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Senior year art class is supposed to be an easy credit. So why is Ms. Cleary standing over me, hand on her hip and a look on her face that says she thinks my watercolor should be able to cure smallpox when I’m finished? I bite my lip and look up at her cat eye glasses, the paintbrush wavering in my grip.
“Is there a problem?” I ask.
Her lips press together and she smiles, and it’s one of those expressions that you’d give to a two-year-old who wants to feed themselves but they’d only make a mess so you can’t let them have the spoon.
“All of your flower stems are exactly the same,” she says, bending her hand in an arc. “You know flowers in real life aren’t always perfect like that.”
I lift my shoulders. A drop of green paint falls onto the paper. “Can’t my painting be a representation of perfection?” I ask, figuring it sounds like something arty to say.
She chuckles and moves on to torture the next student. I dip my brush back in the paint and drag it down the paper, making another perfect flower stem. Here’s the thing: I am not an artist. But I can paint my nails with moderate level accuracy, only needing to peel off some paint from my cuticles for the next day or so, and I’m also great at making grilled cheese. And once I’m in culinary school, I’ll figure out a way to become Texas’ greatest cupcake baker because right now I’m not exactly wonderful at that either even though it’s my passion. So except for art, I’m doing okay in the skills department.
Art is just my easy credit. If only Ms. Cleary would see it that way.
All at once, a loud buzzing sounds from every cell phone in the room. I jump, creating one royally screwed up flower stem and reach into my back pocket for my phone.
“Tornado warning,” someone says. One by one, everyone dismisses the alarm on their phone and we go back to working on what Ms. Cleary will surely deem unacceptable artwork.
It’s been raining a lot lately, and the weather has been bipolar as hell for March in Texas. Usually it’s starting to warm up here, but lately it’s been alternating one day so hot you can go swimming and the next day you’re freezing in your shorts and flip flops, cranking up the heater in the car.
Today is a cold day. I bite my tongue and try to work the crooked stem into something resembling leaves or thorns, or a floral vine thing. It doesn’t really work out.
I dunk the paintbrush back in my cup of water and turn to get up and throw it away. I’ll start over and Ms. Cleary will admire my dedication to the craft. Or maybe she won’t notice at all.
I rise and turn toward the back of the classroom, which is a wall of glass that looks out into the soccer field.
“Whoa,” I say, as the crappy painting falls straight to the floor. “Uh, guys?” My voice is higher than I’d expected, the panic already setting in. The entire sky is black in the middle of the day. Hovering in the air just a mile or so away is an unmistakable funnel cloud. It’s getting bigger by the second.
“Holy shit,” Jack Grayson says, rushing past me to stand directly in front of the window. “It’s a tornado, guys!”
More people rush to the window. Ms. Cleary shouts something about calming down and I just stand here, watching in awe as the funnel swirls and twists, like a creepy witch finger appearing out of the sky, wanting to destroy everything in its path.
Sirens explode through the school, twice as loud as the cell phone interruption a few minutes ago. Lights in the corner of the room flicker and wail and I wonder why I never noticed them before. They’re not the small rectangular fire alarms, but something else.
Chaos erupts in the art room as people tramp over my fallen painting to get to the window. I push through the crowd and get my backpack, throwing it over my shoulder. Everyone else might be idiots, but I don’t want to be near the solid glass window when that thing comes by. It’s a freaking tornado, not a cute puppy.
Luckily, the sirens go off a second later and Principal Reynolds’ voice booms over the loud speaker.
“Due to the tornado warning, we will begin the procedure to shelter in place in the school. Students in the specials classrooms need to proceed to the E hallway immediately. Leave all classrooms with window walls and sit in an orderly row in E hallway.”
He goes on, talking about how the other classrooms should shelter in place, but Ms. Cleary talks over him since we’re in a specials classroom. Only the arts and electives classes are on this end of the school and they all have window walls to inspire creativity. The other half of the school is safe in their windowless, insane asylum white walls.
With my backpack clutched safely in my arms, I head out of the classroom, following everyone else to the E hallway. My phone buzzes in my back pocket but we’re jammed in the hall like sardines so I don’t grab it. Instead, I make my way through the people until we get to E hall and then I stop against the wall and slide down to my butt while everyone files past me.
E hallway is long, separating the band room and the locker rooms from the auditorium on the other side. It’s probably the longest solid hallway in the school, but at the end of it is of course, a set of double glass doors, and that’s where most people are rushing to.
Again, I picture the glass shattering into a million pieces, making my face look like road kill. So no thanks, I’ll just sit right here at the safe end of the hallway.
All of the buzzing in my back pocket was from April, my best friend. I grin as I read through her messages.
April: Dude, are you dead?
April: Because with the way Ms. Graham is acting in here, EVERYONE IS DEAD.
April: Okay, now you’re not answering. How’s that end of the school holding up? You better not be dead.
She’s in History, stuck in one of those windowless classrooms. I type out a reply as the stench of sweat and rubber running shoes fills the hallway.
Me: Still alive. Unless I’m a ghost and haven’t realized it yet. Will report back if I can walk through walls.
I look up and find the source of the stench came from the boy’s locker room. Ugh. I try to hold my breath as they file past, mostly ignoring the coach’s demands to pick a spot on the wall and sit down.
People shuffle in and around, talking and sharing images of the tornado that have already hit social media.
I bring my knees up and rest my hands on them, blowing out air to get my hair out of my face. I don’t exactly have a ton of friends at West Canyon High School and the ones I do have aren’t here.
A black and red Nike shoe steps on my purple chucks.
“Hey, sorry,” some guy says from way above me.
I look up and my sarcastic reply lodges in my throat. Ethan Poe stares back at me, his expression probably a mirror of my own. I mean how else do you look at someone who was you best friend until eighth grade and then became your sudden and absolute enemy?
Of course, I had the stupid crush on him, so maybe he’s not looking the same way that I am. Maybe his surprise is just that, not ten kinds of other emotions all rolled into one.
Like, we used to be best friends.
And, damn he got hot.
“Ella, hi,” he says. His jaw muscles flex into what I guess is supposed to be a smile. “I didn’t mean to step on you, sorry.”
I shake my head to clear it of thoughts about his cuteness and the size of his biceps that pop out of his PE-issued tank top like they’re trophies on the display case. I fake a casual shrug. “No worries.”
He turns and kicks someone’s backpack away from me, sliding it down the hallway. “Mind if I sit here?” he asks, but he sinks down to the floor before I answer.
He smells like sweat and cinnamon and I hate that it’s kind of sexy. Ethan’s dark hair matches his eyes, in that both are perfect. He’s always smelled like cinnamon due to his obsession with Big Red gum.
I draw in a deep breath and look at my phone in my lap. April hasn’t texted back, but I can sure as hell pretend that I’m busy talking to someone.
Ethan nudges my shoulder with his elbow. “So what’s been up?”
I glance over and he grins, showing a set of perfectly aligned teeth that are so different from the crooked seventh grade smile he used to give me all the time. His skin has cleared up, his jawline filled out. He’s about twenty feet taller and although I pretend he doesn’t exist ever since the Embarrassing Nightmare in the Summer Before Eighth Grade, I know as well as everyone else that Ethan Poe is a popular jock now.
He’s not the same kid who was my best friend next door, the guy I crushed on like a maniac and the only one who knew all of my secrets.
As he stares at me, waiting for an answer to his simple question, I realize he doesn’t want to know any of that. He doesn’t care that my life fell apart after he had his friend tell me he thought I was a creepy stalker. He’d probably laugh if he knew how hard it was for me to make new friends in eighth grade when I’d spent my childhood only caring about him.
“Things are fine,” I say through a tight lipped smile.
“Cool,” he says with one of those head nod things that guys do so well. The lights flicker and the roar of the approaching tornado suddenly fills the air. The creepiness of it all makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
I know we are safe in here, but the wail of the tornado is frightening, so much so that even the loud joke-making jocks down the hall have all gone silent.
Sirens wail in the distance and I recognize the sound as the city’s disaster alarm. I shudder as goosebumps prickle over my skin. There’s a loud crashing sound, followed by screeching and scratching like there’s a million trees brushing against the roof. The wail of the tornado is like a battle cry of Mother Nature, a restless monster who is dying to get it all out of her system.
“Damn,” Ethan says, breaking the silence around us. “That sounds wicked.”
I nod, gripping my phone in my hands. “I hope my car is okay.”
His brows draw together. “I didn’t even think of that. My truck better be okay, too.” He shakes his head, running his fingers over his eyebrows. “I just got the thing.”
He says it like I don’t know. Like we don’t live next door to each other and I would have no idea that he started driving the brand new, fully loaded Ford King Ranch truck on his seventeenth birthday. It’s so shiny and blindingly red that it’d be impossible to miss it.
The Poes are loaded and this used to benefit me a lot as a kid. They’d take me on vacations and trips to Sea World. They’d buy two of every pool toy so I could have my own. My heart tightens and I look away. I am not in the mood to remember my life before Ethan Poe became too good to be my friend.
I’m staring at my phone again when the scent of a powdery perfume hits me so hard I cough. Ethan does too.
Kennedy Price appears, crouching down as she walks, a conspiratorial look on her perfect cheerleader face. She stops right in front of Ethan and kneels down, leaning onto her fingertips so she can kiss him. “Coach Tamara said we had to stay down there but I snuck over here,” she says, grinning at him like she’s madly in love.
Guess I can’t blame her. He is a total hottie now.
Not that I’m allowed to think that.
Kennedy turns to me, her High School Royalty smile in full force. “Can you move over?” she says, moving her hand as if to shoo me away. “I need to sit by my boyfriend.”
I glance down at the three inches of space between Ethan and me. “I’m sure you can slither in,” I say. “I’m kind of attached to this particular spot on the floor.”
She scowls and rocks back on her heels. The shark mascot on her red and white cheerleader uniform seems to glare at me as well.
“Ethan, tell her to move.”
Coach Tamara steps into the middle of the hallway, hands on her hips. “Kennedy, against the wall. You’re not allowed in the middle of the hallway.”
“Just a second,” she calls back, before she turns her glare on me. “Move,” she hisses.
I don’t know why I’m so compelled to deny her request. I could probably scoot over a but then I’d be sitting hip to hip with the most popular girl in the school. What if some of her bitchiness rubs off on me? I can’t have that, now can I?
“Sorry, there’s no room here.”
“Kennedy, now!” Coach Tamara’s voice is a roar over the sound of the tornado, which is still whipping around the school like it’s taken offense to the building being here. Luckily, two large cabinets have been moved in front of the doors at the end of the hallway. We can’t see anything now, but we can hear enough to know what’s going on outside.
The cheer coach points to the wall where she’s standing, right at a blank spot between all of the other cheerleaders. “Get back here or you’re suspended.”
Kennedy tosses a glare over her shoulder, her eyes piercing into my soul with rage, before she tromps back down the hall.
The wail of the tornado fills the awkward silence until Ethan chuckles. I can feel his gaze on me, but I don’t look over until he talks. “That was kind of badass.”
I look into his dark eyes and feel every childhood memory we have come tumbling into the forefront of my mind, falling straight through to my stomach. “Maybe next time she’ll learn to say please.”