Time in Willow Creek: 10 months, 2 weeks
“…thanks guys. That’s really encouraging. Juliana, are you ready to go?”
Two months had passed, and Kevin had been painting ever since. The art club members were glad he was finally participating and supported him on his emotional journey. But that’s not all that had gone on in two months. The art club met twice a week. Occasionally, they got together on a different night just hang and let loose. These people had become Juliana’s friends, but one of them was becoming more. At least, that’s what she wanted. Two to three times a week she spent with him going back and forth to Windenburg, one hour each way. They talked the entire time swapping childhood memories, discussing the unrest in Monte Vista, and learning more about each other. They were real friends, and it’s what they both needed. Juliana couldn’t help but develop a little crush on him. Or, at least at that point she was willing to admit she had feelings for the man. So, was she ready to go? Yes. But, was she ready to go home? Not at all.
“Yes, but…can we eat?” That was the best thing she could come up with.
“Of course! Hey, why don’t we all go?” He totally missed it.
Paul whispered to Kevin. “I don’t think that’s what she meant, bro.”
“It’s fine right, Juliana? It’ll be fun. Let’s go. I know just the place!”
Needless to say, Kevin foiled Juliana’s attempt to spend some extra time with him alone, but it was better than nothing. Juliana, Paul, and Camden piled into Kevin’s car and went down the street to the Shrieking Llama Bar. It was an old establishment—one of the first public houses in Windenburg—but it was an old favorite of everyone who knew Windenburg well. On any given night, one could find a mix of old faces and new faces. The food wasn’t great, but it was open late and lent itself to a fun night for anyone into classic bar games and sports.
When they arrived, Juliana felt oddly familiar with the place. She had never been there before, but it looked like some of the village taverns back home. It was funny. When she was back home, she never dreamed she would end up in a place like that, but there she was sitting down inside with three of her friends. She had definitely grown up a lot.
“So… it’s late. We don’t want anything heavy, right?” Kevin asked. “I think we should stick to the meat and cheese tray. Our stomachs will thank us…if you know what I mean, he he. Excuse me.” He got up to place the order at the bar.
Paul leaned over to Juliana. “I’m sorry, Juliana. I know you didn’t want us here. We can leave if you want us to.”
She was glad he saw what she was trying to do, but she was too nice to send them away. “It’s ok. You stay if you want.”
“Sure? My wife already texted me once. I could conveniently need to get back home…”
“Ok, folks…one meat and cheese tray coming right up,” Kevin said, setting the tray between them.
They all grabbed handfuls and began to eat. Paul excused himself to restroom.
“So Juliana,” Camden said, “how in tarnation did you end up waaaay over here?”
It had just occurred to Kevin that with all the time they spent together, he never asked her. True, they talked about her homeland and what her family had gone through. He knew enough about her situation to imagine, but this would be the first time he would hear her story. She looked at him as if to request some encouragement. He returned a warm smile. She pushed her plate away and thought about how to begin this epic tale; it was the first time she had ever told her story.
The words exited her mouth slowly as they were being processed in her brain. “We were poor. My country…it’s a bad place. Many murders and fighting… Sickness… Little food. I have five brothers and sisters born before me, but they are gone.”
Kevin gasped. “I didn’t know that, Juliana.” He was very much into the story. “What happened to them?”
“Some starved. Some murdered. Some sick. My papa…” She felt herself getting choked up, but she pressed on. “One year ago, we need food. We had no money. He try to take bread, but the shopkeeper murder him.” A few rogue tears leaked out of her eyes, and she took a moment to briefly relive that pain.
“Oh, Juliana. I’m so sorry.” Kevin stretched out his hand and held hers. He knew her father was dead, but watching her cry and feel pain broke his heart. “You don’t have to finish the story. It’s too painful.” He handed her a handkerchief from his pocket.
She smiled and wiped her eyes. “Thank you. It’s ok. I finish.” She took a few deep breaths and blew her nose. “Mamá was afraid. She… How to say… She was tired of the sickness and murders in the home.” She wasn’t sure if she got that part right, but Kevin was still listening attentively, so she continued. “I was the eldest. The others were much too young, so she choose me. She kept money many months to send me here but she did not tell me this. She know I would not leave. She tell me this when we went to the boat.”
“Wait! She secretly saved money, bought a ticket for a ship, and she didn’t tell you what was going on until you were at the shipyard?”
“Oh my word! You must have been hysterical!”
“Yes. I was very angry…and afraid. The journey was bad. I was sick and had no money to buy food. I cry in my room all the time. When I get here, I did not know what to do. I could not read. I could not speak. I had fear. I walk around for two weeks. I sleep in the park. I bathe at the gym. I found the museum and I paint. It made me so happy. Then I meet Harriett, and she give me shelter.”
Kevin was amazed. “You are so brave and strong, Juliana. I don’t know if I could have made it!”
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “God look after me.”
“He sure does.”
Somewhere in the middle of her story, she lost half her audience. Paul went to the bathroom and never came back, and Camden went to get a drink and didn’t return. Juliana didn’t mind though. She got what she wanted after all.
“You know what you need after telling that emotional story? You need some fun! Follow me.” He got up and lead her to a game table across the room. “Have you ever played Don’t Wake the Llama?”
“No.” She thought it was a funny name for a game.
“You’re in for a treat! The game is simple. We take turns removing logs for the tower without compromising the integrity of the structure.”
She looked confused.
“Let me show you.” He took out a log. “See? The llama is safe. You don’t want the llama to fall down. You want to try?”
“Ok.” She eyed the tower and saw how the logs were laid on top of each other and understood what the goal of the game was.
“Good choice,” he said.
They each took their turns, carefully inspecting the llama’s throne and ensuring they kept it intact.
“You’re pretty good at this! Next time we play, I won’t be so easy on you, heh.”
She grinned. She didn’t know the proper word for it, but she recognized the trash talk. She also noticed he was getting a bit fancy with his moves. Was it part of his showmanship? Or, was he trying to impress her?
Kevin woke the llama. The clamor made Juliana scream. She held her hand near her heart and laughed at the spectacle. Kevin’s pride was a bit hurt, but he was glad Juliana was having fun. It was late, and so he challenged her to a rematch another time and headed back home.
As Juliana was walking up the steps of Umbrage Manor, she saw Jase knocking at the door.
“Oh! Hi Juliana. How are you?”
“Good, good. Hey, listen…is Hillary all right? She’s been blowing me off ever since we… Ummm, [ahem] well, I’ve been trying to get in touch with her for two months, and she’s ignoring me. Does she say anything about me?”
“No. Sorry.” She had no idea what he was going on about, but she thought it was strange that Hillary would be avoiding him. “Come in?”
She let him in, and he went up to Hillary’s room. The door was closed, so he knocked.
“Come in,” she said. She wasn’t expecting her visitor to be him, and her heart sank when she saw him. She expected he would turn up eventually, but she never prepared herself for their actual meeting.
Jase had plenty he wanted to say, but he sat there for a moment in case she wanted to speak first; he was kind of hoping she would.
When it was clear she had nothing to say, he let out a sigh and began his speech. “What happened, Hill?”
He was met with silence.
“I thought we were going somewhere.”
She could no longer look him in the eyes.
“Please say something, Hill. I need to know what went wrong.”
She had plenty of words floating around her head, but none of them found their way in her mouth.
“Was it that bad?”
The tiniest smile flashed across her face as she thought, no…it was quite good.
“If I was bad, you can tell me. I can handle the—
“It wasn’t you,” she said finally. She felt the pressure of some tears building up behind her eyes. “This is what I didn’t want, Jase! I didn’t want this!”
“That what? What’s this?”
“This! You sitting here feeling hurt! I told you I didn’t want to hurt you!”
“But, Hillary…you love me. Why don’t you trust that?”
She didn’t feel like explaining her demons to him all over again. “This was a mistake! We shouldn’t have done it!”
“But we did and…it was great. I think you think you thought it was great too. And, when I asked you if you were sure, you said yes!”
“It didn’t mean anything!”
“Don’t say that! You don’t believe that!” Something inside Jase had begun to break.
He was right, but he was too late. She had spent the past two months making herself believe it didn’t mean anything to justify her fear and running away. “Just leave, Jase!”
“We have to fix this!”
“There’s nothing to fix! Just go!”
Jase went from being confused to being angry within seconds. There was no way she thought their evening together meant nothing. It meant everything, and he knew she felt it too. After the first time, they lingered in bed. He held her tightly and relished the scent of her shampoo each time he inhaled. She was hungry, so he made grilled cheese. She took one of his shirts out the drawer and wore it. She was comfortable and acted like she belonged there with him. He made popcorn, and they watched a movie. He talked trash about the movie, and she threw popcorn at him. A war broke out, and they made an awesome mess. The playfulness didn’t end there. Some kind of way it went from a popcorn war to catch me if you can. That game ended in the bedroom for round two. That night, she fell asleep with a smile on her face; he was watching her. He put his arms around her, and she scooted closer to him. She was happy and sighed in satisfaction; she didn’t know these things. In the morning, she wasn’t in a hurry to leave. She lingered in bed with him, and they talked. They made out, and she made breakfast. She was still wearing his shirt. He just knew they were on their way to something greater, but she threw it all away. He spent his life trying to convince her they were meant to be together, and he was done. That was the last straw. He had no more patience left for her.
“You played me,” he realized. “You took advantage of my feelings! And for what? Because you got rejected by that douche bag?” He couldn’t believe the words he was saying, but she did not deny them. He sat there shaking his head, trying to piece together the fragments of dignity he had left. “You need help, Hillary.”