Chapter 1: Thunder - Boys Like Girls
Though the freedom to be myself was what I wanted more than anything, I found myself a little lost when I was finally granted it. I suddenly wanted – no, needed – to gain a firmer grasp on what made me my own person, not an extension of my parents, at least the one that didn’t want me. After much deliberation, I decided to remove the surname Hales from my name. I accepted my mother’s maiden name. Legally, I was Isabella Mia Zapata. I didn’t do it to forget about my past. I knew it would always be a part of me. It simply made transitioning into the next chapter of my life that much more official. There were a number of other tasks I wanted to take care of before I went to Listonenia.
The desire to change my hair appeared when I recalled that Genette always referred to it as the only thing I had going for me. On her way to work, Audrey agreed to drop me off at her usual hair salon.
“Are you sure you’re okay after seeing them together?” She spared a glance in my direction as we waited at a stoplight.
“I’m doing my best not to dwell on it. I never realized how horrible he was to her - always hurting her feelings and making her feel like nothing.”
“It was toxic to say the least. Abusive at its worst.”
“She is moving to Florida to be with Yaya and Papi.”
“I know. She told me the other day. I am proud of her. She needs to get away from him. He pushes her to do things she regrets.”
“Do you think she would’ve turned out differently if he wasn’t the way he is?” I asked as she resumed driving.
“It is hard to say. According to her, she has always had poor taste in men. She feels that she deserves them because she’s ‘broken’ and they are the only ones that will take her. That worries me.”
I paused a moment to find the words I was looking for. “Thank you for not leaving me with her when she was at her worst. You could’ve, but you didn’t. I don’t know where I’d be if you had. I’ll always be grateful.” I looked over at her.
“Sending you to live with Dad wasn’t much of an upgrade. You were going through so much and no one was there to help you. I should’ve sent you to Florida.”
“You shouldn’t have had to figure out a custody arrangement at eighteen. I would’ve been too much for them. I’ll never blame you for what happened.”
She pursed her lips together. “That part of your life is over. It’s not going to be that hard for you anymore. I promise.”
“I know.” I offered her a warm smile to put her at ease.
“Good.” She removed her coffee from her cup holder and took a sip of it.
We reached the hair salon soon after that. She parked and looked over at me.
“Text Everett when you’re almost done. He knows to come pick you up.”
“Okay. Have a good day at work.”
She smiled. “Thanks. I love you, Izzie Bee.”
“I love you too.” I gave her a quick hug before exiting the car.
I didn’t have to wait in the waiting area long before Michelle, the stylist I scheduled the appointment with, came to retrieve me. I followed her back to her station and sat down in the black leather chair.
“Do you have a particular style in mind?” She asked as she ran her fingers through my hair and looked at me in the mirror.
“I have a picture on my phone.” I removed it from my pocket. I flipped through my pictures until I found the hairstyle one that I saved.
“This will work really well with your head shape.” She complimented after studying it for a little while.
“That’s great to hear. I’ve never had my hair cut more than an inch or two. I’m a little nervous.” I admitted with a sheepish smile.
“In need of a change?”
“I’ve been doing a lot of life remodeling lately. I thought I’d go for it while I still have the nerve.”
She smiled and nodded in understanding. “I will do my best to make it everything you want.”
“That’s all I ask.”
Her first order of business was to highlight my hair. I selected a caramel brown color. She brushed the pigment onto portions of my hair before folding aluminum foil around it. She repeated the process all over my head. When she was done, she led me over to the washing station. There’s something very relaxing about having someone else wash your hair. She was particularly good at it. I almost fell asleep.
When we returned to her station, she blow dried my hair to get a look at the texture it created on its own.
“I really love the color.” I smiled in the mirror as I checked it out.
“It turned out nicely. It’s always a little tough to know how the colors will take to hair, given the different base colors.”
“Still on board with the cut?” She asked lightly before moving forward.
I nodded. “Bring it on.” I smiled.
She pinned up portions of my hair before picking up her pair of silver scissors. She held the free row of hair in her left hand. She moved her scissors up my hair about six inches and snipped. A feeling of liberation coursed through me as I watched the strands of hair float to the ground in the mirror. My excitement grew the more she cut. I couldn’t wait to see the finished product. I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I removed it with caution, careful not to mess up Michelle as she worked.
It was a text from Sami that read: TURN ON THE NEWS NOW!!!
With the time difference, I knew she hadn’t been to sleep yet. Her urgency caught me off guard. Extra punctuation for dramatic effect was an Elle move, not a Sami one.
Unable to do so, I replied with: I’m out right now. What’s going on?
Instead of answering directly, she sent me a link to a webpage. I clicked on it and waited as my web browser loaded the mobile version. When it finally did, there was a photo of Milo and me at the airport below the caption: Listonenia’s Heir Dating Troubled Manhattan Princess.
My heart sank and I cursed under my breath.
They obviously had no idea how Milo and I met or what we were like as people or a couple, but that didn’t stop the author from writing an entire article about us. I was painted as a reckless basket case, drawn to trouble and looking for a new source of money after my emancipation. His portrayal wasn’t much better. They brought up all his past instances of acting out and labeled our relationship as his latest stunt to piss off his parents. I had grown used to having so many aspects of my life judged, but I’ll be honest, I was not prepared for how much their misrepresentation hurt me. Our relationship was very personal to both of us. Having them tear it down was infuriating.
I pressed the talk button to call Sami.
“Did you read it?” She asked upon answering.
“Yeah, is it all over the news?”
“According to Morgan it is. It’s too early for West Coast news. I saw the article online when I was checking my email. It was one of the top 10 stories on the homepage.”
I clenched my eyes closed to regroup. “Have either of you talked to Milo?”
“I texted him. He didn’t answer. I assume he’s still asleep. Where are you?”
“Getting my hair done. I really didn’t expect this to happen. It’s been almost a month since those photos were taken.”
“It must’ve taken them a while to connect the dots. I can’t say I’m surprised. We’re dealing with absolute idiots.”
I smiled. “Thanks for telling me.”
“My nocturnalness comes in handy. Feel free to relay that to the others when they question it.”
My smile widened. “I’ll be sure to do that. Thanks, Sams. I’ve got to call Milo, but I’ll talk to you later.”
“Alright. Bye.” She hung up.
I lowered my phone from my ear and sighed. I scrolled through my contacts and clicked on his name. It almost went to voicemail, but he caught it before it was too late.
“Sorry. I have been out with my parents all day. Have you heard?”
“About us? Yeah.”
“I apologize. I know you do not need that kind of attention after the summer you have had. Business has been rather hectic here in Listonenia. I will understand if you change your mind about visiting.”
“I won’t. I miss you so much. We knew there was a chance this would happen.”
“You still want to come?” There was so much surprise in his voice.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“It will be far less low-key. I will be expected to explain myself. They will want to know everything about you. I did not know if you would be up for that sort of attention so soon.”
“I’m not in hiding. I understand what goes along with your title. It makes more sense for me to be there in person to supplement your explanations of me and our relationship.”
“You and me against the world?” I heard him smile.
“Of course. You’re my ticket to Butternut Sprinkles and Mittens.” I joked, grinning from ear to ear.
He chuckled. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“I will request that Wilmer finalize your travel arrangements, but I will see you soon, Beautiful.”
“Yes, you will. And with my new hair.”
“I look forward to it.”
“Bye.” I smiled.
“Bye.” He hung up.
I lowered my phone to my lap and texted Audrey and Everett. When she didn’t reply, I knew she was working in the lab. I also knew Ev would relay everything to her as soon as possible. For the duration of my hair appointment, I made both mental and physical lists of what I needed to pack and do before my flight.
“All done.” Michelle announced.
I looked up from my phone and was taken back by what I saw in the mirror. It was the first time I was able to dictate the way I presented myself. I finally felt like I was seeing myself in my reflection. I was everything I wanted it to be, both inside and out.
“It’s – wow, I love it so much. Thank you.” I stood up from my chair and gave her a hug.
She laughed. “I’m glad.”
She gave me the care instructions. I made a note of everything before I went to the front to pay. Ev was already waiting for me in the parking lot when I walked out. He was wearing sunglasses to combat the bright sun and to maintain a low profile. When I walked up to the door on the passenger side, I saw that Emmy was in the backseat, even though her car seat was rear facing.
“Your hair looks nice.” He complimented immediately.
“Did Aud tell you to say that?” I smiled as I sat down and buckled myself in.
He fought back a smile of his own. “Yes, but I mean it.” He glanced out the back window to back out.
“It’s nap time. Why is she still awake?”
“She’s refusing to go to sleep for whatever reason. I’m hoping the car ride will fix that. They usually do.” He checked on her by glancing up at the rearview mirror.
“I can’t believe we became a story. That was weeks ago.”
“You’ve been on the news all morning.”
“Were you and Aud brought up?”
“Of course. We upped the relevance factor. I was going to go to the grocery store this morning. I’m happy I watched TV before heading out. I would’ve hated walking into that with Emmy.”
“I’m so sorry.” I looked over at him.
“A lack of privacy comes along with my occupation. You did what you had to do. I stand by my decision to publicly support you.”
“I was happy to have you on my side. You brought a lot to the table.” I offered him a smile.
“Charisma.” He joked.
I giggled. “Yes, definitely.”
“Yes, I got her to sleep!” He cheered in a hushed tone.
“You love being a dad, don’t you?” I asked him softly, not wanting to wake her up.
“Big time. She’s keeping me company at home between albums. I’m teaching her how to survive as a human being as a thank you.” He joked.
I smiled. “She’s really lucky to have you.” I told him sincerely.
“I wouldn’t be so sure. We’re going to start wearing matching outfits soon. I need embarrassment material that I threaten to show when she misbehaves as a teenager.”
I giggled and shook my head at him.
When we reached home, he parked in the garage. He carefully retrieved Emmy from the backseat, ensuring that she remained asleep. I held open the door for him as he carried her inside. Both of us headed upstairs. He went into her nursery. I kept walking down the hall and went into my room.
“How early are you willing to leave?” Milo asked when I answered my phone.
“As soon as possible.”
“Would tomorrow night be too soon?”
“Nope. It’s not like I have other plans. What should I bring?”
“Stylists will dress you for special events. Bring things to wear during our free time.”
“Will someone dress me before I meet your parents?”
“Probably not. Our first dinner with them will be private.”
“When will it be?” I felt nerves creep in.
“The night you land. You do not need to be anyone other than yourself.”
“But that significantly lowers the odds of them liking me.” I ran a hand through my hair.
“I love you. I am not asking for their opinion of the matter.”
“You better be telling the truth.”
“I am. Our honesty oath is still firmly enacted.”