Regret wasn’t an unfamiliar sensation for Ellie Navarrete. She knew the stinging burn of it like an old friend or a well-worn coat. Typically, she’d wield her stubbornness as a salve as she went headlong into the flames of it. Whatever inciting incident preceded the shame would get double-downed on, as if being steadfast would make her folly any less embarrassing.
But, in this instance, her resolve crumbled. Rather than playing her usual cards of teasing, playfulness, or heightened indignation, Ellie retreated into timidity. What else was she supposed to do after the subpar reception she received? All she got was silence and a whole lot of blue-eyed staring.
Maybe, it was too soon, too bizarre, too off-putting, too serious, too…something.
“Yeah, so…” Ellie found it hard to come up with something to say. She settled for a poorly delivered repeat, full of babbles and stutters. “No need to say it, too, yeah. Nope. That’s your, your…prerogative. Definitely your choice, yep. So…we should probably get to the house before this food gets cold, y-yeah? Yeah.”
She turned to exit the conversation and its current awkward state. Ellie planned on talking about something else, anything else, really, but before she could get fully and completely away so she could make that transition, Shreya touched her arm.
“It’s okay. I’m not upset. Let’s get going—”
“You talk forever,” Shreya said.
“That’s me, always talking forever, yes.”
“Look at me.” Shreya closed in, so there was nothing else Ellie could see except for her. Ellie wasn’t complaining, especially not when Shreya draped an arm behind her shoulders to bring Ellie further in. Shreya kissed her softly, almost chastely as if she was doing it for the first time. Her carefulness tickled Ellie. “It is the same with me. I am falling, too.”
Excitement surged in Ellie’s chest. Her kiss in return was sloppy, its shape lost beneath her smile. If she had the strength to, she would’ve lifted her girlfriend up and spun her in circles. The feeling was mutual! Knowing that made everything surrounding them so much brighter.
The once screeching birds were tweeting smooth melodies. The sun beamed, rather than scorched. The occasional howl of wind ended, cut off to be replaced by breezes that swept the trees like a polite wave. Ianes’ Wall became a thing of beauty, a monument to be revered.
“Really, really? Say it again,” Ellie said.
“I have fallen for you. Really, really.”
Ellie slid her arms around Shreya’s waist and squeezed her close against her. Shreya jumped, her whole body twitching in Ellie’s grasp. Shock? Surprise? She loosened her hold. “Was that too tight? I’m sorry, I’m just so…” She giggled. “Oh, wow, I just want to toss you in the air and kiss you to pieces. You’re the best! You’re so cute.”
“Please do not throw me. I am fine where I am,” Shreya said. She nuzzled her cheek against Ellie’s. “Can we stay like this before we go? I want to remember this.”
What was there to remember? They could do this whenever they wanted. It was just a long—although nice and cozy, don’t get Ellie wrong—hug. To preserve the heartwarming mood, though, Ellie kept her question to herself. “Yeah, for as long as you’d like. Anything for you.”
~ * ~ * ~
It lasted long enough that by the time they reached their cabin, the leftovers and oatmeal Ellie brought were definitely cold. That didn’t stop Sunflower from tearing into her food with her usual ferocity. Ellie was still in the middle of laying out the silverware when Sunflower decided to jump right in. If Shreya wasn’t laughing so hard, Ellie would’ve told Sunflower off.
“One of the rare times I invite her to sit at the table, and she does that,” Ellie said. Sunflower had food all over her face and hands. “Ugh…”
“At least she is a fan,” Shreya said. She picked up her fork and pierced it into a cut of the roasted quail.
“She’s acting like that because you raised her without manners, dear. Here’s a napkin. Lay it in your lap.” Ellie passed it over. She took her seat across from Shreya.
Sunflower sat at the head of the table, contently swinging her feet. Every swipe of her wagging tag thudded against the chair behind her. Her plate of oatmeal, quail, and greens was close to being cleaned off, and Ellie hadn’t even started eating yet.
“I did not raise her. Are you confused?”
“Have you ever played house?” Ellie asked. “It’s a game where you pretend you’re married, and other people pretend they’re your kids, and you act like you’re living in a house together, or whatever.”
Shreya paused to chew on her food. She swallowed. “Married? Joined? I cannot say I have played a game like that. How do you win?”
“There’s no winning. It’s a play-pretend thing. You just pretend that we’re wives. Life partners. And Sunflower’s our daughter.”
“Our daughter needs real clothes and shoes,” Shreya said. “We should have some sewn for her.”
“If I had you dress her, she’d be looking like a Grandma,” Ellie said. “Sometimes it feels like you woodsdwellers are frozen in time when it comes to clothes. Not that you don’t look spectacular in yours; I’m just saying.” She popped a spoonful of oatmeal into her mouth.
“Should I not wear anything? I can take it off.”
Ellie choked. “What?”
“You know what I said.” Shreya looked at her with a glint in her eye.
“Jokes like that are going to give me a heart attack. Don’t say things like that in front of our daughter.”
“I think she wants more,” Shreya said.
Sunflower’s eyes were so glued to Shreya’s plate that when Shreya picked it up, Sunflower lifted her head to follow it.
“We shouldn’t overindulge her. Dogs’ stomachs are only like, this big.” Ellie made a small circle with her hands.
“You are calling our daughter a dog? You are a mean Mama. I feel bad for Sunflower.” Shreya set her food down, and went back to eating it, a smile playing at the corner of her lips.
“Technically, she’s a dog.”
“But not when we are doing play-pretend.”
“Give her your hat, then. It’s hard to unsee her as a dog when her ears are out like that.”
“No, thank you. No one touches my hat,” Shreya said. Something about her tone felt off, like her energy had hit a down-note. She took her time eating her next bit of quail, seemingly doing everything as slow as possible. Slice. Bring to mouth. Eat.
Ellie rested her chin on her hand. “Don’t worry. I’m not enough of a shit to try it.” She pushed her food around her plate. “Although, seeing you with hat hair would be pretty hilarious, not gonna lie. Hilarious and adorable. Hey, you know what we should do some time? An outfit swap.”
“You have been very interested in my clothes today. Are you trying to tell me something?”
“Hm? I don’t think so. Me and Freesia used to do it. No one noticed other than Zinnia, so it wasn’t that fun, but me and you could do it. It’d be way more fun. We can see what we’d look like if we were from each other’s towns.”
“Part of why I like you is because you do not remind me of anyone from home. I like what you are wearing.”
“You do, don’tchya? Did you notice anything different? I bought myself something new yesterday.”
“Is that a new shirt? Sorry, I did not notice. I care more about you than your clothes,” Shreya said.
“I’m wearing a corset. It’s a cincher. Maybe I should’ve made it tighter, eh… I’m not good at wearing these things.”
“It squeezes me in under my clothes and stuff. Stops about here on my rib cage. I hate the ones that go over your bust, now those are a choking hazard,” Ellie said. “I put on a corset to impress you, but now I see I was wasting my time.” She let out a non-serious huff of air. “You’ll have to make it up to me, and there’s only one good way you can do that.”
“I am afraid I am having a hard time following. You should show me it…if you want.”
Ellie doubted Shreya’s sincerity on that, but she played her mock-confusion well. “Oh, I would, but I just remembered that I have a lock to fix. I’ve brought all of my supplies with me.”
“It is okay. You can do that later,” Shreya said. “Sunflower will watch the door. Are you going to eat the rest of your food?”
“I’m not that hungry. I think I’m too jittery to eat.”
“What is making you feel like that? Is it your cincher?”
“Maybe. I’ll let you know after you take it off for me.” Having their boundaries re-established made it easier for Ellie to flirt like this. She wondered if Shreya agreed with that sentiment.
“After I’m done eating.”
Ellie sighed. “Do you have to do it that slowly?”
“I am savoring it,” Shreya said.
“Like you’ll never get to eat it again,” Ellie added. “I can make you oatmeal any time. It’s my specialty.” Her specialty, also known as one of the only dishes she could make with confidence. Why cooking eluded her was a mystery for another time. “The quail and greens, those depend on when we’ll next have them for dinner…so I guess you could savor those for longer. I dunno. Are you okay? Are you acting like this because of the secret thing?”
Ellie reached over the table to offer her hand. Shreya put her fork down so she could hold it. “I keep telling you that there’s nothing for you to be scared of. How many more times do I need to say it? I mean…do you not believe me when I say I care about you? I’m not lying. I literally can’t hate you.”
“I believe it. I know you care about me.”
“Then, stop acting like you’ll never see me after this. I’m not going anywhere.” Ellie stood out of her chair. “Nowhere, but upstairs, that is. Sunflower, stay down here. You can have the rest of my plate.” She slid it towards her. “Join me whenever you’re ready, Shreya.”
~ * ~ * ~
Ellie was face-down on the bed when Shreya finally showed up. When Shreya wanted to take her time, she sure did. Ellie would’ve sworn that with a speech like the one she left her with, Shreya would’ve chased her up the stairs, but, nope. Whatever it was that she wanted to say was making her stall to near-comical levels.
If she had to do her confession all over again, Ellie would’ve written it out on a banner and hung it up in their cabin. Hopefully, that would’ve gotten message through to Shreya that Ellie was in this for the long-haul. Seriously, why did Shreya refuse to trust her on that? She believed in her feelings, but still wouldn’t stop being so pessimistic about everything.
“Is this the corset?” Shreya asked. “It has metal?”
Ellie sat up to see Shreya holding it. “Yeah, it was getting uncomfortable so I took it off. You pull the strings on the sides to tighten it. It’s pretty cool, but most people in Stockbrunn don’t bother with them unless they’re doing something special. Do you wanna try it on? Just for fun?”
“No, I am okay.” Shreya tossed it to the other bed.
“You don’t have to be stressed about anything.”
“I said I am okay.”
“Sit against the headboard there. I’ll tell my story first so we can get this all out of the way. After you hear from me, you’re really not going to be worried about what you’ve got to say anymore.”
Shreya complied with Ellie’s order. She leaned back and stretched out her legs.
“Spread ’em a little,” Ellie said. “I’m sitting in front of you. This is gonna be hard for me to talk about, so you’re going to be my chair. I’ll do the same for you.” She took her spot, and laid back against Shreya’s chest. Shreya loosely put her arms around her. “I think I can feel your heart beat.”
“Is that true?”
“No. It’s probably just mine. Are you comfy? Comfortable?” Ellie asked.
“Yes. You can start when you are ready.”
Ellie took a deep breath. She needed to be as confident about her reveal as she wanted Shreya to be about hers. While Ellie had many thorns deeply wedged in her heart, this one in particular had been the catalyst, the start of so much of her misery. Had the events of ten years ago never taken place, her entire life would be different. Less pressure for her; less pain for everyone.
“I don’t know if you remember this. I’d be shocked if you did, honestly. Back when we brought Zinnia here, you asked her something about these woods, and she mentioned a name to you. Rowan Vestergaard. Do you remember that?” Ellie asked.
“A little,” Shreya said.
“Heh, as soon as I heard her name, I yelled to distract you guys. I’m a mess… And then those history books you wanted to see… Can you believe that I searched all over the place for ones that were out of date, specifically so I could avoid talking about this? But you picked up on it and pushed and prodded at me for more information. I got so angry.”
“Do you have something to do with Rowan Vestergaard?”
“Rowan Vestergaard has everything to do with me.” Ellie scrunched up her eyebrows. There was no better way to put it than to just give Shreya all of the facts. It was time to put her judgment to the test. If her image of Ellie was ruined after this, then so be it. “I don’t think we ever met, but the things that happened to her changed Stockbrunn forever. It destroyed my life.
“I was six when this happened. Ten years ago. Things were so different back then. I wish I remembered how things used to be more. All I’ve got are paintings and books about it, and the things that random people tell me about how good things used to be. What am I supposed to do with that? They’re nostalgic for something we can’t get back to, never ever, but anyway…
“Rowan Vestergaard’s grandmother lived in the woods. I guess you could call her a woodsdweller, but not your kind. She was more of an anti-townie, I dunno. Stubborn old fool. One of those types. And so, Rowan had to leave Stockbrunn to visit her. She brought a basket of food for her.
“For some background, we had a treaty with the wolves back then, kind of like how we do now. So Rowan didn’t have many reasons to be scared. Yeah, there’s other random animals, but they’re different from them. They’re smart enough to know to leave us alone. There’s just…something wrong with wolves. Maybe it’s their rot.”
Shreya interrupted, “what rot would that be?”
“I don’t know what kind of rot it is. They’re just fucked up. Listen, as soon as I’m through telling you this, you’re going to understand why. You’re finally going to get it,” Ellie continued. “As I was saying, the wolves had a treaty with us to stay away from our damn side. They agreed to it. So that’s why Rowan Vestergaard made her usual walk through the woods to visit her grandmother. She didn’t think she had much to worry about.
“But when she got to her grandmother’s house, she found her dead, all chewed up. Rowan took off screaming. There were a bunch of huntsmen nearby. My uncle, my aunt, and my dad were with them. My dad just happened to be with them that day. He was the Chief. He was supposed to be in Stockbrunn, not there. He just had to… Ugh, I need a second.
“Okay, so they found her. They got to her pretty much when the wolves did and they were dragging her dead body, like they were trying to take it somewhere. Just thinking of it makes me sick. And so there was a fight. An awful one. You’d think it’d be easy for a group to take down a couple wolves, but no, they’re monsters. They’re called monsters for a reason.
“And those monsters hurt my dad. They—” Ellie struggled to keep her voice from breaking. “They hit him in the head. My aunt saved his life. She brought him back to town while the other huntsmen killed the wolf. Saved his life… It’s not a life. He’s practically a vegetable. His brain was rattled by whatever happened in that fight.
“My mom keeps holding onto the hope that he’ll recover, that he’ll get better, but it’s been ten years. He’s suffering. We’re all suffering. Sometimes I think—and this is why I’m a fucking awful person—sometimes I think he should’ve died. My mom could’ve found someone else to marry. Someone else that would help her and make her happy. Another person she could’ve had a kid with, I don’t know.
“I can’t look at him without feeling disgusted. What the fuck’s wrong with me for thinking that? He’s my dad, but he’s not my dad. Skin and bones and vomit and drool. He never changes! He never gets any better. He’s always asking me the same questions, day after day after day. He’ll never improve and it’s like, what are we holding on to?
“He’s the Chief of Stockbrunn and we just hide him away in our house. No one can see him other than our relatives and his caretakers. He’s…he’s just hidden away, like we’re ashamed of him, and you know what, I am. I see him and I fill up with so much rage, because why did he have to get himself involved in saving that little girl?
“My uncle Federico said that Rowan looked like me. I don’t think he meant to tell me that. I don’t know. Thinking about it just makes me angrier, like it was my fault that my dad decided to fight a bunch of wolves. He should’ve stayed away, and then he wouldn’t be messed up, and I would be okay, too.
“I blame him. I blame Rowan. I blame those wolves for breaking the fucking treaty. We went through all of that, and my mom instated a new pact with them. It’s like, what? What’s wrong with her? Why do we have any sort of pact or treaty with them right now? They’re liars, and the reason why everything went to shit. I’ve got to step up and be the co-leader real soon, because my dad can’t be.
“And when I step up, I’m gonna do what we should’ve done to them already. The wolves will pay. I promise you that they will pay.” Ellie was seething at that point. Hot tears sprung to her eyes. She sniffled.
Shreya hugged her from behind. Ellie couldn’t hear any crying coming from her, but she did feel her take in a shudder of a breath. “I am sorry,” Shreya said. “There is nothing wrong with you and the way you feel. It is understandable. You are hurt.”
“There’s so much more I could say about it, but, I’m enough of a mess like this.” Ellie didn’t bother to wipe her face dry. “So…yeah…you can take your turn whenever you’re ready. See? There’s no way it can be as bad as thinking your mentally disabled father is pathetic. I love him, but he repulses me so much. I…no, I don’t really want to get into it anymore than that. Whatever you’re going to say can’t beat that.”
A/N: 22 votes on last week’s chapter! 21 votes for Shreya saying it back, 1 vote for no. And then 22 votes for Shreya believing Ellie’s confession. Whew. And then we got to see the results of the poll from way back at the end of December. 19 users participated in that one, which asked, “what will Ellie first talk to Shreya about – her father or Freesia?” 9 votes for Freesia and 10 votes for her father.
Voting on this poll will last until Friday, March 3rd at 11:59 PM EST. Subscribe here for an e-mail alert on when the next chapter will be up.