Chapter Four

Two weeks after her accident, the door to Ellie’s room opened. Two people and a black rug entered.

“Oh my gosh! Stella! Reid! Misty! Wow, do you need to see the groomer or what?” The puppy danced around the room, sniffing at everything.

Stella laughed and turned to Reid. “I’m pretty sure that comment was only meant for Misty, but I’m calling my stylist when we get back to the car.” She winked at Ellie, who returned the gesture.

Misty tracked Ellie’s scent to the bed, clawing the sheets and jumping as high as she could until Reid picked her up and held her out to Ellie.

As excited to see the dog as the dog was to see her, Ellie let the pup lick her face a few times and them pulled away. “Reid, Stella, thanks so much for taking care of this little troublemaker for me. I hope she hasn’t been too horrible for you guys.”

Stella rounded the bed and bent over to hug Ellie. “She hasn’t been any trouble for me, but then Reid’s the one who’s been puppy-sitting for you. It’s so good to see you, El. It’s been waaaay too long.”

“It has, hasn’t it? You look fabulous, girl!”

Stella laughed. “Wish I could say the same for you. Ouch!”

Ellie squirmed, knowing she was teasing her, but also knowing it was true. “I know. I’m a mess. What I wouldn’t give for a real bath. But how did you guys sneak her in here?”

“No sneaking, required.” Reid spoke for the first time and hearing his voice after so long gave Ellie goosebumps. “I got your little monster here a job as a therapy dog.” He smiled, tousling the black mop on Misty’s head. “I’m sure everyone will love her, if she can learn to keep her tongue to herself.”

“Good luck with that.” Stella swiped her hands down her face, then looked at her fingers as if she could see the germs on them.

“Awww, don’t let them give you a complex, Misty. You’re perfect.” Ellie planted a kiss on the puppy’s head. Deep brown eyes stared out from under a fringe of black hair. Eyes that always melted her heart. Eyes that looked so similar and yet so different from Murphy’s. How he’d stared at her that last time, lifting his paw for her to see. Had he wanted her to fix it? She couldn’t do anything but look into his liquid brown eyes and tell him she loved him and that help would be there soon. He’d laid his head on her shoulder for a few minutes so she could scratch his ears before he went back to his makeshift bed.

“Ellie? Are you in pain? Do you want me to buzz the nurse?” Stella’s eyes searched Ellie’s, distress evident on her face.

“What? Oh,” Ellie wiped the tears away. “I’m always in pain, Stella. I can’t have morphine anymore and I’m trying to wean myself off the other stuff.” Why did Murphy’s death haunt her? “But I’m okay. I’m handling it as best I can. Did I zone out?”

“Yeah, Reid asked how important those red high-heels are to you?”

Ellie glared at the puppy. “You didn’t.”

“She most definitely did.” Reid grimaced. “She figured out how to knock the dog gate down, too. It’s in pieces in the dumpster. Small, chewed-up pieces.”

“Oh no. I named you wrong. I should have called you Miss D, as in demon.”

Stella chuckled. “Cute. So her name’s really Miss T?”

Ellie nodded. “Yes, T as in Trouble. But it sounds like Misty so that’s what I call her.”

Stella’s phone buzzed in her purse. She glanced at the screen and held a finger up, an apologetic look on her face. Ellie nodded and Stella left the room.

Ellie’s nerves kicked in. Being alone with Reid, even after nine years, still frazzled her. She cleared her throat. “So . . . other than my red shoes, have there been any other casualties?”

Reid’s focus had drifted to her cast-encased leg. “Other than the gate, you mean?”

“Yes. Anything else?”

His eyes locked on hers. “If you had any secrets in the trash, they’re safe.”

Ellie groaned. “I bet that was fun to clean up. Anything else?”

Stella returned to talk with Reid. “I’m afraid I’ve got to get back to work. You ready to go?”

“Sure.”

“Okay, I’m going to run to the restroom.” She hugged Ellie. “I’ll be back soon. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“I agree. Thanks for coming, Stella.”

“Love you sweetie. Heal fast.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Stella paused at the door, winked at Ellie, then turned to Reid. “I’ll meet you at the car?”

“Yep, I’ll pull up to the front doors.” After Stella left, Reid turned back to Ellie, holding Misty close so she could say her goodbyes.

“You be good, you little devil.” She rubbed the pup’s silky ears and got licked in the face in return. “Thanks again, Reid. It was probably quite a shock to get that call from my dad.”

He shrugged. “Maybe at first. I couldn’t figure out why you wouldn’t ask for Stella instead of me. But it’s not important. I’m glad to help you. I haven’t been much of a friend so I’m trying to make up for that by spoiling your puppy until she’s unmanageable.” His smile was evil.

“Don’t you dare! I’ll dump her on your doorstep and make you live with the consequences!”

“You know I’m teasing. Maybe I’ll teach her some tricks and surprise you.”

“Good luck. She’s stubborn like her owner.”

“She’s a sweetheart like her owner.”

Ellie’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Reid had only complimented her once, sort of, about her hair. She felt uncomfortable, but laughed it off. “Nice try, mister. I’ll still dump her on you if you don’t watch it.”

Reid laughed. “I’ll be good. Take care, Ellie.” His hand squeezed her shoulder.

“Okay. Bye.”

He walked out the door and her head fell back on her pillow. She stared at the ceiling. Maybe it felt awkward because it had been so many years. Then again, Reid seemed to actually want to talk to her today. In the past, he only spoke to her if he needed something.

Stella, on the other hand, hadn’t changed. She was still beautiful, her dark red hair twisted up in a French knot. Ellie hadn’t realized how much she missed her friend until she showed up today. Maybe when she got out of the hospital, she’d plan a girls’ night out for the two of them.

Ellie buzzed the nurse and asked for a pain pill. Several minutes later she returned, spilling an oval-shaped pill Ellie had never seen before into her hand. “What’s this?”

“Your doctor prescribed a narcotic.” She held up a hand, cutting Ellie off before she could get a word out. “Ellie you just had surgery two days ago. You’ve got to be in constant pain.”

“I want to get out of here. I want to go home. I figure that will happen faster if I’m not drugged up all the time.”

“Pain stresses us out, too. You have to rest in order to heal. Take this so you can sleep well.”

Ellie sighed. “I hardly ever take over-the-counter pain killers,” she grumbled. The nurse handed her the humongous glass of water which always sat on her bed tray. Ellie took a moment to analyze the pain. She probably couldn’t sleep well until it eased up a bit. So, with one last dirty look directed at the nurse, she swallowed the pill.

The nurse smiled. “You are probably the sweetest, most-compliant patient I’ve ever had. Except when it comes to taking your meds.” She shook her head. “Try to sleep now. I’ll check in on you in an hour or so.”

Ellie drifted off, suddenly exhausted.

Reid appeared in her dreams again. He and Ellie walked hand-in-hand around the farm where she’d grown up, kissing in the barn and beside the spring-fed stream that ran through the property. They saw Murphy, hiding in the tree line, and she called to him. He raced toward them at full speed and Ellie laughed, knowing he’d come right up to them before he swerved off. He’d played this game with her all his life.

Ellie watched, spellbound, whenever he ran full-out like that. He was glorious and graceful, especially in the moments when all four paws were off the ground—two stretched out in front with one slowly falling, preparing to touch down and start the sequence again, and two stretched out in back where they’d just left the earth. His mouth was open, tongue lolling out to the side. He looked like he was smiling at her.

Tears filled her eyes. “Oh, Murphy.” She and Reid stood side-by-side. Murphy would swerve any second. Ellie watched the Border Collie alter his gait, gathering his hindquarters under him like he did whenever he jumped. Was he going to try to leap over them? Ellie ducked, trying to drag Reid down with her but he let go of her hand. Murphy, growling ferociously, lunged for Reid’s throat.

“No, Murphy!” Her eyes popped open.

Ellie looked around, trying to get her bearings again. She was still in the hospital. All of her lights were off, but she could see from the light coming in under the door. It must be the middle of the night.

She closed her eyes, trying to recover from the nightmare. Seeing Reid earlier that day had obviously brought back the dreams. Maybe she’d always have those “what if” kinds of dreams where the two of them had a life together. But the accident had changed her. She no longer wanted to pine for someone she could never have. She wanted to be happy and content.

The first thing she would do when she went home is grab those journals, take them to the farm, and burn them. After that, she would do some serious thinking about the present as well as the future. If she could do anything, what would it be? Ellie fell asleep thinking perhaps it was time to empty her guest room.

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 . . .   . . .   . .   .