After Hazen Wood kidnaps twelve-year-old Gemma Sullivan, the two embark upon a cross-country journey that tests the limits of Gemma's endurance. In scenes of physical and sexual violence, Hazen tries to destroy the young girl's will. When she does manage to escape he drags her back and threatens to have her arrested for the violent acts he performs. It is only Gemma's resilience and fertile imagination that protects her from the worst of the trauma she suffers. And, in the end, it is the healing power of unconditional love that gives Gemma the courage to speak out against her abuser at last and claim the life she deserves.
Alternating between the voices of Gemma and Hazen Wood, Meg Tilly has brilliantly brought to life powerful and unforgettable characters that will leave you thinking about them long after you turn the last page.
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About the Author
Meg Tilly is the author of Singing Songs (Dutton 1994) and Porcupine (Tundra 2007), a children's book. Formerly an accomplished actress, Ms. Tilly is best known for her role as Chloe in The Big Chill and the title role in Agnes of God, for which she won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in 1986, as well as an Oscar nomination. She lives with her family in British Columbia.
Meg Tilly is the author of Gemma (St. Martin's Press 2010), Singing Songs (Dutton 1994) and Porcupine (Tundra 2007), a children's book. Formerly an accomplished actress, Ms. Tilly is best known for her role as Chloe in The Big Chill and the title role in Agnes of God, for which she won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in 1986, as well as an Oscar nomination. She lives with her family in British Columbia.
Read an Excerpt
Buddy, my mama's boyfriend, was waiting for me after school. Waiting in his old rusty blue pickup truck. Almost didn't see him. Almost walked right by, on account of nobody ever picking me up at school before. "Hey, Gemma ..." he called, and tooted his horn a bit. Boop ... boop ... Like that.
"Hey, Gemma ..." And I'm looking around, trying to figure out who's calling my name. Doesn't sound like no kid from school. So I'm looking around, can't see him because the sun's reflecting on his dirty windshield and, yeah, I know his truck. I mean, if somebody said, "I want you to pick out Buddy's truck," if they had a car lineup or something, I'd be able to pick it out fine. Bam. No problem. "That's his truck right there," I'd say.
The thing is, I wasn't expecting him. It was out of context. That's why I didn't recognize it.
Pretty good, huh? The way I slipped that in. Context. And I think I used it right. I try to work my spelling words into my regular conversation.
That's what my teacher, Mrs. Watson, says we got to do. "Make friends with the words," she says. "Use them, feel them on your tongue, taste them. Let these new words I give you enhance your way of speaking."
Some of the kids laugh at her behind her back. They think she's weird, but I like listening to her talk so passionate and earnest, her cheeks and the sides of her neck getting all flushed and red. "Language will set you free," she says, in ringing tones, like she's a minister standing at the front of the church, preaching hell and redemption. "Language will set you free." She says it ferocious, like it's real important, a life-and-death matter to her that we understand. Like it'll save us from gangs, and no money, and no food in the house because our moms are out boozing again.
It's one of Mrs. Watson's favorite sayings. "Language will set you free." Says it maybe five times a day. Arm out, gesturing, hand all smudgy from the chalkboard. Or sometimes she pounds the desk when she says it, or a book she's holding in her hand. And she really seems to believe it, so I don't know. Maybe it will, maybe it won't, but just in case she's right, I work on my language, my spelling words, my vocabulary. I work on them hard, because I wouldn't mind being free.
And that's another thing. She gives us real weird writing assignments. Take today, for instance. She comes waltzing into the room. "Good morning, class." Nobody answers, never does, not even me. I would, because I like her. Like and feel sorry for her all at the same time, because to be honest, we aren't that great of a class. But even I didn't answer her, because I'm kind of cool. Not real cool, like "lots of friends cool." I'm more like "loner cool." People don't mess with me too much, because if they did, they'd get a face full of fist. I'm a wild card, so people leave me alone, let me fly under the radar screen, like a stealth bomber, and I don't want to mess with that, so I don't say hi, or good morning. I didn't want to look like a goody two-shoes, and just shuffled my feet with the rest of the kids, like I was real bored or something. Even though I was actually kind of interested to see what she was going to come up with today.
Didn't let on though, just mumbled a little bit of a good morning, that's about all I could get away with, and to be honest, it's pretty respectful, considering what some of the other kids do. I mean, at least I was sitting in my seat, not screwing around in the back of the class, throwing things, swaggering around, pants half falling off my ass, pretending not to see the teacher come in. At least I wasn't doing that.
Now maybe I don't say it loud and clear, in a TV sitcom voice, but at least I say something. At least I mumble "good morning," because it's more than most people do.
Besides, it's not honest to say "good morning," when for most of us, most of the time, it isn't a very good morning at all. I'm not complaining, mornings are generally better than evenings. That's usually when the shit hits the fan. In the morning, I've got the whole day stretching out before me, shimmering like a promise, like maybe today something fun's going to happen, something good, something exciting. I like morning — the way it smells, the way it looks, like it just woke up and maybe today things are going to be okay.
But this custom of saying "good morning" every morning, well it's just not truthful.
"The ... Topic ... is ..." Mrs. Watson read each word out loud as she wrote it, "Love. ..." When she'd finished writing the words out on the blackboard, she underlined them so emphatically that a little bit of powder fell, like a puff of smoke, from her stick of chalk.
Then she turned around and faced the class, and the expression on her face was almost like a dare. I like this about her, that she's so into what she does. I look forward to it, because most teachers, they're too tired to care anymore, too beaten down. I can see it in their faces sometimes, when all the kids are acting out, screwing around. I can see the weariness, see them wondering why the hell they took this job. Tired out, pissed off, going through the motions like they're underwater swimming.
Sometimes, I get worried that Mrs. Watson's going to get like that too, all tired out, sharp edged, and bitter. I try to be nice to her on the sly, so she won't give up, lose hope, and think we're all lost causes.
"The topic is love," she said again, just in case we didn't hear her the first time, hear the whole thing properly.
"We're going to try something new today: Free association. I want you to pick up your pen and write. Don't worry about punctuation, or spelling, or telling a story. I want you to write whatever comes into your mind, whatever pops into your head, write it down. The topic is love. You have twenty minutes, start writing."
She turned to her desk, like that was all that needed to be said, but nobody was writing, we were all staring at her like she was a freak show. Because she's come up with some weird assignments, but this one's a doozy. And to be honest, I'm trying to encourage her and all, but even I had no idea what to do.
"Love ...," Billy Robinson mimicked in a mamsey-pamsey voice. He started gagging, and his cronies were snickering, and then it's like his face all of a sudden gets mad, like Mrs. Watson assigned this exercise for the sole purpose of pissing him off. "What the hell kind of shit is that?"
"Exactly," Mrs. Watson said. She's not scared of him, like some of the other teachers. She just beamed at him and nodded her head, like he'd been real insightful, like he wasn't being a smart ass. Smiled at him like he was joining in for once, and she was taking his question seriously. "Exactly." Then she looked at the rest of the class, acting as if we were having a philosophical discussion. "What is love? What does it mean to you? How does love, or the lack thereof, manifest itself in your life?" She nodded encouragingly. "Just pick up your pen and write. There is no right or wrong in this exercise. As long as you have written something on your paper, you'll get a good mark."
So I picked up my pen. She's the teacher after all.
The topic is love, I wrote. I underlined it. And then, that was it. I just sat there, staring at those words at the top of my page, stuck, couldn't think of anything to write.
"The topic is love," I said under my breath, testing the words on my tongue. "The ... topic ... is ... love."
My pen wasn't writing, but my brain, my brain was flipping through memories, all of my mom, none of my dad, but that's probably because I don't know him, never met him. Otherwise, he probably would have been in there too.
And these images of my mom, they're not whole stories spun out. It's not like they made sense. It was more like I was looking into one of those kaleidoscope toys, but I wasn't holding it. Somebody else was, and they were turning it so the images were tumbling, morphing, changing shape too fast and I couldn't catch the tail of them. Just short little memories flying past, little flashes of them. Short flashes, like a strobe light in the dark. And my brain, trying to catch up, flipping through them and discarding. Nope, can't write about that, or that, ho, ho ... definitely not that! Bits and snatches of her, flying past, like I'm riffling through one of those little plastic recipe holders that normal households have, with recipes written down on index cards. Normal households that have a mother and a father, and the mother cooks, and the children have cookies and cupcakes and things when they come home from school. Normal households with moms who have pretty beauty-shop hairdos, and they drive their kids to piano lessons and skating lessons and things.
Like Angela McCauley, she had a home like that. We were best friends for part of fifth grade, but that's neither here nor there. I'm not bemoaning the fact that we aren't friends now, could care less. That's not what I'm talking about. The point of all this, what I'm getting at is, she had a mother like that. Her mom had a pink recipe holder. It wasn't a pale pink, but it wasn't real bright like hot pink or neon colored or anything tacky like that either. It was more like the color of double bubble gum after it's been chewed for a while. Sort of like that color. Angela's mother let me look at it once. Took it down from the shelf over the stove and let me hold it.
She had all kinds of recipes in there, some of them she'd tried and some she hadn't yet. There were recipes her friends had given her, ones she had clipped from the Good Housekeeping magazines she kept on her coffee table. She liked Good Housekeeping magazines. That's the kind of mother Angela's mom was. She liked doing motherly, homey things. When me and Angela were friends, Angela would invite me home for lunch. I'd leave my soggy peanutbutter sandwich in my desk and walk with her to her house. Rain or shine, it didn't matter to me if we got soaking wet, didn't matter one bit, because I knew what would be waiting for us.
Angela's clean-smelling mom would meet us at the door, and on rainy days, when we'd come in, all dripping wet and laughing, she'd fuss and worry that Angela wasn't wearing her coat done up, hadn't used her umbrella, things like that.
She noticed when Angela's hair was wet, for instance. And she'd give us towels to dry off, and we'd stand there in her hallway and we'd rub our heads and I'd pretend like I was familiar with this, like my mom met me at the door and gave me towels too. Angela would roll her eyes at me and I'd roll my eyes back at her as if to say, "Moms, what are you going to do?" But I'd be savoring it. The fresh-washed towel, all soft and fluffy. Thick too. Not all scratchy and thin and mildewy smelling like ours. Not rancid with underarm smell and yesterday's throw up.
No, these towels were thick and soft and fluffy. And I'd rub my hair and my face, bury my nose and breathe in the smell, the softness, and all that love, and pretend that this was me, my life. That I'd woken up in the middle of a Beverly Cleary novel.
I'd rub my hair as long as I could, and then when we were done drying off, we'd head into the living room and sit cross-legged on the floor and play Scrabble on their wood-and-glass coffee table. I'd be real careful not to touch the glass part and leave fingerprints, so her mother wouldn't think me coming over was a whole pile of work. I'd make sure to only let my hands rest on the wood rim that held the glass in place, that and the Scrabble board. It was cozy playing Scrabble while her mom bustled around the kitchen, making us piping-hot Kraft macaroni and cheese.
I'd always say, "yes, please," and "no, thank you," to her mom. Try and behave real good, so her mama would like me and ask me back.
So that was all good. The problem was at night. That was the problem. Because I'd lie in bed, and I'd think about the day. For the first couple of months, I was happy. I liked being Angela's friend, it was real comforting. I'd think about her house, and her mom, and everything, and it made me happy. It was like a real good bedtime story. Made me feel all cozy, and I'd go to sleep with a smile on my face.
But then one night, it flipped on me. I was running through my images, my memories, the scent of her mom, the house, the lemony smell of Pledge, the polished surfaces, the tick of the brass-and-glass clock on their mantel. I'd think about her mom in the kitchen with her yellow terry-cloth slippers making a shush ... shush ... sound on the linoleum. I could almost taste that macaroni and cheese, and then, the damned thing flipped on me. It's like this little voice dropped down into my head from nowhere, and it said, "Yes, well, that's all fine and good, but be honest, Gemma, do you really like her?"
And me, my heart started racing. "What?" Cheeks getting hot, stomach gripping up, getting all embarrassed, even though no one could see me. "Who?"
"Angela." And this voice is acting as if it thinks I'm the lowest of low. "What do you like about her, other than her mother and her life?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Stop playing dumb! You find her boring and you know it. You're just using her."
"What?" Me, acting indignant, but I know it's true.
"Borrowing her life, stealing little snatches, pretending they're yours ..."
And that was that. I had to stop being her friend because it really wasn't fair, Angela thinking it was her I liked. I had to stop, it wasn't right, fooling her like that.
It was real difficult, but I stopped accepting her invitations, stopped going over. Think I hurt her feelings, but I felt like too bad a person the other way, using her good nature like that.
So that's when I became a loner, not because I'm a loser. I'm a loner because I choose to be. Better than being a using, lying hypocrite. Ahem ... spelling word.
It was hard at first, eating my sandwiches by myself, sitting on top of the jungle gym. Pretending I didn't care. Acting like I didn't notice when Angela and her new best friend, stupid Patty Tomas, would walk past me, noses in the air, with their permission slips to leave school property clutched in their hands. Walk out of the playground, laughing and talking, to go to Angela's house for her warm mother and hot meals. It was hard at first, but now, no problem. Doesn't bother me at all.
Anyway, back to my mama. She doesn't do the kind of things Angela's mom does. Not that my mom doesn't love me, she does. She just doesn't have time to show it, is all. I mean, it's hard raising a kid, and I'm no walk in the park. I try to be good, but I don't know, seem to always be messing up somehow, making her mad. And then there's work. She's got to work. How else are the bills going to get paid? How else is she going to keep a roof over our heads? So she's got to work.
Used to be a cocktail waitress at Shooters. Tips were good, but she got too old. "They like their flesh firm over there at Shooters," she says. "They like them young. Young and stupid." That's what my mama says, face all twisted up. "They don't want a washed-up hag like me hanging around, ruining people's appetites. Assholes."
"Mama," I try to tell her. "You're pretty." Because when she's not drinking, she's real pretty. But she doesn't listen to me, just takes another slug of Jack Daniels and threatens to, "go on over there, give them them what-for."
Anyway, she got another job, down at Joe's diner. But she's got to work harder, longer hours and tips aren't so good. Apparently, the people that eat at Joe's are cheap, cheap, cheap.
I try to be in my bedroom, with my door closed, when she gets home from work. Try to stay out of her way because by closing time, she's usually in a bad mood.
Now, if my mama had a nicer life, an easier one, she'd have lots of time to be loving and cozy. She's busy is all, worked to the bone. If there was something real, real important, she'd make the time, and that's the truth.
Excerpted from "Gemma"
Copyright © 1973 J. G. Ballard.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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