Eleanor was a lonely girl. Perhaps lonely wasn't the proper word. She had friends. Every day she went outside and played with her friends Amanda, Kelsey, and Matt. She played kickball in the field at the top of her street. She threw rocks across the street to see whose could go furthest. She had friends at school. She had a big family.
But she was still alone.
Eleanor liked to be alone. She had her best friends—Amanda, Kelsey, and Matt—but her true friends were Harry, Frodo, and Nancy. No one understood her anger at not being listened to or being misunderstood like Harry did. No one understood how alone she felt like Frodo. And no one understood her need to seek things out and discover the truth like Nancy. Those were her true friends, and they understood her.
Right now, she was alone with Nancy.
She was lying on her back on her slanted driveway on top of a field of chalk flowers. If her mom had seen her, she would have been angry. But mom wasn't home. It was just Eleanor and Nancy.
The sun was shining on her face. She was wearing a pair of jean shorts and a tie-dye t-shirt that said "Mrs. Henry's Hippies!" across the front. Her knees were bent up in front of her, and Nancy was resting against her thighs. One knee had a large scar on it, while the other had a healing scab. Eleanor was also a clumsy girl.
"Leave me alone."
"What you readin'?"
"I don't care."
"I hate you!"
Eleanor did not flinch as her six-year-old brother pouted and stomped away. She didn't have time for him now. She couldn't be rude to Nancy. Didn't he see that she was spending time with her friend?
Today, Nancy was hunting for treasure with her friends. But someone else was after it, too. She was in a hot desert in Nevada. The air was dry there, she told Eleanor. It was so different from where Eleanor was. The air was wet with humidity from where she was lying on her driveway. But with Nancy telling her about her treasure hunt, Eleanor could feel the dry air. She felt like she was with Nancy. She always felt like she was with Nancy.
Soon, Eleanor began to drift in and out of the story that Nancy was telling her. She loved Nancy and her life was wonderful, but third grade had been dreadfully tiring that day. And the sun was shining and the humidity was wrapping her up like a warm blanket. Soon, Eleanor's legs were crossed in front of her and Nancy was laying open on her stomach as her eyes drifted shut.
When she dreamed, she was floating among the clouds. She was weightless—leaping from cloud to cloud. The sun was her guide—the angels her companions. They flew in a circle around her as she soared from cloud to cloud—as if she was playing hopscotch on the clouds—their gigantic feathered wings flapping in the bright blue sky above the white clouds. They were encouraging her—whispering to her when she came to a particularly large leap.
"You can do it, Eleanor," one whispered in her angelic voice, high-pitched and clear.
"You're so brave, Eleanor."
"Go, go, Eleanor!"
"Keep leaping, Eleanor."
"Higher, Eleanor. Faster."
"Eleanor May, wake up."
Eleanor blinked in the bright light of the sun.
"Come on," she said, not sternly. "Come inside." Eleanor's mother was standing above her, wearing a pair of pink scrubs and holding a ghastly bright yellow purse that she no doubt thought was stylish. Eleanor sat up and saw her three-year-old sister standing by the door of their townhouse, waiting for their mom to walk over and open the door to let them in.
Ellie didn't understand why her sister couldn't open the door herself. Just reach up and turn the knob, stupid. She didn't understand a lot of the things that her sister couldn't seem to do; like sleeping in her own bed or wiping her own butt.
When Ellie stood up and wiped her pants off, she noticed there was a white plastic bag in mom's other hand.
"Tacos," her mom said, raising up the bag when she noticed Eleanor looking at it. Eleanor frowned. Usually Eleanor made dinner before her mom could come home from work, bringing her sister home from daycare on the way. Her mom usually got home late, and food from outside the house was a rare treat. Eleanor narrowed her eyes in suspicion but said nothing. She walked into the house and left the door open so her mom and sister could come in.
"Where's Tony?" her mom asked when she followed Eleanor into the kitchen.
"Outside," Eleanor said as she gathered cups for the four of them and began filling them with water so she could start setting the table.
"Could you go get him?"
"Yeah," Eleanor said, setting a cup down on the table and walking toward the front door. "TONY!" she screamed from the doorway.
"Dammit, Ellie, don't yell. Go find him. Shit."
Eleanor frowned, feeling anger at her mother course through her. Why couldn't she go get him?
It didn't take long for Eleanor to find him. He was back behind a neighbor's house where he always was, playing with worms in the dirt.
"Hi, Ellie," he said, holding up a worm.
"Gross," Eleanor said. "Come on. Dinner time."
"Ten more minutes."
"No," Eleanor said, walking over and grabbing his arm. "Mom said now. Come on."
"Let go of me!" Tony said as Eleanor dragged him back to the house. "I'm telling!"
"Shut up," Eleanor said before dragging him inside and closing the door.
"Come on, guys," their mother called from the kitchen. "Dinner."
Codie was already sitting at the table with her little legs dangling from her chair as she waited for her mother to bring her her food.
"Tony, get napkins," their mother said as she placed two hard-shell tacos in front of an expectant Codie. "Forks, Ellie."
"It's tacos," Eleanor said. "We don't need forks."
Her mother gave her a stern looks. "Just get the forks."
Eleanor rolled her eyes and walked over to yank the drawer open and grab four forks. After she did, she sat down in her normal spot at the head of the table. The other head of the table had an empty chair. Codie sat to her right, and Tony and her mom sat next to each other on her left.
This was also an uncommon occurrence. Mom usually got home too late from work to eat with everyone else. Eleanor usually left some food covered on the stove for her to eat when she came home. And Eleanor usually ate on the couch with Tony on the floor (Codie still at the sitter), even though they weren't technically allowed to eat in the family room.
Codie talked the most throughout dinner. Tony talked a lot as well. Eleanor remained relatively silent as she always did. Tony was annoying, and Codie was a baby—there was nothing to talk about to them the way she saw it. Jacquie was also relatively quiet. She asked Tony about school and Codie about Aunt Linda, the sitter. She didn't finish her tacos, Eleanor noticed. Halfway through the meal, Jacquie stood up, put one taco in the fridge for her lunch tomorrow, left the contents of her picked at tacos on the table, and walked slowly up the stairs to her bedroom. Tony and Eleanor ate the remains of her dinner.
Tony and Eleanor were sitting at the table alone as Codie had retreated to the bathroom. When Eleanor was finished, she heard Codie calling for them from the bathroom.
Eleanor looked at Tony. "Your turn," she said as she walked away from the table and ran up the stairs to her room. She had to get back to Nancy.
She closed the door to her room when she got up there. This was her place—her temple. She laid on her stomach. The walls of the room were splattered with blue and pink paint, where she had dipped a feather-duster into a bucked of paint and slapped the walls to create the walls that surrounded her. She had two twin beds in dark wooden frames. She had a small vanity in one corner, a bookshelf in another, and a wide, short dresser where a small television sat on top. This was her fortress. She had grown up in this bedroom. She had spent long afternoons with Harry, Frodo, and Nancy in this room. She had written and thought about her trials and tribulations in this room. She had screamed and cried in this room. She had looked at her small, naked body hoping she would grow boobs in this room. It was her temple—a place she was more than happy to be a lonely girl.
Nancy finished her long story—she found the treasure, thank God—and Eleanor flipped on the TV. As a show about a black family living in Brooklyn came on her screen, she leaned over, reached below her bed, and pulled out a clear bin. She pulled the top off to reveal dozens of little bottles of nail polish.
Her mother expressly forbid painting her nails on the bed, but her door was closed—what would she know?
Other than spending time with Harry, Frodo, and Nancy, painting her nails was Eleanor's favorite pastime. It was good. It was fun. It was safe.
Through the hardest times in her young life—times when even Frodo couldn't be there for her—Eleanor had had her polishes. She'd had the pretty colors to lose herself in. She had gotten lost in the colors the night a little over a year ago that her mom had first forbidden her from painting her nails in bed.
"You bastard, go to hell."
Eleanor couldn't hear who her mother was talking to on the phone, but there was only one other person besides Eleanor, Tony, and Codie that Jacquie talked to like that.
"I need to feed your damn kids… Oh, YOU DON'T CARE?" Mom screamed. "Then come fucking take them—God fucking knows that you never see them."
Eleanor started shaking as she dragged the bright orange polish across her nails. She tried to focus on the color. Orange. Pumpkins. Oranges. My favorite fruit. Mmm oranges.
"Oh. Oh, really? Oh, okay. Put that cunt on the phone and I'll talk to her."
Orange. Isn't it beautiful? Eleanor tried to ignore her shaking hands. Mrs. Tyler will love it. She always likes my nails.
"Son of bitch—Eleanor you just spilled that fucking polish. God dammit!" Mom slammed the phone on the receiver hanging in the hallway and stormed into Eleanor's room. "Who's going to clean that shit up, Eleanor May? Not you, that's for damn sure," she said as she pushed Eleanor off the bed and began yanking the sheets off. "Not your fucking deadbeat dad, that's for sure. NO MORE NAIL POLISH ON THE BED, ELEANOR, DO YOU HEAR ME?" She paused for half a second waiting for a response. "DO YOU FUCKING HEAR ME?"
Eleanor nodded and slammed her door shut when her mom walked into the hallway, Eleanor's sheets balled up in her arms.
Slamming the door had been a huge mistake.
Tonight she'd chosen a lime green polish. It looked terrible against her skin tone, but Eleanor didn't notice such things—she was only 9 after all.
There was a knock at her door before her mom walked in.
"Hi," mom said.
"Hi," Eleanor said, her heart thumping when she saw her mom eye the nail polish. Eleanor sat up and moved the polish to the end table next to her bed. Her mom sat on the edge of the bed but didn't say anything about the polish.
"We have to talk about something," mom said.
"What?" Eleanor said.
"Things are hard for me, Ellie," mom began. "I'm stressed out all the time and you know your dad doesn't help me."
"Okay," Eleanor said. She'd heard it all before. The only people who understood were Harry, Frodo, and Nancy. She could never tell Amanda, Kelsey, and Matt about how hard it was in her house.
"Well, he's finally agreed to do something." Eleanor didn't say anything. "You and Tony are going to go stay with dad for a while."
"WHAT?" Eleanor yelled. She was horrified. She hardly ever saw dad. And he had a new wife. And his new wife had a son. And he was terrible.
"I'm so sorry, Ellie…" Jacquie said. "I just can't do it anymore."
"Mom, no, please!"
"MOM, PLEASE! I HATE IT THERE, PLEASE," Eleanor was sobbing.
"I'll see you every weekend."
"I DON'T CARE! I—WHAT ABOUT SCHOOL? MOM, PLEASE, NO. PLEASE!"
"Ellie," mom tried again.
"MOM IT'S NOT FAIR. PLEASE, MOM, PLEASE!"
Eleanor threw herself face down onto her bed and sobbed. Her mom tried to talk to her, but Ellie just swatted her away, screaming as she did so. Mom murmured something, and then walked out of the room and closed the door behind her.
For hours, Eleanor sobbed into her pillow, yelling and begging her mom for as long as she could before her voice became hoarse. It wasn't fair. Nothing was fair. It wasn't fair that dad was gone. It wasn't fair that she never saw him. It wasn't fair that she was the only person in her school without a dad. It wasn't fair that he had a new family. It wasn't fair that they were poor—that her mom couldn't pay the bills. It wasn't fair that her dad was a deadbeat. It wasn't fair that Codie got to stay, but she and Tony had to go. Please, mom, Eleanor begged in her head. It's not fair. Please.
Eventually, the tears stopped. Eleanor had no more tears left to cry. She put her head into her pillow and let the exhaustion take over. In her mind, she hoped she would never wake up.
But she did.
The next morning, the sun was shining through her window brightly.
It only took about a minute for her to remember the previous night.
Fuck the sun, she thought in her head. She felt deviant for even thinking the curse in her head, but she didn't care. It didn't matter. Not anymore.
She closed her eyes and turned her head.
Sitting on her end table were two small bottles of nail polish. They weren't hers. She knew all her bottles and colors by heart. These were new. Curious, she reached over and examined them. One was a bottle full of silver sparkles. The other was an electric blue.
She turned over in her bed and sat up. On her table, where the bottles had just been, there was a small scrap of loose-leaf paper. Eleanor held it in one hand—the bottles in the other. It had four words on it.
I love you, Ellie.