Ella and Lilly wandered down the road toward the bridge. Ella’s secret swimming hole was now a place she shared with Lilly. As they rounded the corner, they spotted Billy sitting on the side of the bridge.
“Oh no. Let’s go.” Lilly turned to go back the way they came to avoid the bully on the bridge.
“Wait,” Ella said, grabbing her friend’s arm. “I think he’s crying.”
“So? That doesn’t mean he won’t be mean to us!”
“Come on. Let’s go see what’s wrong.”
Ella started to walk over and Lilly called after her. “Are you crazy?”
“Maybe we can help.” Ella kept walking.
Lilly stomped her feet and waited a moment with her arms crossed. When she realized Ella wasn’t going to listen, she threw her arms down with a grunt and followed.
“What’s wrong?” Ella said with all the gentleness of a child.
Billy was startled and stung with embarrassment. “Get out of here!” he shouted as he rose to his feet.
“No,” Ella said firmly.
Billy felt too defeated to argue. He sat back down and dropped his head into his hands and continued to cry. Lilly inched closer, cautiously.
Ella placed her hand warmly on Billy’s shoulder, but he jerked away. Lilly came up next to Ella and silently pointed out the bruises on Billy’s arm. The two girls looked at each other curiously.
“Billy,” Ella said. “What happened to your arm?”
The boy looked up at the girls with red, watery eyes. He struggled with himself, trying to decide whether he really wanted to share his personal woes with these girls. Finally, he gave in. “My dad.”
With minimal arguing, Ella and Lilly coaxed Billy into following them down to the swimming hole, where they set themselves up to skip rocks as Billy told his story.
“My dad is really cool sometimes. My mom and dad and me have tons of fun.”
“Why only sometimes?” Lilly said.
“My dad drinks with his friends once in a while. Well, a lot of the time.”
“What does he drink?” Lilly asked.
Billy looked to Ella for clarification. “Ignore her,” Ella said. “I’ll explain it to you later, Lilly.”
“Anyway, he gets real mean when he drinks. He was mad that I stole money from a kid at school. Turns out the kid’s dad is one of my dad’s friends. But I didn’t know that!”
“You still shouldn’t have done it,” Ella lectured him.
“Well, that explains why you’re mean to us all the time,” Lilly piped in.
“Yeah, even though it’s not fair,” said Ella.
“I’m sorry. I don’t want to be mean. I’m just so angry. All I want is for my dad to be nice to me. It’s nice when he is.”
“You really should be nice to others. You would have more friends and support then.”
“It’s just... I’m expected to be the bully now.”
“You don’t have to be,” Ella said, picking up a nice, flat, rounded rock. “My mom tells me you should be the person you want to be, not the person other people want you to be.” She placed the rock into Billy’s’ palm.
“Your mom sounds nice.”
“She is,” Ella said with a warm smile. She watched as the rock sailed from Billy’s hand and skipped three times across the water. “And any time you need to get away from your dad or anybody else, I know she’d welcome you at our house. You can come here too. This is our secret place. Right Lilly?”
“It was,” Lilly said as she tossed another rock into the water. It skipped only once before sinking into the water to join the collection of other rocks at the bottom. When she looked up and found Ella silently scolding her, Lilly said, “I mean, yeah! We’d love that!” Ella shook her head.
Billy still didn’t fully understand why these two girls were being nice to him, but they had put aside all the wrong he had done them and welcomed him into their hearts. “Thanks. I’ll try to be nicer to you guys.”
“Any everyone else?” Lilly said.
“And get your goons to lay off us too!” Lilly added.
Billy looked at Ella. “She’s weird.”
“She’s a downer,” Ella said as she released her own rock into the water.
After talking for a while longer, the three new friends walked home. They approached Ella’s house first. Maggie sat on the porch reading a book.
“Bye guys, see you later!” Ella said as she ran up the steps to her mom.
“Bye Ella!” Lilly and Billy waved from the sidewalk. They continued down the street toward their own homes.
“Who was that?” Maggie said.
“You mean the boy who’s been bullying you at school?”
“Yeah.” Ella climbed into the porch swing and stretched out.
“Well, how did you make friends with him?”
“We found him crying, so we showed him our secret place by the water and he told us what happened.”
Maggie was anxious to hear more. “Can I ask why he was crying?”
Ella told her mom the story, which filled her with alarm and triggered her protective instincts. Maggie spent that night on the phone. Ella didn’t know it at the time, but she had welcomed Billy into her life and changed his forever. Not long after, Billy’s dad was attending AA meetings and spending more time with family and less with his reckless friends. Billy was given the chance to live life as a kid, something he had been missing out on for too long. The stream that Ella and Daniel had once kept secret soon became a playground for many more children.
Ella carried a fresh vase of hydrangeas into Hillside, and spotted Mr. Finer sitting unusually quiet in a chair next to Mr. Jerries. Making her way over, she forced a smile even though she couldn’t pull her mind away from thoughts of Lilly, who had not made any contact since leaving town. “Good morning,” Ella said, maintaining the appearance of being cheerful. She glanced around the room. “It’s pretty quiet in here today. What’s going on?”
“Eleanor,” Mr. Jerries said. His voice was drenched in a sadness Ella had rarely heard.
“In the evening,” said Mr. Finer. “Rotten doctors.” He stomped his cane on the floor.
“It was old age, that was no fault of the doctors,” Mr. Jerries said.
Ella feared the worst. “What? What happened with Eleanor?”
“The doctors did her in!” Mr. Finer said.
Mr. Jerries turned to Ella who, by now, had sunk into a chair beside him. “She passed last night.”
“It’s their fault!” Mr. Finer yelled.
“Why is he blaming the doctors?”
“He isn’t, really. He’s just scared.”
“Look around you,” Mr. Jerries said. “Not many people here knew Eleanor, and if they did, chances are they didn’t like the old grouch.”
“But they all look so sad.”
“Exactly. We’re not immortal, yet we forget to be thankful for life. If one of us goes, it’s a reminder that eventually the rest of us will too. Mr. Finer here became close with Eleanor so he’s mourning the loss of a friend, but he’s also frightened.”
“But what do the doctors have to do with any of this?”
“Besides their age, seeing a doctor frequently is the only thing Eleanor and Mr. Finer really had in common.”
“He’s scared.” Ella looked over to her friend who stared at the floor and continuously rubbed the handle of his cane with a soft, wrinkled hand. Mr. Jerries simply nodded as Ella moved into the chair next to his. She picked up his free hand and held it in hers. The old man looked up as if seeing her for the first time since she had arrived. Ella offered a warm smile and Mr. Finer responded by gently squeezing her hand.
Ella noticed the nurses go quiet. She looked up to see Eric standing before her with a blank stare, almost as if he didn’t see her. His eyes were red and bloodshot with sadness and exhaustion. Ella patted Mr. Finer’s hand, then rose and walked over to Eric. “I just heard.” She spoke softly, nearly at a whisper.
“I got the call first thing this morning. I knew what it was before I answered the phone.”
Ella reached up and Eric bent down to be held tightly in her arms. He held on to her, afraid to let go for fear he would lose his composure. Ten minutes later, Eric was able to conjure enough strength to follow Ella outside. The two walked leisurely through the gardens of Hillside. They moved at a slow pace, Eric keeping his hands tucked away in his pockets. “I’m afraid for her.”
“Your nana? Why?”
“She deserves a nice service, full of loved ones. We have no family here, and my dad has strict orders from the doctors not to travel.”
“I’m sure there will be a great turn out.” Ella tried to comfort him, though she didn’t know how.
“She was an old bitty at the end. Well, to everyone but me,” Eric said. “But she did love these gardens.”
“You know she brought us together?”
“That’s right. She forced me into play dates with you. I was miserable about it.”
“What do you mean you were miserable!”
“I was! I wanted to go home at the end of the day and just read or hang out.”
“You were such a boring child!”
“Hey, you like to read!”
“Yeah, now that I’m an adult. Children are meant to frolic and play.” Ella spun in place, throwing her hands over her head like a ballerina, pleased to hear a laugh escape from Eric’s lips. “Oh! A chipmunk,” Ella said as she spun to a stop.
“What is all the confusion over how to pronounce ‘chipmunk?’”
“What do you mean?” Ella bent down and tried to summon the little critter with an outreached hand.
“I mean, so many people say chick-munk instead of chip-munk.”
“Yeah, I don’t understand that either, they’re not chickens, so why would they be called chicks?”
Eric thought about this with a smile. “That’s flawed logic.”
“How so?” She continued trying to attract the furry little guy.
“Well, you say they’re not ‘chickmunks’ because they are not chickens.”
“But they aren’t chips either.”
“Well, not potato chips, no.”
“What kind of chip? Chip off the old block?”
“How does that make any sense at all?”
“Then clear it up for me. Why are they called chipmunks?”
“Well, if I had to guess, I would say it’s their coat.”
“Yes. Look.” She pointed to the back of the chipmunk. “He has little spots, like chocolate chips.”
“Oh, you’re digging for answers now.”
Ella stood to her own defense. “It makes perfect sense!”
“Fine, of course it does.”
She shot him a most exasperated ’I am not amused’ look.
“What? I know better than to disagree because it will get me into trouble, but if I do agree I’m in trouble still?”
“Your words tell me you agree, but your tone says otherwise. I know you don’t really mean it.”
“I can’t do anything right.”
“Well, you are a man.” Ella stepped back from the chipmunk. “He must be too because he’s not coming when I call.”
“Or, it’s that he’s a wild animal who doesn’t understand what you’re saying.”
“That’s a little farfetched, don’t you think?”
“Alright, shall we keep walking?”
As they started to walk, the chipmunk followed. “Look,” Ella said. “He’s following.” She turned and walked backwards so she could keep an eye on her stalker.
“I guess you finally found someone who likes you.”
“No, I’m genuinely surprised.”
Ella gave his arm a playful smack. “Seriously, why won’t it leave me alone now?”
“You kept calling him, didn’t your mother ever tell you not to play with chipmunks?”
“She told me not to play with chickmunks, but I never heard anything about chipmunks.”
“Well if she had, knowing you, you would have asked her why it’s not a good idea.”
“And then she could have told you that when you play with a chipmunk, you make a friend for life.”
“Aww, that’s sweet.”
“Well, for one, I’m kidding,” he said clearly to be sure she understood. Eric looked down to see the critter still following. “And two, why would you want to befriend a chipmunk? You already have a pet squirrel.”
“Charlie is not my pet. And this little guy is cute! Look at how tiny!”
“But… You’re getting nervous that he’s still following, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, do you have something we can feed him?”
“Okay, then let’s run!” Ella turned and ran as fast as she could through the garden, across the back patio, and into the community room where Eric squeezed in just as Ella was closing the door. The commotion grabbed the attention of every nurse and elder within earshot. The two looked around to see everyone in the community room staring at them. Ella doled out an innocent smile and wave.
“Well, that’s embarrassing,” Eric said.
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“I should go and start making arrangements.”
“Can I help in any way?”
“No, I need to do this myself.”
“Alright, I’d better head off to work then. But please be sure to call me if you need help, or want to talk, or anything at all.”
“I will.” Eric offered another warm smile. “Thanks for getting me out of my head for a little while.” I love you, but I can’t bring myself to… Interrupting his own thoughts, Eric gave her a peck on the lips and walked away, leaving Ella where she was to relive her embarrassment alone as the onlookers continued to stare at her. She slowly made her way to Mr. Finer, who she kissed on the forehead before taking her leave.
Ella rushed to work. The last thing the shop needed was her spending more of the morning at Hillside than originally intended. Ella was continuously grateful for Sarah and the fact that she knew enough about the shop to cover most of what Lilly usually did. James and Ella would still have to pick up the rest, and he was not going to give her a break about being late.
As expected, he didn’t miss a beat as his boss finally walked through the door. “It’s about time!”
“I know, I’m sorry.” Ella threw down her purse and pulled an apron over her head.
“No need to apologize, you were helping someone in need.”
“How did you know?”
Ella shook her head, rolled her eyes, and moved to her work station.
“So, spill. I’m dying to hear about it,” James said. “No pun intended.”
“About what? Eric’s Nana passed. Is there more to know than that?”
“How is he doing?”
“He’s upset! He just lost someone dear to him.”
“Well, did he cry?”
“How is this relevant?” Ella felt frustration rumbling inside her.
James softened his voice. “Honey, if you’re going to spend your life…” Ella shot him a look which froze his words before they could fully form. “Or at least if you intend on seeing where things go, you’ll need to know how he behaves in these types of situations.”
“Does it matter? Regardless of how he reacts, I’ll be there when he needs me.”
“But do you know how he’ll need you?”
“I hardly see how that’s an issue.”
“Oh, it’s a big issue.”
“I’m lost,” she said.
“I always am when I talk to James,” Sarah said as she swept by with a completed arrangement.
“You be quiet!” James ordered, playfully. “You need to know how to support him. Not everyone wants their hand held. If you approach this the wrong way, it could put a terrible strain on your relationship.”
“Well, I don’t know how he is, so I guess I’ll have to wing it.”
“Okay, well, good luck to you. I’m here if you need me.”
“Thank you.” Ella lifted the arrangement she was working on and passed it off to Sarah who would find a home for it at the front of the shop.
“Have you considered whether he’ll leave?”
“What do you mean?”
“Leave town,” James said. “He came for his Nana. Are you confident that he will stay for you?”
This thought hadn’t occurred to Ella. Now that James brought it up, how was she to push it from her mind? “I guess we’ll have to wait and see,” she said, finding it hard to hide the sudden emotion this thought bred within her.
James could hear the sadness in her softened tone. He approached his longtime friend and laid a comforting hand upon her shoulder. “I’m sure he’ll stay. You’re his past, present, and future. You’re his whole life. He won’t want to live without you now.”
Ella forced a smile of gratitude and, to her relief; James dropped the subject and returned to work, leaving Ella to sink quietly into her thoughts.
The remainder of the day seemed to drag on endlessly. Ella’s mind kept drifting back to Eric, wondering how he was doing and how she was supposed to help. Every time the bell on the shop door rang, Ella looked up, hoping it would be Eric hoping for her to rescue him again. Each time she was disappointed. James and Sarah took over assisting the customers, which was very out of the ordinary with Ella around, as she loved to stay in touch and in tune with her shop’s patrons. But they all made do.
With the shop locked up at the end of the day, they all said goodnight. Sarah waved, James reluctantly allowed Ella to go home alone. She walked slowly with her hands in the pockets of her dress and her eyes to the ground. She wanted so badly to help Eric deal with his loss, but was afraid she wouldn’t be able to. Turning up the path to their front porch, Ella noticed all of the lights were off inside Eric’s apartment. She went to the edge of the yard and looked down the drive to find Eric’s truck still missing. Glancing up to the second story, she saw that her apartment lights were off as well. Not sure she should wait, Ella made her way inside and up the staircase to her own apartment. She didn’t know where Eric was, when he would return home, or whether he would call on her, but she was prepared to wait up just in case he came back and was in need of comfort.
The next morning, the birds sang a cheerful tune and the sunlight poured in through the open windows. The warm rays spilled over the windowsill and poured across the sofa, the floor, and the coffee table before finally settling upon Ella. They warmed her face and gently lulled her from slumber. But before she had a chance to open her eyes, a rapping came at her window, rudely pulling her from her sleepy state. Ella lifted her head and pulled the cheese doodles off of her cheek. She could feel a shamefully familiar imprint of her book along her left temple.
Knocking came at the window again. Ella looked up, taking a moment to focus her eyes. Staring back at her through the glass was Charlie.
“Ugh!” she sighed. But Charlie was persistent, and he knocked on the window again. “What are you!” Charlie knocked again, but this time he didn’t stop. Ella grabbed a pillow from the sofa and leaned back on the floor with it folded around her head. She hid beneath the pillow until the knocking ceased. “Finally, thank―” the knocking picked up again. “Fine! I’m up!” She rose to her feet and stumbled over to the window. Charlie climbed down as Ella looked out to the bird feeder that was empty once again. “No wonder,” she said to herself. She glanced over and noticed Eric’s car was still missing. Ella quickly showered, tied her hair up and threw on fresh clothes as Charlie continued to rap at her window. Sleepily, Ella emerged from the front porch, armed with bird seed in one hand and Doc’s Son in the other. She filled the feeder with a yawn and watched Charlie scurry over. “Yeah, you’re welcome.” After grumpily setting the bag of seed inside the porch and dropping Doc’s Son off inside, she began the walk to work.
The morning air was cool and crisp; just what she needed to wake herself up. Ella recognized a few other shop owners driving by on their way to work. Only the youngest children who had energy at 6:00 a.m. were out playing. Their parents watched them from the porch as they sipped hot caffeine that would never amount to the energy that brewed continuously within their little ones. Old lady Thatchet was already up and working in her gardens. Mr. Karmer across the way was standing guard, making sure the carefree children didn’t set foot on his lawn, for fear they would bend a single blade of grass. The flowers sparkled with dew as the sun caressed them through the trees. Ella took in a deep. The air that normally left her refreshed only emphasized the discontent in her heart. Where is Eric? she wondered. Where is Lilly?
James had already started to open the shop by the time Ella arrived. “Oh dear, what happened to you?”
“Nothing,” Ella said through a yawn as she poured herself some coffee.
“You know, we make that coffee every day, but it’s just for the aroma. Even you know better than to drink it. What time did you go to bed last night?”
“I never made it there.”
“Please tell me you were with Eric and not sitting up reading all night.”
Ella sipped her coffee and glanced away.
“You fell asleep in a book again.”
“Hey, reading is perfectly healthy.”
“So is sleep.”
“And what were you doing last night?” she said, accusingly.
“That’s beside the point. So, tell me, how’s Eric?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
“He never came home last night, or he came back after I fell asleep and left again before I woke up this morning.”
“Do you think he skipped town?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Ella laughed it off, but she couldn’t deny that she had considered that very notion herself.
“You never know. Maybe his Nana was leaving him loads of money and now that he has it he doesn’t need to be here anymore.”
“You’re so cynical.”
“Yes, yes I am. But what would you do in that case?”
“Well, I don’t believe he would do that, but if he’s that kind of person then I would have to say ‘Good riddance.’”
“That’s my girl,” James said as he pulled out a couple fruit cups from the mini-fridge in the office. He tossed one to Ella and kept one for himself. They had ten minutes to enjoy before the store would officially be open. “Can’t imagine how you must be missing Lilly with all of this going on.”
Ella leaned against the counter with her back to the front door and settled into the fruit cup with a spoon. “Yeah,” she said. “This is the first time since before we met that she hasn’t been around when I needed her.”
Ella turned to face the door, hoping to see Lilly standing on the other side. “Eric,” she said. Ella set the unfinished fruit cup on the counter, which James quickly snatched up to finish. She couldn’t unlock the door fast enough, but once it released she burst through and tossed her arms around her returned boyfriend. “I was so worried about you,” she said as she pulled away to look him over.
“Sorry, I guess I should have mentioned that I tend to disappear when I’m upset.”
“Don’t apologize. I understand you’re going through a hard time. Where did you go?”
“For a ride. I drove around for a few hours to clear my head. I ended up pulling off at a parking area next to the river outside of town and fell asleep.”
“That’s safe,” she said sarcastically.
“I know. Did you wait up?”
“Meh, I woke up this morning with my face planted in a book.”
“I should have told you.”
“No, I understand. Just tell me next time so I don’t worry. Where are you going now?”
“Still need to finish making arrangements.”
“You should rest first, preferably in a bed.”
Eric couldn’t even force a laugh. “When I’m done.”
“Can I do anything? Is there anyone who needs to be called?”
“Just my dad, I called him already.”
“Oh, is he coming out?”
“I told him not to due to his health, but he’s a stubborn old fool, so we’ll see. I’m going to go.” He brushed a soft kiss upon her cheek. “See you later.”
“Bye,” before Ella could get out this single word, he was gone. She wandered aimlessly back inside, where James was waiting anxiously.
“So? Where was he?”
“He went for a ride.”
“I told you,” James said. “Everyone deals with these things differently.
“Yeah, but this at least I can handle.”