“Are you scared? There is is not a why for your scared,” Shanti said, grinning like a cat who’d caught a canary in her teeth. Ellie was that bird, being ground up by every smile and look Shanti threw her way.
Her words did a poor job of calming Ellie’s nerves. They should’ve been reassuring, but they only flipped her stomach further. Given all of Shreya’s stories, Ellie had perfectly good reasons to be terrified. Even without those, though, she was facing the pressure of meeting Shreya’s family. That would’ve been heart attack-inducing under normal circumstances. This was worse.
“I’m okay,” Ellie forced out. Shoulders back and chest puffed out in a look of faux confidence, she said, “I’m not scared. I’m intimidated. I’ve always had problems knowing how to act around beautiful women, and beauty runs in your family so I’m having twice as much difficulty here. Forgive me.”
“Ellie!” Shreya covered her face. “Stop that.”
“What, I can’t charm the pants off of your sister? Um, not literally. You know what I meant!” Ellie gestured wildly, trying to tear what she said from the air. “I don’t think she understood what I said, anyway. She didn’t have much of a reaction, so we can let this one go.”
Shreya translated. She wiggled her eyebrows, possibly adding more to her speech that wasn’t in there before. Ellie’s ears burned at Shanti’s cackle of laughter. They went back and forth a couple more times, no doubt having a ball at Ellie’s expense.
“I am keeping my pants, thank you,” Shanti said.
“She doesn’t actually think I’m going for her pants, does she? Is this your idea of a joke? Fix this, Shreya! I’m not a pervert.”
“Does Shreya need to worry her pants? Is you wanting my sister?” Shanti asked, her expression sobering into absolute seriousness.
Ellie swallowed thickly. “Um…” Somebody save me. “What do you mean by ‘wanting’?”
“Do you want me or not? It is a simple question,” Shreya said.
“What, you can’t actually be asking me that. This is bordering on inappropriate, don’t you think?” Ellie tugged on Sunflower’s leash to reel her back to her. Sunflower halted in her wandering, her attention torn away from the flowers she was nearing.
“Is it a yes or no?”
“Zippidy zip zip. That’s my answer; deal with it,” Ellie said.
Shanti cracked her knuckles.
“W-why is she doing that? What’s with that I’m-gonna-kill-you look on her face?”
“I do not know. Maybe you said something she does not like,” Shreya explained.
Ellie stepped backwards. Shanti took one forward.
Sunflower was more concerned with trying to get back to the flower patch she wanted to explore. She strained the leash to get back to it.
“You’re not gonna help me?” Ellie shot at Shreya.
“This is your fight to win. Talk to her,” Shreya said.
“Okay, okay, Shanti. Hello. My intentions—my plans, my wants with Shreya are entirely normal. Yes, I want her, but in the general girlfriend sense, not in a solely physical body way. I’d never treat her like that. She’s a person.” Ellie placed her hand over her heart. “I want Shreya whole.”
“…?” Shanti glanced at Shreya, her mouth pursed in a frown.
“Whole, not hole! The one with the W in front. I’m talking about whole as in completely. I want her inside and out as in, um…” The grave Ellie was digging for herself grew deeper and deeper. “How about we just leave it at ‘I think Shreya is a wonderful person and I am happy to be with her,’ the end?”
Shanti’s face relaxed back into its usual devil-may-care look. “Joke! Shreya is right. You are funny.”
“Sorry,” Shreya said. She smiled, melting Ellie’s heart in the process. “I thought that would help ease you. You won’t earn her respect if she thinks you are afraid. Show her the Ellie that I know.”
“Well, I’m a touch more embarrassed than afraid, so there’s that,” Ellie said.
It still baffled Ellie why she was being put through this. Did Shreya expect her to pretend that her words of warning had been exaggerations? Terror alight in her blue eyes, Shreya had told Ellie that she was to never meet Shanti. Shanti was supposed to be the very image of a deranged woods dweller.
And yet, there Shreya was, acting like this circumstance was as normal as any other “meet the family” moment in a young couple’s life. Smile often, nod a lot, laugh along to jokes, and engage in light conversation in the hopes that all parties involved would take a shine to one another.
Perhaps Shreya was playing the part, as well. She may have been responding to similar instructions and ways for being around Shanti: locked-away fear and forced cheeriness. Shreya’s casualness was a piece of her act in this, a signal to Ellie that she needed to follow her lead.
Show her the Ellie she knows…
“Hey, Shanti, have you ever tried a zoltgeel berry?” Ellie asked.
“What is that?” Shanti asked.
Ellie pointed upwards to the branches hanging overhead. Among the clusters of green leaves laid the yellow-white circular fruit. They were coin-sized and grew in bunches. Reaching them would require a climb up the tree. Ellie bent at the knees, stretching to prepare for the task.
“They’re drupes, you know, with pits in the middle. You eat around the seed,” she said. “Zoltgeel berries are delicious! They taste like sweet and sour candy. I’d love to get you some to try.”
“You are getting it? You…” Shanti held up a fist, then slammed it into her palm. “You fall.”
“I won’t fall. Do you see these arms?” Ellie flexed to show off her biceps.
“Dancing? Shreya learned you?”
“Huh? No, I’m not dancing.”
“She is thinking of a popular dance from our village. It starts like that,” Shreya explained. “Shanti, no, I did not teach Ellie the Eastryd. Ellie is doing a joke.”
“Hey! I’ll have you know my arms are no joke. Let’s not forget that I kept up with you when we sparred. Shanti, I totally beat Shreya in a fight. I won. Victory. I defeated her.”
“Do not rewrite history,” Shreya said. “You know that I was winning when we stopped.”
Shanti grimaced. “Ellie won you?”
“She did not.”
“With shame Shreya. That is not good.”
“She is making that up,” Shreya said. She switched languages to make her point, but Shanti put her hands over the top of her head and sang something nonsensical to overpower what Shreya was saying.
“How does it feel to be on the receiving end of the joke, Shreya?” Ellie smirked. “Not so funny now, is it?”
“Go get your berries.”
“Can I borrow your shoes? I don’t want to get my boots all scratched up.”
“Do not stall. Go.”
“Fine. Clip this on,” Ellie said. She unbuckled her wrist leash and passed it over to Shreya. “I’ll get you guys a whole branch of zoltgeel berries. You, Sunflower, and Shanti will have so many berries you won’t know what to do with ’em. Feast your eyes on this!”
For the first course, Ellie served them up a plate of apprehension. She craned her neck, her eyes roaming the tree as she formulated her strategy. Her initial plan fell through when she realized that her arms couldn’t reach the lowest branch at standing height. She’d have to make a jump for it.
Ellie backed up for distance. She glanced over at her audience. Too occupied with squishing dirt beneath her toes, Sunflower wasn’t paying any attention. Shreya was fighting to keep a smile off of her face, that whole I’m-so-insulted facade of hers faltering. Shanti, the one Ellie needed to impress the most, eyed her closely, excitement twinkling in her otherwise nonchalant gaze.
Watch me. I’ll show you what I can do.
She took a running leap at the tree. Her right foot met it at the base as she used the other to boost herself up. As her arms flailed upwards, her momentum allowed her to find a grip on the branch. Ellie adjusted her arms so they were doing a better job of holding it, then she pulled herself up onto it.
Thankfully, it held her weight when she rose to a stand. She hugged the tree trunk as she scanned for footholds. A gnarled stub called for her. It screamed, “step on me,” so she reached out with her leg and did. She used it for assistance in getting to the next branch. Further up the tree, she went.
Bark crumbled under her hands. Ellie shook off the bits and pieces, refusing to follow their trajectory downwards. It wasn’t that she was afraid of heights, no. She just didn’t want to be reminded of how long the journey back down was. She was reaching prime you’re-gonna-break-a-bone-or-two territory.
Pressed close to the tree, Ellie persevered onwards and upwards. She tugged on a Y-shaped branch, intending to use it as a hand-hold. It snapped off in her grasp. Ellie dropped it, then searched for another that she could use. It took a bit of scrambling, and one close-call that made someone on the ground gasp (theatrically or honestly, Ellie wasn’t sure), but she found a proper hold and moved up.
She exposed the tree in places, her boots scraping off its hard covering. A particularly hard swing of her legs sloughed off a decent-sized chunk of the tree. Broken away, it resembled a dog bite. Not wanting to do further damage, Ellie shimmied around to the other side.
The angle and abundance of leaves made it harder for her to be seen, but since she’d given everyone a decent show of her prowess already, she decided to grit her teeth and deal with that negative. That one was easier to bear than the piercing shot of pain that rang through her head. Ellie figured that the difference in altitude must have been getting to her.
Ellie pushed through it. Muscles burning from the effort of grappling the tree, Ellie reached her destination. Sort of. She was supporting herself against the tree trunk and a branch. A lack of secure footholds around this section prevented her from being able to grab the zoltgeel berry branch she needed.
Carefully, she braced herself as she took one hand away to undo her belt. The friction of the leather streaked hot against her as she yanked it off. Belt in hand, Ellie leaned over. She whipped it against the berry branch. It shook, shedding a handful of leaves from the hit.
The second attempt had the same result. Foliage sprinkled down, but she was no closer to getting the fruit she was after. She looped the belt and tried encircling the leafy branch. Ellie caught the belt on the wood. It bent as she dragged it towards her reach.
Proper tree climbing technique demanded at least three points of support. She had her torso smooshed against the trunk, her feet perched on a branch, and her other hand gripping a stub. Three points. Letting go of the stub would mean two and more of a risk in case something suddenly went wrong.
But she had to do it. She needed to get the zoltgeel berries. Ellie changed her footing to give herself better balance for her lean, then she twisted away from the tree. She snatched at the berry branch, her hand catching on it as she struggled to wrench it free.
It broke off in a flurry of green blades and brown wood bits. Its abrupt splintering took Ellie by surprise. She slapped herself back against the tree trunk, not trusting her legs to keep her steady. Ellie tucked the branch into the back of her pants, the flared out leaves and berries fanning out behind her. Her belt, she hung around her neck, doing her best to buckle it closed on the loosest setting so she wouldn’t lose it.
Without further ado, my triumphant return…
Ellie scaled downwards. Getting to the ground was always her least favorite part about tree climbing. While she’d charted her path earlier on her ascension, limited visibility prevented her from reversing it to the letter. She had to change most of the steps she took before.
She lowered herself onto a branch. It swayed. Ellie crouched to keep her balance. She gripped it to steady it, then worked on dropping herself from it to the next part of the tree below. As long as she aimed her body correctly, she’d land where she needed to.
That part turned out the way she wanted to. She landed
and broke through.
Ellie scrambled to get another hold. Her arms and legs swung wildly, her body smashing through weaker branches and twigs. Through the snaps and rustling, she heard Shreya scream her name. Tumbling, falling, pain, more falling.
Bounce and then the ground. Ellie collided with it on her hands and knees. Her vision shook, panning left and right while her head stayed still.
“Are you okay?” Shreya’s voice asked above her.
“You fall. Ouch,” Shanti said.
“Yeah…” Ellie mumbled. Colors swirled in front of her. “I’m okay. Give me a second. I just need to pull myself together, yep…”
“Ellie,” Shreya said. She held out her hand for her to take.
“I’m okay,” she repeated. Ellie got up on her own. She blinked away the blurriness and ignored the tingling sensation spidering across her wrists. “Hey, I got the berries. Take them.” Wobbling on her feet, she turned around so Shreya could grab them.
Shanti did it, instead. “Sweet and sour?” She plucked a fruit off the branch.
“The seed in the middle is like a hard rock, so bite around it. Shreya, make that clear to her so she doesn’t hurt herself,” Ellie said.
“What about you? You need to sit,” Shreya said. “That was a bad fall.”
Sunflower bumped into Ellie’s shoulder. “Ellie,” she whined.
The girl in question winced. “Sunflower, sorry you can’t have any.” She brushed her hand through Sunflower’s fluffy hair, keeping her wrist stiff. “I don’t want you to choke on the seeds.”
“I think she is worried about you. So am I. Can you show me your hands?” Shreya asked.
“Nothing’s wrong with them. There’s no need for that.”
“Then why are you treating them that way?”
“Look, the only thing that’s bothering me right now is this stupid headache I’ve got,” Ellie said. “And my stomach kind of hurts.”
Shanti ate the zoltgeel in layers, stripping it away with her teeth until it was just a pit. Finished, she chucked it over her shoulder, then started in on another. “I like it. Thanks to you!”
“You’re welcome. It was no problem. It’s been a long time since I climbed anything like that, but I didn’t do too horribly.”
“You fell. You are lucky you were nearing the bottom,” Shreya said. “Here, let us share water and have a rest. Shanti, give me my gourd, please.” She pointed to it.
Weakness. How was she supposed to “earn Shanti’s respect” if she complained of her injuries? No pain; no fear. Shanti wasn’t acting the least bit concerned, like falling from trees was something normal. At least she was too busy eating to goad her for it.
Ellie rotated her wrists. The left one throbbed worse than her right. A fog distorted the corners of her view. Its waviness began to edge towards the center. She shook her head to rid herself of it, but that only made it worse.
“We’re not far from the house. I’ll rest when we get there,” Ellie said. “Heh, you know, you should probably get some berries from her before she eats them all.”
“We are resting here,” Shreya said.
“Okay, yes, fine, only because you’re being so serious about it.” Ellie stared at the ground, unsure how to make it there.
“Is okay?” Shanti asked. She waved the branch at her.
“I’m okay. I’m always okay.”
“Shreya,” Shanti said and then continued in their home language.
“What’s that?” Ellie asked.
Shreya snapped her fingers. “She said your reactions are off. Are you in pain? Are you sick? How long have you been like this?” She snapped her fingers again. “Is this why you forgot your things? Please answer me. You are scaring me.”
“You didn’t give me any time to reply. You can’t go rattling off questions like that,” Ellie said. “Pain, yes. Sick, I don’t know. Probably yes. The forgetting’s got something to do with the sickness problem, that is if it’s sickness at all. Who can say?”
“I gave you lots of time. I waited with every question. You stood and said nothing,” Shreya said.
“Acting like I’m off, alright, I get it. You must be playing another joke. Funny.” Ellie grinned.
“No, this is not a joke. Shanti, help me get her down. Something is wrong.”
“Up, not down. Down the hall to the featured trees will be okay. Simple stories before withdrawn resistance. Simple us. Shreya, you can rid the help. The help…the help, falling—” Her eyelids fluttered.
A/N: Don’t forget to vote for us on Top Web Fiction! It’ll only take less than a minute and you can vote for as many other webserials that you’d like. Voting resets every week.
Happy Thanksgiving in advance to everyone who’s celebrating it on Thursday.
Chapter 38 on December 1st. Voting for this chapter will end on Thursday, the 24th at 11:59 PM EST.
We had 21 votes last time: 18 votes for Ellie suffering from complications related to her concussion and Shreya & Shanti having to take care of her, and 3 votes for the house having been tampered with.