The Second Mrs. Saunders

This is a short story/exercise that I wrote, based on a classic fairy-tale.  It runs a little differently than the original fairy-tale, and this is an extremely rough cut.  But, I promised to get this out on Sunday, and here it is.  Enjoy!

Ellie was over rambunctious and needed to learn how to calm down.  That’s why Mrs. Saunders, second wife to the late Mr. Saunders, gave Ellie more arduous chores.  Mrs. Saunders’ own two daughters, Cindy and Brittany, were well-behaved girls; they’d had an attentive mother who taught them early on what it meant to be a lady.  She’d been just as hard on these girls (harder on Brittany, in fact) as she was on Ellie; but people liked to talk.  It was disgraceful, the lack of manners and position these days.  Mrs. Saunders knew she was considered old-fashioned, but she’d ensured that two of her girls would grow up to marry well and saw no reason why Ellie shouldn’t be the third.

Ellie required perseverance.  The poor thing had never had a mother before the second Mrs. Saunders—the first died in a car accident.  And Mr. Saunders (may he rest in peace) hadn’t any idea of how to raise a girl to be a proper woman.  He let her climb all over the neighborhood, play with the dogs next door, and engage in football (of all sports) with some of the boys on the street.  It amazed Mrs. Saunders that the girl hadn’t yet had an identity crisis.  The only activity Ellie took to that Mrs. Saunders approved of was reading.

The first thing Mrs. Saunders thought of was gardening.  It was outdoors, so she knew Ellie would like it, and it was a feminine activity that would allow the girl to expend some of her energy as well as learn the arts of ascetic.  Mrs. Saunders had Ellie wee, plant, and mulch.  Mrs. Saunders entertained the idea of letting Ellie decide which flowers should go where, but the ten-year-old had no eye for that sort of thing.  At first, Mrs. Saunders thought mowing the lawn was too manly an activity, but when she caught Ellie playing football again, after she’d been told not to, Mrs. Saunders added cutting the grass to Ellie’s list of chores.

That’s when the neighbors started up with their nasty rumors, saying that Mrs. Saunders treated her step-daughter like a maid, or a gardener.  All they saw was Ellie doing work.  If they could peer past the walls of the house, they would see Cindy cleaning the house everyday for at least an hour—more when she had a “project” such as laundry or the water-closet.  They would see Brittany making lunch in the mornings for her two step-sisters, and cooking meals for everyone at night, before she washed the dishes.  They would see Mrs. Saunders herself balancing the budget, to ensure they could all live comfortably and affordably, as well as help the girls—all three of them—with their homework.  If Mrs. Saunders hadn’t cared for Ellie, she would let the girl run around like a feral dog without the slightest thought.

When Mrs. Saunders found herself widowed after a year of marriage, she immediately began to focus on the girls, to ensure they’d have a future.  She knew her own girls were just fine: they were sweet to their teachers; did their homework and prepared it in a tidy manner; and earned well-enough marks so as not to attract any negative remarks, but made just enough errors so as not to intimidate the boys in their class (this would be especially important in their high school years.  After all, it was in high school that Mrs. Saunders met her first husband—also died in a car-crash, like the poor Mrs. Saunders the first).

But Ellie, oh, that girl had a long way to go.  Mrs. Saunders knew from her husband (before his death, of course) that Ellie had a tendency to talk out of turn in class.  (Surprising, as Ellie was so quiet at home.)  Mrs. Saunders thought this to be a triviality that would soon be eradicated with Ellie’s rambunctiousness.  The girl was always reading in the evenings; she most likely did her homework and had only to learn courtesy, etiquette, and neatness.  After the death of Mr. Saunders, his widow learned the horrifying truth; Ellie didn’t just talk out of turn, but she would question the teacher about the point of the very lesson and bring an uproar to the class—and sometimes she wouldn’t do homework at all!  The school probably thought the misguided Ellie to be nothing more than a little monster.

Mrs. Saunders learned of Ellie’s wild behavior three weeks after Mr. Saunders’ funeral; the widow thought it prudent to wait a full month before disciplining Ellie in her behavior and studies.  One Friday night, exactly a month after the funeral, they had just finished supper.  Cindy was doing her homework at the dining room table, where Mrs. Saunders was double checking the accounts.  Brittany, who’d done her homework that afternoon while her sister cleaned, was nearby in the kitchen washing the dishes.  Ellie, who’d spent the afternoon playing catch with the neighbor’s dogs and had fidgeted throughout supper, was now slouched in the armchair farthest from the dining room, engrossed in a rather thick novel considering her age.  ‘Well,’ thought Mrs. Saunders, ‘at least we know she has the capacity to sit still.’  To Ellie, she said in a voice dripping with honey “Ellie, dear, have you finished your homework, yet?”

“No, not yet,” said Ellie, before adding as an after-thought, “Mom.”

“Well, don’t you think you should finish it before casual reading?”

“Why?  I have all weekend to do it.”

“But that’s just it, dear.  You see, tomorrow there’s a sale at JC Penny’s and you all could use some new clothes, and I was thinking we could get you a few new dresses.”

“Okay.  But that shouldn’t take all day, and anyway I can do it on Sunday.”

“Well, on Sunday Cindy was going to do laundry, and Brittany was going to prepare a special dinner for us, so I thought you could help me in the Garden.”

“Okay.  That sounds nice.”

“But you still need to get your homework done . . .”

“Why?  If I don’t do it, it’s no big deal.”

Brittany dropped a plate into the dishwater, Cindy look up so sharply that her pigtails slapped the side of her face, and Mrs. Saunders gasped in disapproval.  Ellie seemed to be trying not to giggle at them.  “What?” she said.  “It’s just homework.”

Mrs. Saunders strode over to Ellie and forced the girl to sit upright; Cindy and Brittany forced their attention back to their work.

“See here, Ellie.  I know things are difficult for you now, and I know you’ve never had any discipline until now, but that’s about to change.”

“Which one?  The difficult time, or the discipline?”

Don’t you talk back to me, young lady.  Now, your sisters work hard everyday to help keep this house in order, and I see no reason why you shouldn’t, too.”

“But they like to—”

“Not another word out of you until you’ve finished your homework.  And starting on Monday, you’re to be a model student at school, do you understand?  No more of this defiant nonsense.”

With that, Mrs. Saunders returned to her work at the dining room table, and left Ellie to fume.  A full five minutes ticked away before Ellie got up, went into her bedroom, and slammed the door.  Cindy jumped but Mrs. Saunders took her daughter’s hand to calm the child.  Later that night, Mrs. Saunders checked on Ellie and was satisfied to see the girl furiously completing her homework.

Ellie said nothing much the rest of the weekend, but she thanked Mrs. Saunders for the dress and worked diligently in the garden.  There was something spiteful in Ellie’s transformed, subdued attitude; but Mrs. Saunders was confidant the girl would come around.  At the end of fourth grade, Ellie’s teacher remarked on the girl’s academic improvement.  By fifth grade, the faculty couldn’t believe it was Ellie.  In sixth grade, the teachers told Mrs. Saunders Ellie was as charming to have in class as her other two girls.  Mrs. Saunders was pleased, but not happy—there was still spite in Ellie’s behavior.

After the first semester of Junior High, Ellie made honor roll and Mrs. Saunders knew there would be trouble.  As if her rambunctiousness weren’t intimidating enough, now she had to scare away any nice boy who’d like her by acting smarter than him.  Mrs. Saunders chose not to address this until Sunday afternoon, the beginning of winter break.  She was having Ellie carry the potted plants into the garage, before the first frost set in.  Mrs. Saunders tried to broach these difficult topics with her stepdaughter sweetly, so she wouldn’t feel attacked.  “Ellie,” said Mrs. Saunders, after the girl had set down a large pot, “let’s rest awhile . . . I’ve just made some hot cocoa for us.”  Brittany and Cindy had already had theirs.  Ellie sat disinterestedly on the glider next to Mrs. Saunders, and took the coco from her as if it were another chore.  Mrs. Saunders waited for Ellie to starting sipping on the beverage before speaking.  “You did very well on your report card, Ellie.”

Ellie looked up.  “Really?”

“Oh, yes.  A 4.0, and the honor roll.  It’s very impressive.”

“. . . Thank you, mother.”  Mrs. Saunders noticed, with some satisfaction, that Ellie was smiling to herself—and not in that spiteful way.  Mrs. Saunders knew she’d get through, with time.

She continued with confidence.  “That said, Ellie, I must confess I am a little concerned for your future . . .”

“You think I should do the honors classes next year?”  Ellie set down her cup to give Mrs. Saunders her full attention.  “Mrs. Lydgate, the English teacher, said I should.”

“Well, Ellie—”

“I thought ‘no’ at first, but then you said I couldn’t do basketball . . .”

“But, Ellie, I think it’s more important for you to focus on your future.”

“I know, that’s why I’m not upset about basketball anymore.  I’d actually have time for honors classes.”  Mrs. Saunders was about to speak, but Ellie insisted on continuing.  “Mrs. Lydgate wants me to do it, because I’d be the only girl in the class.”

Mrs. Saunders considered this.  “We’ll talk about it more tomorrow.  I promise.  For now, let’s finish our drinks, and our work.”  Ellie completed her chores for the day with more gusto than Mrs. Saunders had ever seen previously.  She decided the next day that Ellie should have her honors classes—there she stood a chance of not only meeting a boy, but one that might not be frightened off.  Furthermore, Ellie could probably introduce some of her classmates to Cindy and Brittany.  With any luck, all three of them would have promising boys.

Their lives continued on.  Ellie was busy, but she was also cheerful.  When she wasn’t dining with them, or sleeping, she was going on with her chores or homework (and still making top marks).  She was not only respectful to Mrs. Saunders, but had become loving with her sisters.  They, too, began to like Ellie.  Mrs. Saunders watched all this with pride.  It was she who had taken the hopeless case that was Ellie Saunders, and transformed her into the cheerful, hardworking, and homely young woman that she was in her senior year of high school.  It was she, Mrs. Saunders, who had made this family a family, and ensured her girls had a future.

By their senior year, Brittany had a boyfriend (Mark) of one-and-a-half years, and they intended to continue their relationship through college.  Mrs. Saunders foresaw a wedding on the horizon.  Cindy was a bit more elusive—she had a new boy taking her out every two weeks.  Mrs. Saunders had wished that Cindy would find one decent young man and settle with him, but—provided that Cindy was staying pure—Mrs. Saunders saw no reason her daughter couldn’t have a little harmless flirtation.  She wished Ellie, who’d only had a few friendly dates to school dances, would act a bit more like Cindy.  Mrs. Saunders herself was doing all right, although she’d had to take a part time job as a secretary to help with the expenses.

One fall afternoon, Mrs. Saunders returned home early and found Ellie doing Cindy’s chores.  “Why, Ellie, what are you doing?  Where’s Cindy?  And where did Brittany get to?”

For one vague second, Ellie looked panicked.  But then her face took such calm that Mrs. Saunders thought she must have been hallucinating.  “Brittany is out with Mark.  Grocery shopping”—Ellie said this because Mrs. Saunders’ face betrayed her misgivings—“She’s making dinner for his family tonight.”

Mrs. Saunders set her keys down and massaged her brow.  “Yes, that’s right . . . I apologize, Ellie, I have such a head-ache . . .”

“Here.”  Ellie led Mrs. Saunders to a chair and began to work the stiffness out of the woman’s neck.  She’d grown into a good girl, after all.

“Thank you, dear . . . and where did you say Cindy was?”

“Studying.  There was a group project or something, and she had to stay after.  She asked if I could cover her chores so she could get the rest of her homework done tonight.”

“Ah.  Well, that was very sweet of you.”

Ellie made dinner for them that night, to which Cindy only just managed to attend.  Cindy said she might need to stay after again tomorrow, to finish the project, to which Mrs. Saunders conceded.  Ellie agreed to do chores again, which Mrs. Saunders was not as fond of.  Ellie didn’t have time to date as it was—and she didn’t want Cindy picking up Ellie’s studious habits at the expense of her skills in housework.

Over the weeks, Mrs. Saunders noticed Ellie seemed more exhausted, and Cindy seemed to be studying a lot at school, rather than spending time with the family.  Brittany seemed irritated, probably about how Ellie was being treated.  Mrs. Saunders decided she’d have to talk with Cindy about pushing her chores onto Ellie.  Why Cindy suddenly cared so much about her marks, Mrs. Saunders had no idea—unlike Ellie, she could have a future the moment she settled.

Mrs. Saunders meant to have a talk with Cindy; a nice, good, long chat, but the opportunity or appropriate time never arose.  Cindy was never home.  So Ellie became more tired, Brittany more irritated, and Cindy more absent, until one day Mrs. Saunders came home to the middle of a shouting match: “. . . so damn passive!”  That was Brittany.

“Passive?  I’ve done nothing but fight to have a place in this family without selling out my own identity.  You call that passive?  And don’t get mad at me, because you could’ve said something to her and then we wouldn’t even be in this!”  That was Ellie.

Mrs. Saunders walked as quickly as she could without breaking into a run and found the two fighting in Cindy’s room.  The presence of Mrs. Saunders was enough to affect a silence before she spoke.  “What on earth has gotten into you two?”  She looked first at Brittany, then Ellie, but neither of them would look at her.  “What could possibly be so dramatic that you have to act like this?”

Brittany’s eyes snapped up.  “Like what?  Like a couple of human beings?”

“Brittany, don’t,” said Ellie.

“Don’t you dare take her side on this, Ell.”

“There’s no side to take, so how about you quit misdirecting—”

“What is going on here?” said Mrs. Saunders, despite her distaste for interruption.

Ellie opened her mouth, with the appearance of someone who was trying to delicately report bad news, but Brittany spoke first.  “Cindy’s eloped.”

“What?  But . . . she doesn’t even have a boy.”

“Nope.  She has a pregnancy.  She’s eloped with some 24-year-old who she thinks is the baby’s dad, and the only reason she’s doing that is because having an uncertain future with him is easier than dealing with you.”  Mrs. Saunders didn’t know how to react to such alarming news delivered in such a manner.  She could only lay her hand over her heart and tighten her throat all the way up to her jaw.

“Yeah,” said Brittany.  “Guess she was right.”

“I . . . I don’t understand . . .”

Brittany was about to speak, but this time it was Ellie who cut her off.  “She said she was doing study sessions, she was really seeing boys.”  Ellie sighed, as if to fortify herself.  She looked Mrs. Saunders in the eye.  “It started innocently . . . she was just dating, and she wanted to do it in the afternoon because she thought it would be . . . safer, I guess, for, you know . . .” Brittany snorted, and Ellie continued.  “She said she wasn’t doing it and she’d be safe if she was.”

Mrs. Saunders had to sit.  She latched onto Cindy’s desk chair, and eased herself down.  “I just . . . I can’t believe it.”

“Really?” said Brittany.  “Is it so hard?”

“It’s nobody’s fault,” said Ellie.

“Oh, I beg to fucking differ.”

“Language,” said Mrs. Saunders.

“Case and point!” Brittany gesticulated to Mrs. Saunders, as if her mother were some foul thing.  “She will probably never see her daughter, ever again!  She’ll never meet her grandchild, and all she can care about is that we don’t say ‘fuck!’”

“Brittany, calm down . . .” said Ellie.

“No.  No, no, I’ve stayed calm the last two years of my life, and now I’m going to say something.  You knew, Ellie, you knew from day one she was a crazy bitch and how you handled it I’ll never know . . . I just didn’t know any better, and now that I do . . .”  For a moment, Brittany was too furious to speak.  She could only wetly hiss behind clenched teeth.  “The only reason I’m not in Cindy’s position right now is because Mark’s mother, who is not a tyrannical Step-ford wife, took the time to explain that my sexuality is normal and helped me get on birth control.  So, yes, it is her fault, Ell, for trying to force children into virgin brides.”

“Do you mean to say . . . you and Mark?” said Mrs. Saunders.

“Fuck you!”  To Ellie, Brittany said, “You have an opportunity to escape that fucking . . .” it seemed Brittany couldn’t think of a profanity strong enough to describe Mrs. Saunders.  “Don’t you dare feel sorry for her, Ellie.  You felt bad for Cindy, and now look.  So you take that and you get the hell out and you let her”—she pointed to Mrs. Saunders—“soak in the poison she’s brewed.”  With that, Brittany left and shortly there-after slammed the door to her own bedroom.  Ellie and Mrs. Saunders remained in the shocked silence.  Ellie spoke first.  “I . . . I’m sorry . . . I wish . . . you shouldn’t have had to find all that out like this . . .”

“What did she mean, ‘you have an opportunity?’”  Ellie looked at Mrs. Saunders, and seemed surprised to find the widow had maintained full composure.  Mrs. Saunders clarified.  “Brittany said you had an opportunity.  What is it?”

“Oh . . .” Ellie looked down, and smiled a little.  “I wanted to tell you on Sunday, when we were doing the plants, but . . .” She looked up, still smiling.  “I got a full ride to Northwestern.  I get to study literature.”

“You always did love reading.  That’s the only time you ever sat still.”

“I owe it to you, you know.”  This time it was Mrs. Saunders who was surprised.  She could swear it was affection in Ellie’s eyes.  “You actually thought I could o it.  All those times you forced me to do my homework, all that gardening to help me focus . . . you knew I could go to a place like Northwestern, if I really tried.  Whatever else you may have done . . . I just need to say thank you.  Thank you for believing in me.”

There was nothing Mrs. Saunders could say that would be appropriate for such a situation.  She sat in silence and gazed at Ellie while the back of her throat ached.

Ellie broke the silence once more.  “Anyway, I better check on Brittany . . .”  And then, the widow was alone.

She wanted to think of her daughters; of the current, shameful circumstances.  But somehow she was transported to an earlier time in her life, because she ever carried the title of a married woman.  A memory when she was a little girl, quietly sitting in her chair by a desk, while the other children whispered venomous gossip about her own mother.  About how she wasn’t her own father’s daughter.  Oh, how she’d wanted to cry!  But she kept her composure, but not to spite the other children; but because she knew, even as a little girl, that dignity must be maintained.  Even in the biggest disgrace, one had to maintain her own dignity.  It was all there was.

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