Two days passed before Tom saw Ellen again. She’d called him – the day her bail was posted she left Tom a message to explain she needed a few days away, that she was getting a hotel room outside of Wodeville to gather herself. But she wouldn’t answer her phone, and Tom was beginning to worry.
Mrs. Day checked on him in the meantime. She brought him plastic bags filled with cookies, and old cans of soup and beans that had sat in the back of her cupboards for roughly a decade.
“You don’t need to do this,” Tom said, reassurances coming off as ingratitude. “Really, I’m okay.”
And Mrs. Day would nod like she understood, pat his hand, tell him she was glad to have helped anyway. He wanted to be kinder. He wanted to receive the rations with grace and thankfulness, and to explain to her just how much good she’d done by calling the police. But Ellen’s absence ate at him, made him meaner, like he couldn’t dull his own edges unless he knew how she was.
When Ellen did return, Tom answered the door to see a taxi idling on the street behind her. The cab driver watched them. It was clear he was waiting for her to come back.
“I just came to pick up a few things,” Ellen said.
“I haven’t heard from you.”
“I was worried.”
“I’m sorry, Tom. I know. I needed some time.”
He followed her up the stairs and into the bedroom. She gathered her clothes, her toothbrush, her cigarettes. Eventually they stood alone together beside the bed, Ellen continuing to scan the room for forgotten belongings, Tom’s focus unwavering.
“So you’re going back.”
“I have a job. I have to go back. Did you think I’d stay here forever?”
“No,” Tom said, “of course not. But I thought we’d have a little time together. Less gunplay, more foreplay.”
She smiled sadly and picked up a hair tie resting on Tom’s dresser, just beneath the photograph of his father.
“You look a lot like him,” she said, touching the picture. “He was a handsome man.”
“When will I see you again?”
She turned from the dresser and looked at Tom, and he realized he was mistaken about her sadness. It wasn’t sadness he saw, but some deep exhaustion that had sunk into her bones.
“Whenever you want,” she said. “You know where to find me.” She hefted her bag over a shoulder. “It’s worse now, isn’t it? The family broken, the business corrupted. If you’d just been fired, maybe it could have worked. Maybe you could have let it go. But now, after all this. Well.”
He wanted to tell her that she didn’t understand. That is wasn’t about his father, or his uncle, or even the family business. But he could think of no other reason to stay, and knew that, even if he could, it would be a lie.
She stepped past him and toward the stairs. Tom watched her go, watched her disappear out the door and listened until he heard the cab pull away. It was what had to happen. Ellen had to leave. Tom had spent years building kits, putting loose pieces together until they made sense as something new. But despite this, when it came to his own life, he couldn’t see how she fit.