The sky was gray and gloomy. Inside the church, nearly every seat was occupied. The fans blew around the aroma of fresh floral arrangements, all of which had received Ella’s seal of approval before being delivered earlier that morning.
Ella walked slowly, following the crowd and supporting Mr. Finer as much as he would allow. They took their seats at the back of the church, the shortest distance possible, since Mr. Finer had stubbornly refused his wheelchair today. At the van he had slammed his cane to the ground and declared that he would stand at his friend’s funeral just like she would have stood at his.
As Ella scooted into the pew, she glanced across the vast room only for her eyes met Eric’s for a brief and heart wrenching moment. The sadness within his heart was revealed to her as she looked into his eyes. She put her hand to her heart to let him know she understood his pain, then quietly took her seat next to her old friend. She silently hoped that Eric wouldn’t assume that her presence meant that she had decided to forgive him.
Throughout the service Ella tried hard to ignore Eric as much as the service would allow. But, finally, he took his turn at the podium. He adjusted his jacket and fidgeted with his cuffs as he rose up the steps. His hands gripped the podium before him, his eyes closed, and his lungs welcomed a deep breath. All of this in attempt to settle his emotions. He then shoved his hands into his pockets and fought back tears and the knot in his throat as he said his goodbye.
“Eleanor was my grandmother, my nana, and a dear friend. She taught me innumerable lessons, including how to drive. Dad, I’m sorry. I was no natural; Nana let me drive her car before you ever let me behind the wheel.” Henry laughed from his pew and his son continued. “What she wanted most for me was to find meaning and happiness in life. Lucky for me, she led me right to it.” Eric looked at Ella as he spoke these words. Releasing her from his stare, he turned and laid his hand gently upon the casket. “Nana, you were a charming, loving lady. At least you were to me.” A few chuckles floated through the room, from those who knew Eleanor as a crotchety old lady. Ella put her arm around Mr. Finer and rubbed him gently, more for her own comfort than his.
Eric’s eyes turned red and his nose crinkled. You can do it, Ella thought.
“Ahem. Excuse me.” He closed his eyes, turning away to swipe away a tear. The room was silent. Everyone waited patiently for Eric to compose himself; a few were thankful for the opportunity to spill a few of their own tears. After several minutes, Eric took a breath and continued. “Nana, even in your final days you were sharp as a tack and wittier than ever. I believe you made an impression on everyone here today. You will remain in their hearts as you will remain in mine. I’ll miss you. I will keep you in my heart and mind always.”
In my heart and mind always, Ella repeated, reaching for the locket and squeezing it between her fingers. She rubbed Mr. Finer’s back, more for her own comfort than his. As soon as the service was over, Ella helped Mr. Finer into the Hillside van. Eric spotted Ella through the crowd and quickly made his way over to her. He stood nearby in perfect silence as Ella finished helping her friend into his seat.
A Hillside nurse took over while Ella said her goodbyes. “Have a good night, Mr. Finer. I’ll visit this week, as normal.”
“Of course, Dear,” he said. “Eric; that was a loving service.”
Ella hadn’t even noticed Eric’s presence, until he appeared by her side.
“I thought so, too,” Eric said. “Thank you for coming.”
The door to the van slid closed. Ella waited for the vehicle to pull away before she headed to her own car.
“It was a very nice service,” she said to Eric, avoiding eye contact entirely. “I have to get to work.”
Eric’s hands slipped into his pockets as he spoke gently to her. “Thank you for coming. It meant a lot to have you here.”
Ella opened her driver’s side door. “I didn’t come for you.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m still glad you did.”
Ella looked up at the man before her, wondering what her next move should be. She wanted to embrace him and erase his pain, but her own heartache wouldn’t allow her to venture too near close. “Don’t go straight home,” she said instead, sliding into the driver’s seat.
“My mother always said to never go straight home after a funeral. You don’t want to bring death home with you.” She closed the door and Eric stepped back so she could pull safely away. Ella left Eric alone and wondering where she had gone after her own mother’s service.
Henry slowly approached Eric, whose eyes were still glued to Ella’s car. “Did you try again for forgiveness?”
“Not the right time. I want her to come back to me for love, not because she feels sorry for me.”
“Good boy,” Henry said proudly as he patted his son’s shoulder.
Three days after the funeral, Ella, Lilly, and Doc’s Son were tucked comfortably in Ella’s living room with a movie. Doc’s Son, who had grown increasingly attached to Lilly, was snug in her lap on the couch. Ella sat upon the floor, painting her dog’s toes to match his latest crush.
“There, now you two match,” she said as she put the finishing touches on Doc’s Son’s toes and started blowing them dry.
“Ooo, we match! I love it. Don’t you love it, little buddy?” Lilly said in a baby voice as she rubbed the dog’s belly.
“Ella!” A voice rose up from somewhere outside. Lilly leaned over the back of the couch, scouring the darkness for the source of the noise.
“Hey! His nails are still wet!” Ella cried as Doc’s Son hopped down to the floor at losing the comfort of Lilly’s lap when she shifted. “Great, now I have to clean up his trail of nail polish. What are you doing?”
“Eric’s out here. Come see.”
Ella joined Lilly at the window. Sure enough, Eric was standing in the driveway shouting up for her.
“Ella, please come down so I can talk to you.”
“No, go away!” Ella closed the window and headed for the bathroom, where she slammed the door and turned the lock.
Lilly slid the window open enough to answer back. “She’s in the bathroom. But I think you’re super sweet!”
“Lilly!” Ella scolded her from the other room.
“Sorry, gotta go,” she said to Eric in a shouted whisper. “Keep trying!”
Ten minutes later, Ella reemerged to hear that the shouting from outside had continued. “Is he still out there?” she said, exhausted by the thought.
“Yes, and he won’t stop begging for you.”
“Let him go a little longer.” Ella set a bowl of popcorn on the coffee table and plopped down on the floor next to it.
“Ella! Ella, please come outside!” Eric called up to the open window again.
“I thought we closed that window,” Ella said.
“El, just answer the guy. We can’t hear the movie over him.”
Ella turned up the volume on the TV and continued eating her popcorn.
“Ella!” Eric said again.
“Hey, shut up out there!” Mrs. Roslyn, their grumpy old neighbor, yelled out.
“I’m trying to win my girlfriend back. Ella!”
“Do it some other time, people are trying to sleep.” Clearly, there was no sympathy for romance tonight.
“I’m calling the cops!” said Mrs. Roslyn.
“Before I’m arrested!”
Lilly grabbed the remote and paused the movie. “El, just go out there. He clearly loves you and his lie wasn’t that bad.”
“He had a fiancé, Lilly. A fiancé he came here to forget. He told me he came to visit his dying grandmother!”
“Even still. You are so stubborn!”
Ella rolled her eyes.
“You love him, you know you do. You put up with much worse with Steve and for much longer.”
“Which is exactly why I don’t want to involve myself in another relationship like that again.”
“I understand, but listen to him! Would Steve have ever spent the night outside trying to get your attention? You know he wouldn’t have waited for you this long. Not in a million years. Eric has a key to your apartment, and he still has enough decency not to just barge in here.”
“Because waking the neighborhood is far more gentlemanlike?”
“It’s far more romantic,” Lilly said. “Stop rolling your eyes at me, realize what you have right in front of you, and get out there to claim it! You think I wouldn’t if it were me?”
“Would you? You’ve been bitter and lonely the entire time I’ve known you.”
“Honey, I’ve only been bitter because I’ve been lonely and I was lonely because I was afraid to open myself up to love. But now I know what love can be and have a new outlook on life because of it.”
“Ella!” Eric said again.
Lilly closed her eyes, tired of hearing her friend’s pursuer shouting from the yard below. “Remember when you told me what I-M-H-A-M-A meant?”
“When you finally found out and told me, I thought it was the most lovely thing a person could promise. It came from him. He may not have known what it meant as a child, but that doesn’t matter because he feels it now. So, go outside and talk to that devilishly charming man down there. You won’t find another one like him.”
Ella sat in silence mulling over this order. “Okay,” she said. “But only because I don’t want the cops showing up.”
“Good!” Lilly felt triumphant. “Now go!”
Ella walked slowly downstairs as she heard her name called out again.
“Shut up, she’s on her way down!” Lilly demanded from the window.
“Thank goodness!” said the neighbor.
Ella reached the bottom of the stairs and looked out the glass doors to see Eric waiting for her. She pushed the door open and took one step down, letting the door close and lock behind her. Eric hurried to the bottom step. “Ella, thank you for coming down. I can explain everything.”
“You’d better hurry; I’m not giving you all night.”
“Okay. I kept a secret from you, one I know I should have shared. But for me, Mel was part of my past. A piece of me I never wanted back again. When she came here I was just as shocked as you were and, trust me. I wasn’t happy about it. But it was a good thing, because it allowed me to be more honest with you than I was being with myself. And that’s what I want to be with you, always.”
“I don’t know. You hurt me… bad. You know you can actually feel your heartbreak? I don’t ever want to feel that way again.”
“I promise to make it up to you in every way I can think of. Just say you’ll let me.”
“Is there anything else you haven’t told me? Anything you’re ashamed of?” she said.
“There’s nothing. Except… maybe, a few traffic tickets, and my very justifiable disdain towards squirrels.” Ella laughed and it was the most beautiful bit of music Eric had ever heard. “Can I show you something?”
“Okay.” Ella threw her arms around him, feeling a wave of relief at knowing he was hers. Eric held her close, lifting her from the steps to set her feet gently upon the ground. Taking Ella’s hands in his, Eric led her up the driveway to the back yard. Ella’s eyes widened to behold a winter wonderland. A snow machine blew piles of snow, covering every inch of the grass. And, in the center, an ice sculpture of a giant gerbera daisy.
Ella laughed and covered her mouth with both hands.
“Do you like it?” Eric said. “I remember you telling me when we were kids how much you missed the snow in the winter.”
“I love it! Is that an ice sculpture?”
“Sure is,” he said proudly. “My best piece ever.”
“It’s a daisy. I can’t believe you did this!”
“Believe it, honey!” the neighbor said. “Now, kiss him so we can all go to bed!”
“Thank you, Mrs. Roslyn!”
Eric pulled Ella close and was rewarded by the sight of his smile; subtle, soft, lovely. When he thought he couldn’t be happier, she pressed her lips against his.
Ella closed her eyes and savored every touch, every taste, every scent of him. Mom, she thought. I’ve found my love and daisies.