All the answers I got were on the morning of the 99' Dead Rising. The townspeople aren't free about it during the year, all you get is blank stares and bland denials of knowledge. The occasion is something you don't talk about.
The town is so small you can see the 'Welcome to Willamette' sign from the 'See You Again Soon' one. A community of 500 or so souls, and half that many people.
I had stopped there for a coffee on my way through. I got talking to one of the waitresses for so long, before I knew it, it was dark outside. Funny, it was the first time in months I'd spoken over a few sentences to anyone at a time. There was something about the people there, a comforting anonymity you felt as the only stranger in town.
When I mentioned that I had to get back on the trail again, the waitress, Sarah, stopped me. It was far too late to drive, and the next town was hours off, she insisted. Why not stay here, she suggested.Stay at my place,you can leave your car here and get it in the morning.
Well, why not? I wasn't thinking so straight and her sudden generosity caught me off guard. I allowed myself to be led by Sarah into an old cream sedan, owned by her father, she said.
The house was a tall, white, beautiful period building, clearly a former courthouse or the like. An empty flagpole poked out above the door.
I was too muddled at the beginning to even notice the food I was shoveling into my mouth, but as the meal went on, my head cleared a little, like it hadn't in months. These were people I could talk to, anonymous friends who could offer advice without the history that pervaded everything I heard from others. I began to open up about myself, my life. What had happened.
The woman's father was an open and talkative man, looking like nothing so much as a child's drawing of his grandfather. He didn't seem at all disturbed that his daughter had brought home a strange man, complete with tales of his tragic past, for dinner. He said as soon as I canme in he knew I was troubled. He instructed me to sleep on it, and in the morning I'd have all the answers I wanted.
At first I insisted on finding a hotel, saying that I had imposed on their generosity far too much already. They weren't having any of it. This huge empty house, she said, is just waiting for someone to fill it.
The next day is so clear in my head that it's as if I'm living it every time I shut my eyes.
The sunlight flows in through the giant window beside my bed, a stark counterpoint to the yesterday's gray, overcast look. I get up and shower quickly. There's no sign of either Sarah or her father.
As I leave the house, after penning a note thanking them for their generosity, I notice the absolute stillness over the town. A few hundred metres down the road an oldish couple sit on the front of a car, talking quietly to each other.
I walk ito the centre of Willamette and all around me people are in twos and threes, heads close in intimate talks with each other. In the distance I spot Sarah and her father with a middle aged woman wearing a beautiful blue dress.
Someone taps me on the back. I turn and see a tall man of unguessable age, hair down to his shoulders, smiling at me. He wears an expensive bespoke suit and a look of sublime contentment on his face.
'I expect you're wondering who that woman is.'
'Well yes, an aunt or?' I leave the question in the air.
'Ha, no, that woman is Patrice Belkin, Sarah's mother.'
'In case you did not know, she died on the first of March 1988.'
'Before you ask, let me tell you a little story. Don't worry, it won't take long.' He smiles even wider and begins, 'In 1964 a child of Willamette died. How she passed is not something I wish to get into but on Christmas morning we buried her in the little cemetery behind the chapel. In a town this size a death is a blow to everyone, a child is...' he trails off slightly and he isn't smiling anymore,
'What that woman went through I can only imagine. A few days later, on the 30th, she came out for the frst time since the funeral. She wasn't wearing black, she seemed normal at first but we noticed that she was talking to her daughter still. None of us wanted to give the poor woman any more troubles than she already had, so we, uh, played along.' At this point he pauses, and slowly, like the rising sun behind the mountains, the grin returns to his face.
'It was Father Simon who saw her first, the little girl everyone loved tugging at his robe, her arms outstretched to hug him, like she did half the town.'
'The next day, well, she was gone. Her mother knew this and she moved on. the next year it wasn't just that woman who got to see an old face. So there you have it, stranger. Willamette's big secret. We don't talk about it, save for today, because there's nothing really to say, is there?'
I take this all in in mute astonishment but I don't for a minute question what he says. It doesn't feel like the sort of thing anyone would make up. I do have one question though, 'Where is the person you want to see?'
'Aha, well son, here she is.' He spreads his arms out wide, as if to embrace the whole town. 'And now, I shouldn't detain you, because it looks like someone wants to see you.' He points behind me.
I turn and there she is. There is nothing ethereal or ghostly about her. not made of fog or dreams but real, solid and in my arms again.
We talk for hours and hours about everything. How things are, how they were and finally, where they can go now, after this day ends.
As I hold her tight the dawn is approaching. I know when I let her go, she'll be gone once more. She whispers almost inaudible in as I release her.
'Take it slow and enjoy every minute of it. I love you.'
We do take it slow, Sarah and I. Every year we make a visit to Willamette, to meet with friends, old and new. To see those people in the next room. We travel a lot, talk a lot, about how someday we'll settle down, maybe think about the future.
For now though, we take it slow, and we enjoy every minute.