A cool blast of air surprised her as she opened the police station door. A female officer smiled and waited to squeeze past her. “Chad is just around the corner fixing another pot of worthless coffee. He’ll be right with you.”
Without waiting for a response, the officer called, “Chad, citizen in the building. Don’t fight destiny for too long.”
Willow stood awkwardly at the counter clutching her tote bag in her hands and wishing she’d thought to stop at the mini-mart on the corner. Mother always did that. The restrooms had external entrances, and Mother used them to wash her hands and face and run a brush through hair that became windblown on the five-mile trek to town.
The officer striding toward her seemed to grow taller by the footstep. “May I help you?”
“I—Well, I don’t know if this is the right place to come but—”
“I’m Officer Tesdall—Chad. I’ll—”
Willow tried again, interrupting Chad Tesdall’s assurance that he’d help or find someone who could. “My mother is dead.”
“I woke up this morning, and she wasn’t awake. She’s always awake before me, so I went to see if she was ill. She was too still and I smelled—” Willow blushed as she remembered that her mother didn’t like—hadn’t liked—to hear discussions of bodily functions. “Her hand—face—they were cold.”
For the first time, the reality of her loss overtook her. Willow covered her face with her hands and sobbed. Chad stared at the woman before him for a moment and then shouted for Chief Varney. “Chief! I need some help in here!”
The Chief of Police rushed from his office. He paused, sizing up the situation before asking, “What is the problem?”
“Her mother is dea— has pass— is no longer with us,” he stammered awkwardly.
“Good grief, Chad, didn’t you learn how to do a sympathetic notification in the academy?”
Chad nodded watching as the Chief brought Willow a chair and passed her a box of Kleenex. “She notified me, sir.”
“Did you kill your mother ma’am?” The chief’s confused and horrified voice would have been comical had the situation not been so awkward.
Willow fumbled with the Kleenex box as she dug a handkerchief from her tote bag and blew her nose. “Oh no! It’s just that I didn’t know what to do about it when I found her.” She sniffled again, wiping the tears from the corners of her eyes on the back of her hand. “I’m not a very good carpenter, and I knew she’d need a coffin, so I haven’t dug the hole yet. I couldn’t bury her without a coffin—could I?”
The Chief and Chad stared at each other for a moment before the Chief found his voice. “Um, no ma’am. That would have been illegal. You did the right thing coming here.”
“Oh good. Mother told me what to do about finances and things like that if something happened to her—way back when I was really little actually—but she didn’t say anything about the—” The woman swallowed hard. “—body.”
“Ma’am, what is your name?”
“Willow.” She folded her hands in her lap in an attempt to gain some control before tears swallowed her again. “Oh. Finley. Willow Finley.”
“And where do you live?”
“About five miles up the highway. We have a farm—”
The Chief picked up the phone. “Chad, follow her out to her house, and I’ll meet you there. I want Darla with us.” He gave her what was likely meant to be a reassuring smile. In her estimation, it seemed more like a grimace. “I’m very sorry for your loss, miss. Officer Tesdall will escort you home and wait for the ambulance with you.”
“I don’t think an ambulance will do her any good now.” Both men looked at Willow sharply, but her expression was humorless.
Thirty minutes later, Chad and Willow rolled up the long driveway to the old farmhouse the Finley women called home. It had taken Chad, the chief, and the chief’s wife Darla to convince Willow that it was perfectly safe and acceptable to ride in a police car, or any car for that matter, especially under the circumstances. She’d proposed to walk and meet them at the farm but eventually capitulated when the chief opened the door and said, “Young lady, my men don’t have an hour or two to wait around while you mosey on home. Get in the car.”
“Cars are interesting,” she said after five miles of near silence, “but they make my stomach flop around—especially around the curves. I don’t think I’d want one, but that did get us here very quickly.”
Chad nodded, uncertain of what to say. Willow hadn’t said much in the short drive to her house, but what she had said made him believe she’d never ridden in a car. “Perhaps it is just my driving. Do all cars make you feel ill?”
“I don’t know. We don’t own one, and as I told you—”
“‘Mother’ was very particular that you never get in a car with anyone for any reason. Got it.”
The house surprised him. After her comments about building coffins and digging holes, Chad had expected a ramshackle place not fit to inhabit. Instead, the old farmhouse was in excellent repair with fresh paint and a well-groomed lawn surrounding it. A collie rounded the back of the house barking furiously and somewhere nearby chickens squawked.
“You have a very nice house, Miss Finley.” He glanced in the rear view mirror. “I see the ambulance coming.”
“I’d better go unlock the door then. Thank you for the drive. I enjoyed it.”
Chad followed Willow, watching as she patted the dog, calling him Othello, and then disappeared into the house. Inside, he found her pulling out teacups, juice glasses, and tumblers. She looked up at him confused. “How many do I need?”
“How many what?”
“I was going to make tea for everyone but we only have two teacups—” Her hand shook as she picked it up to demonstrate. A second later, it crashed against a matching saucer, shattering both into miniscule pieces.
Quiet tears flowed this time as she cleaned up the remains of the cup. As though confirmation that she was all alone, the single whole teacup stood aside from the other drink ware. Chad assumed that she’d never drink from that cup again.
“There’s just the four of us—well, and the two guys in the ambulance but no one expects—”
The kettle whistle interrupted him. Paramedics pulled the gurney down the steep stairs and through the living room, trying to spare her the sight of her mother being loaded into the vehicle. The chief entered the kitchen with his wife who sniffled slightly.
“Oh, Miss Finley—”
She stared at the woman, eyes darting back and forth between the chief, Chad, and the chief’s wife. Her eyes widened. “Oh—me. I’m sorry; I’m not used to being called that, and it doesn’t feel like me. My name is Willow.”
“Willow,” Darla Varney continued, “you made her look so nice. The flowers… they were fresh too, weren’t they?”
“Yes,” Willow said simply. “I thought she’d like that.”
Clearing his throat uncomfortably, the chief suggested they sit at the table. “Miss—um, Willow, do you have your mother’s birth certificate? Is there family we can call for you or—”
“Excuse me. Mother had an envelope in the firebox. I’ll get it.”
Minutes later, Willow returned with a beautifully decorated but otherwise ordinary manila envelope, letter sized. The cover was marked, “Family Records,” and inside they found Kari Anne Finley’s birth certificate, a notarized affidavit of Willow’s birth, and a list of addresses for next of kin. The last things they pulled from the envelope were a life insurance policy, naming Willow as beneficiary, and Kari’s will.
“No birth certificate for Willow?” Mrs. Varney stared at the young woman in disbelief.
“I was born here. Mother said she didn’t know how to file a regular birth certificate and wasn’t sure she wanted to, so she entered my birth in her Bible and had that paper notarized that she signed the facts of the situation.”
“They can’t do that can they? Notarize information on a birth?” Chad’s face showed confusion.
“They can’t now, but before the Patriot Act, probably—either that or the notary didn’t know any better.” Chief Varney’s voice sounded distant as he read the documents. When finished, he looked up at Willow, compassion exuding from him. “Willow, do you know the contents of these documents? Do you know where the financial records are?”
Willow nodded. “My mother was always very forthright about my birth and the circumstances around it. I also knew from a very young age what to do if she died or was seriously injured.”
“I need to show this to the M.E., but I’ll get it back to you a-sap.”
“I don’t understand M.E. and a-sap. What do those mean?”
Three faces stared at her in disbelief for a moment before Chad spoke. “M.E. stands for Medical Examiner. She was so young that they’ll want to see what killed her. It could be hereditary, and you’d want to know. A-sap is an acronym for “as soon as possible.”
“I see. I have copies of all of it upstairs. You can keep those. Mother was very thorough. Whom should I speak to about the financial arrangements? I think I understand what to do, but I’d like to make sure. Mr. Franklin’s visit isn’t due for another eight months.”
Chief Varney’s attention focused on the name. “Who is Mr. Franklin?”
“William Franklin is Mother’s financial advisor.”
“Did your mother leave you well situated Willow?” Curious, Mrs. Varney seemed unable to resist asking.
“I don’t know. I think I’ll have enough to live on, though. Mother always said I would.”
Darla Varney stared at her husband in shock. Willow seemed unconcerned for her welfare. From a legal standpoint, she didn’t exist, and furthermore, she didn’t seem to realize it. “What does this mean for her exactly?”
“She’ll be fine, Darla. This is unusual but not insurmountable.” He smiled reassuringly at Willow and asked, “Do you have Mr. Franklin’s phone number? Perhaps I can get him to make a visit to go over things with you.”
Willow stood wordlessly and disappeared upstairs again. She returned several minutes later carrying a large fireproof safe. “Everything is in here. What should I look for?” She glanced up at the chief and said, “But Mr. Franklin only comes in April.”
Chad opened the top of the safe and pulled out a packet of papers. It was another carefully decorated envelope labeled, Taxes, 2001. He flipped through the packets, each elaborately embellished with artistry of some kind, and found one marked, Franklin’s Financial Services as the title.
“Found it. May I?”
At Willow’s nod, Chad slipped the contents from the envelope and smiled at the coversheet. “Where’s your phone?”
“We don’t have one. I’ll have to walk to town and call. That’s what Mother always did if she needed him.”
Chad frowned and glanced at the chief, before sliding open his cell phone and handing it to Willow. “Here you go.”
Willow took the phone and stared at it. “What do I do with it?”
“You’ve never seen a phone?” the three exclaimed in nearly perfect unison.
“I’ve seen one. I know what it is and how it works, but I’ve never used one. Would you mind using it for me?”
Chad, unsettled by the idea that someone so young had never used a cell phone—had never used any phone—nodded. “Sure.” He dialed the number and spoke to Bill Franklin’s office manager. At the mention of Kari and Willow Finley, he found himself talking to Mr. Franklin. “Yes sir, I’m Officer Tesdall, and I’m at Miss Finley’s farmhouse. We’re not quite sure what to do with her—well yes, I realize that sir, I just meant legally and—just a minute.”
Chad handed the phone to Willow. “He wants to talk to you. Put this part up by your ear—be careful though, it might be loud—and hold this part by your mouth. Don’t press any buttons though.”
Willow attempted to hold the phone correctly, but found it difficult to manipulate. “It’s too short. I must have a longer jaw than you. If I put this up by my ear, the mouth part is on my cheek—”
“It’ll work, trust me.”
The Varneys and Chad listened as Willow assured Mr. Franklin that she’d walked to town and requested help from the officer and that she was fine. “I asked them what to do about the finances and they suggested I call you. It’s not time for taxes, so I don’t know why—oh.”
A minute later, she passed the phone back to Chad awkwardly. “I don’t know how to turn it off, but it clicked and Mr. Franklin said goodbye. He’ll drive over Thursday and help me with funeral arrangements and whatever else needs to be done. I think I’m fine now.”
Feeling somewhat dismissed, Chief Varney, his wife, and Chad offered their sympathies once more and rose from the table. She followed them through the living room to the front porch. Just as the Chief and his wife stepped onto the grass, Willow spoke again. “My mother always said that I might someday want to live differently than she did. She told me never to let her choices dictate my life if I didn’t want them.”
“Your mother was a wise woman. She knew how to keep her daughter from rejecting her,” Darla mused with a smile.
Willow continued as though uninterrupted. “Mother didn’t care to be around people, but it was nice to have someone, even—” Willow swallowed carefully and tried again. “I hope you will visit again sometime. If I know ahead of time, I’ll cook something, but I don’t have enough dishes so you’d have to bring your own.”
Darla smiled and nodded. “We will. I promise.”
Chad stood with one foot on the first step until the Chief and his wife backed around and drove down the driveway. “Have you really never had visitors here?”
“Only Mr. Franklin. Mother either ignored other people or came out with the shotgun—whichever seemed more appropriate.”
“I’ve heard of your mom I think, but I thought she lived on the other side of the lake. I always thought this place was abandoned.” He smiled at her. “You know, I’d come visit, but I have no way of calling to see if you’re home—”
“I’m always home,” she interjected.
“Well, you might not be now…”
Willow shook her head. “There’s too much work to do to be traipsing all over the place. I’ll be home. Come by anytime. If I’m busy, I’ll tell you to go home, you can talk to me while I work, or I’ll put you to work.”
Halfway to his car, Chad did an about face and returned to the porch. “If I got you a prepaid cell phone, would you use it?”
“I don’t understand. Like yours?”
Shaking his head, Chad tried again. “It works like mine but it’s paid for differently. You buy minutes and—”
“You’re speaking Greek to me. Why would I want one?”
Decisively, Chad waved her off. “I’ll get one and show you how to use it. If you got hurt or something, no one would know until maybe too late. I’ll bring it out after my shift this afternoon and show you how to use it.”
Alone in the house, Willow sighed. She knew she needed food. It was well past noon and she’d been up early. She reached for the jar of oats and stopped. Seconds ticked by as she debated breakfast vs. lunch and then closed the cupboard.
Halfway through her soup, reality pummeled her from every side. With each bite, she remembered something else left undone that morning. Ignoring the childhood memories of her mother’s admonitions not to “bolt your food,” she inhaled the rest of the bowl, poured a bit of water in it, and let it stand in the sink as she hurried upstairs to change into overalls.
The goat came first. As she allowed the back door to slam, the occasional bleating grew insistent and then demanding. On her way to the goat pen, she raced into the barn, grabbed a milk pail, and turned on the stove. The animal’s teats were red, swollen, and dripping with unexpressed milk by the time she reached Wilhelmina’s pen.
“Poor girl. I’m so sorry. Mother died today. I forgot all about you and…” Willow talked soothingly to the animal as she pushed the goat into the feeding/milking cage and began cleaning the teats. The rhythmic motion of milking soothed her with its familiarity. Something normal at last.
She continued her verbal monologue as she fed the chickens, gathered the eggs, filled the water trough for the beef cow, and dumped a bit of milk in the cat’s pan on her way into the barn. Othello nudged his bowl as she pushed into the barn kitchen. “Just a minute, boy. I’ve got some chicken soup for you.”
Water boiled on the stove as she entered. She immediately began the milk routine, straining, boiling the pails, putting the washcloths in with the laundry—all of the things she did every day while her mother cleaned the house and planned their work.
She stumbled through the rest of the afternoon, doing whatever she remembered to do as she remembered it. The experience was unfamiliar and left her feeling unsettled. She made the beds in the afternoon, which seemed almost fruitless. Her mother’s stained sheets, bedspread, and mattress cover, freshly washed, now flapped in the breeze outside, drying on the line.
At five, she repeated the feeding and milking process hoping to get the animals back on a normal routine. Wilhelmina had half the usual evening’s milk, and the cow’s trough was nowhere near empty, but she kept to her work, hoping for some sense of familiarity. In the cellar, the old-fashioned icebox held the night’s dinner. The sight of two steaks was another fresh reminder that she was alone. She climbed the steps to the kitchen and put the steaks on the counter as she hurried upstairs to take her shower.
Kari had always preferred a bath, but when Willow heard of showers at the age of nine, she begged her mother to convert their claw foot tub to accommodate a showerhead as well. Every evening she showered and then her mother bathed while she started dinner. Today there’d be no bath. Similar thoughts punctuated everything she did until Willow thought she’d go crazy with the apparent taunting.
Chad berated himself all the way to the Finley farm. The story of Willow Finley had rippled through Fairbury, and the town loaded his truck with cookies, pies, and two casseroles large enough to feed a family of six that now sat beside him as he crept down the long driveway. Glass pans rattled against each other no matter how slowly he drove.
Othello met him at the car but didn’t bark. “Hello boy, how’s she holding up?”
The dog whimpered. Whether because he understood the question and grieved too or because he was confused and uncertain about the strange events of the day, Chad refused to speculate. He started for the front door until he heard a sound from the back of the house.
As he rounded the corner, Chad heard Willow talking to someone and stopped in concern. “… and I don’t know whether I should can half the peas we usually do or maybe three quarters in case I have guests sometimes… What would I do with the extra? Should I can them all and then give away what I don’t think I’ll need? Maybe there are people in need around the holidays who would like them? Oh Mother, you thought of all the important stuff like finances, but those are all one-time decisions and then done. What about the day-to-day living?”
Chad realized he had a decision to make. If he knocked on her door, it would set himself up to be a friend, helper, and probable confidant. Fishing and hunting would be replaced with canning and whatever else they—well now she—did around this place. He didn’t want to do it. Sunday’s sermon on bearing one another’s burdens echoed through his mind and heart, but he stuffed it back. He could go home. He could send the church with the phone and be out of her life for good. He wanted to do it. He wanted to drive away while he still could.
A sob drifted out the window and soaked into his heart. He had a sister about her age. Chad tried to imagine Cheri all alone in the world. No friends. No church—that thought stopped him. He couldn’t ignore someone who might need Jesus. He turned again to climb the back steps and the back door opened.
“Hey Willow! I brought you that phone.” He held the casserole and pies up sheepishly. “The town heard about your mom and sent out a ton of food.”
Carrying a platter with two steaks, Willow hurried to the grill, dumped the steaks unceremoniously on it, and turned it on as she did. “Here, let me take that. I appreciate it.”
“I’ll go get the rest. There’s more. You’ll need to freeze it or it’ll all go bad.”
They repackaged the food into smaller quantities and Chad helped her carry it to the barn. To his surprise, a combination mudroom and second kitchen was just inside the door. A sink, stove, refrigerator, and upright freezer stood along one wall while a washer and dryer sat opposite.
“Why is all of this out here? Why not in the house?”
“We don’t turn on the electricity inside most of the year.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Mother had to do without electricity while the man rewired the house when she moved in and she discovered she liked not having it. No electricity meant no radios, no televisions; she went to bed early and got up early, and she did a lot more reading and things around the house.”
“So you have electricity but don’t use it.” Chad didn’t quite understand.
“Well, we use it in the barn. We keep our frozen food out here, and when it is too hot to use the stove in the house—”
Almost afraid to ask but compelled, Chad interrupted. “What’s wrong with the house stove?”
“It is wood fueled. It gets too warm sometimes, so we cook on the grill or in here.”
She shoved the food in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator and hurried to the grill. “I’m not usually so scatterbrained, but it seems like I can’t do anything right today.”
Chad took the platter from her and replaced the steaks on the grill turning the rare side over. “Let’s cook both sides, shall we?” He led her back into the house and sat her at the table. “Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. You sit. I think you have a reasonable excuse for being a little upset and out of sorts.”
While he took orders on how to gather salad fixings and mix dressing, Willow opened the cell phone box and read the instructions. “It’s quite complicated for one little machine isn’t it? All the different numbers and things.”
“I can program it for you when I’m done here. Where are those seasonings you mentioned?”
“Oh, top right cabinet in the jar on the left—the one with the flip top. And I want to try it myself. It is a little bit of a challenge.”
They each worked in silence. Willow followed each step of the instructions and waited expectantly to see the phone flash its new number as the instructions indicated. “It worked! Look! I have one hundred minutes.”
Chad brought the bowl of salad and dressing to the table and glanced at the phone. “Excellent. You follow instructions well. People usually get impatient and skip steps and mess it up.”
“We learn everything by following instructions. After a few big mistakes, Mother made it a rule.”
Laughing, Chad retrieved the platter and shooed her back into the chair. “I’ll get them. Why don’t you serve yourself some salad?”
He returned to find her picking at it. “I’m not hungry I guess.”
“Eat it anyway. You need food.”
They ate in silence. Chad wishing he was anywhere but the Finley farm, and if her face was any indication, Willow feeling awkward and miserable without her mother. Each clink of knife and fork sounded more pronounced than expected. The food was excellent but neither tasted it.
After the meal, once they pushed their plates aside, Willow smiled awkwardly and bowed her head. Chad listened both amused and amazed as she spoke familiarly with the Lord about His provision of food, friendship, and a mother. As she ended with, “Lord, You gave me the best of mothers, and You have now taken her away. Blessed be Your name,” he swallowed hard. All of his ideas of showing her the Lord seemed immature and arrogant in the face of her obvious faith.
After dinner, he watched as she washed the dishes with hot water from the tap but lit an oil lamp when the room darkened. The soap she used to wash the dishes was a grey mixture she poured from a jar on the back of the sink, which he learned they’d made themselves.
“Do you make all of your soap?”
“Yes. Mother has recipes for every kind of soap. Dishwashing, laundry, skin, hair…”
“Will you continue to make it or will you buy soap now?”
She eyed him curiously, as she hung the kitchen towel on the rack and untied her apron. The apron surprised him. He hadn’t seen anyone wear an apron for years. Her answer surprised him more. “Why would I buy something so easy to make? What would I do with my soap making time?”
Though he wanted nothing more than to get away, he found himself fascinated by the strange life he saw before him. Propelled by curiosity, he asked, “What did you and your mother usually do after dinner?”
“Well, we wash up of course, but then we either play a game or work on some kind of craft, read a book, take a walk… it just depends.”
“What do you recommend then tonight?” Having heard the loneliness creep back into her voice, Chad decided to give the night up as lost and stay until he knew she’d go straight to bed.
Willow, not as naïve as she appeared, laughed at him. “Don’t feel obligated to amuse me Officer Tes—”
“Chad. My name is Chad, remember?”
She tried again. “You want to go home Chad. You’re here only out of kindness to me—” At the look of shock on his face she hastened to add, “—and I appreciate it, I do. It’s just that—” She paused. “Well, no one wants to feel like they’re a burden, so please go home.”
Chad, unaccustomed to forthrightness such as Willow’s, followed her to the door feeling rebuked and ashamed. “You’re right. I didn’t want to come tonight or to stay. I tend—well, I tend to be a little shy when I’m not on duty. I am sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable. I hope you’ll invite me back sometime and give me another chance.”
With a brief nod, Willow opened the door and Chad stepped on to the porch. As he turned to leave, Willow stopped him with an invitation. “Would you like to play a game of Chinese checkers before you go?”
They played on the porch by the light of an oil lamp. Chad had found the game confusing at first. To his astonishment, Willow played three colors and expected him to follow course. Trying to jump only your opponent’s three colors on a board full of marbles required more strategy than he was accustomed to using in the game. Willow beat him in almost no time.
“Excellent game. I’ll have to practice and challenge you again,” Chad declared as he stood to leave.
“You’ll come back?”
“I have Thursday off. I’ll—wait; I need to get your cell number. I’ll give it to the mortuary.”
Willow recited the number quickly. At his evident surprise, she grinned. “I am good with numbers.”
As Chad reached his pick-up truck, he waved once more and called, “I really am very sorry for your loss, Willow. If you need anything, call me.”
The look of confusion on his face was quickly replaced with understanding. “My number. You don’t know it. I’ll call you when I get home, and you can program it into your phone.”