Authors: Shari Shattuck
ALSO BY SHARI SHATTUCK
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Shari Shattuck
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Becoming Ellen / Shari Shattuck.
PS3619.H3575B43 2015 2014049769
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For my siblings, Dwayne, Stephanie, and Shawna.
What a wonderful journey life is with you three beside me.
llen Homes was feeling jaunty, which was interesting, because until recently she'd never found any use for the word
. Sure, she'd read it, but with her particular brand of detached living, which excluded most conversationsâor human interaction, if at all possibleâshe'd never had a chance to try it out. Jaunty, Ellen decided, felt like a sunny day with a thrilling breeze, though right now it was dark, only a couple of hours before dawn. She looked out the window of the bus at the deserted, gray, early-a.m. sidewalks and suppressed a smile.
Not that anyone would see the fleeting expression. It wasn't difficult for Ellen to fall naturally into her old state of invisibility, not for someone with as much practice as she had. For more than twenty years, Ellen had developed the knack of being absent. It had begun simply, with seeking shadows and silence, because the alternative was
, which had never been a good thing for Ellen. Concentrating hard on withdrawing from the physical world, she would
herself to not be a part of it. Her diligence, coupled with the fact that nobody in her life had ever
to see her, had finally, and happily, resulted in the ability to virtually move through life invisibly.
At least it had until she'd run into Temerityâor, to be more accurate, until the blind girl had run into her. Without vision, Temerity had “seen” Ellen in a way that Ellen was unprepared for, a way that lacked the judgment of physical appearance, because for Temerity
appearance had no meaning
The bus shushed and roared in its bizarre syncopated way as it followed its familiar route. There was another word that Ellen had learned from Temerity, who was a musicianâ
. “Oh, it means that the backbeat, the weaker rhythm, changes and becomes stronger than the primary beat,” the violinist explained when Ellen had asked.
, the weak becoming stronger. Ellen liked that. She wasn't sure why exactly. It might have been the way the word felt as it came out of her mouth with a rhythm of its own, in three short, distinctive bursts.
But she suspected the more likely reason was that she just loved words. She had spent so much of her childhood hidden in closets and attics, with only the characters of books to keep her company, that vocabulary and phrases had become her friends.
But Ellen was most fascinated by honest human interaction. Observing and noting those exchanges had tethered her to the world, but loosely, anchoring her at a safe distance. To her, strangers weren't just curiosities, they were
. Ellen studied their minute behaviors and recorded their exchanges with each other in her lined notebooks. Life's little snapshots, she called them. Turning from the window, she directed her attention to the other passengers and took out her current notebook.
Almost directly across from Ellen, a woman and a child were slumped in their seats. They had the exhausted, malnourished look that Ellen recognized from her own neglected childhood. The girl was playing with a small plastic toy, but she looked up at the bus advertisements and pointed to an elaborate doll. Her mother glanced up and then shook her head wearily. The girl pleaded, clinging to her mother's arm, until her mother shoved her and told her to stop being stupid.
Frowning, Ellen wrote the exchange down in her notebook. But then she noticed something else. The mother's tired gaze shifted again and again to the ad, and her own eyes filled with tears, which she wiped away angrily, and then she kissed the top of the girl's head, and Ellen wrote,
Mother feels badly.
As the bus pulled up to the next stop, the doors opened and a very large white man, ruddy, and so big that he almost filled the aisle, lumbered up the steps, where he stood, aggressively scanning the other riders. Ellen slipped farther down in her seat, and the man's erratic, drug-altered gaze slid past her without so much as a pauseâas usual when she encountered people. He rubbed his fingers against his thumbs rapidly and licked his lips. Ellen could see that he was extremely unstable, either under the influence of some strong drug or mentally ill. A young, thin black man wearing jeans and a zipped-up leather jacket slipped around him and took a seat in the back.
The threatening stranger swayed slightly as the bus pulled away. Then he leaned down until his face was inches from an elderly passenger's. He spat, “Hey, geezer, give me a dollar.”
The senior whimpered with fear and shook his head. “I don't have any money. Please leave me alone.”
Ellen checked to see what the driver would do. She could see him watching furtively in the huge rearview mirror, but he maintained his neutrality.
In the center of the slightly raised row of seats along the back of the bus, Ellen noticed the young man in the leather jacket watching the bully with a blank face. It was the
of expression that was notableâthe absence of fear.
“What are you looking at?” the large man shouted down the bus at him.
“Nothing,” the man in the leather jacket responded. “Less than nothing.”
Ellen decided she liked him.
The bully started toward him. “You want some of this?” He pounded his chest with his fists.
“No,” the other man responded lazily, suppressing a yawn. “I don't want none of that.”
The driver finally spoke up. “Sir, I need you to take a seat,” he called out.
For a few secondsâEllen counted to twelve slowlyânothing happened. The disturbed man's eyes shifted right and left several times. It appeared he was trying to digest this information, and there was clearly a glitch in the processing. Then he took another step toward the back.
“Sit down, sir!” the driver called out with more force.
With surprising speed, the big man spun and ran at the driver with an apelike roar, his arms outstretched, his fingers curled into claws.
The driver saw him coming and slammed on the brakes. Ellen and the other passengers were flung forward. Ellen managed to stop her face from hitting the seat in front of her only because she already had her hands braced up against it. The young man from the back flew forward but landed on his feet at a run and kept running toward the attacker, who had his hands around the driver's neck. The bus went into a slide.
The bus's wheels hit the curb as the vehicle flipped and landed on its side. Ellen's shoulder slammed hard against the window to her immediate right. She felt a hard thump as something landed on her left hip, but everything was a mess of sounds and motion. It was hard to separate the screaming from the screech of metal on concrete and the smashing of glass from the whining of the bus's engine.
The bus rocked twice, and then found its sideways balance. Ellen raised her head and looked around.
The man in the leather jacket had grabbed the back of the emergency seats on the left and was dangling a couple of feet over the facing seats. As she watched, he let himself drop and moved immediately to the attacker, who was lying in a heap on the ground. She watched him seize the man's arms, twist them behind him, and produce handcuffs. The bus driver dangled by his seat belt, blood dripping from his forehead.
Ellen became aware that something was digging into her side. Twisting awkwardly, she looked down. The little girl who had been sitting across from her was lying on top of Ellen, her mouth open in silent shock.
Ellen thought philosophically,
at least she landed on something soft.
“Are you okay?” Ellen asked as gently as she could. Speaking to children under any circumstances was alien to Ellen, and this wasn't just any circumstance. The girl stared at Ellen as if surprised to find that there was someone underneath her. Trying to avoid the glass shards around them, Ellen worked her fanny onto what had been the wall of the bus below the window, the glass of which was now replaced by exposed cement. Putting one arm around the girl's tiny waist, she shifted her so as not to sit on her, which, Ellen was sure, would crush the little fledgling. “Are youÂ .Â .Â . uhÂ .Â .Â . okay?” Ellen repeated.
The little girl looked into Ellen's eyes, said, “I think so,” in a mewing voice, and then threw herself against Ellen. Ellen's whole body went rigid, but she resisted the instinct to shove her away and sat frozen, patting the child's back with an open palm.
Where was her mom? But before she could look, Ellen smelled something that disturbed her more than the moans and cries that were oozing up around herÂ .Â .Â . smoke.
“All right, then,” she said to the little girl. “We need to get out. Come on.” The child didn't so much as blink. Ellen tried to think of some way to motivate her. From the depths of her past she remembered something someone had said to her when she was entering yet another unwelcoming foster home. It hadn't made the home any better, but it had helped Ellen walk through the door. So she said it now.Â “Be brave. Okay?” She got to her feet and pulled the girl up. The child wrapped her arms around Ellen's thigh, but she moved with Ellen as they made their way toward the window, now above them, with the words
in gleaming red.
Glancing back, Ellen saw that the big man in handcuffs had rocked himself onto his knees, and his crazed eyes were fixed with hard, insane hatred on the man in the leather jacket who was trying to free the driver.
“Wait here, just one second, I'll be back,” Ellen said, unwinding the girl's arms from her leg. The girl allowed it, but watched Ellen's face with dazed anxiety.
Halfway to the front, Ellen was stopped by the sight of something wedged between two seats. It was the girl's mother, completely still, with her face twisted strangely against her chest. Beyond her, the bully growled and planted one foot in preparation to stand.
Without even thinking, Ellen put one foot on his chest and shoved hard. He went over backward, his weight pinning his arms underneath him. Then she took up a position beside the man struggling to release the driver's seat belt. He looked startled at her sudden appearance but he smiled, a little desperately. Bracing herself on the center divider, Ellen reached both hands up over her head and pushed up on the driver's hip with all her might. “Okay,” she forced out. “Now.”
With the weight somewhat eased, they were able to unfasten the seat belt, then break the driver's fall.
“Okay, I've got him, you get out!” the man in the jacket commanded.
When Ellen reached the emergency exit, the little girl attached herself to her again. The window was open, and a man was reaching down.
“Hurry!” he told Ellen as she lifted the small girl, who barely weighed more than her obese cat, up and through the exit. Then it was Ellen's turn, though she was not so eager to trust her considerable weight to other arms.
But she had no choice. So she allowed herself to be hoisted up until she flopped out onto the side of the bus and then was helped to the street before scuttling out of the way.
She was sitting on the curb, panting, when someone put the little girl in her lap. “Here's your mommy,” the man said, patting the child's head.
Ellen opened her mouth to say, “She's not myÂ .Â .Â .” and then she thought of the real mother still inside the bus, the unnatural angle of her neck, and she said nothing.
With a siren's scream of relief, the first emergency vehicle pulled up, scattering Good Samaritans and spectators alike.
Suddenly the soft brown eyes of the young man appeared in front of hers. “You guys doing okay?” As he leaned down and his jacket fell open, Ellen saw something shiny clipped to his belt over his faded black jeans and white T-shirt. A badge.
Not used to being seen, much less spoken to, Ellen just nodded and kept her gaze down.
“Thanks for your help.” Ellen felt pressure on her shoulder and looked at it. Her whole body seemed to pulse and writhe, seeking escape, but he turned and called out to the paramedics, “Let's get someone to take a look at these two.”
“No,” Ellen objected, her heartbeat fluttering up from its already accelerated pace into a flurry of constant thrumming. “No. Please. I'm fine.”
But as she said it, she saw a figure strapped tightly to a backboard being lifted down from the bus. Ellen reached out and pulled the little girl's birdlike body against her, instinctively trying to prevent the child from seeing.
When she looked down, she saw that the girl had already registered the image that Ellen knew she could never erase of her motherâhelpless, unconscious, and clearly broken. Then Ellen noticed a large red bump was beginning to rise on the child's forehead.
Every instinct in Ellen was screaming
Hide! Find cover!
but for the first time in her life she did not want to listen. She needed to stay present, to help, to watch over, to beÂ .Â .Â . was it possible?
for someone else. Ellen's pulse steadied, settling into a furious but determined drumroll. “Yes, please, right away.”
In the ER, the child was put in an individual room, her tiny figure dwarfed by the adult-size gurney. Ellen pulled up the room's single hard-plastic chair to the side of the bed farther from the door and slumped, keeping her head low and the girl's small hand in hers, marveling at the soft fragility of the bones in the tiny fingers, like slim weeds in the crack of a sidewalk, dried brittle in the sun.
The admitting nurse approached them. “What's your daughter's name?” she asked, readying a clipboard to receive the information.
“I don't know,” Ellen said.
Using their linked fingers, the girl pulled herself close to Ellen's ear and whispered, barely audibly, “My name is Lydia.”
“Lydia,” Ellen told the woman without making eye contact. “I'm not her mom, she'sÂ .Â .Â . she's in the next room. There.” Ellen pointed.
The nurse glanced up, brow furrowed, but smiled grimly. “Are you in pain, Lydia?”