Ella’s feet hurt. She wasn’t used to the heels; and how long had she been walking now? Time, since she had stormed out of the hall, had become an irrelevance. All that she knew was that she had been walking long enough to make her feet hurt.
But Ella didn’t care that her feet hurt. The pain served as a guide, a comfort even. A physical companion to the pain she felt internally. So she kept on walking, to where she did not know. But she knew she had to keep walking, to keep feeling the pain in her feet, for if she stopped and that pain died down, all she’d be left with was the pain of the night before she started walking; and from the day before that; and from all the days before today.
Ella walked past cosy houses with pretty gardens and families sleeping contentedly inside. She walked past apartment blocks and coffee shops, salons and restaurants, all quiet and dark. After a while she walked past 24 hour launderettes and all-night diners; lit up and jarring against the moonless sky, but still soulless and empty. Ella did not notice the car trundle past, neither fast nor slow on the quiet street. She turned a corner and found herself on a main street, a truck rolling by and a little more traffic further down the road, going about its late-night business unconcerned with Ella. None of which she registered.
Ella’s mind was full of angry questions. Why had she agreed to go? She knew it was a bad plan. How could she have been so stupid? Why could she not see what was going to happen? Why didn’t she stand up for herself? Why did no-one see her side? Why was she alone, again?
With each step these questions replayed over and over again in her head. With each step the pain intensified and the anger fuelled. And with each step she left the dance, the school, her home, her so-called friends and her family further and further behind. Her pretty, shiny dress, appearing so normal and appropriate in her affluent, BMW stacked neighbourhood, just one of a hundred or more similar dresses earlier that evening, looked now so out of place and alarming so as to be a warning sign, like the brightly coloured markings on a poisonous frog. Ella kept walking, through unfamiliar territory, past garages, closed up shops and paycheck lenders. Still the questions in her head, still the anger, still the pain.
At some time later the anger, the pain and the questions became overshadowed by tiredness, and thirst. Finally she stopped to look around, not taking too much in about her surroundings as she quickly identified what she was looking for. She set off again toward the gas station just across the intersection.
As she entered the dilapidated store an old man, almost as dilapidated as the store, looked up from behind the counter. He muttered something in Chinese and went back to checking his phone. Ella walked over to the coolers and grabbed a bottle of water. She heard the door of the store open and close but did not see who came in. Or perhaps she did see, but did not give any attention to it. She put the bottle down on the counter and reached for her purse. There was a sudden realisation that she had not taken any money with her this evening. There should have been no need for any. All that was in the purse would be whatever change was left over from last time she used it. When was that? Maybe her mother had used it and may have left some change in there…
Ella pulled out a few small coins. 75c. She stared down at the coins, as if willing them to change into dollar bills.
“Two dollars” the old man said without looking up.
Ella’s eyes continued to look down at the coins in her hand. “I only have 75c.” she said quietly.
“Two dollars” the old man repeated.
“Please.” she said, looking up and trying to force a smile. But the old man did not see Ella’s pleading eyes. He did not see the mascara running down her cheeks from the tears. He did not see the frown on her brow or general look of defeat creeping uncontrollably across her face. He did not see a young girl, tired, sad, in pain, far from home and although she did not know it, lost; in need of a kind word or gesture. Instead he continued looking down at his phone.
“Mister, please. Look, I’m, er… I’m not having… I mean, I’ve walked…”
“You have two dollars, you take the water. You don’t, you don’t. No favours.” said the old man coldly, the way he probably said it a hundred times a day.
Ella put the 75c back into her purse, turned and headed for the door. “Thanks for nothing. Fuck you, you prick!” she spat out as she slammed the door.
“Hey! Watch my door! You little shit!” said the old man, to no-one.
A hand slammed on the counter, making the old man jump. Underneath the hand was a fifty dollar bill.
“I’ll take the gas on 3… and that bottle of water.” said a youthful but weary voice. “You should be ashamed of yourself, Charlie. You coulda cut that girl a little slack, she’s clearly not your usual skank you get in here.”
“This isn’t a charity shop!” the old man retorted. “Not here to be prince charming to little girls I am. Too old for that, ha, ha!”
“You certainly are not Prince Charming, that’s for sure.” said the young man and he grabbed his change and headed for the door.
Ella had headed off, in what direction she didn’t know, but the pain in her feet was starting to take on a more serious toll. And suddenly she felt tired, physically and mentally. Was there a seat somewhere? Maybe a bus stop she could rest at? The streets looked darker now and empty. The silence rung in Ella’s ears.
“Hey!” a voice came from nowhere.
“Hey, little lady!” it came again. Ella looked around and was startled to see a car creeping along just behind her. A guy was leaning out of the driver’s window, waving something in his hand at her.
“Get lost creep!” Ella instinctively responded. The car lurched forward a few yards in front of her and then stopped. The door opened and the driver got out. A tall athletic young man, probably in his early twenties, with a baseball cap, gold chains, jeans and bright white sneakers on. To Ella he looked just like a fresh hip hop star or TV show drug dealer. She could see a couple of other people were in the car too. And then the car. A BMW, but not like the ones in her neighbourhood. This one was lower to the ground, a spoiler on the back and fancier wheels. Oh god, this probably actually is a drug dealer, thought Ella. Suddenly as this man came toward her, waving something in his hand, she became scared. Suddenly she realised that she wasn’t in her neighbourhood any more. Is this guy going to kill me? Or worse… A million scenarios started popping into Ella’s head. She tensed, ready to fight. But before she had a chance to do anything the guy was in front of her.
“Hey.” he smiled. “I saw you in the store there. That guy was being a jerk. Here’s your water.”
“Uh. Oh. Er…” was all Ella could muster.
“You look like you need it.” said the drug dealer.
Ella regained a little composure.
“Yes. Er, thank you.” she said. “Thank you.” And she quickly cracked the cap on the bottle and took a long swig.
The drug dealer watched and smiled as she did so. There was a yell from one of the other people in the car, but he waved it down with his arm, keeping his focus on Ella.
“I’m Del.” he said finally and held out his hand.
“Ella” she said. And met his hand shake.
“Pleased to meet you.” said Del. And as they shook hands both felt a strange tingle. A dash of electricity and an unconscious smile. A connection was made. One of those rare connections that only happens when two souls, whose fates are intertwined meet for the first time. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity to both of them, they let go of each other’s hand.
“So, what’s a pretty young thing like you doing out here in the middle of the night?” asked Del. “You know this place aint safe for a young girl…”
“I, dunno.” said Ella. “I was kinda just walking. Needed to get away. And I’m not scared. I can look after myself if there’s any trouble.”
“Ha! Ha! Yes, I’m sure you can.” laughed Del, somewhat dismissively, “And well, where are you going? Home? Where do you live?”
“Not home! No. God no. Not home.” said Ella aggressively.
“Ok! Ok! Not home. Got it. Where then? Maybe me and the boys can give you a ride there?”
“Oh, er. I don’t know…”
“It’s ok. You’ll be safe. I guarantee we won’t harm you. Me and the guys are princes, you know.” he said with a smile and an almost wink. “I just think, you know, it really is not safe for you to be walking out round here alone.”
“No, I mean, I’m sure you’re right and that you and your friends are really nice and all, but what I mean is I don’t know where I am going…”
“Oh. Ok. Well, you can’t stay here. Like I said, it’s not safe. I think, you know, you really probably should let us take you home, I’d feel really bad leaving you here.”
“Hey Del, we gotta go!!” came a yell from the car.
“I’m good.” Ella said. “You go. I can look after myself.” And she forced a half-smile as she looked Del in the eye briefly. And then she started to move around Del and walk away. Instantly the pain in her feet became real again and she winced as she wandered away.
Del watched her hobble off for a moment.
“Aaah. Damn it!” Del muttered to himself. He took a step and grabbed her shoulder.
“Look. I can’t just leave you here. I don’t want to hear on the news tomorrow morning about how you were taken from the street and raped and murdered. That would be on me and I can’t live with that on my conscience.” he said, trying to put a fake joviality on a sentiment he truly meant.
“Why don’t you come and hang out with us for a little while. At least until you’re rested up and have an idea of somewhere more appropriate we can take you? You never know, hanging out with us might be more fun than it looks like you have been having so far this evening…”
Ella was far too fierce and independent to let anyone tell her that she needed protecting, but right now she was too exhausted to make a rational argument that staying alone on the street was a safer option, and maybe he was right about the fun. Tonight couldn’t get much worse, could it? So she just smiled at Del and hobbled in the direction of his car. Del smiled a brief, barely noticeable smile as he led Ella back across the road. He hadn’t stopped to think at all about why he was helping this young girl or indeed, whether he was in fact helping her or not, but it felt right.