Nathan put his hand on Ella’s shoulder and spun her body around towards his. “Ella, you have to calm down. What’s wrong? Just tell me what’s…”
Their eyes met and now he realized what seemed so strange about them on the couch. Ella’s gaze was fixed on his face, but her pupils were completed dilated – huge black discs with just a tiny ring of hazel around the outside. Nathan recoiled slightly at the sight. Both her hands were clenched tightly into fists, pressed close to her chest, knuckles white.
“Mom knew, Nathan, and now you know and he’s going to come. But I see now that you find her. You find her, you find her, but I can’t see…” She paused, gasping for air, as if she had ran down and back up her twisting stairwell.
“Ella, your eyes…” Nathan faltered for words. “Please, I don’t understand. Did you…did you do some kind of drugs? Just slow down and talk to me.”
He awkwardly held her, not knowing how close he should be. It was their first hug.
“You finally find her,” she breathed into his chest. He looked down at her face to see her pupils begin to contract, the hazel of her eyes expanding until the black was just a pin point in the middle of a sea of gray and green. She looked down at her hands as if they didn’t belong to her, still clenched tightly against her chest between them, still heaving as if she had ran a mile.
Krisis, Book 1
Issue #1: Girl Disappearing
Chapter Two: Unintended
“And you let her stay there by herself?”
Danny regarded Nathan incredulously and sunk his teeth deep into the skin of a bright red apple, snapping another crunchy mouthful out of the fruit.
“You don’t know how Ella gets. She’s so stubborn.” Nathan felt exasperated just thinking about it. “She insisted she was just freaking out about me saying Martina’s name, and the potatoes, and the potatoes maybe not being as good as Martina’s potatoes, or possibly being better than Martina’s potatoes, and not knowing which would be worse.”
Danny spoke through his mouthful of apple, “v’at es ucked up, ‘an.”
Nathan sat across an orange Formica-topped table from Danny in the bustling cafeteria at Khep Right Industrial’s Philadelphia campus.
The cafeteria was located in Nathan’s building, the taller of the two on campus. It was a cavernous, multi-level space furnished in an unfortunate pastiche of kitschy retro diner and corporate industrial. The result was something like eating dinner in a subway car – lots of cheerful, brightly colored plastic surfaces complemented by stainless steel. Utterly cacophonous and all very easy to hose down.
That was Khep Right Industrial to a tee: efficient, functional, and maybe slightly discomforting.
Danny finished chewing his bite of apple and set the fruit down on his plastic tray, reaching for a carton of milk. “Do you believe her?” Danny asked before taking a chug of his milk. “About the potato business, I mean.”
“I don’t know, Danny. It was scary. She was scary. It didn’t seem like she was in control of what she was doing or saying. One minute she was speaking gibberish, the next minute she was fine, munching on pizza.”
“And you don’t think she’s on drugs?” Danny asked, before taking another chug from his milk carton.
Nathan sighed. “I did think that, at first. Now I’m not sure. I mean, I went to college, I’ve seen people on just about everything. Nutmeg, even. But the whole episode only lasted for a minute or two, and I had been with her for a little while at that point. I guess she could have taken something before I got there…”
Nathan’s rambling was interrupted by Danny tossing his now-empty milk carton onto the table.
“You know what I think?”
“No, but I’m about to.”
“I think that the whole thing was her signal that you were supposed to,” Danny paused with dramatic flair, “comfort her.”
“Danny, I told you, she insisted she was fine.”
“No, not like that. More like it was her signal that you were finally supposed to – you know – make your move.”
This was a long-standing point of contention between Nathan and Danny. Danny, having heard the entire story of Martina (and, by extension, of Ella), was convinced that Ella harbored a secret crush on Nathan, and was waiting like a sleeping fairy-tale princess for him to make the first move.
Nathan had found the Ella-in-love theory amusing the first three times he heard it. People used to say the same thing about him and Martina, but there was no romance there, either. However, Danny’s initial three suggestions were now several years past, and had been long-since superseded by a steady trickle of annoying new mentions. Nathan tolerated them like the ravings of a subway seatmate wearing a tin foil hat, which is to say they usually caused him to stare and nod glassily, recognizing that logic would never prevail.
“Danny, she’s like my kid sister,” he delivered his stock response, “My kid sister and very nearly my legal dependent, given the unparenting style of her parents.”
“You hugged her,” Danny said with an accusing tone to his voice. “You said you hugged her. When have you ever hugged her before?”
“It was a platonic hug, Danny. A platonic, familial hug. The kind of hug you would hug your sad grandma with.”
“I’m telling you, Nathan, you guys have this Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley thing going. Harry would have said the same thing about Ginny in book five, but one day Ron is going to win the Quidditch match and you are going to make out for pages and pages.”
“That doesn’t even make any sense!”
Danny loved popular, crowd-pleasing things like Harry Potter, The Rolling Stones, and baseball. Nathan sometimes suspected he deliberately appealed to popular opinion to hide how smart he really was.
“I’m just worried about her,” Nathan confessed. “She’s a Freshman in college, she’s got finals coming up. On extremely rare occasion she gets a postcard from Lilly from some far flung locale. Her father can’t be relied upon to call her with any frequency, let alone show up for one of her choir concerts.” Nathan moodily forked his remaining macaroni and cheese from one side of his plate to the other. “If she had another episode like last night, who would even know?”
“Dude, I know this is hard for you to understand coming from your perfectly upstanding set of parents,” Danny gestured towards Nathan with the remains of his apple in hand, “but kids can work through stuff on their own.”
Danny punctuated his sentence with another bite from his apple, clearly waiting for Nathan to take his bait to argue about his parents. Nathan pointedly ignored him.
Nathan ate lunch with Danny every Thursday. Danny worked as a lab technician within the depths of a neighboring building, a sprawling set of chemistry labs. On all other days he was busy cooking up some new formula in the lab. On Thursdays Danny had a long wait before he could finish a quality check on a certain kind of chemical, so that was their standing lunch appointment with each other. As for Nathan, he never had so much to do that he could pull off looking busy enough to work through lunch. He ate alone the other four days of the week, unless he was cajoled into chatting with his unbearable manager while she ate from a trough of ostensibly healthy salad large enough to feed a quartet of chariot-pulling horses.
Danny stood slightly on the short side for a guy, which he made up for in volume of opinion, and he was ever so slightly muscular, but not so much that anyone would ever ask him what he did to work out. He was an incorrigible wearer of cargo pants and blue dress shirts, and sported a head of limp, honey-blond hair he kept cropped just long enough to tuck behind his ears.
If asked to describe Danny to a stranger, Nathan would probably use the word “nondescript” and then immediately recant it and search for something more appropriate. Really, Danny was almost nondescript. The exception was his skin. Danny was incredibly fair. Pasty. A whiter shade of pale. Nathan could never understand how he didn’t sport a constant sunburn. Danny was so pale that under certain light his skin seemed nearly translucent. The effect was a little unsettling.
“In news other than your unrealized love life,” Danny drawled at Nathan, “James is being an ass.”
“I’m sorry, in what context is that news?” Nathan replied with a grin. “James is an ass eight days a week, to hear you tell it.”
“Yeah, well, this week he’s being extra special.” Danny leaned back into his plastic cafeteria chair. “You’re lucky I’m even up here eating lunch with you.”
“I don’t get how he can order you around all the time. He’s not your boss. What does your actual boss have to say about that?”
“It doesn’t matter. I formulate chemicals. James sells chemicals. A lot of chemicals. I’m at his beck and call, all the time.”
“Don’t tell me he had you in here on a weekend again? They’re not paying you enough to live your entire life on the Khep Right Industrial campus.”
The name was a misnomer. Khep Right Industrial was involved less and less in industry each day, nor was it situated on very much of a campus. Nathan had asked his manager about it once before, and she told him that it was a campus, obviously, because it was planned to include three buildings separated by more than fifty feet each, and why would he dream of suggesting anything different? He had tried pointing out that, in fact, only two of the buildings had ever been built, but that simply earned him a careful reiteration of her initial explanation. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Khep kept right on calling it Khep Right Industrial’s Philadelphia campus. Technically, it was not even in Philadelphia.
Danny reached for his half-eaten apple and then froze in place, his eyes darting over Nathan’s shoulder. “Time out. That hot lady from Marketing is at your six o’clock.”
Nathan turned halfway around in his seat, decided it would be better not to look, turned back, realized how weird that looked, and then turned to the other way to make it look like he was stretching his back.
As he finished his fake stretch, Valerie sauntered into his peripheral vision. She was impossible to miss – lithe, leggy, and with a thick mane of curly jet-black hair. Nathan attempted to hold witty conversations with her whenever possible – in the elevator, occasionally in hallways, and once in the cafeteria.
Actually, he had manically spoken at high speed while she ate a cookie, but he still counted it as a conversation.
It was only on that occasion that he had formally learned her name, though he had long since figured it out via quizzing coworkers and surreptitiously stalking her desk, two floors below his own.
“Hi, Valerie!” Nathan called to her before he realized what he was doing. He was sure it had been too loud, but hopefully not too eager. To his relief, she waved in response and walked towards their table.
“Nathan,” she smiled, “How are you?” He thrilled quietly that she remembered his name.
“Yes, Valerie, hello,” Danny jumped in with a not-unsmarmy tone to his voice. “Please join us in discussing how Nathan is worried that his little sister is going crazy, whereas I think she has a deep and unrequited crush on him.”
Nathan turned back to Danny and fixed him with a glare that he hoped said, “no more color commentary about any other women in my life or I may poison your apple next Thursday.” Danny seemed to get the message, as he made a big show of smacking his lips shut.
“Uh, hi, guys,” Valerie paused to stand between their ends of the table. “Nathan, you have a sister? Why is she in love with you? That doesn’t sound healthy.”
“Oh, no, not like that.” Nathan shot another glare at Danny. “She’s not in love with me. Also, she’s not my sister.”
Valerie looked puzzled.
“It’s Ella. You know, Lilly’s daughter. Lilly Paglione that worked at Khep forever?”
“Right,” she said, in that way that people affirm a detail they have long since forgotten but assume they knew at some point in the past. “She’s a friend of your family? Something like that.”
“Something like that. I was in a band with Martina, her older daughter. She’s my best friend.”
“Martina, who died?” Valerie asked, tentatively. Lilly had worked for Khep for so long that everyone knew something about her family, even if they had started after she left the company.
Nathan couldn’t bring himself to affirm in speech, so he simply nodded.
“So,” Valerie strung the word out carefully, clearly realizing she had tread onto sensitive territory, “the sister – not Martina…”
“Ella,” Danny provided, helpfully. Nathan spared him a third glare.
“Right, Ella. She’s not your sister, and she’s not in love… I’m sorry, how did we start talking about this?”
In a flash of long dark hair and fashionable clothing Nathan could not identify, Valerie pulled a third chair up to their table and set down her tray between him and Danny. Nathan was too agape at this development to regain the power of speech so Danny jumped in to keep the conversation moving.
“Ella’s not legally his sister and not verifiably in love with him, but she definitely lost her shit the other night and had a massive gibbering freak out with her eyes all big like she was on drugs, and she kept saying Nathan was going to find Martina.”
“Find her?” Valerie pressed. At this point she seemed genuinely engrossed in the conversation. From the corner of his eye Nathan thought he could see a sly grin play across Danny’s face.
“Well…” Nathan hesitated. This was a little more personal. He was always afraid that talking about his connection with Lilly’s family would seem like bragging or, even worse, blithely advertising nepotism that helped to get him his job at Khep. Maybe that was why he had so few friends there – so much of his story was tied up with the Paglione family that he hardly had anything to say about himself without mentioning them.
“Martina’s accident was on April tenth, five years ago.” Nathan paused. “They never found Martina’s body, so Ella has always assumed she didn’t really die. I mean… not really. That’s just what she says. Like, as a defensive thing.” Nathan caught himself rambling. “I always visit Ella on the tenth. This week when I dropped by she got really upset. She kept insisting I would ‘find’ Martina, but then she said it was nothing.”
The three of them sat motionless in the midst of the din of the cafeteria. Nathan could think of nothing else to say, and Danny knew better than to joke after what Nathan had said. For her part, Valerie sat silently, contemplating.
Nathan regarded Valerie while she was deep in thought. Ever since he first ran into her in the elevator in his building the sight of her sent his stomach into a sickening tilt. He had never seen her wear anything other than smart, fashionable suits. Today she was in a deep purple skirt and jacket and a cream-colored blouse with lacy neckline that drew his attention to the brown skin beneath it.
Nathan realized he was staring and averted his gaze down to his plate of rapidly congealing macaroni and cheese.
Valerie gingerly breached their shared silence. “It sounds like you’re close with Ella.” Their cafeteria table was small and her face was inclined towards his, just two feet away.
“Like Danny said, she’s my non-legal sister. Lilly told me to look after her before she left Philly, but I had already started doing that on my own.”
“And do you think she really believes that Martina is alive?” Valerie leaned further in towards Nathan, one finger pressed gingerly against her chin.
It looked quite fetching.
“She hopes it.” He tried to stop there, but realized it was only part of the story. “I mean, I hope it, too. There was so much left unknown.”
Nathan discovered he had become a little choked up talking about it, and futilely tried to pass over the quavering of his voice by clearing his throat. This never happened with Ella.
“Nathan, it must be so hard for you both this time of year.” Valerie pressed her eyes shut, and shook her head in sympathy. “I can’t imagine losing a sister, or a best friend. When my mother died, I…”
Valerie let her sentence trail off. She removed her finger from her chin and reached her hand across the edge of the table to rest it on Nathan’s arm in empathy.
Nathan thought he would blush from her touch, but instead found that he felt completely calm. The catch in his throat had fallen away. It was as if having someone understand the hope he and Ella shared made it that much stronger.
“Have you tried talking to her father?”
“He returns phone calls monthly,” Nathan grumbled, “if we’re lucky.”
“Oh. Well, what about your parents?”
“Them?” Danny chuckled from across the table, “All they ever do is ask him if he’s considering grad school for something ‘more practical’. They gave him GMAT books for Chinese New Year.” Then, he added chirpily, “They gave me a tea set!”
Nathan couldn’t muster another deadly glare for Danny, so he simply sighed and stabbed his fork into the now solid mac and cheese on his plate. How did getting Valerie to sit at their table turn into a depressing conversation about his most-likely dead best friend and his relentlessly belittling parents?
“Of course, you’re going back to check on her.” Valerie made it sound obvious.
“She’s not answering my calls. Or texts. Or emails.” Nathan sighed. “I’m worried, but I don’t want to make her more upset.”
“What if you had a good excuse to stop by?”
“Like what?” Danny asked. “He felt like driving clear across town to West Philly for no reason whatsoever?”
“There are plenty of things to do in West Philly,” Valerie countered, crossing her arms over her chest. “I can think of five restaurants there I’ve been meaning to try.”
“Well, I’m sure he’s never tried any of them, yet,” Danny retorted, seemingly enjoying getting under Valerie’s skin, “so why would he conveniently be there doing it tonight?”
Nathan suddenly realized where the conversation was heading, but he felt powerless to intervene. Powerless, and a little intrigued.
“What if we stopped by to check on her?” Valerie said.
Suddenly, Danny’s face leaned into the picture. He had practically climbed across the table to insert himself between Nathan and Valerie.
“I’m sorry, did you say ‘we’?”
“Yes, Danny.” She said his name pointedly as though she was addressing a small child, “Nathan and I. I get to try a restaurant, he gets to say he was headed out to dinner with a work friend and decided to stop by.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Nathan said, feeling he ought to mount at least a weak protest.
“It doesn’t sound like Ella has any adults present in her life other than you, Nate.” Valarie uncrossed her arms and placed one hand on top of Nathan’s. This was shocking to him, as he had temporarily forgotten he had hands. “I know what it’s like to lose a family member when you’re young. If she got upset in front of you, maybe she’s too afraid, or embarrassed, or whatever to talk. But, you have to know if she’s okay. ”
Now it was Nathan’s turn to blush – not at her hand (still touching his!), or her offer to visit Ella with him (and the dinner date she effectively demanded), but at her calling him “Nate.” Nathan had always been impervious to nicknames – Martina’s family were the only people in the world to call him Nate. Or, at least, the only ones he appreciated.
“What do you say? Will she be home tonight?”
“Um… sure? I don’t think she has a rehearsal with the choir or anything.””
“Then I’ll come with you.” She stopped short at this, maybe realizing how insistent she sounded. “I mean, if you don’t think it would be too weird? And then you can come to a restaurant with me. I can email you the names of the ones I want to try … I don’t even know what kind of food you like.”
“Uh… sure,” Nathan said, self-consciously peering from her chicken cutlet arranged artfully on a bed of rice to his morass of mac and cheese. “I mean, you can pick. I’ll eat anything. I’ll text Ella to let her know I’m coming… we’re coming. Not that she’ll answer. Is seven good? She’s just off of 44th street.”
“Why don’t I park at the college and meet you by Penn’s dorms? On Locust Walk? I’ve been to a career fair there with HR. We can walk to her apartment together and catch up.”
Nathan stared glassily at Valerie, disbelieving that he was actually going to see her outside of work. Danny, having since withdrawn his face from the midst of the conversation to retreat to his side of the table, looked smugly satisfied with this development.
Valerie removed her hand from Nathan’s, stood up from the table, and picked up her tray. “Sorry to chat and run – I have to work through the rest of my lunch. But I’m glad I ran into you,” she paused, “and you, Danny.”
Danny smiled at her beatifically.
“I’ll see you tonight,” she said.
“Great,” Nathan managed, weakly.
Valerie smiled and turned to walk towards the elevator bay.
“Super!” Danny exclaimed to her receding back. “It’s a date!”
Her back now to the table, Valerie raised one hand from her tray to make a single, elegant goodbye wave at the two of them. They watched her recede through the crowd of orange and chrome tables until she rounded the corner to the elevators, at which point Danny turned back to Nathan, a wide grin nearly splitting his face in two.
“I just helped you get a date with your hot elevator girlfriend from Marketing! You have a date with a girl you’re secretly in love with to go and psychoanalyze your surrogate little sister who’s secretly in love with you. How awesome is that?!”
Nathan felt completely justified in flinging a forkful of macaroni and cheese at Danny’s blue dress shirt. He was probably going to get something on it during his quality check, anyway.
Tune in next Friday for the next chapter, where the mystery of Ella’s odd behavior reaches a surprising climax! I am sharing this working draft of my novel for free. If you like what you’re reading, consider contributing to my Patreon campaign for as little as $1/month.