“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.
Krisis, Book 1
Issue #1: Girl Disappearing
Chapter Three: Dissemblers (pt. 1)
To say it had been a long afternoon at work would be a vast understatement. After his lunch with Danny and Valerie, the end of the day seemed to recede to a vanishing point in the far flung future while Nathan worried himself to complete distraction.
Most of his worry was about Ella. She had been on his mind since the tenth, but unloading his concerns onto Danny proved to be the utter opposite of helpful. Now he was just more concerned. Had he been wrong to leave her alone in her apartment? He texted Ella to say he would drop by later with a friend in tow, but she sent no reply.
The remainder of his worry was about the dropping by.
Nathan could still hardly believe that she had taken an interest in his life long enough to actually propose they go on a date.
Not really a date. An intervention, possibly followed by dinner.
Amidst his worrying, Nathan tried to convince himself that their unexpected arrangement was far better than an actual date, because it was real – not some manufactured situation meant to keep two people in close proximity for the evening. They were getting together to discuss a common interest.
Dead family members and the resulting emotional trauma. Much more romantic than an actual date.
He proceeded to blame himself for contemplating some semblance of romance, sarcastic or otherwise, when he should be worrying about Ella – which brought him right back to the start of the worrying. He halfheartedly opened and closed documents on his computer and moved emails from one folder to another, unable to focus on any task for more than a few minutes.
While nervously checking and re-checking his phone for a reply from Ella he already knew had not come, Nathan also called her father, Ward. He hardly knew what to say. He left a message, stuttered something about Ella seeming a little upset about the anniversary of Martina’s death, and that she might like to hear from her father.
“…for a change, because hearing from him with any amount of regularity would be a vast improvement over the present situation.”
Nathan sighed heavily in punctuation and gestured with his free hand for Valerie to turn the corner from Locust onto 44th street. He had just finished explaining Ward’s aversion to anything resembling parental responsibility as they walked to Ella’s apartment, having both parked their cars farther east on the college’s campus.
“That’s so foreign to me,” Valerie said, keeping pace beside him. “I talk to my dad almost every few days. I can’t even think of a week that we haven’t spoken.”
“Does he visit much?”
“He hasn’t been down since I started at Khep last year. Days away mean days he needs someone else to cover his clients.” Valerie had revealed earlier in their walk that her father was a therapist with his own practice in Maine. “It’s easy enough for me to drive up for a long weekend every month or two.”
Nathan had half-expected her to show up for their meeting in another suit, and she did not entirely disappoint. She wore a raspberry blazer over a buttoned blouse and jeans. He was relieved to see that she at least omitted the heels from her typical uniform, and was surprised to discover she was actually a hair shorter than he was.
“This is it,” Nathan said, frowning up at Ella’s lopsided porch roof, which on this occasion seemed to be smirking at him.
Valerie said nothing. He mounted the front stairs and crossed the porch to the door, jiggling the handle with one hand. The other held his peace-offering to Ella, in the form of a canvas bag containing a ball of yarn and a blueberry pie. He heard Valerie’s shoes clack on the wooden floorboards behind him.
“Can you get the buzzer for me?” Nathan tossed over his shoulder as he pushed the outer door open. “She’s 3B.”
Behind him, Valerie poked the intercom button next to Ella’s mailbox and then joined him in the dim vestibule.
As much as he chafed at Danny’s constant interruptions over lunch, Nathan found himself wishing for his friend’s timely intervention over the course of their walk, during which he found himself unable to get any charming conversational gambits off the ground with Valerie.
Luckily, he hadn’t ever told her too much about Martina, Ella, and their family. That constituted enough chatter to occupy most of their time. Valerie interspersed some stories about growing up with her widower father as her single parent.
Nathan listened attentively, trying to memorize every detail. She grew up in New Hampshire. Her mother died in a car accident when she was twelve. She was on the swim team.
“So, she never replied to your texts?” Valerie asked, rattling him out of his reflection.
“That’s Ella,” he replied. “She likes to stay unplugged from everything that isn’t a history textbook. She doesn’t even check the weather forecast before walking to campus.”
“No wonder her dad never calls!”
“That doesn’t stop him from leaving a message. Or visiting, ever. I mean, she’s easy to track down. If she’s not in class, choir, or the library she’s here. End of story. I’ve been bringing her groceries every other week, and I’ve never missed her.”
Valerie tapped one heeled one foot against the tiled floor of the vestibule.
“Sorry,” Nathan apologized, reflexively. “Ella never gets on the intercom when it’s me. She just comes down. She says she knows my ring.”
“Yes, but I rang, Nate, not you.”
“Oh,” Nathan stammered, “uh, good point.”
He awkwardly stepped around Valerie to reach outside the front door for the intercom button, which for a moment put his face just inches away from hers.
“Err, hi there. Pardon me…”
Don’t talk. She seems to like you fine when you’re not talking.
To his great relief, Valerie laughed a low, broad chuckle, which put him back at ease. He gave the intercom his customary jab and returned to his half of the lobby, eyes fixed on the edge of the stairwell down the hall for some sign of Ella’s mop of red hair.
“When was the last time either of you saw Mrs. Paglione?”
“Lilly?” Nathan considered for a moment. “Not since a few weeks after the service for Martina. So, almost four years? I mean, Ella gets a postcard every so often.”
“And she’s never been back to visit?”
“That’s not how their family works. They all do whatever they please and kind of leave each other be. After Martina, Lilly decided she had spent long enough living in one place raising a family. Two phone calls later she had a gig playing cello with some Middle Eastern Prince’s personal string quartet.”
“It’s crazy she could have been playing anywhere in the world,” Valerie said, eyes wide in wonder, “but worked for Khep all those years.”
“I never heard the whole story directly from her, but Martina and Ella filled in most of it. Apparently she went to college with some of the big Khep guys. When she was tired of playing music for a living and wanted to settle down to raise Martina they got her to sign on. And, she had her degree in mathematics, it’s not like they hired here solely on the merits of being a stay-at-home mom master cellist.”
Again, he scored a giggle from Valerie, but Nathan was too preoccupied craning his neck for some sign of red hair rounding the stairwell corner to notice.
“She never takes this long.”
“Maybe she’s in the shower?” Valerie suggested.
They fell into silence as Nathan continued to stare expectantly down the hallway.
After attending Ella’s college orientation as her parent or guardian (the former of which clearly weren’t planning to attend), Nathan had tried his best to reason with Ward that surviving dormitory life is a key facet of growing up. Ward countered that Ella was already grown up too much for his liking, and he didn’t mind stunting her growth a little if it meant indulging her.
Thus, the Freshman year apartment, abetted by Lilly’s continued deposit into their family bank account from abroad.
In his earlier text to Ella he hadn’t mentioned his work friend was Valerie. Ella had heard all about Valerie’s status as his elevator girlfriend, and Nathan felt he was justified in being afraid of giving Ella hours to think of weird things to say about him in front of her.
Although, if that was our main problem it would be a relief. Even with Valerie here as moral support I’m not exactly sure how I’m supposed to broach the topic of the other night.
Nathan was jostled out of his thoughts by Valerie, who had reached into her pocket to retrieve her cell phone. As she slid her fingers across the screen he realized that he still didn’t have her number.
“Text from my dad.” She slid the phone back into her pocket and stepped back out to the porch to push the buzzer for Ella’s apartment again, rather insistently.
“I brought Ella’s spare set of keys with me, but she doesn’t like it when I use them. I usually wait for her here so she won’t holler at me. Well, that and the door is really heavy.”
“Nate, we can’t wait in here all night. Either she’s not home and we just peek in and head out for dinner, or she’s avoiding you, and she really needs the interruption.”
“Alright,” he sighed deeply, “here we go.”
Nathan fished a key ring from his pocket, which held three keys and a tattered green ribbon. He grasped the largest of the keys in his hand, and wielded it against the deadbolt on the inner door. With his shoulder firmly pressed against its metal frame he pushed it open over the pile carpet on the other side.
“I swear, I have half a mind to come here with a weed whacker and take care of that carpet.”
Valerie offered no mirth in response to this latest quip as she slid past him through the doorway. “She’s third floor, right?”
“Yep. No elevator. Ready?”
Before the last word was completely out of his mouth Valerie was already walking down the hallway toward the staircase in her long, confident gait. With some difficulty, Nathan pushed the inner door closed behind him with one hand, the other managing his dangling canvas bag without upending the pie inside. He turned to find Valerie was already out of sight, climbing the stairs. He jogged up the first turn of the stairs to try to catch up.
“Nate,” she called down from half a flight above him, “what are you waiting for? Aren’t you worried about her not answering?” Nathan noted that she was not breathless despite her brisk pace.
He mounted the stairs, taking them two by two to catch up. “It’s just,” he huffed, “her way.” He rounded the first landing, cradling the bag in both hands. “She just,” he glimpsed Valerie turning the corner to the second flight, “does what she,” again, he came up short for air, “does.”
This is not attractive. Nathan stopped talking and focused on climbing.
He caught up with her on the last half flight before the stairs terminated in the third floor hallway. The front-facing apartment had a door directly adjacent to the stairwell. Nathan knew it was empty because he had helped its former tenants carry their kitchen table down the stairs a few weeks ago. The other side of the hallway terminated at the chipped wooden door to Ella’s apartment.
Nathan gestured to the door at end of the hall. He and Valerie advanced on it as one until they were facing its peephole, standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
He knocked firmly.
Tune in next Friday for the final installment of Issue #1, where Nathan meets a surprising visitor to Ella’s apartment! 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.