“All it takes is one second. One second and everything goes to shit.” Ellie rolled her head to the side and pulled her bag up and off of her shoulder. She breathed out through clenched teeth. “One second and she just runs off for no reason.”
Shreya crouched over a spot in the dirt. “I promise you we will find her.”
“You’ve been saying that for, like, what? An hour now?” Ellie threw her bag down, the botany book’s smack-of-an-impact making Shreya jump.
“Doing that won’t help us.” She narrowed her eyes. “Come here and look at this.”
“It’s another footprint,” Ellie said.
“What does it mean?”
“I dunno. It means she’s been heading that way, like she’s been doing forever.”
Shreya outlined the shapes of the footprints. “Compare this one to that one. She changed directions.”
Ellie squatted down next to her to take a closer look. If this is what it’d take to heighten Shreya’s sense of urgency, then she’d go along with it. “Yes, okay, she changed directions and went right, great. So let’s start running there and go.”
“No running. We move with caution.”
“We’ve been moving with caution this whole time,” she said. “C’mon, the sun’s starting to go down. She could be miles ahead of us by now. We’ve got to catch up to her.”
“She is not miles ahead,” Shreya said, her words as cool as the look in her eyes. “Your hand?” She held out hers to take. Ellie slid hers over Shreya’s, and allowed the other girl to guide her palm into the soil. “Do you feel this?”
“I’m feeling a whole lotta smooshy dirt, I can tell you that.”
“Why do you think it is like this?”
Ellie sighed. “Okay, I get that you want to teach me how to track things down, but this is not the time. Can we put a pause to the lesson plan?” She asked. “We’ve been at this for too long and all we’ve been doing is starting and stopping at every tiny sign you find. We should’ve found her by now.”
“The tiny signs are things you must notice. You asked to learn.”
“If you’re so confident about where she is, then let’s go get her.” She moved her hand away. “Let’s just go.”
“I understand you are upset—”
“Yeah, of course I’m upset! I screwed up and she’s gone, and you keep stringing me along like she’s right around the corner. Where is she?”
Shreya wiped her hand off on her pants. “Yelling at me helps us the same as you throwing things. Do you think I would be this slow if I thought we need to worry?”
“I guess not.” Ellie frowned, hesitating to clean herself on her trousers. They may have been her traveling pair, but she was hoping to keep them semi-clean for a little while longer.
“I would not do this if I thought she was in danger. I know she is not.”
“See, you know things. You know everything about this stuff.” She waved her arms around, indicating the forest surrounding them. “I didn’t grow up doing this. I don’t have every answer at the ready like you do, so do you get why I’m frustrated? There’s no point in asking me anything, because I’m just holding us back.”
“There is a point,” Shreya countered. “Here, with this dirt, I wanted you to see she was here a small time ago. It is soft. Do you remember what you told me when we were by the three-headed tree?”
Ellie hummed in thought. “Hmm… Her prints were less rushed. She was flatter on her feet.”
“How was that different than before?”
“Because before she was running on her toes, then she stopped doing that. We saw more of her foot in the prints,” Ellie said, “which means she’s been walking. And they’re closer together. When she ran, they were further apart, right? She either caught whatever she bolted off for or she lost it.”
“You are right. Those are all the details you see when you are slower,” Shreya said. “We know the story.”
“How close do you think she is? I could try whistling again.”
“That draws too much attention.”
“That’s the point. It’s a whistle. It’s supposed to be attention-grabbing.” Ellie raised her fingers to her mouth.
Shreya curled her hand around them. “Please stop. I think she is not far from here.” She let go and stood back up. “Will you carry your bag, or will I?”
“I will. It’s heavy.” Ellie got off the ground, then grabbed her satchel. “I’ve got pretty much everything in it.” Extra clothes, the botany book, the handaxe, food, water, her lockpicking tools, whatever she could cram in there for her overnight trip. She may have overpacked, but she’d rather be overprepared than underprepared. It’s not like she had a Girl’s Guide to Your First Sleepover with the Woodsdweller You Fancy to consult.
They walked in the direction Sunflower went, the dog’s steps acting as their compass. The sun shone in glimpses through the branches overhead. Its light washed the trees ahead in dark orange, a color that made Ellie take Shreya’s hand. Daylight’s protection was going to leave them soon. Searching for Sunflower in the dark would be a risky, if not foolish move.
The darkness held the worst of what the woods had to offer. And although Ellie thought the tales and rumors to be highly exaggerated, she couldn’t deny the pit forming at the bottom of her stomach. Once night fell, they’d be forced to go back to the cabin. They’d lose the ground they’d made on Sunflower.
Sunflower would be alone. She’d wander in circles, not knowing how to get back home in a place so unfamiliar. Something would notice her, a ghoul or some other ghastly creature. Fangs bared and red eyes glowing, it would stalk its unwitting prey. It’d wait until Sunflower exhausted herself in her search. The moment she laid down to rest her head, the beast would strike.
She wasn’t like the other dogs back in Stockbrunn. Hildegarde chided Ellie many times about that. Sunflower lacked discipline. Ellie hadn’t had it in her to be hard on her. If she could go back, she would’ve been more diligent with their training sessions. Any other dog would’ve come running at the first whistle.
Shreya insisted everything was fine, that they were going to find Sunflower safe and sound. Ellie glanced at her, hoping to absorb her confidence through a shared gaze. It was a wonder to Ellie how the girl whose hand she held managed to get up every morning.
In her lowest of times, Ellie folded inwards. She had locked herself in her room, only opening her door to drag in the food left for her in the hallway. Her blinds drawn, her days and nights floated by without difference. Failure weighing heavy in her heart, she withdrew from the world.
When her mind’s retreat became too much to handle, she turned to lockpicking. She practiced on whatever locks she could find, boxes, doors, anything in her house. Fiddling with the picking tools kept her busy. What was once an odd hobby became her obsession. The less idle she was, the better she was at shoving her darkest thoughts into the margins.
It didn’t seem like Shreya had a crutch like that. How could she? Her life didn’t allow her time to waste away on empty busy-making activities. Not that Ellie knew what Shreya’s life was like exactly, but she’d heard enough about it to picture it.
An ethnocentric place where might makes right, where everyone is a number that needs to fall in line. Do what’s expected or be punished for being different. Those who stand out are brought to their knees. Community comes first, always. Whatever the old people say goes.
They say, ‘take out your teeth,’ and you’re expected to ask, ‘where should I put them?’ around a mouthful of blood and dental remnants. Shreya’s people’s blind faith poisoned them. It ruined their minds, rendering them as nothing more than the elders’ puppets. As an isolationist group, they’d never be able to break away from their brainwashing. The misery of their lives was all they knew.
If they’d never met, Shreya would’ve turned out like the rest of them. Another doll to be propped up for the elders’ amusement. As soon as her community caught onto her not being like the rest of them, they’d break her to pieces and reform her in their image. She’d be just another woodsdweller, walking the same narrow path as everyone else. They’d destroy her to make that happen.
Everything was up to the elderly. If they decided Shreya deserved to be hurt for whatever reason (one of those reasons had been feeding their village—anything could be grounds for punishment), then their culture required it to happen.
Ellie couldn’t fight against that. She was only so strong, only able to protect Shreya so much. Two girls versus hundreds. Once Shreya returned home, there’d be nothing Ellie could do to save her. The hundreds would win. What if they punished her for being away for so long? It’d been a day, at least. What if they saw that as insubordinance and planned something worse than exile for her?
For whatever reason, Shreya kept refusing her help. Ellie offered all kinds of outs for her, and she turned down every last one. Rescue was at her fingertips. She needed to realize how perfect her life would be if she’d just accept the damn offer. Ellie would give Shreya everything she wanted in a heartbeat if that’s what it’d take.
Those terrible things that happened to her in the past, they didn’t have to be part of Shreya’s present or her future. Her indoctrination stopped her. That’s what it was, wasn’t it? Her community had its toxic claws sunk into her and she couldn’t abandon them out of principle.
What good were her principles in this situation? They were the blockade preventing her from being saved. Was it “out of principle” and on the elders’ orders that someone touched her? What were they trying to teach her then? What justification could they have possibly used for a punishment like that?
They were sick. Every last one of those community members were sick in the head. Ellie took back every trade offer she ever mentioned to Shreya. Stockbrunn would never deal with them in a positive way.
In fact, Ellie had a new trade on the table for them: justice in the Stockbrunn courts. Everyone responsible for the wrongdoing done to Shreya would pay for it. In exchange, Stockbrunn wouldn’t level their backwards village. Final offer.
“Sorry for snapping at you,” Ellie said. “I shouldn’t have been so nasty and it was uncalled for. I’m sorry.”
“It is alright. You have big reactions about people you care about,” Shreya said. “Emotions are good to have. Do not be sorry.”
“Yeah, but that’s not an excuse. You were helping me and I blew up. It wasn’t nice of me and I’m really sorry.” She didn’t want to be another problem on Shreya’s long list. Ellie needed to be better than that.
Shreya tugged on her hand. “I am sorry, too, for losing Sunflower. It…” Her words faltered. “It was my fault. I should have waited for a better time.”
“Hey, what’s a better time than when you feel like it?”
The pair stopped walking to talk.
“You wanted it a certain way,” Shreya said. “Happy and a word I forgot. Spectacular?”
“Well, was it?”
Shreya poked her in the side. “I am not answering.”
“Okay, ’cause the way I remember it, someone was definitely happy. Two someones. Me and you,” she said, gently swinging their arms. “We were real happy, and that’s all that counts to make it happy and spectacular, alright?”
“Alright.” Shreya smiled.
Ellie swore Shreya’s smiles were made out of the stuff that made birds sing, plants grow, and the sky stay high. She cherished them as much as she cherished the girl they adorned.
“Forget what I said before. I was being a drama queen.” If Shreya needed her to be happy and carefree-seeming, then Ellie could do that. She’d make every moment they had together into something special.
“What is that?”
“I was being too dramatic. We don’t need that kind of pressure. So what if the timing’s not perfect? When the moment feels right, just go for it. Hug me. Kiss me. Whatever. I don’t want you to have to hold back your feelings.”
Shreya preferred physical expressions—actions over talk—and Ellie was more than willing to adapt to her style. She faced a steep learning curve, not when it came to wordless communication, but when it came to believing in it.
She wasn’t a stranger to distortions of truth. Lying to herself was one of the things that helped her leave her house after Freesia’s disappearance. She’d pretend to be okay just enough to function.
Once she didn’t feel twisted up about tricking herself, she lost that pang of shame she should’ve felt lying about other things. It wasn’t like it was malicious. It was how she dealt with things and she did it so often that substituting reality became an easy feat. Sometimes, she lost track and fiction blurred into truth.
Her mother called it a nasty habit she was too old for. Ellie was inclined to agree. She had trouble believing in things as they were. What if she looked into a kiss, derived a certain meaning from it, and reached the wrong conclusion from it? She’d take in the happy parts of it, discard the rest, and miss out on its real intention.
“And I know it’s annoying,” Ellie said, “but when I ask you to tell me how you feel, can you?”
“We talked about this. You already know how I feel.”
“Sometimes I need that extra confirmation. It’s not because you’re doing anything wrong or that I doubt you or anything. It’s ’cause…well, because it’s nice to hear. It makes me happy when you compliment me and I don’t want to lose that.”
“You won’t,” Shreya said.
“Mind if I ask you something else? You never did answer me about…” Thinking back to the argument they had that morning made the words die in her throat. Solving that problem hadn’t helped her confidence any. She still floundered about this subject.
Shreya watched her expectantly. “…Answer you about what?”
What were they? Girlfriends? Friends messing around? Some cloudy, hard-to-define in-between stage? When she asked the first time, Shreya did a fantastic job of avoiding the question. That was an answer in and of itself, wasn’t it? Just let things progress naturally and let the label form on its own.
It wouldn’t be fair to go exclusive or heavy at this point. They had more to figure out.
Rather than get caught up in a potentially pitfall-filled conversation, Ellie decided to drop it. “Your birthday! I realized I never asked how old you are. I’m sixteen, how about you?”
“We may count age differently,” Shreya said. “I was born in the Spring, but I do not know what you would call the day.”
“You guys use a different calendar system? That’s cool. Early in the season or late in the season?”
“Late. Mama told me it was close to summer.”
“Can you count how many Springs you’ve lived through? Don’t include the one you were born in. Think of that as zero.”
“Zero, one, two, three…”
Shreya added them up on her fingers, saying the numbers out loud. Ellie held her breath in anticipation. While an age gap wasn’t the worst thing, a chasm of one would be enough to tear their relationship into friendship-only.
She bit her lip to keep from screaming when Shreya stopped at twelve.
“You cannot be twelve,” Ellie said. “I’ll eat my left boot if you’re twelve years old. There’s no way! I demand a recount.”
Twelve year olds weren’t supposed to look like Shreya. If woodsdwellers’ twelve year olds were like Shreya, then Stockbrunn needed to investigate their sorcery.
“I forgot how to pronounce the next number.”
“Yes, okay, thank you. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. I think I have lived through sixteen,” she said.
Ellie cheered. “Yes! Thank you! Ooh, you know what? I was born early in the Spring, which means I’m older than you, kiddo.”
“I do not know what a kiddo is, but I do not think I like the way you smile as you say it.” Shreya cupped Ellie’s face in her hands. “Your smile is a mocking smile.”
Ellie wondered if Shreya could feel the fire in her cheeks as they burned. “Y-yeah? You know what to do to get rid of it. Go ahead. I won’t bite.”
“It is hard to kiss you when I am smiling this much.”
“Then stop smiling!”
“You stop smiling!”
“Okay, okay, how about this? Is this a face you wanna kiss?” Ellie strained and scrunched up her expression.
Shreya turned away to giggle, music to Ellie’s ears. “You look like you need to poop. Stop that.”
Ellie relaxed. “Guess you’re gonna have to deal with both of us smiling, then. Make your move.”
The pressing of their lips together happened slowly, a gentle, shared caress. It was more chaste than the others, but the kiss lit Ellie up inside all the same. She felt a tingling sensation all over, a blissful head-to-toe tickling.
When they separated, both girls erupted into a fit of laughter. She thanked the forest that there wasn’t any wind blowing through. The feelings ballooning in her chest would’ve lifted her away with the breeze.
Feeling lighter than air, Ellie leaned up and kissed Shreya on the forehead. “See? That wasn’t so hard!”
“You are right,” she said. “I…I really like you, Ellie. You can let every tree know that.”
“The trees know,” Ellie said, “and they know I really like you, too.”
“I do not want to put a stop to this talk, but we should go back to finding her.”
“Ah, right, Sunflower.” Her irresponsibility had struck yet again. “Here, hold onto me. The tree roots are dense over there and I don’t want you to slip.”
A gnarled collection of roots laid out before them. They’d broken through the surface of the ground, taking over the path they needed to walk. Ellie held out her arm for Shreya to take, and they traversed over it, careful not to lose their footing.
To make up for any lost time, they increased their pace. Shreya took over on the tracking front, hardly stopping to examine Sunflower’s footprints. She’d send them a glance and move on. Sunflower stayed on the same trajectory: slow steps in one direction.
The sun had gone to rest by the time they found her. Sunflower’s clothes were dirty. The low lighting made it difficult for Ellie to make out the dark stain near her collar. Mud? Drool? Sunflower’d been sitting, but sprung to her feet and bounded over to Ellie as soon as Ellie called her name.
Fabric stuck out of her mouth.
“Sunflower! Don’t run off like that again. You worried me sick,” Ellie said, speaking softly to not startle her. “What happened to you? What’s that you got there?”
Sunflower made a noise through the cloth. Her eyes were unfocused.
Shreya put a hand on Ellie’s arm. “Ellie, we need to go.”
Having her closer allowed Ellie to see the lines going down Sunflower’s chin. Ellie wiped at them, surprised at their dried stickiness. “Ew, what the hell is this? What are you eating?” She rubbed the substance between her thumb and forefinger.
“Do not touch it! Wipe it off.” Shreya grabbed her hand and rubbed it off on her sleeve.
Sunflower tilted her head. Too occupied with chewing whatever was in her mouth, she didn’t react to Ellie and Shreya’s close proximity. Or maybe she was feeding off of Ellie’s positive vibes towards Shreya. No matter what the reason was, Ellie was glad she didn’t have to deal with anymore growling from her companion.
“What is it? Sunflower, give,” Ellie commanded. Sunflower released it into her hand. Shreya slapped it away. “What was that for?!”
Shreya met her glare. “I told you not to touch it.”
“Why? Talk to me. Tell me what’s going on. Sunflower, stay.” She stopped Sunflower from moving after the damp cloth scrap. It looked like it had been torn off of something. Ellie checked Sunflower up and down, turning her around to look for any rips in her jumper.
“That is blood! Blood and—”
“Blood?! She’s bleeding?” Ellie took Sunflower’s face in her hands, and moved her head from side to side to see her from every angle. Her dog whined from the rough handling. “Sunflower, what happened? Shreya, do you think she got into a spiky bush and someone gave her this to bite on, to stop the bleeding?”
“It is not her blood.”
“How do you know that? You’re not holding her.”
“Does she look in pain?” Shreya answered for her, “no, she does not. It is someone’s blood.” She grabbed the fabric and uncurled it from the wadded-up shape it was in. Ellie strained her eyes to see its lined pattern. It reminded her of some dresses she’d seen in town.
Crushed petals fell out of it.
“Flowers?” Ellie asked.
Shreya shoved it into her belt. “Do not run. Do not scream. Do not make any extra noise,” she whispered. “I need you and Sunflower to stay calm.”
“You’re scaring me…”
“We are going back to the house.” Shreya hand rested over the hilt of her knife.
“I-is someone watching us?” She whipped around, looking for any signs.
“No, not that I can tell,” Shreya said. She looked over at something over Ellie’s shoulder. “There could be traps. You need to hold onto Sunflower and follow close to me.”
A million questions shot through her mind. Ellie shut her mouth. She didn’t want to spend another second in this place, and asking more questions would only prolong their stay. They needed to get out, the sooner the better. Ellie gripped the back of Sunflower’s shirt to lead her forward.
After a shared nod for reassurance, the group set off.
~ * ~ * ~
Ellie wouldn’t have pegged inducing vomiting as a romantic affair, but there was something touching about the way Shreya helped her through it.
They forced Sunflower to empty the contents of her stomach into a hole Shreya dug up for them some ways away from the house. It was disgusting, but Ellie’d take a handful of puke over Sunflower succumbing to whatever plants she’d been drugged with.
“Do you think she’ll be okay?” Ellie used her clean hand to brush the tears streaming down Sunflower’s face.
Sunflower whimpered, stretched out in Ellie’s lap.
“This is the best thing we can do,” Shreya said. She rubbed Ellie’s shoulder. “I know the plant. It is not a killer, but it does things to your mind.”
“Someone fed it to her,” she said. “That’s what must’ve happened. She found someone and…” She couldn’t bring herself to say it. It was difficult for her to wrap her mind around. Who would do that to a dog?
“I do not think she killed someone.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“It is on the front of her. I thought you would think that.”
“She wouldn’t do that. No, somebody else killed someone or hurt someone and, I don’t know.” The blood was too fresh for it to have been something she randomly found. It was all over her chin. And, then there was the plant. “This was something deliberate. Something messed up and planned out.”
“Is this something Stockbrunn does?” Shreya asked.
“No! We’re not psychos. This is something your people would do.”
Shreya looked at her like she’d been slapped. Her words were delivered slow and steady. “I asked because your people create fake floor traps for animals. The bear? Forgive me for the assumption.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” Ellie said. “I just lost it for a minute there.”
“Ellie, we would never do something like this.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“It is alright. We need to get you and Sunflower cleaned up. Here, I think I know where a stream is.”
“Yeah… Sunflower, stand.”
According to Shreya, her community wouldn’t be capable of such a thing.
And yet, she knew what happened to Sunflower within seconds of them finding her.
The blood. The plant. The confidence.
Something wasn’t right.
~ * ~ * ~
It turned out Ellie forgot to pack some essential things for her night’s stay, namely candles and matches. She moved through the pitch black house on memory. To the left were the cupboards. Directly in front were the tables and chairs. Ellie bumped into one of the latter, and dragged it to the door.
“I can’t see well enough to lock it,” she explained, “but setting this chair up should keep anyone from turning the knob.”
“Do you want me to set up a fire?” Shreya asked.
“Knowing our luck the torch would nick something and this whole cabin would go up in flames. Besides, don’t we need to act like we’re not here? This needs to be like any other dark house around.”
“You are right. Do you need help getting to the table?”
Sunflower brushed against Ellie’s arm. Ellie said, “she’ll help me over.” She was the only one who could properly see in the dark, after all. “Sorry for the nastiness, Sunflower. You did a good job. You deserve a nice reward, don’t you?”
Ellie lowered her bag onto the table. She rolled her shoulder, glad to be free of its weight. Unfortunately, looking up the plant in her botany book would have to wait until the morning. She took out the jars of food, clinking them against the table to make noise for Shreya to follow.
“Sounds like oatmeal,” Shreya said.
“It is. I brought some apples if you’re interested.” Ellie brought them out, some of her lockpicking tools tumbling out with them. “Did you give me the jerky back?”
“Here it is.” She rapped her knuckles against the table.
Ellie popped the lid off of one of the jars. “Here, Sunflower. Take.” Sunflower lifted it out of her hands and dug right in. “Shreya, yours is here. There’s a spoon next to it. You don’t care if Sunflower gets, like, half the jerky, do you?”
“Thank you,” she said, before crunching into an apple. “She can have all of it for what she went through. Your old jars from yesterday are on the tabletop over there.”
“The counters,” the ones below the hanging cupboards. “Damn, I should’ve brought you some more food for tomorrow. I’ll go home and try to swing back here if I can.”
“It is okay. I can survive here. If I get hungry, I can go hunting or fishing.”
“I thought you didn’t like doing that.”
“I hate it when it is unnecessary.”
Ellie listened to Shreya bite into her apple. “You’d be okay going out there with those people roaming around?”
“I will see them before they see me. I am not afraid,” Shreya said.
“Because you’re an expert tracker?” Ellie took the cap off of her oatmeal. “Come to think of it, isn’t it weird we didn’t see their tracks in the dirt?”
“They did not lead her.” Shreya paused to take another bite. “She came to them.”
Ellie reached out for Sunflower. Her hand found her hair and stroked through it as she and Shreya chatted. “What do you think they wanted her for? If they wanted to steal her, wouldn’t they have just gone and done it?”
“I do not know. We should be happy we found her.”
With all those delays, they might not have. They were that close to losing her. Ellie refrained from bringing that up. They rescued Sunflower. Ellie needed to be happy about that. But in the process of rescuing her, she confirmed that there was something to those rumors. Bad, inexplicable things happened in the woods.
If she hadn’t witnessed it herself, Ellie wouldn’t have believed it. Nothing about it made sense. Had it been for fun? Was it someone’s idea of a wicked prank? They could’ve done something so much worse to Sunflower, but they hadn’t. The whole thing made her head hurt.
“That plant doesn’t have any longterm effects, does it?”
“It should not. Watch her. Give her water when she needs it.”
Ellie stirred her oatmeal. “I think…I think you should rethink coming home with me.”
“We have gone over this. I cannot.” Shreya set what remained of her apple down.
“Why are you so calm about this? There’s something happening here. It’s not safe.”
“The forest is never safe. I am sorry you found out that way,” Shreya said, “but I have known that my whole life. I am not as calm as you think. I am worried.”
“You’re not acting like it,” Ellie said.
“How would that help anything?”
“If you’re that worried, you’d come home with me. What if they get you?”
“They won’t. I am not their target.”
Sunflower placed her jar on the table, the sound of glass meeting wood interrupting them.
“What do you mean by that?” Ellie asked.
“This will sound bad,” Shreya said. “They want people like you. Sunflower is a kept animal. Groomed. Cared for. Whoever did that to her may have thought someone would come for her.”
“That’s horrible. You’re sure no one was watching us?”
“Yes, I am certain of it, and you should be certain that I will keep you safe. As long as you are with me, you have no reason to be afraid.”
“Same to you. They’ll have another thing coming to them if they try anything on you.” Ellie fumbled in the dark for the jerky bundle. “Here, Sunflower, take. I’m never letting her out of my sight again.”
“I will do the same. It helps that she no longer hates me.”
“See, the trick with her is to give her food. I think once you gave her that jerky, she became okay with you. Some dogs are simple like that.” Ellie ate a spoonful out of her jar. It tasted sour on her tongue. “Careful. The oatmeal may have gone bad.”
“It is fine to me.” Shreya’s spoon clinked against the glass jar.
Ellie recapped her jar. “I already cleaned up her throw up. I’m not cleaning up any more.” She trailed her hand along the table until she found an apple.
“I will finish your oatmeal. You should eat the rest of the meat and apples. It will be hard for you to sleep hungry,” Shreya said. “You are not used to it.”
“And you are,” Ellie said. She took a bite out of her apple, chewing it as she figured out how to phrase what she wanted to say. “That’s awful. You’re stronger for it, but that’s terrible.”
“The sky is blue,” Shreya said, “that is the way it is.”
They finished their meals in silence apart from the sounds of chewing. Content, Sunflower hugged Ellie around the shoulders when she was done. Ellie patted her on the arm. Her dog had been through more than enough in one day. They all had, in their own ways. A good night’s sleep had been hard earned.
Shreya set the empty jars and spoons on the counter top with the others. “Do you need help getting up the stairs?”
“Yeah, that’d be great. I’m gonna change down here first, though. I, um, brought you a nightgown, too, if you wanna wear it. It might be more comfortable than your clothes, I dunno.”
“I am fine,” Shreya said. “Thank you.”
Ellie’s hands hesitated on the top button of her shirt. The house was darker than the back of her eyelids, but for some reason, she couldn’t do it. Not in the same room. “Ah, sorry if this is weird, but do you mind going upstairs? I’m kinda nervous changing with you here, wherever you are.”
“Should I turn around and cover my eyes?”
“That’d help but it’s not like it makes that much of a difference. I’ll have Sunflower bring me up. You can claim your bed.”
“Okay, I will go do that.”
Ellie waited until she heard Shreya make it all the way up the stairs, then she slipped out of her day clothes and into her nightgown. She stuffed her brassiere deep into her bag. The last thing she wanted was for Shreya to see it. She was badly in need of a new one.
She called for Sunflower, and together, they went up the stairs step-by-step.
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We had 21 votes last week (our new record)! 4 voted for Ellie to search for Sunflower in the night. 17 voted for finding Sunflower under mysterious circumstances.
Voting ends August 19th at 11:59 PM EST. Next chapter will be August 26th. Thank you for bearing with the lateness!