On the drive home Ellie focused only on the road ahead of her. It was quiet in the car, and there were rules here – signs, lights, signals and limits – all predictable cause and effect. She wrapped herself in their security as she found her way to the house Lily and her brother shared.
Lily hesitated before getting out. “Ellie, you okay?”
“Liar,” she said. Ellie turned to look at her, confused by her smile. Of course, Lily was right – Ellie wasn’t okay. She was devastated by the news that her Friday nights would never be the same. She was still actively trying to ignore her best friend’s pregnancy, a pregnancy which was due to end in three weeks time ushering in a new, terrifying era. And she was frustrated with herself and her inability to take any of these things in stride.
After a moment of contemplative silence, Lily spoke again. “Ellie, a lot of things are changing and it’s okay to be upset. I’m upset too. I know it might be different for you but you can still tell me how you feel.”
Ellie didn’t answer, just rocked and tapped at the steering wheel repetitively. The overhead light was too bright, and the purr of the engine seemed more like a threatening roar.
“What if we do something special for next Friday? We can go shopping, pick something fancy to wear. I’ll do your make up and hair. It will be a little different, but at the end of the night we’ll dance like we’ve never danced before. Me and you.”
Ellie didn’t answer right away, focusing only on releasing the painful tension rising within her. Her head nodded over and over and finally her words returned, “Yes. Okay. Me and you. That’s good.”
Lily went into labour on Tuesday, more than two weeks early, and gave birth to a healthy baby girl on Wednesday morning. Ellie’s eldest brother, Ben, called to tell her the good news.
“But she’s not due yet,” Ellie protested.
“Babies don’t always come when they’re due,” Ben laughed. Ellie didn’t understand what was funny. What was humorous about something so unpredictable?
“But we had plans. It’s not time yet,” Ellie knew she should take a moment to think about her answers, to acknowledge the growing disorientation and fear, but she wasn’t prepared.
Ben wished his sister shared his excitement, but he also felt guilty for calling her so suddenly. He wanted to tell Ellie that she was being selfish, but he knew he was the one who had acted without taking her feelings, her needs, into consideration. “I’m sorry Ellie. Lily feels bad that she can’t make it this weekend. She really wants you to meet Louise.”
“Our daughter. But we want you to take your time. You can let us know when you’re ready. Is Matthew there?”
Ellie found Matthew in the kitchen and gave him her phone before retreating back into the bedroom, shutting the door behind her and turning off the lights. She rocked back and forth on her bed, plugging her ears. The room was pressing in on her, crushing her. Or maybe she was becoming too big for the room, her skin pressed up painfully against the walls.
At work the next day she found herself succumbing to old ticks and habits. Walking on tip toe, feeling the grain of the wallpaper as she visited a co-worker’s office. When she noticed she became insecure, remembering a time when she had been teased by people she had called her friends and classmates. A time when she felt defined by her unique, multisensory perception of the world. It made her even more tense and irritable.
That night she shut herself in her room, unable to handle more than the small, private space. She turned the lights off and she lay on the bed, stroking the silky cover of her pillow. She focused on that sensation, the way it seemed to reverberate through her fingertips and up through her arm.
A small voice broke her reverie.
“Ah sweetie, who’s that ‘a broke yer poor heart?”
Ellie wanted to shout for Matthew, but he was still at work. Her eyes searched the near darkness until she found a figure on the floor not a foot from where she lay on the bed. It could only have been a mere five inches high.
“Are you a sprite? Or a brownie?” Ellie asked it, watching for any sign that it was coming closer.
“Sprites, bah! I ain’t no brownie, neither. Hairy pushovers. I’m a Hob. YerMother’s me name,” the voice was harsh despite being so diminutive.
“YerMother,” the Hob corrected.
Ellie risked sitting up a little, trying to get a better view of the small man. He had a scraggly beard that was dark, though Ellie couldn’t have identified the exact shade in the lighting. His face was altogether too broad to be human, and his eyes too large and slanted. At times they seemed reflective, like a cat’s, lending him an almost sinister appearance that made Ellie shrink back into the covers. His ears were elf-like she supposed, which was to say they were far too long and pointed to be human, though they were thin and ragged at the ends like bat wings. There were two small, twisty horns emerging from the mess of dark curls on his head.
Altogether he looked nothing like any of the charming creatures in the book of fairy tales her mother had read to her as a child.
“Why are you here?” she asked, hoping Matthew would be home early.
“Why ta help ya, a’course! Least I could do after them tasty morsels ya been leavin’ me of late,” he rubbed his belly which was almost, but not quite, as broad as his head, “So what’s got yer so down? Is it a boy? ‘Cause I’m mighty good fer payin’ him back.”
“What? No. No,” she paused, taking the time to organize her words, her emotions, into something she thought another person (if he could be considered that) would understand, “There’s a ball, tomorrow night. It’s very special to me but… but my friend can’t come. And we were supposed to get dresses and makeup but now…”
Saying it out loud dredged up the frustration and she began heaving with sighs, fat tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Aw. That’s mighty sad, that is. Can’t ya go just the one of ya? Go buy a perdy dress and pay someone ta spruce up them curly locks?”
Ellie was shaking her head vehemently before his last words were out, “No, no, no. Go to the mall, alone? Letting strangers poke and prod and… no. I can’t.”
The hob thought for a time while Ellie continued to shake her head. “Hmm… well there’s only one thing for it then. YerMother’ll have ta fix ya up right and good. You’ll be off ta the ball tomorrow and pretty as a pixie.”
“My mother is dead,” Ellie said, “How can she help?”
“No, that that mother. YerMother. You can count on me, that you can.”
Just then she heard a lock turn and the apartment door open. Matthew. In that moment her eyes had flickered from the hob to her bedroom door and when she looked back, he was gone.
She didn’t know what to make of the small creature’s claims – they were just another strange detail in a slew of mind-boggling events. At least his appearance had given her something to think about aside from the gaping hole that awaited her tomorrow night.
Work went relatively smoothly on Friday and the absence of her typical evening routine went unnoticed until she arrived at home. When she walked in the door it occurred to her that she didn’t know what she should do next. Usually she would call Lily and start getting changed. Then they would go for dinner and to the Palace. Instead, she lingered in the doorway, frozen by the multitude of choices before her, none of them what she really wanted. What her brain told her she should expect.
Eventually she breathed, imagining her bedroom as a beacon – one destination, one step before she had to think about the next. When she opened the door, her uncertainty was shattered by what lay on the bed.
There was an elegant, silver silk dress. She crept forward, picking it up to investigate. Her hands shook a little, and she moved it gently as if she thought it might melt at her touch. Its neckline was high and ornamented with black lace that extended far down the back. The sleeves were long, ending in more lace. The back cascaded down, longer than the front and ending in what could almost be considered a train.
A glimmer drew Ellie’s eye back to the bed. On the pillow rested a dainty gold tiara with tiny crystals entwined in the shining filigree swirls. She was entranced by the way the light reflected off of their many facets, new colours bursting to life every time she moved her head. And beside it were a pair of gold pumps decorated with the same crystals that adorned the tiara. Ellie regarded the tall heels with a large amount of scepticism.
“Silver and gold! Silver and gold!” a small voice sang before breaking into hearty laughter. The hob climbed up over the far edge of the bed, his face showing deep wrinkles in the daylight. His hair and beard were a rusty brown. “Told ya I be takin’ care of ya! Got good taste I does.”
“These are for me?” she asked, indulging in the silky feeling of the dress’s fabric over her fingers.
“A’course they is. Can’t do much ’bout yer hair and makeup… but I figured ya wouldn’t need it being so perdy and all.” He winked.
“I can go to the ball?” Ellie asked, as if begging permission.
“Ya can go,” he nodded, his crooked and toothy grin ruining the solemnity of his tone.
“But…” Ellie set the dress down on the bed, “I can’t go by myself.”
“Sure ya can!”
“No. I mean, what if… it’s so loud and…” she began shaking her head wildly again. She reached for the dress once more, taking comfort in its softness against her skin.
“So bring that big dolt of a brother ya got.”
Ellie thought about that. She supposed she could at least ask. “Thank you.”
She looked back to the bed, but he had vanished once more.
Matthew agreed to go to the Palace for the evening. He was reluctant, but Ellie didn’t care. All that mattered was that he had said yes.