It had come―the day most loved and hated of all―Valentine’s Day. And in this small flower shop in this quaint little town, it was no different as the last minute shoppers sought out the perfect and most meaningful delights in various aromas and colors.
“EllaGant Arrangements, how can I help you?” Lilly held the phone between her head and shoulder as she formed a bow of red ribbon and handed it off to Sarah. “Here you go, Sarah,” she whispered before returning to the man on the phone. “Yes, we can have a dozen roses ready for pick up by five.” As the man pleaded with her, Lilly moved to a glass vase and continued filling it with red roses and baby’s breath. “I’m sorry; all deliveries for today have already been sent out.” Lilly was the flirtatious and sassy type, but she had a fierce defense mechanism built into her by her father who never wanted to see his baby girl have her heart broken as his once was. Her long, dark hair fell over her shoulders and classy bangs dared you to take a second glance at the captivating blue eyes that lay beneath. Good looks were a fine match for the endearing personality quirks which made her all the more attractive.
“Lilly, we need a pink bow for this handsome man,” Ella called from the front counter. Lilly dropped one last rose into the vase and grabbed some pink ribbon. Ella turned back to her customer, “We’ll have that ready for you in just a minute. Did you need anything else today?”
The old man smiled kindly at her, “I just want to say, you have done lovely things with this shop. I remember when your mother opened it years ago. She was the most bright and cheerful woman. My wife Helena adores her.”
“Well, thank you Mr. Finer,” Ella replied with a smile.
“You know, Valentine’s Day comes the same time every year. You couldn’t have been surprised by its arrival!”
Ella heard these words and the defiant tone which carried them. She turned to Lilly with wide, scolding eyes, “Be nice to the customers!”
“This guy is being ridiculous!” Lilly argued, pressing the mouth of the phone into her shoulder..
“Could you excuse me?” Ella said gently as she smiled at the man across the counter. “I’ll have her come right up with that bow.” She turned and snatched the phone from Lilly, “Go bring up the bow.” Lilly stuck her tongue out at Ella, who responded in an equally immature manner. Her hair was pulled back, as it always was when working; and she was always working. “Hello, this is Ella!” Ella pointed to the man by the register as Lilly held up the finished bow. “Yes, this is Ella of EllaGant Arrangements.” As she spoke, she began filling another vase.
Lilly walked up to the register, “So you’re the Mr. Handsome who’s waiting for this pink bow?”
“Yes, I am,” the short, wrinkly old man said as he flashed a big smile to reveal worn dentures. Lilly smirked as she wrapped the ribbon around the bouquet of roses on the counter.
“Will that be all today, Mr. Finer?” she said with a friendly smile.
“Yes, thank you, Lilly.” He set his cash on the counter, perfect change as always. Holding himself steady with his cane in his right hand, Mr. Finer slowly curled the bouquet into his left arm.
“Do you need help out?” Lilly asked, knowing he would refuse.
“No dear, I can manage.”
Ella pushed a finished vase of roses to the side of her workspace, “Sarah, could you place these out, please? Thank you.”
“Still on with that guy?” Lilly called back to Ella as she waved for the next customer to check out.
Placing the phone down on her shoulder, she whispered, “He’s sweet, he meant to buy roses for his girlfriend with a cute little bear, but he got stuck at work until after the stores closed last night and now he can’t find any.”
Lilly rolled her eyes, “Tough love, El! We’re swamped!” The next customer stepped forward as Mr. Finer moved sluggishly out of the way. “Hello, how are you today?” Lilly said with a sweetened voice. She could cover any lemon-flavored tone with enough sugar to sweeten anyone’s day.
“26 North Roacker, got it,” Ella jotted down an address. “Okay, I will deliver it personally by three today… Thank you, have a great day.”
“You caved,” Lilly called.
“And you knew she would,” James chimed in; although his height struggled against Lilly’s, his bite was nothing to trifle with. His short, light hair was frozen in place by product after product; his thin body wrapped tightly in a floral apron. “She always gets all flustered on Valentine’s Day.”
Lilly smiled in agreement.
“Oh stop,” Ella interrupted. “This guy didn’t just by roses, he bought two dozen and a bear and a box of chocolates!”
“How cheesy!” Lilly cried.
“Yep, well, cheesy pays the bills, sweetheart!” Ella smiled in satisfaction. “Besides… James, you are just down because Donnie is out of town. And Lilly, well, you’re just cynical.”
“Hey!” Lilly called out in protest as she slipped change into her customer’s cupped hand.
James laughed, “Oh honey, you know it’s true!”
Lilly shrugged her shoulders, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” She shrugged her shoulders and offered a smile to the middle-aged woman across the counter.
“Sir, are you okay?” another customer called from the front of the store.
Ella looked up to see a lady helping Mr. Finer to his feet and quickly ran over to assist. “Mr. Finer, you fell? Are you alright?” Ella put one hand on each of his shoulders and held on to keep him steady.
“Yes, Maggie, I’ve got it.”
At the mention of this name, Ella knew his good day had suddenly taken a turn. “Mr. Finer, you know my name is Ella. Maggie was my mother’s name.”
The old man looked up at her, a little confused. Still not certain that this woman before him wasn’t Maggie, he simply nodded in agreement. “Oh, okay, dear. You know my wife Helena loves this shop? She comes here every day, dragging me along. But you are always so friendly. She insists we stop, even when we’re not in need of flowers…” He trailed off and looked around the store. “Where is my wife? She was just here a minute ago. Helena?” he called out.
“Mr. Finer, Helena passed away several years ago. Do you remember?”
“What?” he laughed. “That’s ridiculous. Where is she?”
Ella realized then that she hadn’t seen Mr. Finer enter the shop with anyone. She called back to the counter, “Lilly, get Hillside on the phone. I think someone will have to come pick him up.”
“Maggie, is Helena still here?” the old man asked with growing concern.
“Mr. Finer my name is Ella, Maggie’s daughter.”
“Ella?” he said, taking another look at her. “My, you have grown so much since I saw you last. Weren’t we here just the other day? You looked to be no more than eight.”
“I was eight at one time, Mr. Finer. But now I’m grown. Don’t you remember?”
“No, dear. I’m sorry, I don’t.”
“It’s okay,” she said as she rubbed his arm, more for her own comfort than his. Mr. Finer was allowed to leave the home since his doctor viewed visiting the flower shop as being therapeutic for him, but he was always to go with an escort in case his memory went on hiatus. Ella hadn’t noticed earlier but, today, no nurse was with him.
She held onto Mr. Finer, talking with him gently and letting him ramble on about Helena and what she was complaining about this morning. The old man and his wife never had any children of their own. Not because they didn’t want to, but because they couldn’t. It broke Helena’s heart. Her husband, loving as he was, did all he could to cheer her, but nothing seemed to help. Nothing, that is, until the flower shop. Since the shop’s grand opening, Helena, husband reluctantly in tow, would visit EllaGant Arrangements nearly every day. He never cared to join back then, but this place was more familiar to him now than any other. The aged man felt comfort in Ella’s arms as they waited for his care to arrive, but Ella’s thoughts were turned to memories of her mother.
Maggie adjusted a few carnations as she made her rounds through the shop. It was opening day, and their first customer had yet to arrive. Maggie hadn’t let her daughter know, but she had sunk their entire savings into this one little shop. The best thing they had going for them was their love of flowers, and the fact that they had opened the only traditional floral shop around. They had found this charming little space along the main street of a small town. The shop was deep, but not very wide. Flowers and arrangements were lain out everywhere you could set your eyes.
Ella weaved in and out of the buckets of flowers organized around the shop floor, tapping a random petal with every couple of steps. Maggie moved behind the counter in the back and took a deep breath as she watched her daughter dance happily about.
Ding! Ding! Finally, the bell on the front door broke the silence as an older woman and a young boy entered the shop.
Ella quickly popped over to welcome the visitors. “Welcome to EllaGant Arrangements! Can I help you find anything?” she asked as professionally as an eight year old could.
“We’re fine dear, thank you. I’d just like to take a look around,” the old woman answered.
“Okay,” Ella replied. A ball of disappointment rolled in her chest, although she was sure to maintain her smile. “Well, I’m here if there’s anything you need.”
“Ella,” Maggie called. The carefree little girl turned to see her mother gesturing that she should join her behind the counter. Ella ran over to her mother, who picked her up and sat her upon the countertop. Sharing a silent language, Maggie let her daughter know without speaking a word that she had done well, but needed to offer the customers some space.
The minutes ticked by ever so slowly as Ella anxiously awaited the sale that she was sure would come. Finally, the woman called to the young boy who had entered with her. He followed closely as she led him to the register. The boy had been moseying around, looking at some unusual vases, but was happy to finally get some indication that their visit here was near its end.
While the woman occupied Maggie, Ella saw this as the perfect opportunity to make a friend. “What’s your name?” she questioned the young boy as she leaned over the counter to see him.
The boy looked up to his grandmother with a pleading look, but she nodded toward the young girl as if ordering him to answer. He looked at Ella and shoved his hands safely into his pockets. “Everyone calls me Daniel,” he said.
Without hesitation, Ella quickly offered the boy some unsolicited information. “Hi, Daniel. My name is Ella. The shop is named after me, Ella! Today is our opening day! You will be our very first customers.”
Daniel looked up at his grandmother to check her progress. He wanted desperately to escape this chatty little girl who was apparently created out of sugar and sweetness and an endless supply of words. Sickening, he thought.
“We just moved here not too long ago. Are you new in town too?” Ella asked, wondering if she had met a fellow outsider. The other children at school were cautious about new kids and hadn’t made Ella feel welcome at all. This left her feeling desperate to make a friend and she saw Daniel as the one.
“No,” was his complete answer. Daniel looked to his grandmother again. “Nana, can I go wait outside? Pleeeeeaase?”
The woman smiled, “Yes dear, but stay within my sight.”
Daniel excitedly turned to leave, but Ella would not be deterred. Without hesitation, she hopped down from the counter and followed her new, and unwilling, companion as he made a bee-line to the door. Ella had a free and optimistic spirit, but she was shorter than the other children her age, which made it even harder for her to blend in. Despite her mother’s support of individuality, Ella felt that fitting in meant making friends in this strange and new place. Daniel was a year older and a few inches taller. It was as if he had an invisible target on his forehead that Ella couldn’t resist. “Hey, do you want to play hopscotch?” she asked excitedly as she caught up to him outside.
“No,” he grunted.
“I can show you how if you haven’t played before!”
Ding! Ding! The door opened behind the two children as another lovely couple entered the shop.
“What a charmer she is,” Daniel’s nana complimented Maggie on her daughter.
“Yes. And quite a handful, as you can see.”
Looking out the window at the front of the shop, the woman eyed her grandson who was hiding his hands in his pockets and turning his eyes in any direction other than Ella’s. “Ella is much more open and friendly than that one.” Returning her attention to maggie, she accepted the finely wrapped bouquet and paused for a moment. “How would your little Ella like to play with my Daniel every day after school? If she’s free, of course.”
“Oh, I think she’d love that. Although, I’m not sure he would.” Maggie motioned toward the boy who was still avoiding eye contact with Ella as she hopped along the sidewalk in front of him.
“Boohockey, he’ll grow to love it. Besides, he needs to become a bit more social, if you ask me.”
Maggie smiled, “That sounds great.”
The woman gathered her things and headed out the door. The other couple that had been wandering around approached the counter with hydrangeas.
“Helena, what do we need these silly things for?”
“Because they are my favorite, Mr. Finer, so you will humor me.”
Mr. Finer offered a sly smile to Maggie as he commented on his wife. “She thinks she can’t just grow these things herself. Instead, we have to go out and buy them.”
“Hold your tongue, dear. At least now there is a shop in town, so be happy I don’t have to drag you so far out of the way to fetch these beauties.”
“We should just grow them at home,” Mr. Finer insisted, walking away before he would be forced to forfeit this match. He appeared to be discontented, but it felt to Maggie that the old couple enjoyed such meaningless bickering.
“Don’t mind him, this is a lovely shop and we couldn’t be happier that you’re here.”
Just then, Ella came bolting through the door, nearly running directly into Mr. Finer.
“Watch yourself! I’m an old man, very unstable.”
“Sorry,” Ella said sweetly as she moved around the lightly wrinkled figure and ran over to the counter.
“Have a great day,” Maggie said to Mrs. Finer.
As Helena turned, Ella was there to greet her. “Hydrangeas! What a beautiful choice!”
“Why, yes they are. They are my favorite,” Mrs. Finer smiled and went off to gather her husband.
Ella skipped to her mother who plopped her back upon the countertop. “So,” Maggie began. “How would you like to play with Daniel after school each day?”
“Yes, you may. But you must be home in time to finish your homework before dinner.”
“I will Mommy, thank you!” As Ella hugged her mother, the Finer’s reached the door and made their exit. Ding! Ding!
Ding! Ding! Ella came out of her daze to see that the Hillside Nursing Home van had pulled up outside. Two men dressed in white came into the store and approached Mr. Finer. One of the men knew Ella from high school.
“Hi, Ella. How’s he doing?” Jeremy asked.
“Not great,” she admitted.
“Mr. Finer,” Jeremy said kindly as he bent down to face the old, lost man. “You know you’re not supposed to leave without a nurse. Anything could happen to you.”
“What? Maggie, who is this?”
Jeremy looked to Ella in confusion.
“Mr. Finer, I’m Ella, remember? This man is going to take you home. You’ve met him before. His name is Jeremy. Do you remember?”
Mr. Finer simply shook his head and remained silent.
“It’s no use,” Jeremy explained. “It just turned into a bad day for him. We’ll take it from here, Ella. Thanks for calling.”
“Okay,” she said, easing her grip. “Mr. Finer, Jeremy is going to take you home to rest. I will visit you in a few days, okay?”
“Okay,” he said. “Okay… okay…” The men ushered him out the door. “Okay. Helena!” He suddenly called out with desperation in his voice. “Helena!” The two men urged him forward, but the old man became frightened. “Helena!!”
Ella turned back to her work, trusting Jeremy with her dear friend. Mr. Finer was such a kind man. The two of them had developed quite a relationship during the many years Ella had spent growing up in the flower shop. Now, Ella would visit him often to offer a sense of family, since all of his had gone before him, including his beloved wife.
A few hours later, the team at EllaGant Arrangements had seen more customers than they could remember, and more roses than they could count. Ella was digging in a low cabinet when she realized her commitment to the kind man she had spoken to earlier. “Oh no,” she said popping her head up over the counter. “It’s two-thirty! Lilly, I need my car keys.”
“On the hook in the back,” came the answer.
“I’m out on this delivery, hold down the fort!” Ella snatched up the two dozen roses, and the cute little teddy holding a box of what the recipient would soon call ‘sweet regret.’ Gifts in hand, she quickly shuffled out the door and into the warm, southern air.
Ella opened the passenger side door of her car and went to set the vase down, realizing that she didn’t bring a box to hold the vase in place during the ride. She closed the door and spotted a man in a rusted green pickup holding up traffic to take her parking spot. “Oh, sorry! Stay there, I’ll be right back!” After running back inside, she placed the vase in a box on the seat, and the teddy and chocolates securely by its side. She climbed into the driver’s seat and realized she forgot the address. Seeing Ella climb out of her car again, the driver in the pickup honked in frustration. “Just… be right back!” One more trip inside and she was ready to go.
“Okay, let’s go make a lady happy!” Ella said as she threw the car into drive. She began to pull out just as another car sped around the pickup; Ella turned sharply back to the right to miss the car and ran into a man on a bike. “Oh! Oh no!”
She hopped out of the car and ran to the stranger who was now lying on the concrete. “I’m so sorry! Are you hurt?”
“Well,” he said as he leaned himself up. “I’ve never been hit by a car before, so it’s hard to say.” He looked down at his bike. The handles had spun in the fall, leaving the front tire perpendicular to the ground and the rim bent under the bumper of the car. “Oh man, my bike has never been hit by a car before either. Clearly, it’s not handling it very well.”
“Wow, I’m so sorry. Let me help you up.” Ella grabbed the man’s arm and pulled him to his feet. He stood and steadied himself. Ella felt his strong muscles between her hands and nearly lost her own sense of balance. Oh my, she thought. By this time the people in the flower shop had come out to see what all the ruckus was about.
“What’s going on?” James said as he found an open space next to Lilly at the window. “OOO, who is he?”
“Ella hit him with her car,” she said with a chuckle.
“Damn, I should have offered to make that delivery.”
Lilly rolled her eyes at James and shook her head.
“What?” he asked.
HONK! Ella was still holding onto the man’s arm when the horn of the pickup regained her attention. By now, all traffic down Main Street was at a halt, which wouldn’t be a problem in a small town with little traffic, if only there was another road to get through town. “Oh, he was waiting for my spot. I’ll help you with your bike.”
“No, it’s okay. I’ve got it.” The man said as he leaned down to pull out his bike which was firmly jammed between the road and two-thousand plus pounds of car.
“Should I back up?”
“No, you’ll just drag my bike with you.”
“Okay, well, I’ll help you pull it out.”
“I think I can get it.”
“Please, it’s the least I can do.” Ella bent down and began to pull on the bike.
“You’re in my way,” the man said as she leaned in front of him.
“No, I’ve got it, hold on.” Not knowing the pedal, too, was broken; Ella held onto it and pulled hard. The pedal slid off, sending her hand back and the pedal right into the unfortunate stranger’s eye.
“OH!” the bystanders in the flower shop cringed as they saw the man take this blow.
“Now it’s over. This guy’s going to leave town for good,” James said as he walked back to the counter again.
“AHH!” the man cried out.
“Are you okay!” As Ella said this, the impatient driver in the pickup finally gave up on waiting and sped around the two in the road, swerving to avoid the other cars that were also stuck in line.
“You hit me in the eye with my own bike pedal!”
“Oh wow, I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”
He looked at Ella and she nearly melted at the sight of his icy blue eyes.
“Yeah, you keep saying that. Maybe you should try, I don’t know… ‘Good-bye.’”
Ella chucked a bit, “I’m not normally so clumsy.”
“Really? Because you have quite a knack for it.” Just then, the bike released itself and fell to the ground. The two paused for a moment.
“Told you I had it,” Ella smiled. She simply received an ‘are you serious’ look in response to her poorly timed sarcasm. “No? Okay. Come on, I’ll take you to the hospital.”
“What?” He became anxious. “I’m not getting in there… with you!”
“What? Why!” Ella took offense.
The man looked at her, stunned. “What― You―” he gestured wildly. “You ran over my bike. Me and my bike!”
“Well, yeah. I did do that.”
“And then you hit me… in the eye… with my own bike pedal!”
“I suppose that’s true, too.”
The man rested his hands on his hips and lowered his head, trying to take a moment to cool off.
“Now what’s happening?” James asked, rejoining the onlookers at the flower shop window who listened carefully to the conversation in the road that drifted in through the open shop door.
“She wants to drive him to the hospital.”
“Is he going to go?”
Lilly looked James dead in the eyes. “Would you?”
“No, probably not,” he said, shaking his head.
Ella couldn’t wait any longer. Traffic was now slowing in both directions as people kept stopping to watch each travesty as it unfolded. She bent down and tried to pull up the bike, but it wouldn’t stand. The man dropped his hands and looked at her with his one good eye as if to ask what he had done to deserve having this woman thrown into his life this way. “It… won’t stand,” she said as she bent down to try once more. The man continued to stare at her without a word.
“Oh dear, this is painful to watch,” James commented, peaking through his fingers as he shielded his eyes like a child watching horror film.
“I know,” said Lilly. “Isn’t it great?”
James turned slowly to Lilly as she chuckled to herself. “You are an evil human being,” he said.
Lilly snorted as she tried, unsuccessfully, to contain her laughter.
“Yeah, it may need some work.” Ella picked the bike up again and nearly lost her balance with it. “Probably, due to the… car… accident… me.” She stood for a moment in the only awkward position that stilled the bike, holding it in place. Finally, the man gestured for her to bring it over so that he could take it off her hands. “I probably shouldn’t try to move it,” she said. The man picked up the bike and lifted it onto his shoulder as if it weighed no more than a pillow.
“Wow,” Ella blushed, wondering what it would be like to be thrown over his shoulders that way. “You’ve got it. The bike. You’ve got the bike.” Still without speaking, he simply looked at her and waited for the next move. “Oh, you can put it in the trunk; if that still works,” as she said this she walked over to the driver’s side and pressed the release for the trunk.
“No way,” James exclaimed. “He’s going with her?”
“Looks like it,” Lilly said.
“Wait!” James yelled. He pushed his way through the crowd and darted out the door to the sidewalk. “I can drive you!”
The injured man climbed into the car. “Do you know this guy?”
Ella looked around him to see James shouting from the sidewalk. “Let’s say no.” She handed her passenger the vase of flowers and other gifts to hold, avoiding eye contact out of embarrassment. He accepted one gift at a time, trying hard to balance them all at once. “Okay, I see no oncoming cars, or bikes. Let’s go. AHH!” Just as she started to pull away, James darted in front of the car.
“I can drive you! I’m a safe driver, I promise!”
Ella stuck her head out the window, “Get out of the way, James!” She slowly moved forward, forcing him to step aside, but he was no type to give up easily.
“I don’t have any record of hitting cars, or bikes, or people, or any other creature to speak of.” He explained, bent down to talk through the passenger window. “Except my mom’s cat! But he’s had seven good lives and his hip is nearly healed!”
“Good-bye, James!” Ella said as she picked up speed and left him behind.
“I love you!” James shouted after the beautiful stranger in the car.
As they drove down the road, Ella and her entirely reluctant passenger remained mostly silent. The AC was a nice relief from the heat and drama. Ella glanced at the man and offered a kind smile.
“So, I thought you didn’t know him,” he accused his escort.
“Know who?” she played dumb.
“James, was it?”
“Oh, James! Yes, well. He works for me.”
Silence again. An awkward, unrelenting silence. “So, I’m Ella.”
“Nice to meet you,” she smiled.
“Yeah… you too.” He turned away and looked out the window.
“So, are you new to the area?”
“Actually, I am.”
“I moved here with my family when I was a little girl. Is this your first time living in a warm climate?”
He shook his head, “no.”
Ella waited to see if he would continue talking, but the air between them remained empty. “How about some music?” She turned the radio on and jumped at the noise. The volume was at full blast and the man in the song was screaming in a hoarse voice over the music that blared incessantly behind him. Eric looked at Ella in surprise. She forced a smile and shook her head. “It’s not mine,” she shouted, but couldn’t even hear her own words. Scrambling to turn down the volume, Ella twisted the knob, popping it right off. “HUH!”
Eric reached forward and turned the radio off. Silence filled the car once more, this time Ella was thankful for it.
“Thank you,” she said too loudly. “My friend borrowed my car.”
“Oh, no. Someone else,” she corrected him. “Someone with venom for blood and unemployment in their future,” she whispered to herself, thinking of Lilly.
“What’s that?” Eric asked.
“What? Oh, nothing.” Ella picked up the broken knob on the center console. “So much for this,” holding the freed piece of her radio up, she looked passed it for a moment and glanced at the time. “OH NO!” Slamming on the brakes, Ella forced the car to a sudden stop. “My delivery!” With vehicles beeping from every direction, Ella made a U-turn and pulled right into the other lane.
The car swerved, sending the roses off of Eric’s lap. He grabbed them, wincing as he did so. Speeding in the other direction, Ella glanced over at Eric. He stared at her in astonishment. “Are you trying to kill me?”
“Of course not! It’s just that I promised to deliver these flowers personally by three o’clock. It’s nearly three now.” The car settled back into the lane and the ride smoothed a bit, although the hearts of the two riders pounded furiously.
“You ran me over! You took out one of my eyes! Now I have thorns in my hands from grabbing onto these roses as you try to get me slammed by oncoming traffic!”
“There are still thorns on those?”
“Forget the thorns!” He screamed frantically. “You are a death trap waiting to happen!”
“I’m sorry! My shop has never missed a delivery, I’m not about to tarnish that hard-earned record―and certainly not on Valentine’s Day! This could determine the future that a very nice man has with whom, I would assume, is a very nice woman!”
“Listen, I’ll make this delivery and then it’s straight to the hospital. I promise.”
“You’re a wreck loose. As soon as you stop this car, I’m getting out. And if it never stops, I’m bailing!”
“No, please. I’m sorry. I’m all out of sorts today. A crazy squirrel woke me up and―”
“It’s not important. Listen, I realize I’ve made a bad first impression.”
“A terrible first impression!”
“Noted. But I’m not a bad person and I really do want to make up for the pain I’ve caused you.”
“Fine. I’ll wait until you stop the car.”
“And the hospital?”
“I won’t stop the car…”
“Okay, then we’ll see.” Ella settled into the quiet of the ride, hoping to keep her passenger content until they reached their destination. “Here we are, 26 North Roacker. Hmm, looks like an office building. I may be a few minutes, but please stay here.” Eric flashed a devilish smirk and handed her the flowers, bear, and chocolates. “When I come back, you’d better be here!”
“We’ll see,” he replied with feigned giddiness.
Ella wanted to plead, but she felt every second as it passed, so she gathered the gifts and quickly ran inside. On the 2nd floor at the opposite end of the building, she located a receptionist. “Hi, I have a delivery for Amanda.”
“I’m Amanda!” the young woman behind the desk exclaimed.
The abrupt sound of her high-pitched voice in the quiet office made Ella jump and nearly spill the chocolates on the floor. She quickly recovered and replied with almost equal enthusiasm.
“I thought you might be! Here is a cute little teddy bear holding delicious chocolates. And here are your beautiful roses.” Ella lifted the roses up and realized that many had lost pedals and some were snapped in half.
“Are you going to give them to me?” Amanda asked, anxious to receive her gifts.
“These? These roses, here? No.”
“But, they are my roses, aren’t they?”
“I’d like to have them.”
“Okay,” Ella reluctantly handed over the damaged bouquet.
Amanda looked over her gifts and her wide smile suddenly faded. “But these are all broken.”
“Not all, not nearly all.”
“And most are missing their pedals.”
“Not most. Some, we’ll say some. A few, at most.”
“Does this symbolize something?”
“What? No, this was all me. Your boyfriend was very sweet.”
“You talked to him? What did he say?” she asked with renewed excitement. Too soon, her expression turned dark as thunder clouds interrupting a sunny day. “He’s not going to leave his wife for me, is he?”
“It’s because of those kids, isn’t it?”
“Just because I’m their age doesn’t mean I won’t make a good stepmother!” Tears began to stream from her face, dripping down her cheeks and onto the teddy bear which she held so tightly the head looked about to pop off.
“Oh dear,” Ella reached over the desk and patted the young woman’s back.
After forty-five minutes of listening to the girl ramble incoherently over tissues, chocolates, a tear-soaked teddy, and smashed roses, Ella made her way out of the building and across the sidewalk only to discover that her passenger seat was empty.
“Oh man,” she signed. Accepting what was surely fate, she walked around her car and climbed behind the wheel. As she sat there alone, the complete enthusiasm which she had for Valentine’s Day every year completely washed away. Then she looked up to find a note on her window. A closer look revealed it wasn’t a note, but a parking ticket. “Oh maaaan! What’s this for?” Then she spotted it. A handicap sign was clearly positioned at the head of the very parking spot she was sitting in. Ella slammed her head down onto the steering wheel and just let the car horn blow.
After several minutes, a man tapped at her window. “Hey, lady!” Ella looked up at the source of the voice, anxious for a comforting word. “Lay off the horn!”
“Thanks! I’m fine by the way!” She stepped out and grabbed the ticket before getting back in and driving away.
Back at the flower shop, Ella sauntered in with her shoulders and head hanging low.
“There’s our girl,” Lilly called. “How was the hospital?”
“Didn’t make it,” Ella answered as she plopped onto a stool behind the counter.
“No?” James asked. “Is he not single?”
“James!” Ella exclaimed. “I tried to take him but I realized I had to make the delivery, so I took him there first. That took forty-five minutes, which was plenty of time for him to sneak away. That guy, by the way, who I thought was so sweet… married! And the girl I delivered the flowers to… his mistress! She thought the broken flowers I delivered were a message from him that their relationship was never going anywhere.”
“Broken flowers?” Lilly asked with surprise.
“Yeah, they were damaged in the almost accident.”
“You mean the ‘almost accident’ where you crippled a guy and his bike?” James questioned.
“I did not cripple the guy. I just blinded him temporarily and tore his bike to shreds. And, no, not that accident.”
Lilly and James looked at each other, silently agreeing on who would pry. “Okay,” Lilly chimed in, “I have to ask. “Exactly how many accidents were you in today?”
“Well once I realized it was almost three, I had to turn around and make the delivery before it was too late.”
“Can’t tarnish a good delivery record,” Lilly said, shaking her head.
“Thank you!” Ella looked at her friend as if she were the only one in the world who understood her. James, on the other hand, just stared at her in disbelief. “Oh, shut up!” Ella ordered him. “And, Lilly, what was up with my radio?”
“Ya like that?” she said with a smile revealing perfect pearly whites.
“No. No, I do not! And neither did Eric. He looked at me like I had snakes coming out of my head.” She reached over and snatched James’ soda and took a long sip.
“What? You left us a man down on the busiest day of the year!”
“I know, I’m sorry.” Ella emptied her pants pockets, leaving the button to her radio on the counter.
“What’s this?” James asked.
“That is what I get for being cheap.”
“So, Eric’s the guy you hit?” Lilly asked.
“Yeah. But you can forget his name; we’ll never see him around here again. I made damn sure of that.”
“Thank you for that,” James said sarcastically.
Ella cast him a snotty smile and put down the soda. “Let’s close up. I promised Steve a romantic dinner.”
“Ha, that guy is anything but romantic!”
Following some of the usual ‘he’s not good enough for you’ lecturing from James and Lilly, the store was closed and the three were ready to depart to their homes.
“See ya! Have a nice night!” Ella called.
“Thanks, Honey. Get home safely!” James called back as he walked away with Lilly who had offered him a ride and to share a lonely bottle of wine with her. “Call us when your night is trashed and you need to talk. OUCH! No pinching!”
“Leave her alone,” Lilly said, her voice drifting softly into the empty town.
Ella left her car where it was, deciding to walk home. She followed the sidewalk through town, glancing into the darkened windows of the other shops as she passed; every one of them as familiar to her as her own. When the line of shops ended, her path led her by the oldest building in town which was now an unexciting museum displaying the humdrum history of the humble little town.
She followed the sidewalk as it turned to the right down a street lined with trees and houses, each designed to flaunt their own unique character. Her feet rested at the next corner as her eyes traveled farther down the street. Four houses down and across the river of worn and cracked pavement, she soaked up the look of a sage green cottage that rested in the soft glow of street lights. Memories ignited. She knew, intimately, the location of every creaking floor board, the uneven feel of the banister running along the staircase, the warm feeling of the morning sunlight that floods into the small bedroom at the top of the stairs.
Her heart warmed and she held onto that sensation as strongly as one can hold onto anything that will someday turn sour. Unconsciously, her fingertips ran along the teal awareness bracelet, turning it in circles, like a carousel with her wrist at its center. Within seconds, her happy thoughts were replaced with pain and loss. Ella’s only solace was found in the knowledge that the house was currently the beloved home of family of four: mother, father, and two young boys both with the most beautiful red hair.
Shaking her head to escape the dark thoughts, Ella crossed to the opposite sidewalk and followed the adjacent street. The large moving truck parked directly in front of the house, where she currently resides in an upstairs apartment, was conspicuous on the quiet, uneventful street. New tenants, she thought. Hope I can meet them without ruining their day. She bounced up the few front steps to the glass-paned front door, which opened into an enclosed porch. Since the doors locked automatically, they were propped open with a couple of boxes, apparently belonging to the new tenant downstairs. Ella bent down behind the door with her mail slot and pushed a box slightly out of the way, just far enough to allow her room to unlock a mailbox attached to the back panel of the door. She appreciated this nifty little contraption, one of many the landlord had installed just for her. He had always adored Ella and her mother, so he took extra measures to ensure Ella’s safety and comfort here, including extra locks and an intercom to the outer porch door.
Mail in hand, Ella stood to flip through it. The open staircase on the left side of the porch led to her second floor apartment. Another door straight ahead belonged to her new neighbors. Just as she was about to head upstairs, Ella looked up and stopped in her tracks. Smiling with uncertainty, she offered a greeting. “Eric,” she said. “Nice to see you again.”
“Ella, wish I could say the same,” he replied, gesturing with his bandaged hand to his swollen eye.
She smiled awkwardly while he watched her closely from a safe distance.
“So, you really are new to the area, huh?”
“As long as I survive the move.”
“Well, good luck living so close to me!”
He looked down at the envelopes in her hand. “You mean, you’re not just stealing mail?”
Ella ignored the stab. “Nope, I live right upstairs.”
“Great, I’m sure I’ll need that luck then.”
“I see you reached a doctor?”
“Yeah, well once I made it to the hospital it didn’t take long.”
“I’ll replace your bike. And feel free to forward the hospital bills to me.”
The silence returned. “Well, I’ll let you get back to moving.”
“Right. See ya,” Eric said as he quickly walked by, allowing a wide breadth between himself and the unpredictably dangerous person he now found himself living with.
As Eric made his way back to the loaded truck, Ella rushed upstairs, anxious to hide out for a while. She slipped her keys into a bowl on the table just inside her door. Ella pressed two fingers to her lips before placing them lovingly against the glass of a picture frame. Behind the glass she admired her mother who smiled lively as she wrapped an arm around her grown daughter. The blurred form of Lilly’s finger covered the bottom right corner, but it was still the most wonderful picture Ella had ever possessed.
“Hi Mom,” she whispered. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
Ella washed up, slipped on a nice dress and casual heels, and went to work in the kitchen. With any luck, she would make her boyfriend a nice meal for Valentine’s Day. Luck was an added ingredient that she required whenever working near anything hot or supposed-to-be edible. The menu for the evening included Steve’s favorites: Chicken French with pasta, no veggies, and chocolate half-moon cookies for dessert.
Once the meal was ready, Ella set the table, complete with candles and a single red rose. She dimmed the lights and looked at her watch. Nine o’clock. He was late, again. To keep busy, Ella cleaned the kitchen, leveled a few pictures, made and remade her bed, and finally sunk into the couch and turned on the TV.
Eventually, the buzzer rang, waking Ella from an unsolicited slumber. She sat up, trying to regain her bearings. Adjusting her hair which was spun up in a sock bun, she took a deep breath. The buzzer rang again, longer this time. Ella stood and went to the intercom, “Who is it?”
“Steve, let me in.”
“You’re late. Do you even realize just how late you are?” Ella didn’t even know, but a quick glance at the clock got her blood boiling even hotter.
“Come on, baby, let me in and I’ll make it up to you.” Steve turned to the new stranger who had just parked his truck and was making his way up the driveway along the left side of the house. “Hey, man.”
“Hi,” the man replied.
Steve gestured to the intercom, “My girlfriend.”
“Ahh,” the man pulled out his cell phone which had conveniently started to ring. “Mel, what are you doing?”
Steve returned to his own conversation. “Ella? Are you there?”
“I don’t know, Steve. I made this romantic dinner, your favorite. I don’t even like Chicken French!”
“I know, baby, but come on. It’s Valentine’s Day.”
“No it’s not. It was Valentine’s Day yesterday. Yesterday when you stood me up, yesterday when you didn’t even send me a card or flowers!”
“I didn’t think you liked flowers.”
“I own a flower shop!”
“She’s got you there,” the stranger commented.
“Thanks buddy, but I’ve got this. Why don’t you just mind your own business.” Steve sized the guy up. The stranger was a bit taller, obviously muscular, and had clearly been in some sort of fight earlier that day. Picturing defeat, Steve decided to return his attention to the intercom. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
“You’ve promised before, but you never deliver.”
“I will this time. Come on, you’ve punished me enough.” Steve waited for a moment, but the buzzer didn’t sound. “Ella… You know you’re going to forgive me. You always do.” He looked back to the man with phone still pressed to his ear. He remained silent as if waiting to see if the door would unlock. “She always does,” Steve assured him.
The intercom went silent. Ella took her finger off the talk button and crossed her arms. She looked at the floor as she shifted her weight from one leg to the other. She knew better than to open the door, but she also knew that she eventually would. Ella’s mother always told her never to let herself be taken for granted, but her mother wasn’t here now and Ella just wanted to feel loved, even if only a little.
While Ella struggled with herself, Steve waited ever so impatiently downstairs. He watched as the stranger paced back and forth across the front yard.
“You plan on just waltzing back in like nothing happened,” the man listened to the reply on the other end of the line. “Mel― Mel! Do you understand what I’m saying?” He rubbed the back of his head with frustration. “Well, figure it out and let me know.” The stranger hung up the phone and looked up to find Steve staring at him.
Without saying a word, Steve reached for the buzzer again.
Ella put her finger to the door release and paused for just a moment before buzzing Steve in. She shook her head knowing her mother would be disappointed, and went to the table and blew out the candles that were now half their original size. On her way back through the kitchen she took another glance at the time, hoping she had misread it before. She hadn’t. It was one-thirty, but she would forgive him… again.
When the door lock released, Steve went inside and the man followed him in. “Hey, where do you think you’re going?”
The man held up a set of keys, “I live here.”
“Oh, and now, all of a sudden, you’re ready to come in,” Steve remarked as he sauntered up the stairs. The man went silently to his door straight ahead and readied his keys to enter.
Upstairs, Steve slowly opened the door to Ella’s apartment and poked his head in. “Ella, baby?”
“I’m here, Steve.” Annoyance was clear in her tone.
He walked in and closed the door behind him. “I brought you a present,” Steve said teasingly as he held up a bag of fish. “Come on, baby,” he pleaded.
“Stop it with the ‘baby’, Steve. I’m really angry this time. You know I love Valentine’s Day and you blew it off.”
“So? I’ve blown off Valentine’s Day with you before.”
“And you haven’t figured out how much it hurts me? Oh, but wait. Of course that wouldn’t’ hurt. Afterall, I’m a florist who doesn’t like flowers.”
“Bab―” he checked himself. “Listen Ella,” he said with a more serious tone. “I get it now. These things mean a lot to you. I just needed you to show me that.”
“I shouldn’t have to get angry with you for you to learn the most obvious things about me.”
“I know and I’m sorry,” he set the fish on the counter and slipped his arms around her waist. She tried not to look up at him, knowing he would lean in for a kiss too soon. “Look at me, Ella.” He bent down and chased her eyes with his. Finally, she surrendered. “I’m sorry.” He leaned in and kissed her, just as she knew he would.
“Let’s eat,” she said, pulling away and leading him to the cold plates of food.
“By the way, that new guy downstairs is a jerk. He heard us talking and wouldn’t let me inside. Just kept yammering on his cell to some guy named Mel.”
“New guy?” Ella said curiously.
“Yeah, looks like he got into a fight or something. His eye and hand were all banged up.”
Ella smiled, silently thanking Eric for not letting Steve in.