She deserved her retreat.
Shreya had been a fool to think that wasn’t going to happen, that Ellie’s words would stay true. Why did she let herself deny reality? Ellie was never going to do anything but cast the two of them aside. The girl Ellie held in her heart no longer existed. A nightmare had overtaken her spot.
Everything Ellie said crumbled and cracked before them. Her declaration to the stars lost its meaning. The text and drawings in their shared notebook were nothing more than spilled batches of ink. Their memories, some of them made only minutes ago, fell away into a chasm.
The gap continued to widen.
Whoever this girl was who regarded Shreya so blankly, she wasn’t the Ellie Shreya knew. No heightened emotions. No flare-up of intensity. No shove, no push, no scream. No tears; only a dry nothingness from someone who looked like Ellie on the outside but didn’t feel like Ellie in essence.
Reason said let her go. It’s over. No one likes those who can’t lose gracefully.
Sensibleness said be grateful for the time you had together. It was longer than it should’ve been. Shreya should’ve taken that and been happy with it. This is as much as you’ll ever get.
But, no. Other feelings won out over those two as Shreya cut Ellie off from the stairs. She stood, arms out to block her. Ellie stared her down without frown nor smile.
“Get out of my way,” she said.
Shreya stumbled over her Casternian. “Not talking about it?”
“Move before I sic my dog on you.”
“Are we not worth a fight?” Shreya asked.
Ellie’s flat affect needled at Shreya. It gutted her worse than she imagined a screaming match would. Some kind of battle would be proof that some tiny part of Ellie still cared, or cared about Shreya at all to begin with. Hadn’t they earned a better reaction than one void of face?
“There’s nothing to fight for, wolf. Don’t make me call Sunflower up here,” Ellie said.
“Do it! Do it if I ever meant anything to you. Just do or say something, please.”
Fire crept into Ellie’s voice. “If you ever meant anything to me? What about the other way around, huh? What about that?” She reached out like she was going to clutch the front of Shreya’s shirt, but dropped her hands before they could make their mark.
Ellie spoke quietly, “I can’t even touch you anymore. You’re a wolf. A fucking wolf. How could you do this to me?”
“Still me, still me. Look at me. These ears and my tail, they do not change anything.”
Shreya blinked to catch the water in her eyes, slow and heavy. The shimmer in her vision told her that that wasn’t working.
“They change everything! You tricked me, and now you’re crying like, like I’m the one in the wrong. No. Fuck no, it doesn’t work like that. I’m not falling for your shit anymore, Shreya. Is your name even Shreya or is that fake, too?”
Shreya’s breathing quickened. “Shreya Marjani Azima. That is my true name.”
“I don’t care who you are. Get the fuck out of my way.”
“You swore to me you would not do this.”
Over and over again, Ellie had reassured her. She’d hugged her close and kissed her with the weight of forever.
“Stop it. Don’t start with that,” Ellie said. “You know it wasn’t a fair promise.”
“How human of you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
And maybe what Shreya wanted to say next wasn’t fair, but she wanted to do the same thing Ellie was doing to her. She pinned the actions of an entire community on her, like she was every human.
“Words. Words. So many words never followed through on. That is the human way, is it not? Let me tell you something, Ellie.” She’d been holding this in ever since Ellie’s first rant against her people. “We did not break the treaty. You did! Stockbrunn stopped giving us food. Were we supposed to starve to death while you had this forest under your control?”
They had a bounty, a wealth that they knew nothing about. Stockbrunn was wasting it in their greed.
Ellie glared. “You thought killing people would be okay?”
“It is what you did to us. You killed us, too. Ellie, have you ever buried someone? Held someone dying in your arms? Seen the bones of young, desperate children? Bones like cliffs at their sides,” Shreya said. “Do you know what it is like to be so hungry that you cannot move?”
“All you wolves needed to do was renegotiate.”
“You did not let us.”
“Is that what your Elders told you? They lied to you, and, just…just shut up. You’re just trying to get in some final punches here. Trying to get in your arguments while you still can. Well, guess what? None of this matters.”
“It does matter. Would you act like this if I was some other animal?”
“It’s disgusting either way. There are names for people who get with animals, you know? They’re messed up in the head. They need help,” Ellie said. Her gaze drifted to the floor and stayed there. “I’m not like them. I’m normal. I like humans. Regular human people.”
There were names for it and worse in her culture, too. The curse. The intense condemnation. If anyone other than Shanti found out about her and Ellie, the consequences would be life-threatening. It ran deeper than a moral issue.
“Is that what you believe? Is that why you are running away, because you cannot deal with liking a wolf like me?” Shreya asked. “That must be why you cannot look at me directly.”
It may have been conjecture on Shreya’s part (a hard shove to rattle her), but it got under Ellie’s skin enough to make her take a step back.
“I can’t look at you because of your ears. You make me sick,” Ellie shot back.
Her heart thudded. “Now who is trying to get in some final punches?”
“You’re the one who won’t let me leave.”
“Then, call your dog. You know what to do, so do it. What are you waiting for?”
“What do you want from me, dammit? Were you expecting me not to care about you being a wolf? No amount of you standing there is going to make a difference. You can hold me hostage here for days, months, whatever. It’s not going to change a damn thing. I mean, where are we supposed to go from here, seriously? You’re a wolf.”
“You said that what we are did not matter. What matters is who we are,” Shreya said.
“Yeah, back when you were a woodsdweller.” Ellie scratched her fingers through her hair. “Zinnia was right. She was always suspicious of you. She thought you were Erzyan, but no. Why couldn’t you have been Erzyan? Why’d you have to ruin everything?”
“Do you hate me?”
“I hate you. There, I said it. What did that accomplish?”
Shreya’s ears perked up. There had been a waver in Ellie’s voice, a slight quiver that gave away her lack of conviction.
“Nothing. I needed to hear it,” Shreya said.
“You have to hate me, too, right? Because this didn’t turn out the way you wanted,” Ellie said. “You definitely hate me.”
“I do. I hate you.”
“That sounded as fake as our relationship.” Ellie’s smile was missing its usual warmth.
“I faked what I was, yes, but not the rest. You assumed I was a woodsdweller and I accepted that,” Shreya said.
“So you’re saying this was my fault? So many weird things about you make sense now. I feel like an idiot for not realizing it sooner. Heh, and I’m supposed to lead a town? This is hilarious, if you really think about it. One big, giant riot of a joke.”
“It was never your fault. I wanted to be your friend. I wanted to be someone other than me. Being with you made me forget what I am, and I liked that. I liked that you liked me for me. You saw things in me that I could not. And the more time we spent together, the more I liked you. This is my first time feeling like this.”
With apparent disbelief, Ellie said, “sure.”
“I did not mean to kiss you when I did, but I am happy it happened.”
“I’m going to brush my teeth for days. You ruined me.”
“Another punch? That is fine. You say these cruel things because you are upset. I understand. But, you need to understand my motive in this. The point was not to trick you. It was for me to be happy. I needed to feel good enough.” She paused to steady herself. “You made me feel special and things got out of hand.”
“Yeah, you bet they did.”
“I swear I never wanted to hurt you. That is another reason why I did not tell you this until now. I liked us being happy. I liked us normal. Your smile. Your laugh. Your fire for life. How stubborn you can be about things.”
“This is a trap, isn’t it? You’re stalling for time. This is like what happened with Sunflower. Ah, I get it now.”
“No, no, no trap. Those were humans. I have no trap here. No one else is involved in this.”
“Your sister knows.”
“She picked up on your scent the first day we met. She did not learn much about you until I introduced you. I kept us private.”
Ellie’s eyes widened. “Wait, wait, wait. Sunflower? And Marietta? Why didn’t they say anything? How’d you trick them?”
“Sunflower loves people who give her food. You told me that,” Shreya said, “and I think she could sense you were not in danger with me. Marietta… She knew like any animal would. I bargained for her secrecy. She liked the power.”
“So my dog’s useless and Marietta’s a liar, too. You can’t trust animals.”
“I kept your secrets.” She thought back to the things that would make her appear the most suspicious. “I did not tell anyone about the books. That was for myself, to make sense of things. You can trust me on that. And the other information about Stockbrunn. I asked that to get to know you. I wanted to know what it was to be human and, and now I can help you learn what it is to be a wolf. You are wrong on many things.”
“From the way I see it, I’m perfectly right. You’re a trickster without an ounce of sincerity in your body.”
“Are you that afraid of us that you are going to keep denying everything?”
“I’m not afraid of wolves. Do you see me running?”
“You were running before I stopped you, but that was not what I meant. I was talking about you and me.”
“There is no you and me. Why can’t you get that? We can’t be together.”
How was Ellie, a girl so strong she could stand up to anyone and anything, weak at the knees about this? Shreya caught her micromovements, the slight twitch and rise of her eyebrows, the flicker of a downcast expression whenever her mask slipped. She knew her. She had her intonations memorized and knew when her cadence was out of sync.
This was not an Ellie who was all-in on what she was saying.
Shreya needed to work on her doubt.
“We can! We have not changed,” Shreya said. “This, is it not the same?” It surprised her that Ellie let her take her hand in hers. No resistance. No squeeze back, either. Just a limp coldness. “Ellie…”
“You’re obviously not hearing me.”
“I know you do not want to let go of us.”
“I let go as soon as you took your hat off. It’s over.”
“Please think about this. You are making a mistake.”
“This whole thing was a mistake. You said it yourself. You didn’t mean to start this,” Ellie said.
“I was happy I did,” Shreya said. “Were you happy?”
“I was. I was very, very happy.” Ellie eased her hand out of Shreya’s. “But we can’t do this anymore.”
“Do not say that. Do not make a final decision for us like that. We need to talk more. Another day.”
“We’ve talked. This is it. Now, would you please let me leave?”
Shreya moved aside. What more was there for her to say? At this point, the continuous beat-downs had exhausted her into submission.
“Thank you,” Ellie said.
As Ellie headed down the stairs, Shreya decided to call after her to get in the last word:
“Feelings do not go away like a blown out flame. This is not over like you think it is. You are going to think of me. Things will remind you of me. That is when you will regret walking out of here like this. There will be embers.”
That made Ellie stop, but she did not turn around to look at Shreya.
Shreya went to the window. She pushed aside the curtains to take in the afternoon sun.
She listened to Ellie gather her things.
And she heard her sob, an accidental sound she muffled so more wouldn’t come out.
But, still, Shreya remained at the window and wept alone.
A/N: Voting on Topwebfiction only takes two clicks and less than 10 seconds of your time. Click this link to help Redwood Crossing top the charts. 🙂
Voting for this week’s polls will end on March 17th at 11:59 PM EST. Be sure you vote on both!
Wowee zowee. The results for Chapter 46’s poll of “will Shreya stop Ellie or let her go” was 16 votes for stopping her and 10 for letting her go. 26 voters total.
Chapter 48 will be on March 21st.