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Agnosthesia

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The inside of Michael’s is the usual level of empty for half an hour before closing on a Sunday. Tears for Fears blares cheerily over the loudspeakers from the 80s hits radio station the manager, Carla, always insists on playing. In the aisle with watercolors, Paul is helping the sole customer, a twenties something artist type with paint splattered overalls, look for the right paints for a project she wants to work on.

Even three aisles away in the scrapbooking section of the store, Ellie can hear the smile in Paul’s voice as he explains the different consistencies of the various paint brands. It’s almost annoying the extent to which Paul exemplifies the customer service of a model employee. It’s probably why Carla has never even thought about firing him, even though he always makes a mess when he shelves new products. Hence, the mismatch of hot glue and rhinestones Ellie is currently trying to organize. But even though she has to crouch and lean over uncomfortably to fish out a packet of staples from where it’s fallen to the bottom of the display stand, she just sighs resignedly.

When she had first met Paul at the start of the summer, she had been instantly exasperated by him. She had already been working at Michael’s since the start of the second semester of her junior year, about four months, give or take. She knew who he was before he even put on his name tag that read Employee in Training in big block letters. Everyone at Franklin Roosevelt High School knew Paul Munksy, the star quarterback of North Point High’s football team. But Ellie didn’t care about the dumb rivalry between their high schools. She had never paid much attention to sports in general, and Roosevelt’s subpar football team didn’t inspire her to become a fanatic. So Ellie didn’t hate him instinctively for being the driving force behind her school’s many football losses. However, she did resent him for his total cluelessness.

Carla had assigned her to train Paul. Ellie had never trained a new employee before, but she could still tell that it was taking way longer than necessary. She had to repeat things several times until he remembered them and he followed her around like a lost puppy. Ellie had kept snapping at him until about a week in, when he started sniffling and said that he might not be as smart as Ellie but he was trying his best.

Ellie was aghast. She had treated Paul as just another responsibility piled on top of her job at Michael’s, her other job playing the organ for masses at the local Catholic church, handling utilities for the apartment she shared with her dad, and all the work she had to do for school. It had made her forget that he was a person too. After that, she had tried to be more patient with him. He started learning more and he also opened to her. She was surprised to discover that once Paul felt comfortable enough to talk with her, she never wanted to stop.

Ellie had never felt a deep connection with anyone at her high school. To be fair, she didn’t put that much effort into making friends. She would have said that she was too busy to deal with extended social interaction, but the real reason might be closer to the fact that she has an intimate knowledge of how it feels to have someone important to you ripped from your life. She can limit the chances of that happening again if she keeps people at arm’s length.

But Paul was different. She knew he was going to be in her life no matter what; they worked together, after all. Somehow that made it feel okay to befriend him.

Plus, he was a hard person to dislike. He loved cooking second only to his family, and he genuinely listened to Ellie, even if it was about some book she had read that he had never even heard of. He was the antithesis of a stereotypical jock. He just exuded wholesomeness.

So, Ellie puts up with his messiness and occasional issues with the cash register. She feels lucky that she gets to be around someone so full of unfiltered joy just from being alive. She doesn’t understand why someone like that would want to spend time with her when she feels cynical beyond her years. But for once, she decides not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Something good has to happen for her every now and then, just out of sheer probability.

Ellie finishes tidying up the scrapbooking supplies as Paul rings up the customer’s watercolor purchase at the front register. When the bell rings as she leaves the store, Paul pumps his fist in victory.

“Yes!” he crows. “It’s closing time.”

Carla laughs from the back of the storage room which holds excess products until they are unpacked and doubles as a locker room. “Careful. You wouldn’t want your manager to hear that.”

Ellie slides off the kelly green apron that they all use as a uniform as she heads over to the cash registers to help Paul count the bills inside. “Hear what? We would never suggest that we were tired of working,” Ellie deadpans.

She can imagine Carla shaking her head in mock disapproval as she calls out “I’m going to pretend like you didn’t say that.”

Ellie rolls her eyes fondly. Carla is possibly the best manager in all of San Francisco. Ellie never has to hold in her sarcasm or pretend like working a minimum wage job with customers that sometimes toe the line between rude and crazy is the best thing in the world. As long as Ellie gets her work done, Carla lets her have free rein. It helps when even the thought of saving money for college next year isn’t enough to motivate her to push through a Friday night shift.

As Ellie empties the cash registers, Paul starts speaking excitedly. “Are you ready for senior year?”

Ellie doesn’t look up from the stacks of coins she’s making. “I’m not sure what there is to be excited about.”

“Homecoming. Prom. Graduation.”

“Yeah, I guess,” she replies. But it's hard to care about school dances when she’s struggling to keep what’s left of her family together in their small two bedroom apartment. School events lost their appeal for Ellie when she was thirteen and she traded hanging out with the other kids in her middle school’s parking lot after school for hospital waiting rooms.

As a result, high school is a means to an end, nothing more. She just has to get through one more year of the same drudgery. Then, maybe things will be better in college; in a new place with new people, it’s possible that she too could forget the past and become someone new.

After they finish counting the money, Ellie and Paul head to the storage room to give it to Carla and get their stuff. The storage room would have been a spacious room except that three quarters of it was covered in boxes that reached the ceiling. The remaining quarter contained a row of lockers for employees to keep their belongings during their shift. Pictures of all the employees hang over the lockers. Carla’s black braids, dark skin, and close mouthed smile contrasts with Paul’s short blonde hair, light skin, and wide grin. The picture of Ellie between their headshots is notably missing a smile and her glasses frame lifeless eyes. Most of the time, Ellie doesn’t look at her picture, instead focusing on the pale pink and lime green striped wallpaper that peeks through from behind the photo wall.

Ellie pulls her phone and wallet out of her locker and slips on the soft navy hoodie she leaves there for nights like these, when the weather has forgotten that it’s California in August and it should never go below 80 degrees.

Carla locks the door to the store behind them and wishes them good luck with school. She walks toward her car, eager to get home to her four year old daughter. Ellie and Paul head in the opposite direction toward the bus station, their feet dragging.

“What’s your schedule for next week?” Ellie asks as they stand by the bench at the bus stop. Ellie has seen all kinds of questionable things smeared on it. No amount of tiredness will force her to sit on it.

“I have football practice Tuesday and Thursday, but I’m working Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.”

“Cool. I have Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday. Do you want to come over on Wednesday after work?”

Paul perks up. “Can I cook for you?”

“As long as it’s not a date,” she jokes.

Paul takes that statement seriously. Even after being friends for Ellie for three months, he still misses sarcasm half the time. “No. It’s just that my family is sick of trying my food.” He tilts his head in confusion. “And didn’t you say you’re a lesbian?”

Ellie elbows him in the side. “Yes, it was a joke, Paul. Also, please don’t say that when you come over.”

Paul looks at her with concern. “Of course. Are you worried about telling your dad?”

Ellie sighs. “We don’t really talk about stuff like that. But, I think he would be okay with it. I just don’t feel ready to tell him.”

“That’s okay. You don’t owe your identity to anyone.”

“That sounds like a direct quote from a pamphlet for queer allies.” And it does, but it’s still nice to hear it. Paul is always so sincere about everything that it feels more meaningful.

“Hey, I can’t divulge my sources, but that doesn’t make it any less true.”

The laugh that escapes from Ellie at that statement is swallowed up by the bus braking in front of them and squeakily opening its doors.

Ellie stands up. “Seriously, though, thank you.”

“No problem,” he replies.

Once she boards the bus and grabs on to one of the hand holds coming from the ceiling, she sees Paul waving at her. She rolls her eyes. Ever since she said that tearful goodbyes in movies are dumb and melodramatic, Paul has waved to her every time her bus comes before his. He acts like she is going on a long voyage or something. She refuses to wave back. That would be admitting that grand gestures are romantic instead of corny.

Instead, she puts in earbuds and starts a playlist of soothing piano music. She closes her eyes to Clair De Lune and the next thing she knows, she is at her stop. She gets off and sticks her hands in the pocket of her hoodie as she makes the five minute walk from the bus stop to her apartment.

Her apartment is impossible to miss; it's a pale blue four story that has looked the same since the seventies. She unlocks the front door and climbs to the third floor. She and her dad have the entire floor to themselves, but they share walls with apartments on either side. The apartment complexes that line their street had once been considered one family houses, but are now rented out to college students and small families. The rent is insanely expensive, but it's the average amount for San Francisco. At least the two bedrooms with one bathroom and a joint kitchen/living room are enough space for Ellie and her dad.

Her dad is sitting on the worn corduroy couch, watching a made for tv movie when she comes in. He mutes the TV. “I thought we could get takeout. Do you want to pick?”

Ellie fights back a sudden wave of sadness. She remembers when her father would cook almost every night and put out three place settings on the small foldout table with care. Now he sits on the couch listlessly whenever he’s not at work.

Still, letting her pick the restaurant for takeout is his best effort to acknowledge that she’s starting her final year in high school. So she pulls the menu for the closest Thai restaurant out of a stack of nearly identical menus that cover the foldout table and calls in their order.

They eat pad thai on the couch, watching intently as the young plucky heroine of the movie runs into a handsome stranger on her way to the coffee shop. Her dad seems to be enjoying it, but Ellie dislikes these kinds of movies. They are full of happy, shiny people with lives that couldn't feel farther from her own. When the movie ends with the couple kissing in an airport, Ellie heads to her room. She sets three alarms in case she sleeps through one and then curls up in bed.

Ellie arrives at Roosevelt High the next day with five minutes to spare. Its dusky red bricks evoke the feeling of an old New England prep school. On the front steps, the usual groups of students mill around, catching up after a summer away. Ellie pushes past them. Her first class, AP English, is all the way in the back of the school and she doesn’t want to be late.

Ellie is the second person to get into the classroom. In the second row sits a girl with wavy brown hair and even darker brown eyes that Ellie thinks could pierce her soul. And that’s definitely not something she wants to be thinking about during English. Attractive girls are not in Ellie’s plan to get through senior year, so she ignores the brilliant smile the girl flashes at her and hurries past her to take a seat in one of the back rows of desks.

People slowly trickle in to fill the remaining seats as the bell rings. The teacher passes out the syllabus. It’s mostly standard information. Late work gets half credit, plagiarism is prohibited, and so is cheating. The only thing that catches Ellie’s attention is the breakdown of their grades: 40% for on demands, 30% for processed essays, 20% for tests, and 10% for the research paper. She’s surprised she hasn’t heard about the research paper. Most of the time she knows which classes have difficult or long term projects, if only because she has heard so many people complaining about the work.

Ellie doesn’t pay too close attention as the teacher introduces herself; Mrs. Geselschap was Ellie’s teacher the year before. However, she snaps to attention when Mrs. Geselschap starts explaining the research project.

“You may have noticed that part of your grade is determined by a research paper. It’s a new addition to the course that will give you all a chance to be more creative. There are no strict guidelines for this paper, but it needs to be between twenty and twenty five pages...” The class starts muttering at this proclamation, but Mrs. Geselschap shushes them. “However, you will have the entire year to write it and you’ll be working with a partner.”

This pacifies most of the students, but Ellie has a sinking feeling in her stomach. Group projects have historically gone terribly for her. She always ends up doing more work than everyone else and she dislikes relying on other people to finish their parts on time. Plus, there’s the added stress of having to pick someone to be her partner.

Mrs. Geselschap continues talking. “I’ve sorted you all into pairs randomly.” Well, at least Ellie won’t have herself to blame if she has a bad partner. “I’m going to call out your names. When you hear yours, raise your hand so your partner knows who you are.”

Ellie waits impatiently until she hears her name. It’s followed by the name Aster Flores. She looks around to see the girl from before raising her hand. Ellie looks away when Aster tries to catch her eye. Of course she would get paired with someone who looks like they should be on the cover of a magazine. She didn’t want a partner in the first place, but this seems even worse.

Ellie has always relied on words over everything else. You can’t explain why bad things happen to good people with science or math. But writing can express how those misfortunes feel even if the only explanation it can give for their cause is a bad turn of fate. It’s why English is her favorite subject; she prides herself on her ability to always say exactly what she means, even if it’s hidden in subtext or buried with sarcasm.

However, she is not immune to the sudden loss of words commonly experienced by people when they see an attractive person. This can’t happen to her in English of all classes. It’s the place she needs words the most. Maybe this is fate laughing at her once again.

Mrs. Geselschap keeps talking as if Ellie were not having a minor crisis. “The paper has to be somehow related to San Francisco. You can base it on any part of the city, including its history, as long as you conduct in person interviews with at least five different sources. I want to see unique ideas. The completed paper will be due at the end of the year, but that doesn’t mean you can wait till the last minute! An outline will be due before winter break, and you have to present your preliminary idea to me by the end of the month so I can approve it. Start thinking. I’m excited to see what you all come up with!” From the general groans and complaints of her classmates, Ellie can tell they are just as pleased as she is to do this project, even if not for the same reason.

She puts her stuff back in her backpack slowly and waits for the rest of the class to leave. Once they have joined the flood of other students rushing through through the halls to get to their next class, Ellie walks up to Mrs. Geselschap’s desk.

Ellie clears her throat and Mrs. Geselschap looks up at her from where she had been organizing stacks of paper for the next period. “Yes, Ellie?”

“I was wondering if I could do the research paper alone instead of with Aster.”

Mrs. Geselschap frowns. “You haven’t even given it a chance. I paired you with Aster because she’s new here and I wanted someone reliable to help her. I thought I could count on you for that.”

Ellie feels a rush of guilt. She had been so focused on her desire to work alone that she hadn’t realized that she was snubbing Aster in the process. That would make being unwanted Aster’s first memory at Roosevelt High.“You can. Sorry that I asked.”

“It’s okay. I know you’re very independent. But collaboration can be powerful. The sum is greater than its individual parts.” Ellie furrows her eyebrows. Sometimes Mrs. Geselschap likes to spout metaphors so that having a conversation with her is like trying to interpret Shakespeare. In this case, Ellie thinks her teacher is saying that she will work better with Aster than she would alone. She finds that hard to believe. If life has taught her anything, it’s that the more you rely on people, the more you fall when they let you down. “Anyway, you should get to class. You’ll be late.”

“Right.” Ellie hurries out of the classroom, pushing past someone who had been waiting outside the door. She mutters a quick apology without looking back at whoever it was she had bumped into as she hightails it to calculus.

She doesn’t think about the research paper again through calculus, physics, lunch, civics, and Spanish. It doesn’t cross her mind again until her last class of the day, choir. Seeing Aster sitting in the middle of the empty classroom is like deja vu. This time though, Ellie pushes down her nerves and approaches her. Even though Ellie isn’t looking to get close to anyone when she is leaving in a year anyway, she can still be welcoming to the new kid.

She gestures at the chair closest to Aster. “Hi, is this seat empty?” she asks as a formality.

“Obviously. But I don’t know if you should take it.”

“Oh?” Ellie takes a step back. The rejection stings more than it should. She has done such a good job at not interacting with people besides her dad and Paul that she had almost forgotten what it feels like to be unwanted.

Aster shrugs. “You already have to work with me in English. I wouldn’t want you to get sick of me.”

The feeling of rejection is overtaken by confusion. “Why would you think that?”

“You tell me.”

As other students start coming into the room, Ellie sits down and lowers her voice. “I don’t know what your problem is. You don’t even know me.”

Even though they’re the same height when seated, Aster is somehow able to look down at her. “I know enough to tell that you think you’re better than everyone else.”

Ellie’s confusion morphs into barely contained anger. She glares at Aster. “Whatever, new girl,” she mutters. She looks around to find somewhere else to sit, but all the seats are full. Before she knows it, Ms. Ramirez is passing around a seating chart and telling them to fill in their names.

Ellie takes a deep breath and deliberately turns her chair away from Aster. She didn’t expect Aster to be so mean, but she can deal with it. She will just ignore her.

This plan goes well for the rest of choir. After school gets out, she manages to put Aster out of her mind as she takes a quick nap and then heads to her shift at Michael’s. The terse conversation from earlier is beginning to feel minor. Ellie has never let herself care too much about her classmates, so what does it matter if Aster dislikes her?

If anything, Aster’s coldness towards her freezes that moment of warmth she felt when she saw her for the first time. Maybe it’s a good thing. It’s better to have a frigid relationship with her English partner than to develop feelings—of friendship or more—and risk having it blow up in her face. Besides, there is an expiration date for all of this. She only has to see Aster for a year, less than a year really. Nine months excluding vacation. With that comforting thought, Ellie returns to her usual routine of running the cash register at Michael’s, listening to classical music on the bus ride home, then eating dinner with her dad on the couch. The balance in her life has been restored. All is well.

Except the next morning, Aster basically jumps on the metaphorical seesaw of Ellie’s life, shattering that balance. The class is discussing Shooting an Elephant, a short story by George Orwell about British colonialism in India. When Mrs. Geselschap asks what the elephant symbolizes, no one volunteers to answer, so Ellie raises her hand.

“The elephant represents the colonized because it’s trapped and it’s forced to use violence to try to escape.” Ellie leans back in her seat, feeling like she has given her one obligatory answer for the day. Let no one say that she doesn’t participate in class. However, to her surprise, a hand at the front of the classroom shoots up.

“Yes, Aster?” Mrs. Geselschap asks.

“Ellie’s interpretation is one way to read the story, but couldn’t you also say that the elephant represents the colonizers? The people who live in the village, or the colonized, urge Orwell to shoot it. It’s like they’re telling him to kill the colonizers, or colonialism in general.”

Ellie stops slouching. She raises her hand but doesn’t wait to be called on before she retorts. “That doesn’t make sense. Why would Orwell want to shoot the elephant if it represented the colonizers when he himself was one of them?”

Aster takes a breath like she’s about to spew out another counterargument, but Mrs. Geselschap interrupts. “These are both valid interpretations of the story. Some scholars have said that the elephant is a wider symbolism for colonialism itself and its effects on both the colonized and colonizers.”

With that, the argument ends. But Ellie is thrown. She has a reputation for being good at English. No one has ever contested her opinions on literature before. Perhaps even more surprising is that Aster made a good point. She found the flaw in Ellie’s idea and wasn’t afraid to expose it.

Ellie is starting to consider that she has grown complacent and even arrogant about her talent for understanding writing. When she sits down next to Aster for choir later that afternoon, she is prepared to admit that although she still believed in her own interpretation of the story, she thought that Aster’s was right too.

But before she can say anything, Aster says “It doesn’t matter what the elephant symbolizes. I just wanted to prove you wrong. You’re not always the smartest person in the room, even if you think you are.”

Ellie scoffs, her previously reconciliatory words forgotten. “And you are? We’re never going to get our research paper done if you’re this hard to work with.”

“Having my own opinions makes me hard to work with? You’re the one who thinks she knows best.”

Rationally, Ellie knows that this is a valid critique of her personality. She can be single minded and she likes to be in control, but she is like that because she has the drive and intelligence to do things on her own. Also, it’s hard to have a moment of genuine self reflection when she’s feeling attacked. So instead of trying to show Aster that she’s mistaken, Ellie proves her right. “Maybe I do know best. I bet I could come up with a better proposal for the research paper than you.”

“Then it’s a bet. We’ll show each other our ideas on Friday. Whoever has the better idea gets to be in charge of the project.”

Ellie wants to find some criticism of the terms, but it makes sense, so she just crosses her arms pointedly. “Fine. It’s a deal.”

She spends the rest of choir brainstorming with a single minded focus. Normally she would feel guilty for being distracted in class, but beating Aster is paramount.

The rest of the day passes in a similar haze of half formed ideas that she discards one after another. She is only pulled out of her reverie briefly the next morning to argue with Aster about the true meaning of Jonathan Swift’s satire, A Modest Proposal.

By the time she has to start her shift at Michael’s, Ellie has come up with and rejected a dozen ideas ranging from studying the history of punk rock in San Francisco (already extensively documented) to researching changing voting demographics (boring).

When Paul enters the storage room, she announces “I’m going crazy,” without preamble.

He starts putting his things in his locker methodically, unalarmed by Ellie’s demeanor. “How come?”

“There’s this girl in my English class.”

“Ah, young love,” Paul interrupts.

Ellie huffs. “No. It’s the opposite of that. It was hate at first sight. Well, hate is a strong word. It’s more like an academic rivalry.”

Paul puts on his apron and pins his name tag in place. “Isn’t that a good thing?”

“What do you mean?” Ellie asks as they exit the back room.

“You’ll finally have someone to talk with about books, philosophy, and all that stuff.” Huh. Ellie hadn’t thought about it that way. Paul is right that under other circumstances, Ellie would have enjoyed discussing literature with Aster. But it’s impossible to have a discussion with her. It always devolves into an argument because it gets too personal; even after only having known her for three days, Ellie can’t recall one conversation they had without some jab or insult thrown in.

“I guess. It would be better if she was a decent person, though.” Paul shrugs at her as he heads over to the front desk to man the cash register. Ellie starts making her rounds through the brightly lit aisles of the store.

In the yarn aisle, she finds an old white woman peering through her pink tinted glasses at the shelves.

Ellie shifts into work mode. “Excuse me, ma’am. Do you need help with anything?”

The woman turns around. “Ah, yes. I’m looking for alpaca wool. It’s all the rage in my knitting circle.”

“Of course. That’ll be right over here.” Once Ellie has finished helping her, she takes one last look over her shoulder at the woman before she goes to look for more customers. Ellie forgets most of the people who come through the store, but there are a few who are unforgettable. She has a feeling that she’ll at least remember the glasses even if she forgets the woman or her purchase.

After helping a couple of families and then taking a turn at the cash register, it’s finally 7:00. Carla flips the sign on the front door to read closed from the outside and locks the door. Ellie and Paul say goodbye to Carla and then start walking to the bus station.

“How’s football going?” Ellie inquires.

He launches into an explanation of the new drills the coach has them running. He is telling her about how the freshmen are acclimating to the team when they get on the bus.

“Anyway,” he says. “Our opening game is Friday night. Guess where we’re playing.”

Ellie pretends to consider for a second. “The best high school in the city?”

“No, then it would be a home game.” He is inordinately proud of his joke. “We’re playing at your school. Do you want to come?”

“Of course. I’ll cheer for you from the wrong side of the stadium.”

Paul grins. “Awesome. I’ll score a touchdown for you.”

"I’ll hold you to that.”

When they finally get to her apartment, Paul greets her dad cheerfully and then heads for the kitchen.

Her dad looks suspiciously towards the kitchen. “What is he making this time?”

Ellie shrugs. “I guess we’ll see when it’s done.”

Soon enough, Paul is bringing three plates of steaming food over to the couch. “They’re tacos with my secret sausage recipe.”

Ellie’s father looks at the plate dubiously, but he accepts it. If the way he digs in once he starts eating it is any indication, he’s a fan of Paul’s latest creation. That’s no surprise however; he usually ends up liking Paul’s cooking even if he is initially reluctant to try it. Ellie has to agree. She wouldn’t have ordered something like his sausage taco at a restaurant, but it’s good.

As she sits with Paul and her dad on the couch watching TV, she feels warm and content. She could attribute that feeling to the food, but she knows it’s bigger than that. Sandwiched between the two most important people in her life, she feels a rare moment of happiness.

Chapter Text

The sun is hiding behind a thick layer of fluffy clouds the morning of Friday. Ellie walks briskly through Roosevelt High’s hallways. When she enters Mrs. Geselschap’s classroom, Aster is already sitting down. Ellie woke up early so she could prepare mentally before defending her proposal for the research paper to Aster, but Aster clearly had the same idea. Aster looks relaxed in a loose yellow and white striped jumper. The pattern might be soothing under other circumstances, but it puts Ellie on edge. She reminds herself that she is ready; she won’t let herself get psyched out just from seeing Aster.

“So…” Ellie trails off in the strange silence left in the absence of arguing. She is unsure of how a civil discussion is supposed to happen between two people who share a mutual disdain for each other. “Do you want to start or should I?”

Aster gives her a considering look. “I will. I’ll admit that I don’t know much about San Francisco. I’ve only been here for a week.” Ellie keeps her face impassive, but she is surprised. This is the first piece of personal information Aster has offered. It’s strange that Aster moved right before senior year and so soon before the school year started. There is probably a story behind why that happened, but whatever goes on in Aster’s life is none of her business. Ellie forces herself to refocus on what Aster is saying. “Still, I know that tourism is big here. I thought that we could visit the most popular spots, interview tourists there, and see what makes them so successful.”

She goes on to detail the kind of questions they’ll ask people and the surveys they can make. Ellie is reluctantly impressed by the time Aster is done explaining her plan. It’s a good idea. Nevertheless, Ellie is confident with her own. She counters with the first critique that comes to mind. “This is supposed to be research, so it would be good to have actual numbers to cite. Your proposal would be mostly based on opinion. My idea is to find the most popular restaurants and measure the amount of food they sell. Then we could rate the taste of the food, the service, and the ambiance and decor of the restaurant. We could compare those details with the data for how much they sell and figure out what aspects lead to success in the food industry.”

Aster is quiet for a second. Ellie thinks she might actually be considering her idea, but then she says with a sarcastic bite, “Wow, that’s so original. How’d you come up with that?”

Ellie can almost feel her blood pressure rising. She had been inspired by Paul. He always talked about how he wanted to open a restaurant one day. She thought that if she understood how to be successful in the restaurant business she would be able to help him accomplish his dreams. But how could Aster understand that? She hadn’t even acknowledged that Ellie’s idea was good. Ellie doesn’t know why she ever thought Aster would at least consider it. “It’s obvious that we can’t look at this objectively. Let’s just submit our proposals separately to Mrs. Geselschap and whoever she picks wins.”

Ellie flees—strategically exits, really—the room before Aster can respond. It’s not fleeing because that would imply that Aster has won, which she hasn’t. Ellie is just leaving before she says something she can’t take back. Escalating the situation wouldn’t do favors for either of them. So Ellie goes into the nearest bathroom and washes her hands. It helps her to have something to do with her hands. It stops her from doing something stupid like punching a wall. She’s angry, but not so angry that she wants a broken hand. Instead, she waits two minutes for the crappy hand dryers to finally finish drying her hands. Then she texts Paul saying, “I hate high school. Send memes?”

She sticks her phone back in her pocket and heads back to English. Luckily, other people have come inside, forming a barrier between her and Aster. The rest of her classes are interspersed with cute dog pictures and dumb knock knock jokes from Paul. Eventually, his texts put her in a good mood that not even the frosty silence between her and Aster during choir can dampen.

After school ends, Ellie heads home for an early dinner before the football game. She sends a quick text to Paul, thanking him for cheering her up and wishing him good luck. Then she slips on her slightly oversized navy blue hoodie, grabs her keys, and heads back to school.

Ellie can hear the roar of the fans all the way from the ticket stands. As she follows the chain link fence towards the entrance of the home side, the players are minuscule dots on the field, flashes of gold and green indicating her team and others in blue and black uniforms, one of whom must be Paul.

When she enters the gap in the fence that leads to the stadium, the stands are packed with students in various green shirts and sweatshirts with gold trim. She squeezes into an empty spot in the highest row. Her dad would call them nosebleeder seats, but she doesn’t mind. It creates a bit of distance and muffling between her and the speakers blaring Lose Yourself by Eminem. Plus, she won’t get caught up in the crowd of people pushing this way and that to go to parties or get pizza after the game ends.

The game starts slowly. No one scores in the first quarter, but Paul makes a touchdown pass twenty minutes in. Ellie jumps up and screams “Yes, Paul!” She sits down awkwardly as students in the rows in front of her turn around and glare at her. She is feeling relieved that she doesn’t recognize any of them when she does a double take and sees that one of the angry fans has familiar eyes filled with their usual vitriol at the sight of Ellie’s face.

Seriously? Ellie groans inwardly. Is one school related event without Aster too much to ask for?

The rest of the game she still looks for Paul, but she keeps one eye on the back of Aster’s head. Ellie can see her throw her head back in laughter several times. During half time, she walks to the popcorn stands with a couple of people Ellie has seen around school but never talked to before. Aster's eyes sparkle as she says something inaudible to Ellie that makes her companions laugh in response.

It bothers Ellie more than she wants to admit that Aster is capable of being charming and good natured, just not towards her. However, Ellie does her best to ignore it. Aster may have these people fooled, but Ellie has seen the ugly, vindictive streak in Aster that her friendly facade conceals.

When the game ends with a 14-7 win for North Point High, Ellie leaves the stands full of her dejected classmates. She leans against the fence and shoots a quick congratulatory snap to Paul of a selfie with the words “Thanks for my touchdown” overlaid over her sweatshirt. When she puts her phone away and looks up, she sees Aster exiting the stands.

Aster motions for her friends to go on without her and then makes eye contact with Ellie. Ellie averts her eyes as Aster walks closer, holding out hope that Aster is coming towards someone else. Aster might look like a harmless high schooler with her bag of popcorn and half empty cup of Coca Cola, but Ellie knows it’s an illusion. She reminds Ellie of something she heard about when she reached such an extreme level of boredom in church that she actually started paying attention to the readings. The priest had described angels, how they were terrifying to behold and couldn’t be further from the depictions of cherubs that pop up around Valentine’s Day. As Aster approaches her, Ellie understands how Biblical characters could fall down in fear in front of an angel. Aster is an avenging angel, beautiful and terrible and ready to smite Ellie.

Aster puts a hand on her hip and raises her eyebrows. “Aren’t you in the wrong colors?”

Ellie looks down at her black skinny jeans and navy blue sweater which is practically indistinguishable from the dark blue color of the North Point football team. She hadn’t purposefully worn the opposing team’s colors even if she had been rooting for Paul and by extension, them. But she wasn’t about to explain that to Aster. She doesn’t owe her anything. “What’s it to you?”

Aster shrugs and examines her fingernails in feigned nonchalance. “Nothing, I guess. I shouldn’t be surprised at your lack of school spirit. Of course someone so narcissistic wouldn’t care about anyone else they go to school with.”

Ellie takes a step forward. “Wow. You’re definitely the one to lecture me on school spirit. You’ve been here what, five days?”

“Yeah. So what does it say about you that I care more than you do?”

They’ve been inching closer to each other almost imperceptibly as the conversation gets more heated. Ellie places her hands lightly on Aster’s forearms like they’re close friends sharing an inside joke, but she hopes Aster can feel her anger somehow through the physical contact. “Maybe you care too much. Is that why you left your old school? You were overly invested in other people’s lives and they got sick of you?”

It’s just a shot in the dark, but something flashes in Aster’s eyes and Ellie wonders if she has finally pushed her to her breaking point. Aster shoves Ellie off of her and in the process, her soda sloshes over the side of the cup and down the front of Ellie’s hoodie.

Ellie stands still for a second in shock. The buzzing of people walking and talking around them crescendos in the sudden silence between them. She stares at her ruined jacket and feels a building pressure in the back of her eyes.

She turns and runs. She runs past the throng of people yelling after her in indignation when she knocks into them. She runs through the city with its lights streaming past her in a blur of white. She runs like she never wants to stop. Maybe she doesn’t want to. If she could stay in motion forever, her body would become meaningless. She would just be a consciousness traveling into the greater beyond, unburdened by infuriating girls and stained sweaters.

But she reaches the bus stop all too soon. She hops on and sits down, trying to catch her breath. The other passengers give her a suspicious once over. Ellie doesn’t know what they think she is running from and she doesn’t care. All she can think about is the sweater and how she can clean it and the sneaking fear that the stain won’t come out.

When she gets home she makes a beeline for the kitchen pantry. She takes out a bottle of stain remover from the top shelf of cleaning supplies. She pulls off her sweater and rinses it in cold water. Then she scrubs it with soap and rinses it again. She sprays the stain remover all over the front and then hangs it on one of the two chairs around the foldout table.

With nothing to occupy her hands, she slumps to the floor. She leans back against the cabinets under the sink. Their handles dig into her back, but it’s grounding. She rubs the back of her hands against her eyes. She is not going to cry now. She cried at the funeral, even though she was trying to put on a brave face for the other attendees. She cried when they got home and her dad retreated somewhere inside of himself that she could not follow. But she had mostly kept her sadness in check for the past three years because the expected period of mourning was over, her dad needed her, and she didn’t know if she would be able to put herself back together if she broke down. She couldn’t afford that. Instead, she let out sharp words in place of tears and wrote derisive verses where she used to pen happy stories.

So why now? It’s not like Ellie never thinks about her mom. She sees her in women with short black bobs complaining about late buses with the same accent she had, and when they turn around with a completely different face it feels like someone is squeezing her insides. She can hear her voice in the buskers strumming guitars on street corners. It’s a painful reminder of taking turns coming up with lines as they composed songs on the beat up acoustic Yamaha that her mom had promised to pass on to Ellie when she turned 18 but that now collected dust in the hall closet. She feels her in the best part of every song, book, and movie.

Sometimes she can go days without thinking about her, but the phantom of her mother’s presence always lingers in the back of Ellie’s mind. Ellie does her best to ignore it—keep it safe and contained in a firmly sealed box—but the sweater is the one concession to that rule.

Ellie and her mother had different shirt, pant, and shoe sizes, but the hoodie was big enough for either of them. When Ellie’s dad had silently started sorting her mom’s clothes into boxes for Goodwill, Ellie had snatched the sweater and hidden it in her room. It was one of the few things she held onto as the traces of her mother slowly disappeared from the apartment.

But with one clumsy soda spill, Aster had broken down the compartmentalization Ellie had so carefully constructed. She had forced Ellie to open the box and look directly at everything she had lost.

Ellie crosses her arms and holds herself. She curses Aster with every part of her being for unwittingly reminding her that what she has left of her mom won’t last forever. She closes her eyes and sits in the small kitchen for a long time, grateful that her dad is already asleep. When she finally feels under control, she gets up shakily and goes to bed. She doesn’t stop to brush her teeth or wash her face. She just pulls all the blankets and sheets she has over her head, like she is five years old again and the only monsters are the ones under her bed.

The next morning, Ellie doesn’t wake up until eleven. After a quick shower to wash off the remains of salt and snot on her face and a quick breakfast of leftover fried rice from the back of the fridge that was going to go bad soon, she walks to the park.

It’s not really a park; it doesn’t even have an official name. But it’s a sliver of green in the midst of towering office buildings and apartments. The fact that it’s only a five minute walk at a brisk pace is only an added bonus.

She enters the park and heads to the very back, where a wooden bench is hidden behind a willow. Ellie likes to come here and write poetry and short stories in her free time. The tranquil swaying of leaves in the wind serves as good inspiration for when she has writer's block. That is not a problem for Ellie today. She scribbles furiously in her 50 cent, black spiral notebook about people who are like roses: beautiful from a distance but ready to cut anyone who comes too close.

The steady movement of graphite across paper has always felt meditative to Ellie. She finds comfort in long, flowing passages whose descriptions reveal the beauty in the most mundane of things as well as in the blunt, telegraphic sentences that manage to convey a complicated truth in simple language. She takes solace in stories where everything happens for a reason: each person you meet imparts some crucial piece of knowledge needed for growth, there are finite beginnings and endings that frame a meaningful character arc, and tragedies reveal something previously unvoiced about the human condition. So she tries to find the right word, the one on the tip of her tongue that would say the unspeakable—the metaphor that grasps at an elusive emotion or the symbolism that expresses a hidden meaning. She loses time searching for a rhythm in poetry and putting down on paper what she can't speak out loud.

She is finally pulled out of her writing bubble by the gradual darkening of the sky. She packs her notebook and pencils into her bag and leaves the park, her feet sinking satisfyingly in the soft grass. On the way home, she stops at the nearby Chinese restaurant to pick up dinner. She eats with her dad on the couch after he comes home from his extra shift running the BART. When the main character of the movie they’re watching while they eat races to stop his sister before she walks into imminent danger, Ellie’s dad absentmindedly says, “This is the best part.”

Ellie stiffens. This feels like an acknowledgement of the elephant in the room, a moment where they could finally talk about the loss they both shared. But they have never shared their grief. Ellie doesn’t know if her dad wants to; she certainly doesn’t feel ready to talk about it. She doesn’t know if she ever will. So, she stays silent. They sit together on the couch until she goes to bed early so that she can wake up in time for church tomorrow.

When her alarm goes off at 9:00 Ellie rolls over and flails her arm until she hits the snooze button. It might be later than she gets up on a school day, but it’s still a pain not being able to sleep in on the weekends. She dresses in black dress slacks and a white collared shirt and ties her hair back in a low ponytail. She heads out to the bus stop after a look in the mirror confirms that she looks church-appropriate. On the ten minute ride there, she looks over the music for this week. The songs are usually fairly simple, but she wouldn’t want to get replaced by an organist who was professionally trained instead of being a pianist who figured out all the extra pedals and buttons as she went along.

The church is a tall, marble two story building with a sharp dome at the top. Ellie takes a right in the lobby and opens the access door to the stairs. The organ is the only thing located on the balcony in the back of the church because the choir sits at the front of the first floor. Ellie doesn’t mind sitting alone; she never has to pretend to be Catholic or fend off well meaning but overbearing parishioners who want her to convert.

It’s only 10:00 by the time Ellie has put her music in order and switched into organ shoes. She still has half an hour until she has to start playing, so she takes out her phone and starts scrolling through college admissions websites. By the time mass starts, she’s added another half page to her spreadsheet comparing price, diversity, LGBT inclusivity, and English programs among other factors for the different colleges she is interested in. She silences her phone and returns it to her bag as the announcer starts welcoming people to church.

She plays through the next hour like normal. The only notable difference is that the church has a new deacon, Julio Flores. The name catches her attention, but Flores is a common enough last name. It would be too much of a coincidence for him to be some relation of Aster’s.

After all the people in the pews have filed off into the courtyard for donuts and gossip, Ellie starts heading back down the stairs. She pauses at the door when she hears a hissed conversation.

“I can’t believe you want me to join a youth group again after what happened last time,” a familiar voice says.

“That won’t happen again,” a man replies.

“Why, because we’ll move again if I step out of line?”

The man sighs in exasperation. “We didn’t move to punish you. You know they offered me a transfer and it was better for all of us, you included.”

“How would you know what’s best for me? You won’t even acknowledge who I am.”

“Because I don’t understand what’s going on with you.” He lowers his voice. “¿Has tenido novio pero ahora quieres convertirte en lesbiana? No tiene sentido.”

“En serio, Papá. No estoy convirtiéndome en nada. Siempre he sido así. ¿No entiendes que es posible enamorarse de cualquiera? Me duele que no podamos platicar de este tema en inglés porque te da tanta vergüenza. Ojalá me aceptaras como Amá.”

There is a moment of quiet, then the man says “I have to go introduce myself to the parishioners. We’ll talk about this later, Aster.”

Ellie stays frozen in place as the footsteps of the man who could be none other than the new deacon recede into the distance. Ellie is only taking the two semesters of Spanish necessary to get credit for a foreign language. She didn’t understand any part of the end of the conversation except for Aster calling the deacon “Dad.” But arguments sound the same in any language. Ellie is suddenly cognizant of the fact that she has spoken to Aster with the same anger as her father in every single one of their conversations. She thinks about how shitty she has felt after talking with Aster and how it must be the same for Aster on top of whatever is going on with her family.

Ellie had to go to counseling in eighth grade the day after the funeral for pushing another student to the ground; she knows a thing or two about lashing out at the wrong people. Besides feeling guilty for eavesdropping somewhat accidentally, Ellie suddenly feels empathy for Aster. She might not be ready to forgive Aster for the things she has said to her, but maybe she can be the bigger person and help them move past it.

She pushes open the door and does her best to act surprised at the sight of Aster leaning against a wall in a long sleeve blue dress. “Oh, Aster. I didn’t know you went here.”

“Yeah, well, my dad’s the deacon.” Aster pinches the bridge of her nose. “Look, I don’t want to fight with you right now. Can you just go?”

Ellie holds her ground, albeit uncertainly. “Wait. I’ll leave in a second. I just wanted to say that I thought about it some more, and your idea for the research paper is better. We should do it.” Ellie still likes her own idea, but Aster’s was good too, and this is the best olive branch she can think of to offer Aster.

Aster looks at her in surprise. “Seriously?”

Ellie rubs the back of her neck. “Yeah. Don’t make me regret it.”

Aster laughs a little and Ellie grudgingly admits that it’s not the worst sound in the world. “All right, then.” She gazes at Ellie consideringly. “I didn’t know you were Catholic.”

“I’m not. I’m an atheist through and through. I'm just the organist.”

“I see.” Aster unpeels herself from the wall and starts to walk away. “I’ll see you at school, heathen.”

Ellie frowns. The Aster from yesterday would have said that as a passive aggressive insult, but Ellie thinks it might be a joke. So she doesn’t say anything to Aster’s retreating form. She won’t be the one to break the tentative ceasefire they’ve made.

Chapter Text

The second week of school is a major improvement from the first. Aster still debates with Ellie in English, but there isn’t any animosity behind her words. It’s no longer arguing just for the sake of argument. During choir, they sit in a neutral silence, and Ellie notices that Aster’s voice sounds beautiful when she is singing instead of insulting her.

Consequently, Ellie isn’t dreading meeting Aster on Saturday to research their first tourist location. Of course, that doesn’t stop her from dreading waking up early on a Saturday. Alcatraz Island is as far away as anything is in San Francisco, so it takes about an hour and three bus line transfers for her to arrive around 8:00, about half an hour before she agreed to meet Aster.

After Ellie buys a ticket for the ferry that runs between the mainland and the island, she walks up to the second level on the boat and leans over the railing. The spray of the ocean in her face aids in waking her up more than caffeine could. It also creates a misty haze around the island, framing the sharp angles of the grey prison block. The building stands harshly against the surrounding greenery and cuts an imposing figure. It seems strange that people would want to visit this place when normally they wouldn’t want to be within 100 feet of a federal prison. But maybe that is the appeal; a brush with danger, an insight into the criminal mind, with the real issues glossed over with the label of history.

Whatever the reason is that compels tourists to ride a boat onto an abandoned rock with ruins of a dark past, Ellie remembers that she didn’t think about it the first time she visited. She hadn’t been looking at the island at all. Her vision was filled with Mia Park’s wide grin with braces, framed by her black bob and bangs. She doesn’t remember what they had been talking about, only that Mia had let out a peal of laughter that had made her heart skip a beat. Maybe they were talking about a book; at least a third of their conversations had revolved around reading. They had even met for the first time in a library.

It was the first day of middle school and Ellie was petrified. She took one look at the busy cafeteria and then decided that she would rather face books than new people. Clutching her lunch box in one hand, she entered the library. She thought that she was mercifully alone in the book stacks. However, when she grabbed Redwall, the first book she saw in the fantasy aisle, she heard a bright voice behind her.

“That’s one of my favorite series!” Ellie turned around to see another girl who was a little shorter than her. “Hi. I’m Mia.”

“Ellie.” The anxiety of starting a new school was still in the back of her mind, but Mia’s friendliness emboldened her to keep talking. “What else do you like to read?”

They talked non stop after that. They would take turns reading the same books, but it went beyond that too. Ellie would come cheer for Mia at her soccer games, and Mia was the only one who Ellie trusted to give her writing to. Ellie spent almost as much time at Mia’s house as in her own home, eating kimbap with Mia and her little brother, Kevin. They were inseparable, until Ellie’s mom died, and she folded in on herself for a while. By the time she was trying to get back to normal, Mia was going to North Point, and they stopped seeing each other.

It’s been a while since she last thought about Mia, but the memory of her still aches. She wonders if Mia misses her too, or if it was a relief for her to get away from her. It doesn’t really matter now, but Ellie still regrets what happened. It might be true that friends come and go, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

When the ferry docks at Alcatraz, Ellie puts memories of Mia out of her mind. She walks into the lobby and sees Aster sitting on a bench by the starting place of tours with earbuds in. Ellie considers asking what she is listening to, but decides that she should stick to the assignment. Just because they aren’t actively fighting anymore doesn’t mean that they’re friends now.

She taps Aster on the shoulder. “Hey.”

Aster startles, then notices Ellie. “Oh, hey.” She puts her headphones in a black drawstring bag and pulls out a clipboard and pen. “I thought we could talk to people before they take the tour.”

“Okay. Sounds good.” They stand by the entrance of the tour and for the next four hours, they interview anyone who agrees to be part of their survey. After Ellie asks the fiftieth person their age, where they’re from, why they decided to visit, and a list of other standard questions, she closes the spiral notebook she had been taking notes in. “Do you think we have enough?”

Aster looks down at her clipboard. “Yeah. I think a hundred responses should be a big enough sample size.”

“Do you want to go, then?”

Aster looks at her quizzically. “Don’t you want to actually do the tour?”

“I’ve been here before. Eight grade field trip.” Aster’s face falls a little bit, so Ellie quickly adds “I wasn’t paying attention, though. I could do it again.” It was true; she had spent the entire visit talking up a storm with Mia. But it’s not like she is that invested in the history of the prison and its famous escape attempts. She just doesn’t want to hurt Aster’s feelings and regress back to their previous tumultuous relationship.

Aster smiles. “Okay. Let’s go.”

They spend the next twenty minutes walking through old cells where Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly stayed, hearing stories about failed escape attempts. After the tour ends, they head back onto the ferry. They stand overlooking the ocean.

“I used to be terrified of water,” Aster says suddenly. “I always thought La Llorona was going to get me.”

Ellie raises her eyebrows. “La Llorona?”

“La Llorona is a woman who drowned her children in a river, but regretted it later. Now she goes around crying and drowning other children, trying to get hers back. It’s a folk legend, like Bloody Mary, I guess.” She shrugs. “Anyway, I took it way too seriously. I refused to take a shower for a week when I was little because I thought she could get me anywhere with enough water.” Ellie starts laughing and Aster rolls her eyes saying, “I know, it’s embarrassing.”

“No, of course not.” Ellie smiles. “Okay, it is a little. But I get it. I was scared to take swimming lessons in elementary school because they would make us go in the 12 foot deep end and float on our backs. I was worried that there could be sharks underneath me, at the very bottom where I couldn’t see them.”

Now Aster starts laughing. “Sharks in a pool?”

“Hey, I only shared something equally embarrassing to make you feel better.”

“I think yours is worse.”

For the rest of the ferry ride, they keep talking about silly stuff they did and thought as kids. Aster tells Ellie that she tried to eat a worm at a park when she was four, and Ellie admits she stole change from her first grade class’s donation box, except her dad caught her and made her return it. He took away the book she was reading for three days after that incident.

It’s not the deepest conversation Ellie has ever had, but it’s surprisingly easy to talk to Aster. If this was part of a story that she was writing, Ellie would call this a turning point, where characters have made an effort to put their differences aside. Once this tension is alleviated, they would be able to move forward with the plot. Ellie is aware that she likes to spin reality into fiction and that one conversation isn’t actually foreshadowing for later events, but she is still surprised to find that she wants to see what will happen if she keeps talking with Aster. So when Aster asks her if she is hungry, she suggests they stop at Inn-n-Out.

When they arrive at the restaurant, Ellie pushes the front door open without paying much attention to the building. Although she has never been to this specific location, she has been to plenty of Inn-n-Outs with an identical layout. She has to hold the door open for a couple of extra seconds because Aster is looking at the neon yellow arrow outside like she has never seen one. When she finally comes through, Ellie asks “Have you never been here before?”

Aster shakes her head. “Whataburger is more popular in Texas.”

Right. She had forgotten that Aster had barely moved here. “What part of Texas are you from?”

“Amarillo. It’s the farthest city north in Texas.”

Ellie makes a mental note to look it up later. “Cool. Well, Inn-n-Out is quintessential California cuisine so this is the perfect place for you to try. The burgers are all the same, but you should definitely try the milkshakes.”

“Sounds good.” Ellie steps up to the counter to give Aster another minute to look at the menu, then orders a cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake. Aster gets the same thing except she orders a strawberry milkshake instead. It only takes a couple of minutes for their food to be ready, and then they’re crammed into a red and white booth and conversation takes a back seat as they eat.

Once they’ve finished eating and are slowly sipping the rest of their shakes, Ellie decides to ask the question that has been bothering her since the start of the school year. “Why did you hate me so much?” she asks abruptly. “Because I’ve had fun today, and it seems like you have too, so why wasn’t it like that from the start?”

Aster narrows her eyes. “You’re seriously asking me that? You decided you wanted nothing to do with me before we’d even met.” Ellie’s confusion must be spelled out on her face because Aster adds “You wanted to work alone on the research project, remember?”

It takes Ellie a moment to figure out what she means. She never told Aster that, and Mrs. Geselschap wouldn’t have told Aster either. Suddenly, she remembers running into someone on the way out of the classroom. “Oh. You overheard me talking to Mrs. Geselschap.”

“Yep.”

“I didn’t realize you were there,” Ellie admits guiltily.

“And that somehow makes it better?”

“Shit. Sorry, that’s not what I meant.” Aster raises an eyebrow expectantly. “I just don’t like group projects. It wasn’t personal. Or, I didn’t mean it to be, but it was not cool of me to leave you hanging like that.” When Aster doesn’t respond immediately, she starts tapping her left foot under the table; it’s a nervous tell that she has never been able to fully get rid of. “For what it’s worth, even if I didn’t want a partner at the start, I’m glad it’s you.” It’s mostly because Aster is smart and cares about making the project the best it can be, but Ellie is self aware enough to know it’s more than that. It feels like she and Aster could really understand each other. The possibility scares her, but for once, she doesn’t want to immediately shut down a friendship before it starts.

“Okay. I forgive you.” She gives Ellie a small smile. “And I’m sorry too. I definitely said some things I regret. I could have reacted better.”

Ellie returns her smile. “I guess we’re even, then.” They lapse into a comfortable silence and after they’ve said goodbye and Ellie has made her typical Saturday stop at the park to write, she finds herself writing a poem about first impressions and giving people a second chance.

On Tuesday night, Ellie has an unusually low amount of homework, so she decides to work on her college admission essays before her shift at Michael’s. The prompt is asking her to describe her greatest challenge and how she overcame it. She tries to start a couple of drafts, but none of them feels right. She shuts her laptop and sighs. The most obvious answer would be to write about her mom’s death, but she can’t honestly say it’s something she has overcome. Grief is something you come to terms with and learn to live with; she doesn’t know if it’s even possible to overcome.

The next thing that comes to mind is talking about being a lesbian, but the admission officers would probably see coming out as the answer for overcoming that challenge. However, that is a gross oversimplification. Being closeted has been stressful at times, but it has also protected her from potential problems with her dad, and she isn’t ready yet to see how he will react.

She could also talk about the struggles of being Chinese American and the child of immigrants. She could write about having to take care of finances when her dad’s English wasn’t good enough or how she had to put up with microaggressions like the time some students rode past her and made fun of her last name. But she still feels frustrated with the prompt. It feels like they’re asking for a sob story, but she doesn’t want to be accepted into colleges because of how hard her life has been. She wants to show them how who she is makes her a strong candidate, not someone who should be pitied.

Her alarm goes off and she snaps out of her college application stupor. She’ll figure out what to write later. Right now, she has to get to work.

Ellie’s shift appears quotidian until she sees a familiar figure in front of the spray paint cans. “You can only buy those if you’re eighteen.”

Aster jumps a little. “Ellie?” She turns around. “Wait, you work here?”

“That’s why I wear the uniform.” She smiles. “Sorry though, I really can’t sell you spray paint. Unless you’re already eighteen?”

Aster looks away sheepishly. “No. I turn 18 on November 2.”

“You can still buy other kinds of paint,” Ellie offers. “Do you want me to show you?”

“Sure.” Ellie leads Aster to the acrylics aisle.

“I didn’t know you were an artist,” Ellie comments. “What kinds of things do you paint?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t call myself an artist. I haven’t even painted in a while, but I used to do still lifes and landscapes a lot.” It’s obvious that Aster feels self conscious. She probably wasn’t expecting anyone to see her buying paint. It’s not like Michaels is a popular hangout spot.

Ellie isn’t sure how to put Aster at ease, but she gives it her best shot. “That doesn’t mean you’re not an artist. I’m a writer, but it’s not like I’ve never had writer’s block.” Her college admissions essay is just one of the numerous examples of that. “Anyone can be an artist, regardless of how long a break they take from creating art.”

“Thanks. I guess I was just nervous about starting to paint again, I forgot how easy it is to ruin a painting with one misplaced brushstroke.” Aster grabs a tube of black paint. “Anyway, it’s cool that you’re a writer. What do you write?”

“Mostly poetry. Sometimes short stories.”

“Cool. Maybe you could show me something you wrote sometime.”

Ellie scratches the back of her neck and hopes her discomfort isn’t too palpable. “I don’t know. It’s kind of personal, so I don’t usually show people.”

“I totally get it,” Aster says quickly. “I don’t usually show people my art either.” Ellie thinks she sees traces of disappointment in Aster’s face. It might just be her projecting though; she suddenly feels disappointed at the prospect of never being able to see Aster’s art.

“Actually, maybe sometime you could read one of my poems and I could see one of your paintings. It’d be fair that way.”

Aster smiles at her. “Sure. I’d like that.”

Ellie takes Aster to the front counter and rings up her purchase of five tubes of acrylic paint. She spends the rest of her shift thinking about her encounter with Aster. In her six months as a Michaels’ employee, she has seen strange purchases and questionable fashion statements, but this is the first time she has really cared about what a customer is going to use their purchase for. Of course it’s because Aster has been the first person in the store she has already known outside of work, but she is also simply intrigued by the idea of Aster painting. She wants to know more about what inspires her artistry, and more about who she is in general.

She gets that chance next Saturday, when she and Aster are riding the cable cars for their second segment of research for the English project. After spending a couple hours asking the people getting off and on the cars the same questions they had asked at Alcatraz Island, they stand side by side on the edge of the car, the stream of air created by the car’s movement a refreshing breeze in the humid heat of late summer.

They haven’t talked outside of working on the project, and Ellie wants to keep getting to know Aster, so she says, “I don’t think I ever asked you why you moved here.”

“The official reason is that my dad transferred dioceses.” She sighs. “I’m not really ready to talk about the real reason yet.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. It just seemed like a good ‘get to know you’ question.” She does air quotes with her fingers and Aster laughs at that.

“Okay, I can give you ‘getting to know you’ information. I was born in Amarillo. I’m an only child, but my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins lived around so I grew up with a big family. You already know that my dad is a deacon, but my mom ran a panadería with her sister, my Tia Meche. Since we’ve moved, she’s just been doing the books since she obviously can’t do anything in the shop. Also, my family is as Catholic as you would assume it would be since my dad is a deacon.” Aster readjusts her grip on the cable car pole. “Anyway, enough about me. What about you?”

“Uh, I was born in Shenzhen, China, but my parents and I immigrated to San Francisco when I was two. My dad is an engineer who works on the BART. My mom was a doctor,” she hesitates and then quickly says “She died when I was thirteen.” It never gets easier saying it, and people usually don’t know what to say to her. There probably isn’t really a right thing to say to someone who has suffered such a loss. So she continues on before Aster can reply. “I’m also an only child. I don’t have a big family, but I do call my grandparents pretty frequently, and we went back to China to visit them the summer before my freshman year.”

“Thank you for telling me.” Aster gently squeezes Ellie’s shoulder for a second, then tactfully changes the subject. “I got roped into doing some church stuff next Saturday, so we’re going to have to do our next bit of research in two weeks. Do you have any ideas for where we should go next?”

“I thought you had it all planned out,” Ellie teases.

“I do. I just thought I’d see if you had any bright ideas, seeing as you’ve lived here practically your whole life.”

“We could go to Baker Beach,” Ellie suggests. “It’s near the Golden Gate Bridge, so we could hit two tourist spots in one day.”

“Awesome. I knew I kept you around for some reason.” Ellie rolls her eyes, but it’s half hearted because she really is having fun. That good feeling follows her when she goes home. She had invited Paul to come over to dinner, but she was pleasantly surprised to see her dad teaching him how to make pork dumplings in the kitchen when she enters the apartment. During dinner, he tells her that he could be getting a promotion to Senior Electrician. In turn, she tells him about working on the English project and how she is becoming friends with her partner. It’s simple, but nice to eat a home cooked meal and talk with her dad. It’s a kind of routine she wishes was more normal for them.

When they’re putting their dishes in the sink, Paul looks over to check that Ellie’s dad is out of earshot, then says “There’s going to be a party after the football game this Friday. Do you want to come with me?”

“The introvert in me says no.”

“But I wanted to introduce you to someone?” She looks at him questioningly. He turns red. “I’m kind of dating someone.”

Ellie’s jaw drops. “What?! Why didn’t you tell me? When did this happen?”

He grins. “I didn’t want to say anything in case it didn’t work out, but we went on a date today and it went really well.”

“So, you want me to give her the stamp of approval,” she jokes.

“Uh…” he somehow blushes even more. “Did I tell you there were scouts at my last football game.” It’s a painfully obvious subject change, but Ellie decides she has teased him enough.

“Did they talk to you?”

“Yeah. Santa Clara University might give me a partial scholarship to come play football there.”

She punches him in the arm. “That’s awesome, dude!” As he rubs his arm in exaggerated indignation, she says “And of course I’ll come meet your girlfriend. Just tell me when and where to show up.”

They spend the next half hour leaning against her kitchen counter and catching up. Ellie is reminded of something she once read in a Kurt Vonnegut book that feels like it perfectly describes this moment. “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

Chapter Text

After playing the organ on Sunday, Ellie stops at a flower shop. A bell rings cheerfully as she opens the door, and she is hit with a blast of cool air from the whirling blades of a wooden ceiling fan. A woman arranging red and purple roses in a vase looks up at Ellie as the door shuts behind her. She smiles at Ellie, but unlike the forced customer service smiles Ellie is used to giving at Michael’s, it seems genuine.

“How can I help you?” she asks brightly. Ellie shifts her weight from foot to foot and adjusts her glasses even though they haven’t fallen. She wonders what the woman, Kate according to her name tag, sees when she looks at Ellie’s outfit of black slacks and a white long sleeve collared shirt. She probably incorrectly assumes that Ellie is going to a concert or a school function. Maybe not though; if anyone could guess that she is going to a cemetery, it might be a florist who regularly sees people passing by to commemorate the best and worst moments of their lives.

“I want to buy a bouquet…” she trails off. She doesn’t know what her mom’s favorite flowers were or even if she liked flowers. All of a sudden, she feels unsure. She had visited her mom’s grave with her father on the anniversary of her death, but she had never gone alone. It seemed appropriate to bring flowers, but her dad had never done that.

Kate looks at her questioningly. “Is there a certain kind of flower you want or would you rather look at some different kinds on display?”

Ellie shrugs, deciding that she might as well buy flowers since she’s already here. “Do you have anything for sympathy or grief?”

“Yes. I can get you some lilacs.” She disappears into the back of the shop and then comes back promptly with a bunch of purple flowers. “Do you want a vase with that?”

“No. Just the flowers.” Kate puts the bouquet in a bag and inputs the purchase into a cash register. She doesn’t try to make small talk and ask who the flowers are for, which Ellie appreciates.

“That’ll be $24.99.” Ellie pulls out her nondescript black wallet and swipes her debit card. “Have a nice day!” Kate calls out as Ellie leaves the shop.

“You too,” Ellie replies, but she doesn’t know if Kate actually heard her. She pulls out her phone to check the directions one more time just to be sure, but it's just two lefts and a right to get to the cemetery.

When she gets to the cemetery, it takes a couple of minutes for her to find the right headstone. She puts the flowers in a little hole that must have been put there for exactly that reason. After a quick look around confirms that no one is around, she sits down in the grass in front of the grave.

“I brought you flowers.” Ellie shakes her head and then tilts it back, looking at the sky. “I guess you would be up there, if you’re still around somehow.” She sighs. “I feel kind of silly talking out loud. I don’t believe in God or heaven or anything and I know you didn’t either.”

She leans back on her hands and looks back down at the headstone. “But right now it would be nice if I did.” She sits quietly for a minute, listening to the distant sound of cars rushing by. “I guess I came by to say that things are changing. I’m doing college apps which reminded me I’m going to be moving soon. But it’s more than that too. I met this girl named Aster. We kind of got off to a rocky start, but we’re friends now, I think.”

She runs her hands through her hair, messing up her ponytail. “Hanging out with her has sort of reminded me that I haven’t really changed that much, since you...died. I think part of me didn’t want to become a different person than I was with you because it might feel like I was forgetting what it was like when you were around. But I know that’s not what you would have wanted.”

“It’s been really hard. I thought it would get better and it has, but it still hurts sometimes.” Ellie feels a prickling sensation at the back of her eyes. “I want to try now, though. I’m going to try to let myself get invested in other other people’s lives without feeling like it could end at any moment.”

Ellie puts her elbows on her knees and rests her head in her hands, taking deep breaths. After she feels more in control, she stands up and brushes grass off of her pants. “I miss you and I know I always will, but I’m going to try to move on. I don’t mean that I’m going to forget you. Just that I’m going to try to remember you with more happiness than sadness.”

Standing still for another moment, she looks down at her mother’s name on the headstone. “Bye, Mom. Enjoy the flowers.”

Ellie goes back home in a daze and then lies in bed for an hour. She feels emotionally drained and she doesn’t do much the rest of the day. But on Monday, she feels better, more settled.

The rest of the week passes by normally, and by the time Friday comes, she is feeling excited to go to the party with Paul.

After dinner, Ellie stands in front of the mirror, assessing her appearance. The plain black t-shirt with faded blue jeans isn’t the most dazzling of outfits, but she isn’t trying to impress anyone. Paul’s girlfriend isn’t going to care what she’s wearing. She’s dating Paul, not Ellie. So she ties her favorite red and blue checkered flannel around her waist in case it gets colder later and grabs her keys.

“I’m going to hang out with Paul,” she says as she passes her dad on the couch. “I should be back before the news.” They usually watch the 11:00 news together on the weekends and on school days when Ellie doesn’t have too much homework.

“Okay. Be safe.”

“I will.”

She leaves the apartment before her dad suddenly thinks to question what exactly she’s doing. She didn’t lie; she is going to hang out with Paul. But she doesn’t think her dad would approve if he knew she was going to a house party. Ellie feels a little guilty, but mostly she thinks she deserves a break from being responsible all the time. It’s her turn for a little teen rebellion.

Ellie has the address saved in her phone from when Paul texted it to her earlier, but there’s no way she could miss the house. She can hear music coming from it from around the block. After she goes inside, she looks around the different clusters of people—some standing in corners awkwardly with drinks and others swaying with the trap music—and she sees Paul across the room. She pushes past the people dancing until she reaches him.

“I heard you guys won the football game. Nice job!”

He turns around and smiles at her. “Thanks, Ellie! I’m glad you came.”

“Of course. Where’s your girlfriend?”

“She just stepped outside because it was loud in here. Come on, I’ll introduce you.” Ellie follows Paul out the sliding screen door into the backyard. He walks toward a girl with long black hair and taps her on the shoulder.

She turns around and stares at Ellie in shock. Ellie is equally bemused. The person in front of her has longer hair than before, but she still has her trademark bangs. It’s unmistakably Mia Park, albeit a Mia four years older than the last time Ellie saw her.

“You wear glasses now,” Mia says. Her teeth flash brilliantly white as she talks.

“You don’t have braces anymore,” she replies.

“Thank god for that.” She laughs, a bright noise that could have been pulled directly out of some of Ellie’s happiest memories.

Paul looks between them in confusion. “Wait. Do you two know each other?”

They both ignore him. “Are you dating Paul?” Ellie asks.

“Yeah. I’m guessing you’re the friend he wanted to introduce me to?”

“Yep.”

They stare at each other for a few more seconds before Paul interjects. “Sorry, can someone explain to me what’s going on?”

Ellie raises an eyebrow at Mia, asking “how much do you want to tell him?” Mia shakes her head minutely, saying “not everything.” Ellie is relieved that even after all this time, they can still understand each other without saying a word.

“We knew each other in middle school,” Mia says. Ouch. Ellie would have called them friends, but she supposes she can’t criticize Mia for saying that when Ellie is the one who pulled away at the end. “Would you mind giving us a couple of minutes to catch up?”

“Sure. I’ll just...go back inside.” They watch his retreating form until he shuts the patio door behind him, then they turn to face each other again.

“So…” Mia says.

“So…” Ellie parrots back. She has so many things she wants to say. She wants to apologize for how she pushed Mia away and tell her that she regrets losing touch. She wants to tell her how happy she is to see her, but somehow all that comes out is: “You’re dating Paul. I just want to make sure...you actually like him, right?”

Mia sighs. “I know you haven’t known me for a long time, but I haven’t changed enough that I would lead someone on.”

Ellie looks away ashamedly. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have even asked. It’s just that Paul tried to kiss me when we first became friends, before I told him I was a lesbian.”

Mia laughs. “That’s not what happened with us. I really do like him. I, uh,” her expression turns more serious. “I wasn’t actually sure that I liked guys until him.”

They both look away from each other. Ellie wonders if Mia is revisiting the same memory she is, of a Friday night years ago, when they had a sleepover at Mia’s house. They had been lying next to each other in Mia’s bed. Ellie had been hyper aware of where their elbows and shoulders were touching. She knew she was feeling something, but she was scared to name that feeling.

Then Mia had rolled over and whispered, “Can I tell you a secret?”

Ellie nodded and then whispered, “Yes,” when she realized that Mia couldn’t see her in the dark.

“You know how people like Stacey talk about all the guys they have crushes on?” Ellie frowned. They had never talked about liking guys before. “Well, I like girls like that.” Ellie rolled over so that she was facing Mia, but didn’t reply. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” Mia implored.

Ellie didn’t feel ready to say that she felt the same out loud, so she leaned forward to kiss Mia. The darkness made her feel braver. But, it also made it so she couldn’t really see Mia’s face. She ended up kissing her chin by mistake. Mia giggled a little and leaned forward. She actually made her target. They kissed for a second, and Ellie was infinitely grateful that her first kiss was with her best friend.

Then Mia pulled back and said, “We can’t tell my parents,” in the most serious voice Ellie had ever heard her use.

“We won’t. We can’t tell mine either.”

They had fallen asleep holding hands and when they woke up, they separated immediately and didn’t talk about it.

They kissed a couple more times when Ellie stayed over at Mia’s house, but then Ellie’s mom died and everything fell apart.

Part of Ellie wants to ask whether she ever told her parents or if she ever will, since she has the option of dating men, but that’s too personal a question considering that they don’t really know each other anymore.

So instead, she says, “I’m happy for you and Paul. I’m really happy to see you too.”

Mia crosses her arms. “Really? Because you could have seen me sooner.” There it is: the elephant in the room. Ellie wasn’t sure if Mia was going to bring it up, but she had always been brusque when it came to serious truths. It was part of why they had gotten along so well.

“I’m really sorry. I know it’s too late to be saying that, but it’s true. I distanced myself because everything from that time, even you, reminded me of my mom. But I wish I hadn’t lost your friendship.”

Mia sighs. “That sucked. I questioned our whole relationship and it took me a while to be able to make new friends without worrying that they were going to suddenly ghost me.” She uncrosses her arms. “But I don’t blame you. I can’t imagine what it was like for you.”

“Yeah.” Ellie’s throat feels kind of thick and she thinks she might start crying at this house party if she tries to talk, so she just opens her arms awkwardly. Thankfully, Mia understands her. She stands on her toes so that she can lean down and envelope Ellie in a hug. They stand together for a minute, until Ellie feels like she can speak again. Then, she pulls away.

“Hey, I can’t believe I ended up taller than you,” Ellie jokes in an attempt to cut the tension.

Mia grins. “Shut up. You can’t have more than two inches on me.” Ellie feels her face splitting into a returning smile. “Anyway, my parents always asked about you. I bet my mom would love to have you over for dinner.” Mia fiddles with a watch she’s wearing on her left wrist and looks down. “As long as being around me doesn’t still remind you…”

“No. I mean, you do, but I can’t avoid thinking about my mom for the rest of my life. And I would love to be your friend again if you gave me a second chance.”

Mia smiles. “Okay. Let me give you my phone number so that we can figure out a time that you can come over.”

Ellie takes out her phone and passes it to Mia so that she can put her number in. The fact that neither of them had phones the last time they saw each other underscores how long it really has been.

After Mia hands Ellie her phone back, she says, “Let’s go find Paul.”

After hanging out at the party and dancing badly for a bit, they head out to a nearby ice cream shop. Paul gets vanilla which Ellie and Mia both make fun of him for. Ellie and Mia buy chocolate and mint chocolate chip, respectively. They share a conspiratorial glance after ordering, like the fact that they know each other’s favorite ice cream flavor is some secret that they've kept in all the time they hadn’t seen each other.

They sit in a booth for a good half hour after they finish their ice cream, until it gets close to 11:00 and Ellie says she has to go. She waves goodbye and makes it home just in time to watch the top of the news with her dad. The news about the latest mistakes politicians have made doesn’t even ruin Ellie’s mood. She worried that spending time with both her current best friend and her best friend from middle school who were dating might be awkward, but it wasn’t. She had forgotten how much fun it could be to have a friend group; hopefully, this isn’t the last time they all hang out.

When Ellie enters the choir classroom on Tuesday, Aster is frowning down at her phone, typing furiously. Ellie sits down next to her cautiously. Ms. Ramirez is strict about not using phones during class, so it must be important if Aster is risking getting in trouble.

Aster puts her phone away and rubs her eyes with the back of her hands. Ellie leans forward uncertainly, unsure if Aster just wants to be left alone.

“Hey, are you okay?”

Aster whips her head around to look at Ellie. “Yeah,” she says defensively. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I have no idea,” she says placatingly. “You just seemed upset. Do you want to talk about it?”

Aster stares blankly at the whiteboard full of scribbled song lyrics for so long that Ellie thinks she isn’t going to say anything at all. Finally, she murmurs, “Family stuff.”

If she was going to say anything else, Ms. Ramirez cuts her off by coming into the room and announcing that they’re going to be sight-reading Disney music.

As she starts passing out music, Ellie leans closer to Aster and whispers, “Hey. Do you like frozen yogurt?”

Aster looks at her in bemusement. “Yeah. Why?”

“If you’re not doing anything after school, I know a good frozen yogurt place. You could talk about your family stuff if you want. Or you could not think about it for a bit.” She waits with bated breath for Aster’s response. She might consider Aster a friend now, but they haven’t hung out together outside of working on the English project. What if Aster doesn’t actually like her that much? But she squashes down that doubt; she resolved to try to more actively get to know people and the risk of rejection is just part of that.

Aster smiles a little, though it looks more tired than usual. “Sure. That sounds good.”

After choir ends, Ellie and Aster walk out of Roosevelt High together. As they walk down the steps, Ellie starts walking to the right in the direction of the bus stop, but Aster goes to the left. They stop and look at each other in confusion.

Ellie laughs. “I forgot to ask. Do you have a bus pass?”

Aster shakes her head. “I drive. Do you mind if we just go in my car so I don’t have to come back to school to get it later?”

“Sure.” Ellie follows Aster as she walks toward a black Toyota Camry in the student parking lot. Once they get in, Aster passes Ellie the aux cord.

“You can play music if you want.” Ellie puts her music on shuffle and the first song that comes on is Moonlight Sonata. “Oh no,” Aster groans melodramatically. “I knew you played the organ, but I didn’t know you were the kind of person who only ever listens to classical music.”

Ellie rolls her eyes. “They’re classic for a reason. But I listen to other stuff too.”

“Like what?”

“I used to listen to rock a lot because I played the guitar.”

“But no pop music?”

Aster heckles Ellie for not listening to anything written in the 21st century and Ellie jokingly replies that at least her music taste goes outside of Billboards Top 40. Eventually, they realize that they both secretly like cheesy disco music, so they listen to ABBA for the rest of the drive.

The frozen yogurt shop is the kind where you can pick as many flavors and toppings as you want because the prices are based off of the weight of your yogurt. Aster picks four different yogurt flavors and six different toppings because she wants to sample everything. Ellie sticks to chocolate with brownie bites on top.

Aster is in a much better mood than she was in choir as they sit under an umbrella in the patio outside of the shop. But once they finish eating, her expression turns serious.

“So, you’re probably wondering what I meant by family stuff.”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Ellie says quickly.

“Thanks. But I think it would help to talk about it with someone who isn’t involved in it.” Aster picks up a napkin. She starts tearing the it into little pieces, her gaze downcast.

“Last summer, I told my parents I was bisexual. Long story short, my mom is fine with it but my dad isn’t. He told me he still loves me, but he acts like it’s a choice and I could be straight if I tried hard enough. And even though he says I’m not the reason we moved, I know he thinks if we start over I can go back to being the daughter he had before.”

Her hands still. The napkin has been shredded into a pile of unrecognizable scraps. “I know that coming out turns out way worse for a lot of people, so I’m lucky in a way, but it still sucks. I wish my dad understood that I’ve always been this way. He just didn’t know it.”

Aster finally looks up at Ellie. Ellie stares at her with wide eyes before she realizes that Aster is done talking and she should say something in response. “I’m so sorry, Aster. That sounds really hard.” It seems simple compared to all the other answers floating around in Ellie’s head, but it’s the most sincere of them.

“Yeah.” Aster wipes at the corners of her eyes. “It is.”

Ellie is at a loss for further words, so she just grabs Aster’s hand and squeezes it for a second before letting go, in what she hopes conveys silent support.

Aster bites her lip and looks at a point in the distance somewhere above Ellie’s right shoulder. “So you don’t care?” she asks shakily.

“No. Thank you for trusting me.” Ellie hesitates. Aster just shared super personal stuff, and she doesn’t want to make it about her. But she wants Aster to know that she’s not alone, and that seems most important. “Besides, it would be hypocritical of me to judge you because I’m gay.”

Aster’s eyes widen almost imperceptibly. “Oh.” She starts to laugh and Ellie joins in. It’s probably not the most normal reaction, but laughing at the absurdity of the situation feels better than crying.