It’s not easy being Todd Williams, a fourteen-and-a-half-year-old gay musical prodigy. The bullies, Bob and Ari, at his fancy private school make his life a living hell. Todd’s drunken, irresponsible mother, Eddie, constantly embarrasses him and puts his artistic future in jeopardy. And now, his best friend, Jennifer, who plays clarinet with him in the orchestra, isn’t speaking to him. Maybe Leroy, Todd’s friendly poltergeist, knows what’s going on with her. To top it off, he can no longer rely on Jennifer's help in the race to solve a puzzle that could lead to a buried treasure. Todd must learn to stand alone. He’s finding out that growing up is far scarier than he ever imagined.
Publisher: Harmony Ink Press
Heat Level: 1
Romantic Content: 2
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay, Straight
Protagonist 1 Age: Under 18
Protagonist 2 Age: Under 18
Protagonist 3 Age: 66+
Tropes: Coming of Age, Coming Out / Closeted
Word Count: 70,000
Setting: Palos Verdes, CA
Languages Available: English
“Knock once if you’re here with us,” I whispered into the still air.
“Just so we know it’s you,” Jennifer added firmly.
I tilted my head a little bit toward the open space in the room to listen. Jennifer uncrossed her arms expectantly. Nothing. Only the staccato clucking of the mop-top chickens Jennifer’s parents kept in their manicured backyard.
It was too quiet for a late summer afternoon in Palos Verdes, California, 1981.
“Maybe he’s not here anymore.”
“But smell the air, Todd. It smells like the ocean. Like rubber wetsuits. Whenever Leroy is around, it always smells like that.”
Suddenly, our answer came as a loud thump on the stucco wall of the guesthouse. I felt that tingle of recognition, warm and electric, down my spine. Jennifer and I both grinned at each other; our ghost was with us again.
“Leroy? Is that you?”READ MORE
At once outside the tall window, the sunburned eucalyptus tree, which moments before had been as still as a chaperone, came to life, swaying back and forth, its thin leaves scratching sharply across the red-tile roof. Without missing a beat, Jennifer reached over, quickly struck a match, and lit a single white candle. I sat down cross-legged on the Persian rug as Jennifer joined me, placing the votive candle between us as she scooped her long blonde hair back behind both ears.
We glanced at each other and joined hands. Jennifer looked older than her age. I was already fourteen and a half, and Jennifer was almost fourteen. As if for the first time, I noticed that Jennifer had the most striking blue eyes. Eyes like deep water at the bottom of midsummer pools. With her body filling out, her porcelain skin, and her high cheekbones, she could easily pass for sixteen.
We both closed our eyes and concentrated.
“Leroy, can you see both of us from where you are?”
A soft knock emanated almost immediately from the wall behind Jennifer. We opened our eyes and looked at each other.
“Okay, great! He sees us,” Jennifer announced.
“Will you let us see you too, Leroy?”
The afternoon wind swept dead leaves across the tiled roof. Everything was very still and silent in the room.
“Do you see him anywhere?”
“No. What are we looking for, anyway?”
“I don’t know. I’ve read that ghosts can look like mist forming.”
“Or maybe it will be a tiny light?”
“Yeah, it could be a light, I guess. I don’t know. But I know that we’ll know if we see him.”
“Look!” Jennifer tightened her gasp on my hand. “Over there in the corner by the lamp. Is that something moving?”
The pale afternoon light inside the room made it hard to tell. I squinted my eyes at the corner. Jennifer was right; something shimmered over by the standing lamp. The air twisted. It bent and moved like waves of heat coming off summer asphalt. Something was coming into focus. Tiny white sparks glittered and swirled in midair like electrons coming together around some unseen nucleus. And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it stopped.
“What happened?” Jennifer sighed.
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe he didn’t have enough energy to materialize.”
“That could be it. Or maybe he changed his mind for some reason.”
“This always happens to us!”
I had known Jennifer for almost three years now. We’d met in orchestra in sixth grade at Malaga Cove Prep School, in September of 1978. On that first day, in the oak-lined rehearsal room, after I sight-read a piece of Glück perfectly, the conductor, Dr. Gundham, assigned me to Second Flute, First Chair.
But I should have been First Flute, First chair.
Dr. Gundham knew my reputation. I was the local musical prodigy.
And I knew his reputation, as well: he had won many awards for conducting. Both Dr. Gundham and Malaga Cove Prep’s music program were highly acclaimed and accredited. Even though I played better than all the other flute players that day, Dr. Gundham wanted me to be humble about it. I was only eleven, after all, a lowly sixth grader.
I didn’t complain. I had plenty of time to advance.
Dr. Gundham was a clever man.
Jennifer played clarinet, and after auditioning, got Second Clarinet, First Chair. That meant she sat directly behind me. The first song Dr. Gundham had us play that day, after settling down and tuning up, was Gershwin’s “Strawberry Woman,” from Porgy and Bess. Jennifer played the clarinet part magnificently. I could hear her distinctly. After class, while she put her clarinet’s tan-colored reed away in a thin plastic case, I told her that her playing sounded beautiful. She smiled at me shyly and then introduced herself.
“I’m Jennifer van der Lipp.”
“Hi, nice to meet you. Todd Williams.”
“Oh, you’re the one my mother was talking about. You won that Juilliard young musicians scholarship.”
“Yeah. It took a lot of practice, but I did it.”
“Thanks. It’s so weird being at this private school. I’ve only been at a public school before. What’s with these uniforms?”
“They’re okay. You’ll get used to it. I think Malaga Cove Prep wants us to stand out. You know, if we’re in public. It’s advertising for them.”
“Like McDonalds. Malaga Cove, you know, M-C, Mc Prep?”
“McPrep! You’re right! We’re their living billboards!”
We both laughed. We became fast friends.
We spent practically every day together after that: rehearsing Mozart, Prokofiev, or Bernstein, doing each other’s homework, and reading every book on the supernatural in the Palos Verdes Public Library, where my mother, Eddie, worked as a reference librarian. But really, the orchestra kept us together. From the beginning, we both took the Music track at school. We’d even signed up for the additional PZ—Period Zero—rehearsal at 7:00 a.m., before school even started. Jennifer had natural musical ability too; she made everything she played seem effortless.
Ever since I began playing flute, music instructors and competition judges called me a musical prodigy. After all, I performed, read, and wrote music starting at the age of seven, in the second grade. Everyone referred to it as “my gift.”
My mother loved it most of all. I was her shining star.
The white candle flickered and popped between Jennifer and me.
“Maybe Leroy doesn’t want to materialize right now.”
“We should continue asking him questions, right?”
“I think so. I mean, he’s still here. I can feel it.”
“Me too. And smell the air.”
“Yeah. The scent of the ocean.”
“What should I ask?” Jennifer said as she looked at me and then scanned the dimly lit room.
“Ask if he knows if you’re getting a Walkman for your birthday next week.”
She grinned and shifted back and forth, leaning in closer to me.
“Okay. Leroy, if you can still hear me, please knock once if my parents bought me a Sony Walkman for my birthday.”
Jennifer and I held our breaths to hear the response, still clutching each other’s hands tightly. But nothing. Just the sound of the wind, the dry branches that shifted overhead, and then the clucking chickens. A cold breeze worked its way across my face, as if someone had just passed between Jennifer and me. I could tell she felt it too. In fact, the temperature in the room felt like it just dropped twenty degrees. We both exhaled. Our breaths came out in white puffs of condensation, as if it were the dead of winter and not the middle of July! We dropped our hands, truly surprised. The candle flame danced in its oily pool.
“It’s freezing cold!” Jennifer said, shivering a little bit.
“Was that you, Leroy?”
“Are you teasing us?”
“You’re not going to spoil the birthday surprise, are you?” I asked.
“I think you’re right. He doesn’t want to tell us.”
“It is cheating a little bit.”
“Yeah, I guess he thinks so too.”
“You know, we never really figured out who Leroy was before he died. Maybe he was someone’s father.”
“I think he was a sailor, maybe even a ship’s captain.”
“… and that’s why it always smells like salt water when he’s around!” I finished Jennifer’s thought. “I think he lived a long time ago, like the early 1900s.”
And just then, as if on cue, the votive candle on the floor crackled loudly, the bright flame shooting upward about a foot and half into the still air; and then, just as suddenly, it went out in a blinding flash of heat and light, all by itself. Jennifer and I both shifted backward at the same time. A hush fell across the stuffy room as a hiss of gray smoke began to swirl upward between Jennifer and me, sweetening the air.
“Oh my God!” Jennifer cried out after a pause as she and I both stood up and looked at one another.
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know!”
“Has he done that before?”
“No! Not when he’s at my house!” Jennifer added.
“He’s never done it at mine either!”
“Maybe he’s mad at us for asking that question?”
“Let’s get out of here!”
Before I knew it, my hand was turning the smooth door handle to get outside. Jennifer pressed up closely behind me, almost pushed me down, as we hurried out of the guesthouse doorway, scattering the flock of chickens into the leaf-filtered light of the warm afternoon. We stood and panted for a few moments, hearts racing, blood rushing through our cheeks and ears. Our adrenaline flowed hard.
“That was so weird!”
“I wish there was someone we could tell about this.”
“No one would believe us, anyway.”
“I know. Even if they saw it with their own two eyes. It’s too strange.”
“I think it’s always going to be our secret.”
“Leroy was meant to be our secret.”
I checked my calculator watch that Jennifer gave me for a birthday present. Almost five o’clock. Eddie would pick me up from Jennifer’s house soon.
“I should go get my backpack,” I said as we started to walk up the concrete path to the main part of Jennifer’s house.
Jennifer’s family oozed wealth. Her father recently became the executive at a toy company that just started producing Cabbage Patch dolls, which were already, of course, a huge success. I caught a ride home every day after school with Jennifer and stayed at her house until my single mother picked me up. Even though it was still summertime, Eddie dropped me off almost every morning at Jennifer’s house before she went to work at the library. She wanted me to keep practicing my flute all summer long. I kept it with me in my backpack at all times. Eddie didn’t want anything to mess up my scholarship, and she let me know it every chance she got. She thought I’d practice more if I were at Jennifer’s house.
“I think Leroy is coming home with me tonight. I can kind of feel it. You know?”
“Yeah, I think you’re right. He’s not here anymore.”
“I hope he’s not still mad at us.”
“Yeah, it would suck if he kept on doing weird things to us,” Jennifer added.
“I’ll call you later and let you know.”
Just as Jennifer finished answering me, Eddie pulled up in her bumper sticker-encrusted Volvo station wagon: “Save the Whales,” “If You Can Read This, You’re Too Close!” and “Who Shot JR?” were among the fifty or so others in various states of fading, tearing, and peeling off. It always seemed to me the bumper stickers were somehow holding the whole crappy car together.
She honked her horn three long times. Patti Smith’s nasal voice on the radio came wafting from the car along with a wisp of exhaled smoke. I saw that Eddie had a tightly rolled joint smoldering in her left hand, hanging out the driver’s side window.
“Doesn’t she see us right here? Why is she honking like that?” Jennifer asked.
I knew the answer to this question but didn’t want to talk about it now with Jennifer. There would be a time when I’d have to explain my mother’s bad behavior: her late nights, the strangers she’d bring home, and the next morning’s rows of empty bottles by the dark-green trash can. I’d even caught Eddie drinking vodka at breakfast a couple of times. Someday I would tell Jennifer that particular secret. I had collected quite a few secrets in just fourteen years. Jennifer was my best friend, after all. I trusted her completely.
And someday I’d probably have to tell her everything.
John Amory on Goodreads wrote:
I was totally into this one. Sweet late-bloomer flute-prodigy teenage Todd shares a ghost (Leroy) with his BFF Jennifer. In the midst of dealing with his alcoholic (librarian!) mom, realizing his sexuality, learning about a secret with his BFF, embarking on a major treasure hunt-ish challenge, (and more!), Todd learns exactly what the ghost is up to...
The writing's very good, the story kept me going, and there was a good bit of humor and dramatic irony nestled into the gravity of everything else. It's different from the usual YA, which is pretty neat.
Solid book. I really liked the well-defined characters, particularly the female ones. Ghost Songs is a really touching coming-of-age tale of a young gay teen and his best friend with a few truly creepy scenes thrown in for good measure. I loved that this was a YA book that wasn't a teenage romance. Todd, the main male character and narrator, doesn't spend the whole book pining for some boy or struggling with his sexuality. Ghost Songs is more a story about strengthening relationships, both with friends and family. Nicely done.