The week Ellie's class learned about heroes started out to be one of the
most fun in all of kindergarten. On Monday, there were comic books
at show and tell, and Mrs. Harkens gave out Spiderman and Batgirl stickers;
at recess they all zoomed around the playground with their arms straight
out, pretending to be flying. On Tuesday, a real police man came to
their class and talked about how he kept kids safe. On Wednesday, a
firefighter came and told them how to get out of their houses if there ever
was a fire and let them take turns sitting on her truck while she turned
on the lights and the siren. On Thursday, they did plays about Famous
American Heroes like Jane Addams and Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King,
Then came Friday. Mrs. Harkens told them to draw pictures of their own heroes. "Remember what we talked about," she said. "Heroes are people who take risks to help others. They show us how to live good lives. That's more important than super powers, isn't it?" Everyone in the class nodded, but when it was time to stand up and show the drawings, it seemed to Ellie that some of the kids didn't really understand.
Jason had drawn Batman, all dark and muscle-y with lightning bolts around his head. Tamiqua had drawn the Powerpuff Girls whizzing through the sky. Tommy was proud of his picture of the Green Lantern on the roof of their school.
Mrs. Harkens pressed her lips together for a second, then said, "Those are very nice. I wonder if anyone drew a real-life hero, someone like Officer Mulcahy or Firefighter Julie?"
"I did! I did!" Lenny raced up to the front of the room and held up his picture of a smiling lady with a cow-spotted apron. "I drew the ice cream scooper at Maggie Moo's! She helps me every Saturday."
"I'm sure she does," Mrs. Harkens said with a little sigh. "Anyone else?"
Ellie raised her hand. She wasn't sure if her drawing was right, but at least it was different than anyone else's. When Mrs. Harkens told her to go to the front of the room, Ellie kept her head high, even though she could hear Jason and Tommy's table full of boys whispering at her back. They always laughed at Ellie and her friends, but they were just boys.
"My hero," she said, holding up her picture, "is my Uncle Gary. He's very brave, and he saves people all the time." She heard a snort back at the boys' table and looked at Mrs. Harkens instead. Her teacher had a friendly kind of smile, but one of her eyebrows was going up, just a little bit. "One time he stopped a school bus from crashing into a train. And he kept a museum from burning down. And then he--"
She stopped because Mrs. Harkens made a coughing noise. "Ellie, your uncle isn't a police officer, is he?"
"No ma'am," Ellie answered, a little confused, because Mrs. Harkens had met Uncle Gary at Open House.
"Is he a fireman?"
"No ma'am, he's just my Uncle Gary." Tommy giggled, and Ellie's face got hot. "But he's a real person who's a hero, not some dumb movie guy."
Mrs. Harkens's "Ellie" meant, don't make fun of other people.
Ellie took a deep breath. "And one time a bad guy tried to make me go with him at the store, but Uncle Gary came and stopped him." Even Ellie's friends looked back at Mrs. Harkens, as if they weren't sure they should believe her. "You can ask my mommy, it's true!" Mommy and Daddy had both talked to her about temper, and how she had one and shouldn't lose it, so she pushed the mad feeling back down into her tummy. "He helps a lot of people," she finished, "and that's why he's my hero."
Most of the kids clapped, just like they had for everyone else. Mrs. Harkens looked glad that it was over. Ellie sat down and stared at the picture--she'd been proud of getting the different colored stripes to criss-cross on Uncle Gary's favorite shirt, of making his dark hair and blue jeans, and of Cat, orange-and-brown-stripe-y, sitting by his feet. Maybe he didn't look like a hero, because he didn't have a cape or a uniform, but Ellie knew he was. Why wouldn't anyone believe her?
At recess, Jason and Tommy followed Ellie and Tamiqua and Laurel to the swings. "Hey, Smelly Ellie," Tommy called, "what's wrong with you, anyway? My dad says your Uncle Gary runs a bar. He's not a hero."
"And Batman is too real." Jason stuck out his tongue.
"Don't listen to them." Laurel sat on a swing; the pebbles crunched as she pushed off with her toes. Tommy had to duck to keep from getting kicked.
"Uncle Gary is a real hero," Ellie said. "He's been in the newspaper and everything!" She started swinging in time with Laurel, and then Tamiqua got going too. "He saves people, just like, just like--"
"Like Superman!" Tamiqua said. Ellie frowned a little, because that wasn't quite right.
"Well, he can't fly or anything," she said, pumping harder to keep up with the other girls. "But he saves people almost every day, and he's strong, too."
"He can't do anything." Jason folded his arms over his chest. "He's just your stupid uncle who doesn't even look like you. He probably smells just as bad as you, Smelly Ellie!"
The boys trotted away, sing-songing "Smelly Ellie, fully of jelly."
"Don't listen to those meanies. Maybe he's like Clark Kent, with a secret 'dentity," said Tamiqua.
"I think your Uncle Gary is nice, even if he isn't like Superman," said Laurel. "Remember when he gave us all piggyback rides at the field day?"
"He's not just nice," Ellie started to say, but the other girls were swinging way past her, laughing too hard to hear.
When they came back in, Mrs. Harkens had hung their pictures on the door. Tommy stuck his nose on Uncle Gary and said, "Pee-eww. Yup, just as smelly as Ellie!" Mrs. Harkens didn't see, so Ellie just scowled at him as they sat on the rug for story time.
She took the yellow bus to McGinty's that afternoon. Lots of times Mommy or Daddy would come and get her at the end of the day, and sometimes even Uncle Gary, but today she sat with Laurel and they played "Ching Ching China" five times, right up to Laurel's stop. Then Ellie thought about what had happened that day and how to make everyone believe her until Mr. Jorgenson dropped her off at her stop, where Mommy was waiting.
"Let's get you inside and changed into play clothes," Mommy said after they hugged. "Uncle Gary said he'd take you to the park this afternoon." Ellie's frown turned upside down--she'd forgotten about the park! She took Mommy's hand and together they walked into McGinty's and around the wood tables and chairs that Ellie had once pretended were a forest, back when she was a little girl. She couldn't help skipping just a little. She could interview Uncle Gary! She could put the story in her own newspaper that she had learned to make on her computer. Plus, he always gave her piggy back rides on the way from the El stop to the park.
"Mommy, will you type a story for me tomorrow? If I read it to you? I want to make another newspaper, okay?"
"What's the story about?"
"You'd better check that out with him first."
But Ellie knew he would say yes. Uncle Gary always told her yes.
Just before they got to the office, someone stopped them. It was Mr. Crumb, who bent down and patted Ellie's head. She didn't like it when most people did that--it felt like they were trying to make her into a little girl, and she hadn't been little since she was four. But Mr. Crumb--or just Crumb, which everyone called him and made Ellie giggle, and sometimes when he teased her she teased him back by calling him Cookie Crumb--didn't make her feel that way. He was her friend, and he talked to her like she was a big girl, and sometimes even like she was a grown-up.
"Hey Ellie," he said. "Want to go to the park?"
Ellie stopped skipping and frowned. "Uncle Gary's taking me."
"Yeah, well, he, uh..." Mr. Crumb looked at Mommy, and even though she couldn't see him, Mommy made a noise in the back of her throat.
Ellie knew. "He has a 'mergency, doesn't he?" See, she wanted to tell Tommy and Jason and even Laurel and Tamiqua and especially Mrs. Harkens, Uncle Gary did save people.
"That's my guess," said Mr. Crumb. "So it looks like it's you and me at the park, if you don't mind an old man."
"You're not old."
"How d'ya figure that?"
"Because you're not a grandpa!"
His whole face wrinkled up when he grinned. "I like the way you think." He turned to Mommy. "Hobson's in the office; he wants to talk to you."
"Thanks. I'll send her out as soon as she's ready."
Ellie walked into the office with Mommy, thinking hard. Her friend Miguel had told her once that she had to have a nose for news if she wanted to be a reporter; right now her nose was twitching like a bunny rabbit's. Even though she liked going places with Mr. Crumb, she wanted to prove to those dumb boys that she wasn't a liar.
"Mommy," she said when they got to the office, "can I go with Uncle Gary instead?"
"No, she can't." Uncle Gary was walking up and down, frowning at his shoes. When he looked up and saw Ellie, some of the frown went away. "I'm sorry, honey. We'll do the park another day, okay?"
"We could do it after you save the people."
He stopped and stared at her. "What?"
"I could come with you. And you could save the people, and then we could go to the park. I could help you, Uncle Gary, I--"
"No!" Mommy said it at the same time as Uncle Gary, then added in her quiet voice, "Whatever it is, no."
"But I can--"
"You heard me the first time, Eleanor Naomi."
When Mommy said Eleanor Naomi, there was no changing her mind. "Okay, okay."
"Go upstairs and get ready for the park."
She knew better than to mess with her mom. But she let her feet drag on the stairs, and heard Uncle Gary ask, "What have you been telling her?"
"Nothing. Gary, what's going on?"
Ellie did go into the loft, but she didn't exactly shut the door. It was hard to hear them over the zip of her backpack and the rustle of clothes over her ears. She hurried to trade her bumpy soft corduroys and fluffy sweater for jeans and the Strawberry Shortcake sweatshirt Grandma had given her for her birthday. But she caught enough words from the mumbles that drifted up the stairs to figure out plenty. There were Mommy words like "dangerous" and "phone call" and "smoking whole nation." Ellie didn't know what that one meant, but it sounded bad. Mommy said something about "the last time you went into a burning building you nearly--" but Ellie didn't hear the end because she was chasing Cat off her crumpled-up school clothes.
She went back to the door and listened harder. There were Uncle Gary words like "need" and "three kids, Marissa," and "I can't let this happen."
The biggest word of all, the one that they both said a lot of times, was "fire". It made Ellie shiver, which was funny, because fires were hot.
After retying her shoelaces, Ellie grabbed her reporter notebook and pencil, shoved them in her jacket pocket, and charged down the stairs. She knew better than to try to sneak up and hear more. Daddy said it was disrespectful to spy, and Mommy always caught her when she tried. Sure enough, the talking stopped when she got to the third step down.
"All ready for the park?" Mommy asked. She had a hand on Uncle Gary's arm, and her forehead had worry wrinkles on it, but she was trying to smile with her voice. She didn't move her hand, even though Uncle Gary was looking at her like he wanted her to.
"Yes, Mommy, but--"
"This is not a discussion." Mommy sounded more tired than mad. Ellie looked from her to Uncle Gary, and knew she wasn't going to get permission to go, no matter how much it would help her be a reporter. They both looked too sad and worried for that.
She could just get her arms around Uncle Gary's waist, if she reached up high. So she did, squeezing hard.
"Hey." He pulled her arms off, but kept hold of her hands for a minute. "You're not mad about the park, are you?"
Ellie shook her head. She was a little mad because they thought she couldn't help Uncle Gary, but that wasn't the same thing.
Uncle Gary gave her a little smile. "Good."
Mommy hugged Ellie. "Be good at the park, and don't drive Crumb crazy with all your questions."
"That'd be a short trip for him," Uncle Gary muttered.
"No sweet snacks, no soda, no hot dogs," Ellie finished. "Are pretzels okay?"
"Pretzels are fine, but I was going to say that I love you and I want you to come back soon." This time Mommy's smile looked more real. "Have fun, honey."
Just for a moment, part of Ellie--the secret, bad part that wanted to know more and write a really great story and show Tommy and Jason and even Mrs. Harkens that they were wrong--thought about stopping just outside the door, to see if she could hear more about the fire. But she knew better. So she slipped out the door and wove through the long-legged people standing around watching the baseball game until she found Mr. Crumb.
"You ready?" he asked.
"Yep." She patted the pocket that held her notebook. "All set to explore and report."
He gave her a funny look, the one where he made his eyes small and pretended to frown at her. "You reporting about me?"
"No, silly, about the park!"
"Okay." He reached for his jacket. "I think my keys are right--"
They both jumped when his pocket started ringing.
"Oops," he said, and made a face that made Ellie laugh. He answered his phone by saying, "Yeah," and that was all he said to the other person. "Yeah. Yeah? Yeah. Yeah." Then he hung up and sighed. "Kiddo, I'm so, so sorry. But I can't take you to the park. I have to go check out something for one of my clients."
Ellie knew a little about Crumb's job. He was a detective, which was almost as exciting as what Uncle Gary did. "I could go with you. I'm good at noticing stuff."
"I wish you could, but this place I gotta go is no place for a beautiful young lady like yourself." He pretended to bow, and Ellie giggled in spite of herself, because it made her feel like a princess. "It's not nearly as fun as a park, either. You take a rain check?"
Crumb thought for a minute, then took one of the McGinty's napkins from the bar and wrote his name on it in big, sloppy cursive, which Ellie could sort of read, even though she couldn't make the letters join up yet. "This is your rain check. It means that any time you give me this, I *have* to take you to the park."
"Even if there's a 'mergency?"
"Hopefully there won't be any of those for a while, if I do today right."
"What's that have to do with rain and checks?"
Crumb looked toward the door, then back at Ellie. "Long story. But I'll tell you tomorrow, okay? Tell your mom I'm sorry."
"It's okay." And it was, because Ellie was getting an idea. It was a great idea...and a scary one. She pushed it back long enough to smile at Crumb. "Tomorrow's Saturday. We could stay a long time."
"Good kid." Crumb tugged one of her ponytails. "See you then."
Ellie headed back for the office. She'd left the door open just a bit, and she could hear their voices--loud voices--coming from inside.
"I did, Marissa, but they're not answering their phone. Must be heavy sleepers."
It wasn't spying, Ellie told herself, because if they didn't want her to hear, they would be whispering.
"Why won't you just call the fire dep--"
"I did, okay? As usual, they had a problem with me telling them there's going to be a fire. Wanted to know if I was an arsonist, tried to trace the call back."
"I just don't like the thought of you going there without any help."
Ellie frowned. She had offered to help, hadn't she? Cat brushed her ankle, and she shivered.
"Do you like the thought of a family of five dying, Marissa? What if it was your family--what if--what if Ellie was going to get hurt?"
Ellie's stomach did a flip-flop. Hurt in a fire? Mommy and Daddy wouldn't let that happen. She looked down at Cat. Its big green eyes seemed to promise her she would be safe.
"You know that's not what I mean." Mommy sounded frustrated. "And you're my family, too." There was quiet, then--"Plus, it would never happen that way. You know I always believe you."
"Yeah, and look how safe that's kept you." Uncle Gary had the funny sound in his voice that meant he meant the opposite of what he was saying. "You've been in more trouble because of me and my secret than I've ever been able to keep you out of." Sarah rattled glasses at the bar; Ellie moved closer to the crack in the door, almost holding her breath.
"...have to do this, you know that, after all this time..." Ellie's thoughts were flying around too fast for her to listen close. When was Mommy in trouble? Had Uncle Gary saved her? And what would have happened if he hadn't, and what had her mom done to get into trouble, and why hadn't anyone ever told Ellie, and--
Her jumbled-up thoughts were interrupted by Mommy's sigh. "Just be careful, okay?"
The idea that had been fluttering inside Ellie for the past few minutes got bigger and scarier, and at the same time, it seemed to become something that she had to do, more than ever.
Mommy thought she was with Crumb in the park. She looked around the bar--nobody was paying a bit of attention to her--except for Cat, who was watching her, waiting for her to decide. She wouldn't have to lie, not if no one knew where she was.
It wasn't spying, it was reporting. Ellie looked down at her notebook, imagining the cool story she could write, all about Uncle Gary and his secret and saving people. She could put it in the newspaper, and the kids at school would know she hadn't been lying.
With a deep breath, she stepped over to the other door, dashed through the kitchen, and ducked out the back just as Uncle Gary called, "I'll be back in an hour, tops." Luckily-duckily, the door to the van was unlocked. Pushing away the little voice in her head that sounded like Mommy's, telling her this was a bad idea, Ellie slipped to the back of the van and hid on the floor behind the big seat.
Uncle Gary drove for three songs and a whole bunch of commercials on the
radio. Ellie couldn't hold her breath for very long, but she kept as
still as she could on the rattling floor of the van. All the bumps
from the street, plus the fluttering inside her stomach, made her feel a
little sick. Whenever they stopped for red lights, Uncle Gary tapped
his fingers on the steering wheel in a nervous, not happy, way.
About halfway there, Ellie remembered that she was riding in a car without her booster seat, without even a seatbelt, and bit her lip. Everybody knew that was dangerous, as dangerous as going with a stranger, the police man had said. What would Mommy and Daddy say if they knew?
Well, they'd be angry. Ellie wasn't stupid. But maybe if her story told people how good Uncle Gary was, and how much he helped people, some people would want to help, too, and he wouldn't have to work so hard. He might even have more time to take her to the park. And then Mommy and Daddy would see that she had done the right thing.
That was what she told herself. It didn't make her tummy feel much better.
The car bumped and turned and bumped some more, and then stopped. She heard Uncle Gary whisper, "Oh, no," and then he got out of the van so fast that Ellie gasped when he slammed the door. She swallowed hard and put her head up just enough to see out the side window, and her eyes got really, really big. They were parked on a street with white houses all in a row, and green grass and trees for climbing. One of them, the one Uncle Gary was running toward as fast as he could, had black smoke curling out the upstairs windows.
Ellie knew what she should do. The firefighting lady had said the first thing to always do when you saw smoke was call 911 and get help. But Ellie didn't have a phone, and she didn't know if she should get out of the car, because what would Uncle Gary say if he saw her, and would he tell Mommy? Plus she would have to go to a stranger's house. But who would call the fire station? What if Uncle Gary needed help and the firemen didn't come?
"Call 911," she whispered, scrunching up her face. "Call 911, please , Uncle Gary, call--"
Just before he got to the door, just when she knew she'd have to get out and find someone to call for her, Uncle Gary turned and crossed the lawn in three big running steps. He pounded on the neighbor's door. "Call the fire department!" he yelled, so loud Ellie could hear him in the van. "There's a fire, you gotta call!" He didn't wait for an answer, just turned back to the first house, running faster than Ellie had ever seen. To her relief, a woman in a bathrobe with humongous red flowers on it came running out, talking into a phone.
Ellie crawled up to the front seat, where Uncle Gary had left the window rolled partway down. The air that came in had a strange burning smell, nothing like a nice fireplace fire. It was more like the time Daddy had helped her make Christmas cookies and they'd forgotten the last batch in the oven while they decorated the others--only this was about a hundred times worse.
Uncle Gary pounded on the door, but no one answered.
"They're probably asleep," the lady called as she ran over to join Uncle Gary. "He works the night shift, and since the baby came she usually takes a nap when the kids do."
Uncle Gary nodded, and then, just like a movie hero, just like Superman, he stepped back and kicked the door. But it didn't open, not the first time or the second, and not when he banged it with his shoulder. Ellie's own shoulder twinged. He looked around, a little crazy-like, then stepped back and pulled off his jacket. He wrapped it around his arm and busted it through the window next to the door. More smoke poured out. Shaking the broken glass from his coat, Uncle Gary used it to cover his face and jumped into the smoky house.
For the next few minutes, Ellie's breath came out funny, and sometimes it didn't come out at all. She held on to the door handle, digging her fingers into the padding until it hurt, but he didn't come out. She shivered and whispered, "Please come back, please come back, happy ever after, please come back," the way she did on Worry Nights, but this was different from a Worry Night, and not just because it was the day and she couldn't think of a good story for this without Mommy.
It was because she could see it, and she could smell it, and she could hear more yelling from neighbors and a strange, loud, crackling sound. She didn't know how to drive the van home if Uncle Gary didn't come out, and Mommy was right, Mommy was always right, he should have just called the fire fighters from the bar, because they had special clothes and hoses and Uncle Gary didn't have that stuff and he wasn't coming out. Where was he?
Ellie wrapped her arms around her stomach and tried to pray, because that's what Mommy told her to do when she got most worried, but she didn't know what to say, except, "Please come out, please come out, please, God, save Uncle Gary."
She was afraid to keep her eyes open, because what if she saw Uncle Gary get hurt? But she was afraid to close her eyes, too, because she had a feeling something bad would happen if she did.
The smoke was everywhere now, and she could even see flames come through the roof. They looked mean and angry. Ellie's stomach was rolling around inside her like the smoke was rolling around in the air. Then the front door flew open, and a man stumbled out with a baby in his arms.
It wasn't Uncle Gary.
People came running to help the man sit on the grass, and the lady with the phone took the baby. Sirens squealed through the air, and the van shook when the fire truck swerved around it and parked by the hydrant next to the driveway. Four firefighters with coats and hats and tanks on their backs hurried toward the house, while a couple of others jumped to the fire hydrant and hooked up a giant hose.
If it were a movie or a cartoon, it would have been very exciting, but it was real, and it was making Ellie scared and sick. The smoke seemed like it was in her nose to stay, and her eyes were all watery, and she wanted to cry, or to let out the scream that was caught in her throat. She couldn't even whisper, "Please, Uncle Gary," any more, because of the lump, but she thought it.
People were talking all at once. The man was the loudest of all. "My wife and kids are still in there! Some nutcase came and set our house on fire!"
The lady holding the baby put her hand on his arm and talked to him and to one of the firemen. Ellie wondered why the man just stood there. She thought--she was pretty sure, anyway--that if her house had been on fire and she'd been inside, her daddy would have gone back for her. But this man stayed outside. Ellie wasn't sure she liked him very much.
"We got two adults, two kids in the house!" the fireman yelled through a big plastic cone that made his voice extra loud. Then he pushed the man and the lady and all the neighbors back to the sidewalk. They were standing right next to the van, but they didn't turn around or see Ellie. Water came bursting through the hose and the firefighters sprayed the house.
And then one of the fireman came out, carrying a little girl, and right behind him was Uncle Gary!
Ellie felt even more like crying. Maybe it was happy crying--Mommy did that sometimes--but maybe it was more than that. Uncle Gary was carrying another kid, a boy it looked like, wrapped up in his coat. Both their faces were covered with ashes and Uncle Gary looked like he didn't really know what was going on. The little girl jumped from the fireman's arms and ran to her daddy, then the fireman turned to Uncle Gary and helped him lay the boy on the grass by a big tree.
"David!" the father yelled, but the fireman smiled. The boy sat up and looked around, coughing a little.
"He was just sleeping," the fireman said. "There wasn't much smoke in his room. Thanks to your friend here, your kids are going to be all right."
"He's not my--what about my wife?" The man turned to Uncle Gary and grabbed his shirt. "Why didn't you find my wife? Where is she?"
"I don't--I'm not--" Uncle Gary coughed.
The man shook him harder. "Why did you send me out here if you weren't going to get my wife?" he yelled in a voice that was as mean and angry as the flames.
"Hey, back off," said the fireman, and Ellie nodded.
"He comes into my house--"
"Where's Bucky?" the little girl wailed. She turned to the fireman. "I want my dog!"
"It was already on fire when he came, I told you," the lady said in a soothy voice. She was still holding the little baby, rocking it to stop it from crying.
"He left my wife in there!"
"I didn't see your wife--I tried, I swear--" Uncle Gary's voice sounded all funny and choky. Just then he turned his head, like he was going to look at the van. Ellie ducked and held her breath, but he didn't say anything, so she didn't think he'd seen her. She crawled super quick to the back of the van, keeping low on the floor all the way, just like Firefighter Julie had told them to do in a smoky building.
She heard the fireman telling Uncle Gary to sit down, but when Ellie dared to peek up through the back window, she saw that Uncle Gary had started back to the house. She put both hands over her mouth to keep from yelling.
"Sir! You can't go back there!" The firefighter grabbed Uncle Gary. "An ambulance is on its way, and we need to have them take a look at you."
"I want Mommy!" wailed the boy.
"Liz!" the man called. Ellie peeked again, and she saw two firefighters come out with a lady in their arms, almost like Mommy and Daddy when they played swing with Ellie. They laid the lady down on the grass, but she didn't wake up.
Another siren howled, and the ambulance came. Ellie was so busy watching the doctor guys bringing the stretcher and their big boxes of medicine to the lady that she jumped and almost made a noise when Uncle Gary got into the van and slammed the door shut behind him. When he started the car, the radio came on, but he turned it off right away. He was still coughing, but he drove away from the house.
Not very far, though, and then he stopped. Ellie heard the rattle of Uncle Gary's newspaper, and then he let out a huge sigh and coughed. She peeked over the top of the back seat, and saw him sitting up front, bent over the steering wheel and coughing again and again and again. His hair was all messy, sticking up in the back. Ellie's stomach still felt funny, partly with gladness because Uncle Gary had come back, partly because she was scared about the lady who hadn't moved on the grass, and partly because...because...
....because she wasn't sure why.
This should have been the ending, the Happy Ever After, but Uncle Gary didn't seem all that happy, and the people at the house hadn't either. Ellie heard a soft sound; she looked down and saw that her hand, still clutching the notebook and pen, was shaking so hard the pages were making noise against the seat back. She put her other hand over the notebook, but it was shaking too. Pulling both hands into her lap, she bit down on her lip and sat very, very still for what seemed like a long time, until Uncle Gary's coughs weren't so close together, and he put the newspaper down on the floor and drove the rest of the way to McGinty's. He didn't turn the radio back on.
Ellie waited for a few minutes after Uncle Gary got out of the van, then snuck out the front door and around to the front of McGinty's. It scared her a little that she didn't have to think very hard about how to fool everyone--but it didn't scare her nearly as much as what she had just seen. When Sarah at the bar said, "Hey, you back so soon?", Ellie nodded and hurried into the office before she could ask more questions.
Mommy was talking to Uncle Gary, who was sitting on the sofa, still coughing and looking all dirty and slumpy. "You saved them all, Gary; you should be proud. And you should have stayed to let the paramedics check you out."
"No one knows if their mom's going to live through the night--not even me," Uncle Gary said.
Ellie couldn't help the little noise that came out of her mouth. "Ellie?" Mommy turned around. "You didn't stay long at the park."
"Mr. Crumb had a phone call. He had to go see his client." Any other day, Ellie would have been proud to use such a grown-up word. Any other day, she would have felt bad about telling Mommy an almost-lie--it wasn't really a lie, because Crumb really did get a phone call, just not when Mommy thought--but today she just felt...what?
Flipping in her stomach. Shaking in her hands. And when she looked at Uncle Gary, all sad and sooty, she felt something she hadn't expected.
She felt mad.
"I hope you thanked him anyway."
"Yes, Mommy. Uncle Gary--" Ellie stopped, not sure what to say. He ran his hand through his hair, which made it stick up even more, and he looked up at her, but he didn't really seem to see her. He must not have, because Uncle Gary always knew when Ellie was upset, and he always said something. So did Mommy, for that matter, but today nobody noticed that Ellie's hands were shaking and that she was scared and mad, and scared of being mad.
"What is it, Ellie-belly?" Uncle Gary asked, but he didn't sound right. His voice was scratchy and full of smoke.
"Are you--I mean--will that lady be okay? I mean, whatever lady you were just talking about," Ellie added quickly, because there was a line forming on Mommy's forehead.
"I'm sure everything will be just fine." Uncle Gary still sounded like a robot, and he moved like one, too, all jerky and stiff when he stood and started up the stairs.
Mommy tilted her head, listening to his footsteps. "There was a fire," she told Ellie softly. "Uncle Gary saved a whole family, but he's sad because the mommy of that family got sick from the smoke, and now she's in the hospital."
"Did she get a smoking whole nation?" Ellie still wasn't sure how a whole country could fit in one person.
"What? No--smoke inhalation. It means she inhaled too much smoke and now it's in her lungs, making it hard for her to breathe." Mommy's voice was a little choky, but nowhere near as choky as Uncle Gary's had been.
"But Uncle Gary's sad." Ellie tried to keep the mad out of her voice, but it came out like she was telling on him.
"He's upset because he didn't do everything as perfectly as he wanted to, but honey, the thing is, he couldn't make it perfect. He was expecting too much from himself."
"Because he's not Superman." Ellie felt the words drop like marbles out of her mouth. Not pretty glass marbles. Sad grey marbles that didn't even shine.
"No, of course he's not." Mommy frowned. "Are you--" There was a bunch of coughing, and she turned toward the stairs. Cat was sitting halfway up, watching them and meowing at Mommy. "Ellie, I have to go talk to Uncle Gary. I think I'll have Daddy come pick you up when he's done at the office, because I'll be here late. Maybe you should--"
"I'll go have a soda," Ellie said quickly.
Mommy nodded. "Sarah will take care of you. Maybe you can write out your story while you wait for Daddy. Then you can read it to me when I get home."
Ellie's heart jumped. "Story?"
"The one about the park."
For a minute, Ellie couldn't answer. She stared at her untied shoe. Finally, knowing she had to tell the truth, she looked up. "Mommy, I--"
But Mommy was already going up the stairs. Ellie took her notebook and went out to the bar. Sarah gave her a Sierra Mist with two cherries and a bendy straw. Nobody was at the booth closest to the office, so Ellie sat down there. She couldn't write the park story, because it would be a lie, and reporters had to tell the truth. She had to write about the fire.
It was hard. She didn't know how to spell all the words. She didn't know what words to give the feelings inside her. But then she remembered what Miguel had told her when he took her to the Cubs game. He said he just took pictures and let them tell the story, no matter which team he wanted to win. He had to take good pictures of both teams, even though he was mad at the guys in the white shirts for beating the good guys in the blue shirts.
So Ellie wrote what had happened. She left out her scaredness, and her confusion, and she especially left out her madness, because she didn't understand it at all. When she finished, she knew she couldn't show it to anybody; she wasn't even sure she wanted to be a reporter anymore.
"Don't you want to eat your cherries?" Sarah asked when Daddy came to pick her up. Ellie shook her head and handed the glass back to Sarah. There wasn't room inside her for anything as happy as a cherry.
Mommy didn't come home before Ellie went to bed that night, and for the next couple of days Ellie didn't see Uncle Gary. But the bad feeling stayed, curled up in her stomach until she'd think about the fire, or Uncle Gary, or the man yelling, or the little girl crying for her doggy. There were times that weekend when Ellie snuck away to her room and pulled her notebook out from under her bed, and she could smell the smoke again, and she wrinkled up her nose. Then she read the end of the story she'd written.
"Unkle Gary ran into the hows, and he did not come out for a lon, lon time, and the man yelled bekus his wif was incid, and the puppy got lost."
And she would get mad, slam the notebook closed, and throw it far under the bed, with the broken Mr. Potato Head nose and the dust bunnies and the plastic flowers that had come off her flip-flops last summer.
The lady lived. While Ellie was eating her cornflakes on Saturday, Mommy called the hospital, and then Uncle Gary. "I don't know if it will be in your paper," she said, "but I wanted you to know. She made it through the night. You really did save her. No, not just sort of--I don't care what her husband said. He was upset, and he was wrong to be so angry. Are you still coughing?" She put her hand over the phone and turned to the table. "Ellie, go get dressed for t-ball."
Superman had x-ray vision. He would have seen the lady right away, Ellie thought, and the madness bubbled inside her stomach while she dug around on the floor of her closet for her baseball cap. She still wasn't sure why she was mad at Uncle Gary. She knew she shouldn't be--hadn't Mommy just said the man was wrong to feel the same way Ellie did? Why was she mad, when Uncle Gary had saved the family, and he hadn't gotten hurt bad?
...but he might have. And they might have. And what if it was her? She'd heard Uncle Gary say it--it wasn't easy to save people, not even Mommy, who knew his secret.
She wasn't sure if Mr. Crumb knew Uncle Gary's secret. That afternoon at the park, she thought about asking him while they were throwing pennies into the big fountain, but she wasn't sure she could ask the question without explaining why she wanted to know. So she closed her eyes, wished that her tummy would stop hurting and she would stop feeling mad, and threw the penny as hard as she could. She heard the splash, but when she opened her eyes she couldn't tell where the penny had gone.
Lying in her bed that night, she watched car lights come in through the window, pushing shadows across her wall. Even when she shut her eyes, she could still see them, and they looked like flames.
What if one of those times Mommy'd been in trouble, Uncle Gary hadn't saved her? Or what if he'd only sort of saved Mommy, like he had that lady? Would Mommy still be alive? Would Ellie have ever been alive? He'd saved Ellie once--but what if he couldn't again?
What if he'd gotten hurt or killed or something and hadn't been around when the man tried to take her away from her mom in the store? What if one day something bad did happen to Uncle Gary, because he wasn't Superman, Mommy had said so? Who would save people then?
Who would make her safe?
She had bad dreams, all about fire and smoke in her house. She was stuck in her bed, she couldn't move, and she wanted to yell for help but she knew she would get into trouble if she did, so she stayed quiet while the smoke wrapped around her neck.
Ellie woke up with her heart pounding. Her clock said two-one-eight. Except for Reilly's snores, the house was quiet, and she should have gone back to sleep. But for a long time she lay awake, listening to her heart thumping and watching the car light shadows move across her walls.
Sunday in church the music was happy, lifting everyone up on their feet. Daddy looked at her funny when she didn't jump up and clap and join in with everyone else right away, but Ellie couldn't stop thinking about what had happened. She couldn't stop being mad about it either, no matter how much she tried, no matter how much she prayed to God to take her madness away and make her a good girl again.
She couldn't stop thinking about it when they went to Grandma's house for lunch, and Joey and Nora and Marcus made her be all-day-period-no-changes-IT in the tag game. She just sat at the end of the porch and let them run around her.
What if, what if, if, if, if...
If Uncle Gary had a big secret like Superman, and he saved people like Superman, then why was he sad sometimes? And why couldn't he save everyone who needed help? Ellie wasn't dumb. She heard the radio, and saw the news on television sometimes, and sometimes she even tried to read the Sun-Times. Cars crashed in Chicago. All over the world, there were earthquakes and tornadoes and sickness. Sometimes the news made Mommy cry. Why wouldn't Uncle Gary fix it all?
If the mad feeling she had about him was real, wasn't she just as bad as the mean man who'd yelled at Uncle Gary?
It was confusing, and it gave her a headache to go with the ache in her tummy, and she didn't know who to talk to. Nobody at school believed her. She couldn't tell Mommy or Daddy, because they would find out she'd gone to the fire, and they would be madder than Ellie could even imagine. She couldn't tell Uncle Gary, because he would tell her parents--plus, he might not be her friend anymore if he found out how she felt. Not Mr. Crumb, because he would know she hadn't told her mom the truth and then he would be mad at her, too, and Ellie knew that when Mr. Crumb got mad, the yelling got loud.
No, she couldn't tell. It would only make everything worse.
But her secret made it hard to talk to Daddy, and especially Mommy, that weekend. Sometimes they would look at her like they were going to ask what was wrong, and Ellie would have to pretend to laugh, or go play, or hide in her room, where she knew her notebook was waiting for her under the bed.
"Is everything all right, Ellie?" Mommy asked on Sunday night. "You're so much quieter than usual."
The secret tried to get out of her tummy, but Ellie just said, "I'm okay."
"Maybe you're tired. It's been a busy few days."
"That's probably it." Ellie curled up next to Mommy on the couch, but she didn't enjoy story time the way she usually did, because it was a whole lot more than being tired. But she knew if she told there might not be any more cuddling and storytimes for a while, and she didn't want to be alone with her thinking. Now she knew what it must be like to have a secret like Uncle Gary's.
In a way, she was glad she hadn't seen him all weekend. When she thought that, she felt worse than ever, because she loved Uncle Gary, who called her Ellie Belly Jelly Bean and gave her piggy back rides and taught her how to swing a bat and snuck her candy when Mommy was out of the office and took her to the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier and let her ride it five whole times. Uncle Gary had always been the one she told secrets to when she had to keep them from Mommy and Daddy. Usually they were just stuff like what presents she made them for Christmas or what lines she would say in the winter program at school. Uncle Gary understood about secrets, he said. But she couldn't tell him this one, and that made her feel worse then ever.
By Monday morning, her stomach hurt so bad she only ate half a piece of toast at breakfast and Mommy and Daddy talked about not sending her to school.
"But I have appointments all day," Daddy said. "I can't stay home with her."
"She'd have to come to the bar with me," Mommy said. "Gary and I need to go over the taxes, if I can get him to sit still for an hour."
"I'm okay," Ellie said quickly, but it was a lie. Her stomach was still churning over keeping secrets and not telling all the truth and not knowing how to feel about Uncle Gary. But she knew she couldn't be around him all day, because what if he looked at her and saw she had a secret? Between him and Mommy, she would never be able to keep it inside. And what if he didn't look at her at all, because he was still sad about the lady he'd almost not saved? What if he still looked all scary with ashes and stuff on his face?
What if she could still see them, even if he'd taken a bath?
"I feel okay," she said again. "I'm just not hungry."
Mommy sighed a relieved breath. "Okay, sweetheart, but Daddy will send a note to Mrs. Harkens. If you start to feel bad at school, you tell her, and Uncle Gary or Crumb will come pick you up, or I'll come on the El, or..."
"It's okay, Mommy. I'm not going to get sick. I just know."
Daddy patted her hand. "That's my good girl," he said. But Ellie knew she wasn't good.
School wasn't any more fun than the weekend had been. The picture
of Uncle Gary watched her while she practiced writing words that started
with S and did adding with blocks and beads and made origami mice with the
parent helper because this week they were learning Japan. At recess
Jason and Tommy tried to tease her again, and Ellie didn't even want to fight
back. She left Laurel and Tamiqua to tell them off while she ran behind
the tree and held her stomach until it stopped trying to push tears out her
It started raining that afternoon, and Uncle Gary came to get Ellie at the end of the day. "No bus for you," he told her with a grin, and held an umbrella over both their heads. "I was down at this end of town, and I thought I'd pick you up. It's been a while since we've seen each other."
"Oh," Ellie said, and looked back at the carpool ladies, but Tammy and Dusty just giggled like crazy when Uncle Gary gave them his official note. They always did, even though he never told them jokes. In the van, she turned to the window and watched her friends climbing onto the yellow bus, all of them getting smaller until she couldn't turn her head back far enough to see them any more.
"Too bad it's raining," Uncle Gary said, "or we could go to the park."
She could feel Uncle Gary trying to catch her eye in the rearview mirror. Ellie reached for her backpack and took out the newest Magic Tree House book and pretended to read it, but even the words she knew went all swimmy on the page.
"You okay? You're awfully quiet today." It was almost exactly what Mommy had said to her that weekend.
She looked up and saw Uncle Gary's eyes in the mirror. He looked...friendly, and teasing, just like he always did, but how could he be after the fire? "Yeah," she said, but it didn't sound happy.
"I'm just tired." She turned her eyes back to her book.
"Yeah," Uncle Gary said, slow and unsure, like he didn't quite believe her.
Ellie bit her lip to stop it from moving, from telling him everything--or yelling at him.
When they got to the bar, she followed Uncle Gary into the office, then curled up on the sofa to read. "Is that the new book you were waiting for?" Mommy asked, and then talked to Uncle Gary for a while, until he said he had to leave for, "uh, an appointment." Ellie didn't say good-bye when he left.
"Ellie." She looked up, and Mommy was standing right in front of her. "Honey, what's wrong? Usually you bounce around here like a hoppy frog when you get back from school."
"I'm okay, Mommy. I just want to read my book." Her stomach was too heavy to bounce.
"You haven't turned a page in the whole time you've been here." Mommy waved her hand at the couch. "Scoot over."
Ellie scooted, just enough for Mommy to sit down next to her, and Ellie curled up against her, the way Cat sometimes curled up in her own lap.
"Are you still feeling a little sick?" Mommy rested her hand on Ellie's forehead, and it felt good, but not like it felt when she had a fever, not extra cool. Just Mommy's hand.
"I'm okay," Ellie said again. "Mommy, I--" She gulped. She didn't know what to say, how to explain without making Mommy very, very mad. "I think I'm just tired."
"You could go up and take a nap on Gary's couch."
"No." Ellie said it quickly. She didn't want that; she didn't know why.
Mommy sighed, and Ellie could tell she wasn't going to get away with keeping this secret much longer. "Then lie down here."
Just then, something warm and furry brushed up against Ellie's side. "Hi, Cat."
"See, even he knows a good deal when he sees it," Mommy said. She stood up, and Ellie curled onto her side on the couch. She knew she wasn't going to sleep, but maybe she could just pretend, and she could think how to tell her secret without making everybody mad.
"Ellie," Mommy said, then stopped.
"Yes, Mommy?" Cat was meowing in her ear, and it was making her sleepy after all.
Mommy crouched down and stroked her hair. "Ellie, sometimes when Cat shows up, it's because he wants to tell us something."
"And sometimes, maybe it's because there's something we need to tell each other. If--"
"Marissa, where's the extra blender?" Sarah came in, covered with blue sticky stuff. Ellie sat up, giggling in spite of herself. "Jordan just exploded the good one all over the bar!"
Mommy's shoulders dropped. "Not again."
"We have a whole group out there demanding their Blue Lagoon Daquaris, and I have to change before this stuff solidifies on me," Sarah said.
"Right," Mommy said. She kissed Ellie's cheek. "We'll talk later."
Ellie closed her eyes and wondered if telling a little fib too much might make it true, because she really was tired all of a sudden. Maybe it was just that it was hard work to carry bad secrets around in her tummy.
She woke up with the stripy blanket from Uncle Gary's sofa upstairs covering her. "Time to go home," Mommy was saying. "Do you feel any better?"
Ellie sat up and nodded. "Yes."
Uncle Gary was there, too, standing just behind Mommy, looking at her with questions ready to fall out of his mouth. Cat was at his elbow, on the desk, purring and meowing as it rubbed up against his arm. Ellie got busy looking for her book. Uncle Gary looked from Cat to Ellie and back. But all they said to each other was, "Bye."
On the El train, Ellie sat close to Mommy, wishing she was little enough to just crawl into her lap. There were too many strangers, she thought, though usually she loved seeing all the different colors and clothes and faces, and trying to put stories to them. Mommy could do it too, by listening to their voices.
"Hmm," she whispered into Ellie's ear. "I think that man at the end of the car is going home to his wife and son and pet elephant."
Ellie shook her head against Mommy's arm. "He's wearing a Hawaiian shirt."
"Okay, then, the pet must be a monkey. Who's next?"
Shifting in her seat, Ellie tried to push Uncle Gary's questioning face out of her mind. "The lady up front keeps looking at her watch," she whispered.
Mommy patted Reilly's head. "She has three big dogs at home and if she doesn't take them for a walk by six o'clock they'll eat her sofa."
Or maybe, Ellie thought, she was worried that her house would burn down and nobody would be there to help her. After that, she stopped playing the game.
Mommy tried to talk to her, on the train, walking to the house, fixing dinner. Ellie just shrugged and made the noises that went with it. While Mommy cooked, Ellie drew a picture of a house that looked too much like her own, so she colored it all grey and brown, until it looked like a haunted house. She thought about drawing flames in the windows, but when she picked up the orange crayon it felt too heavy to draw with. She threw away the picture when she heard Daddy come in the door.
All during dinner, during spaghetti and meatballs and carrots, the secret was right there, right on her tongue. But she couldn't say it. She didn't know anymore what the right thing to do would be. Listen to your heart, Mommy and Grandma had always told her when she'd been confused before, but now her heart just said, I don't know, go ask your brain, and her brain said, I don't know, go ask your heart, and her stomach said, get this secret out of me.
When Mommy came to tuck her in for the night, she sat down on the bed and put an arm around Ellie's shoulders. "Ellie," she said in her no-arguing voice, "tell me what's wrong."
Ellie opened her mouth, but nothing would come out. I am wrong, she thought. I'm the one who's wrong, and I don't know why.
"Daddy said you drew sad pictures and crumpled them up in the wastebasket."
Ellie took a breath, but it came back out all shuddery. All the madness and scaredness inside her made a lump that pushed up into her throat.
"Uncle Gary said you wouldn't even look at him this afternoon."
The lump burst into one sob, and then another, and there wasn't room in her mouth to hold them.
"You know you can tell me anything." Mommy pulled her closer, and Ellie pushed her face into Mommy's tummy and let all the badness come out, crying because she couldn't stop. "Is it Uncle Gary? He thinks you're mad because he couldn't take you to the park last week, but this isn't like you, to be so upset about such a little thing. Sweetie, tell me, please."
It was like the crying had broken the secret spell, and the words could come out. "Th-there was a-a-f-f-fire."
"Well, yes, we told you about that, but everyone's all right."
"Not the puppy," Ellie said, extra-super quiet.
"How did you know about the puppy?" Mommy said, very slow and a little bit dangerous.
Ellie let out a loud sniff, because her nose was going to run all over Mommy's yellow sweater. Now, her tummy and her heart both said. Tell now. She looked up and Daddy was standing in the doorway, asking her with his eyes what was wrong; he'd been doing it for days, but she hadn't seen, because she'd been afraid to look.
Ellie took the biggest, deepest breath of her life, and sat up. "I was there."
Mommy went very still, though she didn't let go of Ellie's shoulder.
"Wh--at the fire?" Daddy asked, then looked at Mommy. "Why did you let her--"
"I snuck there." Ellie pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them tight. "Mr. Crumb got his phone call at the bar and he couldn't take me to the park at all, so I--I snuck into the van and--"
"Eleanor Naomi!" Mommy said very loud; she jumped up and didn't shut her mouth. Reilly pushed past Daddy and jumped up onto Ellie's bed, and even he looked at her funny, like he knew she was a bad girl.
"I knew you would be mad, but they were teasing me at school. They said Uncle Gary couldn't save people and even Mrs. Harkens didn't believe me and I really really wanted them to know the truth and I just thought it and I couldn't stop the idea in my head and--" She wiggled off the bed and scrambled under it, coming up with the notebook, which she handed to Daddy.
He looked through the pages, reading with his lips pressed tight together while Ellie stood with her eyes squeezed shut. "She was there."
"Why didn't you--Ellie, how could you just--you could have been--you snuck out--" Mommy was so angry she couldn't even finish her sentences.
"I knew you would be mad!" Ellie backed away from them both, toward her closet, thinking it wouldn't be so bad to hide in there with the pile of stuffed animals from when she was little. "I heard you, I knew you were mad at Uncle Gary for going and now I know what it's like because I'm mad at him too, but I don't know why, and it's--I'm not like that mean man from the house, I'm not! I'm not a bad girl! I don't want to be bad!"
She was crying so hard she couldn't see, but Daddy swooped over and scooped her up and hugged her tight, swinging her back and forth. "Okay, okay, shhh." She held on to his neck until she could breathe again without sobbing out more tears.
"I'm sorry, Daddy. I'm sorry, Mommy." She peeked over Daddy's shoulder.
"Sorry? I don't even know where to begin," Mommy said, and her voice was hard, like Mrs. Harkens's when Jason's table got too loud during work time. Daddy put Ellie down on the bed, then sat next to her. "Ellie, you lied to us--"
"I didn't--not exactly." Ellie looked down at her hands. "Mr. Crumb really did have to go see about his client."
"But you didn't tell the truth, not all of it," Daddy said. He didn't say it mad, just very quiet and sad. "That's just as bad as a lie." He held her hand tight, and it didn't feel so awful to have been a bad girl, because maybe he could still love her.
Or at least, Daddy could. Mommy's face was scrunched up, thinking.
"We'll discuss consequences later," she finally said, "after Daddy and I think about it together."
Ellie nodded, but she couldn't answer. Her throat was all lumpy again.
"What did you mean about being angry at Uncle Gary?" Mommy finally asked, and her voice didn't sound as hard. "Is that why you wouldn't talk to him today?"
Ellie gulped, she looked up at Mommy and Daddy. "I--I know it's wrong. But I don't understand! He has a big secret like Superman and he goes around helping people like Superman, but he's not, you said he's not, because he doesn't have super powers, and he didn't save them all, not the puppy, not the lady."
Mommy sighed. "She's going to be all right, Ellie. She's already gone home from the hospital."
"But now they don't have a house. Or their puppy," Ellie said when Reilly wiggled over and put his head on her shoulder. "And Uncle Gary coughed and coughed and--what if he can't save everybody? What if--" Mommy and Daddy were waiting, letting her say it. "What if sometime he can't save us?"
Mommy sucked in a sharp breath.
"Ellie, you need to believe that Uncle Gary loves you very, very much," Daddy said. "He would do anything to help you, just like we would."
"I don't want to be mad at him anymore, but I can't stop!"
Without a word, Mommy held out her arms. Ellie crawled into her lap and felt safe there, safe for the first time since she'd seen that black smoke coming out of the white house. They were all quiet for a long time, then Mommy finally said, "You know what? Sometimes I get mad at Uncle Gary, too. Sometimes I even get mad at your daddy."
Ellie peeked out at Daddy, who gave her a little smile. "Boy, does she ever," he said.
Mommy rolled her eyes, but she said, "You should tell him."
"But I can't--I shouldn't be mad at him, it's wrong, and it'll make him sad and he won't like me any more. I don't want to be like the mean man. You told Uncle Gary he was wrong to be mad."
Mommy pressed her face down on Ellie's head for a minute and took a couple of breaths. "I wish you hadn't heard--no. I wish I hadn't said that. Your feelings are never wrong, Ellie. Sometimes you do things because of your feelings that you wish you hadn't done--"
"Like hiding in the van?"
"Like hiding in the van. Or not talking to Uncle Gary when he didn't understand that there was anything wrong. Those things you should feel badly about, and I think you would have felt a lot better if you had told us about them sooner. But you have those feelings because you have a good heart. I think a big part of reason you're mad at Uncle Gary is because you love him so much."
Daddy was nodding, but Ellie didn't really understand, and her lip was too trembly to talk.
"You can get mad at someone and still love them," Mommy said. "I am not happy about what you did Friday--it wasn't honest, and it wasn't safe. But I still love you."
"But this is different." Ellie sniffled. "Uncle Gary didn't do anything wrong, and I'm really, really mad. And--and scared."
"Ellie, you're not going to get hurt. There won't be a fire here," Daddy said.
"You can't promise that, can you?" Ellie said, and for a second some of her madness went toward Daddy. He looked surprised.
"Nooo, but--sweetie, you're as safe as all the love in the world can make you, okay?"
"Our love, and Uncle Gary's," Mommy said.
"Does he love you, too?" Ellie asked.
"Well, yes, of course, he's my friend--"
"But he doesn't always keep you safe, does he?" Ellie tipped her head up to look at Mommy's face, which was suddenly frowning. "That's what he said, before the fire."
Mommy's eyes went round. "You heard that? Oh, Ellie, baby--"
Ellie bounced up to her knees and wrapped her arms around Mommy's neck. "I don't want you to get hurt! Uncle Gary said you got in trouble sometimes and he--"
"Eleanor, stop." Mommy used her strict voice, but she hugged Ellie tighter than ever. "We all get into trouble sometimes. Everyone does. But you and I and Daddy are extra-super lucky because we have Uncle Gary to help us, do you understand that?"
"But how? He's not Superman. How can he save people?"
Mommy sniffled a little. "Because he cares," she said quietly. But Ellie knew that wasn't all, it wasn't enough. It wasn't Uncle Gary's secret.
Daddy reached over and stroked her hair. "Maybe we should tell her."
Mommy shook her head. "Gary should tell her. I just never thought it would be this soon. Or--or like this." Then she squeezed Ellie. "You need to tell Uncle Gary what's going on, and then maybe--maybe he can talk to you about his secret." She sighed again, and then let go of Ellie. "But this is an explanation, not a reward."
She had no idea what that meant, but Ellie nodded anyway.
"Go get your jacket."
Ellie's eyes got big and round. "But it's a school night! And it's--" She twisted her head around to look at the clock on her nightstand. "It's eight-three-nine!"
"Would you rather wait until after school tomorrow?" asked Daddy.
Ellie bit her lip and shook her head.
"Then get your coat. We'll talk about the consequences of sneaking around later."
At a stoplight, Daddy looked at Ellie in the rearview mirror. He must have seen her chewing on her lip, because he said, "I know this is hard. But you're a brave girl, and if you can find the courage to do this, you'll feel better."
"Okay," Ellie said, but she could hardly whisper. She didn't feel brave at all. She should have been excited to be out late on a school night, to maybe be hearing Uncle Gary's secret. But she was afraid he would be even more upset than Mommy and Daddy had been. She was afraid he wouldn't be her friend anymore, once he knew how she'd felt about him all weekend.
When they got to McGinty's, he was out at the bar, talking to Mr. Crumb. "Hey, guys, what's--" Uncle Gary looked at Ellie, at Mommy's face, at the clock, and frowned. "What's wrong?"
"Ellie needs to talk to you," Mommy said.
"I--sure." Uncle Gary put down his beer bottle. "Sure, of course."
"I think you two should talk alone," Daddy said. Uncle Gary kept looking at Mommy, though. She squeezed Ellie's hand, then let go with a sad little breath.
His frown was confused, but all Uncle Gary said was, "Want to go upstairs?" Ellie nodded.
"Gary," Mommy said, really quiet. "Listen to her, okay?"
"Well, yeah, sure." He held out his hand. "I promise not to bite, El."
Daddy bent down whispered, "You'll have to apologize to Crumb later," which made Ellie swallow hard. Then he told Uncle Gary, "Go easy on my girl."
"You got it."
Ellie took his hand, and they walked up to the loft without saying anything. Uncle Gary turned on a couple lights. "Do you, uh, want to sit down?" he asked, like he wasn't sure how to talk to her, and then, "Nice pjs you got there."
She looked down at the bunnies jumping all over the green legs of her pajamas, then pulled her notebook out of her jacket pocket. It was open to the fire story.
"What's up, kiddo?"
Ellie just held out the notebook until he took it. He read the first page, flipped it, and read some more. She stared down at the sockless feet she'd shoved into her sneakers; Cat came over and started walking on them. Scratching behind his ears made her tummy settle down a little bit. It was quiet for what felt like a long, long time.
"You were there?" Uncle Gary asked, and his voice sounded funny, like he was trying not to yell. She nodded, still looking down at Cat. "How?"
"I snuck in the van right before you left. I watched out the windows," Ellie said in a small voice.
To her surprise, Uncle Gary whistled. "I bet your mom's not happy about that."
"She's waiting to punish me," Ellie said, and for just a second it felt like normal, like they were friends again.
"Waiting for what?"
Ellie sucked in a breath. "Until I tell you the rest."
"There's more?" Uncle Gary knelt down on the floor. "Okay, spill."
Ellie looked into his eyes, and he was just...Uncle Gary. Kind and funny and usually more like a kid than one of the grown-ups. "I--" she said, and then stopped. "I felt--when you didn't come out of the house for a long time, I was really, really scared."
He put his hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, honey."
But that wasn't the hard part. She twisted her fingers together. "And then--then it all got mixed up, and the man yelled at you, and the lady wasn't waking up and the little girl was crying for her puppy and--" Ellie tried to catch her breath, but the words kept coming. "You were coughing, and you were sad, and--and I was mad, I was mad at the man for yelling at you, but--but--but I was--" Ellie squeezed her eyes shut, and wished she could be brave like Daddy had told her. "I was mad at you, too."
It got very quiet. Finally Ellie couldn't stand it anymore; she opened her eyes and saw what she'd been afraid of all along. Uncle Gary looked hurt.
"I didn't mean to be! I don't like to be! But it's just there and I don't know why I'm so bad!"
"Is that why you were so quiet today?"
She nodded miserably.
"And you really don't know why?"
"Well, you--you almost didn't call 911. And then you were inside for so long, and the lady was sick, and the puppy died, and the little girl was crying and her daddy was mad."
"I was mad at myself for those things, too," Uncle Gary said. "Ellie, it's okay--"
"But there's more!" Now that she'd started telling, she couldn't stop. "Because then I thought maybe someday you wouldn't be able to save us , and maybe my mommy would be sick like that, and I don't want her to be, and I don't want Reilly to die in a fire, and I don't want you to get hurt and cough anymore, and I told the kids at school you were like Superman and saved everybody, but you can't, can you?"
Uncle Gary sat all the way down with a thump. He closed his eyes for a minute, and when he opened them again, Ellie wanted to give him a big hug, but her arms and feet wouldn't move.
"No," he finally said. "No, I can't save everyone."
"And that's not fair! You can't make me safe, can you? Or Mommy, 'cause you said sometimes she got into trouble because of you, and you can't even make yourself safe, you coughed and coughed after that fire, and what if you had a smoking hole nation in your lungs like that lady? What if it was you, or Mommy or Daddy or me, or--" She thought she had used up all her sobs, but more came up from her tummy. "It's all mixed up in my heart, and it isn't fair!"
"Oh, Ellie." Uncle Gary took her hand and squeezed it. "No, it's not fair. I'm so, so sorry."
"Why can't you?" Ellie asked, and tears started sneaking out of her eyes. "Why, Uncle Gary? You should be like Superman. He saves people and he doesn't get hurt. A whole building fell on him, and he just pushed it away. He never coughs."
"Well, I'm not, I'm not Superman. I just do the best I can. I try to help people who really need help, and sometimes--sometimes, sweetie, I don't do it right, sometimes even when it's somebody I really love, like your Mommy. But she always tells me it will work out in the end as long as we all keep trying together, and she's right. And Ellie?" He waited until she looked him right in the eye, and then he smiled just a little. "Sometimes I get mad at myself, too."
And then a funny thing happened. All her madness melted right out of Ellie, gone so fast she hardly had time to know it was leaving. She jumped across the space between her and Uncle Gary and hugged his neck and he hugged her back and it didn't matter that the kids at school didn't believe her and that he didn't have any super powers, because he was her Uncle Gary, and that was enough.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said, over and over.
"Naw, honey, you don't have to be." Uncle Gary's voice was rough, and he didn't let go. "You were scared, that's all. Oh, geez, Jelly Bean, why didn't you tell me right away?" She pulled back, and he put his hand on her wet cheek. "Ellie, I swear, I will do everything I can, always, to make sure you're safe. I can't promise you'll never get hurt, but I do promise you I'll always try. Okay?"
"Only if you promise to try not to get hurt, too."
He nodded. "It's a deal."
Ellie felt so much better she wanted to dance, but there was one other thing she wanted to know. "Mommy says you can help lots of people, even though you're not Superman. She says it's because you care."
"I guess that's one way to put it." Uncle Gary looked down at Cat, who was pushing up against Ellie's leg. "But it takes a little bit more than that."
Ellie nodded. "She said--she said if you wanted to, you could tell me your secret."
He looked at her for a long time. Then Cat meowed. "Okay, but if I tell, you have to keep it. You have to swear not to tell anybody else. Ever. Not even if the kids at school tease you." He held out his little finger and made his voice all boomy and deep, like a movie announcer's. "You must...pinkie swear."
Ellie swallowed, but even though Uncle Gary's expression was serious, his eyes were laughing a little. She curled her pinkie around his. "Deal."
There was no park, no fun stuff after school at all, for two whole weeks, and Mommy and Daddy talked to Ellie for a long, long time about Dishonest Behavior (which, Mommy said, was different from telling a lie but at least as naughty), keeping secrets, and being safe. It wasn't as bed as Ellie had been afraid it would be, though; she was too busy being relieved about her tummy not hurting and not being confused anymore. She was glad to have a better secret to keep, one about helping people instead of being bad. Most of all, she was extra-special-happy to be friends with Uncle Gary again.
"Draw your family in your favorite place to be," Mrs. Harkens said when they started learning about communities. Ellie went to the art center for more colors than her crayon box could hold: hot chocolate, pale peach, forest green, sea blue, tangerine, burnt sienna, crimson, sunshine, bubblegum. She filled the paper with them. She drew everyone safe and happy--Mommy, Daddy, Reilly, Grandma and Grandpa. She drew Cat and Uncle Gary, and, with a special, secret smile, she drew a newspaper sticking out of his back pocket. She drew the park around them, the swings and flowers and the fountain shooting streaks of water into the sky. She drew herself in the middle of them all, just right, and--even though she knew now they couldn't be happy and safe all the time--not mad at anybody.
Not even Jason and Tommy, because after all, Mommy was right. They were just jealous because neither one of them had an uncle who was a real, secret hero.
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