“We have to leave at 11:45,” Ellie told Matthew in the car. The occasional rain drop fell, splattering against the windshield.
“Because that’s when Lily and I usually leave. I’m always home to watch the clock say twelve,” she explained, not noticing how Matthew’s eyes rolled as he turned to stare out the window.
“Where’d you get that dress?” he asked, still turned away.
Ellie grinned, “It was a gift.”
This caught Matthew’s attention, and he turned back to face her. “From who?”
“It’s a secret.”
Matthew wondered if Ellie had a boyfriend. She’d dated a few guys over the years, but she hadn’t mentioned anyone recently. Maybe that guy from the bar, he thought, Carl or whatever his name was.
When they arrived at the Palace it was more crowded than usual. Every seat was taken by people in elegant dresses and suits. Some people wore gaudy plastic crowns on their heads which threatened to topple off as they laughed and danced. Once Ellie was in the door and seated at the bar with her drink, Matthew left to mingle with a small group of acquaintances.
“Ellie! I didn’t think you’d come.”
It took Ellie a couple of minutes to recognize the tall man standing in front of her. It was Cam, in a very expensive-looking navy tuxedo with a deep red rose pinned to his lapel. He wore no crown, but his bearing was royal nonetheless. “Prince Charming,” she breathed.
Cam smiled. “I guess I’ll allow it for tonight. Since my lady commands it.”
Ellie looked around for the lady he was referring to.
“I mean you, Ellie. You look… you look like a princess out of a fairy tale.”
Everything was so strange tonight, Ellie thought. Cam wasn’t acting himself but that was somehow alright with her. He reached out his hand to hers, offering to lead her onto the dance floor. Surely he’d watched her dance hundreds of times, but dancing with him, was it really okay? She decided it was. It had to be; why else would she want it so badly?
She took his hand but tripped as she stood, falling into his arms. Her muscles tightened, rejecting his body pressed so closely around her, breaking her focus and making her feel trapped. She pushed him away, and then waited for him to get upset or leave. He did neither and she looked up to find him waiting patiently a foot or so away.
She counted the petals on the rose to calm herself. He didn’t move. When she was done she kicked off her heels, abandoning them beside the bar and reached out her hand to him once more. “I hate those things.”
He laughed and took her hand in his.
They danced together for most of the night until Ellie felt the familiar clench of her stomach. She looked up at the clock – it was already 11:50.
“I have find Matthew,” she told Cam, walking away without explanation. She searched the milling crowd urgently, twining in and out of the swaying bodies. She bumped into people who shoved her away or swore, but she had to find Matthew. She finally noticed him at a table near the back wall, seated with a bunch of people Ellie had never met.
“Matthew, we have to go,” she told him.
“Calm down li’l sister,” his voice slurred and Ellie could barely make out his words, “Is still early.”
“Matthew, we’re late. We have to get home!” Her voice was raised, adrenaline burning in her veins. The other people around the table looked at her, their eyes hungry and curious. Matthew’s face turned a shade redder than it had already been.
“Go home then. Yer the one that drove. Get outta here.”
“Matthew…” she reached forward, grabbing him by the collar of his dress shirt and pulling him to his feet. He pushed her back, almost knocking her over.
“Get away from me Ellie.” He walked away, back to his table of friends. Ellie look at the clock. 11:59. She watched the second hand make its sluggish way around, past the six, then the nine, until the large hand clicked into place with the small. It was midnight.
Ellie felt dizzy, her head spun and began to hurt. She rocked back and forth, like a boat trapped in churning waters. The music blared and she couldn’t seem to find the rhythm. It was just noise now, more static clouding her head. She plugged her ears but the music was too powerful to drown out completely. It leaked in, and her ship took on water. She would drown.
Hands were on her shoulders and the sensation was too much for her to handle. She struck out, hitting wildly at whoever the person was. Some part of her brain heard a person ask, “Keys, Ellie. Where are your keys?”
The little bag, she wanted to answer, the one hanging off my shoulder. Or had she dropped it? Did it matter? She was lost, what good were keys now?
The rain was piercing cold and the sensation of water was somehow comforting to her. She breathed.
“Count the steps, Ellie.”
She counted, the pavement rough on her bare feet. “Seventeen, sixteen, fifteen…”
She focused on the numbers, on their consistency, until she reached the bottom. Then the rain stopped and she found herself sitting in the passenger seat of her car. She was drenched, her new dress probably ruined, but at least it was quiet here. The rain beat a gentle tattoo against the windows and she succumbed to it. Watching the water cascade, distorting the street lights into beautiful shapes and patterns, she tapped her wrist in time with the rainfall.
Then she was in the rain again and walking up to her apartment. When she walked inside a voice told her to close her eyes. She did. Someone touched her arm, gently leading her. When she opened her eyes she found herself in her bedroom doorway. The clock read: 11:59 pm.
She breathed, and it felt like she had been holding her breath for hours. She turned, wanting to thank her brother for changing his mind, and for the first time she realized that it hadn’t been Matthew at all. Cam stood a small distance behind her, drenched and dripping on the fake hardwood.
“Here are your keys,” he said, reaching them toward her.
Ellie didn’t know what to say, or none of the words were within reach. She simply took the keys and shut her bedroom door behind her.
Her alarm woke her the next morning at exactly 9:00 am. Her thoughts must have organized themselves in the night because she suddenly realized what had happened. Cam danced with me all night. He brought me home. He changed the clock, she realized last of all. She felt like she was glowing.
She burst into the main room, ready to make breakfast, determined to leave a veritable feast for her little hob friend after everything he had done for her. She froze when she saw Matthew already awake, looking over some papers on the kitchen table.
“A gift,” he said, and his tone made Ellie’s glow fade, “You stole it, Ellie.”
“That’s what it’s called when you use someone’s credit card without permission,” he held up the paper, a receipt of some sort with a logo Ellie recognized from a fashion boutique down the road, “Did you seriously think I’d be okay with this? Or are you stupid enough to think I wouldn’t notice?”
“Matthew I didn’t. The hob, he did. He was trying to help…” Ellie was tired now. Frustrated and tired and confused and overcome by so many feelings even she couldn’t count them.
“Get out, Ellie. I’m tired of babysitting you.”
“You have until the end of the month,” he said, standing up and pushing past her. The sound of his bedroom door slamming reverberated through her mind for hours after.
Matthew didn’t talk to her much during that final month. Lily and Ben offered her a room to stay, but she still hadn’t gathered the resolve to meet her baby niece yet. Once the move is over, she told herself, once I’m settled in. She didn’t want to admit that she wasn’t sure she’d ever be ready to meet the little bundle of noise and chaos.
She moved into a one bedroom apartment downtown. She was nervous, at first; she had never been completely on her own before. It turned out that it really wasn’t so different from living with Matthew – in fact she found it quieter, tidier. She couldn’t rely on Matthew when something went wrong, but Ben and Lily checked on her often. Besides, even on days when she struggled to connect with her surroundings, when she couldn’t gather enough focus to cook or clean… the chores seemed to get done anyway. She often left food on the kitchen table at night, in thanks, but it was always left untouched.
Friday nights were still the hardest. Lily tried to take her to new bars and clubs, but it never worked out. They played the wrong music or the noise level was just a little too high, overwhelming Ellie’s heightened senses. The dance floors felt squishy or hard against her feet or they were small and claustrophobic. None of them felt right.
She had been on her own for nearly two months when she found herself alone again one Friday evening. The hours ticked on late into the night as Ellie stared off into space. Occasionally she thought about getting up and going to bed or reading a book, but she couldn’t seem to get the signal all the way from her brain to her hands or feet.
Ellie couldn’t see the little man, but his voice broke her from her stupor.
“It’s Friday,” she told him. He didn’t answer, but she could feel him nearby, watching her. “Why won’t you eat?”
“I’m jus’ a nasty hobgoblin don’t deserve nothin’ a kindness in the world,” he sniffled a little, “Got you in a right heap a trouble I did.”
“You did,” Ellie agreed, though her anger had long passed. After all, wasn’t it also Matthew’s fault for not listening? Her fault for not asking more questions?
“S’pose you wanna send me away?” Ellie noticed a glint of shining eyes under the coffee table, near her feet. She could barely make out his shape, but she could tell his head was hung in shame. “Afore I go, I gotta tell ya somthin’ important.”
“Oh?” Ellie didn’t actually want the little hob to leave at all, but she struggled to articulate the complicated feelings she felt for the helpful – if also troublesome – creature.
“Ye forgot yer shoes.”
“My shoes?” Ellie asked, glancing towards the shoe rack by the front door.
“Ya know! Them bright ones I… err… bought ya. Ya never brought them home.”
Ellie had forgotten about the shoes in the discord the evening of the ball. If they had been familiar shoes she might have remembered, but the new ones slipped easily from her mind. “I did.”
“Well… I was thinkin’… with ye gettin’ into so much… ahem… trouble over them and all…” he shifted uncomfortably in the shadows as he cleared his throat, “Well… ye might try an’ get them back. As a keepsake, so to speak…”
Ellie pondered at this. She had let Matthew sell the dress and tiara to make back some of the money she owed him for their purchase. She thought about the shoes, remembering when she kicked them off. When she had stumbled. And Cam had caught her.
Ellie looked at the clock ticking away on the wall across from her – 11:21. She might still have time if she hurried. She looked back under the table but her friend was gone. Before she stepped outside, she spoke to the empty apartment: “I forgive you.” It was all she could manage, and she hoped it was enough.
The Palace was dark when she arrived, the parking lot empty. Aside from that and the bold “FOR LEASE” sign hanging across the doors, it looked exactly as she remembered. She counted the seventeen steps up to those doors and then stopped. What exactly had she been planning to do? The doors would probably be locked, and even if they weren’t it wasn’t like her shoes would still be inside. She reached out a hand and felt the grain of the wooden door. She traced its winding path to the cold metal handles. For once, everything was too quiet.
She turned and was surprised to find she wasn’t alone. At the bottom of the steps stood a tall figure. His clothes were humble now – torn jeans and a loose sweater – but his bearing was no less regal.
“Cam,” Ellie said.
Cam smiled, “It’s about time you called me that.”
“Why?” She grimaced at her lack of speech but he knew what she meant.
“I don’t know. Because it’s Friday,” he said, shrugging, and Ellie understood him perfectly.
She counted the steps in reverse as she descended and on seventeen she fell into his arms. On purpose this time. It was still uncomfortable and a little frightening, but she figured she could work on that.
She looked up, surprised to see that he wasn’t happy. Had she misread the situation again, like so many times before?
“Ellie, it’s almost midnight.”
“That’s okay,” she said, willing it to be true. She hesitated, “Can you change the clock again? Like you did last time?”
He smiled, “Of course.”
Ellie exhaled in relief.
Cam followed her home in his own car and he led her through the door with her eyes closed once more. This time she wasn’t surprised to find him when she opened them.
“Cam?” she asked, making a decision “Can you come with me tomorrow?”
“To meet someone.”
Cam tilted his head a little, and Ellie fell in love all over again. “Who?”
“Louise,” she answered, and for the first time in a long time, everything felt right.