Their mom was gone when Gracie woke, she knew she had probably gone to the pool. Gracie could see that her mom was on the verge of cracking. She had this tough, driven exterior but underneath, she was tired and sad and too afraid to admit it to anyone. Gracie hoped Willow might have an idea to help their mom.
Gracie tapped on Willow’s door when her sister didn’t answer, Gracie pushed it open. “Willow, Gramma made pancakes.”
“I don’t care, go away,” Willow snapped, burying her head in the blankets. Gracie sniffed, the room smelled weird, like the alcohol.
Gracie shut the door quickly, and rushed over to open the window, freezing air rushed into the room and the smell began to dissipate. “Seriously, Willow? You got drunk?”
“Yep.” and the P popped at the end of the word.
“O-M-G! Mom and Gramma are going to murder you.” Gracie was horrified; she would never in a thousand years consider stealing alcohol or getting drunk.
“Who cares? Not me, not my parents, they’re both dead.” Willow retorted tartly.
“I care and Gramma cares and Mom cares...” Gracie started.
“She’s not my mom, and she’s trying to drive away the only connection I have to my father!” Willow raised her voice, and then groaned miserably. Hangovers were so much worse than they had looked in the movies.
“What are you talking about? Mom said she’d arrange for us to talk to the Hightowers and she will,” Gracie pointed out frustrated.
“Then why did she slap Kyle and throw him in the pool at the school last night? Hmmm, Tiana’s mom saw the whole thing, then she did a strip tease in her office in front of Kyle and Tank, and she left with Tank and they never came back. And his Durango was still here when we got home at midnight. I heard them in her room talking. Your mom’s a slut.” Willow’s eyes were narrowed cruelly, and Gracie bit her lip to keep from crying.
“Why would you say something like that? She made the doctors save your life,” Gracie asked softly.
“Oh yah, poor orphaned Willow, look how far she’s come. From being incubated in her burnt up mother’s corpse to being trained by her Olympian aunt to fall 30 feet through the air with her cousin who’s scared of everything. SPLASH! And now we have Nationals to prove just how good a coach the great Camille Wallace really is, almost as good as she was an athlete. Yeah for her, the Blue Butterfly will be the center of everyone’s attention again.” Willow clapped patronizingly. “Maybe she’ll find another guy to fu...”
“Shut up! Mom’s done everything for us. BOTH OF US! You’re just mad because my dad cared enough to come back and yours took the coward’s way out,” Gracie hissed spitefully.
Willow came off the bed at Gracie who dodged, and shoved her sister. Willow grabbed her hair and Gracie screamed as she clawed at Willow’s hand, drawing blood as Willow shook her.
“Well at least my mom, didn’t have to get a tattoo on her breast to get attention from men. She was only ever with my dad and your mom’s had how many guys? Was she really raped or did she just say that because she screwed her best friend’s ex and got caught?” Willow taunted.
Gracie’s fist caught Willow in the cheek and sent her stumbling backward, as Gracie shouted, “Mom was drugged and raped, and you have no right to mock what happened to her!”
“I hate her!” Willow screamed, holding her cheek.
“I hate you!” Gracie screamed back.
“I hate you more!”
“Girls! What is going on?” Gramma Dorine opened the door suddenly.
Willow pointed at Gracie, “She came in my room, clawed and punched me.”
Doreen turned to Gracie surprised, “Did you hit Willow?”
“She pulled my hair and shook me.” Gracie defended herself.
“Willow, is this true?” Doreen demanded.
“She said my dad was a coward!” Willow spat, glaring at them both.
Gracie grabbed an empty vodka bottle from the floor, and held it out. “She’s drunk and called our mom a slut.”
“Willow, did you drink this?” Dorine asked mortified, taking the bottle.
“What if I did? You’re not my mother, you can’t tell me what to do,” Willow snapped.
“No, but I am your grandmother and you will live by the rules in this house. You are too young to be drinking, young lady, and when your mom gets home we will be having a family meeting. Gracie, go to the kitchen and bring your sister a plate. You will remain in your room, Willow,” Dorine herded Gracie out and shut the door on Willow’s enraged scream of frustration.
“I hate you all!”
Willow rode Lucky between the trees and up toward the top of the ridge, the unusually spring-like days had begun melting the snow and her horse slipped a few times on the slushy trail. The morning felt so still. The coolness of the air numbed her face where Gracie had hit her but it wasn’t unpleasantly cold. Willow wanted to cry thinking about the things she and Gracie said to each other. They weren’t like this, they didn’t fight, and they didn’t say things just to hurt the other. She wiped her tears, and nudged Lucky to keep moving. The warmer than usual February meant the ice on the river was already melting so she was going to her secret spot. She had wanted to get a ride in and head out to check for calves before the weather came, but the fight with Gracie had driven her to get away from the homestead.
Willow loved the mountains, loved the ranch. The deep greens and white, browns and grays under the sapphire sky. Looking across the valley she could see a mixture of winter and spring in one glance. A few birds and even a black squirrel were in the trees overhead. The clouds were promising more snow later today or tonight, in spite of the late spring warmth of the air. The seasons felt as messed up as her mind, an eddy of thoughts and feelings, jumbled and overlapping, would never allow her to fall. She was glad there was no practice today; she didn’t think she could focus enough to dive, even a simple forward single tuck.
Finally she reined Lucky in and got off, tying her mount to a blue spruce. After walking down stream, Willow found the place she was looking for. Sitting on the big boulder that Grampa Ben used to bring her to, Willow cried and watched the waterfall dropping the 42 feet to the pool below. The churning water rolled away downriver. She wished it could carry her loneliness and turmoil away.
Her mother had been in a really bad accident and had only been kept alive so Willow could be born. Willow only knew her from her family’s stories and the smiling pictures on the walls. She knew nothing of her father except that her mother fell in love with him. In the pictures she had secretly seen of the two of them, Kent and Mina were always looking at each other lovingly and almost never at the camera. She missed them even though she never knew them, and she didn’t really understand why or what happened. They were supposed to be getting married then he had that wild bachelor party which included a stripper that looked like her mother. From the pictures she had seen on Camille’s computer last night, the woman was a lot more than a simple stripper. No wonder her Aunt and adopted mother hid the truth from them.
Those pictures rivaled anything she had ever read of seen on MovieTime After Dark, and Camille had been correct, they were pornographic. It made her ache for the woman she had never known to have been so betrayed by the man she loved. Willow had never had a boyfriend, but she loved Chick Lit, Fan Ficts, and Romantic movies so she kind of understood about love betrayed. She just wanted to be loved the way the characters in her stories were at the happy ending, the way her mother and father had seemed to love each other before the bachelor party.
Her stomach grumbled and Willow wished she had let Gracie bring her breakfast before she took off. She doubted she even had a granola bar in her saddlebag. It was time to head back and face the wrath of Gramma Dorine. Drinking, sneaking out, and skipping church, she’d be grounded until she was 30 for sure. She deserved it and as Grandpa Ben used to say, it was time to take her salt.
A few flakes of snow fluttered around and the air began to get colder quickly. Willow regretted not wearing a heavier coat as the wind began. Looking up, the clouds were racing across the sky and had hidden the sun. The storm must be coming earlier than the weatherman said. Willow stood up and walked back to where she had tied Lucky.
The horse was gone. Willow cursed the wretched mare’s ability to untie knots. Wrapping her arms around herself she began the almost 6 mile trek back to the ranch house as the snow began to fall at a hard diagonal.
Tank and Gramma Dorine were gone when Camille and Kyle arrived at the house.
“Saddle Beau’s horse for Kyle,” Camille ordered Gracie as she ran down the hall to change clothes while her daughter stared at Kyle with wide blue eyes just like his own.
“Okay, Mom,” Gracie called back, not taking her eyes off her father. She had never expected to see him in her home. “Uh, do you ride, Mr. Hightower? The trails get really bad in a storm.”
“I do Gracie, and you can call me Kyle if you like,” he smiled carefully. “Can you show me to the barn and I’ll help?”
Gracie lead him out to the barn where her mom’s horse was waiting, she grabbed the horse’s tack out of the tack room. “This is Cookie.” She introduced him to a big brown saddle horse.
“Cookie is funny. He was a rescue that Uncle Beau and Grandpa rehabbed and trained before he lost his leg. He was supposed to go to a camp for disabled kids but he spooks too easily so we kept him. Gramma Dorine said it was fate that they trained a horse to do exactly what Uncle Beau needed after his accident. Cookie won’t move if you kick or heel him, you have to flip the reins like a draft.”
“So, you know a lot about training horses?” Kyle asked as he tightened the cinch a second time.
“Some but not like Willow, she can make a horse do whatever she wants, that’s why she has Lucky. That horse is brat,” Gracie smirked.
“Gracie, is Lucky a palomino?” Kyle stared at the saddled horse walking casually toward the barn without its rider.
“Yah, why?” Gracie turned, “Oh no!” And she ran toward the fence, yelling for her mom. Kyle followed behind her.
Camille flew out of the house, almost running toward the golden mare. “Dammit, Lucky! Gracie, did you see which way she came from?”
Kyle pointed, “She came from the tree line over there. Did she throw Willow?”
Gracie laughed, admitting, “No, Lucky can untie any knot and open any latch. She came back on her own because she hates getting wet. She’s worse than a cat. I told you she’s a brat.”
Camille clipped the lead rope on Lucky, scolding, “You’re a bad horse to leave your human out in this weather.” The horse looked over her shoulder back toward the trees, and then shook her head.
“Mom, Tank and Gramma headed to the western pasture. Gram thought Willow would go check for calves,” Gracie said, when Kyle looked at her questioningly, she explained. “Willow always checks for calves when Uncle Beau is gone. The mama cows just let her pick up the babies and follow her back to the barn like dogs.”
Kyle looked shocked but Camille said, “It’s true. They do that for both girls, but today Willow went to the Falls. The trail follows the ridgeline and it gets really bad when there’s weather. Gracie bring Kyle Uncle Beau’s duster and extra hat, he'll need it. Tell Gramma and Tank where we went, if they get back before us.”
Camille swung up on her paint gelding, Cajun, and looped Lucky’s lead rope onto her saddle horn. “This isn’t like riding on a beach, Kyle. Maybe you should stay here.”
Kyle noticed she put her rifle in a long sleeve attached to her saddle. Without commenting, he mounted Cookie. “You’re not going alone.” He reined his mount toward the house and met Gracie, leaning down and taking the long coat. “Thanks kiddo.”
Gracie gave him a tentative smile. “Be careful. There's ice and bears.”
The snow was starting to blow as they hurriedly rode toward the ridge trail.
Willow was walking down the steep trail. The snow was already blowing hard over the ridge and blinding her. She was so cold but she kept walking, promising all that was holy if she made it back she would never drink or miss church again. She stumbled and fell forward, landing hard on her hands and knees. Numb as they were, it still hurt. She pushed herself up into a sitting position; her pants were now soaked from the knees down. She had only made it a mile or so back toward the house, in an hour. She wanted to cry as she stood and staggered on. Teeth chattering, she rubbed her hands on her pants and tucked them back under her arms, as much as she wanted to put them in her pockets, she couldn’t. Her hand needed to be free just in case she fell on the treacherous trail again.
Willow looked up at the increasingly gray sky and swaying trees, they frightened her. People died in weather like this, people who did stupid things like she did today. The storm was coming hard and she was afraid she wouldn’t make home. It hurt her heart that the last thing she had said to Gracie and Gramma was that she hated them all. Her family would come looking for her, Lucky would show up at the barn and they would find her.
A while later, Willow heard a huffing growl coming from below her on the trail. The smell of wet dog overwhelmed her frozen nose. She was so cold, she wasn’t shivering anymore, and she couldn’t feel her hands, but she knew she had to make herself climb a tree. Somewhere near her, there was an early riser. A bear that had woken from hibernation due to the unseasonably warm weather and it was probably hungry.
Terrified, she staggered toward a large cedar and began to climb, praying the bear was too big to follow her. She slipped, stabbing a branch into her thigh and cried out in pain before forcing herself to keep climbing. Sobbing, she edged higher, as a large chuffing beast moved toward her tree through the snow. It growled up at her, the bear stood and pushed on the tree. Dropping to its paws, did this several more times.
Clinging to the swaying branches, Willow begged, “Mommy, please find me.”
“Willow!” A man shouted.
“Willoooow!” A woman’s voice, the only mother she had ever known, called to her from the wind.
Willow lifted her head, the bear was nowhere in sight. Her Mom would protect her from the beast, and she dazedly wondered if Tank knew how to climb a tree. They sounded strange and so far away in the storm. Her ice cold hand fumbled in her pocket for her whistle. Her Grampa Ben had made her promise to always carry it when she went riding. The signal whistles were the reason they had found Beau after he got mauled and Grampa Ben had died. Trembling, she held it to her numb lips and blew two short bursts and a long one, the ‘swimmer in distress’ signal.
Kyle was about to shout again when they heard a whistle. Camille held up her hand. She pulled a whistle from her pocket, yanked down her scarf, and blew two short blasts, ‘attention lifeguard’. Almost immediately two short whistles followed by a long one answered. It was not far ahead of them. They pushed forward in the blinding snow. Camille signaled again and Willow answered back, this repeated twice more but the closer they got to the sound, the weaker the whistles sounded.
“Willow, where are you?” Camille called out at last.
Kyle twisted in his saddle, trying to see Willow through the near white out. It sounded like the whistle was coming from above them. He spotted something blue near the top of a giant cedar.
“Camille, she’s in that tree,” he called over the wind, pointing.
As they rode closer to the tree, Camille pulled her rifle out of its saddle case as they dismounted. In a low voice she said to Kyle, “There must be a bear close, if she climbed up,” then she shouted up at her daughter, “Willow, can you climb down?”
Willow raised her head, her lips were blue. She just looked at them blankly before her chin dropped forward as she tried to shake it no. She knew she was too weak, too cold, if she moved she would fall.