“So, tonight has been running rather smoothly,” Eric said as he wrapped his arm around Ella’s shoulders. His other hand held a leash that kept Doc’s Son close by as they headed toward their apartments. They had spent the beginning of the night tucked under a blanket on the roof of the flower shop, counting the stars and watching the moon dance above them.
“Yes, I think I did pretty well. But, brace yourself! That can only mean that something ridiculous is right around the corner.”
“Don’t jinx it! We’ve been doing well, so the next ‘cat-el-ysm’ might be where I lose a leg or some other appendage I’m emotionally attached to.”
“Ha! It’s ‘cataclysm’, by the way. Not cata-whatever you said.”
“’Cat-el-ysm.’ It’s my new word for the dangerous things that occur in your presence. It’s ‘Ella’ meets ‘cataclysm’ or, in the order I prefer ‘cataclysm’ meets ‘Ella,’ because you’re so much worse.”
“You’re terrible!” They walked in comfortable silence for a while until they reached their home.
Eric picked up his mail and welcomed his guests inside. Doc’s Son wasted no time in claiming the large lounger. “Want a beer, man?” Eric joked as he flipped through the mail.
Ella poured two generous glasses of wine and handed one to Eric. “What’s wrong?” she said, seeing that he was staring down at a letter.
“What?” The word seemed to emerge from his mouth without him even realizing it.
Ella looked down at the envelope in his hand. It was addressed to Eric, ‘Mel Andrews’ was the sender. “Who’s Mel?”
The question seemed to jolt him awake. “Oh, nothing. I mean, no one.” Eric resorted the mail, leaving the sealed letter on the bottom, and tossed it onto the coffee table. “How could anything be wrong, when I have such lovely company?”
“Okay, there must be something going on for you to be overly charming.”
“Overly?” Eric sat Ella gently upon the couch and leaned in to her, over-puckering his lips.
“Obnoxiously,” she said with a smile, pushing him away.
“I’ll try to bring it down a notch.”
“Good idea.” Ella snuggled into Eric’s arms and took a sip of her favorite wine, which he kept just for her. “Can I ask you something?”
“I’d love for you to.”
“Remember on our first official date when you tipped the waitress forty percent?”
“Yes.” A devilish smirk hung conspicuously on Eric’s face.
“Why so much?” She couldn’t help but remember the waitress’ hand patting down her date. “I couldn’t believe it. Not because you’re not a nice guy, or because she didn’t earn it. But you haven’t done it since.”
“Waitressing is a tough job. I always tip at least twenty percent, unless it was downright horrible service.”
“But this was forty percent!”
“Alright, I’ll explain my well-thought-out reasoning to you, but you are not to ever use this against me.”
“The reasons were twofold.”
“Okay” Ella chuckled. “And they were?”
“The first reason was to impress you because, well let’s face it, I’d have to be pretty amazing for someone like you to go out with someone like me.”
“It’s true. I am bored. You’re level of amazing just doesn’t compare to mine.”
“Thank you, for that.”
“Don’t worry. You buy me pretty jewelry, so you’re alright in my book. So, what was your second reason for the tip?”
“She was hot,” he said matter-of-factly as he leaned back and sipped his wine.
“What!” Ella leaned up to look in his eyes. “Oh wow, you’re not lying.
She was confused, but could not wipe the smile from her face. “You’re serious?” The question came out with a chuckle she couldn’t contain.
“Yeah. Well, I had to have a backup plan in case our date went sour!”
Ella smacked his arm. “You’re killing me! That is the most asinine thing I have ever heard.”
Eric laughed. “You think it’s funny though, don’t you.”
Ella let out a frustrated grunt and threw herself back under his arm. “Yes, I do.”
“And see, I didn’t need a backup after all.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”
“I hope I don’t.”
“Because you won’t find a backup as amazing as the real thing?”
“That, and I’m sure that tip has expired by now.” Eric laughed as Ella smacked him again. “I’m really glad our date went well tonight, though,” he said gently and with all joking drained from his tone. “I really do love all of my limbs, so I am extra glad that none of them are damaged.”
“Me too,” Ella agreed. She rolled onto her side and wrapped her arms around him as he moved in to kiss her.
The next morning, Ella awoke wrapped up in Eric’s arms. The golden sunlight and gentle breeze floated across the sheets with welcomed warmth. Ella peeked up to see that Eric was still fast asleep. Carefully, she slipped out from under the covers and tip-toed into the living room. The button-up shirt Eric had been wearing the night before was tossed upon the back of the recliner where Doc’s Son slept soundly. Ella slipped on the shirt, then hid a gift on her person.
Walking back through the kitchen, she noticed the pile of mail from the night before. Hearing no noise in the bedroom, Ella lifted the mail to reveal the intriguing envelop on the bottom. She slipped it out and flipped it over to find that it was still sealed. Relief and disappointment flowed over her like a wave. As she turned it back over, she caught a whiff of the sweet scent lifting from the envelope. Either the writer wore strong perfume, or they dumped it all over the contents tucked inside. The writing was definitely that of a woman. But who?
A shadow grazed the sunlight which spilled from the bedroom window and across the kitchen floor. Ella quickly replaced the envelope and returned to find that Eric was right where she had left him. The curtains rose and fell with the breeze as it flew in through the window.
Ella tip-toed back toward the bed until the boards beneath her feet betrayed her. She froze in place, hoping the sound wasn’t enough to wake her sleeping lover.
“Ella?” Eric said.
Eric opened his eyes to confirm it was her. Smiling at the sight of the lovely woman, he beckoned her back to him.
“I have something for you.”
“What’s that?” Eric leaned up on one elbow to face her.
“Somewhere… on my body,” Ella said, moving her hands down as if presenting herself to him.
“If it’s that shirt you’re wearing, I think you’d better throw it away. Yeah, you’d definitely look better in your birthday suit.”
“Very funny. It’s not the shirt. It is a gift, and you can only have it if you can find it.”
Eric couldn’t help but be intrigued. “Let’s see. Is it here?” he said as he checked each of her hands. They were empty. “Hmm, okay. Is it here?” He lifted each of her arms to find nothing hidden there either. “You are quite good at this. I’m not sure I’m going to find what you’ve hidden from me.”
“Oh, you’ll have to be very thorough,” Ella said with a seductive smile, very pleased with herself.
Eric moved closer, leaning into her. “Is it… behind your ear?” He gently caressed her, enough of a tease to leave her wanting more. “No, nothing there. What about in here?” His fingers popped open the buttons on her shirt one by one and ever so slowly, allowing anticipation to grow.
Ella closed her eyes as Eric began to kiss every inch of her skin. She ran her fingers over his shoulders and down his muscular arms while she waited anxiously for him to be one with her.
Tangled in the sheets once more, Ella couldn’t erase the smile upon her face. Eric looked back at her, gazing into her mesmerizing eyes.
“I give up,” he said, laying spent beside her. “I have no idea where else you could have hidden this ‘gift’ you claim to have.” Then a thought struck him. “Wait. Was it you? Were you the gift?”
Ella laughed. “No. I still have it somewhere. Although I thought you were going to come across it a few times.”
“It’s not in your,” Eric raised his eyebrows. “Is it?”
“Eww, no!” Ella lifted up her foot, demonstrating an impressive amount of flexibility.
Eric examined the soft toes until he came across one that appeared to have a ring. After a closer look, he realized it wasn’t a ring after all. He slid the object from around Ella’s toe to find a key ring with a single key. “What is this?”
“I want you to have it.”
The key was familiar. In fact, it looked very similar to one of his own. “Is this to your apartment?”
Ella nodded. “You’re welcome any time, day or night.” I love you, she thought, though the words could not escape her. An air of uncertainty lingered for a short moment, and it wasn’t unnoticed. Ella began to wonder on the reason for hesitation on Eric’s part. Does he love me too? she considered. Or is it something else? Could he be hiding something that would ruin us? As these questions plagued her, he leaned in for a kiss and all speculation was lost.
The morning moved quickly. Being short one associate while Lilly was traveling, Ella had little time to waste. Following a quick shower and potty break with Doc’s Son, she made a momentary stop at the shop to check on things and to pick up Mr. Finer’s hydrangeas.
Ella walked up the steps of Hillside and through the front doors just as a nurse was arguing with Eleanor.
“I’m fine right where I am. If the doctor wants to see me, he can make a house call.”
“He is,” the nurse said. “You just have to go into the office so that he can speak with you privately.”
“What’s going on?” Ella asked Mr. Finer.
“Eleanor is being stubborn; won’t go see the doc.”
“That’s it, turn over the cane,” the nurse ordered.
Mr. Jerries leaned in to explain. “She was using her cane to fight off the nurse and to hold the wheels of her chair in place.”
“Clever,” Ella said.
“You wait until my grandson gets here!” Eleanor threatened.
“I wish he’d come now. He’d push you into the office for me!” Finally securing Eleanor’s weapon, the nurse rolled her away down the hall.
“How embarrassing,” Mr. Jerries joked.
Mr. Finer pointed his cane at his old friend. “You hear that Ella? He waits until Eleanor is too far away to hear. Mr. Jerriatrics here is afraid of the old pistol.”
“Don’t you make fun of my name! That was my daddy’s name, and it’s my son’s now!”
Mr. Finer waved a hand at Mr. Jerries in disregard.
Ella could do nothing but laugh at them both. “How do you boys feel about a couple rounds of checkers? Winner plays me.”
“Checkers!” Mr. Finer said. “A sissy’s game. Let’s play chess.”
Mr Jerries nodded. “Yeah, if we play chess maybe it will put this grouch to sleep and give me some peace.”
“I don’t know if I have time for that today,” Ella said.
“Don’t worry dear,” said Mr. Jerries. “He’ll fall asleep within the first couple of turns.”
“Come on! I’ll play him first, put him in his place. Won’t take me long,” Mr. Finer boasted.
“Bring it on old man!”
Ella laughed as she grabbed a passing nurse to help her wheel the two over to the chess board that was set up and ready to play.
Ella was happy watching the two old men bicker back and forth as they took their turns on the board. She didn’t know anyone who could smack talk like these two. They were so involved with the game that they didn’t notice someone approach Ella and tap her on the shoulder.
She looked up to see Eric standing beside her and quickly rose to her feet. “Hi, how’s it going?”
“Good. I see you’re having the time of your life.”
“You have no idea,” she laughed. “Come to visit your grandmother?”
“You know, in all the times I’ve run into you here and talked with Eleanor, I’ve never been formally introduced to her.”
“Well, let me find her and I’d be glad to introduce you.”
“Oh, you’ll probably miss me. I need to get back to the shop. These two have kept me long enough as it is.”
“Okay, maybe next time.”
“See you later.” Eric gave her a peck on the cheek and backed away to seek out his grandmother.
“Bye.” Ella tried all she could to get Mr. Finer’s or Mr. Jerries’ attention, but they were too wrapped up in their game to notice her. Giving up on that fight, she decided to leave. As she slid in behind the wheel, her eyes caught the hydrangeas still tucked into the passenger seat. Not willing to leave Mr. Finer without his flowers, she snatched them up and ran back inside.
At the front desk, no nurse could be found, so Ella went back to Mr. Finer’s room. She replaced the empty vase on the nightstand with a fresh one and adjusted the picture according to her usual routine. On her way back down the hall, Eric’s voice lifted out of one of the rooms and into the hallway. She went to step in for her introduction, but quickly backed out when she saw he was speaking with the doctor.
“So, it’s gotten worse?” Eric said softly.
“I’m afraid so.”
“How―” He swallowed hard trying to clear the lump that was quickly forming in his throat. “How long?”
“No more than a few months, if you’re lucky.”
“But, she seems so lively.”
“It would help her to slow down and rest,” the doctor said.
“What sort of life would that be?”
“I’m sorry I don’t have better news.”
The two continued talking, but Ella could hear no more. She quickly, and quietly, took her leave once again. At the lobby, her eyes stole a glance at her two old friends to see them both asleep in their chairs. She was never allowed information on Mr. Finer’s health since she wasn’t family. Until now, she had never been so thankful for that.