Ella held up the edge of her shimmery, purple gown and carefully placed a heeled foot on the next wooden step, then another heeled foot on the Astroturf. She patted the pink flamingo by the gate for luck. One of Marjorie's many admirers was sitting in his beater truck waiting for Ella. He honked the horn and revved the engine so she stopped hugging her aunt and went stumbling across the gravel to the door.
"Make sure you say hello to the birthday boy!" Marjorie called, watching the truck disappear around the bend with Ella's hand waving elbow-elbow-wrist-wrist out the window. Then she sat in her lawn chair to light up again and wait until midnight. Ella would be back to return the dress by then or else Hadley would catch her before she got home around one. That woman needed her beauty sleep, and still it did nothing for her.
Ella left her hand dangling out the window to feel the breeze. She was hot and flustered. Her chest constricted like it did when Jessica was sitting on her and pulling her hair just for fun.
She arrived at the party and realized the air inside the club was worse than the truck. The elegance of the gold chandeliers and the pink champagne with floating strawberries was too overwhelming.
Girls in pretty dresses swirled around the dance floor on their partners' arms. She felt more dazzled by the flirtatious smiles all around her than the twinkling lights. Ella ducked and weaved through the crowd to avoid her stepsisters. They were obnoxiously loud in one corner where they were recounting their dances with the birthday boy for a few other girls in their class.
"He was just so sweet."
"Ain't he just perfect?"
Following the wall, she found the birthday boy, greeted him dutifully, and then escaped to the back lawn. She hadn't paid enough attention, because someone had followed her.
"Do I know you?"
Ella whipped around to face the deep, sultry voice.
"You wished me happy birthday, but I don't think I know you."
"I was invited," Ella stammered. One of her heels was stuck in the grass from her quick turnaround. Her ankle was twisted at the oddest angle and she was trying to hide her grimace as she yanked on her foot.
"Are you ok?" the boy with the square jaw and shiny blue eyes said. He peered around her legs.
"I'm fine." Her foot flew out of the shoe. She kept her gown over it to hide her embarrassment.
"Well, can I know your name?"
"No." She looked right at him, daring him to ask again.
"Ok. Um. My name is Darryl."
"Yes. I know."
"Well this is awkward," Darryl said with a breathy laugh.
"I was just about to leave anyways." Ella adjusted her dress and switched her weight from her sore ankle.
"You just got here. Do you want to go for a walk?"
She glanced at the clock above the patio door. It was just about to strike 11:45 and she knew she needed to get back. Marjorie had taken so long with her make-up she had only had about an hour at the party. It was all fine for her, she was done. There was no need to try this stunt again.
"No. Thank you. I really do have to go."
The boy, Darryl, showed no sign of leaving, so Ella gave up and turned her back. She left her shoe stuck in the ground and limped to the truck in the driveway. She heard Darryl laughing behind her, but she threw her shoulders back and held her head high as she wobbled across the soft, dewy grass and into the dirty truck.
She looked back to see Darryl holding her shoe like a teddy bear and squinting to read the truck's license plate.
* * *Then things happened in a flash. Ella made it home and was in her bed before her evil caretaker would stumble in. But she woke the next morning to bright sunshine caressing her face and the sound of trucks on the highway overpass – not a single screech or moan or complaint.
She sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes. And then she saw flashing red and blue lights circling their way closer and closer to her bedroom window. The police car stopped outside and walked up her path. She ran for the door, breathless with fear.
"Ma'am, I'm sorry to tell you this but your guardian and sisters died in a car crash last night."
He held his arms out, ready to catch a fainting girl, but he was disappointed when she jumped up in the air and whooped.
She moved in with her aunt, she found a job at the local ice cream parlor, she went back to high school, she continued with life. But then one day, she was invited back to the country club by a boy who had just moved to town. He went to the public high school with her, but he was part of the elite sweaters-on-shoulders crowd. He took her to the pool and then they walked around the gardens in the back of the club.
They sat on a stone bench, enjoying the feeling of the sun and the hormones coursing through their veins. Ella looked up into the dazzling sky and saw the top of a fountain that hid in the middle of a hedge maze. It was her shoe. She grabbed the boy's hand and tugged him through the maze, darting this way and that to find her way through. They reached the middle and she gaped at her shoe, on top of a three-tiered birthday-cake fountain, with a plaque at the bottom that read:
For the girl I lost.