Gem & Dixie will break your heart and put it back together again. From renowned author and National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr comes a deep, nuanced, and gorgeously written story about the complex relationship between two sisters from a broken home.
Gem has never known what it is to have security. But the one constant in her life has been Dixie. Gem grew up taking care of her sister when no one else could: not their mother, and definitely not their father, whose intermittent presence is the only thing worse than his frequent absence. Even as Gem and Dixie have grown apart, they’ve always had each other. When their dad returns home for the first time in years and tries to insert himself back into their lives, Gem finds herself with an unexpected opportunity: three days with Dixie—on their own in Seattle and beyond. But this short trip soon becomes something more, as Gem discovers that that to save herself, she may have to sever the one bond she’s tried so hard to keep.
Keep scrolling to read the first three chapters of Gem & Dixie!
Where are we going? Dixie would ask.
The forest, I’d say. Or space.
She never questioned me.
We need to pack survival rations, I’d tell her.
Food and water and gum and stuff.
She’d help me make butter and jelly sandwiches on soft, white bread. If we had chocolate chips, we’d sprinkle those in, too, and mash the bread down hard so they wouldn’t fall out. I’d lift her to the kitchen sink so she could fill a bottle with water, and roll up a beach towel, then we’d put it all into the picnic basket which was really just a paper grocery bag on which I’d drawn a basket-weave pattern with a green marker–badly, crookedly.
We would put on our jackets and shoes, and I’d make her close her eyes and I’d lead her around the apartment and spin her in circles and then say:
We’re here. Open your eyes.
I knew, and she knew, we weren’t in space or the forest or Narnia or anywhere other than our shitty apartment. Still, when she opened her eyes they’d go big and bright. She was good at make-believe. My favorite thing was how she always skipped into whatever fantasy place we’d gone to. As soon as her eyes were open she’d start skipping all around the living room and up and down the hall.
We’re in space, I might say. You can’t skip in space.
Okay, but you can only skip really slow in space because there’s no gravity.
Mid-skip she’d switch to slow-motion and try to make her arms and legs more floaty. Then she’d get tired of it and get hot in her jacket and say it was time to go home.
No, we’re not going home. We’re never going home. I don’t remember when I started saying that part.
She’d stop squirming. What about Mom? And Daddy?
We’ll leave a note. Then we’d spread the beach towel on the living room floor and if I forgot to bring crayons or markers to space I’d run into our room and get them, and we’d draw a goodbye note, our stick figures flying up to the moon and holding hands as we waved goodbye forever to our parents. Dixie liked to draw stars behind our heads like halos.
She used to play along. She used to believe everything I told her, and do anything I said.
She used to need me to take care of her, and I liked doing it. I liked doing it because, then, I thought I was the one who could. Even though nobody was taking care of me.
They were the last of what had been left in the jar of laundry money that Dixie and I kept in our room, the jar that had never quite lost the smell of pickle relish. I counted and recounted the quarters in my pocket with my fingertips as the lunch line moved forward, as I’d counted and recounted through them through English, physiology, and government. I counted because things in my life had a way of disappearing on me, and I’d learned not to trust what I thought was there.
What was there wasn’t enough–three quarters short of the cost of lunch–but I stayed in the line anyway as it moved me toward the food. Lunch roulette. Luca, the cafeteria worker on the register, might find seventy-five cents for me in his pocket. Or someone else in line might cover it, out of impatience or pity, which were just as good as kindness on a day that hungry. I hadn’t eaten more than a candy bar since the potluck in my fourth-period Spanish class the day before.
Denny Miller and Adam Johnson–freshmen–stood right in front of me in the line, Tremaine Alvarado and Katy Plant, juniors like me, stood behind. Tremaine was on my P.E. volleyball team. She’d stare through me on the court, or jostle me while we rotated to the serve, without saying sorry or excuse me or anything else that showed she thought of me as an actual person with a name. Katy Plant thought it was funny to call me “Jim” and got other people to do it, too. I don’t know what’s worse—people acting like you don’t have a name, or them saying it wrong on purpose. The point is, I wouldn’t be asking Katy or Tremaine for a handout.
Not that I wanted to ask anyone for a handout. But being hungry—I mean really hungry—had a way of erasing a lot of the embarrassment. And Denny and Adam were easy, being the kind of undersized freshmen who still looked more like seventh-graders.
“Denny,” I said.
Both Denny and Adam turned around. I could see them wondering how I knew his name. They were both listed on a program from the last band concert, and it was posted in one of the display cases outside the counseling office, under a picture of the band. I spent a lot of time there. I knew not only their names, but that Adam played clarinet and Denny played trumpet and had a solo in “Stars and Stripes Forever.” They both had floppy hair and bad skin. Adam was taller, which helped me tell them apart.
“Can I borrow seventy-five cents?” I asked, quietly.
“Me?” Denny pointed to himself.
“Either of you.”
The line moved and the smell of ravioli and garlic bread got stronger. My stomach seemed to fold in on itself.
“I use a lunch card,” Denny said.
They turned their backs to me. Just because their parents loaded up cafeteria cards with money didn’t mean they didn’t also have some cash. I checked on Katy and Tremaine behind me; Katy was busy showing Tremaine something on her phone. I leaned closer to Denny. “But maybe you have some change or something?”
He drew back and shook his head. I thought about if I’d tell Mr. Bergstrom about this in our appointment later and how I would describe it in a way that made me not look too bad.
I tried Adam. “Do you know Dixie True?”
That got his attention. “Um, yeah.”
“She’s in our social studies class,” Denny added, facing me again. “And English.”
“That’s my sister.” Maybe if they knew that, I would seem more interesting than weird.
They exchanged a glance.
“Really?” Denny’s voice cracked on the end of the word. Adam laughed through his nose.
“Ask her next time you see her.”
They wouldn’t, not boys like this, zit-faced and probably still playing with action figures in secret. They might sneak looks at Dixie but they wouldn’t dare say a word to her.
Denny pulled a wrinkled dollar bill from his pocket. “You can pay me back tomorrow, though, right?”
“I’ll look for you,” I promised, taking the money.
A couple minutes later I had my tray of ravioli and garlic bread, a sad iceberg salad with two croutons, and a carton of milk. When I got to Luca at the register, he shook his head. “I saw that.”
I handed him the bill plus eight of the quarters. He shifted on his stool, the sleeves of his green school windbreaker swishing against his sides while he rang me up. “If you don’t have money,” he said, “you should get your parents to fill out the form online so you can get free lunch. How many times I gotta tell you?”
I stared at the peeling yellow school logo over his heart. Half of a lion’s mane, a third of its face. “Okay.”
“‘Okay,'” he said, imitating me. “You say ‘okay’ then you’ll be back here hustling quarters in line tomorrow, these poor little freshmen.” He wasn’t talking loud but not quiet, either, and I imagined Katy hearing every word.
“Those are my sister’s friends,” I said, and decided that’s what I’d tell Mr. Bergstrom if it came up. ”I’m going to pay him back.”
“You always had money in the fall. What happened?”
“I saved from my job last summer. That’s all gone.” Since January.
His hands hovered around the register drawer for a second. Then he said, “Here’s your change.”
“But–” I was sure I’d given him three dollars exactly.
“Here’s your change, Gem,” he said again, putting four quarters in my palm.
He waved me away, and I took my ravioli to a quiet corner to eat.
”Is that supposed to be me?”
Mr. Bergstrom had gotten a new whiteboard. He’d drawn a stick figure, falling. I knew it was falling from the way the stick arms and stick legs pointed slightly upward, like gravity was pulling on its stick middle.
”I’m not a great artist but yes, it’s meant to represent you. Here…” Bergstrom added some strands of hair that flew up, then capped his dry-erase marker and sat back down. ”Is it at least close? Is this how you feel?”
”I don’t know.” In the way that she was alone, maybe, but even falling she looked more free than I felt. I got up and held my hand out for the marker. I drew a box around the falling girl. That didn’t look right, either. ”This is dumb.” I picked up the eraser and wiped it all away.
”Maybe.” He smiled. He had a good smile and a good face, and a way of looking right at me without making me feel like I was being studied in some lab. He was way better than old Mr. Skaarsgard, the school psychologist he’d replaced at the beginning of the school year. Skaarsgard would always furrow his white eyebrows at me and make me feel like nothing I said made sense. Maybe it didn’t, but at least Mr. Bergstrom tried.
Normally I saw him a couple times a week, not always on the same days, sometimes after school and sometimes during it depending what was going on. I know it was a lot. Some kids at school could go a whole semester, even all of high school, without seeing him once. But right at the beginning of freshman year I sort of had this incident in pre-Algebra, and my teacher referred me and then I was on the permanent rotation, first with Skaarsgard, now Bergstrom.
”What’s the box?” he asked. ”That’s what it was, right?”
”You feel…” He trailed off and I knew I was supposed to complete the sentence.
”I mean, you can’t put me on there with nothing else,” I said pointing at the blank whiteboard. ”You have to draw Dixie and my mom, and our apartment and school.”
”Earlier, you said you felt alone.”
”I do.” My hands curled up on my knees, my nails pressed into my palms. This office was always hot and small. I shook my head, not knowing how to explain feeling alone but also trapped in the middle of people and places that didn’t let me move or breathe.
Mr. Bergstrom had plain brown eyes, a little bit small for his face, but I could almost always see sympathy in them, like now. ”It’s okay, Gem,” he said. ”I know it’s hard to put into words.”
I opened my hands and took a breath.
”Do you want to update me on things with your mom?” he asked.
”Fine? Last time we talked you seemed pretty worried about her. And Dixie.”
Sometimes at our appointments, I’d tell him a lot, and it felt good in the moment, finally saying the things I’d had stuck in my head all that week. But then I’d be in bed those nights, and a smothering kind of panic would settle on me that I’d said too much. Like I’d given away something I needed and couldn’t get back.
”You said not to worry so I stopped.”
”Well. I think I said it wasn’t your job to worry about your mom, it’s her job to worry about you. But I know it’s not that simple. Especially with Dixie.” He smiled again. ”And I know you didn’t just stop worrying, Gem.”
I looked at the clock. ”I have to go to detention. My bus was late this morning.”
He nodded. ”Okay.” He wheeled his chair back. ”We’re not scheduled again until next week but come say hi anytime.” That’s how he always ended our meetings. Come say hi anytime. I liked knowing I could.
By the time I got home, it was twilight. Detention had made me miss my bus connection, so I’d walked, the chill and damp of Seattle a force I pressed against with every step. It was March, and things would get better and lighter soon, just not yet. Having to walk meant I missed my afternoon cigarette, too, on my bench in my park. The smoking time, which no one but me knew about, was when I didn’t feel the cage or the box or whatever it was. It made space for me and my thoughts. Without it I felt like part of me was left behind, trying to catch up.
The security gate at the front of our apartment building stood ajar despite the signs all over the entryway reminding residents in capital letters to MAKE SURE the gate stayed LOCKED SECURELY because there had been CRIMINAL INCIDENTS. The dark corridor between the gate and our stairwell always scared me, especially when the gate was left open.
I pulled it closed behind me, then checked the lock. Then I checked the lock again and told myself I could stop checking. But halfway down the corridor I went back to check it again. Then, grasping the pepper spray on my keychain, I went up the three flights of stairs and into our apartment.
Dixie was home. She had the TV on and a sandwich in one hand, her phone in the other, homework all over the floor where she sat. She’d changed clothes since I’d seen her at school that morning–from jeans and a hoodie to shorts over tights and a green v-neck t-shirt that showed a lot. I had on baggy jeans and a plain, blue sweater that would have hidden everything, if there was anything to be hidden. As usual, she looked like the older sister.
She looked up. “I heard you stole money from some freshman today.”
Dixie had ways of knowing nearly everything that happened to me at school.
“Borrowed money,” I clarified.
“Why’d you have to tell them I was your sister?”
“You are my sister.”
“Thanks for embarrassing me.”
In our bedroom, I put my backpack on my pillow with the straps toward the wall. My keys went on top of the cardboard box on its side that I used as a sort of nightstand. My shoes went inside the box, laces hanging out. I hung my jacket on the closet doorknob and put on my thick socks I always wore around our apartment. Whenever Dixie saw me doing this stuff, or checking the gate lock more than twice, she’d tease me and say I had OCD. But Mr. Bergstrom asked me a bunch of questions about it and said I didn’t fit the diagnosis, that it was more like I had a few rituals that helped me feel in control, and they didn’t interfere with my life, and it wasn’t the same thing. ”Plus, from what you’ve told me about where you live,” he’d said, ”checking the gate lock sounds like plain common sense.”
I confirmed one more thing—that my stash of cigarettes was still under the bed—then went back to the living room. The onion smell of Dixie’s sandwich made me salivate.
“Did you get that from Napoleon?” I asked.
She chewed and stared at me like, obviously. Napoleon was the older guy who worked at the deli down the block and had a crush on Dixie, like a hundred other guys.
“Can I have some?” The ravioli from lunch seemed forever ago.
“No,” she said, but held it out anyway. I sat on the floor next to her and took a bite. Then another. Roast beef. Avocado. Cheddar cheese. Thinly-sliced red onion and a hard sourdough roll. It was perfect, as if all of Napoleon’s craving for Dixie had been slathered onto that sandwich. I swallowed huge pieces of it, half-chewed and sharp with mustard.
Dixie watched me eat. “You can finish that half if you’ll go down and get the laundry from the dryer.”
“You did laundry? With what money?”
“Money I had.”
“I’m not going down there at night,” I said.
“It’s not night.”
She tried to take the sandwich away from me; I held it out of her reach. “It’s dark, though.”
“I washed some of your clothes, too, Gem. Do you want them to get stolen?” She lunged again for the sandwich.
“Okay,” I said. I finished the half, and went the five steps to the kitchenette to throw away the white paper it had been wrapped in.
“Did you see your shrink today?”
“He’s not a shrink. He’s just a school psychologist.” I opened the fridge. There were a few stale corn tortillas, an opened bag of old green beans, ketchup, and a white plastic butter dish with maybe a teaspoon of butter left, crumbs stuck all over it. Same as that morning.
“You should get him to send you to a real shrink. Say you need Adderall. You could sell it at school and then you’d have some money.” I’d heard that Dixie helped some seniors sell their prescriptions at school. I didn’t want to know. “I can tell you what symptoms to have,” she said.
I imagined going down to the laundry room. The lights could have burned out again. Sometimes there were noises that might be a zipper clanging against the dryer door, or might be rats.
“Let’s go get the laundry together,” I said to Dixie.
She looked up from her homework. “You always do that.”
“‘What?'” She repeated, in a bad imitation of my voice. “I already took my shoes off.”
“So did I. Put them back on.”
I went to the bedroom to get mine. When I came out, Dixie stood by the door forcing her flip-flops over her tights.
“You’re going to fall down the stairs and die,” I said as she shuffle-walked to me.
I knelt to tie my laces. “Where’s Mom?”
“I know. Out where?”
“Work I guess?”
I straightened up and we faced each other.
“Do you think Napoleon would give me a sandwich?”
She laughed. “Well, you might have to flash your boobs.”
“Is that what you do?”
“No! I’m joking, Gem, obviously. Do you really–” She shook her head. “You never get my jokes.”
It didn’t matter. I knew exactly why Dixie got sandwiches and why I wouldn’t.
Dixie is pretty. No one in our family is beautiful, the way movie stars are beautiful, but she’s the type of girl who gets second, third, fourth looks—as many looks people can get away with before she stares them down. She’s soft in the sense of being curvy, and hard in the sense of not taking any shit. She’s cute–her hair, her clothes, the faces she makes when she’s surprised or mad or thinks something is funny. And intimidating in the way she exudes sexuality that’s inaccessible without her permission, and her permission isn’t easy to get. It started in junior high and by the time she got to high school, people couldn’t spend five minutes with Dixie before they wanted to give her things, feed her, touch her, get her to smile, be her friend, be her boyfriend. She got sandwiches, she got her cell phone bill paid, she got attention when she wanted and deflected it when she didn’t.
Whereas I still hadn’t figured out how to make and keep a friend.
I stared, she stared back. For her it was a game. She thought I was trying to get her to look away first. But really it was me trying to see who I was through Dixie’s eyes, me wondering if she evaluated me and my face and clothes and body, the ways I made it through the world, like I evaluated hers.
Did she look for herself in me, the way I looked for myself in her?
Finally she broke, and laughed. “You’re so weird, Gem,” she said. “You probably scared that freshman with your creepy eyes.”
I didn’t want her to see I couldn’t take a joke, so I bugged my eyes at her to make them even creepier.
“Ew,” she said with an exaggerated shudder. “Let’s go downstairs before the rats come out.”
I woke up in the night, like I usually did for one reason or another–street noise, a bad dream, Mom coming home from work or a night with “the girls,” who, most of the time, probably weren’t.
Dixie’s bed was empty. She snuck out sometimes, but tonight I heard her voice with Mom’s, coming from the living room. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, them being up late together. Sometimes I could ignore them and go back to sleep. Sometimes I’d lay there with my eyes open, wishing that for once they’d check to see if I was awake. Maybe I wanted to be up talking, too.
I got up and crept out into the dark hall, watching from a spot where I could see the corner of the living room. They were on the couch, facing each other. Mom’s hair hung loose down her back. She’d gotten black tips on the blond.
They were eating potato chips. Dixie had one in her hand, gesturing with it while she talked to Mom in an excited whisper. I thought I heard my name. I often had the feeling they were talking about me, especially since Dixie started high school. Before, I had my own life there without Dixie’s to compare it to. Not having friends felt normal for me until I imagined it through her eyes, and I could see Mr. Bergstrom as much as I needed without anyone much noticing or caring. Now, Dixie could observe my life, judge it, and report it to Mom.
Gem is a loner.
Gem is always in the counseling office.
Gem takes money from freshmen boys so she can eat cafeteria ravioli.
These were the conversations they had in my head. I leaned further back into the dark, listening harder.
“So I didn’t change into my gym clothes. Not after he was like oh when am I gonna see you in your shorts again? Dick. I told Ms. Moser but she still marked it as a cut. That’s why they called you.”
Gym, she’d said. Not Gem. I scratched an itch on my arm and Dixie looked toward the hall. Mom turned around. All her silver necklaces and pendants and leather cords were draped over the scoop of her black tank top. Her mermaid tattoo showed at the edge of her collarbone.
Like Dixie’s, Mom’s beauty wasn’t model- or actress-beautiful. But still powerful. And when she and Dixie were right next to each other like that, their power doubled. In the face of it, I felt myself shrink.
“Oh, hey,” Mom said. “You’re up.”
The smile she had for me didn’t look like the one she had for Dixie. For me, she had to force it. Mr. Bergstrom once asked if this might be my imagination. If he could see it for himself he’d know what I meant.
Mom held up the chip bag, apologetic. “We just finished. It was only like half a bag anyway.”
“Where were you?” I hadn’t meant to ask, at least not before saying something else first, something that didn’t sound so much like an accusation.
Dixie widened her eyes at me, annoyed. She hated when I started in on Mom. She wanted to pretend like Mom was another one of her friends, another girl with boyfriend drama and body issues and money problems who didn’t need to hear shit from anyone about how she should be living her life.
Well, I didn’t want to be monitoring Mom, either. But someone had to.
I stepped into the room and Mom touched the black tips of her hair. She’d started drinking again in the last six months or so, using some. It started with her birthday in September and never stopped. A little wine. A little pot. It’s nothing. I came closer in, so I could see her eyes, and tried to tell if this time it was a little wine or a little pot or both.
“I went and paid the electric bill, for one thing,” she said, and looked away.
At one in the morning?
“I had to go and get a money order first,” she said to Dixie. “Then the guy couldn’t find our account. I gave him the number, my name, our address…it was like it disappeared from the system. He had to set it up all over again, and he was a real pain in the ass about it, too.” She turned to me again. “Then like I told you or think I told you, Judy’s in town. Tonight was the only night we could get together.”
Dixie sat up on her knees. “They went to the Velvet,” she said to me, as if I’d be excited.
Mom flashed her a look.
“Sorry,” Dixie said, eyes down.
I guess I wasn’t supposed to know. Like they were the sisters, me the mom.
“Only for a few hours.” Mom bent over to dig around in her purse, which sagged open on the floor enough for me to see cigarettes, crumpled up pieces of paper and dollar bills, her torn canvas wallet. “It’s not the same as it used to be, that’s for sure. Did you take my lip balm, Dixie?”
“Then why do I have to buy a new one every goddamn week?” She turned her purse upside-down and shook it, then spread the contents out on the carpet, sliding to the floor to hunch over mascara and pens and napkins and a couple of pieces of unopened mail.
Dixie leaned down and darted her hand into the pile for one of the envelopes. “That’s for me,” she said. Mom grabbed for it, but Dixie held it away, and was already studying the handwriting. “It’s from Dad?”
“No. I mean, I don’t know. There’s no return address.” Mom sat back on her heels and held out her hand. The dark green polish on her fingernails was chipped to almost nothing. “Dix. Honey.”
“It is from him. The postmark is Austin.” Dixie pressed it to her chest. “It’s addressed to me, Mom.”
I held my breath and watched.
“Oh,” Mom said with a shrug, letting her hand fall.
“Just to you?” I asked.
Dixie had backed into the corner of the couch, legs drawn up, one hand to her mouth. She had on the same polish as Mom, but hers was freshly painted.
Mom started shoving her stuff back into her purse. “Well, open it,” she said. She was agitated now, more like she got after a little pot than after a little wine. Dixie knew, like I did, that Mom could turn on you fast when she was like this.
“Not right now.”
“Why not? You’re so fucking eager to steal it out of my purse. What do you think is in there? A check? A plane ticket? Dream on. Dream on, dream on,” she sang, the refrain from an old rock song, her voice high and crazy. Definitely pot, plus maybe something stronger. I flashed on an image of her, in her bed, me trying to get her to wake up, trying to know what I should do.
Dixie’s eyes met mine in search of something. Help? Sympathy? She wouldn’t get either from me; she was the one who had a letter from Dad.
“Here, Gem, I got you something.” She stumbled to her feet and handed me a matchbook from the Velvet. “Don’t set anything on fire.”
A matchbook. She hadn’t gotten it for me. It was like how, when I was little, she used to pull random crap from her purse if we were out and I got bored and whiny. Look what I got you, Gem! A pen, a stick of gum, a business card. I thanked her for the matchbook anyway and scratched my nail along the edges of it.
She ran her hand through her hair and shrugged. “Ain’t no thing.” She tried a more genuine smile and grabbed my hand. “What’s new, kiddo? Things okay at school? Still passing your classes and everything?”
This was her new game. If Dixie wasn’t happy with every single thing Mom did, Mom pretended she didn’t exist. Before I started to notice the moments between them that caused it, I even liked the attention. But stoned, getting-back-at-Dixie attention didn’t feel much better than being completely ignored. And it had the side effect of making Dixie mad at me, like it was my fault.
I extracted my hand from Mom’s while Dixie got up and brushed past us on her way to our room. “Whatever,” she muttered.
“We need food,” I told Mom.
“Do we? I feel like I just went to the store.”
“Can you please just fill out that form for school? The lunch form thing?”
She rolled her eyes and massaged the back of her neck with one hand, and scooped up her purse with the other. “Gem. I am so tired. Just fill it out and I’ll sign it.” With Dixie gone and no one to perform for, she stopped pretending to care about my day or my grades or the fact I’d hardly eaten.
“I did. But they need copies of your paychecks, or the Basic Food statements.” I’d told her all this before.
Mom walked toward the kitchenette; I followed. She tossed her purse onto the small table we rarely ate at. “I don’t like them having all that information about me. Anyway isn’t school food disgusting and fattening and everything? I’ll get you food at the store.”
She turned around slowly. Under the kitchen light I could see her eyes were bloodshot; mascara had flaked and settled into her tiny wrinkles. Her tank top hung off one shoulder, showing a purple bra strap. Her power had dimmed. “When I get some sleep, Gem. When I get a shower and a cup of coffee. That’s when. It’s two in the morning. God.”
I clenched my teeth. My choice was to push harder and piss her off, or back down and wind up with nothing. I had to eat. “Can I have some money?” I asked. “Like… three of those dollar bills?”
“What dollar bills would those be?”
“I saw them in your purse.”
“Oh, you mean my dollar bills? The ones I earned at my job?”
Her job. Bartending twenty hours a week. Catching other shifts here and there.
She reached for her purse. “When are you getting a job again, one might ask.”
“I’m trying.” I’d filled out applications everywhere within a walk or reasonable bus ride. I had no references, though, not after getting fired from the souvenir shop for always being late, which was usually the bus’s fault.
“Do or do not. There is no try.” Yoda voice. “Okay, look, I’m going to loan you these dollar bills.” She pressed a wad of money into my hand. “And I want them back in this exact condition. I will check every wrinkle.”
I looked at the money.
“Gem, I’m kidding,” she said, jostling my arm. “You’re so serious. It’s excruciating.” With a glance toward the hall, she whispered, “Don’t you wonder what’s in that letter? I mean, don’t you just wonder what flavor, what exact flavor, of bullshit he’s selling now? I haven’t heard from him in…well thank God. Not as if I want to.” She fixed her eyes on me. I closed my hand around the money and lowered my arm. “What about you? Have you heard from him?”
I shook my head.
“No,” she said, reaching to brush my bangs out of my eyes. “I guess you wouldn’t.”
Dixie slept through our alarms. Only the top of her head showed from under the blankets. She always slept like that. For years it was my job to get her up, get her dressed, make sure she ate breakfast, get her to school. When she was little-little she didn’t complain, but as she got into second, third, fourth grade, we started to argue about it. She would want to wear her favorite outfit five days a week and I’d tell her she couldn’t, because people would notice and tease her. She’d want candy for breakfast, she’d want to play instead of finishing school work, she’d want to run ahead of me and cross the street without waiting for a green light. Around sixth grade, she decided she could do everything herself.
“You’re not my mom,” she’d tell me.
I had a picture in my drawer, me pushing a stroller around some city street when Dixie was a toddler and I was in maybe kindergarten, maybe first grade. Dixie’s sitting there, chubby legs and curly hair. And me, pushing the stroller and wearing a grown-up’s purse on my shoulder.
One morning last year, I told her she had on too much makeup for junior high and she said it again—“You’re not my mom”—and I took the picture out of my drawer and said, “Who’s this, then? Who’s pushing you around in a stroller?”
She laughed. “Someone took that picture, Gem. Probably Mom was right there, or her friend, what’s-her-name, Roxanne. They probably stuck a purse on you and told you to push me around because they thought it was cute.”
She was probably right, but truthfully I’d never thought about who took the picture. It just existed, and me and Dix were the only ones in it. It was the image of the two of us that stuck in my head as the facts; I’d never wondered who was outside the frame.
Now, I put both hands on the lump of her and rocked it until she thrashed her arms and legs at me.
“You’re going to miss the bus,” I said.
“I’m not taking the bus.” Her voice was muffled.
“What does Dad’s letter say?”
I poked her shoulder.
She threw the covers off. “Get out of my face!”
“Just tell me what it says.”
“I’ll tell you later,” she said, and pulled the covers back up. “Leave me alone.”
Mom had given me seven dollars. I doubted she’d realized she’d shoved that much at me. I also had that spare quarter from yesterday, plus the four quarters Luca had given me, which I guess technically belonged to Denny, but all together it was the most money I’d had at once since running out of my savings.
I left the apartment without checking on Mom to make sure she was okay from whatever she was on last night. Don’t look and you won’t see, I reminded myself. And if I didn’t see, then I didn’t know, and then I wouldn’t have to worry.
On the way to school I stopped by the donut shop that I smelled every day and got in line. “Apple crumb, and a glazed old-fashioned. And a milk,” I said. “And a chocolate coconut,” I added before the cashier rang me up.
I sat at the counter facing the street and ate all three, taking my time about it, pretending I was the kind of person who always had unlimited donut money and did this every day.
All morning, I looked for Dixie between classes in all the places she might be. Before third period I saw her best friend, Lia, standing outside their bio class in the black knit hat and green cowboy boots she always wore, head bent over her phone.
My voice came out louder than I’d meant it to. More than one person turned to see what I was yelling about. Lia looked up, but her expression didn’t change and I figured she must not recognize me. “It’s Gem. Dixie’s sister?”
Lia laughed. “Yeah,” she said, “I know.”
Then why didn’t you say hi, you little snot? “Have you seen her?”
Lia’s answer was to hold up her phone and show me a text she’d just gotten from Dixie.
tell mr w i;ll be there in 5 mins ish
I’d be late for my next class two floors up if I waited around. “Tell her to look for me at lunch.”
“When are you getting a phone?” Like passing on a message to Dixie was this huge pain in her ass.
“When I have a job again I guess.” I’d gotten a pre-pay phone when I had my job so they could call me about shift changes. Then my mom needed to borrow it for a couple of days when she couldn’t pay the bill on her own phone, and after that I kept getting calls from some guy named Paul, using up my minutes looking for her. I got tired of him yelling at me and threw the phone away.
“You’ll tell Dixie about lunch?” I reminded Lia.
Through Government I sat in the back like always and made one hundred pen dots on a piece of notebook paper while Mr. Coates lectured on the executive branch. Ten rows down and ten across. I imagined being small, tiny enough to fit inside the field of dots, hidden.
So Dad had written to Dixie and not me. So what. The letter was probably full of lies anyway. It still ate at me, then the fact that I cared ate at me more. My father wasn’t anybody I should upset myself over. He’d never upset himself over me.
I didn’t see Dixie anywhere at lunch. Even after the donuts I was hungry. I waited until the line got short, picked up a fish sandwich and tater tots, and told Luca, “My mom got paid.”
He smoothed out the bills and slid them into his drawer. “She should still fill out that form though. She can do it online, you know.”
“We don’t have Internet.” Luca had pictures of his two little kids taped to his register. I’d noticed them before: one girl and one boy, both with wavy black hair like his. “What are their names?” I asked, pointing.
“Jorgé and Lucia.”
“Lucia. After you.”
“That’s right. I pack them lunch every day. Food from home is better.” He made disapproving eyes at my fish sandwich. Some of us don’t have food from home, I wanted to say.
“My mom doesn’t have time to cook.” Time wasn’t exactly the issue but I’d rather him think of her as a busy and broke single mom than as someone who didn’t care enough about me to make sure I ate. “She gave me money for breakfast this morning, though.”
“Yeah? What did you have?”
“Can I get through?” Jordan Fowler was behind me with his tray; I stepped aside. Luca rang him up.
“Donuts,” I said, after Jordan was done.
He shook his head and looked at Jorgé and Lucia.
“I’m skinny,” I said. “I can eat whatever I want.”
“Who cares about skinny? You need health.”
Luca was only ever nice to me in his own teasing way. But him and his pictures of his kids and the way he cared more about what I ate than my own mother did—all I could see, all I could feel, was what I didn’t have. I was suddenly mad at him for making lunches for his kids, mad at his kids for getting those lunches.
“If you care so much about health maybe you shouldn’t work in a school cafeteria.”
“There’s a salad bar,” he said, pointing to it.
“You should mind your own business. Leave me alone.” I walked off, with a knot in the pit of my stomach, waiting for him to call after me. Gem! Don’t be mad. I’ll make you a lunch, too, some time! He didn’t say anything, though, and I didn’t look back.
Denny Miller sat by himself at a table in the corner. I went to it and put my tray down right across from his. “I have your dollar.”
“Oh.” He glanced over his shoulder. “That’s okay.”
I stacked four quarters onto his tray. “I told you I’d pay you back.”
He picked them up and put them in his pocket. I sat down and started eating, and felt his stare.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing.” He picked at his food. “Just that Adam usually–”
“Is he here now?”
We ate, even though now I didn’t really want to, my stomach hurting over what I’d said to Luca. I put food the down on top of the knot.
“Are you really Dixie True’s sister?” Denny asked, eventually.
He shrugged and stared at me.
“Why?” I asked again.
His cheeks got white around the red of his zits. He picked apart his sandwich bun.
Then I saw her—we both did. She walked in, flanked by Lia and these two senior guys they hung out with. Dixie had on one of Mom’s tank tops and a denim jacket over it, and a scarf. Blue tights under her short brown corduroy skirt. Denny’s eyes went to me again, looking for the resemblance.
I picked up my tray and walked straight over to Dixie and her friends, who’d just sat down at a table near the door. I stood over her and said, “Hey.”
“Did you see Mom this morning?”
She tapped her nails on her can of soda. “Yeah. Why?”
I shrugged. “Can I…read it?”
“Read what?” Lia asked.
Dixie knew I meant the letter. “Not right now,” she said, shifting her eyes to the others at the table. Then she wrinkled her nose at my half-eaten lunch. “Why don’t you go eat…that. I’ll show you at home.”
“Show what?” one of the guys asked.
“Nothing,” Dixie said.
“Do you have it with you?”
“God, Gem, I told you, not right now. Go do whatever it is you do, your deep breathing or counting the floor tiles or whatever. I’ll see you at home.”
The other guy wince-laughed. “Harsh.”
I turned, and looked around the cafeteria with the dizzying and familiar feeling of being lost, unclaimed, and unwanted. Denny was still watching me. I raised my middle finger to him and dumped the rest of my food in the trash before walking out.
Mr. Bergstrom called me into the counseling office during P.E. When I got there he smiled like usual, and it immediately made me feel better. “Hi, Gem,” he said.
“Sorry to make you miss class. My son has a recital right after school so I’ve got to get going, but I wanted to talk to you.”
“You can make me miss P.E. whenever you want.” I lingered in the doorway, waiting to see if I was in trouble.
“Come have a seat.” After I sat down, he said, “Luca mentioned that you seemed upset at lunch.”
It wasn’t a question, so I didn’t answer. He rubbed his hand over his head, which he kept shaved. There was dirt under his nails. He’d probably been working in his yard. On the days I didn’t feel like talking, he’d fill our time by telling me about his household and landscape projects.
“So, are you upset?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I’m not going to freak out or anything.” Lose control of myself, throw something, yell. Like I’d done the time I first got sent to see Skaarsgard.
“Okay. But if Luca says something like that, I listen. Luca’s a good guy. I think he kind of gets you.”
I shrugged again. “What did he say?”
“He worries about how you sometimes don’t have money for lunch or food from home.”
“He makes lunch for his kids every day. That’s really nice.”
Mr. Bergstrom nodded. I thought about how to explain my anger at Luca for that, how I wished his kids would go a day knowing what it felt like without him, how at the same time I wanted to protect my mom from him thinking bad things about her. I worried Mr. Bergstrom would think I was a terrible person, hating someone else’s little kids for having something any kid should have.
“Dixie got a letter from our dad,” I finally said.
“Oh yeah?” Mr. Bergstrom leaned back and put his hands behind his head. I liked that about him, how relaxed he could be, like the only thing in the world that he had to do was listen to me.
“He only wrote to her. I didn’t get anything. She won’t tell me or my mom what it says. I don’t think my mom was even going to give it to Dixie except it fell out of her purse when she was…” I didn’t want to tell him she was messed up like she was. Whenever I let something like that slip he asked a bunch of questions I worried would get her in trouble.
He waited for more, and I didn’t give more, so he asked, “What do you think is in it?”
“My mom says it will be bullshit.”
“Are you feeling anxious about it?”
I didn’t know what I was feeling, at least not in the way where I could put it into one category. He picked up his whiteboard marker and I said, “Don’t draw.”
“Okay,” he said, laughing.
“I just want to know what it says. The letter.”
“Well, there’s nothing you can do about that until Dixie chooses to tell you. So maybe you can let it go until then, and whether it’s something bad or good we can talk about it when we know.”
He always made it sound easy.
“Meanwhile…” He picked his glasses up off his desk and put them on to look at his computer. “How ‘bout this. Something we can control is I can get you on the lunch program. I think I can push the paperwork through without your mom even having to know about it.”
“Really? I thought they needed her paycheck and everything.”
“I’ll pull a few strings.”
“You don’t have to.”
”I know. I’ll tell you a secret, though: I like pulling strings. And what’s not a secret is it’s faster that way.”
Skaarsgard never would have pulled strings. “Thanks.”
“Thank Luca.” He glanced at his computer. “I’ll see you in a few days?”
“Do I have to go back to P.E.?” It was sixth period, the end of the day.
“Nah.” He wrote me a pass. He tilted his chin down when he handed it to me, to see over the tops of his glasses, and gave me the smile that made me feel like maybe in spite of Luca and Denny and Dixie’s dumb friends it was okay to be me.
One of the things Mr. Bergstrom had me do when I first started seeing him was write a family history.
“What do you mean?” I’d asked. I was suspicious of him then, at first, after Skaarsgard had never been any help at all.
“You know, where your parents come from, whatever you know about your grandparents and their parents. As far back as you can.”
“Why?” I already had plenty of homework.
“It might help you understand some things. It might help me, too, know how I can support you.”
It took a long time for me to do it. It’s not something I like to think about. But once I started, so much poured out of me and when I brought him pages and pages of what I’d written on note paper, I felt better, even before I read it to him.
Here’s the story of my parents.
Our parents, I guess, since they’re Dixie’s too. Sometimes I think of them as mine like they’re different parents to me than they are to Dixie which they kind of are. I don’t have a lot of comforting memories like I guess some people do of their parents. I don’t really know what I got from them that might be good. Dixie got the parts that were looks and charm. She got the confidence.
But I was there first.
My parents grew up in the eighties. They got married in 1997 pretty young. They met at a club most people don’t know about called The Velvet when my mom was twenty and using a fake ID to get into bars all over Seattle. They’re the type that always want to be young, for example my dad would talk about how he’d never become like people he knew who got regular boring office jobs, and would never move to the suburbs and never turn into a paycheck-getting zombie. My mom doesn’t say it in those exact words but you can tell from how she acts and dresses that she feels the same about it.
My mom got pregnant with me and they decided it was a sign to get married. They went to city hall and did the thing and both changed their last name from the ones they grew up with to a new one they chose together. They named me after the diamond they couldn’t afford when they got married. I was supposed to shine.
My mom was Adrienne Kostas and my dad was Russell Jacobs and they named themselves Adri and Russell True. It’s pronounced like Ay-Dree . When my dad needed to get on her good side he called her Dree. It happened a lot. But her good side got smaller and smaller until there was barely even room for herself there.
They had this dream of being in music. Not like in a band because they didn’t have that kind of talent. My mom can’t even carry a tune. So their plan was to buy a club and name it Gem, after me. They’d book all their favorite bands then instead of being fans who have to push their way through the crowd like everyone else, they’d be in charge of it all and get to hang out in the band dressing rooms and stuff.
Mostly they wanted to prove their parents wrong about everything. I heard that a lot when I was a kid, especially from my dad. Probably everyone tells themselves they won’t be like their parents. I know I do. But for my parents, it was more. I mean, they changed their names, so they acted really serious about it. Except the thing they did that was just like their parents was drinking. They kept trying to stop. Drugs sometimes, too. Every time one of their rock star heroes died of a drug overdose they’d quit for awhile again.
When my mom found out she was pregnant with Dixie she stopped for a long time. But mostly, my father couldn’t, and couldn’t keep a job.
My father couldn’t stay away from other women, either. He left us and came back a bunch of times. Mom would tell him “stay gone this time” then he’d come back and she’d let him. He’d call her Dree and beg and say he loved her more than anything. Then right before I started high school my mom said he was leaving forever this time because he’d found a twenty-six-year-old version of her in Austin, Texas.
He must have known what was coming, because the week before Mom kicked him out he spent a lot of time with me and Dixie. He got us a cat and played us his old records. He took us all around the city. It was like a goodbye tour of his favorite bars and clubs. He let us skip school. He brought us to dark, dirty places where we got free Shirley Temples and peanuts. Dixie would sit up on the bar while Dad’s friends or whatever they were told her how cute she was, how when she got older she’d be trouble. I guess she was around eleven then. I could already tell people liked her better than me. She was soft and bright, and I was boney and never smiled. I guess I’m still that way. I remember sitting in the shadows trying not to touch the sticky tables, making sure I could always see the door. He made us promise not to tell Mom where we’d been.
Dixie remembers it all as an adventure, the best times we’d ever had with him. She’d tell stories to her friends about meeting the drummer from My First Crush at one of the bars. And how we named the cat Ringo Starr because Dad once interned at a studio in L.A. where Ringo and maybe one of the other Beatles recorded an album. After he was gone, she told her friends that Dad worked in “the music industry” in Austin and was coming back to Seattle to open a club and call it Dixie’s.
I remember it more like the drummer from My First Crush throwing up in the bar halfway between the jukebox and the bathroom. And Ringo Starr disappeared off the fire escape only a few weeks after we got him.
The internship at the studio in L.A. was the last real job my father had in music and it didn’t even pay. I don’t count playing bouncer at bars in Austin as being in the music industry. I don’t think anyone would.
And I want to tell Dixie’s friends that, actually, it was Gem. They were going to name the club Gem.
“That’s all I have so far,” I’d told Mr. Bergstrom after I read it out loud. “I was going to do my grandparents but I had to do geometry homework instead.” I handed him the pages and he shuffled through them and didn’t say anything. “Is that what you wanted?” I asked. “Is it okay?”
He nodded. “It’s really good.” He just stared at the pages and we were quiet for the longest time I remember us ever being quiet.
“It’s kind of a sad story I guess.”
“Yeah,” he said, and looked at me. “It kind of is.”
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