When Cassie’s family moves into a decrepit house in New Orleans, the only upside is her new best friend. Gem is witty, attractive, and sure not to abandon Cassie—after all, she’s been confined to the old house since her murder in the ’60s.
As their connection becomes romantic, Cassie must keep more and more secrets from her religious community, which hates ghosts almost as much as it hates gays. Even if their relationship prevails over volatile parents and brutal conversion therapy, it may not outlast time.
|Publisher:||Ninestar Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.52(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 17 Years|
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I MET GEM the day we moved from the sedate suburbs to downtown New Orleans.
I had recently turned eight, and my first sight of her coincided with our first sight of the Victorian house. I'm not certain if some of my earliest memories are authentic or recreated by photos and hearsay, but that moment made for a striking mental snapshot I've never doubted: baroque, crumbling pink-and-ivory walls; a stylish teenaged 1960s brunette perched on the steps. I feasted my eyes upon her in the way only a curious child can. The opportunity delighted me, especially because my parents had forbidden me to stare at the young runaways clogging the sidewalk. The lost children.
I'd be leery of any Crescent City-raised kid who claimed never to have been fascinated by them. The lost children of the city streets were as diverse in origin as they were in countenance. The first I'd seen that morning had been a tap-dancing boy around my own age, gleefully calling to various "cutie-pahs" in an undetermined accent. His joy reached out to me, undisturbed by the morning's sharp tang of whiskey and street cleaner. I might not have believed he was alone in the world, like the poor souls my parents derided, if not for the layers of sweat marks on his clothes. My parents ignored his dollar-filled top hat and turned my head away in an admonishment. This made me wonder, maybe for the first time, what kind of people they were.
Then, I saw the girl: late teens, stringy sandy hair like frayed rope, weeping with abandon without bothering to hide her face from the tourists and blue-collar shop workers. She seemed "lost," all right; certainly, more so than the cartoon boys of Peter Pan who had introduced me to the "lost" term in the first place. I remembered the twitch in my father's face as he snapped the TV's power button in one fluid motion and turned to explain who the lost children of Louisiana really were.
The girl waiting at our dwelling on Dauphine Street shared a hint of the blonde crier's defiance, but she also exuded fun. She didn't bother to sit in the ladylike way I'd learned in church. Still, she jumped up before I reached an angle at which I could see up her green skirt — a fact I noted matter-of-factly, and with some vague sense of disappointment. I continued to examine her clothes anyway, with a youth's comically bobbing head. I had never seen tights like that before; they were nothing but strings in a diamond pattern. And was that a Boy Scout shirt?
"Hi!" I yelled, unnecessarily since we were barely five feet apart by now. There were chuckles behind me; it seemed like my parents always laughed at me doing normal, serious things. The girl staggered backward, widening her brown-gold eyes. "What's your name?" She glanced at my parents in something like panic, then back at me, and her face softened.
"I'm Gem." She glanced behind me again, and I followed her gaze to my mother, situated behind the battered chain-link fence, gazing blankly at our narrow new house. My father caught up, breaking through her reverie as he bustled through the space where a gate should be and pulled our keys out of his suit pocket.
The girl — Gem — stumbled off the stairs and several steps to the right, which is to say, at the edge of the property. Her eyes followed my parents carefully as they entered our new home. Obviously, I didn't know it at the time, but she was waiting to see if they'd notice her as I had.
Perhaps all houses came with a pretty girl, or maybe she was moving out. "Dad, can Gem come inside?"
My mother turned around in the corridor first. "What, Cassandra?"
"Can she come in with me?" I pointed at Gem and then grabbed her hand. She made a short sound of surprise at my touch.
My mother rolled her eyes elaborately. It didn't take much to annoy her, especially where I was concerned. She turned to my father, hissing, "Isn't she a bit old for this?" I could hear the disgust.
My father, unusually jovial today, held up a hand, and my mother went quiet. "It's okay." To me: "Sure, little one. Let's all go in and look around."
Gem's expression had gone both stunned and amused. It was a face I'd come to know well and love: the face of a person thrust into a strange scenario she was more than game enough to explore.
"YOU NEVER TOLD me your name." Gem flopped into the floral armchair across the room from my bed, then, with a self-conscious glance at me, maneuvered herself into the position my old teacher had promoted as "proper posture." Unfamiliar furniture crowded the room, from the molded wooden headboard to the dresser's little blue dollhouse. I missed my room back home, and despite what my father had promised, this didn't seem "even better" and I could still "remember what came before." At least I had a new friend already.
"Cassie." My parents insisted on using the full "Cassandra," but since they were downstairs, I might as well use the moniker I preferred, the one that hadn't proved too unwieldy for my classmates to manage.
She nodded. "I'm Gem."
"You said that already!"
She began to smile, raising her eyebrows. "It's still true."
I realized I liked her already. Not only did she dress cool; she struck me as funny, while also, somehow, profound. Had Gem done it on purpose, and anyway, why didn't people introduce themselves more than once? Even my parents seemed to know she was special, considering they hadn't made her take off her boots on the rug inside the doorway. Sure, they had ignored her, and so maybe they did not like her, but they must have respect for her. Before this, respect was something I had only seen them demand.
My mind became full of questions, not least of which was why she was talking to someone like me. I settled on the most important-seeming one: "Are you going to stay here?" Gem smiled again, but this time, one end of her mouth turned down. "Yeah. I've been living in this room for a long time, and I'm not about to be driven out."
"That's great!" Both hands flew to my mouth, and, sure enough, my mother shouted, equally loudly, from directly below my floor: "Indoor voice, Cassandra!"
"I mean," I added, "I've always wanted a sister."
"Well, I'm not really your sister." Gem shrugged and glanced away, her soft brown hair flying in a curtain over her face. "I guess it'll be like sharing a room with a friend."CHAPTER 2
FOR THE FIRST few months, we did nothing more unusual than board games and late-night storytelling. Still, the time I spent with Gem was the most fun I'd ever had.
She reminded me of my babysitter before my parents had stopped going out, or of my parents themselves if they had forsaken shouting and the silent treatment and been at their most pleasant at all times. Like they once had, Gem stacked the Candyland deck so I would always draw Princess Lolly; as I had with my parents, I pretended not to notice. In the evenings, she taught me a different card game each week, and by the time Thursdays rolled around we could play without my needing reminders. I realized how much I had missed the time before my father's job changed, before I'd started playing with only my neighbor, Leigh, or several different imagined variations of myself.
On afternoons when I trusted my parents to stay in the rooms they were in, Gem and I searched the rest of the unfamiliar little house for monsters. In the back of my mind, I knew those sorts of creatures weren't real, not really, but I still screamed gamely when Gem grabbed my shoulders and roared, and we scampered back to our bedroom before my parents ran up the stairs to shout at me. Afterward, I spun tales about the beast we had just escaped — for Gem had jumped back into the role of non-monstrous friend by then — speaking them as they came into my head, delightfully free of logic or plot pacing. Gem seemed to like the stories, but I never failed to scare myself.
My mother had forbidden me from having sleepovers before I turned ten, but even by age eight, I had begun to chafe at her rules. They waffled bizarrely with her mood and the frequency of my father's glares. It did not take long to figure out why Gem was immune to rules: my parents did not know about her. It made sense, in a way. In my tiny world, where most of the possessions by which I defined myself were gone, Gem was really, truly mine.
I suddenly understood Leigh's moods, when she would ignore me inside her house and close the door to her giant bedroom so she could be alone with her invisible friends. My own secret friendship had been late in arriving, but now I had Gem, I figured all four of us could play together. Would we be able to see each other's companions? I wondered. Did I have control over who could see Gem, and, if I wanted to, could I keep her to myself?
As it turned out, the opportunity to test these questions never came. Now we lived in New Orleans proper, to the east of the Earhart Expressway, Leigh's home had gone from a simple trot down the road to a day-trip voyage which required two buses, a streetcar, and an apparently significant number of dollars. For the first time, I cared that my parents had no car. When several weeks went by without any sightings of children my own age, I snuck into the pantry with the phone cord navigated through the smallest possible crack in the door.
Of course, my mother recognized the situation immediately. Just after I finished dialing, she snatched the receiver with anger and a bit of resignation.
"Hi there, Brett. Is this Brett? Oh, Carol! Sorry! Well, I just found Cassandra hiding with the phone, trying to call Leigh all by her lonesome!" My mother provided a meager laugh and continued with the affected charm she piled on when forced to interact with other grownups. "Y'know, I told her she'd meet loads of kids once school started, but she just misses Leigh so much; they've always been best friends, of course. Perhaps we could have her over for a playdate —" The smile fell from her face during the long pause that followed, and her voice lowered for the few other words she had a chance to speak. "It's downtown, yes, but ... we haven't seen ... you know we'd watch ..."
I understood the results, if not the details. There would be no party of secret friends. Even then, I think I knew: River Ridge may have been only several miles away, but it was a separate world.
IT SEEMED AMAZING at a later age, but for those first months I did not think to ask Gem about her history. I had no interest in sharing my life's story either, with my limited short-term memory. Besides, in the way of a small child with no idea what the world can hold, I saw life without imagined embellishment as hopelessly dull. Life before Gem, after all, had been mostly free of schedule or marker, and my most vivid memory involved empty threats made by a first-grade bully the previous year.
Gem offered me few clues to her origins in the early days, and most of them occurred in our first few hours of acquaintance. After she revealed that my bedroom had been hers for a while, I figured she had lived with the family who had sold my parents the house. Gem didn't have a chance to disabuse me of that notion since I never voiced it aloud.
After the awful telephone call with Leigh's family, I ran from my mother, who spit out aimless accusations in rage. "She doesn't think I can take care of kids! Thinks they're too good for us! Flaunting their money! Doubting my ability as a mother!" Inasmuch as she was talking to anyone, I knew it was more herself than me. I eased the door closed, barely catching myself before I slammed it, and spun toward Gem, predictably situated in the armchair. "What are your parents like?" I blurted. The question surprised even me, as I tried to avoid talking about parents, who seemed to do little but muck up young lives, but it made sense to ask. Gem's family must be wonderful, I figured, to allow her to spend all her time with a friend.
She flinched and fixed her gaze on the unkempt street out the window. At early evening, the noise from Bourbon Street had only begun to leak in our direction, and I knew I'd perform my pane-shut and curtain-draw at a slightly later hour. "They're dead."
My mind had wandered to the ambiguous threat of the outside, the morbid thrill of my nightly scampering to the curtains. "What?"
"My parents died."
"Oh, no!" I ran to her, instantly poised for a hug. "How did they die?" Later, I would shake my head at this query too; I hadn't even tested the waters with something only arguably on the uncouth side, such as "How long ago did it happen?" The daring of children can be so rude but, all results considered, undeniably useful too.
Gem did not seem fazed. "My mom died in childbirth." Seeing my face, she explained, "That means she died while I was being born." It sounded like a horrible coincidence to me. "My dad, uh ... he got shot. He shot himself," she amended, meeting my eyes with steely determination. I had witnessed Gem's spunk while playing, but now it had a hard angle, defiance against façade or euphemism.
"He murdered himself?" I doubt I had ever heard something so perverse.
"Yeah. He was sad."
"About what?" I prompted. Gem sighed a little, but still cut her eyes at me with affection as she boosted me onto her lap.
"About me. I left ... and he thought I'd be gone forever."
The conversation had become too frighteningly glum to sustain. I gave her another little hug. "I'm glad you live with us, Gem. You're my best friend."
When Gem startled me with laughter, I smiled tentatively. "You know what, Cassie? I think you'd have to be mine too."CHAPTER 3
ON MY FIRST morning of second grade, my father called me into his office as I prepared to leave for the bus. In hushed tones, he showed me a red plastic rectangle. I figured it for a toy, albeit a rather boring one, until he hit an innocuous-looking button at one end and a knife blade flew out. He showed me the way to push the blade back in, along an edge which appeared identical but was actually dull, and dropped the device into my jumper's chest pocket. I stumbled backward, not wanting it, but the weapon had already landed.
"You never know what might happen out there, Cassandra. We live in a dangerous city now, and if someone tries to hurt you, you let 'em have it, you hear me?" He pantomimed a stab, and even though the knife lay against my figure, his sudden movement scared me more. My hands went into secret fists when he spoke to me at all, let alone by myself. "Carry this every day, got it? Don't you dare let those old nuns see ... but if you fail to hide this, you better not tell them you got it from me." While no longer sure what he was talking about, I knew I would do what he said, as always.
At that moment, I only cared about getting out of the house; my blood pumped violently with nerves at being near him. I waited a few moments to be sure I would not offend him by leaving before he finished with me, then sidestepped toward the door. "I don't wanna be late!" He nodded and waved me away, turning back to his computer.
I only had to walk to the end of the block, a cool distance of three houses, but it was still longer than any for which I had been unaccompanied all summer. In fact, I couldn't remember being outside in the neighborhood without one of my parents, usually my mother, alongside with a hand on me. The unnamed threats of the city had yet to show themselves, but the maddening worries of Leigh's and my parents built a mythology that was not unappealing.
When I looked at the city, I saw beauty. Small and stuffed together as our houses were, they were nonetheless ornate and colorful. The range of pastels on Dauphine alone resembled a French incarnation of The Wizard of Oz. River Ridge had been pretty enough and full of green foliage, but it had lacked the Technicolor wildness of New Orleans proper. No one, I imagined, would dare paint their house pink-and-white in Leigh's neighborhood. This felt like a tiny triumph. Apparently by the time one crossed the Earhart, she had also gotten rid of her colored beads, since the shiny strings swung over the hanging road signs were entirely new to me.
And then there were the lost children. Generally, they stayed further east, along Decatur or Bourbon, or, if they wished not to be bothered at all, along the grit of the Mississippi River. I had only seen the river once by then, for a second before my parents turned toward Dauphine, but the moist, rocky terrain had fascinated me. I already knew I would voyage out alone, sometime, just to watch the water rock as I clenched the soil and let it drift through my fingers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Women of Dauphine"
Copyright © 2019 Deb Jannerson.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
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