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Too Much to Handle

Written by Nicole Helm

Chapter Eight

Ellen had procrastinated all week. It was wrong, and she hated the way Henry just…didn't say anything about it. Was all sweet and awkward and perfect. Meanwhile, he wanted her to tell her parents about them. She hated everything about this.

Except Henry.

Sitting in her parents' living room while Mom decorated the Christmas tree, she should be smiling about happy Christmas memories. Instead, she was smiling because of Henry.

A week with Henry had been very nice indeed. Even if it was silly, she was going to miss him when he went to spend Christmas weekend with his dad in Des Moines.

Also silly she kept putting off telling her parents about him.

"Oh, Steve, remember the Christmas we got Ken his first bike?" Mom said, hanging a bike ornament on the tree. "He was so excited." Mom's eyes filled with tears. "It's still in the basement. I thought…"

"Remember the Christmas we went to Alaska?" Ellen asked, trying to deflect the topic. "That was so cool. We should do another trip like that. Those cruises are great."

But Mom just made a little noise and turned away, and Dad didn't say anything, and Ellen…Ellen felt like she didn't exist.

"I'm in love with Henry," she said into the silence of the room. She'd meant to ease them into it, find some calm way of explaining, but she was so desperate to make herself exist to them, it burst out.

Both of her parents stood perfectly still. Frozen. As if the words had broken the space and time continuum.

"Who's Henry?" Mom finally said.

"You know who Henry is."

"No. No, I do not know who Henry is because the only Henry I know is responsible for the death of your brother, and no daughter of mine would be so cruel and awful to love that monster." Mom wasn't looking at her, and Dad sat there as if he wasn't even present.

"He's not a monster. He's a man." She wanted them to see, not for her—but for themselves. So they could move on. Just a little. "And at the time he was a boy, and so was Ken. Careless, irresponsible boys."

Mom whirled around to face her. "You will not say that about my son."

"He wasn't perfect or a saint. He made a mistake, and he paid for it."

"They shouldn't have let him drive!" This time Mom threw the ornament in her hand, and it crashed to the floor.

Dad still didn't move, and Ellen wanted to back down, but…this was wrong. Running away hadn't solved anything, so it was time to go head-on. No matter how upset Mom was, no matter how detached Dad was.

"Maybe you shouldn't have let him go to that party. Maybe I should have made him play Nintendo with me like he'd promised that morning. There are a million maybes, a million ways to find blame, and the fact you took money from Henry as some sort of penance for that blame is shameful."

"No. I refuse to accept this." Mom shook her head so vigorously it had to hurt. "I refuse to discuss it."

"That doesn't change it, Mom," Ellen said quietly. "You can't pretend me away. I exist. I'm here. All I ever wanted was for you to love me. To pay attention to me. To care. But everything you have is wrapped up in your son dying, so your daughter doesn't matter. Well, I don't want to pretend that's okay anymore. I'm going to be with someone who doesn't treat me that way, even if it hurts you. Because I am done hurting over things I can control. There's enough hurt with the things I can't."

"Of course we love you, Ellen. Don't be foolish. Choosing someone who was responsible for Ken's death over your own parents is its own kind of tragedy." Dad's voice was almost bored.

"I'm sorry you feel that way. I know you love me. I know that losing Ken is not something any of us will ever get over. It is a tragedy, but it's also…awful that I feel like I'll never be as important to you as someone who's not even here."

"If this is how you feel, then I don't know why you even bothered to come home. If you think I'll ever accept that man as anything other than a monster at fault for my child's death, then you don't belong in this house." Mom turned away.

Ellen brushed at the tears on her cheeks. "I hope when you sit down and think about this, you'll feel differently. I'll always be around if you change your mind, but I'm not living like this anymore. Trying to make you see me, trying to pretend you'll want to someday. Not when I actually have someone who cares about me. I love you both, and I miss him, too, but I don't want to be overshadowed by his memory. I need to be equal to it."

"I hope you never have to lose a child, Ellen. But if you did you'd see how unfair you're being."

Ellen walked to the door. Maybe she was being unfair. But staying away because they made her feel like nothing had been unfair to her, and the life she wanted. Living as if the only thing that mattered was someone who could never be brought back hurt too much to bear.

So, fair or not, she walked out of her parents' house, and hoped that someday they'd be able to mend this break. But if not, she'd surround herself with people who could see beyond one tragic moment, and find the happy in the here and now.

*

When Henry stepped outside, duffel bag over his shoulder, he figured he'd have to leave for Dad's without saying goodbye to Ellen. It shouldn't be that big of a deal. It was only for a few days, but…

As ridiculous as it was, he'd miss her. Miss her smile and her cheer and the warmth she infused his life with.

But there she was. Wrapping Christmas lights around the bushes next to his porch.

"I think you're a little late."

She didn't look up from her work. "Never too late for Christmas cheer," she said, sounding anything but cheerful.

"Ellen?"

She finally looked up, and her face was blotchy red. At first he thought she'd been out in the cold too long, but as he stepped toward her he realized it was tears.

She must have told them.

"Oh, El, I'm so sorry."

She shook her head and sniffled. "You have nothing to be sorry for."

He'd faced a lot of truths he'd been ignoring. Truths he'd been ignoring for years. And she'd brought to surface things he couldn't bury again. Hope and light and, more, the fact that Ken's accident, while partially brought on by his negligence, hadn't been solely his fault. And, regardless, there was nothing he could do to change it.

All he could do was live. He'd always be sorry he didn't make a different choice that night, but it didn't have to rule his life any longer.

"Maybe I don't," he finally said. Because she was right that her parents' choices weren't something he could blame on himself. "But I don't want to be the thing that comes between you."

"I know." She finally released her death grip on the strand of lights and managed to smile at him. "You're not. They're the ones drawing this line."

He put his hand to her red cheek. It was slightly damp and cold. He wished he could do something. Anything. "I hope they'll come around."

"I do, too." She covered his hand with her own. "I love you, Henry."

He let that sink in. Those words. Love. Things just a few weeks ago he'd never let himself have because he didn't think he deserved it. And here Ellen was giving it to him so easily.

How could he not take it? No matter how much he worried that he couldn't live up to her expectations, or deal with the situation with her parents, or that his memories of Ken would be too difficult, her love assuaged all those fears.

She dropped her hand from his. "I know, I shouldn't have said it so soon. It's just—"

"I love you, too."

Her smile was wide and beautiful and exactly what he wanted to give her. Her smiles and her happy, even when the bad stuff came their way. "Yeah?"

"Yes, I do. Maybe it is fast, but you're kind of hard not to fall in love with. You made me face some…uncomfortable truths I've been hiding away from, but more than that…you feel like home, Ellen."

"You feel like home, too," she said on a teary whisper. "I didn't know that's what I was looking for. I was really only looking for happy, but home is even better."

He leaned in to kiss her, remembering he'd been on his way to Dad's only when his phone buzzed. "That's probably Dad. I told him I'd call him when I was on the road."

"Oh." She kept smiling, but it didn't seem to have the same wattage it had had seconds ago. "You should go, then. Christmas waits for no man."

"You could come with," he blurted. "I mean, we could figure something out so you'd be back for Christmas with your parents if you wanted to try, but… You don't have to, I only thought…" He cleared his throat, trying to figure out how to say the things he really meant.

That he'd like to take her home, re-introduce her to his father, cement this thing between them.

She flung her arms around his neck, much like she had the first day she'd been back. Happy and exuberant and everything he needed.

"Give me ten minutes to pack." She started toward her door. Then turned around. "Maybe twenty."

"Take all the time you need."

She grinned. "Thirty minutes, tops." She took another few steps, then stopped and turned again. "Can I bring Scabby?"

Henry sighed. "I'll go get a sheet to put down in the back."

Ellen tramped through the snow to give him another tight squeeze. "You are a damn fine man, Henry Peterson."

He'd never felt much like one, not in his entire adult life. But she made him feel like he could be.

"I'll be ready when you are." Ready for anything that came their way.

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