Ella wandered around the school playground kicking rocks and staring at the ground. There was no need to wait for Daniel today, or any other day. Since he left, Ella found it hard to find other kids to hang out with. She was still shorter than everyone else in her class, and as talkative as ever. If she were going to play with the other girls, she’d have to learn to sit quietly and listen, which was hard for her to do. Not with Daniel though, he accepted her for exactly who she was and she learned to be what he needed when it counted.
Ella sat down on the trunk of a large tree which was situated right in the middle of the playground. The trunk was large and naturally shaped in a way that made it look like the front of an alligator, complete with a head, legs, and feet. It was backed up as if its tail merged into the tree. The art teacher had helped the children paint the alligator green so no one could miss it. Ella sat now on one side of the alligator, fiddling with the twigs and sand she found at her feet.
“Hi, you’re Ella, right?”
Ella looked up to see another little girl sitting on the other side of the alligator. She hadn’t even noticed the girl when she sat down beside her. “Yes, that’s me.”
“My name is Lilly.”
“Hi Lilly,” Ella said as she returned to her twigs.
“You miss your friend, don’t you? I would too, he was pretty cute. I don’t know how you manage to live without him.”
Ella simply looked up at Lilly, wondering why she was saying those things.
“Sorry,” Lilly apologized. “My dad says I suffer from diarrhea-of-the-mouth.”
“What about your mom?”
“She doesn’t know. She left us when I was a baby. I moved here a few months ago. I’m in your class but I don’t think you ever noticed me.”
“It’s okay. It’s probably because of Daniel.”
Ella stood up to leave. “I’d better go.”
“Go where?” Billy asked as he came around the tree. His two minions went around from the other side. “Is poor widdle baby off to cry?” he mocked her, rubbing his eyes as a sleepy baby would.
“Leave us alone Billy!” Lilly yelled. Ella spun around in surprise and gave Lilly a ‘what the heck are you doing’ look. “What?” Lilly asked.
“So, you’ve got another bodyguard since your boyfriend isn’t here anymore?”
“No, I just want to go home.” Ella tried to walk away, but Billy pushed her back.
“Leave her alone!” Lilly cried.
“Why should I be afraid of you!”
“’Cuz I’m a pretty little girl and you’re a big belly pig face!” Lilly shouted.
“Lilly, you shouldn’t call people names. Especially him” Ella urged under her breath.
“Well, he is. Pig face! Pig face!” Lilly repeated loudly at Billy.
“Stop it!” Billy felt his anger and embarrassment swelling inside.
“Big belly pig face!”
“Enough!” A new voice beckoned the children into silence. “Children, what is going on here?” Mrs. Archer asked with a disapproving tone.
“Ella just wanted to leave, but Billy pushed her!” Lilly answered
“Did not!” Billy argued.
“I saw you,” Mrs. Archer assured him. “I need all of you to follow me inside. We are going to call your parents and straighten this out.” Mrs. Archer stared at the group of children, but none of them moved a muscle. “Let’s go. ALL of you.” Spinning around with purpose in her steps, the teacher led the defeated children inside to her classroom where they each took a seat in the first row of desks.
“Now, I don’t know why you three boys and Ella have so much to fight about, but it ends now. Before I call your parents, is there anything you’d like to say to explain yourselves or this situation you’re in?”
“Fine. Lilly, we’ll start with you. This is the first time I’ve seen you mixed up in any sort of trouble. Did you say something to upset these boys?”
“Why would you assume that? I’m not always diarrhea-ee,” Lilly said in her own defense.
Mrs. Archer sent a scolding look toward the three boys who were chuckling under their breath. “Well, I did hear you call Billy a name. It wasn’t a very nice name. Your father will hear about it. Alright, Billy, what’s your story? What reason do you have to pick on Ella, or anyone else for that matter?”
“I don’t know,” Billy said, with his eyes aimed at the floor. He didn’t appear to be angry anymore but, perhaps, scared.
“How do you think your parents would respond if I called and told them how you have been treating the other kids?”
“Alright, I guess yours will be the first I call, then.”
As soon as he saw Mrs. Archer rise from her seat, Billy’s voice sprung from his throat like a rabbit jolting at the sight of a predator. “No! Please! Please don’t call my parents!” His lips quivered and he clutched onto the desk until his knuckles were white.
The two sidekicks laughed at their wimpy friend. “Enough, boys,” Mrs. Archer said. She looked across the room, scanning the faces of each child before her. “Ella?”
“Yes, Mrs. Archer?”
“You always seem to be the one in trouble. It used to be you and Daniel, and now it’s you and Lilly.”
“But I just met―”
“It’s okay,” the teacher interrupted. “Do you know why you always seem to be the one that other kids pick on?”
Ella shrugged her shoulders. “Everyone picks on me because I’m smaller than them.”
“But these three are not even in your class. I’m not saying it’s right for anyone to pick on you,” she said, directing a glaring look at the boys. “-but they are older. You really have no idea why you seem to be singled out?”
“Billy picks on everyone.” Lilly added.
“Shut up!” Billy shouted.
“You shut up!”
“Settle down, please!” Mrs. Archer regained control of the room once more. “Alright... You girls might want to think about going straight home after school, or stay closer to the teachers and aides at the end of the day. Okay?”
“Yes, Mrs. Archer,” Ella answered.
“And you, Miss Lilly. No name calling and we don’t say ‘shut up.’ It’s not polite.”
“Told you,” Ella whispered to Lilly, forcing Mrs. Archer to stifle a smile.
“Good, now go home and try to stay out of trouble. I’ll be speaking to your parents.”
“Thank you Mrs. Archer,” the girls said as they gathered their belongings and took off.
Ella and Lilly walked home together, chatting the whole way.
“Wow, I bet you weren’t so afraid of them when Daniel was around.”
“Who said I was afraid?” Ella took offense.
“Just looked that way.”
“And, why do you keeping bringing up Daniel? Can’t you see I’m sad that he moved away?”
“I’m sorry. My dad says I can be a bit of a downer sometimes. I don’t mean to be. These things just come out. And that’s why he says I have diarrhea-of-the-mouth. Apparently I get it from my mom.”
“Sorry your mom left you.”
“It’s okay. My daddy’s my best friend. And he said it’s better for us that she left anyway.”
“Do you know why she did?”
“No. But that’s okay. My daddy said it’s not because of me and that’s all that matters.”
“I like that,” Ella smirked. “My dad left my mom and me.”
“Really!” Lilly could see that her misunderstood excitement was not welcomed by Ella. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound happy about that. I was just thinking, maybe my daddy and your mommy could get together and make us into one big family.”
“Nah, I don’t think my mom would do that.”
“Why not? My dad is really sweet, and soooo so handsome! I bet he would sweep your mom right off her feet.”
Ella―for the first time since she learned to babble―walked quietly as Lilly yammered on about her dad and all of the things that are wonderful about him.
“This is my house,” Lilly said, hopping to a stop in front of a light-green house with a row of hedges spreading across the front. “I’d like to play with you after school if that’s okay.”
Ella thought on this for a minute and decided it would please her mother. “Okay.”
“Cool. I bet we’ll make a great pair. See ya!” Lilly went inside and Ella continued home.
Safe inside her house, Ella finished her homework and flipped through her favorite book, the Secret Garden. The solid cover if the book was beginning to fray. The pages inside had dog ears, mud and grass stains, a fold here, tape over tear there. Ella and Maggie read the book often, no matter where they were. Their favorite place was in the back yard, surrounded by the bright colors and sweet smells of their own flowers. But without her mom, the book wasn’t the same, so Ella tucked it under her arm and walked to the flower shop.
Inside the shop, Maggie had three vases lined up before her, each already prepared with greens and gypsophila. Maggie added orange and red roses to each, tagged them as a completed order, and moved on to the next.
“Two topiaries,” she read from a card as the bell on the door sounded. “Ella! Hello honey! How was school?”
“And after school?”
“You talked to Mrs. Archer?”
“She stopped in earlier to pick up an order for her mother. Ella if you keep having run-ins with this Billy kid, you’ll need to come straight here after school. Okay?”
“Finish your homework?”
“Yup, all done!”
“Good. Would you like to help me pick out some alstroemerias?”
“Yeah! What color?”
Ella ran to a bucket of alstroemeria in the cooler and her mom followed. Ella piled the freshest looking flowers into one bucket. When she was satisfied, she turned to her mother. “There, is that enough?”
“Perfect!” Maggie grabbed the bucket and Ella went back to pull a stool up to her mother’s workspace to watch the topiary take shape. “So you met someone new today?”
“Man, Mrs. Archer told you everything.”
“You didn’t want me to know?”
“It’s not that, but can’t the woman keep a secret!”
Maggie fought to keep from laughing. “It isn’t nice to refer to people that way.”
“So tell me about Lilly. Do you think you could be friends?”
“Yeah, I do. I think I’ll play with her after school if that’s okay.”
“That’s fine, but I don’t want you going over to her house without me meeting her parents first. You know my rule.”
“Okay.” Ella handed her mother a pink ribbon once the flowers were perfectly arranged. Maggie pushed the final product aside and began the next.
“I hope I like hanging out with Lilly as much as I did with Daniel.”
“I hope so too,” Maggie smiled at her daughter who, after being sad for so long, finally smiled back. What a relief it was to see her baby on her way to happiness again.
“James, what did you do with the register key when you closed up last night?” Ella called as she fished around for the missing item.
“The desk drawer in the office; where it always is.”
Ella disappeared into the office for a moment before she reemerged with the key in hand. James noticed that she wasn’t entirely present. Sarah was off with another associate, opening the rest of the store. Since they were distracted with setting out and organizing buckets of flowers and arrangements, James snuck up beside Ella without her even noticing him.
“So, where are you?” he asked.
Ella jumped nearly out of her skin. “Don’t do that! You scared the crap out of me!”
“That’s unfortunate for your pants, but you didn’t answer my question.”
“What do you mean ‘where am I?’ You’re standing right next to me. I’m right here.”
“Don’t avoid the question; you know exactly what I mean. Where’s your head at?” James persisted.
“With Lilly, I’m worried about her and the whole biker dude thing.”
“She does seem pretty attached.”
“Very attached―for Lilly”, Ella corrected him.
“And he leaves town this morning. Or did already.”
“No! That’s why she asked for today off?”
“Yeah, you didn’t know?”
“She didn’t tell me. Why didn’t she tell me?”
“Probably so she doesn’t have to hear ‘I told you so’ from the person who matters most.”
“I wouldn’t say that because she knows it.”
“Well I did, but I have no shame. Don’t worry. If she needs you she will call.” Just then the phone rang. “Well, I think we’ve found my true calling,” James said as he picked it up. “EllaGant Arrangements, how may I help you? Oh dear, you sound awful. Of course, I’ll send her right over. Bye, Lovey.” As James hung up the receiver, Ella was already gathering her things. “Go, I’ve got everything here,” he assured her.
“Thank you!” Ella called as she barged out the door and disappeared from view.
The trip to Lilly’s house seemed longer than it ever had. When Ella finally reached the house, she found her friend standing out front. Jay’s bike was there, but Lilly was alone in the driveway.
“Hey,” Ella greeted her friend. “He’s still here?”
“He forgot something upstairs.” Lilly’s voice was soft and calm. She stood still, staring at the bike with her arms folded before her. Her long, dark hair was tied up in back, but bangs covered her tear-teased eyes.
Although her friend appeared to be composed for the moment, Ella could see that she was about to break inside. She placed one hand on Lilly’s back and rubbed it gently, trying to offer any comfort she could.
“El, you have to keep me grounded.”
“What?” She didn’t understand.
Lilly turned to her best friend since childhood. “It’s all I can do not to get on that bike and ride away with him.”
“But Lilly, you have a life here.”
“I know. Which is why I needed you here… to stop me.”
“I’ve never seen you respond like this to anyone. Are you really thinking about leaving?”
“I don’t know. Yes? I guess.” She untied her arms and became more animated as she began to pace. “I don’t understand what’s going through my head. This was what I wanted, this was the deal. We spent our few weeks together and now he’s leaving, just like he said he would, just like I knew he would. But it doesn’t make sense now.”
“Would he stay?”
“I can’t ask him to do that.”
“Why not? Doesn’t he feel just as strongly about you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re considering leaving behind everything and everyone that you know and love. If you’re having doubts, then there must be a reason.”
“I don’t want to leave my home. I’m happy here. But Ella, I’ve never cared for someone this way before. Just tell me what I should do.”
“Lilly, you know I can’t do that.”
“Ugh, you are so much like your mother.” Lilly sat down on the supporting wall separating the driveway and the front yard.
Ella felt terribly. She couldn’t bring herself to keep her friend from the one she loves, but could she watch her leave? What would mom do? she asked herself. “Lilly, I think you should consider whether you think he would be willing to stay if you asked him to. Not ideally, but realistically. Then I think you’ll have your answer.”
Jay came down the front porch steps and hopped from the green grass of the yard onto the solid concrete. He got on his bike with this bag secured to his back. As he clipped on his helmet, Lilly walked over to stand beside him. “Sure you don’t want to come, love? There’s plenty of room for you right here.” He patted the seat behind him. Lilly stared silently at the open seat, arms still crossed. “Come on, Lil. It will be an adventure.”
Lilly turned to look at Ella for a quick second, twisting back and forth as she thought about what the possible outcomes of this decision could be. Finally, she peeked up at Jay with a smile. “Yes.”
“What?” Ella could barely hid her astonishment.
“Really!” he replied with happy surprise.
Lilly threw her arms around Jay’s neck and gave him a quick peck on the lips. Then she turned to her best friend in the world, holding her hands in her own. “I’ll miss you. I don’t know what I’ll do without you there.”
“You’ll be fine. I’ll be here to hear all about your trip when you get back. And you’d better come back.”
They embraced each other, not knowing when they would meet again, but feeling somewhere inside that they would. “Do you think I’m crazy?” Lilly said.
Ella let her friend go and looked into her eyes. “We’re all crazy when we’re in love. But…” She took a breath, searching for the right thing to say. “…it doesn’t matter what I or anybody else thinks. This town has always been here and it won’t disappear while you’re gone. Besides, how often do you get to take off into the sunset with someone you love? On the back of a motorcycle, no less!” They both laughed, building the laughter up like a dam to hold back the tears.
“I’ll miss you.” Lilly threw her arms around Ella one more time.
“Don’t forget to send postcards, okay?”
“I promise.” Lilly backed away and jumped onto the back of the motorcycle. Jay handed her his own helmet, which she pulled on and secured tightly. Wrapping herself around his waist, Lilly laid her head on Jay’s back as they pulled away.
Ella didn’t cry. She rejected every urge to react. Assuming Lilly had gone off in the spur of the moment on an unplanned and uncharted trip, Ella walked slowly up the porch steps and inside the house to check everything out. Nothing was turned on, the back door was locked, the garbage was empty and no fruit was left out. Ella began to wonder how spontaneous this actually was. She popped open the fridge, nothing that would expire any time soon. Ella couldn’t help but think Lilly had already been considering this leap and had made preparations just in case. This is so Lilly, Ella thought. Fly by the seat of her pants as long as the weather is clear and the plane has been recently inspected. Pulling open the freezer, Ella found nothing but a half-eaten tub of Chocolaty Delight ice cream. “I’ll be taking that,” she said to herself as she snatched up the ice cream and threw it into a plastic bag.
Ella went upstairs to see if Lilly had packed as well. She opened the familiar drawers and closets, nothing was out of place. With a sigh, Ella decided to return to the shop. On her way out of the bedroom, her eyes caught something lying on the bed: a note. Ella sat down on the neatly arranged comforter and picked up the letter. The writing was surprisingly neat, but definitely not Lilly’s. It read:
If you’re reading this letter, you’ve decided to stay. I cannot express the joy you have brought to me during my time here. I feel I have wandered into a blissful dream. Though I wish you would have let your spirit soar with me, I understand at what a great cost that would have come to you. I know you belong right here in your familiar world with your loving friends. And so, I wish you the very best. The road calls out to me, and I must answer. But, know that my heart remains here with you.
Artist and poet? Ella thought. She looked at the page beneath the letter to see Lilly’s face, sketched out in a charcoal drawing. Perfect, Ella decided. It captured the kindness in Lilly’s smile, and the curiosity in her eyes. He really does know and love her. That thought was enough to provoke a single tear to roll down her cheek. Ella looked to the bottom corner of the page where she saw “JR” scribbled in charcoal. Must have been done by Jay, Ella assumed. A second tear escaped Ella’s grasp and fell to her lap, barely missing the drawing. Ella replaced the letter and drawing exactly as she had found them, then scooped up the bag of ice cream and headed out. She locked the front door behind her, but decided to walk back to work rather than drive. Ella walked into an empty store.
“Good timing, you just missed a mad rush,” James called. “How’s our girl?”
Ella tossed the ice cream onto the counter and stood in a daze. “She left,” were the only words that came. The tears finally grew too powerful. Ella’s shoulders shook as grief, love, fear, and longing spilled from her.
“Oh, come here,” James wrapped his arms around Ella as the dam broke and set the waterfall free. “Honey, she’s a big girl, she’ll be fine. And you know she’ll come back. As soon as she realizes life isn’t the same without me around, she’ll be back for sure.”
Ella laughed and pulled away.
“Are you okay?”
“Nice try, but now I need to go change my shirt since you drenched me.” James picked up the ice cream. “I’ll put this away. You and I will both need some tonight.
Ella pulled off her jacket slowly, as if it was painful to do so, and sat upon a stool behind the counter. Sarah came in through the back door and immediately rushed over to her boss when she saw her. “Hey, how’s Lilly holding up?”
“Sarah, could you take the rest of today off and pick up all of Lilly’s shifts for a while?”
“Yeah, classes don’t start for a couple of weeks. But why? Where’s Lilly?”
“She’s...” Ella took a deep breath. “…on an adventure.”
Lilly had been on the road for four hours, Sarah had gone home, and Ella and James had barely finished closing up shop when James pulled out a bottle of wine. Under no circumstance would Ella normally allow alcohol in her shop, but in this moment she couldn’t care less. They sat at the counter with two glasses of wine, two spoons and the tub of Chocolatey Delight. Ella couldn’t deny she wasn’t herself. Pieces of leaves and stems were spread across the counter, mixed in with leftover ribbon and a few sporadic flower petals. By habit, and her mother’s own rules, Ella would always make sure the shop was in pristine condition. But it wasn’t tonight. It looked like the chaos which Ella felt inside.
James took a sip of his wine. “So, how far do you think she’ll go?”
“I have no idea. She’s never done anything like this before. She shows the world a girl who would go anywhere and do anything and not care what people think, but she loves it here, always has. When we graduated she was deciding between several colleges across the country. You know where she went?”
“Yup, 45 minutes away,” Ella smiled. “I lived on campus and she stayed right here, commuted every day.”
James took a sip of his wine while Ella stared blankly at her glass, mulling over the events of the day and struggling to realize how she truly felt.
“I just don’t know what I’ll do without her. For most of my life she has been there. She and my mom were always constant, and now I’ve lost them both.”
“Oh, come on. You didn’t lose her. She’ll be back! She still has her dad to think of, you know.”
“That’s true. I should stop by and see him.”
“Yes, I’m sure with your powers combined the two of you could flood the town with your tears in only an hour.” Ella rolled her eyes. “Like I said, she’ll be back. And, until then, you have me.”
“What joy,” Ella joked.
“Why do you think she left it this time?” James said.
“I think it was time for her to take a leap on something.”
“Well, let’s wish her the best.” James held up his wine glass, and Ella held up hers. The clinking sound echoed through the room. The shop was full of botanical bliss and other delightful gifts, but never felt so empty before.