Ellie walked up the stone steps to The Palace. Her nerves sang with frustration and excitement. She counted each step out loud to distract herself from the constant droning echoing through her brain.
“Twelve, thirteen, fourteen…” the numbers were familiar, predictable. No matter how many times she counted them, she knew there would always be seventeen. Her friend, Lily, opened the heavy double doors as Ellie mounted that final step. Music exploded outwards and Ellie felt it like a physical force. Her hands flew to her ears. Lily waited patiently for her to acclimate, smiling as she held open the door. Ellie took a breath, imagining it as a tiny bubble of calm. It would sit within her, grounding her in the chaos and constant motion of the Friday night crowd.
“Drink?” Lily asked, and Ellie nodded. She hadn’t heard her friend but it was routine. Drinks always came first.
They walked up to the elegant wood bar. The dance floor was already a writhing mass of sweaty bodies, leaving the velvety red stools by the bar mostly vacant. Ellie wasn’t familiar with the bar tender. She looked to her friend for reassurance.
Lily nodded, calling the man’s attention. “A diet Coke please. And a water too.”
The man raised an eyebrow at the tame order. Lily pointed at her belly, obviously swollen under her flowing empire-waisted top. Ellie looked away. She tried to forget that belly. It was an inconsistency and a herald of more changes yet to come. Her stomach tightened and her hands clenched against her will.
The bar tender pushed two drinks towards them. Ellie winced at the tall, thin glass filled with dark soda.
“Short glass and lime for diet Cokes,” a young man said, coming out from a door behind the bar. He filled the order himself, replacing Ellie’s drink. The bar tender shrugged and walked away to see to another customer.
“Thanks, Prince Charming,” Ellie grinned, taking the drink.
“Any time, Ellie. And for the last time, it’s Cam,” this was part of the routine too.
“I guess you’re actually the King now,” she said, priding herself on breaking out of their usual banter. She was already turning to watch the dancers behind her when his warm smile faded a little.
“Ellie,” Lily scolded, “it’s a bit too soon.”
Ellie looked at her friend. Was what she had said wrong? She looked to Cam’s face. Was that sadness written across his brow?
“It’s okay. Really.” Cam’s smile grew again and if he looked a little distracted Ellie didn’t notice. She cared, the ever-growing tension spreading through her body could attest to that, but her focus was drawn to the pounding rhythm of the music. She began to rock back and forth slightly as she sipped her drink.
After a few moments she realized that her body had been moving autonomously; her rocking had grown more exaggerated without her notice. She looked up at her friend, sheepishly, like a guilty child. Lily smiled, grabbing Ellie’s hands and pulling her over to the dance floor.
As usual it felt like diving into a pool of ice water. Her body rejected the proximity to so many other people, and all of her muscles clenched in agitation. For years her Autism would have prevented her from coming to a place like this, from participating in such a celebrated recreational pastime as social dancing. But there was another side to this noisy, crowded space. One that allowed her and the diagnosis she’d been given at two-years old to co-exist.
While she stood frozen, she slowly adjusted, drowning out the noise until only the raw rhythm remained. That constant, mathematical pulse sunk into her body and she began to synchronise with it. Her body rocked in time. She lifted up to the tips of her toes. She shifted her balance from one foot to the other. Sometimes she spun in mad circles. No one really cared. They were here for the same purpose, for that holistic release that came only from moving their bodies with wild abandon.
Ellie’s muscles relaxed, her tension dissipated, the buzz that was a permanent fixture in her brain quieted until it was hardly a whisper. And if anyone looked at her strangely, if they noticed her movements were repetitive or reckless, she didn’t care. This was who she was and at that moment, she accepted that person with all her heart.
Lily grabbed her hand sometimes, lifting it above their heads and spinning Ellie in circles. It was harder now, with the bump, but they made it work. They danced for hours, taking occasional breaks to sip their drinks and talk to Cam. As the night drew on Ellie could feel her muscles beginning to contract again, and she found her eyes drifting to the clock against her will. She watched the minutes tick away towards midnight. But Lily knew when it was time to leave and she made sure Ellie was home to watch the glowing green numbers of her digital clock flicker to 12:00.
Ellie always slept in on Saturday mornings, waking to her alarm at 9:00 am. But when she awoke that Saturday morning she was startled to see the clock tell her that it was nearly 11:00 am. She felt disoriented, and suddenly even the familiar seemed out of place. A part of her brain told her that she shouldn’t care. That it shouldn’t matter. But it did.
“Matthew! MATTHEW!?” she screamed. There was a shuffling noise and a series of curses from the room across the hall.
“What! What happened?” he asked, bursting into the room in his boxers.
“What time is it? Why didn’t my alarm go off?”
Matthew’s brows drew closer together and he inhaled sharply, “You woke me up for this?”
“Please Matthew,” Ellie begged, tears threatening to overflow.
He sighed and squinted his red-rimmed eyes at her clock. “Apparently it’s eleven… wait, no.”
He glanced at the sunlight trickling between the blinds before cursing and walking into the other room. He came back a couple of seconds later, “It’s like one minute to nine. Your clock’s just screwed up. You must have hit a button or something when you set the alarm.”
“Nine,” she said, rocking slightly as she sat up in her bed. Nine was okay. Nine was right. “Thank you.”
“Whatever, just don’t wake me up again until noon.”
She nodded and he walked away, slamming his door behind him. Her brother was usually more patient with her, but lately things had been tense between them. Even Ellie had noticed that he seemed more and more reluctant to help when she asked. She didn’t ask often – she had worked hard to be independent ever since their parents died and her eldest brother had moved in with Lily – but lately things had been… well, not right.
For the past couple of months she had found small changes all around the house. Dishes in the wrong cupboard, food missing from the fridge, holes in her work clothes. One day she had even went to read her favourite book, Alice in Wonderland, to find that the words were wrong. No matter how long she stared at the page, she couldn’t reconcile the vision of the words in front of her with the image her brain told her to expect. She had screamed like the entire world was conspiring against her and Matthew had come running. It turned out the dust jacket for Alice in Wonderland had been swapped for Alice Through the Looking Glass. Of course, Matthew blamed her and was furious with her “overreaction.”
Most people might consider these minor inconveniences but, to Ellie, they were cracks in the foundation of her independence. And as much as Matthew might accuse her of being crazy or careless, she knew there was a purpose behind this – an intent. At first she had been suspicious of Matthew – as a child he had pulled these sorts of pranks, laughing when Ellie was thrown off balance by a small inconsistency or change – but he hadn’t done anything like that in ages. Besides, why would Matthew inconvenience himself by putting her in situations where she might need his help?
She had a sneaking suspicion she knew what was going on, though if she were to breathe a word of it to Matthew he’d be even more certain that she was losing her mind. She would have to act on this alone. And so, she started leaving small plates of food on one of the lower bookshelves before she went to bed. Every morning the plate would be clean, with hardly even a crumb left on it. Then she was certain.
That week went much better than the ones before. When she returned home each evening from the accounting firm where she worked she would find things tidier than she’d left them. While she had become accustomed to Matthew’s lazy messes she now found them mysteriously absent. The dishes were done and put away (in the right places), the floors and countertops sparkled, and sometimes she even found the laundry pile diminished. Ellie appreciated this, but mostly she was just relieved that she no longer had to live in fear of losing her hard-won control over her life.
Until her outing to the Palace the following Friday night.
“You can’t close,” Ellie told Cam matter-of-factly.
“I’m with Ellie on this,” Lily agreed, “Isn’t there something we can do?”
Cam shook his head, an exasperated shrug following soon after, “I’ve been trying, but it looks like dad has been in debt for years. Apparently he was really good at hiding it. Even if he hadn’t passed away there’s no way we could have kept going like this.”
Ellie glanced behind her to the milling crowd still dancing only a few feet away, completely oblivious that it might be the last time they could come here. “You can’t close,” she repeated.
“I don’t want to Ellie, but there’s nothing I can do. There’s not enough money to keep the place going.”
“So make more money,” was Ellie’s reply. It was sincere and, though her stubbornness was frustrating, Cam found her dedication to his father’s bar helped soothe the grief that still chafed his heart.
“It doesn’t just work like that, Ellie. The landlord has already given us notice and we need to be out by next Saturday. I wish I could have given you more time to adjust, but I really didn’t know. I’m sorry,” he reached his hand out and rested it on Ellie’s shoulder. She was somewhat surprised to find the sensation comforting, despite the disarray of her thoughts and the overwhelming stimulus that surrounded her.
“You can’t close,” it was becoming a mantra. A charm to ward off the truth.
“Why don’t we go out with a bang?” it was Lily this time, “Next Friday. We can make it a big event. Everyone can say goodbye and we can celebrate all the times we’ve had together.”
“That’s brilliant!” Cam shouted over the din, “We need a theme.”
“A grand ball. I mean, this is the Palace, right?” Lily pointed out, “And you’ve always been our Prince Charming.”
Lily shot a meaningful glance at Ellie, but she was self-absorbed. Cam and Lily continued discussing while Ellie sat, distracted.
“You can’t close,” she whispered.