Reporters were still milling about as Ellen stepped out, doing her best not to limp on a foot that still stung. They were charging again. She had to remember who she was. She had to protect Clara and Anabelle, even if she had already hurt them. She was their sister. She would protect them. She was Sister Ella.
“Miss Metcalf, will you offer a statement?” someone asked, placing a microphone beneath her.
“I will offer a statement if I have your word that any piece you are intending to produce will only include myself and will not go as far as to attack my sisters. As the internet has accelerated the speed of rumors, I would also like to ask that anyone who has posted hearsay and accusations about my family would kindly remove them at once,” Ellen announced. “I would also like to request that the members of the press please leave the area surrounding this property in order to conserve the privacy of my family. All those wishing to hear my statement, I ask that you kindly follow me some distance from this residential area as to preserve the quiet during the early hours of the morning. I will answer questions after my statement.”
She turned and began to walk. They followed. They did not ask questions. It was almost quiet, besides the trucks, the clack of heels on a sidewalk broken by roots, and the whispers. The whispers were not so quiet, but she couldn’t hear them. Sister Ella did not listen to whispers. Sister Ella stood up for her sisters and protected them, and listening to whisperings would not do that.
She stopped when she reached a nearby park. She turned and faced the crowd. “Hello. My name is Ellen Metcalf. Over a week ago, I met Atamai Iona, Crown Prince of Nuan at the UNICEF Gala sponsored by the UT-Houston chapter of UNICEF. I was volunteering as a server, however, during a lull in the festivities, I borrowed a dress after being granted permission by a person other than the owner of the gown. At the party, Prince Iona was kind enough to deign talk to me, and I returned his kindness by offering him a false name as my ignorance turned curtesy into play. I acknowledge that this was a mistake. I regret the misinformation I have given Prince Iona, and I will take this time to make a public apology. I am deeply sorrowful for the harm that this might have caused. I know that no words will rectify my mistake.”
Ellen breathed and looked up at a crowd of blinking red eyes. It was strange, when so much emotion had preceded this moment, that she shouldn’t feel anything now, but she didn’t.
“I will take relevant questions at this moment. I would like to add that this is not a personal interview, and if at all possible, I would like to retain privacy, especially for that of my family. Thank you so much for your cooperation.”
Immediately hands shot into the air and voices clamoured for triumph over the others. Ellen pointed to a woman near the front.
“Why did you disappear?” the woman asked.
“I did not understand who Prince Iona was when I first met him. The revelation astounded me, and I began to understand the effect of my ignorance. I did my best to reveal to Prince Iona the truth, but an attempt to retain my dignity by obscuring my identity left my correspondence vague and unintelligible. In my will to distance myself from my mistake, I did not return any subsequent emails, thus exasperating the consequences. As I have previously stated, I have made mistakes. I am sorry,” Ellen said.
“Do you love him?” a man shouted out.
Ellen paused. It was there, suddenly. She was supposed to be empty, but it was still there. Even if he didn’t love her. Even if he didn’t recognize her. It was still hidden in her chest and clawing up her throat, pounding in her heart. After everything, it was there, even when it was completely illogical that it should be.
She swallowed, trying to press it down and be hollow once more. “I’ll ask that you excuse me. I am still a student and have classes to attend. I also ask that you please refrain from disturbing the learning environment by conducting investigations on campus. If at possible, I would like this misunderstanding to be resolved with minimal obstruction of daily activities to any party. I will answer more questions later so that you needn’t rely on rumors. However, now I must be going. Thank you for your time.”
Do you love him? It seemed to echo in her head as she walked to class. Do you love him? It was as if he knew that she did, as if he wanted to make her say it and admit her weakness to everyone. It was stupid to love someone who didn’t love you. It was stupid to love someone you hardly met. Do you love him? She was stupid.
At the university, someone was checking IDs and trying to keep back the press. They all turned as they noticed her. It almost felt as if they were looking at someone else, just over her shoulder. Then, they were shouting questions. Do you love him? He could talk about robot revolutions and poverty problems in the same breath. He made her feel again. She wasn’t empty when he was there. Was that love?
“I am Ellen Metcalf. I have already issued a statement, and I will not answer any questions at this time as I am still a student and have class to attend. I would kindly ask that you vacate the premises, as I think the press would be a distraction to the learning environment and I will answer no questions here. However, at a yet undetermined time, I will answer questions once more. I would thank you to respect the privacy of my family and my friends, and the calm required for a university,” Ellen said.
Do you love him? She really was an adolescent when it came to emotions. She couldn’t control them. They had tore through her life like tissue paper, and she couldn’t even identify them.
It was funny, even as she left the professional press behind, she met the amateur press. Video phones and camera phones were trained on her as she walked. No one approached her though, but hung away, goggling. Do you love him? It was like a train wreck which everyone had to slow down and get a good look at. They whispered too.
Years later, she was never really sure how she got through all her lectures without collapsing underneath the pressure of stares, but she did. She could not remember a word from any of the lecturer’s mouths, but she simply heard, again and again, Do you love him?
Somehow, she found herself in her lab.
“Are you alright, Ellen?” her PI, Dr. Moldova asked, with a furrowed brow and a large knuckle tangling in his keys, indicating his extreme discomfort with the conversation.
Do you love him?
“Yes. I’m fine. I hoping this will all blow-over shortly and I apologize for any negative effect this may have on your life. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll just work on my program. If anyone asks for a statement about me from you, you are under no obligation to acquiesce. If you could though, if anyone wishes to speak to me, tell them I’m not currently answering any questions and I’ve previously issued a statement detailing everything I wish to say on the matter at this point. Thanks so much, Dr. Moldova,” Ellen said.
He nodded and seemed relieved to retreat back to his office.
Dr. Moldova’s lab was small and only had one grad student, who was off at a conference, and another undergrad who would occasionally come around only to spontaneously disappear for wide swaths of time. No one else was in the lab, but there were a pile of newspapers on Ellen’s desk.
Her own face loomed up at her.
The Royal Seductress Offers Statement
Girl Pleads Ignorance in Media Cascade
Golden Gown “Borrowed” by Volunteer Server
Lost Love is Frumpy College Student
Sources say Metcalf “Antisocial” and “Manipulative”
She sat down, folding out all the newspapers on her desk. She carefully scanned through the lines. They only talked about her. They didn’t talk about her sisters. Only one mentioned Marie, but only because her little sister Sophia had stepped up to claim ownership of the dress. Someone who was in her organic chemistry class a couple years ago recognized her at the audition and realized she would have been at the gala as a volunteer. He had told everyone, along with a description of her person as “very quiet” and “academically arrogant.” The news spread like wildfire.
They had said things about her, her personality, her appearance, her deceased father and mother, but any mention of her sisters was brief, detailing only names. She’d protected them. She couldn’t think about the rest. She couldn’t. It wouldn’t do any good now.
Do you love him.
She stood up and locked the lab door. She needed to work and not think. She had to get empty again.
She worked for hours, but it didn’t stop her from thinking. Again and again, it echoed. Do you love him? Do you love him? Do you love him?
There was a knock on the lab door. Ellen put down her mouse to find Marie waving through the small window reaching out to the hallway. Ellen unlocked the door.
“I thought you might be hungry,” Marie said, quietly. “I brought pizza.”
“You’re not supposed to bring food into the lab,” Ellen said tonelessly. Do you love him?
“Oh. Should I go?” she asked.
“No. It’s fine. It’s mostly for the other more practical chemistry labs anway. Just put it on the desk. I’ll just, you know, not dump a vat of hydrochloric acid on it,” Ellen said.
Marie smiled. “I’m sure it will be a big challenge for you.” She turned to find the desk covered in the newspapers.
“Ellen-” she started.
“Someone put those on my desk,” Ellen said, as way of explanation. “I don’t believe anyone has called me a seductress before. Pat would laugh.”
“She would. I told them to keep quiet though. People are asking about you a lot, but I wanted to talk to you,” Marie said. “You’ve been handling it quite well, actually. I heard your statement.”
“Don’t sound so surprised,” Ellen said.
“I mean, it’s one of your talents, to hide all your emotions, but I know its been rough on you, even if you won’t say. Well, I know it would be rough on me. Did I ever tell you a few years ago my dad was indicted over this big financial crisis?” Marie said.
Ellen shook her head.
“It was all over the news. I was still in high school, but if I ever stepped outside, there would be reporters trying to get a statement out of me. I could never spit anything out, even if I wanted to. They all frightened me. But I found quotes from people I thought were friends in the newspaper. My dad thought he might go to jail. It was like there was no one I could turn to. And, do you know what happened?” Marie asked.
“It all went away. Slowly, day by day, people lost interest. My father won his case and the reporters left us alone. And now, almost no one remembers. People have an incredibly short attention span,” Marie said.
Ellen said nothing. The truth was, the reporters didn’t frighten her so much, not after she figured out that they had respected her wish to not involve her sisters. There was something more that shouldn’t be here that she would eventually have to face. Do you love him?
“He wants to talk to you,” Marie said.
“Who?” Ellen asked.
“Prince Iona,” Marie said.
“I, I wouldn’t know what to say,” Ellen said. Her voice cracked. She wasn’t empty.
“He’s a very nice guy. I met him at the party too. He congratulated me on my ‘exceptional planning capabilities,’ and he donated quite a bit,” Marie said.
“He’s very nice,” Ellen agreed. Her throat was so tight, she didn’t think she could breath. Some part of her wished to scream out all her emotions and tell Marie how he hadn’t even recognized her. She wanted to blurt out everything. She didn’t want to be empty anymore.
A long moment passed.
“My parents are probably getting worried now. You can stay at my house, if you want, so they don’t follow you home,” Marie said.
“It’s fine, Marie. I need to do more research,” Ellen said, struggling to retain calm. She had to be empty. It was the only way to survive. If she were empty, it wouldn’t hurt. Marie stared at her for a few seconds, concern creased in her brow. She seemed on the edge of saying something or placing her hand on Ellen’s shoulder. Instead, Marie sighed and smiled sadly.
“Don’t stay up too late. See you tomorrow, Ellen,” Marie said.
“See you,” Ellen said.
Ellen locked the door again after Marie left. She returned to the desk with the newspapers and the pizza. She stood stared at it. Do you love him?
She threw it all away and walked to her computer terminal. If anything had the ability to kill extraneous thought, it was this minutiae of hashing out a model.
Do you love him?
Several hours later, her watch beeped to inform her it was morning again. Ellen couldn’t decide if it felt as if the night had lasted a thousand years or a single moment or if it mattered.
She splashed cold water on her face and changed into her spare clothes in the bathroom down the hall from the lab.
Hollow, bloodshot eyes stared back at her in the mirror, underlined in dark blue bags. She looked pale. She turned away from the mirror forcefully.
If she answered questions again today, she was sure they would ask it again. Do you love him? It was a popular interest piece, so of course they would want the romantic angle. She would have to answer, but what would she say? What could she say? Why did they have to ask it? Why did she have to feel anything when she knew she shouldn’t?
Do you love him?
She went to class, and her heart stopped. Atamai sulked in the back corner of the large lecture hall, dressed in baggy jeans and a t-shirt. His polished hair and been composed into a rough patch of unrestrained tangles underneath a ball cap. He wore sunglasses and clutched a backpack, but there was no mistaking him. No else noticed the one extra student in their class, having eyes only to stare at Ellen.
Ellen found she couldn’t move. Or breathe.
Then, he looked up at her. She caught the flash of his dark eyes beneath the edge of his sunglasses. She gestured out the door with her chin slightly, then turned and left. She waited.
“Hello,” she said quietly as he came through the door.
“Hello,” he returned.
A hundred people filed through the lecture hall door as they continued to stare at each other. There were so many things to say, but suddenly her mind had gone blank.
“We can go up to my lab. To talk. It’s in this building,” she said haltingly. “Follow me.”
He nodded, and she led him up the stairs.
“It’s nice,” he said, as she opened the door for him. She locked it behind him and leaned back on her desk. He leaned back a few feet away from her on the grad student’s desk. She couldn’t really breathe still.
“It’s a nice lab to work in. Dr. Moldova and I are working on a paper that I might just get first author on,” Ellen said.
“Congratulations,” he said.
“Well, you might want to save that until we get published, but I’ll thank you in advance. Did you know on Dr. Moldova’s first paper, he ended up putting down the wrong name?”
“What?” Atamai asked.
“His family name isn’t Moldova. It’s where he’s from. His geography wasn’t exactly up to par, so in the paper he was using as a reference to write his own, he saw Petrova, D. He thought Petrova was a country, so he wrote Moldova, S. for Snegur from Moldova. He was too embarrassed to admit his mistake, so he just changed his name instead. For thirty eight years he’s been Moldova, because of one mistake,” Ellen said. “I’m just glad he wasn’t from Puerto Rico, as I think that would be a little harder to pull off as a last name. Dr. Moldova almost works, but I think Dr. Puerto Rico may raise some eyebrows. Dr. America would just sound like a super villain.
“It’s strange, isn’t it? When I hear ‘Doctor’ in the context of comic books, I almost always think villain while ‘Captain’ or ‘General’ generally means protagonist. In real life, however, doctors save people and captains kill people,” Ellen said.
“Well, captains kill people to save people,” Atamai argued. “And if you look at it from a mouse’s point of view, I think many current scientists would qualify as super villains.”
“Animal testing, eh? That eternal struggle of how much harm we had bestow for a greater good,” Ellen smiled.
“That sounds a lot like a military captain. Doctors and captains are very much the same,” Atamai said.
“And yet we discriminate the ones with higher degrees in comic books. Well, I guess some of the alter egos have degrees, but never the actual heroes while villain names often integrate their degrees into the title,” Ellen said. “Perhaps it works under the assumption that only villains would require the advertisement of their degrees to conflate their self-importance.”
“And ‘Captain’ isn’t a form of advertisement?” Atamai asked.
“Touche,” Ellen admitted.
Atamai smiled. “I like this. You’re the only person I’ve met where anything turns into an intellectual conversation that still manages to border on the absurd. It’s unique. Even after everything. I’m sorry to have caused this trouble.”
“I was the one who just wouldn’t come out and tell you who I am. It’s my fault. I’m sorry,” Ellen said. “I don’t know. I think I kinda panicked, because, you know, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’re kinda a prince. I was being rather presumptuous throughout the whole affair. My thoughts were jumbled. I can’t even remember what I wrote.”
“‘Prince Iona, I haven’t been honest with you. I’m not who you think I am. Joelle isn’t even my name. I’m sorry for leading you astray, but I never meant it. I’m sorry. Please don’t respond to this email or try to contact me,’” Atamai repeated.
“You memorized what I wrote?” Ellen asked.
“Yes. I read it many, many times,” he said quietly. “You really, well, confused me.”
“I guess that makes sense as I was confused myself,” she said. “Almost terrified, and very, very confused.”
There was a long silence. Ellen was still confused. Her brain was locked and refusing to think. It was feeling, swimming in a pool of emotion where she couldn’t find the edge. She thought she might drown.
Do you love him?
“I am returning home soon. My father has decided to cut our tour of America short. I leave tomorrow,” he said slowly.
“Oh.” It was all she could manage. Her heart was tired, but it still felt the pang and wrench of profound sadness, even when she logically knew it would be for the best.
“Well, I guess this is goodbye,” he said heavily. He stood up and offered her his hand. “And let me reiterate my apologies for this media spectacle. My brother spoke unwisely.”
She took his hand quietly, almost numb, but that brush of flesh seared fire in her chest. She didn’t want to let him go. She wanted to say something. She knew it was silly, but she had to say something. Something. To let him know what she had felt. Perhaps it would only further burden him. Perhaps he would laugh at her or smile pityingly. Perhaps he would be disgusted. But, he hadn’t recognized her. No, she should keep her peace. She shouldn’t say a word. She couldn’t place the burden of her feelings on him.
His hand slipped from hers, and it was as if the world sloughed away. The emptiness enveloped her completely, as it always did before. He was turning toward the door.
“Wait,” she squeaked, far higher than her normal vocal range. She did not know when she had decided to make the noise, but suddenly it was there, zooming as a compaction of air molecules to touch his eardrum. He turned with eyebrows raised.
“I need to say something. It’s silly, but I think it needs to be said. After everything. Before you go away,” she started, her voice still high.
He faced her. Those dark eyes that had once melted off of her now stood politely transfixed.
“I don’t think there’s an easy way to say it. I don’t know, maybe people with more experience than I have know a way, but I don’t. So, I guess I’ll just be blunt and hope for the best.” She found she could not look at him anymore, so afraid of what emotion his eyes might betray. There would be no good that would come of this besides closure. She could hope for that. She squeezed her eyes shut and threw herself off her precipice.
“I think I kinda really like you, in a romantic-ish sort of way,” she said, flushing as the words passed her trembling lips. Her heart stopped; her brain numbed. What was she saying?
She managed a horrified sort of grin, more full of anguish than mirth, still not daring to look up. “If that wasn’t Shakespeare, I don’t know what is. I know you don’t feel the same way about me for a multitude of very appropriate reasons, but all these problems came up because I wasn’t being completely honest. So here’s me being-” she started, her voice growing increasingly tight. She realized she wanted to cry, except she really didn’t want to at all. She couldn’t do that.
“Stop,” he said softly. “Please.”
Her breath was haggard as she valiantly fought from letting it turn into a sob. She was such an idiot. Of course he wouldn’t want to hear her inarticulate jabberings on emotions. He was a prince who probably had a legion of women throwing themselves upon him at every instant. He didn’t need another, especially not one like her,who wasn’t pretty, who wasn’t good at getting people to like her, who wasn’t fashionable, who didn’t even want to be a princess. She just wanted him. No, she wanted the emptiness. No, she needed it, or she became this blibbering blob of female emotions she always swore she would never be.
“Ellen Metcalf, I think I kinda really like you in a romantic-ish sort of way.”
Ellen looked up, to see if he was joking, too stunned to do anything else. It felt like a dream. Any moment now, she would wake up in the normal universe where she didn’t fall for princes and attract media storms. Any moment, it would all flutter away, but it didn’t.
A smile was stretching across her lips without her giving it permission. It felt silly to stand there grinning, but she couldn’t stop herself. She was giddy. “I know this sounds insane, but I think that was the single most frightening moment of my life,” she said, doing all she could to stop from laughing.
He was smiling as well. “Not insane at all. Expressing emotions in that manner is terrifying!”
They smiled goofily at each other, before Ellen gradually grew solemn as her brain caught up with her.
“What is wrong?” Atamai asked.
“Well, I guess, I mean, where do we go from here? You’re a prince, and I’m not a princess. It could never work,” Ellen said sheepishly.
“We don’t have to get married quite yet,” he said with a small smile. “There is time to address the questions as they come up. I understand if you not wish to continue this any further for what I am. Royalty is subject to continual public scrutiny that you may find intolerable. Although, I thought of a possible solution.”
“What?” Ellen asked.
“I could step down from the crown. My younger brother would take my place as crown prince. He much love public attention and would gladly absorb as much as he can, leaving little to me,” he said slowly.
“No. Don’t do that. That is, unless you want to, but not for me. I wouldn’t want to ruin that for you. But, honestly, even assuming this works out, I don’t think I would make a good princess. I’m not from Nuan, and I’m not so much for the being pretty and getting people to like me. There’s a reason I looked into a career behind a computer. Are you sure you don’t want someone else?” Ellen said quietly.“I am afraid I must play the well-meaning contrarian once more as I think you would make an excellent princess. Yes, the foreign status still stands and might act as a barrier, but you work wonderfully under pressure and interact with the press well. My parents were all but in a frenzy when they realized you had been cornered by the media, but you held your own, even in pajamas. You were calm, cool, and collected. Regal. More importantly, you have a great mind and an open heart. You may pretend to be nothing more than a stolid intellectual, but the way you protect your sisters and your work with UNICEF reveal that you have a pure desire to help and nurture as well as the intellect to achieve your goals,” he said. He took her hand, and every nerve came alive in that touch. Her heart thrummed, and she felt a profound happiness she had not experienced for years.
“You’re too kind and not half-bad yourself,” she smiled. “So, are you game for trying this out then? Taking it slow? See what happens?”
“I would love to,” he said.
“Awesome,” she said. “You know, I think I might have to study up on some romantic poetry things so I can say something better to you than ‘I think I kinda really like you in a romantic-ish sort of way’.”
He laughed. “I thought the phrasing was superb.”
For a moment, everything ceased to exist as Ellen lounged in the bliss of the moment. However, she soon found herself glancing at her watch, suddenly awakening. “Well, I guess I missed p. chem.”
“Would you mind missing another lecture?” he asked.
“You’re turning out to be a bad influence on me,” she teased.
“I think it would be best if you met my parents,” he said solemnly.
Ellen’s eyes went wide. “Now? Really? I thought we were taking this slow,” she said, shrinking away, insecurities returning.
His eyes betrayed mirth. “The brave Ellen Metcalf who can face legions of reporters and declare her emotions more brazenly than a prince balks at meeting an elderly couple?”
His smile was too contagious. She laughed. “Well, it’s just that their king and queen. And well, I kinda seduced their son with my frumpy womanly wiles and loquacious dialogue on robot revolutions,” she said. “Of course, then again, I think you were seducing me with all your bold intellectualism and respect for imagined capes.”
“Does that mean you’ll meet them?” he asked.
She bit her lip for a moment before nodding. “Sure, but do I need to change into something different? I mean, what’s appropriate for meeting royalty?” she asked. “I don’t actually own a ball gown or really any fancy clothes. You’re talking to a daughter of a plumber here.”
“You talking to me in what you’re wearing now,” he said.
“True, but you’re in jeans as well. Wait, why are you in jeans anyway? And don’t princes generally have secret service hovering nearby?” she asked.
He looked away shyly, “I needed to speak with you alone. I thought bodyguards might be off-putting, and you taught me that people usually don’t see what they’re not expecting. I’m sorry about that. I was too upset at my brother to bother looking.”
Without thinking, Ellen rose up on her toes and gently pressed her lips to his cheek. “I forgive you.” Her worries on the matter suddenly seemed silly and inconsequential.
She wasn’t expecting the return of his affection as he placed his lips on hers, nor was she expecting the sudden fire of feeling warming her body and tingling her fingertips, but she found it to be a good surprise.
“Yep, I really, really forgive you,” she said after they broke apart. “Okay, I think I have sufficient endorphins to meeting those parents of yours and some angry bodyguards that you managed to give the slip.”
“I almost forgot,” he said suddenly, turning to retrieve something from his backpack. It was the shoe, all dangly, golden, and perfectly repaired.
“So I see you’ve been a successful royal liaison to the shoe doctor, but you know that’s not my shoe. It never really fit anyway,” Ellen said.
“I know. Besides, I find your sneakers both practical and alluring,” he said with a grin.
“I find your sneakers pretty alluring as well,” she snickered. “And appropriate for lab. With that strappy thing, you could spill ammonia and have shriveled up toes forever. Here, leave it on my desk and I’ll text Marie to come pick it up for her sister. Wait, can I borrow your cell phone? Mine became kinda flooded with calls and messages so I left it at home.”
He handed his over, and Ellen quickly sent Marie a message. She handed it back to him quickly before saying, “So, love’s labours won, shoe saved, and now all is left is meeting some heads of state. So, what do you think about the missing Love’s Labour’s Won of Shakespeare? A play lost to the ages or an alternate title for one of his known works?”
“I think whatever personal theory I espouse, you would take the other,” he said.
“Probably, but that’s where all the fun is. Thesis, antithesis, and then the glorious synthesis, taking the better parts of each competing ideals to create a superior whole,” she said.
“As much as I appreciate the pioneering analysis methods of Kant and Hegel, I must ask. You’re delaying on purpose, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Maybe,” Ellen said.
He wrapped his fingers through her, and electricity tingled in her fingertips. She wondered if it would always be like that. If she would always have to smile when he smiled. If she would always blush when he held her eyes. If she would never feel empty again. Perhaps there would be time to figure it out.
She squeezed back. “Okay. Let’s do this.”It was strange, the crush of emotions in her chest, the good and the bad, the ecstasy and the nerves. But what was stranger was her response. She kinda liked it.