(Writer’s Note: I apologize for the time-lag in getting this next chapter out. I’m afraid I was suffering from writer’s block and needed some time to step back since my original plan changed while writing Ellie’s story. I hope to add a new chapter each week now that I’m back on task. Thanks so much for reading!)
A light tap on Ellie’s door had her scrambling to put the lid back on Miss Ruby’s box and set it aside.
Stella stood in the hallway. “Did I wake you up?”
“No, come on in. Did you get enough sleep?” Ellie sat on her bed so Stella could have the chair in front of her desk.
“I guess so. I’ll get by for a few more hours anyway.” Her leg bounced rapidly, a nervous habit that Ellie remembered from their college days. “Do you feel like getting out? I’d love to sit on the porch or something. It’s so peaceful out here.”
“Yeah we could do that, or we could take our old Ranger for a spin. Its top speed is about five miles per hour so it’s pretty safe, even with me driving. We could take a short tour of the farm.”
“I would love that!” She jumped up from her chair, grabbed Ellie’s crutches, and thrust them toward her, drawing Ellie’s camera bag strap over her shoulder as soon as her hands were free again.
Stella drove while Ellie gave her directions. They stopped often so Ellie could get pictures. At first there was a lot of small talk revolving around Ellie’s memories growing up in the country. But soon all their conversation focused on photography. Stella seemed genuinely fascinated, asking question after question.
Finally, Ellie turned to Stella, holding the camera out. “Would you like to try? I’ve set it on auto, so all you have to do is point and click.”
Stella bit her lip. “Are you sure? I don’t want to break it.”
“Keep the neck strap on. If you drop it, it won’t fall far.” Ellie slipped the strap over Stella’s head. “Have fun. I’m going to wait in the Ranger.”
“Um hmm.” Stella’s reply probably meant she hadn’t even heard her, but Ellie hobbled to the Ranger anyway. Miss Ruby’s box and the letters it contained made her impatient to get back and she wished Stella would hurry.
Stella, however, seemed to have honed in on a maple leaf clinging to the tree. Ellie had a better lens in the bag for close-ups. But that meant she’d have to walk over there again, switch lenses, and probably have to explain the process. She sighed and reached for her crutches just as Stella turned to approach the Ranger. Ellie smiled, relieved, and waited for Stella to climb inside.
“Thanks! That’s was fun!” She handed the camera back to Ellie. “I think I got some interesting shots. To me anyway. You’re probably much better and will think my pics are lame.” She chuckled as her eyes darted to Ellie’s and away.
“I doubt that. Besides, it’s what they mean to you that matters. We’ll take a look inside. I have my editing software installed on my laptop.”
“Yay! I can see them bigger!”
Ellie and Stella returned to the house shortly before supper. Both volunteered to help but Ellie’s mother shooed them from the kitchen. They ended up on the porch swing, swaying gently as they listened to the birds singing from the nearby trees. Stella’s phone buzzed and she dug it out of her pocket, grimacing when she looked down at it. She typed for a few seconds and then put the phone away again.
“Yeah, he wants to know how it’s going.” One side of her mouth curved up. “Wanna guess what I told him?”
Ellie considered it for a moment. In their college days, when Stella got angry she’d clam up, hardly saying anything or answering in one-word statements. Ellie smiled. “Fine?”
“Bingo!” Stella shrugged. “He probably won’t get it. He never does.” Her phone vibrated. “But we’ll know in a sec.” She studied her phone for several seconds. “Huh, I guess maybe he does get it. He’s apologizing again and wants to talk. I’m going to say that we’re getting ready to eat and I’ll call him later.” Her fingers moved rapidly across the phone’s screen.
Ellie’s mom called them to dinner shortly after. Stella said she was starving but didn’t seem to eat very much. Then, after everyone finished eating she shooed Ellie’s parents from the room while she did all of the dishes, even drying them and putting them away, with Ellie’s help.
They ended up back in her room with Stella at the computer editing her photos and Ellie on her bed going through Miss Ruby’s box again. She didn’t pick up the letters because she didn’t want to start crying. Instead, she opened a small photo album. It was an older style where the photos nested against each other so that she had to flip each one up to see the next one. The old photos were yellowing.
The first several were of Miss Ruby and a well-dressed man. She must have been in her late teens or early twenties. Ellie studied the young woman’s face in the photo. She had been very beautiful. Several pictures later, the young woman’s figure had changed. From the way her hands were placed against her belly, it was obvious she was pregnant. A thin, gold band glittered on the fourth finger of her left hand.
Ellie smiled at the happy face staring back at her from the photo. Miss Ruby glowed.
Stella yawned, stood, and stretched. “I can’t concentrate. I’m so tired all of a sudden.” She walked to Ellie’s side and looked over her shoulder. “Who’s that?”
“Miss Ruby as a young lady. A young, pregnant lady.”
“It’s hard to imagine her young, isn’t it?” She leaned closer. “I only met her once, I think, when Reid couldn’t get over to feed Misty one time.” She chuckled. “He told me I’d have to get past the ‘guard dog’ but she was very sweet to me.”
“To me too,” Ellie replied. She flipped the picture up and found baby Madelyn tucked in her mother’s arms. Miss Ruby’s smile said it all. Ellie’s heart ached with the joy in the new mother’s eyes. Would she ever know that kind of happiness? A sniff brought her out of the moment. She turned to find tears streaming down Stella’s face. “What’s wrong?”
“That photo is so beautiful it scares me.”
“Scares you? Why?”
“Because I might be pregnant but I’ve been trying not to think about it.”
Ellie was quiet for a few moments. “You haven’t told Reid, I’m guessing.”
“No. I haven’t taken the test. I bought one. I even have it with me but I’ve been afraid to use it.”
“Maybe knowing one way or the other would be a relief.”
“Maybe.” Stella wiped the tears from her cheeks. “You think I should take it now?”
Ellie shrugged. “Only if you’re ready and you want to.”
Stella took a deep breath. “Okay.” She took a few steps toward the door. “Can I bring it in here and we can read the results together?”
“Sure, if that’ll help.” Stella nodded. “All right. I’ll stay put.”
Ellie returned to the photo album, flipping through the pictures faster now. Maddie grew up quickly and Miss Ruby matured through her thirties. One of the photos showed Miss Ruby holding a birthday cake with a big 4-0 on it. A teenage Madelyn sat near her mother, a tolerant smile on her face. There were only a few more pictures after that one and the rest of the album was empty.
So sad, Ellie thought. Maddie had so much to live for. Evidently she’d found a man who loved her. And she’d had a baby. A girl. Ellie flipped the last of the empty album sleeves over and found a pocket attached inside the back cover of the photo book. It was obvious from the bulge that something was inside. She flipped it open, removed a stack of pictures, and froze.
Baby pictures. Only much more recent in age. Not pictures of Maddie. Ellie’s heartbeat sped up. She stared at the baby, nestled in the arms of a woman she’d known all her life as her mother. She flipped through the pictures quickly. Not possible.
No way, her brain insisted. Yet the pictures were the proof. She recognized them. There was another album downstairs in the bookcase with copies of these same photos inside. Ellie, growing older, growing up. She’d found her grandmother. Or rather, her grandmother found her. Why didn’t she tell me?
“Ellie?” A voice broke through her confusion. She turned to find Stella standing beside her, looking at the photos with a puzzled expression on her face. “Isn’t that you?” Ellie nodded and handed the photos to her. Stella handed her the pregnancy test and sat down on the bed beside her. She found the latest pictures. The ones taken last Christmas. Downstairs in the family room. Beside the Christmas tree. “These were in that box?” Ellie nodded again. “Why?”
“I think Miss Ruby was my grandmother.” Stella handed the pictures back and she returned them to their pocket. “Her daughter, my mother, died in a car accident around the time I was born and Miss Ruby decided to give me up for adoption. It’s in the letters she wrote.” She pointed to the box.
“I know.” She glanced at the plus sign on the pregnancy test. “Did you read the results yet?”
“Yeah. I was right.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Be the best mom I can be.” She smiled. “I’ll need to tell Reid, of course.”
“I always thought he’d be a good father.” She paused. “If you have any girls, you might want them to get a lock for their diaries, though.”
“Definitely!” Stella hugged Ellie tightly for a few seconds before letting her go. “Wow, what a weird day. I find out I’m having a baby and you find your biological grandmother.”
“Yeah, a few days too late.”
“She must’ve had a reason not to tell you. Don’t you think? How long have you known her?”
“I met her at my apartment complex. We moved in around the same time. That can’t have been a coincidence now that I know we’re related. I wonder how much my mom knows.”
“It sounds like we both need to have some conversations tonight. I’m going to my room and call Reid.” She paused. “But you know what? I’m not telling him over the phone. I want to think of a special way to surprise him.”
“I think that’s a great idea.” Ellie hugged her friend again. “I’m really happy for you, Stella. You’re going to be a wonderful mommy.”
“Mommy . . . wow.” Stella’s eyes were wide as she left the room.
Ellie put the photo album back in the chest, then changed her mind. If her mom tried to deny it, she might need to show her the proof. Although she couldn’t imagine that. Her mom had always told her the truth whenever she’d asked questions in the past. She put the album back and shut the lid.
Ellie found her mom reading in the living room. “Whatcha got there?”
“Pride and Prejudice.”
Ellie plopped down on the ottoman in front of the chair. “You should have that memorized by now.”
Her mother shrugged. “I probably do. Certain parts anyway. But you know how much I love Austen. Are you okay?” She marked her place in the book, closed it, and placed it on the table beside her.
Ellie took a deep breath. “I just found out Miss Ruby was my biological grandmother.”
Her mother’s eyes softened. “She didn’t want me to tell you, sweetie. It was one of her stipulations for the adoption. But I sent her pictures of you through the years. We stayed in touch.”
“How did we end up in the same apartment complex?”
“You probably got to know her well enough to know that when she makes up her mind to do something, there’s no stopping her, right?” Ellie nodded. “When I told her you were moving into that complex, she went to the owner and bought the whole place!” She chuckled. “The poor owner probably didn’t know what hit him.”
“She bought the apartment complex?”
“Yes. And then kept the management staff that was already in place.” She rose from her chair. “Come with me. There’s more you should know.” Ellie followed her into the office and watched as she opened the lock box. Her mother rifled through some files until she found what she’d been looking for. “This is your grandmother’s will. Her lawyer wants you to call him.”
“What? When did you talk to him?”
“I talk to him often. He’s your Uncle Jim.”
“Oh my gosh! How many people knew about this?”
“Just your uncle, your dad, and I.” She put her hand on Ellie’s arm. “Are you okay, honey? I’m sure this is overwhelming.”
Ellie shook her head. “I’m still trying to grasp it, I guess. But Mom, I wish I could have really known her when she was alive. I don’t understand why she wanted to keep it a secret.”
“I don’t have an answer for you. She didn’t tell me.”
“She lost her daughter and then she gave me away.”
“I don’t think we can imagine the pain she was experiencing, honey. And she wanted you to have a good home.”
Ellie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m glad she gave me to you and Dad. I don’t regret my life at all. I guess I just wish I could’ve had you, Dad, and Miss Ruby. There must have been so many stories about my biological mother that I’ll never know now.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” her mother whispered. She kissed the top of Ellie’s head—a familiar, loving, comforting gesture—and then left the room.
Ellie sat down behind the desk and opened the manila envelope. She read through the papers as best she could. She wanted Stella to look them over with her. She’d be able to tell her, in plain English, what they said. But that would have to wait until the morning.
She put everything back in the envelope, carried it upstairs to her room, and added it to the envelopes and photos in Miss Ruby’s box.
It took her a long time to fall asleep that night.