The breeze whipped against Willow’s hair as she popped her head out of the car window. She leaned a little further and felt a hand pull her back down. Her father kept his eyes on the road ahead, but the disapproving look on his face told her to stay seated until they arrived at the church.
Willow slumped back down in the passenger’s side, her legs barely reaching the end of the seat as she stared down at them. She tapped her shoes together impatiently, thinking of something to do to pass time. She hummed along to the music playing in the background and wondered if this would be the day she’d get to play piano at the church sermon. It’s something she’d always wanted to do. She saw what music did to people. It had the power to make them feel something.
She decided to pluck up the courage to ask her father again. She did this often and his reply would always be the same. Maybe this time would be different. “Daddy… I think I’d like to play piano today.”
Willow watched her father’s reaction but could not decipher it this time. “Is God telling you that you’re ready?” he responded, with a slight quirk of an eyebrow.
His question made her think for a moment. “I don’t know. I feel like I’m ready. Every time I watch the other singers up there, I really want to join them.”
“Yes, but sometimes it’s good to be patient. Your time will come.”
They turned into a narrow street and her father parked up on the side of the pavement, shutting down the car engine. A few people were heading inside the church building and Willow could hardly contain her excitement. She couldn’t wait to see James. They went to different schools, but had been best friends since they were toddlers. Sometimes she had to wait a whole week just to see him. It was torture.
Willow hopped out of the car and caught her father’s hand as they walked through the large wooden doors together. As usual, the church was busy and most of the aisles were full. The building reminded her of a castle, with huge stone walls, concrete tiles and beautiful stained glass windows.
“Willow! Hey!” She turned, just as James ran towards her. They shared a meaningful hug and then he pulled back to observe her outfit. Even at the age of ten, Willow was not afraid to wear what she wanted. She was quite fond of her pink sparkly tights, flowery dress and cowboy boots.
“Cool outfit,” he commented.
She did a small twirl. “Thank you. It’s one of my latest creations.” She tried looking past his shoulder to observe the backpack he was holding. “I like your Star Wars bag.”
“Thanks. Come and sit with me. I’ve saved you a seat,” James said, taking her hand and leading her towards the front.
Willow’s eyes scanned the room in that moment. An elderly couple smiled and waved. She recognised them and returned the wave to be polite. That’s when she saw a boy sitting in the back row, practically hunched over, like he didn’t want to be there. He had his head bent to the floor, hands on his knees. He looked so out of place that it was obvious he did not come here often. His mother was sitting next to him, trying to get his attention. He didn't look up once, not even to acknowledge her.
Willow was suddenly struck with the realisation of who he was. Gabriel Augustine lived in the same street as she did and kept to himself mostly. He didn't go to her school. She knew mostly all of her neighbours, aside from the Augustine family. They didn’t seem to enjoy being around other people much. She remembered seeing Gabriel once through his bedroom window. He looked sad. He always looked sad.
Willow tuned back into her conversation with James, although it was difficult to listen to anything he was saying when she knew that Gabe was sat right behind her. “So, how’s your week been?” he asked, searching her face. He always did that.
“Good. I passed my grade one piano.”
His eyes lit up in admiration. “Wow, that’s awesome! You need to start playing at church.”
Willow shook her head. “I guess I’ll just have to be patient and wait for the right opportunity. That’s what my father is always telling me anyway.”
“It will happen. It’s all about timing, remember?” he gave her a small nudge and she smiled up at him. James always knew what to say. They’d both been Christians growing up, and it was nice to speak about God with someone who understood. Her friends back at school were not as understanding.
Willow wanted to talk about Gabriel, but worried he might overhear her. “It’s nice to see some new faces here today,” she said instead, finding herself glancing back at Gabe to see if he was looking up. His position hadn’t changed.
James nodded. “Yeah, we’ve got a few more newcomers actually. My father is really pleased about that. We’ve been thinking of new ways to get people to come to the church.”
“That’s a good idea.”
Willow’s father silenced the crowd as he took his place behind the podium. The band started setting up behind him, plugging in their instruments. Willow watched, itching to join them so badly. But the main thing was that she was here celebrating and praising God with her church family. What could be more important than that? It was the best thing ever.
Slowly the songs started, and everybody stood to sing. Willow knew most of the songs by heart and closed her eyes, soaking up the words. She lifted her hands in the air, feeling the peace build up inside her, filling all the empty spaces. When she sat back down, she glanced over her shoulder and caught Gabriel staring straight at her. She wondered at first if he really was looking at her, or something behind, but no… he had noticed. She knew then that there was something strikingly tragic about him. Maybe it was the dishevelled hair that looked like it hadn’t been cut in months, or his clothes that appeared a little too small for his build, or maybe it was the serious look on his face that made him appear miserable.
His eyes burned into her, scorning her insides. She had never been met with such an unfriendly stare before. She almost felt as if she had done something wrong. The boy did not tear his gaze away, and neither did she. The more she stared, the more she realised he was quite nice to look at. Underneath that shaggy mop of brown hair and the small fitted clothing, his eyes were the brightest shade of green. They looked luminescent as the sun shone into the building, masking his face. He was handsome.
Willow was about to hold a hand to her mouth, shocked at her own thoughts. She had never used that word to describe someone before. In fact, she had never even thought about a boy’s appearance, until now. It made her feel slightly uneasy.
She realised she had to stop staring before other people noticed, or the boy assumed that she liked him. She did not want him to think that. The boys at her school would pull sickly faces if they found out a girl liked them and this boy was no exception. Her cheeks were red when she returned her attention back to the front, resisting the urge to look over her shoulder again.
At the end of the service, Willow’s father hung around to chat with some of the regulars. This was always the part that seemed to drag on. Willow would have to wait for hours, while he’d speak to people who needed prayer or advice. She didn’t really mind, since she’d had years to get used to it. But her legs were starting to tire and she wanted nothing more than to play her piano.
Glancing around, she realised mostly everyone had left the church and the grand piano was staring back at her, untouched. She settled herself down in front of it, stretching out her fingers. Willow felt a little intimidated by the size of the instrument compared to her own petite frame. It engulfed her.
She took a shaky breath and played the first note, accompanied with some light playing. Then, she picked up the pace and felt her fingers moving up and down the keys, striking at the chords with a force that she did not recognise. It felt good. It was liberating to create such a pleasing sound.
There was a loud cough somewhere from behind her and Willow jumped, almost knocking over the stool she was sitting on. She shot up, stumbling over her own feet, as she caught sight of the boy she’d been watching earlier. He hadn’t moved from the back row. He’d been watching her this whole time and she hadn’t realised.
Willow decided this might be a good opportunity to introduce herself. She tried to imagine how awkward he must feel – coming to a place full of complete strangers. She put on her brightest smile and said, “Hi, I’m Willow.”
Gabriel scoffed, clearly not wanting to communicate. “You look ridiculous wearing those things,” he remarked, pointing at her pink sparkly legs. “You look like a tooth fairy.”
Willow felt a stabbing sensation in the pit of her stomach. Nobody had ever commented on her tights before. She wasn’t sure how to respond. She liked the fact that each pair came with its own selection of colours and patterns and that she was the only girl at school who had a pair quite like the ones she was wearing. Willow could have commented on the way he was dressed, but she chose against it. She would not match his rudeness with her own. It wasn't in her nature.
“At least you don’t have to wear them,” she told him, trying to make light of the situation.
He didn’t crack a smile. “Obviously I don’t have to wear them… I’m a boy.”
Willow was embarrassed by his ability to make her feel dumb. He was quite mean. “Well, I happen to like my tights,” she defended herself.
“I can’t imagine why. They are hideous.” He started moving towards the grand piano and Willow backed herself up against it. He placed a finger to the set of keys and it made a small sound. Then he looked back at her, narrowing his eyes and Willow prepared herself for what he was about to say. She knew it ought to be unfriendly, as all he had done since they’d met is mock her.
“I’ve heard better.” As soon as the words left his mouth, Willow could feel her eyes brimming with tears. It was an awful feeling to be told by a stranger that you aren’t good enough. She willed herself not to be angry. This wasn’t the time or place for that and her father had always told her to treat people with kindness, even if they weren’t kind to her.
A smile reached her eyes and the boy’s mouth opened slightly, at her sudden brightness. He had just offended her and yet, she was taking it rather well. It puzzled him.
“So have I," she said, trying to stay strong. "But, I’m not going to let that put me off. I enjoy playing and with a bit of hard work, I’m sure I’ll get better with time.”
Her reaction shocked him. Why was she not shouting at him by now? Why was she so calm about him insulting her numerous times throughout this conversation? It made no sense.
It was in that moment, the boy’s mother returned. “It’s time to go Gabriel,” she said, ushering him out of the building.
Willow let out the breath she’d been holding in and met up with her father, who was just turning off the lights in the small office room. She could not believe how inconsiderate that boy had just been. She could think of nothing else.
“Daddy, do I look like a tooth fairy dressed like this?”
Her father stopped to look at her. “What? Where has this come from?”
She shook her head, lower lip trembling. “I don’t know. Sometimes I feel different to other people… like I don’t fit in.”
Her father knelt in front of her, cupping her face delicately. “Willow, you are unique. Some people will love that about you, others won’t understand it. But don’t let anybody change who you are. Forget about the things of the world, only God’s opinion should matter.” She sniffed, thankful for her father’s advice. “Is everything okay now?”
Except strangely, it wasn’t.