Ellie Navarrete did more than show up at Marietta Trotter’s edge-of-the-town home. She made her entrance by skipping, hopping, and spinning, like she were wearing birds for shoes—erratic birds with frenzied flight patterns, who didn’t care who or what their ditzy passenger bounced into.
On the third time Ellie came close to whirling into Marietta, Marietta stretched out her foot to trip her. Ellie danced over it.
“What’s got you in such a good mood?” Marietta rested her hands on her hips. She wore a pink and blue polkadot bow to complement her overalls and round-collared blouse. Her bow was off to the side of one of her pig ears. “Is Stockbrunn burning?”
“Nope!” Ellie stopped, mid-turn. It was still early enough in the evening for pillars of smoke to be unmistakable. Not to mention that there weren’t any screams of terror to be heard. Stockbrunn was the same as it ever was. “And I don’t know. Life’s got me in a good mood.”
It wasn’t that Ellie didn’t want to tell Marietta what was going on between her and Shreya. She’d been keeping Marietta more-or-less up-to-date on the situation. Marietta was her confidant in a way that Zinnia couldn’t be: sharp and shrewd with her points aimed at the rest of the town, and not her. They had a bond forged through their mutual dislike of the town’s politics and stances.
“Is your good mood to blame for why you’ve been slacking on your visits?”
“Kind of… I’m getting absent-minded, sorry.” Ellie fished into her bag. “Here, I’ve brought dinner for you. I put some pears in it.”
“Pears? You spoil me.” Marietta lacked sincerity. She took the oatmeal jar and unscrewed the lid.
“I’ll bring you more food in the morning. It’ll be enough to cover both meals,” Ellie said. “I’m not going to be around at supper time, so don’t eat them both at once.”
“It would be easier to do that if you brought something other than porridge. What happened to the other things you used to make?”
“Um…” Her dinner leftovers used to make their way into Marietta’s breakfast jar. She hadn’t had any part in cooking them. “Well, the way you become an expert at something is to do it a whole bunch of times, right? I’m trying to become a porridge expert. Isn’t it good? Shreya likes it.”
“So she’s the reason why I’ve been left to this cruel fate. A menu of porridge day in and day out.”
“It’s easier to make it in batches.”
“Tell her to get a new favorite food,” Marietta said. Instead of saying more, she gave Ellie an up-and-down once-over, letting out a small, thoughtful “hmmm” as she did. “She’s the reason why you’re giddy.”
“What? Nooooo,” Ellie said, drawing the word out for far too long.
“Seems like patching things up with her went…splendidly, didn’t it?” She gave her a knowing smile.
Ellie balanced back on her heels. “Yeah, we patched things up, but, um, nothing weird happened. Don’t look at me like that. The letter worked, and it got us talking.”
“I told you it would. You write better than you speak.”
“Thank you, I think? Anyway, yeah, that was yesterday. We got to know each other better. And then today,” Ellie said, “we got to talking some more. It got personal.”
“I bet it did. You smell like her.”
“What?” She brought her arm to her nose and gave herself a sniff. “No, I don’t. You’re messing with me.”
“You can’t tell, but any animal can. She’s got a scent, as do you. You’ve all got your own scents.”
“I’m surprised you remembered hers. It’s been a while.”
“She’s not one to forget. You’d know that better than me, though,” she replied. “Now, I wonder what you could’ve been up to that would’ve had her all over you.”
“It wasn’t anything explicit, so you can take all those dirty thoughts you’re having, pour them into a bucket, and toss them into the river.” Ellie made a throwing motion.
“For a prattle-box, you’re being awfully quiet about this.” Marietta scooped some of her porridge into her mouth.
“It’s private!” Heat radiated from her cheeks.
“Personal; private… It sounds like something happened.”
“Yeah, something happened, but not that,” Ellie said. “It was, like, a thing that I wanted to happen except I didn’t think it’d happen so soon. And it didn’t happen quite the way I would’ve wanted it to.”
She didn’t want to soil the hours-old memory by looking too far into it, but now that she was talking to Marietta, she couldn’t help herself. Ellie kept digging at it, uncovering the doubt she’d been trying to bury beneath secretive smiles and impressive dance moves. The doubt curled its way around her thoughts like a mossy vine.
“Did she reject you?”
“Funny enough, she did at first. She had her arms around my shoulders like this.” Ellie hugged herself the best she could. “And she was whispering all this stuff in my ear and she made me so weak I thought I’d faint if it weren’t for her holding me. It was intense. Ever done a whole lot of running? It was like that, except we hadn’t been working out at all. We were just standing there.”
“Get to the point.”
“Okay, so, I went for it, right? She pushed me away, ’cause I totally misread the signals. She wasn’t ready. Hell, I don’t know if I was ready, either. I just wanted to.” Her tongue felt thick in her mouth, disgustingly so. Why’d she have to go and drudge that up?
“How about the second time?”
“You remember that house I told you about? We were in there, and talking about things, and it got real intense again. She was telling me about her day and more things about her life, and I got this overwhelming urge to save her,” Ellie said. “But she doesn’t want me to. She won’t let me help her, and she won’t give me a good reason as to why.”
“You’re being incredibly vague, but I have a solution for you: don’t save her. She doesn’t need you to.”
“She’d need me if I didn’t suck at everything. I tried showing her that wasn’t true, but it came back and hit me in the face. It was way worse than stepping on a rake.”
If Marietta didn’t understand that expression, she didn’t let on. “Your forest friend can handle herself.”
“One half of me knows that, and the other half of me doesn’t want to admit that. It was like I was going through all of the stuff with the letter all over again. It’s not like I deserved her talking to me again. What I deserved was something twice as bad, right?” Ellie asked.
“Accept that she accepted your apology.”
“Right,” Ellie answered her question, ignoring Marietta. “So we were talking and things got intense, and—did I say that already?”
“You’re drifting off-track,” Marietta said.
“Sorry. We were huddled close and our emotions took over, I guess. We kissed, and I’m happy and confused about it. It’s something I’ve wanted to happen without me fully saying to myself that I did. It became clear after the first time I tried to kiss her, but, who kisses someone they hardly know?”
“Did it make you happy?”
“So what are you waffling about this for?”
“Because it made us go from this,” Ellie said, holding her hand in front of her stomach, “to this.” She brought her hand up to eye-level. “We should’ve been going from this,” she held her hand at neck-level, “to this,” and raised it to her eyes. “See the difference? High to very high, not low to very high.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The mood! It should’ve been happy to very happy, not sad to very happy.”
“I don’t see the problem.”
“Maybe there isn’t one. I don’t know,” Ellie sighed. “I wish it’d happened in a better way. It’s just hard to think around her. She’s just everything I’m not, you know? One look at her, and my mind goes elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere,” Marietta repeated.
“Not in that way!” Ellie covered her face with her hands. “I’m gonna have to go soon. I’ve gotta catch up with Zinnia.”
“When you do, go ask her about her toolbox. She’s got work for you to do.”
“What do you mean? She didn’t fix your wall?”
“Nope. She threw a fit. An entertaining fit, mind you, but a fit all the same,” Marietta said. “She told me to hope that you’d know how to fix it.”
“I don’t, that’s why I asked her to help.” Ellie had a feeling something like that would happen. Her distraction plan had worked, but at what cost? “I’ll bring it up to her again when I see her. I can’t have you living with a wall that’s ready to cave in.”
“Convince her to expand the place, too. I could use a space upgrade.”
“I’ll try. I’ll see you in the morning with plenty of food.”
~ * ~ * ~
The door to the Trotter residence opened before Ellie had a chance to knock.
“Hey, Zinnia!” Ellie waved at her. “Great timing.”
“I told you not to come here anymore,” Zinnia warned. She gently closed the door behind her. “What are you doing here? This better be an emergency.”
“It is! I need your help with something.”
“If this has anything to do with Marietta’s house, I’m not falling for your trick a second time. That was dirty, and you know it.”
“How was I supposed to know she’d be there while you were working? I thought she’d leave,” Ellie said.
“No, she stayed and she threw a fit. She was being childish.”
“She said the same thing about you, minus the childish part.”
“She’s a pig. They like patterning themselves after our speech patterns to make themselves feel smart,” Zinnia explained. “It makes sense that she’d use the same word choice.”
“Or you guys have more in common than you think.”
“If you honestly think that, then you have no idea who I am.”
“Sorry, I’m not trying to get on your bad side here,” Ellie said. “Let me try again… I need your help, Zinnia.”
“Um…a lot of things. Beginning with me needing you to cover for me. I need you to pretend like I’m staying with you tomorrow night, like overnight and stuff.”
Zinnia stared at her. She moved away from her doorway. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah. I’m not smiling, am I?”
“This is about Shreya, isn’t it?” Zinnia asked.
Ellie nodded. “Yep! So, help me out. Be a friend and cover for me.”
“No. I’m not covering for your little woodsy affair.”
“Woodsy affair? It’s not like that. Ugh, why does everyone think it’s like that?”
“Everyone? Ask whoever else knows if you can pretend that you’re staying at their place,” Zinnia said. “I can’t believe you’re even asking me this.”
“Marietta knows, but my mom would never let me stay at her place. You’re my only hope.”
“How long have you known this girl?”
“Save the lecture,” Ellie said. “I’m not sleeping with her. I just want to spend more time with her. She’s going through a lot right now, and I gotta be there for her.”
“That’s a classic line. Is that what she said when she asked you to spend the night with you?”
“It was my idea.”
“Have you even kissed yet?”
“No. …Maybe? Just a little, but that doesn’t matter!”
“Now I’m really not going to help you. I don’t support this.”
“I thought you liked her,” Ellie said. “You’re the one who gave me the idea on how to win her back.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m going to help you have your way with her. My apologies, but I’m drawing the line here,” Zinnia said. “I cannot condone you entering a relationship with someone from the woods.”
“I’m not. Nothing’s happening between us. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. We still have to talk about it.”
“You’re acting shady.”
“Only because I’m nervous.” Ellie clasped her hands together. “Okay, it’s really not my business to tell, but I want to stay with her tomorrow night because she doesn’t have anyone else. She was kicked out of her home.”
“Bring her here, then. You’ve got room in your house.”
“She doesn’t want to be here. She wants to stay out there where she’s more comfortable. What would you do if she was crying in your arms, telling her how alone she was?”
“I wouldn’t fall for her tricks. She’s trying to manipulate you.”
“Why are you being so cruel?”
“Because you were cruel with that Marietta set-up.”
“How else was I supposed to get you to see the damage? You would’ve never gone on your own,” Ellie reasoned. “Sorry she bothered you or whatever, but you have to know you can’t leave her house like that. What if I help you fix it?”
“I don’t know why you care so much. She’s an animal. She doesn’t need four walls and a roof.”
“Oh, c’mon. I’ll do anything you tell me to do. Whatever it takes to fix it.”
“Is this two favors you’re asking of me?” Zinnia asked for clarity.
“Okay, give me a minute where you don’t talk. I need to think.”
Ellie counted in her head.
Once the appropriate amount of time passed, Zinnia said, “I’ll do it. We can make quick work of the wall if you work with me on it.”
“What about the other thing?”
“I’ll do both things only if you swear something to me.”
“You can’t report me, Noemi, or anyone else in Arntzen for what we’ve been doing,” Zinnia said.
“Didn’t I already give you my word on that?” Ellie asked. “You can’t still be hung up about that… We’re past that, aren’t we?”
“I want you to swear it to me.”
“Fine,” she said. It felt like she was betraying her friendship by doing this, but she needed her help. “I swear it.”
“Good,” Zinnia said, smiling. “Meet me on my family’s farm first thing in the morning. There’s tools and supplies there that I’m going to need your help carrying. If we’re lucky, we won’t run into my father.”
“Oh, how’s he been doing lately?”
“He’s coping,” she said, her smile going away. “He’s not doing it in a way I’d like, but he’s coping all the same. That’s all I have to say about him.”
“Sorry, I didn’t know he was a sore subject with you.”
Zinnia cleared her throat. She looked away. “Yeah. I’m going to head back inside. I’ve got dinner to prepare.”
“See you tomorrow. Thanks so much.”
“Mmhm, see you.”
~ * ~ * ~
Later that night, Ellie discovered that her mother’s high spirits and chipper mood had found its way into her food. Wonderfully spiced quail with a hearty side of creamy mushroom noodle soup. She waved the smell of it into her face, breathing in deep before digging in.
Hilda poured herself a glass of white wine, something from the cellar. “You’ll give yourself hiccups if you don’t slow down.”
“Can you write down the recipe for this?” Ellie sipped broth from her spoon.
“Yes. You have to be careful with quail, though,” Hilda said. “Its size makes it easy to burn.”
“It’s been so long since I’ve had quail. I almost forgot how good it is.”
“The herbs help it.” Delicate with her knife, she cut a piece off of the bird, pierced it, and placed it in her mouth.
“You’re scary when you do that.” Ellie reached for the wine bottle. Her mother swatted her hand away, then poured a glass to the middle for her.
“Certain members of the council are recommending that you take etiquette lessons. We can start with your table manners.”
“Says the lady who just stuck a knife in her mouth,” Ellie said.
“Says your mother,” Hilda corrected, “your mother who cleaned up that mess you made at the council meeting.”
“It wasn’t that bad, was it?”
“I’m thankful it wasn’t worse. Being the Heiress, it’s easier for you to get away with things like that. Your reputation among the council may suffer for this, but it wouldn’t be smart of them to vocalize their complaints.”
“Tell them I’ll wipe the cabinet clean if they do.”
“That’s what they’re afraid of.” Hilda knifed another slice of quail. “An Intendant would rather die than be replaced. They don’t take their positions lightly.”
“Aunt Catalina seems to.”
“She’s different outside of casual environments,” she replied. “You do realize that ‘getting on the Heiress’s nerves too much’ isn’t grounds for expulsion from the council, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Ellie said. She cut her quail, and ate a forkful of the meat. “On the other hand, Uncle Cornelius is like her opposite.”
“He’s a man bound by duty.” Hilda drank a little wine. “The Intendant of Agriculture is the most coveted position on the council. It’s difficult, yet necessary work, and your Uncle Cornelius is well-suited for it.”
“Do you ever think about what would’ve happened if he became the Heir? I would’ve been a regular kid and you would’ve been a regular mom. We wouldn’t have this house.”
“You nearly made me choke on my drink,” she said. “If he’d won the title and gone on to be the Chief, he would’ve appointed me the Intendant of Agriculture, the same as I did for him. We wouldn’t have been regular.”
“You wouldn’t have wanted to be a farmer like Uncle Kier and Aunt Una?”
“I couldn’t settle for that, no. I’d always want more,” Hilda said.
“Good thing you got what you wanted, then,” Ellie said. She ate more of her food.
Having finished her glass, Hilda poured herself some more. “Is something wrong?”
“Nothing.” It wasn’t the time to have that conversation. “I was wondering, um, do you think it’d be okay if I hung out with Zinnia tomorrow? I’ll have Sunflower with me. I want to help her out with the farm.”
“I don’t want you near that farm.”
“I have to help her carry some stuff so we can work on Marietta’s house together.”
“You know my thoughts and feelings about you spending too much time around Marietta.”
“I can’t stop taking care of her,” Ellie said.
Hilda sighed. “I know. I’m only reminding you of my opinion.”
“Alright. And after we hang out, we’re going to have a sleepover.”
“No, at Zinnia’s house.”
“Ianthe and Vervain wouldn’t be okay with that.”
“They’re going to have to get used to me talking to Zinnia.”
“You can understand why they’d be upset, yes?” Hilda asked. “They’d never approve of you being in their house.”
“So we’ll sleep in her backyard. It’ll be like a camping trip.”
“You’re still on their property.”
“What about if we sleep outside Marietta’s place? We won’t wander far,” Ellie tried. “I’ll have Sunflower with me. Having her and Marietta around would be like having two alarms.”
Hilda replied, “I don’t know what’s worse.”
“It’s the safest camping trip I could have. Marietta’s place is within the town’s limits. We’ll be fine.”
“This isn’t the reason why you went to the council meeting, is it?”
“No way. This has nothing to do with that. I only came up with this when I was hanging out with Zinnia earlier.”
“You’ve been hanging out with her a lot,” Hilda said.
“Nothing’s happening, I swear,” Ellie defended herself before any accusations could start flying.
“Heh, I wasn’t insinuating anything,” Hilda said. “It’s nice to see you with your friend back. I can tell she’s having a positive effect on you.”
“Yeah, she really is…”
“Don’t make me regret this. I’ll let you have your camp-out. Bring Sunflower with you. I want her next to you at all times.”
“Definitely! Thanks so much!”
“And remember to exercise her more often. I’ve noticed her being aggressive with my dogs,” she said. “She has too much pent-up energy.”
“I will, for sure.” Ellie grinned, then dove back into her dinner. Everything was going according to plan.
So far, anyway.
A/N: Last week, we had 18 voters. EVERYONE voted for the overnight trip to happen. Nice! I wonder if this week’s poll will pull similar numbers. Who wants to see a wolf vs dog fight happen (or whatever an altercation could mean)? We shall see. 😀
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