excuse me?” he asked.
“I want to buy it. It would look beautiful in the formal dining room. And that one,” she pointed to the naked picture. “How much?”
“The nude isn’t for sale,” Ben admitted. “But, if you like my work, I have other pieces like these that are just as good.”
“That would be lovely. Will can give me your email later.”
“Willy Billy!” the huge, blonde football player cried out when he saw me. “Flower Power!” he pulled Flowers in for a passionate kiss. She giggled when they finally pulled away. They had been dating for a year so far, and I was the only the one that knew about the velvet box in his pocket.
“Eww!” Rina wrinkled her nose in disgust. She smoothed out the paisley printed handkerchief dress she wore as she approached us. “I know ya’ll are dating and stuff, but do you have to mack on my brother in front of me?”
“He started it!” Flowers held up her hands in defense. My mother laughed when the football player grabbed her into a hug.
“Guys, this is my mother. Mama, these are my friends, Sarina and Leon Ayers,” I gestured to the petite blonde girl and the huge football player.
“We’re twins,” Rina explained, shoving her brother off her. “I’m older.”
I grabbed my mom by her elbow. “Let’s go over here, Mama. Rina’s sculptures are over here.”
“It’s a pity he won’t sell that picture of the nude woman. It’s a beautiful painting.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“I know it’s you, love,” she said under her breath. “There’s a little birthmark on your upper leg.” I bit my lip. “I won’t tell your father, though. I promise you, Wilhelmina.” She grasped my shoulders. “He’ll get very angry and it will not help you in your marriage. The family may object.”
“What did we say about ‘yeah’, Poppy?”
“Better,” she looked sadly at me. “I love you, darling. You know that your father and I just want the best for you.” Then she asked me the question that she had repeated every time we were alone. “If you don’t want to go through with the marriage, just tell me.”
“She gave me so many outs, but I didn’t take any of them,” I admitted to Ben. He rubbed the back of my hand soothingly. “I was always scared that Daddy would be angry with me.”
“They only want what’s best for you, Willa.”
“No. My mother only wants what’s best for me. Daddy only wants what’s best for his business. I’m just a pawn.”
“Will you tell them about Henry?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know, Ben! Henry isn’t a bad person. He just didn’t want to disappoint his family. We were friends. We got along. I want to talk to him first.”
“We’re close to the airport,” Ben stated. I looked out the window and, sure enough, the airport came into view. I raised Ben’s hand that was intwined in mine to my lips. He glanced at me and smiled before looking back at the road. I pulled out my cell and dialed my Mother’s number.
“Hey, sweetie,” her tired voice came to the phone. Mama didn’t travel well.
“Hey, Mama. Did you land okay?”
“Yes, We’re at baggage claim right now, waiting for our bags.”
“I’ll meet you outside at the South Exit, okay?”
“That would be lovely, dear.”
“Did you take your medicine?” Ben asked once I hung up.
“It’s ‘take as needed’, Ben.”
“You’ve been under so much stress lately. What if it happens?”
“I haven’t seen her two years,” I shrugged. “The medicine’s at Henry’s house, anyways.”
“I’m worried for you, Willa.”
“You don’t need to be.”
He tightened his grip on my hand.
Two weeks after the Art Exhibition, the crew took a trip to the beach. We took two cars, girls in one and boys in the other. We had pooled together to rent a two bedroom cabin on the beach to stay for spring break. The girls shared a room and the boys shared the other room.
“Who wants to go to the beach? We can make a bonfire,” I called out on our last afternoon, walking into the room in my bikini and a sarong tied low around my hips. The very one that Ben painted me in. The boys were intent on playing some video game where they were driving cars and ignored me. I raised an eyebrow. “It’s our last night!” I stood in front of the TV. “Let’s go out.”
Ben drove his car into Lion’s, which then hit Fish’s.
“Dammit, Ben!” Fish frowned at his friend.
“Outside. Beach. Now,” I directed. Flowers strode into the room in her old fashioned flower printed bikini. Lion immediately went to her and kissed her soundly on the lips. She smiled up at them. I looked away from them, a pang of longing in my heart.
“C’mon,” Rina grabbed my wrist and pulled me towards the door. I looked up and saw Ben murmuring something to Fish. Two seconds later, I had been grabbed around the waist by Ben and the legs by Fish as they ran outside with me between them
“Ben! Fish!” I screamed, laughing all the while. “Don’t you dare!”
The cold water splashed all around me when they dropped me into the sea.
“The Fish is in his natural habitat!” Fish yelled. I rolled my eyes and laughed as I wiped the water from my face.
“I’m going to kill you both!” I tried to say sternly, but was laughing too hard. “Help me up!” I held out my hand for someone to grab. Ben pulled me up. “You got my sarong wet!”
“It was Ben’s idea!” Fish stated before running off. I turned on Ben.
“Traitor!” he yelled at his friend.
“C’mon. I need to put on sunscreen.”
“You aren’t mad.”
I shook my head. “I’m furious.” He knew I wasn’t. He knew it was just for show.
“I’m sorry! I’ll do anything for your forgiveness, “ he grinned at me.
“Make me a smoothie and then I’ll think about it.”
He nodded and raced back to the house.
“Here,” Rina tossed me a towel as I came ou of the water.
“Thanks,” I rubbed the towel across my body.
“The boys are attempting to surf again,” Flowers laughed from her spot on the towel.
I glanced back at the beach where, sure enough, Fish and Lion had surfboards in their hands.
“I thought I explained that the waves here weren’t big enough to surf because of the Georgia Bite,” I said as I laid the towel on the sand.
“They’re intent on proving you wrong,” Flowers giggled. “Tell us about you and Ben.” Rina looked away.
“What are you talking about?” I answered quickly
“You and Ben were acting weird after he did the nude of you. What happened?”
“Nothing,” I avoided their stares.
“C’mon, Will. We’re your best friends. We won’t tell anyone.”
“We kissed,” I admitted softly. Flowers grinned. Rina turned away.
“He was trying to show me how to sit for the painting and it just happened. And the worst part? It felt so right. Absolutely perfect. As if I could kiss a million lips, but none would feel as perfect as his,” the memory of his kiss struck through me. I coloured slightly.
“I told him about my engagement.” I couldn’t look at them. “And I told him that we could never happen. That nothing could come from this. The truth.” A few stray tears made their way down my cheeks.
“Oh, Will,” Flowers reached over and squeezed my hand. I wiped my face with the towel.
“Everything alright?” Ben asked, walking up to us.
“Will had some water on her face,” Flowers explained. “Because someone dropped her in the water!”
“I’m sorry!” Ben held out a plate with three glasses filled with strawberry smoothie. “Will you accept my apology, Will?”
I took the smoothie and sipped it. Delicious. “Yes.”
Flowers and Rina took one, too. “Let’s get started on the bonfire.”
“Ben, tell Fish and Lion to get some driftwood and the thing of wood in the trunk of my car,” I instructed him. He nodded and ran towards his friends.
Since Flowers’ family did a lot of camping when she was younger, she was the only one that knew how to make a good fire. The boys were useless in this area. Apparently, Lion’s allergies to the forest were so bad that he would stay with his grandparents during outdoor trips. Ben was born and raised in the city. Fish actually got kicked out of Boy Scouts because during a camp out, he set a tent on fire (he says it’s by accident, but who knows).
Flowers set up the bonfire and, with the driftwood the boys had brought and some flint, the bluish flames lit up our faces as the sun went lower in the sky. Rina brought marshmallows and sticks to cook them on. Fish brought out his guitar and we passed around the cola can as we sang camp songs.
A few college boys heard us and came to inspect the noise.
“Can we join?” the cute, blonde haired, blue eyed Aryan asked.
“Sure,” I shrugged looking at my friends. They nodded, except for Ben, who was stiff at position next to me.
“You okay?” I asked softly.
“I’m fine,” he muttered. The Aryan sat next to me. His two friends, one with bleached, blonde hair and too big, unnatural muscles and the other with a tattoo stretching across his torso sat on the opposite side of the fire.
“I’m Harry,” he introduced himself and inclined too close to me. I scooted towards Ben uncomfortably. “These are my two friends, Jeremy and Lance.”
“Oh, my,” Jeremy, the muscular one tried to joke. We stared blankly at him.
“Anyways,” Lion stood up and pulled Flowers up with him. “I have something that I need to say.” He turned to his confused girlfriend and bent down on one knee, pulling out the little velvet box. “Jenna Elizabeth Flowers,” he began. Flowers gasped in shock. “Ever since I first met you in that Biology class, I have been in love with you. You are my most precious flower and always will be. Would you do me the honour of being my wife?”
Happy tears fell down Flower’s face as she nodded furiously.
“Yes! Of course I’ll marry you!” she threw her arms around her fiance’s neck and kissed him passionately. We all applauded.
“Finally, man!” Fish clapped his friend on the back.
“To Lion and Flowers!” I toasted.
“Is that vodka?” Jeremy asked.
“Sure it is.”
“No, really. It’s cola.”
“Why the hell do you have cola?”
“Because we like it?” that came out more as a question.
“Where’re you from?” Harry asked me.
“We’re from Georgia Tech in Atlanta. You?”
“We’re from UGA. I guess That means that we’re enemies.”
I glanced away from the fire. “I guess.”
“You have a hair,” he reached forward to push my hair away from my face. I leaned away.
“I’ve got it,” I scooted closer to Ben and pushed my hair from my face.
“I want to leave,” Rina stated, tears dripping down her face.
“What happened?” I asked,
“Fish kissed that b****,” she whispered. I frowned and stood up, enveloping her in my arms.
“I’m sorry, Rina.”
“Can we just leave?” she requested. “I don’t want to ruin Ben’s friendship with FIsh and Flowers and Lion’s day.”
“Lion would probably kill Fish,” I said.
“I don’t want him to do that!”
“I’ll tell the crew we’re leaving.”
“Thank you, Will.”
“For someone who claims that they can’t be with Ben, you sure do lead him on,” Rina said darkly when we were driving down the interstate. I swerved slightly from shock at her tone.
“You heard me,” she spat. “He loves you, you know. But you won’t give him a chance!”
“I have a duty to my father,” I told her, lips pressed tightly together.
“Why would you give up that kind of pure love he’s offering you?” her voice started to rise.
“I envy you so much, Rina!” I shouted, pulling off the road. “You have so much freedom that you take for granted! I wish I had your life!”
“As if!” she shouted back. “Your family is filthy rich! You get everything you want and more! You can do anything you want!”
“Money is a curse! People like to think it isn’t, but it is! Do you know that you guys are my first, true friends? The first people that haven’t befriended me because of my father? I hate my life so much sometimes. It’s crazy. My family has a psychiatrist on call.”
“What about Ben?”
“He understands my situation. I didn’t want this to happen-.”
“He loves you!”
“I love him, too! I love him more than anyone could compute. But I have to live without him.”
“Your father controls you, Will.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“I’m going to pull back on the road.”
I threw the car back on drive and pulled back on. I had been driving for about five minutes when the unthinkable happened. A semi veered into my lane. I tried to swerve out of the way, but it all happened too fast.
The next thing I remembered was flashing lights and darkness. My chest felt heavy.
“Miss?” a voice said from far away. “Can you hear me?”
My eyes flickered open. The top of the car was a mere inch away from me as if it had been crushed, and the windshield was broken. I glanced to my side and saw Rina in her seat, blood dripping from a wound on her head. She was unconscious.
“Rina? Rina!” I started to scream.
“Miss, please calm down,” the voice said. “We need you to cooperate with us. You’ve been in an accident. Can you tell me if you’re hurt?’
“My arm hurts,” I whimpered. “And my friend is hurt! She has a head wound and she’s not responding.”
“Okay, Miss. We need to take you out of the car.”
It took a while, but they managed to pull me out on a gurney.
“Rina!” I cried out when they took me to the ambulance. A medic had placed an oxygen mask on me when I had complained that it hurt to breath.
“We’ve got her, Miss. You need to calm down,” the medic said. The pain in my arm and chest started to intensify with every second. Finally, it was too much and I lapsed into unconsciousness.
I woke up in a hospital room with Ben, Flowers, Lion, and Fish surrounding my sickbed. Ben explained to me that the semi had been hit by a car and created a domino’s effect. It had hit the passenger’s side of the car, where Sarina was sitting. The force had knocked my car into the car beside me and swung around. I had broken my arm and a rib. Sarina was hit hard on her head and suffered irreparable brain damage. They had taken her into surgery. Sarina Pippa Ayers died at 2:34 A.M. That morning.
Lion was sitting on the complementary chairs with his face pressed against Flowers’ shoulder. Fish was staring blankly out the window. Ben held my hand tightly.
“It’s all my fault,” I whispered.
“Don’t say that,” Ben murmured.
“We had just had a fight! I was angry. My reaction time wasn’t fast enough!” I started to cry.
“It wasn’t your fault, Willa,” he tried to tell me, but my parents came barging into the room.
“Wilhelmina!” my mother flew to my side, her dainty, long fingered hands fluttering over my body.
“It’s just a broken arm and rib, Mama,” I tried to console her.
“We’ll leave,” Flowers told me softly. She led her fiance out of the room.
“I heard what happened to your friend, Will,” my mother gripped my good hand. “I keep imagining that was you.” My father stood awkwardly to the side.
“Well, it wasn’t, okay?” Fish yelled at her. “It was Rina! Beautiful, saucy Rina! She’s dead, now. She’s dead, oh, God. She’s dead,” he whimpered, running out of the room.
“Fish!” Ben called out. “I better stop him before he does something stupid.” He ran after our grieving friend.
“I guess that leaves me and Ben as the ones planning her funeral,” I said softly. “Lion’s catatonic, Flowers is trying to help him, Fish is a mess.”
“What about Rina’s parents?” my mother asked.
“Her father died of cancer a few years back. Her mom lives on the other side of the country. They’re not very well off.” I shrugged. “I don’t know if anyone’s told her.”
“Jude, give me your laptop,” she directed her husband. “I’ll have Ben give me her number and we’ll tell her if no one else has.”
“We’ll pay for that, too. Sarina deserves the best,” my mom squeezed my hand before leaving.
“How are you, Willow?” my Dad asked.
“I’ve been better.”
“I’ll get you the best medical care, I promise.”
I frowned. “How’s the business.”
“Good.” He answered way too quickly. I decided not to press it.
“So...how’s the weather?”
We sat in awkward silence.
Two hours later, Ben came in looking harried. Big splotches of red stained his shirt.
“Fish,” he muttered angrily. “He tried to kill himself, the idiot. Seems that he was in love with Rina, yet never told her.”
“Rina made me leave because she couldn’t stand seeing him kiss other girls.”
“I don’t know the answer to that one. There’s talk about sending him away. The idiot!” he kicked the edge of the table. “Dammit!” he clutched his foot.
“Eveything’s so messed up, Ben,” I murmured. “We have to be strong for Lion. Flowers will be busy taking care of him, so we have to get the...funeral ready for her family.”
He gripped my hand tightly.
“She was my best friend, Willa,” his voice broke. “Why did this have to happen to her?”
Ben gripped my hand tightly. “I don’t know, Ben.”
We circled around once before they had found their bags. The shock on my father’s face was obvious when he took in the beat up SUV and the artist that spilled paint on him all those years ago.
“Mama! Daddy!” I opened the door and ran to hug them both tightly.
“Hello, Poppy,” Mama looked at me with sleepy eyes.
“Where’s Henry?” my father demanded.
“It’s nice to see you, too,” I said wryly.
Then, Zora Brown leaned into her husband, eyes closed.
“Dammit,” my father muttered. “We need to take her to the car.”
I nodded, used to the drama queen nature of my mother.
“What’s wrong with her? Should I call the hospital?” Ben asked worriedly.
“She’s fine,” my father waved his hand in annoyance. “She does this whenever we travel. Just let her sleep in the car for about an hour and she’ll be fine.”
Ben took the five bags that my parents had brought for their weekend stay and placed them in the trunk one by one while Daddy and I laid Mama down in the backseat. I sat with her and rested her head on my lap. Daddy went to the front passenger seat.
“Wilhelmina,” my father began. “Where is your husband?” he stressed.
“Henry couldn’t make it, so Ben was nice enough to drive me here,” I explained crisply.
“You can drive.”
“My car isn’t big enough for the amount of baggage that you carry.”
“It’s your mothers!”
“Two of them are yours, dear,” Mama’s voice was muffled by my clothes. I laughed softly as Ben stifled a chuckle.
“I made you and Mama reservations at the W Hotel. It’s one of the nicest in Atlanta,” I assured them.
“I was under the impression that we were staying with you.”
“Change of plans.” When my father raised his eyebrows at me, I continued. “I’d prefer to tell you when Mama is conscious.”
The rest of the car ride was spent in awkward silence. When we arrived at the W Hotel, Ben and I helped my mother out the car while my father went inside to get the room keys. The doorman unloaded the car.
“Ben, love, be a dear and get me a drink,” she requested.
“Get her a glass of Conundrum Table Wine. If they don’t have that, get her Cabernet Sauvignon.”
He nodded and left, muttering to himself, “What the hell is ‘Conundrum’?”
“I like that boy,” Zora murmured. “You do, too.”
“He’s my best friend.”
“No, you like him more than that. Remember that conversation we had right before your wedding?”
I was laying down in my bed. It was the night before my wedding, and I was having second thoughts.
“Hello, love,” my slightly tipsy mother entered the room. She plopped herself down beside me. “Are you excited about the wedding?”
“I don’t love Henry, Mama,” I admitted. “I’m scared about submitting myself to someone I don’t know.”
“Let me tell you something that I have never told anyone, not even your father,” Zora’s arms encircled me. I rested my head on her chest. “I didn’t love your father when I married him. I loved someone else. My father would never had allowed our marriage, so I never told anyone, the someone I loved included.
“Jude knew that I didn’t love him when we married-he didn’t know I loved someone else, though-so we played chess on our wedding night.”
“Chess. I was very good once upon a time,” she smiled down at me, a hint of mischief in her eyes.
“You refused to play with me when I was younger!”
“I don’t have a taste for chess anymore,” Zora shrugged. I chuckled. “Well, anyway, long story short, I began to grow to love Jude. I eventually realized that he was better for me than that someone I loved before. We meshed well. And then he gave me you, the most beautiful, sweet, caring daughter anyone could ever have.”
“Mama,” I blushed.
“I know I haven’t exactly been the best mother, Wilhelmina, sometimes I wish I spent more time with you, having fun. Not trying to turn you into a lady,” she kissed my hair. “I didn’t spend enough time with you.”
“You spent plenty of time with me,” I objected. “You’re a good person, Mama. And the best mother.”
“If you really feel that you cannot go through with this wedding, look at me and tap your nose twice. I’ll stop it.”
“No, really, Poppy. I want to make sure that you will be happy.”
“I love you, Mama,” I whispered.
“And I love you, dear.”
“I wish I tapped my nose, Mama,” I admitted softly. “I really thought that maybe we could make this work.”
“Here you go,” Ben approached us and handed my mother a wine glass filled with the white wine. She sipped it delicately. My father reached us.
“I have the room. Let’s go.”
“I’m divorcing Henry.”
My dad’s eyes widened in shock, but my mom nodded slowly. Ben had left to grab us food while I was explaining everything to my parents.
“What-why-You’re divorcing him?”
“I realized last night that he will never love me. And I will never love him. He’s more like a brother than anything.”
“But the businesses-.”
“I’ve always listened to you, Daddy. I’ve always done what you said. I’ve always ‘helped the business’. But I’m doing something that is right for me. I need to divorce Henry or I will never be happy. And if you really love me, you would let me do this.”
“I paid for your college through Brown, Inc., Wilhelmina. I paid for your clothing. I paid for your food, your car, your apartment in college, everything was through Brown. You will ruin the company if you and Henry divorce.”
“I will ruin nothing, Daddy. I had no part in bankrupting Brown. You are just using me to get out of it,” my voice rose.
“How...how did you know?”
“I’m not stupid, Daddy. Talking to Mr. Whitaker outside my door about that isn’t very smart.”
“I didn’t want to sell you to Whitaker’s son, Wilhelmina!” my father yelled. “We’ll be ruined if you divorce!”
“Sweetie,” my mother said to my Dad. “Maybe we should-.”
“Shut up, Zora,” he growled. “Why would you do this?”
“He cheated on me,” I blurted out. I covered my mouth in shock.
“Henry cheated on me.”
“It’s not important. It’s just some person.”
“You have an obligation to this company. You may not like it, but you will be running this company one day and have to make some sacrifices.”
“I’ve done everything for the company!” I shouted. “I went to business school after college, I worked in the company after that. I did internships every summer!”
“If you divorce Henry, forty thousand people will loose everything. We employ forty thousand Americans alone. The company will collapse and then those employees will loose their source of income.”
“He’s gay!” I shouted at my father.
Silence filled the air, but my father said nothing with no response.
“You found out,” he said as if inquiring about the weather.
I blinked in shock. “You knew?”
“Of course I knew,” he rolled his eyes at me and set his scotch on the table in front of him. “It was part of the marriage agreement.”
“I don’t understand.”
“No one wants their only son to be gay, Will,” my father explained. “Gerald was an only child and Henry is his only child. There’s no one else to carry on their family business. It would pass into the hands of someone not with Truman blood. Gerald approached me eight years ago and offered to help me keep the company running if you married his son and had a child with him.”
“And how am I exactly supposed to have a baby with him if he can’t sleep with me?” I screamed.
“IVF. Artificial Insemination. There are ways,” my father shrugged.
“You obviously put a lot of thought into this,” I turned to my mother. “You knew?”
She looked away and I knew.
“I made your mother swear to not tell you. Don’t blame her. Wilhelmina, as my only child, you have a duty to the people that work for Brown. All 40,000 employees.”
“You’ve already told me this,” I snapped.
“If you divorce Henry before you two have a legitimate child, the Truman’s will pull their funding out from under us and the company will collapse!”
I glared at him.
“Just have a baby with him. They you can go off and marry that painter of yours.”
“I’m here to make baby’s?” I voice broke.
“I can’t believe it took you this long to figure that out, Will,” a voice that I hadn’t heard in two years, a voice that belonged to someone on the other side of the country and six feet below ground, a voice that I would recognize anywhere, said. I turned around slowly and came face to face with Sarina Ayers.
“Oh, my God,” I whispered in shock.
“Poppy? Are you okay?” my mom asked in concern.
“I-I need to go,” I made my way to the door and hurried out of it, closing it shut quickly behind me. Sarina walked through the walls, eyes rolling.
“Walls won’t keep me back, Willy. Don’t be stupid,” she crossed her arms in annoyance.
“You’re not real,” I said without any real conviction. I pressed the button for the elevator.
“Of course I’m not,” she rolled her eyes again. “I’m just a figment of your imagination. I have to say, though, I did miss taunting you. How long has it been since I last appeared?”
“Two years,” I murmured.
“Such a long time to be shut off in your head, don’t you think?”
I decided to try to ignore her until I was in the safety of my car. The elevator opened and I walked in.
“You’re a slut, Willy,” she said in my ear. I turned away from her.
“Lobby, please,” I requested softly to the elevator man. He nodded, looking at me with concern from the corner of his eye. Leaning against the back of the elevator, I squeezed my eyes shut to shut her out. It didn’t work.
“A trollop. A whore. Married to one man, but sleeping with another? Such a slutty thing to do, Will. No wonder your father ignores you. You were only born to create baby’s to carry on the Brown family line. Did you know that Ben hates you? Ever since you kissed him while modeling for that painting, you’ve been playing with his emotions. You kiss him, then tell him it won’t be possible. You look at him longingly, but tell him it’s never going to be possible. And now you’ve slept with him, and you’re going to leave him.” The elevator stopped. I left, blinking away the tears that threatened to fall. “You’re the reason I died!”
“It wasn’t my fault,” I murmured.
“You killed me, Wilhelmina,” she spat with venom in her words.
“Shut up!” I screamed, pressing my fingers to my ears. “Just shut up!” The hotel guests surrounding me paused what they were doing.
“Harlot! Murderer!” Sarina was yelling in my ear. “You’re scum! You’re weak! You’re selfish!” I curled my shoulders up to shut her out.
“Stop it,” I cried out brokenly. “Please, stop.” I openly sobbed. My breath started coming in short breaths. My chest tightened and I could hear my pulse.
“Isn’t that Wilhelmina Brown?” a woman whispered to her friend a few feet behind me. My nails dug into the skin of my arm and my eyes were clenched shut.
“You deserve everything that happening to you, Will,” Sarina said next to my ear. I flinched away from her.
“Please,” I tried to say. “I’m sorry. Please stop.”
Then everything was quiet. And everything was black.
My eyes fluttered open. A blurry expanse of white was the first thing that appeared in my eyesight. Slowly, fuzzy shapes began to form. I recognized a white coat and dark skin.
“Mrs. Truman?” the blob asked. I blinked furiously, trying to make him become clear. “I’m Doctor Goya. You’re at Atlanta Medical Center right now. You had a panic attack at the W hotel. Do you understand?”
“I-I think,” I stuttered. “Why can’t I see?”
“We thought you would be more comfortable without your contacts, ma’am,” he explained. “Your husband brought your glasses though. Would you like me to place them on you?”
“Yes, please.” The blurriness instantly became clear. Doctor Goya was a middle aged African American doctor with a round middle and a straight nose. His own glasses sat, perched on this straight nose as he stared down at me with his kind, brown eyes. “What happened?”
“Can I check your eyes while I explain?” he asked. I nodded. He took off my glasses. “I need you to follow my finger.” I nodded again. “The EMTs that arrived on the sight told me that they were told that you seemed to be hallucinating which led to tremendous stress and then you had a panic attack. Good. I need to shine a light into your eyes-.”
“To check for dilation,” I interrupted absently. I blushed. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” he grinned good-naturally at me. “I assume tremendous stress triggered the panic attack?”
“Yeah, a lot is going on in my life.”
“Well, everything seems good, Mrs. Truman. Your pupil reaction time is fine,” he assured me. I smiled back at him. “Upon arrival at the hospital, we found you to be slightly dehydrated-that is why you have an IV hooked up to your arm.”
“I didn’t even notice it,” I admitted.
“I would like to ask you a question. I would like you to answer truthfully or not at all. When did your panic attacks first start?”
I looked away. “When I was nineteen,” I admitted.
“There’s no record of any panic attacks in your medical file.”
“I never went to the hospital.”
“Can you tell me what triggered it?”
“No, you don’t know, or no, you don’t want to talk about it?”
“No, I don’t want to talk about it. I know very well what triggered it.”
“Do you want to get better?”
“That’s why I’m going to see a psychologist.”
“Your family is outside. Should I send them in?”
“No. Is a man by the name of Freddie Johnson out there? Or Benjamin Knox?”
“Mr. Johnson is out there. We had to escort Mr. Knox out after he got into a screaming fight with your father.”
“Can you let him in?”
Five minutes later, the doctor was gone and Freddie was in his place.
“Hey, Willy,” he smiled sadly at me.
“I saw her again,” I ignored salutations.
“What did she say?”
“Same things as last time. I killed her. I’m taking advantage of Ben. Things like that.”
“None of it’s true, Willy.”
“I’m crazy, Freddie,” I whispered. “I see my dead friend from college.”
“You’re not crazy,” he patted my hand comfortingly. “Just under a lot of stress. Do you want me to get Ben?”
“I need to ask you something, first. The well-being of forty thousand people versus the man I love. Who do I pick?”
“What does you heart say?”
“The heart’s a muscle, Freddie.”
“Stop being a Chemistry major and tell me!”
“It was Biochemistry!” I sighed. “I need to think.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t see Ben right now,” Freddie frowned.
“I slept with him last week.”
“We were both drunk out of our minds and it just happened. It felt so amazingly right. I can see myself growing old with Ben and having children and arguing about who’s going to take out the trash,” I looked out the window. I saw more buildings. Big, white buildings. “Henry is a homosexual. He can’t ever love me,” my eyes filled with tears. “But it’s all so that forty thousand people will not be unemployed. That’s noble, right?”
“I don’t know if I would pick duty over true love, Willy,” Freddie admitted. “I’m not strong or selfless enough. You’re one of the strongest people I know. If you do choose your duty, I know that you will follow through, yet be sad all your life. We both know that if you choose love, though, you’ll be happy, but tear yourself up for the rest of your life about it.”
“I don’t know!” I cried out. “Everything is so complicated!” There was a knock at the door. The gray haired nurse popped her head in.
“May I come in?” she asked.
“I better be leaving, Willy,” Freddie picked up his jacket. “Get well soon, dearie.”
“I’m Nurse Delly. Short for Delia,” she grinned down at me.
“Willa,” I introduced myself.
“Are you okay, Willa?” she handed me some tissues from the little table on the opposite side of the room. I dabbed my face with them.
“I’ll be fine.”
“Would you like the newspaper?”
She handed me the newspaper that sat on the little table. On the front page, there was a picture of me at the top. ‘Brown Heiress has Mental Breakdown. Go to A12 to find out more”. I flipped to A12. There was a picture of me unconscious on the floor of the lobby at the W hotel.
“‘Wilhelmina Brown-Truman, the daughter of Brown CEO Jude Brown, caused quite the commotion yesterday afternoon in the lobby of the W hotel in downtown Atlanta. Witnesses say that she came out of the elevator looking distressed before screaming at unknown persons. ‘She was yelling for someone to shut up, although no one was talking to her,’ says June Weaver, a witness. ‘She sort of curled up into a ball and covered her ears, sobbing the whole time.’ June also states that she was ‘begging an unseen someone to stop.’ Ms. Brown-Truman was taken to the hospital unconscious. The Brown nor the Truman families are available for comment at this time.’” I read out loud. I tossed it to the side of my bed. “Mental Breakdown,” I muttered to myself. “More like Mental Insanity.”
“I’m going to leave, now, Will. Do you need anything?’” Delly asked me softly.
“A pen and paper would be nice.”
She walked over to the little table and picked up the pad of paper and a pen.
“Here,” she handed it to me and left. I thought long and hard before I began to write. At first it was all my thoughts. Just to see them to think. I wrote a letter to Henry first. Then to my father. I wrote a letter to Freddie. Then tore it up. Then I tried to write to Ben. Five times. Each ended up in the trash. I stared outside the window and saw an elderly woman being helped up stairs by her husband. A pang of hurt hit my heart. I wanted that.
I wrote. When I signed my name, a tear fell on my signature. I tried to rub it away, but it just smudged the ink, so I folded it and wrote Ben’s name on the outside.
Nurse Delly entered the room again.
“Your parents are insisting on seeing you. Would you like to see them?” Nurse Delly asked softly to me.
“Just my mother, please.”
“Of course,” she smiled gently at me. I was alone in my room. Looking out the window at the blue sky, I thought about my life. Sarina had been right. Every decision I made was because I wanted to please my father. It was the only time he paid attention to me, when I did as he said. But this decision wasn’t for him. It was for me. It wasn’t to please anyone but myself.
“Hey, sweetie,” my mother peeked in.
“Hey, Mom.” Zora Brown was an intelligent woman. Maybe not book smart, but intelligent. She wasn’t the best mother, but she did her best. When Dad wasn’t at my photography exhibit in high school, she was there. She came to my dance performances, she tended to my injuries, she tucked me into bed at night. She offered me a way out of my obligations even though she knew that thousands of people out of a job because of it.
“How’re you doing?” she asked, sitting in the chair beside my bed.
“I’ve been better.”
She chuckled. “I brought your laptop because I’m sure you’re going to be bored in this hospital room. I also grabbed s book from the gift store,” she set my laptop case and book beside me. “I was so worried about you, baby,” Zora pushed my hair out of my face.
I held her hand at my cheek. My mother really loved me and that was what mattered.
“I’ve decided,” I told her.
“We can discuss that later, Willa.”
“No, I want to discuss it now. I’m staying with Henry.” Zora bit her lip and nodded. “Tell Dad, would you?”
“Okay, baby,” she blinked back tears.
“And could you give these to Ben, Dad, and Henry?” I asked. She took the letters from my grasp. “You can read them if you want.”
“I will,” she promised. She bent down and kissed my forehead. “You’re so strong. I love you.”
“I love you,” I murmured back. When she left, I grabbed my laptop and turned it on. After connecting to the hospital wi-fi, I went to apartments.com and began my search.