Modern Day; September 2nd; Cleveland, Ohio; Melissa
I found myself dreaming of Willow. He followed me into my dream world without permission and without warning. The next week, my Wednesday started with me waking up and finding myself in an unexpected place – my bedroom. I knew I was there without even opening my eyes; it dawned on me gradually. The dream had taken place at a circus, but the only other thing I remembered was that Willow had been there and he had been gazing at me the same way he always was. Laying there wrapped up in a bundle of sheets, I didn’t know what any of it meant. All I knew was that I would get to see him at school and that there was nothing I wanted more than to see him.
That was my motivation to open my eyes, but when I did, I received the shock of my life. My heart leapt up into my throat and I clenched my fists into the mattress as I sat bolt upright.
“What the fuck?!”
In front of me was a wall of flame that surrounded me on all sides and crackled. I didn’t understand why I could feel the warmth, but not be burned. Beneath me, the bed wasn’t consumed either. I blinked. The fire didn’t disappear. I pinched myself and blinked again. It was all still there.
What’s going on? What is this?
I stretched out my hand in front of me, letting it go into the fire, but it didn’t blacken or burn. I was open to the idea of strange things – I was telepathic, for Pete’s sake. Never before, though, had I been placed in such a situation. Even after scratching and pinching myself, this reality turned out to be just that: reality.
“Melissa!” I heard Amber call from down the hall. “Are you alright?”
I tried my best to swallow the panic I was feeling and shouted back, “I’m fine! Just had a bad dream!”
It was ironic, considering how good my dream had actually been. And then I had awoken to madness. At least, that’s what this felt like. Because how could fire exist without burning?
I jumped off of my bed and braced myself in case Amber opened the door, but she didn’t. When I slowly turned around, the fire was gone. The relief that I felt was so immense that I sank to my knees and clutched at my chest, gasping. I considered it a miracle that I wasn’t having a heart attack after what had just happened. The unexplainable in my life had just gotten even more unexplainable. For a minute, I considered whether or not this was the kind of thing to share with Amber. On one hand, she would be able to provide support and comfort, as she always did whenever I was going through a weird thing. On the other hand, she would most likely freak out and worry about me more than she normally did. I didn’t want that, so I decided to keep it to myself. I got up and got dressed and ate breakfast and left without admitting that anything abnormal had gone on.
“Hey, Melissa!” Cierra said to me as we met up in the hallway at school.
She cocked her head at me and raised an eyebrow, which was a funny expression on her. She looked like an inquisitive baby squirrel.
“Are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be okay?”
“You just sound unhappy. I thought maybe something had happened.”
We had only been friends for about a week, so it was nice to know that she cared. Still, I didn’t want to think of the unexplainable fire and I fought hard to put it out of my mind. Was it too much to ask to have a normal day?
“Oh, that’s just how she normally sounds. Monotone and apathetic.” We turned around. Willow was standing there, grinning at me like he had just made the funniest joke. “Just kidding.”
“No, it’s true,” I admitted. “It’s no secret that I hate people.”
Cierra started giggling.
“Well, you don’t hate us!”
Willow only had eyes for me as he said, “That’s good to hear.”
I wanted so badly to say, “How could I ever hate you, Willow?” But then the bell rang and we scurried to homeroom.
I was starting to get used to senior year already. We had received our syllabi and I was especially pleased to hear about the books we would be reading in AP English class and the new topics we would be learning about in AP Physics. AP Calculus was interesting enough, but the concepts were complicated and with my mind already jumbled up from the fiery surprise that morning, it was even harder for me to concentrate. Everything Mr. Krieger was saying sounded like gibberish. I didn’t realize until the bell rang at the end of class that I had been staring up at the board with my mouth hanging open. I probably looked like an idiot.
I was about to escape from the room when Willow – who sat behind me not only in homeroom, but also in AP Calculus – grabbed my arm.
“Are you lost?” he asked me.
I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.
“You’re the new kid. Shouldn’t I be asking you that? And, no, I’m not lost! This is room 305.”
Black waves of hair fell across his forehead as he shook his head at me, laughing silently.
“No, I mean… Do you understand what Krieger was talking about?”
“I… Nope. Which is frustrating, considering the fact that I usually get things. I don’t know what it is.”
It couldn’t possibly have been the fact that my bed had been on fire that morning when I’d woken up.
“I thought so. You seemed confused during class. I can help you, you know. I’m pretty good at maths.”
“You want to help me?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was also deeply mortified. “You really don’t have to.”
“I would love to. I really would. We could meet tomorrow after school somewhere nearby. Maybe the diner?”
“Not the diner. It’s too loud. I wouldn’t be able to focus, especially with Randy yelling at me. He likes to do that a lot.”
“Just one of my coworkers. But that doesn’t matter. We could sit outside. You know, there’s this ginormous tree on the lawn outside school. I used to sit under it and do homework sometimes.”
“The willow tree? Yeah, I’ve seen it.” He smirked. “Ironic.”
“Ironic? Oh, yeah! Your name…”
I couldn’t believe how stupid I sounded. It was like someone else was talking and I was left to stand there and listen without being able to prevent it from happening. Luckily, Willow seemed to think I was funny and he laughed.
“Okay, I gotta go. Cierra’s waiting for me. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I waved goodbye and then, as soon as he was gone, started banging my head against a locker.
When I went home, Amber was gone, so I went upstairs and tried to do some homework. I didn’t end up getting anything done because I could barely read a page of Hamlet before Willow entered my thoughts again. He was the kind of person that was so interesting and different that you couldn’t help thinking about him all the time. Or maybe I was just infatuated. After a while of wasting time, I finally left for work. The place was busy enough, but the dinner crowd hadn’t come in yet, so I was able to pull Amber away from her customers for a minute.
“Hi, Melissa, Honey. How was your day?” Then she saw my face. “What is it? What happened?”
“You’re going to have to tell me more than that,” she said, leaning against the counter.
“Calculus is hard and I don’t get it. Willow is really amazing and he gets it. He wants to tutor me and –” I put my head in my hands. “I don’t know what to do.”
“It seems pretty obvious to me that you should let your friend tutor you.”
I looked down at my yellow Converse shoes and examined the tiled floor.
“If it was anyone else…”
“Oh…” she said knowingly. “You like him.”
“Come on. It’s obvious. I knew this would happen eventually. I have to admit, though, I was starting to wonder whether it would be a boy or a girl.”
I rolled my eyes at her.
“I don’t like him. I’ve never liked anyone before.”
I could tell he was different as soon as I found out his name was Willow. I knew he would end up being someone special. You can’t be a boy named Willow and be ordinary.
“I don’t know how you can make your mind up about someone so quickly. He could be ordinary for all we know.”
“Stop reading my mind!”
“I can’t help it.”
“Yes, you can. Because I’m guessing you haven’t read his mind yet to see if he’s interested, have you?”
“Amber! I can’t read his mind! He’s my friend! That wouldn’t be fair.”
“And yet you read my mind.”
I rolled my eyes at her.
“So… Is it okay if I meet up with Willow after school tomorrow for a while?”
“Of course it’s alright. As long as you come straight here afterwards. We can’t manage without you for long.”
I watched her walk away and thought to myself, What am I doing? What have I gotten myself into? Then I thought of the fire in my room that morning. What is happening to me?
My life had suddenly become so abnormal and unpredictable that I was speechless when I compared my junior year to everything that had happened so far my senior year. Maybe this was just part of growing up. You have a nice, normal childhood, you go through puberty, you get a crush on a guy, and then things start catching on fire.
The next day during school, my thoughts kept straying to Willow. It felt strange because I had never had a boy to think about before. I was starting to understand what the heroines were talking about in all of the books that I read and in all of the classic chick flicks that I occasionally watched with Amber. Surely he couldn’t have been thinking the same about me, though. I was nothing special. All I did was get up every morning, go to school, work at the diner, and do homework. Sometimes on the weekends, I read for fun. Occasionally, I watched a movie. Basically, I was one of the world’s most boring people. I didn’t even look special. I had straight, dark red hair that I combed in front of my face so no one could see my different colored eyes. Besides the eyes, I was quite plain looking. On the other hand, Willow was handsome and extremely nice. He didn’t seem to notice that I wasn’t the kind of person that people talked to, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything.
In Calculus class, Willow walked into the room and gave me a little wave that made me feel like I was melting inside. He sat down behind me and I fought hard to focus and not think about him while Mr. Krieger was lecturing. It was basically impossible to not think about him when he was sitting behind me. I wondered if he was watching me or thinking about me like I was thinking about him. I figured the odds of that were very low, so I tried not to feel too excited when I was walking to the willow tree after school. He was already sitting there, leaned up against the trunk of the tree with his legs crossed. In his lap was the Calculus textbook and a pen that he was twisting between his fingers in a neat little trick.
“Hello,” he said to me.
“Hi,” I said, sitting down next to him.
“We should probably get started right away. I don’t want to waste your time.”
Nothing you can do would ever waste my time.
“Okay, let me see what kind of notes you’ve been taking.” I took my notebook out and handed it to him. Our hands touched and my stomach clenched. My heart beat fast as I watched Willow flip through the pages. “It looks like you’ve been taking pretty good notes. Do you want to do some problems? Then we can see where you’re getting confused.”
“Sure. My notes may be good, but I don’t understand what they mean.”
He began to help me through the first problem of our homework. I loved the way he explained things to me. He got this far away look in his eyes as if he was daydreaming about something that made him very happy. It didn’t take me very long to see that Willow had a kind of passion for mathematics. The way he described different formulas and patterns, he seemed almost excited. When it had been an hour, Willow closed my notebook and handed it back to me, looking into my eyes as he did so.
“Is it that time already?” I said, trying not to let my disappointment show. He nodded and I said, “I guess I should go to work now, then.”
“I can walk you, if you want.”
I busied myself with gathering my things and stowing them in my bag so that he couldn’t see that my face was almost as red as my hair.
“Oh, you don’t have to.”
“I want to.”
I chewed anxiously on the inside of my cheek and stood up with my bag across my back, just as Willow was doing the same. We walked over to the sidewalk and followed it down the street, pausing only to look both ways before moving on to the next block.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I said.
I wasn’t even trying to make conversation, or anything. I was just making an observation. The sun was shining and the temperature was in the low seventies, so I didn’t even need to wear a jacket over my David Bowie T-shirt.
“Yes, it is.” He looked up at the sky and smiled to himself. “It’s a shame you don’t work outside.”
“Yeah. It’s alright, though. I mean, I like it. Everyone there is like my family. Not just my coworkers, but the customers too.”
“You get a lot of regular customers, then?”
We looked at each other and I felt fluttering in my stomach. He seemed genuinely interested in my answer, so I made sure not to hesitate too long. He made me feel flustered all the time, but I didn’t want him to think I was stupid. I couldn’t have been stupid if I tried, really.
“Yeah. It’s great. There’s this old guy named Billy who always stops by to get coffee, eggs, and hash browns in the mornings. He’s really nice and he works at the post office.”
“How long have you been working at the diner?”
“I pretty much grew up in the diner, but I’ve been working there since… Since I was about fifteen. It feels like a lot longer. I remember how excited I was when I got my first paycheck.”
“I’ve never had a job. What’s it like?”
“Oh, it’s not terrible. Sometimes it’s annoying when you have a test the next day and you have to work at night, but it’s worth it in the end.”
“I thought for sure you were going to say something about not having enough free time to hang out with friends. That’s what would bother me. I mean, school is really important to me, but I would just study when I could.”
I looked down and watched the sidewalk passing as we walked. I had been dreading talking about this with Willow, but I realized now that if I wanted to get to know him, he would have to get to know me.
“I, uh, actually never really had friends to hang out with. Before now, of course. You and
Cierra seem really cool.”
Willow stared over at me, his brown eyes wide and disbelieving.
“Never? You can’t be serious.”
“I’m dead serious.”
Returning to staring at the ground, I prayed that he wasn’t judging me.
“Melissa, don’t look so embarrassed.” To my shock and surprise, he put his arm around me. Now I really couldn’t look at him because he would see my blushing face. “I’m not going to make fun of you or anything. I just think it strange that no one has wanted to be friends with you before. I haven’t known you for very long, but I can already tell that you are a very interesting person.”
“Thanks, Willow,” I said quietly.
I wanted and needed to stay calm, but it was hard to do with his warm arm resting on my shoulders.
“You’re welcome.” We were crossing the parking lot of the diner now and he smiled at the small, ordinary looking building that was like a second home to me. “It seems like a really nice place. I liked it when Cierra and I came that one time.”
All I could do was nod since his arm was still around me, rendering me incapable of communicating properly.
“Well, thanks for walking me here,” I said as we approached the doors. “You really didn’t have to.”
“It was my pleasure.” He removed his arm and smiled down at me – he wasn’t extremely tall, but just tall enough so that he had to look down to look me in the eyes. “Hug?”
“Uh.” I didn’t know exactly how it worked when you were friends with someone and I definitely didn’t know how it worked when you were friends with someone and wanted to be more than friends with them. What I did know was that what I wanted more than anything in the world in that moment was to have his arms around me. “Sure.”
Smiling again, he took a half a step forward and held his arms out to me. I moved forward slowly and suddenly his arms were around my shoulders and I could feel his hands hot against my back. I grabbed his waist and closed my eyes, savoring the moment. He smelled so nice, like mint gum and cinnamon. I realized as we were hugging each other that I had never felt so good in my life. Usually when I hugged people, it was at least slightly awkward and uncomfortable. But this time was different. Willow and I fit together so nicely, we were like pieces of a puzzle. Even though I was terrified to be so close to him, when I was around him I felt safe and comfortable.
He pulled back and said, “Have a good night. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I turned around and walked into the diner, smiling from ear to ear.