Clara and Anabelle were happily blathering all morning about the upcoming audition, which Ellen tried to ignore. It was difficult though when they kept asking her opinion on different articles of clothing or hairstyles, despite the fact that Ellen’s knowledge of fashion rivaled only that of her knowledge of relationships.
By the time they were all finally walking to class, she was in a rather sulky mood. Just one more day. It had to end, after today. She just had to get through the UNICEF meeting and get her sisters through the audition. Then, she could wash her hands of it. Somehow, she couldn’t convince herself that the end would be so clean cut, leaving her yet another day of hardly absorbing any of her lectures.
Ellen dreaded the UNICEF meeting all the morning, and she had half-decided to skip it completely. However, Marie caught her between classes, forcing her to charter her protesting legs toward the the social studies building.
Marie must have caught her mood, as she said nothing the entire trip.
“Oh my god. That’s all I can say, Ellen Metcalf. Oh my fucking god,” Patricia said as soon as she walked through the door.
“Technically, your very statement that all you can say is ‘oh my god’ negates your claim,” Ellen said calmly.
“I have the draft for the article,” Marie started.
“A prince? A real live prince?” Pat gasped. “Why wouldn’t you tell us you were chummy with him?”
“The first time Ellen falls in love is with a prince. You can’t say she has bad taste,” Dakota observed.
“But why the hell have you stopped talking to him? I’d be all over that piece of meat. I mean, he’s no Channing Tatum, but he’s a frickin’ prince!” Pat exclaimed.
“A frickin’ prince too, not be be confused with a non-frickin’ prince,” Dakota taunted.
“Yes, Kodiak, a frickin’ prince to differentiate him from the Disney princes which every girl was swooning for before they knew why until they realized the whole race thing. You know, cartoon and reality, it's hard to bridge. But, Ellen, what the hell are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be off in a horse-drawn carriage to declare your everlasting love for this prince guy?” Patricia said.
“Because he’s a prince!” Ellen said, louder than she meant. It was rare to see Ellen display much emotion, and the outburst quieted the room into an uneasy silence. Ellen stared down at her hands for several long moments, breathing as steadily as she could manage. She wanted to run away and hide. She wanted to deny it was her, even though Patricia and Dakota obviously knew. She didn’t to feel like this. She didn’t want to feel.“Are you alright, Ellen?” Dakota hazarded quietly.
“Yes. I’m fine,” she said quickly.
“You’d say you were fine if you had an arm lopped off and were dangling over a pit of fire-breathing giant spiders. Spiders that fly too,” Patricia said dismissively. “But, pretending you aren’t Ellen and are capable of expressing emotion regularly, would you say you’re fine?”
“Yes. It’s just complicated. I didn’t want complicated,” Ellen said.
“Yeah, well, welcome, to the world of romance, sweetheart. Home to the world’s most complicated feelings and relationships,” Patricia said, clapping Ellen on the shoulder. Patricia gazes drifted for a moment away from Ellen, to where she had been sitting with Dakota, but she quickly returned her attention to Ellen. “Buy you’re all science-y. Don’t you like complicated?”
“Can we just talk about the article?” Ellen asked.
“The article isn’t in a complicated relationship with a prince,” Dakota pointed out.
“I don’t think she wants to talk about it, guys,” Marie said quietly, before more pointedly adding. “Remember, like I said?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember. To talk about it, Ellen would have to admit she’s capable of emotion, and we all know that’s blasphemy. Of course she doesn’t want to talk about it, but I do!” Pat said, grinning evily. “So what’s so rough between you and prince-y poo? Why’d you go off and disappear on him? Hell, let’s start from the beginning. Why did you ask him to call you ‘Joelle?’”
Patricia sat down at the table, putting her head in her hands and giving the expression of full attention. Dakota replicated the action. Both were smiling mischievously, suggesting that Ellen was exposing all the uncertainty that she was trying to repress.
She needed to divert the pair’s attention.
Ellen grabbed the article out of Marie’s hands and began to read from it.
“‘We want to help,’ is the unofficial motto that the University of Texas at Houston abides by says Historian Marie Hermann. ‘We all have different backgrounds and histories, but it’s what binds us, an insatiable desire to do something good for others.’”
“Yep, we’re all astonishing humanitarians here who exist for naught but the higher purpose of serving others in need. But-” Pat started, going to grab the paper out of Ellen’s hands. However, Ellen’s grip was firm, and Pat only succeeded in tearing it.
“God, Ellen, what’s with the grip of steel?” Pat asked. “Spending too much time holding onto your dear heart trying to squeeze all the emotion out of it?”
There was something in her throat. Something that reminded her of being a child again, before her father died, when she still needed to depend on someone. She couldn’t go back to that girl though, not when she had Clara and Anabelle protect. She should get back to them. That’s where she belonged, protecting her sisters. “I’m sorry, I have to go,” Ellen said slowly.
“Hey, wait! Where are you going?” Pat said. “We didn’t get to hear about Prince Charming! Ellen?”
“Ellen?” Marie echoed.
Ellen pretended not to hear, only walking faster. Damn it, this wasn’t who she was. Why the hell was she feeling like this? And, why was she angry? Stupid emotions popping up where they weren’t wanted. She just needed to get away and straighten her thoughts. She walked home with clenched fists.
“Hey, Sister Ella! You’re home early,” Clara said, stepping from her bedroom. She was wearing a yellow dress and had her blonde hair temporarily dyed brown in a bun at the back of her head. “What do you think? Does it just scream ‘Joelle?’”
“You look like a stalk of wheat,” Anabelle taunted while striking a pose. “I’m Joelle!”
“Psh, Sister Ella would make a better Joelle than you,” Clara teased back. “Were you going to come with us, Sister Ella? I know you would never want to dress up or anything, but you know, do you want to watch?”
“Sister Ella’s our second mom, of course she’s coming. Who else would look after us and shake her head disapprovingly?”Anabelle asked. When she turned to find Ellen very serious and staring off into space, she added, “You are coming, aren’t you, Sister Ella?”
“Yes. Of course. You know I’m always there for my favorite little sisters,” Ellen said, managing to crack a grin. She was used to smiling for them, even when she was sad. It was what she did as a kid so often. When they had nightmares about car crashes and monsters, Ellen would smile and sit beside them, telling them happy stories with a grin on her face. She never told them about her dreams where her father died again and again or where her mother accused Ellen of murdering both Ellen’s father and herself. Ellen just smiled.
With these memories, Ellen found it easier to put on a happy face. When Clara and Anabelle were about, she could remember who she was supposed to be. She was their big sister, and they needed her. She could forget about the prince, even if they were going to go meet him.
It was madness when they arrived. Thousands of people in yellows were thronging in the streets, some ridiculously older or younger than Ellen, some ridiculously the wrong size, some the wrong gender, but they were all eager for the chance to pretend to be Joelle, even when Ellen didn’t want to be Joelle. The only thing that could ever keep her there were her sisters, Ellen realized.
“Hey, look, it’s Katie and John, over there!” Clara shouted, attempting to be heard over the din of voices as cameras zoomed all around. Ellen realized she should have worn sunglasses or something. Her hair was even in a bun because she had been in lab earlier that day. She felt ridiculously exposed. What was she doing?
She bent down in the pretense of tying her shoe as a video camera swept toward her.
“Oh my god, what is John wearing?” Anabelle giggled. “I have to see this!” The two girls began to push their way through the crowd, even as Ellen was calling them back. She struggled to her feet, but was almost pushed down again by a throng.
She scanned through the crowd, attempting to find Clara or Anabelle, but everyone was in yellow. Everyone had brown hair. Everyone was trying very hard to look the same, and everyone was squirming restlessly.
Ellen could feel her panic rising, but she reminded herself that they were with their friends and that between the pair of them, she had faith that they could probably remember where they parked. Ellen could just walk back to the car and wait for them there.
Relieved that her plan was to get out of this crowd, Ellen quickly set it into action, attempting to wrestle her way back.
“All those auditioning, this way!” someone called through a bullhorn on her right, directly into her ear. “Come on.” She staggered at the blast of noise, grimacing.
A girl caught her arm and pulled her up straight. “Steady there. The line’s here,” she said, tugging her forward.
“Wait, what?” Ellen managed, rubbing her ear irritably.
“What?” the girl yelled, attempting to be heard as the man with the bullhorn continued to blare.
Ellen looked around as she was shuffled forward as the police barricaded the line on both sides, attempting to restore order. The line was filled with girls in yellow with brown hair.
No. No. She couldn’t be in the line. She had to get out. No one could figure out who she was. Ellen looked around wildly for an exit.
“You should have worn yellow!” the girl who had caught her yelled, placing her arm around her shoulder and ushering her forward.
“What?” Ellen yelled back.
“Your hair. It’s a lot like the picture, but you would look more like her in yellow. You could almost be her,” the girl said as they were pushed into a building by the force of the throng of girls behind them. The doorway was like a giant cement maw, and she was being pushed into it. And as she crossed the threshold, she knew she’d been eaten. She couldn’t escape.
Ellen looked breathlessly around as cameras flashed and blinked, barely comprehending and mostly panicking. “I shouldn’t be here,” Ellen said quietly. The ruckus had quieted a little, now separated from the crowd outside letting the girl beside her hear her.
“Hey, listen. No need to be nervous. You look a lot like her even without the yellow,” the girl said encouragingly.
“I need to get out. Do you know a way to get back outside?” Ellen asked.
“Calm down. Here, take this,” the girl said, unwinding the sash she had thrown around her waist and placing it around Ellen’s neck. “See, now you have yellow!”
“I can’t,” Ellen protested.
“No, take it. It’s my gift,” the girl insisted, taking both of Ellen’s hands, forcing Ellen to stop scanning the halls for an escape sign and instead look into the girl’s kind, dark eyes. They were like Atamai’s. They almost sparkled the same way, and suddenly, Ellen couldn’t remember why it was such a bad idea not to meet Atamai again. Maybe it was destiny. Maybe it was like one of those fairy tales that Clara and Anabelle used to read and Ellen used to laugh at.
No, it was silly. There were no fairy tales, but there were nice people who should be thanked when they try to help, however misguided the effort. There was nothing else Ellen could do now.
“Thanks,” Ellen managed to say.
“It’s my pleasure, Joelle de Lafayette,” the girl said smiling.
Did she recognize her? No, it couldn’t be. She was just being nice. All the girls were pretending to Joelle, so that was supposed to be compliment, saying that she was playing her part well.
After being processed swiftly through security, Ellen found herself pushed into a room with red carpet and a mahogany table. At the table sat the brother, reclining in a chair and chatting up one of the camera men. There was also Atamai. Even with the distance between them, she could tell he looked haggard. She could see the bags under his eyes and an unwonted thinness in his cheeks. His eyes were bloodshot and his mouth was drawn into a thin line.
Had she done that to him? Did he miss her? Was he not sleeping because he couldn’t stop thinking of her, like she couldn’t sleep but think of him? Was that why he wasn’t eating? What had she done?
She must have faltered as the kind girl behind her nudged her gently. Without Ellen remembering giving her feet the order, she was in the center of the room, and Atamai was staring down at her. His eyes weren’t sparkling anymore, but they were his. They were his eyes. His mouth was a thin line when it had been a clever smile, but it was his mouth. It was him.
Ellen felt as if her brain had frozen as she stared into those eyes, waiting for what he might say. Would he be angry at her for hiding? Would he be happy to have found her? Would he just laugh and tell her he was waiting for his cape? Would he be so relieved that he had found her that he would kiss her, on the spot, in front of all these cameras? What was wrong with her heart now? Was it beating still? Would she faint before he could do anything?
But, he was shaking his head now. A man in a uniform was grabbing her elbow and ushering her away, even as the next girl was ushered forward. Those eyes melted off of her as easily as they did a thousand other girls.
Ellen did not know why he wasn’t sleeping and eating. Ellen didn’t know why he was so tired and tense, but Ellen knew one thing. It wasn’t because he loved her like she loved him, where she couldn’t think of anything else no matter how hard she tried, where her heart flitted about like a hummingbird at the mere mention of him, where she would see his face at night in her dream and upon waking in her thoughts.
He didn’t even recognize her.
How could she be so stupid?