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The Year I Became Isabella Anders, Page 5

Jessica Sorensen

  He gave me an awkward pat on the arm before rushing out of the apartment without even saying goodbye to Grandma or Indigo.

  "It's going to be okay," my grandma said with a tense smile. Then she clapped her hands together and made herself smile for real. "All right, you two. Let's finish packing. We leave really early Monday morning."

  And that was that. The last seven days have been filled with packing, driving to the airport with a bus full of older people, taking the twelve-hour flight to Paris, and getting to the hotel. We've been here for over a day, but have spent a lot of time catching up on sleep. But after sleeping for most of the day, I feel super awake right now, even though night just fell.

  "I was thinking tonight might be the best night to put our plan in motion." Indigo balances an ashtray on her stomach then kicks her feet up on the railing and takes a drag of her cigarette. "I know we just got here and everything, but I don't think we should waste any time. You're already stressing out way too much as it is."

  "I'm not stressed . . . I've just been thinking." I try to focus on her and the conversation. "And which plan are we talking about? The excitement one? Or getting Grandma drunk?" I fan my hand in front of my face to cool off.

  In Sunnyvale, June temperatures usually hover in the seventies, maybe the eighties on a super intense day, and the nights bottom to forty. Right now, it's eight o'clock and feels like it's ninety degrees outside.

  "We aren't going to get her drunk. We're going to wait until she gets drunk. And we might not have to wait that long." She taps her cigarette against the ashtray. "Dude, did you see all the mini bottles she drank on the plane?"

  I giggle. "Yeah, I know. I can't believe she was playing a drinking game with her friends."

  "I think it's so cool. I hope I'm that cool when I'm old." She lowers her feet to the ground, leans forward in the chair, and rests her arms on the balcony railing, staring over the edge at the sidewalk below. "I was talking about your self-discovering journey." She pauses, musing over something while puffing on her cigarette. "I think we should start tonight, but not go too crazy." She seems to be talking more to herself than to me. "We have to ease you into this."

  "I know I'm not the most exciting person ever," I say, "but I've done some exciting things. You don't have to go easy on me."

  She gives me a sidelong glance. "Careful, Isa. Giving me free reign like that can end up being dangerous."

  I roll my eyes. "It's just partying. What's the big deal?"

  "I'm not just talking about partying; I'm talking about completely letting go. Of everything." She stares me down, like she's trying to get me to take back what I said. I don't crack. Won't. I've spent way too much of my life doing that, something I've painfully become aware of over the last week. A slow smile curls her lips. "All right, let's do this then." She jumps to her feet, wanders back into the room, and begins rummaging around in her suitcase.

  "What are you doing?" I ask as I walk into the room.

  "Making you club-worthy," she says as she sorts through her dresses, shirts, and shorts.

  I grow nervous as she holds up a tight red dress that looks like it will barely cover my ass. "No fucking way." I shake my head. "I can't wear that."

  She frowns. "Why not?"

  "Well, for starters . . ." I rack my brain for a reason other than I'll feel like an idiot. "I haven't shaved my legs."

  She flicks her wrist, motioning me to get a move on. "Well, hurry up and do it then."

  I nervously pick at my fingernails. "I, um, didn't bring a razor."

  She looks at me with confusion then suddenly relaxes. "Oh, I get it. You've never done any of this before, have you?"

  I cross my arms, feeling absurdly self-conscious. "Done what exactly?"

  "Shave. Put on makeup." She shoves the red dress at me. "Dress up."

  "I've never really cared about my looks, and I've never really been into girly stuff." I pause, feeling idiotic. "And it's kind of hard, you know, to ask my mom--Lynn--to show me how to put on makeup and all that fun stuff, when I know she'll probably just laugh at me and tell me how ridiculous I am to think that'll help my looks."

  Like she did the one and only time I asked her to buy me a dress. I was twelve, and it was for the seventh grade dance. I thought I'd dress up, since I heard most of the girls were.

  Lynn laughed at me when I asked. "Don't be ridiculous. You'd look hideous in a dress," she said.

  I fought back the tears. "I think I should try to dress up. I mean, everyone else in my grade is."

  She turned to me with a dead serious expression on her face. "Isabella, I'm going to tell you something that you're not going to like hearing." She hesitated, almost as if she was backing out. "You're too gangling and homely to be dressing up. You should just stick to the baggy jeans and hoodies. It suits your body type better."

  As I recollect the memory, I wonder if that was the starting point to my baggy jeans and hoodie obsession. Sure, I wore them before, but not because I felt like I had to. I just didn't know how to put together an outfit. Plus, they were comfortable to wear while I was playing basketball.

  After Lynn told me that, I felt as if I had to dress in baggy clothes, like I wasn't good enough to dress nice.

  What if that's the real reason I do a lot of things? What if my general weirdo-ness was created around things my mom--Lynn--said to me. Like when she told me no one wanted to be friends with me because I was too strange. What if I stopped trying to make friends, because I believed no one would want to get to know weirdo, freak I was led to believe I was?

  Pity briefly flashes in Indigo's eyes, but the look swiftly vanishes as determination fills her expression. She strides across the room, opens the mini fridge, and grabs a bottle of wine. Using an opener, she removes the cork then takes a swig straight out of the bottle.

  God, if Lynn were here, she'd have a fit with the lack of class Indigo is showing right now.

  When I hesitate, Indigo says, "No one's around. We don't need to be classy."

  "That's not why I'm hesitating." Sighing, I grab the bottle, take a drink, and then give the wine back to her.

  She sets the bottle aside then grabs my arm and pulls me toward the bathroom door.

  "What are we doing?" I ask as I hurry after her.

  "I'm giving you a little lesson. But take notes, because I'm only going to do this once. You can't find out who you are if I'm trying to do it for you."

  Two hours later, I'm walking down an overly packed sidewalk with smooth legs and tweezed eyebrows, wearing a red dress I can barely breathe in.

  "Come on, Isa," Indigo says, motioning me to move quicker as she walks a ways in front of me. "If you keep walking this slow, the clubs are gonna be closed by the time we get there."

  "I'm trying." I shuffle after her, trying not to roll my ankles. "These heels suck, though."

  She slows to a stop at a street corner and sighs as she leans down to untie her boot. "Come on, take them off and I'll trade shoes with you."

  I stop beside her and grab the street post to get my balance. "I thought you said heels weren't your thing." Which really confused me, since she packed six pairs.

  "I said most of the time they weren't my thing." She slips her foot out of the boot and unties the other one. "It doesn't mean I never wear them."

  We exchange shoes and I feel ten times better in the clunky boots. "I think I'm a boots kind of girl for sure."

  "I agree." After Indigo slips the heels on, she does a little spin in her dress. "How do I look?"

  "Amazing," I say as I finish tying the boots. "I like how the flowers on the shoes match your hair."

  "Me too." She studies me with her head cocked to the side. "God, you look so great. It's amazing what a little eyeliner and lip-gloss can do. Well, that, and my ever-so-awesome talent."

  I stand up, self-consciously tugging at the hem of the dress. "I honestly feel kind of silly. Like I'm trying to play dress up or something." My gaze sweeps over the crowd of people walking around u
s. "I feel like everyone thinks I'm an impostor."

  She shakes her head with a smile on her face. "Trust me, Isa. No one thinks you're an imposter." She grabs my hand and pulls me with her as she moves with the crowd again.

  We walk for what feels like hours, taking in all the closed stores, the bars, the Arc de Triomphe, and the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower.

  "Let's go up there," she says as we gawk up at the tower that stretches to the night sky.

  "I thought we were going to a club?" I ask as I rush to keep up with her.

  "We can go to a club anytime!" she shouts over the music playing from a street band. "Going up there," she tips her head up toward the sky, "now that's an once-in-a-lifetime excitement."

  When we reach the ridiculously long line, I head toward the end. But Indigo has other ideas and starts searching the line for cute guys who will let us cut in front of them. It takes her three tries to find a couple of guys who even speak English. They let us get in line in front of them then Indigo spends the next half-hour flirting with one of them, while I stand there awkwardly.

  "You look nervous," one of the guys whispers in my ear, causing me to jump. "Are you afraid of heights?"

  "Um, yeah, sure." I pretend that's the reason I have goosebumps sprouting across my skin, when really it's the guys, the social interaction, the dress--everything, really.

  He slings an arm around my shoulders. "Don't worry. I'll protect you." He flashes me a dimpled grin. "I'm Jay, by the way, but you can call me your protector."

  I resist an eye roll. Seriously, dude, those lines can't possibly work. Then I pause, realizing, Holy shit, this guy is hitting on me. While I'm flattered, I have absolutely no interest in Protector Jay By The Way, who kind of smells like cheese. I can't help but think of Kyler and how he smells so good all the time, never like rancid cheese. I wish he was the one with his arm around me, but no, he's probably back home, making out with my sister.

  My mood nosedives and smacks against the ground like a squashed bug. Yuck. Why the hell did I have to think that?

  Between the mental image my mind just conjured up and Jay By the Way's cheesy smell, I feel like I'm going to hurl. I want to slide out from under Jay's arm and get some fresh air, but I can't think of an excuse that won't make me look completely deranged, so he ends up keeping his arm there until we go through security. While Jay's emptying out his pockets, I bolt away from him for the stairs.

  "Hey, Isa, wait up," Indigo says as she chases after me.

  I pause at the bottom of the stairway and wait for her to catch up. When she reaches me, out of breath, I give her an are you kidding me look.

  "What's that look for?" she asks innocently as she fans her face with her hand.

  "Those guys were gross and smelled like bad cheese. Seriously, if that's your definition of excitement, then count me out."

  "That's not even close to what I meant by excitement." She kicks off her shoes and tips her head up to take in all the stairs.

  "We could take the elevator," I say, eyeballing her bare feet.

  "No way. That's like cheating the excitement." She steps back with her heels in her hands then sprints forward, laughing as she charges up the first flight of stairs. "Race you to the top."

  Laughing, I barrel after her and up the stairway. People skitter out of our way as we jog side-by-side up each flight of stairs. With each step, I feel closer to soaring, closer to flying away from reality, like I'm outrunning my problems.

  By the time we arrive to the second floor, though, we slowed down to a sluggish walk, because, holy crap, there are a lot of stairs.

  "My feet hurt," Indigo gripes, catching her breath. "But this makes it totally worth it."

  "Holy shit, this is so cool." I slip my fingers through the railing and stare down at the glittering city stretched out below us."

  "It's more than cool. It's exciting." Indigo reaches into her purse and fishes out her phone as I shut my eyes and breathe in the cool air kissing my cheeks.

  While it might seem lame to most, tonight has been one of the best nights of my life. I've never ran around and had fun without worrying about being judged by my sister or scolded by my mom.

  "I feel so . . . I don't know, free," I say as I open my eyes.

  "That's how you should feel all of your life." She leans in close to me and snaps a picture of us with her camera phone. "Look how good you look," she says as she admires the picture. "And happy."

  As I examine the photo, I think about all the family photos on the wall back home, most of which don't include me. But the few my mom let me be in, I never smiled, mostly because I felt uncomfortable, like I didn't belong.

  "I do look happy, don't I?" I smile at the girl in the photo, a girl who only hours ago didn't exist. "Thanks, Indigo, for everything."

  "Dude, we're only getting started." She puts the phone away then we turn back to the view. "By the time this trip is over, there's going to be so many pictures of you smiling you're going to be posting them for days."

  I don't bother telling her that I don't have a social media account, that I don't have friends, so there's no point. Maybe when I get home, I'll change that, too. Maybe I'll change everything. And maybe that change will finally make Hannah see me differently.

  The plan is far from perfect, but standing up on the Eiffel Tower, stories high from the ground, anything feels possible. I wish I could hold onto the moment forever. But then we have to leave, and with each step down the stairway, I feel the perfection fading as I head back down to reality.

  BY THE TIME we make it back to the hotel room, my grandma is waiting for us, and she doesn't look very happy.

  "Where the hell have you two been?" she asks as she stands up from the bed, swaying to the side, a little tipsy.

  "Um," I glance at Indigo for help, "we were out walking."

  Indigo slips her purse off and sets it on the table. "Chill, Grandma Stephy. We just went and did a little sightseeing."

  She scowls at us. "You should have told me you were leaving. I was worried sick."

  "We honestly thought you wouldn't even notice." Indigo flops down on the bed and yawns. "You've been super busy with your friends."

  "Of course I noticed. I'm old, not blind." She inches toward me, and I can smell the alcohol rolling off her. "I promised your dad I wouldn't let you wander off."

  "Really?" A smile starts to touch my lips. My dad cares about me?

  But then Grandma Stephy hesitates, and I know she's lying.

  "He really didn't say that, did he?" Sighing, I sink down in a chair to untie my boots.

  "He might not have said it, but he'd kill me if anything happened to you," she says.

  I keep my head down, focusing on unlacing the boots. "What were you and my dad talking about while you guys were in your bedroom?" I don't know why I ask. It just sort of slips out.

  Indigo lets out a cough. "Not right now. She's too upset."

  "What do you mean, 'Not right now. I'm too upset'?" Grandma Stephy asks, sounding drunkenly confused. When neither of us responds, she warns, "Okay, one of you two better start talking; otherwise, I'll ground your asses to the room for the rest of the trip."

  "I'm nineteen," Indigo says, pushing up on her elbows. "You can't ground me."

  "And I'm sixty and don't give a shit how old you are," Grandma Stephy snaps. "I'll ground you if I want to."

  Indigo tenses and keeps her trap shut.

  I want to back off, too, but now that I've opened Pandora's Box, there's no going back. All these words just keep pouring out of me. "Is my mom . . . Did my dad . . . Who's my real mom, Grandma Stephy?"

  Her eyes widen, and I literally feel the perfection and freedom I felt on the Eiffel Tower go poof.

  "I heard some of the stuff you and my dad said and . . . Lynn isn't my real mom, is she?" I ask, sounding eerily calm. "That's why she hates me so much."

  Grandma Stephy's lips part, but then she rapidly shakes her head. "No, I'm not going to lie to you anymore. I tol
d your father I was sick of this bullshit and that it was time to tell you. That they couldn't just keep treating you like crap--that it was time. And I meant it." She sits down in a chair beside me and squares her shoulders. "Isa, I love you to death. You need to understand that, okay? I love you so much and you're my fantastic, wonderfully weird, keep-me-on-my-toes granddaughter. Your grandpa loved you, too. He even told me once that you were his favorite."

  "Hey," Indigo says, but then holds up her hands. "You know what. Never mind. I'm not going to open my mouth anymore tonight."

  "Good girl," Grandma Stephy says to her, then focuses back on me. "I need to know you understand all of this. That you're loved."

  I nod apprehensively, picking at my fingernails. "Okay, I get it."

  "And your dad loves you, too," she tries to press.

  "Okay." This time, I sound way less sure.

  "I know he's not the best dad in the world, but I promise he loves you," she insists, looking a tad bit apprehensive. "He just hasn't always been able to show it."

  "And what about Lynn?" I'm looking her dead in the eyes, so I see the fear flicker across her face.

  She swallows hard. "Lynn is . . ." She rubs her hand across her face, looking stressed.

  "She's not my mom," I answer for her in an uneven voice.

  She looks utterly remorseful. "I'm so sorry, Isa. I really am. I don't want you to hurt, but I guess there's no easy way for you to learn about this."

  Her words sink in, but it takes a moment or two for them to really, really hit me. And fucking hell, they hurt, like a kick to the shin, a slam of the elbow, a gash to your heart hurt.

  "Who's my real mom?" I ask quietly, refusing to look at Indigo, even though I can feel her trying to catch my gaze.

  Grandma Stephy smashes her lips together as her eyes well up. "I wish I could tell you, but . . ." She kneels down in front of me. "I don't know who she is. Only your dad does . . . and Lynn. They've kept it a secret from the rest of the family, which was pretty easy for them, since they barely keep in contact with anyone except for the few reunions they attended."

  Her arms circle around me, and she hugs me with everything she has in her. "The only reason I know about any of this is because your dad once asked me to raise you. Your mother . . . she couldn't take care of you for some reason, and your dad . . . well, at first he asked me if I could take care of you, because he didn't want to put you into foster care. But then something changed, and he decided he wanted to keep you. I tried to talk him out of it, especially because of Lynn, but he's too goddamn thickheaded to listen to anything I say." She leans back and takes my hands in hers.