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In Miss Merkle's library she slid a book from its ornate slipcover, adjusted the stereo to a whisper, nestled into her usual spot on the plush Persian carpet, and leaned back against the brocaded settee. Perfect. Absorbing hours of reading lay ahead. Good music. No chores. No phone to answer. No homework.
When the clock chimed a quarter to five she replaced the book, pushed the OFF button on the stereo, smoothed the carpet where she'd been sitting, and left. Another biscuit and a few more pats on the head to assure Rolex that all was well, and Ellen slipped back through the fence. Miss Merkle would get home around 5:15, Father at 5:30.
NO ONE ELSE KNEW about Ellen's sanctuary. The previous summer, while relaxing in the backyard hammock, sipping lemonade and reading, she had heard Rolex's gleeful half-yip, half-bark. Through a knothole in Father's fence she watched Miss Merkle toss sticks and balls for her dog to fetch, now and then substituting a leather bone for him to chew on. After freshening Rolex's water bowl, she climbed her porch steps to go inside. Finding her door locked, she tilted a large terra cotta pot, picked up a key, and unlocked the door.
Everybody has a hiding place for an emergency key. The Loverages' was under the decorative rocks next to the entryway. Ellen felt a little uncomfortable with her unsought knowledge, but it was no big deal. She no more thought of entering her neighbor's house than of trying out for the cross-country team.
And she never would have entered Miss Merkle's house if she hadn't needed to get away from Father and his things. The aroma of his coffee in the morning and the redolence of his leather recliner greeted her when she came home from school. His stodgy music played at breakfast and dinner, and each day ended with his ten o'clock news. Mom's touch still lingered throughout most of the rooms, but in the living room, where Ellen liked to read, the pictures and plaques, the furniture, the clocks, and the carpet were all his. Nothing in the house had her own touch, except for her bedroom, which was on the dark side of the house, and the laundry room, which Father hadn't entered for years. Even the kitchen was his, because he dictated what he wanted for breakfast and dinner, and she had to keep it cleaned according to his specifications.
The event that pushed her through the back fence and into Miss Merkle's house happened near the end of her sophomore year. She had hurried home from school to finish the last chapters of The Power and the Glory before Father got home from work. He wasn't sure she should be reading the book, but it was on Miss Merkle's recommended reading list. Ellen opened a cold can of Pepsi and settled into Father's forbidden recliner. He wouldn't be home for two hours. It was the most comfortable chair in the house, and she often read there when he wasn't around. After all, if he let her sit on his lap when she was little, why couldn't she use his empty chair now?
About four o'clock, she heard his car pull into the driveway. He was home early. She hurried upstairs to her bedroom, but as soon as she got there she knew she was in trouble-on the end table next to his recliner sat her Pepsi, sweating and coasterless. It was too late to rescue it; he was in the house. She looked at her watch: 4:03. Within two minutes he'd call her name. She went into the bathroom to wait.
4:06. A minute slow. "Be right there, Father." She let him stew a little longer.
"Ellie, come down here!"
"Just a sec, Father." She peered into the mirror and saw the same boring pie-face draped with straight, mud-puddle brown hair. Thick, rimless glasses, supported on a petite upturned nose, reflected back at her. Her older sister, Linda, had used up all the Loverage family good looks. She flushed the toilet, ran the faucet awhile, and lingered another minute before sauntering downstairs-4:12. Father stood at the bottom of the stairs with his hands on his hips.
"You were in my chair."
A wonderful father-daughter greeting. He could at least start with a simple hello.
"I was reading, Father." She reminded herself to stay cool.
"Haven't I provided enough places in this house for you to read?"
Ellen purposely stopped in the middle of the staircase, knowing it made him uncomfortable to look up at her. "Yes, but your chair's so comfortable. I didn't think you'd care."
"Why would you think I'd changed my mind since the last time you sat there?" He maintained the same pose at the bottom of the stairs.
Father was a pair of triangles, his head with its broad forehead and pointed chin perched on a broad-shouldered, hip-less, athletic body.
"I never sit there while you're home. I don't think it should make any difference if you aren't here." He wouldn't buy it. A rule was a rule.
"Ellie, you know the rule about my recliner. Don't sit in it! What part of that don't you understand?" He waited, as though he expected an answer. "And the Pepsi?"
"That was a mistake, Father. I'm sorry. I should have used a coaster."
"Ellie, one act of disobedience always leads to another. Big sins grow from little ones."
She could get his sermons in church; he didn't need to preach at her.
"If you hadn't sat in the chair, you wouldn't have left the can there. It could ruin the end table."
She stared at the ring of water surrounding the can. "Sorry. I'll wipe it up."
"No, I'll take care of it. It's best if you stay away from my things." He shifted his feet and narrowed his eyes as though he were aiming a rifle. "There's one more thing. Do you know what it is?"
"You mean yes?"
"Well, what is it?" he demanded.
"You think I ran upstairs when I heard you coming."
"Disobedience is bad enough, carelessness with the Pepsi might be overlooked, but running upstairs hoping I wouldn't notice is deception."
"It might have worked if it hadn't been for the stupid Pepsi." Why did she say things like that? Now she'd uncapped his geyser. He'd raise his voice slightly, but his language would remain exemplary, always under control.
"That's enough, Ellie. You're adding insolence to everything else. You're grounded again, for a week. Come straight home after school. No activities in the evenings or on the weekend. We'll talk about it seven days from now and go over the rules again."
"Thanks, Father." She couldn't conceal the sarcasm in her reply.
"Make that two weeks. I don't know what I'm going to do with you. I didn't have this trouble with your brothers and sister." He turned abruptly, picked up his briefcase, and strode to the front door. "I'll be home at the regular time. I expect dinner at six."
She was still on the stairs as he hurried into his study, then out the front door. He had probably come home just to grab something he'd forgotten, and now was late for a 4:15 meeting. It would be her fault, of course. She tried to resettle herself in his recliner, but she couldn't get comfortable with the Pepsi can still signing its white-ringed signature into the varnish. Well, let it sign. He'd accepted responsibility for it and hadn't followed through.
Back in her room, she stretched out on her bed and imagined the peace she might find in Miss Merkle's house.
IT WAS SOON AFTER the Pepsi incident that Ellen began going into her neighbor's house. It was too easy. If Rolex was in the backyard, Miss Merkle wasn't home yet. Besides, the kitchen light was on when she was there. Ellen always checked. Surprises could spell disaster.
Rolex was never a problem. She'd made friends with all of Miss Merkle's watchdogs, Rolex and his predecessors, Bulova and Hamilton. All three were Rottweilers, marked copper-red and black, standing three feet high, their barks resounding like cannons. When they were puppies she'd talked to them and fed them biscuits through the fence. When Rolex was a puppy, she'd loosened one of the boards so she could pet him. Miss Merkle's backyard was safe from all intruders except her.
The first day Ellen went into the house she was as tense as a set mousetrap. As she had expected, the key lay under the hosta pot. It slid into the lock and turned effortlessly. She replaced it, in case she had to leave in a hurry, wiped her feet on the mat, and tentatively stepped inside. She thought that any second Miss Merkle might walk in. Maybe she was already there. Every squeak, every noise, was a butler announcing her presence.
From the moment she stepped through the door she knew she was in Elysium. Mom's country style decor was all right, but this was elegance. Not of luxury, but refinement and taste. The kitchen was lined with dark wood cabinets. In its center stood an island, its top a cutting board composed of black, brown, red, and tan hardwoods inlaid in a geometric pattern. Stainless steel pots, pans, and utensils were suspended over the island and from pegs above the stove. The floor was tiled, and a garden window overlooked the backyard.
On that first day Ellen had turned and left quickly, frightened and guilty. She had no business being in that house. Everybody-Father, her sibs, Miss Merkle, her classmates, the people at Father's church-would be scandalized if they knew. It was too risky. She swore she'd never go in there again. It was best to leave with the knowledge that Miss Merkle's house was wonderful. She didn't need to see any more of it.
ELLEN DIDN'T RETURN to Miss Merkle's house until after Labor Day. Every time she thought about what she'd done, she was chagrined. She, Ellen Loverage, the pastor's daughter, trespassing. Unthinkable! How could she have been so stupid?
The second time she entered the house was after another fight with Father. This time it was about music. His range of what was acceptable was as narrow as a tightrope. Old church music, a little classical, some golden oldies, that was all. Anything else was sinful or, if not sinful, unedifying. Father loved the word edify.
She was lying on her bed reading and listening to a CD by Angels of Light, a contemporary Christian group, purposely keeping the volume low so it wouldn't bother him. After a while Father knocked and, before she could reply, opened her door. His upper lip had a slight curl and his nose was wrinkled, as if he were sniffing burnt cabbage.
"What's that noise?"
"What noise?" She turned back to her book.
"That so-called music."
"That's my CD player."
"All I hear is Babel. What's it supposed to be playing?"
"It's a song called 'Breath of Heaven.' Mostly verses from the Psalms."
"I can't understand a word."
"It's an unknown tongue called English, Father. Would you like me to interpret?"
"It's loud and repetitious."
"You mean like the 'Hallelujah Chorus'?" She still didn't look at him, but out of the corner of her eye saw him take a deep breath.
"Ellie, this is just noise. If the message is covered up, there's no message."
"You mean like when Mrs. Ritchie sings at church? She warbles so much she sounds like a howler monkey."
"Ellie, that's not fair. Adele Ritchie has a trained voice. Everyone understands what she's singing."
"The kids don't. We get a lot more out of Angels of Light."
"Where'd you get that CD, anyway? It's not yours, is it?"
"I got it for a dollar at the Salvation Army thrift store."
"I don't want it in my house."
"Why? I like it." She tried to sound innocent, wounded. "It's just words from the Bible. You can't object to that."
"Ellie, if you mix pure, sweet honey with pesticides and puree it in a blender, you still can't drink it. You can't keep feeding your mind this stuff. You should listen to something that will edify your soul."
After Father left, Ellen looked over the rest of the CDs in her rack. She chose the one he'd just given to her for Christmas. To Ellie, he'd written on the cover, To edify your soul and light your way. With love, Father. She'd listened to it once.
She put it in the boom box and adjusted the volume, not high enough to bother anyone in the hallway. Then she laid the boom box on the floor, speaker side down, and placed her thick dictionary on top of it. Father's study was in the room below. The floor and ceiling acted as a giant sounding board to vibrate his pictures crooked and ripple his coffee.
That ought to edify his soul. She locked her door, settled back on her bed with her book, and waited.
A few minutes later he was back upstairs, rapping on her door.
"Yes?" she answered sweetly.
"Ellie, can you turn it down a little? I'm trying to work on my sermon."
"Sure, Father." She lowered the volume just enough to be noticed. "How's that?"
"A little more." It was not a suggestion, but a command.
She cut off another thin slice of volume. "That okay?"
"I'll try it."
"Let me know if there's a problem." She moved the boom box to the center of the room, piled a couple of schoolbooks on it, and went back to reading.
Five minutes later he rapped again. "Ellie, do you think you could turn it down a little bit more? I still can't concentrate."
She pushed the OFF button.
"I didn't want you to turn it off. That's good music."
"Don't worry about it. I wasn't listening anyway. I can study better without it." She leaned back against the pillow, gave a long, satisfied stretch, and continued reading The Sound and the Fury.
After a while, she went to her desk and unpinned her calendar from the wall. She'd promised herself she'd leave home when she turned eighteen. That would be June 13, 1997. Today was January 21; a year and five months to go. She calculated the days-510. At five hundred and the other hundreds she'd celebrate by treating herself to a double sundae smothered under chocolate syrup, chopped almonds, and minimarshmallows. She highlighted the days on her calendar and went back to reading.
AFTER THE CD INCIDENT. Ellie started going to Miss Merkle's house regularly. She knew she was breaking the law. If she were caught, she'd be in big trouble and Father would be mortified. But she wasn't doing anything morally wrong-she promised herself never to take so much as a cashew or mint from the crystal candy bowl on the coffee table.
Excerpted from THE MENDING String by CLIFF COON Copyright © 2004 by Cliff Coon. Excerpted by permission.
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