“Hey guys,” Ellen said, letting her backpack fall to the carpet and going into the kitchen for a glass of water. Houston was always hot it seemed. She returned to the living room, taking long gulps from her glass. “So, is your big test-?”
She stopped mid-sentence as a face flashed on-screen. She swore she knew the face.
“And that’s what makes him the world’s sixth most eligible bachelor,” the TV declared in a flurry of pink hearts. “We’ll be back with the world’s fifth most eligible bachelor after a word from our sponsors.”
“Tomorrow,” Anabelle groaned, flipping away from the TV. “There’s too much to know. I-”
“Who was that?” Ellen asked, still staring intensely at the screen as if in hopes that the face would reappear. However, there was only an advertisement about toilet bowl cleaners.
“Huh?” Anabelle asked, looking at the TV screen in confusion.
“The last guy. The last bachelor or whatever. Who was he?” Ellen asked.
“I, I dunno. I forget,” Anabelle said, looking to Clara who shrugged her shoulders. “Why do you care, Ellen?”
“He was some prince guy from some island nation,” Clara said. “I don’t remember his name, something foreign. It started with an A.”
“Atamai?” Ellen asked.
“Yeah, that’s it. How did you know?” Clara asked.
Ellen sat down on the arm of the couch. A strange sort of numbness and nausea overcame her. “Look him up, Clara, please. Can you google him for me?”
“Um, okay. Why are you curious about him? He wasn’t even the most attractive they have on here,” Clara said, looking at Ellen dubiously.
“Just, please,” Ellen said tonelessly. Clara handed over her computer to the Wikipedia article on Prince Atamai.
It was him.
There was no mistaking. Everything looked exactly as she had seen him two days ago, the same smile, the same hair, the same eyes. Ellen leaned back, staring at the ceiling.
“Are you alright, Sister Ella?” Anabelle asked. “What’s so bad about this prince guy?”
“Nothing.” Ellen shook her head, trying to clear her mind. “Nothing at all. I’m going to go do homework now.”
Ellen decided she was the biggest idiot to ever walk the planet. Of course he wasn’t being facetious. He was a real prince, born and raised. She had fed him a false name and put on airs of being fancy when she was just another poor, college student. She had lied to a prince and pretended to be someone else. He was probably attempting to retain connections to the French elite, not trading banter with some college girl. She’d been so incredibly stupid.
Ellen put her head on the desk, closing her eyes and grimacing. What was she going to do? What could she do? Go out and email him, saying, “Whoopsies, when I said I was a daughter of a French diplomat, what I really meant is that I’m a daughter of a dead plumber. I even got my name wrong. How silly of me. Can I still crush on you in my deranged pseudo-intellectual way of political sparring?”
Stupid, stupid, stupid. She had to say something. She had to. She owed it to him if he wasted all that time talking to her and reading her emails under a false notion. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t want him to not like her, or Joelle, or whoever he thought she was, as stupid as the concept seemed upon critical thinking. The banter they had shared, well, it still felt special. It almost made her believe in idea of love and communal affection beyond the bonds of family.
No. No, no, no. Ellen Metcalf did not fall in love. Ellen knew better than that. Besides, he had never felt the same way about her back. He didn’t even know who she was, so Ellen’s ponderings on love were inane. She was being so stupid about this. And silly. That’s not who Ellen was.
She opened her laptop us. She needed to do this quickly before her damn repressed emotions reared their ugly, snively head. She was not emotional. She was logical. And logically she knew she must set Atamai in the right, apologize for her misconduct, and then escape from the situation before she could do anything stupid.
There was an email from him in her inbox. She could see the abbreviated first line of his email. It began with Hello the waxless Joelle, It took me a moment-.
Part of her wanted to open it.
No. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t live this lie.
She deleted the email and began a new one.
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.
She sent it without looking at it again. She quickly closed her laptop.
There. Done. She did it.
If she did what was right, why did she feel so awful? She groaned, leaning her head on her desk once more. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why did she have to be so stupid? You’d think with all this college, she learned to be a little smarter. Dakota and Patricia were right. She was a preteen adolescent when it came to emotions.
Ellen decided she wanted to become very small and crawl into a dark hole where there were no princes or diplomats or emails. Where there was nothing. Where she wouldn’t have to think and embarrass herself.
Ellens throat narrowed as something that felt like emotion was trying to worm its way up, pressing bile into her mouth and attempting to activate lacrimal ducts.
“Sister Ella, can you help me with anatomy thing? They keep using words like caudal and dorsal and foramen and articulation I have no idea what they’re talking about,” Anabelle said, coming into Ellen’s room with a review sheet. “Wait, are you alright?”
“Um, yeah,” Ellen said hastily, rubbing her face vigorously as she rose. “I just-, well, it’s just been a long day.”
“Hey, you haven’t been studying all day,” Anabelle declared pugnaciously.
“If you call watching TV studying,” Clara put in from the living room. Anabelle scowled and offered Clara a retort. It gave Ellen enough time to collect her thoughts and straighten her priorities. She did not need romance, but Anabelle needed her. She had to put Anabelle first, even if she wasn’t exactly well-versed in anatomy. She would help her sister and forget about herself. That’s what Ellen did. That’s who she was. Not some fancy French diplomat. Ellen was Sister Ella.
Ellen slept but fitfully. Thoughts swirled and festered in her head. The Joelle fiasco was a scabbed wound, and she had the insatiable desire to pick at it. It was done. It was over. She must move on and forget about Atamai and how she felt about him. She was being stupid. And silly. And now, very, very tired.
When she arose. Atamai had left her an email. An odd surge of emotion met her. There was anger. There was confusion. There was hope.
She squashed them all, deleting the email before she could read its first sentence. Ellen was not emotional, she had learned a very long time ago how to be empty, and Atamai was awakening all sorts of emotions that needed to be put to rest. She went about her day, distracted and tired. She doubted she absorbed anything through any of her lectures, she mis-measured in her experiment during her quantitative chemistry lab, she wrote faulty code that made no sense, and overall she felt as if she had been pulled very thin and tight, only to be released to make a puddle of stretched-out, wrinkly Ellen.
When she came home. The email from Atamai stared at her from her recycle bin. She closed her laptop and fell on her bed. Was this what normal people felt like in romances? If so, then why in the world did people pursue them? Feeling nothing was much, much superior to this. She needed dreamless sleep, when she knew she couldn’t get any such thing. A time machine would also work, although then she risked breaking the space-time continuum if she stopped herself from ever getting in that dress. Maybe it would mean that there would be a zombie apocalypse or robots would take over the world.
She groaned. Was even her favorite sci-fi motif ruined for her now? Her father once told her that every struggle taught a lesson. She supposed this one was never to let her emotions get the best of her. They had leaked out in the emails. She needed to stopper them more securely. She needed critical reasoning and science. That’s what drove the world. Emotions made you weak and would always ultimately hurt you.
She pulled herself up and finished her homework and helped her sisters. Enough numbers and figures would drive out the weakness in her. It had to.
Still, she could not sleep that night. Or the next. Or the next. She could not check her email either. Atamai was still wrote her two more emails. She could not face them. She could barely face her laptop.
When the weekend hit, she knew she had to get away. This madness had to end. She needed to find someplace where she could find no trace of him and do something else for awhile. Ellen Metcalf was not this girl who was internally fretting over some guy she met at a party. Ellen Metcalf was a scientist who needed to study for a physical chemistry test. After spending an hour or two in her research lab, she packed up her books and went to the diner across from campus.
The bell tinkled as she walked in. The diner was close to empty, which meant she didn’t feel as evil if she lingered while studying instead of just eating and leaving. She ordered a large cup of coffee and a plain bagel. She didn’t think she could stomach much more and she needed as much caffeine as possible to maintain the inertia to keep moving despite her exhaustion.
She spread her books out on the table, gulping coffee as she began to skim through her notes and reference back to her textbook. She was actually focusing, for the first time in a long time. All the wave functions and quantum equations were enough to drive the drivel from her mind. For a while, she forgot.
“Prince Atamai Iona,” the title vibrated in her skull as she looked up sharply. The soft murmur of voices from the diner’s customers had droned into inconsequence with Schrodinger’s equations to think of, but those three words rang out as clearly as a bell. Who had spoken them? Why were they speaking them?
She looked around quickly, examining every face. The waitress was handing an older couple their sandwiches and fries. Another college student sat with earbuds in, facing a laptop. Parents sat with a gaggle of children, one of whom was blowing bubbles in his milk. A group of high-schoolers were laughing.
Then she looked up at the TV screen and saw him. He was smiling politely at some jest while a man who deeply resembled him sat on his left, gesturing wildly. The host sat across from them was laughing. Ellen found she could not help herself from watching.
“So, other than that incident at the hotel, are you and and your brother enjoying Houston,” the host asked.
“Oh, yes. Of course,” the other man said with a smile. “It has a really similar climate to Nuan. There’s the heat that could grill meat and the humidity enough to swim in. I’ve really grown attached to that feeling of being poached. It really allows me to bond with my breakfast eggs,” he joked glibly.
It raised chortles.
“What my younger brother means to say is that we have found the people of Houston to be most hospitable and kind,” Atamai said curtly.
The brother elbowed him. “Don’t be so stiff, Atamai. Being stiff is only suitable for corpses, and the last time I checked, you still had a pulse. Besides, you know I have to balance you out, so however proper and formal you are, that means I have to be that much more impassioned and free. If you become any more dull, I might have skin down to my birthday suit.”
The women in the audience of the show catcalled and whistled.
“It seems the ladies of Houston are much infatuated with the idea.” the host observed.
“Yes, yes, but I am only enough for one woman, and she has already found my heart,” he said, sighing. A chorus “Aww”s met this declaration. The man smiled, and continued. “My brother, on the other hand could use a lady love after this week.”
Atamai’s mouth tightened as he was met with throes of affection from the crowd. His cheeks burned red, and he whispered something to his brother who only laughed.
“What happened?” the host asked.
“Oh, the usual love story. A damsel whisked him off his feet at the UNICEF Gala but all for naught. I guess they were emailing or something since he’s been pacing around the computer for the last few days. She’s disappeared though. He’s been trying to find mention of her anywhere since I guess he has her shoe, which he needs to return. She told him her name was Joelle de Lafayette, but that’s not her real name, right?” the brother said. Atamai looked to be in extreme pain. He refused to raise his head as the story was met with sympathetic noises.
“Hey, how about we help my brother out? I got a picture of her when I decided I needed evidence of my brother chatting up some girl. It’s somewhere on my phone,” the man pulled out his phone and was fiddling with the buttons. Atamai made a grab at the phone, but the brother arms were longer so that he could effectively hold Atamai at bay. “Oh, here it is.” He shoved the phone out to the camera, and Ellen stopped breathing.
There she was, for millions to see. It was a bad angle. Part of her face had been cut off by someone’s shoulder, but her nose, her eyes, and her lips were still there. Ellen Metcalf stood in a fancy, golden dress frozen in mid-laugh. It must have been just after she broke the heel of the shoe, as she was barefoot and a strappy thing dangled from her hand.
Everyone was going to know she was a fraud. Everyone was going to know she was a liar. Everything was going to fall apart.
Ellen looked around hesitantly, readying herself to face the glares of everyone, but no one was looking at her. The only one that had even glanced at the television was the waitress. She approached Ellen, but only refilled her coffee cup and walked away.
Ellen needed to get home before anyone recognized her. She needed to get away.
She stuffed all her books in her backpack and hastily paid the tab.
“Hey, Sister Ella! I thought you said you were going to be in the lab all day. Anyway, could you-. Wait, where are you going?” Clara asked as Ellen made a beeline to her bedroom from the front door.
“Uh, bathroom,” she said, altering her path slightly. She quickly locked herself inside, breathing heavily. She shrugged off her backpack and stared at herself in the mirror. It didn’t look like the picture on TV, she realized. Marie had dressed and dolled her up, making her look halfway presentable. Now, without any make-up, a ponytail spewing fly-away hairs, and an overly large t-shirt she got for free at orientation to UT Houston, there was little resemblance to the girl on screen. Maybe no one would recognize her. All of her friends claimed they barely could.
What would they say? They would know it was her, but they would probably keep quiet if she asked them too, although she would hear no end of it from Dakota and Patricia. Marie would probably be nice about it though.
As if summoned by her thoughts, her phone rang.
Ellen fumbled through her backpack to find the device. “Hello?”
“Ellen?” Marie said. “The guy you were talking to, you didn’t give him your real name, did you?”
“No.” Ellen sighed. She rubbed her temples with one hand. “I didn’t. I thought we were joking around. I didn’t know he was actually a prince. I thought he was just playing. And now, I don’t know Marie. I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, you could tell him the truth,” Marie started.
“I did! Well, sort of. I emailed him and said I wasn’t who I said I was, once I realized he was exactly who he said he was. I even mentioned the name thing. I said I was sorry, and that I didn’t think we should talk anymore. I haven’t looked at any of the other messages he’s sent since then. I tried to cut it off, Marie,” Ellen said, groaning. “I don’t want any attention. I don’t want any drama. I didn’t want this.”
“Have you been watching any talk shows this morning?” she asked.
“So did my sister. She recognized the dress. She wants to call in and tell them that’s her dress and that someone stole it from her. I’ve been stopping her, but you know how she is. I don’t know how long I can convince her not to,” Marie said.
“Can you bribe her? Anything? I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Ellen said.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Ellen,” Marie said. “You can come over, if you want, and we can talk about it.”
“I don’t think I want to talk about it. I just want it to go away. Is this was having emotions is like?” Ellen asked glibbly.
“Kinda sucks, doesn’t it?” Marie asked. Ellen could almost hear Marie’s quiet, sad smile over the phone.
“No kidding,” Ellen said. She pressed her head against the cold tile wall of the bathroom. She could feel her face throbbing and flushing. Maybe, if she just closed her eyes, it would all go away, at least for a moment.
“I’ll sort out my sister, Ellen. I’ll figure out something. I’ll call Pat and Dakota and tell them not to say anything. Give this a week or two, and it will all blow over. I’m here for you, if you need me,” she said.
Ellen wasn’t supposed to need anyone. She was supposed to be the one to provide the succor and help in times of need. She was supposed to be the strong one. Where had everything gone wrong? “Yeah, thanks, Marie. Thanks a lot,” Ellen said.
“I’ll see you later.”
“See you Monday.”
Ellen clicked off her phone. Marie, Pat, and Dakota wouldn’t tell then. She just hoped no one else would recognize her from the photo. She just had to hope.
Ellen flushed the toilet and washed her hands in case Clara was waiting at the door when she came out.
“Hey, Sister Ella, the internet’s out of whack. Could you look at it?” Clara asked.
“Let me put my backpack down, and then I’ll look at the router. Is it just on your laptop or on Anabelle’s too? Have you tried unplugging it and plugging it back in?” Ellen asked. The prosaic problems were a reassuring pressure of normality. Everything would go back to the way it was; all she had to do was wait.
“Anabelle’s with Jeremy at the library, and which one’s the router again?” Clara asked.
Ellen restarted the router and was met with a cheer from Clara who promptly collapsed onto the couch with her laptop to check her Facebook. “Also, you need to go to the store because we’re almost out of toilet paper and we need cereal,” Clara said, matching her spine to the curvature of the armrest.
“We have cereal,” Ellen started.
“We have your cereal, but I don’t like it. It has too many calories and tastes bad. I like the flakes one,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
“They are healthy calories!” Ellen declared, “But alright, is there anything else you need?”
“I dunno, food? Oh, and maybe some hair dye!” Clara said excitedly.
“Why?” Ellen asked.
“Oh this princey guy is looking for someone he met at a party whose disappeared. Since so many people have called in claiming to be her, this TV station is hosting an audition sort of thing. All my friends are going. The name’s Joelle de Lafayette. Here’s the picture they have of her,” Clara explained, handing her laptop over.
It was the same picture Atamai’s brother had taken, but it was now inserted in a website asking “Are you Joelle de Lafayette?” There was a link for various user-submitted photos claiming to be from Joelle de Lafayette. It had been less than a couple of hours since the brother had shown the photo on TV, but there were already dozens of photos of girls claiming to be her. Ellen handed the laptop back to Clara as calmly as she could.
“So far, Natalie, Rachel, and Piper are going for sure, but Katie and Wendy are thinking about it. John wants to go too, just for fun. Hey, she kinda looks like you. You should come with us!” Clara said.
“No,” Ellen said sharply. “I have, um, stuff to do. For lab and everything.”
“I was just trying to be nice,” Clara said quietly, making Ellen regret her harshness. “I guess I will have to text Anabelle and see if she wants to go.” Clara pulled out her cellphone.
Ellen walked numbly back to her room. This didn’t seem to be blowing over rather quickly. Instead, it was expanding with the force of a mushroom cloud. Would it leave long-lasting radiation in its wake which would render the soil infertile for years and the lifeforms mutated or dead? Ellen decided that the analogy comparing this situation to a nuclear bomb was incredibly apropos.
She flipped open her textbook, so she would have something to stare at in her room. A wall of text glared back at her as she looked on, unseeing. Clara didn’t recognize her. Clara was her sister and probably spent as much time with her as anyone, and she didn’t recognize her. It wasn’t a good picture. Ellen had been ridiculously dolled up in makeup and a dress. It was quite possible no one would recognize her.
Then, they would just go through this farce where many young women claimed to be her, but Atamai would probably not be fooled. Then, everyone would forget and move on, and this hullabaloo would be gone forever. Her embarrassment will be hidden deep within the depths of her memory, and probably Marie’s, Pat’s, and Dakota’s as well, but it wouldn’t be public knowledge. Life would go on.
Ellen’s phone rang. Perhaps her positive affirmations had been misplaced. She looked at it with a certain sort of dread, wondering if she should answer. But, she had to. Whatever happened, she had to face it. She fumbled to answer it. Somehow, she managed to drop it and kick it across the room as her extreme discomfort made her clumsy. However, with her mind made up, she dutifully ran after it.
“Hello?” Ellen said breathlessly.
“Hi Sister Ella!” her stepmother said.
“Oh, hey, Susan,” Ellen said.
“How’s school?” she asked.
Ellen sat down heavily at her desk, still feeling uneasy. “Uh, fine, fine. Everything’s fine. Clara and Anabelle are doing well. Anabelle had an anatomy test earlier this week that she felt alright about, but the scores haven’t come in yet.” Ellen noted her voice came out higher than normal, despite her attempts to stay calm.
“Oh, that’s great, honey. Anyway, I don’t suppose you’ve been watching all the talk shows, have you?” Susan asked.
Ellen’s stomach dropped. “Why?”
“There’s a prince in Houston! He’s looking for some girl, and she has brown hair, you have brown hair. She has olive skin, you have olive skin,” Susan said.
“And?” Ellen said carefully.
“Well, I don’t know,” Susan started.
Ellen thought her heart stopped as she waited to see what her stepmother would say next. Did she know? Did she suspect? Has she said anything? “You haven’t been attending any galas recently, have you?”
“Why would I attend a gala?” Ellen asked, deliberately hurdling the question.
“Oh, don’t be so serious, Sister Ella. There was just a resemblance, that’s all. Are your sisters doing anything about it? I hear they are having all the girls claiming to be the mystery girl go on a show or something,” Susan said.
Ellen breathed again. “Yeah, Clara is planning on going down with her friends. I’m not sure about Anabelle.”
“Well, make sure they stay safe, Sister Ella. I’m sure there’s many people down there just waiting to take advantage of this commotion. They need their older sister watching over them,” Susan said.
“You know I always do,” Ellen said.
“Alright. Love you all bunches!” Susan said. “Talk to you later.”
“Bye.” Ellen hung up.
It was another reason she had to make sure no one knew she was the girl in the photo. It would affect Clara and Anabelle too. She couldn’t let anything harm her sisters. She had to protect them. If the media was attacking this story with such ferocity when they didn’t know who the girl was, what would happen if they did?
Very bad things. She had to keep quiet. It was blow over. Eventually. It had to. She just had to make sure no one recognized her. She just had to stay quiet.
She went to the store, as requested by Clara, but kept her head down and wore sunglasses, feeling more than faintly ridiculous. No one gave her a second look. She was just one among a hundred people grabbing up groceries. Nothing distinguished her. How many young women had brown hair and olive skin? It had to be millions. Her stepmother and sisters didn’t recognize her, so no one else would. It would blow over. It had to.
There was another email from Atamai when she got back. She wanted to open it. She had a million things she needed to say to him, but she couldn’t. Her stomach clenched and her heart thudded at the mere notion. Answering the email would only throw oil on the flame. She had to ignore it and ignore everything. Then, it would be alright. Then everything would go back to normal. Then Ellen could forget about silly things like romance and princes. She could be Sister Ella again.
She deleted the email.
Monday and Tuesday came and passed slowly. Her physical chemistry test did not go as well as she would have liked. Equations and concepts fled as her brain refused to concentrate on anything. It did nothing to improve her mood, which had quietly soured as Clara and Anabelle excitedly discussed how they were planning to make themselves look more like the girl in the photo. Both had rummaged through their closets to find the closest thing to the golden dress in the photo and suddenly, the knot of hair upheld by a pen was all the rage. Ellen made a note to avoid yellow and gold colors and wear her hair down as much as possible.
Marie said this would blow over. Marie said she just needed to wait. No one had recognized her. Not her sisters, not Susan, no one at school. If she stayed quiet, everything would quiet down after this ruckus with the audition for Joelle. She had to believe it, or she did not know what she would do.
As Ellen pretended to sleep, she thought about the consequences of trying to contact Atamai again. Would he even believe who she was when there were all these people pretending to be her? No one else knew her email, but someone could probably hack it to take control. After all, her birth date wasn’t a ridiculously difficult password. Maybe he was aware of the lack of security in personal email and treat any contact as dubious. And, what would she say even if she did?
Would he even recognize her if he saw her? Clara and Anabelle both seemed incapable of connecting the girl in the golden dress to her, so the other way around would probably be just as difficult. That is, unless, he truly saw her. If those sparkling eyes were sparkling for her. If he had felt that selfsame odd rush that allowed her to memorize his features and burn them into her cerebrum. Then, he would know. If he didn’t see her as a meme like Sister Ella, but saw through it all to the things she tried to keep hidden, he would know.Tomorrow would be Wednesday. If she survived the UNICEF meeting and getting her sisters home safe from pretending to be her, then there would be nothing more. No one could track her. It would all die down. It had to. She just had to forget.