Familiar Streets of Kennewick
Washington in December was frightful, making Dartmouth's campus seem pleasantly warm. Wil leaned over the hood of her tiny red VW, scraping the last of the snow and ice off the windshield and brushing it off onto the driveway.
"Have a moment for an old man?" a voice asked at her side, making her jump. Tapping the brush off, she looked up, unable to stop the shock from showing on her face when she saw who the speaker was. Uncle Chuck stood leaning on his cane and grinning at her crookedly. He wore a worn and faded Bass Pro hat, and he took it off once he'd stopped so he could run a hair through his short gray hair.
Wil nodded to him, holding up a finger. She went around the back of the car and opened the trunk, setting the brush inside. In truth, she was curious to hear what he had to say. Uncle Chuck had always been a man of few words, preferring to play wildly with her as a child and offer a few words of wisdom as she grew. He was actually her mother's uncle, and he lived across the state somewhere, driving in for every family gathering and holiday since before she could remember. He was always alone, and she thought briefly how sad that must be, to live to his age without any family around him.
She shut the trunk and went back to him before she could think too much on how she might end up the same way.
"What can I do for you?" she asked, leaning against the car. Uncle Chuck had set the cap back on his head, and he looked her over for a moment, his eyes rich with an emotion she couldn't quite place.
"Listen, Willa, I just – er – I wanted to make sure you really wanted to go," he said awkwardly, shifting his gaze away from her. "Are you sure it's the best thing for you?"
She smiled softly as she watched him fidget, reaching out and setting a hand on his arm. "Yes," she told him firmly, "I'm sure. They're family too, and you know how much that means."
"Well, yes. I've been realizing it more the older I get," he admitted. Clearing his throat, he continued, "Er – just be sure you don't let yourself get too wrapped up in his memory, all right? I lost my wife years back, and I never really let her go. It's hard, and seeing where that got me… You're too young."
When he looked at her, his eyes seemed to see right through her for a moment to the grief she covered up. When she nodded, he returned the gesture with a soft "That's my girl." After a moment's hesitation, he reached out and set a hand on her shoulder. "You're a good kid, Willa. Be safe on those roads, and be back by dark, you hear?" She smiled at him, and clearing his throat, he turned away and started back up the shoveled walk to his niece's two story home.
Wil got into the car slowly, watching in the mirror as Uncle Chuck went back into the house and closed the door behind him. With a sigh, she punched an address into the navigator. A voice accepted the address and the car started down the road as Wil leaned back. For the first time since coming home, she allowed her mind to dwell on her fiancé, memories coming one by one to her as the familiar streets of Kennewick rolled past.
It had been here, on these streets, that she and Andrew had found each other. She hated to admit it, but theirs was an old fashioned childhood romance grown strong through years of teasing and play. He'd been the boy that slipped mud pies into her cubby at school and thrown snowballs at her back. His family had moved to the far side of town when they were in junior high, and even that young they'd known their friendship was the lasting kind, trading calls and emails and vid-chats constantly to keep in touch. They'd convinced their parents to send them both to the same private high school, supposedly for academic reasons, but they knew it was so they could be together.
Now, as the miles brought Wil closer to Andrew's family, she felt her chest constrict and a familiar pressure settled on her shoulders. Christmas had been busy; her parents, knowing it would be a hard year, had invited all of the extended family in for a large gathering that kept Wil too busy to really think about what was missing. Between introductions with relatives she'd barely met and trying to remember the names of all the aunts and uncles, she couldn't focus on how this was supposed to be her Christmas as an engaged woman, showing her wonderful husband-to-be around to the family. As the car drove on, she remembered the discussions they'd had last Christmas on the drive between their families, when Andrew had started to drop hints that they might one day be a family, and tears started to well in her eyes.
It was good to cry sometimes.
The navigator spoke up, announcing she was 10 minutes from her destination, and Wil drew herself back out of the memories. She wiped her face on the sleeves of her heather blue pullover and pulled down the visor, flipping open the mirror. Her purse was between her feet, and she popped it open, taking a few minutes to fix her make up to look presentable again. She ran her hands through her hair a few times, shaking it out into gentle waves, and nodded once before raising the visor again.
Placing her hands on the wheel, she tapped the foot pedal to take control of the car and drove the final few blocks manually. As her car pulled into the St Croix's crowded drive, a tall woman with wild blonde hair came rushing out the door. Their house was modest, a small two level that was easily 80 years old, with white siding and a single car garage. Planter boxes sat beneath the windows, piled with Washington snow, and Joan trudged through three inches of the white mess with knee high boots under her flowered dress.
"Wil, darling, you made it!" she cried as Wil stepped out of the car, and she swallowed the younger woman up in a massive hug. "Come in, come in, it's freezing out here!"
Wil allowed herself to be dragged forward, her car's lights flashing behind her to signal the lock as she got out of range. They got into the house and stepped out of their boots, Joan whisking off Wil's coat and spiriting it away. "Make yourself comfortable," she called behind her, and Wil chuckled, finding her way to the living room. The room, usually spacious with a few floral printed couches and glass end tables, was crowded. The built in television was on, but no one was paying attention to the movie playing, though they all crowded near the fireplace beneath it.
"Willa!" a cry sounded over the buzz of conversation, and it quieted, everyone in the room turning simultaneously to the door. They all started talking at once, and they converged, the first to reach her being Andrew's 12 year old brother Chad. He threw his arms around her, and much to Wil's dismay, she found he was nearly as tall as she was.
"You didn't accept my invite!" he scolded, pulling away. A couple months ago, he had sent her an invitation to join the latest online gaming craze; he always got caught up into them, swearing it was the last game he'd ever play, only to move on to the next big thing a couple months later.
Wil scoffed. "Please. If I accepted, you'd just whine that I'd beaten the pants off of you." They both laughed, and before they could continue, the crowd had descended.
Greetings and questions fired every which way at her, some people shaking her hand and others pulling her into a hug. For many, this was the first time she'd seen them since the funeral, and they asked her how she was holding up and offered condolences that she quietly returned. Though it was only 4 people – Andrew's father, twin sisters, and Chad – she was suddenly overwhelmed.
"Enough!" Joan called from the doorway, and everyone backed off. She whisked into the room, apron strings fluttering behind her as she carried a tray with cookies and a steaming cup of coffee. "Let the girl sit down, for heaven's sake," she muttered as she set the tray down on the coffee table. She picked up the cup and handed it to Wil. "Just like you like it, dear."
"Thank you," she said in earnest, more for the save than the coffee. A twinkle in Joan's eye told her she understood. She moved over to one of the couches and sat, warming both her hands on the cup. Just the brief time outside had left her with a chill. Everyone else in the room found a seat, Chad choosing to sit with his back to her legs leaning against her as he always had done to Andrew; the gesture made her smile.
"How have you been, Wil?" Andrew's father, Michael, asked as they settled, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. Wil had always thought that Michael was a perfect picture of what Andrew would look like as they grew old together; they had the same square jaw and playful brown eyes, though Michael's black hair had receded a fair ways back, wisps of grey dancing through it. They even donned the same mustache, a shaggy thing that had tickled Wil's lip many times when she and Andrew had kissed. She always complained about it, but secretly, she would never have changed it.
She had to think a moment before she answered; Joan and Michael would both have known, and called her out, if she lied. "School is going well," she decided on, then took a sip of her coffee. "I've been invited to participate in a winter recital, and things are all right with my new roommates."
"A recital? When?" Joan cooed, smiling brightly. "That's quite an honor, Wil. I'll have to look into getting some time off of work, but I would love to attend – just send the details to my email. You're working so hard, I'm so proud!." Wil smiled, not wanting to point out that she had little to do but work hard now that Andrew wasn't around to keep her occupied.
"What about the good stuff?" Donna, one of the twins, asked. Her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and to most that was the only way to tell her from her sister Diann, who always wore hers down. "You know – parties, all nighters, boys…" Diann gasped, smacking her sister in the arm, and Donna asked, "What? There could be boys."
Wil chuckled, trying to remember what it was like to be a senior in high school. The twins would be graduating in the spring and were obsessed with what they thought college would bring. "There are no boys," she said with a wink. "When you've had the best, it's hard to settle."
"Now dear," Joan said firmly, "we won't hold it against you when you move on – and you will. You're too young to be alone." The mood immediately took a dive. The twins looked away awkwardly, and Michael stood, excusing himself for a moment. Wil sighed, reaching for her coffee again.
"I'm just not ready yet, Joan," she said, giving a half-hearted shrug.
"She's just waiting for me to be old enough," Chad piped up, rising to his knees and turning to face her. He blew her a kiss and winked, mischief twinkling in his hazel eyes, and everyone laughed.
"Good luck with that, twerp," Diann said, grasping a throw pillow and chucking it across the room at him.
"It could happen! Right?" He dodged the pillow and looked to Wil for support, who winked back.
"Talk to me when you're 18, kid, and we'll see," she told him, waving a finger in his direction. She dropped the playful expression then, sincere gratitude on her features. "Your brother would appreciate you looking after me, though."
"No worries, sis – I've got your back."
With a laugh, they all let the subject drop, moving into the safer waters of life here in Kennewick. They talked for over an hour like that, joking back and forth, and when she left Wil was thankful she still had such a comfortable relationship with all of them. She had meant it when she called them family; she had watched all of Andrew's siblings grow up, and know his parents almost as well as her own.
She wasn't sure she would have been able to take losing Andrew's family along with losing Andrew himself; she'd barely survived his loss as it was.
The ride back to her mother's house was much more pleasant, and she allowed herself to watch the landscape and houses roll by. So much had changed, and yet so little had; it was amazing how things seemed to change when you moved away. Here, a store had closed; there, a Starbucks had been built just in the time she had been at Dartmouth this year. Change seemed inevitable, seeping into life subtly until, one day, you woke up and everything was suddenly different.
Thinking to Andrew's family in their warm home, and to her own family, she selfishly hoped some things would never change.