Short Story: “The Death of Willa Everly” by Lettie Agee

The following short story is the first place winner in this year’s Creative Writing Contest at Southwestern Adventist University, and is shared at the request of our readers. Enjoy.

 

Lettie Agee

The Death of Willa Everly

France, early 1916.

Willa Everly sat at the café staring out across the Seine as the rising sun washed it in sparkles. It had been a long time since she had had an opportunity to just sit and enjoy the sunrise.  Honfleur was a small village, but Willa could feel the life pulsing from it as it woke up that morning. The villagers all had a cheerful step as they left their homes for the market, or work, or wherever they were going in their colorful outfits and smiles. Willa noticed those smiles with a start. When was the last time she had been in a town where the villagers smiled at each other? It was as if the war hadn’t even touched this little hamlet. Was this the scene that would greet her when she finally made it home to England, she wondered, looking to her left where she could see the mouth of the river meeting the English Channel. She would cross that channel soon and see her family. What would they think when they saw her? She certainly wasn’t the same girl she had been when they last saw her. Two years in Belgium had changed her both physically and mentally. She would never be the same. Would that bother them?

“Willa?” A voice pulled her out of her thoughts and she glanced up to find her sister.

“Betta.” She rose to her feet and embraced her sister fiercely. It was long minutes before she pulled away to look into Betta’s face, a face that used to be identical to her own but wasn’t anymore. Betta must’ve had similar thoughts because pain flashed through her blue eyes as she brushed her hand across the fresh scar running down Willa’s cheek.

“Willa, what happened.”

“Belgium happened.” Willa answered with a tone that suggested that be the end of the conversation. How could she tell her sweet, innocent twin that she had been received her scar at the hands of a German Hauptmann who was angry at her for refusing him her maidenhood. Luckily, one of his superiors had stopped the Hauptmann from taking what he wanted forcefully; proof that nice German officers did exist. But the scar would be a constant reminder that ninety-nine percent of German soldiers were scum.

“Two years, Willa, two years. We didn’t know what to think. We kept getting these reports about what the Germans were doing over there, but no one knew for sure. What was it really like?”

“Let’s not talk about that.” Willa evaded the question, “Tell me what you’re doing here, Betta.”

Betta laughed as she took a seat at the table, “I’m here to get you, silly. You didn’t think we were going to wait for you to come to us, did you? As soon as we received word that you were in Allied France we started making plans to meet you. I know you were expecting Gerald to meet you here, but we wanted to surprise you. Mother and Father wanted to come but the war office wouldn’t spare Father and Mother’s sick, but they still sent me.” She gave Willa a charming smile. Willa stared at her sister’s rounded cheeks and wondered when the last time she had seen someone that nourished was.

“I’m surprised they let you travel all this way by yourself.” That didn’t sound right at all.

“I’m not alone, cousin Oliver came with me. He was sent home a few months ago because he was injured. I asked him to stay at the hotel this morning so that we could catch up alone.”

“And he said okay? He was okay with you walking around an unknown French town without an escort, Betta?”

“Elisabetta, Dear.”

“What?”

“I go by Elisabetta now. Betta was my childhood nickname. I go by my full name now. We are eighteen, after all.”

“We are?” Willa questioned. Were they really eighteen already? Time seemed to have stopped in Belgium. She didn’t realize two whole birthdays had passed since she kissed her parents goodbye to spend the summer traveling with her best friend, Emmaline Allerton, and her family on the continent. Two whole birthdays since she had watch Mr. Allerton fall in the street at the impact of a German bullet. Two whole birthdays since Mrs. Allerton and Emmaline had disappeared after being “taken for questioning”. Two whole birthdays since she was left alone in a strange land.

Of course we’re eighteen! Don’t you keep track of your birthday in other countries the way you do at home?” Betta laughed and it grated on Willa’s nerves. Didn’t she realize that Willa had been dealing with more important things than birthdays? Things like staying alive? But then again, Willa was relieved that Betta didn’t realize the severity of the situation, just like she was relieved that Betta had come down with the flu two summers ago and hadn’t been able to travel with them. It was better she didn’t know.

“Anyway, I reminded Oliver of that very fact this morning, letting him know that I am plenty old enough to walk down to a café on my own.”

“Betta! This—”

“Elisabetta, please.”

Willa sighed in exasperation, “Elisabetta, this isn’t England. You don’t know what the war has done to people over here. Nothing is safe anymore. He shouldn’t have let you have your way.”

“Don’t think the war hasn’t affected us in England too!” Betta spoke sharply, but then she sighed and her shoulders lowered, “Let’s not fight now, Willa, not when we’ve just been reunited. Let’s talk about getting you home. I checked the timetables already, we have tickets for the two o’clock ship. So, there’s time for breakfast. I doubt they have good English breakfast here, do they?”

“No Dear, I’m afraid they don’t.” Willa felt a laugh slip from her for the first time in ages. She gestured to the waiter and ordered in French.

“Your French has gotten better. Our old governess would be proud, you never paid attention to her.”

“Of course my French has gotten better. I’ve been passing as a French citizen for the past two years.” Willa scoffed before realizing what she had just said. She mentally winced as she prepared for the barrage of questions. She was hoping that her family wouldn’t find out how bad it really was over there, but she just opened the can of worms herself.

“Why would you be passing off as a French citizen?” Betta’s eyebrows scrunched together.

Willa sighed. She supposed there was nothing left to do but tell the truth, “The Germans are always on the lookout for spies. Just being British in an occupied territory is practically a death sentence. So, those of us who had the misfortune to find ourselves in that situation had to change our story.”

“So, you were Willa Everly, little French girl?” Betta questioned with a hint of disbelief.

Willa fought the urge to roll her eyes, “No. For the past few years Willa Everly hasn’t existed. I am Juliette Marguex, born and raised in Valenciennes. However, in 1913, I moved to Brussels to take care of my ailing grandparents, and I was there when the occupation began.”

“That’s quite a story. However did you come up with it all?”

“It’s funny what you’re capable of under the stress of possible death. Detail is key in cover stories. My Grand-père was Claude Margeux, he died in early 1914, but my Grand-mère didn’t die until the occupation began. After she died, I moved in with my cousin Hélène and lived with her until I came here.”

“And this Hélène, was she British and using a false name too?”

“No. No, Hélène was Belgian… A Belgian angel. She took me in after the occupation and helped me craft my story. She worked with me on my French everyday so that I would sound native, and then it was she that put me in touch with the woman who helped me escape.”

Willa found herself smiling as her mind flashed back to when she met Hélène. It was two days after Emmaline and Mrs. Allerton had disappeared and Willa was wandering the streets alone, scrounging for food. The Germans had only held Brussels for three weeks but already the food was getting scarce. If only she knew then how much worse it would get. Hélène had found her and taken her home. She had listened patiently while Willa told her sorry tale and then agreed to take her in. That was when her cover story was crafted. Those two years would’ve been a lot different if it wasn’t for that wonderful young woman, and Willa would praise God for her forever.

“The woman who helped you escape?” Betta asked, and Willa felt her smile slip off her face.

“I cannot tell you her name, because she and her brothers are still in Brussels, but she’s a young woman who runs a smuggling route to get people out of occupied Belgium. Hélène and I were supposed to be her last run. In fact, she and her brothers were supposed to come with us because the German soldiers were trying to figure who she was, and they were getting closer… but then everything went wrong. I was the only one who made it across the border.”

How did it go wrong?” Betta probed as she nibbled on the pastries delivered by the waiter.

“Let’s just leave it at ‘it went wrong’ okay?” But Willa’s mind had already gone back. Suddenly she was back in the hidden cellar of Léna’s house, hiding with Hélène and Alessio. Hélène had taken her there when another of La Libre Belgique’s presses was found. It was the third press bust of the resistance paper in the same week, confirming everyone’s fears that someone had cut a deal with the German police: Information for protection. Hélène was one of the founders of the paper, so she was in quite a bit of danger. They had shown up on Léna’s doorstep and she had immediately shoved them into the cellar. Alessio was already down there. He was Léna’s younger brother and had been in hiding since the occupation started to avoid being dragged off to a German work camp. They had another brother too, Jules, but he didn’t have to hide away. His right hand was crippled, so the Germans didn’t want him.

It was the night before they were supposed to leave: the three of them were crouched in the cellar when the noise started. The pounding of many boots on the floor above and shouting in German. Willa had learned enough German in the last two years to understand the gist of it: They had figured out where Hélène was hiding, and they were searching for her.

“Come on.” She felt Alessio’s hot breath on her ear as he whispered for her to follow him. She didn’t know where exactly she was supposed to be following him. The cellar was tiny, there was barely enough room for the three of them, but he reached behind him slipped his hand between some bricks. Suddenly, the wall opened up into a tunnel. “You didn’t think we would lock ourselves down here without an alternate escape route?”

“But what about Léna and Jules?” Willa asked as they moved quickly down the tunnel.

A grimace covered Alessio’s face. “We made a promise a long time ago that we would stick together. I’ll come back for them, but first I will get you two out.”

“Les, no!” Hélène spoke up for the first time, “If the Germans know they were hiding us, they will have already arrested them. Going back would be suicide.”

“They’re my family. I won’t leave them.” His green eyes flashed with determination.

“You know that’s not what Léna would want, mon amie. She would never forgive you if you went back for her and got yourself taken.”

“They’re my family.” Alessio repeated, but this time his voice was less determined and more broken.

“I know, but you know I’m right. There is no use now. The best you can do for them is get yourself out.”

Alessio grunted, “I know.” Willa could tell by looking at his face that it took a lot to admit there was nothing he could do.

They followed the tunnel for about five more minutes when it finally came to an end with a staircase. They crept up them and Alessio lifted the trap door an inch to peek out before opening it fully and gesturing them onward. They came out in the fireplace of an empty cottage two blocks away from Léna’s house.

Alessio turned to them right before he opened the front door, “It’s after curfew so we’ll have to be careful. Especially since we’re so close to where an arrest is going down. I think it’s best if we split up. There is a house on the other side of the quartier, number 17 on Rue de La Prune, knock four times on the side door and then ask for Monsieur Morel. They’ll take you somewhere to hide until it’s clear, then they’ll set you on the route to the border.”

“And you’ll meet us there?” Hélène questioned, “You won’t go back to your cottage.”

Alessio’s jaw ticked for a few seconds before he sighed and answered, “Yes… I’ll meet you there.”

“Good. Let’s go then, no time to waste. Good travels everyone.”

They exited and went their separate ways. Willa didn’t know what happened to the others after that. She was the only one that showed up to number 17 that night, and the only one that was put on the road to the border the next morning. Monsieur Morel had let her from Brussels down to Namur where he had put her into a barrel on a boat. She had been in that barrel for two weeks while the boat made its way down the Oise river and met the Seine in allied France. From there she made her way to Honfleur and here she was, sitting across from her twin sister but not feeling like she had anything in common with her anymore.

“Willa?” Betta snapped her out of her memories. “Do you want to go see Oliver now?”

Willa nodded and they rose from the table, making their way through the little village towards the hotel. Betta prattled on about all Willa had missed in the last two years. She complained about the shortage of sugar and how there were no young men to dance with anymore. Willa resisted the urge to shake her. Didn’t she understand that there were people dying of starvation just across the border? Who cared about not having any sugar for their tea? Belgium didn’t even have tea. Willa had lived the last two years off of bread lines, and Betta was upset because there was no sugar? Willa sighed and pushed her annoyance away. She should be thankful that her sister was so naïve. She wouldn’t wish her to understand the truth.

Later that afternoon Willa watched the water of the channel churn as the ship took her towards England- towards her home. Betta sidled up to her on the ships rail and squeezed her arm.

“Drop Juliette Marguex in the channel, Sister Dear. You never have to be her again. From now on you’re just Willa Everly!”

Willa gave her a tight smile. She knew her sister meant well, but she would never be “just Willa Everly” again. As long as she lived, she would still be Juliette Marguex. She had seen too much in the past two years to go back to who she was. Willa Everly was dead and gone, she would never return. She turned and looked at her sister, the blue eyes, the brown hair, the rounded chin. It was amazing how you could look so similar to someone and yet be so different. Willa wasn’t even sure if she could really call Betta her twin anymore. Can you still be a twin when you’re not that person anymore? She averted her eyes back to the gray waters. As the white caps churned she pictured the faces of those she had lost in the last two years: The Allertons, Léna, Jules, Alessio, Hélène, and Willa Everly. What had happened to the others that night? Were they caught? Would they survive? Would she ever see them again? She didn’t know the answers to any of those questions, but she did know that she would carry their faces with her till the day she died. She glanced to the sky and let a prayer for them escape her lips. She looked back down and watched the shoreline of England creep closer. She felt hope spring up at the thought of seeing her family and her home. The hope surprised her. It had been a long time since she felt it. Maybe Willa Everly wasn’t completely dead after all. Maybe she would be able to live as both Willa and Juliette. Maybe she could find a balance between who she used to be and who she had become. She certainly hoped so… hey, there was that hope again.

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