A little boy with a flash of white hair, children's laughter, playing in bright green grass.
I wake up with a sharp intake of breath and a pounding heart. It's not even close to the first time I've had those dreams, I've had them at least once a month for as long as I can remember, but it doesn't stop the pangs in my heart every time I do.
I even asked my mom about him once, about the boy with white hair like mine, sure the dreams were somehow memories. It was the first time she really hit me. I was seven and she told me I was too old to have imaginary friends, so I never asked again. The dreams never stopped, though.
I take a minute to fully wake up and clear my head, squeezing my eyes closed and timing my breathing with the familiar (if not at all comforting) sound of deep sleep coming from the direction of the motel's twin bed, trying to ease the phantom pain of unknown longing in my chest. It's always like this when I have these dreams. Like my subconscious knows I'm missing some critical part of me, something just on the fringes of my memory, and it's punishing me for forgetting.
Taking one last deep breath, I sit up—dislodging the cheap blanket I scavenged from the room's closet, not that it was doing much to keep me warm anyway—and blearily take stock, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. Glancing at the alarm clock on the bedside table I see that it's 5:15, forty-five minutes until I'm due to start my shift. I blow out a small breath of relief that I woke up a few minutes before the actual alarm would have gone off, Mom has a tendency to be especially unpredictable after late nights.
She didn't get home until a couple of hours ago. I was woken up to rattling from the door letting me know she couldn't, or forgot how to, get her key to work. But thankfully she had been alone. I definitely wasn't in the mood to go sleep in the cracked bathtub to escape my mom screwing whatever drunken idiot she'd found still in the bar at 3:00 A.M. who was willing to pay her. It wouldn't have been the first time for that, either.
With a quiet sigh I heave myself off the hideous couch that was shoved in the corner of the room. When we checked into Paradise Cove (I still roll my eyes every time I see the burnt out sign in the parking lot) a few weeks ago I was praying for a pullout, it had been too long since I slept in some semblance of a real bed, but I know I should have been counting my blessings the room had a sofa at all. We had stayed in plenty of places that didn't have anything but a lone bed which my mom always claimed and it is not easy trying to sleep on a motel room carpet, imaging what you could be laying on top of. It made my skin crawl.
Making my way to the bathroom after disabling the alarm, I take my work uniform from where I left it hanging on the shower curtain rod after hand washing it the night before and move it to hang off the door instead so I can turn on the water and begin my morning routine.
After I'm done my lukewarm shower (the water never really heats up in this place), brushing my teeth at the same time, I make sure to squeeze as much water out of my hair as I can manage so I won't have to go the coffee shop with it soaking wet. There were times like now when I would have really appreciated a blow dryer, but that was just a luxury I couldn't afford. Especially not now in July when I have to save as much as I can to make it through my senior year, because I can't work two jobs during the school months.
Peeking my head out of the door to check the time, I see that I have just enough to finish getting ready before I have to get to the bus stop to make my first shift.
I pull on the required black pants and burgundy shirt that will go under the black apron that makes up the Deb's Coffee uniform, making sure to pin my name tag in place on the left side of my chest. Willa J., it reads in a no nonsense font.
There, just about done.
I look in the mirror long enough to throw my, now damp, long white-blonde hair in a messy bun, knowing there's not much else I can do with it. I see my familiar pale blue eyes staring back at me.
Besides my naturally darker eyebrows and eyelashes, the only real color on my face came from the slight purple bruising under my eyes that give away my exhaustion. When I'm wearing white the effect can be kind of startling, I look leached of all color. Pale skin, white hair, almost white eyes. Like a ghost.
On quiet feet, I grab my shoulder bag and slip on shoes and pad softly towards the cabinet the small TV was precariously balanced on. I scratch a quick note asking, or more like pleading, Mom to pick up some food when she wakes up since I know any stores will be closed by the time my second job finishes. I pull $20 out of my wallet and place it with the note on top of the television, praying she'll actually use the money for what I've asked her to.
As I make my way to the door I take a last look at the form lying on the bed. Her face is pressed into the thin pillow, chestnut hair like a messy halo around her. In her early forties, my mother is still extremely beautiful. Would probably be even more so if she didn't live the way she lived, her vices starting to showing in the lines on her face and the gauntness of her cheeks.
Growing up, it was never easy being Olivia Johnson's daughter. She didn't have a lot of, if any, maternal instincts. Mostly neglectful and extremely quick to anger, but at times she was smothering in her obsessive attempt to keep me locked up and away from getting close to anybody. If she got it in her head I talked to any one person too much (or god forbid make friends), she would move us to a new place and out of the school district, demanding to know what I've told people about me and about her, trying to drill into me not to trust people. She was also irresponsible to a frustrating degree. She had only kept a job only for as long as it took to find a new man to take us in, which is where I learned how to install locks fast.
Eventually I got sick of it and I got my first job at thirteen, a cute Mom and Pop diner near the trailer we lived in at the time—I lied and told them I was sixteen, but I suspected the owners Mary and her husband Bill knew that and took pity on me anyway, because all my paychecks were in cash. After I started paying the rent and food when I could, Mom stopped bothering to hold a job at all. Mostly relying on men to pay for her drinking habits or whatever else she does during the day. But this meant we had to move far less often, which I was grateful for. There's only so many times you can start over in a new town and a new school.
However, she was the only parental figure I've ever known. She had to give me her maiden name, Johnson, because my father left her while she was pregnant with me. I don't even know his name.
I don't look a lot like my mother, with her brown hair, hazel-green eyes and naturally tan skin tone. So I know that even if he didn't give me his last name, I did get my looks and coloring from my father. It gives me a kind of sick satisfaction; like despite not wanting me, I took a part of him anyway.
Shaking myself out of my thoughts, I click open the front door, making sure to relock it behind me, and start across the desolate parking lot, the sun just starting to rise and turning the sky a watercolor of pinks and oranges. There's two cars here and twenty-five rooms at this place, even if a couple of occupants like us don't have a car I suspect Paradise Cove will be shutting down soon, meaning I'll have to find another place with rent as cheap as this.
I go over places in the area I know of that haven't kicked us out while settling onto the bench at the bus stop across the street, not coming up with any good prospects. Catching my bottom lip between my teeth, I think I might have to move us to a new town before the school year starts to avoid having to do it part way during.
I'm interrupted in the calculations of the money it will cost to move (too much) compared to how much we have to spare (almost none) by the hissing of the bus pulling up next to me. I drop the fare into the collector and go to my regular seat next to backdoor, lurching a little when the bus starts driving before I get there.
A quick drive and a short walk later and I'm opening the door to Deb's Coffee, causing the little bell attached to ding! and announce my entry. I flick my eyes up to the analog clock hanging above the entrance to the back room and can't help but grin a little.
"Only two minutes today, Deb." I inform my boss, smiling innocently.
She glances at me from behind the counter where she's using a rag to wipe it down, and back at the clock where sure enough it reads 6:02.
She scoffs and tells me, "Two minutes is two minutes you could be working, girl," in her heavily accented voice. Deb is a rough women, from Russia I think though she wouldn't tell me, and has owned this place for twenty years. I don't think there's ever been a change of decor since then.
Mismatched cracked formica tables and peeling vinyl covered chairs and stools litter the front of the shop. Behind them is counter that holds the old coffee makers (currently leaving the already brewed pots burning while we wait for customers), along with the few glass displays with freshly baked pastries waiting inside (the real gem of Deb's Coffee is Deb's baking, I would say) and the ancient cash register which I now stand behind.
Laughing quietly, I grab my apron from the hook next to the opening to the back room and pull it on, tying it in the back, all the while Deb grumbles about the laziness of youth and picks out a blueberry muffin from the display case and drops it in front of me.
"Girl is too skinny," she starts mumbling, slowing ambling to the back when there's another ding! at the entrance and leaving me to deal with the customers.
Pasting on a smile that makes my cheeks hurt and placing the solo cup with "TIPS" written in sharpie next to the register, I greet the kind looking elderly man that just walked in, ready to start the day.
After a six hour shift at the coffee shop, immediately followed by eight hours at the new diner I started waitressing at this summer, I head back to the motel feeling dead on my feet. The kind of bone deep exhaustion that comes from weeks of not enough sleep, and knowing the weeks ahead won't be any better.
I turn my key in the lock, hand shaking and eyes heavy, and push the heavy door open—somewhere in my mind I'm aware my mom's not here, not that I'm that surprised, I don't think we've said more than five words to each other in months—and trudge over to the couch, falling down gracelessly, still wearing my shoes. I think I'm asleep before my head hits the cushion.
Waking up the next morning, I'm immediately aware that it's too quiet. I wait a moment to let my eyes adjust and then check the bed to make sure she really isn't there, and didn't just stop breathing or something in the night. The bed's still unmade from the night before.
Flipping on the bedside lamp for some light, I go check to see if she found my note from yesterday. The $20 is gone (with no food in sight) and below my note I recognize her writing, Visiting a friend. Back in a few days.
I stifle the urge to throw a fit like a child at her taking the money with her, knowing there's no point, and focus on what she wrote. With her, the relatively straightforward message could mean she went anywhere and she could sooner be back in twenty minutes as two weeks. She doesn't have any friends and I have no idea what she does when she goes away.
Taking a calming breath, I resolve put it out of my mind. Time to get ready for work.
A little over a week later and the beginning of August, she's still not back.
It's my day off from the diner, so I only had to work six-noon today before stopping off at the administration office to pay the weeks rent. As I head toward Room #6, I'm not paying any attention to my surroundings until I'm five feet away front door. I stop in my tracks when I see the man standing stiffly next to the door, clearly waiting, and is staring about as wide eyed as me.
I get a hold of myself, narrowing my eyes a little. "Who are you?" I ask the man sharply.
He looks to be at least as old as my mom, but aging well. He has light blonde hair, some graying at the temples, and blue eyes. If I wasn't so suspicious of him I might have been generous enough to compare them to my own eyes and hair.
He's also got on an obviously expensive suit, and a sparkly watch I'm sure is worth more than I've ever seen. If my mother owes this man money, there's no way in hell I can pay it.
I almost spit that out while he's taking me in, but the way he's looking at me keeps me quiet. It's not in a lecherous or sick way, like most of my mother's old boyfriends, it's like he can't believe I'm standing there. Like if he blinks I'll disappear. My breathing picks up, I don't know if I really want to hear this but my muscles lock in place and I can't move.
When he finally does speak it's like I already knew what he was going to say. Cataloged it in my brain even if I didn't immediately want to acknowledge the truth of it.
"Willa, baby..." The man chokes out. The words sound rough in his throat, his eyes misty. "I'm your father."
I freeze. I can’t think. All I can do is stand there, staring at eyes that look just like mine. I can hear the blood rushing in my ears and it’s so loud I wonder if he can hear it from where he’s stood.
Stood outside the dingy motel room I work my ass off to afford so I can keep a roof over my head while he stands there wearing thousands of dollars on his body like it's nothing.
A few pounding beats of my heart later, mind reeling with thousands of thoughts and questions all fighting for the chance to be said but in the end I can only force one word out.
“Why?” I ask simply. Though I’m not even sure what I’m really asking. Maybe why are you here? or why now? or perhaps why did you leave me?
I take in his face, looking at him I can't deny how sincere he looks. He looks haunted, like he's seeing a ghost when he looks at me and he seems just as torn as I do. Like he has a million things to say but doesn’t know what to voice first.
“I’ve been looking for you.” Is what he tells me in a rush of breath, hands fidgeting; clenching and unclenching tightly, like he’s trying to hold himself back. And I don't want that.
In that moment it’s just. Everything I’ve ever wanted to hear from him. The unknown, faceless man I would dream of calling “dad”. Those times I was hungry, and cold, and lonely, starved for affection and just wanting someone who truly loved me. I only hold off for a couple of seconds and then I give in to all the hopes and fears I had as a child and my face crumples.
He pulls me to him immediately, crushing me to his chest and I feel like the vulnerable little girl I never got to be. He rubs my back and strokes my hair and says soft, soothing words that make everything better and everything worse because it only makes me cry harder.
We spend a few minutes like that, hugging while I have my mini breakdown, before I somewhat reluctantly pull away. I wipe my face quickly, completely mortified.
“Um,” I mumble, “would you like to come in?” I ask, motioning toward the door, kicking a loose stone.
He nods, smiling sadly. “We have a lot to talk about.”
I pick my bag up off the cracked pavement where I’d dropped it, fishing out the key and slinking around the man—my father—with my shoulders hunched. I’m not scared of him, not really. Not in the way where I think he would hurt me, just nervous about all the things he could say to me and all the things he might not.
Unlocking the door, I push and hold it open behind me. I walk in and look around, trying see it through his eyes. It just looks like every other cheap motel I’ve ever stayed in. Ugly gray-brown carpet with some cigarette burns, twin bed, old TV, and my couch in the corner.
It’s not messy. Everything I own is either clothes that are hung up in the closet, a few things in the bag I’m holding, or a couple odds and ends in my suitcase on the shelf above my clothes. Mom brought most of her stuff with her.
If he’s thinking anything he doesn’t voice it, so I just nod towards the couch while I sit stiffly on the edge of the mattress.
“How do I know you really are my father?” I ask in the silence that follows. I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t immediately ask that but honestly I don’t really need confirmation. Not when I’m looking at the proof right in front of me, but it feels like what I should ask.
He pulls his wallet out of his sleek pants pocket, opens it and slides something out, standing slightly to reach over and hand it to me.
It’s a photo. It’s faded from a lot of years and the edges are tattered as if it’s been taken out a lot. My eyes are immediately drawn to the woman in the photo. Even if it’s almost twenty years old, that woman is no doubt my mother.
I’ve never seen a picture of her, she’s never taken one of me or of her that I can remember. She looks bored and uninterested but incredibly beautiful. Dark hair long and loosely curled. Make up immaculate in a way I'm not used to. Next to her is a younger version but still clearly an image of the man in front of me. Same bright blonde hair, same broad frame and handsome face. He’s smiling brightly in the photo, his eyes shining with happiness and none of the lingering grief I can see resting on his shoulders and wearing it like the black jacket of his expensive suit now.
He’s holding two babies with little tufts of white hair.
My heart is simultaneously in my throat and threatening to fall out a pit that's opened in my stomach.
I know without a doubt that I’m one of the babies. There's a part of me that doesn’t want to ask who the other is. That wants to hand the photo back and forget I ever saw it, run away and take the coward's way out to avoid the heartache this experience is turning into and continue my life in ignorance. But that part is drowned out in my immediate and overwhelming barrage of need. Angry need. Desperate need.
“Two?” I finally get out through the knives in my throat. I thought my voice would reflect all the emotion warring inside me, the rage, the elation, the despair, but it’s as blank and hollow as my mother’s face in the picture. Like together they cancelled each other out.
“The other is your twin brother, Weston.” My father answers. I can’t take my eyes off the two babies to look at him, but I can hear that his words sound even rougher than before. They hit me like a physical blow.
I squeeze my eyes shut and cover my mouth with a hand as if that could keep the sobs in my throat. A little boy with a flash of white hair, children's laughter, playing in bright green grass. The memories come to me easily, because now it’s obvious to me that was actually what they were.
My brother. My twin.
I snap my eyes open and look back at my father. “Why?” This time I know exactly what I’m asking. Why were we taken from each other?
He has his elbows resting on his knees, but he looks far from relaxed. Hands clasped so tightly together in front of him that his knuckles are white. “You also have two younger brothers.”
“Why?” I demand, practically hissing the word, my eyes probably wild. I’m angrier than I can ever remember being and I’m not used to it. It feels like a poison inside me, and I need a purpose for it. A direction. Something or someone to blame so this white hot rage doesn’t eat me alive.
“There’s so much you need to know but there’s something else I need to tell you first,” is how he answers, scrubbing a hand roughly over his face. I don’t say anything, I don’t think I can, so he continues. “Baby, I’m so sorry, it’s the reason I was able to find you.” He takes a deep breath and lets it out in a whoosh of air. “Your mother, she was in an accident.”
Time stops and I deflate just as quickly as the anger filled me.
“She’s dead.” I don’t ask. I know. That’s what he meant. He found me because she died.
My mother’s dead.
She didn’t love me, not in the way a mother loves a daughter, I always knew that. But she was the only person in world I had, my only family.
No. That’s not right. Not my only family. I have brothers. I have a father.
I don’t have a mother.
I can’t speak, so I hope my face conveys my question. She was alive two weeks ago, why isn’t she alive now? And he does tell me.
She was driving drunk in a car owned by a man whose name I don’t recognize who was in the passenger's seat at the time with an even higher blood alcohol level than she had. She must have fell asleep at the wheel because the car swerved into oncoming traffic and killed them both when they hit a minivan head on. They were both dead when the paramedics arrived and the husband and wife she hit are still in critical care.
I memorize every word and tuck them into a box in my mind and lock it away. Blinking furiously, I push away the tears swelling in my eyes by telling myself I will deal with it all later. I can’t absorb and process it right now so I focus on what I can, what’s easier.
“What happened when I was a baby.” I ask, and I can’t help but look down at the photo that I’m still holding. Now I know my father didn’t leave before I was born, the proof is right in my hand, and I’m smart enough to realize my mom is the reason I didn’t grow up with this man and my brothers. I steel myself as much as I can for his answer.
He looks at me with sympathy in his eyes, upset for me but I can tell whatever happened, he doesn't miss her himself. But like he know’s I need time and space and to be on my own to process her death, he doesn’t linger, moving on with me. “Your mother, she always had issues.” He begins, I ignore the pang in my chest. “We weren’t together very long before she told me she was pregnant, I proposed to her the next day because I thought it was the right thing to do.
We were young, but I already had the beginning of a very successful company, not to mention my trust fund and the inheritance my parents left me when they died, so I had my lawyers draw up a prenup. Olivia changed after that. Before, she had always been smiling; happy I thought. But when I asked her to sign that it was like I was engaged to a different person.” He blows out a sharp breath, seeming to shake himself out of the past and focuses back on me.
“She did sign it eventually, and we got married a couple months before you two were born. When you were, she was never very…” He trails off.
“Maternal, loving?” I supply dryly.
He flashes me a sad smile. “She wasn’t very maternal, yes. I tried to ignore it when you and Wes were born. I worked from home more to spend as much time with you as I could and when I was home, Olivia would be out shopping or at the spa or country club. I tried to assure myself she was bonding with you when I had to go into the office.” He tells me, shaking his head like he can’t believe himself.
“She got pregnant again almost immediately and I was too blinded by my own happiness to see how resentful she had become. She didn’t love me, she loved the money and the lifestyle I gave her. Along with the attention I gave her only when she was pregnant because truthfully, I never loved her either.” He says, something like disgust mixed with resignation written in the set of his jaw.
“She gave birth to Wren eleven months after you two were born and that’s when I really started to understand who she had become. The company had started to take off on a larger scale and I couldn’t work from home as much. I hired a nanny, because even for me three infants under a year old was a lot of work, but I hired her to help, not to raise you.
Wren was a few months old when I came home early one day to find out that Olivia wasn’t there. And apparently never was almost every day that I worked. I waited up for her that night but she didn’t come home for three days.” I can’t help but to let out a humorless chuckle at how familiar that sounds, the whole story cutting hard edges into me.
He raises a questioning eyebrow so I stood on surprisingly steady legs to pluck the note she’d left me from where it still sat on the television, handing it to him and taking a seat beside him on the sofa. “That was over a week ago.”
I see him clench his jaw from the corner of my eye as he reads it and feel him take a deep breath before slowly releasing it, like he’s trying to calm himself down. To distract us both, I ask him to continue explaining what happened. I keep thinking of the brother’s I never knew. Weston. Wren.
“After two days I had my lawyers draft divorce papers, and I was ready to serve them the moment she walked in. She laughed and handed me a pregnancy test. She had this look in her eye that was like she was trying to dare me to do it, to try and divorce her. And I remember just being terrified, scared she would get rid of the baby so I ripped up the papers. But afterwards I never let her near the three of you, not that she really tried all she really wanted was access to my bank account.” He tells me, bitterness coating his every word. They all cause a new rip to tear at my heart and lungs.
“When I couldn’t be home, there had to be nannies, and security I hired for the house and to trail Olivia to make sure she was keeping the baby safe. It was a tense few months but I fell in love with Wyatt as fast as I fell in love with the rest of you and it made it all worth it. I filed for divorce and petitioned for full custody right away. The prenup was so airtight she wouldn’t have gotten anything, though she fought it at every step. I had enough evidence from private investigators and witness statements from employees to grant me custody as well.
When she finally accepted she wasn’t getting any money, she offered me a deal. She would rescind all parental rights if I paid her five million dollars. I told her to go fuck herself and went about getting her rights taken away myself.” He spits out. I can’t help it, I reach for my father’s hand and squeeze, feeling as desolate as he is angry. She was going to sell us like we were nothing to her. Weston. Wren. Wyatt. My brothers. Me. He squeezes back.
“But Willa, I should have,” He chokes out and I turn to him, startled. He stares back at me, eyes swirling with years of built up emotion as they flick over my face, still taking in all of my features. “If I had just given her the money she would have left us alone until she was broke again, but she was furious, and unhinged. She had nothing to lose.
She broke in one night, a couple months after yours and Weston’s second birthday. Took you right from your bed. It couldn’t have been that long after, Wes woke me up screaming. Yelling that he couldn’t find you. But even then it was too late.” He stops to take a breath and closes his eyes for a moment, a tear escaping before he can stop it. It isn’t until then that I realize I’m crying too, eyes blurry, no idea when I started but it feels too inescapable and impossible to stop.
My mom’s dead. She kidnapped me.
“I was frantic,” he rushes out, looking straight into my eyes, like he needs me to understand this more than the rest. “But we couldn’t find you. She must have been planning it for a long time. All leads were dead ends. All we could find was where she originally went for the fake documents of your birth but she changed it not long after that and you were lost.”
The questions bubble up before I can stop them. “But why? Why would she do it? And why me?”
He shakes his head again. “I can only guess her intentions but she was so angry and out of touch with reality at the end the only thing I can think of was how fixated she became on the trust funds I opened after you and Wes were born. She countlessly asked how much I was going to put in, when they’d become available to you and what the terms on them were. I think she convinced herself if you grew up with her you would support her if she sought me out after you came of age.
As for why you, I think that was just to try and hurt me as much as she could. I love my sons but you were my only daughter,” He has to stop, another tear tracing his cheek.
I can’t help myself. I throw myself at him. Arms winding around his neck and hugs me back just as fiercely.
I’m feeling a thousand different things. The woman I called Mom my whole life lied to me and stole everything from me for fifteen years, and now she’s dead. Even if she never really cared about me, she was all I knew. I don’t doubt a word of what this man, my father, told me but it’s still hard to consolidate the unfeeling woman I knew with the evil things she really did.
“What now?” I can’t help but ask.
“Now,” he responds, stroking my hair softly. “We go home.”