Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sister Ella - Chapter Two

It was quite dark as Ellen slid into the driver’s seat of her old Volkswagen Beetle, and chills immediately crept down the length of her spin. It always happened when she drove at night. Every part of her childhood was highlighted in excruciating detail, and it squeezed her chest in a vice for an excruciating moment before she could shake it off. No matter how many years had past, she always got that feeling.
It wasn’t exactly her fault, although it took several years to accept that. She had been moody and grumpy. Her father had gone and got remarried to some woman who had two little daughters with blue eyes and blond curls. He loved them, which, in seven-year-old logic, meant he loved her less, and she hated him for it. She said many an atrocious thing to him, accusing him of hating her and never loving her mother who died shortly after giving birth to Ellen.
He had shouldered it all, calmly repeating that he loved Ellen and her mother, but he also loved Susan and her little girls. He thought she would eventually understand, which was why he proceeded with the wedding, but Ellen was stubborn. She refused to listen to him or to talk to any of the three new members of the family, shutting herself up in her room with her books. She spat mean words at her new stepsisters, and she kicked anyone who tried to approach her.
Susan and her girls didn’t like Ellen either. They mistakenly called her “Ella,” and her father never corrected them because he thought it “cute.” They whispered things about her when they thought she wasn’t listening. They would have dinner and go to movies without her when she refused to eat with her stepmother and stepsisters. Ergo, it was not out of the ordinary when her father announced that they were going to a restaurant that Ellen locked her bedroom door and recalcitrantly ignored the announcement.
Her father, stepmother, and stepsisters left soon after. They were gone for many hours, and Ellen grew more furious with every passing second. Her father was abandoning her to go frolic with a new family. Why didn’t he just go put her in an orphanage if he hated her so much? She stomped around her bedroom, thinking how much easier life would be if she were an orphan.
He didn’t come home as hours slipped past her bedtime. She was far too upset to sleep, and so she sat up with her favorite stuffed Allosaurus, Alli, and waited. She moved down from her bedroom to the couch in the living room. She would stare at them when they came it expressing her loathing in a creased brow and wrinkled nose. She would tell her father exactly what she had thought earlier, that she’d be happier as an orphan. She wouldn’t listen to his response.  Instead, she would march up to her room and slam the door as loud as she could. Then she would lock her door and go read about kids without parents who went on adventures.  Ellen waited for the moment to enact her plan.
Then, the phone started to ring. She didn’t answer it. She hated answering phones, but the answering machine performed the task for her. The evil device began spewing horrible stories of car crashes and hospitals. But they were just stories, weren’t they?
Ellen crawled under the dining room table, wrapping a blanket around her head to block out the noise while holding onto Alli tightly with all her strength.
It couldn’t be true. Things like that didn’t happen. They couldn’t happen. They were probably just playing a mean joke on her. It wasn’t true, so she didn’t need to cry. She just had to stay angry. She just had to hold onto Alli, and then her father would come home soon, and he would say he loved her and that the woman and her little girls wouldn’t live with them anymore. Then, they would happy together again. That was it. It had to be it.
The phone started addressing her by name, but she didn’t answer it. She kept her place, convinced her father would be striding through the front door at any moment.
The sun was spilling over the horizon when the knock finally came at the door. Ellen didn’t hear it. Her ear-protective equipment was too powerful over the timid knock. Then she saw uniformed legs entered the house. She knew she was wrong about the joke. Something seemed to snap shut inside of her.
It took a lot of coaxing from a friendly-faced, young police officer to convince Ellen to move from underneath the table. It took more to get her into the squad car with Alli still squeezed against her chest, a blanket dragging from one fist, and a thin nightgown over her shoulders.
The aseptic wards were always painted in vivid detail in her memory. The police officer walked beside Ellen, and all the nurses seemed to be staring. The whole thing was so white, it was like standing in a blizzard that chilled her from head to toe. She felt very cold.
They let her see her father, and she knew he was going to die. He had so many tubes and wires, he didn’t seem human, but some sort of cyborg like in the movies she and him watched before the woman and her girls had come. She walked to his side. His eyes were closed. He was covered in bandages. He wasn’t the right color, the normal color, anymore, but shades of pasty white, vomit yellow, and a palette of fuchsia.
She didn’t know what part of him she could touch. Everything seemed to be attached to wires or some sort of strange colors. His eyes were closed. He looked helpless. But, more than that, he looked sad. Sad at his helplessness. As if he realized in some far off place that he was leaving his daughter behind. His three daughters and a wife.
It hit her in that moment why he could have so easily given his heart away to that woman. Because she needed him. Just as Ellen herself had needed her father growing up. The woman and her girls needed someone to take care of them. Her father did what was needed.
And so would she.
Ellen asked to see her stepsisters. They were talking sadly to each other. One had a broken leg, the other a large bandage around her head. They both froze as Ellen approached. She knew had been awful to the younger girls before, and she could understand their trepidation.
“Here you go, Anabelle,” Ellen handed the older one her blanket. “It will keep you warm even when it’s snowing.”
“Here you go, Clara,” Ellen handed the younger one Alli. “Alli is an Allosaurus and will protect you from anything. “
She realized it was the first time she had used their names, instead of referring to them as “the girls” when she was feeling nice or many more unpleasant names when she wasn’t.
For some odd reason, the police officer seemed to find Ellen’s actions sweet, and was smiling softly at her with glistening eyes. Ellen didn’t understand, but asked to go see her stepmother. She, like Ellen’s father, was connected to many wires and tubes, but Susan was conscious. Her eyes stared deep into the white ceiling above her.
Ellen approached, standing solemnly at the bedside, as straight as a soldier. “Clara and Anabelle are talking. They are fine. I made Alli protect them. I’m sorry for being mean to you before,” she said swiftly. The woman reached out her hand and grasped Ellen’s. Ellen remembered staring at it, not quite understanding the purpose of the motion.
“Thank you,” Susan croaked. Ellen just nodded. She left the hospital.
Ellen fell easily into the role of caregiver, as she was the only one left physically unhurt. She made their meals, and she learned how to use the dishwasher and washing machine from the helpful neighbors that assisted her at first. Ellen never let anyone see her sad, but tried to remain as her father did: solid as a rock and always giving.
At first, it had been hard. Ellen cried at night a few times. She would muffle her tears in a pillow so no one would hear her. Ellen always got the feeling that maybe, if she had decided to go, they would’ve left at a different time and not get hit by the drowsy truck driver. She told herself a million times that it made no difference now. Her father would never come back. Even when she felt lost and cold, she had to keep going. She had to, even through tears.
But then, it got easier. She knew it’s what her father would’ve wanted, and she found enormous strength through that. She cared for her younger sisters exactingly. She comforted Susan when the woman lapsed into tears at the scars on her body or the loss of her second husband. She became the comforter, but it seemed that did not improve her family’s memory of her name. She was still Ella. But now, they had jokingly referred to her as Sister Ella, because her solemn dedication to care was resembling that of a nun, they said. She did not feel like a nun, she just felt empty, but she did not reject it.
It had been many years since then. She had graduated high school, and gone to college on a scholarship. She had tutored her sisters to no end until they too managed scholarships two and three years after her. They were now attending school with her, Anabelle studying nursing and Clara, teaching.
Ellen freed herself from her car, attempting to lose the memories with it. It was strange, but even with such vivid recollections, she felt as if her father was fading into the shadows of her memory. He was almost becoming a myth or legend or the personification of enlightenment ideals more than an actual person. She couldn’t remember his laugh.
She shook her head, trying to clear up her brain and its darn preponderance for personal history and introspection. She could maybe get a few hours of sleep before the Clara and Anabelle woke up.
“Hey Sister Ella!” Clara declared jovially. She was dressed  head-to-toe in pink yoga clothes. “Early class on Sunday. Wanna come?” She had a round face and utterly sunshine-like personality that made her seem several years younger than her eighteen years.
Still, the happiness was almost grating after a night of cleaning. Ellen rubbed her eyes and stifled a yawn. “Do you want me to come? I thought Anabelle always went with you.”
“Anabelle says she doesn’t feel well,” Clara explained.
“Then, I’d best go look after her,” Ellen said, tracing the line to the bedroom across the hall where she knew Anabelle would be sleeping.
“But, I don’t want to go alone!” Clara pouted.
“Okay, fine, but give me five minutes to check on Anabelle and get some caffeine in me,” Ellen said, attempting to rouse herself into action. She met a drowsy Anabelle with a cup of tea, a heated blanket, and a quick foot rub. She then pulled on some sweatpants and a t-shirt and made a fool of herself in the stifling hot yoga class while her younger sister easily accomplished each pose.
The constant failure did not upset her, and she she even managed to continue the energy to keep trying as her thoughts were diverted elsewhere. She thought of the guy.
She wasn’t positive of his name. She had given him a false name, so he could just as easily given her one. His name could be something more generic, like Aidan or Alex or Alan or something completely different. Still, he seemed like a smart, nice guy, even if he did support economic separation of education.
Ellen started composing emails to him, thinking of the political topics she could write about or anecdotes she could share. She felt she still fell in the range of mildly socially awkward, but she was working on it. And he was the one who instigated the conversation, so she couldn’t be that repulsive.

Ellen was exhausted and sweaty when she came home. Still, she sat herself down to compose the email as Clara used the house’s only shower.

Hey Prince Atamai,

Just thought I’d send you a preliminary email so you know mine for when the shoe doctor finishes his rounds.
I really enjoyed our conversation, and I’d like to continue our discussion on educational reform sometime and perhaps the resulting robot revolution.

All the best,

P.S. Robot for President in 2108! :)

Ellen smiled as she pressed send, but her busy brain instantly sought the thousand different misinterpretations Atamai could have of her email. What if he didn’t know she was joking? Had she been too casual? Had she been too formal? Had she been too forward?
Luckily, she was saved for such second-guessing by Clara freeing up the shower. The rest of the day dissolved into repetitive homework (her own and her sisters’) and slogging up to the computational chemistry lab she was in to work on her program. These activities required just enough brain power to silence any nagging thoughts, but not so much she wasn’t able to complete the tasks with her foggy, sleep-deprived brain.
By the time she dropped into bed, almost falling asleep before she hit the pillow, she had forgotten about the email.

Her alarm clock was ringing. Ellen gave an enormous groan and summoned herself from bed. She put some coffee in the coffee machine, and lit up the small kitchen with the light of her laptop. She always had eleven new e-mails each morning, from various spam, word-of-the-days, quote-of-the-days, newsletters, and the like that always appeared every morning. She had twelve today. She scrolled through, and found one by Atamai. A funny feeling started in her toes and squirmed its way to her ears. She didn’t know what it was, but it made her nervous enough so that she opened and read every other email beside that one first.
Then, she clicked the email, but chickened out. Ellen quickly opened another browser to check the news instead before she could read a word of what was written. She scanned a couple of articles before she convinced herself she was being silly.  Then, and only, then, did she click back to Atamai’s email with a deep breath.

Hello Joelle,

I am afraid I forgot that the shoe doctor was on sabbatical for a while in New Zealand. He’ll be back soon for this urgent surgery.
I’d love to discuss educational reform more, that is unless you think I’m heartless for the truck driver comment. If so, perhaps we can talk about my recent million dollar contribution to the Global Education Fund. :)
The party was very enjoyable. I heard the auction raised one hundred fifty thousand dollars for UNICEF.
What do you think about the new European stimulus package? I cannot say that I agree with all ideas of Keynesian economics so I find the idea of spending a trillion dollars on building new roads when you are several trillion dollars in debt absurd.



P.S. Cyborg for President in 2096!

She was smiling, ear-to-ear smiling at 5:30 am. Now that was a rarity. She didn’t quite know why she was so happy. But she was. Still smiling, she formulated a response.

Greetings Atamai,

How goes it? The whole cobbler thing is completely fine. I can hardly complain if I am getting something for nothing, right?
As for the economic stimulus, I think there is something to Keynesian Economics (I mean, if you’re poor, so you save money and do nothing else, you’re still going to be poor. I think there might be a parable in the Christian Bible to that effect). However, I believe this only applies as long as the money is spent in the right places, namely education and research. I must admit, I am probably pretty darn biased as an active participant in both, but I believe that the success of a nation hinges on those two things.
Sure, make-work projects are nice and all, but you don’t really get much out of it. You’re just pumping your country full of hot air when you pay people money you don’t have. It’s not going to fix the holes, but it might work temporarily. I think if you want to do make-work projects, you should at least do it in something that the people need, like food. That way, foods costs less and the poor can eat. Win, win.
Yeah, so I am probably oversimplifying economics incredibly, but with all of my twenty one years of knowledge, this is the solution I come to.
What do you think about nuclear power? I think it shouldn’t be an option until we think of a better way of getting rid of the radioactive waste than burying it. Moreover, the consequences of things going wrong with a nuclear power plant are just too large for it to be considered seriously. As callous as it may sound, a tanker sinks, you kill some cute little seals. If a nuclear power plants goes Chernobyl on you, then you have miles of now uninhabitable land and fallout for millions of people. Nuclear power also takes up more water per a kilowatt hour than any energy source besides biofuel.  That’s why I think we should do more research on solar, wind, and tidal energy.


Joelle de Lafayette the Education-Promoting, Nuclear-Destroying Computational Chemist

P.S. I think I am going to get a cape with the above title on it to wear around lab and to formal occasions. I’ll get for one for you that will say Prince Atamai the Keynesian-Denying, Global-Education-Fund-Donating, Royal Liaison to the Shoe Doctor. :)

Her coffee was now cold, but she downed it in one gulp, oddly energized even without it. However, life soon had a way of taking away that energy as she was put through the wringer of several lectures, an unending chemistry lab, and her own research. When Ellen finally returned home, she could barely keep her eyes open, but she checked her e-mail quickly anyway.

Hello Joelle,

That is perhaps the most incredible cape of which I have heard. I may just have to get one made. Somehow, though, I do not believe my parents would be terribly pleased if I modeled it during galas and balls. It is a rather terrible shame.
I think the problem with attempting to employ the poor to farm is the amount of arable land and the location of the work. The urban poor are the ones desperately in need of jobs. Beyond that, there is little return from farming besides the immediate gain of food.
As for nuclear power, it has one of the greatest potential for cleanly supplying energy to an entire multi-billion member population. Solar is still terribly inefficient, which would mean an awful lot of land covered by panels. With wind, you alter avian migration patterns. Plus, they can be aesthetically detrimental. Recently, homeowners vetoed the proposed wind farm on Martha’s Vineyard for exactly that reason. With both solar and wind, you also must have a means of storing the energy, and our current batteries are not prepared to match the need we would have. With hydroelectric power, habitat destruction is intrinsic. It is the same with tidal power, which also has the detriment of the previously mentioned storage problem.
Hence why I am a Uranium fan!
As a chemist, do you have a favorite element?

From your incredibly contrary but always well-meaning friend,


Ellen felt awake again. It was funny, how each argument he put forth made her feel more invigorated. She was a little abashed at how easily he poked holes in her arguments, but she was not beat. She quickly googled different topics to make sure her points were valid as she typed up her rebuttal, and she smiled while doing it.

Salutations to my incredibly contrary but always well-meaning friend,

So, let’s start with the urban poor thing. One option would be to provide transportation from urban areas to farming areas along with housing and educational opportunities. Of course, whenever you try to round up people in cattle cars for the “betterment of society,” they best be doing it under their own free will. (I’m not Hitler, I swear!) I think most people, if they were jobless, would jump on the opportunity to have work, food, and a house.
You also point out the finite quantity of arable land available. That is also a big problem, not just in an economic downturn, but for future development of humanity. However, I think society will begin to instigate urban farms to help with this problem. Then, we wouldn’t even need to move people. This development would also mean long-term gains as it is really only through actually working with urban farms that their structures and cultivation methods can be optimized.
As to your concerns about alternative energy: enter scientists. Many scientists are currently working on all those problems. Then, we can have utterly clean energy without being the acne on the face of the world. Obviously we couldn’t switch to renewable energy overnight, but I definitely think we should put our research focus in that area instead of playing with uranium.
As to my favorite element, I think I would have to say boron. It has a rebel side, saying ‘eff you’ to the octet rule they all taught us in freshman chemistry, and it’s an awesome lewis acid without hydrogen. Hydroboration-oxidation can be one’s saving grace in the middle of a nasty organic chemistry final. Boron also forms these awesomely geometric carborane compounds that can be nido (looks kinda like a nest), arachno (looks kinda like a spider), or closo (looks kinda like a cage for a very tiny prisoner. If I were an evil, super genius, I think I would shrink down the hero and put him in said cage while laughing maniacally). I always picture boron as the laid back type of guy in the periodic table that’s very humble and under-appreciated, but has an aforementioned wild side and does amazing things.
That was probably more than you ever wanted to know about boron, but you asked a chemist what her favorite element was so you must deal with the consequences.
I’m trying to think up some controversial subject we can debate. Gay marriage? Abortion? Gun rights? Grossly overpaid musicians and athletes? Take your pick. As you might guess, I’ve got definite opinions on all of them.

Without wax,


Satisfied with her email, Ellen collapsed into bed and fell promptly asleep.

Ellen woke up late the next day. This meant she was all but running to her first class, barely dressed and backpack half shut. She jumped from class to class without a moment’s rest until noon when the UNICEF council met.
“Hey guys,” Ellen said breathlessly as she walked in, dumped her backpack unceremoniously on the table, and collapsed into a chair.
“So, how goes wee Ellen’s budding relationship?” Pat asked immediately, turning around in her chair with fingers templed and an eyebrow raised.
“We’ve just emailed,” Ellen said, shrugging in an attempt at nonchalance.
Pat and Dakota looked at eachother, then burst out laughing.
“What?” Ellen asked, ears growing hot as she examined both faces.
“It’s so cute to see Ellen all in love,” Pat taunted.
“I never said I was in love,” Ellen said, her blush deepening. “I just said we’ve emailed.”
“If we lived like five hundred years ago, you’d be at each other’s balconies. Ellen, oh Ellen. Wherefore art thou Ellen? Deny thy major and refuse thy brain. Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and we shall intellectualize our emotions,” Pat declared dramatically. Dakota applauded.
“Let’s work on UNICEF stuff for a while, okay? I’ve gone through the data, and we raised $142,650 thanks to Marie’s and her parents’ wonderful connections,” Ellen said, pulling out her folder.
“Holy hell, that’s a lot of money. That could, like, pay for cousin’s med school,” Pat exclaimed.
“Or a house or a really, really, nice car,” Dakota said, leaning back in his chair to imagine such a vehicle.
“Or a lot of vaccinations and wells,” Ellen said, grateful to be out of the spotlight.
“I was contacted earlier today by a UNICEF representative. They wanted to do a short story on us for their newsletter. Is that okay with everyone? I was going to give them a few pictures from the auction and that trip to Ecuador we did last summer,” Marie said.
“Show ‘em the one where I introduce the kids to real football,” Dakota said eagerly.
“Puh-lease, that’s so not real football. I mean, the ‘ball’ isn’t round, and most of the time you don’t kick it. They should call it hand-egg,” Pat said. “American football is just a sport for fat kids in a country of fat kids.”
“Hey, you’re a kid in that country of fat kids,” Dakota countered.
“But, I am no longer a kid,” Pat said.
“Come on, don’t kid yourself. Being twenty-one doesn’t make you a real adult,” Dakota said.
“First, kudos on the pun. Second, if twenty-one isn’t the age of adults, what is?” Pat continued.
“So, pictures of American football in Ecuador. Does anyone else have any other requests?” Marie asked.
“I nominate a picture of Ellen in a dress. I mean, a gem of that value should be published in a scientific paper,” Pat said.
“Remember, Ellen wouldn’t let us get a photograph though,” Marie said. Ellen was very much relieved of that fact.
“What about the mysterious cutie she was chatting up?” Pat asked, turning to Ellen. “Did he snap a picture of you to show to all his friends back home?”
Ellen shook her head.
“What is his name anyway? You’ve emailed him, so assumably you’re calling him besides ‘the love interest of Ellen Metcalf,’” Dakota asked. “Is he anyone politically connected?”
“Honestly, I have no idea. We were just joking and pretending to be all aristocratic. I think the last one I addressed to ‘my incredibly contrary but always well-meaning friend,’” Ellen shrugged.
“The last one, eh? As in, you’ve already exchanged an extensive series of emails? And you say you’re not in love. You know what I would love? To see Ellen try to seduce this guy,” Pat said.
“I can just see it. ‘Are you made of copper and tellurium, because you are CuTe,’” Dakota said, pushing up an invisible pair of glasses on his nose.
“‘You must be a good benzene ring because you’re pleasantly aromatic,’” Pat said salaciously to Dakota, swirling an invisible erlenmeyer.
“‘Oh baby, quench me and work me up!’” Dakota exclaimed, whipping of his invisible glasses.
“Alright, alright you guys,” Ellen said forcefully, glowing bright red. “That’s enough.”
Pat and Dakota dissolved into chuckles.
“Marie, I got the card of the photographer who was there, if you want to contact her about photographs of the event,” Ellen said, trying to regain her coolness but a brilliant pink still tickling her cheeks as she combed through her backpack.
“Thanks, Ellen,” Marie said as Ellen handed over the card. “Is there any information that anyone wants me to tell the writer for the newsletter?”
“Dakota ‘the Kodiak’ Bear is a purveyor of football knowledge to the underprivileged,” Dakota announced.
American football, not real football,” Pat interrupted, rolling her eyes.
“Any serious suggestions?” Ellen asked.
“You know Dakota and I are incapable of being serious,” Patricia said, crossing her arms. “That’s biased.”
Ellen smiled and shook her head. “I think you’re good Marie.”
“Good. They want to do the interview tomorrow. Next week I’ll show you the draft and everyone can approve it,” Marie said.
“Awesomeness. Anywho, if we’re all wrapped up here, I have a hot date with some dead guy’s poetry, so I’ll just skip right off to it,” Pat said, clapping her hands together.
“Is that John Donne thing due tomorrow?” Dakota asked.
“Why else would I be doing it?” Pat countered.
Dakota groaned, sliding down in his seat. “Dammit, so much for trying to work out today.”
“Come on, the pale and tubby look is all the rage these days. Come to the library and we can discuss how horny the old bastard was when he wrote ‘The Flea,’” Pat said as she retrieved her backpack. “You can call on Zeus to smite to John Donne later.”
Dakota left with Pat, and Ellen scampered off to play with her program some more.

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