As the shouts from the room below shook her floorboards, Ella curled up tightly in her bed, her hands cuffed around her ears, pulling the tips of them in, as if that could shield her from the her parents’ fighting. She didn’t want to get up. She didn’t want them to notice her, didn’t want her father to take out her mother’s drinking on her again, didn’t want to see her mother cry when her young daughter was abused, not realizing how such treatments on both their parts made her grow up a lot quicker than anyone her age rightly should. But she knew if she didn’t get up, she’d be in even more trouble. The chores wouldn’t finish themselves and she was the only one there who’d do them, now that Filipe had escaped to school. Oh, how she wished she were older than eight, how many things she could accomplish!
A sharp sound echoed as something shattered below, the whispers of broken glass slipping through her floorboards. Silence followed and Ella knew she had to get moving, else their attention be directed to the late hour of her rising, her excuse that the moans from her parents making up the night before keeping her up not enough to escape punishment.
Slipping out of bed, she walked quickly and dressed. As she slipped on a pair of pants that were too big for her, using a small clump of rope to keep them wrapped tightly around her waist that remained a little too thin, something fell out of her pocket; something she’d forgotten about until that moment. Picking up the tiny, wooden box, Ella shook her head, silently berating herself. How she let the only happy moment from yesterday slip out of her brain astounded her. She thought it would help distract her from what happened, in both rooms below and above her! That was the entire point of Antonio’s gift, after all.
Glancing at her door, she peeked inside the box, the singular item inside looking so small, all alone inside, even though the box itself was able to fit into her tiny palm with ease. A small, black seed rolled around the box as she shifted it back and forth, making a soft sound as it collided with the box’s walls. Antonio had given it to her, last Market Day, whispering that he understood a life that didn’t look very pretty, instead pricking like thorns. So he gave her a present, something for her to call her very own, to plant and create something beautiful, something without the thorns in her life, that came at her as shouts and slaps.
Ella slipped the box back into her pocket, walking over to the wall to stand on her tiptoes and look out the window. She’d forgotten all about his present, but she would forget no longer.
She knew exactly where to plant it.
Ella pulled the last knot out of her hair with a hard yank, before grouping her hair together and pulling it to the side, her fingers twisting as she began to tightly bind it in a braid. The house was strangely quiet, offering a peace she wasn’t used to experiencing, especially since the twins had turned six. Though they were both adorable and still so innocent, Ella feared for them. They were reaching the age were chores would soon be expected of them; “earning their keep around the house,” as her father had put it. And if their childhood was anything like hers had been, she feared for not only the lasting of their happiness, one of the only emotions they had ever known (until now), but also their safety. She could only protect them for one more year, before her life would be hers to truly claim as her own—and she would flee as far away as she could from this place. But she didn’t fuss over that detail too much. They had each other, which was more than she ever had. And she turned out just fine.
At least, that rationale usually quieted her guilt.
Ella shook the thoughts out of her head, which forced her to lose her spot on her braid. She started over, not much bothered by the fact. Doing her hair was always soothing and she’d extend these few, rare moments of peace for as long as they could last, even if that meant braiding her hair one hundred times over.
Sitting on the window ledge, she’d opened her shutters to let in the faint sea breeze; the same window ledge she used to peek out of, as a child, forced to stand up on her tips of her toes to even glance at the arched opening just across the street. At seventeen, Ella could easily see the arch now, and while it usually bore happy memories—and always when she discovered a bike sitting there, directly in the center, signaling that Antonio had arrived and was waiting for her to sneak down and join him—she couldn’t help look upon it with disappointment, every now and again, when there wasn’t something else to distract her.
For she’d chosen that spot, so many years ago, to plant the seed that Antonio had given her, promising her a blossoming of pink flowers that would be so great, she’d struggle to maintain them as they threatened to take over wherever she chose to plant them. But more than that, it promised to be a reminder that, no matter what happened inside the walls of her home, there was beauty out there in the rest of the world; beauty that she deserved to see. She just had to remember to look.
Yet almost ten years had passed and nothing had blossomed there.
Not even a weed.
Ella finally tied her braid up neatly and laid her hands in her lap, smoothing out her dress with nervous anticipation. Her flowers may have never bloomed, but something else even more extraordinary had; something she had not expected, but now, looking back, she couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen the signs sooner, including that very first gift.
At the familiar chime of a bike’s bell, Ella broke out into a rare grin, one she hadn’t felt since he’d left, six months prior, to train with the rest of the men from her town—only as a precaution, everyone left behind was assured, but Antonio was proud to serve his country and his people. His only regret, he told her, was leaving her to deal with the world alone, for a time.
The bell rang a second time and Ella didn’t waste another second, rushing down to met him.
Ella stared down at her hands, finally able to see their outlines through her tears. She stubbornly attacked her face, trying to wipe away the evidence. But what did it matter, who saw her cry?
Everyone who would have noticed was gone.
And the only person who would have cared was the cause.
Sitting on top of the ledge, her feet hanging out of it, Ella shuddered another sob, not surprised that she was shedding more tears within her childhood home; a place where she had cried so often, what were a few more? Yet now, with her parents gone, her childhood home had become her own—and she had wasted no tears for them, for they didn’t deserve her sorrow. The twins had been shuffled away to her aunts and uncles within a week of their passing, even though Ella wanted to raise them as her own. It was her aunt’s passing remark that haunted her.
A woman alone can’t raise children, Isabella. Especially an unmarried one.
She’d bit back her retort, her ring weighing heavily on her finger, then.
She’d told no one of the betrothal, not wanting to risk her father’s attempts of stopping it. They’d been set to marry once Antonio returned, after he’d finished his most recent tour and served the time their government required of all young men, during the hour of war.
Now, the ring felt heavier still, weighing down the crumbled letter that sat in her lap, discarded. What use did she have for such ill tidings, a piece of paper that, within the breath of a paragraph, shattered her entire reality and ruined every plan she had for her future?
She angrily wrapped the ring up in the letter, crunching it up into a ball. Picking it up, she raised it high to throw it as far away into the courtyard as possible, hoping some animal or passerby would stumble upon it and rid it from her life forever. But her arm froze in midair, the wad still clutched in her hand.
Ella blinked, clearing her eyes.
Across the way, at the bottom of the arch that had so long been their meeting place, was a vine.
And on that vine was a single, pink flower.
Picking up her cane, she hobbled slowly to the window. A younger version of Ella would have cursed her luck, to get a bad leg as early as her fifties. She knew eighty year old women who moved with more grace and speed than she could. Yet she’d learn a lot in her fifty years of life. And a bad leg was little to complain about.
Now, the mayor’s request, as he labeled it?
That was something that concerned her.
She saw through his false smiles and empathetic tones, when he’d stopped by her front door that past Sunday. She knew exactly what his “request” was: a demand. She still couldn’t answer the question she offered him, after he gave her his spiel—while standing in the doorway, not even willing to accept her invitation to come in, and forcing her to stand there right beside him, leg shaking all the while!
What harm do those flowers do, señor?
He didn’t have a good answer either, but instead, gave her an ultimatum: get those flowers under control by the end of the week or he was having his men take them all down. Permanently.
Ella hadn’t even bothered wasting her own time describing how important those flowers were to her; how they were given as a gift, to help her through her tough childhood, but when they didn’t bloom, the boy himself stepped in to fill that role. And then, when that same man—her dear, sweet Antonio—was taken away, causing her more pain that any crack of her father’s wrist or snap of her mother’s sharp tongue ever had, the flowers finally bloomed to give her the same reminder.
There was always beauty in the world, if only you remembered to see it.
The flowers had continued to grow, as the years went by. But Ella had grown right alongside it and her body was in no shape to tend them, as she used to. And that’s how they’d come to take over the archway just outside her home, covering all the stone and dangling in front of the arch’s mouth, so you had to brush past them to go through. She didn’t think the flowers were that bothersome, but she might be a little bias, all things considered.
Yet one fact clearly remained.
She couldn’t trim up those flowers herself, even though she had all the tools to do so neatly tucked away in a drawer. And she had no one to call upon to help.
So, instead, Ella sat at the window that provided her so many escapes throughout her life, content to spend the rest of the day looking down at her vine of flowers, one last time, not bothered at all by the comings and goings of passersbys, merchants or vendors as they went about their day, oblivious to her, perched up on the windowsill; oblivious to the beauty she had created, oblivious that the next day, it’d be nothing but a memory.
Until, hours later, her flowers shook and something snuck out from behind them, escaping through the archway.
A bicycle’s front tire peeked out.
Ella’s breath caught.
Pushing a bike out that proved to be too big for him, followed a young boy. Like a ghost from her past, Ella stared down at the youth, able to clearly make out his appearance, even sitting atop the window, as she did: his dark skin and matching hair, with crystal blue eyes that shone as he smiled, a pink flower getting stuck in his moppy mess of hair. Even if a little shorter, the boy looked exactly like the boy she’d fallen in love with, all those years ago. She’d never thought to see his likeness again.
Parking his bike parallel to the archway, he walked up a few more paces, putting his hand over his eyes to block out the sun as he looked up. Spotting her, he waved, before putting both hands around his mouth and calling out, “I heard you need help trimming this forest you’re growing!”
Ella choked back a sob, covering her mouth of her hand, before she offered the boy a true, genuine smile.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be her last time, after all.
Nicole Evans is a writer of fantasy and science fiction. She is currently unpublished and is working fervently to get the “un” removed from that statement. With eight completed drafts in various states of revision under her belt, she has no plans of stopping. And she really can’t wait for you to read these stories.
Considering she has run out of space for putting rejections letters up on her wall, Nicole now uses her spare time doing the typical things that nerds do: blogging, dying repeatedly during video games (which she believes is retribution for the characters she’s killed), wishing she was the character she is currently reading about and trying to fight off the real world by living in her own head, with varying degrees of success. Nicole has a degree in Creative Writing and a minor in Film and Media Studies, and works as an evening librarian assistant. You can find her personal blog here and her book review blog here. You can read all of her Muses stories here.