Ellie sat atop a pile of old books and a mess of papers in her room holding my letter in one hand while tracing the enclosure with the forefinger on her other. I stood in the entryway for what seemed like an hour just staring at her until I saw a single tear drop onto the envelope. Ellie gently brushed it away and stood, turning to place the letter safely within one of her favorite books. She was startled to see me standing there watching her.
“Oh, for the love of Pete, Kai! How long have you been standing there?” She practically yelled at me before throwing her arms around my neck.
“Not long,” I replied through tight lips, the lump still resting in my throat.
“Listen Ellie, I…” Placing my hands upon her hips, I pushed her slightly away from me so that I could look her in the eyes as I spoke. I knew what I wanted to say, but those words wouldn’t come out. Instead, I got some watered-down version of the pep talk I gave my men.
“I want you to know that I’m going to do everything I can to find what we need to fix things up around here. I’ll do my best to get back safely. I just need to know that you’re going to be okay while I’m gone.”
“Well, of course, I’m going to be okay. I’m always okay. You treat me as if I’m so fragile, Kai, honestly. When have I ever not been okay?”
“No, Ellie, that’s not what I mean. I mean that…” I glanced at the floor struggling with my words. “I mean that there’s a really good possibility that I may not make it back this time.” The words just fell out of my mouth. “I may not make it back here and I know that. I need you to know that too. I’m going to be alone out there. I don’t want you to be alone down here.”
“Kai, are you telling me to … date someone? Why don’t I just get married while I’m at it? Pop out a child or something?” Ellie spoke incredulously. I could see the frustration in her eyes.
“You’re so damn annoying sometimes, you know that? I’m not saying date someone or make babies or whatever else you think I’m implying.” I pushed her away and turned toward the corridor. We were obviously both too emotional to have a rational conversation. I started to walk out but I abruptly turned back.
“I’m telling you that I need you to live, you twit. I don’t care how you do it. I don’t care if others don’t because you do. You live, Ellie, do you understand me? You have to. I need you to do that for me.”
“What makes me so special, Kai? Why should I live at the expense of others? Why did you come back here just to say things that you know I can’t agree to?”
She was so stubborn and so persistent. She wanted answers. She wanted me to explain everything to her, to tell her what was going on. She hadn’t ever seen me so emotional, so worried, and I knew that she was going to keep pushing my buttons until she got the reply that she wanted.
“Look, if I’m going to make it back here, I need a reason to want to come back. You’re the only person on this entire decrepit piece of junk planet who understands me. If something happens to you, then I don’t have a reason. I’ll let the whole place wither and die and I won’t give it a second thought. So, if you want me to come back safely, you will promise me that you will do whatever it is you have to do!” I took a deep breath and Ellie gazed at me, her mouth agape.
“It may get hard down here while I’m away. I can’t guarantee the generators will stay on as much as we need them to. You have to find a way to be okay, do you understand me?”
“I understand, Kai.”
I pulled her close and hugged her as tightly as I could muster. I could feel her shallow breaths on my neck. “I understand everything,” she whispered.
“Ellie, I have to go now,” I said releasing my hold on her. I saw the smile in her eyes one last time before turning down the corridor toward the exit arena. In that moment, I knew that she understood. She had always been incredibly perceptive. Ellie knew far more than I could ever tell her.