Glass half full
The repetitive looping of the wool around the knitting needles in her hands was a welcome distraction. Ellie had been late for work that morning. She volunteered every Tuesday and Thursday at The Hallowed Hills, the institution for the mentally ill that her parents ran. Mostly, she kept company to the nonviolent residents. Her predilection was for the ones whose families had turned into a paycheck dispensed monthly, dollar figures handed off to strangers as receipts of love or fulfilled obligation. Some of the people there, she knew, were not so ill that they should be there. They merely had nowhere else to go. Those were the friends she kept.
Since young, Ellie had been drawn to the building. Making friends her own age was difficult. They cared about things Ellie knew nothing about and mocked her for things she could not change. Her hair, her family, her origin. Here, among misfits, she finally belonged.
Today, it was Frank Delaney who sat with her. He'd only been knitting for two weeks. It wasn't his favorite occupational therapy ever. Still, he sat with her, threading wool. He was a veteran of however many wars that Ellie could never keep track of. Scars drew a path on his skin, from the left wrist up towards his neck, where fire had melted tissue.
She remembered the way her stomach churned when she'd first met him, years earlier. Only a young girl then, she'd been scared of the way pain branded him, displayed across his body, exposed for all to see. She still regretted the unwitting scorn that had appeared on her face. Ellie knew now, watching him lounge in a wifebeater in the front porch, that Frank did not care about the scars. He was proud of the life story they told. It was always other people who had the problem with the exposed skin.
She bit down on her bottom lip. The fabric that hugged her own arms felt like a prison in the warm weather of June. Sweat, however, was easier to do away with than sticky questions about fading purple that she could not explain. She tugged at the long sleeves, turning in a new line of stitches. Loop, cross, pull. Rinse and repeat.
Ellie jumped when Frank's voice filled the air around them.
"Cat's got your tongue, kid?" he asked, glancing sideways at her. His voice was emotionless steel, but she'd learned to read the undertones. He cared. She sucked in a breath around the words stuck in her throat, head shaking in negative.
"Oh. No." Denial was instinctive. Ellie kept her eyes on the work, as if staring at the wool hard enough could will away this line of conversation.
"Love troubles," Frank stated plainly. She widened her eyes. She could feel the blood pumping through the vein on her neck, her cheeks flushed, chest rising with sudden intake of air.
"What?" There was a concerted effort to keep her voice steady as images flashed through her mind. An empty bottle of whiskey, a broken bedside lamp, the hardwood of the floor boards pressing against protruding hipbones. And the roses. Always the roses, blood red, on the counter the next day. She hated roses.
"It's always love troubles at your age," Frank added with confidence. Ellie exhaled, brow slacking, knuckles slowly regaining their color.
"No, it's just..." she licked her lips, glancing at him and then back at her hands, "...a bad day." The words were a sigh, shoulders slouching at the weight of the unspoken.
"I remember my love troubles when I was your age," Frank continued, either not hearing or not acknowledging her reply. "Elena Amistad," he sighed wistfully, eyes far off towards the horizon. "'Didn't even know I existed," he paused again, scratching his chin with the tip of his knitting needle. "I went off to war the next year... wonder what happened to her."
The corner of her lips lifted in a wry smile, relieved to get the spotlight off of herself. "Have you ever tried looking for her?" Ellie leaned back against the bench, watching him.
He shook his head. "That was a lifetime ago," Frank kept his gaze on the horizon for another few moments, air dense with the silence that gathered between them. She opened her mouth to dust it off, but he beat her to it.
"Remember, child," Frank dispensed the words nonchalantly, staring straight ahead. "Nothing is so bad that it can't get worse," he tapped his own knee with the knitting needle. When he finally looked at her, his mouth curled into a lopsided smile. "Don't make it harder on yourself by getting upset by it."
Like most advice worth taking, Ellie would not understand the true meaning of the words until years later.