Ella was only 16 years old when she met Ben. Their relationship wasn’t your average teenage love story. Ella was a very lonely and bored teenager. She didn’t have many friends; just Penelope and Jackson, the only two people who bothered to keep in touch with her when she decided to switch to an online high school in January of her sophomore year.
Her mom had decided to run off with her new boyfriend a few weeks before she left school, leaving Ella to take care of her young sister, Abby. She tried to make it work with her in school, but having to take Abby to school every day, and make sure she was fed and taken care of, while still trying to manage her own homework; it just wasn’t working.
After a few weeks, she saw no other option but to leave school. So, Ella got a job and worked while Abby was at school, kept up with her own homework at night, and had no time to maintain a social life. Even with Penelope and Jackson trying to help as much as they could, offering to babysit or go grocery shopping for her, Ella just had too much on her plate. And while they were still around once in a while, they had their own lives to keep up with, and Ella couldn’t burden them the way she was burdened.
Ella and Abby lived in a tiny studio apartment. There wasn’t even a bedroom; just a room that was combined living room, dining room, bedroom, and closet. There was a small kitchen and bathroom, and absolutely nothing else. This was where Ella’s OCD habits came in handy; she organized everything and made sure every object in their home had a place, and that it was there. If it wasn’t for that, the place would be a cluttered mess, and no one would be able to survive in it.
Every day at 4 o’clock on the dot, Ella would get out of work and go to pick up Abby. By 4:30 sharp, they’d be back at home and getting started on Abby’s homework. Despite the fact that she was only in fourth grade, she had tons of homework each night; reading, math, or writing. And Ella made sure all of it was completed to perfection. Even if she was in the fourth grade, she wanted her to be used to getting good grades and striving for excellence. They didn’t have much money, well any, really, so they wouldn’t have anything to spend on college when it was time for Abby to go. They would have to rely on a scholarship for her, or else there was no way she’d be able to go, which Ella wouldn’t accept. This was exactly what Ella was doing for herself, only she had to work even harder, since colleges didn’t exactly love when you go to an online school and have zero extra-curricular activities.
Soon after she left school, Ella was in dire need of some sort of socialization. Even with Abby in the other room, and her friends coming to visit her every few weeks, she needed something more. She missed the fun of getting to know someone completely new.
Ella used to be very popular; she could become friends with anyone in five minutes. She was very outgoing and bubbly, so most people liked her, no matter what clique they were from.
She had had lots of boyfriends; none of which treated her especially well. There were the boys who just wanted to sleep with her, and there were boys who she just found rude and annoying. She only had one boyfriend in her whole life that she actually, truly liked. She had very high standards, and lots of rules about what a boyfriend couldn’t do, which most boys were prone to breaking.
That one boy had just raised the standards, because after him, she knew it was possible. The only reason they had broken up was because he had left for college, and she didn’t want to be in a long-distance relationship.
So after she decided she wanted to meet new people again, she racked her brain with possibilities of meeting someone. There was no one at work, because she worked in a 1950’s themed diner, with old ladies with huge hair, or greasy old men who worked in the kitchen. The customers were primarily older couples or big families with lots of kids. There was rarely ever a person her age.
She had no time for any sort of church function, not that she would go to a church even if she did.
Ella couldn’t think of any other possibilities until one day, when she was doing research for her sophomore paper late at night, an ad popped up on her computer.
Usually, she would quickly click out of it, since most of the time it was either an ad for porn or for a clothing website that just made her sad, because of the beautiful clothes she couldn’t afford. This time though, something caught her eye.
“Meet new people today!” the ad exclaimed. A dating website? Had she really gotten this desperate?
Ella clicked on the link and was taken to another page that had pictures of little cartoon characters with word bubble above them saying things like “Hey!” and “What’s up?” in them.
After doing some more scrolling on the website, she found that it was not a dating site, but a chat room type of thing. You are given an avatar that you can customize and then you go to one of the thousands of chat rooms where people from all over the world go in to talk with strangers.
This couldn’t be that bad, could it? Ella felt that it wasn’t as cliché and desperate as an actual dating website, so it might be okay. Finish your essay, and then just check it out. She decided on this and continued on her paper.
About an hour later, she was finally emailing her teacher her essay on the pros and cons of mandatory drafting in the U.S. Military. She curled up in her bed, and went back to the website, starting to fill out the registration page. 10 minutes later, she was on the Avatar Dress Up tab, and personalizing her character.
Ella didn’t realize it while she was doing it, but what she did next was one of the worst mistakes of her life. On the sign-up page, she didn’t think much of it when she exaggerated or just flat-out lied in some of the things she put on her page.
Rather than being honest about who she really was, where she lived, and even what she looked like, she thought it would be fun to just make up a new life. Hers was just so boring; this is what she told herself.
Instead of telling the truth and saying that she lived in a small town in North Carolina, she put Florida. Instead of being 16, she put 19. And when it came to her avatar, she made it look like the opposite of her.
Glancing at her reflection in the screen of her laptop, she ignored her wavy red hair and chose a blonde hairstyle. She clicked on the deep blue eye, rather than the piercing green ones that were much more similar to hers. Ella changed the skin tone to a tan color, instead of staying true to her fair skin.
It’s not that she wasn’t pretty. In fact, she was extremely beautiful. Her hair was very long and a deep, dark red; her eyes dark green. She had fair skin, and light freckles splashed across her nose. Her looks were very true to the half-Irish in her. Lots of boys had come up to her at parties or even just on the street, just to tell her she was beautiful. Even girls had expressed how they wished their hair was as long, or their skin as flawless.
So it’s not that Ella wasn’t pretty; she just wanted to be someone else. In the about me box, she put that she was a sophomore at the University of Florida, majoring in English, and minoring in photography. This is what she did want to do, but she was still only sixteen; only a sophomore in high school, not college. She wrote in the text box that when she wasn’t in school, she was working as a teacher’s aide at a local high school.
The only thing Ella didn’t change was her name.
It was only about an hour of being on the site before she had several friend requests and lots of people telling her to make sure she got back on the next night. Ella was satisfied with this, and very excited to get back on. She signed off for the night and fell asleep, thinking about her new form of communication.
After a few weeks, this became a part of the new routine; get Abby to bed, finish schoolwork, and then get online. Ella had tons of friends now. She learned quickly that she needed to have a sort of filter to be able to figure out the creeps between the decent people. A huge percent of the people who messaged her were gross old men asking either for pictures of her or to video chat with her, which she doubted was just to talk.
She had to weed through those types of guys to get to interesting people to talk to. She did find some, though. Lots of people were just like her; just trying to find someone different to talk to when their lives got boring.
Ella only had small pangs of guilt for lying to these people that she talked to. She just told herself that she was protecting her identity, or that lots of people probably did it. She wondered how many of the friends she made were really who they said they were.
Soon, her sophomore year was over, and Ella and Abby were on summer vacation. Abby had to stay home by herself a lot more than Ella would have liked, because she had to get a second job. For some people, summer meant vacation, swimming, and three months of being lazy and just having fun. For them, it was the opposite. They didn’t have school, but that just meant that there were more meals eaten at home, in turn needing more money for more food.
And while Ella tried as hard as she could to find ways for Abby to have fun over break, there was only so much she could do. She took her to the library a lot of days, which was right by her work. Some days, Abby had friends whose parents would let her spend a weekend with them. A lot of other times, Abby just had to go to the diner with Ella, and sit at a table drawing or reading while she waited tables. They didn’t have any family nearby, and even the ones who lived far away weren’t familiar enough with them to help out. By the end of June, Ella had saved enough to send Abby to Horseback-Riding Camp for a month. This would be a good time for Ella to work as much as possible, without having to worry about Abby being by herself. This is exactly what she did.
Ella got another job; a noon to six secretary position at a dentist office. Her new routine consisted of going to work at noon until six, coming home to change and eat a dinner of either ramen noodles or spaghetti-o’s, and then going to the diner for the seven to 4 am shift. Then, she’d go back home and sleep as much as she could before having to get up and start all over again. With all of this, it was impossible to get online to talk to her friends for almost the whole summer.
By the time school was starting in the fall, she had just enough money saved to pay for the school supplies she and Abby would need, and the bare minimum amount of school clothes for her. Ella always felt so bad that she couldn’t afford to buy Abby cute new clothes like the other kids wore; she rarely had anything other than hand-me-down’s from Ella when she was a kid, or what they could afford at thrift stores or Goodwill. Abby never complained, and was always grateful for what she could get, but that didn’t stop Ella from apologizing incessantly.
When they started classes again, Ella decided not to quit the second job, because the extra money was a huge help going towards rent and gas. The winters were harsh where they lived, and almost all of the winter before was spent with no heat in their apartment. They couldn’t afford getting sick and having hospital bills on top of everything else.
So, while having the extra money was nice, this left very little time for Ella to do homework. She had two days out of the week where she was off of work. She crammed an entire week’s worth of schoolwork lessons into those two days, and still got straight A’s.
She still wasn’t getting online, and hadn’t even thought about trying to for a long time. Ella and Abby continued this way for almost 2 years, before things finally changed.