Ellie couldn’t stop the shaking. She hated these moments. When she became a stranger in her own body. Her hand remained twitching at her side long after she had tucked her cellphone and the unread message into her back pocket. Her fingers itched. To open the device or smash it into the ground, Ellie couldn’t decide, so she took the cautionary route of turning it on silent and hoping to forget it’s presence. It rarely worked.
Ellie didn’t know to be grateful or not for the bustling noise heard through the thin walls of her room; it seemed to grow louder and more insistent as each day progressed, and today the symphony reached a crescendo. Except, this orchestra seemed to be composed of clumsy teenagers blindly stumbling their way down the dorm corridor, managing to crash into her wall every few steps.
However, the zoo outside her dorm room also served as a greatly appreciated distraction. With the ceaseless noise, the weight in her pocket was soon forgotten and her hand stilled at her side. The downside was that her eyes once again gravitated to the empty bed situated against the opposite wall. It was only a matter of time now before a new face walked through the door.
With crossed arms and furrowed eyebrows, Ellie stood by her window, looking down at the quad below. If anyone were to glance up, they would see what looked to be a rather angry young woman glaring down at the orientation and sign-in booths that were methodically cluttered across the school’s entrance. Students and their families scurried around in hordes. The peaceful and contemplative quiet Ellie had grown accustomed to over the past week was gone.
Despite moving many times in her life, the arrival at her new home- a strange thought she hadn’t fully come to terms with yet- was unlike any she had experienced before. There were the familiar feelings that always seemed to accompany change: nervousness, bouts of regret, home-sickness; but there was something else now, something she knew was different. A fear she hadn’t felt since Marlene’s death. Except this time, Ellie reminded herself, she had control of where that change took her.
And right now, that change needed to take her out of the room that was driving her mad. Ellie wasn’t a fan of crowds. Cramped spaces and loud noises made her scar itch, but there were still things she needed to take care of, some of which were in the quad. On top of that, waiting for her roommate to show up was making her anxious. The prospect of confronting the hurricane of students didn’t excite her, but Ellie also wanted to check out the Isaac Wolff Engineering Center before her classes began on Monday. The building was closed to regular students before the semester, but there was a possibility that it would be open as a showcase for curious parents.
As she got ready to leave, Ellie contemplated for a minute before wrapping her arm in a bandage. She was not in the mood to deal with the stares and questions of overzealous orientation guides. If Seattle weren’t in the midst of a record-breaking heatwave, she might’ve considered just wearing a flannel shirt over the tank top she had on. But alas, sweating like a pig would do little to quell attention from onlookers.
Navigating through the hallways and down the three flights of stairs was difficult, made harder by her elevated heartbeat and short breaths; but once she opened the door and emerged into the quad, the open space helped ease her body. For a moment at least, until the sudden lack of air-conditioning overwhelmed her and the heat seeped into her very bones.
A familiar voice called her name before she could retreat back into the building. In front of Ellie, the form of a man was jogging towards her. Even though the glint of the sun blinded him from her view, Ellie knew who it was instantly. She had spent most of the summer with him after all.
“Jesse.” Ellie chuckled when he finally came into view, blocking the sun from her vision as he stood before her. He was drenched in sweat, his black hair plastered against his forehead and neck. It had grown since she had last seen him. She made a mental note to ask him about/make fun of his mullet-like do.
“What’s going on? I’ve been trying to reach you for an hour.” Jesse struggled between pants. Man, he was worn. How long had he been running around? She wanted to make fun of him for being out of shape, but his expression was a mix of seriousness and concern.
“I- sorry… my phone’s off.” Jesse gave her a strange look then, one that told Ellie that he didn’t believe her. She could see the cogs turning in his brain as he thought of a response. In the end, he just nodded. Ellie liked that about him.
“What are you doing right now?” He straightened his back and looked at her expectantly. “Do you want to grab a late lunch? Catch up?”
There was excitement creeping into his voice and reflected in the smile that was slowly spreading across his face. Ellie smiled back. She had been so preoccupied over the past month she hadn’t thought about the fact they were university students. Jesse and she had spent the entire summer dreaming about college, and now they were here. A pang of guilt halted the happiness spreading in her chest. She hadn’t talked to Jesse in a month. He didn’t know Ellie was already moved in.
Jesse seemed to notice her change in mood because he nudged her shoulder playfully. His excitement was still present, but his grin became a more self-contained smile, “Hey, there’s this great on-campus restaurant not far from here.”
“Oh yeah?” Ellie looked up with a hesitant smile.
“Let’s go. It’s way too hot to be outside right now,” Jesse grinned and nodded his head in the direction he came from, urging Ellie to follow after him. “Oh! I’ve gotta tell you about this girl I met.”
If Ellie was feeling semantic she would tell Jesse that the tiny 70’s style diner with the chrome exterior and flashing neon sign that spelled out Leah’s Table, was in fact, not a restaurant. However, saying that would lead to an argument about the qualifications an establishment must meet in order to be considered a restaurant, and any such argument was a lost cause against Mr. President of the Debate Club himself, Jesse Chang.
However, once she looked past the campy exterior, cliche red booths and tile floors of the interior, the corny pinstripe dresses the waitresses wore, and just about every other c-word that captured Ellie’s contempt, the food was… pretty damn good actually. Definitely not restaurant good, but great for an on-campus spot. And inexpensive too. Ellie knew this place would be popular during the semester.
“So…” Jesse started with a content sigh, having just finished his second glass of water, “Where have you been?”
Ellie, who had been resting her chin on her palm, sat up straighter. Her hand gravitated up and sheepishly rubbed the back of her neck. Jesse was toeing the line of a conversation she definitely wasn’t looking forward to. Seeing the look of genuine concern on his face though quashed her rising dread. Now all that remained was guilt.
“Jesse, I’m sorry. I- I know I just vanished... I was going to tell you-”
Before she could finish, Jesse raised up his hand, cutting her off before she could ramble herself to an early grave.
“Hey, relax man. You have your reasons, I just want to know you’re alright. Why don’t we just catch up? When’d you get here?”
Ellie sighed through her nose. Yeah, she definitely didn’t deserve Jesse. He had always been understanding and sincere, even before they became close. Sure, he had been an understanding and sincere dick back in high school, but… people change. Or maybe she just got to know him.
“Uh… last week?” Ellie said quickly, averting her gaze down to the partially finished plate of scrambled eggs in front of her.
Jesse who had been mid-bite nearly spit his food out. As to avoid that, he swallowed his burger without chewing, resulting in a coughing fit. Ellie pushed her water cup across the table and he eagerly chugged the contents down. Three whole cups in five minutes. That had to be a record for the establishment.
“Last week!” Jesse said with wide eyes. The look he was sending her way was nothing short of incredulous.
“Sorry?” Ellie was back to feeling sheepish, offering Jesse a nervous smile.
He laughed in disbelief, “Damn man, you coulda helped me move in. I got here yesterday.”
Ellie raised her eyebrows, thinking back to the comment he made earlier, “Wow. 24 hours and you’ve already met a girl.”
At that, Ellie could safely say that the conversation had moved on. Jesse’s entire demeanor changed. His usual suave attitude was replaced with a hand to the forehead, a dopey smile that Ellie almost couldn’t believe, and a… was that a dreamy look in his eyes or had that blunt from last night still not worn off?
Jesse sat forward, hands splayed out across half the table, like one of those salesmen who think aggressive body language would make you buy their product. The sheer intensity in his eyes caused Ellie to lean back unconsciously.
“Ellie… not just any girl. The girl of my dreams!” From the look in his eyes, Jesse was mentally picking out a flattering tux and choosing the most cost-effective travel agency to plan a honeymoon. “Oh my god, she was incredible and her head game-”
Ellie wrinkled her nose. Now she had a mental image of her own to deal with. “Oh god, please stop, I’m gonna vomit.”
Jesse sat back, a devious grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I’m just messing with you… I mean not really but-”
Ellie covered her face with her hand, “Jesse.”
“Alright, alright. She was amazing though,” There was a lull then, Jesse leaning back, a soft smile playing on his lips. He shook his head lightly to no one but himself and exhaled. ”She was beautiful and funny and had the most amazing ass… and the best part? I’m gonna see her again.”
Ellie was watching her best friend in interest. She had never seen Jesse so… love-struck, for lack of a better word. It was strange, but she was happy for him. The last girl he had dated was Jessica in Junior year, a soft-spoken sweet girl he had grown up with. Before they had become friends, Ellie had to contain a laugh whenever she saw them together. Jesse and Jessica. Yeah, she wasn’t surprised when they broke up early Senior year.
“Wow, you’re really in love, huh? How’d you meet her.”
“A frat party.”
Ellie burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Jesse said indignantly.
Ellie did her best to regain composure, but Jesse’s scrunched eyebrows and downturned lips made it all that much harder not to laugh at the situation. She had been picturing some chance encounter on a candlelit bridge in downtown Seattle, but no they probably got hot and heavy in a piss covered frat house bathroom. Just the thought of that made her shutter.
After a moment, Ellie resorted to covering her grin with a hand. “How romantic.”
Jesse steepled his fingers together against the table and articulated the way he did when presenting in class. “What’s more romantic than finding love in a loveless place.”
Ellie’s eyebrows shot skyward. “Wow. What’s her name?”
Ellie was back to guffawing, the annoyed eyes of other patrons not enough to end her outburst. She probably looked absolutely crazy. “Wow, Jesse. Sounds like true love.”
“She gave me her number!” he said defensively.
“...Does it work?”
Jesse looked at a loss for a moment, seeming to not have taken into consideration that his mystery girl might’ve given him a fake number. He reached into his pocket and hastily pulled out his phone. Ellie shook her head, that grin still on her face. She felt like she hadn’t smiled this much in a month. She hadn’t now that she thought about it. God, she missed this.
“Let me try.” Jesse said, a dash of nervousness in his tone that Ellie caught under his confident exterior.
Ellie watched as he typed and deleted messages. He had been going at it for a solid two minutes before she intervened, plucking the phone from his fingers. She vigorously typed a message of her own, something far more meaningful and honest than the ‘Hey, this is Jesse from the party’ he had written.
“Hey! What are you typing?”
Jesse reached across the table and tried to wrangle his phone out of Ellie’s grasp. Ellie kicked his shin from under the table, causing him to flail his arms and knock over both of their empty water cups. See, definitely not a restaurant. If it were, they would’ve been kicked out.
“Ow! Ellie what the hell!”
Ellie gave him a sweet smile before passing the phone back to him, message sent. He snatched his phone back with a glare and began to read the text, face slowly morphing into panic as his eyes flitted across the screen.
“Don’t be shy, read it out loud,” Ellie said smugly.
“Hey, mystery woman. I can’t get you off my mind. I keep thinking about last night. Your lovely aroma covered the smell of piss and kegger vomit- Jesus fucking Christ Ellie I’ll never forgive you for this. I’d love to see you again, preferably somewhere without those things.”
Jesse stared at her. Ellie stared back. The woman in the booth behind them let out a strangled laugh that she covered poorly with a cough.
“Payback’s a bitch.” Ellie spoke curtly. Jesse huffed.
“Are you still mad about that? Ellie, she wanted to go out with you, you were the one too embarrassed to say yes-”
Ellie scoffed, “That’s because you humiliated me in front of her. And besides, the message I sent will totally make her want to go out with you.”
“This reaction is completely disproportionate-” Jesse waved his phone for emphasis.
Ellie rolled her eyes and observed her friend as he frantically began typing, doing his best to salvage the situation. Personally, she didn’t think that what she had typed was a bad start. Smelling good was a complement of the highest degree at a frat party.
Ellie took a moment to appreciate the comfortable exchange they were having. It felt so good and so familiar; she could almost pretend the past month never happened. When he was seemingly satisfied, Jesse held out his phone for her to see. There was the expected ‘Sorry, my friend wrote that’ text, followed by-
“Oh my god! You’re inviting her to the dinner!” Ellie looked up at her friend in disbelief. Out of both of their approaches, she would’ve pegged hers as safer. When it came to a hook up at least. Ellie chuckled, “Already introducing her to the folks, I see.”
“Yeah, if she wasn’t scared off by what you said.” Jesse joked, putting his phone down and starting to nervously fiddle with his fingers. It almost made Ellie feel bad. Almost. “Speaking of which, are you coming tonight?” He looked at her expectantly, eyes glancing down at his phone periodically.
Ellie inhaled sharply. It took a moment to come up with a response, Jesse too distracted to notice her hesitance. “Um- no I don’t think so. I’m gonna try to get my sleep back on schedule for classes next week.”
She had Jesse’s undivided attention then, the dark-eyed boy looking at her with a puzzled expression. “Wasn’t Joel- ”
“I said no.” Ellie cut him off in a tone harsher than she had intended.
Jesse stared at her with raised eyebrows, swallowing the rest of whatever he was about to ask. His ansty fingers stilled and Ellie could feel his eyes observing her profile as she looked out the window. The comfortable companionship they had slowly been working to reestablish after a month of absence came crashing to a halt. Ellie felt heat rising up her neck and face. She scowled out the window, causing a passing biker to do a double-take as a stranger glared him down.
“Sorry.” Jesse said after a moment, looking away. He reached to pick up his phone but thought better of it and instead occupied his hands by intertwining his fingers, a nervous habit.
Ellie took a deep breath. Jesse was looking anywhere else but her and Ellie too was avoiding eye contact while she got control of her spiralling thoughts. They sat in tense silence, an awkwardness they rarely experienced around each other coming to surface. Ellie’s hand was shaking. Clenching her fist, she moved it from the table to her lap, hoping Jesse wouldn’t notice.
Before Ellie could apologize, Jesse’s phone buzzed on the table. He hastily picked it up, a perfect out to the previous exchange. She could feel his knee bouncing up and down across from her, shaking the table. As he read the text, his body slowly began to relax and his frown morphed into a Cheshire cat smile.
“What did she say?” Ellie asked, eager to both know and put an end to the silence.
Instead of answering, Jesse handed his phone to her.
Mystery Woman: hahaha your friend is funny. And I cant go to the dinner tonight im sorry :( but we should definitely hang out again soon ;)
“I told you it would work.” Ellie smiled.
Jesse spent the next few minutes glued to his phone. She was just grateful the awkwardness was gone, even if it meant having to walk her friend through talking to a girl. Why he thought Ellie would have the answer to whether or not he should ask a girl out before learning her name, she did not know.
“Oh, how the tables have turned,” Ellie said with smug satisfaction, “Usually you’re the one giving me advice when it comes to affairs of the heart.”
Jesse stared at her with a blank expression before seeming to come to a realization. “Why am I asking you? I’m way better at this than you.” Well, that’s one way to restore his confidence, Ellie thought. Didn’t sting any less.
“Ouch. How will I ever repair my ego?”
The cheque was called after that. Ellie did her best to eat as much of the food that remained on her plate as possible, but she only managed a few mouthfuls before her appetite diminished. When the check came, the waitress gave Jesse a pretty smile before placing it down in front of him. An arrogant smirk was thrown Ellie’s way, to which she could only respond with an eye roll. Internally, she resigned to the fact that Jesse was, in fact, ‘way better’ than her when it came to women.
They left the diner together, laughing side-by-side. However, as they made their way closer to central campus, the sun finally lowering in the sky and the breeze cooling her skin, Ellie found herself lagging behind.
“Hey, Jesse…” The taller boy turned his head to give her a questioning look. “I’m sorry for being an asshole.” Ellie’s hands were buried deep in the pockets of her shorts and she stared down at the sidewalk where she was rolling a pebble with the sole of her sneaker. Jesse turned around fully then, taking a step forward. His own hands made their way into his pockets and he rolled back on his heels.
“Sorry for being an asshole in there,” He gestured to Leah’s Table a few meters behind them, “or by quitting your job and abandoning me with a bunch of punk-ass 12 year-olds for a month.”
“Ha ha.” Ellie said, a small smile fighting its way onto her face. She bit her lip in thought, and with all the bashful sincerity she could muster, said, “Both.”
Talking with Jesse was easy. He respected her boundaries, he knew when to stop joking and, better yet, he knew how to make a heavy conversation comfortable. Tilting her head up, his lips were upturned in a kind yet playful smile. Ellie knew that so many girls found that reassuring look a charming quality, and right now she was inclined to agree with them. Even with his stupid mullet.
“You honestly think I got to know you and wasn’t expecting you to pull some crazy shit like going MIA? Why do you think I made you promise to meet-up on move-in day 3 whole months before we even got here?”
Ellie chuckled, kicking the pebble away from her and beginning to walk down the street once again. “Fair enough.”
Jesse stopped her this time, lightly grabbing her arm. His smile was gone, but he looked at her with an honest intensity, “Look, I know I said you don’t have to talk to me, but if you do want to, I’m here.” Dropping her arm, he rested his hand on Ellie’s shoulder, “My friends' problems are my problems.”
Spending time with Jesse was cathartic. Ellie hadn’t realized how much she missed, no, how much she needed his company until she was talking to him about his hookups and laughing at his stupid jokes. He was a distraction- a supportive, kind, smartass distraction. One that didn’t bang on her walls and make her want to commit assault… most of the time.
So, all she could do was stare at him in that moment. There weren’t words that could express the range of emotions she was feeling- but she did know that spending time with Jesse made her the most content she had been in months. His company made the university, made the move, made the change less daunting. Maybe he would make the pain more tolerable, even if for a few minutes at a time.
A smile blossomed across Ellie’s face, “Jesse, you’re such a sap.”
Jesse let out a boisterous laugh. Jokingly, he leaned in closer and winked, “Should we kiss now?”
Ellie said nothing as he leaned in farther, the progressive raising of her eyebrows the only visible reaction. Only when their faces were mere inches apart did her neutral expression waver. Jesse too was struggling to keep a straight face and soon enough both of them had cracked and burst out in laughter.
A passerby walking his dog gave the duo an odd stare as they howled on the pavement. Ellie came to her senses first, grabbing Jesse by his ear and leading him towards the quad, waving a friendly hand to the man who only shook his head in return.
With one last laugh, Ellie sighed. “Come on, I need to sort out my meal plan.”
Ellie couldn’t stop the shaking. She clutched tightly to the phone in her hand, waiting. What for, she wasn’t exactly sure of. For her phone to buzz perhaps. Waiting to find the courage to open her unread messages without crying, without screaming. Waiting for her hand to stop fucking shaking. Maybe she was just waiting for the day where her memories didn’t play over and over again in her mind, the million ‘what could have been’s clear as day, taunting her.
She had left Jackson hastily, taking only one bag and her backpack. Anything she could afford to leave behind, she did. All of the art she had created and hung proudly on her walls, all of the rejected band posters she had dumpster dived for behind the music shop in Jackson, all of it abandoned. It seemed like an obvious decision to leave them, Ellie having little room and time and patience to spare.
Now however, with moonlight streaming in through the window to illuminate stark walls, Ellie regretted glossing over such a minute aspect of her life; a small detail that she had grown so familiar with, finding comfort in its presence, only for its absence to leave her chest feeling hollow. Still, even that hole was nested in a far larger piece of herself that was missing.
Standing from her bed, Ellie padded across the carpeted floor to the wardrobe positioned flush against the back wall. It was an ugly thing that looked straight out of the 16th century, complete with chipped paint and crooked legs. It took up far too much space in the small room and the antiquity of it clashed with the brightly painted white walls.
Against it leaned a guitar case. Ellie kneeled, reaching a hand out. She hovered for a moment before fully extending her hand, allowing her fingers to trace a path down the fiberglass shell. Her eyes followed its route, examining each haphazardly placed fading sticker with care, as if she were seeing them for the first time. Ellie paused over one sticker in particular, dead center of the case.
Endure and Survive.
When she felt her thoughts begin to wander, Ellie forced her hand to continue on it’s downward path, trying not to think too deeply into the small smile that the accompanying memory had elicited.
Her trip was cut short before the final destination. Thumbing the latch, the cold metal sent a jolt through Ellie’s body and she yanked her hand back as quickly as it had landed atop the worn clasp. She cradled her fingers close to her chest. It hadn’t hurt, but it was a psychological burn that made her scar sting. Ellie exhaled as slowly as she could manage, rubbing her arm. This was a flame she couldn’t allow herself to test.
Despite this, a part of her- the missing part, Ellie suspected- was drawn to the warmth. A part of her wanted nothing more than to open it. To pull out that Taylor guitar that was so lovingly crafted; to feel the familiar smooth finish, to strum a familiar chord, to trace the familiar outline of that moth-
In that moment, Ellie wanted nothing more than to pull herself out of the darkness and let the fire consume her. It should have long ago.
But she didn’t. Instead, she closed her eyes and turned back to her bed.
When she had parted ways with Jesse and returned to her room, the first thing she noticed was the well made bed, massive trans pride flag hanging on the wall, and notable absence of her roommate. Using her keen detective skills, Ellie figured they were probably at the family dinner, along with just about every other freshman student who moved in today.
She was somewhat grateful she hadn’t met them yet. Finalizing her meal-plan had taken far longer than Ellie’s social meter had the patience for, and the crowds of anxious students and aggressive parents were overwhelming. Jesse was her saving grace, people-watching and cracking jokes with her as they waited in line.
By the time they were finished, the sun had begun to sink and Ellie briefly exchanged greetings with Jesse’s parents when they arrived. Robin and Michelle invited her to join them, but Ellie had declined them politely. Jesse offered a kind smile before leading his parents away with one last wave. She figured being alone in her room was better than being alone in a packed hall.
The dorm room night stands were pathetically small. Ridiculously so when compared to the wardrobes. The lamp she had placed on hers left only the corners of the surface free, just enough room for Ellie’s digital clock. It was half past nine. The dinner ended at eleven, giving students plenty of time to enjoy their last few hours with their families until Thanksgiving. Ellie’s mouth tasted bitter.
She needed to get out of there.
Ellie was yet to explore the Engineering Center, having forgotten about it after seeing Jesse and his parents for the first time in too long. She knew it being open was a long shot, but she had a better chance of sneaking in or convincing a tired staff member to open the door for her while the quad was deserted for the first time that day.
Ellie slipped on her sneakers, not bothering to change out of her pajamas. She glanced briefly at the disposed bandage teetering on the edge of her nightstand as she made her way out the door. There was no point in covering up her scar when it was dark out and there was no one around. Plus, wearing it all day had been beyond uncomfortable.
Walking down the dorm corridor at night compared to earlier that day was a completely different experience. The hallway felt far wider without the people shoving their way around, toting mini-fridges, TVs, and mattress pads. Orange lights dotted the walls, flooding the hallway in what Ellie assumed to be an intended warm glow. She was never one to be easily spooked, but the lights felt more ominous than welcoming in the deserted hallway, giving her an extra spring in her step.
Ellie followed her earlier path, opting to descend by staircase instead of the elevator. Moving was far better than standing in place surrounded by mirrors.
Opening the door outside, she looked across the quad where a massive brightly lit concrete building stood perpendicular to the dorm hall. As she had suspected, there were very few people out, only a handful of families strolling across the grounds, silhouettes illuminated by the street lights.
Ellie avoided the pathways, walking across the expansive lawn. Although the less safe option, the scenery was surprisingly beautiful. Most of her first week Ellie had been camped in her room, mind preoccupied with the previous weeks. However, now as she admired the freshly cut grass, sparse dotting of oak trees, and the cherry blossoms that lined the central pathway, she regretted overlooking the beauty of the campus.
Ellie was usually a fast walker. She walked with purpose, a destination in mind. Moving fast, to put simply, was the way she grew up. You either remain two steps ahead of the world around you or you risked being swept away by the tornado of change. Now however, she discovered the appeal of ambling.
The trees reminded her of the parks back in Boston. No matter what foster home she was placed in, she always managed to find her way to a park when she inevitably ran away. She spent hours upon hours sketching the sturdy oaks in her journal, profiling the young families that walked past, the old couples feeding the birds, the playing kids who would always stare at her.
Ellie did it so frequently she was sent to the group home for months at a time. It was supposed to be tougher, the lesser option compared to simply behaving- and in many ways it was. It was harder to sneak out, the older kids were meaner, the caretaker didn’t bother to care; not the way most foster families pretended to. Ellie still managed to escape to the parks though, she just got better at returning.
Shutting her eyes, Ellie shook away the memories. What should’ve been a three minute walk must’ve been closer to ten. Once her feet hit the hard tiled sidewalk and she emerged from the treeline, the Issac Wolff Center loomed over her.
The building appeared to be the most newly renovated location on campus. While the dormaratory was surely built during the 1800s with gothic arches and a steepled roof, this one was the picture of modern architecture. The Center was almost entirely made of glass, similar to a massive mirror. However, concrete ran up and down the building in columns between the panes of glass. Intricate slabs of metal were overlaid horizontally, making the entire structure look like a sleek tic-tac-toe board.
The white lights of the interior seemed to brighten the entire surrounding area, causing Ellie’s eyes to squint uncomfortably. The reception was empty and from what she could see through the windows of the five-story building, the same was true for the rest of the Center.
“What they lack in people, they make up for in an obnoxious amount of light fixtures.” Ellie grumbled to herself, making her way to the two double doors that led into the foyer. Locked, of course.
She gave the door a half-hearted shake before taking a step back. Surely there was a window she could climb through. The side of the building was just around the corner, and if she remembered correctly, the wall departed from the building’s main design and was primarily made of concrete.
Ellie waited for an older couple to pass before ducking through a collection of large bushes that led to the partially hidden side of the structure. A girl hovering alone at night in front of one of the most costly buildings at the university was not exactly the most innocent of sights.
Once she rounded the corner, her eyes immediately focused on the building's exterior. Ellie let out a quiet ‘hell yeah’ when she caught sight of a small rectangular window a couple feet ahead of her. Peering in, it looked to lead directly into a bathroom. Ellie ran her fingers along the window’s trim, feeling for any crevices to force open. It was sealed tight. She huffed in frustration.
Surely this was some kind of safety violation, Ellie thought to herself. What if there was a fire and she was trapped in the bathroom? The glass looked the same as the front of the building, and that was certainly not your run-of-the-miller brick-vulnerable glass that would shatter on impact. No, the Engineering Center held millions of dollars worth of expensive equipment and devices, they’d invest in something sturdier. Polycarbonate perhaps...?
“Are you trying to break in?”
Ellie swung her head around, heart skipping a beat. She was fully ready to fight whoever had spoken, or absolutely book it if they were very tall, but when she turned she was met with the sight of a young woman sitting atop a large boulder behind her. Ellie felt like a fool for not noticing her before, and tried not to dwell on how easily it would’ve been for someone to have jumped her while she was busy being a glass connoisseur.
“That depends, do you work here?”
“If I worked here would I be loitering in the one place without cameras?” If Ellie hadn’t been preoccupied with warily watching the women, she would’ve groaned. She seriously forgot about the cameras. Definitely a great place to be attacked. “Don’t bother with the window, I already tried. This place is impenetrable.”
Ellie looked at her then, really looked at her. It was hard to see the woman clearly, but the combination of the Center’s light streaming through the window behind her and the rays of moonlight filtering through the surrounding trees allowed her to just about make out some of the woman’s features.
Her hair was the black of space and her eyes, almond-shaped, looked the same in the low-lighting. She wore a loose white blouse and cream-colored dress pants, yet she paid no mind to her formal attire, subtle grass stains marking the fabric over her knees. Her hair was pulled neatly back into a ponytail, loose pieces framing either side of her face.
And her face, god.
The woman’s lips were curved slightly and her eyes squinted in amusement. Suddenly, Ellie became fully aware of how long she had been staring, saying nothing. With a blush, she awkwardly rubbed the back of her neck. The woman was gazing at her searchingly. Normally the scrutinization would make Ellie’s skin crawl, but the way she was being regarded was not uncomfortable. The woman seemed curious if anything, friendly even.
Ellie blinked, and then looked down at her pajama pants. They were patterned with various cartoon dinosaurs. When she tilted her head back up, the woman had hopped off the boulder and was walking towards Ellie- slowly, cautiously, as if she were afraid Ellie was a frightened animal that would dash into the trees at any sudden movement.
“Thanks.” She responded, crossing her arms against her chest and refusing to step back as the woman drew closer. She wasn’t a frightened animal. Why she felt the need to prove that to a stranger, Ellie couldn’t begin to know.
“You’d think a university renowned for its engineering program would let students into their fucking engineering building.” The woman drawled, lazily gesturing to the building beside them.
She was still intent on staring at Ellie and now she was close enough to her that Ellie could see that her eyes were not black- no, they were a deep and rich brown. Her hair the color of space was complemented by stars scattered across her face. Or maybe the brown freckles were more akin to a meteor field-
Fuck, Ellie thought to herself, what were these goddamn space metaphors.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” The woman said, and for the first time that night, Ellie noticed the rolled blunt she fiddled between her index and middle fingers.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” The woman laughed, an endearing grin lighting up her face. “Here.”
She must’ve seen Ellie eyeing it, because she passed the blunt to her and Ellie was left speechless for a moment, unsure of how to proceed. The woman was watching, looking up through her eyelashes, waiting for Ellie to react. When she didn’t, the woman reached into her pocket to reveal a lighter.
“You look like you need to relax.” She dismissed when Ellie looked at her with what she could only imagine to be a befuddled expression. She was certainly feeling befuddled.
When Ellie didn’t move, the woman did. She reached out and took the blunt back from Ellie, her fingers grazing over her knuckles and lingering for a moment before drawing her hand back. Ellie watched the woman as she slowly lifted the roll up to her mouth and lit the end. She took a hit and passed it to the other girl who accepted after a moment of hesitance.
The woman shuffled her feet, one hand resting on her hip. She frowned slightly, “Is ‘thanks’ all you say?”
Ellie chuckled nervously and looked down at her feet, “Among other things.”
The woman hummed in thought, turning her head to the side and looking at Ellie. That small smile, reserved yet telling, had returned, “Like what?”
Ellie stared at her. “Like... you have grass stains on your pants.”
“Oh, fuck. Really?” The woman looked down, eyes wide, all deliberate actions thrown to the wind.
Ellie almost regretted pointing the marks out, missing the woman’s smile when it was replaced with a frown and over-the-top groan. She did, however, find a new interest in tracing the lines of the woman’s face with her eyes, imagining how her pencil would dance across her journal, outlining the scrunch of her nose or the furrow of her eyebrows.
She straightened up after a moment, plucking the blunt from Ellie’s fingers, “Fuck it.”
“Were you going to the dinner?” Ellie asked slowly, the vocal minority in her brain winning her internal debate. “Just… nice clothes is all.”
She was sure she had crossed a line when the woman paused. The blunt was hovering in front of her mouth now, held by her index finger and thumb. Her eyes spaced out, looking into the light of the window. Just when Ellie was about to apologize, the woman took a long inhale from the blunt, passed it to Ellie, and shook her head no, “Didn’t have anyone to go with. You?”
Ellie blew out a puff of smoke. Maybe the high was already affecting her, maybe it was the odd solidarity she felt with the stranger before her, but regardless, she answered truthfully. “Same.”
They looked at each other, a quiet understanding passing between the two of them. After a moment, the woman leaned her back against the side of the building and slowly slid down the wall until she hit the grass. Her arms stretched up in the air and her legs extended out in front of her. The action reminded Ellie of the stray cats that roamed around Jackson. The woman beckoned her down.
“We gonna finish this, or what?”
Ellie looked around, and then up at the night sky. Well, she didn’t have anything better to do.
“Fuck yeah, we are.”
Long after the blunt had crumbled onto the grass, dew drop extinguishing any trace of heat remaining, Ellie and the woman sat across from each other still. The dinner must have finished long ago, but the two women sat together, laughing obnoxiously as the stranger quizzed Ellie on the different dinosaurs that made up her pajama bottoms.
“And what is this one?” The woman said with a goofy smile, poking Ellie’s thigh.
Ellie giggled at the contact. She giggled. It must’ve been the pot, she thought to herself. It certainly had nothing to do with the way her breath seemed to disappear from right out her lungs when the woman looked her way.
“That’s a dilophosaurus.” The woman burst out in melodic, bordering manic, laughter.
“What kinda name is that?” The woman practically yelled. “Imagine spending years excavating and finally, finally, you find something… only to name it dickophosaurus.”
Ellie was laughing now, “I said Dilophosaurus. It means two-crested lizard, named for the crests of its skull-”
“Oh my god, you’re a nerd!” The woman interrupted. She scooted forward, closer, looking at Ellie with an indescribable expression, as if trying to transcribe a foreign language. There her breath went again. “I should’ve figured. Who breaks into an Engineering Center for fun.”
Ellie squinted at her. “Didn’t you say you tried to?”
The woman laughed and gave a single nod as if to say ‘touche’. “Hey, I never said I wasn’t a nerd. But dinosaurs… really?”
“Dinosaurs are fucking awesome, what are you talking about.” Ellie scoffed. Despite her knowing that she’s absolutely fucking right, Ellie couldn’t help the blush that rose in her cheeks. Cartoon dinosaurs were a... less-than-adult pajama choice. Ellie grumbled, “They’re way cooler than what you’re wearing.”
“Hey, I look hot in these,” The woman said. She eyed the grass stains on her knees, mouth twisting in disdain, “Well, I used to.”
They sat in silence then, Ellie feeling lighter than she had in a while. She closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the concrete wall. The world was always so loud, but right now the noise was music to her ears. The sound of the city, a living, breathing melody just outside of the university grounds. The far-off farewells of parting loved-ones, laughter and excitement for the new school year- a sweet harmony.
Opening her eyes, she watched the leaves of surrounding trees dance to the city’s music, crickets chirping in time. It made Ellie want to sing, but before she could hum a note, she was broken out of her trance by the sound of a sigh.
“My sister was supposed to go with me.” Ellie turned her head to the woman beside her, seeming to be caught in a world of her own like Ellie had been. She motioned with her hands as she spoke, talking less to Ellie than the world around her. Adding her own voice into it’s song. “To the dinner, I mean. But… she couldn’t make it.”
“Why didn’t you go anyways?” Ellie asked softly. The woman didn’t meet her eye, only stared ahead, biting her lip.
“I wasn’t going to sit around there feeling sorry for myself.” She said after a moment. There was no bite in her words, only… acceptance.
Ellie turned her head skyward once more. She felt her heartbeat drum in her chest, her thoughts ringing in the chasm of her mind. The peaceful tune turned raucous, tainted. Was it really so simple?
“I should go.” The woman said, drawing Ellie from her introspection.
She stood up, looking down at Ellie with a sweet and knowing smile that left her dizzy. Before Ellie could stand or even just say good-bye, the woman turned to walk away. Once she reached the bushes, the University’s wardrobe that led out of the secret Narnia they had discovered, the woman glanced behind her.
“I’ll see you around, Nerd. Oh, by the way, if you get caught, I wasn’t here.” And with that she dipped through the hedge and disappeared from sight.
Ellie blinked. Maybe she had wandered into Narnia, the woman a mythical being sent to bless travelers with weed and insightfulness. The nymph of the Engineering Center. Oh god, Ellie realized, maybe she was a nerd.
Returning to her dorm room was a short affair. She took the same route she had before, even walking at the same pace; but she hardly noticed the steps taken between ducking out of the bushes and opening the door to her room. Although her high was yet to wear off, and her body feather-light, she felt an unprecedented clarity. The fog that had been clouding her mind was cleared away by a wind of determination.
Barely noticing the human-shaped lump that was curled under the blanket of her roommates’ bed, Ellie headed straight for her nightstand where she had left her phone face down on one of the corners. She typed in the passcode and opened her messages.
Old Man: Hey, Kiddo. Just checking up. I called the university. They told me you had applied for early move-in. I’m glad you’re safe. I understand if you don’t want to talk to me right now, but I was worried about you. I know you don’t want to hear it, but please consider coming back for Thanksgiving. Or even just go up to Tommy’s place. I know he’d have you.
Ellie blinked away tears and swallowed the anger threatening to rise up her throat until she screamed her voice away. She had already spent what felt like a lifetime doing that and it had gotten her nowhere. Instead, she opened his contact and allowed her finger to hover over the red trash bin- but she hesitated, eyes and heart and mind caught on the last message he had sent her.
Old Man: I love you, baby girl. Stay safe.
Ellie stared and stared and stared, hoping that the words would hold some answers. That they would tell her the right thing to do. But reading them for the tenth time compared to the first offered no new revelations. No, it only caused her chest to tighten with pain, with guilt, with regret, with fear. So many emotions that infuriated her as much as they hurt her. This was a choice that Ellie had to make alone. And it’s a choice she had already begun to.
She would leave behind her posters, she would leave behind her drawings, and she would leave behind Joel. Ellie wasn’t going to sit around and feel sorry for herself. No, she was going to pack up and move on, she was going to leave behind the pain. No matter the cost. And with renewed resolve, Ellie clicked the ‘delete contact’ button and turned her phone off.
As she drifted off to sleep, mind hazy and thoughts askew, Ellie’s eyes wandered to the hideous abomination of a wardrobe. The sight elicited a shaky laugh from her lips, eyes still slightly teary and voice hoarser than usual. However, as her eyes wandered to the black case that leaned against it, the humor and relief faded. In its place crept doubt, a single question that she couldn’t shake.
A single piece of her past that she couldn’t leave behind.