Ellie Ever

Nancy Ruth Patterson; black and white pictures by Patty Weise

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Ellie Taylor hated it when people called her and the other kids heroes. “Heroes in hand-me-downs,” the church lady giving out sweaters to the children in the homeless shelter said to nobody in particular on Christmas Eve. Ellie wondered how that fake honor could make anybody who’d lost just about everything they had in a “natural disaster” feel better.
Ellie knew full well she wasn’t a hero because a hateful hurricane had swallowed her house. It had washed away the shutters and doors and kitchen sink. It had also washed away whole neighborhoods and even managed to kidnap her beloved Saint Bernard, Pandy. But just surviving a hurricane didn’t make her a hero.
A hero was somebody who’d done something special, something important, something unselfish. Somebody like her father, who had drowned trying to rescue people afterwards.
Her mother knew they weren’t heroes, and they weren’t “victims” either, like the TV said, or “home-less people.” Her mother really hated that one.
“We’re just between homes,” her mother had said. “ ’Tweeners. Let’s call ourselves ’tweeners.”
’Tweeners sounded so much more hopeful to Ellie than homeless.
The used sweaters and sweatshirts had been donated for children the hurricane had left home-less. When the church lady turned her back, one of the bigger kids tried to take two sweaters from one of the boxes.
“Remember, one per customer,” she said kindly as she turned around and saw him. “There are so many other children who need them, too. Why, I’m going to another shelter as soon as I leave here. We need to save some for those children.”
The boy sheepishly put one sweater back.
It was Ellie’s turn to rummage through the giveaway box labeled MEDIUM in search of a sweater that would fit a nine-year-old.
Ellie spied one she thought would be perfect for Christmas. True, the neck had been stretched to the size of a soup bowl, and the sleeves hung an inch below her fingertips. But it was bright red, and it looked like it would keep her warm. Best of all, it had a basset hound wearing a silly Santa hat woven into the front. Just perfect for an animal lover like me, Ellie thought. She thanked the lady politely and turned to leave.
But as she turned, she spotted a puffy little face in the pile. She reached in and pulled out a rein-deer sweater with a soft red nose fashioned from yarn. It was too big for her, but the perfect size for her mom. And a reindeer looked a little bit like a horse, she figured. She wondered if reindeer wore horse shoes. Horse shoes like the ones her father used to make when he was alive and had his farrier business, Taylor-Made Horse shoes. Horse shoes like the ones her mother kept saying she wanted to make someday.
But the church lady had said one to a customer. Ellie started to walk away; then she decided she’d rather have the one with the fuzzy-nosed reindeer. It would be a perfect Christmas present for her mom. She went to the back of the line and waited while the children in front of her each picked a sweater. She hoped nobody else would like the reindeer sweater as much as she did.
Beth, who lived in the room next to theirs at the shelter, patted the red yarn of the reindeer’s nose, then put it back. “It’s too big for you,” the lady told her, handing her a snowman sweatshirt instead. Beth sprinted out of the room, smiling.
As the line inched its way shorter and shorter, Ellie felt her heart beat faster and faster. She thought—she hoped—that the last three boys would want the Dallas Cowboys sweatshirts that she had seen in the box, not the reindeer sweater. Ellie felt relieved when they grabbed them and began to run around the room throwing imaginary touchdowns.
“Haven’t I seen you before?” the church lady asked when Ellie reached the boxes.
Ellie looked at the sweater she wanted for her mother. She tickled the reindeer’s nose tenderly.
“You really like this one, don’t you?” the lady asked. “It’s one of my favorites, too. As a matter of fact, it was mine once, until I outgrew it.” She patted her stomach playfully. “I thought one of the older, larger children might like it. It must have gotten mixed up in the box of sweaters for younger kids.”
“I was just wondering if maybe, if possibly I could trade this one”—Ellie held out her basset hound sweater—“for the reindeer one?”
“But it’s way too big for you,” said the lady, holding it up to Ellie’s shoulders. “See, it’s even big enough for your mother.”
Ellie looked down.
“Is that why you want it? It is, isn’t it? You want a Christmas present for your mother.”
Ellie nodded. She had heard that the church ladies who volunteered at the shelter would have special presents for children spending Christmas there, but Ellie wanted something special for her mother, too. She folded her basset hound sweater neatly and put it back in the box.
“Tell you what,” the lady said. “If you won’t tell the other kids, you can have them both.”
“Wouldn’t be fair,” Ellie said. “You said one per customer.”
“Well, everybody sure left these boxes in a mess. I saw how neatly you folded your sweater just now.” The lady looked into Ellie’s eyes. “I’ve got a great idea,” she said. “Why don’t you help me fold the rest of these sweaters and make sure they are in the right boxes according to size. Then you can take a second sweater. That would be fair. We’ll consider it your paycheck.”
Ellie hesitated.
“I could really use your help,” the lady said convincingly. “I’m already late to my next stop.”
Ellie spent fifteen minutes folding sweaters and sweatshirts and putting them in the boxes marked SMALL, MEDIUM, and LARGE. Then she helped the church lady take the three boxes out to her car.
Ellie raced back to her room with both the rein-deer sweater and the basset hound one. She hid the reindeer sweater under her blanket.
Now she would have something to give her mother tomorrow morning.
For the first time, Ellie had a feeling that this Christmas might turn out to be pretty good after all.
Excerpted from Ellie Ever by Nancy Ruth Patterson.
Copyright © 2010 by Nancy Ruth Patterson.
Published in 2010 by Farrar Straus Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.