Ella sat with her knees to the back of the couch and her head propped up on her arms as she looked out the front window of her house. Daniel had left town a few months before. It was winter now, and Ella stared out in a daze as she imagined what the street would look like if it were covered in snow. In reality, it was a fairly warm and sunny day.
“Ella, honey, do you want some lunch?” Maggie called from the kitchen.
“No,” Ella said without budging from her current position.
Maggie walked slowly into the room and looked at her daughter, wishing she could make all of her hurt disappear. “Why don’t you go play with Lilly?”
“Maybe later. I like her and all, but she’s kind of a downer.”
“Well, then the two of you would make a perfect match.”
Ella turned to face her mother. “I’m not a downer.”
“No? You’re making me feel down right now with that droopy face.” Ella went back to gazing out the window and Maggie sat down beside her. “You can’t hide out here forever. Eventually you will have to go out and play.”
“But I don’t want to.”
“Why not, sweetie?”
Ella turned around to face her mother again. “Because Daniel was my friend and he left me. He said he would write, but he didn’t.”
“You got a letter―”
“Just one. He asked me to bring one to his nana too, and I did. He couldn’t let his mom know he was sending it. Then I wrote back and never heard from him again. It’s just not fair!” Ella hopped down from the couch and ran upstairs.
“Ella!” Maggie called after her young daughter, but all she heard in response was the slam of Ella’s bedroom door. Maggie stood and went to her desk, plopping into the chair that sat before it. With a sigh, she opened up the drawer and pulled out three tickets to New York. Although Ella said she wanted to spend winter at home where she could play with Daniel, Maggie knew how her daughter missed the northern snow. She scrounged up and bought a third ticket, being careful not to interfere with major holidays, but Daniel had moved before Maggie could offer to take him along.
As she stared at the tickets, an idea came to her. Maggie went into the kitchen and dialed Lilly’s number.
“Hi Mark, it’s Maggie... She’s okay, been worse, she’ll pick up... Ella and I were going up north this winter to get our fill of snow... Yeah, but she misses it terribly. At any rate, I have a question to ask you...”
Once off the phone, Maggie bounced happily up the steps to Ella’s room. She knocked softly on the door and waited to hear the words ‘come in’ from the other side. “Ella? I have a surprise for you. You know that I gave you the chance to go to New York for the holidays and you turned it down.”
“Yeah. Guess you shouldn’t have listened to me, huh?”
“Well, I didn’t.” Maggie pulled out the tickets from behind her back and handed them to Ella whose eyes lit right up.
“We’re still going?”
“But there are three tickets.”
“I thought we could bring Lilly along.”
“No way!” she said, excitement restoring some lost color to her face.
“Yes way! Her dad said it’s okay. We won’t go during the holidays, of course, but you’ll still get to see some snow!”
“Yay! Thank you, Mommy! Thank you! Thank you! Can I go tell Lilly?”
“Sure! Oh, but leave those here.” Maggie snatched the tickets from Ella’s hand as she ran from the room. “Finally,” she said to herself. “Maybe my Ella will come back to life again.”
Ella unlocked the front door to the shop and barely moved behind the counter before the bell rang. She looked up to see the mail lady approaching. “Morning, Diane”
“Good morning! I’ve got some mail here for ya!”
“You don’t normally run this area.”
“Nope, just helping out today. Donald is feeling a bit under the weather.” Diane slid the mail across the counter where Ella accepted it.
“Oh, no! If you see him, send my best.”
“Will do! Have a nice day!”
“You too!” Ella flipped through the endless bills and ads, until she came across something that immediately caught her attention. “James!”
“Yes, dear?” he called from the office.
“Come here! We have a postcard from Lilly.”
James came rushing out to read the first words sent from Lilly since she had left. “Read it, read it, read it,” he said anxiously.
“Ella… and James, I suppose:
Can you believe I left? I did it! I went out on my own adventure, and did it with a guy I could really love. Jay has been amazing, so honest and caring. But the best part has been watching him work. Apparently people have heard of him and how he travels around making most of his money off of his drawings. They are wonderful. He never draws anyone more than once. He meets the person, and it’s as if he can see what’s in their heart and bring it out on paper. One guy refused to pay because the way Jay drew him created the feeling that the man was full of selfishness and greed. But Jay promises to draw what he sees.”
“He is very good,” Ella said. “Anyway,” she read on.
“We’re not far and I miss you both already (James a little less). I wish you both well. I promise to keep in touch.
“How far did she get?” James said.
Ella flipped the card so he could see. “Well, she at least made it to Tennessee, which must be quite a ways depending on how often they stop and for how long.”
James took the postcard and read over the back again as Ella stared into space. “I didn’t realize Jay was so widely known.”
“Well, maybe out in the world he is. Remember the 90s didn’t get here until a couple months ago,”
James laughed as he gave Ella a playful nudge. “Had you seen any of his work? I only heard about it from Lilly. Is it her love goggles, or do you think he’s really that amazing?”
“I do,” Ella confirmed, thinking back to the drawing she had found on Lilly’s bed. “I didn’t think she could stay away, but now I wonder if she’ll ever come back.”
James rubbed Ella’s back for her comfort and his.
Ella hardly noticed the bell ring as the door opened, but she couldn’t miss James barreling over her to greet the visitor. “Lilly!”
Ella looked up to see James throwing his arms around their dear friend. Lilly had a smile that could light the world. She couldn’t contain a single ounce of the joy she felt for being returned home and to her friends again. Ella couldn’t believe her eyes, and yet her arms were wrapped tightly around Lilly before she even realized she had run to her. “Oh, I missed you!”
“I missed you too!” Lilly said.
Ella finally pulled herself away to get all the details. “So what are you doing here? We just got your postcard...”
“Yeah, I didn’t even mail that.”
“You didn’t make it out of town, did you?” James teased.
“Oh, I made it there. I just had Diane drop it off for me.”
“So, you’re why she brought our mail today! I knew something was off,” Ella said.
“Where’s your boy?” James said. “Out drawing pictures?”
“Yes, but he’s still on the road. He back tracked until I decided he had taken me far enough. It was good of him. He hates to back track.”
“What? Where did he leave you?” James said.
“And why?” Ella added.
“Almost to the state border. And don’t be mad at him, Ella. It was my choice.”
“Fine, but how did you get back here?”
“It was barely morning when we said our goodbyes, and it was only the next town, so I hopped on a bus and got in early this morning. I rested a bit. Then on my way here I ran into Diane.”
“Well, I think he should have brought you all the way home, but I’m glad to have you back.”
“I’m glad to be back,” Lilly said with a smile.
“Good.” Ella held Lilly’s arm and escorted her back behind the counter. “I’ve got soooo much work for you to do!”
Lilly threw her head back. “Oh man!”
It didn’t take long for the three to fall into their regular mode. Music played and James danced around as he assisted customers. Ella spun back and forth between grabbing a daisy, sticking it into an arrangement, and greeting her patrons. Even Lilly was shakin’ it a bit―when she thought no one was looking.
“Have a magnificent day!” James said as he handed an arrangement, complete with receipt, to the customer across the counter.
“Thank you!” she said with a chuckle.
“Ahh, a break in the crowd. Shall we order lunch, ladies?” James said.
“Yes! I’m starving!”
“Alright, I’ll call.” James grabbed a menu from a drawer and set it on the counter as he took one more scan of the shop. Everything inside was quiet; but not outside. “Hey El, is that Eric?”
Ella looked up, scissors in hand. Right outside the shop window was a man arguing on his phone. “I think so. But Eric’s not one to get heated in public; or at all, really.” Ella turned to update Lilly. “His nana passed away while you were gone.”
“Oh, El. I’m so sorry I wasn’t here.”
“Nah, supporting him was a great distraction from not having you around.”
“Has he been grieving properly?” James said.
“Is there a proper way?” Lilly asked James, as she went back to work.
Ella rolled her eyes at having to relive this conversation.
“Letting the pain out is the best way, if you ask me―and any psychologist worth their salt.”
“You’re a psychologist now?” Lilly teased. “I must have missed a lot while I was gone.”
“I’m just saying, it’s best not to hold it in.”
“Well, then you’re going to hate how Eric operates,” Ella said. “He holds almost everything in.”
“Except when it comes to Ella,” Lilly said, enjoying the stink eye given her by Ella.
“Well, he looks like a volcano about to erupt,” James said.
Ella looked up to see Eric approaching the counter, although she could see that his mind was elsewhere. “Hey, everything okay?” she said. “Looked like a pretty intense conversation you were having out there.”
“You saw?” Eric was genuinely surprised and embarrassed.
“Well, you were right outside the window.”
“Oh.” He turned to look for a moment.
“Was it plans for your nana? Because, if you need me to do anything...”
“No, it’s fine. I just stopped in to see if you wanted to do lunch.”
“Actually, that would be great. I may need to bail on dinner later.” She nodded for him to look behind her.
“Lilly? You’re back!”
“Indeed I am. So, you’ll have to be missing many more nights with my girl because she’ll be catching up with me.”
“Ignore her,” Ella said. “Except for tonight because she just got back.”
“I understand. I was going to see if we could reschedule anyway.”
“Really? What are your plans?”
“I think I’ll just be staying in tonight.”
“And I couldn’t have done that with you?”
“You’ve been an angel, but I just don’t think I’m up for any sort of company tonight.”
“All right. Let’s catch lunch together then.” She turned to talk to James and Lilly. “Do you think you can do without me for a bit?”
“Don’t we always?” James said.
“And James gets the stink eye,” Lilly noted. “You’d better watch out, Eric. I think you may be next.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Eric said, his voice void of emotion.
“Be back soon!” Ella promised as she led Eric out of the shop.
“Did you catch that?” Lilly said. “How he dodged her questions.”
“Yes, I did,” James confirmed.
“So, you’ve been technically dating for a few months now, and you don’t feel weird about living with him while not living with him? It’s like you’re an old time couple sleeping in separate rooms.”
“Huh, you know, I never really thought about it. We are in fairly close proximity a lot of the time.”
“Fairly close? A poor choice of words, if you ask me. He lives right down stairs. You literally live in the same house. You practically live together, and you’ve never noticed?”
“It’s not that I haven’t noticed. It’s just that... Well… We don’t spend every night together. And I don’t keep anything in his apartment.”
“Because you live right upstairs.”
Ella held her ground for a moment and Lilly simply stared at her. Finally she submitted. “Okay, it’s a little weird! But, only because you pointed it out.”
Lilly just shook her head, unable to compose any other response. What could she say? Ella’s relationship with Eric was the most functional dysfunctional relationship she had ever seen. Ella practically falls apart whenever Eric is around, or even just by the thought of him. He is the most together guy Lilly had ever met, but seems to be subjected to unfortunate circumstances whenever he is near Ella. And yet―somehow―it works. But she wasn’t one to talk. She’s fallen for a guy whose life is to travel, and she won’t even leave her home town for an extended period of time.
“Oh.” Ella broke the silence. “Did you come across anything interesting when you got home?”
“Ha, you mean the letter Jay left me.”
Ella replied with an innocent shrug of her shoulders. “It was a very lovey dovey sort of letter.”
Lilly’s face was betrayed by blushing and a wide smile. “No, it wasn’t.”
“Uh huh.” They laughed together. Ella didn’t push for a confession, although her curiosity about Lilly’s true feelings for her mysterious man was only heightened by her reluctance to share this secret.
Ella sat on the front steps of the porch with her legs stretched out before her, and her arms supporting her upper body as she leaned back and gazed up at the stars. Lilly sat one step down in silence, contemplating the craziness of love. As they quietly enjoyed the familiar peace of the night, Lilly watched a strange new woman come up the walk to the very steps she and Ella sat upon. She was followed by an old man who could barely keep half the woman’s pace.
Ella didn’t notice the woman until she spoke from only a few feet away. “Hello. Does this house have apartments?”
“Yes, are you looking for someone?”
“I am. Do you live here?” the woman was clearly a big city girl, and was far out of her element in this small town.
“I do,” Ella said.
“Tell me, do you know Eric Johnson?”
Ella hesitated, wondering what this woman wanted with Eric. Lilly spoke on her behalf. “Who’s asking?”
The woman was uneasy. She was hoping her conversation with these strangers wouldn’t last long. “I’m his fiancé.”
Lilly looked over at Ella who stared back at the woman. She wondered, for just a moment, how someone as sweet as Ella could have ended up with yet another Steve.
Ella finally broke the silence. “Yes, let me show you to his door.” She popped up from the steps. “Can I take that for you?” she said, snatching the suitcase from the woman’s hands before she could even respond. Ella marched up the steps and unlocked the outer door to the house. With each step to Eric’s door, Ella’s feet met angrily with the floor. She knocked firmly on the wood and waited for an answer.
The woman hurried to follow Ella, keeping a close eye on her suitcase and the dark corners of the dimly lit porch. Lilly helped the old man―who was forgotten by his companion―to climb the porch steps.
At Eric’s door, the woman tried to reclaim her luggage, but Ella’s grasp was strengthened by anger.
“I’ll wait for him if you want to get back to your friend.”
“No, it’s fine,” Ella said with a forced smile.
As Eric opened the door, his father pushed by him, desperate for a seat. “Dad? You’re not supposed to be traveling.” Eric then noticed his other company. “Hey, El... Uh. Melissa?”
“Your fiancé. Melissa, was it? Or do you call her Mel? Lovely name. Found her on your doorstep. Oops!” Ella rolled the suitcase into Eric’s hands and marched out the door, down the front steps, to the end of the walkway, and turned down the sidewalk. Lilly hurried to catch up.
Eric hung his head, knowing what damage had been done.
“Can I come in?” Melissa said.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” Eric remained where he was, blocking the doorway. Melissa stared back, waiting in silence. Finally, Eric stepped to the side and let her pass, closing the door behind them.
Lilly chased after Ella. “Where are you going?”
“To strangle James. My pursuing this relationship was all his idea.”
“You can’t blame James for Eric’s mistake.”
“Don’t worry, you’re next. Both of you urged me into this. Sending me out on my own to get my heart broken. And where were you? Safe on the sidelines!”
“Excuse us for not finding someone of our own who we have a connection with like you do with Eric.”
“Had... Had with Eric. Clearly it’s over.”
“Ella, stop!” Lilly said. At hearing her full name escape Lilly’s lips, Ella listened and turned to face her friend. “We only wanted you to be happy,” she said calmly.
“Well, now I’m sad. And for what? Another cheat!”
“I’m sure it looks worse than it is.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” Ella crossed her arms and rolled her eyes up to the sky trying to fight back the tears that were rising up and burning her eyes. “You wouldn’t even be saying this now if you weren’t in love yourself.”
“I never said I was in love.”
“Well, you are. I can see it. You left for him, Lilly. You left because you love him and you can’t even admit it to me. I’m supposed to be your best friend. Your best friend!”
“And you’re supposed to be mine. You have cast nothing but judgement upon my relationship. I bet you didn’t even hope it would last!”
“That’s not true.”
“Really? Because that’s what it seems like.”
“I didn’t want you to be hurt,” Ella said.
“Well, I wanted to give it a try. But I didn’t want to go through all of that without my friend to lean on.”
“Trust. I can’t trust you or Eric.”
“You’re taking this too far,” Lilly said.
“Oh, am I? Eric had plenty of opportunities to tell me he was engaged. And he didn’t. I sat by in silence, hoping you would talk to me like we always have. You didn’t. Years of friendship and you can’t tell me―”
“I’m scared!” Ella plummeted into silence. “I do love him, El. I don’t have to tell you because you know. I don’t tell you because I’m scared. I don’t know how to love like this.” Ella’s arms remained folded, protecting her heart, as Lilly went on. “And Eric! Ella, that guy has gone through so much because of you, and yet he can’t get enough. Those feelings he has―”
“Those feelings he has for you, are real. Trust me, I’ve never seen you look at anyone the way you look at him, and he returns that same look every time. It’s like you’re looking in some sappy love mirror. It’s gross.” Ella chuckled, despite herself. “Give him a chance to explain.”
“I think I’ve heard enough. Lilly, my heart has been stomped on so many times. It’s just not worth it anymore.”
“How do you know?”
“How do you know that this time isn’t worth it? You’re the one who’s always telling me that love hurts sometimes. We have to brush it off and keep on going. Love isn’t easy, but giving up is never the answer to anything. If you had given up; if you hadn’t given love another chance after Steve, you never would have found out that Eric was a missing piece of your childhood. And you never would have fallen for the man he is today. Isn’t this the happiest you’ve been in a long time?”
“Yeah, and look what it got me!”
“All I’m asking is that you give him a chance to explain. If he can’t fix this, or even if he does and he ever hurts you again, you know I’ll be in your corner. I just don’t see how you can walk away without having the whole story. Look at me. I found love, and it left town with my heart strapped to the back of a motorcycle. And somehow, I don’t regret a second of what I had.”
Ella thought this over for a minute as she looked back at her lifelong friend. She had been so enthused to have her best friend returned to her, that she hadn’t considered how much Lilly might be hurting. If her Lilly Downer could be so optimistic about love, why couldn’t she? “Okay,” Ella finally said, tossing her arms into the air in submission. “But if I don’t like what I hear from him, it’s over.”
“Officially,” Lilly agreed.
“You know I’m only doing this because of your track record. You’ve been right about every guy before.”
Lilly threw her arm around Ella’s shoulders as they started to walk back. “Yeah, too bad I don’t have that gift when it comes to my own love life.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t take the time to consider your feelings. I was being selfish”
Lilly shrugged her shoulders. “Happens to the best of us.”
Ella squeezed Lilly close as they continued their walk.
“Hey,” Lilly said. “Can we still beat James up tomorrow?”
When they returned to the house, the lights were still on inside. All seemed still. Ella stared at Eric’s door for a moment, fighting to keep from walking in right then and demanding answers.
“Come on,” Lilly said, pulling on her arm. “There’s always tomorrow. Let things cool down before you try to talk to him.”
“When did you get all logical?” Ella submitted and followed her friend up the stairs.
From the outside, Eric’s apartment seemed calm; but inside, emotions and words were becoming heated.
“What are you doing here, Mel? And you even go so far as to bring my father down here when you know he has orders not to travel!”
“I thought he should be here,” she said, as if to his benefit.
“You act like you’re doing us a favor, but you brought him here to act as a shield. Do you have any idea what you could have put him through or what trouble you just caused for me by showing up like this? And you have the audacity to go around announcing to everyone that we’re engaged?”
“We are engaged, Eric. Or would you like to explain what this ring truly symbolizes?” Melissa held up her left hand, clearly displaying the jewel wrapped snugly around her ring finger.
Eric looked to his father, who sat silently by. “Don’t look at me,” Henry said. “You’re the one who gave it to her.”
“Can we have a minute alone, Dad?” Eric helped his father into the spare bedroom to afford himself and his unwelcome guest a little privacy. “The only reason you still have the ring,” Eric said, “is because I was the one who called the whole thing off. Although, you don’t deserve to keep it even then, since you were the one cheating.”
Being caught in the wrong, Melissa’s tone drastically changed. It became sweet and seductive, her lips puckered and her puppy dog eyes fluttered. “Oh, honey, you know I never meant to hurt you.” Melissa moved in close to Eric, wrapping her arms around him so that he could feel the familiar warmth of her body, and bringing her lips ever so close to his. “Come on, baby. I can do all sorts of things to help you forgive me. Just give me a chance.”
Eric looked fiercely into the eyes of his seductress. “You’re not welcome here. Get your things and get out. I don’t want to see or hear from you again. Ever again.”
“You’ll regret this,” she said in an angered whisper.
“Don’t worry, you’ve given me plenty to regret already. The one thing I regret most was allowing you into my life in the first place. Now, get out… for good.”
Melissa began to gather her things, which she had carried as far into the apartment as Eric would allow.
“And leave the ring,” Eric said. “I don’t want that coming back to bite me again.”
Ripping the ring from her finger, Melissa threw it at Eric and stormed out, having nowhere to go and no way to get there.