Ella's Stormy Summer Break releases on June 26th! You can pre-order the book for the exclusive pre-order price of just 99 cents! (After release day, the price goes back up to $3.99)
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I’m pretty sure my bedroom has more items in it than the rest of the house combined. And that’s a little ironic because up until last weekend, my room consisted of an air mattress, a dozen outfits in the closet, and a gorgeous antique makeup vanity I got for ten bucks at a garage sale. Now, I can barely see the faded carpeting over the boxes and shopping bags of crap. I mean, it’s not crap—it’s cool stuff—but I am overflowing with guilt that it’s all been bought for me.
Mom shuffles into my room, carrying a purple fabric laundry basket that’s filled with purple towels, purple washcloths, a purple shower caddy and purple flip flops for wearing to the communal shower. I’m not a fan of the idea of showering while wearing shoes, but she’d told me more than once that dorm showers are germ factories and that my dad had once suffered a case of athlete’s foot and it was disgusting.
She sets it all on the floor in front of her and then puts her hands on her hips, appraising my room of junk with a pleased smile. “Perfect. I think that’s everything.”
“You know, just because purple is my favorite color doesn’t mean everything has to be purple,” I say, picking up a package of purple plastic utensils.
“That’s in case the cafeteria runs out of silverware,” Mom says.
I roll my eyes. But she’s trying so hard, and I can tell she’s so excited to be buying me all this unnecessary crap with money we don’t exactly have. I put on a smile because I am grateful, it’s just a little too much to take in right now.
“Thank you, Mom,” I say, standing up from my air mattress and stepping carefully around all the shopping bags to give her a hug. “I am all set for college now.”
“You are, but I’m not,” she says over my shoulder as she squeezes me tightly. These hugs have been more frequent after the tornado swept through town and took our house with it. My parents and I all got hit with the realization that we could be gone at any moment. It’s scary, being aware of your own mortality, and I’m happy for the hugs.
“My baby,” Mom says, pulling away and holding me at arm’s length. The fine wrinkles in the corners of her eyes seem a little deeper every time I see her. She’s still wearing her scrubs from her nursing shift that ended several hours ago. After Mom lost all her clothes in the tornado, she’s only replaced the scrubs. Now she wears them all the time, even if she’s not at work. She smiles at me, and I watch those eye wrinkles fold together. “My baby is all grown up. Going off to college…” She exhales and pulls me in for another hug. “I’m so proud of you.”
The moment is bittersweet. I’m definitely happy that I’m going to college, especially after we lost everything we had and I didn’t know if it would be affordable or not. Then I applied to my dream school, the Hilltop School of Culinary Arts, and my essay on what it was like to survive a tornado but lose everything won me a full scholarship. Room and board and everything. I about died when I opened the letter. I am so unbelievably thrilled to go to my dream school and learn the skills I’ll need to open my own cupcake shop one day, but all that excitement comes with just as much worry.
The college is three hours away in a small town south of Dallas, and that’s three long hours away from my home. We finally moved out of the Poe’s house and into our own rental home, but my parents are more stressed than ever now. While we used to own our old house, this one is just being rented. On a nurse and paramedic’s salary, they can’t afford to pay rent and also save up to buy our own new house someday. The land from where our old house was is still for sale, but no one has bought it yet. Apparently people don’t care to build a new house on a street with houses that were all built twenty years ago. When it does sell, my parents might have enough for the down payment on a new house, but until then, we’re just stuck in this tiny, old, dingy, overpriced rental.
We have filled the house with some furniture, just not much. The living room is the most put together, with a used couch and a new TV and a gorgeous rug Mom and I found on clearance on Overstock.com. My parents got a bed for their room for cheap from a friend, but I insisted that the air mattress was fine for me. I don’t want them spending any unnecessary money on me, especially since I’m going to college soon. My frugal ways only lasted a few months, because now that I have a free dorm room, my mom has gone a little crazy buying me stuff to fill it with. But I know it makes her happy, so I’m trying to be grateful and not annoyed.
Mom helps me take all the dorm stuff out of the boxes and shrink wrap and we pack it tightly into plastic containers, consolidating it as much as possible for the trip to my dorm. I start college in just nine days. This is officially the last week of my summer as a carefree teenager. Soon I’ll be a college student, and then, hopefully, an adult with her own cupcake shop.
It’s bittersweet thinking about these last few days of freedom before class starts. I’ve had eighteen years of living with my parents, going to public school and hanging out with friends at home. Now it’s all about to change.
Ethan greets me at his front door with a smile that turns into a yawn. “Hi babe,” he says, but the words are all muffled as he covers his mouth with his fist. He pulls me to him for a hug, and I wrap my arms around his bare chest. He’s wearing black basketball shorts with black boxers peeking out at the waistline, and that’s all it takes to make my stomach flutter. His hair dark hair is all ruffled, and his eyes are still sleepy. It’s eleven in the morning, but my boyfriend has clearly just woken up. I let my eyes wander over his sculpted chest, which has gotten even better since we graduated high school two and a half months ago. With all the free time of summer, Ethan’s been working out more than usual. I wish I looked this sexy after rolling out of bed.
“Done shopping?” he says, stepping back to let me inside.
“God, I hope so.”
He chuckles. “What’s wrong with shopping?”
“You know my mom … she’s so excited about my dorm room and I think maybe she’s trying to make up for how broke we’ve been by buying me stuff I don’t need.” I let out a sigh.
Mrs. Poe walks into the living room looking all put together just like always. “Ella, she just loves you, that’s all,” she says, giving me a wink. “Let her go crazy buying you stuff. Moms like that kind of thing.”
I have no doubt she knows what she’s talking about, since she and my mom are good friends. I smile in reply and she smiles back. “Would you like a green smoothie, dear? I’m making myself one now.”
“No, thanks,” I say brightly, instead of gagging and curling my lip in disgust like I want to. “I just ate, so I’m full.”
It’s a lie, but if Mrs. Poe thinks you’re even a little bit hungry, she’ll try to give you something heathy to eat. Health food is her favorite thing, right after her family and reality shows on TLC.
“Okay,” she says, her thousand-watt smile lighting up the living room. “Ethan, put on a shirt,” she adds, giving her son a scolding look. “We have company.”
“Ella’s not company,” he says, throwing an arm around my shoulders. “Plus, she’s seen it all before so—”
“Ethan!” I snap, but it’s too late. My cheeks are warming more with each passing second. Luckily, my embarrassing boyfriend’s mom just rolls her eyes and heads back into the kitchen.
Ethan keeps his arm around me until we get to the stairs, where it’s too hard to stay snuggled together and ascend at the same time, especially since his strong athlete’s body tends to glide up the stairs two at a time, and I step on each one because I’m way shorter and in way worse shape than he is.
“Where’s Dakota?” I ask as we pass her empty bedroom. Ethan’s little sister is a freshman now, and she’s been grilling me on all things high school, from what to wear, to where to sit, to which teachers are cool and which ones suck. Now that I spend so much time here, I consider her like my little sister, too.
“At her friend’s house,” Ethan says. “She said something about planning their outfits for the first week of school.” He snorts.
In Ethan’s bedroom, I plop down on his bed and spread out my arms and legs and close my eyes, breathing in deeply. I wiggle my arms like I’m making a snow angel.
“It’s this some kind of mating ritual?” Ethan asks. I open my eyes and he’s standing next to the bed, looking over me. “Because it’s weird, but I’m down.”
I roll my eyes and kick at him with my foot. “No, I’m just enjoying your amazing mattress that’s on a bed frame that’s not a squeaky air mattress on the floor.”
“Damn,” he says, faking disappointment, even though he knows I won’t do anything intimate while his mom is downstairs. He leans over and kisses me, then he walks to his computer desk and turns his attention to his graphics pad.
I continue to enjoy the feeling of Ethan’s plush mattress as I look over at him. “Didn’t you buy that fancy computer that you can write on?” I ask. “Why are you still using the graphics pad?”
The device is several years old and looks like a piece of plastic with a stylus attached to it. He uses it to draw his T-shirt designs. The images he draws on the graphics pad appear on the computer as a graphic, but it’s not as fancy as the new laptop he just bought. It’s the kind that has the screen that swivels around and you can draw on it or lift it up and turn it back into a laptop shape.
He shrugs. “I like keeping it old school.” His tongue curls slightly over his upper lip while he works, and I watch his computer screen transform as he draws the design. It looks like a cartoon dinosaur. I’m sure it’ll have a funny caption to go with it by the time he’s finished. Ethan has been running his own T-shirt company for the last few years. He designs custom shirts and sells them through a website that prints and mails the shirts to his customers. He’s a good artist, which is kind of the opposite of what you’d expect from a football player. Ethan’s dad wanted him to play college ball, but he doesn’t want to go to college at all. The last time we talked about it, he’d said he was considering going to community college to get a degree in business or something that will help him grow his online store. His parents are kind of pissed about it because they don’t want him to “throw his life away.” (their words, not mine.) They’ve spent all summer telling him to look into college more and to apply at the local community college before it’s too late. Ethan says he’s taking a gap year and will figure out what to do a year from now.
I’ve just kept quiet about the whole thing. Ethan and I have only been dating a few months, and being his girlfriend is like a dream come true after having spent pretty much all of my life crushing on him. So even though I kind of agree with his parents and think he should at least try college before giving up on the idea, I keep my mouth shut. I’m a cool, fun, girlfriend, not a nagging one.
Besides, we’re going to have a lot more problems once school starts and I’m living three hours away. I shake my head, wishing I could shove those thoughts away forever. Instead, I change the subject.
“Any luck on the apartment search?”
“A little,” Ethan says. He shades in some areas on his drawing and then looks at the computer to see how it’s turning out. “I didn’t think finding my own place would be so difficult. I definitely want a place with a pool and weight room and most complexes only have one or the other.”
My heart tightens a little. Now that Ethan’s business has been earning him a ton of money, he’s been talking about moving out on his own. Having his own apartment will be great when I come home from college, because we can have all the privacy we want.
But the downsides seem to stack up way higher than that one benefit. I’ll be gone off to college. Hours away. My schedule packed with classes.
And Ethan will be here, in our hometown in his own apartment, with all the free time in the world.
I swallow, and glance around this bedroom that’s belonged to Ethan for his whole life. Once again, I’m wondering how the hell this new relationship of ours will survive when we are separated by a hundred and fifty miles. What’s worse, is that ever since I got accepted to Hilltop, Ethan and I haven’t had a single conversation about where we stand as a couple. It’s like he doesn’t even care that I’m leaving.
It doesn’t matter how many times I shake my head to clear it. These worries aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. And if we don’t talk about it and figure something out, our relationship will be finished. Leveled to the ground like my family’s empty lot next door.
One of the things I’ve learned about business is that there is art and there is money, and sometimes the two things don’t cross. Sometimes you can create the idea that’s in your mind and it turns into something amazing, and people love it and they will pay you for it. That’s the ultimate success right there. Making a career out of what you love doing.
But sometimes, it’s not about the art, but the money. I sit back and look at my drawing, feeling like I’ve perfectly nailed the cartoony look that my client was going for. The dinosaur, a T-rex, is smiling and waving one of his little arms. I drew fun lettering for the words “Mrs. Dinah’s Dinosaurs” and now the whole design is done. The great thing about having a popular online store in your town is that many people buy shirts from you just because they know you. I’m pretty sure every person of my West Canyon High graduating class owns at least one of my shirts. The other side to local popularity is that many people contract me to design specific shirts for them, and I’m too nice to say no. I don’t really enjoy making these T-shirt designs for the local elementary school, but I realize I’ll have to do stuff like this if I want to keep my business growing and earning money. Right now, I’m kind of all about the money and my creative art has to take a backseat. It’s the only thing that supports my argument of skipping college in pursuit of my business ventures. My parents have been on my ass like crazy about going to college, and I’m just not feeling it.
I only charged fifty dollars for this design, but it’s taken me all day since I kept setting it aside to hang out with my girlfriend.
“Are you done?” Ella says, appearing behind me. She’d been in my sister’s room a few minutes ago, and I guess I got so caught up in last minute tweaks to my design that I didn’t hear her come in.
“Yep,” I say, rolling back in my computer chair so she can see the finished product on my computer screen. “Does this look like a second grader’s field day shirt?”
She grins. “No, it looks better than the ones we used to have.”
“Damn right,” I say. I grab her hips and pull her toward me, beckoning her to sit on my lap so that we’re eye to eye. “I might get to design all of the elementary teacher’s shirts this year.”
Ella tucks her hair behind her ears then rests her hands on my shoulders. “I thought you hated doing boring commission jobs.”
I kiss her before answering. “I don’t hate them, they’re just boring. But I need these jobs so I can buy new furniture and stuff.” I grin and wiggle my eyebrows at her, but her smile fades a little.
“Right … your apartment.”
“Why are you saying it like that?”
She shrugs. “I’m not saying it weird. I’m happy for you.”
She doesn’t seem that happy for me. I tuck her hair behind her ears. “This apartment will be amazing. We’ll get all the alone time we want.”
“Is that why you’re moving out?” she asks, her eyebrow lifting skeptically. “So we can hook up more?”
The accusing tone of her voice puts me on the defensive. She’s the reason I’m getting my own place, but it’s not like that. Not at all. “Ella … What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she says, standing up. “I’m going home for dinner. I just came in here to say goodbye.”
I want to ask her to ditch her parents and stay with me longer, but I know that these dinners are important to her. Ella’s parents both work in the medical field with long shifts and crazy hours. When they all happen to be home at the same time, Ella likes having dinner with them. She’s confided in me that ever since the tornado, she’s had the occasional nightmare of that day turning out differently. Of finding her dad dead, of her mother being sucked into a tornado while Ella watched. She doesn’t want to miss any time with them, especially now that she’s about to go off to college. So although I want to hold her tightly and beg her to stay because something is clearly bothering her and I want to talk about it, I let her go.
“I’ll walk you outside,” I say.
The old Corolla she shares with her dad is sitting in our driveway. It was her car before her dad’s truck was demolished. Apparently they didn’t have full coverage insurance on it so they were shit out of luck in getting a new one. I’ve done the math a few times, and I know I could afford to buy Ella a new car and make the payments for her each month, but I haven’t mentioned it. Ella is strong and independent and she wouldn’t take a gift like that from me anyway.
I walk with her down my driveway and then I open her car door for her. “Hey,” I say just before she climbs inside.
“Yeah?” she says, turning to me. There’s something sad in her eyes, but I can’t figure out what. Things were fine earlier. We went to the mall and stopped at a Starbucks and then played foosball with Dakota for a while. This entire day was fine, and now she’s acting weird.
I swallow back all of my thoughts because there’s no point in bringing it all up right now when she has to leave. “I love you,” I say instead of everything I’m feeling.
She smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “I love you, too.”
She gets in her car and I hover there in the open door so she can’t close it yet. “Have a nice dinner,” I say. “Call me later if you want.”
She nods. I step back and close her door, then watch her start the engine and slowly back away. Just a few months ago, she’d have walked through the grass to her house next door, but now she lives all the way across town.
Once her headlights disappear, I turn toward to the right and stare at the empty lot that used to have Ella’s house. The contractors did a great job of removing every piece of debris, leaving only a concrete slab where a house used to be. I think about where Ella’s bedroom window used to be, about her front door, where I’d always go over there as a kid, and then the years that passed when I’d pretend she didn’t live there because I thought she hated me. Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about Ella. She’s been through a lot and she’s handled it really well. She’s stronger than I am, that’s for sure.
My phone buzzes and I take it out of my pocket to find a stupid weather alert. I slide it away without a second thought. There’s a hurricane in the Gulf, but it’s headed toward Louisiana, not Texas. Unlike that freak tornado last year, this storm isn’t my problem.
I’m half asleep in my bed, half watching a Netflix marathon when my phone rings. The sound is so loud it makes me jump, and I knock the phone to the floor. Blinking my eyes, I sit up and retrieve the phone, which now has Ella’s beautiful face on it. I answer her call.
“Ethan,” she says. She sounds weird. Maybe she’s tired. “Can you come over? Like, right now?”
I check the time, and it’s just after eleven. “You asking for a booty call?” I say playfully.
Okay … clearly this isn’t a time for jokes. I clear my throat. “Yeah babe, I’ll be right over.”
A funny thing happened when I turned eighteen and graduated high school. My parents got really chill. I guess because I’m a legal adult now, they just stopped putting rules on me. My dad said it’s also because I’m a good kid, so he doesn’t worry. I know I can leave the house right now without asking permission, but it still feels weird. I guess I haven’t been an adult very long.
Dakota is still awake in her room, so I tell her I’m headed to Ella’s.
“Gross,” she says. “I don’t need to know about your sex life.”
I leave before she says anything else. As far as I’m concerned, my fourteen year old sister doesn’t need to know a damn thing about my sex life. Hell, I wish she didn’t even know what the word sex even meant.
My chest is tight with anxiety as I make the twenty minute drive to Ella’s house. She sounded off, and although we have a great relationship, I keep getting these awful thoughts like maybe she’s about to break up with me. Maybe she’s met someone else. Maybe she thinks I’m just holding her back since she’s about to go off to college. By the time I pull into her driveway, I’ve worried myself into a panic.
I get out of my truck and close the door quietly and then make my way toward the front of the house. I start to send her a text to see if she wants me to knock or wait for her since her parents are probably sleeping.
I jump. Ella is standing right here, in the darkness, waiting on me. “Shit,” I breathe. “I didn’t see you there.”
She grins. That’s good, right? It means this isn’t a break up visit. “Sorry, I wanted some fresh air so I came out here to wait for you.”
I want to kiss her but I’m still scared as to what this meeting is about. “What’s going on?” I ask.
She throws her arms around me and buries her face in my chest. “My mother.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. “What happened?”
She looks up at me and shakes her head, like she can’t believe whatever she’s about to say.
“My freaking mother … UGH!”
“Babe?” I say, leaning down to kiss her cheek. “What is it?”
“So there’s that stupid hurricane that’s hitting New Orleans,” she says. I nod for her to continue. “Mom just volunteered to go work at their hospitals over there. I guess they’re expecting a lot of hurt people or whatever, so they asked for nurse volunteers. And my mom signed up!”
“Wow,” I say. I’m having trouble understanding since my mind is still so relieved that this isn’t a break up meeting. Ella still loves me. Things are good. But this isn’t about me right now, it’s about her. “When does your mom leave?”
“Tomorrow,” she says, tossing her hands in the air. “And Dad is going with her too. Can you believe this shit? They didn’t learn their lesson from that tornado? They just want to rush out into harm’s way to help people?”
I take both of her hands in mine. “Well, babe, I think it’s kind of nice of them. Hospitals are built to withstand hurricanes, so they’ll be okay if they’re inside.”
She huffs, her nostrils flaring. “I mean, I know. I know you’re right, but … I’m just mad. I don’t want them to leave.”
“It’ll be okay,” I say, squeezing her hands. “They’re doing a good thing. And you’ll be staying here, right?”
“Hell yes I am,” she says. “I want nothing to do with any natural disasters.”
I smile and tilt her chin up, kissing her softly. “You could probably come stay at my house while they’re gone,” I offer.
She gives me the first real smile I’ve seen on her in days. “Or you could stay here.”
I slide my hands around her waist and pull her tightly to me. I cannot describe how good it feels to know that everything is okay with us. “Even better.”