Two sisters face love, rivalry, and a shocking disappearance amidst the luxury of Palm Springs from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Flowers in the Attic series and Landry series—now popular Lifetime movie events.
Like everyone else in Palm Springs, Gish idolizes her smart, beautiful, kind older sister. Even their parents compare Gish unfavorably to Gloria—threatening to send her to boarding school once the more perfect sister leaves for college.
But Gloria has an unwavering love for Gish, even if that connection belies a weariness with her own accomplishments. Wanting a better life for her overlooked sibling, Gloria teaches Gish how to talk to boys, embrace her femininity, and finally develop a life of her own. And just as life is looking up for Gish, Gloria meets a handsome, mysterious boy. Obsessed with the stranger, Gloria closes off her life to her sister—then disappears without a trace.
A police search yields nothing. Their father’s manic investigation proves fruitless. And their already starstruck mother becomes increasingly lost in daydreams of the celebrities who threw glamorous parties in their historic house decades ago when the town was a Hollywood getaway.
Untethered from the weight of her sister’s presence—but also missing her sister’s love—what will Gish do with this new terrible freedom, with this sense she could become anything?
Release date: March 15, 2022
Publisher: Gallery Books
Print pages: 304
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Becoming My Sister
For me more than for my sister, Gloria, our house was always full of echoes, and not because our house was vast and cavernous with high ceilings and long hallways. It was bigger than most homes, but it wasn’t a castle. These were the echoes of voices from the past speaking softly. I remember playing alone in my room with a hand-me-down doll that originally had been given to Gloria, and hearing whispering outside my door, sometimes so loud I finally had to get up to peek down the hallway. If I looked, the whispering always stopped. I’d wait and wait and then rush back to the doll and hug her, patting its almost human hair.
“Don’t be afraid,” I’d assure her with my eyes on the doorway. “These aren’t bad ghosts.”
Our house had once been the home of a famous silent-movie star who frequently threw glamorous parties right up to and through most of the 1960s. According to Mother, anyone who was anyone during the golden age of Hollywood and right after had come here, slept here, and partied into the “wee hours” in our living and dining rooms. Chefs and servants ran back and forth from the long, restaurant-sized kitchen with trays of hors d’oeuvres. Champagne bottles were popped so quickly that they “sounded like a tune.” Often the guests reveled outside on our beautiful grounds, sitting and dancing on the patios. Musicians played under large umbrellas. There were dramatic lights. There always had to be lights. These were movie stars.
As if she had been there at the time, Mother described in great detail how the house had been filled with laughter, music, and the clinking of champagne glasses, all of it being more significant because of the overlay of fame.
“These weren’t just any parties,” she bragged. “They were parties that were written up in the newspapers, reported on the radio and on television. These were parties with pictures of our house and grounds in magazines! Sometimes a producer would premiere a movie here.”
Many times I heard my mother claim that the spirits of cinema as well as stage theater greats still walked the halls, which explained the ghosts she claimed inhabited our house. Although she had redone most of the floors, replacing all the wood with rich marble tiles that didn’t creak, she would swear to her friends that she still heard their footsteps late at night. She claimed that she often woke, opened her eyes, and listened to the voices, the laughter, the singing, and the applause. “As if it was happening in the here and now.”
Of course, my father had slept through it and simply smiled and nodded when she described it all to us in the morning. Our nanny, who was with us both since birth, Mrs. Broadchurch, smiled, too, but took my hand and Gloria’s for a quick, reassuring squeeze. Mother insisted nobody should be frightened by it, but sometimes I thought Mrs. Broadchurch was frightened as much and as often as I was.
Gloria never seemed afraid. In fact, now that I think about her more, I don’t recall her ever having a nightmare. But she was at my side whenever I did. Our bedrooms were next to each other’s, and our parents’ was to the right at the end of the hall. I started to believe Gloria had her ear to the wall anticipating my sobs. She was always there before Mother, who took one look at us lying together and went back to bed, content that Gloria had done what had to be done with me. She had little patience for me. My fears annoyed her. “How could these ghosts frighten anyone? They were stars!”
“Gish has a big imagination, Mother, bigger than mine,” Gloria would tell her.
Mother would throw her right hand up in a smooth motion and dramatically dismiss me. She had seen it done that way in some silent movie. She unraveled through our house every day like a reel of film.
She was unstoppable when it came to convincing everyone that the movement of famous spirits through our house was real. I’d look at the way Mrs. Broadchurch’s eyes would widen as Mother detailed her colorful descriptions, pinpointing laughter, the tinkle of glasses, and the whispers of secret love at this corner of the house or that. She made it sound so logical and true and with such vivid detail that my four-year-old heart, so willing to accept wondrous new things, would begin to race with my own memories of voices heard just the previous night.
On one occasion, one of her more skeptical friends asked Mother how she was so sure these spirits lived on for decades.
“And here?” she added, looking like she had collapsed Mother’s house of cards with her logical question.
“The more famous you were, the longer you could haunt the settings you had enjoyed,” Mother replied, as if the answer was as clear as day. “Ordinary people evaporate instantly, but celebrities whose names linger on the lips of the living and whose voices and faces are still resurrected on television and the internet are immortal. And they are that especially in this house, our house!”
She would say all these things to all her friends and visitors as well, while brightening her beautiful amber eyes with their yellowish golden and coppery tint, hypnotizing her listeners with even more detail about this celebrity or that, some of those facts astoundingly personal. It was as if she was immortal and really had known them all. She’d sit in her favorite vintage English Victorian carved high-back armchair, looking like a monarch with her dark brown hair styled in what she called the Garbo bob, named for the actress Greta Garbo, “who most certainly had been here.”
She’d sit with her regal posture and deliver her descriptions and references with an air of authority that kept her listeners mesmerized. As if she had promised these celebrated spirits to live up to their expectations, she never greeted any guest without her makeup carefully applied, including on her long eyelashes. She had taken lessons from a movie makeup artist. Her ears and neck sparkled with her diamonds. For years, she had been collecting vintage clothing, and at times she bought something some actress was said to have owned. She’d dress in one of those when she was going to have one of her get-togethers, her famous Celebrity Talks. It was as if she was ready to go onto a movie set herself.
“Her words rang with the timbre of church bells,” Gloria recalled when as teenagers we reminisced about our childhood and Mother’s famous afternoon recitations. “Why wouldn’t her gullible friends believe her?”
We had seen it ourselves. When Gloria and I were little older than infants, we’d sit quietly with Mrs. Broadchurch and listen to our mother ramble on and on to new and older friends about the history of the house. I really would rather have not been there, would rather have been outside playing, but she told Mrs. Broadchurch she wanted us present for these gatherings so we would know how lucky we were to be living where we were living. The two of us would sit quietly with our hands in our laps, trying to look like we were proud of her and were enjoying it. I could see the birds outside, circling and inviting me to run over our carpet-like lawns with my arms out like wings, screaming to be free, to glide off and escape.
Often Mother glanced at me with something of a scowl because I couldn’t hold a smile or look grateful that I was there. I was afraid to tell her how her “hallways at night” stories slipped into my sleep and had me envision hands and arms floating along our walls, her famous faces flashing a smile at me, and sometimes, in my dreams, coming into my room to hover above me. If I woke, I wouldn’t open my eyes until the sunshine washed the ghosts away in the morning. I knew how much Mother wanted me to be thankful for and be happy about the wonder of our spiritual houseguests, but it wasn’t easy for me, as easy as it seemed to be for Gloria, and she could see that in my expression and discomfort.
“Too many young people have no appreciation for their history. A fifty-dollar video game is a far more important way to spend their time than walking through a historical site like ours,” our mother said, sounding so mournful.
She directed those words of criticism more at me than at my sister, Gloria. When Mother spoke of her celebrities, Gloria would look like Daddy and wear that soft, amused smile of hers, as if Mother was telling some sort of fairy tale. I was still young enough to believe in fairy tales, Mother’s and the ones Mrs. Broadchurch read to us. I can’t say I ever stopped believing in Mother’s stories, even years later when fantasies and magic were supposed to have faded.
I had one particular memory that would never fade. One night when I heard whispers and laughter again, I got out of bed slowly and went to my door. Opening it just a little, I peered out and was sure I saw Mother walking through the hallway in her sheer white nightgown, the hem of it floating around her, looking like she was talking to someone. She was laughing, too. I rushed back to bed. In the morning, when I told Gloria, she said I was probably just dreaming. However, I thought Mother would be proud of me and love me more, so I told her what I had seen and heard and asked her if I had been dreaming.
“Of course not, and of course you could have seen and heard all that,” she said. “It wasn’t a dream. However, it wasn’t me you saw. It was more likely Mary Pickford. Little children have more contact with the spiritual world.”
I looked at Gloria, who simply smiled that smile of hers, looking as if she had known this for a long time, but it still frightened me a little, maybe more than a little.
“We’re so lucky,” Mother told us when we sat with her fascinated audience again. “We not only live with the rich and famous now, but we have the memories of them locked within our walls. Practically every day, I learn about another famous person who visited or partied here.”
How did she learn? Did a ghost tell her? I wondered. I was afraid to ask her, and Daddy provided no clues. He was never at these gatherings because they were only with Mother’s friends, Mrs. Broadchurch, and us. Often he was working at his office, either here at the house or downtown. He even worked on weekends. Later, at dinner, she would describe a recent meeting of her celebrities club to Daddy. Gloria and I would have to relive it, almost word for word. She was often not very nice to some of her guests. She would act so surprised, even insulted, that they knew so little about famous people. I could swear I saw Mrs. Hume’s eyes tear up and her lips quiver when Mother practically called her an idiot for not knowing who Norma Shearer was.
“She was the first person to be nominated five times for an Academy Award for acting!” she practically spit at her. “And she won for The Divorcee. Have you never seen The Divorcee?”
Mrs. Hume shook her head and looked at everyone fearfully. I thought no one there had seen the movie, but no one else dared to admit it. Mother seemed so powerful to me then, even with her soft, dainty hands and thin frame that Daddy compared to Audrey Hepburn’s. “My wife’s like the princess in Roman Holiday,” he’d say, and only those who came to Mother’s movie nights or watched TCM knew what he meant.
“You’d be shocked,” she told Daddy after one of her tea parties. “It’s one thing to forget who Norma Shearer was, but none of them knew who Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Farrell, and Janet Gaynor were.”
Before he could offer an explanation, she said, “They’re too into themselves and their meaningless gossip. I don’t know why I bother with them.”
Daddy nodded. Maybe her friends were into themselves, but when I looked at their faces, I still saw that most were impressed and even envious that Mother was so schooled in celebrities and could somehow connect with them. Why would anyone be surprised that it made Mother special in my eyes, too?
Even though the very thought of something supernatural would frighten most of her guests, these people were continually intrigued and looked forward to Mother’s gatherings, her little parties with wine and cheese. Pictures flashed on walls, and old singers like Rudy Vallee were played on an antique Victrola to provide atmosphere for her talks. An invitation was highly cherished. In their eyes, Mother was part of the world of the rich and famous, and fame was something everyone sought. Who didn’t want to live forever, at least on the lips of future admirers?
“Mother’s sessions make her guests feel as if they’re learning things most people don’t know, could never know. They want to believe her,” Gloria told me when we were a little older, but even at six, she had explanations for practically everything that puzzled me.
I was never really sure whether or not Mrs. Broadchurch believed Mother when she told her stories. She knew most of the celebrity names. She was in her early sixties, widowed. Daddy had tempted her away from a well-to-do family in England by offering her twice the salary. She called our home “posh.” I never knew what that meant until she was gone, but it sounded good. She was almost as proud of our home and living here as Mother was, but when I asked her if she heard voices and laughter at night, too, she said no, but not to take anything from that because she was hard of hearing.
“However, if your mum says she did, she did,” she added. “Mums don’t lie about such things, especially to their own children.”
I didn’t know what to believe. Aside from telling me I was dreaming when I heard voices and laughter and what I had seen Mother doing, Gloria never came right out and said that what Mother was telling her friends wasn’t true. The most she said about it back then was, “It doesn’t hurt us to believe it, too, Gish, and it makes Mother happier if we do. The least we can do is be proud of where we live. It’s what Mother wants.”
I did come to believe that our house was a piece of history, like some national monument and, as Mother said, “far more important than houses with signs that boasted ‘George Washington Slept Here.’?” Everyone laughed, even Mrs. Broadchurch, when Mother said that, but Mother was very, very serious about our house. She didn’t laugh after she had said it. She never meant it as a joke. Her lips would tighten and her eyes would widen. Everyone would instantly stop laughing, as if she had thrown a switch.
“By buying it, we saved it from disappearing and rescued it from practically melting in the desert sun. Those of us who have the money also have the obligation to preserve what was and is important,” she told her wealthy friends—lectured them, more like it.
Daddy was a very successful investment manager. Early on, Mother told us, “Your father is one of those men whose work is their life. Never blame him for something he cannot control because it’s in our family’s interest.”
She meant he was as obsessed with his work as she was with our house and her research. She didn’t seem to mind how often he was gone. Other wives would surely have complained at how frequently their husbands missed dinner or had to be on business trips. Because of Daddy, we were as wealthy as any of the people Mother invited. Besides, she had her celebrity projects to keep her occupied whenever he wasn’t home anyway. In her mind, the buying of this house and saving it from termites, rats, and the weather was akin to winning a great battle for the country, even the world. It was as if she was challenging all her rich friends to do something nearly as significant.
“You should be proud of your mum,” Mrs. Broadchurch always told us. “I come from a place where there are many historical houses that are in great need of a woman like your mum. Look at how well she’s kept your home and, as she says, for good reason. It has history. If we don’t preserve our history, all of it, we lose a sense of who we are.”
That did make sense and made what Mother was doing very impressive. How could Gloria, I, or Daddy really ever disagree? She certainly kept our home looking elegant and important. She changed drapes, replaced windows and molding, and had some areas repainted. Every change was carefully coordinated to keep our house and grounds looking like they belonged in the golden age of Hollywood.
There was a wall that Mother hadn’t repainted or even touched, a wall that gave her claims some authenticity. It was just inside the main entryway. On it were dozens and dozens of autographs, some so faded that you had to guess at the names. No one challenged my mother’s interpretation of the scribbles or that they were genuine. This one was definitely W. C. Fields, and that one was assuredly Cary Grant.
“You know that wasn’t his real name,” she would explain when pointing out his signature to someone, and then proudly declare that his real name was Archie Leach.
“Yes, he was English, too,” Mrs. Broadchurch whispered to Gloria and me.
Mother spent much of her time researching celebrities and covered two of the walls in the den with old photographs and movie posters that featured the stars of stage and screen who “surely had dinner here.” There were even framed pictures in our formal living room where other homes would have family pictures. It was as if, to Mother, the celebrities were related to us.
She would often call Gloria and me to watch her place a new framed celebrity photograph on a shelf or table. Of course, she’d tell us all about whoever it was and warn us that she might ask us to repeat some of that later. We knew more about George Raft or Ida Lupino than we did about our grandparents, who had evaporated like raindrops years ago. Mother seemed ashamed of her parents. She didn’t want to dwell on where she was born and how she had lived. Daddy’s mother died young, and his father was barely alive in an adult residence in Los Angeles. Only he visited him and, from what I understood, not so often.
So instead of our personal family history, there were volumes and volumes of autobiographies of celebrities, official and unofficial biographies, books with pictures from hundreds of films, as well as histories of studios and executives and discussions of the greatest movies ever. They took up a dozen shelves in our den. If someone asked Mother a question, she could pluck the right book with the answer off the shelf in an instant.
Just as full were the shelves in the cabinet that held all the DVDs of old movies she had collected. Some had autographs on them, too. Often, she would have movie nights and then lecture about the films and the actors until the eyes of her guests began to droop. Committees of this organization or that would invite her to speak about our house and its history. The local television station came often to interview her whenever someone or some famous movie was being celebrated. She had become something of a celebrity because of the celebrities.
And it wasn’t only the historical famous who Mother thought should be cherished. For Mother, attending galas and charity events where some recent television or movie personality would be present was more important than any holiday, birthday, or anniversary, even her own. She added the photographs taken beside someone newly famous to the ones of older actors in the den. Many didn’t have my father in them, just her. He wasn’t upset. Daddy never challenged Mother’s enthusiasm for her famous people. On the contrary, anyone could clearly see he was basically doing everything he could to please her. Whatever makes her happy was a motto he could have had chiseled over the front door or tattooed on his forehead. Even Mrs. Broadchurch told us, “Your mum gettin’ your father angry is harder than turnin’ a battleship on a dime. The man’s a saint,” she added, almost under her breath. I had no idea what that meant. Sometimes I wouldn’t ask Gloria questions just because I was jealous that she always knew the answers.
She knew the answer to this one but didn’t tell me until I was in the fifth grade and we both saw Mother bawl Daddy out as if he was nothing more than one of our employees. He had forgotten to buy something she needed for one of her talks.
“When they were married,” Gloria said, “Mother’s family was the family with all the money. She funded Daddy’s investment business.”
“If they were in love, why would that matter?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. Not really. She just shrugged and went on to talk about something else.
We knew that Mother had ordered Daddy to arrange for the purchase of this house before we were born. From the way she described the purchase to Gloria and me, Gloria suspected she wouldn’t permit herself to become pregnant until he had. She was six and I was almost five at the time Gloria explained it further.
“She wouldn’t start a family, us, until he had bought it,” she said, her small hands curled, with her arms up and moving as if she was shaping the truth right before my eyes the way she would mold interesting figures out of clay. “And Daddy really wanted a family. They’re both only children, no brothers or sisters. It mattered more to Daddy.”
For me, this whole business of making babies was still quite unclear. “Were you in her stomach waiting to be born?”
“Yes,” Gloria said.
“Were you crying?”
“Probably,” she told me.
“Wouldn’t that keep Daddy awake at night?”
“It’s why he bought our house so fast,” she said. “The owners at the time wanted a lot more money for it, and Daddy had to use all his skills to get them to lower their price. I heard him describe it all to his partner, Mr. Hemsley, in his office.”
“Why didn’t I hear him?”
“You were in the lobby telling the story of Charlotte’s Web to Mrs. Norris, their secretary.”
Gloria had what Mother called “a photographic memory.” She had only to look at something once or experience something one time to recall it easily even years later. Still, I wondered if Gloria was telling the truth about being in Mother’s stomach so long. Even then, I suspected she told me things to keep me happy or from wondering anymore about something.
She said that Mother and Daddy had been married only a little more than a year and were renting a house not half the size when Daddy bought our home. She immediately named it Cameo and had that name printed on a copper plaque and placed above the outside entry. The name had something to do with the movies.
This house with its property was one of the biggest in what was known as the Movie Colony in Palm Springs, California, a classic Spanish revival with a central courtyard, and a separate casita that became Gloria’s and my playhouse, our private getaway where we would reveal our secret thoughts and dance like television stars. A veranda connected it to the four-bedroom main house.
Pathways led through the terra-cotta-tiled courtyard, surrounded by nearly five acres of rolling green lawn, palm trees, more tile walkways, and a dramatic swimming pool shaped like a violin and redone in blue and white Pebble Tec with a pink stucco pool house beside it. To the right of that was our tennis court, where Mother claimed Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had played against Errol Flynn. “Even Charlie Chaplin once played on it.”
There was flowing white and red bougainvillea everywhere, with gardens carefully designed to feature any and all desert flowers. The fountains scattered over the property were never turned off. Sometimes, with the windows of my room open, I would hear the gurgle and fall asleep to it, just like many movie stars had, according to Mother.
When anyone entered through the gateway of the ten-foot-high solid white concrete-block walls that surrounded us, they thought they had left one world and stepped into another, a world Mother said was designed to be a “way station” between earth and heaven. Why not believe that movie and entertainment stars still haunted its beautiful grounds?
Our parents couldn’t move into it for nearly a year after they had bought it, because Mother wanted to carefully update the electric fixtures with ones she had found in antique shops, including chandeliers. She improved the dramatic lighting all over the property. Only because they were getting to be problems, she replaced bathroom and kitchen fixtures, but insisted on keeping one original bathroom sacrosanct as a sort of historical site. No one used it. It didn’t even have running water or a door, but it was there because “Marilyn Monroe sat on that toilet and peed.” Above it Mother had placed a copy of the famous picture of Marilyn Monroe having her skirt blown.
Once when I was nearly six, almost a year after Mrs. Broadchurch had become too ill to remain with us, I pressed the tips of my fingers as hard as I could on the Wall of Signatures, expecting to force out words and cries absorbed years and years ago. When my mother saw me, she screamed.
“You’re smudging William Powell!”
I pulled my hand back as if I had touched a hot stove. She rushed out, got a cloth, and ever so carefully wiped the area I had touched, screaming about the desecration of our valuable property. I saw no difference in the signature when she was finished, because I didn’t think it was so clear to read anyway. I stood there watching her, the tears, mostly tears of fear, streaming down my cheeks. Gloria came running to save me from Mother’s rage. She had done that many times, because Mother would get almost as angry if I dropped a crumb on the floor or smudged a mirror. Sometimes, she’d be angry at me for days. This time, Mother did calm down when Gloria promised to make sure I never did anything like that again.
“You’d better,” she warned her. “Your job is to keep an eye on her, maybe for the rest of your life.”
Her job? The rest of my life? She made me feel like some kind of wild animal who was slow to learn and become housebroken like some pet. All I wanted was to please her as much as Gloria obviously did. Both she and Daddy never stopped complimenting her for this or that, especially her reading and writing and her drawings, whereas their words to me, mainly Mother’s, were usually warnings and threats.
Mother rarely, if ever, growled at Gloria, but I could make Mother so furious that she looked like she might explode sometimes. Holding her hand over her heart and gasping, she would accuse me of rushing her aging. Wrinkles were a direct result of the stress and aggravation I had caused. Once, she cut off a few of her premature gray hairs and put them on my pillow.
“Maybe if you sleep with that, you’ll realize what you’re doing to me,” she whispered sharply into my ear, her lips so close that I could feel the breeze of the words, stinging like the kiss of a bee.
I was afraid to let my face touch those hairs and cried until Gloria came into my bedroom, took them away, and flushed them down the toilet.
“It’s all right, Gish,” she told me. “She’s just afraid of getting old because some of her friends who aren’t much older look so much older and makeup won’t help them. It’s not your fault.”
Maybe, I thought, but you’re never blamed for a gray hair or a wrinkle. I swallowed back my sadness but wondered, do those tears you hold back soak inside you forever and ever so that eventually you drown from the inside out? It occurred to me that I never saw Mother make Gloria cry. Certainly, neither Mother nor Daddy did or said anything to her that even made her eyes well up.
Early in my life, I realized that when my mother looked at me, she saw someone other than whom I saw in a mirror. I think that was because she, and my father, for that matter, were blinded by the light they saw in Gloria’s face. When they turned from her to me, I could clearly see the changes in their eyes, the tightness in their
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