Willow Branch



Late June. Friday. Five-thirty in the afternoon. Capping off the week in our office that doubles as my apartment on the second floor above the Sunglass Hut on Colorado Avenue in Old Town. The street’s murmur was changing from the self-conscious chirping of teenagers spending their parents’ cash to the moan and groan of parents drowning their money problems in retail therapy.

I had made it off that hamster wheel by the skin of my teeth and with some visible scars, but I had no regrets. Being a blushing bride at a destination wedding and going to parent-teacher conferences were not for me, and I had come to embrace that despite the social pariah it made me.

My best friend and partner, Brenda, was on the other side of the fence. Fourteen years married to a urologist, three kids, a minivan, a dog, two cats, a turtle named Scooby, and always a tray of cupcakes ready for the oven. Also the street-smartest person I have ever met.

We were sitting across from each other at our tiny desks that nevertheless took up almost all the space in what the ad had called a cozy living room. I had my chair back against the window, my feet up on the table, and was nursing a beer. Brenda had her elbows on her desk, and her hands around a glass of white wine chilled with ice.

I had just remarked how good the new front door looked, the upper half a matted glass panel with our name in a semi-circle: Branch Recovery Agency. I had offered Brenda her name on there, too, but she had declined on account of the witness protection guidelines.

My subconscious and body reacted in unison to the shadow figure behind the door glass raising a weapon. I told Brenda to get down but lingered a fraction of a second too long to see her react to get out of the shot myself. The bullet tore through my right biceps and spun me to the floor, landing on the open flesh. Then warm, soft darkness at a great distance from glass breaking and bodies tumbling.

It was only a moment later Brenda said,

“Wills, are you okay?”

I could hear the shooter running down the hallway to the stairs and Brenda snaking her way over the floor behind me.

“Willow?” she said again. “Can you hear me?”

She rolled me over on my back and felt up and down my body to find where I was hurt.

“Arm,” I said, and that was my whole quota of words right there.

She reached over to my right arm and put a light touch on the elbow and the shoulder to see better. Then she let go, and I could sense her untying the small silk scarf she always wore to cover the scars of the removed tattoos on her neck. Then she said,

“It’s gonna hurt a bit, but I need to get under to stop the bleeding.”

She wasn’t lying. I turned my focus on the shot to not pass out.

“Silencer,” I said as a bonus. There had only been a flat thud behind the glass.

“Yes, I noticed,” said Brenda. “I’m gonna see if Pee is still at the office. Then he can patch you up.”

Pee was her husband. His real name was Todd, but Brenda had always thought his specialty hilarious, and he didn’t seem to mind. Brenda was a package deal, and Todd was in for all of it. As was I. And we both knew the emergency room was not an option. People tend to want to talk about gunshot wounds.