it's dark. I'm here!

The drive up from Atlanta is an easy, straight shot, but I’m watching the remaining minutes tick down on my GPS. So tired. Grab a Coke from a drive-thru. Is Pepsi okay? Dude, I don’t even know if we have soda in southern California anymore. There's a Whole Foods opening two blocks from my building next month, and good thing, because if anyone sees you buying regular chicken in DTLA these days you're written off as an environmental terrorist. So yeah, Pepsi's okay.

(I'm a little punchy from travel.)

Things start to look familiar, as much as they can in the dark. But these roads are snaky and long; I know one wrong turn and I'll be deep into someone's private driveway before I realize I'm off track. I know from my last visit that Google Maps is a bit wonky around here.

Twice I end up exactly as predicted: doing a three-point turn on a treacherously steep private road. I'm trying to stay calm but this is exactly why I didn't want to take a later flight. I hate driving at night. And rural driving at night? Shoot me now. Only not really, please don't. I'm getting off your property as quickly as possible, I promise.

The comedy of the situation hits me and I pull over to the text the friend who's to blame. The one who made me miss the red-eye last night and push my flight to this afternoon. We had this discussion, damn it. I don't want to show up at midnight, that's obnoxious, I'd said. Also stupid. It's really difficult to drive around there past sundown. I was laughed at. Okay, grandma.

I hate your guts right now, I text. I am so fucking lost. I take and send an ominous picture: my headlamps lighting up a few feet of dirt road and a patch of forest.

What happened to GPS?


You shouldn't be driving at night in a place like that.

I just found Burt Reynold's body.

I heard you're a good swimmer. 

The laugh chills me out. I can do this. I'm only praying Bill and Hannah haven't waited up for me. I feel like such a moron for coming so late already.

Finally, streets I recognize. Yes! I know the way from here. I relax enough to roll down the windows and start taking it in. Apple-crisp air, a whiff of dry smoke. Barely, just barely I can make out the colors on the trees.

I pull slowly into the driveway I can tell they've boxed their own cars into tightly, to leave me room. Peering up at the house, everything looks sleepy and quiet. Maybe they really did go to bed like I begged them to.

After stuffing the things that have spilled from them back into my bags, I quietly slither out the rental car door, bracing for the dogs' warning barks. They're quiet, though, and I'm encouraged. Maybe, just maybe, I can get my things out of the Jeep, across a (crunchy) leaf-strewn driveway, through a latched gate, up two flights of creaky stairs (and under the glare of a motion-activated security light), through a screen door and a sliding glass door - all of which has been left open in expectation of my arrival - without waking anyone up.

I will be...Ninja Ellie.

First, though, I take a minute to walk across the road and gaze breathlessly at the lake. Black-silver ripples. Heavy disc of a moon hanging above, giving it that seductive shimmer. Cold and beautiful and perfect. Too dark for pictures but I try anyway.

Okay. I said hello to Lake Burton. Now to sneak in unnoticed.

For the next several minutes I move through a painstakingly slow process of zipping, locking, unlocking, opening, reopening, turning off the left car interior light, turning off the right car interior light, and finally clutching my three bags as I tiptoe across the property and make a game of moving through the various barriers noiselessly. Like a game of Operation. And I win. I win! I get all the way upstairs and into the sun porch before anyone twigs to my entrance. And when they do, it's Kim, Bill and Hannah's son...because he has waited up for me.

It's almost 1am. He's on the couch, dead-eyed in front of the TV. He spots me through the window and waves. I can't decide if I'm crushed to have kept him up or just delighted to be greeted.

We hug hello. When he confesses to not having heard me a caffeinated surge of pride washes over me. "I was like a ninja out there, right??" I giggle like a maniac. Travel punchy like whoa. Joey, one of the dogs whose detection I avoided, sniffs Chaucer on my things. He wags excitedly, not even mad at me for outsmarting him.

Hilariously, Bill texts to ask where I am. At this point I am giddy over not having gotten the dogs started with my arrival. I text back, letting him know I'm here and safe. I can hear his phone go off when the message goes through; he's literally twenty feet away, downstairs. But the TV is on and I can hear he and Hannah are in bed. I don't want to intrude so I resist the urge to walk down a few steps and call hello to them.

So quiet didn't hear you come in...good night.

Like a ninja! I'll see you in the morning. 

Then the big, amazing surprise: Kim has given me his room for my stay this time. He's temporarily moved to the basement, cozy enough but nothing like his own space, which is lakehouse quintessence. Oak-framed picture window, thick beamed ceiling, bookcases anchoring the walls and wildlife frozen in mid-flight/swim across them. And a queen-sized bed for me to snuggle down into, in this 45 degree weather. It's a grand room. A room that lives up to its surroundings. A room to write a novel in - or at least a blog post here and there, when excitement shoves sleep out of the picture.

It's okay though. Among his other acts of hostly consideration, Kim knows to make the coffee strong when I'm in town.