Chapter 12

CHAPTER TWELVE

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Rebecca slid into a chair at the CafÉ Lafayette, dropped her bag on the floor, and pulled a postcard out of her blazer pocket. It was from her father, delivered to the house on Sixth Street the day before. She'd read it more than a dozen times already, though it didn't say much-. He was working hard; November in central China was really cold; he missed her.

She missed him. Just seeing his familiar spidery writing made her feel depressed and homesick. This would be the first time in her life they wouldn't be together for Thanksgiving. At least she had plenty of homework to keep her busy: The Temple Mead teachers were piling on extra work, talking about the time they'd all lose during Mardi Gras, when school was closed for a week.

This week she'd started doing her homework in the café on Prytania. Aurelia was busy with piano and singing lessons, getting ready for her holiday recital, and being home alone in the little yellow house made Rebecca feel even more depressed: The strange decorations loomed over her like dusty, arcane exhibits in a museum, and there was nowhere to study apart from the kitchen table. The house was too gloomy, in a permanent shadow cast by the cemetery walls, the oak trees, and the tightly packed row of houses. All she ended up doing was thinking about Lisette.

By contrast, the Café Lafayette was bright and noisy, housed in a small mall-like building that was also home to a cluttered bookstore, an expensive hair salon, and a place rich people could take their dogs for grooming.

The café looked kind of like an elegant bar, its walls painted blue-gray, with big windows on two sides and black-and-white artsy photographs of Lafayette Cemetery hanging on the back wall.

That afternoon every table was taken by the Plebs and Debs of Temple Mead, all drinking over-sweet tumblers of bubble tea and vying for spots in the window, so they could squawk and gush whenever boys from St. Simeon's walked by.

Rebecca and the rest of the serious homework crew were stationed along the back wall, laptops plugged into electrical outlets or books spread across the table. She tried to block out the café chatter, though she couldn't help laughing when someone at Amy's table -- not Jessica, who'd inherited Helena Bowman's flu -- gigged so much she choked on a tapioca pearl. One or two St. Simeon boys wandered in, but they didn't stick around.

To Rebecca's relief, none of "Them" dropped by. It was too Plebby a hangout, she decided, for someone like Helena Bowman.

From her seat in the café, she could keep an eye on at least one of the cemetery's entrances. Maybe, just maybe, she'd see Lisette again. Was she really a ghost? Did the dead really haunt their old familiar places?

And did that mean Rebecca's own mother might he wandering somewhere, with nobody to talk to but other ghosts and random strangers?

Rebecca fingered the postcard, wishing it was the family photo that had mysteriously disappeared from her wallet. In an e-mail, she'd asked her father about it: He'd played dumb, saying that it must have fallen out somewhere. Maybe he was right. But without the picture, Rebecca felt as though her mother's face was fading somehow. She didn't remember her at all: Millie Brown had died when Rebecca was a toddler, knocked over by a speeding car while she crossed a Paris street, Rebecca in her arms. Her mother was killed instantly. Rebecca had somehow rolled to safety and had no memory of the accident at all.  And now no photograph of her mother and father.

She set the postcard on the table, next to her plastic bottle of water, and started rummaging in her bag for her history homework. Someone was dragging the spare chair away from her table -- she could hear them! -- without even having the courtesy to ask her if that was OK.

"Hey!" she said irritably, sitting up. These girls prided themselves on being Young Ladies, but this was kind of rude....Oh.

The person pulling the chair away wasn't a young lady. It was Anton Grey.

"Hey-- Rebecca, isn't it?" He smiled at her and held out his hand. "Anton Grey. We didn't get to shake hands last time."

"No -- I guess we didn't." Rebecca took his hand, feeling shy all of a sudden, aware that the eyes of all the Temple Mead girls in the place were boring into her right now. It felt extremely weird to be holding Anton Grey's hand across the table, and he must have felt the same way:  He pulled his away sharply, and Rebecca felt her face flushing.

"Do you mind if I sit down?" he said. So he wasn't taking the chair away: He was pulling it back from the table so he could sit down. Rebecca swallowed hard.

"Go ahead," she said, trying to sound casual and wondering why it was such an effort. "I hope I'm not interrupting your homework," he said, a smile flickering: There weren't any books on her table at all. Just the postcard, which Anton was eyeing with interest. Rebecca swiped it off the table and dropped it into her bag.

"It can wait." She shrugged, and then she didn't know what else to say. The café seemed very quiet all of a sudden. Rebecca wished she had some bubble tea, so she could suck on the straw instead of grasping for some sensible and interesting conversation. All she could do was stare at the bottled water sitting on the table -- you had to buy something here to justify taking up a table for ninety minutes -- and try not to fixate on the polished brass buttons on Anton's school blazer.

"Miss Claudia was pretty mad on Friday," Anton said, picking at one of the buttons: He must have noticed her staring. "I hope you didn't get in too much trouble."

"Oh, no," said Rebecca quickly. She glanced up at him. His cheeks were rosy; maybe it was just stuffy in here. His eyes were intensely dark, almost black, and his lashes, she thought, were as long as a girl's. But his face was too lean to be pretty, and across his chin, following the line of his jaw, were the faint white traces of a scar.

"I wouldn't have locked the gate if ... you know." He smiled at her apologetically.

"It's OK," she told him, embarrassed to be talking about it still. What she didn't want was Anton asking her why she was in the cemetery that night. "My aunt worries about me because I'm new in town."

"From New York, yeah?" Anton's face brightened, and Rebecca was relieved to talk about something else for a while. He seemed very interested in hearing all about the city, a place he'd visited just once, when he was a child. He had lots of questions for her -- about her school, and places she hung out, and where her apartment was.

"At this time of year, you can see one of the ice rinks in Central Park from our living room window," she told him. "I go there nearly every weekend. Or, at least, I went there. I guess I won't be doing much ice-skating this winter."

"That sucks," he said, and she told him about her father working in China for months and months. "That postcard you were looking at -- that was China, right?"

She nodded.

"That's another place I'd really like to go. Too bad you couldn't go with your dad."

"I know," she said, glancing at the whispering Plebs with distaste: Amy's eyes looked ready to pop out of her head. Going to school in China would be beyond hard, but at least she'd be far, far away from the Roman class system.

"Well, there are some cool things that go on here over the winter. You know, once the parades start. Before that, there are lots of parties and dances and ..."

His voice trailed off, and Rebecca felt uncomfortable again. He was probably thinking how Rebecca wouldn't be invited to any of these parties. What was it Aunt Claudia had said? They're part of a different world.

"But it's not exactly New York, I guess." His grin was rueful. "Hey, do you want a coffee or something?"

"I don't really drink coffee," Rebecca told him. Personally, she thought spending the better part of five dollars on some frothy, sweetened coffee drink at Starbucks was a total waste of money, and she would always tease her self-proclaimed coffee-addict friends in New York for trying too hard to be adults.

"Neither do I," Anton admitted. "And that bubble tea stuff-- I just don't get it."

"I get enough tea at home," said Rebecca. She glanced over to one of the window tables, where all the girls were sucking intently on straws, staring over at Rebecca and Anton as though they were exhibits at the zoo.

She lowered her voice. "Aunt Claudia is nuts about anything herbal, and the more it looks like hedge clippings, the more she likes it."

"My mother's the same! She thinks it speeds up her metabolism or something."

They talked for a while longer, long enough for Rebecca to find out a few things about Anton: He was an only child; his father ran the family law firm downtown; before the storm, Anton had a small sailboat at the docks on Lake Pontchartrain, but it had been smashed to pieces and sunk by the wind and the waves.

"I haven't been out to the lake at all," Rebecca told him. "I haven't even been to Audubon Park yet."

She hadn't done much sightseeing of any kind, partly because Aunt Claudia was busier than ever on weekends now that convention season was in full swing, and partly because nobody at school ever invited her anywhere. She'd been down to the Quarter a few times with her aunt, wandering its pretty, narrow streets and browsing in the little stores, or exploring the museum and the cathedral, while her aunt told fortunes on Jackson Square. There was so much to see down there -- balconies and courtyards, buskers and artists. She didn't need to hang out at dull parties with stupid girls.

"The streetcar's running along St. Charles again," Anton said, almost as though he was thinking aloud.  "Maybe we could take a ride to the park sometime?"

"Sure," Rebecca said quickly. Aunt Claudia had told her to have nothing to do with Anton, but he seemed friendly and straight-up, not like Helena and Marianne. Apart from Lisette, he was the only person in New Orleans who'd seemed interested in talking with her. And he probably knew all sorts of things about the families who owned those grand mansions along St. Charles Avenue: It would be an insider's tour.  And, she had to admit, he was really cute.

"How about tomorrow, after school?" Anton suggested. "We could go now, but I've got this tutor who comes to the house. My parents are obsessed about me getting into Tulane."  He rolled his eyes.

"Sure -- whenever," she said. Aunt Claudia didn't have to know about this. Nobody had to know, in fact.

"I'll meet you ... on the corner of St. Charles and Sixth Street," he told Rebecca. So maybe he didn't want

anyone to see them, either, she thought. "And we'll be back before ..."

Before someone wondered where they were. Rebecca understood. Aunt Claudia didn't want her to spend time with Anton, and maybe Anton's family didn't want him hanging around with someone like Rebecca. They probably thought Aunt Claudia was some kind of gypsy or witch, her small tumbledown house lowering the tone of the neighborhood. Not every house in the Garden District was a mansion, but even the smaller houses were perfectly manicured -- and none of them had a "cottage" garden.

"I'll see you then," she said, so he didn't have to finish the sentence.

After Anton left the café, Rebecca tried to get on with some homework, but her mind was bouncing around.  A lot of the whispering and giggling going on at the window tables was directed her way, she knew. The weird girl from New York had been sitting with the Anton Grey; they'd been talking for half an hour! What was up with that? How could she possibly know him? Why had he come looking for her in the Café Lafayette? What made her so special?

Rebecca drained the last of her water and packed up her books, trying to suppress a smile. Let them all talk, she thought. She didn't even care if it got back to Helena and Marianne. It would give them another reason to dislike her, but that was OK. She didn't need them to like her. Soon it would be Christmas; before too long after that it would be Easter. The end of the school year would roll around, and she'd be out of New Orleans.

They'd live and die here.

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