To celebrate the physical and digital release of my little ellie
I'm going to share a very special chapter from the novel to help introduce you to Ellie and her relationship with her father. This chapter takes place just weeks after a reality altering event for both of them when she is ten years old, roughly six years before the events of the novel.
If you enjoy what you read, please consider visiting the store page to pick up a copy. I highly suggest the physical versions as they will provide you a reading experience that could not be achieved due to the limitations imposed on the digital format.
Without further delay, please enjoy!
Ellie looked out the side of the truck with her head resting on the plastic interior molding, gazing out at the endless body of water next to her. Being unable to see any landscape in the horizon, she had no sense of how big it was. Had they driven to the ocean?
Nicholas looked over at her periodically, they hadn’t said a word since shortly after leaving Rochester city limits. She didn’t feel like speaking; he didn’t know what he could possibly say right now either. Inside, he was still struggling to process their new reality.
“It’s pretty big, isn’t it?” he asked, while glancing between the road and the water.
Today he was taking her somewhere special to cheer her up, somewhere he knew for sure she would want to go. Just across the border into Canada was a large petting zoo not too far outside Niagara Falls. It wasn’t going to be easy for him to handle going there, but he promised her he would be brave.
They left early in the morning so they could take their time getting there via Highway 18. It added some time to the trip, but the detour offered amazing views of Lake Ontario and surrounding forested areas; a lot more interesting than one of the bigger, boring highways inland. He couldn’t tell from her thousand mile stare if she was even interested in it or not.
Ellie lifted her face off the side of the door and looked at him with still-puffy eyes, the fake leather texture of the plastic pressed into her soft cheek. “Is that the ocean?”
“That’s Lake Ontario, Honey.”
“But, it’s really big.”
“It is. Hey, maybe they should’ve called it Big Lake, hey?” he said, with a false grin. His attempt at a dad joke didn’t quite land. Ellie stared unaffected at him while he drove.
“Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise. It’s somewhere I-” he paused, “It’s somewhere we always wanted to take you.”
She stared out the front window at the passing red and orange trees along the sides of the highway while she tried to figure out where they were going. After a minute or so she figured it out. “We’re going to grandma and grandpa’s to see the castles?”
He was taken aback slightly. “Uh, no, Honey. You need to fly there.”
She gave a small frown, not in disappointment about not going to see the castles her mother had told her about, more disappointed that she was wrong. “Where are we going then?”
“You’ll see soon. We’re only about an hour or so away.”
The suspense was killing her. To a young person, an hour was a long time, “or so” meant it was possibly eternity. She put her head back against the side of the door and sighed. The fake ocean moved away out of sight as the highway turned back inland.
* * *
The parking lot at the petting zoo was mostly empty when they arrived, Nicholas had no problems finding a good parking spot close to the entrance. Coming here during a school day had its advantages. Ellie leaned forward in her seat to look out and up the side window at the tall sign beside her.
Niagara Falls Petting Zoo & Animal Sanctuary
“Where you come to fall in love!”
It had a few hand painted animals bordering the blue and green text. A giraffe’s neck extended from the bottom to the top without revealing any of the body or head; the only clue besides the long neck to its identity being its spots. Next to it was a sloth lazily waving with a smile on its face while on the opposite side there was a friendly bear. Were bears even friendly?
He got out of the truck first, Ellie waited for him before undoing her seatbelt. Her door opened and she assumed the position of putting her arms into the air to be helped out of the truck which was still a pretty big drop for her.
“Thank you,” she said, sweetly. Her mother always stressed the importance of being polite to everybody.
As she made her way towards the entrance, still staring at the big sign, he closed the door and watched her. He followed her gaze to the sign and got lost in a thought.
* * *
“Are you coming?” asked Alice.
Sunlight radiated off her warm smile on the most perfect day to go to a petting zoo. He couldn’t help but feel a little choked up by her natural beauty. How in the world he managed to ask someone like her out and have her say yes was beyond him. His heart pounded in his chest in a way that you could only experience with new love. He was pretty impressed with himself, coming up with the idea to take her here for a first date.
When they first met at a small coffee shop, she was working behind the counter wearing a t-shirt with lots of animals on it. He was so instantly distracted by her that when it came time to place his order he couldn’t find the right words let alone the order they went in to ask for a simple cup of black coffee.
She smiled and laughed slightly. “I’ll just point my finger around and you tell me when to stop.”
By his third visit, he managed to finally say hello. By his fifth, or maybe it was the sixth? He managed to ask her out. To his surprise, she agreed! Years later, she would playfully remind him about his inability to form a sentence in those early days. He often told her how he wanted to ask her out much sooner, but there were always too many people around to watch him express his feelings in public. He couldn’t possibly handle that kind of embarrassment, especially if she had rejected him.
* * *
“Are you coming? asked Ellie.
The bright warm skies behind the sign turned to slightly overcast and dull as he was brought back to reality. He looked down at his little girl. She had her mother’s eyes and bright smile.
“Y-Yeah, let’s go, Hon.”
She reached her hand up to grab his. Together they walked to the entrance, little hand in hand.
As Ellie quietly meandered from exhibit to exhibit, Nicholas followed her without much attention given to the animals. Ruminations continued to plague him like a curse since that night at the hospital.
How could he possibly be a good father to her?
How will he do it without her?
He stood still as she continued to make her way ahead of him, seemingly lost in her own imagination. He wondered what thoughts she was trying to deal with since her mother died. Life was so unfair - a cruel test who’s only reward at the end was death. Watching her as the distance between them slowly grew further apart, he couldn’t help but feel like she too was leaving him behind.
Ellie tried to make the most of being at the zoo and would occasionally talk to the animals. She could hear their voices in her mind as if they had a secret ability to communicate telepathically. She would ask them how they liked being here, what kind of food would they eat, did they have any family here too? After each conversation she inevitably apologized to them for not being more fun today. She didn’t mean to make them feel sad too.
After every exhibit was visited - some a couple of times, they made their way through the gift shop to exit. Every wall was lined with shelves of stuffed animals, many of which were a reasonable likeness of the animals on display. Dozens of cheaply printed t-shirts with animals on them were available, mostly in kid sizes. Some had funny phrases printed on them like “I SURVIVED THE TIGER EXHIBIT AT NIAGARA FALLS PETTING ZOO!” Implying the tigers were part of the petting areas. Dozens of other cheap knick-knacks occupied any available space for the children only allowed to pick out something small.
“Go ahead Hun, pick out whatever you like.”
Ellie looked up at him. “Really?”
“Well, yeah. Anything you like. Anything at all. Choose something that will always remind you of today.”
Ellie looked around at the hundreds of options. This was a big decision that couldn’t be taken too lightly. Would she go for one of the funny shirts? Or maybe the thick hardcover animal encyclopedia? Or, what about the red panda stuffed animal?! Her eyes lit up. She went to reach for the red panda when something else caught her eye. She looked at it intently, then to the red panda, back to it. With a gentle pat on the head of the red panda she apologized telepathically.
Standing on the tips of her toes, she stretched as far as she could go. Her little fingers just barely managed to touch its foot. She did a small leap to try and grab it. After a couple of attempts she managed to knock it over, safely catching it in her arms before it could fall to the floor.
She walked over to her dad who was distracted looking at one of the spinning racks of novelty name tags that pierced everyone’s ears from the sound of metal rubbing on metal when it was spun.
Doing her best to ignore the pain from the loud noise, she asked, “Can I get this?” She held it up to him, cradling it gently with both hands.
“Are you sure?”
She nodded enthusiastically.
“But… that’s just a crow, Honey. Wouldn’t you prefer one of the animals we saw here today?”
Shaking her head, she held the crow close to her chest and hugged it tightly while twisting side-to-side. “The others are really cute, and I do love all of them too… But, but I don’t see them around home.”
Ellie continued, “I always see crows. I like them. They always seem like they’re having fun!”
She was beginning to worry he might not let her get it after all. She looked up at him with desperation in her eyes. To her, this was the most important thing right now.
“Sounds good, let’s bring him, err, her, umm…”
“Him! He’s a he!”
“Okay, let’s bring him home,” he said, with a small smile. It truly didn’t matter in the end what she got, as long as she was happy.
* * *
For dinner he took them to a random roadside family restaurant that seemed nice from the outside. It didn’t really matter which family restaurant they chose, they all seemed to have the same menu options anyway.
Ellie played with her new friend, making him hop back and forth along the table. He watched as she played without any more worry. What was she imagining right now?
Maybe he could be a good dad after all, he thought to himself. It wasn’t easy, but he would have to be brave. And yet, he still couldn’t shake his own insecurities. It wasn’t like he had had a great role model of a father, even his mother wasn’t the best example of a good parent.
He happily watched her play in her own head until the food came. After a burger and some chicken strips, they were back on the road for the long drive home. The Fall sky was darkening; vibrant blue light gave everything the same monochromatic color. In the distance, flashes of lightning flashed and thunder rumbled dully over the Great Lake just out of view behind the surrounding trees. It’d probably be the last one until Spring.
During the dark drive home, Ellie sat with her knees to her chest, hiding her face behind her new stuffed friend. Only one eye kept look out to monitor the black sky. The sound of the truck on the road masked her short quick breaths and small whimpers from him.
Nicholas couldn’t really look at her like he had on the way there in such low visibility. The impending storm on their backs meant there was no moonlight tonight, so he had to rely on the soft amber headlights of his truck which didn’t seem to illuminate the road very well.
She wondered if it was somewhere out there. Hiding, following, waiting to do to her what it did to her mother. Imaginations ran wild in only a way they can in a child with a vivid imagination and an irrational fear. The Cik’s scream echoed through her mind in a way she wasn’t sure if it was real or in her head. Looking over she wondered why dad couldn’t hear it too. Maybe he could, maybe he was being brave.
The truck suddenly lurched and pitched side-to-side violently. Ellie screamed as all of the lights on the dashboard went out, leaving them in complete darkness as he tried to safely roll to a stop on the side of the quiet rural road. She buried her face into her crow and tried to pretend this wasn’t happening. Ellie was convinced this was the doing of the Cik, nothing could convince her otherwise.
“Dammit!” Nicholas sighed as he took the keys out of the ignition and reached under his seat for his flashlight.
“Daddy?” she whimpered.
“It’s okay, Hun. I was worried this might happen, it’s been acting up.”
With everything that had happened recently, he didn’t have the time, energy, or interest in dealing with it before it became a problem. He gently petted her hair to ease her worry. She slowly lifted her head knowing he would protect her from it.
“I’m going to go get my tools from the back, can you give me a hand with the light?”
Ellie looked out at the pitch black darkness surrounding them. Tops of trees waved scarily in the wind, their dry leaves rattled from all directions. The collective rustling sounded like she was standing in the center of a large colosseum because of her extra sensitive hearing. She was to be subjected to terror and torture for their entertainment. Ellie shook her head and buried it again.
“Are you sure? I could really use your help. I could use a little hero right now, what do you say?” He gently petted the side of her head again. After a moment it nodded slightly without lifting up.
“That’s my little girl.”
Nicholas popped the hood, grabbed his tool set from the back, and made his way to her side to lift her out of the truck. His large hand gave her the flashlight, she held it awkwardly in both of her hands and looked to the trees at the side of the road. He followed her gaze to see what she was looking at, then it clicked.
“Oh... I need you to shine this wherever I’m working with my hands. But, at any moment, if you need to point it somewhere else, that is okay too. Can you do that?”
Ellie hesitantly accepted her quest with a nod, she held the light with both hands like a sword pointed up in front of her. He attached the hood lift support and lifted her up, placing her on the edge of the open cavity. The warmth felt nice on her back in the cool night air. He knelt down to reach into his tool box for the 10mm socket wrench, Ellie quickly pointed the light to the ground to help him while keeping an eye at the darkness.
The distant thunderstorm would occasionally provide a flash of illumination of the area around them while he worked. It was usually followed with a sweeping beam of the flashlight to see if she actually did see something in the flash.
“What is it, Hun?” he said, yanking on something in the engine.
“Umm, I saw something.” She had trouble even admitting it.
“It’s in your imagination. I promise.”
Ellie hesitated again before continuing. “No, I really saw something. When… W-When mom died.”
He stopped what he was doing and stared at nothing in particular. What could he possibly say to something like that?! He searched for answers while Ellie searched for monsters.
“Can you flash the light over here for a second?”
Ellie did as she was asked.
“Do you know what any of this stuff does?”
Naturally, she didn’t. “No,” she replied, meekly.
“Well, this here, this is a battery. It provides electricity just like the ones in your flashlight, only bigger.”
She nodded, intently paying attention to him. Good, she’s listening, he thought.
“And this thing here, this is a belt that sends power from the engine to other things.”
A noise in the woods startled Ellie, she shot the light into the trees again.
“Can you light this part for me?” She illuminated a part he was pointing at. Her heart was racing, but she trusted him.
“Thank you. I just have to fix this last bit and we’ll get out of here soon. Promise.”
After an eternity, not to be confused with the eternity of an hour or so drive, the vehicle was possibly operational once again. Ellie couldn’t wait to get back to the safety of inside the truck. It was a well known fact that monsters couldn’t get you in there.
“Thank you. You know, you did pretty good tonight. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
Ellie didn’t fully believe him. She wasn’t brave at all.
He could sense her insecurity, she wasn’t capable of hiding her emotions like he was. “I’ll always need my little girl.”
That made her feel a little better about her performance as a little hero. He lifted her onto her seat, she tried to hand him the flashlight back.
“How about you hold onto it, just in case you need it.”
He closed the door and put his tools away. Hopping into the truck he put the key into the ignition and said the mechanic’s prayer. Ellie watched with silent concern. Thankfully it turned over after a bit of hesitation.
“Aha!” he exclaimed.
“Yay!” shouted Ellie, relieved.
Without any time wasted he pulled back onto the dark highway and carried on towards their home. As they came into the well-lit roads of the city he looked at his little girl quietly sleeping with her arms hugging her crow. His heart swelled as he smiled at her. In the light he realized her shirt was covered in black fingerprints from where he lifted her up. Looking at his hands stained with grease he quietly said, “Shit!” He wiped them onto his jeans, one at a time while holding onto the wheel.
It wasn’t going to be easy to be a better father to her.
* * *
It was several hours past her bedtime by the time he pulled into their driveway. Ellie, after a full day of adventure and mild terror, was completely exhausted. After unsuccessfully trying to wake her up, he decided to carry her inside.
The front door was starting to get stiff as he tried to quietly open it without waking her up. Something to fix later, he thought. He quietly walked across the hardwood floor of the hallway, being sure to roll his heavy boots outside in to step lightly. He gently placed her onto her bed and pulled the covers over her and her stuffed toy. He watched as she gently breathed - deep in sleep.
She looked so much like her, so much so it broke his heart. He quietly left her room and closed the door behind him. Outside, he took his heavy boots off at the bottom of the stairs and carefully walked upstairs to go to bed. Walking by the wall of photos, he tried to not look at them. His large hand gripped the doorknob of their bedroom and twisted. The door groaned slowly as it creaked open. Standing in the open doorway he tried to move forward but his feet wouldn’t listen. Both knees felt weak as his stomach sank through the floor.
Nicholas closed the door with another long slow groan and went back downstairs to the kitchen. The light in the fridge cast harshly onto his face revealing his tired eyes.
He fell with a heavy slump onto the couch in the living room and put the six pack of beer from the fridge onto the coffee table. He stared at them in complete silence. Thoughts of Alice gave his eyes reason to tear up. It would be okay now, he didn’t need to put on a brave face anymore.
Before the tears could fall, he quickly reached for a can, pulled it off the plastic rings, and cracked it open with a loud snap. His hand shook as he held it to his quivering lips. Pulling his head back, he took a large gulp, then another, and another until it was empty.
He exhaled and caught his breath, however, the tears were still there - right on the edge threatening to come out. He reached for another can, the crack echoed loudly through the quiet house. In the other room, his little girl peacefully slept, comfortably wrapped in her bed with her new friend.
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