Willow stared out of the side window of the car at the heavy rain that was falling in streams down the glass. It was dark and the raindrops on the roof sounded like loud radio static as the windshield wipers flipped from side to side in a steady beat. She always had a sense of dread when she was riding in a car during a heavy rainstorm, especially at night.
“Willow,” said her mother. “I want to talk to you about what happened at school this past year.”
Willow sighed. The bullying that had happened this past year at school was a topic that had not come up at all over the past two weeks since the school year ended.
“Mom, it’s my eleventh birthday and I don’t want to ruin it by talking about that now,” Willow replied. They were riding home along a winding two-lane road through the forested hills of her central Pennsylvania town, having just finished a late birthday dinner at her favorite pizza place. She could see her reflection in the side window of the car with each set of headlights that flashed at them going the opposite direction. She was twirling the ends of her shoulder-length wavy dirty-blonde hair. She turned her head toward the front of the car to watch the passing headlights of the oncoming traffic.
“I know, honey,” said her mom, looking over at her, “but I’ve been talking to grandpa and he wants me to look into private schools for you.”
“Mom, keep your eyes on the road!” cried Willow. “You know it freaks me out driving in a rainstorm at night.”
“Fine,” her mom said, turning her head back around toward the road. “But I told him I would look into it.”
“Really, mom?” replied Willow. “You can’t be serious. You’re really going to pull me out of school?”
“I didn’t say that,” said Willow’s mom. “I just think we need a cha…”
It happened fast. Willow saw a flash of headlights and then heard the jackhammering of truck brakes before she could spin her head towards the front windshield to see what was going on. Her body thrust forward and the seatbelt locked as her mom slammed on the brakes of their car, but Willow could see that it was already too late. The huge white shape of a truck trailer was jackknifing toward them; a five thousand pound wall of inevitability, crushing everything in its path. Her mom stuck her arm across Willow’s body in an attempt to protect her just before the car hit. Willow tensed her whole body for the impact and heard the hollow boom and sickening crunch of crushing plastic and metal and shattering glass and Willow could think of only one thing as she gripped her mom’s arm and closed her eyes…HOME! She could feel herself being squeezed as the passenger compartment disintegrated; first intense pressure, a loss of breath, and an instant later…nothing.
The first thing Willow noticed was the silence. She could still hear the rain, but it was more distant. She felt her mother shift beside her and her mom’s arm was still tightly in her grasp.
“Are you okay?” her mom asked, breathing heavily. Willow let go of her mom’s arm and touched her own shoulder, her arm, her leg. Nothing seemed to be broken.
“I…I feel like I’m going to barf,” she replied, “but I don’t think anything’s broken. Mom, where are we?” There was silence as they both looked around. They were inside a house. Willow recognized the shelves and television from her own house.
“We’re in our living room,” her mom said. “Willow, what happened?”
“I don’t remember…” Willow started. The queasy feeling was passing. “A second ago, the car was being crushed by the truck trailer.”
“How…how did we get here?” her mom asked.
“I don’t know,” Willow said. “Are we…dead?” Her mom reached out a hand to Willow’s arm and pinched her, hard. “Ow!” exclaimed Willow. “What was that for?”
“I don’t think we’re dead,” said her mom. She got up and turned on the light on her way to the garage. After opening the door to the garage, glancing inside and closing it again, she turned around and headed across the living room toward the front door. “The car isn’t there,” she said, gesturing back over her shoulder. She opened the front door to check the driveway and the street. “Not outside, either.”
“Mom,” Willow asked. “Where’s the car?”
“I don’t know. Unless we both had the same hallucination, it’s underneath a truck, but how we got here, I have no idea.” There was nothing for them to do since they had no second vehicle to go in search of their car. Willow’s mom started pacing through the living room, which was something she did when she was thinking. Willow was suddenly very tired and lay down on the couch just wanting to close her eyes for a second.
She was awakened by a knock on the door. Willow glanced at the clock and saw that it was after eleven. She was just getting up to answer it when her mom came out of the kitchen and opened the door. Willow, standing behind her, saw a police officer, standing in the rain that was still falling outside, although not as heavily as before.
“Ma’am, are you Heather Carter?” she asked; a middle-aged woman in rain jacket and a light gray and black state troopers' uniform. After Willow’s mom nodded, the officer continued. “I’m Corporal Steinbergs of the Pennsylvania State Police. A vehicle registered in your name was involved in a serious accident earlier this evening. I'm trying to determine who was driving it.”
“I..” stammered Willow’s mom. “I was driving. I...I can’t remember how we got back here, though.”
The officer named Steinbergs looked surprised. “Uh...may I come in ma’am?” she asked.
“Yes,” answered Willow’s mom. “Yes, of course, come in out of the rain.”
“Are you injured?” Corporal Steinbergs asked after she came inside. “Do you remember anything?”
“No, we’re…we’re fine,” Willow’s mom said. “I remember hearing the car hit and then the next thing I know my daughter and I were here.”
“Okay Mrs. Carter,” said Officer Steinbergs. “I'm going to take a minute to call the paramedics to come here and check you both out for injuries and concussion.” She used her CB radio to request an ambulance and while they were all waiting, she took them through the events of the entire evening; the birthday dinner, the drive home, the jackknifing truck, and then being here. Neither of them could remember anything after the crash. Corporal Steinbergs did a basic check for head injuries, but couldn’t see anything. After the paramedics arrived, she stood back as Willow and her mom got a more thorough evaluation.
“Well, Officer,” said the Paramedic after checking out both Willow and her mom. “They don’t have a scratch on them and no sign of a concussion. They just have some light bruising from the seat belt, but nothing like what they should have from a full-on collision.”
“This whole thing doesn’t make any sense at all,” said Corporal Steinbergs, shaking her head in puzzlement. “Both of the front seatbelts in the car were still fastened. If you really were driving that car, then the only conclusion I can draw is that you were both thrown clear of the car when it hit, and then you wandered back here somehow. The fact that you’re alive at all is a miracle, let alone unhurt.”
“Why do you say that?” Willow’s mom asked.
“Because if you had been in that car, neither of you would have survived.” Willow’s mom put her hand over her mouth in shock.
After Willow watched the paramedics and the State Trooper leave, she turned back to her mom. “Did you call anybody after the accident?” she asked.
“Nobody, Willow. I haven’t made a call all day. I thought of that too and checked my cellphone.”
“So we walked home?” asked Willow.
“We couldn’t have,” said her mom. “It’s almost ten miles from here…and we weren’t wet. Not even our hair.”
“So what?” said Willow. “Did we just magically teleport?”
“Maybe we got a ride from a stranger…” her mom’s voice trailed off as she thought to herself. Neither of them had any answers and Willow went to bed with questions flying through her mind.
“Mail for you on the counter,” her mom said the next day. She had been on the phone all morning with the insurance company trying to figure out how long they would be without a car.
“Is it another birthday card?” Willow asked.
“I don’t think so. It wasn’t with the other mail in the mailbox, it was lying on the front porch.”
“Who’s it from?” Willow asked.
“I don’t know,” her mom replied with a half-smile. “Here’s a thought - why don’t you open it?,” she said playfully.
Looking at the large envelope, Willow didn’t recognize the return address: ‘Gampton Hall Academy’. Opening it, she pulled out two letters on strange heavy-grade paper. She saw that one was addressed to ‘Willow Carter’, and the other to ‘Ms. Heather Carter’. Leaving the letter to her mom on the counter, she proceeded to open the one addressed to her.
Dear Miss Carter;
Based on your past endeavors, you have been recommended to attend Gampton Hall Academy starting in September of this year. The administrators of the Academy are pleased to notify you of your automatic admission to our program and wish to invite you and your mother to attend an open house on Wednesday, July 5 in which you will see the school, meet the teachers, and discover our unique curriculum. We are sure that you will find attendance at Gampton Hall a life-changing experience.
Hobilard McCracken, Chancellor
Noticing that Willow lowered the paper to the counter, her mom looked up from the phone where she was on hold. “So what is it?” she asked.
Willow looked over toward her. “It’s an acceptance letter to a school I’ve never heard of. Have you ever heard of Gampton Hall Academy?”
“Hampton what?" her mom asked.
"No, can’t say that I have,” her mom replied. “Go look it up on the internet.”
“Okay, oh, here’s a letter for you.”
Cradling the phone between her shoulder and ear, Willow’s mom opened the letter and began to read as Willow opened up the laptop and googled the academy. After both reading in silence for several minutes, her mom spoke up. “Seems like a nice place. It says here that it’s a selective private school, but they’re offering a scholarship to cover your cost of attendance and are chipping in for books. Can’t say that about public school. At least we don’t have to rule it out right away. What did you find?”
“Pretty much the same thing,” replied Willow. “I’m looking for where this school is located - I don’t see an address or anything.”
“Oh, they gave us directions to get there in my letter,” said her mom. “It looks like it’s about 20 minutes away, so not much further than Middle School anyway. What do you think? Willing to take a look?”
Willow knew that her grandfather was pushing her mom hard for Willow to attend private school after the bullying incident that spring. With the wrecked car for her mom to worry about, Willow didn’t want to start an argument over schools. She decided that she could always go and then find a reason that it wouldn’t work. “Sure, I’ll go - if we have a car,” said Willow. “I don’t know if private school is the right place for me, but it won’t hurt to go look.”
“Good. I’ll send the notice back that we’ll attend,” said her mom and she must have stopped being on hold because she resumed her phone conversation. While her mom was talking on the phone, Willow picked up the letter that her mom had been reading.
Dear Ms. Carter,
Gampton Hall Academy is a private, endowed school for children of grades 6-12. The school has an excellent reputation in the area and has an exemplary post-graduation placement rate. Our school is one of only five in the nation offering our uniquely challenging curriculum and numerous extracurricular activities.
Our endowment allows us to extend a scholarship to your daughter covering the full cost of tuition as well as a stipend toward the purchase of textbooks and other school materials.
I would like to invite you to attend an informal one-on-one meeting with our school representatives to discuss the possibilities of attendance at our school for your daughter. As we explore this option, I would like to understand more fully your needs for your daughter’s education and would like to share with you the unique opportunities your daughter would experience as a student at Gampton Hall.
If you are available, we would like to meet with you and your daughter on July 5th at 10am. If that date and time work for you, please RSVP and leave the letter on your front porch, where our special couriers will come and pick it up. Directions to the school as well as a campus map are included with this letter. We are looking forward to meeting with you.
Hobilard McCracken, Chancellor
Gampton Hall Academy
Willow set down the letter and thought to herself. Endowments, extra activities? The students probably wear uniforms and live in mansions. It should be easy to figure out that I don’t fit in. Walking away, she promptly forgot all about Gampton Hall.
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