It was a profoundly normal day until Sarah padded into the room with a small, brown lump in her mouth, her tail swishing proudly behind her.
The tortoiseshell’s silhouette registered distantly in Ellie Kane’s mind as she flipped through a comic book, one of many that were stacked neatly like loyal sentries on either side of her folded legs.
“Sarah, Sarah, Sarah,” the girl mumbled in a singsongy voice, flipping through the section of advertisements placed directly in the middle of the book. Sarah’s head bobbed once and a small item plopped unceremoniously on the floor. Ellie looked up.
Climbing from her spot, Ellie sprinted across the living room. The cat’s ears swiveled back in a moment of alarm and it scrambled away into the foyer.
The item on the floor was very still. Its eyes were bright and unblinking, and its sides rose and fell minutely with its shallow, rapid breaths.
Heart pounding in her ears, the girl brought one foot forward and rested it cautiously on the cold linoleum. The mouse didn’t move.
In a dreamlike trance, the eleven-year-old cupped her hands on either side of the mass of fur and shifted them toward one another. A tiny, cold foot rested on her palm, followed by another. A miniscule tail twitched before settling on her wrist. Ellie lifted the creature to her face.
The whole world reflected in its brilliant, black eyes.
“Come on,” the girl murmured, her voice shuddering with excitement as she closed her left hand over her right. “Let’s find you a place to stay.”
– – –
The following day was a Monday, and the sky was blanketed with a thick cloud of sleep. The buses rattled violently through the suffocating fog and the prepubescent voices overflowing with gossip lacked their usual rasping excitement.
The spelling test was administered with the same ruthlessness as always: Ms. McCauley’s first words upon the late bell ringing were five syllables long at minimum, leaving the occupants scrambling violently for unbroken pencils and paper without reproductive anatomy drawn on it in permanent marker. A list of questions to answer afterward was scrawled on the board in barely legible handwriting.
The whisper was lost behind a wall of thought, one composed of careful calculations. Ellie’s pencil streaked over the margins of her homework in tiny, precise movements.
“Yo. Ellie.” A moment passed. Trevor fidgeted.
Blinking herself awake, she peered over her shoulder. She stiffened and turned toward the boy who was staring at her intently.
“Who is that?”
“What?” Ellie squinted and leaned toward him, her face reddening almost immediately.
“Your drawing,” Trevor rasped, now barely whispering. His football jersey glimmered in the apathetic sunlight, seeming to radiate with his uncontainable energy. “Who is it?”
“Oh,” she stammered lamely. “It’s just a character from a kids’ comic book.”
“Is it Elpha?”
Eyes widening, Ellie’s voice cracked in disbelief. “What?”
“Shhhh!” Marianne Darbey was craned around in her seat, glaring daggers at the
back corner of the room.
“Is it Elpha?”
Ellie’s heart leapt in her chest, sending more blood pouring into her cheeks in a heady mix of embarrassment and exhilaration. “Yeah.”
The quarterback’s boyish features twitched toward an expression of sincere interest. It struck Ellie that at no point in her life would she have expected Trevor Jonston to give her such a look.
“Did you read last month’s issue?”
“Can you believe that The Agency chose Reggie to be the leader of the Death
Ellie began to realize that the tingling in her face was the stretching of her muscles into a sudden and genuine smile. “See, I thought that would be their decision, because if Reggie leads the Squad in its attack on Elphairia’s base, Jennie can stay behind and oversee tactics while still being a, y’know, an influence.”
“Shhhhh,” Marianne contributed.
“No talking, please,” droned Ms. McCauley, and the conversation was ended.
– – –
“Today went pretty well.”
It was Tuesday. Ellie had her book bag on her lap and her arms wrapped around it. Her father sat in the driver’s seat, his hands seated on his lap. His stare was vacant and his hands hesitated on the keys when the journey to the house was interrupted by conversation. “Mmmm? What did you do?”
“Not much. School was boring. I ate a snack and started my homework, and Claire sat on my shoulder and we watched some TV.”
Ellie’s heart stuttered. “Claire is my mouse.”
“Oh.” His hand ran across his stubble, his pale eyes fixed on something outside. Turning to face her, he frowned. “A mouse?”
“Yeah. The cat found her.” It felt strange to refer to Sarah as ‘the cat,’ but the impersonal tone felt Dad-like. “She looked like she had some internal injuries, but she’s eating, and she drank two bottle caps full of water last night.”
“Mmmm.” He pulled his keys out of the ignition and they clinked against each other abrasively. “Don’t get it too close to your face, and make sure you wash your hands after you touch it. Rats and things carry diseases.”
When the girl didn’t speak again, her father shouldered the door open and stepped out of the truck. He headed inside, making sure to leave the door open for Ellie behind him.
– – –
It was Thursday night when Ellie sat down on the floor, a glass of water in one hand and a basket of clean laundry dragged along by the other. “I hate laundry, Claire.”
Ellie tossed all of the socks into a pile. They looked hurt at such careless treatment, but she considered that they were usually on her feet and decided that they could handle it.
When she turned back to the basket, something large and round caught her eye.
The shoebox filled with shredded newspaper and old hamster food was penetrated by a perfectly circular hole cut by tiny teeth marks. A feeling much like being suffocated under dozens of heavy blankets came over her.
For a long moment, she closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, pretending to be somewhere far away. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she turned back to her basket and began to pull the underwear out.
– – –
On nights when she was the last one awake, she would pad into her room and climb into her tangled mess of sheets, and imagine that the mouse was somewhere nearby, its whiskers trembling and its ears twitching with every sound. It would scamper to and fro, collecting old candy and tiny spiders to eat, but that was only after she had fallen asleep. When she was awake, it was the spirit of the night, watching over her in her greatest moments of vulnerability.
– – –
The cafeteria was being renovated, so the herds of infuriated students were forced to sit at the five open tables, jamming themselves into every available seat.
A girl named Kailee had followed Ellie to an open spot, squeezing in beside her and excitedly chattering about people Ellie had never heard of before. She nodded at all the pauses, grunting affirmations through her mashed potatoes.
“Yeah. She said that to him. She honestly said that.”
Trevor’s voice made Ellie look up. He was on the opposite side of the table with a lunch tray full of extra milk cartons.
“Are you coming to the team meal tonight?”
“Nah, dude. I’m skipping out on this one.” The kid next to Trevor scoffed and rolled his eyes. “I have important things to do!”
“Like reading Elphairia?”
Freezing, Trevor looked up. Kailee had been mid-sentence, and stared at Ellie in a puzzled stupor. She swallowed, her heart speeding up as she forced herself to make eye contact.
“Huh?” He laughed, leaning forward and smiling the way one would at a puppy or a very small child.
“Like reading Elphairia?”
“Reading what?” The kid next to Trevor glanced from Ellie to him, grinning in amusement.
“You said last week that you read Elphairia. You were talking about Reggie being picked as the militia leader, remember?”
“Elf- Elf what?” He squinted, cocking his head to the side. “Yeah, I have no idea what you’re talking about, dude.”
Turning to look at her tray, Ellie set down her fork. Kailee leaned in, her earrings jingling loudly. “Ellie? What’s wrong?”
– – –
When her mother asked what was had happened, she shook her head and said nothing. Laurie had taken her by the shoulders and knelt down. “Honey, what’s the matter? What happened? Did your father say something to you?”
“Leave me alone,” was Ellie’s reply, and she jerked away from Laurie’s hands to run to her room and slam the door. Sighing heavily, Laurie turned back to the study and resumed her phone calls.
Throwing herself on the bed, the girl curled into a ball, covering her face with her hands. She had been whispered about in hushed tones, the way people speak of an eccentric relative whose exploits are mildly amusing, but worrisome nonetheless.
Ellie Kane said something to Trevor today.
Something about elves? It was like she thought he would know what she was talking about.
Yeah, he’s being a good sport about it. He thinks it’s funny.
When the fog of warm heaviness that follows heavy crying settled around her, Ellie picked herself up and walked over to her basket of laundry. She began separating the blues from the grays, setting one pile on one folded leg and the other pile on the opposite. Her knee bumped something cold, and she picked up the half-empty glass she had forgotten days before. Her breath caught in her throat.
A small mound of fur was floating in the water.