The breeze blew gently as Ella and Daniel walked together. School was out and when Ella couldn’t be found at the flower shop, chances were she was with Daniel. Today was no different. They chatted as they walked along the road leading to the bridge. Daniel had become a bit more outspoken and was even able to get in a full sentence every now and then when Ella wasn’t filling the space with her own voice. It was as if she started to think of the very next subject she would talk about, before she finished her current thought. By now, Daniel had given up on trying to map out her trains of thought.
He liked to be quiet and reserved, although it made him stand out like a sore thumb around his family members who were always very loud. They constantly pressured him to ‘speak up’, which was exactly what he didn’t want to do. The only people who seemed to understand that were his father, his Nana, and Ella. Daniel appreciated that he could be himself with Ella without fear of judgment. He could just throw in a random thought every once in a while… when he felt like it. And he could listen quietly the rest of the time without feeling that he was bothering anyone with his silence. Thanks to Ella, Daniel felt more comfortable and more himself than ever before.
“Hey, look at this!” as usual, Ella pulled Daniel from his own thoughts.
“A frog,” he confirmed.
“I wonder where his home is.”
“I don’t know, but I bet he’d like the water. Want to take him there?”
“Yeah!” Ella reached down to pick up the frog, but Daniel stayed her hand. “What?” she asked as she looked up to see him gazing down the road ahead.
“Billy,” he answered. Billy was an older boy in Daniel’s class; a tall, pudgy kid. He was always followed closely by two minions who were considerably smaller than himself, but just as mean.
Ella acted quickly, picking up the frog and handing it to Daniel. “Put it in your pocket,” she instructed him.
“Look,” Billy said to his goons as their bikes spun to a stop before Daniel and Ella. “It’s the runt and the quiet kid. What are you dweebs doing here?”
“We’re allowed to be here,” Ella argued.
“Not unless I say so,” Billy got off his bike, throwing it to the ground. He stepped up to Daniel, the tips of their noses nearly touching. “Well? What are you doing here, dweeb?”
“He’s not a dweeb!” Ella yelled.
“Or should I ask your girlfriend?” Billy didn’t budge or blink and neither did Daniel. Billy turned back to his followers with an evil smile as if to brag that Daniel wouldn’t dare to cross him. When Billy turned back around, Daniel pulled open the bully’s shirt collar and dropped the frog inside.
“Ahh! What did you do! What did you put in my shirt!” Billy spun around screaming and grabbing at his clothes. His goons immediately dropped their bikes and hurried to his rescue.
“Come on,” Daniel tugged Ella’s hand for her to follow him. They each hopped on a bike and took off.
“Hey! They took our bikes!”
“Just get this thing off of me!” Billy yelled, not realizing that the frog had fallen out of his shirt and was quickly hopping into the woods.
Ella and Daniel rode the bikes back to Billy’s house where they left them in the yard; then ran a block to Daniel’s as fast as they could. They ran up the drive to the back of the house where they barged through the door and into the kitchen.
“Daniel!” his mother cried. “No running, I’m in the middle of making supper!”
“Sorry, Mama,” before he could be scolded further, Daniel led Ella into the foyer just as his father opened the front door.
“Hey, son,” he said as his boy nearly toppled into him. “Be careful or your mother will have a fit over you running around.”
“Yeah, I know.”
The tall man bent down. “She already caught you, didn’t she?”
Daniel answered with a guilty look as he shoved his hands into his pants pockets.
His father stood tall again and commented quietly. “Well, it will be a good night if she let you get away.” Just then he noticed little Ella. “Don’t be rude, Daniel. Introduce your friend.”
“This is Ella.”
“Well hello there, Ella. I hear you’ve been keeping my boy busy. You’re welcome to stay for dinner tonight if you’d like.”
“Thank you sir, but my mom wouldn’t allow it since she doesn’t know you.”
“Good woman.” Henry pondered this for a moment. “Hold that thought.” He stepped by the two children and went back into the kitchen. A pot slammed as Daniel’s mom whispered violently. After a few minutes, the gentle man emerged slowly from the kitchen. “Well, Daniel. Tonight will be better than others we’ve seen. If you’d like Ella to stay for dinner, you’re welcome to invite her mother.”
Daniel looked to Ella. “What do you think?”
“She’d love to! I’ll go get her.”
“You can use the phone here,” Henry offered.
“Thank you sir, but my mom wouldn’t like me in your house or using your things until she knows you better. I shouldn’t be here now, actually. But my mom is right in town. I won’t be long.”
“But what about Billy!” Daniel whispered.
Ella laughed. “I bet he’s still wrestling with that frog!” The two giggled together. Having no clue what they were talking about, Daniel’s father shook his head and went to wash up for dinner.
Ella ventured out and half an hour later returned with her mother.
“Hello, Ella tells me we are invited to dinner?”
“Yes, so glad you could come,” Daniel’s father welcomed them inside. “I’m Henry.”
“Maggie. Thank you for inviting us into your home. Ella and Daniel seem to be inseparable these days. It’s nice to finally meet his family.”
Daniel’s mom offered no more than a smirk, but his father was there to cover. “We’re glad to have you. Ella is quite the young lady. We couldn’t have asked for a better friend for Daniel.”
The dinner carried on much like this: overly polite and pleasant. Suddenly, in the middle of a calm conversation, Daniel’s mother slammed her silverware onto the table. She shook a little and bit her lips together to keep her mouth closed. Henry placed his hand gently on her wrist, trying to settle her. She sat for only a second or two before she rose from her chair, letting it fell backwards to the floor, and charged upstairs.
Henry slowly rose from his seat and tilted the fallen chair back up on it’s legs. His movements were so soft, barely a noise was made by him or anything he touched. “Excuse us,” he said apologetically. He followed his wife upstairs. Before he disappeared above ceiling, the sound of objects being thrown against the walls seeped through the floor and to the company below.
Maggie offered a smile to the two children. At seeing Daniel’s embarrassment, she quickly turned the conversation elsewhere. Once they were finished with dinner, Maggie and her two companions cleared the table and cleaned the dishes. By the time Daniel’s father returned downstairs, the dining room and kitchen were spotless. He entered the kitchen with surprise and sadness in his eyes. All had quieted upstairs.
“You didn’t have to―”
Maggie placed a gentle hand upon his shoulder. “I would have insisted. It’s the least we could do for such a delicious meal.”
“Not all days are like this. I’m sorry―”
“No apologies are necessary. And I’m not part of the town gossip chain so you won’t have to hear about this from anyone else either.”
“I appreciate that. Thank you.”
“We had better be off. If you need anything, anything at all, you know where to find me. Or at least Daniel does, right?”
“Yes ma’am,” Daniel confirmed.
“What have I said about calling me ma’am? You make me feel old!”
“Yes―” he didn’t know how to finish.
Maggie laughed, and the others laughed with her. Then she led Ella home with minimal explanation of what had happened with Daniel’s mother; and the events of the evening were never discussed again.
Ella lay flat on her back in bed, wide awake and wishing she had been able to get just one more hour of sleep. Chore day, she thought with disappointment. “Ugh, I’d better get up.” She slid her legs over the side of the bed and sat up.
Leaving a shower for after the chores were done, Ella slid on some old clothes and tied up her hair. She picked up the house, cleaning the bathrooms, dusting, reorganizing the pantry again. With most of the work done, she pulled out the vacuum. When she pushed the door to her office open with the vacuum, it hit her: the fish tank. It had been in need of a good clean and, to her great dismay, that day had come.
She turned off the vacuum cleaner and set it aside, walking over to assess the situation. Green grossness was climbing all four sides of the tank. Luckily the fake plants inside were still clean.
“Not too bad yet, but still disgusting,” she said to herself.
Ella grabbed a bucket and a gravel vacuum. She unplugged the filter and pulled off the top of the tank. Following the instructions, she put one end of the vacuum hose into the bucket on the floor and the other into the fish tank. Continuing on to step two, Ella shook the vacuum up and down under the water. As she did this, the large part of the vacuum broke free from the hose and fell to the bottom of the tank.
“Shabby,” she sighed. She looked into the tank at the tube lying on the bottom. “Gross,” she said as she imagined dunking her hand into the fishy water. Ella closed her eyes and put her hand in; praying none of the fish would touch her as she retrieved the lost tube.
Buzz. The apartment buzzer rang, startling her so that she dropped the end of the vacuum into the water again. “Oh man!” she exclaimed. Lifting her hands up, she thought of all the disgusting fishy things that were crawling on her now.
Buzz. “Oh, alright, I’m coming!” Ella ran to the kitchen sink and rinsed her hands before pressing down the talk button on the intercom, “Who is it?”
“Lilly,” came the reply.
“Just what I need,” Ella whispered to herself. “Don’t you have a key?”
“I forgot it at home.”
“Shocker!” Ella’s words were smothered in sarcasm as she released the door lock downstairs, and unlocked her dead bolt. She returned to the fish tank, dunking her hand in again.
“Ella? Where are you?” Lilly called as she pushed open the apartment door.
Lilly wandered into the office and was surprised by what she saw. “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like? I’m cleaning my fish tank.”
“Since when do you have a fish tank?”
“Since Steve bought me fish.”
“But you hate having fish. You wouldn’t even consider my idea about selling arrangements with betas in the bottom.”
“Fish are gross.”
“You know, you used to swim in the stream with fish all the time.”
“Those were fish in a stream. These are fish in a tank in my home. They go to the bathroom in there. I. E. They go to the bathroom in my home,” Ella explained.
Lilly just stared at her friend.
Ella always understood Lilly’s silent stares. It was an unspoken language they had developed as kids. “Alright, I see your point. But I still don’t like it. Do you know how to take care of fish?”
“No,” Lilly sank into the sofa next to the tank.
“Well, neither do I. Other than dipping my hands into this poopy water,” Ella finally got the vacuum back together, and dunked it in again to repeat the first step.
“So how is lover-boy doing?”
“Steve? I don’t know. We haven’t been seeing much of each other lately.”
“No, not Steve!”
“Eric! The guy downstairs. The one you know you can’t stop thinking about.”
“Lilly, please. I don’t think about him.” The vacuum finally started to work and Ella was excited to see the water flowing through the tube. “Yes, it’s working!”
“Uh, El…” Lilly said calmly.
“The bottom of the hose isn’t in the bucket.”
Ella looked down to see water pouring all over her floor. “Oh, gross!” She quickly picked up the bottom of the hose and threw it into the bucket, forgetting that she was holding the other end in the water which came apart again as it pressed against the edge of the tank when she bent down. Ella was still focused on the bucket when the water stopped flowing through, “Hey, what happened?” She looked up to see the vacuum at the bottom of the tank again. “Ugh, this thing!” Back to step one.
Once the water was flowing again, Lilly noted the speed. “Wow, if you wait for that thing you’ll be here all day.”
“What? It’s working?”
“I bet you won’t have an inch of water in that bucket before the end of this conversation.
“Sure I won’t, if I kick you out,” Ella snapped. She looked down at the water flowing through the tube and decided Lilly was right. “Yeah, I see what you mean. Hold this here, would ya?”
Lilly moved to a new spot on the arm of the sofa and held the top of the hose in place. “So, why hasn’t Steve been around?” she called to Ella who had walked out of the room.
After a short moment, Ella reentered with a colorful vase in her hand. “I don’t know, he’s been hanging out with his friends more.” She dunked the vase into the tank and filled it with water. “Doesn’t matter because when he is here I can’t get him to do anything with me,” she carried the full vase into the bathroom and emptied it into the toilet.
When Ella returned, Lilly continued her interrogation. “What do you mean?”
“Well, he just sits around drinking beer and watching TV.”
“Tell me about it,” Ella agreed as she carried the vase into the bathroom again.
Lilly thought about Steve’s recent behavior. TV and beer was the norm, but the guy would never turn down a roll in the sack. Ella came back in. “Say, El, do you think he might be cheating on you?”
“Why not?” Ella walked out again, but Lilly called after her. “Or do you just not care?”
“Why don’t you think I would care about something like that?” Ella replied.
“Well… because of Eric.”
Ella appeared in the doorway where she stopped and stared at her friend, “I do not have feelings for Eric.” Lilly responded with a head tilt and ‘yeah right’ look. Rolling her eyes, Ella returned to the tank once again for another vase-full of water. “Eric is… a nice guy. But that’s all it is. He’s not interested in me.”
“Yes, he is. He thinks you’re hot. Besides, you are definitely interested in him.”
“I am not!”
“Oh come on, admit it! You have been smitten with the guy since you ran him over with your car!”
Ella laughed off her friend’s accusation and lifted the vase out of the water again. “I have not!” she argued as she ran back to the bathroom.
“I don’t believe you!” Lilly called after her.
“I don’t care!” Dumping the water into the toilet, Ella saw one of her fish fall in. “Oh my god!” Ella ran past the office and into the kitchen. “Why didn’t I buy one of those net things?” she asked herself as she scrambled for an idea.
“One of my fish is in the toilet,” she grabbed a ladle off a hook by the stove.
“You heard me!” Ella called back as she ran by the office and into the bathroom.
“Was that a ladle?”
“Ooo, get in here fishy,” Ella’s pleaded as she scooped up the fish. She carried it back into the office, trying to balance so as not to spill any water.
When Lilly saw this she was instantly disgusted, “Is that toilet water!”
“Oh shoot, it is.” Ella turned around and went back to the kitchen. She continued to balance the ladle as she looked for another idea. “Oh, the colander!” she bent down and reached into a lower cabinet to pull out a colander. Placing it in the sink, she dumped in the fish. “Still covered in toilet water… should I rinse it?” she asked herself. Unable to fight the urge, Ella turned the water to lukewarm and splashed it gently over the fish. Then she picked up the colander and ran the fish back to the tank where she dumped it in. Ella leaned on the hutch; feeling relieved that this ordeal was over.
Lilly stared at her friend in awe. Ella looked up, “What?”
“Nothing. I just want you to know that I won’t be coming over for dinner for a while.”
Ella shot Lilly a look as she took the vacuum from her and emptied the remaining water from the tube into the bucket. Only a few inches of water were left in the tank, enough to allow the fish to swim around. She picked up the bucket and carried it to the toilet, being sure there were no fish there before dumping it in.
Lilly sank back into the sofa as Ella walked in with tools to scrub the tank. “You know… you are usually so cool and collected,” Lilly observed.
“You’ve really lost that lately.”
“How do you mean?
“Did you see what just happened in here? At the very mention of Eric’s name, you get all nutty.”
“I do no―”
“You do so!” Lilly interrupted. “It’s okay,” she said more gently. “It’s cute on you.”
“It’s cute on me? Who are you?”
Lilly stuck her tongue out at her friend with childish, squinty eyes.
“Thanks, Lil, but you’re severely mistaken.”
“Okay,” Lilly threw her hands up and rolled her eyes as if to submit. She leaned back on one arm of the sofa and stretched out to put her feet up on the other.
With the tank clean once again, Ella went into the bathroom to fill the bucket with fresh water. When she returned, she paused before the tank. “Do I just dump it in all at once?”
“How should I know?”
Ella picked up the bucket and slowly poured in the water. Once it was empty, she carried the bucket back to the bathroom and repeated the steps again.
As Ella ran back and forth between rooms, Lilly continued the conversation. “Doesn’t Steve know you don’t like fish?”
“I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t like them, I just never wanted to have one.”
“A puppy would have been better.”
Ella walked back into the room with another bucketful of water, smiling at Lilly’s suggestion. “A puppy would be nice.”
“You should take Eric to help you pick one out,” Lilly suggested with a devilish smile.
Ella tried to ignore her friend’s comment as she dumped the last bit of water in, filling the tank right to the top. “Finally, that’s it.” She set down the bucket and lifted the lid up over the tank. As she moved the lid back into place, the top of the filter loosened and fell to the bottom of the fishy water. Ella closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Lilly giggled to herself. “See what I mean? You get all flustered every time I bring up Eric.”
Placing the lid back down on the hutch, Ella reassured herself that the tank was clean and reached in again, trying to avoid the fish. Success, she pulled the lid out and replaced it on the filter. The lid to the tank went on with ease and Ella stepped back to relax a bit.
“Shouldn’t the filter be going?”
“Oh!” Ella bent down and turned the filter back on. “There, now I’m done.”
“Have you fed them today?”
“Oh, right!” Ella fed the fish and tucked the bucket and vacuum inside the hutch and closed the door. “Now I’m going to take a shower.”
Lilly remained where she was, smiling with amusement.