Ella threw the car into park, picked up the squared vase of hydrangeas, Mrs. Finer’s favorite, and stepped out into the sunshine. For a moment, she stood with her face turned up toward the sun. A smile emerged as the light warmed her skin. One more deep breath of the fresh air and she continued on.
Hillside Senior Homes was nestled deep into a wooded lot. The outside of the building was covered in stones much younger looking than the inhabitants inside. Ella followed the walkway leading from the parking lot to the lobby entrance. On either side of the walk, the yard was full of lively green grass. Flowers grew beautifully beneath the windows, and ivy climbed along the stone building. It was a quiet, peaceful place that allowed the elderly community within to enjoy the time they had left.
“Good morning, Ella,” the receptionist called to the familiar visitor. “Mr. Finer said you’d promised to visit today.”
“He remembered? It’s been a good day then?”
“He’s sharp as a tack!”
Ella smiled with delight and made her way to the main community room. As she entered, she scanned the room for her old friend. Windows spanned the entire length of the back wall, overlooking lush gardens in the yard. Comfortable chairs and sofas were spread about in different sections of the room. A TV in one area, shelves of books in another and, ahh yes, games. Mr. Finer was set up at a chess board with his favorite companion.
Ella snuck up behind Mr. Finer as his opponent toiled over his next move. When the old man picked up his rook and moved it forward, she interrupted his play, “I don’t think you want move there.”
Without turning around, Mr. Finer responded, “Don’t listen to her. That move would do just fine!”
Mr. Jerries replied in a husky voice, “Just fine for who… you?”
“Well...” Mr. Finer replied, shrugging his shoulders.
Ella laughed as she set the vase down on a nearby table, kissed Mr. Finer’s forehead, and pulled up a chair next to his opponent.
“Good, now that you have her to help this may actually be a challenge for me.”
“You be quiet, you crazy old man. I was about to hand you a mean woopin’ when she came along,” Mr. Jerries retorted.
“You aren’t half bad, Mr. Jerries,” Ella said as she made his move for him. Mr. Finer looked carefully over the board before he took his turn. Ella smiled as she moved her knight forward and to the right, calling out, “Checkmate.”
She sat back in her chair, weaving her fingers together as Mr. Jerries patted her back and offered up congratulations, “Well done! You’ve beaten him again!”
“Oh, go take your senior nap. You could use some beauty rest anyway.”
“Ha-ha, I’ll leave you with your champion,” Mr. Jerries rose from his chair. “Don’t let him torture you too much, Ella.”
“I won’t,” she smiled.
“Lovely to see you, as always.”
“You too, Mr. Jerries.”
Mr. Finer looked over at the gift Ella had brought him. “Hydrangeas,” he said. Helena’s favorite.”
“How are you doing today?”
“Dear, I am old and alone,” he said sadly. After only a second of deep thought, the old man brightened up for his guest. “But all of that has passed now that you are here.”
Ella knew he missed his wife terribly. She thought quickly for a way to distract him for even just a moment. “Let’s take a walk,” Ella suggested as she rose and pulled over a wheelchair.
The two ventured outdoors and walked along the pathways that wound in and out of the back gardens. Ella loved being among the flowers out in the fresh air. Birds sang lovely tunes in the crisp, green trees. Bees and hummingbirds buzzed around from one blossom to the next. Mr. Finer rode along, enjoying the scenery in silence.
A bench was placed on the outskirts of the gardens beneath an ancient tree. On it sat a woman whose loveliness did not falter with her age. She smiled gently as she moved her eyes back and forth across the vast sea of flowers before her. Ella thought of what a pleasant person the lady appeared to be. She glanced down at her own Mr. Finer, who seemed to be enjoying the same activity as the old woman.
“So, have you become acquainted with any of the lovely ladies here?”
“Don’t start in on me already, young lady. I don’t need any more female companionship than what I get from you.”
“I just thought it would be a nice change of pace for you to talk with someone new, that’s all. Nearly every time I come to visit, you are battling out a game of chess with Mr. Jerries.”
“He is very tedious,” Mr. Finer replied. Ella simply smiled. “Why do you think I need a female companion so badly anyhow? Women are full of sass, and I get enough of that from you.”
“It’s true, and you know it is.”
“I suppose,” she agreed as they continued to wheel around. “I just thought...”
“I know what you thought,” he interrupted. “You want to distract me from missing my wife.” Ella could hear the pain in his voice. Even after thirteen years his feelings for his wife were strong as ever. “Well, it’s a small price for having a love like we did for as long as we did. You’ll learn that someday too, as soon as you get rid of that so-called boyfriend of yours and run away with me.”
Ella laughed. Mr. Finer was always out to cheer her, even when he was feeling down himself. Lost in distant memories of his beloved wife, Mr. Finer didn’t realize that Ella was wheeling him closer and closer to the woman who had been sitting alone beneath the tree.
When finally he looked up, he began to protest, “I see where you’re headed at. You’d better just turn this chair around!”
“Not this time! Today you are making a new friend.”
“Good morning!” Ella called to the woman. “A beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“It would be more beautiful if I were young again!” the old woman replied in a crotchety tone.
No matter, Ella resolved that a challenging conversation would be good for her old friend. “Would you mind keeping my companion here company for just a moment? I forgot about an appointment and need to make a call inside.”
“I suppose death won’t come fast enough to afford me another option.”
“What joy,” Mr. Finer commented to Ella.
Bending down, Ella whispered in his ear. “Be nice, I’ll only a moment.” She stood again and started to back away, innocently. “Thank you! I won’t be long,” she promised. The woman offered a displeasing look as Ella walked away with purpose in her steps.
Once back inside the community room, Ella glanced out at the two she had left by the tree. They were already arguing, but Ella wasn’t surprised. She picked up the vase of hydrangeas she had left on the table, and carried them to Mr. Finer’s room. Upon entering the familiar setting, Ella removed the vase she had left on her previous visit, and replaced it with the fresh one. She then picked up the picture of a younger Mr. and Mrs. Finer and their only child, a dog named Max. How they loved him. Max passed away in his sleep after 17 years with his loving owners. Ella remembered her mother walking her to the Finer’s home to deliver a bouquet she had arranged herself in memory of Max. That time was long in the past now. Replacing the frame, Ella positioned the fresh vase of flowers behind it and returned to relieve her friend.
Two nurses had gone out to fetch the old couple and were wheeling them in when Ella returned to the windows. Checking her watch, she noted it was time for medications. The morning had flown by. As Ella awaited her approaching friend, a nurse joined her at the window.
“Quite a pair,” the nurse commented. “Looks like you found someone for our old Eleanor to argue with.”
“I see they are still going at it,” Ella agreed.
“Thank goodness! It will be therapeutic for both of them to have someone they can pick on who’s not afraid to throw it back. You’re a good match maker, Ella. I should have you find me a man,” the nurse joked as she walked away.
Ella waited patiently for Mr. Finer to return to her side. Once he was done scolding her for leaving him with such an ‘impossible old bitty,’ Ella said her good-byes and took her leave. Mr. Finer, although he wouldn’t admit it, quite enjoyed the company he had found. “Eleanor,” he called as he rose from his chair and grasped his cane. “Come back here. I’m not finished setting you straight about all your misguided assumptions.”
“They are not misguided!” she snapped back. “They are solid facts!”
As Ella left, she looked forward to her next visit and wondered at how different it might be.
Hillside wasn’t far from town, but the drive made it feel distant and secluded. The road weaved back and forth through a thick wood. Although familiar to Ella, the way seemed to always keep her guessing. All sorts of creatures have wandered into the road, sending her into panic as she tried to dodge them. Today would be no different. As Ella approached a turn, she saw a tortoise crawling slowly across the concrete. Swerving to the other side, Ella successfully avoided the tortoise, but as she rounded the corner she saw an oncoming pickup. Both vehicles veered to the right, barely missing each other. The truck went off the road, but had enough luck not to hit anything. Ella drove along a bank beside the ditch before she came to a sudden halt. The car went quiet. Had she hit a tree? No. The air bag was intact. No smoke, no fire, no damage from what she could see from the driver’s seat. Blood... The taste of blood. Ella patted herself down, but the only trace of blood was from a small cut inside her lip. Her bracelet still dangled around her wrist. She reached for her necklace, relieved to find it and the locket intact.
As the shock wore off, Ella began to compose herself. Stepping out of the car, she was greeted with a ‘what have I done to deserve this?’ look from Eric. Ella couldn’t imagine what this man thought of her by now.
Eric was tempted to call for help and scram to avoid putting himself in more danger just by being around this woman, who seemed to have a mission to end his life in any way that would appear to be an accident.
Ella walked toward him with an apologetic, yet innocent look.
“Are you alright?” Eric asked; half hoping the accident would have reversed the woman’s brain damage which, he assumed, could be the only explanation for what he continued to witness whenever in her presence.
“I think so. Nothing more than a bloody lip. You?”
Ella saw his truck on the side of the road. “Any damage?” she asked as she gestured toward the vehicle.
“No, but it doesn’t appear that you were so lucky.” Eric moved around her and motioned toward her car. Ella hadn’t noticed before now that the front passenger’s side wheel was nearly on its side. “Looks like you busted an axle,” he confirmed as he bent down to get a closer look.
“Oh no!” Ella exclaimed before she suddenly took off running down the road in the direction of Hillside.
“Yeah, you can’t drive it like this…” Eric looked up to see that Ella was gone. Standing, he spotted her in the distance and watched as she ran off around a bend. He was confused, but not surprised. He looked back and forth from Ella, to her car, to his truck. Should he follow her? See what he could do with her car? Or, better yet, escape while she wasn’t looking? Cursing himself for being a good guy, he followed in the crazy woman’s footsteps. As he rounded the bend, Ella met him with the tortoise in her hands.
“What are you doing?” Eric wondered.
“I almost ran this guy over. That’s why I swerved.”
“This is why you ran me off the road?”
“Would you have run him over!” Ella replied in shock.
Eric looked silently into her eyes, knowing he would have swerved to miss the innocent creature too. He turned the tortoise over in his own hands and examined it. “This isn’t a guy,” he replied gently. “It’s a female, a pregnant female.”
“Pregnant?” Ella repeated, even more relieved she hadn’t run it over.
“Yes,” he took her fingers and helped her to feel around near the tortoise’s leg. Ella’s focus turned from the tortoise to the hand that was now touching hers. The hand that sent jolts of electricity up her arm. “Feel that?” Eric asked. Ella nodded her reply unknowingly. “Those are the eggs.
“This must be why I ran you off the road.”
“Everything happens for a reason. If I had been here alone, I would have missed the turtle but wouldn’t have know it was pregnant.”
“Would you have left it on the road if it wasn’t?”
“No, but it having babies means it really needed to be rescued.”
“It wouldn’t have otherwise?”
“Only a little bit.”
Eric shook his head. “Okay, moving on.”
“We should set her free somewhere safe.”
“Yes you should,” Eric said, but he couldn’t stand the look of despair Ella gave him. Fine, come on.” Together, they made their way down the bank passed the truck. Halfway down, they could see a stream.
Eric started to make his way down the hill, but Ella stopped him for a moment. “Wait!” she called as she took off her shoes.
“You can’t come down here barefoot,” he said.
“Oh yes I can,” she reassured him, stubbornly. Ella left her shoes behind as she secured the tortoise with one hand, and supported herself by trees with the other.
Eric shook his head, but reached out his hand to help her down. To his surprise, Ella was perfectly comfortable walking through the brush and dirt without shoes, and quite stable while doing so. Once they reached the bottom, he gestured to a cozy place beside the stream. Ella took his advice and placed the tortoise gently on the ground there.
“She’ll be happy here,” he said. “It’s far enough from the road that she will be safe from you. Well, maybe not you, but she’ll be safe from every other driver.”
“Good,” Ella said, ignoring his comments and smiling with satisfaction as she took a look around the area. She recalled all of the fun she used to have just a little further downstream.
Eric looked around, wondering what she was so fascinated with. “We should get back and take care of your car,” he suggested.
Ella took his hand and pushed off with one foot to head up the bank. As she did this, the soft ground gave way beneath her, throwing her off balance. She nearly stepped on the tortoise, but missed it by a few lucky inches. Eric tried to help Ella regain her footing, but his hand slipped and she fell backwards into the stream.
Eric remained on solid ground, surprised that he was able to escape this accident. Ella popped out of the water and quickly made her way to land. Eric pulled her out. She was soaked from head to toe.
He chuckled unsympathetically at her as she squeezed water out of her dress. “Did you pull me out just so you could laugh at me?” she asked with a grin. She wasn’t sure until now whether this man had a sense of humor, and was glad to see he did.
“Well, doesn’t that give me the right?” he joked.
“I suppose,” Ella pulled the tie from her hair and twisted her locks, not draining nearly all of the water it had absorbed.
“I’m sorry! It’s just hard to believe you didn’t pull me in with you. We don’t have a great track record when it comes to these things.”
“No, I seem to be cursed when I’m around you.”
“Sure, blame me.” Eric watched as Ella shook her whole body like a dog would following a bath. “I think that’s as dry as you’re going to get right now.”
“I think you’re right.”
“Here, you go first this time.” Eric stepped aside and let Ella pass. Distracted by his amusement, Eric stepped back and slipped into the water that he had just helped Ella out of.
Ella turned to see him splashing about. “Hey, I think you slipped there!” she teased. “You should be more careful, I’ve seen that happen before.”
Eric sent up a sarcastic look that made Ella smile and, quite possibly, made her entire day. He stood up and the water rushed from his clothes.
Once they were both clear of the stream, they made their way up the bank and back to Ella’s damaged car. Eric squatted down between the bank and the busted wheel as Ella popped the trunk and pulled out a bag.
“Replacing the tire won’t help. Looks like you’re going to need a tow truck.”
“I’m not getting a tire,” she pulled several pieces of clothing from the bag. She had a wardrobe, complete with undergarments. “First things first; I’m changing out of these wet clothes, and then I’ll call a truck.”
Eric stood up, wide eyed. He wondered to himself whether this strange series of events had been premeditated. “You just happen to have a fresh set of clothes in your car?”
“Yeah,” she answered, wondering to herself why this wasn’t standard practice for everyone. She pulled dry, comfortable Bermuda shorts up under her wet dress. “I always keep spares just in case.”
“Just in case, what? Do these sorts of things happen to you often?”
She shrugged her shoulders as she ducked behind the open trunk and threw on a tunic, “Not usually.”
Eric turned his back to Ella to offer her more privacy. “Hmm, must just be me then,” he mumbled to himself.
“Oh, nothing,” he trailed off and Ella just stared at him curiously for a moment as she prepared a pair of flip flops at her feet. “I’ll just call a tow truck for you.”
“Okay. Oh! Call Joe’s Tows! He’s the best. There’s a card with the number in my glove box”
“Joe’s Tows?” he asked, wondering whether she was being serious.
“Yeah,” Ella confirmed nonchalantly.
“Okay... I’ll call Joe’s Tows,” as he dialed the number, Eric considered the possibility that he had stumbled into a rabbit’s hole. He wondered what sort of lesson he would learn from an accident prone woman and rhyming names.
Since Eric was making the call for her, Ella grabbed a towel from the bag and tossed her hair over to dry it.
Eric turned around for a moment and caught sight of what she was doing. “You have a towel too!”
“Never know when you might need one,” she replied.
Eric looked down at himself. The very woman who had started the series of events which eventually led to his falling into the water was now in clean, dry clothes, as he stood there like a fool still dripping wet. “Well, can I borrow it?” he asked, expecting that the offer would have already been made to him.
Ella froze just as she was about to clean off her feet. “Sure! Of course!” she sent the towel through the air and into Eric’s hand then slid on her flip flops. “Sorry.” Ella innocently crossed her arms and leaned back onto the car.
“Great... Thanks,” Eric said before hanging up the phone. “They will be here soon.”
Eric pulled off his shirt to reveal smooth skin and irresistible, glistening abs. Ella imagined that bike riding must not be his only hobby. She lost herself for a moment as Eric dried himself off with the towel. When he looked up and caught her staring, she quickly offered to help dry his shirt.
“Here,” she said. Trying to hide her blushing cheeks, Ella took the shirt from the scrumptious man standing before her and twisted out the water. “There you go,” she handed the piece of clothing back, hoping he hadn’t seen her drooling over him.
“Thanks,” Eric caught her embarrassment, but decided to let it go. He tossed the towel back to her and pulled on his damp shirt.
Ella was desperate to find a distraction. “So, is the truck on its way?”
“They’ll be here soon.”
“Right, you did say that.” An awkward silence fell between them. Suddenly, it occurred to Ella how they ended up here. “Oh! Were you headed somewhere? You don’t have to wait here with me.”
“No, it’s alright. I wasn’t in a rush.”
“Sorry, by the way... About the whole… accident… thing.”
“It’s not a problem. At least no one was hurt.”
“Well, not at first,” Ella joked about their underwater adventures. “So, were you headed for Hillside? Do you know someone there?”
“Yeah. Actually, I had better get going.”
“Do you know the guys at Joe’s Tows?”
“Oh yeah, don’t worry about me.”
“You’re sure you’ll be alright?”
“I’m fine. It’s not a problem, you can go.”
“Okay. See ya.”
“Sorry again. And thanks for calling a truck!” Ella called after him. Eric simply smiled and climbed into his pickup. He hesitated for a moment, not wanting to stay, but not feeling right about leaving her alone on a rarely traveled road. To his relief, the truck showed up just then. The man who got out was pleasant enough. “Hey El! What happened?” he said.
“Hey George. I had a bit of an accident.”
He looked over the car. “Geeze, I’d hate to see the other guy.”
“He’s right there,” Ella gestured toward Eric’s truck.
“Doesn’t look like he suffered even a scratch.”
“Don’t worry, I pushed him into the stream.” she whispered.
George couldn’t tell whether she was being serious until Ella held up her wet clothes and smiled. “Wow. Good girl.”
Feeling comfortable about leaving Ella with this George character, whom she appeared to be familiar with, Eric started up the truck and pulled away. Ella looked after him with a smile, losing herself in her thoughts until George pulled her attention back again. Eric rounded the corner and was out of sight.