He noticed the way she moved first. Fluid and graceful. She was slender and tall, her hair unfashionably long, in a way that lent to the sense that she was exotic; a creature from a far away land. Her eyes were the ocean in all of its moods.
“Can I help you find anything?” Daniel asked hopefully. She’d been through each aisle of the bookstore twice, running her long fingers along the spines distractedly. She wasn’t there for a book.
“Perhaps,” she said. He couldn’t place her accent. He felt his knees tremble and threaten to give way when she turned her ocean eyes on him. “Are you truly able to help me find anything, or is it a phrase?” Her gaze was sincere, but quickly she blushed and smiled in embarrassment. “You meant any kind of book,” she said.
“I’ll help you find anything,” said Daniel.
It had come out more as a declaration, something spilling out before it could be censored. His throat went dry and he looked out the windows to the not so busy street. When he turned back, she was amused. He always gave away too much. This would be the part where she’d crush his well abused heart. The method was always a little different; mockery, disinterest… name one. He’d suffered them all. At the point when he revealed how he felt, how much more he felt than the woman before him, some invisible switch would flip. It was like it was hardwired into them. A feminal instinct to pounce at the first sign of weakness.
“I believe you will,” she said, smiling in a way that made it hard for Daniel to breathe.
Daniel waited for the pain, but she said no more. She slipped her long fingers into his palm and led him out the door. It was a small afterthought that made him run back and lock up the shop, flipping the CLOSED sign, even though the day was yet young in its afternoon.
Her name was a mile long, but began with “Ella,” so that’s what he called her. Ella. His miracle. She moved in with him that night, though she had no belongings. More accurately she stayed, and continued to stay until his home was as much hers. Daniel’s friends accused him of everything from mail-ordering a bride to hiring an actress, but eventually even they began to believe that Ella was there of her own free will.
With Ella’s help, Daniel’s once virtually unnoticed bookstore became a local hub for music and arts. He had to move shelves to make room for a small performance area, and a coffee kiosk bloomed outside his door, with tables and chairs under umbrellas spotting the sidewalk. He hired a couple of high school students to take shifts part time so that he could keep up with the increase in business management needs and his now filled social calendar.
Ella lived with a passion that frustrated and inspired Daniel in equal measure. She devoured books, and then kept him up late at night, picking them apart. Her moods flew from calm to storm in a second, and to love and jubilation in the next. She had this carefree manner that assumed the world would bequeath her anything she wished, and most often in those moments when he was explaining that things don’t work that way, it would. Yet for all of the time that stitched them closer together, and those quiet, intimate moments of honesty that merge souls, she never once talked about her life before him.
“It is far away,” she’d say to any questions, and though he understood and respected that she wanted to leave her past in the past, it began to hurt that she would keep something so large a secret.
“Just tell me your parents’ names,” he begged one day while they closed up the shop.
“You won’t know them,” she scoffed. “Why do you wish to know these things?”
“Because, good or bad, our past is what makes us. I want to know as much of you as I can.”
“It is our moment that makes us who we are,” she disagreed. “The past means nothing in the moment, except as a reference manual filled with outdated stuff. I would hate to be today the person I was yesterday.”
“Just humor me,” Daniel groaned. “I’ll never meet them anyway. What are their names?”
Ella’s eyes went distant, and sorrow filled them. “My father was a great man once, though he lived his latter days in hiding and shame,” she said.
A lump welled in Daniel’s throat. He hadn’t meant to gash into old wounds. Really, he would have been happy with nothing more than their names. But he didn’t stop her.
“My mother kept herself muted, like a light bulb that dims. Anyone who knew her could see that she was glistening, like a star, but she lived quietly in my father’s shadow, propping him up to what light was left.”
She moved to the calendar and started reviewing the schedule. Daniel followed her there and massaged her neck. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Why don’t we schedule Kiri and Amber to take the weekend shifts and you and I can run away to the beach?”
Ella slapped his hands away. “How dare you!”
Daniel stared at the door for a long while after she left. It wasn’t her first mercurial moment, but this had been the fiercest he’d ever seen. At times like these, Daniel usually struggled with his own temper. First against the unfairness of her emotional outbursts. His resentment told him she was enjoying a luxury that he couldn’t share, being able to scream and stomp like a baby and expect the world to make way. One of them had to be the adult; help them get through, and every time, it was him by default. The stable one. As his own hurt subsided, a calmer voice usually reasoned him out of the angry tirade he was compiling to launch at her. It wasn’t a matter of balances, it would argue. The truth was that he loved her. And as much as he hated her tempestuous nature, she wouldn’t be Ella without it.
He found her reading in her windowsill. It wasn’t the widest of their windows, and she looked cramped and uncomfortable in there, but she’d insisted that he build it out for her as soon as she saw it and he’d done as she asked. She spent long hours folded into that small space, lapping up sunlight like a cat.
“I’m worried that you’ll get stuck in there,” he said in a limp effort at humor. “One too many cookies and I’ll have to pry you out with a crowbar and grease.”
Ella’s gaze said she wasn’t impressed.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was just curious about their names. You didn’t have to tell me the rest.” His voice lost conviction. They both knew he’d have pressed her for more eventually.
“No,” she sighed, “I’m sorry. Promise me we never have to go to the beach?”
The beach? Daniel was dumbstruck. Of her revelation about her parents’ sad past and the pain she obviously suffered thinking about them, it had been the beach that set her off? Daniel’s temper swelled.
“Sure, princess,” he snapped. Her eyes grew wide in shock. Daniel never spoke to her roughly. He always took that extra few minutes to calm down before approaching her. Well, he’d just found his limit. “Anything else I can do for you? Hang the moon in a different part of the sky?” Ella gasped, her eyes flooding. She looked utterly betrayed. Good. For once, she’d see how it felt to be held hostage by someone else’s anger. “Have I never mentioned? I don’t like skiing. And if you so much as mention taking me near a mountain, I’m going to FREAK OUT on you! Just a heads-up. That’s a courtesy. You know, letting a person know there’s a minefield coming in advance so they can avoid stepping in it.”
Daniel felt good as he stormed out. It had been a long time coming. A long, long time. He had half a mind to stay out all night. Punish her by making her worry. Make her think about how one-sided she made their relationship. He walked without aim until the worst of his anger eased off, then ran through the list of friends he might visit. Every last one of them would ask about Ella. He didn’t want to talk about her. He didn’t want to think about her, though that was all he’d managed to do. He went to the shop, but just stood outside looking in at the dark walls of books. The comfortable seating that Ella had arranged. The amplifier and microphone that Ella had insisted they buy for the musicians. It hadn’t even been an hour when he found himself home again. So much for resolve.
The apartment was quiet. It didn’t take long to discover that she wasn’t home. So, she’d decided to punish him back. He wouldn’t give in. He wouldn’t call. The shower was wet, and in her usual Ella fashion, every towel and washcloth seemed to have been involved in one way or another, leaving the bathroom looking like it had been hit by a tornado. Daniel left them this time. She could clean them up. He’d done it enough.
The hours ticked on. Ella was certainly more experienced in tantrums, but by midnight Daniel was officially worried. Ella’s temper was in the moment. It flashed and then died out. She’d never made him suffer like this. He roused every last one of their friends from bed or parties. None of them had heard from her.
“Ella? Yeah, I saw her,” said Carla at last. Daniel almost hadn’t called her. She was a long-shot. They generally met up at dinner parties and he’d had to research her phone number once she came to mind. “We bumped into each other a few hours ago near your shop,” she said.
“The shop!” Daniel couldn’t believe he hadn’t checked there yet. That’s where he’d gone, after all.
“She was just coming from there,” said Carla. “She said she was going to the beach. Sounded like a weird time of night to be heading to the beach, but that’s Ella. You know?”
“Yes,” said Daniel. He did know. That was Ella. He was marginally aware of completing the conversation with Carla so he could hang up. Which beach? What was up with Ella and beaches? And how did she intend to get there?
Daniel searched the bus depot, every cab company he could find, and after no results, the streets in random order. He opened the shop the next morning still wearing the same clothes, and when Amber showed up for her shift, he left the keys to the shop with her and went home. He didn’t remember collapsing on the bed but when he woke up some time later, that’s where he found himself. When he tried to report Ella missing the the police, their routine questions blossomed to suspicion the more he spoke. No, he couldn’t remember her full name. Yes, they’d lived together for a year. No, he’d never seen her ID. He had no idea what country she was from originally. No, he still didn’t know her parents’ names.
Their friends posted pictures of Ella everywhere, and though they had plenty of leads, none of them were Ella. Daniel borrowed a car and began to visit beaches. It was an act of desperation and he knew it. Finally, standing on the very beach he’d meant to take her to, it hit him that she was truly gone. She’d taken nothing, but she’d come with nothing as well. For all he knew, there had been a hundred other Daniels in a hundred other cities, and she was busy finding her next one. His knees met the sand as he choked out a sob. If only she’d done what all other women did and crushed his hopes that first day. This was ten times crueler. If only he had her luck. That Ella charm that said, “world, I want something. Deliver it to me!” He laughed humorlessly. He just wanted to see her again. Just once.
Something large splashed against the waves. This beach was known for its dolphin sightings. Daniel scanned the shifting water. There was something out there. A seal maybe? From this distance it was little more than a dark head bobbing behind incoming waves. Then a thin arm scooped at the air. Someone was swimming in toward him. He ran his sleeve across his cheeks and brushed the sand from his knees. It was a woman, and she wasn’t wearing a stitch. He looked around for her towel or clothes but he was alone on the beach. Should he leave so she wouldn’t be uncomfortable? He hesitated. She didn’t seem daunted at all by his presence. And then he recognized her.
“Ella?” Oh, thank God, the Universe, and every other power that be! He was splashing through the waves toward her. “Ella!”
She was cool. She’d been in the water for a long time. She wrapped her arms around his neck and smiled when she kissed him.
“You wish to know about my home?” she said.
“I don’t care,” said Daniel, kissing her again and again. “I’m sorry, and I love you, and I don’t care about your past. Just come home. Please.”
Ella smiled. Her arms were incredibly strong for being so slender, and her legs managed to propel them with amazing speed away from the shore.
“The beach is that way,” said Daniel, struggling to keep his face in the air. “Where are we going?”
“Home,” she said.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!