She thought about them every day. Was it true? Should she drink it?
She was different after she met them. Not in a big way, but in a quiet sort of I-understand-now way. Change was beautiful, natural. She knew that deep within her. She would sit in the garden - the garden, never the wood - and watch the world; leaves falling, bees buzzing, toads hopping. Her toad hopped by often. It thrilled her in some small way each time she saw or touched the immortal amphibian.
She'd grown up.
But she continued to grow, day after day - not just mentally, but physically. About once a year she would take the time to stare in the bathroom mirror and try to imagine what it would be like to look this way forever - not yet, not until 17 - and wonder what changes the next year would bring.
But 17 came. And she stayed up the entire night. Thinking.
In recent years she'd almost come to doubt the adventure. Her family never mentioned it. What if - what if she had made it all up in the heat of a fever those August nights?
But no - it was too vivid. Jesse was too vivid, his kind, eager face as he pressed the spring water into her hands, saying, "Winnie..."
They could be crazy. But - somehow, they were all too nice, too real, to be lunatics. If it was real - if it was - would eternity be worth it? Her conversation with Tuck still rang clearly in her mind.
And - did she even still love Jesse? She had only been 10, captivated by how handsome he was (at first that's all it was, anyway). She'd met other boys, oh yes, but she'd always remained faithful to him - faithful to what? Childhood puppy love? Did she still love him? Did he still love her?
Winnie did not drink the water.
Day after day, guilt stalked her as she ran through her reasoning in her mind over and over again. She would stare into the depths of the wood, envisioning the great ash and the spring at its roots, and feel herself being tugged both toward it and away from it.
Winnie always held the memory of the Tucks close to her heart. But somehow, she managed to never drink the spring water. She was too taken with change. And as the years passed she grew determined to, well, grow, live life naturally. And her love for Jesse faded like a toy left on the porch too long, color bleached slowly by the sun.
Winnie wanted to love him, she really did. But as a young woman of 22, when she caught sight of him - Mr. Right - she knew she was no longer in love with the immortal 17-year-old.
Darryl was perfect. He was kind, affectionate, and quietly determined, and his heart, too, was stolen by nature. Two years later they were married. No longer was she young Winnie Foster, but distinguished Winifred Foster-Pierre. Was that a lingering twinge of guilt on her wedding day? No. And she let her last doubts slip away, into the robin's-egg-blue sky.
By the time 8 years had passed, Winnie had three wonderful children: August, Eliza, and Jesse, two boys and a girl. They were named for the event that changed her life and shaped her personality, except for little Eliza, whom Darryl had named after his late grandmother.
Watching them live and grow and change, being with Darryl, she knew it was all she had ever wanted. Her children loved, but never thought much of, the queer stories she told of spring water, everlasting life, and the Tucks. Her girls pestered her so about why Jesse got to be in them and not them, that she changed Mae's name to Eliza and her own to August in some of the later versions, though it felt somewhat like sacrilege (especially in Mae's case).
Years flew by. Her children went through high school, then college, then marriage, and before she knew it she, Winifred Foster-Pierre, was a grandmother. No more were her prim and refined - yet loving - parents and grandmother, and the ease of movement and memory from her early years were lost to her.
But she didn't wish, not once, that she had decided to drink the water.
Then came the storm. It raged and shrieked in a blackened sky, and when the first tree toppled she knew that there would be people in her wood by the next day. The spring. They would find the spring!
So, old and stiff as she was, she seized a flashlight and a small shovel and tromped out to the wood.
She hadn't been in it for many years. Even long ago, when she was fleet as a deer, she had hovered only on its fringes. Now she marched deep into the heart of the wood, making slow progress as her wrinkled hands sought out branches for support.
Finally she broke into the clearing. The old ash was the same as ever, only - not quite. Winnie's throat closed up as her flashlight beam caught the small, precise words cut into the tree's base.
Why, Winnie Foster?
She knelt stiffly at the roots, her cold fingers tracing the words. "I'm sorry, Jesse," she whispered, suppressed tears blurring her vision.
For now, only the spring is important, she thought firmly. There was the small pile of pebbles, behind her. With trembling old hands she brushed them away until a steady spray of life-giving water misted her palms.
Using the little shovel, she dug deeper, uncovering a small, bubbling pool beneath the earth. Then, shivering with cold and wetness, she seized nearby stones and piled them into the spring. Finally she shoveled dry earth over the damp stones, patting it into place so you never could have told a spring was there.
Suddenly, a blinding flash of light arced out of the boiling sky. An enormous creaking, moaning sound came from behind her. Whirling around as fast as she was able, she saw fire dancing brilliantly up the spine of the old ash. With a stunning clamor of thunder and groaning, the ash tore out of its ancient roots and plummeted toward her. Winnie didn't even have time to be afraid before pain left her breathless as one hefty branch pinned her back. In the dizzying whirlwind of pain, fire, and rumbling, she thought she saw him emerging from the chaos. "Jesse," she murmured as her eyes slid shut.
From then on, Winnie was confined to a wheelchair. Pain often flared up in her spine, and fever plagued her frequently. In the end, she and Darryl moved in with August and her family - a husband and twin girls.
It was Jesse who had rescued her - in a sense. Her own son Jesse had come to visit her shortly after she'd left, and finding her gone, quickly discovered her clumsy track through the wood. He and Eliza visited often, a large comfort to her "dear old heart", as she would tell them frequently. However, she never revealed her true purpose for being in the wood that night, and hoped they wouldn't think much of it (though she suspected that they did).
Two years after the storm, the fever came back worse than ever before, and that and the resurgence of pain left her bedridden. As her family explained, she often mumbled in the grip of the fever about some people called the "Tucks" and "Jesse"; after which her son would sit by her, thinking she meant him.
When it became very serious, her family rushed her to the hospital. The nurses did everything they could. Darryl and at least one of her children were always by her side, and grandchildren or other more distant relatives occasionally. But it just wasn't working.
One night - about a week later, she wasn't sure - she knew it was the night. Thoughts of the Tucks, vivid as ever, flashed in her mind, mingling with memories of her life. In her last moments, Darryl clutched one hand, August and Eliza the other, with Jesse's hand on her forehead.
Her last words were, "I love you all so much."
Her last thought was, I died saving, possibly, the whole world... I hope you're happy, my Tucks...
Then their faces went blurry above her and darkness swept over her vision for the very last time.