"Where are you??"
At first, Grant barely noticed. He had the menu to finish, another meeting with the lawyers, line cooks to interview. He sent a text and promptly forgot it, unaware when she didn’t respond.
The next day, Thursday, he called her on his way home from the farmers’ market. He got her voicemail but didn’t leave a message. She’d call back, he figured, when she had the time.
He spent most of the weekend in the kitchen—fine-tuning his chimichurri, reorganizing the walk-in. Sometime Saturday afternoon, he forwarded her an article about the Falcons defensive line, and he did wonder, for just the second it took the email to send, why she hadn’t called him back. But then he returned to the dry storage, the lagging P.O.S.
After a long Sunday reviewing receipts with the Group’s accountant, though, Grant started to wonder. Sure, they’d gone days without talking—weeks, even—but since Eliot moved back to Atlanta three months before, they hadn’t gone this long.
It had been ten days since the last time he saw her, at Noni’s on a drizzly weekday afternoon. He’d had a lunch meeting with three of The Phoenix Group partners, and though they’d been complimentary—they loved his projected margins on appetizers, his use of color on the plate—they still kicked the soft open to the end of the month. Grant was starting to doubt Bravata would ever open its doors. Like anyone in the business, he’d worked in short-lived restaurants, for new owners who fired the whole staff in less than a week, but this time, it was his menu, his kitchen, his name on the door. He’d worked for years to get here, sacrificed a marriage and who knew how much sleep. Another delay in the schedule meant more waiting, more chance of developing an ulcer or not making rent. All he could think to do after that meeting was drink too much.
His third beer had arrived when El did. She slogged her messenger bag on one stool and plopped into another, crossing her legs beneath her. “Looks like I need to catch up,” she said, and she ordered a shot of whiskey and the darkest beer they had on tap. “All right,” she said. “Tell me everything.”
And Grant had—all the questions they kept asking, every subtle shake of their heads. El nodded along and scattered in enough profanity to show she was listening, but now that he thought about it, she had seemed distracted. Twisting her hair into tight knots around her finger. Glancing at the door whenever a shadow passed. He’d just chalked it up to the life of a freelance journalist, the dizzy energy it took to make a living. When El was on a deadline, she was liable to gnaw her lip bloody or stop mid-sentence to fill a page in her notebook. He never took it personally.
He tried to remember if she’d mentioned a trip she was taking, maybe some story for a travel website, but his head was aching from the hours with a calculator. He sent her one more text—Where are you?? Im starting to worry—before falling asleep in his recliner.
Grant woke Monday to his phone ringing. He jumped to grab it from the charger, groggy but expecting El on the other end.
Instead, it was a nurse from Sunset Villas Assisted Living. Frank had collapsed in the dining room during breakfast, just as he stood to bus his plate. A stroke, they thought. The ambulance was already in route to Grady, but they couldn’t get a hold of his daughter, who, the nurse added, hadn’t been to see him all week. Grant’s was the only other number in the file.
He called El at least a dozen times on his way to the hospital. He even drove by her place, a carriage apartment in Virginia-Highlands with an iron gate and ivy swooped across its door. He knocked and knocked, but no one answered. He couldn’t see a thing through the blinds. No one answered at the main house either, but the stack of AJCs peeking from under the grill cover suggested the Braddocks were on one of their trips. By the time he got to Grady, where he found Frank in a coma and no sign of El, Grant officially started to panic.
Yes, he knew El could be flighty. She could forget to pay her power bill, or leave her keys in the front door, or even, when Grant visited her in Chicago three years before, fail to show up to a Cubs game after paying extra for seats behind home plate. But she never—never—went a day without talking to her father. She would answer his calls in the shower, hop a plane when doctors ordered a second round of tests. Frank was the only real family El had left, the reason she quit her job and moved home. She’d visited Sunset Villas nearly every day since. Whatever kept her from his bedside couldn’t be good.
As he waited for Frank’s doctor, Grant opened Twitter on his phone. He’d signed up for the app years before, when the cute sommelier at that French place nicknamed him Flintstone on account of his flip phone, but he rarely checked it. He followed a few dozen people, most of them Falcons players and stand-ups, but Eliot used it all the time. “Part of the business,” she liked to say. He guessed it did help her get her name out there.
Her last tweet was dated a week before, the link to a review of some album with the hashtag #newthemesong. Below that, other links, other hashtags, a few responses to names he didn’t recognize, a meme about Game of Thrones. A few people had tweeted at her, mostly in response to messages she must have sent but he couldn’t see. In the days before her last tweet, somebody named YAWPmusic left four separate messages: two links to YouTube videos, a meme of a dog with a bucket on its head, and most recent, an image of a pencil sketch that looked an awful lot like Eliot, with the hashtag #myprettylady.
He was about to close the app when a new tweet appeared on her page from someone named J: seems that she has gone and changed her locks on me.
Grant didn’t know what it meant, but it made him worry. He didn’t want to waste any more time not knowing if El was okay, so he found the bag of Frank’s clothes in the closet and checked the pockets. He snapped a picture of the phone extension and left a note on the whiteboard, in case Frank woke up. Traffic had probably died down by now. He figured it wouldn’t take long.
In the car, he kept replaying those hours at Noni’s. His soggy complaining. Her loyal scoffs. He remembered that one moment, after a few more rounds, over a plate of fried calamari. He’d been in the middle of criticizing one of the partner’s logic when he looked up to see El staring past his shoulder. Her face tense and gray. He scanned the room behind him and saw people waiting for a table, a line forming for the bathroom.
“What?” he’d asked. “Who is it?”
But El didn’t answer. When he waved a hand in front of her face, she snapped back to him.
“Sorry,” she said, reaching for a kernel of fried batter. “Totally spaced out. I think I need to eat more. You were saying?”
Looking back, Grant wished he had asked what she was thinking. He remembered how she’d told him about the weeks before her mom died, how she would hover in the hallway or sit right up against El on the couch, as if she wanted to say something but never did. What might El have told him if he’d shut up long enough to ask?
He decided to call Nick. It rang a couple times, then he heard a rustle, the fumble of fingers on keys.
“Sorry,” Nick said. “My man, Grantland. How goes it?”
There was a reason most of Grant’s friends were old ones. Just hearing Nick’s voice slowed his heartbeat, made him blush at his frantic pulse. They’d been friends since their early 20s, back when he picked up shifts at The Punchline and Nick took the stage at open mics. They’d been like their city back then, unshaven and hungry, engines gaining speed. Before the Beltline and back pain, the movie crews and full-time jobs. It steadied him, somehow, to hear their years of late-night drinking, those dreams as restless as their bodies, tucked behind Nick’s words. He exhaled.
“Hey, man. Is this a bad time?”
“Headed to a meeting at Woodruff Park, so I got a minute. What’s up?”
“Have you talked to Eliot recently? Like in the last week?”
“Nope. I left her a message on Thursday, I think. Thought we might have some work for her, but she never called back, so I gave it to someone else.”
Grant cringed a little. Nick had been good enough to give El some freelance jobs for Creative Loafing while she got on her feet in Atlanta. Her portfolio was good, but Grant’s connection hadn’t hurt. He’d be pissed if she screwed this up.
“Ok, well, if you hear from her, will you tell her to call me?”
“Sure,” Nick said, an ambulance passing in the background. “Everything okay?”
“Her dad had a stroke this morning, and nobody can get a hold of her. I’m headed to her house now.”
“That sucks, man,” he said. “But I’m sure she’s fine. Probably just passed out after writing all night or something.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Grant turned off North Highland, onto El’s street. “I just got a feeling something’s wrong.”
“That Eliot is a tough chick. She’s smart. There’s got to be a good reason—what was that group y’all were in? The Unsinkables?”
“Right. That girl is unshakable. You’ll see.”
Grant told himself that Nick was right. El was tough, and not in some polished, deodorant-commercial kind of way. She was scrappy and blistered, dirt under her nails. All that she’d lived through—her mom’s suicide, the attack—El had learned how to take life’s punches standing up.
The night they met, that clammy July more than 20 years before, her balance had been the first thing he noticed. In the whirl of that emergency room hallway, all those cops on their radios, the nurses, the screams from down the hall. That guttural boom, the one he still hasn’t forgotten, echoing from every TV. She’d smiled at him, this wispy white girl with her head wrapped in splotted gauze. She reached over and handed him a cup of lime Jell-O. “Something tells me,” she’d said, passing him a plastic spoon, “I get to skip my algebra test on Monday.” All that chaos, his leg mottled and throbbing and never going to bend quite right again, and somehow Grant had laughed.
“Listen,” Nick said. “I got to jump into this meeting, but I’ll ask around and let you know if anyone’s heard anything.”
Grant thanked him as he pulled into El’s driveway and grabbed Frank’s keys.
A fat oak tree hid the path to her door, so it was quiet, only the soft munch of fallen leaves beneath his feet. He knocked a few times, but she didn’t answer, so he stabbed the first key at the lock. It didn’t fit, in either direction. His hands were shaking, he realized. He dropped the ring and bent to get it, a bloom of nausea up his chest.
What if she was in there, he thought. What if there were a reason she couldn’t answer the door or the phone? That familiar rumble started in his ears, as if the ground were moving, his lungs hardening like cement. He could almost hear El’s voice, as usual. Say it, she told him, so he did, out loud: “I am steady. I am real. I am unshaken.”
He stood up, shook his head, and the rumble faded. The walls stayed in place. A short one this time, but still, it had been months since he last heard it, maybe a year.
Bracing, he inserted the second key. A soft click. Gears groaning as they turned. He wiggled the knob, as he’d seen El do dozens of times, and placed his shoulder to the door. With a push, it opened…