The Trail of Gemma Caulfield (Akre Island 2)

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Chapter 11

At two o’clock, Hallie emerged from her room wearing a thick sweater and what looked like three layers of pants. They were quiet as they went downstairs and got dressed to go outside, and it wasn’t until they were walking through the snow that anybody said anything.

“She doesn’t like flashlights,” Simon said, his voice startling both Cassidy and Hallie. “Try to avoid shining it on her.” It was actually a pretty bright night. The sky was clear and the moon was shining, so even though Hallie had a flashlight she hadn’t turned it on. Still, it was a good point.

“She’s also pretty shy,” Cassidy added. “We’ll let Simon get closer and try to talk to her first.”

Hallie was taking this whole thing incredibly well. She nodded. “Because he’s a ghost?”

“Probably,” Simon said.

“Maybe,” Cassidy said at the same time. “But I think he’s also just really good with kids.”

Simon flashed her a smile, and Hallie sighed good naturedly. “All right, I get it, you’re a very cute couple. Cassidy and ghost-boy. This is crazy. You’re leaving footprints, Simon.”

He nodded. “I’m solid at night.”

“Yeah, I know. But it’s weird. Well, normal. But weird for you,” Hallie shook her head. “OK. Anything else I should know before I meet my ghost great great-aunt?”

“I guess just remember that she’s still a girl,” Simon said. “If she’s anything like me, she’s essentially the same person she was when she died. She didn’t gain any otherworldly wisdom. You’ll see.”

“And we’re not experts, either,” Cassidy added. “And…” She paused when she realized that Simon, who had been a few steps ahead of them the whole time, had stopped walking. “Do you see her?”

“I’m looking at the tracks,” Simon explained. “Look, there are three sets heading towards the old farmhouse.”

“But you weren’t leaving tracks this afternoon,” Hallie said excitedly, stepping up beside him. “Oh, wow, OK… let’s follow them?”

Simon started walking, and Cassidy fell in beside Hallie again. She could tell that Hallie was still brimming with questions, but something had changed. Before it felt like they were just friends walking in the dark, now they were following Gemma’s footprints. Somehow talking didn’t seem appropriate.

Gemma’s footprints lead them to the invisible farmhouse, to what must have been the steps, and then they disappeared. There was no trail leading away from it, so they took a step back to wait. Surely she would appear eventually.

But time ticked by, and nothing happened. Cassidy stood between Hallie and Simon, and thought about what they should do. Beside her, Hallie had her arms crossed and her hat pulled down low over her forehead. She rocked gently from foot to foot, maybe to keep warm. On her other side, Simon was standing perfectly still, with his hands tucked into his pockets. He could have been a statue. And something occurred to her.

“Simon, do you think you could touch the house?”

He blinked, and the confusion that flickered across his face was replaced just as suddenly with curiosity. Without saying anything, he walked up to the end of Gemma’s trail, and gingerly tried to step forward. She could tell when his foot came in contact with something solid, even before he looked at her in surprise. Then he stepped up, into the air.

Hallie gasped, while Cassidy walked over and brushed her foot through where the step would be. So it was only Simon, which somehow made sense but didn’t at the same time. “Maybe try knocking?” she suggested. They’d never had to find Gemma like this before.

“I guess I—”

“Look!” Hallie hadn’t come closer to the house, so she whisper-shouted at them. Cassidy and Simon followed her raised hand, and there was Gemma.

She wasn’t too far away from Simon, probably just on the porch. She was clearly visible and looked exactly like she had before. A pale little girl with braids and old-fashioned clothing. She stared at Simon blankly.

“Gemma,” he said.

“Jerold,” she said, and it didn’t sound like a question. It sounded more like she was calling him Jerold. Then she started coming down the stairs. She walked right past Simon, then Cassidy, and started walking out towards the woods.

Cassidy forgot how used to all of this she had become. Hallie, on the other hand, was staring after Gemma with enormous eyes. “She looks like that picture of Grandma,” she finally managed to say. Then her shock was replaced with determination. “We’re going to follow her, right?”

“Of course,” Cassidy said. Simon had already started, and they fell in behind him.

Gemma led them into the forest, and didn’t stop walking until the were in a small clearing. The same one as before, Cassidy thought. The girl turned around and stared at Simon again, but it wasn’t nearly as intense as it had been at first. This time she fiddled with the end of one of her braids.

Simon stepped a little closer to her, and crouched. “Hello, Gemma. We tried to find Jerold for you, but—” he faltered. Apparently, he hadn’t considered how to tell the girl that her brother was dead. “It’s been a long time since you got lost, Gemma. Jerold grew up and had a daughter, and a grandson, and…”

“Harriet,” Gemma interrupted.

Simon smiled. “Yes, Harriet is Jerold’s daughter.”

Gemma’s gaze shifted. Hallie grabbed Cassidy’s hand when the girl’s eyes landed on her. “Harriet?” she said again.

Hallie cleared her throat. “Harriet is my grandmother,” she said, with the slightest nervous tremor in her voice.

Gemma looked at Simon again. “I went home,” she said. Her steady gaze flickered to the snow at her feet. “But Jerold was grown up. There was a girl playing outside. He called her Harriet. She looked like me.” It was the most Gemma had ever said to them.

Simon was nodding. “Yes, Harriet is your niece,” he said gently. “And Harriet had a son, named Wyatt, and then Wyatt had a daughter.” He gestured at Hallie. “This is Hallie.”

“Hallie,” Gemma repeated softly. She looked over at Hallie again, and Cassidy gave her hand a comforting squeeze. “Jerold is gone.”

“Yes,” Hallie said quietly. “I’m sorry.”

Silence descended on the clearing. A mix of emotions were flashing across Gemma’s face, and it seemed kindest to let her work through them quietly. She would talk again when she wanted to. After some time, she wiped non-existent tears away from her eyes, and she walked across the clearing, towards Hallie, whose hand tightened in Cassidy’s.

Gemma stopped in front of Hallie and looked up at her. “Jerold, Harriet, Wyatt, Hallie,” she listed. Then, she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Hallie’s waist.

Hallie inhaled sharply, but after her initial shock, gently draped her free hand around Gemma’s shoulders. She looked at Simon and Cassidy, who both shrugged.

When Gemma stepped back, she looked determined. It was the exact same expression that had crossed Hallie’s face when they followed the footprints. “Help me,” she said firmly.

“I want to help,” Hallie promised. “But I don’t know what you need.”

Gemma nodded. “Jerold, Harriet, Wyatt, Hallie,” she listed again. “Jerold was mad, so I ran away. I heard him.” She waved her arms at the trees around them. “I heard him yelling. I was scared. He was scared.” Gemma blinked, and looked around. As though she had heard something faintly in the distance, that they couldn’t hear. “Jerold? Jerold!” and suddenly she was running.

“She’s acting it out again,” Cassidy realized quickly.

They started running after her. There was an urgency this time that there had never been before. Before when they had followed Gemma, she had always moved at a steady pace. This time she was running as fast as she could. She was smaller than them, and the forest had changed. She ran through thick undergrowth and passed right through trees, and they were slowed down by skirting around things.

When the forest cleared out, Cassidy felt a flash of hope that they would finally be able to follow Gemma properly. Then her heart sank as she looked around at the dark forest. “She isn’t leaving tracks anymore, is she?”

Simon pulled a flashlight from his pocket and risked shining the light at the snow around them. “I don’t think so. I think we lost her.”

Running through the snow and ducking around trees had been exhausting, and for a moment they stood in the clearing with only the sounds of them each catching their breathes.

Hallie broke the silence. “Did it seem like she was running towards Jerold, or away from him?”

“Towards,” Cassidy said. But not because she was certain, more because that’s what she hoped had happened. She took a deep breath and coughed when the cold air hit her lungs. Then she realized there was a shape in the trees. “Turn off the light.”

Simon did immediately, and the shape moved a little closer. It was Gemma, how she had appeared the first few times. Fuzzy and hard to look at. But her voice was clear.

“Jerold, Harriet, Wyatt, Hallie. Find me.”

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