“I hope you aren’t planning something dangerous.”
The words from my father came at dinner the next evening as we all sat at the table. I had been lost in thought about what would be happening later that night oh, only to be drawn out of it by his voice. Jolting a little, I forced any guilt away from my expression before looking up. “Uh, what?” Smooth, Cassidy. With casual and expert deflections like that, I was practically a secret agent. Call me Double-Oh Paint, starring in No Time To Dye.
Okay, that one was bad even for me. Thankfully, I was interrupted from dwelling too much on it when my father raised an eyebrow. “You’ve barely touched your food and you keep looking at the wall with that thoughtful look that tells me I’m about two days away from getting a call from the school, the hospital, or both. Please tell me you don’t have some new trick in mind.”
Blushing despite myself, I inwardly cursed at the fact that I’d let myself focus too much on stuff I really shouldn’t be thinking about around my family. My head shook. “No sir, no new tricks here.”
Dad squinted at me, glanced toward my mother, then back again. “I sure hope not. After all, you’re getting closer and closer to graduating from that driver’s ed class. And from what I hear, you might just make it with a passing grade.”
Clearing her throat, Mom pointedly put in, “A passing grade by our standards, that is. Which, you may find, is somewhat higher than the educational system.” And yet, even though she was trying to sound stern then, she clearly couldn’t help the small, proud smile that came when she looked at me. “I am certain you are up to maintaining that standard.”
Yelling at myself that I really had to make things seem as normal as possible now that my father had noticed my distraction, I forced a casual shrug. “Yeah, well, I mean if Lite-Brite over there can pass your driving requirements, I think I’ll probably be okay.”
While Simon made a face at me, Izzy blinked. “Lite-Brite?”
“Sure,” I confirmed while shifting in my seat to glance at the girl next to me. “Or Monopoly, Hungry Hungry Hippo, Battleship, Guess Who, Trouble, Clue, or any other game I could think of when I was your age. You know, cuz his name’s Simon. Like Simon Says. I used to just pick a random game and call him that whenever I wanted his attention.”
“And for the record, I still can’t believe you guys let her get away with that,” Simon complained.
Dad chuckled, exchanging a brief look with my mother before offering Simon a shrug. “I hate to tell you this, champ, but when it comes to little sisters calling you things, you got off pretty light with board games. Besides, honestly, your mother and I had a bet going to see how long it took her to get to ones like Scattergories and Boggle. Though I will admit, she got to Candy Land faster than expected.”
“Ahem.” Mom gave Dad a pointed squint before looking back to us. “What your father means to say is that it’s very nice to see when our children can get along and be nice to one another.” She paused deliberately, making a show of considering her words. “Rare, but nice.”
Picking up from the table, I moved to the side where the pitchers of iced tea and juice were, pouring myself a fresh glass of the former. Then I asked if the others wanted any and ended up refilling Izzy’s juice and Simon’s iced tea as well. Placing the glass in front of my brother last, I gave him a too-sweet smile. “See? I can be nice.”
“Oh, nice, huh?” Simon gave me a look, and I had a brief flash of danger run through my mind before he pushed back on his chair and yanked me over by the arm. Before I knew what was happening, he had me in a headlock and was running his knuckles over my hair while I yelped. “Yup, super-nice! Nice hair, nice yelping, and I bet…” His hand moved away from my hair, but he wasn’t letting me go. Instead, he started to tickle me. “Nice and squirmy!”
“Ahh! St-aahaha-stop-ahhh stop!” Squealing and kicking my legs out, I struggled, but couldn’t find any leverage in that position. He had me half-yanked off the floor and over his chair, one arm keeping me trapped in that headlock while his other hand tickled all along my side. In the background, I could hear Mom saying something, but couldn’t pick out the actual words. It didn’t sound like she was too angry or anything though, and Simon didn’t immediately release me.
Finally, he let me go, standing me back up before poking me in the stomach. “See that? Don’t forget, I’m still the big brother, Booster.”
“You’re a big something, alright,” I retorted, my face flushed. “Pretty sure I can think of a few words more appropriate than brother.”
Once again, Mom cleared her throat. “Go back to your seat, Cassidy,” she gently yet firmly chided. “This is, after all, family dinner. Not, ahh, WrestleMania?”
Squinting first at her, then at me as I found my way to my seat, Simon asked, “Is it just me, or is Mom saying WrestleMania really weird?”
“Definitely weird,” I agreed. “Like hearing a priest curse. Or–” Reconsidering that, I amended, “Actually, I think hearing a priest curse would be less weird.”
Sniffing once, Mom primly informed us, “I’ll have both of you know that your father and I have attended a good number of wrestling events. I do have a life outside of lecturing my children. Even if they often do their best to make that a full career.”
Oh boy did I want to ask what sort of life it was and what she liked to do when she wasn’t being my mother. Including a few specific time and date verifications. But that felt like it might be pushing things.
Simon, on the other hand, lifted his chin while slyly replying, “Sure, a life. That I buy. You go to all sorts of, like, charity auctions, dances, even musicals. Maybe golf for a sport. But anything involving wrestling? Yeah, sure. If I asked you who your favorite wrestler was, you’d probably–”
“Hmmm, from the nineties and early two thousands? Either Mick Foley or the Undertaker,” Mom informed him. “And yes, I was there for their Hell in a Cell. But as for the Touched division these days…” She considered for a moment before nodding decisively. “Definitely Iron Grimes.”
Feeling Izzy tug at my sleeve, I looked that way before the younger girl quietly asked, “Is your mom serious, or did she just say that to mess with Simon?”
I was just realizing that I had no idea what the answer to that was, when Dad chuckled while speaking up. “As it happens, your mother is the one who talked me into investing in the fledgling Touched division of wrestling back in the day. I was a bit skeptical, but she saw the potential.” He was smiling that way, and the two of them exchanged the sort of tender looks that would have made a younger me gag on my finger. It was the sort of look that almost always precipitated–yup there it was. They kissed.
Simon waited what he apparently thought was an appropriate amount of time (two seconds) before speaking up. “Hey, hey, come on. Doesn’t the poor innocent child over there deserve better than to be traumatized by you two being gross?”
While Izzy protested that she was fine, Dad reached over to lightly swat Simon on the shoulder. “Just bear in mind, boy, someday you’ll want to bring someone you care about around to the table, and I’ll remember eeeeevery moment like this.”
Shrugging, I put in, “Well, first he’d have to get someone to come home with him who actually wants to do the kissing thing, so I’m pretty sure he’s safe on that front.”
“Oh I think someone needs another headlock,” Simon declared, teasing as though he was going to push himself up and come around the table after me.
“Someone,” Mom pointedly declared, “needs to stay in his seat and remember that as exciting as wrestling can be, it has its time and place.” To punctuate her words, she took a sip of her wine while watching Simon with a cool gaze. She hadn’t raised her voice or anything like that. She didn’t need to.
“You’re lucky this time,” Simon noted with a squint my way. “But watch out next time you’re in arm’s reach.”
“Son, much as I don’t think encouraging any underhanded behavior is a good idea,” Dad put in dryly after setting his own wine glass down, “maybe you could reconsider making threats against your sister within earshot of your parents. Particularly with Izzy here.” His eyes passed back and forth between us to make sure we were paying attention. “I had hoped that both of you would set a better example.”
“It’s okay,” the younger girl quietly insisted, “I kind of like this kind of example.”
Her words made my parents exchange glances. Some sort of silent communication passed between them before Mom turned back to us. “Yes, well, on that note, before dessert comes, perhaps it’s time to have a conversation that has been some time coming.”
“A conversation?” I found myself echoing, glancing toward the girl next to me before turning back that way. “What conversation?” A brief spike of paranoia about what they could possibly know jumped into my mind, but I shoved it back down with some effort. Now was definitely not the right time to panic.
Dad took a breath, offering a reassuring smile. “A good one, we hope.” His gaze turned from me to the other girl as he continued. “Izzy, I hope that you understand just how much we enjoy having you here, and how much it feels like you’ve filled a void in this household ever since you came. Whatever the circumstances behind your arrival, Elena and I are incredibly grateful that it happened. You are a brilliant, talented young woman, who deserves to succeed at everything you put your energy and mind toward.”
Izzy’s hand was tight on her glass, before she abruptly released it and dropped both arms to her side. “You want me to leave.” Her voice was dull with resignation, as if she had been expecting something like this but was still hurt deeply that it had come. “It’s alright, I–”
“Isidora, no.” Mom’s head shook intently. “No, nothing like that. The opposite, in fact. We don’t want you to go. Thus far, you have been living with us under temporary guardianship. Our friends in law enforcement and the foster system have been gracious enough to grant us broad leniency in that, yet now that it has been over a month with no sign of your… of your mother, they believe that a more… permanent decision needs to be made. Not immediately. You have all the time that you need.”
“I… I have time?” Izzy was staring at my parents in confusion, clearly taken aback by all this. “Time for what?” It was obvious that she was expecting to be told that she had time to pack her bags and get out of the house.
Dad’s voice was gentle. “Izzy, we’d like to become your permanent guardians. After what–” He stopped himself, clearly not wanting to say more in front of me. I was sure Simon already knew the whole story, even if Izzy wasn’t supposed to know he did. “After your personal situation with your mother, it’s… staggeringly doubtful that she would ever be granted custody of you again. But, we also understand that this is a lot to throw at you, and that this family itself can be… more than what anyone wants to handle sometimes.”
While Izzy continued to stare, her hand found mine under the table and squeezed so tight it was almost painful. But I kept the reaction off my face and squeezed back. She clearly tried to speak a couple times, but couldn’t find the right words, so all that came out were a couple uncertain sounds.
“What Sterling is saying,” Mom put in, “is that we would like to adopt you, Izzy. Legally and permanently. We would like you to be part of our family, part of this family, for the rest of all our lives. As he said, the decision is entirely up to you. Take your time, think about it, decide what is best for you. If you decide you don’t want to be here, we will find a quieter place for you. No matter what you decide, you will never be abandoned. You will never be alone. We will make certain there is always someone who can take care of you, even if you decide that you would rather that person not be us.”
Izzy was squeezing my hand even tighter, biting her lip for a moment before managing to find her voice. “Tha–thank you. Thank you for… for everything. I–” The words caught in her throat briefly before she forced them out. “I’ll think about it. I–I have to think.”
With a smile, Mom nodded. “Of course. Take all the time you need. Just know that whatever you decide, we all care about you. And when your mother is found, we will ensure that she gets the help she needs to become a better person. While being prosecuted for her actions, of course.” Her voice was gentle and understanding. “She is still your mother.”
We all had dessert after that. But I could tell Izzy wasn’t really tasting it. She was polite and everything, and even cleared off the plate. Yet her movements were mechanical, and it was obvious that her attention wasn’t on the food. As soon as it was over, she excused herself and headed out. I waited another couple minutes to give her a little time before doing the same, muttering something about checking on her.
She was in her room, and I quickly closed the door behind me after finding her there before checking the intercom on the wall to make certain it was off. Just to be on the safe side, I pried the thing open and flicked off the little switch inside. It was a trick I’d learned awhile back to make sure Simon couldn’t eavesdrop on me when I was on the phone. I’d long-since modified my own intercom to always chime when it was activated, no matter what. Not that it was hard to do. There was literally a setting for it once you opened the thing up and knew what to look for. Which I did, thanks to an afternoon spent reading the manual years ago.
Or did I? Was that how I knew how to do that, or had Paige actually been the one to teach me about it, back when she taught me how to sneak out of the house? No, that didn’t make sense. I didn’t remember how I knew how to sneak out of the house, only that I did, and I had never really questioned that. But not remembering something was very different from remembering something totally different. Tomas’s father had erased my memories of Anthony, and of Paige by extension. He didn’t put specific new memories in. Especially not memories of how I knew something Paige had taught me. He didn’t know about Paige, so there was absolutely no reason he would know to give me specific memories about learning the intercom system.
In any case, I knew how to make it chime every time and how to turn it off. I did the latter with Izzy’s so we would be left alone, before looking that way. She was sitting on her bed, legs folded with a book in her lap as she stared down at it intently. She clearly knew I was there, but hadn’t looked up or said anything since I entered.
After a moment of hesitation, I walked over that way to sit on the bed next to her. My voice was quiet. “Are you okay?”
She didn’t answer at first. Instead, she kept staring down at the book before closing it. When she spoke, her voice cracked slightly. “We’re still going out tonight, right? So… so we can get into that base.”
My head bobbed slightly. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to, Izzy. We can make do.”
“No.” Looking up to meet my gaze, Izzy insisted, “I’m going. I want to. I have to. Especially–” She flinched in mid-sentence, glancing away. “Especially now. If–I want to know more. I want to know everything your parents do. I want to know what– I want to know all of it.”
Boy did I understand that feeling. The need to know the truth, even if you were certain it was going to hurt. I had spent all this time planning how to break into that secret base, just so I could get some firm answers about what sort of people my parents were. Even if I knew the answer was going to hurt, even if I knew I would regret knowing details, I still had to do it. I had to be certain. And now my parents were asking Izzy to join the family officially. No wonder she had to know the truth too. Even if it hurt.
“They do care about you,” I assured her, for all the good it probably did. “It’s not just about wanting your power, Izzy. They could get that in other ways. I might not know everything about them, but I know the look my mother has when she’s looking at someone she cares about. And she definitely cares about you. I know that probably doesn’t help. Trust me, I know. But they don’t just want to use you. They aren’t just manipulating you to get something. They care about you. I care about you.”
Izzy was silent, not responding for a few seconds. Then she exhaled. “I care about you too. And them.” The latter admission came with a look of guilt as she glanced away. Which was something I understood just as much as her need to know the truth. Knowing that my parents weren’t exactly bastions of morality and righteousness, knowing that they had done some terrible things and allowed people to die, and even killed plenty themselves, didn’t make it easy to not care about them. It was like they were two separate groups, the people who were my parents and brother, and the people who did those terrible things. Yet they weren’t different groups. They were the same. And trying to accept that was hard.
For a couple minutes after that, the two of us sat in silence. Izzy took a few long, deep breaths to steady herself before speaking in a quiet voice, “She wasn’t always bad.”
“Your… your mom?” I hesitantly asked, unsure if she actually wanted to talk about it or not.
Izzy nodded, clutching the book in her lap tightly before holding it up so I could see. It was Charlotte’s Web. “My mom used to read it to me,” she murmured. “Not this one. This is from your library. Ours was beaten up and had scribbles in it. My scribbles. It was the first book I remember her reading. And… and usually when I was sick, she would read it to me again. She would sit in bed with me and read it. She made the voices funny and… and…” Closing her eyes, she looked down, shoulders slumped. I could see the tears leaking out as she weakly insisted, “My mom wasn’t always bad. She wasn’t always like… like that. She got worse for awhile, but before… but–” Clamping her mouth shut, she shook her head helplessly.
Wincing, I shifted closer and put an arm around her. “She’s your mom.”
“But they won’t let her be again,” Izzy whispered, leaning against me. “After what she did, even if your family wasn’t… um, what they are, the authorities wouldn’t ever let my mom be my mom again. And–and I know she shouldn’t be. After what she did, she shouldn’t–she can’t–I–” A shudder escaped the girl, before she turned her head to press her face into my shoulder. “She can never be my mom again, not like it was. She broke it. She broke it, Cassidy, and she can’t put it back. She can’t fix it. It doesn’t matter what I say to your parents, it doesn’t matter what I do, it doesn’t–I can’t change it. I can’t fix it. I can’t make my mom be… I just–I just wanted her to be–I just wanted–” Unable to continue, Izzy wrapped both arms around me, clinging tightly. “I wanted to be good enough.” The weak, plaintive words snapped my heart in half.
“Why wasn’t I good enough?”