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Ella Wilson listened as her mother's footsteps retreated down the hallway. When she was sure there was no one within earshot, she flung herself down on her bed and groaned, forcing herself not to cry.
After several seconds, Ella sat up and looked out her window at the water that was mere yards away, closer than it had ever been before. The river, more than anything—or anyone—else, had raised her, listened to her, inspired her, amused her, and known her. For years, Ella had drawn, written about, kayaked on, lived with, and loved the river.
Now the river had betrayed her.
The flood predictions had been issued weeks ago, but Ella had refused to believe them. Now she had no choice. The flood's crest was expected on Tuesday, and today was Saturday. Denial was no longer an option. In fact, the only option left was evacuation.
Ella scowled at the river. How dare it flood? How dare it make her evacuate? How dare it force her to stay with the Flynns?
When Ella had finally accepted the flood warnings, she had appealed to her parents to let her stay with her friends. A quick look at the official floodplain maps, however, had shown that all of her friends, like Ella, lived within the floodplain. The Flynns were Mr. and Mrs. Wilson's best friends, so they had invited the Wilson family to stay with them during the evacuation.
All of which would have been fine with Ella, if it hadn't been for Matthew Flynn.
Ella stood up, forcing Matthew from her mind. Reluctantly, she began to pack.
Several hours later, the Wilsons had moved all of the furniture from their basement and ground floor to their upper floor and attic. After a quick lunch, the family loaded the car with suitcases and backpacks and drove across town to the Flynns' house.
Ella grabbed her backpack and suitcase as soon as the car was parked. She entered the Flynns' at a brisk clip, wishing to get her arrival over with. Once inside, she looked around the living room, wondering if anyone would tell her where to go or what to do with her suitcase.
There was only one person in sight: Matthew. Ella pursed her lips when she laid eyes on him. He was sprawled out on the couch, his lanky limbs allowing him to take up enough space for three people. With his shaggy, flaring haircut; baggy, low-riding jeans; and a T-shirt advertising some band Ella didn't recognize, Matthew was the picture of junior high vogue. His iPod ear buds were in his ears, his long fingers tapping slightly to the beat of whatever song was playing. He had not yet spotted Ella. That was fine with her—a year younger than Matthew, and several rungs lower on their school's social ladder, Ella didn't know how she would react to his attention.
Ella's parents joined her in the Flynns' doorway. "Maria?" Ella's mother called. "We're here."
Maria Flynn bustled into the living room. "Excellent, excellent. It’s so nice to have you. You can leave your things by the door for now. We'll discuss accommodations later. I thought that we'd go join the sandbagging effort this afternoon. Would you like to join us?"
"That sounds like a wonderful idea," Mrs. Wilson agreed. After a bit more small talk by the adults, Mr. Flynn appeared, Mrs. Flynn confiscated Matthew’s iPod, and the two families drove back the way the Wilsons had just come, toward the river.
At the sandbagging site, the volunteer coordinators instructed the newcomers to split into pairs. Mrs. Wilson partnered with Mrs. Flynn, Mr. Flynn paired with Mr. Wilson, and Ella and Matthew found themselves left over. Both of them looked around at the sandbaggers, desperate to locate anyone else they recognized. Though there were several other students from their school, everyone was occupied. The two looked at each other, sighed, and set to work carrying sandbags over to the makeshift wall of bags that had already been built. To Ella, attempting to stop the river's natural fluctuation was a crime against nature, just like eating meat or chopping down rainforests, and she could hardly stand to help. Also, the work was hard, and she would have welcomed conversation to take her mind off of her aching arms and back, but Matthew said nothing.
Ella was glad, therefore, two hours later, when her parents and Mr. and Mrs. Flynn decided to go home. As soon as she got to the Flynns’ house, she took out her sketchpad and started drawing the wall of sandbags. She made the river look both powerful and restrained, like a caged lion; the sandbag wall was the lion's cage, a manifestation of cruel, unnatural protection. The people in the sketch were indistinct, minor characters in the drama of nature versus structure. Ella quickly lost track of time.
The sketch was nearly finished when Mrs. Flynn called, "David! Ethan! Matthew! Ella! Dinner's ready!" The two adolescents and their fathers appeared at the Flynns' dinner table within the next two minutes. "David and I have decided that you and Ethan will be staying in the guest room downstairs. Will that be all right with you?" Mrs. Flynn asked Mrs. Wilson.
"Yes, indeed." Mrs. Wilson smiled. "Thank you so much for your hospitality. We're so grateful to you for letting us stay here."
"Oh, it's a pleasure," Mrs. Flynn replied.
"Excuse me," Ella broke in as meekly as she could. "Where will I stay?"
"Well, we were thinking of putting you in Matthew's room. He can sleep on the couch," Mrs. Flynn answered.
Upon hearing his name, Matthew looked up from his cell phone, with which he had been texting under the table, and asked, "What?"
"Your father and I decided that Ella could stay in your room and you could sleep on the couch this weekend," Mrs. Flynn reiterated. "And how many times must I forbid you to text under the table during dinner? Hand over your cell phone, young man."
Matthew flushed with embarrassment and indignation, but he knew it was useless to argue. He handed over his cell phone. Then, after a seconds' pause, he processed the first part of his mother's speech. "What? Ella can't stay in my room! It's, like, mine! She's a girl! Dude, she can't, like, like, stay in my room!"
Mr. Flynn fixed him with a burning stare. "Young man, that is not for you to decide."
"It's my room! How can it, like, not be my decision?" Matthew demanded. "I'm not letting her stay there and that's, like, final! How come you even invited her over here, anyway? I wish she'd just, like, go away." Turning to Ella, he glowered. "Go away, why don't you?"
“Matthew!” Mrs. Flynn scolded, but Ella broke in.
"I wish I could," Ella retorted.
"Ella!" Mrs. Wilson gasped. "How dare you? Don’t insult the Flynns' hospitality."
Ella pointed calmly at Matthew, raising her eyebrows. "You call that hospitality?"
"I call it hospitality that you have a place to stay and a meal to eat and you're not sitting in a room that's half full of water right now," Mr. Wilson interjected. "Apologize, young lady."
Ella sighed, already regretting what she'd said. She addressed Mr. and Mrs. Flynn. "I'm sorry I insulted your hospitality and said I didn't want to be here." She looked at the ceiling and blushed when she considered the prospect of staying in Matthew Flynn's room. "I would rather stay on the couch than in Matthew's room, though, if that would be all right."
Mrs. Flynn gave in to the two adolescents. "I suppose you could sleep on the couch, Ella, if you're sure that's what you want to do."
The adults changed the subject and chatted happily for the rest of dinner. Ella and Matthew, however, alternately glared at each other and avoided each other's gaze. They didn't speak for the rest of the meal and were subsequently excused early. Matthew retired in front of the basement TV, while Ella finished her drawing and began to write a story that took her far, far away from insensitive grown-ups and insolent boys.
When she finally went to bed, Ella didn't sleep well. She'd never tried sleeping on a couch before, and she found it to be unexpectedly uncomfortable. She wasn't cold or hot or in pain—she simply couldn't sleep, and what little sleep she got was restless and fitful. At five in the morning, she gave up. Turning on the lamp by the couch, she took her sketchpad out of her backpack and began to draw the river as she remembered it, before it started to swell, before the talk of floods, before the walls of sandbags. She put herself on the river in her kayak, alone and happy and free of all outside constraint. She drew slowly, trying to capture everything exactly as it had been the previous summer.
Around seven a.m., a wave of exhaustion took Ella by surprise. She yawned and stretched—and her box of pencils, which had been balanced precariously on the end of the couch, fell to the floor. She hurriedly collected her drawing utensils, glad that no one had seen them fall.
A minute later, Matthew appeared at the top of the stairs, a few yards from where Ella was sitting. Ella blushed. She had never expected Matthew Flynn to see her in her pajamas, and, for some reason, it made her inexplicably embarrassed to find that he was now doing just that.
"Hey," Matthew whispered, coming to join her on the couch. When Ella didn't respond, he looked at her. After a few seconds of searching her pale, tired face, barely colored even by the embarrassment and awkwardness that were so evident there, he spoke again. "You didn't sleep." It sounded almost like an accusation.
Ella merely shrugged.
Matthew leaned over, trying to see what Ella was drawing. She quickly strove to cover her sketchpad, but he had already seen her picture. "That's really good," he praised her.
Ella blushed some more. Her face finally gained a bit of color. She closed her sketchpad firmly.
"No, I mean it. That was, like, a really good drawing," Matthew insisted.
Ella hunched her shoulders mutely and willed him to go away.
"Dude, what is it with you?" the boy demanded. Then he sighed and looked at his feet in an embarrassed sort of way. "Sorry for what I said at dinner. I didn't mean it. I was just, like, like, really embarrassed at the thought of some random little seventh-grade girl sleeping in my room. You know?"
"Believe me, I wasn't planning on . . . that was all your parents' idea," Ella assured him.
"Yeah, I figured that out, like, later," Matthew responded. "But I can't, like . . . " He trailed off. "I'm not good at apologizing, all right?"
Ella raised her eyebrows.
"I'm sorry," Matthew managed.
Ella took a deep breath and nodded. "Yeah, me too."
Without a word, Matthew got up and tiptoed upstairs. A minute later, he returned to the couch, this time with a sketchpad in his hand. He opened it and handed it to Ella. Her eyes widened. She began flipping through it, barely able to believe what she was seeing. "Did you draw these?" she demanded at last.
It was finally Matthew's turn to blush. "Yeah. Little-known fact."
Ella was still processing this. "You. Draw. Matthew Flynn. Can draw." As far as she knew, all he'd ever cared about was punk music and basketball.
"Like I said, it's a little-known fact," Matthew said.
There was a brief silence. "Does anyone else know you can draw?" Ella asked, having no idea what the answer would be.
"Not really," Matthew answered.
An hour later, the adults found Ella and Matthew side-by-side on the couch, drawing and chatting with the quiet, easy manner of old friends. At some point that morning, Ella decided that maybe evacuation wasn't so bad after all. Even the next session of sandbagging managed to be enjoyable.
Two weeks after the flood, Ella arrived nervously at a drawing class at her community center. She didn't know if any of her friends would be there. Looking around the classroom, she spotted someone she knew—Matthew. She wasn't sure whether or not it would be all right to go up and talk to him in public; he was halfway across the room, and she had no excuse to approach him. At school, they had exchanged a few nods, but that was all.
"Settle down, settle down, let's begin," called the drawing teacher over general chatter. The room grew quiet. "All right, as you hopefully knew when you signed up for this class, we're going to be learning to draw people—faces, limbs, figures, and so forth. We'll start with the face, as most of you have probably done portraits in art class. For this assignment, you’ll need to work with someone, so pair up. If you can't find a partner, I will find one for you."
There was a fair bit of chaos as the room rearranged itself. Ella looked around the room. She recognized most of the people and knew about half of them by name, but the only person she'd ever really talked to was Matthew. She scanned the room again. As far as she could tell, none of Matthew's friends was present either.
Matthew and Ella met in the middle of the room.
"Hey," Matthew mumbled.
"So . . . " Ella didn't want to be the one to suggest working together.
"Yeah," Matthew agreed to the unspoken request and sat down in the nearest chair. Ella, relieved, took the seat next to him.
"Order, order," the drawing teacher called. Once again, the room grew quiet. "Now that you're in pairs, we can continue. One of you will draw first, while the other will model. Models, try not to move. After twenty minutes, you will switch—the former drawer will model and the former model will draw. This person will also receive twenty minutes. Pace yourselves, and remember that this is merely practice. You may begin."
"I'll draw first," Matthew offered. He bent over his paper and began drawing, and for a minute there was silence. Ella, not wanting to break his focus, said nothing, though she did have to work very hard to keep from blushing and giggling as Matthew glanced up at her studiously every now and then in order to draw her correctly. His gaze felt soft and attentive. Ella was surprised to realize she liked this new feeling.
Once, Matthew broke tradition and did not look away. Ella raised her eyebrows at him, wondering why he was staring at her. "You're pretty," he commented, by way of answer, before he lifted his pencil once again and focused back on the paper in front of him.
Ella couldn't help but smile.