Clara pulled her six year old daughter from the ball pit with a whimsical smile, “Let’s get some pizza, kiddo.”
Melody pulled at her purple t-shirt and brushed the strings of brown hair from her eyes. “Did you order the pepperoni?”
“Sure did, it’s your favorite. You think your mom and I would forget that?” she said. At forty-two, she worked hard to keep a youthful outlook and appearance. She kept her dark brown hair long and stayed away from any clothing that screamed suburban mom. Her job as software developer challenged and fulfilled her, despite the grind of daily stand up meetings.
A whoosh and thrashing of a hundred plastic rainbow colored balls erupted behind her. The children wading through the play pen jumped and squealed. At the far corner, an arm grappled for leverage and a barefoot kicked at the surface. Around the ankle, a thin gold chain glinted in the restaurant’s carnival light.
Clara’s smile faded and she exhaled, putting her hand on Melody’s back. Clara had given the ankle bracelet as a gift more than ten years ago on a vacation in Montreal. She’d been broken up with Ellie for more than eight, and the last time she saw her, Ellie stumbled and stalked her while Clara shopped for garden supplies.
Melody leaned against the pen’s netting and laughed, “Mom, look at that lady.” Ellie’s head full of wild, curly black hair rose above the tide swallowing her, Melody yanked at Clara’s silk blouse, “She looks like that lady that talked to you at the yard store.”
“It does, doesn’t it. Go to your other mommy, okay? I’ll be there in a bit with some more tokens,” Clara said, working to keep her voice even.
“All right,” and Melody jogged back to their table, where Jess, her wife of seven years sat.
Jess knew about Ellie and her problem. The first time Ellie appeared in a drunken stupor in Jess’s presence was at a wine bar while she and Clara were dating, Jess laughed it off, attributing it to “things crazy exes do.” They managed to get her an Uber ride, sending her back home. The worst incident occurred the night before their wedding at the rehearsal dinner. Ellie crashed, and it was always a crash, into a waiter pouring cocktails behind the bar. Glassware shattered and vapors of expensive alcohol caught the attention of all their guests, making Ellie’s secret problem a public one. In a different city where they couldn’t ferry her home with an anonymous driver.
“Why, Clara, why does she always do this?” Jess said through tears. “What did you two have all those years ago that she’s still holding on to? Is this going to be our normal surprise fuck up every few months?”
Clara, with a group of guests politely trying not to eavesdrop, hugged her bride to be. Jess found a vintage floral dress, and normally didn’t wear makeup, but wore lipstick and mascara, curled her hair in her best Betty Page imitation. Clara said, her voice breaking, she didn’t want her makeup to run, “I don’t know, like I’ve told you before, the dozen other times this has happened, I really don’t know.” Clara stroked Jess’s ear, “But I. Love. You. We’re getting married tomorrow, and we’ll be married, and we’ll deal with the fuck ups in spite of them.”
Jess’s brother, Joey sacrificed his hotel room for a night while Ellie sobered up and disappeared back home, and despite the chatter and murmurs, Clara and Jess got married.
Ellie sat up in the ball pit, winced and leaned into the corner. She wore a light blue sweater and her dark skin had a sheen across her thin cheeks.
“Hey,” a boy said with a shriek, “you can’t be in here. Only kids are allowed.”
A little girl no older than Melody jumped back, “You have to take your shoes off, the sign says so.”
“Oh, dear,” Ellie said, slurring her words. She pulled at her bra strap and looked around, stopping at Clara, who held her arms crossed and lips frowned. “Shit.”
“You said a bad word,” the girl said, pointing.
Clara rubbed her face and put her hands on the hips of her not mom jeans. “Ellie.”
“Hey, Clara,” she waved. “Sorry about the intrusion. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in a ball pit.”
Clara raised her eye brows and remained silent.
The girl strafed the edges of the ball pit, “You smell like my aunt when she has too many glasses of her grape juice.”
“Clara, Clara, it was just half a bottle. A little celebration for a recent job I did.”
When they met at a Department of Defense Contractors conference, Ellie worked for the State Department doing research and development. She had the body of a gymnast and the brain of a physics nerd but the self esteem of a girl who never received enough praise. The first six months were intense, filled with physical passion in the bedroom and intellectual passion everywhere else. It wasn’t Clara’s first relationship with a woman, but it was her most fulfilling. Over the course of their final twelve months together, Ellie’s drinking increased directly with her neediness.
On the second to last binge before they broke up, Ellie laid on the couch half asleep, “Clara, Clara, so glad to be with you. You’re safer than my job.”
Clara shuffled under the blanket and laughed, “What do you mean?”
“Keep this a secret okay? I traveled, teleported actually, to a job site this week.”
“The State Department have secret jets nowadays?”
“No no, I literally went poof from a conference room to a favela in Rio. My team did the same, too.”
Clara stopped stroking Ellie’s shoulder.
Ellie grabbed Clara’s hand, “Why’d you stop? Well, the mission went to hell, and I was the only one to make it back. The rest of them, Alex, Chuck, Yvette, Moe, all got killed, shot up by a gang we were supposed to capture and take down. Gunshots to the neck are messy and blood is hard to get out from underneath your nails, did you know that? And gunshots are loud but when they hit the body, you don’t hear that.”
Now, amidst the crack and roll of the skee-ball lanes and the synth chimes of the big wheel of a fortune machine, Clara sighed at the sight of her mercenary ex-girlfriend. She didn’t understand the science of what Ellie told her, but Ellie was part of a black project, injected with a serum that could transport them at will based on a person’s unique electrical signal. It was black magic as far as Clara cared.
“Ellie, I thought you were getting help?”
“I get help, but I’m good at being functional too. But you don’t know how stressful the weeks can be.”
Nor did Clara want to guess which set of headlines Ellie and her current team instigated. “You can’t keep doing this. It’s been nearly ten years.”
The children in the ball pit sat quiet, observing the exchange.
“Eight. Eight years, three months, and ninety two days.”
“You were always good with numbers.”
“That’s my job. I’m the numbers girl.”
“Look, you need to clean up and leave. Explaining you to my daughter—.”
“She looks like you. Pretty girl, like her mother.”
“Explaining you to her is difficult as it is.”
“Her name’s Melody, right. You never carried a tune but you carried her.”
Clara’s face swelled flush and her maternal instinct sharpened in her chest. “Get help, Ellie. Find another woman, move on, but whatever, get help.”
Ellie scooted along the edge of the ball pit, the plastic shuffling as she broke through the tide, “I said, I am. I met a new woman. She’s nice. Doesn’t ask too much about when I got to float away. For her though, I make sure not to come home with bloody clothes.”
Like when, the night Clara declared them done after she found Ellie passed out in their bedroom, her black fatigues splattered with blood and her neck stained with dried crimson.
The two children in the ball pit floated with their heads breaking the surface, enough to show their eyes and track the conversation.
Ellie attempted to stand but resigned herself to staring up at Clara through the net. “Oh, Clara, Clara, we could have gone many places. I can take people—.” Her eyes blinked and she smiled broadly, “Look who it is. Hey there. I’m a friend of your mom’s.”
Melody stood behind her mother, peeking over the side of Clara’s hip.
“She really does look like you. Eyes and hair at least. Not sure if Jess has a nose like that.” Ellie kicked her leg up, revealing thin black yoga pants, and shook her ankle with the bracelet. “Jess never fucked you like I did, right, course she couldn’t knocked you up either.”
Melody hugged her mother’s leg and Clara held the back of her head. Clara no longer heard the skee-ball lanes or the fortune wheel. Her temples throbbed as the warmth of adrenaline spread from her stomach to her throat. She fought against her eyes that began to water and took a deep breath, “Please—.”
“Why are you being mean to my mom?” Melody still hugged Clara’s leg, but stood more to the side, more exposed to Ellie.
“Just teasing, is all, right Clara, Clara?”
“Both my moms say teasing’s not nice.”
“Mel, this woman’s sick, and needs help,” Clara said, kneeling down face to face to both her daughter and her ex. “I hurt her a long time ago, and I’m sorry for that, but she hurt me too. Adults do mean things to each other without… sometimes without meaning too. But also, adults, adults who are big and strong and smart like you are Mel, they learn to be better people.”
“Did you learn to be better?” Melody said, now fidgeting with her mother’s wedding band.
“In time I did. A little on my own, a little with your other mom, and a lot from you.”
Melody grinned. She turned to Ellie, who leaned back in the ball pit, as if floating atop an ocean. Melody asked, “Did you learn, too?”
Ellie waved her arms, skimming the balls on the surface. “Not in the way your mother talks about.”
She closed her eyes and let herself sink into a colorful sea of plastic. The balls that swallowed her bounced and jostled and she disappeared.
Clara had never seen Ellie vanish before. Her eyes were wide, looking into the dots of red, orange, blue, and green. She caught the looks of the boy and girl who witnessed the whole incident and she thought their eyes would pop out into the ball pit.
“Where’d she go, Mom?” Melody said.
“Hopefully to get better.” She kissed her daughter on the forehead, stood up and took her hand. “Let’s go eat some pizza.”