Chapter 2: Elinor
Elinor Lewis is a complicated woman; her obsession with order can sometimes hinder her ability to, if you will forgive my cliché – “live in the moment”. There is one thing I can say about Elinor though, and it’s the reason I’d like to tell you her story. She gets it. She knows life is not a guarantee. I believe the reason for her outlook stems from the first time we met.
It was the winter of 1984. She was eighteen years old and home from her out-of-state school for winter break – it was her freshman year at university. Elinor’s parents would spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s away on a resort vacation every year. Elinor had decided not to go; she wanted to see her friends, “hang out” she’d said. Several of her friends were at her family home one Friday evening. Most of them drinking, laughing, remembering funny stories from their pasts and sharing new stories of their college adventures.
Elinor sat on the floor of the den. Stacy, her best friend since elementary school, sat across from her. They drank strawberry flavored wine coolers while MTV played videos in the background. They discussed their classes and new routines. Elinor had been granted a full scholarship to MIT; she loved school and learning came easy for her. She was studying mathematics and engineering. Academics weren’t something Stacy had spent much time on but it never effected their friendship. Elinor lived in a dorm with other students whose background and focus were similar to hers. Stacy was going to a local college in the Chicago area and was making plans to get her own apartment with some new friends.
“I just can’t live at my parent’s house any longer. You went away for school and get your freedom now. I’m stuck at home and my Mom still expects me to have a curfew. I called her the other night and told her I was staying with a friend and I’d be home in the morning. She asked if it was Rick and I said yeah and she flipped out!” Stacy rolled her eyes. “I’m nineteen years old and in college. If I don’t want to come home I shouldn’t have to!” She took a swig from her wine cooler with over dramatic annoyance. “Anyway, she said if I was going to ‘behave that way’ that I couldn’t do it while living at home so I’m totally getting a place with those girls.”
“So you and Rick are still pretty serious? When I was here last, it seemed like you two were about to break up?” When Elinor had come home for Thanksgiving the prior month, Stacy had spent their time together crying about Rick and what an awful liar and cheater he was. Elinor knew Stacy wasn’t an angel when Rick wasn’t around – she’d done her fair share of flirting and even a strange make out session with a bartender she’d called Elinor about at two in the morning a few months ago – but she didn’t like seeing her best friend hurt by a guy. Elinor thought Rick and Stacy should go their separate ways but Stacy could make her own decisions.
“We’re sorta off and on I guess you could say. Things are cool right now, so we’ll see. What about you and Paul? I can’t believe you two are trying to do the whole long distance thing. I could never go that long without the attention I need, if you know what I mean.” Stacy raised her eyebrows and gave Elinor a look.
It was true. The distance between Paul and Elinor had been hard since she had left in the fall. He, like Stacy, had also decided on a school in the city. Elinor and Paul had been dating since they were sixteen. He was her first date and her first kiss. He had hoped she would go to a school that was close (at least within driving distance), but when she was offered a scholarship to her dream school, they both knew she needed to take it. They decided they would try and stick it out. When they had seen each other at Thanksgiving, things had seemed off. It was almost as if they had to reacquaint themselves with each other. This time was better. They’d have a whole month together. Elinor glanced over at Paul who was sitting at the kitchen table with Stacy’s Rick and a couple other guys. They were playing some sort of poker drinking game. She could tell by the level of loudness in their voices that they’d all had a lot to drink. He looked up and saw her and winked, which immediately brought a smile to her face. Gosh I love him, Elinor thought. She’d often wondered if it was worth it to move so far away just for a degree. In the end she always decided it was. She wanted a high tech successful career – hopefully with the government – and she knew MIT on her resume would give her an advantage.
“Things are good with Paul and me.” She picked off pieces of the label on her wine cooler, balled them up and arranged them in a perfectly straight line on the coffee table. “I wish we were closer but we’re doing our best.” She gazed at Paul again as he laughed and teased Rick. Paul was always smiling and laughing and teasing everyone around him. Elinor thought back to high school and how all the teachers, coaches, janitors and even cafeteria workers adored Paul. He’d stroll through the halls asking them about their weekends and about their kids and notice haircuts or if they had a new car. None of the teachers minded giving him extra help or tutoring if he needed it – he was so gracious and appreciative of their time. Mr. Charlie, the school janitor, loved football and always checked in with Paul to see if he needed anything for upcoming games. Paul would shake his hand and ask him his thoughts on certain plays because he knew it made old Mr. Charlie feel good. And the cafeteria workers? All it took was a wink and smile from Paul and he was given all the extra helpings of chicken a la king he could eat. On more than one occasion one of the cafeteria workers had actually even come out from behind the big glassed-in buffets to bring Paul and his friends leftover dessert portions. Paul would give them the biggest smile and hug. People loved Paul, and Elinor was no different.
“So you really think you two will stick it out for four years?” Stacy asked.
“I don’t know. Like you said about you and Rick, I guess we’ll see.” She shrugged her shoulders. Elinor knew they probably wouldn’t stay together that much longer, not because they didn’t love each other, but because they were young and needed to enjoy school. She wanted Paul to be happy. If it was meant to be it would somehow work out. There I go again, being so practical and pragmatic she thought to herself.
Elinor looked around her living room at the mess her friends had made. They’d spent the last few days watching movies, playing video games, drinking and eating their weight in delivered pizza. She knew she’d have to give the entire house a good cleaning before her parents came home in a couple of days, but not tonight. Tonight she just wanted to relax with her friends and not worry about anything; she wanted to let loose and have fun – something she wasn’t well known for. She messed the perfectly lined balls of label paper up and drained the rest of her wine cooler. Stacy gave her a knowing look and did the same.
After a quick knock on the front door, two more of their friends from high school walked in without waiting for an answer.
“Geez guys, just come on in why don’t ya?” Stacy gave them a look of aggrivation but Elinor knew she was kidding. “Sorry” one of them said. “We saw the cars outside and figured it was okay” he said sheepishly. Elinor knew one of their names was Kyle, but she was racking her brain to remember the other guy’s name. Tommy? Timmy? They walked over to where Paul and Rick were sitting in the kitchen just in time to cheer Rick on as he took another shot.
A few minutes later, Rick left his spot at the kitchen table and plopped down on the floor next to Stacy. Stacy leaned toward him and laid her head on his shoulder.
“What are you two girls talking about? Me?” he teased. His words were slurred and his breath smelled like beer. Rick had put on a good twenty pounds since the group graduated. He had a round middle and his face was much fuller than it used to be. Stacy on the other hand seemed to get more beautiful by the day. She was one of those girls who really knew how to fix her hair and make-up and put the right clothes together – something Elinor had never mastered.
“You wish!” Stacy teased back. “We’re talking about important things. I think Elinor is getting wasted.”
“That a girl Ellie! Show us how it’s done up at your smart school!” Rick said. Elinor rolled her eyes but smiled. “I do have some bad news though. We’re out of booze. We’re thinking of heading up to the Old Barn. Kyle says there’s a bunch of people there and plenty to drink.” He emphasized the word plenty drawing it out to sound like plen-teeeee. Rick is such a goofball Elinor thought, but he could be sweet and funny and she knew that’s what Stacy loved about him. “We’re gonna follow Kyle out there. It’s been forever since we’ve gone and I’m not sure I could even remember how to get there.”
“Really?” Elinor asked. “We drank all the stuff from my parent’s cabinet and what was in the fridge?!” There must have been five different bottles of liquor and at least a twelve pack of beer Elinor thought as she mentally counted how many bottles she’d have to buy to replace what they drank. She couldn’t imagine that they had downed all of that in just two or three days. She added a trip to the liquor store to her mental list of things to do before her parents returned.
“Yep. It’s all gone. So anyway, what do ya think? You girls in? Or are you going to stay here and paint your nails or write in your diaries or whatever you girls do when you’re alone.” He kissed Stacy on the cheek and heaved himself off the floor.
“You can’t actually think that’s what we sit around and do when you’re not here, right? Anyway, yeah, I’m in.” Stacy said. “Let me get my jacket. Is it snowing yet?” The forecast had predicted snow and ice overnight.
“I guess I’ll go too – I’m not staying here alone.” Elinor added. When she stood up she realized how much she had drank. She stumbled a bit and then laughed and went to grab her coat.
“Cool, Paul says he’ll drive.”
The four of them bundled up and headed out in a state of chatter and laughter. The night was cold and they jittered around in the truck waiting for the heat to kick in and the ice to melt off Paul’s windshield. Elinor looked at the graduation tassel with the shiny “Class of 84” hanging on Paul’s rearview mirror. The night they graduated was one of her best memories. The four of them had gone out to the perfunctory celebration dinners with their parents and then all met up with several others from their class to head out to the Old Barn on that night as well. They drank several coolers of beer and laughed and skinny dipped in a nearby creek. Elinor and Paul had made love for the first time – caught up in the emotions of “growing up” and the excitement of summer beginning. Paul hadn’t dropped her off until the sun had started to rise. They knew they would both be in serious trouble but the left over thrill from the evening’s activities and the inability for either of them to stop smiling would be worth it. Tonight they were headed out to the Old Barn again, but this time it wasn’t a warm night in early June – it was a below freezing night at the end of December.
Old Barn was just that…an old barn. The kids from Elinor’s high school had been going there for as long as she could remember. It was a solid twenty miles west of their Chicago suburb neighborhood near an agriculture area. The land belonged to a friend of a friend of a friend – no one really knew. The barn had seen better days but it served as a popular hangout for teenagers to participate in underage drinking and make out sessions in the old lofts. When they finally arrived only a few others were still there. The barn had a high ceiling and multiple levels. Even though it looked like it hadn’t been used in decades the floors were still covered in hay and it had that “barn smell”. It was littered with beer cans and empty liquor bottles and fast food wrappers. A small fire burned in a cut-off rusty barrel in the center of the barn. Several people in a lively conversation sat around it drinking beer and passing a bottle between them. Paul and Rick immediately joined in while Elinor and Stacy found a place inside away from the chilly wind.
“We should have stayed at your house. It’s freezing out here!” Stacy said to Elinor as she pulled black leather gloves out of her pocket – a gift she had just received for Christmas.
“I know.” Elinor said, so cold her nose started to run and her eyes watered. “I thought there were going to be a ton of people here?”
“They probably left cause they were freezing their asses off! Let’s go sit by the fire.”
Elinor and Stacy moved toward the fire but Rick was busy throwing old glass bottles into the barrel causing giant flare ups and for the whole gang to whoop and holler.
“Rick! Stop! We’re trying to get warm.” Stacy was clearly getting annoyed with Rick and his insobriety. On the ride there she had sat in his lap and the whole time he kept putting his cold hands up her shirt just to get a reaction from her.
“Hey, I’ve got a blanket in the truck” Paul said as he wrapped his arms around Elinor in an effort to warm her up. “I’ll go get it for you.”
Kyle and the Timmy/Tommy guy and a couple girls that had been sitting nearby got up to leave. The girls had on cropped jackets and boots with heels and enough make up to last a week – how impractical Elinor thought. She recognized one of them as a friend’s little sister. She can’t be more than sixteen! “Dude!” Rick yelled interrupting Elinor’s thoughts. “We drove all the way out here and everyone is leaving. What the hell?”
“These chicks are wasted, we’re gonna give them a ride home.” Kyle said.
Elinor watched as both girls stumbled around laughing. One fell flat on her back and the other toppled next to her as she tried to help her up. The heels weren’t helping. Hanging out here seemed so much more fun when I was younger, now it just seems silly. Elinor thought to herself.
“Yeah, good luck with that” Rick said with a raised eyebrow and watched the girls lasciviously. “Wanna go up in the loft with me Stace?” Rick whispered in Stacy’s ear and attempted to kiss her neck. He fell into her slightly and tried to regain his balance.
“Not right now. I’m trying to talk to Elinor about something. Do you always have to get so drunk?” Elinor had seen the way Rick was watching the other girls and she knew Stacy had seen it too. Rick was a party boy, by his own admission he planned to spend his college days getting drunk and laid as often as possible.
Elinor grabbed the blanket from Paul and gave him a quick kiss “I’m going to talk to Stacy up in the loft for a few minutes. She seems upset about something. When we get back let’s get out of here, it’s way too cold and everyone is leaving.”
“You got it. Tell Stacy that Rick is just being a jerk because he drank too much. He doesn’t mean anything by it. We’ll get drive-thru tacos on the way back to your place – that will put both of them in a good mood.” Paul and Rick, like Elinor and Stacy, had grown up together. Paul would always defend Rick even when he knew he was being an ass. Paul was loyal to those he cared about. It was one of the qualities Elinor admired in him. She could always trust him.
Elinor and Stacy climbed up the old wooden ladder that led to the second level of the barn. They sat on the edge of the loft wrapped in the blanket dangling their feet off the side. They watched the boys cut up around the fire. Stacy grabbed a nearby empty beer can and tossed it at Rick giving him a look that proved her annoyance with him.
Rick tried to throw it back but after giving up he began to swing on an old looped rope that was tied onto one of the rafters. Elinor had seen people climb the knots on the rope and swing so high that people in the loft would reach out and touch them.
“Why do you always get so mad at me baby?” Rick teased as he swung higher and higher.
“Stop you jerk” she said deadpan but began to reach her leg out to see if he could touch the tip of her shoe. She giggled as he reached for her over and over again.
Elinor looked down at Paul and when he smiled up at her he shrugged his shoulders at the silliness of their two friends. He rubbed his hands together and then shoved them in the pockets of his leather jacket and sat back in an old lawn chair next to the fire.
A loud popping noise from above startled Elinor and Stacy who were closest to the ceiling. Elinor assumed it must be the sheet of ice cracking that was covering the roof. It is freezing and I’m going home she thought and started to stand up. What happened next would forever be etched into Elinor’s memory. The beam that Rick was swinging from broke in half and came crashing down in the center of the barn. It knocked over the barrel of fire; immediately igniting a large section of the ground that was covered in hay and alcohol bottles. The broken beam came to rest on top of Paul, pinning him to the ground. Rick had been on the upswing when the beam broke causing him to fall at least 8 feet and land on his back. He lay stunned with the breath knocked out of him as the fire caught and spread toward him.
“Paul!” Elinor screamed. The tip of the beam lay on Paul’s chest in a weird 45 degree angle. He was stunned and suffocating and the fire had already reached his feet. He kept looking around as if he was trying to figure out what was going on. The break in the structure had caused half of the loft to collapse – the half that housed the loft’s access and the ladder leading there. Piles of old hay rained down on the fire causing it to grow faster. Elinor screamed at Rick, “Rick! Get up! You have to help Paul!” Rick still lay on the ground stunned.
“Oh my God Elinor, what do we do?!” Stacy was in a panic. “Rick! Rick!” Rick attempted to get up. He coughed and covered his face with his arm. He crawled toward the corner; he was completely surrounded by fire and smoke now. “Why is the fire spreading so fast?! He’s not going to get out Elinor! He’s confused! We’re trapped, the ladder is gone!” she was becoming more and more frantic.
Elinor stood completely still in a state of shock, horrified at the events unfolding around her. What felt like hours, but was probably seconds passed, and she could barely see Paul through the thickening smoke. His eyes were now shut and his legs on fire – flames creeping past the new boots he had gotten for Christmas and igniting his jeans. He didn’t move or scream, he looked like he was sleeping. Elinor could see that there was an opening to the outside but it was up one level and shuttered. It had probably been used long ago as access to the top of the barn when the place was still functional.
“Stacy! Up here! Help me open this!” The smoke was filling the entire barn as the girls scrambled up to the third floor section of the barn. They kicked and shoved at the wooden door that covered the small opening. It swung open revealing at least a twenty foot drop. “We have to jump!”
“No” Stacy sobbed hysterically and backed away. “I can’t.”
“Yes you can!” Elinor grabbed her arm and pulled her to the opening as they were both gasping for clean air.
“What about Rick and Paul? Can we help them?” tears slid down her face and she kept staring at where Rick had been. The entire bottom floor was nearly engulfed in flames and Elinor could tell the whole structure was about to cave in.
“Yes, we’ll help them when we get down. We need to jump now!” Elinor choked as the smoke became thicker and her vision began to darken. “Jump with me now!” She knew if they didn’t jump now it would be too late. She tried to pull Stacy with her but she resisted and backed away. Full of fear, Elinor held her breath and jumped feet first like she had when she was a kid jumping off the high dive at the community pool. She reasoned in her head that it was probably better to tuck her arms and legs like a cannon ball during the fall but she hit the ground before acting. She landed with a thud and heard the cracking sound of what she could only imagine was her leg breaking. She felt dizzy but her adrenaline was pumping. Her legs failed to move so she tried to use her arms to crawl away from the barn. She looked back and could see through the main entryway. She knew Paul and Rick must be dead. Her face burned so hotly she had to turn away. “Help! Someone help!” Elinor attempted to scream, but her dry throat barely let out a raspy whisper. She heard a loud thump a few feet away from her. She yelped with pain as she turned her body to see that Stacy had either jumped or fallen after passing out on the ledge from smoke inhalation. She landed in a puddle of icy water that was a few inches deep – it had probably been frozen solid just minutes before. The awkward position that her body was contorted told Elinor that Stacy’s neck must be broken. Stacy’s eyes suddenly opened and then she began to blink hysterically and Elinor sensed she was pleading for help. Her mouth began to fill with the murky water as she choked for air.
This isn’t happening, Elinor thought. I’m having a very bad dream. I just need to go back to sleep and then I’ll wake up and everything will be ok. She closed her eyes as her body slipped into shock.
I was there at this appointed time.
I was there for Paul, Rick and Stacy. The night was very cold. The heaviness of the cold contrasted by the heat and charred smell radiating from the burning barn.
Elinor lifted her head to face the barn and opened her eyes as I walked over to Paul and reached out my hand to help him up. Her eyes closed and opened again as I put my arm around Rick’s shoulders and walked with him out of the barn. They closed and opened as I bent to the ground and brushed Stacy’s hair from her face and helped her to her feet.
Elinor’s eyes closed and opened once more to find me standing next to her, watching her.
There is a space, a space between the here and there, the space between life and death. And for a moment I stood there with Elinor in that deserted field shielding her from the roar of the fire behind us. In that moment, she knew who I was, yet she was not afraid.
I thought about her future and mentally scrolled through a century’s worth of impending assignments, noting the next time we might meet. “It is not your time. Your life is long.” I knelt down so that my face was close to hers. “There is sadness for you, but you have joy, much joy to experience.” I said to her. Some of my peers mock me for giving mortals encouragement during times of death, the living never remember me anyway – but it tends to make the experience less dark.
She closed her eyes once more and woke up several hours later in a hospital where she would spend months healing from two fractured femurs, a crushed pelvis, a broken wrist and head trauma from a serious concussion sustained during the fall.