The Changeling Bride(4)

By: Lisa Cach


She had kept her, though, and rearranged her life to suit Tatiana. She had found an apartment she could barely afford, one that not only allowed dogs but was right next to a forested park where Tatiana could run off the leash. Her consequently reduced finances had meant taking the bus to work and no cable television, but she admitted those changes were probably for the best. She also now got exercise whether she wanted it or not; mornings and late afternoons found her outside with a Frisbee or ball, doing anything to help Tatiana burn off energy.

She shed her parka and shoes, and walked through the apartment to the sliding glass doors that looked out on the forested park. Tatiana shoved rudely at her legs, wanting out, and when Elle slid open the door the dog squeezed past her, zipping off down the narrow apartment complex lawn and back again. Elle stood and watched, a smile on her lips that had been in absence most of the day.

The phone just inside the door rang, making her jump. Her face scrunched in annoyance as she went back inside to answer it. It was probably either Jeff or a telemarketer, neither of whom she wanted to talk to.

“Hello?”

“Ellie! Glad I caught you,” Jeff’s persistently cheerful voice was dulled by the buzz of a car phone. “Tina wanted me to call and ask you over to dinner tonight. I can pick you up on my way—I’m about fifteen minutes from your place as I speak.”

“I was just going to give Tatiana her walk. Can we make it some other time? She hasn’t been out all day.”

“No problem, bring her along. You can walk her before dinner. After, too, if you eat too much, ha ha. Can’t let you get fat on us, or we’ll never find you a husband.”

“Yeah, right. Look, Jeff, I’m just in a really bad mood tonight.” She watched Tatiana through the door, sniffing around, hot on the trail of some rodent. The rain had lightened to a soft drizzle, and although the woods were gloomy beneath the trees, they still called to her.

“That’s because you don’t get out enough. What’s the matter, you forget how to be sociable? It won’t kill you to make an effort. Tina’s feelings will be hurt if you don’t come, and you know the kids adore you.”

“Jeff . . .”

“C’mon, Ellie. For me?”

“Oh, fine. I’ll come, but you have to promise to have me home by nine.”

“No problemo.”

Elle hung up and gave a snort of frustration with herself. When would she learn to say no? Giving in seemed to be what she did best.

Forty minutes later she and Tatiana unloaded themselves from Jeff’s Ford Taurus in the driveway of his suburban home. The house was a variation on the same theme as all the others in the development: white plastic-latticed windows and neutral-colored siding, and a bay window beside the front door looking out on a patch of too-green lawn lined with bark dust and azaleas.

An unfamiliar car—an Escort with alloy wheels and a spoiler on its hatchback—was parked along the curb in front.

“Another guest?” Elle asked.

“Just Toby from work. You’ve heard me talk about him, haven’t you?”

“Toby, as in single Toby? As in, ‘Elle, why don’t you go out with this great guy I know’ Toby?”

“That’s the one.” Jeff gave his trademark grin.

Elle felt her stomach go hollow. Not again. “Jeff, what did I say last time? I thought you agreed to stop doing this.”

“But maybe you’ll like this one.” He put his arm around her shoulders. “I just want to see you happy, you know that.”

The front door opened and Tina came out onto the top step, the newest addition to the horde nestled against her shoulder.

“Ellie, how nice to see you. We have a special guest tonight, who came just to meet you.” She paused, taking in Elle’s apparel. “I wish you’d dressed a little more attractively. . . . We’ll just have to tell Toby you clean up good,” she said, smiling.

Elle cringed, aware that her makeup was creased and oily on her face and that the grubby comfort clothes she had changed into were covered in dog hair and gave her the shape of a coffee can. The sweatshirt ended at her hips, and the leggings she wore beneath showed every pound of rump and thigh.

“Toby!” Tina called back into the house. “Toby! Come out and meet Jeff’s little sister, Ellie.”

The day was not improving with age.

Three hours later, with one of Tina’s hamburger casseroles burbling unhappily in her stomach, Elle decided it was past time to go home. Toby was not bad-looking, but he took her quiet for an invitation to spout opinions on the Way Life Ought to Be, opinions with all the depth of thought, compassion, and factual accuracy of a Rush Limbaugh broadcast.