Chapter Three

A jarring sound shattered her peacefulness. No! No, no, no, no, no! Ellie tried to get back to the quiet but a bright light hurt her eyes. “Elanor Thompson? Elanor? Can you hear me? Elanor!” She tried to shield her eyes and heard him shout “She’s alive!”

She faded in and out, too exhausted to feel relief or frustration at the voices talking around her. She just didn’t care. She tried to respond when a woman asked where the dog went. They’d found Murphy’s body. Would they just discard him? She wanted to bury him out on the farm. But her mouth couldn’t form the words and she slipped away again.

The sound of a machine revving up jolted her awake. Right on top of that overwhelming noise, the loud screech of metal being sawn apart caused her to cover one ear and grit her teeth. A couple of blankets covered her, as well as something heavier that pressed her down. In spite of the noise, she couldn’t stay awake for long. Sleep was so peaceful.

Fingers probing her neck woke her up again. Her eyelids felt so heavy, but she forced them open. A man crouched beside her. She saw him clearly in the light of a new day.  

“Elanor Thompson?” A low, friendly voice asked.

“Yes,” she croaked. She tried to swallow. “Water?”

“We’ll have you out as soon as possible. We have to stabilize you before we can move you.”

She squeezed her eyes closed as her heart pounded with fear. She still felt no pain, but she remembered the agony she’d endured before. She had a feeling her reprieve was almost over.

The paramedic worked quickly, putting a brace around her neck, immobilizing her head, shoulders and torso. It hadn’t hurt at all, so she hoped maybe her pain block would continue. Maybe he’d given her a shot while she slept? She sighed.

Then he looked her in the eye. “I’m sorry, Elanor, but this next part is probably going to be tough. Just hang on and we’ll get you something for the pain.” She took a deep breath and bit down on her lower lip.

It didn’t help. As soon as he touched her arm, she screamed in agony. She’d thought the pain before was bad. That was nothing compared to what she felt now.

“Stop! Oh God, please make it stop!” she sobbed, trying to push him away.

He caught her arm and strapped it down beside her hip. A stiff board held her head motionless as well. “Elanor, fighting me will only jar your broken arm more. Calm down and let me finish so I can get you something for the pain.”

“Sorry, sorry, sorry. Oh God, it hurts so bad. Please, please hurry.”  

“I’m trying to. Hang on.”

She tried to hold still for him, all the while begging that he’d just leave her and let her die.

“I’ve stabilized as much as I can from this position. We’re going to have to lift you out now.”

“Just let me rest for a few minutes, please. I don’t know how much more I can take.”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t do that. We need to get you to the hospital, Elanor.”

“Ellie. Just call me Ellie.”

“Okay, Ellie. Just a few more minutes and we’ll have you out of here.”Someone touched her foot and she screamed again. Pain shot through her, making her teeth and every inch of her skin ache in a sudden, overwhelming crescendo of fire.

* * *

Ellie woke in the ambulance. She had an oxygen mask over her face and an IV bag hanging near her head. Her pain continued to be severe and she moaned.

A man leaned over her, into her line-of-sight. “I’m sorry, Ellie, but the doctor won’t authorize any pain meds until you’ve been evaluated. You could have internal injuries. We’re only a few minutes from the hospital. Hang in there. You’re doing great.”

She licked her lips, noticing a funny taste in her mouth. The ambulance braked quickly and hit a large bump. She felt it magnified through all of the broken places in her body and begged them for something to help with the pain.

“We’re almost there. You’re doing great, Ellie.”

Her eyes drifted closed and her body felt heavy all over. She welcomed the respite from the pain but wanted to tell him something, just in case. “If I die, please tell my parents that I love them. And tell them to take Misty to Reid. He’ll find her a good home.”

“You’re not going to die,” the paramedic said. “You can tell your parents yourself when you see them.”

Ellie fought back the heaviness for a few moments. “But it hurts so much. I’m not sure I want to live anymore.”

“Keep fighting, Ellie. The pain won’t last much longer. We’re almost to the hospital.”

“Misty, my dog. She won’t understand why I’m gone.” She sighed. “Oh Murphy.”

* * *

Ellie drifted in a fog of medication. She knew she was in a hospital and, in her few waking moments, recognized her father and mother. They’d told her she’d broken her left arm, shattered her left ankle, and cracked three ribs. The doctors said it was a miracle she hadn’t punctured a lung. She had multiple lacerations on her face, arms, and chest. Her nose was indeed broken. And she had a concussion which explained the mini seizures she’d had while she was pinned in the Mustang.

She’d already had two surgeries to place a plate and screws in her ankle and pins in her arm. She would need plastic surgery on her face after the swelling went down. It was a lot to handle with the pain and the drugs, not to mention the guilt she felt every time her father came to visit her. She knew he had to hire someone to milk the cows, but whenever she tried to bring it up, they’d shut her down with reassurances that these sorts of things were precisely why emergency funds existed.

The fourth day after she’d arrived at the hospital, she asked her mom who was taking care of her dog. Her mother smiled; her father rolled his eyes. The look they exchanged said a lot.

“I’ve asked you this before, haven’t I?”

“Yes, sweetie, several times.” Her mother winked.

“Several hundred times, you mean.” Her dad teased.

“Reid picked Misty up the same day your dad called him. I’m sure he’s taking excellent care of her.”

Ellie blinked, confused. “I told you to ask Reid to take care of Misty for me?”

“Yes, dear. Don’t you remember?”

She shook her head. 

“You told us over and over that Reid would know what to do. So your father called him and asked him to look after her. Miss Ruby has been meeting him at your apartment. He really is a very nice man, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he is. He must think I’m a nutcase, though, to ask him to take care of my dog out-of-the-blue like that. I hope she’s being good for them.”

“Of course she is. You’ve trained her so well, sweetie.”

“Mmhmmm,” she replied, distracted.

Her stomach churned. Something was wrong; something that was unsettling about the fact that Reid had been in her home. And, like a splinter buried just out of reach, she couldn’t dig up the answer.

* * *

Later that evening Miss Ruby unlocked Ellie’s apartment to let Reid in but she didn’t open the door. “Wouldn’t it be easier if you just took the dog home with you? She’s got to be lonely here alone all day long. I don’t think that’s what Ellie had in mind.”

“Ellie works during the day, too, doesn’t she?” Reid waited for her answer. Miss Ruby nodded. “So the pup’s used to it. I play with her every night before I leave.” He cleared his throat. “You know, what would make this easier would be if you loaned me Ellie’s key. Her dad has been here vouching for me, and I’ll give it back as soon as Ellie’s home.”

Miss Ruby’s eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips. Finally she shook a finger up at him. “You better take good care of that dog. If you let anything happen to her, you’ll have Ellie and me to answer to.”

“Don’t worry, Ma’am,” Reid said, holding out his hand for the key, “I’ll take great care of her until Ellie comes home. I’ll spoil her until she’s impossible to live with. He smiled down at the diminutive old woman.          

“I don’t think that dog could get any more spoiled,” she retorted. “But it sounds like you’ve got the right idea.” She paused. “Are you married?” She pointed at his empty ring finger.

“Yeah, I just can’t seem to keep track of my wedding ring. I’ve lost it three times now.”

“Fiddlesticks! I’d hoped Ellie had finally met someone when I saw you here with her father.”

He chuckled. “Ellie and I went to college together, but we were only friends. She’s always been too good at judging a person’s character to fall for someone like me. But, thanks for the key, Miss Ruby. You’ll get it back.”

He opened the door to Ellie’s apartment to find that the little fur ball had broken down the dog gate and made a huge mess. It looked like she’d found every trash can in the apartment and emptied their contents, one tissue or piece of paper at a time, on the living room carpet. Then she’d shredded all of it.

Thankfully, she’d returned to the kitchen to do her business on her puppy housetraining pads. Reid was proud of himself for that find. No more big messes spread out on the kitchen floor. He just wadded up the used pad and put a new one down every day. Ingenious invention!

He looked around as he circled the apartment picking up after the dog. For the past three days, he’d cleaned up the puppy’s mess and taken her for a walk, unable to handle to stench in the apartment, but those puppy pads must have a deodorizer built in because he couldn’t smell anything today. Either that or he was getting used to the smell.

Reid had never been in any of Ellie’s dorm rooms when they were in college or in any of her apartments afterward. He liked what he saw. Ellie had a well-decorated, very inviting home. She evidently liked antiques and had purchased some beautiful pieces that blended well with the rest of her slip-covered furniture.

Her wall art consisted mostly of nature photography—waterfalls, flowers, mountains and streams—with one exception. Reid crossed the living room to study the photos. This wall appeared to be an important one to Ellie. It had an antique desk pushed up against it, with her writing materials carefully arranged. A bulky black bag sat on the floor near his feet.

Pulling her chair out, he sat down at the desk, trying to see the wall the way she would. He vaguely remembered her saying she’d grown up on a farm but it had never crossed his mind that she might miss it. Now he sat at her desk studying each picture and appreciating the simple beauty of the subject. Each photo was a tribute to a country barn.

Some looked new, with bright, barn-red paint. Others looked older, with chipped, faded paint. And the largest one, which occupied the center spot right above her desk, looked old, but well maintained. Its doors were standing wide open and a gray-haired man, driving an old John Deere tractor, was emerging through them. The picture had been taken in the fall. The leaves were a riot of reds, yellows and oranges. Low mountains trailed off into the distance. It was an entrancing, tranquil scene.

He looked around the room again. So many photos, but all within a theme.  Something clicked in his mind and he turned back to the black bag, hoisting it up onto the desk. She hadn’t zipped it closed the last time she’d used it. Inside were two digital cameras and several different lenses. He picked up the first one, a very nice Nikon, and was tempted to turn it on to see her photos. He put it away and picked up the other one, an even more intimidating Canon. She would probably laugh at his little auto-focus Fuji. He put the second camera away, closed the bag, and set it back where she had left it. He leaned back to admire the photo over her desk—the one he felt sure must be of her parent’s farm—with awe and a little jealousy that she had a place like that to go back to.

He got up to continue his clean-up when a bright color caught his eye. A red, high-heeled shoe. A chewed up, red, high-heeled shoe to be precise, which was lying on its side in the hallway. He hoped those shoes hadn’t been favorites. He’d gotten distracted by the photos, but now he followed the trail of destruction into the bedroom and found the miscreant on top of Ellie’s bed. She was lying across a book. A book with chewed corners, no less. He grabbed a corner and whipped it out from under the dog; Misty did one complete roll and landed back on her feet, tail wagging energetically.

“If you don’t cut this out, you’re going to get us both into trouble.” Misty cocked her head to one side and Reid plopped down on the bed beside her. He stroked her long, silky ears, laughing when her back foot pawed at the air. He stopped, the pawing stopped. She waited to see if he would continue. When he didn’t, she turned around a few times and curled into a ball on top of her pillow.

Reid looked back at the book he’d probably have to replace. But it wasn’t a book, it was her journal. A lavender ribbon, frayed at the end, had fallen out of it. He flipped through the book to find her last entry, where the ribbon should go, but something caught his eye. His name.  

A small part of his brain warned him that what he was reading was personal and not meant to be read by anyone other than the author. But it fell open to the day he’d shown her Stella’s engagement ring, and reading his words—spoken without thinking—and her reactions drew him further in. He read past his wedding day, understanding for the first time why she didn’t come over anymore.

He leafed through the earlier part of the journal, finding the day they met and reading his name where she’d written it for the first time. He read through the entire journal, could see—through her words— his metamorphosis from “jerk” to friend and then to what she wished could have been so much more. All those years and she hadn’t said a single word. Never letting on, because—as she wrote— that would have betrayed Stella and she wouldn’t have been able to handle that guilt

Guilt. That was the emotion he felt most intensely now. For as he read their interactions from her perspective he saw how unknowingly callous he’d been toward her. She was just a girlfriend of Stella’s. An unwanted girlfriend, often enough. How many times had he begged Stella not to invite her to something because he saw her as a distraction or maybe even competition for Stella’s attention? Now he wished he could go back and do things differently.

His attention drifted around the room. Her bedroom was a mix of blues and whites, and more antiques. The bed frame was cast iron with thin black spindles and copper accents. It looked like it belonged in an Audrey Hepburn movie. There was a blue, yellow and white quilt folded across the foot of the bed, with a plain white one covering the blue floral sheets. The pillows—and there were a lot of them—were a jumble of solid blue, floral blue and blue ticking stripes. He couldn’t believe they all went together, but somehow they did.

The walls were painted a very pale blue. Her windows were rivers of sheer white material flowing from black iron rods into a white puddle on the wood floors below. There was a massive oak wardrobe on one wall. And instead of photos, there were vivid watercolor paintings hanging on these walls.

A black bundle of fur jumped up at him and he fell on the bed. “Misty, no!” She darted back and forth, licking his face with her small pink tongue. He rolled to his side, laughing. She got in several good swipes at his nose, chin and ears before he could restrain her. “Yuck! Enough already.”

He rolled onto his back again, holding the little dog in both hands above him. Her small head was hanging down toward him, tongue still lapping and all four legs pawing the air as she tried to reach him again.

“C’mon, girl. Let’s go for our walk.” He tucked her under one arm and left the now-rumpled room.

* * *

Later that evening, Ellie awoke from one of her many naps to find her parents sitting in chairs next to her bed. Her mom looked like she’d been crying and that made Ellie nervous. “Mom, what’s wrong?”

Her mother looked to her father, who gave her the go-ahead-and-tell-her nod. Her mother took a deep breath, set her shoulders, and blew out her breath in a huff. “We have some bad news. Your dad has been out at the scene of the accident every day calling for him, but he hasn’t showed up. We think maybe Murphy’s . . . gone.”

Ellie frowned and her father touched her cheek, drawing her attention to him. “Don’t worry, baby, I’ll keep searching for as long as you want me to.”

Ellie blinked up at him. “Murphy died before I was rescued, Dad.”

“What? Oh, no honey. He was alive. The paramedics said he led them to you.”

“Murphy did?”

“The paramedics described him perfectly. Black and white Border Collie with a blue, reflective collar.” Her dad looked down. “They said he wasn’t using one of his front paws. He had a pretty bad cut on the injured one, but when they tried to catch him, he ran away.”

“He might have left so he could . . . go . . . alone. Some dogs like to be alone at the end.” Her mom had tears in her eyes again.

Ellie nodded. “It’s okay, Dad. You don’t have to go back looking for him. I’ll go one last time when I’m able to. Thanks for trying to find him, though. I love you both. So very much.”

“I’m sorry we couldn’t find him for you. I know how much you loved him.” Her dad’s voice was gruff with emotion.

Ellie closed her eyes. “I did love him. I always will.” Tears slipped from beneath her closed eyelids and Ellie calmed her breathing so her parents would think she was asleep. She couldn’t talk anymore. Murphy had led the paramedics to her? Had she dreamed he’d died and he’d actually escaped to save her life? She vividly recalled touching his cold body and seeing him curled in that ball for hours before she was rescued the next morning. If he’d been alive, surely she’d have known it. So how did he lead the rescuers to her? She fell asleep trying to figure out what had happened.

Chapter Two

One afternoon, toward the end of Ellie’s senior year, Reid caught up to her in the hall after one of her classes. She hadn’t seen him in several weeks although she spoke to Stella often. She tried not to spend too long looking into those eyes that were such a dark brown she could barely see the pupils. Tried not to pay attention to how wonderful he smelled.

“You busy right now?” He fell into step with her.

“No, not really. I just need to grab something for lunch before my 1:30 class. Where’s Stella?”

“Studying, as usual. C’mon, I’ll buy you a burger on the way to my apartment. I want to show you something.” She was surprised. She’d never been invited to his place without Stella. He took her backpack and threw it over his shoulder. “Don’t worry; I’ll have you back in plenty of time for your class. This won’t take long.”

“Okay, then.” She tried to relax. He was offering to buy her lunch and drive her to his apartment, both of which she’d literally dreamed about. And both of which meant absolutely nothing to him.

He held doors open for her, just like he did for Stella, but kept a friendly distance between them. It didn’t help. She seemed to react to his nearness anyway, intensely aware that he walked beside her. She unzipped her coat as soon as they were in his car, trying to cool down. He turned up the heater. She heard him sigh.

“Your hair looks nice today, by the way.” He glanced at her. “What did you do to it?”

“It’s called a spiral perm.” She rolled her eyes, knowing he’d still have no idea what she was talking about.

“I like it. It makes your hair look . . . nice. Which reminds me, do you remember a guy named Scott at the last party we went to?” She shook her head. “Oh, well, he said you were cute and asked if you were seeing anyone. I told him I thought you were available, but that he should probably ask Stella to be sure. She knows that kind of stuff, right?”

“Right.” Her stomach sank. They obviously never talked about her.

When they got to his apartment he led her right to his bedroom. “Sorry about the mess. Stella makes me clean up before she’ll come over but I figured you wouldn’t care.” He picked up some clothes, wadding them into a ball and launching them across the room.

She crossed her arms in front of her stomach, trying to keep from reacting as “you wouldn’t care” repeated in her head. Maybe her irritation showed on her face because he looked confused for a second.

“You wanted to show me something, Reid?”

“Oh, yeah.” His smile returned. He pulled out a black, square box and her heart sank. He popped the lid up. “Do you think she’ll like it?” Inside, a gorgeous yellow-gold engagement ring sparkled against black velvet. At least a carat, probably more, but in a simple design that didn’t look ostentatious. It would look perfect on Stella’s manicured finger.

“Oh, Reid, it’s beautiful. I’m sure she’ll love it.” Her voice broke toward the end, and he looked at her, eyebrows raised. “I’m just so happy for you guys.” She brushed the tears from her eyes.

“I hope I got the size right.” He took the ring from the box and held it out to her. “You’ve borrowed Stella’s clothes before so you must be pretty close. Try it on.”

Ellie’s heart pounded. For three years she’d done everything she could to hide her feelings for Reid from him and Stella. Was she really such a great actress that he had no idea what he was doing to her? She swallowed. “Reid, some girls might not like it if they knew their engagement rings where tried on by someone else.”

He was shaking his head before she finished. “The ring is an heirloom.” He held it closer. “Try it on. Please?

She took it and thrust it on the fourth finger of her right hand. It was a little tight.

“You really are clueless,” he said, taking her hand and removing the ring. He grabbed her left hand. “Engagement rings are worn on the other hand, Ellie.” And, if it had only been real, if the ring had been meant for her, she would’ve been the happiest woman in the world. It fit well, and, against her brown skin, it sparkled beautifully. Her heart shattered.

He swept a hand across his forehead, wiping imaginary sweat away. “Whew!” He waited, a relieved smile lighting up his face, while she took it off and then he placed it back in the box. “Thanks, El.” He pulled her in for a hug.

A hug that was too short. And too long.

* * *

Miss Ruby Ann Benson opened her door and walked into the hall, trying to figure out what all the commotion was about. A young woman was outside Ellie’s door, banging loudly.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

The woman stopped thumping the door and turned to look at her. “Ellie didn’t show up for work today or yesterday and she hasn’t answered her phone or returned our calls. That’s not like her. Have you seen her lately?”

Miss Ruby panicked. She hadn’t seen Ellie since she’d left for her weekend away. She’d tried to return her key twice, but hadn’t caught her at home. “Just a minute.” She held up one finger. “I can get in. I watch her dog when she’s away.”

She ran inside and grabbed the keychain with “I love Cocker Spaniels” engraved on it. She ran back out into the hallway. “I hope nothing’s happened to her.”

A foul odor flooded the hallway as soon as Ruby opened the door and she knew Ellie hadn’t returned. The little black puppy went nuts in the kitchen, barking and dancing around. Tracking over and over through the messes she’d made.

Holding her nose with one hand, Ruby walked over and poured some food into Misty’s dish. The little dog wolfed it down quickly. She still had plenty of water in her automatic waterer.

Ruby felt sick, and not just from the smell. Ellie would never leave Misty unattended like that. Something terrible must have happened if she couldn’t even make a phone call. She walked over to Ellie’s desk and started riffling through it, looking for an address book.

Ellie’s coworker reappeared from her bedroom. “She hasn’t been here. The bed’s made. The bathtub’s dry as a bone.”

“Ellie would never leave her dog like this. She loves that little critter like it was her baby.”

“I’ll call the police.” The woman took out her cellphone,

“Okay. I’m trying to find a number for her parents. They need to know something’s up.”

* * *

Ellie’s waking moments happened less frequently. She dreamed of water and her family. She worried about her parents and her puppy. Only once more did she get a glimpse of Murphy, when he’d held a front paw up to show her the gash across his leg. He didn’t move when she spoke to him now and she assumed he’d died. She’d cried, but that was back when she still had tears.

Sometime during a lucid moment, she decided she had to shift her weight off her left side. Worries of gangrene or amputation from lack of circulation made her grit her teeth and push off the ground, shifting and wiggling around until her butt was on the dirt and her back pressed against the seat. She stuck her legs through the space that used to be her windshield. She’d screamed in agony every time she touched her left arm or leg and was panting and shaking uncontrollably by the end but she’d managed to stay awake long enough to do it.

Murphy’s body lay curled up on what was left of the back seat. She reached as far as she could, managing to touch his back one last time. The fur was still silky, but his body was hard and cold beneath. “Thank you for being my best friend, Murph. I’ll always love you.” She closed her eyes, wishing she’d taken a different route home.

Tuesday morning she awoke, knowing she couldn’t survive much longer. She said goodbye to her parents and her puppy. She prayed that all of them would forgive her. And she mourned for everything she wished she’d had a chance to experience. Love, marriage, motherhood.

Why had she put it off? Did she really think Reid was going to divorce Stella and come running to her? How stupid. How sad. To wish for something that was never meant to be.

She started praying that she’d die sooner rather than later and every time she woke, still in the car, still in pain, she despaired. Her left ankle and hand were so swollen now that the skin looked shiny and purple. She didn’t know what that meant and it scared her. How long could it take to die of dehydration? It might have been better if she’d bled to death the first night.

Tuesday evening, as the forest darkened once more, she drifted off with the peace of knowing it was almost over. The pain was gone now and she smiled. Stupid or not she’d lived a good life. Misty would survive until someone found her. Her parents would mourn, but they’d eventually be okay. And her dad could add all of her books to his collection.

An old memory surfaced of the day Murphy came into her life. She was seven, an awkward, introverted little girl. He was a small, squirming ball of black and white fur. A stranger stood beside her dad, both of them laughing as the pup tried to reach her face, his tongue lapping at the air. “What’s his name?” her dad had asked.

“Murphy!” she’d told them without hesitation. The memory faded.

She sighed. Yes, a very . . . good . . . life . . .   . . .   . .   .