Young Ella was excited. School was out, and she had a play date. She spotted Daniel from across the playground in front of the school. Daniel seemed in a rush to get to wherever he was going, but Ella soon caught up.
“Hi!” her voice bounced happily on the air.
Daniel turned to see who had followed him. “Geez,” he said to himself with a roll of the eyes so exaggerated, his entire head rolled. He faced forward again and continued walking.
“My mom said we had a play date. Where are you going?”
“A play date?”
“Yeah… Surprise! I bet you like having someone to hang out with after school since you’re new here.”
Ella’s cheerfulness was released at full force through every word she spoke. Daniel maintained his monotone, grumpy, don’t-bother-me tone. “Yeah, it’s great.”
“So, where are you going?”
“I don’t know.”
“What fun! Will you just see where you end up?”
“I like being spontaneous. My mom says it keeps our minds fresh and our spirits free.”
“Sounds goofy if you ask me.”
“Hey, I know where we can go!” Ella was determined to make this a fun afternoon. She hardly noticed Daniel’s disinterest. “There’s a water hole upstream from the bridge on the edge of town. I don’t think anyone knows it’s there but me. Want to go?”
Daniel stopped in his tracks and looked around as he decided on what to do: run off and leave this annoying girl behind in the hopes she wouldn’t follow, which seemed unlikely; or give in and try to win a small victory by getting her to stop talking for a minute, maybe even two.
“Well?” she asked, demonstrating as much patience as she could stand.
“Okay, fine. Where is it?”
A smile crossed Ella from ear to ear; she bounced with a series of tiny hops, unable to contain her excitement. “This way, follow me!”
As Ella led the way, she talked, and talked, and talked. They were finally approaching the bridge, but Daniel couldn’t stand the noise anymore. “Don’t you ever stop yapping?” he asked, impatience clearly simmering within him.
“Well, I guess I could,” Ella fell silent for a moment which seemed endless to her, but not nearly long enough to Daniel. “Don’t you think it’s awfully quiet?” she asked.
They stood in place for a moment, allowing their emotions to settle. Neither of them said a word until…
“Well, we’re here.”
Daniel had been so distracted with wishing this girl would shut her yap that he hadn’t even realized that they had reached the bridge already.
“Come on,” Ella instructed as she led him off the road and to a small stream below.
“We’ll go upstream a bit. It follows the road over there,” she pointed to the dirt road running along the far side of the stream. Daniel looked up, for the first time showing some interest in what his new companion had to say. Ella noticed and smiled to herself as she continued to lead the way over the rounded gray rocks that lay scattered beside the water. “That road leads all the way back to an old folks’ home. We won’t go that far though, it’s a long way. Hey, does your grandma live in the old folks’ home?”
“No, she’s not that old,” the answer came with a snotty undertone.
“Oh. Well, I think I would like to live there when I get all old and wrinkly. It’s nice there. I help my mom deliver flowers to the old folks sometimes.”
“Fascinating,” Daniel mumbled.
“Here it is!” Ella ran down to a wide part of the stream where the water was still. “The water only goes up to my belly. My mom wouldn’t let me come here alone if it were any deeper. But if you pull your legs up, you can swim a bit. Come on!”
“I don’t know…” Daniel said. He nervously shoved his hands into his pockets.
“Don’t be afraid. You can see the bottom here.”
Daniel fought with himself. He wanted more than anything to go home, sit in his room, and read or tinker with his toys… alone. As his internal struggle continued, the sun bore down upon him. The heat was luring sweat to drip down his face as the cool, refreshing water stared back at him. Besides, he couldn’t let this girl show him up. He had to go in. Reluctantly, Daniel set down his backpack and pulled off his shoes. In only his boxers, he waded into the pool.
“It’s nice and cool on a hot day, right?”
Daniel faked a quick grin, a bit displeased with just how cool the water actually was.
“Hey! Here’s a little fish,” Ella said happily as she cupped both hands under the water and pulled up a few tiny swimmers.
Daniel wondered at what sort of girl she was. She wasn’t afraid of getting dirty or of touching wild things. Despite his displeasure, he was intrigued by her.
After an hour of splashing around in the water hole and searching for all sorts of creatures living in the water and beneath the rocks, it was time to get home. Daniel walked Ella to her house silently, allowing her to talk the entire way. As much as he tried, he couldn’t ignore her. She was more surprising than anyone he had ever met.
When they reached the fence in front of Ella’s house, Ella couldn’t resist finding out if she had made a friend that day. “So, the water hole was lots of fun, right?”
“Yeah,” he said simply.
She twisted back and forth, anxious to keep talking. Her dress twisted and turned as she rotated. “Want to hang out again tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow is Saturday.”
“I know. That means we’ll have all day! Well, I would like to help my mom at the flower shop for a bit, but you can stop by if you want to play! I’m sure there are lots of other things we can find to do.”
Ella wasn’t fully satisfied with this half-hearted answer, but she was already growing accustomed to Daniel’s stand-offish ways, and so accepted it in spite of herself. “I had fun. See you tomorrow!”
“Maybe,” he corrected her.
Ella smiled and ran inside with excitement carrying each step. She couldn’t wait to tell her mom all about the fun she had had with her new friend. Daniel walked away, kicking rocks as he went and contemplating whether or not he would see this strange girl the next day.
Sunlight poured into Ella’s room and danced across her bed as the songs of birds floated on the air from outside the open window. As usual, her comforter was across the room, half of the pillows were on the floor and her sheets were tangled around her body. It was the product of yet another bad night’s sleep.
Ella’s mother had passed away three years ago, unexpectedly. Shortly thereafter, Steve had wandered into her life. Since then, her nights consisted of constant waking, reading, pacing, vegging in front of the TV, taking hot showers, and simply lying awake in bed as the minutes ticked slowly by. Ella contributed her sleepless nights to the loss of her mother, but she couldn’t shake the sounds of her friends’ voices insisting she had Steve to thank for at least part of it.
A few days had passed since their annual Valentine’s Day disaster. She had forgiven him yet again, being left with the usual feelings of disappointment and regret, and the failing reassurance to herself that being with him was better than being alone.
Steve hadn’t spent the night since Valentine’s Day. He had been spending more time with his friends and much less with Ella since their most recent spat. Having the night free, Ella had taken the time to hang out with Lilly and James, which always left her exhausted and out of sorts. Mixing the two of them with an incessant case of insomnia was sure to wear her out. Ella lay in bed, longing for her mind to rest so that her body could.
Tap, tap, tap. A sound came from the window. Ella tried to block it out, but the tapping was persistent. Tap, tap, tap.
“What is that?” lifting her head of mangled hair from the pillow, Ella peaked out the window to see that the squirrel had returned. “What do you want!” she pleaded.
Tap, tap, tap.
“Ugh!” Hanging her legs over the edge of the bed, Ella shifted herself into a seated position. “I’m up!” The squirrel took its leave and Ella sent her head crashing into the pillow once more.
Tap, tap, tap.
“Fine!” she screamed into her pillow before rising. Ella hung her head, trying to gather her strength. Finally, she pushed off the bed and her feet hit the floor. “I am officially out of bed!” Once she made this clear, the squirrel scurried away, apparently pleased with itself. Wobbly, Ella climbed into the shower to get ready for the day. Despite the intense drowsiness that encased every inch of her body when she awoke, the hot water left her feeling rejuvenated.
Covered in cucumber melon lotion and dressed to welcome the day, Ella lifted a necklace from her nightstand and slipped it around her neck. Her thumb ran across the smooth locket that dangled from the chain, igniting memories of friendships gained and lost. A minute later, she snapped out of the daydream, slipped the long chain into her shirt to conceal the pendant, her own personal secret, and headed out the door.
At the bottom of the staircase, Ella spotted Eric. “Morning,” she managed. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach, though the reason was a mystery to her.
“Good Morning,” he replied.
“So, I believe you met my boyfriend the other night.”
“Oh, right. Steve?”
“Yeah. Listen, thanks for not letting him in. I needed him to stay out for a while.”
“Well, it didn’t sound like he deserved to make it inside at all.”
“No, he didn’t,” she admitted. Knowing he was right, Ella felt a tinge of embarrassment and a sudden desperate desire to separate herself from her wise neighbor. “Okay, I’ll see you around.”
Eric was about to go inside, but something stopped him. After seeing how Ella was treated by her boyfriend on what should be the most romantic day of the year for most couples, he couldn’t shake the guilt for how he had treated her earlier that same day. “Hey, Ella. I’m sorry about leaving you when you were trying to take me to the hospital. I know you were only trying to do the right thing.”
“I understand. You were just playing it safe. Who knows what else I could have done to you before we got there.”
“Still, I should have given you a chance.”
Ella was warmed by this unnecessary apology. “Your eye looks better already, by the way. And the rose thorns didn’t seem to do too much damage.”
“No, they didn’t.”
“Alright, I’m sure I’ll run into you again. I’ll try not to be in my car when it happens.” Ella waved and continued on her way. She tried to ignore how flustered she became at being near Eric. Her first instinct was to get to know him. It was hard to ignore how familiar he felt, like he had always belonged there with her, a missing piece to her life-puzzle. But how could she ask the man to hang out after she had sent him to the hospital with multiple injuries before they even exchanged names? Still, he was handsome and quite a gentleman, so she decided for herself that an innocent smile at the thought of him would certainly not be out of the question. Ella walked to work grinning ear to ear and saying ‘Hello’ to everyone she happened to meet along the way.
Dealing with James and Lilly hadn’t even crossed her mind; although, on a normal day, she would be preparing herself for a barrage of questions. Ever since revealing the identity of her newest and nearest neighbor, Ella had been subjected to constant interrogation on the subject.
Walking into the store, Ella saw that James and Lilly had already pumped themselves full of caffeine.
“There’s our girl!” Lilly called.
“Morning, Boss!” James followed.
“Good morning,” she said, adding excitement to each word.
“Well, we are chipper,” James commented.
“As chipper as I can be with you two around,” she joked.
“So how’s the new neighbor?” Lilly asked, anxious for details.
“Is he single?” James added.
Ella rolled her eyes. “He’s…” her smile widened. “…really nice. I think he forgave me for our unfortunate series of accidents the other day.”
“What?” Astonishment overtook Lilly.
“Yeah, I saw him this morning on my way out and he apologized for ditching me.”
Shaking her head, Lilly tried to comprehend what she was hearing, “Unbelievable.”
“Have you seen him naked?” James whispered.
“James!” Ella scolded him. She faked astonishment, but from James she would expect no less.
“Oh, you’re not surprised,” Lilly said.
“Do you want to have his babies?” James continued.
Ella looked to Lilly with wide eyes, searching for a clue on how to handle James and his habit of peppering them with his audacity.
Lilly offered no word of support. “What?” she asked. “I want to know too. You know I’m against love, so if you’re considering this I need to be the first one to talk you out of it.”
“You two are impossible,” Ella decided as she hung up her jacket and tucked her purse away in the office.
“So, you think you might want to get to know this guy?” Lilly called.
“Yeah. I mean, he’s a really nice guy. I’d like to get to know him. Besides, it shouldn’t be too hard since he lives in the same house. I don’t think Steve will care, or even notice.”
“We’ll get back to that mistake later,” James interrupted, referring to Ella’s poor choice in a boyfriend. “You do realize you’re making up excuses to get to know someone,” he pointed out. “Ella, you don’t do that if you are only interested in them as a friend.”
“Wha― That is all this is. Who said anything about me wanting something more? I just met the guy!”
“Come on, we know you better than that. You take relationships seriously, El,” Lilly reminded her. “If you are having this conversation with us, that means you are feeling guilty, which means you could, potentially, be interested in this guy as more than a neighbor… or a friend.”
“I ran him over with my car!”
“Yes, and somehow you got him to apologize to you!” James added.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Lilly asked.
“I just thought it was worth mentioning. Girl’s got skills if she can pull that off, that’s all I’m saying.”
Lilly nodded in agreement.
“He didn’t apologize for me running him over. He apologized for abandoning me when I was trying to drive him to the hospital because I ran him over, which is legitimate.”
“It’s unusual,” Lilly corrected.
“Okay fine,” Ella made a face to mock Lilly who, in response, threw a handful of flower petals at her. Thus began a very mature game of who can stick their tongue out at the other last.
“We are so grown up here,” James commented.
Ding! Ding! The bell on the shop door put an end to their charades and promoted a flow of surprise when the three laid eyes on Eric. He stopped inside the door and looked up to the bell as if recalling a lost memory. Unsure of why he paused, he continued through the store.
“I’ll bet he just caught eye of that childish behavior,” James whispered to Ella.
“Shut up,” his boss whispered as she moved to the counter. “Hi, welcome to EllaGant Arrangements. I see you made it in this time without being run over.”
“Oh my god, did she just say that?” James whispered to Lilly, though it was loud enough that the two at the counter could hear as well.
Ella maintained her smile despite her devilish friend and his comments. Eric smiled back as he tucked his hands into his jeans pockets. “I’d like to buy some flowers, but I’m afraid I may need some help.”
“My specialty,” Ella moved gracefully around the counter and into the front of the shop. “Are you looking for a bouquet or an arrangement?”
“Uh, I’m not sure.”
“Okay, well can I ask who it’s for?”
“Just… a woman I know.”
“Oh no,” Lilly said. She and James noticed the sudden disappointment in Ella’s voice.
“Ahh, okay, well… let’s see. Is it for a special occasion?”
“No, just… because.”
“Well that narrows it down,” she joked half-heartedly.
“I’m sorry. I’m not really a flower guy. What do you like?” Eric asked.
“Is he taken or is he interested, I can’t tell,” James whispered to his cohort.
“Maybe both,” Lilly suggested.
Ella smiled again, “My favorites are gerbera daisies. They are bold and colorful. I’m sure your… girlfriend will love them.”
“Oh… no, no, no… it’s not for a girlfriend. Well, a girl who is a friend,” he smiled.
“Oh no,” James closed his eyes and leaned his forehead on Lilly’s shoulder. “I can’t bear to watch.”
“They are so meant for each other,” Lilly agreed.
“I’ll take six of those daisies, you pick the color.”
“Great! Shall I wrap them up?”
“Whatever you think,” Eric answered.
“Lilly, could you ring him out?” Ella asked as she went behind the counter to pick out a vase.
Lilly faced the register but kept glancing up and smiling at the handsome man before her. She had a teasing smile and a look as if she were sizing him up. Eric fidgeted under her scrutiny, as he shifted from one foot to another. He imagined no more discomfort could be had if he were being auctioned off to the highest bidding bachelorette.
“Here you are,” Ella said as she set the completed vase on the counter. Eric slid his credit card across the counter to Lilly and stepped to the side to pick up the vase from the shop owner. “I always feel they are best presented in a clear vase with only water,” she continued. “It will show off their color better.”
“They look great, thank you,” he said.
“Here you go,” Lilly handed the card and receipt to Eric.
“Have a nice day,” he turned and walked away, unable to escape Lilly’s eyes soon enough.
Ella turned to Lilly who was overcome with amusement. “What was that?”
“What?” she asked innocently.
Ella slapped her arm and walked away.
“Oh, you are bad,” James added.
Lilly could not erase her smile.