The Secret of Ella and Micha
"I swear to God if we don't find a bathroom soon, I'm going to piss in my pants." Lila bounces up and down in the driver's seat. The air conditioner is turned up as high as it will go and "Shake it Out" by Florence + The Machine plays from the speakers. There's a long road of highway stretched out in front of us, weaving over the hills spotted with trees, sage brush, and the pale pink glow of the sunset.
My cell phone is in my pocket, heavy like it weighs a hundred pounds. "You can always pull over and pee behind a bush." I prop my bare feet up on the dash and pull my white lacy tank top away from my skin to get air flowing. "Besides, we're like five minutes away from the off-ramp."
"I can't hold it for five more minutes." She shoots me a dirty look and squeezes her legs together. "You're not going to think it's so funny when the car smells like piss."
I smother a laugh and search the GPS for the nearest restroom. "There's one right off the exit, but I think it's more of an outhouse."
"Does it have a toilet?"
"Then it works." She makes a sharp swerve, cutting off a silver Honda. The Honda lays on its horn and she turns in her seat to flip him the middle finger. "What a jerk. Doesn't he understand that I have to pee?"
I shake my head. I love Lila to death, but sometimes she can be a little self-centered. It's part of what drew me to her; she was so different from my old friends back in Star Grove.
My phone beeps again for the millionth time, letting me know I have a message waiting for me. Finally, I shut it off.
Lila turns down the music. "You've been acting weird ever since we left. Who called you?"
I shrug, gazing out at the grassy field. "No one I want to talk to right now."
Five minutes later, we pull up to the outhouse at the edge of town. It's more like a shack with rusty metal siding and a faded sign. The field behind it is spotted with corroded cars and trucks and in front of it is a lake.
"Oh thank God!" She claps her hands and parks the car. "I'll be right back." She jumps out and shuffles inside the bathroom.
I climb out of the car and stretch my legs, trying not to look at the lake or the bridge going over it, but my gaze magnetizes toward the level bridge with beams curving overhead and out from the sides. The middle one was where I was standing the night I almost jumped. If I squint one eye and tilt my head, I can spot it.
An old Chevy pickup comes flying down the road, kicking up a cloud of dust. As it nears, my nose twitches because I know who it is and he's one of the last people I want to see. The truck stops just outside the perimeter of the field behind the restrooms. A lanky guy, wearing a tight t-shirt, a snug pair of jeans, and cowboy boots comes strutting out.
Grantford Davis, town pothead, infamous brawl starter, and the guy who dropped me off at the bridge that God awful night eight months ago.
I bang on the bathroom door. "Come on Lila, hurry up."
Grantford looks my way, but there's no recognition in his eyes, which isn't surprising. I've changed since the last time anyone saw me, shedding my gothic clothes, heavy eyeliner, and tough-girl attitude for a more lighter and pleasant look, so I blend in with the crowd.
"You can't rush nature, Ella," Lila hisses through the door. "Now let me pee in peace."
I watch Grantford like a hawk as he rolls a tire across the field toward his pickup.
The bathroom door opens and Lila walks out cringing. "Gross, it was so disgusting in there. I think I might have caught herpes just looking at the toilet." She shivers, wiping her hands on the side of her dress. "And there were no paper towels."
Grantford has disappeared, although his truck is still there.
I grab Lila's arm and tug her toward the car. "We need to go."
Lila elevates her eyebrows questioningly as she tries to keep up with me. "What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing," I say. "There was just this guy over in the field that I really don't want to talk to."
"Is he an old boyfriend?"
"No, not even close...." I trail off as Grantford rounds the bathroom.
There's sweat on his forehead and grass stains on his jeans. "I need to talk to you for a minute."
"Why?" I question, swinging the car door open. Please don't bring up that night. Please.
Lila freezes as she's opening the door and her gaze darts to me. "Ella, what's going on?"
Grantford tucks his hands into his pockets, staring at the hood of the car. "This ain't your car, is it?"
"No, we just stole it and took it for a joy ride." Shit. Ten minutes back and my old attitude is slipping out. "I mean, yes it is - her car anyway." I nod my head at Lila.
"Well, I was just wondering how fast it goes?" He gives me a fox smile that makes me want to gag.
I was never a fan of Grantford. He always had a sleazebag attitude, which was part of the reason why I had him drive me to the bridge that night - he was the only one I knew who would leave me there alone.
I can't help myself. "Probably a lot faster than your pick up over there."
He has a shit-eating grin on his face. "Is that a challenge?"
I shake my head and motion for Lila to get in the car "Nope, that wasn't a challenge. Just a mere observation."
Recollection fills his eyes. "Wait a minute. Do I know you?" Ignoring him, I start to shut the door, but he catches it. "Holy crap! I do know you. You're Ella Daniels." His eyes mosey up my legs, cutoff jeans, lacy white tank top, and land on my eyes lined with frosty pink eyeliner. "You look... different."
"College will do that to you." I scale up his scuffed cowboy boots, his torn jeans, and stained shirt. "You haven't changed a bit."
"I see your mouth hasn't changed at all," he snaps. "And besides, you didn't change for the better. In fact, you look like you could be friends with Stacy Harris."
"Don't exaggerate the situation," I say. Stacy Harris was a popular girl in our grade; head cheerleader, homecoming queen, wore a lot of pink.
His face scrunches. "You didn't just change on the outside either. If anybody would have compared you to Stacy Harris, you'd have punched them in the face."
"Violence solves nothing." I begin to shut the door again. "I have to go."
He complements my move and seizes the door, prying it back open. "You ain't going anywhere until I get something out of you."
"Like a kick to the balls," I threaten, but my insides churn. I can talk tough, but when it all comes down to it he's a really big guy who could easily hurt me.
His grey eyes turn black as the sun sets behind the shallow hills. "I heard you bailed. Packed up your stuff one night and took off. Pissed off a lot of people, too. The ones that were always protecting you when that mouth of yours got you into trouble. Especially that one guy you were always with."
"Don't pretend like you don't know his name." My voice is slightly uneven. I feel out-of-control of the situation and I'm starting to panic. "You don't forget the names of the people whose fist have slammed into your face."
A vein bulges in his thick neck as he punches the window. "That night I was wasted and Micha was completely sober. And it was total bull shit that he sucker punched me for leaving you on the bridge. I mean, you asked me to take you there. How the hell was it my fault?"
Apparently, Micha hit him more than once because it's not the instance I'm referring to.
I tug at the door handle. "I'm going to close the door now and you're going to walk away."
"Who are you?" His eyes are all over me.
"I'm who I always was," I mutter. "Just without all the baggage." Calmly, I close the door. "You can drive away now, Lila."
She floors the car backwards and skids it onto the asphalt. I don't look back at Grantford or the bridge. I breathe through my nose, trying to stay composed and in possession of my feelings.
"What was that about?" Lila asks. "Who was that creep?"
I buckle my seatbelt and turn up the air conditioning. "Just some guy I used to know from high school."
"I thought he was going to kill you or something... Maybe we should call the police."
Flashbacks of my old life resurface. "That's just how things are around here. Besides, he was all bark and no bite. Trust me. He was just irritated with something I did."
Her eyes enlarge and she grips the steering wheel. "What did you do?"
I glance in the rearview mirror at the desolate road behind us. "Nothing I want to talk about."
She slows down as the speed limit decreases. "How did you do that? You were so calm even when he tried to hold the door open. I was freaking out."
"It was just instincts," I lie. If she knew the real reason we sure as hell wouldn't be friends.
The urge to make Lila flip a U-turn and floor it back to Vegas becomes more powerful the closer we get to my home. Lila relaxes about the Grantford ordeal when the outhouse is far behind us. We make the rest of the short drive talking about classes and frat parties, but when we pull into the driveway of my house, her fear and panic reemerges.
"This is... nice." She shudders as she peers through the windshield. "So this is where you grew up?"
The full moon shines in the starry sky, lighting up the trash piled in the driveway, the old cutlass balanced on cinderblocks in front of the garage, and the peeling paint off my two-story home trimmed with a broken rain gutter that's swaying in the wind. The tree beside my window looks like it's dying. It was once my gateway for sneaking out of my room, but the last time I snuck out was the night my mother died.
I'll never climb that damn tree again.
"Yep, this is home." I step out into the cool breeze. Rise Against "Like an Angel" blasts from the speakers next door. The lights are on in the house, and there's a lot of screaming and yelling going on. The driveway is lined bumper to bumper with cars and people are smoking on the dry front lawn and on the deck.
One of Micha's parties. It's like time has frozen and was waiting for me to return.
"God things never change around here." I round the back of the car. "Lila, can you pop the trunk, please."
The trunk pops open and Lila steps tentatively out of the car. Her eyes fasten on the party and she's chewing on her thumbnail, which is a nervous habit of hers. "Jeez, it's more intense than even a frat party. I didn't know that could be possible."
I sling a heavy bag over my shoulder. "Are you sure you want to sleep at my house tonight?" I rummage through the trunk for the bag holding all my toiletries. "There are some pretty decent hotels in the next town over."
"I'm just not used to this kind of a place. That's all... But I'm sure it's fine." She collects one of my pillows from the trunk and hugs it tightly.
"Are you absolutely sure?" I balance a small box under my arm. I don't want her to stay and witness this side of my life. "This place is a lot to take in for some people."
She narrows her eyes and points a finger at me. "I may come from an upper class town, but that doesn't mean I haven't been in rougher areas before. Besides, we went to that pawn store that one time in Vegas and that neighborhood was definitely sketchy."
It really wasn't that bad of an area, but I decide to let it go, since she'll only be staying here for one night.
"Sorry, I just... I want to make sure you're comfortable." I shift the bag onto my hip and feel around the dark trunk for my other bag.
"I promise I can manage for one night." She crosses her heart with her finger and smiles. "In fact, I might even get brave enough to go check out the party next door."
I rapidly switch the subject. "We can probably get the rest of this stuff out tomorrow, since it's dark and I can barely see. And I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted."
"I think..." Her eyes wander in the direction of the driveway. "Dear God Almighty, who is he? Wait a minute. Isn't he... yeah..." She lets out a quiet squeal and hops up and down. "Ella, I think it's the guy from your drawing, that Micha guy you insist you never dated."
My bag falls to the ground as I slouch down, debating an escape. Duck under the car? Run into the house? Dive into the trunk?
"Hey there, beautiful," Micha says in his flirty tone. "You shouldn't park your car out here in the open. Someone will probably jack it."
The sound of his voice sends a tremble through my body that coils down deep inside me. I thought the feeling would be gone after being away for eight months, but somehow time has had the opposite effect - it's amplified and taking over my body. I pretend to be engrossed by a box in the trunk and put my head amidst the shadows.
Lila giggles. "I'm sure my car will be okay.
This is my friend's house."
"Your friend's house..." He drifts off, making the connection and anxiety strangles me. "Wait a minute? Are you talking about Ella Daniels?"
Collecting myself, I slam the trunk down. When he sees me, his eyes enlarge and he has the same expression on his face as when his mama told him his daddy wasn't ever coming back.
He blinks the stunned expression away and a hint of anger transpires. "What are you doing here? I thought you were in Vegas."
For a moment, I'm unable to speak, caught in a mixture of emotions from seeing him again. Micha has always been stunningly beautiful in a way that makes artists' hands ache. He's dressed in a red plaid shirt, dark jeans, and a pair of black boots. His lips are full and ornamented with a silver loop and his dirty blonde hair has a slight wave to it. His skin is like porcelain and his aqua eyes carry more than I can handle.
"I was down there for school, but I'm back now," I say in the polite tone I've used with everyone over the last eight months. But on the inside my heart is wild, and my blood is roaring with the same yearning I felt for him when I left. "Wait a minute. You knew I was down there?"
He sidesteps around Lila and positions himself directly in front of me. Micha is one of the few guys that is taller than me and I have to angle my head up to meet his eyes. "I had no idea where you were until this morning," he says. "Since you didn't tell anyone where you went."
The ache in his voice stabs at my heart and the phone carrying the voicemail in my pocket weighs a thousand pounds. "Sorry, but I needed a break from this place. It was... things were... well you know how it was."
"No, I don't know how it was." He braces a hand on the trunk like he's going to fall over. "Since you took off and never told me where the hell you went."
I need to go before he gets to me, and all my self-control evaporates. Picking up my bag from the ground, I wave good-bye to him. "It was nice talking to you again, but we've been on the road for like twelve hours and all I want to do is lay down."
"I'm not really that tired," Lila says and I press her with a pleading look. "Oh, wait maybe I am." She fakes a yawn.
I hurry for the side door of my house, but Micha blocks my path, and his hand comes down on the car like a railroad track barricade. He drags his lip ring into his mouth with a passionate look on his face, like he might kiss me or something.
For a second, I wish he would.
He leans toward my ear, lowering his voice to an intimate level. "Come with me somewhere. Please. I've been waiting eight months to talk to you."
I flinch at my body's fiery reaction his voice emits. "I can't talk to you, Micha." I choke, backing away, and bumping my hip on the edge of the car. Tears threaten the corners of my eyes, but I haven't cried in over a year and I refuse to break down. Spinning on my heels, I dash for the house.
He doesn't call out to me - it's not his style. But his gaze bores a hole into my messed up head the entire way, until I'm finally locked inside my house.
Then I can breathe again.
I swear I'm dreaming. Ella is standing in front of me and she looks just like Stacy Harris, a slutty cheerleader we used to go to high school with and who Ella beat up once because Stacy was making fun of a girl in a wheelchair.
It was one of the things that made me fall in love with her; the fire, passion, and the need to stick up for the outcasts, even if it meant being an outcast herself. She never fell into any category - she was just Ella - but now she looks like a freakin' Stepford Wife. She's still hot as hell, a rock hard body, and long legs that go on forever. I've pictured those legs wrapped around my waist many times and the same images flood my head, even though she looks like a stranger.
Her gorgeous green eyes are glossed over, like she's repressed everything inside. She's unhappy to see me and it hurts a little, but pisses me off more. She starts rambling about being tired, something she used to do all the time to avoid confrontation. I watch her lips move, wanting to kiss her so God damn bad, but knowing she'd probably kick me if I tried anything. So I lean in, smelling her hair and beg her to come with me somewhere.
Then she runs down the driveway and locks herself in the house. I start to chase after her, but a Frisbee smacks me in the side of the head.
"Sorry man," Ethan calls out, hopping over the fence with a smirk on his face. "It slipped."
Rubbing my head, I arch my eyebrows at Ethan. "Perfect timing asshole."
He holds up his hands. "I said I was sorry. You were just standing there all dazed out like a freaking whipped pussy, so I thought I'd snap you out of it." He scoops up the Frisbee from the concrete and gives a low whistle at Ella's friend's Mercedes as he circles it rolling up his sleeves. "Whose sweet ride is this? Wait, is it Ella's?"
"I think it's her friends." I eye the back door of her house, debating whether I should barge in after her and demand to know why she shut me out for eight months.
"Since when does Ella hang out with people who drive cars like this?" he asks, peeking through the tinted windows.
"She's been gone for eight months." I back toward the fence that separates Ella's yard from mine with my hands in my pockets. "Who the hell knows who she is anymore?"
I need a drink, even though I haven't had a drop of alcohol in eight months. The day Ella took off, with no note or a good-bye, I had gone up to the cove, got drunk, and took all my anger out on Grantford Davis' face. The cops showed up and I got busted for being under the influence and for assault. I'm still on probation for it and I had to go to anger management classes for a while. I've been really good about keeping my crap together, but five minutes after Ella shows up and I'm about to throw it away.
I head to the kitchen, scoop up a beer from the ice chest, and settle on the couch between a blonde and a brunette.
The blonde one giggles. "Oh my God, is the bad boy Micha finally back?"
I can't remember her name, but I play along. "I sure am, baby."
Then I swig my beer back and bury my pain, along with Ella. She's the only girl that's ever been able to get me this upset. The only girl that's never wanted me.