We arrived in downtown Chicago shortly after seven o'clock in the evening. The short ride had been uneventful, though very enjoyable. For the duration I had sat on a warm, covered coach seat snuggled against Willow. My hands had naturally migrated to hold her available left hand, which I squeezed and played with while we talked. I was finding myself to be an incredibly affectionate and touchy person; something I had never known about myself prior to meeting Willow.
We parked the coach behind a large mercantile that I had never been in before. The streets of this part of Chicago seemed very quiet and there wasn't a great deal of foot traffic or coaches. After Willow helped me descend from the bench of the coach, she offered her arm for me to lay my own on. When I looked dubiously at her offered arm, she reassured me that it was all right.
"We can act as beaus in the city Tara. Tonight we are Will and Tara. However, if anyone gets nosy, Harris is with us but at another store. I don't want your reputation tarnished by being out alone with me. Oh! Don't forget to call me Will or William if you want to."
"I prefer Will if you don't mind."
"That works for me. I actually like being called Will."
I smiled at her graciously and took her offered arm, entwining my own with hers. We walked east towards several buildings whose lights still welcomed customers in. I was very nervous at first; I feared that everyone we passed would see through Willow's guise and call us out. However, the strangers we met didn't spare us a passing glance and clearly nothing seemed amiss with our situation.
After walking for a few minutes down the quiet street, Willow stopped and guided us into a store label 'Giles & Sons Apothecary'. From the outside, it appeared to be a small store that could not possibly hold very much merchandise. I was therefore surprised at the sheer abundance of items dotting every open space. Though overwhelming, it was not cluttered. There was an organized chaos to it.
The left wall of the store was a network of neatly labeled drawers in rows and columns of various sizes. Every few feet was a wooden ladder affixed to poles on the wall. A man stood on one of these ladders rummaging through a partially open drawer. He appeared to be the only person in the store.
The right side of the shop was a combination of bookshelves packed to capacity and a large variety of medical supplies and scientific instruments on shelves. In the middle of the store were stacks of covered baskets and larger bins. I'd never seem a shop quite like this one before.
Willow smiled at me and squeezed my hand where it lay on my arm. She then addressed the man on the ladder.
"Well Giles, you certainly have them coming in droves."
The man jumped and let out a decidedly girlish squeal, practically falling off his ladder in the process. He then whirled around quickly and sighed in exasperation.
"For goodness sakes, William! You scare the living daylights out of me every time you come in. Try walking more loudly next time. To what do I owe this pleasure and who is the lovely lady with you?"
His accent was English and very formal. As he spoke he moved down the ladder, setting some items on a nearby counter and taking his spectacles off, which he rubbed furiously with the side of a smock he wore. He then peered at me curiously with a guarded but friendly look on his face.
"Giles, it's not my fault you can't hear and scare like a four year old child. I'm here to see if the package from New York came in. And this," with a flourish she held my arm and stepped slightly away from me to present me to Giles "is Miss Tara Maclay. She is our newest addition at the Institute and a fine scientific mind."
I smiled demurely at the comment and pulled Willow back to my side so that I wasn't on display.
"Fine scientific mind..." Giles mumbled, "And Maclay you say? Are you from Charleston by chance?"
I smiled nervously and nodded, perturbed that this complete stranger seemed to know my family. He nodded as well and rubbed the back of his neck, sighing softly and shaking his head.
"Your father was at Harper's Fairy then?" When I nodded quickly, he continued. "What a tragedy that was my dear. I knew him many years ago. This was well before his political days. We met in our first year of medical school. He was a fine man."
"Thank you for saying so Mr. Giles that is so kind of you. Were you very close?"
"Not very," he shook his head. "We ran in different social circles." He paused, his eyes diverting downward a bit. I tracked his gaze to my arm where it perched on Willow's; my hand grasping her arm. He looked up briefly to Willow's face, an eyebrow quirking sharply. I resisted the urge to remove my arm. It took a great deal of will not to do so as we suffered a long moment of silence. Willow and Giles seemed to communicate silently. Unable to bear the silence any longer, I broke it with a question.
"Mr. Giles, your store is unusual and lovely. You run it with your sons?"
Giles glanced sharply at Willow and again raised his eyebrow in question.
"She knows Giles." Willow said to Giles in a drool tone.
"She knows. What exactly does she know?" Giles again took off his spectacles and rubbed them with his smock.
"She knows every thing Giles. She knows that I'm Willow."
"Oh, I see. Well then. Very well. But if she knows everything... that is to say," Giles' response trailed off as he again glanced to were our arms where entwined. Willow simply smiled and pulled me closed to her side, her arm slipping lightly around my waist so that her hand rested on my hip.
"Oh..." Giles continued, "Oh! Dear lord. I see. Well that's just remarkable and, well if I may be frank, that's rather surprising and fortuitous for you both."
For a few moments, all three of us smiled warmly at each other. Though I didn't know Giles, I sensed that he was a wonderful man and he and Willow seemed to have a history and understanding that was both paternal and comforting.
I broke the silence again. "The store?" I asked again. Willow nodded and turned towards me.
"It's actually my store Tara. But since I cannot run it, Giles does so for me. He's done this before for other women. He's also a practicing doctor who is wonderful for procuring medicines and scientific supplies."
"And his sons?" I asked, smiling at Willow in amusement.
"You're looking at the only son in 'Giles and Sons' Tara." She grinned back at me, her eyes dancing with mine in merriment. The thought of Willow, not only masquerading as a man, but also doing so under the guise of being this man's son, was vastly amusing. I stared into her eyes for a few moments, perhaps more, until I heard Giles clearing his throat and coughing slightly.
"Yes, well... I'll go get your package William. Did you need anything else today?" Giles began to move towards the back of the store where a set of curtains hid a back room of some sort.
"I'll look around a bit Giles" she called back at his retreating form.
Willow and I spent some time browsing through the store while Giles retrieved the package from New York. Every item I picked up generated an excited explanation or story from Willow. With the exception of the package, we left empty handed. Willow already had all the supplies from the store at the Institute.
With the package propped under her left arm, Willow took my hand as we left the store. I happily entwined my fingers with hers. She then abruptly pulled me towards the store next door which was an ice cream parlor. I clapped my hands excitedly as we entered.
Willow ordered us both bowls of the store's home made ice cream, which Willow swore rivaled any anywhere. I delighted at the treat, my heart warming at Willow's generosity and sweetness. Between spoonfuls, I inquired after Willow's New York purchase.
"So Will, are you going to tell me about that package?" I asked teasingly.
"Oh! I wasn't hiding it from you Tara; I just forgot that I hadn't told you what they are. I got all the girls in this years science class signed copies of Darwin's new book. I can't believe I didn't tell you, being the huge admirer of his that you are. I think I have enough extra copies for you to have one too!"
I was very excited at the chance to have my own signed copy. I had read my own copy through a few times now. I reached across the table and ran my hand over Willow's. She looked down at our hands and smiled.
"That would be incredible Willow." I answered.
After slowly enjoying our ice cream, but more so the conversation, we left the parlor and walked slowly back to the waiting coach. A very light snow had begun to fall and the flakes danced across our faces as we climbed into the coach. I found the seat to still be warm, which was a delightful surprise.
With the top of the coach still up, we were protected from the cold and the snow. Willow then re-lit the lanterns and we started on our journey back to the Institute. I reclaimed my position snuggled into Willow's side; the fit was as natural as breathing. We trotted on in silence, watching the flakes of snow filtered through the eerie light of the lanterns. We neared the lane leading up to the Institute after a few moments. However, rather than turning the coach onto the path Willow continued on.
"Willow, I know I am new here but I am most certain that you just passed our turn home."
Willow chuckled softly and leaning in towards me, kissing the side of my chin and making me shiver with pleasure.
"I want to show you something Tara."
I didn't respond, but snuggled back into her side and hugged myself to her. Any surprise that Willow wanted to show me was a welcome one. Everything she had showed me so far was marvelous. After a mile or so, Willow slowed the coach next to a large tree stump, on which there was a spike with a wooden sign attached reading 'aether'. The word was scrawled in a childish hand and was weathered by age.
"Heaven," I whispered.
Willow smiled at me and again helped me down from the coach. Tying the horse to the sign, she took my hand and led me past the sign under a low hanging branch from a nearby tree, uncovering a small path that ran up the hill. She pulled me along behind her as we walked up the trail, which wound around several trees and bushes. The snow was falling a bit harder now and it gathered on my nose and eyelashes; whirling frantically under the moon light.
The path abruptly ended at a steep embankment wall. Willow lifted some fallen branches on the floor to reveal a canvas flap which she opened. Just on the inside and with the help of the moonlight, I was able to make out a small tunnel. Willow reached inside the entrance and picked up a lantern, rigged with her own ingenious lighting mechanism. Igniting the flint, the lantern cast a beautiful glow on the tunnel.
"Your heaven is a small tunnel Willow?" I spoke with part amusement and part trepidation. I had never been fond of dark, small places.
"No, not the tunnel. Where the tunnel leads Tara. Trust me, it's worth it. You're safe with me." She smiled, her face lighting up with excitement
"Lead on darling," I said, clamping down on my own fear to see what awaited us.
With Willow lighting the way, we ducked into the tunnel and I closed the flap behind us. Only the glow of the lantern lit the space now and I moved closer to Willow as she started down the tunnel; we walked stooped over as the top of the tunnel was not very tall. After twenty or so yards, Willow veered left and I saw moonlight steaming into that part of the tunnel.
Abruptly, we exited into a large room, or rather a cavern within the hill. It was lit entirely by the moonlight, which shone through a gaping hole about four yards in front of us. The cavern was decorated almost like a bedroom. There was another lantern set atop of a dressing chest along the left wall, a sitting couch along the right wall with a small book-shelf next to it. And on the floor, barely a few inches from the gaping hole, was a makeshift mattress and blanket; lightly dusted with snow.
Willow let go of my hand then and moved towards the bed. She took the top blanket and shook off the snow, settling it back down and smoothing the edges. She then sat down on one half of the bed and put turned the lantern off, placing it on the floor to her right.
"Come sit with me Tara. I promise its safe."
I walked hesitantly towards her, slowing dramatically as my foot nudged the bed.
"Drop down to your knees and then sit; it's easier that way the first time."
I slowly lowered myself to the bed. My heart was racing and I was scared and excited at the same time. With both my hands steadying my decent, I keeled and then sat next to Willow. I scooted closer to her and then looked up, through the hole in front of me. Now that I was level with the opening, I could see why Willow called this heaven.
Before me, with the moon illuminating all was a valley. It must have lain more than a hundred feet below us. The valley was lush with large trees, bushes and a river running through them. I could faintly hear the sound of the water flowing.
"Just be carefully near the edge Tara, it's a long drop. Now lay back here on my lap so that you can see the stars."
Willow gently pulled me towards her so that I rested on her lap. I then burrowed down further into the bed and lay my head on her lap.
"Now look up baby," I did then, I looked up into Willow's face. I gazed at her beautiful features, the moon bathing her in light. "Not at me silly, at the sky."
I smiled and then shifted my gaze to the sky. Above me the moon shone brightly, white snow flakes falling through the night. And spread like millions of flickering candles, the night stars beckoned to me.
"Oh it's beautiful Willow! I can see all the constellations! Oh - there's Orion's belt... and look over there," I pointed up into the sky, "there's the big dipper."
Willow entwined her arm with mine and moved my finger towards another group of stars.
"And that's the little pile 'o crackers." I could feel Willow laughing silently against me.
"I don't think I know that one Willow."
"Oh it's very old; I think Plato wrote a poem about it."
"Oh yes, I think I remember him speaking of the philosophy of the flying pile of crackers." I joked back.
I sighed in pleasure and looked up at Willow again. Everything I needed was right here and it was so perfect.
"I love you Willow. Thank you, this is amazing. Can this be our place?"
Willow leaned forward and kissed my lips from above, her hair brushing my face.
"Yes Tara, always. I came here with my brother and Alexander when we were children. It was our heaven. We'd come here and hide from our parents and get in so much trouble. I always felt at home; normal. It's were I go when the world isn't enough for me - here I can see it beautiful and untouched. I wanted you to see it and tell you that it's yours too. All of it. And I know I haven't told you I love you yet..."
"You just did." I sighed and reached up to brush a tear from Willow's cheek.
"Oh." Willow laughed lightly. "I guess I did. That wasn't very romantic."
"Oh, but it was Willow. You told me how you feel, the words you use don't matter."
Willow then hugged me tighter to her and leaned over, rubbing her cheek against mine and whispering in my ear, her hot breath washing over me.
"I do love you Tara, I love you so. I am so lucky to have found you."
We lay beneath the stars together; talking softly to each other and sharing kisses. We had both found our heaven here together.