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The Year I Became Isabella Anders, Page 3

Jessica Sorensen

  "Hey, I'm not old!" she argues. "Not even close."

  "Sorry." I grab my sneakers from the closet. "I didn't mean you. I know you're not old."

  "Good girl," she says. "Now, make sure to pack light. I don't want to be hauling around a bunch of clothes, shoes, and shit we don't need. Makes the suitcases too heavy and hurts my back."

  "All right, I will. And thanks again for letting me go with you."

  "I'm glad you're going, Isa. We're going to have a lot of fun."

  After I say goodbye, I hang up, change my shirt, and put on my sneakers. Then I run a brush through my tangled hair, pick up my bag, and head for the door to go to school, wondering what I've gotten myself into. Going on a trip overseas sounds like a blast, and I can handle going with Grandma Stephy. But going with an entire a group of senior citizens . . . I wonder if I'll be the only teenager there.

  Oh, well. Doesn't really matter. I don't exactly have a choice. So, I might as well make the best of the situation. And hey, maybe the break from my family will be a good opportunity to do some soul searching without the worry of being scrutinized.

  Over the next few days, I finish final exams during the day while packing my bags at night. I spend a whole five minutes saying goodbye to the few friends I have, but I'm not super close with anyone, and the see-ya-laters are a depressing reminder of just how much of a loner I am.

  My parents go back to barely speaking to me, although my sister's been overly chatty. She even convinced her Cheer Posse to do a cheer for me while I was walking across the gym, and then they laughed at me. I still don't really understand why they were laughing. They were the ones who looked like morons bouncing around with pom-poms and chanting a cheer, where they rhymed dork with joke and spelled my name with a z.

  By the time I'm actually loading up my stuff to go to my grandma's, I'm stoked to be getting away for a while, even if it's on a three-month trip with people five times my age.

  "Do you have everything you need?" my dad asks me as he loads the last of my suitcases into the back of our SUV.

  I nod, staring at the front window of the house, where my mother is watching me with her arms crossed. "I should probably go say goodbye to her, right?"

  He shuts the trunk of the car, steps back, and tracks my gaze to the window. "Maybe you should just wave goodbye. Might be easier, since she's so upset."

  "But why is she even upset with me? I didn't really do anything but argue with Hannah."

  "That's not what this is about." He struggles for words and to look at me, but finally, he manages to do both. "It's just hard for her sometimes, but I think this trip might help . . . ease some of the tension." He pats my arm, causing me to jump, and he jerks back. "Sorry." He massages the back of his neck, squirming. "I'm just going to go tell her we're leaving then we'll hit the road. We can even get some ice cream on our way out, if you want."

  Normally, I'd be all over the offer to stop for sugar, but even cookie dough ice cream can't melt the fact that my own mother doesn't want to say bye to me.

  I slump against the back of the SUV. "Okay. Sure."

  He hesitates, his lips parting like he's about to say something. But then he decides against it, rushes up the driveway, and hurries inside the house.

  A few seconds later, my sister pulls up in her shiny silver Mercedes. She honks her horn, scaring the living daylights out of me before she turns off the engine and climbs out.

  "A little jumpy, aren't ya?" she sneers as she bumps the door shut with her hip. "I guess I'd be, too, though, if I was getting kicked out of the house."

  "I'm not getting kicked out of the house," I say. "I'm just going to visit Grandma."

  "Keep telling yourself that, but I seriously wouldn't be surprised if I never saw your pasty face again." She slings the handle of her purse over her shoulder and starts up the driveway, but pauses and shoots me a smirk. "Oh! I completely forgot to tell you the fabulous news."

  She may think she's perfect, but she's not, I try to convince myself. See the lipstick on her teeth? It looks like she fed on someone's blood. Plus, her hair looks kind of frizzy today, like she stuck her finger in a socket.

  I shake my head at myself. Who am I kidding? She's perfect. Albeit evil, but still, that doesn't seem to count for much with the people I go to school with.

  "Kyler and I are officially a couple." She flips her hair off her shoulder, her smirk growing.

  "Huh?" I blink at her. What the hell did she just say?

  "Kyler and I are a couple." She enunciates each word. "You know, our next door neighbor, who you've been in love with since forever."

  My jaw nearly smacks the concrete. "I-I'm not in love with K-Kyler."

  "Oh, please. Everyone knows you've been in love with him since he gave you that stupid rose, which, FYI, was a pity gift."

  I want to tell her she's wrong. That I was in love--in lust--with Kyler before that, but that would only confirm her accusation that I'm in love with her new boyfriend.

  Oh, my God.

  Reality slaps me hard across the face, and my stomach twists. It's not like Kyler hasn't dated anyone before. He's had a few steady girlfriends over the last couple of years, and I've always handled that pretty well. But dating Hannah? God, I knew it might be coming, but deep down I think I was in denial, naively believing that Kyler would never date a person who is so ugly on the inside.

  "He told everyone the next day he gave you the rose because he felt sorry for you." She covers her mouth when my expression sinks. "Oh, my God, you didn't know that? That's so sad." She lowers her hand. "And tragic. I can't believe you'd ever think he'd love someone like you." Her face twists with disgust. "That godawful hair. Seriously, who puts green in their hair? And those clothes," she shudders, "so gross."

  "I'm not in love with Kyler," I argue, breathing in and out, trying to fight back the waterworks. "So, none of what you're saying matters."

  Let her words roll right off you. She's not a good person.

  "You're such a bad liar. Always have been." She turns her back on me and strolls toward the door, her four-inch heels clicking against the sidewalk. "And for the record, Kyler's an amazing kisser." She giggles to herself before going inside and shutting the door.

  I ball my hands into fists. "One of these days, I swear to God I'm going to . . ." I trail off as I feel someone watching me.

  I glance over at the Meyers' house then internally cringe. Kai is sitting on the back porch, staring at me. He's wearing a pair of black board shorts, his hair looks damp, and those intense eyes of his are practically boring a hole into my head.

  Shit. Did he just hear all of mine and Hannah's conversation? Fuck it. Does it really matter? I'm sure Hannah's already pretty much told Kyler I'm obsessed with him.

  "You're going to what?" Kai ask with his head cocked.

  "Huh?" My stomach flips with my nerves. If he does know I like Kyler, he's never going to let me live it down. Because that's what Kai has been doing for the last six months, teasing me whenever he sees a good opportunity.

  His lips quirk, like he's fighting back a laugh. "I was just wondering what you were going to do to your sister." He nods his head at the door. "You never finished your thought, and I'm really curious what your twisted mind was going to come up with this time."

  My lip curls, because I'm not sure if he's teasing me or being serious. I never do with him. "I didn't finish my thought, because I was trying to make it really good. Like sickly morbid and full of torture. But thanks for ruining my train of thought."

  He chuckles. "I'm going to miss this."

  My brows drip. "Miss what?"

  He raises his head, grinning, and for some reason that only pisses me off more. "Our lovely little chats."

  I stare at him, unimpressed. "Is that what you call torturing the nerdy next door neighbor?"

  He presses his hand to his chest. "I've never tortured you. That's your sister's thing. Not mine. I've always been nice to you."

  A disdainful laugh escapes my
mouth. "Like the time you told me the stripes in my hair made me look like a rainbow?"

  "Hey, rainbows are cool." He seems totally amused and has his smoldering let-me-bind-you-in-place gaze going on.

  It's driving me absolutely crazy, and I become desperate to win our little argument. "Okay, how about the time you ate my science fair project?"

  "Hey, who puts chocolate on their science fair project?" He gapes at me. "Seriously, that was your own damn fault."

  Okay, he has a point. The Chocolate Volcano Project was kind of a disaster.

  "How'd you know I'm leaving?" I change the subject, wandering toward the fence.

  "You mean besides the suitcases you just loaded up in the back of the SUV?" he questions, cocking his brow. But underneath the surface, he abruptly grows uneasy, fiddling with the leather bands on his wrists.

  "You heard it from someone." I eye him over with suspicion. "I can tell, because you got all squiggly."

  He rolls his eyes, like I'm being ridiculous, but then surrenders. "Fine, your sister's been telling everyone."

  "That I'm leaving?" My brows knit. "Why would she do that?"

  He scratches at the back of his neck, looking everywhere but at me. "Um . . . well . . . she's been telling everyone that you're being admitted to a mental institution, but I know that's not true."

  Invisible pins stab at my skin. I don't want to hate my sister . . . I really don't . . . but I kinda hate her right now.

  "Why'd she say I was going?" My voice sounds so hollow.

  "That doesn't matter." He rises to his feet, steps off the porch, and strides over to the fence. "Where are you going, though?"

  "Overseas with my grandma, which probably sounds lame, but I'm actually looking forward to it."

  "It doesn't sound lame at all."

  "Not even the going-with-the-grandma part?"

  He shakes his head, waving me off. "Nah, grandmas can be cool sometimes. Is yours?"

  "She's like the Queen of Cool Grandmas. Seriously. She's the one who taught me how to drive. And I'm talking, like floor-your-car-to-the-max kind of driving. She taught me how to swim too, in a pool that was closed. We had to sneak in through this hole in the fence. She even let me try beer for the first time." I pause, realizing something. "You know, without her, I might have ended up lacking a lot of necessary life skills. Well, beside the drinking-the-beer part. I don't think that's a life skill."

  "Oh, that can be a life skill," he assures me with a devious grin, and I repress one of my own, not wanting to encourage him. "She does sound pretty cool, though."

  I bob my head up and down in agreement, fully aware of how lucky I am to be going on this trip with the coolest grandma ever.

  "You'll have to post some pictures so I can see all the awesome things you do on this trip," Kai says, squinting against the sunlight.

  I snort a laugh. "Oh, Kai, and your silly little jokes. We both know I'm not cool enough for social media."

  "That wasn't meant to be a joke." He stuffs his hand into his pocket and retrieves his phone. "But if you're really that anti-social, then I'll give you my number and you can send all of your awesome photos to me. It'll make me feel special too."

  I roll my eyes, but give him my number so he can text me his. I don't really think he's going to do it, but two seconds later, my phone vibrates from inside the pocket of my jeans.

  "Have fun on your trip. And I mean that, Isa. Have fun. You deserve it, more than anyone." He gives me a strange look as he puts his phone away, like he can't quite figure something out, then swiftly clears his throat. "Yeah, but the whole point of me coming over here was to give you a little advice."

  I pull a wary face. "I'm not sure I want to hear your advice."

  He offers me one of his infamous sexy, playful pouts. "Why not?"

  "Because . . ." I sigh heavy-heartedly when his sexy, playful pout turns into genuine sulking. "Fine. You can give me advice, just as long as it's not an 'It'll Get Better After High School' speech. I don't want to hear any of those. I've heard too many of those kinds of speeches."

  "It's not one of those. I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die. Stick a needle through Hannah's eye." He draws an X across his chest, giving me a lopsided grin.

  I can't help but grin goofily back at him. "I'm surprised you remember that."

  "Of course I remember that. We used to say it all the time."

  "Yeah, but that was a long time ago, back when we were actually kind of friends."

  An awkward quiet fills the air between us as the past hovers over our heads.

  See, once upon a time, Kai and I used to hang out. And not in the way Kyler and I hung out for a few weekends while I helped him improve his free shot skills and he opened up to me once. Unlike Kyler, Kai and I were actually friends. Well, sort of. For most of seventh grade, he walked home with me after school. He always seemed sad about something as we strolled up the sidewalk toward his house. While I could never figure out what had him feeling so blue, I did learn some stuff about him that no one else knew. Like he's secretly into comic books. Likes zombie movies. And listens to 80s punk rock.

  During the time we spent together, I always tried to cheer him up--it was the least I could do for him for not being too embarrassed to walk home with me. Sometimes my jokes made him smile. Other times, he seemed too stuck in his head. But even if the walk was filled with quietness, it was nice to have a friend.

  After a few months of walking home together, he started hanging out with me on weekends. We'd mostly stay in my room, and sometimes we'd go to the park. I was really starting to believe we had a chance at becoming real, seen-in-public friends. But then came the dreaded day when one of his friends caught us hanging out at the park, and he started making fun of Kai for 'being in love with a loser'. Kai panicked and told his friend I was stalking him, and that was the last time we walked home together.

  "My advice was actually about your sister," Kai says, breaking the silence between us. "I was going to say you need to do something to get her to leave you alone. You've put up with her shit for too long."

  I stuff my hands into the pocket of my hoodie. "When you say 'do something to get her to leave you alone', are you talking like mafia-style? Or like how Penny Milerford got Nora Benninting to leave her alone by punching her in the face? Because I'm not a mobster, nor a crazed honor roll student who may or may not be on crack."

  "Penny isn't on crack. That's just a stupid rumor." His expression hardens as he backs away from the fence. "People need to stop spreading shit around about other people, just because they think something's wrong." He starts up the porch stairs, and I figure our conversation is over until he stops in front of the door and turns around. The intensity pouring out of his eyes startles the crap out of me, because he never directs that kind of look on me. With me, it's always joke-this or joke-that. Look at me. I'm so funny and cute. Yada, yada, yada. "And, Isa. I meant for you to do whatever you feel you need to do to get her to stop treating you so shitty. Stand up for yourself, okay? She's not any better than you, no matter what she thinks." His crazed look softens.

  "Since when are you so anti-Hannah? You used to flirt with her all the time."

  That's the thing with both Kyler and Kai. While Kyler is mostly nice to me, and Kai spends a lot of time teasing me, neither of the guys have shown me the attention they've shown Hannah. Over the years, particularly when we all got in high school, both of them have spent a ton of time flirting with her and her friends, checking her out, and trying to get her attention.

  "I only flirt with her when I'm bored," Kai says, seeming bored right now. "But I get that she's a bitch. And I haven't liked her since I . . ." He trails off, but I know what he's going to say. Since I went off the deep end and went all bad boy. "But anyway, have fun on your trip." He winks at me, going from serious to joking in two seconds flat. "And bring back something super cool for your most awesome, super sexy next door neighbor."

  "Huh? Who am I supposed to bring the present back fo
r?" I glance around, pretending to be confused.

  His eyes narrow to slits, but he grins. "You know exactly who I'm talking about. The guy who fills up all of your dreams."

  "You mean Johny Palerson?" I feign innocence.

  He snickers. "I forgot about your little seventh grade crush on that douche." He pauses. "You're still not into him, are you?"

  "I'm more into him than my cocky neighbor next door," I quip with a sassy smirk.

  His eyes darken as he backs away from me. "You know, if you bring me back a present, it means that's not true. That you do really like me." He winks at me again and walks into the house before I can get another word out.

  His advice echoes in my head.

  He may joke around a lot with me, but when he gets all serious, he actually gives pretty good advice.

  I make a vow to myself right then and there that when I get back from this trip, things will change. I'm not sure how it's going to happen, but if I can survive seventeen years of being picked on, I sure as hell can figure out a way to finally make it stop.

  I'M STILL TRYING to create an awesome plan on how to get Hannah to respect me, when my dad returns to the car.

  "Ready?" he asks me as he fishes the keys from his slacks.

  Nodding, I hop into the passenger seat.

  My thoughts remain stuck in Awesome Plan Land for most of the thirty-minute drive across town. The only time the quietness is broken is when we stop at the drive-thru to get ice cream like my dad promised, and he asks me what flavor I want.

  By the time we pull up to the Sunnyvale Bay Community, I'm still lost on how to make Hannah see me differently. It doesn't seem possible, considering I'm basically trying to figure out a way to get Hannah, The Wicked Wench of the Anders' House, to be nicer to me.

  No, I can do this, I tell myself. I need to be more optimistic. I have a whole three months to figure this all out.

  The Sunnyvale Bay Community looks like an ordinary apartment complex, except all the tenants are fifty-five and over. Grandma Stephy moved here about a year ago after my grandpa passed away from cancer. While my grandpa was a man of few words, he was probably my favorite family member besides Grandma Stephy. Whenever I visited, he'd take me down to the gas station to buy a soda and candy. We'd cruise on the back roads in his old truck, listening to old country singers, mostly Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, with the windows down, even if it was wintertime. He never took Hannah with us. Said she threw too many tantrums. Our drives always made me feel special, like someone actually wanted to spend time with me, like I was more than just Hannah's dorky little sister who no one ever wanted around.