Authors: Mary Alice Monroe
“Marion?” Bending at the waist, she brought her palm to Marion’s forehead and gently, almost shyly, stroked the downy hair from her face. She let her fingertips trace the curve of her jaw, then travel to her shoulders, which she gently shook.
“Marion? Time to wake up!”
The eyelids blinked heavily a few times before gradually dragging open. Ella watched as the round blue eyes slowly focused, then saw her sweet smile freeze and fall to a frown when recognition sank in.
“You’re still here.”
“Yes, sleepyhead, I’m still here. And I’ll be here tomorrow, too.”
Marion whined petulantly and turned her back on Ella.
She was cranky and out of sorts. Ella immediately worried about her insulin levels.
“I remember promising you an outing today. I thought we’d go to town to the grocery store. Maybe we could find something to make the day special. Would you like to come?”
“Okay,” she said with a condescending sigh.
“Why, thank you, Miss Marion, for allowing me the pleasure of your company. I think we might even have a nice time. If we try.”
Marion looked over her shoulder, still showing a forced scowl. “I’m hungry.”
“I’ll bet you are and I’ve got breakfast all ready for you. But you know what we have to do first, don’t you?”
Harris could hear the screaming from clear across the yard.
“What the hell,” he muttered, stopping en route to look up at the gabled windows as though he half expected to see someone come flying out of them.
“Sounds to me like they’re mighty busy in there at the moment,” Lijah said at his side. “Maybe I’ll come by later for that cup of coffee.”
Harris nodded his agreement. “Might be a good idea.”
While Lijah took off for the far side of the yard, Harris’s heels dug into the soft earth on a direct path to his house. Didn’t this thin-lipped, bossy nurse know how to deal with the child better than he could? Or was she just skilled at giving
orders? Well, he’d had about enough for one morning, he thought as he stormed into the house.
His words stuck in his throat as he stood in the doorway. Ella Majors was at the table, calmly pouring cereal into a bowl, seemingly oblivious to the howling going on upstairs.
He shut the door behind him. “What, may I ask, is going on here?”
“I’m getting Marion’s breakfast ready,” she replied, looking up with a serene smile. Her brown hair was pulled back in a martinet’s style and the white shirt under her sweater was buttoned to the throat. She was the very picture of control amid chaos. Somehow, the image only irritated him further.
“While she’s screaming?”
“Oh, she’s just mad, is all. I had to prick her a few times. First the test, then the shot.”
“And you just left her crying up there all alone?” His voice was rough with anger.
Ella slowly put the cereal down, then gave him a cold, hard stare.
She wasn’t a big woman—average height, slender and small of bone. When she pulled those bony shoulders back and glared at him with those dark brown eyes, however, she made herself appear formidable, like a hawk that fluffs its feathers when threatened.
“I’m sorry,” he said at length. “I didn’t mean to sound harsh. It’s just—”
“She’s fine,” Ella interrupted, her shoulders lowering a bit. “Really. She just needs to get her anger out and there’s no point in giving her an audience. That’s what she wants, you see. To manipulate me.” Her thin lips twitched in mirth. “Like she does you.”
He was taken aback. “No, she doesn’t.”
“Oh, yes, she does. She plays you like a fiddle.”
He shifted his weight as an embarrassed smile eased across his face. “I guess she might, from time to time. What were her blood levels this morning?”
“High,” she replied, her smile slipping as she grew serious.
“Quite high, actually. It was clear when I woke her up that her insulin levels were way off. I tested her, then immediately gave her an insulin shot. No easy task, as you well know. Frankly, Mr. Henderson, I’m concerned. I need to get a handle on her blood levels. They’re all over the place.”
“I— Well…they’ve been hard to maintain.”
“Granted. And the shift with my arrival adds stress, but we must make some immediate changes. We can start by getting her on a fixed routine. No more sleeping in late. That’s never good for a diabetic child. And no more backing off from her temper tantrums. She’ll get tested at regular intervals. And no more tempting sweets in the house. That’s an accident waiting to happen.”
“Look, I know I’ve screwed up. I missed the symptoms, and now I obviously can’t manage her care. I’ve failed her, okay? What more do you want me to say?”
“Oh, no, Mr. Henderson! Please. I wasn’t being critical of you! I don’t think you failed her.”
He didn’t believe her.
“Quite the opposite. You’ve done marvelously well here on your own. Diabetes is a tough disease to handle. There’s so much to learn and do, especially at the beginning of this crisis. You’ve brought her around again and, after all, you did hire me to come here and care for Marion. As for missing the symptoms… No one can single you out for blame. I can’t tell you how many parents have told me the same thing when their child lands in the emergency room at the hospital. They think that, somehow, they are to blame. That they’ve fed their child the wrong foods. The truth is, nothing you or they did contributed to the onset of diabetes. You can’t blame yourself or think you’ve failed.”
He said nothing to this. He could not.
“Managing her blood levels is a daily—hourly—struggle. I’m a nurse. I’ve studied the disease, dealt with it many times. Honestly? I’m more worried that
fail you and Marion.” She tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear as she took a deep breath. “If I sound like a general sometimes, forgive me. You wouldn’t be the first one who’s thought that. It…it’s just my way of approaching a problem. I like to attack it head-on. But the truth is, neither of us is alone in this struggle. We have to work together.”
Harris felt the weight of his guilt slip from his shoulders like a glacier crashing to the sea. Suddenly, he saw Miss Ella Elizabeth Majors through different eyes. She wasn’t being critical, she was being supportive. She wasn’t blaming him as a failure. Rather, she was afraid of her own failure.
Hearing that helped to put his own worry into perspective. He wasn’t alone on some precipitous branch, like poor ol’ Pee Dee. He and Ella were partners in this effort. Looking at Ella again, the sharp angles of her face appeared to have softened as she looked at him with concern.
“Working together… I like that idea,” he said.
“You know,” he said, sensing that they’d just crossed a line in their relationship. “A good start to all this might be if you stop calling me Mr. Henderson and just call me Harris like everyone else does.”
“All right. Harris. And please, you’ll have to call me just Ella.”
“Okay, Just Ella.”
He noticed that her color deepened at his weak attempt at humor, making her brown eyes come alive. It felt oddly like flirting.
As though she sensed it, too, she pressed her hands together and spoke in a rush.
“Last night Marion may have had too much to eat for her bedtime snack, or she may be having low blood sugar during the night. It’s hard to tell right off the bat. I gave her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, just to stabilize things a bit. The little minx only ate it when she thought I wasn’t looking,” she added, smiling ruefully at the memory. “I’m afraid I’m at the bottom of her list of favorite people at the moment.”
The screaming upstairs abated. Ella looked up for a minute, her ear cocked. In another moment, all was blissfully quiet. She looked at him as a knowing grin crossed both their faces.
“More coffee?” she asked brightly.
Ella Elizabeth Majors was in her element. She saw the household as just one charming but dusty carpet that needed a good shaking and to be laid out straight. In the past few days she’d literally rolled up her sleeves and cleaned the house with relish. She felt she was starting to gain control of this unruly house.
She wasn’t so confident with Marion, however. She had a whole new sympathy for Harris’s efforts as a lone parent. At the moment, the little girl was sitting at the table quietly eating a hot breakfast. Ella didn’t want to do anything to distract her, even if it was only the calm between storms.
It wasn’t really the child’s fault that she was so temperamental. Marion had been living on a schedule that revolved around the lives of the adults in her life, going to bed late and sleeping late the next morning. The first thing Ella did was put Marion on a new schedule in order to better monitor her blood sugar levels. This meant literally dragging the complaining child from her bed every morning and proceeding to poke her with needles. Each day began with a tantrum instead of a smile.
But these were minor skirmishes compared to what she knew would be the major battle: the television. Marion spent hours in front of the television, watching one children’s show after another with a glazed look on her face. Ella had yet to see her play with any of the dozens of toys she had lying around the house or go out of doors in the fresh air. She knew it would be easier to get the housework done with Marion sitting passively on the sofa. It was the obvious mode of baby-sitting she’d received thus far. But her first priority was to care for Marion, not the house.
So Ella’s plan for today was to keep the television turned off.
It wasn’t long before she heard the telltale clank of the spoon hitting the cereal bowl and the scrape of a chair. Ella wiped her hands on her apron and came around the corner from the kitchen to stand at the threshold of the living room. She watched, pensively, as Marion trotted over to the television with her doll, Lulu, tucked under her arm. With a yawn, she reached out to turn the television on.
Ella tucked her arms around herself and waited.
When the television didn’t turn on, Marion pushed the button again, then again with frustration.
“It won’t go on,” Ella told her with a calm voice.
Marion swung her head around to face her. “Why not?”
Ella licked her lips and stepped into the room. “There won’t be any television for a while.”
“Is it broken?”
It would have been so much easier to lie and tell her yes. After all, she was only five years old. She didn’t need a long explanation. The truth was Ella had simply unplugged it. But Ella didn’t want to begin their relationship with a lie. Better that Marion understand the new routine, she thought to herself. Then she could come to accept it.
“No, it’s not broken,” she replied calmly. “I just made it so it wouldn’t work for a while.”
Marion looked at her disbelievingly, then she scrunched up her face and whined, “But I wanna watch TV!”
“Let’s take a walk instead,” Ella suggested, holding out her hand. When Marion angrily crossed her arms and turned away in a snub, Ella whispered a prayer for strength and tried another tactic. “Do you want to play one of your games? I’m pretty good at them. You pick.”
“No! I wanna watch TV!” This time more loudly and persistent.
“Marion, I care too much about you to let you sit there all morning like a vegetable. There are lots of fun things we could do.” She saw the anger sizzling in the child’s eyes and knew that this was going to be a showdown. Ella racked her brain, trying to think of what might tempt a five-year-old. “How about we play dolls? Or color in some of your coloring books? I’ll get some paints for later, if you like. I love to paint and could teach you. What do you think?”
Marion squared off and shouted with all the rage and anger pent up inside. “I
I wanna watch TV!”
Ella held her ground, clasping her hands tight before her. “Well, that’s not going to happen. You might as well accept that and think of something else you’d like to do.”
“No!” She marched like a mad general over to the television and tried again to turn it on. When, of course, it wouldn’t work, she grew so furious she raised her hand and hit it. “Ow!” she cried out, cradling her hand against her chest and letting the first tears flow at this final indignity.
It was too pitiful to watch and Ella drew near to wrap a consoling arm around her.
“I hate you!” Marion screamed, backing away as though she loathed Ella’s touch. “You’re mean. You only make me do what you want me to do. You never let me do what I want to do!”
“I wish you never came here. I want you to go away from here. And never come back!”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are not going to watch television this morning.”
It was all too much. Marion threw herself across the sofa and began writhing and screaming at a high pitch. Her face was turning as red as a stoked fire that was going to burn hot for hours.
Ella took a deep breath, trying to contain her own simmering frustration and maintain a nurse’s calm in the face of crisis. “When you’re finished, come join me in the kitchen,” she said, trying to speak loud enough to be heard over the screaming. “I’m cleaning out the cabinets and you might want to help.”
“I hate you! I wish you never came here!”
Ella felt slapped by the words and, chewing her lip, turned on her heel and headed for the kitchen. There, she grabbed the bucket of soapy water, dropped to her hands and knees and began scrubbing. She was a pediatric nurse, she told herself as she put her back to the task. She knew that Marion was simply overwhelmed with the changes going on in her life. All her fears of hospitals, illness and needles, coupled with the anxiety of a new caretaker and schedule, had proved too much for her. And who could blame her? She had to get pricked with a needle six times a day!
Ella reminded herself that she’d dealt with tantrums at the hospital many times over the years. Some children screamed until they were so upset they threw up. Others held their breath till they turned blue or passed out. Most people didn’t realize that tantrums were hardest on the child. The uncontrollable nature of their own fury terrified them. In the hospital, Ella had been skilled at helping a child calm herself, and more often than not, the tantrums gradually subsided.