Written by Solar Lin
Art by Mason Kimbarovsky
There used to be a swing in Gemma’s backyard.
A swing so tall, she was afraid to climb into it when her brother first set it up. But her sister eventually dared to, and Gemma, as always, followed her lead. When her sister pushed it forward, Gemma soared into the sky as if she had wings of her own. And there, high in the sky, she could see the whole world beneath her feet, as if it was hers for the taking. There, high in the sky, with the cosmos just on the tip of her fingers, she felt as though she could climb to her seat among the stars. Her sister used to giggle, careful, Gemma. Don’t fly too high!
Gemma wished she had taken her sister’s advice.
There was a girl who used to come to Gemma’s home every day after school.
Her name consisted of two words, but now Gemma could only remember the last half: Beth. Back when Gemma knew more of her than just broken memories, they used to promise each other never to stray farther than the other could follow. Back when Gemma still had Beth’s face memorized, they used to say that it would be them together, forever, against the rest of the world. The bracelet they made together was a promise of that.
It’s a pity that Gemma had sold that bracelet for a bus ticket, a long time ago.
There was a lake Gemma’s mother used to take her to.
It’s a beautiful place with crystal clear water that reflects all the colors of the sky. There, her mother told tales of queendoms and dames who slay dragons; each story made Gemma yearn for more. There, as she watched the golden hues of the sky bleed into the water when the sun kissed the surface, Gemma taught herself to be someone else—to be the ruler of a queendom, to be the mighty slayer of dragons. Her mother only laughed and whispered, be anything you want, dear. But don’t be a stranger.
Gemma wished she had stayed in the blissful ignorance of not understanding what her mother meant.
And there was—
—there are camera flashes everywhere.
Gemma blinks, disoriented by the rapid blinding lights.
Once, those flashes looked like the diamonds—like the stars she always wanted to hold in her hands. Now, every flash only reminds her of the life she’s left.
“Miss Giroux!” Someone calls. A reporter, Gemma knows, though she can’t really tell which one of them is talking among the sea of reporters in front of her. Not that it matters. “Miss Giroux, there are rumors circulating about your involvement with James St. Clair. Do you have any comments on that?”
Gemma grits her teeth, trying to not let her annoyance get the best of her.
James St. Clair. The guy who made her feel pretty and then discarded her like a used toy the morning after. If he had wanted a damned publicity stunt, the least he could do was ask. It’s not like Gemma’s a stranger to the game.
Any involvement I’ll ever have with him, Gemma thinks bitterly as she hides behind a charming smile, will be my knuckle against James’ pretty, punchable face.
“Miss Giroux!” Another faceless reporter shouts, arms flailing wildly in the air. “Is it true that you’ve signed a contract to be in Antonoff’s film? Are you aware that Loren Stirling will play a role opposite to yours? Can you give a clarification on whether or not this is intentional?”
Gemma fights back a smile, refusing to give these snakes any scrap of reactions or information that could be twisted into their own narratives.
Loren Stirling. She and Loren have a not-so-private rivalry that the whole world knows about: Gemma stole his role, and Loren stole back Gemma’s lovers; Gemma exposed Loren’s embarrassing tendencies for an article called Things We Do in Sleepovers! and Loren splashed all Gemma’s secrets for a spread called Getting to Know Gemma Giroux!, and the list goes on and on and on.
Now that’s someone interesting, though Gemma isn’t too happy to see him again.
“Miss Giroux!” Another reporter yells, fighting for a fraction of Gemma’s attention. “Miss Giroux, since things are clearly going brilliantly in your career, we at Q Magazine wonder if you’re as happy in your private life? Will we be seeing a certain Miss Madeline Arden, perhaps making a trip?”
Madeline Arden. Gemma feels a pang of sadness at the mention of that name. Madeline, possibly the only person Gemma has ever felt genuinely secure being with, the only friend she thinks she has… And yet, she’s more interested in the next gift Gemma will give than Gemma herself. Though Gemma supposes she can’t blame Madeline for that—after all, that’s what she had promised her at the beginning of the relationship when she was too scared that Madeline would slip through her fingers if she had no reasons to stay.
Gemma understands too late that no friend is better than a friend who only sees you as a walking credit card.
“Miss Giroux!” At this point, Gemma doesn’t bother to look for the source of the voice anymore. “You look absolutely radiant tonight! Mind telling us all about your diet plan and how to stick with it? We heard Alexander la Rue designed a corset just for you!”
The flood of questions keeps coming, and the reporters shove each other just to get a good photograph of her, barking over each other like a pack of wild hyenas. Once upon a time, when Gemma was still climbing her way to stardom, she would’ve been flattered by all the attention.
Now she’s just numb.
“Miss Giroux!” Hoo, boy. Here comes another stupid question, Gemma thinks. What is it this time—my affairs with the hottest stars around here, or my waist size that seems to be infinitely more interesting than any of my real achievements? “Miss Giroux, I’m from Aleve.”
Aleve. Gemma’s hometown.
Gemma raises her hand, gesturing to all the other reporters to stop. When the chatters die, Gemma beckons the reporter—a pretty young woman with dark ringlets around her face—to continue.
“I—uh…” the woman flusters at the sudden attention she’s getting. “Well, we’d like to know how you handled the big change in… in lifestyle. Since you started out living in a small town like Aleve, and now you’re… well, you’re the biggest star in such a dazzling city, Angelus….”
Gemma smiles at the woman. Such a brave soul, venturing out to interview her in the biggest movie premiere of the year where there are sharks who’re ready to chew anyone alive just to get a glimpse at Gemma.
Gemma wonders how she’s not trampled yet.
Gemma likes her.
Apparently, the young woman takes Gemma’s smile as a cue for her to repeat her question.
“If you don’t mind… would you share a little bit of your experience, when you were still a newcomer? You look right at home around here, and no one would’ve thought that you came from Aleve—”
“Home?” Gemma repeats.
The reporter gulps.
The camera flashes fizzle out as old memories appear in Gemma’s mind, tinted with a golden glow of nostalgia and reminiscence.
Don’t fly too high, Gemma, her sister once said as she watched Gemma looking at the world from above her swing.
But you saw something else, didn’t you, Sis? Gemma wonders. You saw the seeds of ambition in my eyes, didn’t you? Me, a girl from a small town who had nothing of her own, seeing how big the world could be. You knew right from the start that I wanted it, huh?
Don’t go where I can’t follow, Beth once said. Back then, Gemma only laughed and brushed it off, saying that they would always keep in touch no matter how far the other went.
But that wasn’t what you meant, was it? Because everything would’ve been fine, no distance would’ve separate us… had I not sold my soul to reach success in this place. You saw it coming, didn’t you, Beth?
Don’t be a stranger, dear, her mother once asked. Or maybe it was a plea; Gemma couldn’t decide.
If I come back home right now, as I am, Gemma thinks, would you know me, Mother? Or have I become such a stranger that you wouldn’t recognize the person sobbing at your feet?
Ten years, that’s how long it took. Ten years of sacrificing everything she had for the promises of a glamorous life that she wanted so much. Ten years of forgetting who she was until she had nothing left of her old self, no proof that that girl ever existed at all. Ten years of desperately begging for someone to give her a chance until her knees bled. Ten years of clawing through the lies and deceits of the glittering angel city until she herself became one of the devils inhabiting it.
Ten years and ten million tears.
Gemma should’ve known better.
She should’ve known that home isn’t a place with sparkling jewels that blinds you from noticing people that actually matter. She should’ve known that home isn’t a haunted place filled with vultures disguised as humans with sweet smiles and sweeter promises, only to snuff you out the moment they get the chance. She should’ve known that home isn’t a place where she has to flash her dazzling smile just so people won’t hear the truth rattling behind her teeth. She should’ve known that home isn’t a place of desolation and loneliness amidst hundreds of people screaming your name, fawning all over you just so they can look at your imperfect cracks and make them their headlines.
Gemma should’ve known that home isn’t a place at all.
“Miss Giroux?” The young woman calls, snapping Gemma back to reality. “Miss Giroux, are you alright?”
… Yes, Gemma thinks. For the first time in so many years, yes.
“No more questions, please,” Gemma demands, then steps back and struts through the red carpet, heading for the exit.
Like moths to a flame, the reporters quickly shuffle and run after her. Gemma can hear her costars calling her name, wondering why she’s headed north when the entrance is in the opposite direction.
Gemma keeps walking.
“Miss Giroux!” The reporters call. “Miss Giroux, where are you going? The gala hasn’t even started yet—Miss Giroux!”
No more. No more. Gemma only has one destination in mind.
Home, she lets a smile slip into her face. Home, where warmth crackles from the fireplace at her childhood home, with her sister’s laughter ringing in her ear. Home, where the treehouse she and Beth built was the grandest place she’d ever known, and Beth’s crescent dimpled smile was the only thing she could see. Home, where her mother let her be anyone, anything, as long as she’s not a stranger to those she holds dear.Home, Gemma thinks. I’m going home.