By Melinda Wilder
She had never before wanted to be anything much. Ellis remained silent as the other kids in her classroom shared their future dreams. Her social studies teacher wanted them to answer the simple question.
“I’d like to be a teacher when I grow up,” one classmate said.
Ellis wanted nothing to do with the classroom. She despised her teachers at school. Her own mother was a teacher, and she mostly despised her, too.
“I want to be a veterinarian,” the boy beside Ellis shared with the class, to which Ellis replied, “If you love animals so much, what do you want to see them die all the time for?”
No one was sure of what to say. The rain outside grew heavier and the teacher was glad to have something to do as she shut the last window.
Not a single person thought to ask Ellis what she might want to be, which was too bad, because she had decided.
When the school day ended Ellis walked up the hallway to her mother’s classroom. Ellis, being only a seventh grader, and in all high level classes, had no way of ending up in her mother’s eighth grade remedial math class. This was a relief to them both.
“Hey, Daniel,” Ellis said as she walked in. Daniel, the student aid for seventh period, was still there as usual, grading papers and keeping things organized.
“Oh, hey,” he said, looking up without moving his head.
“Ellis, we’re going to be late. I don’t see why or how it takes you fifteen minutes to get here when the bell rings. It’s raining and now I’ll have to drive slow. Come on. Hurry up. Don’t even set your backpack down. Just leave it on. We’re going. Daniel, thanks. See you tomorrow.”
Daniel took another chance and glanced up from the papers to see a frazzled Ms. Jay with her hair, usually tied into a neat bun, falling out and her pin skirt shifting to the left. Ellis looked perfect. Daniel only looked at her when she was looking anywhere but at him, so he had many chances. Today she wore one of his favorite outfits on her, brown lace up boots, dark grey tights, a light pink skirt and a navy sweater. Her appearance always looked put together and lighthearted. Pastels, classic cuts, hair back in a headband. It was Ellis’s personality that usually had people stunned into silence. She rarely spoke, and when she did she always seemed to say the wrong thing. Daniel loved what she said. His shoulders often shook in a silent laughter to Ellis’s comments. He would have completely agreed with her comment to the future veterinarian. Ellis didn’t know that, though.
“I can just stay here, you know,” Ellis said.
“And do what?”
“I don’t know. Help him,” she said, pointing her finger at Daniel.
Ms. Jay glared but thought about it for a split second. “Daniel! How long were you planning on staying?”
“I- uh- however long you need me to?”
“Perfect. Two hours, then. Wish you’d told me about your sudden passion for grading papers earlier in the day, Ellis. Goodbye.” Ms. Jay left the room with a slam of the door.
Ellis slumped down into one of the desks. Daniel was sitting at her mother’s teacher desk. Ellis chose the student’s desk directly in front of him. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and stared at him until he finally looked up. The rain pounded on the window. His eyes met hers, then looked out the window as Ms. Jay’s minivan left the parking lot, and then back at Ellis.
“How was your day?” Daniel asked. He glanced up at Ellis when he asked, half expecting her to ignore him.
“It was fine as always. We talked about what we want to be when we grow up in Social Studies today.”
“What did you say?”
“It never got around to me.”
“You mean she just skipped you?” Ellis shrugged. “Well?” Daniel said.
“What do you want to be?”
Ellis smiled, wider than he’d ever seen and said, “I’m going to be an actress.”
Five Years Later
“Oh my God, we did it, Ellis! We did. Shit. Didn’t think we’d ever get out.”
Ellis stuck her hand out the window of his car and shot her middle finger into the air. “Fuck you, Desert Springs High School.”
“You realize we never have to go back?”
Ellis smiled again, still a rare occurrence, and said, “I realize it.”
“And after dinner tonight with your mom, and tomorrow night with mine, we won’t really have to see them very much, either.”
Daniel reached over and squeezed her knee. She put her hand over his and looked at him. She did like the way his hair looked when the window was open. She liked that he’d always offer to drive. She didn’t mind his laugh and the way he said every obvious thing possible, either.
“Did you tell her about the apartment we found?”
“What did she say?” Daniel asked her.
“She wasn’t surprised. I’ll never need another penny from her, so it’s not like she could say anything, anyway.”
“Mmm. True. Thank god.”
“I still haven’t told my parents,” he said.
“I figured that.” She stared straight ahead.
“I will though.”
“Before tomorrow night?”
He paused. “Yes.” And she wasn’t surprised that his answer sounded more like a question.
Daniel parked the car and felt Ellis’s hand on the back of his neck. After all those years, her touch still made him shiver. Her breath was on his jaw, in his ear. Her hand reached his leg and worked its way up.
“You’ll tell them tomorrow?” She whispered between deep breaths.
“Yes,” he said. And she really liked when he answered her like that.
“Seems like you two know where you’re headed in life,” Ms. Jay said at dinner.
“Yes, ma’am,” Daniel said.
“Both moving out together. Both going to the university together. At least you’re being somewhat responsible.”
“Thanks, mom,” Ellis said. Her mom glanced over at her and gave one of those appeasing smiles. Then she rolled her eyes.
“What’s your concentration of study?” It was the first time Ms. Jay had questioned her about or showed any interest in her daughter’s educational plans.
“Well, she isn’t sure what she wants to do. But I know she can do anything,” Daniel said. He felt defensive of Ellis. That he knew something about her that Ms. Jay didn’t filled him with pride and made him sad for both mother and daughter.
“Oh?” Ms. Jay asked casually.
“I’ll probably study business or something,” Ellis said, ignoring Daniel. “Who really knows when they start college?”
“And you, Daniel?”
“I’m going to get an engineering degree.” Daniel had little interest in what the degree meant. All he knew was that engineers made money. His only goal was to provide for Ellis. That’s what his degree was going to be in: making Ellis happy.
The next night, his parents were less than thrilled with the plans they heard.
“Living on your own isn’t easy, you know.” Daniel’s mother said.
Ellis lowered her eyes and replied, “Living at home isn’t always easy, either.”
“I understand that you and your mother aren’t close,” she said, a little less dignified.
“The apartment we found is great, mom. Can’t wait to have you over and cook for you. The rent is affordable with the jobs we have, they even pay water.”
“You pay for it in the rent, son,” his dad said.
Daniel coughed. “I guess that’s true. But it’s really great. Ellis and I both love it.”
“It’s close to school, too,” Ellis added. She flashed her smile that even Daniel’s parents couldn’t resist. “I’m really excited to start this new chapter of my life with Daniel. I love him. I think… I think we’ll really make it.” She reached over and messed up his hair. “You raised a good one.”
Both Daniel’s parents relaxed a bit. Ellis could have that effect on them; Daniel never did.
“Just hope you kids know what you’re getting into.”
“Ellis is going to be a famous actress and I’ll be an engineer. Plan’s there, dad. This is just step one.”
His parents looked at each other, shook their heads slightly, and then decided to take the higher ground. They had no power anymore.
“Cheers to that, then,” his mother said, raising her wine glass. Ellis and Daniel lifted up their water, Daniel’s father his beer, and they toasted to the new life Ellis and Daniel would begin as high school graduates.
Ten Years Later
“All you have to do is hold her like this, and she’ll sleep,” Ellis explained. She smiled and stood, bouncing slightly as she held their daughter.
“You’re so good with Daisy,” Daniel said. He touched Daisy’s head.
Ellis looked up at him and smiled. “You’re great with her, too.”
Then Daniel shook his head. He was tired. “I’ll go check on Adam.”
Ellis watched her husband leave the room, hardly believing her life. Yet, she’d put effort each day into making it what it was. She has a five year old son, a gorgeous house, a weekly yoga routine., and even a slim body after having her second child only five months earlier.
She looked down at Daisy’s closed eyes and small nose that looked just like her own. “Be a good girl now. Daddy needs you to grow up to be a good girl.” Ellis placed Daisy in her crib and went back to bed.
“He’s fast asleep,” Daniel said. He got into the bed, too, and wrapped his right arm around Ellis. He breathed in her hair.
She reached around and touched his neck, then his hair.
“I love you,” he said into her ear.
“I love you, too, Daniel,” she said.
Eighteen Years Later
Ellis woke up. She looked at Daniel, who was still sleeping by his side. It was their first morning waking up to an empty house. Both children off to college. Daniel was able to retire early.
“Morning baby,” he said when he finally woke up and found her in the kitchen.
“Coffee’s ready,” she said. Daniel kissed the top her her hair.
“What do you think Daisy’s doing?”
“Probably having the time of her life. Or crying.”
“She’s a sweetheart, isn’t she?”
Ellis could only agree with her husband.
“Just like you, Ellis,” he added.
Twenty Years Later
Ellis looked in the mirror and put on her pink lipstick. The wrinkles around her lips made her worry about it looking messy.
Daniel put on his jeans and his button up shirt. She looked over at her aging husband.
“You’ve still got it, baby,” he said. His teeth were suddenly shiny with age.
“And you’re the cutest grandma anyone ever saw.” As always, he kissed the top of her hair. She felt she needed to tease it again after the kiss. Ellis always had perfect hair. “Babies always fall asleep in your arms.”
“I honestly don’t know what it is,” she said.
“They can feel they’re loved. That’s how I feel when you touch me, too.”
Thirty Years Later
Ellis didn’t bother with the makeup. She figured she had another month or so to live, or so the doctor told her. She was old. It wasn’t a tragedy.
She grabbed her purse and walked out of the house.
Daniel opened the door and called out to her, “Ellis! Where are you going?”
“Leaving, dear,” she said.
“Goddammit, Daniel. For heaven’s sake.” She stomped over to him. He couldn’t hear anymore.
Ellis stood in front of him and said slowly, “I am leaving.”
“The store?” He asked.
“No, just leaving.”
“But, where to?”
“Somewhere you aren’t. To live out the rest of my days.”
“Daniel, I don’t love you. I never did. I can’t stand our children. Their kids might be even more burdensome than they were.”
His big old eyes welled up. “What?” Maybe he heard her wrong.
“But, Ellis… why?”
Then she smiled. It was perhaps the brightest smile of her life. “Daniel, I just might be the world’s best actress.”