Before the sun had even begun to rise, Ella opened the flower shop and got a head start on the orders for the day. Once help arrived, Ella found herself wandering down the sidewalk and into each shop to make the usual deliveries; although, this trip was unusually void of conversation. Nearly the entire route was wrapped in a haze, completed only due to thorough familiarity. Her focus was simply on completing the task at hand: in and out of each door, minimal interaction with anyone, quick drop-offs and even quicker exits.
Francy, as usual, had another piece of original jewelry that she thought Ella would simply adore. Instead of showing interested, Ella plainly said: “I’m sure it’s lovely, but I’m not interested right now,” and walked out the door again. Francy watched with both curiosity and concern.
By the time she reached the hardware store, Ella was already growing weary of this task. Being struck by the sudden wall of shouting that she was accustomed to had an overly harsh effect on her today. Her path on this particular morning was a direct shot to Mary’s desk, where she quickly dropped off the calla lilies and turned around to leave. On her way back out, the sound of the brothers bickering reached her ears like a thousand relentless pins and needles.
“Enough!” Ella said.
Both brothers jolted into silence. Mary peeked in on the happenings from the safety of her office.
“Don’t you two ever get tired of arguing? Enough is enough. You both need to retire and be done with it!”
Tom and Bill stared the stranger before them, astonished and unsure of how to respond. The words that had so heatedly and regrettably escaped her lips were just now reaching Ella’s ears. Surprise and embarrassment consumed her. Erasing the event from time was out of the question, so her only option was to make repairs.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m dealing with something in my personal life that obviously has got the best of me. I didn’t mean to take it out on you. If you can’t forgive me, I hope you at least understand.” She set the gentlemen’s yellow rose upon the counter, as always, and quietly took her leave.
Mary waited, but the shouting did not resume―at least not right away.
“That’s Ella? Your Ella?” Henry asked. Eric nodded in confirmation. “Well, isn’t that a happy accident. You coming down here to care for your grandmother, and finding the girl of your dreams… again. I always liked her. It was terrible that you lost contact.”
“Dad,” Eric said. “Did Ella write back to me? Did mom keep my letter?”
The old man remained silent, afraid that opening this box would alter Eric’s feelings toward his deceased mother.
“Dad, she’s not around anymore. You can tell me.”
“In your mother’s mind, she was protecting you. You can’t fault her for that.” Although his father didn’t openly admit to anything, Eric knew the answer. “Son, everything happens for a reason. Wouldn’t your Ella agree?”
“Yes,” he said. “She would.”
“You’d better repair things with her.” The old man rose to his unsteady feet. “Or don’t, and spend the rest of your life in regret, wishing you had.”
Eric sat at the kitchen table for a long time, trying desperately to figure out what gesture would be enough to get Ella to even listen to his side of the story. It wasn’t going to be easy, but that was only because she was worth it. As he sat alone with his thoughts, he began to hear a banging on the living room window.
“What’s that racket?” Henry called from a comfortable place in the recliner.
Eric entered the living room and pulled back the curtain to see Charlie right outside. “What are you doing at my window?” As he said this, his father’s words were recalled to memory. Everything happens for a reason, he reminded himself. Eric threw on a t-shirt and ran upstairs to knock on Ella’s door, but no one came. He called her phone, but there was no answer. He stepped out to the sidewalk in front of the house and looked down the street in one direction, no one, then in the other, still no one.
Eric turned back and made his way up the shared driveway along the side of the house. He noticed Charlie enjoying seeds in the bird feeder as he passed by. At the two car garage, Eric threw open the large door and saw that Ella’s car was tucked safely inside. This won’t make finding her any easier, he thought. Eric opened the door to his truck but, just as he was about to get in, a sharp pain spread across the back of his head. He rubbed the spot, not sure what had happened, and attempted to get into the driver’s seat again. As he stepped up, he felt two more pelts to the back of the head. Eric turned around to see Charlie perched upon a shelf, throwing rocks at him.
“What the―. Get out of here!” Eric closed the door of the truck and chased Charlie away. The squirrel quickly took refuge in the bird feeder once more.
Henry saw his son’s tantrum from inside the house and made his way out the back door. “What’s going on, Son?” he said as he carefully climbed down the back steps, thankful there were only a few.
“Charlie’s throwing rocks at me.”
“The squirrel. Ella feeds him.”
“Doesn’t she know they do damage―”
“I’ve already mentioned that to her.”
Oh.” Henry stood quietly as his son hopped into the truck and the squirrel went running back to the garage once more.
As soon as the door closed, Charlie sat upon the shelf and continued to throw rocks at Eric. The engine flared as Eric dodged the flying stones as best he could. When Charlie heard the loud roar of the engine, he hopped onto the hood of the truck.
“Get out of here, you maniac!”
Henry laughed at the irony of a man yelling such a thing at a squirrel.
Eric started waving his arm out the window, trying to scare Charlie away; but the clever squirrel would not be deterred. He ran to the edge of the hood on the driver’s side and started throwing rocks at Eric as he hung from the window.
“I don’t think he wants you to take the truck.” Henry was thoroughly entertained by these shenanigans and had no problem showing it.
“He’s a squirrel!” Eric backed into the truck where the flying stones couldn’t reach him. The two held eye contact as Eric slowly slipped the truck into gear. Charlie immediately darted up the windshield. Eric tried tripping him with the wipers, but the miniature acrobat made it safely to the roof.
“He’s a ninja,” Eric said.
Henry watched as his son cautiously peeked out the window, unable to spot his wily opponent. Eric gently released the brake. The truck barely made it halfway out of the garage when Eric slammed on the brake in response to an attack from above.
Henry could hardly stand his laughter as he watched the squirrel throwing rocks at Eric from his secure position on the roof of the truck. Eric quickly scrambled to roll up the window, but Charlie dove inside at the last second. Eric’s only option now was to retreat, jumping out of the truck and flailing about as Charlie ran up and down and around his body.
In Eric’s haste to escape the furry devil, he had left his truck which, still in gear, began to move. It rolled down the driveway until it came to an abrupt stop. Eric looked up at the sound of the crash and Charlie scurried away. The truck was now up against the pole of the bird feeder, nearly knocking it over. Charlie climbed carefully onto the truck and then up the tilted pole to the bird seed. He sat upon his perch and ate happily as steam shot out of Eric’s ears.
“Eric,” Henry said. “Now, he’s just a little guy.”
“Dad, he crashed my truck! The squirrel crashed my truck!”
Henry laughed, unable to conjure any other response. Eric put his hands on his hips and hung his head. “Yeah, I just heard it. But you saw what just happened!” He gestured at the infuriating creature eating happily from the tilted bird feeder.
“Things happen for a reason. Right?”
“Right,” Eric said in reluctant agreement.
“Then I suggest you walk,” the old man said as he made his way back inside.
Eric walked silently down the drive, pulling the brake, slipping the keys from the ignition and leaving the truck exactly where it was. He sent Charlie a nasty look as he passed by. The squirrel threw a paw-full of seeds at him. Embarrassed at having been defeated by a small, furry, woodland creature, Eric stomped down the drive to release some tension. Two children on bikes stopped at the end of the drive, staring in wonderment. Eric ignored them as he made his way into town. The streets were still quiet. If Ella would be anywhere at this hour, she would be at her shop, he thought. When he arrived, the doors were still locked and only James and Lilly could be seen behind the counter.
Lilly turned at the sound of knocking at the front door. “He must be looking for Ella,” she said. “She’s not here!” she shouted to the visitor.
“Where is she?” Eric pleaded from his position outside.
Lilly raised her arms and shrugged her shoulders.
“Do you know where she is?” James asked Lilly in a lowered voice.
“I have a pretty good idea.” Lilly watched Eric disappear as he continue his search elsewhere.
“Well, if he knows her as well as he should, he’ll find her.”
“He will,” Lilly said as she shoved off the counter she was leaning on and got back to work.
As Eric wandered through the still town, he tried desperately to think of where else Ella would go. “Hillside,” he realized. It was a long way on foot, but he preferred the walk over competing with Charlie again. Eric could count on one hand the number of cars that passed him on his way. If not for his determined march, the crisp morning walk would have been quite refreshing. As the road veered off to the left, Eric’s eyes fell upon the bridge. Every day since he had arrived, this bridge was a consistent landmark on the way to visit his nana. If not for Ella, he wondered if he would have ever found a need to cross the bridge again.
Eric looked passed the bridge to the other side where the road to Hillside lead off to the right. It was only then that the length of the walk really struck him. He saw a path hidden in the brush beside the bridge. To save time, he followed the path to the stream below. This place seemed oddly familiar, but he pushed those thoughts from his mind and replaced them with the determination to locate Ella.
As Eric followed the water, he heard a splash. Looking up he saw nothing. A fish maybe, he thought, so on he went. He heard the splash again, but this time he caught a glimpse of the cause―a rock. Weary of rock-throwing wild animals, Eric cautiously pushed some brush aside and peeked around the bend.
Ella stood silently along the water, skipping one rock after another. When Eric emerged, her arm froze above her head. Realizing who it was, she continued to toss the stones into the water.
Eric flinched at each throw. “I’ve been out looking for you,” he said.
“You found me. Now go away.” She tossed another rock, this time noticing that Eric flinched at her throw. “What’s the matter with you? I’m not going to stone you, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”
“No, it’s Charlie.”
“What’s wrong with Charlie?” Ella paused mid-throw and a look of concern crossed her face.
“Nothing, he just... sort of... attacked me.”
Ella took up throwing stones again. “You’re not funny. I’m really upset with you.”
“No, I didn’t mean...” He gave up, sensing the path that conversation would lead them down was meaningless. “Look, can’t we talk about this? I’d like to explain everything.”
Ella tossed another stone and Eric flinched again. “And can you please stop throwing rocks for a second?”
Ella let the last rock fly from her hand, then she brushed the dirt off herself and crossed her arms in front of her. “Fine, I’ll hear you out.”
“Great, thank you.” Eric waited for Ella to walk with him back to town.
“Well?” she said sternly.
“Well, what? Now? You want me to explain everything right now?”
Ella pulled up a seat on a nearby rock.
Eric’s hands felt clammy and his blood pounded through his heart. He rubbed his hair nervously at seeing the impatience in Ella’s eyes.
She suddenly sprang to her feet. “This is ridiculous. I want the truth, no more lies. You can either spill it all now, or I’m afraid you’ll have lost your chance.”
“No, no, no,” He assisted her back to her seat. “I understand. You just caught me off guard.”
“That was the point,” she said coldly.
Eric stood before Ella ready to put his heart on display. “Melissa; Mel and I were engaged. Were,” he emphasized the word.
Until now, Ella had always thought of ‘heartbreak’ as a figure of speech. Hearing these words come from Eric was confirmation that this other relationship of his was real. A relationship that didn’t include her. One that had apparently been more serious than their own. She felt the pain in her chest now. She felt her heart ache with each agonizing word that escaped Eric’s lips.
He continued, not realizing how intense the feelings were that ran through Ella at that very moment. “We dated in college and eventually talked about getting married. We never did because I worked in the states and her career took her across the globe. Paris for a time, then Tokyo. She would cancel her holiday trips back home at the last minute, never took the time to talk while she was away. After a while, we barely had a relationship at all. She didn’t even come back after my mom passed. Eventually, I learned that she had been seeing some French guy, accent and everything.”
“Oh, you didn’t stand a chance.”
“Thank you, and that’s not the point. That was my very clear nudge to leave her. At the same time I had learned of Nana’s failing health. That’s when I came here. I hadn’t told my dad anything that happened between Mel and I. Apparently things with frenchy turned sour and she crawled back to our apartment to find me gone.”
Ella gave him a scolding look.
“I didn’t think she would ever come back, she hardly lived there when we were together. Nothing of hers was really left in the place. Anyway, she worked her way back in with my father, found out about my Nana and where I was. That’s when she came here. But it’s done, Ella. She and I are over, completely. I made that very clear to her this time.”
“She was still wearing the ring and calling you her fiancé.”
“I took the ring back and she left last night, but it was over long before I moved here. I swear.”
“Where is it?”
“Where is what?”
“Well, I don’t have it on me.”
Ella just stared back as if she didn’t believe him.
“Ella, I promise you this is all true. Mel means nothing to me anymore. My mother wanted us to get married. The engagement was what she wanted, not me.”
“But you were still engaged. It was still you who made that promise.”
“It wasn’t right. Ella, I feel complete with you. Just like when we were kids, you have picked up every broken piece of me and put them back together. You have to believe that.”
“No, I don’t.” Ella rose to her feet. “You’re the one who kept secrets from me. I don’t have to believe anything you say anymore. And I’m not sure I do.” She fled like a storm past Eric.
He hung his head quietly, knowing he was defeated and there wasn’t much left for him to do. Picking up a rounded stone, Eric rolled it over in his hand before throwing it into the water. Hearing the splashing sound and seeing the displaced water leap into the air jolted his memory of the place. He looked about the area, recalling every incident that drove Ella back here. As children, this place was their secret, their play yard, their refuge. Eric suddenly realized that Ella returned here because she needed comfort. This place reminded her of happy times, and that was the feeling she chased. He felt the knot in his stomach get heavy at realizing that he had broken her heart.
Eric passed silently through the threshold to his apartment, letting the door slam shut behind him. He trudged into the living room and froze in place, not moving, not saying a word.
“So?” his father said from the recliner. “How’d it go?”
“She doesn’t trust me,” Eric muttered as he crashed into the couch.
“Well, can you blame her?”
“But I explained everything.”
“Are you sure? I didn’t know what was going on with you and Mel until you argued with her over it last night.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Son, you never have to be sorry that I know what’s going on in your life. I can’t understand why you were so secretive to begin with.”
“I know my engagement meant a lot to mom. I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
“The most disappointing thing is hearing you say those words.”
“Great,” Eric said as he pressed himself further into the cushions.
“Son, you can’t live your life the way other people want you to. Maybe that’s been your problem all of these years.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you came out here it was because you wanted to, right? You didn’t have mom there to disapprove, and you apparently had left Mel to be another man’s headache.”
“My point is, you started living your own life rather than living for someone else. That’s when you found Ella again.” The old man could tell he was reaching his son. “I’ve never seen you more upset over anything than I see you now over losing Ella.”
“So what? How does this matter now?”
“So… if it’s this bad to lose her, I can only imagine how happy you were to have her.” Henry leaned on his cane and rose to his feet. “The way I see it, there’s only one thing left for you to do.”
“Go back to Washington.”
Henry smacked Eric’s leg with his cane.
“Ow! What are you doing?”
“That was the wrong answer.”
“Dad, you were always the one telling me that life sucks and you just have to live with it!”
“Oh, Son. When I said that I didn’t want you to believe it.”
“Oh right, because everything you ever said had a hidden meaning.”
“Yes. I’m quite clever in that way.”
“Then what did you really mean by that?”
“Life is what you make of it. So, if you want life to suck you can pack your things and head on back to Washington. But you won’t be happy and neither will she. And that girl deserves happiness so you damn well better give it to her.”
“Okay, okay! I’ll think of something, just don’t hit me with that thing again.”
As Henry hobbled away, Eric pulled himself up to a sitting position. He felt hope rising in him. “Thanks, Pop.”
“Don’t thank me. Just get out there and knock her off her feet. I want grandbabies before I die.”
Eric laughed to himself and allowed a few ideas to start to simmer.