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Hostess (In The Shadow)

Nearly losing Ellery was a shock to my system.  I wasn’t myself for several days afterwards.  I couldn’t stop thinking about what could have been.  If she had drowned I would have probably killed myself not long afterward, though not before killing Marcus first.  Happily, I now held the distinction as an agent who had saved her life, but I still maintained my place on the half of our team of players who had not officially met Ellery Mayne in person, while she was conscious.  Though she didn’t know it yet, I was her soul-mate and it would be really nice to know her personally in order to establish that fact more fully.

Yes, I had an encounter with her last summer when she had combined breaking and entering with cooking in pitch black darkness while sleep walking through my kitchen, and then, of course, I’d pulled her lifeless drowned body from the wave pool after Marcus and Samantha had foolishly thrown her there before ascertaining if she could swim.  But, now after a year in her presence (but not her consciousness) I still had no relationship with her, though that was what I craved more than anything else, to be her very closest friend, and to move on from there to being her closest family.  Instead, I was nothing but a reclusive yet still very nosy neighbor.

It was April now, almost May.  Derby Day was just around the corner.  The weather had turned wonderfully warm and pleasant after a surprisingly cold and snowy winter.  I thought I’d left behind that kind of season when I’d graduated from M.I.T., never to return to Massachusetts again.  Kentucky had turned out to be full of surprises.  I loved it here, and that was the biggest surprise of all.  Of course, all the color and interest would drain away without the presence of my little Bluegrass Sunshine neighbor next door.

Through her weekly girl’s day out sessions, which stung me like a thousand paper cuts in a lemonade swimming pool, Lidia had learned that Ellery would be home alone for the next nine days while her parents went on a cruise for their anniversary.  It was rare when someone other than Marcus provided such important information, and Lidia had made the most of it at the staff meeting, reveling in the spotlight, temporarily.  She triumphantly proclaimed that to celebrate having the house to herself, Ellery was hosting dinner for the Lawrences the coming Friday evening.

I was so miserably jealous that I couldn’t be around anyone.  When Friday came I wanted to take a sleeping pill and hibernate through it, instead of stare at everything that happened like the sad loser next door who wasn’t invited.  If Lidia caught me looking while I was supposed to be off duty I might have to shoot myself.

Like the junkie that I was, I viewed everything I could from one window or another, moving to get better views when they moved from the kitchen to the deck and then to the backyard.  Ellery had been very busy that day, starting with a trip to the grocery store in Middletown where the cashier took so inexplicably long to ring out her order that I briefly toyed with the idea of cutting in and finishing the check-out job myself, cover be damned.   Though the cashier didn’t deserve it, Ellery was forbearing and polite as opposed to irritated and impatient.

As the days stretched out, and everyone was enjoying having Ellery in their lives but me, I was starting to get recklessly unconcerned about my cover.  It was like a prison, and I was desperate to make a daring escape.  So I was overjoyed when Ellery herself came to set me free.

I watched her as she worked in the kitchen, back and forth from the refrigerator to the stove and grabbing dishes and containers from the cupboards, actually standing on a kitchen chair to do so, then setting the table on the deck.  She looked happy and somewhat excited, if her quick, nearly skipping gate was any indication of her mood.    When Ray and Lidia arrived I could see her visiting with them in the kitchen while she finished the last touches of their meal.  Then she led them outside to play the tossing game I’d seen her, and only her, playing last summer.  Both parents had tried to engage her in this activity, but whenever any other human appeared she would lose interest and go inside.  I suspected it was not the activity itself, but the appearance of activity without company that was the draw there.  Still, I had been amazed at how accurately she could throw the little bags.  She hit the hole almost every single time.  She could make a fortune if sharking was in her nature.

She had the targets set out in the yard and it looked like she was going for the bags when she emerged from the storage area looking perturbed.  A moment of conversation passed and then, to my astonishment, she made a straight line for me, crossing around to my front door.

I let her ring the doorbell four times while I debated about what I should do.  Did I have time to go and buy whatever those things were?  How would I even find them, not knowing what they were called?  What would Ray say if I just opened to her anyway, so that I could meet my neighbor?  I didn’t care.  What I cared about was her.  She wanted me to answer my door, obviously.  It seemed like she might not leave until I did.  It was a very easy decision to make and I opened the door to greet the most beautiful and perfect neighbor of all time.

Standing face to face at last, we were both pulled into a moment of suspended animation.  I was about to say hello when I got caught up in her expression.  She was searching my face, concentrating very hard, as though she was also trying to work out a complicated math problem at the same time.  Finally her eyes settled on my own and we stood for who knows how long reading souls.

She snapped out of it first.  Her body finally remembered how shy she was and her face caught up to the situation with a lovely blush, rosy and warm on her soft ivory colored cheeks.  She began to speak.  Her voice was soft and sweet and a little shaky.

“H-hi…I’m…uh…Ellery…”  She was very nervous and my heart would have gone out to her if it wasn’t already there from before.

“I-I live next door,” she explained.  After an eternity of locked eyes, now she couldn’t hold my gaze and was looking at the threshold instead.

“I was hoping to see if I could borrow the bags to your corn-hole game.”

Is there any way I can just cut through every pretense and tell her right here and now what she means to me?  No.  Probably not.  Wait a minute, she just said the name of whatever those things were and I missed it!

When I smiled but didn’t answer immediately she repeated herself, gesture and all.

“C o r n  – h o l e?” she asked.

That’s what they call it?

“Oh…I mean yes.  Certainly.  You’re welcome to whatever you need from me.  Any time.”   A kiss, a hug, a husband…whatever you need.

It made me smile just thinking of how absurd I was being.  I hoped she couldn’t read minds.

We stood and regarded each other for another stretch of time, each one smiling self-consciously.  Finally she repeated the phrase “C o r n  – h o l e ?”  including the gesture once again for good measure, looking down and away.  She was so adorable.  She didn’t know that it was totally unnecessary to be nervous over me.  It would be like Cleopatra being nervous around one of her fan waving or grape peeling slaves.

I laughed once and said, “Oh yes.  Okay…I have to admit, I don’t know what that is, exactly.”

She laughed too, it was musical and sweet.

“Oh, sorry.  It’s the game where you throw the bag of corn into the hole…”

She seemed embarrassed by her explanation and started again.

“Did you clean out your garage after you moved in?”

Was this a trick question?  Was I a slob if I hadn’t or was I callous to the history here if I had?  What was the correct answer?

While I debated she broke in saying, “It’s just that, if you didn’t move it or throw it away, I probably know where to find what I need.”

Oh, of course.

This was like her second home, though if I had my way, it would be her primary residence and she would be mistress of this place in the not too distant future.  She knew what she needed and where to find it.  I just needed to get out of her way.  So I did that and waved her past me.  She walked right in, down the hall and into the kitchen, where she turned and headed out into the garage, with business-like determination.  Outside the kitchen door in the huge garage, where my SUV looked small and alone, there was a bank of cabinets and she located what she needed inside a clear plastic container stored there.

She seemed pleased and said, “Here they are.  So I just need them for tonight.  I can bring them back when we’re done…or…” she paused for a moment and looked very hopeful as she asked, “or would you like to come over and…be my partner?”

Yes.  Yes I would.  I would like that above all else.

She was talking about for a game.  I was talking about for life.

She continued, the blush firing again on her cheeks, “I mean, if you don’t have plans, that is.  I made dinner…and there’s plenty…and when we play, well, you’re supposed to play on teams, and well…we could be a team.”

I nearly said ‘I do’ and kissed the bride.  Then it occurred to me that I should stop being idiotic and give her my answer.  The last thing in the universe I wanted to convey was hesitation.

I replied to her query with, “Amazing!  I just went from a TV dinner all alone to a gourmet meal and a game night.  I gladly accept your invitation.  What time should I arrive?”

I was so happy with the turn of events and the realization that she desired my presence at her dinner party that I actually felt slightly high.   And it was a huge thrill when it dawned on me, after several seconds of wordless smiles between us that she seemed to look like she felt the same way.  I was moving from feeling slightly high to extremely high as I let myself begin to hope that this attraction, potent and all consuming, might actually be…mutual.

I needed to focus now so that we could cross over from plans to action.  I asked, “Shall I escort you home now, or would you like me to stop by a little later?”

She blinked twice, looking through me for just a moment and then said, quite eagerly,  “Oh!  You can come with me now.”

Her enthusiasm made my heart swell.

I took the box of game pieces from her and extended my arm in invitation to accompany her back to the party.  The answering smile that graced her precious face was happy and expectant.  It was not my imagination.  Unless this was the most perfect of sweet dreams, my attraction to perfection and sweetness herself, whose hold around my arm gave a decidedly possessive impression, felt truly, sublimely…mutual.

My time in the shadow was over.  I was walking arm in arm with the sun now.  It was the happiest moment of my life.  And if Ray and Lidia could be her guests, then so could I.

When we approached my surprised colleagues, Ellery tried to make the unwittingly unnecessary introductions.

“I found some corn-hole bags, and someone to help us play.  Lidia and Ray, this is…my neighbor…whose name escapes me…at the moment.”

We all laughed at her sweet and funny innocence.  I introduced myself to my soul-mate. “I’m Ash.” I said to her alone.

At that moment the breeze pushed a wonderful smell from the grill in our direction.  She looked alarmed as the sensation registered with her.

“I have to check on dinner!  I’ll be right back.”

And she turned and darted toward the deck.  A big cloud of smoke billowed out of the grill when she opened the lid.  The three of us were watching our tiny hostess fight her way through the smoke to rescue our meal.  She made quick work of it, though, and disappeared into the kitchen.  Then Lidia turned on me.

“What the hell are you doing here?  Sei matto? (Are you crazy?)”

I didn’t think it could be possible to feel any happier than I had just a few seconds ago, but her irritation at my joy and victory made it all the more sweet.  Plus Ray absolutely hated it when she spoke to me in Italian.

“She invited me.  I didn’t want to risk disappointing her with a rejection.  Do you think I made the wrong choice?” I asked with as much surprise and innocence as I could muster.

For once I had the upper hand with unassailable logic on my side.

I could tell she was about to unleash on me when Ray embraced her from behind, planting a well-placed and apparently very therapeutic kiss on the back of her neck.  She paused long enough for him to redirect her with a suggestion.

“Do you think she might need some help in the kitchen?”

I hated to admit it, but Lidia was driven by the same innate desire to care for Ellery that possessed me, though it could never be as deep or fulfilled in quite the same way as I intended.

Lidia shot me with her eyes, but broke off the attack and headed for the kitchen.  Ray was examining me as I turned away from watching the fairytale creature in the kitchen, and the retreat of my enemy in the same sightline.  He was genuinely pleased.  We never spoke of it, but I knew he was aware of my obsession with our mark.  But then, I suppose they all were.

As they were transferring the food to the table, Ray and I began to drift in that direction.  Ellery indicated for us to sit down, though she remained standing so that she could lift the lids off the food once we were seated around the table.

If I hadn’t seen her working in the kitchen and over the grill, I would have sworn the food in front of us had come from a restaurant.  It looked and smelled absolutely wonderful, like something a gourmet chef had prepared.  The surprise I was feeling was mirrored two ways as we looked at the food and then at each other.

Though her only influence here had been facilitating Ellery’s ability to transport herself safely to and from the store, Lidia had a look of pride on her face.  So did Ellery, but at least hers was justified.  After a brief and quiet interlude she asked nervously, “Is something wrong?”

She took her seat at the spot with no place setting, as though she would only be watching us eat.

Ray spoke up.

“So…I’m guessing you’re not that serial killer known as the Teen Gourmet, are you?”

I felt a flare of anger with Ray.  He was being reckless in testing the strength of her temporary departure from extreme shyness, built like a bridge made of precisely positioned playing cards over a chasm of insecurities and fears of rejection.  Where was his heart?

My sentiments were uncharacteristically aligned with Lidia’s as she shot her husband a deeply displeased warning glare.   Ray sensed he’d crossed an illegal boundary line and backpedaled quickly.  Chuckling nervously he explained, “Well, it looks like you’re not planning to eat, and I was just curious about that.”

Ellery’s countenance had fallen by a mile, and my heart felt like it had been stepped on in the process. But she surprised me.

“Oh.  There are four of us now, aren’t there?  I’ll be right back.  Or would you feel better if I did a safety taste test first?”

Her tone was light and teasing, not defensive or sarcastic as it rightfully should have been.  She seemed so young and innocent, but there was no deficiency when it came to patience and maturity.

The crisis averted, we all laughed in unified relief.  Ray and Lidia began to serve themselves.  The mature one caught me staring at her and asked, “What can I get you to drink?  There’s wine…beer…soda….or you could help me finish off the Kool-aid.”

She was funny, too.  We all laughed at her joke.  She rose to get herself a plate and utensils and we split a bottle of Cherry Coke.  It was silly, but I wished that she and I could share the actual bottle.  Instead she poured out our portions into separate ice filled glasses.  For now it would just have to be another entry on a wish list of things I hoped to share with Ellery Mayne.

I was very impressed and pleased with our hostess and the successful dinner she had orchestrated for our enjoyment.  She wasn’t mine to feel pride over, but I did any way.  She had made huge strides in the last several months.  I could see glimpses of them in her daily life, and putting on this meal, working to keep us entertained and happy at her table was proof that she had turned a corner.  And I couldn’t be happier for her…or me.

When she stood to begin clearing the table I copied her motions quickly before anyone else could steal my opportunity to get close to her at the sink.  Then I remembered who I was with and that it wouldn’t be a cause for concern.

The Lawrences stayed outside, talking quietly at the table, finishing off the bottle of wine, while I accompanied Ellery to the dishwasher.  It was a high-end appliance that didn’t require any pre-rinsing nonsense from the user, and I’m certain that Ellery was aware of that, but she let me take up time doing it anyway.

She was quiet but glued to my side taking the dishes from me as I rinsed them, and loading them neatly into the machine.  From my peripheral vision I could see that she was poring over me with her eyes.  It felt wonderful.  I wanted to be doing the same to her, but I knew it would make her self-conscious, so I just pretended not to notice and let her look without the embarrassment of being caught.  Besides, I’d spent months doing that to her, and she deserved a chance to play catch-up, I mused.

She had said very little while we worked, but then she cleared her throat, like she was going to make an announcement and began.

“So about the Kool-aid…” There was a pause as she ordered her thoughts, it seemed. “Well, it’s just that…I don’t…I mean wouldn’t ever…be allowed to have Kool-aid.”

Be allowed?  What did she mean by that?

“I mean, I wouldn’t want to anyway… I don’t drink that stuff.”

She had a strange look now in her eyes, almost like regret.  I’d seen inside the refrigerator as she put the leftover food away.  There was ‘Organic’ this and ‘All Natural’ that on every shelf.  Her mother was very health-conscious, it seemed.  That was nothing to be embarrassed about.  I tried to put her at ease.

“So your mother is concerned about the negative effects that artificial colors and flavors might have on you?  That sounds reasonable to me.  It makes me wonder about the presence of Cherry Coke in your house, though.”

I had a feeling that the shopping trip from earlier this afternoon had featured a bit of life-style rebellion.  She laughed quietly.

“Yeah, that’s contra-band too.   I bought that at the grocery today.  I bought all kinds of stuff I’m not supposed to have.  But I’ve got nine days to consume all the evidence.”

She laughed self-consciously but a there was a funny little half-smile to go with it.

What was she thinking about?

“Let me know if you need any help with that,” I suggested.

I couldn’t look at her as I tried to lay the groundwork for a return invitation to this really great place to eat, with an absolutely irresistible proprietor.  She smiled when I said this, half pleased and half embarrassed, it looked to me.

When I couldn’t drag the dishwashing out any further, we moved back outside and she suggested that we try our hand at the game of skill called “Corn-Hole”.

She explained the rules in concise terms.  Contestants toss small bags of dried corn toward a wooden target with a hole cut out in the center.  Points are awarded based on the accuracy of the toss.  A bag through the hole is worth three points.  A bag on the box is worth one.  Matching efforts by competitors cancel each other out.  Each player gets four throws. The game is played to twenty-one.

She watched as we each took practice throws, getting used to the weight of the bags filled with corn and adjusting our throws to compensate for distance and direction and slide on the wooden targets.

I hadn’t seen her engaging in this activity since last summer, almost a year ago.  She didn’t take any practice throws; she didn’t need any.  I smiled inwardly as I tried to predict what shape her sharking ability would take in our game.  My hopes were tarnished slightly when Lidia suggested a ‘Girls versus Boys’ match-up.  I didn’t mind losing to Ellery, and unless she intentionally threw it, we boys certainly would lose, but I hated the unjustified pleasure it would give Lidia to be on the winning team, which in the end, she was.

Ellery held back, matching our throws, not giving away her true talent at this endeavor.  Ray had just thrown several bags straight in the hole and was extremely pleased with himself.  The score was Boys twenty-one to the Girls’ sixteen.   Ellery made her throws and deftly erased his efforts rearranging the score to nineteen all.  Ray choked on his final throw and his bag slid off the box and into the grass.  Then Ellery’s imaginary dorsal fin came out and she threw her last bag mockingly high into the air, nearly twice as high as any other throw of the evening, and it landed smoothly, soundlessly in the hole, winning the game.

Just as I predicted, Lidia showed disproportionate enthusiasm and team spirit, considering she hadn’t scored any points what-so-ever, as she announced, “Girls twenty-two, Boys nineteen!”

She hopped over to where Ray and Ellery were standing and wrapped herself around her talented little team-mate, excitedly kissing both her cheeks and cheering “We won!  We won!” over and over, in case we men might forget.

Even if I were an exuberant and expressive Italian, I wouldn’t be able to get away with such a thing.  Lidia was very tactile by natural, but I caught her glancing my way in the middle of her affectionate victory celebration, having resumed the offensive she’d abandoned before dinner.  Her mocking expression shot at me like a spray of burning arrows, expressing multiple combative sentiments: I won and you lost, again.  See? Ellery is mine to kiss and hug and not yours…loser.

I smiled back at Lidia, imagining all her missiles bouncing harmlessly away like Nerf darts.  A new and powerful force field surrounded me now, its power generating from inside my mind at the sight and sound of Ellery suggesting that she and I should be partners, and the resulting elation in her expression when I accepted her invitation.  It was my impenetrable shield of hope and happiness, and Lidia couldn’t touch me now.  She looked confused and then irritated by my pleasant unperturbed non-verbal response.  My presence here this evening, and Ellery’s obvious enthusiasm for it, was the real victory tonight…and Lidia knew it.

I had been standing across the yard from Ellery while we played.  This suited me because I could stare at her while she concentrated on the game.  She had perfect form and made winning at this aggravating endeavor look completely effortless.  Knowing what to expect made it even more fun watching her.

I didn’t like losing, of course, but Ray definitely had it coming.  I walked up to her to take advantage of an opportunity to touch her, and shook her hand in sportsman-like congratulation, stealing a glance and returning fire at Lidia in the process.

Ellery blushed and seemed suddenly very embarrassed with herself.  In that moment I could tell that she knew I was aware of her true talents garnered trough endless hours of practice here in the yard.  She must have realized that as her neighbor, I’d seen her honing her skills.  I worked to ease her discomfort by commending her.

“That was well done.  I think I should start practicing with you.”

I wondered if she’d lose interest in my presence like she had with her parents.  Perhaps not, because she responded, “I’d love that!  Mom and Hoyt won’t play with me.”

I would play any game she wanted, especially the game of love, but in my version there would be no losers, only exceedingly happy, love-sick winners.