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 . . . . . . . . .