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The Year I Became Isabella Anders, Page 4

Jessica Sorensen

  Man, I really miss those days and our drives.

  "I'll get your bags if you want to go up," my dad says, interrupting my thoughts as he parks the car.

  "Sure. Sounds good. Thanks." I climb out of the car and head up the path to my grandma's apartment.

  I knock before opening the door and strolling inside. As I step foot over the threshold, my shoe bumps into Beastie, my grandma's fat, old calico cat, and I fall flat on my stomach.

  The cat hisses at me, like the crabby old fart he is.

  "Dammit, Beastie," I curse as I roll over onto my back, rubbing the knee I banged against the floor.

  He growls and the hairs rise on his back as he scurries at me with his claws out. I scramble to get to my feet, but right as his claw is about to reach my leg, a pair of hands wrap around his belly.

  "Now, Beastie, I thought we talked about this." My cousin, Indigo, who's two years older than me, scoops up the cat and lifts him so he's eye level with her. Looking him dead in the eyes, she lectures, "It's rude to trip people then try to eat their faces. You're not a zombie. You're a cat."

  Beastie hisses at her in response.

  Sighing, she sets him back down on the floor and offers me her hand. "I've been telling Grandma Stephy that she needs to teach him some manners, but she says it's useless, that he's too old and already stuck in his ways."

  "She's probably right." When I take her hand, she helps me to my feet. I massage my achy knee. "Don't take this the wrong way, but what're you doing here? I thought you were in New York attending art school."

  "I was." She tucks a strand of her blood red hair behind her ear and fiddles with one of her gauges. "Some stuff came up, though, and I had to leave."

  "Did you move back home?"

  "Nah, my parent's didn't want to," she makes air quotes, "'encourage my dropout behavior'. I think they thought if they didn't let me move back in that I'd go back to school." She rolls her eyes as her hands fall to her sides. "I tried to explain to them that I didn't dropout, that the school decided it was probably for the better if I take a permanent sabbatical. But you know parents. They hear what they want to hear." She glares at Beastie as he hisses at her from underneath the coffee table. "Thankfully, Grandma Stephy took me in until I can figure out what the hell I should do with my life."

  I want to ask her what she did to get kicked out of school, but I don't know Indigo that well. Her mother is my father's sister and the two of them rarely speak to one another, other than when we're at family reunions, and even then, the conversation is strictly formal. And my mom refuses to speak to hardly any of my dad's relatives, because she says they act like a bunch of hippies.

  All I really know about Indigo is that she's into art and self-expressionism, through painting and with her body. I once heard her call her body a canvas. She has tons of tattoos and several piercings and does all sorts of crazy stuff with her hair, even shaving her head one time.

  "So are you looking after Grandma Stephy's house while we're gone?" I ask, stealing a butterscotch from the candy dish.

  She shakes her head, flopping down on the floral sofa. "Nah, I'm going with you guys." She kicks her boots up on the coffee table and crosses her legs. "I figure a little trip overseas might lead me down a path to self-discovery."

  "Don't let her fool ya with her artsy-fartsy talk," Grandma Stephy says as she enters the living room. She's cut her hair since the last time I saw her, but is still rocking the grey. She's never really dressed very grandmother-ish and is decked out in a pair of rhinestone jeans and a pink t-shirt. "The reason she's going is to see Peter."

  "Who's Peter?" I peel the wrapper off the candy and pop the treat into my mouth.

  "Some guy she met in New York who I guess lives in London," Grandma Stephy explains as she opens her arms to give me a hug. "But enough about Indigo. I've heard enough about British guys to last me a lifetime. What I really want to hear about is you." She wraps her arms around me and gives me the first hug I've had in months. "How you holdin' up, honey?"

  "I'm okay." I hug her back, getting a whiff of hairspray and floral perfume. It makes me smile, because it's so her and it reminds me that I'm here, with her, for the next three months, where maybe I won't feel like such an outcast.

  "It's going to be okay," she tells me, patting my back.

  "Um, thanks." I pull back, sensing something's off. "Is something wrong? You seem a little, I don't know, sad."

  She eyes me over. "I was just going to ask you the same question."

  Okay . . . what the hell is going on?

  "Isabella's fine," my dad insists as he walks in and drops my suitcases on the floor. He locks eyes with Grandma Stephy and gives her a pressing look. "You and I need to talk privately about what to say and what not to say. I know how much you like to run your mouth."

  My grandma shakes her head at my dad. "Good grief, sometimes it's hard to believe I raised you."

  My dad looks taken aback. "What the hell's that supposed to mean?"

  She narrows her eyes at him. "It means you've turned into an asshole over the years you've spent with--"

  "Don't you dare bring my wife into this," he warns, his face reddening.

  "I wouldn't have to if she didn't . . ." She trails off, glancing at me with worry.

  The two of them arguing is nothing new, but the way they keep looking at me, like I've suddenly started glowing neon green and sprouted an eye in the middle of my forehead, is definitely out of the norm.

  "Fine. You want to talk privately, then come on." Her voice is cold, her expression hard as she turns and storms down the hallway.

  My dad marches after her, fuming mad. Moments later, a door slams shut, but I can still hear their muffled voices.

  "What do you think that was about?" I ask, turning to Indigo.

  She shrugs with her brows furrowed. "I have no idea." Her eyes light up as she plants her feet onto the floor. "But I know how we can find out. Come on."

  I reluctantly follow her as she hurries down the hallway toward where my dad and grandma went. As we near the bedroom door, their voices grow louder and clearer.

  "Are they yelling at each other?" I whisper to Indigo as we stop in front of the door.

  She nods as she presses her ear to the door. "They've been doing it a lot lately on the phone, too," she whispers. "I'm not sure what it's about, though."

  "Can you hear anything?" I whisper, inching closer.

  She puts her finger to her lips, shushing me. "I think . . ." She doesn't finish her thought, driving me mad! Mad, I tell you!

  I press my ear to the door and listen for myself.

  "You have no right to do this," my dad growls, sounding more furious than I've ever heard him, including the time he yelled at me for sneaking a sip of his scotch. "She's not your child."

  "Well, she's barely yours with how shitty you treat her," Grandma Stephy barks back. "You hardly know that girl at all."

  "That's bullshit. I know her better than you. She's my daughter. Not yours."

  "Okay, Mr. Know-It-All. If you know your daughter so well, tell me what her favorite manga book is, or hell, just tell me her favorite book." Silence stretches between them, and she adds, "You don't know shit about your daughter. But I do. I know she draws her own comics, and while I don't always understand them, I know a talented artist when I see one. Did you know she writes her own blog? She's pretty clever, too. Plus, on top of that, she's a straight-A student . . . but I'm sure you know all this already, right?" Sarcasm drips from her voice like thick globs of honey. "I mean, she is your daughter."

  The silence that follows makes my stomach churn as reality crashes down on me. I always knew my father wasn't that interested in me, but the fact that he has no damn clue what makes me tick hurts like a blow to the jugular.

  "You know it's hard for me when it comes to her," my father says, speaking more calmly. "And there's circumstances that--"

  "I don't give a shit about the circumstances," she snaps. "When you chose to keep h
er with you, you chose to be her father. If you couldn't handle what that entailed, then you should've let her come live with me like I offered. But no, you decided to take her in and treat her like shit."

  I jerk back from the door. "What the hell?" I say louder than I mean to.

  Indigo captures my arm and tows me back down the hallway, making a beeline for the front door. I don't know if my grandma or dad heard me, but the bedroom door is still shut by the time Indigo drags me outside. She only releases me when we've crossed the parking lot and reached the tree area across from the apartment.

  "Holy shit." I run my fingers through my hair as I pace back and forth across the grass. "I don't get what just happened. I don't . . . none of this makes sense." I place my hands on my hips and hunch forward as my stomach burns. "Keep me? He chose to keep me . . . I don't understand." I peer up at Indigo, who has a cigarette between her lips and a lighter in her hand. "Do you know what any of that was about?"

  She cups her hands around her mouth and lights the cigarette. "I'm not positive, but I have a few theories," she says, a cloud of smoke circling her face. "But they're just theories based on shit I've heard my mother and father talking about."

  Still woozy, I squat down and inhale deeply. "What are the theories?"

  "I'm not sure I should tell you," she says, eyeing me warily. "You already look like you're about to hack your guts up."

  "I feel like I'm going to hack my guts up."

  "Here." She crouches down in front of me and offers me her cigarette.

  I scrunch my nose. "I don't smoke."

  "I know, but a drag or two might help you chill out."

  The smoke burns my nostrils as I take the cigarette from her hands. My fingers shake as I lift the end to my lips and inhale. "Holy shit, that burns," I say through a fitful of coughs as my lungs drown in smoke.

  Indigo laughs in amusement as she removes the cigarette from my hands. "Sorry. I probably should've warned you first, but I thought going in blind might make it more exciting for you." She sits down in the grass and takes a few drags as I catch my breath.

  Once I no longer feel like a ninja used my lungs as a punching bag, I settle in the grass beside her. "I wanna hear your theories. In fact, I need to hear them; otherwise, I'll come up with my own. And my head is full of all sorts of crazy."

  She sighs heavily. "I was hoping the whole smoking thing would distract you from that."

  Shaking my head, I pick at the grass. "How can I think of anything else, when it sounds like I was . . . adopted?"

  "Is that what you think that was about?" she asks, squinting at the highway in front of us.

  "Um, yeah." I massage my temples as my head pulsates. All this time, I knew I didn't quite fit in with my family, that I was an outcast. Different. And yeah, the thought crossed my mind that maybe I was adopted, but the thought was never out of seriousness. "What else could it be?"

  She grazes her thumb across the end of the cigarette, scattering ashes all over the grass. "It could be adoption . . . or it could be that maybe your . . ." She looks at me and pity fills her eyes. "Have you ever wondered why your mom treats you like shit?"

  "You've noticed that?"

  "Isa, everyone who's ever crossed paths with the two of you knows there's tension between you and your mother."

  "Tension from her," I point out. "I try to be nice, but she acts like I'm some sort of vile reptile or something."

  She puts her cigarette between her lips and smoke laces the air as she dazes off at the highway again. "I have this theory that maybe the reason she's always treated you like shit is because maybe you remind her of a shitty time in her life . . . maybe something shitty your dad did to her that kind of led to the procreation of you."

  It takes a second or two to process what she's implying. "Wait . . . you think . . ." I shake my head. "No, there's no way. My dad didn't have an affair . . . he wouldn't do that to my mom. Trust me. He does everything she says, sometimes too much."

  Her brows arch. "He wouldn't, huh? Okay, I guess my theory's wrong."

  I shake my head, but inside, my wheels are turning. All those times my mother looked at me with such disdain, and sometimes jealousy, are starting to make sense.

  "I know this isn't what you want to hear," she says then mutters, "Although, I don't know why. Your mom's a bitch." She clears her throat. "But you have to admit it kind of makes sense."

  I lower my head into my hands. "None of this makes sense. Where did you even get this theory? Did you just pull it out of your ass, or is it based on some sort of legit info?"

  "I heard a rumor," she says. "Or, well, I overheard my mom and dad gossiping about your family once, and my mom said something about the other woman, and how it was a good thing your dad didn't leave you with her."

  Wide-eyed, I lift my head and gape at her. "How long ago was this?"

  She shrugs as she puts the cigarette out in a patch of dirt. "I don't know. Like a few years ago or something."

  "Why didn't you ever say anything to me?"

  "Isa, this is like the longest the two of us have talked. Usually, at reunions, your family stays in a hotel and spends a whole lot of time sitting around in the corner with your noses stuck in the air like a bunch of snobs."

  "My mom makes me do that." It hits me as I say it, like a bull charging straight into my stomach. "Wait. Am I even supposed to call her mom?" I push to my feet and pace in front of Indigo, reaching full on crazy panic mode. "Or am I supposed to call her Lynn. Oh, my God, I just realized that my sister's middle name is after my mom's first name, but I'm named after no one. It has to be true." I crouch down again as my legs turn into Jell-O. "I don't even know who my mom is."

  "Hey, chill out." She scoots toward me to catch my gaze. "My theory is just a theory. And I should probably tell you that I had a theory that Grandpa was reincarnated into Beastie." She smiles as I blink at her. Wow. She sounds as crazy as . . . well, me. "What? They have the same eyes, okay? And you have to admit it'd be pretty cool if reincarnation existed."

  "That mean, old cat isn't Grandpa," I say. "But I get what you're saying. I need to get some answers before I have a meltdown."

  "Or you could just skip the meltdown and use this as an opportunity," she suggests with a smile.

  "An opportunity for what?"

  "To take a self-discovering journey."

  "But I already know who I am."

  She inspects my outfit with her brows raised. "I'm not sure I agree with you."

  I tug on the bottom of my hoodie. "Just because I dress a little different doesn't mean I don't know who I am."

  Her head slants to the side as she studies me. "Okay, answer this for me. What's the most exciting thing you've ever done?"

  "I don't know." I try to think of something, and it's pretty dang sad how hard it is to come up with anything. "I entered a comic contest once. That was really cool."

  "I'm not talking about doing stuff that's cool. I'm talking about stuff that's exciting. Like screaming-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-at-a-concert exciting. Dancing-in-a-room-full-of-people-like-no-one's-watching exciting. Or sporadically taking a trip to nowhere with no plans other than to drive." She smiles as she gets a faraway look in her eyes. "Or like being kissed in the rain by a total stranger, who you have no plans of calling again." She looks at me, grinning. "That one I plan on doing while we're on this little trip."

  "How do you know it's exciting if you haven't done it yet?" I ask, tucking my feet under me.

  "Oh, Isa, the fact that you ask that means you haven't nearly experienced enough in your life. Life is all about the experiences, the good ones and the bad ones." She stands to her feet, yanking me with her. "Stick with me, and I promise that'll change."

  I almost open my mouth to tell her I don't want to change, but then I remember her theory, and my grandma and dad's argument rings loudly in my head. What if Indigo is right? What if my entire life has been a lie? What if the reason my mother--Lynn--has always liked Hannah more is because Hanna
h's her daughter and I'm not?

  "Okay, I can try to do more things that are exciting, but what about the theory?" I ask as we cross the parking lot.

  "What about it?"

  "How do we find out if it's true?"

  She links arms with me. "We're going to do a little researching. And if all else fails, we'll wait until Grandma Stephy gets good and drunk and then get her to spill the beans." She grins deviously. "You know she's a talker when she gets too tipsy. Plus, people tend to get a little crazy when they're on vacation, especially out of the country."

  "Grandma Stephy is already a little crazy," I say with a small laugh, but it hurts to smile. Hurts to think.

  She chuckles. "Yeah, so just think how crazy she's going to get while we're chilling in London or Paris. After a few glasses of wine and a little pushing on our part, we should be able to get the truth out of her." She pats my arm. "We'll get to the bottom of this. I promise. And we're going to teach you what excitement is."

  I nod, silently vowing to go along with the plan. But inside, I'm terrified. Because what if it's true? What if I don't even know who my own mother is?

  A WEEK LATER, I'm chilling out on the balcony of a very nice hotel room, staring out at the sparkling lights of the Eiffel Tower. I'm half listening to Indigo plot out our plan to weasel the truth out of Grandma Stephy, who's downstairs at the bar having drinks.

  Ever since I discovered I might not know who my real mom is, my head's been stuck between reality and daydream land, where my mind creates all kinds of scenarios on where this is all going to go, where I'm going to end up if I find out I've been living a lie. I keep replaying all the times my parents acted strange around me, including when my dad didn't even hug me goodbye before he left Grandma Stephy's.

  "Have fun, okay?" he said as he walked toward the front door to leave. "And take care of yourself."

  I forced a stiff smile. "Okay."