Summary: Once upon a time, there lived a girl who loved a ghost, and they lived happily ever after. This is not that story. Ghost!Suze, Human!Jesse. AU. JS.
Disclaimer: Not mine, never mine, and I promise to put them back when I'm done.
AN - I…did not mean for this to happen. A light, quick re-read of Meg Cabot was not meant to result in a full-blown, multi-chapter fanfic. But when the bunny bites…
It's been done before, I know, but a quick bit of research yielded no complete/recent results, so I figured I'd give it a shot.
Although this chapter does mirror the first chapter of Shadowland quite closely, after that the plots diverge completely. Mostly. Ok, I promise, I'm not just re-writing all six books and swapping every "him" and "her" I come to.
Chapter One – Tangerine Trees and Marmalade Skies
They didn't tell me about the palm trees.
Not once, in any of the many hours of conversation during which my mother had tried to sell my new home to me, had she mentioned palm trees.
I knew it was going to be hot, of course – I mean, come on. California. Its reputation precedes it. But my mom had warned me not to leave my jacket behind, and it was, after all, September. So seeing the sun blazing down on rows of palm trees as we landed was a bit of a shock. It had been raining when we'd taken off in New York.
I wasn't sure what to make of this; I'd never been a fan of the sweltering heat of New York summers, and the prospect of living in it all year round was not a pleasant one. But then again, Carmel-by-the-Sea was, as it's name suggested, by the sea, and about as different to the urban heat trap I was leaving behind as it is possible to be.
And if putting up with a bit of heat was what it would take to make my mom happy, then I could live with that. We're close, her and me. My dad died when I was six, and it's been just the two of us ever since.
Or it was, anyway. But not anymore. Which is why I've just flown three thousand miles across America; at the start of the summer, my mom got married again. So instead of it just being me and my mom knocking around a sixth floor New York apartment, it's now me, my mom, my new step-dad Andy and his three daughters all knocking around some house in Carmel, California. Which is going to take some getting used to.
But like I said, there isn't much I wouldn't do to make my mom happy; god knows her life's been hard enough, and I definitely don't make it any easier. And I like Andy, I really do. He's a bit of a joker, but he means well, and he's yet to try and have a manly father-and-son moment with me.
They were all there to meet me from the plane; my mom, Andy, and Andy's three daughters. Georgina, Melissa, Sarah. My stepsisters. Weird.
My mom was squealing my name and waving madly the moment I stepped into the arrivals lounge. I'd barely had time to move away from the door before she was on me, hugging me tight. At any other time, I'd have been embarrassed, mortified, even. I'm not a great one for public displays of affection, and, come on; I'm a seventeen-year-old guy being squeezed to death by his mom. But it was my mom, and it had been nearly two months since I'd last seen her, and I'd missed her, too. So I returned the hug, albeit slightly stiffly, before pulling away to turn and face my new family.
Luckily, no one else seemed at all inclined to greet me as enthusiastically as my mother. The girls merely grinned at me from where they stood a few paces away; Georgie in welcome, Sarah with a sort of quivering excitement, and Melissa with almost bored indifference.
"How was your flight, kid?" Andy came forward to clasp my shoulder briefly and then take me case. "Whoa, what've you got in here, anyway? You know it's a felony to smuggle New York City fire hydrants across state lines."
I smiled at him. Andy's this really big goof, but he's a nice big goof. He wouldn't have the slightest idea what constitutes a felony in the state of New York since he's only been there five times. Which was, coincidentally, exactly how many visits it took him to convince my mother to marry him.
"It's not a fire hydrant," I said. "It's a parking meter. And I have four more bags."
"Four?" Andy pretended he was shocked. "What do you think you're doing, moving in, or something?"
Did I mention that Andy thinks he's a comedian? He's not. He's a carpenter.
"Jesse," Sarah rushed forward, eyes shining as she bypassed greetings entirely in favor of an enthusiastic lecture. "Jesse, did you notice that as you were landing, the tail of the plane kicked up a little? That was from an updraft. It's caused when a mass moving at a considerable rate of speed encounters a counter-blowing wind velocity of equal or greater strength."
Sarah, Andy's youngest kid, is twelve going on fifty. She spent almost the entire wedding reception telling me about alien cattle mutilation, and how Area 51 is just this big cover-up by the American government, which doesn't want us to know that We Are Not Alone.
I smiled down at her – you honestly can't help it faced with a kid that earnest – but before I could reply, Melissa had elbowed her little sister out the way.
"Jesse," she gushed in a breathy voice. "Hi. It's so good you're here. There's, like, so many people who are just dying to meet you."
I smiled politely, unsure as to the correct response to this. Something told me the people Melissa had lined up to meet me would probably not be the people I would be so keen to meet. Luckily, I was saved from replying by Georgie, who greeted me with a lazy wave.
"Leave the poor boy alone, Mel. Hey, Jess."
I couldn't be annoyed with Georgie shortening my name, though as a rule I despised it. Georgie shortened everyone's name. At nearly six foot, with cropped, spiked copper hair and skin brazened by the Californian sun, Georgie wasn't the sort of person many people would argue with.
"Oh, Jesse," my mom kept saying. "I'm so glad you're here. You're just going to love the house. It just didn't feel like home at first, but now that you're here … Oh, and wait until you've seen your room. Andy's fixed it up so nice..."
Andy and my mom spent weeks before they got married looking for a house big enough for all four kids to have their own rooms. They finally settled on this huge house in the hills of Carmel, which they'd only been able to afford because they'd bought it in this completely wretched state, and this construction company Andy does a lot of work for fixed it up at a big discount rate. That was why I'd spent the summer in New York, while my mom moved in with Andy and his daughters at their old house; there just wasn't room enough there for us all. But now the new house was finished, and here I was.
"But come on, we'd better get your bags before someone else picks them up."
Though, looking around, I couldn't help but think the chances of that happening were pretty slim. I'd never been to California before, and we'd not even left the airport yet, but it was already easy to tell I wasn't in New York any more. Everything was so clean – the floor, the walls, even the people. All smiling faces and pleases and thank yous. Complete calm. No pushing and shoving in queues or shouting at bored airport personnel; these were definitely not the sort of people who would be running off with the suitcases containing some teenagers worldly possessions.
I'd barely been in the state five minutes, and I had to admit, I already kind of liked it.
The one thing I still wasn't sure about was the sun. The moment we stepped out of the terminal building it hit me, beating down in unrelenting waves of heat. I squinted, un-amused, as the rest of my new family calmly fished into their pockets and pulled out pairs of sunglasses. I didn't even own a pair of sunglasses.
But as my eyes adjusted to the light, if not the heat, they were bombarded by a cacophony of colour. That's what California seemed to consist of so far; heat and bright colours. The red flowers that surrounded the parking lot, green palm leaves, brown hills rising up in the distance, and blue, blue sky. It was like a rainbow had just exploded in front of my face.
My moment of careful adjustment to this new and unfamiliar assault on my senses was interrupted by Mel, who suddenly announced "I'll drive" and began to head towards the drivers side of the large utility vehicle we were approaching.
"I will drive," Andy said firmly.
"Aw, Dad," Mel moaned. "What's the point of having a license if you never let me drive?"
"You can drive the Rambler," Andy said calmly. He opened up the back of his Land Rover, and started putting my bags into it. "That goes for you, too, Jesse."
This startled me. "What goes for me, too?"
"You can share the Rambler with Georgie and Mel. Argue about it amongst yourselves."
I just blinked up at him. "I can't drive."
Mel turned to stare at me, horrified.
"You can't drive?"
She elbowed Georgie, who was leaning against the side of the truck, her face turned toward the sun. "Hey, Georgie, he can't drive!"
I shrugged awkwardly, feeling uncomfortable at her incredularity. I'd never thought it odd before that I didn't drive; barely anyone I knew did.
Luckily, my mom seemed to sense my unease and came to my rescue.
"I never kept a car in the city." she said carefully. "There never seemed any point."
Andy closed the doors to the back of the Land Rover. "Don't worry, Jesse," he said easily. "We'll get you enrolled in a driver's ed. course right away. You'll be whizzing about with the rest of them in no time."
I wasn't entirely sure if I really wanted to be "whizzing about with the rest of them", but I kept my thoughts to myself. It was already becoming apparent that things were going to be different – very, very different – to what I was used to, and, indeed, to what I had anticipated. And not just because I was living on the opposite side of the continent.
Everywhere I looked, I saw things I'd never have seen back in New York: roadside stands advertising artichokes or pomegranates, twelve for a dollar; field after field of grapevines, twisting and twisting around wooden arbors; groves of lemon and avocado trees; lush green vegetation I couldn't even identify. And arcing above it all, a sky so blue and vast I felt suddenly very, very small.
There was the ocean, too, bursting so suddenly into view that at first I didn't recognize it, thinking it was just another field. But then I noticed that this field was sparkling, reflecting the sun, flashing little Morse code SOSs at me. The light was so bright it was hard to look at without sunglasses. But there it was, the Pacific Ocean…huge, stretching almost as wide as the sky, a living, writhing thing, pushing up against a comma-shaped strip of white beach. Being from New York, my glimpses of ocean – at least the kind with a beach – had been few and far between. This was a pretty magnificent introduction.
It took nearly an hour to get from the airport to the house, and it wasn't a quick hour either. I was wedged between Georgie, who spent most of the trip gazing out the window, and Mel, who's phone appeared to be welded to her hand, while Sarah perched in the back on top of my luggage, chatting nineteen to the dozen about anything ranging from sheep cloning to the history of my new home town, changing topic so quickly I gave up trying to keep up, never mind contribute.
It was Sarah's mention of a Spaniard called Junipo Serrea and his plan to convert the natives that made my mom suddenly join the conversation, launching into a long and detailed account of the school to which I was being sent. I wasn't really listening to her any more than I had listened to Sarah, until the mention of a year caught my attention.
"Wait a minute. When was this school built?"
"The eighteenth century," Sarah replied. "The mission system, implemented by the Franciscans under the guidelines of the Catholic Church and the Spanish government, was set up not only to Christianize the Native Americans, but also to train them to become successful trades people in the new Spanish society. Originally, the mission served as a – "
"Eighteenth century?" I interrupted, leaning forward. "The eighteenth century?"
My mother must have heard the panic in my voice, since she turned in her seat and said, soothingly, "Now, Jesse, we discussed this. I told you, there's a year waiting list at Robert Louis Stevenson, and Andy's heard some awful stories about drug abuse and gang violence in the public schools around here – "
"Eighteenth century?" I could feel my heart starting to pound hard, as if I'd been running. "That's three hundred years old!"
"I don't get it."
We were driving through the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea now, all picturesque cottages – some with thatched roofs, even – and beautiful little restaurants and art galleries. Andy had to drive carefully because the traffic was thick with people in cars with out-of-state licenses, and there weren't any stoplights, something that, for some reason, the natives took pride in.
"What's so bad," he wanted to know, "about the eighteenth century?"
My mother said, without any inflection in her voice whatsoever – what I call her bad-news voice, the one she uses on TV to report plane crashes and child murders, "Jesse has never been very wild about old buildings."
"Oh," Andy said. "Then I guess he isn't going to like the house."
I clenched my hands tightly. "Why?" I demanded, in a carefully controlled voice, "Why am I not going to like the house?"
I saw why, of course, as soon as we pulled in. The house was huge, with Victorian-style turrets and a widow's walk – the whole works. My mom had had it painted blue and white and cream, and it was surrounded by big, shady pine trees, and sprawling, flowering shrubs. Three stories high, constructed entirely from wood, and not the horrible glass-and-steel or terra-cotta stuff the houses around it were made of, it was the loveliest, most tasteful house in the neighborhood.
And I didn't want to set foot in it.
I knew when I'd agreed to move with my mom to California that I'd be in for lots of changes. The roadside artichokes, the lemon groves, the ocean…they were nothing, really. The fact was, the biggest change was going to be sharing my mom with other people. In the decade since my father had died, it had been just the two of us, and I have to admit, I sort of liked it like that. In fact, if it hadn't been for the fact that Andy made my mom so obviously happy, I would have put my foot down and said no way to the whole moving thing. But you couldn't even look at them together – Andy and my mom – and not be able to tell right away that they were completely gaga over each other. And what kind of son would I have been if I said no way to that? So I accepted Andy, and I accepted his three daughters, and I accepted the fact that I was going to have to leave behind everything I had ever known in order to give my mom the happiness she deserved.
But I hadn't really considered the fact that, for the first time in my life, I was going to have to live in a house.
And not just any house, either, but, as Andy proudly told me as he was taking my bags from the car, a nineteenth century converted boarding house. Built in 1849, it had apparently had quite a little reputation in its day. Gunfights over card games and women had taken place in the front parlor. You could still see the bullet holes. In fact, Andy had framed one rather than filling it in.
It was a bit morbid, he admitted, but interesting, too. He bet we were living in the only house in the Carmel hills that had a nineteenth century bullet hole in it.
Huh, I said. I bet that was true.
My mother kept glancing in my direction as we climbed the many steps to the front porch. I knew she was nervous about what I was going to think. I was kind of irked at her, really, for not warning me. I guess I could understand why she hadn't, though. If she'd told me she had bought a house that was more than a hundred years old, I wouldn't have moved out here. I would have stayed with Grandma until it was time for me to leave for college.
Because my mom's right: I don't like old buildings.
Although, as old buildings went, this one was really something. When you stood on the front porch, you could see all of Carmel beneath you, the village, the valley, the beach, the sea. It was a breathtaking view, one that people would – and had, judging from the fanciness of the houses around ours – pay millions for; one that I shouldn't have resented, not in the least.
And yet, when my mom said, "Come on, Jesse. Come see your room," I couldn't help shuddering a little.
The house was as beautiful inside as it was outside. All shiny maple and cheerful blues and yellows. I recognized my mom's things, and that made me feel a little better. There was the pie-safe she and I had bought once on a weekend trip to Vermont. There were my baby pictures, hanging on the wall in the living room, right alongside Georgie, Mel and Sarah's. There were my mother's books in the built-in shelves in the den. Her plants, which she'd paid an exorbitant price to have shipped because she'd been unable to bear parting with them, were everywhere, on wooden stands, hanging in front of the stained-glass windows, perched on top of the newel post at the end of the stairs.
But there were also things I didn't recognize: a sleek white computer sitting on the desk where my mother used to write out cheques to pay the bills; a wide-screen TV tucked into a fireplace in the den; a pile of shoes, jackets and bags in the alcove by the door; a huge, slobbery dog who seemed to think I was harboring food in my pockets since he kept thrusting his big wet nose into them. I dodged around him, and followed my mom up the stairs. My room was on the third floor, along with Georgie.
"Now, it's not a big room," my mom said nervously as she led the way. "But it's lovely, tucked away under the roof, and Andy's built you a window seat so you can sit and look out at the sea. And I've done a bit of decorating, but if you don't like it, we can easily change it…"
But, when she opened the door and ushered me inside, I realized I didn't want to. It was almost touching, really, the trouble they'd gone to, to make the room feel like home. My mom was right; it wasn't huge. Long, certainly, but quite narrow. But I didn't care. My mom must have been shopping, because I didn't recognize the furniture - a cabin bed opposite the door, with drawers underneath it and shelves above, the wooden desk at the other end of the room – but it was pretty much exactly what I'd have chosen if I'd been with her. And someone - I presumed Andy – had painted the walls pale blue, and there was a rug on the bare wood floorboards.
I stepped carefully across the threshold, looking around, already laying out my belongings on the copious number of shelves my mother had obviously warned Andy to put up. Okay, I was thinking, this is fine. Good, even. Maybe it'll be all right, maybe no one was ever unhappy in this house, maybe all those people who got shot deserved it...
Until I turned toward window on the far wall, and saw that someone was already sitting on the window seat.
Someone who was not related to me, or to Georgie, or Melissa, or Sarah.
I turned toward Andy, to see if he'd noticed the intruder. He hadn't, even though she was right there, right in front of his face.
My mother hadn't seen her, either. All she saw was my face. I guess my expression must not have been the most pleasant, since her own fell, and she said with a sad sigh, "Oh, Jesse. Not again."
To be continued...
It's interesting trying to write from a guy's point of view – any thoughts/feedback on that aspect in particular are much appreciated. Reviews in general are love.