Nissa's Place

LaFaye, A.

Published by Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
ISBN 10: 0689826109 / ISBN 13: 9780689826108
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Synopsis: Uncertain of where she really belongs, thirteen-year-old Nissa leaves her Louisiana home where she lives with her father and new stepmother and goes to stay with her eccentric mother in Chicago. By the author of The Year of the Sawdust Man.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Changes

Dragging my book bag down Quince Road on my way back from school, I couldn't help wondering what I might find once I got home. The things in our house were shifting under the hands of Papa's new wife, Lara. I'd go to bed knowing everything in the parlor was snug in its place, then come morning, I'd head downstairs only to discover that the room had changed identities while I slept.

Years ago, Mama'd draped the fireplace with dried ivy. The vines and soot-black hearth made it look like a deep, dark cave opening up into our house. But Lara painted the fireplace white, then covered the mantel with photographs of people I don't know, lacing ribbons between them like snakes.

Lara even dragged my favorite chair with the velvet like grape jelly to Mama's keeping room. Mama'd filled the room with all the things she had a mind to use someday. Mama thought she'd change an abandoned porcelain sink into a fountain, but hadn't quite figured out how to make the changeover happen. Below the windows, Mama'd planted a garden of paint cans, pallets, half-painted canvases, and brushes. In the back half of the room stood a tangle of broken pieces of furniture Mama had intended to repair when she had the time. All that was gone now -- hauled off to the dump. Papa did mail the paints to Mama, but he let Lara drag all of Mama's other keeping treasures off to a hole in the ground.

Stepping into the house, I let the screen door close with a loud clap to let Lara know I was home. It didn't seem right to call to her the way I used to call Mama. I turned to drop my bag onto the table where Mama'd always kept a vase of fresh-cut roses, but an ugly piece of furniture now stood in that spot. Looking like a wooden throne gone awry, it had a seat under an oval mirror ringed by coat hooks. Who'd want to sit on a chair surrounded by hanging coats? It'd be like plopping yourself down in a closet. And what kind of welcome is a big, old whatever-it-was compared to a beautiful vase full of deep purple roses?

That woman wasn't going to take my house from me. Stomping up the stairs, I heard the scraping screech of furniture being dragged across the floor. Knowing it came from Mama's room, I ran right in there.

Lara was tugging away at Mama's bureau. I shouted, "Where are you dragging that off to?"

Startled, Lara stood up and tried to smile at me, but she knew I'd caught her in the act. Pacing the floor like a lawyer pleading a case, she said, "Nissa, it's like living with a ghost. Everywhere I look, I see your mother. It's like she follows me around, declaring the place hers." Turning like she expected to see Mama behind her, she added, "I need to make this house my home. Do you understand, Nissa?"

Lara sat in the window. Her hand shook as she rested it on her knee. It looked kind of naked without the gloves she used to wear when she was courting Papa.

I didn't answer, so Lara said, "Your mother's building her own life up North. We need to build ours here."

Her comment lit a fire in me. I was ready to spit flames. She made it sound like Mama's new life had nothing to do with me.

I feared Mama was better off without me so I tried to protect the things of hers that still remained. And if anything in that house reminded me of Mama, her murals did -- the garden path leading out of the kitchen, the bookshelves she'd painted in Papa's study, and the dreamy night sky on my ceiling. Just a look at one of those paintings made me hear Mama's laughter in the creak of a door. For that instant, she was back in the house and the last two years just melted away.

Taking a deep breath, I said, "Don't so much as take a crooked look at one of Mama's murals or I'll throw all your pretty things out into the street!" I was going to slam the door to make my grand exit, but I backed right into Papa.

Breathing down into my hair, he asked, "What did you just say, Nissa?"

Papa had a way of making you relive your mistakes so you'd not only see the error of your ways, but feel guilty enough to shrink. I bowed my head.

"You've gone to threats now, have you?" Papa said, stepping to the side so he could look me in the face.

"I don't want her ruining Mama's murals."

"Fine," Papa nodded. "Truth be told, I don't either. But threatening Lara is no way to go about protecting them."

"Yes, Papa. Sorry, Lara." I couldn't look at Papa, but as I left, I caught a glimpse of Lara sitting in the window seat all hunched over like a scared child. What did she have to be afraid of? Everything she ever wanted had come raining down on her -- a husband, a house, a daughter she didn't have to give birth to or raise. And I was stuck with a stepmother and a house I didn't recognize.

Walking down the hall, I recalled something my best friend Mary Carroll had told me at lunchtime. As we'd sat with our feet dangling in Sutton's Creek, she'd said, "Don't think the house is the only thing Lara will change. She'll want your pa to change, too."

I'd laughed at the thought. There wasn't a single force in nature that could make my papa change if he had a mind not to. My mama had the force of a hurricane inside her, but my papa just bent in her fury like a tall, old pine tree.

She'd start raging about how he didn't have enough sense to stay dry in a sandstorm for letting his boss, Mr. Hess, run his life and Papa'd just waited her out, calm enough to peel an orange. When Mama'd let out all her hot air, Papa'd tilt his head, then say, "Appreciate your thoughts, Heirah Rae, but as I see it, I'm doing just fine living my own life."

That was Papa all right -- living life as he saw fit. He'd never change. Just like Mama's garden. No matter how much Lara pruned and weeded and picked flowers to bring into the house, she couldn't take Mama out of that soil.

Stepping into the garden, I longed for Mama, but all the longing in the world wouldn't bring Mama back. I was a fool to even entertain the notion. But it sure would've been easier if Mama had kept her promise to write as regular as spring rain. I got a letter almost every week when she first went up North, then the stream of letters slowed to a trickle, one coming my way each month or so. Now, it'd been close to three months since I'd heard from her. My thirteenth birthday was a stone's throw away and I hadn't heard word one from Mama since late January. Leave it to Mama. Promises were like clipped roses to her. They're all beautiful and fresh when you first cut them, then they slowly fade way. She's never had what it takes to plant a promise and keep it healthy. It was enough to make me hate her if I tried, but I promised myself I'd never do that and, unlike her, I always kept my word.

I got that trait from Papa. He's as trustworthy as a priest. Mary told me priests hardly even think about sinning, let alone do it. Papa was that type of man. Not that Mama was a damned sinner or anything. She broke a lot of the rules that no one wrote down, like a mother shall never leave her children. Why isn't that a commandment? There's one that says you can't steal from your neighbor, but there's nothing about raising your own children. Now that doesn't seem right at all. You can't take a pie out of your neighbor's window, but you can walk out on your daughter without so much as leaving a note. Where's the righteousness in that?


"Have you let out all of your steam, Neesay?" Papa asked as he stepped outside.

"Yes, Papa." I bowed my head.

He planted himself on the stoop and stretched his neck. He'd been helping the Minkies stock their shelves over at the mercantile across the street. Now that they were getting on in years, they were even more bitter than ever that they never had any children. They needed all the help they could get to run things. Papa was glad to help. It kept us well stocked in dry goods. And he even brought home some chocolate bars

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Title: Nissa's Place
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Good

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