Reid tiptoed past Miss Ruby’s apartment. Her television was off and he didn’t want to explain why he was coming over so late. Not to mention the journals he held under his arm.
It was three in the morning and he’d spent the past two hours in his car, reading the last few volumes of Ellie’s diaries. A nagging fear ate at him, telling him he needed to return her property before she came home. He let himself in and flipped on the lights. Misty didn’t meet him at the door.
“Mis-ty, come here girl,” he sang. Nothing. He went to the kitchen. Her food and dishes were gone. “Uh oh.” Ellie’s bedroom door stood open. He flipped on the light and peeked inside. Her bed looked perfect again. He slipped a hand under the pillow he’d stuck her journal under. All he felt were smooth sheets.
He hurried to the guest room, barreling past the bookcases to the closet. Pausing for a moment, he reached for the light switch. A bag lay just inside the doorway. His heart dropped into his stomach. He knelt in front of the bookcase where the earlier journals should have been. It was empty. She knew. And she’d taken the rest of them with her. What can I do now? She’s going to hate me.
Then again, why should he care? It wasn’t like they were ever close. He put the books back on the shelf and left the room. But he did care. He sat on the couch across from her barn photos. It was dark in the room, he hadn’t turned on the lamp. His phone buzzed but he ignored it.
Reid rubbed his hands up and down his face, exhausted but trying to reason it out. Many of her journal entries mentioned him. Sometimes it was just in passing—a sentence stating that the three of them ate lunch together that day—but sometimes she’d recounted whole conversations that he didn’t even remember.
When they’d first met, her opinion of him had been low—cocky, dismissive, rude—but she’d slowly changed her mind and began to respect, admire, and even fall in love with him. And he hadn’t been trying to get any of that from her. He’d just been himself and she’d just been Stella’s friend. That’s why it bugged him. He wasn’t that nice guy to her anymore. He’d ruined that by deliberately invading her privacy.
His phone buzzed again and he dug it out of his jeans pocket. It was a text from Stella. Ellie just messaged me. She was released today and meant to call and tell us but Miss Ruby had an accident and died this afternoon so that distracted her. She has Misty with her.
Oh, and she had a special message for you. She said to tell you you’re a jerk for reading her journals and she wants them all back in her apartment before she gets home. And that now she can never see you again for the rest of her life.
Reid threw his phone on the floor. It bounced once, flipped over, and landed face up on the thick carpeting. A new line popped up and he leaned over to read it. You deserve worse and if you’re not home in an hour I’m going to tell her where you are.
He plucked his phone up off the floor and sent a reply. We’ll talk when I get home. And you’re both right. What should he do? He tried to come up with a reasonable excuse for reading her journals. He could remind her that she told him he could read anything in the guest room. No. He’d known they were off-limits but read them anyway. Maybe he needed to tell her the truth.
He typed another text to Stella saying that he’d be late because he was going to call Ellie and apologize.
It can’t wait until morning?
She texted you in the middle of the night. She’s obviously awake.
I’m just saying that people are more emotional at night when they’re tired. She might take it better in the morning.
I’m going to explain what happened and apologize. I’ll tell her that you didn’t know. I don’t want you to lose her friendship.
Don’t worry about that we’re closer than ever. And she knows I told you not to read them so leave me out of your convo.
I really think you should wait until she’s slept, but it’s your funeral.
I’ve thought about it but she’s just going to be madder in the morning if I don’t explain.
Reid chickened out and decided to text her instead of calling. He didn’t think he could stand it if she started crying of anything. He wrote out paragraph after paragraph, each time erasing them and starting over. He settled on a few simple sentences. I put the rest of your journals back. You’re right it was a jerk thing to do. I’m sorry. Can I explain? He sent the text and waited. A moment later it showed as delivered and after a few seconds more he knew she’d read it. Will she respond? Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen. He paced the floor.
Are you in my apartment?
Please leave and give my key to Stella when you get home. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t enter my apartment again without her. And right now I’m too angry to talk about this. Maybe later when I’ve calmed down. Goodbye, Reid.
Goodnight Ellie. And I’m really sorry.
He sent the text and waited but it didn’t even show as delivered. She must have shut off her phone as soon as she sent her last message.
Reid left the apartment, locking the door for the last time. As he passed Miss Ruby’s door he paused, remembering the spirited woman who’d questioned him the first time he’d arrived. Rest in peace, Miss Ruby.
He experienced an unsettling sense of finality as he pulled out of Ellie’s apartment parking lot. He debated with himself all the way home and finally decided she probably wouldn’t forgive him. He also knew he deserved it.
Reid opened the door to his home and found the couch made up with sheets, a blanket, and his pillow. Great, Stella was in another one of her moods.
“I can’t believe you texted her tonight,” Stella said, approaching him with her hand out, palm up. “Especially after I told you she’d had a rough day. You don’t think of anyone but yourself, do you?” He dug in his pocket for Ellie’s key and threw it on the couch. She glared and went to retrieve it.
Her condescending attitude set him off. “I’m not sleeping on the couch tonight. If you want to, you can.” He stomped past her and into their room, slamming the door behind him. Stella’s lamp was on but she hadn’t been in bed. It was still “company-ready” the way she made it every morning. He turned on his lamp, undressed, climbed into bed, and waited for Stella to come in so they could talk it out. He listened for that squeaky board in their wood floors to give her away. Nothing. Not a sound.
He glanced at his watch and yawned. It was 3:45 in the morning. He rolled toward Stella’s side of the bed and clicked off her lamp. He did the same with his, then turned on his side and closed his eyes.
Almost immediately a picture flashed through his mind of his father carrying his mother to their bedroom when she had been too ill to walk. His dad still mourned her even ten years later. He’d always wanted that kind of love in his marriage and yet he doubted his father had ever treated his mom the way he’d just treated Stella. He threw off the sheets with a groan and rolled out of bed. He needed to apologize. Especially since she was right.
The lights were off in the living room and he flipped on the hall light in case Stella was asleep. The couch was empty. Even the sheets and pillow were gone. He checked out the guest room. Also empty. On the dining room table he found her phone and a note.
I’m glad I have two weeks off. I guess I’ll use it differently now than what I’d planned but maybe it’s better this way. I’m going to spend a couple of days with Ellie since she’s invited me. I need to return her key anyway.
Let’s use this time to figure out if we still want to stay together. Because what happened tonight . . . well, I’m tired of arguing with you.
I’ll see you when I get back. To pick up my clothes if nothing else.
Reid carried the note and her phone with him as he checked the garage. Her car was missing. It was the middle of the night and she hadn’t slept. What if something happened to her on the way? He turned on her phone.
Ellie, he texted, this is Reid. Stella’s on her way to your place right now. We got into an argument. Would you please let me know when she gets there? I just want to know she arrived safely.
She’s already here, Ellie texted back.
He sighed, his shoulders slumping forward in relief. Okay thanks. She must have left immediately after their fight to already be there. He looked at his watch. Six a.m. already? Maybe he had fallen asleep. Maybe he’d dreamed about his parents. It was going to be a long week, but Stella was right. They couldn’t keep going like they were.
* * *
Ellie dropped her phone on the bed, a rueful smile on her face as her eyes met Stella’s. “He’s worried about you. That’s gotta mean something, right?”
Stella shrugged. “Maybe.” Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy from crying. Ellie’s eyelids felt like they were made of sandpaper every time she blinked. “I’m sorry I kept you up all night, Ellie. I just didn’t know what to do and I didn’t want to go to my parents’ home. They’d want me to file for a divorce tomorrow if they knew how much we argue.”
“And you weren’t frightened of him at all? Never worried that he was going to hit you or something?”
“How many times do we have to go over this? No, Ellie. Reid would never strike a woman. He tossed your key, yes. But not at me. Away from me. He was very angry, more so than I’ve ever seen before, but he never stepped close to me, never tried to intimidate me. He knew reading your journals was wrong and you caught him. He knew I’d be mad too. But I’ve been so emotional lately. And so stinking tired. The last case I handled just wore me out.”
“Then I’m glad you came here.”
Stella’s gaze dropped to her hands clasped in her lap.“I’ve had this vacation planned for months. I’d hoped Reid would take some time off too, and he tried but one of the partners in his firm is on vacation this week so he could only get next week off. I’d been researching resorts when he came home. But that doesn’t matter right now. We should probably try to get some sleep. You look exhausted.”
Ellie admitted to herself that Stella was right, while she waved off her friend’s fears with a smile. “You’re more important than sleep. But you look like you’re about to fall off the bed!”
Stella laughed. “Maybe, but I’d be asleep before I hit the ground so I probably wouldn’t notice.” She stood up and stretched. “Thanks again for listening and letting me crash out here with you for a few days. I’m really looking forward to hanging out.”
“Me too. It’s been too long.”
“I hope you can get some sleep, El.”
“Don’t worry about me. It seems like I sleep way too much anyway.” She smelled bacon. “Mom’s got breakfast ready. Would you sleep better with a full stomach?”
“Mmmm, yeah, maybe.”
Ellie hopped up. “Then let’s go pig out!” Ellie’s stomach growled as the two women made their way to the kitchen. Her mother had pancake batter waiting beside a griddle. And there were scrambled eggs with green peppers, mushrooms, and onions in a covered pan, still warm, with crispy bacon on a nearby platter.
While Ellie made the pancakes, Stella searched for plates and silverware. She could have told her where to look, but she had a feeling Stella wanted to see everything anyway. Minutes later they sat at the table, full plates in front of them. Neither of them spoke as they ate. Ellie had a hard time keeping her eyes open and she suspected Stella was having the same problem.
In an almost dream-like stupor, they made their way back to their respective bedrooms. Ellie fell asleep almost immediately.
She awoke a little after one that afternoon, feeling groggy. The house was quiet. She got up and went to the window. Leaves fluttered to the ground with each gust of wind. She’d missed their peak color, but trees dressed in dull yellows, reds, and oranges still surrounded the farm. She opened her window to catch the breeze, picked up Miss Ruby’s box, and returned to her bed.
Her fingers traced the carvings that covered the beautiful wood box. Why did Miss Ruby want me to have this? Then she lifted the lid. Inside were pink envelopes bundled together with rubber bands. She could tell from the faded colors that some of them were much older than the others. She picked up a set. The first one of the bunch had “Madelyn Elizabeth Jackson, 4/16/70 – 4/19/88” written on it in a delicate, feminine cursive. Ellie paused to count. She was barely eighteen when she died.
My sweet Maddie,
Today my heart is weeping. How can you be here one moment, and gone the next? How can 18 years be enough? They weren’t. Not for me and not for you. What of your dreams to be a writer? To be a wife? To be a mother?
I don’t know how to go on and I’m not sure I want to. I miss you so much. I’ll love you forever, sweet girl.
The creases in the letter were torn in places, probably from being folded and unfolded over and over, and there were warped spots in the paper where Ellie imagined Miss Ruby’s tears had fallen. Did she have other children or was she all alone after her daughter died? She should’ve visited with her more while she was alive. She must have been so lonely.
Folding the letter carefully, she slipped it back into the envelope and opened the next one.
I’m planning your funeral and I feel like I’m dying too. I ache all over from the tears that rarely cease. I’m empty inside. Poured out with my tears.
Your Aunt Rita is helping me by going through your pictures. Each one is another knife piercing through the haze of my grief. You were such a beautiful baby, a happy toddler, an inquisitive child, and a loving daughter. I wish you hadn’t tried to grow up so soon. And that I’d known you had a beau. Who was he? Why didn’t you introduce us? I don’t know if these questions will ever be answered.
I signed the papers today. I found her a loving family. She isn’t to know about us, but I’ve requested regular updates and pictures. For you. And I guess for me too. Maybe I’m hoping to see you in her someday. Maybe that will bring some peace.
And you’re right; she is beautiful.
I love and miss you more each hour,
Ellie read each letter as Miss Ruby documented her struggle to deal with her daughter’s death. She only got through the first bundle before she had to take a break. They were heart-rending to read. Why did Miss Ruby want her to have these? She could only guess that it was a way for her to preserve the memories of her daughter.