Rounding a curve in the road, Ellie’s headlights flashed across a doe and her fawn as they leapt out in front of her car. She slammed on her brakes and jerked the steering wheel hard to the right, trying to steer her little brown Mustang to the shoulder of the road. She missed the deer, but as they disappeared into the night she was too busy to feel relief.
In the Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri, many of the winding, country roads don’t have paved shoulders. The asphalt just ends in a little lip with grass, weeds, wildflowers or just plain dirt on the side. So when her tires dropped off the edge of the road there was little traction for them to find.
The car spun out, headlights strafing the trees on the other side of a ravine.
“Down, Murph!” she yelled. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him jump to the floorboard of the car.
* * *
Elanor Rose Thompson, the adopted daughter—and only child—of a dairy farmer and his wife, grew up on a farm near Nixa, Missouri. Her childhood was a busy one since she was expected to help out around the house and the farm, but she was a happy.
At home there was no such thing as discrimination.
Ellie’s adoption was a closed one. Neither Ellie nor her adoptive parents had any information about her birth mother and father. No names, no medical histories, and no ethnic backgrounds. With so little to go on, people did what they do best: they guessed.
It was easy for everyone to assume, looking at Ellie, that her parents were African-American. Until she looked back at them. Then they couldn’t help but notice she had blue eyes. No wonder her birth mother gave her up, they said.
She was in first grade when one of the girls in her class pointed at her candy bar and compared the color of Ellie’s skin to Hershey’s chocolate. That evening she stood in front of her dresser mirror and noticed other differences. Her hair wasn’t straight, shiny, blond, or brown. It was wiry, black, and unmanageable even though her mother braided it every morning. Each afternoon she would step off the bus looking like she’d been riding in the back of her uncle’s truck all day. It would be years before they learned that her hair shouldn’t be washed every day.
Ellie’s parents lived very frugally, but didn’t mind splurging on the important things: out-of-print books, her education, and a new car every two years.
“You’re only as dependable as your transportation,” her father said.
Once a month her dad hired two of the neighbor boys to take care of the cattle for an evening while he and Ellie drove to Springfield or Branson or wherever he wanted to go for a day of shopping—for old books. And no matter where they went, he always found at least one to add to his collection.
When she was in the tenth grade she’d asked him if she could buy a few to list on that new internet site called eBay and her new business “It’s All About the Past” was born. Someday she planned to open a used and rare bookstore of her own. After she saved up some money.
She graduated from high school and was offered a scholarship to the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She hadn’t decided on a major, but figured she had a couple of years to decide.
The first day of class she met him.
* * *
Ellie slowly regained consciousness. It was dark. For the first few moments she couldn’t remember where she was until, through the weak light of a dying headlight, she saw the dense trees and patchy vegetation of a forest.
She was still strapped in her seatbelt behind the steering wheel of the little car. She tried to lift her head to find her purse with her cell phone inside, but pain ricocheted through her body when she moved, starting in her neck and radiating down both arms, through her chest and abdomen. Her left leg throbbed all the way down to her toes. She moaned and heard a whine in response.
She didn’t remember the accident, but the car now rested on the driver’s side. Evidently her window was broken because she could feel leaves and twigs under her face. She couldn’t breathe through her nose; maybe it was broken. Dirt crunched in her teeth. She tried to spit it out. Her left arm was pinned beneath her, so she reached up with her right hand to wipe her mouth. Her face felt swollen, moist, and sticky and it burned in several places.
She reached for the seatbelt release and heard the click as it unlatched. She felt the vibration of the buckle when it hit the earth near her face and instinctively closed her eyes. She hadn’t thought to close her mouth, however, and coughed on the dirt. A sharp pain stabbed through her side. Her hand flew to her ribcage. She could feel a sharp lump under her skin so she clamped her teeth together and held her breath to stifle the involuntary coughing reflex.
The pain in her ribs faded to a dull ache and she took several slow, shallow breaths. “Murphy, are you all right?” She felt around her, trying to find him. His answering whine came from a space behind her. She tried again to locate her purse, but her hand came up empty. Fear welled up inside her chest. The old farm dog must be badly injured if he couldn’t get to her. She wondered how long it would take before anyone started to look for them. They probably wouldn’t even notice she was missing until she didn’t show up for work in the morning.
Misty would be hungry by now. Her Cocker Spaniel was confined to the kitchen by a doggy gate, so the mess would be contained at least. She knew the pup had plenty of water, but Miss Ruby, the neighbor who was caring for her while Ellie was gone, wouldn’t know that she hadn’t returned home last night as planned. She probably wouldn’t come over to return the key until after six in the evening.
She had to find her purse. She took as deep a breath as her aching ribs would allow and tried to push up from the ground but she couldn’t find the strength and the intense pain caused her to sag back against the cool earth. She felt a sharp prick as a piece of glass impaled her cheek. She reached around to pull it out, cutting her fingers in the process. She needed to do something . . .
* * *
She walked into the first class of her freshman year, sociology, and sat in the front row. Other students began filing into the classroom in groups or alone. They picked out seats, laughing and talking. Soon the only empty spots were the ones on either side of her.
The first day of any new class was the most difficult for her. It brought back painful memories of being singled out. Like her first day in third grade when that little blond girl Aubrey had walked up to her.
“Why do you have blue eyes?” The girl had asked Ellie.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I didn’t know black people could have blue eyes. You look weird.”
“I’m not black.” She hid her hands behind her back because she felt like slapping the blond girl.
Aubrey put a hand on one hip. “Don’t you have mirrors in that old house of yours?”
“Yes, we have mirrors,” Ellie retorted in a mocking voice.
“Well, maybe you should look in one sometime, because you’re black all over except your eyes and that’s just weird.” She turned on one heel and stomped away.
The memory fled as an older man walked through the door. He had just started his introduction when a couple walked in, holding hands.
“Sorry,” the guy muttered as they split up to sit on either side of her.
The professor didn’t comment. Instead, he picked up a packet of papers and proceeded to pass around his syllabus, commenting on the important sections. Part of the requirements for the course, he told them, was to give a group presentation about one of the subjects listed in the hand-out. Each group had to have at least three people in it and the topics would be filled on a first-come, first-served basis so they should choose sooner rather than later if there was a topic they really wanted.
The young man on her left read quickly through the topics and then his head popped up. He leaned forward to see around Ellie and whispered to his companion that they should choose the sexual mores topic. The girl smiled and said that was fine with her. Then she reminded him that they still had to find another person for their group. He took a quick look around, but his girlfriend looked straight at Ellie.
“Would you like to be a part of our group?” she asked.
“Sure, I guess.” Ellie felt heat flood her face as she thought of their topic.
“Good. I’m Stella Spencer,” the woman said.
Ellie introduced herself.
“And this is my boyfriend, Reid Evans.” Stella gestured to the man on the other side of Ellie.
Reid was just returning to his seat after informing the professor of their topic.
“Reid, this is Ellie Thompson, and she’s going to be the third member of our group.”
His eyes flickered over her and then he looked away. “Nice to meet you,” he said, but she could tell by the smirk on his face and the distant tone in his voice that he didn’t mean it.
The next time they met Reid asked her—while looking away—if she would please exchange places with Stella or him so that they could sit together. She traded with Stella so she could sit as far away as possible from the rude jerk.
She liked Stella, though. She was kind, didn’t appear to be looking down on her, and actually listened to Ellie when they talked. She was beautiful, of course. Her hair was a deep, gorgeous shade of red. Her blue eyes were rimmed with thick, long lashes. She looked like a red-haired version of Grace Kelly, her favorite actress out of her parents’ classic movie collection.
Reid, on the other hand, only seemed to notice Stella. He ignored Ellie, for the most part, and she wished she could do the same to him. It might be easier, she admitted to herself, if she wasn’t attracted to tall men with sandy brown hair, dark brown eyes and athletic bodies. And who smelled really, really good.
The three of them worked on the group presentation together. Reid did his part, planning his section of the lecture and PowerPoint presentation and even shocking her with some helpful suggestions when she had trouble locating a source. It was the first time he’d actually looked at her when he spoke and she was so shocked she couldn’t utter a word in response.
Two days before the presentation, Reid rushed into the classroom and plopped down beside her. He looked frazzled—his hair disheveled and his clothing rumpled—as he leaned over to talk to her. She recoiled in surprise.
“Stella’s in the hospital,” he whispered, gesturing with his hand for her to move closer. “She hasn’t been able to keep food down. They’re removing her gall bladder in the morning which means she won’t be here for the presentation. Do you think we can handle her part on our own or should I ask the prof for an extension?”
She thought about it for a second. “No, we have her outline and we’ve listened to her part so we could probably cover if you want to. We might want to run through it though.”
He nodded. “That’s probably a good idea. Stella feels terrible about this, but I think she’ll also be relieved not to have to worry about it anymore.”
He smiled, looking her in the eyes. Her heart raced. She smiled back.
“I’ll call you,” he whispered as the professor walked in.
* * *
The next time Ellie opened her eyes, dappled sunlight filtered through the deep green leaves of the forest and she got her first glimpse of their situation. She looked herself over, trying to determine the extent of her injuries. Her left arm was misshapen under her skin. Definitely broken, but it didn’t look like the bone had broken through the skin. Of course she couldn’t look at it too closely without feeling queasy. She tried to wiggle a finger but almost passed out from the pain. Her left leg still throbbed, but wasn’t as painful as her arm. She couldn’t see very well from her left eye, which was almost swollen shut.
Her car was a smashed and twisted pile of metal and vinyl and glass. The back seat and the roof of the car almost met from where something—a tree probably—had stopped her plunge. If she’d been sitting in the passenger seat, she’d have lost her legs.
“Murphy!” He’d been lying on the passenger floorboard before the wreck. “You still with me old boy?” A rustling sound from behind reassured her and then a black and white head appeared over the side of her seat. He whined as he laid his head on her arm. She scratched his ear as tears welled up. “I’m sorry, boy. I was trying to keep you safe. Hang in there, okay?” He licked her face and turned away. The way he lurched as he did, told her he was injured too.
Fear and agony took turns overwhelming her. She fought against the sobs that tried to break free, knowing her ribs would protest. Her arm and leg throbbed with each beat of her heart.
She tried to lie still—the pain was less excruciating—but every once in a while her body would stiffen, muscles cramping up in prolonged spasms, and she’d lose consciousness from the intense pain.
Ellie lost track of the hours, unable to tell by the light outside what time of day it was. Surely someone was out looking for her by now. Had they called her parents? They were probably panicking. They’re going to kill me if I die . . .