Chapter 1: The Willow
I'm just a small-town girl with big dreams. A small town where everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows everyone’s business. Last week when Mr. Burton was starting an affair with Mrs. Whinley, it only took twenty minutes for both Mrs. Burton and Mr. Whinley to find out and track them down at the Willow Creek Motel. Willow Creek, population 2412. Here there's not too many things to do and that's why most of us either get into trouble or start a family. Not me though, not when everyone knows who your dad is. He’s the town “unofficial” law. He keeps the trouble makers in check and outsiders out, and will do it at any cost. This town has secrets and outsiders aren’t exactly welcomed by the welcome committee. My Dad’s the one who lets them know they’re unwelcome and when they don’t yield his warning, well, he might get his hands dirty and everyone just looks the other way. They call him Sir. When I was growing up that's all I heard and I thought ‘what a weird name’ until I learned it was actually Robert. Robert Steven Arust. I got lucky with my name. Everyone around town calls me Ally but it's Allyson Grey Arust.
We live in exactly the center of town. Everyone can see our house regardless where they are standing in Willow Creek. I always feel like everyone is watching me. Waiting for me to mess up, with who my father is that's not an option but I worry. It's hard not to. Especially since everyone in town is afraid of your family. I have no friends, only kids I once played with until their parents told them stories of my father. It's tough but I have my escapes. At the edge of town there is a place that is blocked away by my father’s “workers”. The only problem.. Daddy has his employees that watch me like a hawk. It's frustrating because I want to be like every other 17 year old girl, making my own decisions and learning from my mistakes. I just want a place of my own where no one is watching over me. Eventually I found one. My place is hidden away, forgotten by everyone and I'd like to keep it that way. That's the reason why I'll never tell anyone about it. I was in our bomb shelter when I found it. A passage through a hidden door in the floor. A secret passage that goes for what seems like miles underground and leads past the guards and into the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.
It leads to a small field with poppies growing for miles. In the center of this golden field is an old weeping willow. The biggest one I’ve ever seen and believe me I've seen hundreds in our town, but this one is different. Our town is covered in them. All different sizes but nothing like this. The peacefulness is what I love about it. It has the calming power, like it could end a century old war. I had claimed it. I spend many days and some nights sitting underneath that tree wrapped up thinking about life.
I mostly think about my momma under that tree. Jane Grace Arust, Ashmore before she married Daddy. She died when I was four but I still remember that night Daddy came in and told me. I was playing with my doll in my room when he pulled me up in his lap. He looked at me and just said “mommas with the angels now”. I asked when she would be back but he didn't say anything. He just said we’d talk more in the morning…. But we never really did. Daddy says she got sick and then sicker and the only way she could get better was to visit angels. Only later in the years did I finally know what it meant...cancer. I always thought one day me and Daddy could go visit her. I remember crawling in the closet and smelling her dresses when Daddy wasn't home. She always wore a dress. I don't think I'd ever seen her in anything else. She had the most beautiful dresses. Some with sparkles, some floral and some plain. She had a dress for every occasion whether it was a day at home cooking or going to another work party of daddy's. No matter what the dress was or whatever the occasion she looked absolutely beautiful. I miss her so much and now I can barely remember what her voice sounded like or the smell of her hair but her beauty I'll never forget. Especially since I'm a spinning image of her. We both have dark hair, brown eyes and a cute button nose. Everyone always tells me I look just like her. Its definitely a compliment.
I talk to her a lot. Especially under my tree. I feel like I could tell her how lonely I am and all the problems that me and Daddy have. I tell her about my day at school and how my old friends won't even look my way. I tell her about my grades and how she would be proud of me. I tell her how I just want someone to share my life with. But how do you start a life with someone when everyone is afraid of what DNA runs in my veins? Then I realized...you don't.
I got up that morning just like every other.
“Ally! I want you out of that bed in two minutes or I’m getting the bucket!” Daddy yelled from downstairs. I get up and peek out my door. I can see him at the foot of the stairs with a bucket of water and a stern look. He never actually has used it but I get up so he thinks he won.
As I walked down the stairs I could see my hair in the hallway mirror. Every piece of my curly brown hair was pointing in every direction. I couldn't help but to chuckle.
“Geesh Ally, rough morning?” As I turned the corner Daddy held up his plate over his face.
“You’re really funny. This is what I inherited from you!” Daddy and Momma both had curly brown hair.
“Mine never looked like that. I can shave it for you?”
“Um, don't even think about it. One hair goes missing from this head and there's gonna be a war.” I give him my evil look.
“Well it's gonna be an apocalypse when you hit thirty then.” Daddy started laughing so hard he choked on his coffee.
“Well until that day comes leave my hair out of it.” I handed him a napkin to wipe up the coffee on his freshly ironed shirt.
Daddy looked down and seen the coffee. “Crap! Now I got to change before I go.”
I sat there and ate my breakfast for a few minutes then Daddy came back down.
“Alright we’ll I'm headed for the office. Call me if you need anything honey.” He gave this look that he gives every time he says he's going to the office. Like he knows that I obviously know it’s not an office and not really a job that you can put on a resume.
I give him a head nod and he walked out the door. Finally, the house was mine. It’s the summer so that means no school, no homework, and no responsibilities. That meant I could go to my spot all day. I packed the usual: Ham sandwich with only mayonnaise, a water and an apple.
The town is crawling with Daddy’s workers who are constantly getting in the way. Luckily, we have a bomb shelter next to the house that I can slip into without anyone seeing. This was the only way to get to willow creek. I had found it one night when me and Daddy got into a fight about curfew. I had to step outside and had seen that I could get away in there for awhile. I had seen this tunnel that goes for a while and that’s when I followed it.
I left about nine and it takes about thirty minutes to get from the entrance to the willow so that would give me about seven hours there. The hardest part is getting into the shelter. I have to be patient and wait to make sure that no workers are watching. Once the coast is clear I run. When you first walk in, you smell nothing but mud. There's water dripping down the walls which makes the mud smell strong and brings the rats. There's a wooden door on the floor. You don't really notice it since the wood is coved with mud from the ground around it. Just a tiny whole that is big enough to stick a finger through to pull up.
Every time I see it, I’m amazed all over again. The smell from mud to the purest honey is overpowering. The colors are breathtaking. Poppies are growing everywhere. There are even some four feet high. The willow is my favorite though. Standing underneath makes me feel complete which I don't feel often. I don't feel lonely anymore, like I don't need anything else to make me happy. The pull it has on me is strong. I walk up slow every time. I’m not sure why, but I just feel like it's delicate and want to cherish the moment of even walking up. There's a part in the vines that are separated. The leaves aren’t touching and bunched up like around the rest of the tree. That’s where I can sneak in. I pull it back and hold my breath for a second like it's going to disappear.
I brace my back up against the trunk and take out my books. Before I crack open a book, I look up. “I wish you were here right now momma.” I daydream what it would be like to still have her here with me.
I slowly turn my head back to my book when I seen somebody standing outside. It can’t be one of Daddy's workers, can it? My heart sank. My secret spot, gone in a blink. I look closer and start to make out a face. I’ve never seen him before so it can’t be one of Daddy’s. I step back around the trunk and peek around it. He pulls back the branches and comes in. He obviously didn’t see the parted entrance. Suddenly the sadness was gone and replaced with anger. How dare he walk in here when he doesn’t know anything about this place? As he walks around, I shift my body behind the stump so he can’t see me. I peek around just a little more trying to get a better view of this man I now hated, but immediately my heart sank again when I got a real glimpse of him. He is beautiful. I’ve never seen any man that's made me feel like this inside just from his appearance. I don't know him but already feel a connection. He is tall and fit. He has a white shirt and blue jeans on and the sleeves were fitted tight around his muscular frame. He makes it look good.
I can see him walking around just looking amazed at this beautiful willow. I feel like I’ve walked around this tree five times now hiding. When was he going to leave? All of a sudden, I felt my heel snag on a root. Seriously? I’ve never noticed that root until now. I fall smacking my head on the ground hard, like really hard. I heard the thump myself and then it went black. I woke up still lying on the ground with this beautiful man standing over me.
“Are you okay?” He asks and he has this panicked look on his face.
“I’m fine.” Aside from the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to my ego. “I’m just a little light headed, but I think I’ll survive.”
He stands there for a minute. His warm eyes look at me. It sends a radiation through my whole body. Can he see the effect he has on me? I’ve never felt this way before. I must have really hit my head hard.
“Are you sure? I heard that thump all the way from over there. What were you doing behind the tree anyways?”
I stick my hand out hoping he’d help me up. And of course he did. I stood up and automatically take a step back. My head swirls and I almost fall over again. I grabbed the back of my head making sure my brains weren’t falling out though it felt like they were. “Yeah, I’m just light headed a bit.” Not to mention my head is killing me! I was already embarrassed enough. The last thing I need is some guy thinking I’m a wuss.
“If you say so?” He didn’t believe me. I could hear it in his voice. “You still never answered me. What were you doing?”
Oh you know, just creeping around, watching you. That didn’t sound weird at all. “I was reading when I saw you.” I pointed to my bag with my books on top. “Then I saw you coming and thought you were….somebody. When I realized it wasn’t him I still didn’t know you.” Sounded legit.
He looked down at the books. “Oh, are you hiding from your boyfriend or something?” I could tell he was asking for more than just curiosity. He had the same look on his face I had on mine. “Are you sure you're okay? You're really white.”
Was I? That’s totally not embarrassing. “Yes, I’m …” Suddenly my head was swirling and I lost balance, grabbing onto the tree. He leaned forward and grabbed my waist. I felt a bolt run through me and my legs gave in.
He caught me and helped me down slowly. “I gotcha, I gotcha. Just take it easy.” He takes my hand. How is this happening? I just met this man but I feel so weak around him. He laid down next to me. Staring up I can see him looking at me. He has this glossy look, like we were the only two people left on the planet.
“Do you want me to get someone?”
“No! I just need to lay down for a minute.” He could hear the panic in my voice.
“Okay, well tell me your name at least, and why you're out here all by yourself.”
Tell him your friends are grounded, something, anything. But I can’t do it. I fight myself. I just can’t do it, I can’t lie to him. “I’m Allyson. Everyone just calls me Ally though. And well, there's no way of beating around the tree on this but I don't have any friends.” That was so much worse than what it sounded like in my head. Why couldn’t I just lie?
“That's a pretty name. Fits you well. I'm Jake. Jake Calvin. No friends huh? Do you have some type of contagious disease? Smallpox, Ebola, maybe some flesh eating virus?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. I loved that he didn’t know me and he definitely didn’t know my father. “Well Jake, I’ll have you know that I once had the flu and I didn’t even spread it to my dad.”
“Well, there has to be a reason someone wouldn’t want to be friends with you. And if I was your boyfriend, I wouldn't let you out of my sight..” There it was again. He was fishing. Instant butterflies kicked in.
“I’ve just never been the one to have friends. And boyfriend? No, I don't have any of those either.” I laughed, not because it was funny, but more because it was awkward. How pathetic did he think I was? No friends, no boyfriend. He must think something is wrong with me.
He turned on his side and propped his head up on his hand. I could see the material on his bicep getting tighter and more of a defining muscle. He must work out, you don't get that by just lounging around.
“Alright, so no friends, no boyfriend, I’m going to guess your family has something to do with it?”
Oh, was he spot on. “Yeah, my dad doesn’t really approve of the whole dating thing. Even at 17.” This was beyond true. Daddy says I don’t need to date yet. Like that’s my choice anyways. No guy has ever showed interest in me after the 2nd grade.
“Well, hopefully someone comes in and changes his mind about that.” I could see a smile in the corner of his lips form.
My butterflies have butterflies now. “Yeah, let’s hope.” I gave him one of my half smiles and looked away. "So tell me about yourself Jake Calvin." His name rolled off my tongue.
"Well, I'm an only child. My Dad left when I was a baby so I don't know anything about him and my mom..." he pauses for a minute. "My mom just passed last month. I was tired of the loneliness of an empty house. Every time I walked through the front door I was reminded that I had no family, no friends and didn't have a reason to stay. Afterwards I just packed up, moved everything in storage and took off. I'm hoping to make a fresh start."
"I'm so sorry, to hear about your mom." Finally some one who could understand. I put my hand on top of his. My butterflies turn into sparks and I let go. "Was it sudden? My mom was sick before she died. I don't remember much because I was so young." Is it weird I feel a connection already? Someone who can finally get the loneliness I feel everyday.
"No, she died in a car accident. I'm sorry to hear about your mom. Its been hard but I'm hoping a fresh start will help." The sadness in his eyes told me everything. A fresh start would not heal the pain he has.
"What was she like? If you don't mind me asking." I could tell he wanted to talk about her.
"She was perfect." He has a smile ear to ear as he talks about her. "She would give you the cloths off her back if you needed them. She was beautiful and made friends everywhere she went. Growing up we moved constantly so we always had new people to meet. I've made a lot of friends, but you know how it goes when you move. You loose that connection eventually, but my mother never let me feel lonely. She always reminded me that she was here. Even to the day she died." His face fell.
"I'm so sorry. She sounds like she was amazing."
"She was. After the accident I sat in the hospital every day and night hoping she would wake up. I started to give up when one day she finally opened her eyes. She told me not to be sad, that she'd always be with me. And then she was gone." A tear fell from his face, and I could feel myself holding back mine. He misses his mom just like I miss mine. "I tell myself she knew I needed that goodbye to be okay."
"What do you have planned now?" I know he could never stay but I never felt a connection with someone. Someone who can understand how I feel. Someone who doesn't know who I am. I wish he could though.
"I'm not sure. I just turned 18 so I decided to sell the house and do the things my mother never got to do. While cleaning out the house I found some stuff that belonged to the dirtbag who left my mother with a baby by herself. Figured I return the stuff it to him and ask him how he could have left her the way he did."
"Are you close to finding him yet?" He definitely wouldn't stay but I can understand why.
"I'm not sure. I'm just following old pictures and postcards."
I looked down at my watch. Oh crap! I'm late, like really late. I completely lost track of time. “I'm sorry but I have to leave. I'm so late” He got up and put his hand out. “Thanks. I promise I won't fall over.”
“You can fall on me anytime. I promise I’ll catch you.”
I froze there for a second to take in what he said. He grabbed my bag and gathered my books up and shoved them into it. As I take my bag, our hands touch and we both stood there for a moment. I pulled back and acted like I wiped a hair out of my face. “Will you be here tomorrow?”
“Will you?” I could see he was looking for a yes.
“I’m here almost everyday.” I started to back out, still looking at him, but making sure I wouldn’t fall over a rock or stupid stump. I wanted one last look before I left. Just in case he wasn’t here tomorrow.
“I’ll definitely be here tomorrow.” As I started to walk away I could hear my name once more.
“Ally, wait.” He came running and stretched his arm out. “You forgot one more.”
As I grabbed the book our hands met again. It was like someone had lit a thousand fireworks inside of me and sparks ran through my body trying to find an escape. I suddenly grabbed the back of his neck and kissed him. Just for a second and pulled back. I can’t believe I just did that. I turned and ran as fast as I could. “I’m sorry!” I shout to him but didn't look back.
“Ally, wait, Ally!”
But the damage is done….so I just keep going.