Ella’s room was dim, illuminated only by the rising sun through the window and a melting wax candle still lit on her bedside table. She rubbed the crust off her eyes and watched the candle burn beside her. This week it rained every day until the paint peeled from the exterior walls of her uncle’s beach house. Ella stayed inside for six days. She did yoga, she meditated, she rubbed essential oils on her wrists until her skin turned red. When she was done with her exercises, she cleaned the house. She wiped the windows until they shone and reflected her face. She stared at herself. She stared at her blue eyes and bushy eyebrows, the features she shared with her uncle. She went back to bed. She woke up. This morning was the seventh day of staying inside.
Ella told herself that it was nice to get away from the noise. Her childhood was spent moving from city to city, following wherever her uncle went for work. She never liked the sour smell of factories and how the view outside her window was filled with silver buildings and narrow sidewalks with dying weeds seeping through the cracks. Her uncle knew she was unhappy, so when she turned eighteen he let her live at their beach house by herself.
Ella had always liked it at the beach. The air was fresher and cleaner and she could run for miles on the shoreline whenever she felt anxious. No need to worry about second hand smoke or cat-calls of men twice her age. It was calm and quiet until that peacefulness turned into boredom and Ella longed for the white noise of cars honking and people shouting in the streets.
Ella missed the city especially in the quiet mornings such as these. During these mornings, there was no noise outside to make her feel as if the world was passing her by. No sounds making her want to put her shoes on and explore where they were coming from. So Ella continued to lay in bed, watching the candle burn until there was nothing but a pool of liquid wax and burnt wicks in a cylinder container.
When the candle died, Ella pushed the covers off her body and got up. She slept in her running clothes to help her future self stay accountable to the plans she made the previous night. Last night, she promised herself she would run the next morning. Three miles, specifically. She could lay in bed and do nothing for the rest of the day, but three miles must be completed beforehand. When Ella finally got out the door, the tide was low and the sun was up in the sky. She contemplated running barefoot. She recently read a book that told her running barefoot was more natural, and she didn’t want to get wet sand all over her shoes. Ella stared at the sand for a while. She decided to run with shoes. She started her stopwatch. It told her she had travelled 0.0 miles. She ran. The seconds went up. Ella ran until the large rocks at the end of the beach gradually got smaller and smaller until they were all dunes of bright white sand.
Ella got sunburnt for the first time while lying next to the dunes. She watched the trail of her uncle’s footprints grow longer and longer as he walked to the shoreline to go fishing. He told her that he’d be back in thirty minutes, but even at six years old she knew to not take his words too seriously. Ella laid on her stomach, sticking her hands in the soft white sand and poking at crabs with her fingers until she got bored and fell asleep. She woke up to her uncle's hand on her shoulder and a stinging pain where his palm was. She cried later, not from the pain, but from how gross and foreign her peeling skin looked. Her uncle made jokes about how she resembled a moulting lizard. She stuck her bottom lip out at him. He laughed and rubbed aloe on her shoulders. She pretended to be mad.
‘Nostalgia is a bittersweet thing’ Ella thought. It was hard to imagine being six and having the superpower to fall asleep anywhere. To trust the world not to harm you. She couldn’t imagine laying at the beach like that now. Someone could steal your stuff, your wallet, your clothes. Your things could blow away in the wind, or someone could take pictures of you in an unflattering pose. Not that Ella thought herself remarkable enough to the point where strangers would want to take pictures of her. But it was a possibility. There were always possibilities.
Ella bent her arm towards her face. Her watch told her that she had run half a mile so far. It seemed like much longer. She breathed heavily and felt a cramp forming in her lower abdomen. The cold weather made her inclined to drink less water. Her nose was stuffy too. Another byproduct of the cold. Ella used her pointer finger to close one of her nostrils. She inhaled as much air as she could through her mouth, and exhaled sharply through her nose. She blew a snot rocket onto the dunes, leaving a tiny wet hole in the side of the sand. Ella smiled and her stomach flushed with warmth. Nobody saw that. It was disgusting, but no one was there to care. She was alone. No one could see her legs awkwardly chafing against each other, or her arms pumping almost theatrically to propel her forwards. She could strip naked if she wanted to. The running made her feel alive, like a predator chasing its prey. She was on a quest she told herself. She was hunting. Hunting for what? A voice asked. She ignored the voice. She ran. She ran to the boulders between the shoreline. She watched the whitewater splash and spray as they hit the gray rocks. Almost as if they wanted to move them, a collective effort leading to nowhere.
They took family photos on this rock, Ella and her Uncle. She was eight, two summers after the sunburn incident. The tide was higher and the ocean looked more like a lake. He wore a simple outfit: jeans and a white blouse. Her uncle’s skin was tan and his eyes formed wrinkles when he smiled. His blond hair was long and fell to his shoulders. Ella thought he looked like king Triton from Ariel, minus the beard, mustache, and mermaid tail. When Ella got bored of watching her uncle smile and pose, she climbed to the top of the rock and pretended she was Ariel. She even sang the “Part of Your World” reprise when she thought they weren’t looking. The photographer and her uncle laughed when they heard her sing. The photographer pointed his camera at Ella. She was blinded by the bright yellow light. She squinted until her eyes were sore and filled with a velvet red. When Ella opened her eyes, her uncle wasn’t laughing anymore. He had slipped and fallen into a puddle where the rock had eroded and filled with water. He stood up, revealing a wet splotch on his bottom. He took off his coat and hastily tied it around his waist. The photographer was now only laughing at him. Ella crossed her arms and smirked. She felt as if she had won something, although not sure of what.
Ella’s euphoric feeling of happiness went away as she thought of her uncle falling. Where her stomach once flushed with warmth now filled with heaviness. She wished she could tell her childhood self to be careful at the things she laughed at. Ella remembered the night when their faucet wouldn’t turn on. She and her uncle were in the apartment’s kitchen. He fidgeted with the handle, motioning it back and forth slowly, then with increased haste and anxiety. The faucet squeaked in protest, but not a drop of water came out. Ella giggled from the kitchen table, thinking his franticness to be funny. Following that incident their electricity went out at random times. Whenever her uncle caught Ella messing with the AC, he’d slap her hand away. “open up a window instead if you’re hot” he’d say. Ella would nod, but tiptoe to the AC on winter nights after her uncle had gone to bed. She thought it to be a game.
Ella had not seen her uncle smile with his eyes squinted since those photos. It looked genuine. But at the apartment, in the city, she never remembered him being happy like that. He woke up, went to work, came home, ate dinner, and disappeared to do whatever he did in the evenings while Ella sat and entertained herself with dolls and TV shows. The more Ella ran, the heavier she began to feel. She would do anything to see him smile like that again, even if it was a fake one in a picture. She would sing the “Part of Your World” reprise as a full grown adult in a mermaid tail, if only to give him a semblance of joy.
Ella decided that the beach was too loud. She ran to the nearest boardwalk. Her watch told her that she had now run 1.25 miles. She wanted to run to the market, just to get away from her thoughts. So she ran. She listened to her footsteps pound against the ground. She listened to the different sounds her shoes made on the sand, wood, and finally asphalt. Each had its own rhythm. Half a mile to go. Ella can hear a song in the distance. A female voice and an acoustic guitar. The market was getting closer. ¼ of a mile to go. By this point, the smell of fried seafood had become so profound, Ella felt as if she might gag. She arrived at the market place and decided to stop running. Even though she was dressed in bright pink leggings and a neon green t-shirt that said, “Sunday Runday,” Ella still feared that people would think she stole something from their stand. Ella breathed with her mouth open and walked into the crowd of people swarming around different tents. She then closed her mouth because her breath smelled bad.
Ella observed. Each tent had their own small business or company trying to sell something. There were fruit stands with all kinds of exotic colors and shapes that Ella couldn’t pronounce the names of. There was a seafood stand with lobsters boiling on display and fish hanging from the top of the tent. She looked away from that. At another stand there was a man selling flowers and handing out honeysuckles to children. Although they didn’t look ripe, the children took them in handfuls and ran back to their parents with smiles on their faces.
Ella continued walking and stopped in front of a pottery stand. The designs were almost mandala like and the longer she stared, the more captivated she became. The one she was most intrigued with was a gray pot with white engravings of fish scales that molded into a flower. She never thought to put a fish and a flower together. She followed the creases with her fingers and pretended she was solving a maze. “Are you gonna buy something?” asked a deep, raspy voice. Ella looked up. In front of her stood a beer-bellied man in a red flannel shirt. He was at least six feet in height and three hundred pounds in weight from what she could see. He was fat but in a strong way, like a discus thrower. Ella thought the man looked like a squishier Rock but with actual hair and white skin. She brushed that thought away and snapped back into reality.
“No,” she told him, “I was just looking at the pot because I thought it to be pretty, that’s all,” she explained. The man scowled, “well if you’re not going to buy anything you best be on your way then.” He crossed his arms. Ella nodded and walked to the sidewalk. She began to feel self conscious about her shirt and the sweat stains under her armpits and lower thighs. Suddenly, it seemed like everyone on the street was looking at her. Ella walked down the road and into an alleyway. She sat down next to a garbage can and dialed in her uncle’s number on her phone.
The phone rang. With each ring Ella grew more and more anxious. She watched the seconds go by on the screen. She wondered if her uncle was walking to the phone at this very moment, or if he was watching it ring and deciding if he should pick it up or not. The phone rang three times and then a fourth. The fifth time it rang, her uncle’s automated voice messenger went off, “Hi! Sorry I’m not at the phone right now. I’m probably at work or I just didn’t want to talk to you *queue forced laughter* But seriously, I’ll call you back later. Ciao!” Ella placed the phone in her lap and looked up at the brick building in front of her. She studied the lines in between the cracks. They reminded her of the ceramic bowl.
Ella didn’t know what to do, so she got up to run again. She looked at her watch and realized that she forgot to pause it while she was walking around the market. She checked her mileage. She had run 2.5 miles, but the watch said it took her 40 minutes, which she knew was a lie. Ella felt like turning the watch off and walking home. The run was basically ruined at this point. She stared at it for a while, and then started jogging in the direction of home. She didn’t turn the watch off. Time didn’t matter now. As long as 3 miles showed up on her wrist by the time she got home, she’d be satisfied. As Ella ran away from the market, she didn’t feel so self conscious about her bright clothes or sweat stains. She was moving by too fast for most people to notice anyway.
Ella decided to take the main road home. She remembered all the times her uncle told her not to. That the road was too busy and she could get hurt “People drive hooligans in this state y’know” he’d always say, even though he was a native Virginian. But he was not here. Ella could do what she wanted to. So towards the main road she ran. Her feet pounded on the pavement once more, getting warmer the faster and further she went. Ella felt energized, fueled by the excitement of being alone and doing something against the rules.
Ella turned into her neighborhood the exact same moment a car was turning out. The car’s tires squeaked against the pavement and brushed against the side of Ella’s calf. Startled, she jumped into a ditch on the side of the road. From there she watched as the car accelerated forwards at top speed, not even bothering to check if the person they almost hit was alright. Ella was furious, “I hope wherever you’re going, it’s really important!” she shouted. But they couldn’t hear. Their windows were up and they were already turning down the main road when Ella finished her sentence.
Ella climbed out of the ditch and began crying. She was tired, sweaty, exhausted. She looked at her watch to check her miles. She had finally reached three, and would probably get some extra tenths of a mile in, since the beach house was towards the end of the neighborhood. She checked her calf and noticed that her skin was red, but other than that no damage was done. She ran to her house without pain. Ella thought of how nice it would be to lay inside her warm bed again, to watch the candles burn and fall asleep with their scent. When Ella got to her house, she sprinted up the steps and turned her watch off.
The sun was still high in the sky when she got to her room. Ella crawled underneath her covers and threw them over her head. It was quiet. She layed on her back, but her phone was in her pocket, making it uncomfortable to lay down. Ella put her phone on her bedside table and got another candle from under her drawer. She lit the candle with a match and turned on her side to watch it burn. It smelled of lavender and salt. She realized that she was laying in her running clothes yet again but she didn’t care. She was too tired to care. Ella closed her eyes. Thirty minutes later her phone vibrated. It was her uncle. But Ella was already asleep when he called.