Ellen was waiting by the car when Clara and Anabelle got back several hours later.
“We were on TV!” Clara declared. “Channel six.”
“They had us and all of our friends, with John in the middle, scream ‘We’re Joelle de Lafayette’ at the camera,” Anabelle said, still red from the heat of the day as Clara lapsed into giggles.
“You should have seen John! He was hilarious! Oh my god, he was flirting with every guy he saw before he would go off and declare he was saving himself for the prince!” Clara explained.
“But, then he would come back,” Anabelle interrupted.
“And say,” Clara said happily.
“But I wouldn’t mind you for dessert!” Both girls fell on top of the car with uncontrollable laughter.
“Oh my god, I don’t think I need to do any exercise today. I’ve burned off a thousand calories just by laughing at John,” Anabelle said, as she struggled to catch her breath.
“But, where did you go, Sister Ella?” Clara asked. “We lost you when we went and found John.”
“I’ve just been here waiting. Reading,” Ellen said quietly, gesturing toward the chemistry textbook she had been staring at. How could she be so stupid and self-conceited? How could she have thought that a prince would fall in love with her by talking about robot revolutions and boron. He was probably glad to be rid of her, but just a little worried about where she ran off to.
And he had to return the shoe. She’d forgotten about the shoe.
Then, his brother must have turned it into a circus. Why, for even a second, did she think he loved her?
“Oh, sorry you had to wait, Sister Ella!” Clara said. “Time just got away from us. It’s so much fun, you know. And, oh my god, you should have seen John.”
“The prince may not have found his Joelle, but I would pick John any day of the week,” Anabelle said salaciously before the sister lapsed into giggles once more.
As the girls were laughing, Ellen realized all the sadness, angst, and anger was draining away. This was her place, to help her sisters. To be the protector. She could forget the prince, because she had her sisters.
“Alright, alright, let’s get you guys home. You have an 8’ o clock class tomorrow, Anabelle,” Ellen said.“Don’t remind me,” Anabelle groaned, but she meekly entered the car.
The giggle chatted happily, recounting memories as Ellen drove, slowly realizing something. All those negative emotions may have drained away because of her sisters, but the positive ones, happiness, excitement, love, they had drained away too. They had drained away when he shook his head, when her father died, when she had found her mother’s box in the attic.
It was all gone. All of her emotions. There was nothing inside her now, just an empty shell. That was who she needed to be, though. Empty Sister Ella who could not think of herself, because there was nothing to think of.
It was dark outside when her sisters stumbled through the door, still cheerful and chattering. Ellen hung back, excusing herself to look at the moon.
Her mother gave herself up for Ellen. She died for her. Ellen didn’t know it for a long time. Her father never told, only saying Mommy was sick and became an angel soon after Ellen was born. It was when Susan decided to move out of the house into a smaller one when the bills started piling up a few years after the accident that Ellen found the box.
Medical records. It was a rather dry label, and she might have ignored except she needed to go through all the paperwork to decide what they needed to keep and what they could throw away. Susan was supposed to help, but she was sick. Even when her body healed, she was still sick. She would still lock herself in her bedroom and cry, even when Clara and Anabelle called for her. But, they had Sister Ella, to cook for them and wash their clothes, and to go through the attic.
The box was very large and was on top of a pile of boxes. She almost fell over pulling it down, but Ellen was getting stronger. She was getting used to pulling heavy loads of laundry up and down the steps and wrangling their giant vacuum cleaner.
She got it down, and she began to search. Many words she didn’t know, but she knew cancer. Breast cancer. She knew “refused treatment”, even if she really didn’t know what “chemotherapy” or “rf ablation” or “radical mastectomy” were. Through hasty notes and waiver release forms, she pieced it together. Her mother was sick, but she could’ve been treated. She could’ve been saved, but it would have killed the child inside of her, Ellen. So, Ellen’s mother died in her place.
It was part of Ellen’s emptiness. Like that left by her father. Ellen knew no one would ever be there for her. Others had been, a long time ago, but they died. Ellen must be a statue, because when she did feel emotion, it always came to a bitter end. She shouldn’t feel, and then she wouldn’t get hurt.
She wasn’t a little girl anymore. She thought she’d been empty for a long time. She didn’t know what inside decided a guy could change that, but it was wrong. She was supposed to empty. It was who she was.
She stood outside for a long time. It was only after she was sure that her sisters had gone to bed that she went inside.
“Are you alright, Sister Ella?” Clara sat at the kitchen table with a mug of tea. “I was about to bring this out to you.”
“Tea?” Ellen smiled. “What’s the occasion?”
“You’ve just seemed sorta out of it lately. I don’t know. Then, Anabelle and I ran off to leave you worrying by the car. I just wanted to apologize and see if you’re alright,” she said shrugging.
“Yes, I’m fine, Clara,” Ellen said.
“You’re always fine,” Clara said. “Even when you’re not.”
“Something was bothering me, but I’m over it now,” she said, shaking her head.
“And I’m guessing you have no intention of telling me what that something is,” Clara pouted playfully. “How come I always tell you my secrets, but I never get told any of yours?”
“Because I’m Sister Ella. I only hear the confessions,” Ellen joked.
“Anabelle used to call you the ambulance, because you would always come when we needed you to dry our tears,” Clara smiled. “I used to think you were a superhero, sent to protect us. When Mom had depression, you were the only thing holding us together. And you did it, but no one ever held you. I think it’s time.”
“Time for what?” Ellen asked.
“Time for someone to help you. Tell me a secret. You must have many after keeping quiet for so many years. Tell me one. It always made me feel better after I told you, whether it was breaking a lamp or which boy I liked,” Clara said happily.
“They aren’t secrets if I tell people,” Ellen pointed out.
“I’m not people though. I’m your sister. Sisters should share secrets,” Clara insisted. “Tell me something you never told anyone else.”
Ellen leaned in close to Clara’s ear, “I had a peanut butter and banana sandwich yesterday.”
Clara laughed and pinched Ellen. “That’s not a real secret. I want a good, honest secret.”
“What if I don’t have any good secrets?” Ellen asked.
“But you do. I want to hear a secret,” she pleaded.
“Tomorrow. I’ll try to think up one tonight, but you have school in the morning,” Ellen said.
“So do you,” Clara said. “You’re not that much of my mom.”
“I know. I’m going to bed too. Just let me wash these mugs and the rest of the dishes” Ellen said, taking Clara’s empty cup to the sink she now realized was filled.
“I’ll get a secret out of you someday, Sister Ella,” Clara said, yawning as she retreated to her bedroom. Ellen only smiled tightly. She quickly washed the rest of the dishes that her sisters had piled in the sink, dried them off, and placed them in the cupboard.
She went to bed slowly, but the dark shapes and half-formed thoughts failed to materialize into anything distinct. She dreamed of nothing.
“Ellen!” Anabelle screamed from down the hall, dropping something glass that shattered. Suddenly, Ellen was wide awake and jumping from her bed, half-dressed. Anabelle never called her Ellen.
She skidded into the living room and was met with flashes. There were cameras, all outside. She could barely comprehend it before she found herself springing into action.
“Close all the blinds, quickly!” Ellen commanded. “Be careful of the glass. I’ll see what they want.”
Anabelle nodded. Her face was drained of color and her eyes were wide, revealing the depth of blue of her irises.
“What’s going on?” Clara asked groggily, rubbing her eyes.
“Help Anabelle close the blinds, don’t step on the glass. I’ll be back in a second,” Ellen said. She couldn’t think. She just had to act to protect her sisters. She took a deep breath and stepped outside without really knowing what she was doing in her pajamas, with bedhead, in front of army of cameras.
A barrage of cameras and microphones met her. Their voices combined as one. Ellen blinked rapidly.
“Excuse me?” she said loudly. “Can you all please calm down? Please, I can’t understand any of you.”
“KHOU,” a man said, elbowing his way to the front and stuffing a microphone under her nose. “Are you Ellen Metcalf?”
“Yes,” she said carefully. Her brain felt like it was in the middle of a reboot cycle and not quite fully on. She couldn’t quite process what was happening, but there was something lurking in the corner of her psyche that knew exactly what was going on. She just needed to pin it down.
“Also known as Joelle de Lafayette?” the man asked.
There it was. Ellen blinked once as it sunk in. She knew she should have felt something, but she was empty. She could feel nothing. She just had to protect her sisters.
“No comment. I would like to ask that everyone please back up to the sidewalk. This is private property, and my sisters and I would appreciate some privacy. Thank you,” Ellen said calmly. Her heart was strangely still beneath her chest, as it observed the fury of motion without emotion.
“Will you confirm or deny the speculation that you are Joelle de Lafayette?” the man said, refusing to budge.
“I won’t answer any questions at this time in this manner. My sisters and I need to get ready and leave for our classes. Individuals requiring a comment from me would be best served by approaching me via email. I would thank you if you would please leave now. Good bye,” Ellen said, as if she were reading from a script. She turned and walked inside, locking the door behind her. She began to walk back through the kitchen to get her laptop.
“Is your cell phone going off?” Clara asked. “Mine won’t stop.”
“It’s what woke me up, and then I heard knocking,” Anabelle explained.
“Sister Ella, don’t-” Clara started.
The sharp pain in her foot alerted her to what Clara had tried to warn her against. “Well, I know where I need to clean up the glass now,” Ellen said, grabbing a nearby chair to sit down on and remove the glass from her foot.
“Here, let me help,” Clara said, avoiding the glass to kneel by Ellen.
“I’ll sweep up the glass,” Anabelle said, grabbing the broom and dustpan.
“You don’t need to. I can do it,” Ellen said shaking her head.
“Of course you can, but I want to help,” Clara said.
“Did you figure out what’s it all about? All these text messages, well, they don’t make any sense,” Anabelle said, looking incredulously at her phone.
“Can we get to that in a moment?” Ellen asked. “Could you get a pair of tweezers, Clara?”
Clara nodded and skittered off.
“But you do know, right?” Anabelle said.
“I’m pretty sure,” Ellen said, as she bent in concentration to carefully pull the glass shards from her foot.
“Here’s the tweezers,” Clara said.
“I think I just got it all out. Thanks, though, Clara,” Ellen said. She smiled as she hopped to the sink to wash off the blood. “Do we have any-”
“Hydrogen peroxide and a bandage? Yep,” Anabelle said, throwing the glass from her dustpan away to rummage through the cupboard. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” Ellen quickly cleaned her wound. She turned to find her two sisters staring at Anabelle’s laptop. “What?”
“It’s you, isn’t it?” Anabelle said. “It’s you. Why didn’t I see it before?”
“It’s seven thirty. You need to get ready before you’re late to class,” Ellen said. “We’ll leave in five minutes.”
“But it’s you. It’s you,” Anabelle said.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Clara asked.
“Listen, now is not the time for this. I made a mistake, or a mistake that led to a misperception of reality which beget more mistakes. Let’s get to class. We can talk about this after, okay? But it’s my job to get you guys safely to class,” Ellen said.
“No, it’s not. Why are you always trying to be our mother? You’re not. You’re not even our real sister,” Anabelle said.
“Anabelle, no!” Clara said, tugging on her sister’s arm. “Come on. Let’s just listen to Sister Ella.”
“Her name’s Ellen. Or Joelle. Or whatever it is you’re calling yourself these days. And she’s a liar that won’t ever show her face. It’s strange. I’ve known you for fourteen years, but I don’t know who you are,” Anabelle said.
“Of course you do! She’s Sister Ella. She helps us with our homework and feeds us chicken noodle soup when we’re sick,” Clara said. “She’s our sister. She’s nice.”
“Because of guilt. You brought all this down on us, and you won’t even admit it. They’re not just talking about you, they’re talking about all of us. They’re saying horrible things about us because of you, and you won’t say anything,” Anabelle said.
“I’m sorry,” Ellen said quickly. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean for this.”
“But it happened because of you. Everything’s because of you, and I won’t have you hurting my sister. Get out, and take all of them with you,” Anabelle said.
“Annie, no,” Clara said.
“Get out, Ellen!” Anabelle said ferociously.
The emptiness was shaking and breaking. Ellen wasn’t sure what was behind it. She couldn’t face those eyes. She couldn’t think. “I’ll get my stuff.”
She dressed quickly, stuffing her textbooks into her backpack as well as a change of clothes and her toothbrush. Anabelle told her to get out, so she would get out. That’s what Sister Ella did. She protected her sisters, even when they said she wasn’t their sister, even if it meant going away.
“Stay,” Clara said, coming to meet her in her bedroom. “Stay inside. Don’t go out there. Maybe they’ll leave if we don’t go out. Maybe I can help. Just don’t go.”
Clara. Clara reminded Ellen of her role. It pushed back all of her concerns to focus on this.
“I have to. I’ve learned ignoring things doesn’t make them go away. It only makes them worse. It’s my fault, Clara. I’ll draw them away. It’s my mistake. I’ll try to make this right again,” Ellen said. “Good bye, Clara.”
“You said you would tell me a secret today,” Clara said with tears in her eyes. “I think you have a pretty good one.”
“I have to take care of my sister. Of course I had to figure out a really good secret to tell her,” Ellen said, making Clara smile through her tears. “Don’t worry. They’re just reporters, Clara, and I’m a superhero/ambulance/nun. They can’t hurt me.” That even caused Clara to laugh.Ellen left.