READY OR NOT

This story was inspired by Kates89 and her 'Children Challenge'. It involves Ellie Danville and Sheldon Hawkes. I also had to include a thermometer and the mood 'excitement'. Hope you like what I did with it. (Somehow, Jo snuck in there too...)

-xx-

Matt. Saturday. 7pm.

She had circled it several times on her bedroom calendar in luminious pink pen. She had doodled it secretly - well, kind of secretly - inside the cover of her schoolbooks, much to her friends' amusement (and silent envy). She had even adopted her mom's bad habit and stuck Post-its everywhere - heart-shaped Post-its, of course.

As if she'd forget.

Only two months ago (it felt more like a year), he had transferred from Seattle and changed her whole world. Moved from one coast to another, just to make her heart beat faster and fill her very private journal with hopeless dreams of dates, and love, and even a perfect marriage someday...

Ellie Danville, the sporty, fun-loving girl who, for years, had laughed at those older girls swooning over cute guys was finally growing up.

And her mom was so proud. Though (Ellie had to admit), she was also what her best friend Jen described as 'over-the-top scary'. Now she knew just how Tyler felt when their interfering mother looked up his new room mate on the internet. Talk about an invasion of privacy! Had she already done the same to Matt? If so, he must have passed the Mom Test, because here she was, at 6pm (okay, 5:30), throwing clothes and shoes and purses all over her bedroom like a mad thing. Getting dressed was hard! Sitting cross-legged on the floor next to a turbulent pile of skirts and dresses, Ellie made a secret vow never, ever to laugh at her mother's disorganised morning routine again.

Yep. Growing up.

She felt quite proud of herself when, less than an hour later (beat that, Mom), she emerged in a stylish yet hopefully subtle ensemble, face made up like the latest Teen Vogue cover-girl, and hair in a dark cloud. Matt thought more of a girl who let her hair express her personality. He had said so to Jen on Wednesday, in Math class, and she had passed along that precious gem of information on a tiny scrap of paper, slipped from hand to hand across the aisle. Ellie, in turn, had made a firm mental note of the comment - wondering, as she did so, what it meant exactly...

I'm cheerful, she decided. Open and honest. What you see is what you get. So she left her hair free, liking the way that it framed her face and hoping that Matt would too.

They were set to meet at the Food Court, so they could eat before the movie. Ellie was a modern girl (of course), and quite agreed with Matt's comment, made last week in Gym, that boys and girls should be equal on a date. It was sexist to think that the guy had to pay for everything, or even pick the girl up from her home. Ellie had nodded and smiled. She was half-disappointed, of course - no gallant knight for her - but also very relieved. No interrogation, either. No boyfriend backed up against the wall by her impossible mother.

Speaking of Mom...

Jo's bedroom door was closed, and all was quiet. Which was odd, when you considered that her teenage daughter was due to go out in ten minutes.

As was she.

Surely, by now, the two of them should be engaged in the customary battle of wills, clashing over bathroom rights, and make-up, and 'suitability of outfits'? Ellie always tried to rein in her mother's fashion choices - and always failed. In return, Jo took pride in her 'bossy mom' role. They always parted on the best of terms, but the half-hour before that was deadly.

So where was Mom now? Ellie pressed her ear against the door and listened carefully before calling out. "I'm ready, okay? I've got my phone and extra money for a cab..."

Still nothing. Ellie began to feel nervous. She was just about to break their Privacy Code and enter (hoping above all that Mom was dressed, at least) when a bright, melodious sound echoed through the whole apartment.

Ellie jumped. Still no word from her mother, but when she glanced at the front door, she could just make out a solid shadow through the frosted glass. Surely not...? Her heart beat faster. Had Matt changed his mind and come to pick her up?

Did he know where she lived?

She brushed that thought aside with a careless wave and left her mother to her sulk. Probably couldn't work out what to wear for her boring work thing. Adults had no imagination. Ellie wobbled down the hall on her new wedge heels and opened the door with a welcoming smile...

... that faded when she found herself staring at Dr. Sheldon Hawkes.

Okay, no, that wasn't fair. The man was kind and sometimes funny. But really; why did he, of all people, have to be the one who lived closest? The one who always offered to drive her mom whenever the team went out for drinks, or a meal. Was it kindness - or something more? Ellie shuddered inwardly. Why couldn't it be Detective Flack? For an older guy, he was still kind of good looking. Or maybe that crazy lab guy? At least his jokes were up to date. Or even the boss... no wait, that was icky.

"Mom," she yelled out, making Dr. Hawkes twitch. "Your friend's here." Sense the tone, she added mentally, glaring at the man in case he got any big ideas.

"You look nice this evening," he commented - then pulled an uncomfortable face, as though he had just realised how creepy that sounded.

"Thanks," she said. "I'm going on a date. With a boy from school. Mom!" she yelled again, more urgently this time. "Ah... you want to come in while you wait?"

"If it's not an imposition." He stepped over the threshold, still wary. "So - a date. That's... um, nice."

"In..." She looked at her wristwatch. "...five minutes. We're going to the movies." The grown-up art of conversation was so dull. Ellie glanced at her mom's door again. Oh, come on! "Let me see if she's ready. Just... er, make yourself comfortable."

Dr. Hawkes sat down on the very edge of the couch, as Ellie stumbled back into the corridor. "Mom!" she hissed. "What on earth are you doing in there?"

Still no answer. Okay, this was getting weird. Ellie's hand reached out and she grasped the handle firmly. "I'm coming in," she announced. Please be dressed.

And then, as the door swung open, she had a truly scary thought.

Please don't be dead...

Maybe that was extreme, but Ellie knew exactly what her mom did for a living and sometimes that freaked her out when she least expected it, as if the pictures had tricked their way into her head somehow. Jo never told her any details, of course, but her young mind filled them in all the same, with a teenager's vivid imagination. And that nasty, violent man, John Curtis - he had been so full of hate. He would have killed her mother if she hadn't shot him first. Ellie still had nightmares about that (and so did Mom). They never admitted that fact to each other, but Ellie could hear her groaning sometimes, through the wall; and calling out in fear. Strange, to think that grown-ups could be afraid like that...

Her heart leapt when she stepped into the room and saw Mom sitting on her bed, clearly not dead... and not sulking either.

"You're not dressed yet?" Ellie said urgently. "Dr. Hawkes is here..."

When she looked closer, 'not dressed' turned out to be a major understatement. Bottom half - sleek black leggings and killer heels. Top half... sloppy sweatshirt? "Mom, what's going on?"

Her mother gestured to the bomb-site all around her, with an unconvincing shrug. When she spoke, her voice was thick. Had she been crying? Ellie knew that Mom could get emotional sometimes, but really... "Oh - I'm okay, honey. And you know, it's the woman's prerogative to make the man wait. Remember that; it's important. Just tell him I'll be out in a minute. "

"I doubt it." Ellie folded her arms and took in the wreckage, blithely ignoring the fact that her own room didn't look much better. "Mom - you're not wearing that are you? Seriously?"

"Heavens, no..." Her mother plucked at the sweatshirt as though she had only just noticed it, and was slightly bewildered by the discovery. Then she stared at her daughter. "Oh, Ellie. You look wonderful."

Now Ellie knew that something was up. Mom never approved of her first choice - it was like a family tradition. This was very strange.

She closed the door carefully.

"Want some help?" she asked.

Mom held out her arms, demanding a hug. "You're an angel..."

"Mom!" Ellie breathed, flushing darkly. "No time, okay?" She picked up a smart black jersey-style dress and tossed it to her mother. "Put this on."

"Oh, no." Mom let it fall to the floor. "The last time I wore that, Russ and I had the worst fight... Bad memories..." Yes - there it was, Ellie saw with horror. A tear on her cheek.

"What's the matter?" she hissed. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine..."

Moving closer, Ellie managed to fend off the hug and set her palm against her mother's forehead. "You're hot!" she exclaimed.

"No, I'm not. That's you. Oh honey, are you nervous about your date?"

"Mom - focus. You're burning up. You can't go out like that."

Her mother gave a high laugh. "Are you grounding me?" she giggled in a reckless manner that was quite alarming.

Ellie pulled away and backed towards the door.

"Wait there, okay?" she said, and slipped out of the room.

Dr. Hawkes had wandered over to the bookshelf and was studying the titles with the air of someone who was trying not to look bored. Well, you won't be now, Ellie thought, as she approached him. Before she could speak, he turned around and smiled at her, clearly wanting to mend fences after that awkward moment at the door. There was a book in his hand - 'Psychology For Dummies'.

"Your mom's?" he quipped.

"No, mine," Ellie answered distractedly. "Sometimes, I just don't get what she's on about. Thought it might help. Look, can I ask you something?"

She could see it in his eyes - the panic. "Um - sure..." he said slowly. "What can I do for you?"

"You're a doctor, right? I mean - not just of dead people."

"That's one way to put it." Oh God, she thought; he was going to launch into one of those awful grown-up speeches - the ones where they thought they were teaching you something useful, when really they were sending you to sleep. "I was a surgeon before I became the M.E. for a while. That's..."

"Medical Examiner; I know. Like Sid." She loved Sid. She wished he was here right now. "Look, I need you to check out my mom."

At once, Dr. Hawkes' manner changed. "Is she sick?"

Ellie's voice became grave, like his. "I think so."

"Bedroom?"

"Yes." God, she hoped her mother hadn't pulled any clothes off while she was gone. Or dressed in something even more embarrassing. Ellie beat the doctor to the door and knocked on it sharply. "Mom, we're coming in - me and Dr. Hawkes, okay?"

No answer.

Doctor Hawkes added his own voice. "Jo, it's Sheldon."

Still nothing.

Reaching past her, he opened the door and entered the room. Ellie was right behind him. "Mom!"

In her absence, her mother had keeled over. Her head rested on the nearest pile of abandoned outfits. Her feet were still on the floor, though tilted in a manner that looked very uncomfortable.

Her eyes were closed.

Now it was Ellie who wanted to cry. "I felt her forehead," she sniffed, holding back the tears. "It was hot."

Dr. Hawkes crouched down beside her mother and checked for himself. "Quite right," he said. "Fetch a thermometer. Oh, and a cold compress. That's..."

"A wet cloth. I know." As she left the room, he was removing her mom's heels and lifting her feet gently onto the bed. I'm so glad you're here, Ellie realised. The thought was unexpected. Later on, she'd have to tell him.

Flinging her purse aside, she hurried into the bathroom. Did they even own a thermometer? Reaching up to the medicine cabinet, she swallowed a thick sob as she saw the Post-it stuck to the mirror. 'Today is a good day'. Underneath was a smiley face. Mom's way to cheer them both up, every morning. Ellie tore it off and threw it aside. Not a good day. Yanking open the little door, she cursed her mom's messy habit and started to fumble through the contents - pill bottles, make-up, cotton wool - tossing it all on the floor in her haste to find the one item that seemed to be eluding her, until... "There you are!" she cried out as she grabbed it from the shelf. Racing out of the room, she skidded to a halt, smacked her forehead and spun on her heels; snatching up a cloth and soaking it liberally. Water dripped all down the corridor as she ran back to the doctor and her mom.

"What's wrong with her?" she asked breathlessly, shoving clothes out of the way so that she could kneel down beside him.

Dr. Hawkes took the thermometer. It was an old-fashioned glass one, filled with mercury, and he groaned to see it. "Trust Jo," he murmured, under his breath. "I thought they phased these out years ago. Still, if it's all we've got..." Slipping the silver end carefully into her mom's mouth, he turned to answer Ellie.

"Not the plague," he joked. Was that meant to be comforting? Adult humour? His dark eyes narrowed. "Sorry. Ellie, she'll be fine. If you ask me, it's a case of the flu, that's all. I did hear her coughing at work, and her cheeks were flushed."

"She said that was a cold." Ellie shook her head. "So, why's she fainted?"

"Long shift," Dr. Hawkes said with feeling. "Not much time to eat, or rest. If she was low to begin with, then she's simply overdone it." He pulled the thermometer out of her mom's mouth and studied it. "A hundred and two."

"Is that bad?"

He was being extra careful with her feelings now; she could tell. "We can bring it down. So, no."

"Can I help?" Please say yes, Ellie thought. She really, really needed something practical to do.

The doctor nodded, and Ellie smiled at him with genuine gratitude. Together, they managed to lift Mom's head from the pile of clothes, sweep them all from her bed and manoeuvre her into a more comfortable position. The wet cloth was placed on her forehead, as her eyes began to flutter open. "Sheldon," she said. "Is it time to go...?"

"Not yet," he told her solemnly.

"Good." She wrinkled up her nose, and winced. "Lord... headache..."

Tylenol, rescued from the muddle on the bathroom floor, set to work on Mom's temperature. Following Dr. Hawkes' advice, Ellie also fetched her a large glass of water. The two of them hovered beside her and soon, much to Ellie's delight, she was far more coherent - if a little blue. "I ruined your evening," she sighed. "I'm so sorry."

Ellie turned cold.

Matt! Oh, no...

In her anxiety, she had clean forgotten all about her date. And now it was - she checked her watch - eight thirty!

Why hadn't he called?

Or had he...?

Excusing herself for a moment, Ellie went in search of her abandoned purse. She found it on the floor in the hallway, and snatched it up. Inside, her cell phone was flashing like mad. One missed call and three missed messages.

She checked the messages first.

Where R U? M.

You coming?

And then the third one: Call me!

Her heart thumped heavily inside her chest. He was worried about her. He wanted to know what was wrong...

She was just about to phone him back when she remembered the final message; a spoken one this time. Holding the cell to her ear, she listened eagerly. It was short and brutal.

"I don't like girls who stand me up. Amy's here, so I'm going to the movie with her. Don't bother to call - we'll be having too much fun."

Then it cut off.

Ellie lowered her phone and stared at it, wide-eyed. She was surprised by how calm she suddenly felt.

Dr. Hawkes appeared in the doorway. "Your mom's asleep now," he told her. "How about a hot drink, while I call Mac and tell him we're not coming?"

I bet Detective Taylor won't be mad and say that Mom stood him up, Ellie thought to herself. No - chances were, they'd be seeing him real soon. Because that's how friends behaved, right?

"You okay?" the doctor asked her. "That had to be scary for you."

"I'm okay, Dr. Hawkes," Ellie grinned. Her voice was warm, and full of relief. Not just for her mom, either... Something to think about later, when she settled down with her secret journal. "Thanks for asking. Kitchen's this way - and I know where Mom keeps her secret stash of double choc-chip cookies..."

He smiled back, sharing her mood. "My favourite," he said.